Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Going! Going! Gone!


As the current, but not for long Chair of the Division of Theological and Historical Studies at Tyndale Theological Seminary near Amsterdam, the Netherlands I would like to share a few thoughts.
You all know that I like science fiction both to read and to watch. The movie Ghost in the Shell came out a couple years ago. Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese anime (cartoon) series of graphic novels and anime movies, however in this iteration it was done with live actors and CGI.
The main protagonist is Major Mira Killian, the Ghost in the Shell, who is played by Scarlett Johansson. Mira was murdered and then her brain was put into a cyborg body. The main theme is how she tries to understand who and what she is.
At one point in the movie she is discussing this with the scientist Dr. Oulet, who “created” her. Outlet is played by actress Juliette Binoche. To keep Mira on focus with her task of fighting terrorists, the scientist has regularly “wiped her memories” and given her false memories to motivate her. Mira has some flashbacks, but cannot figure out what they mean.
Dr. Outlet says to Mira:
“We cling to memories as if they are what defines us, but what we do defines us.”
I was struck by this statement. There are layers of irony in the film, but on face value this statement is pregnant with wisdom.
We cling to our memories, our successes, our accomplishments as if they define us, and they do to a point, but we always face the danger of falling into defending who we are by our past accomplishments. In a publish or perish academic institution one must, well, publish or perish.
In the sort of institution Tyndale is, as Cecil Stalnaker, our long time Missions professor, used to call it, a mission school, the roles of the faculty and staff constantly change. This can be due to shortages of personnel either administrative or academic, as it was in the past. In the past everyone carried several administrative jobs as well as academic jobs. We all pitched in and did what we needed to do to keep the school going.
As the faculty and staff have expanded there is no longer the need for us to do several administrative jobs or to carry a heavy load of courses. We can divide and conquer now.
For me this time has been in many way enjoyable. I have been able to focus on a few courses I excel in and feel passionate about and to develop some electives which I like.
Another thing I have tried to do is to mentor my successors. I count Szaszi Bene to some degree, Rahman Yakubu, and Solomon Dimitriadis,as some I have tried to encourage and even Bob Landon as a former student. I hope that all of us who are going, going, gone sooner rather than later are focusing on helping younger colleagues get their feet and find their place.
However, every era comes to an end. Throughout the past twenty years I have survived several changes of presidents, vice presidents, academic deans and even colleagues who unfortunately came and went for a variety of reasons. Each time we reinvented ourselves. 
Accreditation was a great accomplishment, but like many things it is not a “once and for all” accomplishment. It is moving target as we are assessed and given requirements for change.
“We cling to memories as if they are what defines us, but what we do defines us.”
The past is the past. It may be a foundation, but it is gone. What we do now is what defines us.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020


