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October 13, 2006

I thought it would be interesting to contrast two books I have received in the past weeks. The first quote is from Steve Lawson’s Foundations of Grace which I wrote about a couple of days ago. In this quote he contrasts Calvinism and Arminianism:

Never have two systems of thought been more polarized. The first system, Calvinism, is a God-centered, Christ-exalting way of viewing salvation. God alone is the Savior and, thus, God alone is the object of praise. In the other system, Arminianism, a completely opposite perspective is presented. Arminianism, also known historically as Semi-Pelagianism and Wesleyanism, divides the glory between God and man in the salvation of the human race. As a result, it diminishes the glory given to God. In the first system, that of the doctrines of grace, salvation is completely of the Lord. God alone supplies all that is necessary, both the grace and the faith. But in the latter scheme, salvation is partly of God and partly of man. Here God supplies the grace and man supplies the faith. Man becomes his own co-savior. In the first system, all glory goes to God alone. But in the latter, praise is shared by God and man. The only problem is, God will not share His glory with another.

In his recently published work Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, Roger E. Olson says that typifying Arminianism as being Semi-Pelagian is unfair. He distinguishes between Arminianism of the heart and Arminianism of the head.

Arminianism of the head is an Enlightenment-based emphasis on free will that is most often found in liberal Protestant circles (even among liberalized Reformed people). Its hallmark is an optimistic anthropology that denies total depravity and the absolute necessity of supernatural grace for salvation. It is optimistic about the ability of autonomous human beings to exercise a good will toward God and their fellow creatures without supernatural previent (enabling, assisting) grace; that is, it is Pelagian or at least semi-Pelagian.

Olson distinguishes himself and other “true” Arminians from the charges of Semi-Pelagianism that have often been held against those who hold to Arminian theology. He speaks of “Arminians of the heart:”

Arminianism of the heart—the subject of this book—is the original Arminianism of Arminius, Wesley and their evangelical heirs. Arminians of the heart emphatically do not deny total depravity (even if they prefer another term to denote human spiritual helplessness) or the absolute necessity of supernatural grace for even the first exercise of a good will toward God. Arminians of the heart are true Arminians because they are faithful to the basic impulses of Arminius and his first followers as opposed to later Remonstrants (who wandered away from Arminius’s teachings into early liberal theology) and modern Arminians of the head who glorify reason and freedom over divine revelation and supernatural grace.

In distinguishing between Arminians of the heart and Arminians of the head he seems to fall into an all-too-common practice among Christians, setting himself apart as a member of a select group who “get it.” According to Olson’s definitions, the vast majority of those who consider themselves non-Reformed Christians would be Semi-Pelagian. However, there is a small group that have held to the true principals of Arminius. “When conservative theologians declare that synergism is a heresy, they are usually referring to these two Pelagian forms of synergism. Classical Arminians agree. This is a major theme of this book. Contrary to confused critics, classical Arminianism is neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian! But it is synergistic. Arminianism is evangelical synergism as opposed to heretical, humanistic synergism.”

Such claims always make me nervous. Much like those who hold to Open Theism or the New Perspective on Paul, their claims depend on suggesting that other theologians of the past and present just haven’t properly understood. When Steve Lawson, R.C. Sproul and countless others have examined Arminianism and declared it to be Semi-Pelagian, they just haven’t quite understood the details. They unfairly typified Arminianism, confusing it with Semi-Pelagianism. Or so men like Olson have to conclude. Careful and skilled researchers that they are, I think this is unfair and uncharitable to the large number of Reformed scholars who, based on honest assessment, have reached such a conclusion. To redefine Arminianism before defending it seems more than a little disingenuous.

According to Olson’s definition, I’m sure he could, in many ways, agree with Lawson’s comments. He would simply state that Lawson is reacting against the Arminianism of the head that has become predominant in evangelicalism. But I doubt Lawson and most other Reformed scholars would care to make such a distinction.

October 12, 2006

There seems to be a great deal of disagreement about how we ought to define the word discernment. A quick Google check reveals a wide variety. One says it is “perception of that which is obscure” and another says “the ability to feel or perceive something with the use of the mind and the senses.” Several definitions revolve around decision making, saying discernment is “prayerful reflection and discussion before taking a major decision” or “discovering, with God’s help, God’s will for our lives.” A more thorough definition reads, “Discernment is a process of prayerful reflection which leads a person or community to understanding of God’s call at a given time or in particular circumstances of life. It involves listening to God in all the ways God communicates with us: in prayer, in the scriptures, through the Church and the world, in personal experience, and in other people.” I’d suggest that this final definition is similar to what many Christians think of when they consider discernment. To them discernment is a gift or ability that allows them to make good decisions. People who make poor decisions in life are those who lack discernment.

There are others who feel discernment relates to making binary distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad. J. Mark Bertrand discusses these people in an article entitled “Diss Isn’t Discernment,” focusing particular attention on so-called watchblogs.

[I]t occured to me that one of the problems with the self-appointed “watchblogs” where such logical errors are frequently coined, one of the reasons they’re taken a bit too seriously, is that we’ve allowed a flawed view of discernment to hijack the discourse. We see that the particulars are wrong, especially when the watchbloggers address things about which we have personal knowledge, but we make the mistake of thinking only the particulars are wrong, when perhaps it’s the whole system that’s at fault. In other words, maybe the watchblogging world operates on an incorrect notion of what discernment is.

What is this incorrect notion? Bertrand goes on to explain,

There are two groups of people and things: the good and the bad. Good is, well, good … and bad is off limits. The art of discernment involves examining them and determining which group to categorize them in. Everyone is called to make these category distinctions, but some of us are also appointed by God to make them for others. Because most people are undiscerning, it falls on the discerning few to lead the way, especially when it comes to exposing bad people and things that are generally held (by the undiscerning masses) to be good — the wolves in sheep’s clothing.

