Fantastic Deal on My Favorite Theology Books

John Frame is retiring, and now you can have all six of his best and most important books for $120. Hardbacks. This is killer. I paid much more.

Do not miss this deal: $20 a book for some of the best theology books you will ever buy.

The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, in particular, has been epochal for me. It shapes me in ways I see just about every day. The Doctrine of the Christian Life was also extremely helpful. When I’ve dipped into Frame’s Systematic Theology, I have also found what he always delivers: carefully biblical, straightforward, clear, even simple explanations of complex topics.

Is Science the Best Way to Know?

Not long ago, popular YouTube science guy Derek Muller of Veritasium put out a video detailing the myriad ways in which scientific studies go wrong. He titled it, “Is Most Published Research Wrong?”

He ends with these words (click here to skip to this portion of the video):

What gets me is the thought that even trying our best to figure out what’s true, using our most sophisticated and rigorous mathematical tools, peer review, and standards of practice we still get it wrong so often. So how frequently do we delude ourselves when we’re not using the scientific method? As flawed as our science may be, it is far and away more reliable than any other way of knowing that we have.

I’m actually not a science skeptic. I have to have pretty compelling reasons to disbelieve a given Western scientific consensus. The Words of the Living God in Genesis 1–11 provide one compelling reason to doubt one reigning consensus. But I’m not against science as such. I’m for it. I think the scientific method is an incredibly useful tool for discovering truth God reveals through the observable cosmos.

What gets me is scientism: the faith people place in science. “As flawed as our science may be, it is far and away more reliable than any other way of knowing”? How can we know that? Science can’t prove that science is the best way to know. I’m far from the first to make this point; I simply found it interesting to see such faith at the end of a video in which Muller shows how flawed science can be.

For a much fuller discussion of the themes in this post, check out Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption. I wrote unit 7 on science, and I roundly praise the created good in science, explore the ways the fall twists it, and show that Christ can and will restore his rule over it.

Stanley Fish on the Foundations Baptist Fellowship and American Protestant Fundamentalism More Generally

Readers of my blog know that I have a strong (and perhaps strange) affinity for Stanley Fish, the pragmatic, antifoundationalist literary theorist and classic public intellectual gadfly. I find him always stimulating and incisive, even when I disagree. But because his strength is analysis and not so much evaluation (indeed, in what I’m about to quote he makes a rare statement of something he “certainly” believes in—and it just happens to be original sin!), I don’t really have to disagree very often.

Recently, Fish has been called up to the lecture circuit because of rising interest in some of his long-term themes: academic freedom and the proper justification for the liberal arts. And in his recent comments defending the idea of a university against the hordes of student protesters (who, Fish says, should be listened to but ultimately told to shut up, because academic freedom is not for students, and giving into them will destroy what the university was created to do), he offers genuine wisdom for someone like me who is currently engaged in defending the existence of certain institutions of American Protestant Christian fundamentalism. A narrower ideology is not supposed to be available than this one, so why do I defend it? Because, in part, as Fish says, every ideology is narrow. Every culture proclaims and defends its values and not others. I hope my proclamation and defense hew to a standard external to my subculture, namely the standard of Scripture. But I can’t pretend that I have no culture through which I view that standard, or that I think other cultures are equally valid. If I want to give to my children what I was given, I have to work to maintain the relevant traditions.

Bear with me here, because my extended quotation of Fish is going to be off-putting at points for much of my readership. But I genuinely believe there is wisdom here. I give different supporting reasons for the conclusions that Fish reaches, but those conclusions most certainly resonated with me.

