A Pattern for Preaching Christ (Ryan McGraw)

As children learn by watching their parents, so preachers and hearers learn much by looking at the Apostles. The principles taught in the preceding nine post risk resembling a shapeless cloud instead of a face reflected in a mirror without adding concrete examples. This post provides an example of how Paul preached Christ while the next one applies these examples to preaching other passages of Scripture.

Preachers should imitate Paul in filtering the whole counsel of God through the person and work of Christ. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians illustrates how to do this. Though this book is an epistle and not a sermon, the range of issues treated in it provides great insight into Paul’s teaching and ministry. This furnishes us with a plethora of examples for connecting Christ to virtually any biblical doctrine or practice.

Paul grounded this epistle in the relationship between Christ and the saints (1 Cor. 1:1-9). The church belongs to God and it is set apart to God in Christ (v. 2). The Corinthians called upon Christ as Lord together with all believers in every place (v. 3). Grace and peace came to them from the Father and the Son (v. 4). The church received graces and gifts from Christ (v. 5-7). In his faithfulness, God would preserve the saints in Christ to the end by virtue of their fellowship with him (v. 8-9). This introduction mirrors the nature and ends of preaching through its effects in believers’ lives.

Paul confronted disunity in the church in light of the church’s relation to Christ (chapters 1-4). Instead of dividing over who baptized them (1:10-14), the Corinthians should rally around Christ’s cross (v. 15). Believers must stop thinking like worldly people by remembering that God’s wisdom in Christ saves and unites them. By contrast, the world is united in treating Christ’s gospel as foolishness (1:18-29). Christ’s all-sufficiency reminds believers that they must boast in God and not in men (1:30-31). In order to flee division, they must remem…

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Being Apologetic About Jordan Peterson (Brian Mesimer)

If you have been previously unaware of Jordan Peterson’s existence and the discussion surrounding him, worry no more–the evangelical blogosphere has been working overtime to enlighten you. In fact it could be considered a major feat to have missed this debate in its entirety. I tried to resist myself, but the tide of emails, texts, YouTube videos, and blogs overcame the usual defenses.

For the uninitiated, Peterson is a Canadian secular depth psychologist who has been making waves over the last few months for his controversial yet articulate stands on social issues, witty advice, and ability to command any room into which he walks (David Robertson provides a good introduction). Peterson appeals mainly to the growing masses of disaffected young men who tend to struggle with lack of direction and self-worth–men we see all too often in the church today.

Yet some Christians see far more in him than just this. At the celebratory end of the spectrum, a few argue that Peterson represents the archetype of an emotionally intelligent pastor, one who has been strong where our accepted pastoral wisdom has been weak.   At the critical end, some wonder whether Peterson’s work is just a thinly veiled application of Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values or a justification of pride-as-virtue. That is quite the difference. Which begs the question: what in the world are we to do with the likes of Jordan Peterson?

That evangelicals often reach diametrically opposed evaluations of secular resources is nothing new. Think about Harry Potter or “secular music” or the debates over what media Christians can use. That we keep ending up in widely divergent places on such crucial issues however should at least raise our eyebrows. Perhaps something bigger is going on here. Perhaps such surface level differences signal deeper theological and structural issues in our communities–issues that revolve around how we understand common grace and common ground.

Much ink has been spilled trying to explain why Peterson is so popular with evangelicals. I think I can offer one more reason: Peterson is a respected secular scholar who is affirming important biblical truths in non-biblical ways. This second part also explains why Peterson is so unpopular with some. For example, in his 12 Rules for Life, he comes out in favor of things like corporal punishment in parenting (Prov. 13.24), but argues for this from a common-sense and ultimately authoritarian point of view. As a Christian counselor myself, I find that these kinds of arguments breed inner conflict by affirming the truth in seemingly secular ways. On the one hand, finding a secular voice who affirms Christian values is extremely rare and exciting; on the other, Peterson’s methods appear suspect.

And this is where evangelicals usually end up on issues like this: one side voices support for the common grace truth that can be found in a “thing” and the other side protests that the “thing” in view is fueled by basic presuppositions and methodology that necessarily disqualify whatever good can be found in it. It is exceedingly difficult to move beyond these poles once they have been reached. Not only is it hard to do this conceptually (for each position leaves no real room for compromise) but it is also difficult to do this personally. Try convincing a convinced homeschooler that public school options are sometimes acceptable, and vice versa!

On one hand, Peterson advocates for the importance of religion and traditional modes of living, campaigns for sanity in gender roles more courageously and clearly than most celebrity Christians, and sounds curiously biblical on many issues. Maybe he can even teach pastors a thing or two about equanimity, style, and approach. So we should allow our brothers and sisters to voice their tempered support for thinkers like Peterson. Calvin would have had it that way. Speaking on these kinds of people, he says that “so far as they do no harm, they are useful and profitable” and that “Christ declares that we ought to reckon as friends those who are not open enemies.”

However, Peterson’s worldview is steeped in Jungian archetypal mythology, mixed with a dash of evolutionary psychology. Although he references the Bible, he makes sustained arguments from other religious streams of thought as well. More often than not, Peterson argues from “is” to “ought,” using evolutionary developments as guidelines for successful living (cf. Peterson’s love for lobsters in 12 Rules). A complete or even moderate buy in by Christians to these principles could end in unmitigated disaster, and we should listen to those brothers and sisters who warn us of this. Calvin faithfully guides as always: “whoever does not assist [in establishing the Kingdom of God] is…opposed to [Christ].” Where secular resources oppose or do not assist the advancement of God’s kingdom, at these points they must be opposed themselves.

Categorizing a thinker or system of thought based upon this schema can be exceedingly difficult. Part of the reason for this is that balancing extremes is naturally difficult, as is the task of identifying what constitutes opposition to the gospel. Does a system of thought oppose the gospel, fail to assist its spread, or actually advance it? Peterson is maddening in this regard, for he does all three at times, sometimes even in the same thought!