In other words, those with the gift of discernment are called to make the binary distinctions between good and bad and to relegate people in either category. Further, as “experts” in discernment, they instruct others how to categorize people and things. While this is a simplistic summary of such people, it is one that bears at least some degree of truth.

Dennis E. Johnson, Professor of Practical Theology and Academic Dean at Westminster Seminary California, makes a similar point when considering non-Christian scholarship:

You realize, of course, that this makes our study of theology less outwardly secure. We cannot simply compile a list of “safe” authors, stamp them with the Reformed equivalent of imprimatur or nihil obstat, and then confine our reading to them. We must do the hard work of exercising discernment - sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, argument by argument. Facts, insights, perspectives, and methods must all be tested in the light of the principles of Scripture. And we must keep alive our consciousness of dependence on Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Our safety is not in avoiding the ideas of the unbelieving world; our safety is in union with Christ, who transforms the mind of those who trust in him.

There is hard work to be done in sorting and sifting the teachings of other humans, especially when we realize that we cannot simply cubbyhole the unpleasant or challenging ideas away and ignore them. But this hard work, like other exercise, gives us the necessary muscle tone to serve and lead God’s people. “Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14).

Discernment is difficult, and sometimes laborious work. If my forthcoming book is to be believed, it is also a discipline we must develop as Christians.

While the distinctions between good and evil are not always perfectly simple and clear, I do not wish to downplay the fact that truth and evil exist and are in constant opposition to one another. The very word discernment and its close relative discrimination imply the task of making such distinctions. In A Call To Discernment Jay Adams points out that the word translated in Scripture as discrimination means “to separate things from one another at their points of difference in order to distinguish them.” In Reckless Faith John MacArthur says, “discernment is the process of making careful distinctions in our thinking about truth. The discerning person is the one who draws a clear contrast between truth and error.” The biblical method for doing this is one I have introduced in the past in my “discernment filter” and is drawn from 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 which exhorts Christians to “test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”

I am not entirely comfortable with any of these definitions of discernment. I have spent a great deal of time studying biblical discernment and have read every book I can find dealing with the subject. It is my understanding that discernment is not telling other people what to think. It is not condemning those who do not think the way you do, even if you are convinced from Scripture and from plain reason that they are wrong. It is not an exercise in making good decisions in life.

I spent the better part of a day last week wrestling with a definition for discernment. I eventually arrived at a long and a short definition. The short and simple definition I came up with is this: Discernment is the ability to think biblically about all areas of life. A longer, more thorough definition (which is also much more difficult to remember) might be something like this: Spiritual discernment is the God-given, Spirit-empowered ability to understand and interpret truth, so that we can apply truth to our lives, thus bringing glory to God and furthering our enjoyment of Him. It remains somewhat clunky and obtuse, but I hope to improve at as my work on the book continues.

In the meantime, I would love some feedback on these definitions and am eager to hear how you think discernment should be defined. If you are aware of any definitions of the word, particularly if they were written by Christians, I would be eager to hear of them.

October 11, 2006

Yesterday, after much anticipation, I received the first book in what promises to be an outstanding series. Foundations of Grace, by Steve Lawson is the first of five volumes in Lawson’s forthcoming series A Long Line of Godly Men and only the second title published by Ligonier’s new publishing division, Reformation Trust Publishing. The purpose of the series is to prove that the doctrines of grace are not the invention of synods, councils or theologians, but are taught in the pages of Scripture and have been taught through the history of the church. “The teaching of sovereign grace literally stretches from cover to cover in the Bible,” writes Lawson.

Foundations of Grace traces the doctrines of grace through the writers of Scripture, from the first to the last—from Moses to the apostle John. “From the lawgiver Moses to the apostle John, and from the early church fathers to modern defenders of the faith, there has marched onto the stage of human history a long line of godly men, a triumphant parade of spiritual stalwarts who have upheld the doctrines of grace. In this book, the first in the five-volume A Long Line of Godly Men series, Dr. Steven J. Lawson takes readers on a heart-stirring survey of the Scriptures to show that the Bible in its entirety teaches the doctrines of grace.”

A series of this magnitude deserves a strong Foreword and John MacArthur does not disappoint. In fact, I read and reread the foreword to try to absorb the depth of the theology MacArthur writes about under the heading of “Divine Immutability and the Doctrines of Grace.” MacArthur affirms God’s unchanging character and shows that any discussion of the doctrine of election must begin not with what humans consider fair, but with divine justice. “Because the justice of God is an outflow of His character, it is not subject to fallen human assumptions of what justice should be… To say that election is unfair is not only inaccurate, it fails to recognize the very essence of true fairness. That which is fair, right, and just is that which God wills to do.”

After further discussion of the doctrine of election, MacArthur discusses the reason behind election—a critical and often-overlooked point. “There was a moment in eternity past (if we might so feebly speak of eternity in temporal terms) when the Father desired to express His perfect and incomprehensible love for the Son. To do this, He chose to give the Son a redeemed humanity as a love gift—a company of men and women whose purpose would be, throughout all the eons of eternity, to praise and glorify the Son, and to serve Him perfectly.” We are thus drawn by the Father and can have confidence that we will never be rejected by the Son, for He would never refuse those who are a love gift from His Father. In the same way and for the same reason, we can have confidence that we will never fall away from the Son. “Salvation, then, does not come to sinners because they are inherently desirable, but because the Son is inherently worthy of the Father’s gift. What then is Jesus’ role in all this? “When the whole love gift of a redeemed humanity has been given to Jesus Christ, then He will take that redeemed humanity and, including Himself, give it all back to the Father as a reciprocal expression of the Father’s infinite love.” Jesus died for us because He so loved the Father and because He desired to accept this love gift from the Father. He considered it precious to the point that He gave His life for it. MacArthur concludes by saying “A Long Line of Godly Men is not primarily about men at all, but rather about the God to whom the lives of these men testify.”