I have transcribed the following from the Hugo Black lecture Fish gave (audio) a little over a year ago. I won’t be breaking this up with commentary, so have patience until I can explain a few more things. Fish again, is talking about higher education:

The perfectionists are, by definition, progressivists. They do not believe in original sin, but hold rather to an optimistic view of human potential, and they are in search of the political methods that will liberate rather than shackle that potential. Perfectionism or progressivism could possibly flourish on either side of the political aisle; it has a liberal as well as a conservative face. But as many have pointed out, it’s natural home these days seems to be on the left. Political theorist Jacob Talmon puts it this way: “The left proclaims the essential goodness and perfectibility of human nature.” That was a statement made in the 1950s, but here is a statement made last week, by William Voegli, editor of the conservative journal, The Claremont Review:

Liberals believe in progress because they believe in a virtuous circle. As a society becomes more free it progresses, and as it progresses it becomes more free.” (citation)

The natural movement of history, unless stymied by reactionary forces, is from less freedom to more, and never from more freedom to less. Conservatives, on other hand, do believe in original sin, as I certainly do, and I quote Voegli again:

Conservatives see little basis to embrace the conviction that progress will reveal humans to possess unfulfilled or unrealized capacities for reason, freedom, and love. They believe, rather, that it is wise to take our bearings from the abundant historical evidence that human nature reveals astounding capacities for savagery, hatred, and idiocy. (Thomas Hobbes, thou art living at this hour.) Therefore, while liberals want to make the world a better place, conservatives want to keep it from becoming even worse. [could not find citation after repeated searches; it is possible that the quotations ends before the parenthesis]

Voegli concludes that “the urgent work of maintaining civilization is constant.” By that he means, and I agree with him from a postmodernist perspective he would probably reject, that the absence of a view of history assuming an internal logic in the direction of the good means that we had better take care to maintain those institutional arrangements that we cherish, institutional arrangements that in the course of a history that has no teleology but only events we have been lucky enough to hit on. That is, there are certain arrangements, associations, structures, and institutions that turn up in the course of human history that are extremely beneficial and healthy and inspiring—but it’s just a contingent accident that this has happened, which means that we must work contingently, empirically, pragmatically, to ensure that they stay around.

Now, I believe that the liberal arts college…is one of those arrangements that should be maintained and preserved rather than perfected. “Perfection” is a bad idea, in part for reasons that Isaiah Berlin gave in his famous essay on two kinds of liberty. I believe that because the schemes of perfection given to us in the statement of the student protestors all have the fatal defect of turning the college or university into a vehicle for the realization of a political ideal, the equal freedom of all people in a world untainted by injustice and discrimination. I do not quarrel with the ideal. I quarrel with the assumption that it is the university’s job to implement it. Not only do colleges and universities have their own job, … to enquire into the truth of things and to do so in a way that leads to understanding rather than to political action, but if universities allow their energies and resources to put in the service of other jobs, no matter how worthy, they will lose their distinctiveness, and any rationale for their existence. After all, if the academic life is just an extension of politics, why not just dispense with all that scholarly apparatus and get right down to it—get right down to the business of canvassing for votes and securing political power? Perfectionist progressivism is the enemy of what we have, and given that what we have here at Wesleyan and elsewhere is a precarious achievement, it behooves us to hang on to it, even if in the eyes of many, the liberal arts model is outdated, reactionary, and something in the nature of a museum. Another way to put this: we should wear the label “ivory tower” proudly, and should wear no other.

It is sometimes said that the postmodernist or deconstructive view of human actions as untethered to any foundational truth is a recipe for relativism and nihilism, on the reasoning if there’s nothing holding everything up or holding everything together, we can do whatever we like without fearing any ultimate consequences. But in fact, the reverse is true: if there is nothing holding everything up or holding it together, we cannot rely on time and history to protect those things we love, and, to borrow a phrase of the poet John Milton, to protect those things we would not willingly let die. If you like something, a way of life, a mode of practice, a mode of being, a mode of practice that captures you to the extent of becoming indistinguishable from you, I am what I do, then you had better work hard to ensure that it will still be around for you and for those who come after you and want to live that life and not another.

In a non-foundational world, no abiding fundamental truth is going to save us, and no abiding fundamental truth is going to preserve what we cherish. We have to do it ourselves. Which means doing consistent battle with those, including our students, who would take it away from us, who would appropriate and “occupy”—not a verb casually chosen—the structures that house and enable the distinctive activity that goes by the name “liberal arts education.”