When Brett Kavanaugh was added to the US Supreme Court, “Conservatives” got control of the Court. When Amy Coney Barrett was added the Court went 6-3. Some hope that the US Supreme Court will rule in their favor. We shall see.
was also another significant margin of votes for me. I have been obsessing lately about news related to the US Presidential election. I was very, very afraid that there would be violence particularly on the Saturday after the election after news media had called the election. That feeling wasn’t lessened much when I saw Rick Santorum say that he thought what the President was tweeting was dangerous. Santorum in no liberal. He is a Republican of sure pedigree.
Why I asked myself was I so worried about violence starting in the US following this election? Was it just news media winding me up?
As I was preparing my class today, the Ethics of War, Peace and Peacemaking to speak about my experiences in Yugoslavia, I realized why I was so upset and worried about the possibility of violence in the US following the election: I’ve been there and done that.
As a naïve and ardent young missionary, I took my family to Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1986. Through the 1970s and into the 1980s Yugoslavia had been the picture poster child of Communism. The Adriatic coast brought movie stars to vacation there. The Winter Olympics had taken place in Sarajevo in 1984. Belgrade is a lovely town on the Danube River. Who could imagine the violence and destruction that would soon descend on Yugoslavia? But a young Serbian Communist politician called Slobodan Milosevic wanted to replace Josip Broz Tito who had been the leader of Yugoslavia after World War II.
There were changes which Milosevic wanted to make that would make him the “king” in Yugoslavia. The numbers were 5-4.
Tito had devised a very, as some say, “torturous” system of government in Yugoslavia. Each of the six republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Hercegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia had a seat in the Presidium, the highest ruling body. The leadership of the Presidium rotated through the republic leaders to try to keep a balance.
There was a large number of Serbs in Yugoslavia. They were about a third of the population and the largest group. The Serbian king had ruled Yugoslavia before the World War II Allies had replaced him with Tito. The Serbs wanted power.
Tito kept the Serbs from power by a unique system: 5-4. Each republic has a vote on the Presidium. So, there were six votes. However, to control the Serbs Tito divided Serbia into three parts: Vojvodina (in the north), Serbia proper and Kosovo (in the south). Vojvodina and Kosovo were given autonomous status within Serbia. Vojvodina is a very ethnically mixed area with Serbs, Slovaks, Czechs, Romanians and Hungarians. Kosovo, though the home and birthplace of the Serbian people, was 90% Albanian. Each autonomous region had their own courts, government and executive branch. Each of the autonomous regions had a vote on the Presidium. So, the result was 6-3: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Hercegovina, Macedonia, Vojvodina & Kosovo vs Serbia, Montenegro, and the Army which had a vote.
However, Slobodan Milosevic and his forces changed the Serbian Republic’s Constitution taking autonomous status away from Kosovo and Vojvodina. Thus, Serbia had now 5-4: Serbia (with Vojvodina & Kosovo), Montenegro & the Army vs Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Hercegovina and Macedonia.
When Serbia manage to pass this change and gain a 5-4 advantage in the Presidium, in effect control of the country, first Slovenia and then Croatia seceded from the Union of Socialist Federated Republics of Yugoslavia. The real war started with the secession of Bosnia & Hercegovina. Bosnia & Hercegovina was about 1/3 Serb. The Serbs in Serbia proper were not about to allow the Bosnian government to control those people. The war, which the West calls the “Bosnian War,” started in earnest. To the Serbs it was always a “Civil” War since the three republics seceded (though the Serbs changing the Constitution precipitated the war).
So, 5-4 and more 6-3 frightens me. People feel justified. This is the way the system works. The President was able put three Justices on the Supreme Court. Now he should be able to expect support for his court cases.
Will “We the People” end because of 5-4 or 6-3? There may not be violence in the US on the scale of former Yugoslavia and everyone in the US thinks they are far above that sort of war. But are we? Many see their candidate as God’s choice. Many see the other side as godless or religious maniacs. Yet, the country is almost literally divided in half in terms of the popular vote. We are a nation divided. E pluribus plures. “From the many, many.”
I hope that the US does not descend to the madness of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. However, I have seen how populism, nationalism and religious fanaticism can end. Compromise is the essence of democracy. If we cannot get past our demonizing of the other side and start to work together, we are doomed. Sooner or later our country will descend into violence or dictatorship. We must work together. We must live together. We must care for each other.