In the Preface, Steve Lawson writes about the “Continental Divide of Theology,” suggesting that just as water from one side of the Continental Divide will flow into the Pacific and water from the other side will flow into the Atlantic, there is a great divide of doctrine that “separates two distinctly different streams of thought that flow in opposite directions. To be specific, this determinative high ground is one’s theology of God, man, and salvation. This is the highest of all thought, and it divides all doctrine into two schools.” Whether we call these schools Augustinianism and Pelagianism, Calvinism and Arminianism or Reformed and Catholic, these streams are separated by the Continental Divide of theology. “On one side we find solid highlands of truth. On the other side there are precipitous slopes and half-truths and full error.” “Over the centuries, seasons of reformation and revival in the church have come when the sovereign grace of God has been openly proclaimed and clearly taught. When a high view of God has been infused into the hearts and minds of God’s people, the church has sat on the elevated plateaus of transcendent truth. This lofty ground is Calvinism-the high ground for the church. The lofty truths of divine sovereignty provide the greatest and grandest view of God. The doctrines of grace serve to elevate the entire life of the church.”

This looks like it will be an excellent defense, both historical and biblical, of the doctrines of grace. Rarely have I been as excited about a series as I am about this one.

Here is an overview of each of the five volumes:

VOLUME ONE: FOUNDATIONS OF GRACE
1400 bc - ad 100
From the first biblical author, Moses, to the last, the apostle John, the writers of Scripture recorded one standard of salvation in the doctrines of grace. From Genesis to Revelation, more than forty authors over a period of fifteen hundred years wrote the transcendent truths of God’s sovereignty in man’s salvation. As a result, the Bible in its entirety teaches that God saves sinners-the Father choosing His elect, the Son redeeming these chosen ones, and the Spirit calling, regenerating, and preserving them throughout all the ages to come.

VOLUME TWO: PILLARS OF GRACE
2ND - 16TH centuries
Standing squarely upon the Scriptures, the early church fathers-among them Irenaeus, Jerome, and Augustine-writing in the second through fifth centuries, affirmed the biblical truths of sovereign grace. The proclamation of these doctrinal distinctives quieted somewhat in the medieval church, but it was renewed during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century through such stalwarts as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and the members of the Synod of Dort. Europe was suddenly ablaze with the doctrines of grace.

VOLUME THREE: FORCES OF GRACE
16TH - 17TH centuries
The Reformation reached Scotland with John Knox and influenced England under the English Reformers and the heroic martyrs during the reign of Bloody Mary. In their struggle with the Church of England in the seventeenth century, the English Puritans-the Westminster divines, the Scottish Covenanters, Particular Baptists, and Independents-mightily upheld the biblical distinctives articulated in Reformed theology. Scotland and England burned brightly with the truth of sovereign grace.

VOLUME FOUR: PROGRESS OF GRACE
17TH - 19TH centuries
The history-altering impact of the Reformation soon crossed the Atlantic with the Pilgrims. In America, the truths of God’s sovereign grace were proclaimed by the American Puritans, who witnessed the Great Awakening under the influence of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and others. The Second Great Awakening followed, with Timothy Dwight and Asahel Nettleton. Nineteenth-century America also saw the emergence of Princeton Seminary, with Charles Hodge and Benjamin B. Warfield, and the Southern Baptist Convention, with James P. Boyce. Distinguished Presbyterian figures such as Robert L. Dabney, James H. Thornwell, and William G. T. Shedd also stood tall. These godly men infected the American consciousness with biblical Calvinism.

VOLUME FIVE: TRIUMPH OF GRACE
19TH century - the present
Emboldened by the truths of sovereign grace, strong Calvinists such as William Carey launched the modern missions movement to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. In the nineteenth century, England, Scotland, and Holland became Reformed strongholds for powerful proclaimers of grace such as Charles H. Spurgeon, J. C. Ryle, Charles Simeon, Robert Murray McCheyne, and Abraham Kuyper. In more recent times, a resurgence of the doctrines of grace has come through the prolific pulpits and pens of men such as A. W. Pink, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, James Montgomery Boice, R. C. Sproul, John Piper, and John MacArthur. Through these eminent expositors, the long line of godly men has extended triumphantly to this present hour.

At this time, the book is available only through Ligonier’s store (link). In the coming weeks it will become available through a variety of online retailers, though sadly, it will not be sold through Amazon. To learn more about the series, you can visit Ligonier’s site for sample chapters and an interview with Steve Lawson. While the publication dates for subsequent volumes have not yet been set, it seems that the second volume will be available in late 2007 and subsequent volumes will follow at one-year intervals.

Here are a few of the book’s endorsements:

“Steven Lawson clearly and comprehensively lays the scriptural groundwork for the doctrines of grace.” - Dr. John MacArthur

“The doctrines of grace and the sovereignty of God are joy-giving, life-changing, Christ-exalting, God-glorifying, missions-motivating, evangelism-encouraging, and discipleship-promoting truths. If you think that the teaching of God’s sovereignty in sinners’ salvation is a man-made idea, you’ll think again after you’ve walked through the Bible with Dr. Lawson.” - Dr. J. Ligon Duncan

“The doctrines of grace are often misunderstood and mischaracterized. This helpful new book explains them thoughtfully and well. May God use it for His glory and others’ good.” - Dr. D. James Kennedy

I am eager to read this book and the four that follow it. You know I’ll have a review as soon as I can make my way through this title’s 565 pages.