Perhaps the chief difficulty, however, is our own lack of uniformity of understanding regarding our approach to common grace and common ground in the Reformed tradition. We often (rightly) argue that non-Christian modes of thinking find no common ground with Christian ones. As the non-Christian is diametrically opposed to God in his unrighteousness, so will his thoughts, being born out of the root of rebellion and tainted with sin, end up opposed to God. Of course, the unbeliever will often stumble upon true things, but this is due to God’s common grace.

The problem with such a line of reasoning is not the line of reasoning itself–this is perfectly legitimate. The problem is the attitude we so often draw from it; namely, that we must therefore publicly and equally oppose all things non-Christian. This orientation does not actually follow from the insistence that there is no common ground between believer and non-believer. Put another way, opposition of belief does not always necessitate opposition in disposition.

How can this be? First, this is so because it is actually consistent with presuppositional thought. Calling common grace discoveries good is simply saying “Amen!” back to the God who enabled them in the first place. Even more than this, affirming the good and calling out the bad appears to be one of Jesus’ favorite ways of engaging the lost. Of the many examples of this, Mark 12.28-34 is the most instructive. After a scribe comes up to Jesus and speaks correctly about the law, Jesus tells him that “you are not far from the kingdom of God.” This is a double-edged statement, for Jesus is simultaneously telling this man that there is much good in his thinking and yet that it is not good enough. It is also a brilliant response, for it perfectly balances the call to affirm and challenge non-believing thought.

This does not mean that there isn’t a time and place to strongly condemn evil thinking and doing; Jesus does as much in many places. But it is a call to consider the evangelistic import of how we respond to secular resources. Will Jordan Peterson come to Christ if our response to him is exclusively negative? What of his followers? More pointedly, would we have come to God if His response to us had been exclusively negative (Rom. 5.8)?

In The Pursuit of Holiness, Jerry Bridges tells the story of Henry Trumbull’s train ride with a drunkard. Each time the drunkard took a swig, he offered one to Trumbull, who each time politely declined. Finally, the drunkard exclaimed, “You must think I’m a pretty rough fellow.” In response, Trumbull said “I think you’re a very generous hearted fellow,” which then opened a door for him to share the gospel. We can only wonder what kind of opportunities we might gain to speak the hard truths of the gospel to seculars if we just led off with the right foot.

Brian Mesimer is a counselor at the counseling center of First Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Columbia, SC. 

The Power of Biblical Thinking (Nick Batzig)

Somewhat surprisingly, there has been a resurgence of interest in Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking in our day. The Reformed Church in America minister–famous for giving people a panacea to protect themselves from all undesirable thoughts and actions–carved out a place for himself in American psychology and religion from the mid to late-twentieth century. President Trump has gone so far as to praise Peale for helping him embrace the idea of self-worth. In the newest season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones, a character reads Peal’s The Power of Positive Thinking while riding the public transport through a sketchy borough of the city. Ironically, this scene, full of sanguinity, fails to meet the criteria of what we might otherwise consider to be film noir. Nevertheless, the idea that you have the ability to think and speak away everything undesirable seems to have made a renewed headway in our culture.

Every week, I stumble across memes and posts on social media in which someone expresses to someone else the idea that they are “wonderful,” “beautiful,” “special,” and “loved” (oftentimes, with the adverb “so” prefixed to the verb “loved”). When I read such sentiments, my mind immediately turns to the SNL sketch in which Stuart Smalley gives himself daily affirmations: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggonit, people like me.” 

Joking aside, there is a draw to positive thoughts and words. No one enjoys being around a curmudgeon. No one likes living with fears and discouragement. All of us find it refreshing to spend time with optimists. There is enough misery, sorrow, sadness and suffering all around us. It is certainly a whole lot more enjoyable to spend time with positive people. 

Furthermore, there is something supremely biblical about thinking right thoughts. The Apostle Paul told the believers in Philippi, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” A little later in the same chapter, he wrote, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). This is not, however, the same as the saccharine sentimentality that is so often drips off of your Instagram feed. The context and foundation for the Apostle’s admonitions is the redeeming work of Jesus. 

The problem with so much of what passes as spiritually enriching maxims is that it is not rooted in the truth of Scripture. God’s word gives us the following descriptions in order to help us think properly about what we are by nature:

“There are none righteous, no not one…no one does good.” (Psalm 14:1; 53:1; Rom. 3:10-12)

“All we like sheep have gone astray.” (Is. 53:6)

“The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores
and raw wounds.” (Is. 1:5-6) 

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9)

“You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Eph. 2:1-3)

“You were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). 

There are hundreds of similar verses that depict our sinful spiritual condition before God by nature. One can easily understand why a meme that reads, “You are so beautiful and worth it,” is vastly more popular than one that says, “We all are children of wrath by nature.” The former feeds our flesh. The later is an affront to our sinful pride and self-righteousness. 

That being said, Scripture gives us astonishing descriptions of how God views those who united to His Son by faith. Scripture tells us that “even when we were dead in our trespasses” (Eph. 2:5), God, who is rich in mercy and love toward us, made us alive together with Christ. We are now “the apple of his eye” (Zech. 2:8) and “jewels of his crown” (Zech. 9:16). Believers are “sons and daughters of the King” (Ps. 45:9; 82:6; Gal. 3:26), “the bride of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9; 21:9), “His glorious inheritance” (Eph. 1:18), saints (Phil. 1:1; 4:22; Col. 1:2, 1:4, 1:12, 1:26), the excellent ones (Ps. 16:3) and those “of whom the world is not worthy” (Heb. 11:38). 

In Scripture, there is a beautiful juxtaposition of what we are by nature and what we are by grace. Viewed from only one side, we would end up living in either hopeless pessimism or naive optimism. However, when you, as a believer, look at yourself through the biblical lens of God’s Law, you discover that, “you are a worse sinner than you ever dared imagine;” whereas, viewed through the lens of Christ, “you’re more loved than you ever dared hope.” There is vastly greater comfort in that affirmation than in any empty shells of manufactured positive thinking. 