Three keys of a speech


When I was taking a preaching course or perhaps it was a pastoral duties course in seminary, my professor said that there were three elements of rhetoric or speech: pathos, ethos and logos.
Pathos means, in effect, emotion or passion. If a speaker does not touch the emotions of his or her audience, then he or she will likely not be persuasive. Some preachers and speakers can “play the audience like an organ,” my professor said. They know how to play on emotions. Other speakers, who have something to say, may fail to convince because they do not move peoples’ passions.
Ethos means that a speaker is a moral person or has moral authority to speak. If a person has the right message, but is perceived as having no character, then he or she probably won’t be convincing. On the other hand, if the speaker has a long track record of speaking truthfully, keeping his or her word, and is known to be a morally good and consistent person, then his or her message is more likely to be received and be persuasive.
Logos means a message. For a speaker to communicate something, the speaker has to have something to say, a message, a word. Often it seems some speakers are great with pathos, they know how to persuade an audience, even if their message might be lacking. At other times those with ethos, moral authority, may be mistaken and advance a message that is false or faulty. In effect they may abuse their moral high ground to advance a questionable message.
Evangelical preachers tend to focus on logos, the word, or message. Is our exegesis, our biblical interpretation right? Some preachers, however, have been consummate “organ players” and even though they had fantastic “falls from grace” (committed obvious and egregious sins), however, they continued to be allowed to preach by their audiences. Some preachers, as I just mentioned, have lost their moral authority due to sinful behavior. However, people follow them because at least for a while the message seems sound.
We Evangelicals need to focus on ethos. We have always been strong on logos. I am proud that I have learned biblical Greek and Hebrew and that I went to one of the best Evangelical seminaries in America. However, I am appalled when I see well-known preachers deliberately sin over a long period of time and be “forgiven,” as if their sins made no difference to being qualified to preach the Bible.
I’m also afraid that Evangelicals have become showmen or show women. It’s easy, if you are a persuasive speaker, to move peoples’ passions. It is harder to persuade them to live godly lives. The scriptures warn that in the end times (the last days) people will gather to themselves preachers who will “tickle their itching ears.” 2 Timothy 4:3 
“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”
This means that rather than ask preachers to speak God’s truth to them in an uncompromising way, people will seek preachers that make them feel good and give them esoteric knowledge, rather than provoke them to lively godly lives.
I could tell many stories and it is not my purpose to bash anyone in particular, however, I know of one extremely well-known preacher who committed adultery and left his wife. He tried to force his son to side with him and not his mother. The son declined.
I don’t know all of the circumstances of this case, but it was pretty clear. I know that at times marriages are in bad shape and some don’t survive, but when you have been preaching faithful marital monogamy for decades and then take a “trophy wife,” there’s a fundamental problem with your ethos.
I used to think that logos was the essential element to good preaching. Who can argue with a sound exposition of the World of God? (At least among Evangelicals). But it is too easy to say the right words, to sign the doctrinal statement and harder to maintain ones’ spiritual life and integrity.
We need logos to have a sound message. We need pathos to be able to persuade people to follow the Truth. But without ethos we have nothing to say that anyone will hear.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Jesus - Savior or Example? Part II

Collect of the Day: Proper 15

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.  Book of Common Prayer 

I began with a prayer above that spoke of Jesus as both the sacrifice and the example or exemplar.  These are two Christologies, understandings of the person and work of the Messiah, Jesus.

Because some more rationalistic (antimiraculous) theologians didn’t like the bloody Old Testament sacrifice of atonement and didn’t like the idea of someone else dying for them or anyone else (This seemed “unfair” to them.) and because they did not believe in the deity of Christ (They were Deists, rather than Theists.), they proposed a view of Christ in which he was a wise teacher and a good person, who left us an example of how to act.  This is called an Exemplarist Soteriology.  Soteriology is the teaching or doctrine about how we are saved.

These theologians believed that Jesus was not a sacrifice, but only a moral example, a teacher.  They did not believe Jesus was the son of God or a miracle worker.  For them Jesus’ teaching and life laid down the perfect example of a good person, a person who pleased God.

There is no doubt that Jesus meant us to follow his example.  There is also no dout that Jesus gave his teaching so that we could be conformed to his image, to his moral will.

However, Exemplarist Soteriology begs a few questions. First if Jesus is an example, why would he be “THE” example? In other words, why Jesus and not Buddha? “It’s my tradition,” is no answer.  If Jesus is not the Son of God who died for me and paid the price for my sin, why follow his teaching? Examplarist Soteriology doesn’t answer the question about how to deal with our “sin problem.”  

Generally speaking these theologians didn’t accept that everyone was born in sin and so needed redemption (the doctrine of original sin).  They were more in line with the thinking of Pelagius, an early theologian, who believed that we did not need a sacrifice for sin, but only need to work harder and longer to overcome our sins.

Exemplarist Soteriology also doesn’t answer HOW we can follow Jesus’ example.  If he is the greatest, most perfect teacher, how are we to find the strength and will to follow him?

Biblical soteriology gives us the answer: the answer is the Holy Spirit.  Following salvation (being saved from sin) is sanctification (being conform to Christ’s likeness).  Once we are saved the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us and guides us into growing in holiness.  Not only does the Holy Spirit indwell us and guide us, he gives us POWER to live the Christian life, to follow Christ’s example.

Jesus’ example may be a beautiful thing.  Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment philosopher, loved Jesus the Teacher.  He called him Master.  Kant’s Categorical Imperative, a law which he believed we could reach by practical reason alone, was a paraphrase of the “Golden Rule.”  

Kant said, “Act in such a way that your action could become universal law.” He claims that we can know this by thinking alone without revelation.  His law means in paraphrase, “If you don’t want someone to steal from you, don’t steal.  Stealing can’t be allowed.”  In simpler, positive terms he could have said, “Do unto others what you want them to do unto you.”