October 09, 2006

Today is Thanksgiving Day here in Canada. Unlike our friends in America, we celebrate Thanksgiving in October. Where the American Thanksgiving has a storied history and ushers in the holiday season, we Canadians really have no idea why we celebrate this day that ushers in the Fall season. Thanksgiving comes when the leaves are entering the height of their glory and the air is just beginning to turn crisp. The last of the season’s produce is being harvested and apple orchards are abuzz with activity. This may well be my favorite time of year.

The first Canadian Thanksgiving was celebrated on April 15, 1872 in thanks for the recovery of the future King Edward VII from a serious illness. The next Thanksgiving was not celebrated until 1879 when it was celebrated on a Thursday in November. Much like the United States, Canada seemed to have a difficult time deciding when a day of Thanksgiving should occur. From 1879 to 1898 it was celebrated on a Thursday in November; from 1899 to 1907 on a Thursday in October (except in 1901 and 1904 when it was celebrated on a Thursday in November); from 1908 to 1921 on a Monday in October; and between 1922 and 1930 the Armistice Day Act declared that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on Armistice Day, the Monday of November 11. In 1931 the Act was amended and the old practice of Parliament declaring a day of Thanksgiving each year was resumed.

On January 31, 1957 Parliament issued a proclamation to fix permanently the second Monday in October as “a day of general Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.”

Much like the Thanksgiving Day of our neighbors to the South, the Canadian celebration includes parades and festive meals, often including turkey with all the “fixins.” We eat pumpkin and apple pies and squash and whatever other vegetables are available that go well with turkey. Many Canadians regard the American celebration of Thanksgiving to be almost vulgar for its excesses. We tend not to make it a day for huge quantities of food and loud football games. We certainly do not gear up for a “Black Friday” shopping experience the next day where financial excess follows closely behind caloric excess. Thanksgiving is usually a quiet day of hiking, enjoying nature, and enjoying fellowship with family and friends. It is not nearly as significant day as Thanksgiving is in America.

Still, at the heart of the celebration is the idea of giving thanks for the goodness of the season past. Or so it used to be for most people. In reality, as Canada becomes increasingly secularized, Thanksgiving is rarely used as a day for giving thanks to God. Last weekend, when I was at the Desiring God conference, I heard Voddie Baucham speak about secular humanism and the hopelessness it brings. As he spoke of this I was struck, as I so often am, but how good it is to be able to give thanks. Secular humanism teaches that we are on this earth by accident and, while we are here, we exist to consume and enjoy. There is little room for the giving of thanks within the constraints of such a worldview. The Bible, on the other hands, teaches that we have been lovingly and deliberately created by God and that we exist to worship and bring glory to Him. Within this worldview there is great room for thanks. In fact, this worldview cannot exist without thanks. Thanks and Christianity are inseparable.

Back in 2004, as I thought about Thanksgiving, I reflected on “Thanksgiving and the Appropriate Number of Prepositions.” The verb “thanks” without an appropriate number of prepositions makes little sense. While everyone likes to give thanks for things at Thanksgiving, what has often been lost is the fact that we do not merely give thanks, but give thanks to. Millions of Canadians will say today that they are thankful for their families, for their jobs or for the freedoms they enjoy, but who are they thankful to? It seems to me that there is little purpose in being thankful if we do not acknowledge that there is to whom we owe this thanks! Do I thank fate? Do I thank circumstance? Do I thank myself?

Some time ago James White wrote about this as well. He said “But the fact is that ‘thanksgiving’ means ‘the giving of thanks’ and when you ‘give’ something you give it to someone identifiable… It is a time for giving thanks to God for His bountiful blessings. The giving of thanks is not only a hallmark of Christian character, but it is a duty incumbent upon all men.” He quotes Romans 1:20-21 which reads “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1:20-21). All men owe thanks to God.

He concluded with these words: “It is no wonder, then, that giving of thanks is one of the most commonly noted results of regeneration itself: if it is natural for the creature to give thanks (outside the twisted opposition of sin), then it follows when a God-hater is turned to a God-lover, thanksgiving will flow from that redeemed heart.” As the Word reminds us:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Phil. 4:6)

Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with [an attitude of] thanksgiving; (Col. 4:2)

you will be enriched in everything for all liberality, which through us is producing thanksgiving to God. (2Cor. 9:11)

Today I give thanks. I have so much to be thankful for that time and words would fail me to even scratch the surface. But planted at the top of the list this year is gratitude that I can feel gratitude and, even more so, gratitude that I can express gratitude. I am thankful that I feel thankful and am thankful that I know the One to whom my thanks is due.

October 08, 2006

When doing research for my book last week, I came across some wise words of John MacArthur that seemed appropriate to share in the Lord’s Day. These are taken from his commentary on 1 Corinthians.

A caring minister of Christ cannot be insensitive to the feelings, needs, and opinions of his people. He should not try to be. A sincere word of appreciation after a sermon is encouraging, and reflects spiritual concern and growth in the listener’s life. A word of helpful criticism can be a needed corrective and even a blessing. But no minister can remain faithful to his calling if he lets his congregation, or any other human beings, decide how true his motives are or whether he is working within the Lord’s will. Because their knowledge and understanding of the facts are imperfect, their criticisms and compliments are imperfect. In humility and love, God’s minister must not allow himself to care about other people’s evaluations of his ministry.

Nor must he allow himself to care about his own evaluation of his ministry. All of us are naturally inclined to build ourselves up in our own minds. We all look into rose-colored mirrors. Even when we put ourselves down, especially in front of others, we often are simply appealing for recognition and flattery. The mature minister does not trust his own judgment in such things any more than he trusts the judgment of others. He agrees with Paul that his own evaluation may be as unreliable as that of anyone else.

Spiritual introspection is dangerous. Known sin must be faced and confessed, and known shortcomings are to be prayed about and worked on for improvement. But no Christian, no matter how advanced in the faith, is able to properly evaluate his own spiritual life. Before we know it, we will be ranking ourselves, classifying ourselves—and discover that a great deal of time is being spent in thinking of nothing but ourselves. The bias in our own favor and the tendency of the flesh toward self-justification make this a dangerous project.