A Functional Imperfect Perfectionism? (Nick Batzig)

There is a functional perfectionism that can subtly creep into the minds and hearts of even those who adamantly reject any idea of instantaneous sanctification in a believer’s life. On one hand, it is altogether possible for us to convince ourselves that we have out-sinned the grace of God or that God is no longer at work in our lives, based on misunderstandings about the progressive nature of sanctification. We love the extraordinary observable expressions of growth in grace, but are plagued by the less spectacular and less observable works of God. On the other hand, we can convince ourselves that we are not that sinful because we avoid particular sins that we deem vile, while allowing myriads of “respectable sins” to go unchecked. 

In his Studies in Perfectionism, B.B. Warfield observed that a gravitation toward various forms of perfectionism rests on the insatiable desire for the immediate:

“Men are unable to understand why time should be consumed in divine works…Men demand immediate, tangible results…They ask to be themselves made glorified saints in the twinkling of an eye. God’s ways are not their ways, and it is a great trial to them that God will not walk in their ways. They love the storm and the earthquake and the fire. They cannot see the divine in ‘a sound of gentle stillness,’ and adjust themselves with difficulty to the lengthening perspective of God’s gracious working. For the world they look every day for the cataclysm in which alone they can recognize God’s salvation; and when it ever delays its coming they push it reluctantly forward but a little bit at a time. For themselves they cut the knot and boldly declare complete salvation to be within their reach at their option, or already grasped and enjoyed. It is true, observation scarcely justifies the assertion. But this difficulty is easily removed by adjusting the nature of complete salvation to fit their present attainments. These impatient souls tolerate more readily the idea of an imperfect perfection than the admission of lagging perfecting. They must at all costs have all that is coming to them at once.”1

When we are heavy-handed with other believers when they stumble, it reveals strains of self-righteousness in our own hearts. When we speak ill of other believers because they struggle with some particular sins with which we are not beset, we reveal that we believe that we have attained “an imperfect perfection.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains the way in which a standard of “imperfect perfection”  functions when he wrote: 

“We insist on judging ourselves and one another by particular sins, good works, talk, etc. These are our categories. We speak of people as being respectable or not respectable, or we speak of them in terms of certain particular sins and their precise way of committing them, thereby confusing the whole issue and forming only a superficial judgment.

Whatever the manifestation of functional perfectionism, it causes us to lose sight of the biblical teaching on the progressing nature of God’s work of bringing us our lives into conformity to the image of His Son. 

The idea that “men demand immediate, tangible results” is also observable in our day by a consideration of the many efforts to rid society of particular injustices. Where there are noble calls to end gun violence, abuse, political corruption, sexual deviancy, racial inequality, abortion, etc., men can unconsciously convince themselves that a complete purgation of cultural injustices is attainable in this life. In these demands, there is–no less than in the demand for our own consummate sanctification–a quest for immediate and tangible results. Ironically, those who strive after perfectionism in cultural sanctification often reject any notion of the possibility of perfectionism in personal sanctification. Many of those who reject the notion of individual perfectionism will “tolerate more readily the idea of an imperfect perfection than the admission of lagging perfecting” in the social realm.

There are pertinent lessons for us to learn from the lives of the disciples. We should never get over the fact that Jesus committed the work of the Kingdom to men who sinfully argued about which of them was greatest (Luke 9:46; 22:44), acted with selfish ambition (Mark 10:35-37), feared men (John 18:17-18), acted impulsively (Matt. 26:35), were easily angered (Luke 9:54) and fell asleep at the most pressing of occasions (Matt. 26:40-45). They were men with natures like ours (James 5:17). Even after the three years of being personally taught by Christ–and after the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost–Peter twice denied the Gospel (Acts 10:9-16; Gal. 2:11-14) and the Apostle John twice succumbed to the idolatrous worship of an angel (Rev. 19:10; 22:9).

Lloyd-Jones explained the comfort we glean from the failures of the disciples, when he wrote:

“I never cease to be grateful to the disciples. I am grateful for the record of every mistake they ever made, and for every blunder they ever committed, because I see myself in them. How grateful we should be to God that we have these Scriptures, how grateful to Him that He has not merely given us the Gospel and left it at that. How wonderful it is that we can read accounts like this and see ourselves depicted in them, and how grateful we should be to God that it is a divinely inspired Word which speaks the truth, and shows and pictures every human frailty.”2

This, of course, is not to say that we should embrace failure, revel in disobedience or wallow in complacency. The Lord has redeemed a people for Himself who will be diligent in pursuing godliness (2 Peter 1:10; 3:14), in putting sin to death (Rom. 8:13) and in walking in paths of righteousness (Titus 2:11-14). However, it is to say that in this life we will be far from what we long to be and that which Christ will ultimately and instantaneously make us in glory. In the here and now, the believer must learn to say with John Newton, “I am not what I ought to be, not what I might be, not what I wish or hope to be, and not what I once was, [but] I think I can truly say with the apostle, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.'”3

1. Warfield, B. B. (2008). The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Perfectionism, Part Two (Vol. 8, p. 561). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

2. An excerpt from Lloyd-Jones’ sermon on Luke 8:22-25.

3. Josiah Bull John Newton: An Autobiography and Narrative (London: The Religious Tract Society) p. 334


Splintered Fragments of the True Light (Aaron Denlinger)

For several weeks I’ve been intermittently reading Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach to my kids, while dabbling (as is my wont) in the news (typically the BBC), which, true to form, has generally born witness by one headline or another to the fallen estate in which we human beings find ourselves (cf. WSC 17). This strange juxtaposition of fiction and non-fiction, of myth and non-myth, in recent weeks has engendered some thoughts on the concept of fiction or myth per se, and the way that we transmit, via stories, headlines news, and other means, a concept of what’s “true” about our world to our children (while simultaneously reinforcing a concept of truth to ourselves).

At one level, of course, Roald Dahl’s story of James and his rather unique adventure constitutes pure fiction — pure human invention — in contrast to the reality comprised in historical events, whether recent or remote. And at that level, Dahl’s work and other pieces of fiction might be seen as a place of retreat from reality, a place to hide from the harsh truth of human interaction, replete with wars, rumors of wars, and other episodes of violence. At another level, Dahl’s story (or other stories) might be seen as its (or their) own unique source of truth, truth that is thicker and deeper than the reality that not only confronts us in human events but seeks to conscript us into a narrative of fundamental hostility and hopelessness.