In his book, Religion within the bounds of reason alone, Kant talks much of the Teacher, but not of the Savior.  Kant is a Deist who does not see Jesus as the Savior or the Son of God.

We cannot accept an Exemplarist Soteriology.  Jesus is not just an example, he is the Savior of the whole world.

We should follow his example. The New Testament is full of commands to follow Christ’s example. The goal of sanctification, growth in holiness is to make us like Jesus, to conform us to his image.

The sacrifice of Jesus is the accomplishment of our salvation, our atonement with God the Father. The presence of the Holy Spirit is the motive power of sanctification. Salvation is a moment, a decision to accept Christ.  Sanctification is a lifetime of effort to live like and for him.

I like that prayer above because the “two wings of the dove,” so to speak, are balanced.  There is no real growth in Christ or outcome of salvation without conforming to his example and teaching.  There is also no growth without the presenec of the Holy Spirit within our lives.  But there is no hope of following that example without first being redeemed and reconcilied with God without the death and sacrifice of Christ.

So, let us rejoice in his redeeming sacrifice for us and let us strive to be more like him.

Jesus - Savior or Example?

 Collect of the Day: Proper 15

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.  Book of Common Prayer

Evangelical Christians tend to focus on Jesus as the one who paid the price for our sins, Jesus the atoning sacrifice.  This is good and appropriate.  “There is salvation in no other name,” says the Apostle Peter in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost.

Church tradition contains various attempts to explain what it means for Jesus to be our atoning sacrifice.  Of course this idea of the atoning sacrifice comes from the Old Testament: the sacrifice lamb is slaughtered for the sins of the people and the blood of the sacrifice is sprinkled on the altar.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews lays out all of this logic from the Old Testament sacrifices.  He tells us that Jesus is the sacrifice, priest and prophet, as well as the coming King!

When Jesus first went to see John the Baptist in the desert John said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  John’s phrase could not be clearer.

Much later Anselm of Canterbury wrote a book called Why the God-man? In is book Anselm lays out the logic of redemption.  He does not offer this explanationn as an a priori argument, a “before the fact” argument from intuitive logic alone. Rather he says that having learned from Scripture that Jesus is the Son of God, born of a virgin and born to be the sacrifice of sins, he lays out the logic of redemption, as philosophers would say “a posteriori,” after having learned about the redemption by revelation, he is able to follow it with his human logic.  It is not an event or reasoning he could have come to without revelation, but having received it, he can “rationalize” it, give a reasonable explanation.  There is no tension between revelation and reason.  Revelation makes known and logic confirms.

Anselm’s argument is for penal substitutionary atonement.  These days many people find fault with his argument: too bloody, violence against an innocent animal, etc.  However, his logic is an explanation of biblical revelation.  He is not inventing something to suit the tastes of his generation or ours.  He is laying out the logic of scripture and revelation.

The atonement is an idea taken from the Old Testament.  We must be recconciled to God. We are estranged from our maker.

The way to overcome this separation from our maker is through a sacrifice.  We are guilty of sin, deliberate wrong doing, breaking God’s law, hurting our Father.  We must pay a price to be reconciled to him.  This is the “penal” part of penal substitutionary atonment.  We are guilty before God’s law and a penalty must be paid.

We understand that atonement must be achieved and we now understand why a penalty, a “life for a life” must be paid, but why substitutionary?

God in his mercy had allowed the people of Israel to substitute a perfect lamb for themselves as a substitute for payment for their sins.  Though the people should have died, God allowed the high priest to offer a sacrifice of a perfect lamb once a year on the Day of Atonement to cover the sins of the people.

Jesus is the sacrifice lamb.  He is a perfect sacrifice and his death accomplishes our reconciliation with God.  

Jesus death also redeems us.  We had willingly sold ourselves into slavery to sin and the devil.  Jesus pays the price to buy us back, buy us out of that slavery.

Anselm in trying to explain this “mystery” (mystery in the Bible doesn’t mean something beyond comprehension, it means something not yet revealed) draws on the Old Testament sacrificial system and the explanations of Jesus, John the Apostle, Paul and the writer of Hebrews.  Anselm explains these scriptural ideas, this revelation, with reason, so that people can understand Jesus’ sacrifice and their own salvation.

Jesus had to be born of a virgin to be sinless.  The sacrifice lamb had to be without blemish, perfect.  A sinful person could not pay the price for other sinful people.  Even the high priest could not cleanse himself from his own sin.  Only a person who was sinless could be the sacrifice for sin.