October 07, 2006

The Nativity StoryYou know, I really don’t know how I missed this one. I guess I just don’t get out to the movies enough (or don’t pay close enough attention to what’s new and upcoming in the theatres). Apparently, in December of this year, New Line Cinema will be releasing The Nativity Story, a film chronicling, well, the story of the nativity. “The film follows the life of the Virgin Mary and Joseph over the two-year period immediately prior to the birth of Jesus, and several years afterward (including the visit of the Magi and the vengeful rage of King Herod).” According to the film’s Wikipedia entry, “New Line is taking great pains to create a film in the tradition of The Passion of the Christ which Christian families will be able to enjoy. Mike Rich, screenwriter of The Rookie, is writing the script, drawing heavily from the four gospels. A number of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish theologians have also been consulted. When Rich first told his pastor about the project he was undertaking, Rich said the pastor responded by saying “that’s a project!” and then immediately put him on the church’s prayer chain.”

It seems that someone has created an unofficial blog to collect information about the film. Christianity Today has featured an interview with Mike Rich which you can read here.

I think it will be interesting to see a couple of things. First, will the movie portray Mary in a way that is distinctly Catholic or will she be presented simply as she is in the gospels — as a woman who was chosen for a distinct honor, but who was still a sinner? It seems they have largely stuck to what is presented in the gospels, judging by this part of the CT interview:

How have you tried to make Mary more human without losing reverence for Mary the icon? Was that a balancing act for you?

Rich: It was a balancing act, but there’s a key moment when she’s visiting Elizabeth. It’s a speculative moment, but I think it’s very consistent with the Gospels. She asks Elizabeth, “Why has He chosen me?” To me, the choice of Mary to bear the Son of God isn’t because she is someone remarkably special, it’s because she was representative of every man. She was every person. The mother of this child isn’t because she is of overt riches or royal blood, it’s because she is mankind. To me, that made it very easy to portray her as a very, very human individual.

Do you have any concerns about how Catholics might react to the portrayal? I assume you’ve consulted with Catholics along the way.

Rich: We have maintained close contact with several individuals within the Catholic church. We’re not trying to alienate those within the Catholic faith. But we understand that anytime you tackle subject matter such as this that you’re creating a canvas for discussion, if you will.

If the story and the interpretation that we put on screen can result in a dialogue between faiths, between those within their own faiths, that’s never a bad thing. Then the mission to put this story on screen will be well served.

I’m not sure exactly what he means by “she is mankind,” but at least it seems that they will present her largely as the Bible does.

A second point of interest is how Evangelical churches and church leaders will react to this. I suspect we will not see a great number of church leaders pleading with their members to see this film and certainly not spending tens of thousands of dollars to send others to see this film (a la The Passion of the Christ). Mike Rich says that he does not regard this film as overtly evangelistic: “Not particularly. It could plant a seed in that direction. We see Jesus for all of five minutes onscreen—and he’s not exactly delivering the Sermon on the Mount. But if after seeing this movie someone opens up the Gospel of Luke, then you never know.”

At any rate, it looks like an interesting movie and, judging by the trailer, which you can see here, at the film’s official site, it may just be worth watching.

October 06, 2006

Dr. Mohler posted an article this morning that grabbed my attention. I had something else I had wanted to say today, but have chosen instead to interact a little bit with Mohler’s article. Mohler writes about an essay that appeared in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education (the essay, sadly, is only available to those with a subscription to The Chronicle). Written by Jay Parini, who is a poet and a professor of English at Middlebury College, the essay, “Other People’s Books,” discusses just that: other people’s books. Parini discusses his penchant for examining other people’s libraries:

It’s not only the physical aspects of books that attract me, of course. In fact, I rarely buy first or elegant editions, however much I like to glance at them; good reading copies, in hardback or a decent paperback, are just fine. But seeing some of the editions in my living room reminds me of that wonderful house in Surrey, which stirred my imagination as a young man and was part of the reason I became a writer myself.

What interests me about other people’s books is the nature of their collection. A personal library is an X-ray of the owner’s soul. It offers keys to a particular temperament, an intellectual disposition, a way of being in the world. Even how the books are arranged on the shelves deserves notice, even reflection. There is probably no such thing as complete chaos in such arrangements.

Other people’s books draw my attention, of course. They excite curiosity about their owners and the worlds they inhabit. But it’s finally my own books that matter, as they tell me about where I’ve been, and where I hope to go.

Mohler writes, “When truly read, a book becomes a part of us. That is why we are afraid to part with even the physicality of it. The book becomes an aid to memory and a deposit of thought and reflection. Its very materiality testifies that we once held it in our hands as we passed the pages before our eyes.” This is true in my experience. I can watch a movie once or twice and have no desire to watch it again. It is only on a very rare occasion that I consider purchasing a film. Once I have watched it, I rarely have any desire to keep it around or to watch it again. This is not the case with books. When I have read a book, and when I have enjoyed that book, I am hard-pressed to part with it; it sometimes pains me even to lend it. I keep the book on the shelf, hoping that I will have time and occasion to read it again. At the very least I am always sure that I will turn to it again. Sometimes I enjoy pulling a book from the shelf and reading the notes I jotted in the margins. What did I circle? What did I underline? What did I conclude about these things? Why? These are all aspects of the experience of reading a book.