You might think that my talk of “battle” is hyperbolic. But listen to a Yale student in the course of harassing a hapless, low-level administrator. At one point, she relaxed the stream of expletives she was hurling at him to say, and I quote, “What you’ve got to understand is that it’s not about creating an intellectual space, it’s about creating a home.”….

What should be done, and who is to do it? Well, given what I have said here, the resolution of the present set of controversies will not be found in some theory or master algorithm or failsafe, all-purpose method. It will be found, if it is found at all, in the actions of skilled administrators who, after all, are the ones responsible for keeping the enterprise going.

Now, quite clearly I am not an anti-foundationalist. But I’m anti-everybody-else’s-foundation; I mean, I’m anti-all-non-Christian-foundations. So Fish and I actually share a great deal. I’m also not a straight-up postmodern, so I am not “absen[t] of a view of history assuming an internal logic in the direction of the good.” History has a teleology to which we have access; something Someone is holding it all together.

But someone’s also trying to break it apart, and in the age that that adversary rules internal logics go awry, and not everything has yet been brought under Christ’s feet to fully serve their created teleology.

So once again Fish and I can share a lot of agreement. The fact that God is holding everything together, including my own life and sanctification, doesn’t absolve me of the responsibility to “make every effort” to add virtue to my faith (2 Peter 1). Likewise, the fact that man proposes and God disposes doesn’t mean I should stop proposing. I propose to do what I can, what little I can, to maintain the institutions that stabilize and promote my values. It is the leaders of these institutions—the “administrators” of Fish’s example—who are charged with keeping the enterprises going. And I’m trying to help them, and to be a bit of a junior administrator myself.

The portions of fundamentalism that shaped me were 92% “beneficial and healthy and inspiring”—although that means they were 8% fallen, and that means some weeding within my tradition. What can I do when I see the good except to try to preserve it, even in the face of persistent original sin? There aren’t any unstained mantles available out there; I checked. And though weaving a new one is always an option, I don’t think it’s very humble or grateful to try that first. I have to pick up the holes and stains in the fundamentalist mantle if I’m going to pick it up at all. I’ll add my own holes and stains as time passes, through my own “savagery and hatred and idiocy,” but I seek by God’s grace to restore more of the mantle than I rip. What else can I do?

 

Everybody’s a Fundamentalist No. 13

Everybody’s a fundamentalist. Everybody’s a separatist. Everybody has a vision of the good that differs from the visions of others and ends up excluding others from their club.

Everybody limits academic freedom in the next breath after invoking it. Everybody has a conception of the academic enterprise that leaves certain viewpoints out of bounds, no matter how strenuously its representatives insist that those viewpoints count as “academic.”

At least biblical, orthodox Christians can publicly, explicitly, and self-consciously advertise the standards on which they found themselves, by which they separate, and through which they establish the boundaries of academic freedom. The pro-diversity forces have to persuade themselves that their list of acceptable viewpoints counts as “diversity,” that the width of their pluralism is as far as anyone need go to earn the label.

I’ll paraphrase Stanley Fish (my adjustments in bold; original quotation here):

What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the biblical vision for sexuality and a so-called pluralistic school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (homosexuality is immoral or it isn’t). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed. (156)

Is homosexuality moral or immoral? Issues of diversity and academic freedom (and consequent disinvitations of campus speakers) are impossible to sort out until we know how we can even answer that question—until we know what moral foundation we’re standing on, and who if anyone is going to keep us accountable for failing to standing on it.

The unified testimony of the Bible and of the church throughout history is that homosexual acts and desires are immoral—because all sexual acts and desires outside the bounds of heterosexual monogamy are sin (see Jesus in Matt 19). When Princeton students deny this, they actually take aim at the the gospel, or perhaps its flip-side, by virtue of delisting the human sins which make us need it. The Bible makes homosexuality (and sexual immorality, and idolatry, and adultery, and theft, and greed, and drunkenness, and reviling, and swindling) a sin that keeps people out of the kingdom of God. And I want you to know that just now as I read 1 Corinthians 6 I experienced a wave of genuine fear—fear of the Lord. I have been guilty of several of the sins on the list. I don’t aim this passage merely at others. I dare not justify my own (heterosexual) lustful thoughts, my own greed, etc., or anyone else’s, lest I alter the biblical terms by which I can be said to be a member of that divine kingdom. Thank God for the blood of Christ and the sanctifying power of the Spirit. I am not as I once was. God has granted me repentance.