In defense of the latter perspective, I’m reminded of the conversation J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis had in 1931, a conversation that proved pivotal in Lewis’s conversion to orthodox Christian faith. Lewis had by that time abandoned his juvenile atheism for belief in God, but struggled, as he confessed to Tolkein, to fully embrace Christianity’s account of God the Son becoming man and living, dying, rising again, and ascending to the right hand of the Father as the basis of salvation for sinners. The whole thing, Lewis explained to his friend and colleague, seemed too closely akin to the stories discovered in Greek, Roman, and Norse myths. Tolkein famously responded not by seeking to distinguish Christianity’s central (and true) claim regarding Christ’s person and work from (false) pagan myths, but by showing how pagan myths (and stories of human invention more broadly) themselves communicate genuine, deep truth. Myths, which Tolkein branded “splintered fragment[s] of the true light,” reflect in storied form human awareness that everything made has a Maker (i.e., creation) and that everything made is not currently conforming to its original design (i.e, the fall), as well as the hope at least of rescue (i.e., redemption) from the confines of fallen and therefore miserable existence and subsequent release into the freedom of a superior eschatological state (i.e., the consummation).

Christianity, according to Tolkein’s line or argument, encapsulates the truth (or truths) that pagan stories, no matter their lack of historical verity, point towards, stories that points toward ultimate truth because their authors, as divine image-bearers, cannot ultimately escape the memory of their Maker and the hope of renewed fellowship with Him, even if they lack the resources to discover their Maker’s proper identity and the path to renewed fellowship with Him apart from special revelation. Tolkein’s argument helped Lewis overcome his obstacle to faith in Christianity’s most fundamental historical claim, and, apparently, provided impetus to Lewis’s own creative efforts to communicate truth in fragmented form (the Chronicles of Narnia).

Pursuing Tolkein’s logic, one might argue that Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach comprises its own splintered fragments of the true light, and so stands to teach us and our kids something more significant than our modern purveyors of truth and reality. At very least, the parallels between Dahl’s work and the pivotal moments (creation, fall, redemption, consummation) of Christianity’s essential narrative are intriguing (albeit, I’m guessing, unintended). James Henry Trotter, Dahl’s protagonist, originally inhabits an Edenic existence in a house by the sea with his parents (creation). But the coincidence of an act of consumption by his parents (“James’s mother and father went to London to do some shopping”) and diabolical forces at work through the medium of a creature (“both of them suddenly got eaten up… by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo”) brings that original, Edenic existence to a crashing halt (“in full daylight, mind you”), and James is subsequently subjected to the sin and misery of his aunts Spiker and Sponge (the fall).

James longs for rescue — his heart aches with memories of the Edenic existence forfeited by his first (and only) parents — but he lacks within himself the resources to engineer his salvation. Simply put, he is a slave to Spiker and Sponge (cf. John 8:34), the aunts who subject him to a decidedly wretched existence. Political institutions and/or initiatives prove equally unable to achieve the salvation for which James longs. Child protective services never comes knocking, and as such, though never actually named in Dahl’s work, proves a false hope for victory (Psalm 33:17). In the end, salvation comes from the most unlikely source imaginable: a magic peach. It may seem a bit far-fetched (if not something worse) to press analogies between the magic peach (James’s instrument of rescue) and our own vehicle of salvation (God incarnate living and dying for us), but surely James’s means of rescue and our own share this in common: they are external (salvation comes extra nos) and surprising. Indeed, who but the true, eternal God could have conceived the salvation of sinners by the means that God actually employed for the same (the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Eternal Son)? A further point of affinity arguably emerges in the effectiveness of each means of rescue. James’s rescue is complete. The giant peach flattens Spiker and Sponge en route to the sea and so removes any doubt about any ongoing claims they might make upon James. Similarly, questions about sin and Satan’s ongoing claims are necessarily moot by virtue of Christ’s perfect salvation (Hebrews 7:25).

James’s rescue is both fully realized (justification) and ongoing (sanctification). His release from the dominion of Spiker and Sponge doesn’t immediately usher James into his eschatological inheritance (New York City). A trajectory towards the same is set, but the path to glory involves trials and troubles (sharks, cloud men, etc.). But there is a consummation to James’s story of original Edenic bliss, enslavement to Spiker and Sponge, and salvation via an unlikely source. James’s story culminates not in simple return to his original home by the sea, but the greater eschatological end of life in New York City (think the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21), a city which does not descend from the sky, but is descended to by James and his companions.

My efforts to discover analogies between Christianity’s fundamental narrative and Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach are admittedly a stretch. Still, I can’t help feeling like Dahl’s story — and for that matter, most other stories — constitutes a greater ally than the evening news in my efforts to shape my children’s understanding of and appreciation for the pivotal moments in a true concept of this world and our place in it: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. And perhaps Tolkein’s notion of “splintered fragment[s] of the true light” lends some legitimacy to my efforts to supplement more straightforward means of communicating the Gospel to my children (for instance, catachesis) with creative interpretations of the stories they (and I) love.

A Gun-Toting Savior? (Justin Poythress)

Would a 21st century, American Jesus be packing heat? That seems unlikely, given that his mission was to die on the cross. But what about Christians? Does the Bible have anything to say about guns? It can prove next to impossible to extract clean Biblical teaching on violence, weapons, and self-defense from the political broiler of the gun control debates. Yet that is precisely what believers must attempt to do, before engaging in questions of inference, or good and necessary consequence, which only come farther down the road. The seemingly unavoidable pitfall of the cyclical arguments in America over gun control is that any meaningful discussion over political policy in that realm presupposes clearly formed thinking on two questions:

First, what is the purpose of guns? Second, what is the purpose of the 2nd amendment–namely, how should the US government relate to its constitution? We may as well add a third question, which is whether or not the person addressing this issue will employ logical consistency in synthesizing their answers to those two questions. Sadly, turning on MSNBC or FoxNews generally means encountering failure on one, if not all three of those counts.