Anselm also drew from the writer of Hebrews when he argues that Jesus or the sacrifice for sins had to be a man, a human.  No animal could really pay the penalty for the sins of humans.  Only a perfect man could make this sacrifice.

So, Jesus had to be born of a virgin as a man to be a sinless man and he had to be born a man to make atonment for men.  However, no man could pay the infinite price needed to redeem and reconcile humankind to God.  For this reason Jesus needed to be the Son of God born of a virgin to pay the penalty for humankind.

As well this sacrifice could only happen once.  The Old Testament sacrifices went on year after year.  None of them could atone for the sins of the nation.  However, Jesus “offered the once for all sacrifice for sin” (Hebrews 10:12) his work was finished.

For the past twenty years Linda, my wife, and I have attended St. James Church, Voorschoten, NL (Church England, Diocese of Europe).  I won’t explain how we ended up at St. James.  It’s a long story.

However, I want to say one thing, which is logical, scriptural and emotional.  When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion) at one point in the liturgy the minister says,

All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again.

When the minister says: “one oblation (sacrifice) of himself once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world,” my heart sings.

I’m a very emotional person despite being a philosopher.  I am not a thinking machine.  However, Anslem lays out logically, what I choose to believe volitionally with my will.  Logic can explain, but without a choice of the will there is no salvation.  “The angels know and dread.”  You can know the truth and still reject it.

I don’t see any problem laying out the logic of a “mystery,” since biblically a mystery is not something which can never be understood.  Biblically a mystery is a secret which is finally revealed.

The Bible says that the prophets of old longed to see the day of the Messiah.  The plan of redemption and atonement was not known to them.  Not unclear to them, but hidden from them.  After Jesus died and rose again they understood.

We should not pit rational explanation against “mystery” or faith. (I don’t mean godless, arid, modern Reason. I mean full orbed ancient and medieval reason.) Faith is not “believing what you know ain’t so.” Faith is placing your trust in Jesus the Savior having understood first what it means that Jesus is the Savior and that you need one.  

Continuing in faith isn’t a mystery either.  The Bible was given to us to understand that mystery and it’s implication: that Jesus died for our sins and that we must live our lives from here on out to please him.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Who's afraid of James KA Smith?

                St Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh, PA

To be fair to James KA Smith and Who’s afraid of Postmodernism?


(if he cares what one fellow philosopher/ thinker at a small seminary thinks)


I wrote many notes on the first chapter about Derrida.  I disagreed fundamentally.  I guess I belong with the “BIOLA school.” I am an evidentialist.  I believe some certainty; a reasonable certainty is possible.


I think he was too generous to Derrida and too critical of his opponents.  We should be afraid of “interpretation all the way down.” “Interpretation of interpretation” means we don’t have any way to know whose interpretation is right.  He doesn’t care, but I don’t see how we can prefer Christianity, except as our emotional, subjective choice, if we have no true historical accounts of Jesus and the Apostles.  He thinks having “faith” or being illumined by the Holy Spirit is enough, but what makes him different than Quakers or Montanists?


Concerning the second chapter on Lyotard, again I think he was too generous.  Lyotard means “grand narratives,” just like Christianity.  To my mind there is no Christianity without a commitment to theism.  Theism is a grand narrative.  There is no knowledge of “truth” without a commitment to “objective” (not apodictic) certainty.


I think Smith is a sort of fideist.  He claims to be presuppositional, but I think van Til would reject this claim.  What is true for him is true for him; that’t all.  There is no sort of apologetic, even Schaeffers’, despite his protestations to the contrary. We can only offer our version, our story.


Concerning the third chapter about Foucault I made fewer notes. He is right that we need discipline and that discipline forms us.  We need Christian discipline.  Evangelical churches need to recover proper discipline.  However, if Derrida is “right”, there is no “proper” discipline.


The final chapter is taking Postmodernism to church.  Smith grew up in a Plymouth Brethren church.  I have some experience of the Plymouth Brethren church.  They are disciplinarians.  They are not sacramental in, say, an Episcopal or Anglican sense.  They are opposed to images (stained glass or otherwise).  They do sing, but they have long and sometimes several sermons.  Sunday was kids sitting with mom on the left side of the church.  They are austere


OK, things need to improve.  However, as someone raised in a liturgical church (Evangelical Lutheran) I see pluses and minuses to “liturgical” worship.  First, it can become rote repetition.  One person I knew considered that the Public Confession was enough to absolve him of his adultery, which went on for years.