The best brief book I know on the topic of homosexuality is still Kevin DeYoung’s What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? And the best endorsement of that book I’ve seen comes from an Amazon reviewer who gave the book two stars:

I did not find this book as useful as I anticipated. It seemed to me to revert back to, “The Bible says it, so that settles it.”

An Admitteldy One-Sided Conversation on Theological Liberalism

A liberal Catholic with a PhD from a liberal Catholic institution saw my article in Answers Magazine critiquing one of the more famous put-downs Richard Dawkins has made of Christians; he liked the article and wanted to dialogue with me. I acquiesced, but soon found that he liked my article’s arguments for their apparent utility without really grasping their biblical origins. When it comes down to it, he rejects the authority of Scripture in what I take to be a more dangerous way than Dawkins does—because he still honors it with his lips. Any time its authority is pressed on him, he worms out of the way.

This is not my experience with all Roman Catholics—and it is my experience with certain Protestants! We are all tempted to squirm when God contradicts us. The only thing I can say for my conservative Protestant tribe is that we make it an article of faith that it’s our squirming and not God’s word that is the problem.

I don’t want to ask my liberal Catholic interlocutor for permission to publish his email remarks to me. And I won’t post them without permission. So you get, if you really want to, to listen to just one side of our conversation. I apologize for this indulgence, but perhaps persevering readers will find something of use in the following.

Here we go:

Dear X,

1) The idea you propose, namely that the Bible is culturally constrained, is often presented to me by non-evangelicals (Christians and non-Christians alike) as if it is likely to be brand new to me, and as if it is a recent (and rock-solid) conclusion of historical-critical scholarship.

But this idea is not a conclusion of historical-critical scholarship at all; it’s a premise of it, a presupposition, an article of faith in their creed. The Bible is for them, at most, a record of different people’s experiences with the divine, no more normative than any other ancient text—especially when the opinion polls go against it.

2) I like talking methodology, I really do. I think it’s extremely important. But one of the things I do to make sure my methodology doesn’t float away on clouds of subjectivism into the warm bath of secular approbation (borrowing a phrase that’s been echoing in my head all day from this fantastic article) is try to apply it to actual Bible statements and see what happens. So Micah says, “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” I can’t find anybody who complains about that particular imperative, anybody who proposes allegorical or metaphorical interpretations of it. And what’s more, I can’t find anybody who says, “That’s time-bound—Micah meant that for the culture of his day, but we know better.” And I say, by what standard may we judge that Micah 6:8 is normative as it stands, but Gen 1–11 isn’t? Why accept “blessed are the poor in spirit” but not “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery”? Why, indeed, accept what Paul clearly means to be a timeless statement—”All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith”—but then reject as culturally constrained what he says about homosexuality a few paragraphs earlier (“Paul didn’t know about stable, monogamous homosexual relationships”)?

Really, the question is easy to answer: people pick and choose which parts of the Bible to believe and which to reject because they accept an authoritative standard other than the Bible. The idea of cultural constraint is an ex post facto justification.

I’ve just been reading J.I. Packer’s first book “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, and he demonstrates with citation after citation that Christ and the apostles viewed the Old Testament as authoritative. I won’t pretend that there are no difficulties in figuring out how to apply the entire Bible, especially the Old Testament, to the life of the Christian. But if revelation is ongoing and evolving, then I need some other standard by which to judge which parts of it are still valid and which aren’t. I’d rather have to study Jesus and Paul’s statements about the law (Matt. 5:17; Gal. 5; etc.) to discern the Bible’s own unity than adopt a model in which they cannot and need not be reconciled.