Mohler goes on to state that, “To a great extent, our personal libraries betray our true identities and interests. A minister’s library, taken as a whole, will likely reveal a portrait of theological conviction and vision. Whose works have front place on the shelves, Martyn Lloyd-Jones or John Shelby Spong? Charles Spurgeon or Harry Emerson Fosdick? Karl Barth or Carl Henry? John MacArthur or Joel Osteen?” As a bibliophile, a lover of books, I know that a person’s library speaks volumes about him (no pun intended). I have been in homes where I could scarcely find a single book. There may have been a Bible or two on the coffee table, but there were no bookshelves, no books. I have been to the offices of pastors whose shelves were nearly bare, with only a few sparse volumes, the latest and greatest books from decades past, scattered about, long since forgotten. As Dr. Mohler writes, “For too many pastors, the personal library announces, ‘I stopped reading when I graduated from seminary.’” I have seen the libraries of pastors, men who preach every week and who earn a good and fair wage, who had but a single commentary set at their disposal. And then I have been to the homes of pastors whose libraries were filled with quality books, books written by men of God and written to aid and edify other men of God. And in these offices I have felt at home. I have felt an excitement, and, as with Parini, have wanted to know more about the owner of those books and about the world he inhabits.

“When I think of my closest friends, I realize that I am most at home with them in their libraries, and they are most at home with me in mine. Why? Because the books invite and represent the kind of conversation and sharing of heart, soul, and mind that drew us together in the first place.” For those who have had the privilege, as I have, of experiencing Dr. Mohler’s library, you will realize that it is easy to feel at home in it! But even in a library that is far more humble, the books do represent the sharing of heart, soul and mind that brought good friends together in the first place.

Dr. Mohler concludes his article by writing, “By their books we shall know them. And by our books we shall be known.” The books on your shelves tell a great deal about you. What do they say?

As I read this, I was reminded of the wisdom of Richard Baxter who, many years ago, wrote wisely about books.

Make careful choice of the books which you read: let the holy scriptures ever have the pre-eminence, and, next to them, those solid, lively, heavenly treatises which best expound and apply the scriptures, and next, credible histories, especially of the Church … but take heed of false teachers who would corrupt your understandings.

Surely this is solid advice. Devotion to reading must never take pre-eminence over our reading of Scripture. If we spend many hours every day reading but only a brief period of time studying the Scriptures, we need to examine our priorities. When we do read, we need to give priority to good books that increase our knowledge of and love for the Scriptures. Beyond them, it is wise to study the history of the church so we can never lose sight of our roots and seek to avoid the mistakes of the past. And finally, we should avoid submitting ourselves to the writings of false teachers who will corrupt our understanding of the truths of Scripture.

As there is a more excellent appearance of the Spirit of God in the holy scripture, than in any other book whatever, so it has more power and fitness to convey the Spirit, and make us spiritual, by imprinting itself upon our hearts. As there is more of God in it, so it will acquaint us more with God, and bring us nearer Him, and make the reader more reverent, serious and divine. Let scripture be first and most in your hearts and hands and other books be used as subservient to it. The endeavours of the devil and papists to keep it from you, doth shew that it is most necessary and desirable to you.

Once again, the Bible must be pre-eminent. The Bible alone is God’s full, inerrant, infallible, authoritative revelation to us and we must treat it accordingly. All other books must take a subservient and complementary role to Scripture.

The writings of divines are nothing else but a preaching of the gospel to the eye, as the voice preaches it to the ear. Vocal preaching has the pre-eminence in moving the affections, and being diversified according to the state of the congregation which attend it: this way the milk comes warmest from the breast. But books have the advantage in many other respects: you may read an able preacher when you have but a average one to hear. Every congregation cannot hear the most judicious or powerful preachers: but every single person may read the books of the most powerful and judicious; preachers may be silenced or banished, when books may be at hand: books may be kept at a smaller charge than preachers: we may choose books which treat of that, very subject which we desire to hear of; but we cannot choose what subject the preacher shall treat of. Books we may have at hand every day, and hour; when we can have sermons but seldom, and at set times. If sermons be forgotten, they are gone; but a book we may read over and over, till we remember it: and if we forget it, may again peruse it at our pleasure, or at our leisure. So that good books are a very great mercy to the world: the Holy Ghost chose the way of writing, to preserve His doctrine and laws to the ‘Church, as knowing how easy and sure a way it is of keeping it safe to all generations, in comparison of mere verbal traditions.

Perhaps the greatest reason to read is that it gives us direct access to the God-given wisdom of some of the greatest preachers and theologians of our day and days past. While Charles Spurgeon (and Richard Baxter, for that matter) has long since gone to be with the Lord, we can learn from him as easily as people did in the nineteenth century.

You have need of a judicious teacher at hand, to direct you what books to use or to refuse: for among good books there are some very good that are sound and lively; and some good, but mediocre, and weak and somewhat dull; and some are very good in part, but have mixtures of error, or else of incautious, injudicious expressions, fitter to puzzle than edify the weak.

For every good book, there are five or ten (or, more likely, far more) that are fit only for the trash. Much of what is published under the banner of “Christian” is anything but. Be careful what you read, for a book can lead you astray as easily as it can lead you closer to the Lord. Find mature believers who can guide you to books and authors that will edify you. Let your library speak well of you.

October 04, 2006

Yesterday’s edition of USA Today published an article entitled “Courts are asked to crack down on bloggers, websites” and subheaded “Those attacked online are filing libel lawsuits.” Written by Laura Parker, it details an increasing number of lawsuits launched by companies and individuals against bloggers.

It begins by discussing Rafe Banks, a lawyer in Georgia, who became involved in an ugly dispute with a client over how to defend him. The client, David Milum, fired Banks and demanded that the lawyer refund a $3,000 fee. Banks refused.

Milum eventually was acquitted. Ordinarily, that might have been the last Banks ever heard about his former client. But then Milum started a blog.

In May 2004, Banks was stunned to learn that Milum’s blog was accusing the lawyer of bribing judges on behalf of drug dealers. At the end of one posting, Milum wrote, “Rafe, don’t you wish you had given back my $3,000 retainer?”