For the moment, let’s put aside the practically superfluous question (for the non-politically employed Christian) of how to construct a prudent gun policy, and focus our attention on the first question. Is there a way we can align our thinking on guns as a whole with a Biblical perspective? Yes, but it begins by letting this topic fall squarely into Romans 14 territory, where we exercise our Christian freedom by searching for that right balance between not judging, and not placing a stumbling block.

Christ sets the tone for that balance in Luke 22:35-38. He instructs the disciples to strap up, essentially. ‘Take your wallet, take your battlepack, take your gun. Use your means. Tap into all your resources.’ Jesus was going to the cross. His death and resurrection would win the ultimate and decisive victory for God and his army, but that wouldn’t end the war. In fact, spiritual warfare has taken on a new urgency for his disciples, then and now, who stand on the front lines.

The key interaction relevant to our discussion comes when the disciples respond: ‘Look, Lord, here are two swords,’ and Jesus says: ‘It is enough.’ On one hand, Jesus warns against naivete. Don’t believe following Christ means your city turns into Sesame street, or mosquitoes will start injecting you with wine. A tempered and sober realism begets a healthy instinct for self-protection. Heedlessly exposing oneself to danger or risk demonstrates folly, not faith. However, the question of what form self-protection takes demands immediate follow-up questions, which then elicit consideration of personal context. Yet two swords, among twelve disciples, ‘are enough’ according to Jesus. Prudence must take its proper place, but the kingdom of God is neither advanced nor defended, neither strengthened nor enhanced by shows of force. The power of the gospel is the preaching of a crucified Christ, a God who suffered violence in our place. His kingdom has nothing to do with our power our security in this world.

Aquinas Reconsidered (Part 3) (Richard A. Muller)

It is in Oliphint’s final critique of Aquinas’ views on natural reason and philosophy in their relation to theology that the source of his misreading of Aquinas becomes clear. The assumption that Aquinas, given his attachment to Aristotle, attempted to merge two antithetical principia comes from Cornelius Van Til. In addition, the assumption that Aquinas’ Aristotelianism stood in the way of a resolution of the question of essence and existence “so central to Thomas’s metaphysical system” also comes from Van Til (pp. 51-53, 88-89), even as Oliphint identifies the writings of Van Til as “the best overall assessment and critique of Thomism” (p. 139). Oliphint summarizes Van Til as arguing that “reason, apart from grace, can deal only with essences and not with existence,” and then cites Van Til as viewing Aquinas’ purported attempt to move from “the language of essences into that of existences” as rendered impossible “without suppressing reason” (p. 51). Van Til concludes the impossibility of merging pagan Aristotle and Christian theology–as if this is what Aquinas were doing–and, on the mistaken assumption that Aristotelian philosophy is a philosophy of “abstract essences,” posits the further impossibility of a “transposition from the realm of abstract essences to that of existence.”1

The rather natural question that arises is where do Van Til and Oliphint find the claim that reason, apart from grace, can only deal with essences and not with existence? It certainly is not a legitimate inference from Aquinas’ thought. It also would be, at best, rather difficult to work through Aristotle’s treatises on physics, the categories, generation, and the history of animals and conclude that, for Aristotle, reason does not deal with existence but only with essences. The basis for Van Til’s and Oliphint’s view is probably an assimilation of Aristotle to Plato, who assumed it is the idea, namely the form or essence, that is the proper object of knowledge. But Aristotle, unlike Plato, did not allow that ideas or essences can be separate from substantial existence.2 Aristotle’s view does yield the conclusion that the knowledge of things consists in their definition, the definition being the idea or essence that applies to a class of existents, which in turn leads to a the question of how one has knowledge of particulars or individuals–a rather different issue than that claimed by Van Til. There is, moreover, a considerable scholarly literature that discusses the issue and that concludes that Aristotle’s philosophy does deal with the knowledge of particulars.

The Van Tilian claim is also demonstrably wrong in the case of Aquinas. Copleston notes, rather pointedly, that it is “not true to say that the intellect, according to St. Thomas, has no knowledge of corporeal particulars.” As Copleston continues, this primary object of the intellect is not the abstracted universal “as such” but the universal as abstracted from the particular.4 Aquinas rests this view, moreover, on a distinction between sensory and intellective knowing. The primary object of the intellect is the form or universal that has been abstracted from the particular, with the particular external object being known by the intellect indirectly, by means of the abstracted universal–but also with the external object being directly and concretely known to sense.5

These considerations not only of Van Til’s misconceptions but specifically of what Aristotle and Aquinas understood concerning knowledge of essences and of things or particulars, brings us back to the impact of Exodus 3:14 on metaphysics and, accordingly, on the framing of a Christian philosophy. Aquinas’ approach, in focusing on the identity of the First Mover as “He who is,” the existent One, opens up a philosophy that can argue creation ex nihilo and a doctrine of providence, specifically on the ground that the One in whom there is no real distinction between essence and existence can know the essences of potential things and confer existence.

In order to deny this reading of Aquinas, Van Til even goes so far as to bifurcate Aquinas into a philosopher and a theologian attempting to the synthesize unsynthesizables–Aristotle’s pure essence that does not create and the biblical God, the One who is, who does create.6 But, as indicated above, even taking McInerny’s approach to the preambles as correct, the proofs in the Summa theologiae remain the philosophical arguments of a Christian. The proofs, moreover, do not attempt, as Oliphint and Van Til claim, to simply merge an Aristotelian absolute Thought with the God of creation: on the contrary, they draw on Aristotelian views of causality and motion but argue in a non-Aristotelian manner to a divine first cause who, as necessary Being, creates a contingent order out of nothing. In other words, Aquinas draws together the truths concerning causality and a First Mover known to Aristotle, highly useful in demonstrating that the existence of God can be known to reason, and truths of the biblical revelation concerning God–on the ground that rational and revealed truths, as true, cannot disagree.