Actually, conservative evangelicals have long recognized that the Bible is a divine revelation that is progressively unfolded through a story. Paul spoke of “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints,” and in his letter to the Ephesians he explains that this mystery was the way Christ would bring the Gentiles into one body with the Jews, namely the church. Conservatives are eager to recognize—indeed, it’s impossible to deny—that God used the personalities and experiences and even the literary proclivities of the biblical authors. What he did not do is tell Moses and Paul that homosexuality was against nature while silently adding “wrong for now, I mean—just wait till at least 1999 or so.”

Interestingly, I just saw that very Star Trek episode. I remember it well. I do not view the Bible, however, as having been dropped into civilization like the Klingon’s guns were dropped into that primitive culture. In 35 years in conservative Protestant circles I have a few times heard people talk about it that way (like as if “the paths of the seas” in Psalm 8 were a secret revelation of ocean currents, not discovered until centuries later—I abjure that approach).

Yes, Protestants split over scriptural interpretation. But don’t Catholics? How many different parties and sects are there within Catholicism? Do they all interpret the Bible or church tradition or the pope’s utterances the same way? It seems to me that having a magisterium has not saved them from division.

Also, I’ve read about Galileo’s story in a great little book by a guy at Johns Hopkins, Lawrence Principe, and I don’t accept the standard read of the story. I commend the book to you.

I really have trouble seeing the view of Scripture as culturally constrained as anything other than 1) a not-very-sophistic but rather pretty bald exercise in evading what God said and 2) a way to give our current culture hegemony over the Bible whenever the former says to the latter, “Shut up!”

Is God permitted to oppose the consensus view of science, of morality, of economics, of anything in contemporary Western society?

I also think you and I may have reached the sloganeering stage of the argument over biblical hermeneutics, so I’d like to see if we can focus on an individual scriptural text. And I’d like to zero in on one that deals with homosexuality, in particular, because the culture is definitely saying, “Shut up!” about that.

The Catholic tradition of which you’re a part has uniformly said homosexuality is wrong, and wrong intrinsically, for 2000 years. They based that judgment on Holy Scripture, as Protestants today do, and on natural law, as many Protestants actually do as well. (We, in turn, base natural law on Scripture, because without the Bible to tell us that the world is fallen, it is impossible to tell what is “natural,” i.e., created, and what is “unnatural,” i.e., fallen.)

No Christian tradition has ever said that sinners of any sort should be mercilessly mocked instead of offered help—because God doesn’t treat sinners that way in Scripture. I’m certainly glad God has not treated me and my sin this way.

But if the Bible is the culturally constrained record of past individuals’ experiences of the divine (is that a fair representation of your view? If not, please do correct me!), then it’s time we didn’t just treat homosexuals with grace but with complete acceptance. Acceptance of homosexual marriage seems like a perfect example of the kind of thing that we ought to recognize as new light from on high. And we’d better do it fast, before we have to pay any more price for our bigotry.

So, I ask, what did Paul mean when he wrote the following? “God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

I think I’m gathering that you personally oppose homosexual practice? But by what standard can we say that Paul is right if the culture, not the Bible, is our standard? I am not saying that we can interpret the Bible without regard for the cultural distance between us and the original writers and readers. But that distance is not always as great as people assume, because people are just as created, just as fallen, and just as in need of redemption as they were in Paul’s day. Illicit sex, gluttony, thievery, prevarication, and pride are pretty much the sins they were in the first century. Is “Humble yourselves before the mighty hand of God” culturally constrained? Is “Lie not one to another, seeing you have put off the old man with his deeds” culturally constrained? Is “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” culturally constrained? How about “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty”?

When you try to apply (what I take to be) your view to actual Bible statements, it simply doesn’t work. It looks like special pleading: find the stuff in the Bible you don’t like, and slap the label on it: “NO LONGER APPLICABLE DUE TO ANCIENT CULTURAL CONSTRAINTS.”

Interested in your thoughts. I kind of had to write with bluntness because of constraints of my own—not cultural ones but chronometric ones!