Again, to be fair we had good Sunday School teachers and sincere members.  We had some restrained, but beautiful stained glass.  We had a wooden altar with small shields of the Apostles. We had a great big Reformation type pulpit.  We used the Lectionary.  We read Psalms, an Old Testament reading, an Epistle and the Gospel each Sunday. The minister wore robes and a stole.  We had an organ and a choir.  Many of these things are what Luther called adiaphora, things we can be preferences but not required.  Luther and Calvin had a lot to say against the Roman Catholic church and its practices.  Smith is not in the Reformation tradition.


However, there were problems in our little Lutheran church.  When my wife and I attended Catechetical classes (discipline) for two years, many of our friends from school (with German last names) attended too. The day after we were confirmed all but four of us (out of about twelve) stopped coming to Sunday School or youth group, and most did not even attend church.  Sacraments: infant baptism and the Eucharist were not magic to keep people in the church.  I personally did not accept Christ until three years later.


Another thing I dislike, as far as can tell, is that Smith wants Liturgy, Sacraments, Tradition, etc. but he wants them in a very individualistic and modern way. He seems to pick and choose the elements of liturgical churches and worship he wants (“catholic”) but submits to no one.  Liturgical churches have bishops.  The Roman Catholic Church has bishops and a Pope.  The Orthodox churches have Patriarchs.  He seems to have a “have your cake and eat it too” approach.  He may take what he likes from these Traditions, which are “catholic,” meaning anything he likes, and he can reject (as an individual what he dislikes).


I understand Pete Gilquist and Jon Braun becoming eventually Antiochian Orthodox.  They bought into Orthodoxy and submitted.  They wanted this Eastern Tradition and they owned it.  Thomas Elliot and John Henry Newman wanted the Magisterium to solve their hermeneutical problems.  They wanted Tradition.  They submitted to Rome.  But to whom does Smith submit?


Smith is correct to take aim at independent Evangelical churches in some respects.  They likewise seem to submit to no one.  They tend to bend the Gospel to reach people, to compromise.

But as quick as he is to shoot at them, I think of our home church in Pittsburgh, PA, North Way Christian Community.  Church Growth is not a be all and end all, but North Way is evangelizing and they are forming campuses (local churches) in tough neighborhoods, as well as the suburbs. Smith seems to hate suburbia.  I don’t know where he lives.


He is right to take issue with the emerging church and the emergent church.  However, where he agrees with them I tend to disagree.  Brian McLaren has accepted too much Postmodern indeterminacy in my view.


I see in Smith, I believe, something I have seen in some of the others I have mentioned above.  In my lifetime I have been at different times connected to Evangelical Anglicans and Romans Catholics, as well as some who have converted to Orthodoxy. I have lived in an Eastern Orthodox country.  For many who have grown up in a boring, plain Baptist church they seem to crave something more. I became a Baptist by choice (Millard Erickson’s denomination).


I know the good things about liturgical churches. We worship in a Church of England church while we have lived in the Netherlands. We have many friends from my wife’s seminary, Trinity [Episcopal] School for Ministry, who are Anglicans (and some Orthodox now and some Roman Catholic).  I attended a Roman Catholic university (Louvain in Belgium).  I have many Roman Catholic friends. I may disagree with them, but I appreciate them. However, I am not ready to give up a sure foundation in the Bible for sacraments of any church or to give up reasonable certainty in the historical reliability of the Gospels for a fideistic embrace of sacramentalism, especially when it is “catholic” and not grounded anywhere.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Medieval scholars and the worth of a book

Medieval commentators were often unable to consider any idea they found in a book to be incorrect.  Rather than judge sources the medieval scholars tried to harmonize otherwise disparate sources. 1

For a medieval commentator books were few and hand copied.  There were really manuscripts, not books. 

Books were very expensive in the middle ages.  They had to be copied by hand. It was a labor intensive process.  Obviously there was no printing press.

Even after the invention of the first printing press, books were still expensive.  Each page of the book had to be engraved or cold type had to be designed, carved in lead and then cases of cold type fonts created.  Each page was type set, letter by letter using cold type, and each page was pressed page by page.  It was still a very labor intensive process.