Banks, saying the postings were false, sued Milum. And last January, Milum became the first blogger in the USA to lose a libel suit, according to the Media Law Resource Center in New York, which tracks litigation involving bloggers. Milum was ordered to pay Banks $50,000.

According to USA Today this case reflects how blogs are increasingly being targeted by those who feel harmed by blog attacks.

In the past two years, more than 50 lawsuits stemming from postings on blogs and website message boards have been filed across the nation. The suits have spawned a debate over how the ‘blogosphere’ and its revolutionary impact on speech and publishing might change libel law.

Legal analysts say the lawsuits are challenging a mind-set that has long surrounded blogging: that most bloggers essentially are “judgment-proof” because they — unlike traditional media such as newspapers, magazines and television outlets — often are ordinary citizens who don’t have a lot of money. Recent lawsuits by Banks and others who say they have had their reputations harmed or their privacy violated have been aimed not just at cash awards but also at silencing their critics.

Bloggers have long assumed that they were immune to charges of libel, but it seems this is increasingly being proven a false assumption. The article goes on to detail several cases where bloggers were sued for libel. Many of the comments were fallout from sexual escapades where scorned women went online to post libelous comments about former lovers. The recent dispute (involving the now-dismissed lawsuit) between Ligonier Ministries and Frank Vance was also mentioned.

Robert Cox, founder and president of the Media Bloggers Association, which has 1,000 members, says the recent wave of lawsuits means that bloggers should bone up on libel law. “It hasn’t happened yet, but soon, there will be a blogger who is successfully sued and who loses his home,” he says. “That will be the shot heard round the blogosphere.” With the scandalous information being posted online, it truly is only a matter of time before a blogger loses all he has, and perhaps reasonably so. “Susan Crawford, a professor at Cardozo Law School in New York who specializes in media and Internet issues, says the ease with which false postings can be corrected instantly, among other things, will force judges to reconsider how to measure the damage that is done to a plaintiff’s reputation.” A person’s online reputation is becoming increasingly important as prospective employers now routinely search online for information about a potential employee. The same is true of a potential mate. A few libelous comments online has the potential to have devastating and far-reaching effects.

“People take advantage of the anonymity to say things in public they would never say to anyone face-to-face,” Cox says. “That’s where you get these horrible comments. This is standard operating procedure.”

This is an interesting article and one that raises some important concerns. I think it raises questions that are of particular importance to Christian bloggers.

Bloggers perceive a great freedom when they write; they sometimes perceive that they have immunity from standards of right and wrong. Far too often people post something online that they would never say face-to-face. What would be shameful in direct communication is standard fare for many blogs. Most bloggers learn quickly that the titillating and the tantalizing generate buzz, comments and visitors. While the vast majority of bloggers are harmless, writing about only what is of direct importance to them, there are many others who seek only to discourage and destroy.

As Christians, we are called to a high standard—we are called to holiness. We are not to push the limits of what is decent and what is true, but to serve and to be a blessing to others. We are not to ask “Is this libelous? Will I be sued if I publish this?”, but we are to ask “Will this serve the person I am writing about? Will this serve the church? Will this bring glory to God? Will this defend the truth?”

The blogosphere is still immature and, in many ways, untested. Blogs are a new and growing phenomena, but they are also a new and growing concern. It will not be long before the courts begin, justly I think, to crack down on bloggers who are libelous towards others. The proverbial “shot heard round the blogosphere” is probably not far off. As painful as this may be for those involved, I suspect it will prove beneficial to the blogosphere.

My encouragement to my fellow Christian bloggers is to ensure that we are not among those who are sure to make headlines by being involved in these cases. We have an opportunity to shine a light even in the blogosphere. How tragic it would be to read headlines in national newspapers providing the lurid details of what one Christian had done to another or said about another. Let us be certain that we constantly seek to serve and that we pursue holiness rather than popularity. Let us set the standard for respect and fellowship. Let us take the better path and show our love for God in our love for one another.

October 02, 2006

This wasn’t quite how I had imagined my homecoming from the Desiring God conference. In retrospect, I guess ordering the shepherd’s pie at Brit’s in downtown Minneapolis was where I went wrong. By the time I reached Milwakuee on the first leg of my trip home I was feeling a bit “off.” By the time we reached the Toronto airport, I figured I was in trouble. By the time I got back to my home I was violently ill, about as sick as I’ve ever been, I think. It was to the point where my wife was about ready to send me off to the hospital. I was up, quite literally, all night, and am just now able to even think about cracking open the computer. Thankfully, as food poisoning seems to go, this was reasonably short-lived, though I’m guessing it’s going to take me another day or so to get back on my feet (and catch up with the sleep I lost last night). But that was, and to some extent still is, just an awful bout with food poisoning.

I was hoping to post some reflections on the conference today, but that is likely going to have to wait until tomorrow. The same is true of tidying up John Piper’s sermon from yesterday. And now I’m heading back to a more horizontal position to try to get a bit of shut-eye.

September 28, 2006

A couple of days ago I responded briefly to an article that appeared in Scientific American (link). I did not attempt a thorough defense of creationism that would convince a person who was committed to evolutionism. I sought primarily to show that the argumentation used was, at best, high school level, and that the arguments were easily answered. This article, though, triggered other thoughts and I wanted to discuss something I’ve written about before: the fact that naturalism is a religion all its own. As a long-time Christian - one who never experienced adulthood without knowing God and who had the privilege of being raised in a Christian home - it is often difficult to understand what people raised with a secular mindset think and believe and why they think and believe those things. Said tersely, it has proven difficult to truly understand the postmodern mindset. Through my studies, however, I have made some observations that I believe accurately represent this mindset. It is to one of those that I wish to turn today.