Van Til’s claim of impossibility rests on his own presuppositions cast over Aristotelian thought and Aquinas’ arguments: after assuming a radical antithesis, worthy of a Harnackian, between Greek philosophy and biblical revelation, Van Til imposes his own conclusion on the direction that any Aristotelian argumentation must take and then reads his conclusion concerning Aristotelian thought into his reading of Aquinas–without acknowledging that neither Aquinas nor, in fact, the Christian tradition from the second century onward, including Reformed orthodoxy and the Westminster Confession of Faith, shared his presuppositions about the character and use of natural reason.

There are, in sum, several fundamental problems with Oliphint’s work on Aquinas that stand in the way of the book serving a useful purpose. The first of these problems is simply that Oliphint’s argumentation evidences major misreadings and misunderstandings of the thought of Thomas Aquinas on such issues as the relation of reason and revelation, the noetic effects of sin, the praeambula fidei, the analogia entis, the nature and character of the proofs of the existence of God, and the relation of the doctrine of divine simplicity to the doctrine of the Trinity. The second, related problem is that his argumentation rests largely on the thought of Cornelius Van Til, who by no stretch of the imagination can be viewed as a competent analyst of the thought of Aquinas. The end-result of their readings is a mangled interpretation of Aquinas that impedes genuine access to his thought and actually stands in the way of legitimate interpretation. Third, inasmuch as the Westminster Confession of Faith and Reformed Orthodoxy in general are largely in agreement with Aquinas on issues of epistemology, natural theology, doctrine of God, and, indeed, apologetics, Oliphint’s and Van Til’s views at best stand at the margin of what can be called Reformed and, at worst, create a kind of sectarian theology and philosophy that is out of accord with the older Reformed tradition and its confessions.

Richard A. Muller

Senior Fellow, Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research

P. J. Zondervan Professor of Historical Theology, Emeritus

Calvin Theological Seminary

*This is the third and final installement of Dr. Muller’s review of Dr. Oliphant’s book on Aquinas. You can find the previous posts in this series here

Several readers have asked if Dr. Oliphint will be giving a response to this review of his work. Prior to posting these three articles, I emailed Dr. Oliphint to let him know that we were publishing a review of his book that was critical in important respects. In that same email I told him that we would welcome and consider any response he produced. Up to this point, he has chosen not to respond. — Jonathan Master

Assessing Religious Militancy (Nicholas Meriwether)

We are all distressingly familiar with debates over the nature of Islam. Is it a “religion of peace,” or is it a religion of war and conquest? Is it essentially repressive and militant, or are there traditions and movements within Islam that can effectively counter these tendencies? And even if it was once a bad actor, can Islam not undergo a transformation to bring it in line with modern views of freedom, tolerance, and mutual respect?

These debates raise another, more fundamental question: When can a religious system be blamed for the behavior of its adherents? Can we determine whether Islamic teaching itself is the cause of militant behavior and oppressive behavior committed by its adherents, or are their actions a distortion of its teachings? How do we speak conclusively about what Islam or any religion teaches or practices when there are controversies, schools of thought, and disagreements over the meaning and practices of that religion going back centuries?

To bring conceptual clarity to this debate, I propose the following: To determine what a religion teaches, and thus what we can expect at least a significant percentage of its adherents will do, the first step is to determine its source or sources of doctrinal and practical authority. Secondly, one determines whether a given doctrine or practice is a plausible, or legitimate interpretation based upon that authority. From the standpoint of public policy toward a given religion, especially regarding public safety and immigration (which is why we debate the meaning of Islam in the first place), the ability to predict whether adherents will likely act on a given doctrine should be the policy question regarding the “nature” or “essence” of a religion, not whether “all,” or even a majority hold to or practice it.

The significance of this distinction cannot be overemphasized. As Christians are well aware, it can be difficult to find specific doctrines or practices that all adherents of a world religion subscribe to unequivocally and without exception, and Islam is no different. However, to identify beliefs and practice on the basis of the received authority of that religion, and doctrines or practices held by a significant percentage of those identifying with a religion over time on the basis of that authority, is not especially problematic. The study of religions would be impossible without the ability to distinguish a range of beliefs and practices that are legitimately inferred from its source(s) of authority from those which may develop over time, but lack such authority.

What then are the sources of authority in Islam? Like Christianity, it has an authoritative revelation, the Qur’an, which was revealed by Allah to his prophet, Muhammad, and is itself eternal and unchanging. Its directives and teachings are thus binding on all Muslims. Again like Christianity, it has an authoritative founder, Muhammad. Among the vast majority of practicing Muslims, there is little or no question as to whether, if Muhammad commanded or engaged in a certain activity, a Muslim should follow it, since not just his revelations, but also his life, is divinely inspired (Q 33:21). So if it is certain that Muhammad engaged in an activity, it is morally permissible for a Muslim to engage in it. (One exception: Muhammad was allowed to have over 4 wives.)

Thus, for a given doctrine or practice associated with Islam, to determine whether it is legitimate or plausible to be believed or followed, one may apply a fairly straightforward test:

The Founding criterion: The doctrine or practice is taught in the Qur’an, or taught or practiced by Muhammad in the hadith, the “narratives” of Muhammad’s sayings and actions. Of the two, this one is clearly the more significant.

The Tradition criterion: The doctrine or practice has been taught or observed throughout the history of the religion, especially by its earliest adherents.

If we have the Founding criterion, why do we need the second, the Tradition criterion? It is certainly true that for many Muslims, the first will likely settle the issue. But the second is a potent clarification and reinforcement of the original revelation and actions of Muhammad. The knowledge that a specific practice has been followed since the time of Muhammad carries enormous persuasive force for any Muslim.