With the invention of offset lithography, printing from light sensitized, chemically treated plates on a more modern printing press with drums and ink rollers, books became cheaper.  The worth of a book fell.

In our times books are almost free.  Many books can be bought for a third of the price of a printed copy, if one buys an electronic copy, an .epub or a .mobi or an .acsm file.  Many books can be found for free as one of these file forms or as .pdfs or .djvu files.  Books are almost worthless, literally free.

The explosion of online sources, besides books, means that information is also nearly free.  If you cannot afford your own computer, you can use one in a local public library and store your files on the Cloud.

For instance, the commentary on Plato's Timeaus by Chalcidius, a medieval scholar were, let’s say, imaginative.  He could not conceive of a book, which was worthless or which lied.  It was so hard to come by a book, he felt that he must harmonize any information he found in any book.  Perhaps the idea of propaganda or panegyric had not occurred to him.

We now face two dilemmas.  Either like Chalcidius we strive to harmonize disparate sources, being unable to believe that something is false or is merely propaganda and so end up hopelessly confused or misled.  Or since we face so many choices for sources, we decide only to read sources which agree with our pre-established ideas.  Everyone else is a liar, but my favorite pundit tells the truth.

There should, though, be a third alternative.  We should judge whatever we read by what we already believe, but remain open to reassess and change beliefs which we hold, but which we discover are false.

For many years I have taught this idea to students in my “Foundations for Theology” course.  I draw upon a book by David K. Clark called To know and love God. 2

Clark puts forward an idea taken from Alvin Plantinga, a Reformed Christian philosopher.  Plantinga’s version of Reformed Epistemology says that everyone begins with presuppositions which are unproven and assumed.  Christians have as much right as anyone to hold their presuppositions without having to prove them.  Atheists do the same.

But Clark is not content with Plantinga’s view (nor am I), which would be what philosophers call fideism.  A fideist believes “just because.”  Since Plantinga believes that there can be no certain principles or presuppositions, he believes that he has the right to choose those he likes.

Clark rightly is nervous about this conclusion.  What if what I choose to believe is false?  If I hold those beliefs in such a way as to be unfalsifiable, how could I know whether they were true or false?

Clark opts for what he calls “Soft Foundationalism.” He agrees with Plantinga that we must begin with some presuppositions when we think. We cannot do otherwise.  This in itself is not wrong.  What would be wrong, however, would be not to consider attacks against what we believe.  If we are wrong, we need to be open to seeing that we are wrong and how we are wrong and then to see how to reestablish what we believe on sure grounds. 3

Say that in my Christian theology I assume as true several principles or presuppositions: God is a theistic, creator God, Jesus is the Son of God and the Bible is God’s word.  Clark says that I am permitted to start with these presuppositions.  This is what I know.  My Christian, Evangelical theology is built on these presuppositions.

But what should I do when an atheist denies that God exists?  Clark would say that now comes the time to engage in a kind apologetics.  I must demonstrate or prove that God exists.  This can be done and has been done by many Christian apologists through the ages.  I could draw on Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways or I could draw on Norman Geisler’s Christian Apologetics book.  In any case what I may not do is simply say, “God exists.  It’s what I believe. We’re done.”  That  would be fideism. 4

When a Muslim tells me that the Qu’ran is God’s word, not the Bible. I must demonstrate why I believe the Bible to be God’s word.  I must demonstrate that the Bible is trustworthy. I could use a bibliographic test to show that it is the most carefully copied of all ancient books and the one with the most manuscript copies.  I can use an external test and show how many times archeology has proven the biblical account to be true.  What I may not do is simply assert again, more loudly and more forcefully: “The Bible is true. I believe it. That settles it.” 5

The mistake here is to think that the intensity of my belief or depth of my commitment to a presupposition or “truth,” makes that presupposition true.  We confuse our trust in a source with whether the thing we trust in is true. The sincerity of intensity of our trust does not make something true.  Jesus is LORD not because we believe it intensely, but because, well, Jesus is LORD! Jesus would not be any less “LORD” if I ceased to believe in him.  The intensity of my belief in this fact doesn’t make it true.  It shows rather that I am committed to that truth which is true apart from me and my commitment.