There is a realization that has dawned on me slowly that concerns Naturalism which I will treat as being near-synonymous with Darwinism. In short, Naturalism is the belief that the natural world as we know and experience it is all that exists. To put this in religious terms, we could say that Naturalism teaches that ultimate truth does not depend on supernatural experiences, supernatural beings or divine revelation; instead it can be derived from the natural world. Perhaps Carl Sagan expressed this most clearly in his Cosmos series which he prefaced with the statement “The universe is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Naturalism is a belief that is firmly embedded in our society. The field of science wants nothing to do with a Creator or a universe that has been intelligently designed. Naturalism is taught as law in the school systems and is held as being objective truth. Religious beliefs, values and morals are thought to exist on a separate, subjective level that should not be held us universally true. Science is objective truth and exists in a public realm; values are subjective beliefs that exist in a private realm. The late Christopher Reeve, in discussing groundbreaking research techniques that were condemned by some religious leaders as being amoral, said that religious beliefs can have no place at the table when discussing science, thus indicating his belief that science is more objective and more universally true than religion. Again, science is public fact whereas values are private beliefs. Those beliefs may be important to the individual, but they are not grounded in nature and hence should not extend beyond the individual. This bifurcated system (a fact/value dichotomy) is inseparable from the postmodern mindset.

What dawned on me a year or two ago is that Naturalism, as it is ingrained in the postmodern mindset and in the educational system, is far more than an explanation as to the origins of the world. Naturalism is a full-blown worldview, and in reality, is a religious system that stands in direct opposition to Christianity. One does not need to look far today to find Naturalists that make this admission. Michael Ruse, a well-known evolutionist says “evolution came into being as a kind of secular ideology, an explicit substitute for Christianity…Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and is true of evolution still today.” (Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, page 172)

Perhaps at this time it would be helpful to define the term “worldview.” Nancy Pearcey, in Total Truth says “[E]ach of us carries a model of the universe inside our heads that tells us what the world is like and how we should live in it. We all seek to make sense of life. Some convictions are conscious, while others are unconscious, but together they form a more or less consistent picture of reality.” This is a worldview. Lifeway, a company that develops Christian curricula, says a worldview is “The composite set of presuppositions, beliefs, and values a person possesses that shape how he or she sees reality and determines how he or she will act. It refers to the collective set of fundamental convictions people hold and on which they base their actions.” Using these definitions, we can understand that there are varying worldviews available to us. We can see also that a person’s worldview begins to be shaped from the moment he is born, as presuppositions and unconscious convictions combine with conscious beliefs and values to form a worldview that form a “more of less consistent picture of reality.” Thus a person experiences reality through his worldview which serves as a lens to interpret and understand life. We must conclude that a worldview shaped by Naturalism, where nature is all that is, was or ever will be, must be diametrically opposed to a worldview shaped by Christian principles which teach that God is the eternal, self-existent One who created and sustains the universe.

I work in the field of computers and we often use the hyphenated suffix “killer” to describe new software or hardware. For example, the operating system Linux was considered by some to be a Windows-killer in that it provided a better but incompatible alternative to Microsoft’s Windows operating system and many believed that it would soon relegate Windows to the trash heap of history. Recently Mozilla’s Firefox has been deemed an Internet Explorer-killer because it provides a better alternative to the competing browser. This provides an apt metaphor for Naturalism, as it has become for many people a Christianity-killer. The theories of evolution, which are simply poor science, have been extended to frame an entire worldview that is directly opposed to the worldview of the Bible. Consider just two examples.

Marriage, according to the Bible, is a divinely-mandated institution and forms the very building block of society. It is not an institution God created in response to the corruption of men, but was embedded even in a perfect world. In a perfect world which God had declared to be very good, He said that it is “not good for man to be alone.” Thus He created woman to complete man and joined them in the marriage bond. A Naturalistic belief system stands in stark contrast to this. After all, if marriage is not mandated by God, it must exist only as a human institution and one that survived the process of natural selection. In other words, it exists because we have invented it and found that it worked well for us in the past. As we continue to evolve and develop we are learning that it may no longer be in our best interests to emphasize marriage relationships. Thus when we view marriage merely as a human institution we are free to enter into it, reject it, or adapt it however we see fit.

Let’s look at sexuality in the light of Scripture and Naturalism. The Bible teaches that sexuality is a gift from God, and once more, something that existed in perfection, before sin entered the world. The Scriptures further teach that sexuality is a gift that must be used in a certain manner; it is appropriate only for a man and woman within the covenant bonds of a marriage relationship. Sex is a beautiful expression of love and oneness - a gift from God to build and strengthen marriage relationships. Naturalism sees sex in an entirely different light. Sexual relationships are derived from human origins and sexual normalcy is associated with a specific culture and time. Normalcy is what works for a specific group at a specific time and is not rooted in any type of divine law. Thus when homosexuality becomes celebrated in our society, it is an expression of Naturalism.

Those who argue against homosexuality or other expressions of deviant sexuality, generally do so from the grounds of values, but Naturalists have already relegated values to a secondary realm of the subjective, where Naturalism is an expression of objective fact. Those who stand for traditional views of marriage where the institution is reserved for a man and a woman, similarly speak of values, but again, values have no objective meaning to those fully absorbed in a Naturalist worldview.

The fact is, naturalism is a complete worldview and a religion unto itself. To attempt to reconcile Darwinism, naturalism and evolution with Christianity is akin to reconciling Christianity and Islam. It simply cannot be done. As I wrote in the first article, The true conflict, the conflict between evolution and creationism, is a conflict of truth and error, a conflict of God and man. Creationism embraces God as the Creator and Sustainer of the world; evolutionism rejects God replaces Him with time, chance and opportunity. The debate between creationism and evolutionism is by no means senseless, for it is a defense of the truth and a defense of the One who is Truth.

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