This approach to the question of what Islam teaches helps resolve a common mystery, and removes a common misunderstanding. The mystery is how a person who has been a “moderate” or nominal Muslim could become radicalized. Typically, we look for external factors, such as chronic unemployment, social alienation, or criminality. But in many cases, these factors appear to play a negligible role. Some of the major terrorist acts committed since 9/11 have involved Muslims who at one point were well-assimilated, attended high school and college, and were gainfully employed, such as Rizwan Farook (Orlando shooting), Nidal Hassan (Ft. Hood shooting), or the Tsarnaev brothers (Boston Marathon bombing), as well as many of the 4,500 Muslims residing in Western countries who joined ISIS.1 Moreover, if non-religious, sociological factors were enough to drive a person to terrorism and militancy, why are there not more Buddhist or Mormon terrorists? Why are there no non-state Christian or Hindu armies conquering cities and beheading those who resist? However, if militancy is a legitimate or plausible interpretation of the Prophet’s teaching and practices, there is a perfectly good explanation as to why they behaved as they did: It is a legitimate interpretation of the founding and tradition of Islam.

A common misunderstanding, and indeed a highly dangerous one, is that we merely need to encourage Muslims to adopt a modern understanding of their religion, and the militancy will dissipate over time, just as it supposedly has with Christians, who once displayed the same barbaric tendencies.2 (This explanation was given to me by the academic dean of a major Texan university, viz., Christianity isn’t militant only because no one really believes it anymore.) But what is a “modern understanding”? Essentially, it is a recognition of an authority higher than the Founding – the scientific method, “reason,” “experience,” so-called Enlightenment values, or the deliverances of modern critical methods which would demonstrate that the Qur’an, like the Bible, is merely a human construct. But this is precisely the problem. A person’s religion is his ultimate source of knowledge, wisdom, and authority. The modern (really, postmodern) West is essentially asking Muslims to give up their religion in favor of its own. And a modern understanding conflicts not only with the Founding, but with the far deeper and longer, and thus more authoritative Tradition criterion.

Let us now turn to the question of Islamic “militancy,” which I will use as shorthand for military conquest in the name of Islam and the subjugation of non-believers.

The Founding criterion asks whether a given doctrine or practice is taught and practiced by the founder in the authoritative texts. The most frequently cited verse in the Qur’an supporting jihad, or holy war, is 9:29 “Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and his apostle nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth (even if they are) of the people of the Book, until they pay the Jizya [poll tax] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” But this is certainly not the only verse. There is also 9:5, “… fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war) …”; and 47:4, “Therefore, when ye meet the unbelievers, smite at their necks, at length when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them).” Conquest in the name of Islam is also supported throughout the hadith. For example, “Allah’s Apostle said, ‘I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: ‘None has the right to be worshipped but Allah’. And if they say so, pray like our prayers, face our Qibla [prayer facing toward Mecca] and slaughter as we slaughter, then their blood and property will be sacred to us and we will not interfere with them except legally” (Sahih Bukhari 1:387). Notice the next citation combines both the Founding and the Tradition criteria: “When the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) appointed anyone as leader of an army or detachment he would especially exhort him… He would say: ‘Fight in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah. Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war…'” (Sahih Muslim 4294).

The hadith confirm that Muhammad led armies, arguably in defense of his rule in Medina, and eventually conquered Mecca, his hometown. On his deathbed, Muhammad ordered the expulsion of Jews and Christians from Arabia, “Two faiths will not live together in the land of the Arabs.” He commanded all Muslims “to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah’.” He ordered the execution of captured opponents whom he considered traitors, most notably 600 Jews in Medina, and distributed women and children as slaves to his soldiers. We also know from Islamic history that the Rashidun, the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, as well as subsequent dynasties conquered vast territories in the name of Islam. Successive victories eventually included the conquest of the Levant, North Africa, the Byzantine Empire, and Spain. But for decisive losses at Tours (732) and Vienna (1683), Europe itself might have been conquered by the armies of the Prophet. Thus, by both the Founding and the Tradition criteria, militancy has been practiced from the beginning, and is perfectly legitimate for any Muslim to engage in. To do otherwise would be to reject the Prophet’s example, as well as to repudiate the first centuries of Islam’s history, beginning with the earliest adherents who knew him personally.

Should someone ask whether Christian doctrine and practice are compatible with militancy on the Founding criterion, and even on the Tradition criterion, things look markedly different. There are indeed historic instances of forced conversions (Charlemagne’s war against the Saxons), and religiously-motivated genocide (the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the first Crusade, as well as various incidents of so-called Christian mobs and armies committing genocide against Jewish communities). But there is nothing resembling this in the life or teachings of Jesus, nor in the lives or teachings of the Apostles as contained in the New Testament (the Founding criterion). None of them led armies. None advocated forced conversions. The use of coercive state power to enforce Christian doctrine would have to wait several hundred years to the time of Constantine.

Thus, even if it is debatable whether Islam itself is militant, depending, of course, on how it is defined, it is certainly not illegitimate or implausible to consider it such, and to raise serious questions as to whether it can ever be reformed.


1. For a much fuller treatment of this question, see Ibn Warraq, “The Root Cause Fallacy,” in The Islam in Islamism: The Importance of Beliefs, Ideas, and Ideology, Kindle ed., (London: New English Review Press, 2017), loc. 532f.

2. Those defending the possibility of a moderate Islam would do well to study recent German analysis of this question. Ahmad Mansour, an “Arab Israeli” residing in Germany, explains in detail not only what it will require to prevent growing radicalization among Muslim youth, but also how it will require massive state intervention. See “Prävention und Deradikalisierung,” in Generation Allah: Warum wir im Kampf gegen religiösen Extremismus umdenken müssen, Kindle ed., (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 2015), loc. 2309-3130. Hamed Abdel-Samad, a former Muslim and son of an Egyptian Imam, believes that Islam “as a system” simply cannot be separated from its militant heritage (see Ist der Islam noch zu retten? (Munich: Droemer, 2017), p. 298. He now requires a bodyguard while traveling in Muslim neighborhoods in Berlin, a depressing irony.

Nicholas K. Meriwether is Professor of Philosophy at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.