We have a right to our presuppositions whether theological or literary, political or sociological.  What we don’t have the right to do is simply to rule some source out of court, beyond the bounds of our discussion, because we don’t like it.  We can’t just decide we won’t listen to someone because they are from a different political party or a different religious group.  We must demonstrate the truth of our presuppositions and not retreat into fideism.

We are unlikely to be like Chalcidius and and other medieval scholars. We won't try to harmonize all the sources we have.  There are too many.

Just two days ago a graduating student from our seminary asked me whether I had read all the books on (only) two sets of bookshelves in my office in the seminary.  (I have eight more sets of bookshelves in my office at home, not to forget the couple hundred books on Kindle or iBooks or Adobe Digital Editions or BlueFire Reader or CBD Reader or Nook or Kobo reader or OverDrive or Libby or...) I said, “I have read something from most of them and some of them completely.”

Our struggle now is to know what to read, what to believe.  Overwhelmed with such a huge number of sources we can’t hope to harmonize disparate sources as Chalcidius and other medievals tried.  More likely we tend to stop reading many or most sources and rely only on a few or one source we agree with.

Postmoderns will say there is no truth only interpretation. Chalcidius and Platonic scholars were on the opposite end of the spectrum.  There was only truth (very Platonic) and any book must contain some truth or simply be true. Why else would anyone spend the time to copy it by hand.

I disagree with both views: either that no interpretation is true or that all books are true.  Postmoderns have their own truths: racial equality, equality of the sexes, democracy, etc.  They use skeptical, literary techniques to try to show that there is no objective truth.  They may be right that our current interpretation may be false, but have they really excised the idea of truth? How else do they mean to convince us to agree with their views?

We must hold our presuppositions in one sense both firmly and loosely.  We should not give them up lightly, but we must also be willing to be shown to be wrong.  If I am wrong, then I need to regroup and reground my views.

Falling back on a form of fideism: “My view is right!” is not sufficient.  The only thing such a strategy does is to show that one is either too weak to defend one’s view or to afraid to try.

So, here are two very different ages: Chalcidius and the Platonic medieval scholars with too few sources and our PostPostModern, internet age with too many sources. The problem, however, remains the same: discretion. We must remain committed to our Christian worldview, but we must also consider attacks on our world-views and presuppositions and answer them.


1. I thought the comment came about medieval scholars being unable to throw a book away and therefore having to harmonize disparate sources from CS Lewis and was about Chalcidius.  Lewis was a scholar of medieval literature.  He wrote a book called the Discarded Image in which he lays out Chalcidius’ interpretation of the Timaeus and his very free commentary.  However, I couldn't find this comment in the Discarded Image. CS Lewis, the Discarded Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964. Perhaps now Lewis is better known to be a Christian apologist.

I am grateful to Marjorie Mead from the Wade Center at Wheaton College for enlisting the help of scholar, Jerry Root, to help me to clarify that it was a comment from Lewis, but it wasn't Chalcidius per se of whom he spoke. I appreciate Jerry's kindness to search and find two sources in Lewis.

Jerry Root wrote in response: “I found the very idea but it is not in connection with Chalcidius per se. If you look at the essay “Imagination and Thought” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, you will find the concept that those in the Middle Ages, with limited, and often contradictory sources, sought to reconcile all the sources trusting that the authorities that produced the books spoke truth. Consequently, the medieval scholar’s task—believing that no truth contradicts another—required the craft of reconciling. In the first edition of the book it can be found on pp. 44-45 (or paragraphs 7-9). You will also find some similar ideas in the essay “The Genesis of a Medieval Book” Also in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, pp. 37-38). So, the concept is: 1. to be found in these references; 2. It is not associated with Chalcidius per se; 3. Lewis, certainly did not endorse the practice. He writes of it as an indicative (what was done for the particular reasons noted) but makes of it no imperative (because it was done, therefore the practice ought to be emulated).”

There is a chapter about Chalcidius in CS Lewis. The Discarded Image. Cambridge: University Press, 1964, 49-60.

2. David K. Clark, To know and love God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003.

3. For another critique of Plantinga’s epistemology see the video series by William Lane Craig Belief in God as Properly Basic - Part I (and more) or see his lecture on Religious Epistemology 

4. For Aquinas’ Five ways see Summa Theologica Pt I Article 3 Whether God exists? or Norman Geisler. Christian apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013 chapter 15 Theism.

5. See Craig Bloomberg’s article “The reliability of the New Testament”