The Powerlessness of Prayer-Shaming (Justin Poythress)

“What if you and your family were starving, and someone with an abundance of food responded by letting you know that they were ‘offering thoughts and prayers’?” You’re immediate inner thought would be, “Stop praying. Do something!” A preponderance of these and similar reactions fire around social media in the wake of national tragedies, and have dug trenches of familiar battle lines over the past decade. One ‘side’ reaches out with general condolences, which the other ‘side’ interprets as dismissive, patronizing, or at best, lazy. Thus the battle is taken to the field whose terrain is most conducive for facilitating thoughtful dialogue and spawning effective solutions–that of social media, of course. Prayer-shaming ensues, adeptly rebuffed by shaming the prayer-shamer.

For the moment, let us put aside the issue of the rhetorical triteness of the phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’, and examine three underlying assumptions of a prayer-shaming statement:

Assumption 1: Prayer and action are mutually exclusive.

If we block out the noise of some assumed political track which responsive action must surely take–which is often suggested in contrast to prayers–we can nevertheless join in rejecting passivity. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you.” (Phil 2:12) We work because God works in us. James 2 assaults the man of empty faith, who sends well-wishes, while neglecting the resources at his disposal to do real help.

Assumption 2: Prayer is not the same as thoughts.

Prayer is petitioning an Almighty God, through the blood and mediation of Christ, to act in ways beyond human capacity. This, however, offers perhaps the best angle through which a believer can empathize with prayer-shaming outrage. What if you really believed thoughts and prayers were the same, while believing human solution was in reach? What if someone responded to your fundraising request by sending their thoughts?

Assumption 3 – Prayer does nothing. Here’s where it gets more complicated. Can you, as a believer, honestly say that you’ve never entertained that doubt? Just like the sneer that Christianity is a crutch opens the door to proclaim that it’s not a crutch, but a wheelchair, so the attack on the impotence of prayer opens the door to own, even celebrate our weakness and dependency. For the Christian, part of the haven of prayer comes in that sweet release of finitude. We have desires which exceed our capacity. Would you have it any other way?

But the power of prayer is not merely the cathartic satisfaction of coming to the end of one’s rope, and then confessing that. The power of prayer comes by the power of the being prayed to. “For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought, who makes the morning darkness and treads on the heights of the earth–the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!” (Amos 4:13) Prayer does. Prayer achieves. Yet how natural it is to discount prayer, if you have already discounted God. Such a response flows instinctively from an antropocentric worldview. Prayer, properly relied upon, will smack as an offensive, radical, arrogant, and naive act of faith, if you are so bold as to say that your private speaking to an invisible being can impact the thoughts and hearts of people thousands of miles away.

When Everything is a Gender Question (Nick Batzig)

Recently, I was having a discussion with a friend (who happens to be in pastoral ministry) about the gender debates that are raging in our culture and in our churches. In the course of our conversation, my friend said, “I think that part of the difficulty with this discussion is that far too many reduce everything down to a matter of gender, whereas –more often than not–Scripture speaks in terms of social rather than biological constructs.” Not fully grasping what my friend was getting at, I asked him for further explanation. He said, “Scripture speaks of fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends, politicians, pastors, teachers, elders and deacons, rather than simply answering the questions, “What can a man do?” and “What can a woman do?'” Since that discussion, I’ve been ruminating over my friend’s observations. I believe that he’s onto something important. 

So many of the conversations about leadership in the church seems to be framed around the following questions: “What can a man do?” and “What can a woman do?” Instead, we should be asking, “What social constructs has God established in the home, the world and the church,” “To what authoritative standards should we look to understand who is to fill the social roles that God has established,” and “How are those who are called and qualified by God to carry out these roles once they are given the office?” When we fail to ask the later questions–and we substitute them with the former questions–we do a great disservice to ourselves and to the church. In many respects, both conservative Christians and progressive Christians have erred in replacing the later questions with the former, thereby making almost all leadership questions about gender, rather than about understanding the nature of God-ordained social constructs. Let me explain. 

In socially conservative churches, male only ordination is prized, defended and promoted. The problem? Many of the men who are placed in the office of either elder or deacon are not biblically qualified. How did they manage to get into these offices? It may have had to do with their bank accounts, or their successful business practices, or their heritage as a member of a particularly important family in the church. Whatever the reasons that lay behind biblically unqualified men holding these offices, of this much we can be sure–the church and its leadership put them forward largely because they were men. Gender is the leading qualification for quite a considerable number of conservative churches. To be sure, such men must appear to have their lives together. They obviously couldn’t be notorious womanizers, drug addicts or scandalous; but, they also don’t have to meet the qualifications set out in Scripture (which is often apparent based on their lack of teaching gifts or spiritual mindedness). The Bible does not teach that just any “good ol’ boy” may hold the office of elder or deacon because he happens to be a man. It teaches that only those men whom God has called, gifted and set apart for the work may hold office–which means that there will be plenty of men who are not qualified or gifted to hold office and should not, therefore, hold office. 

Clearly, gender differentiation occurs in the process of identifying and electing church officials according to God’s revelation. However, when progressive churches give women the functional role of elders (i.e. shepherds), they too are leading with the assumption that leadership in the church is primarily a gender issue rather than a God-ordained and God-defined social construct. When challenged as to why they allow women to teach men in various parts of the worship service, pastors now commonly respond by saying, “A woman can do anything that a non-ordained man can do.” Therein lies our problem. When conservative churches start to give “non-ordained” men the functional leadership roles that God has reserved for ordained officers of the church, we have made leadership a gender issue rather than a God-defined social construct. When progressive churches put non-ordained women into functional leadership roles that God has reserved for ordained officers, they defend their action on the idea that all of this is simply a gender issue. 

Perhaps what the church needs more than anything today is a reassessment of the doctrine of church offices–a revisiting of the great works of ecclesiology that the church has in its historico-theological repository. We need a reconsideration of what arguments we are employing–in order to know whether or not we are asking the right questions. As we go to Scripture (e.g., 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Tim. 2:12) and to the great ecclesiastical works of church history in order to understand why the stalwarts of the faith believed that God had uniquely entrusted the Keys of the Kingdom to ordained elders–and that they, and only they, are called by God to exercise a faithful and diligent use of them–we might free ourselves of the reductionistic notion that gender equality means equal outcomes in the Church’s God-ordained social constitution.