Review: Holiness

Holiness, John Webster. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003

Summary: A theology of holiness, beginning with holiness in the theological enterprise and then thinking about the holiness of God, the church, and the individual.

Many treatments of the theme of holiness either focus on or begin with the holiness of God. John Webster takes what seems to me a novel, but important approach and begins with the holiness of theology. That is, he considers “A Christian theology of holiness is an exercise of holy reason.” He begins with a critique of modernity’s idea of “natural reason” as “transcendent, ignoring the noetic effects of the fall. He argues in the doing of theology, this exercise of holy reason is critical:

“Christian theology is a particular instance of reason’s holiness. Here too–as in all truthful thinking–we are to trace what happens as reason is transformed by the judging, justifying, and sanctifying work of the Triune God. The sanctification of reason, moreover, involves a measure of difference: reason’s transformation goes hand-in-hand with non-conformity. Holy reason is eschatological reason, reason submitting to the process of the renewal of all things as sin and falsehood are set aside, idolatry is reproved, and the new creation is confessed with repentance and delight” (pp. 11-12).

Webster then turns to three aspects of holiness in scripture: the holiness of God, of the church, and of the individual. Beginning with the holiness of God, Webster considers the holiness of God as triune: Father, Son, and Spirit, holy in all God’s attributes and works. This holiness is evidenced in the establishing of holy relationships with his people, redeemed to be holy through the Triune God’s initiative.

He then turns to the church, described as a sanctorum communio. He grounds the holiness of the church in the electing, reconciling, and perfecting work of God, a theme of the grace of God in the holiness of the people of God that runs through this book. This holiness is evident in all of the church’s actions as they confess the name of the Triune God.

Finally, he discusses the holiness of the Christian. Here, too, holiness from beginning to end is the work of the Trinity, likewise in electing, reconciling and perfecting. This is through faith, both in death to sin and renewal of life expressed in freedom, obedience, and love, toward the end of fellowship with God.

Each section begins with a set of propositions which Webster unpacks in a treatment which, though concise is an eloquent and deep exploration of holiness. It reflects a Reformed vision that roots holiness in God’s gracious initiative. This is a slim book worthy of more than one reading and a good introduction to the work of a fine theologian.

Review: How Reason Can Lead to God

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How Reason Can Lead to GodJoshua Rasmussen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: Argues for a “bridge of reason” that leads us to God, based on the foundation of reality.

I’ve never believed that one can prove the existence of God. At the same time, I believe it can be shown that faith in God is reasonable, rather than contrary to reason. I also would acknowledge that some propose that it is reasonable that there is no God. All I’ve ever been able to commend is that the sincere seeker of truth weigh these reasons, and act upon whatever is persuasive to them.

This is a book that lays out a reasonable argument in the form of a “bridge of reason.” The image is important because the author would argue that reason rests upon a foundation and the nature of the foundation both makes sense of our reason and is persuasive of the existence of a God at the foundation or source of all.

First of all, he argues for the self-sufficiency of reality and that this foundation meets nine possible objections. This self-sufficient reality is eternal, that is it never came into existence but is the source of all that exists. The tools of simplicity, explanatory depth, and uniformity point to a “purely actual” foundation that is a unity without gaps or limits. Furthermore, this foundation explains the existence of mind, matter, morals, and math (that is, logic or reason). Indeed, this foundation may be argued to be the perfection of these from which all derives, and hence a perfect foundation.

Rasmussen then considers problems with this foundational theory. The greatest, as in almost every argument for the existence of God is the existence of evil. Here, he argues for the possibility of God having good reasons for the existence of evil, particularly as a result of the creation of “kingly creatures” able to govern their own lives with the possibility of ruling badly. He devotes a chapter to this objection, and then an additional chapter to eight other objections.

He finally pulls all of this together through an argument from limits that points to the existence of perfection. He states:

Here is an idea: perfection–by the light of its simplicity and positivity–points to its own possibility (i.e. consistency). Something cool follows: by the logic of possibility, perfection must be instantiated. In this way, perfection points by its own nature, to its instantiation.

He works out this argument step by step in more or less non-technical but closely reasoned language. A person with training in logic will especially appreciate Rasmussen’s presentation, and perhaps also pick it apart! Certainly those who question the existence of reality, or our capacity to perceive reality beyond ourselves would have difficulty with his argument. However, I suspect they also have trouble with existence, because they act as if other minds, and other objects exist.

I am not a philosopher but it seems to me that he does something fairly novel. His is neither a cosmological or ontological argument for the existence of God. It is something like a Cartesian argument from reason, yet focuses on the foundation of existence that our capacity for reason is based upon.

One question I had was around his argument for the self-existence of the “blob of reality” at the foundation of all. I’m not quite sure of how Rasmussen distinguishes God and created reality. It seemed at least possible that his argument could give warrant for panentheism, the idea that all is in God, an idea not considered within orthodoxy by many Christians.

Rasmussen does not contend for this and I think he does a service both for skeptics, and for apologists in proposing yet another line of reasoning rooted in reason itself and our common experience, for the reality of God. I’ll be interested to see how his ideas are received among philosophers, and how he continues to develop his “bridge of reason.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Faith and Reason: Three Views

Faith and ReasonThe question of the relation of faith and reason is a live question for any Christian seeking to live an integrated life in the world of higher education, where rigorous thought is a necessary part of the pursuit of truth in every discipline. It is also a vital question with regard to the proclamation of the Christian message. Is there a role for reason and apologetics as part of the process of sharing the Christian message with the hope of a person coming to saving faith? Or, is the knowledge of truth in Christianity something which may only be apprehended by grace through faith?

Christians through history have differed on these matters and this book, part of InterVarsity Press’s Spectrum Multiview Book series presents the three major approaches to this question in dialogue with each other. The format for the book is that each of the three approaches is presented in turn with a response by the representatives of the other two approaches.

The three views presented are:

1. Faith and Philosophy in Tension, presented by Carl A. Raschke. This view in brief minimizes the role reason and philosophy have in matters of faith, for which God’s revelation of Himself in his Son and recorded in scripture and believed by faith is sufficient. Pascal, Kierkegaard, some post-modern theologians and those from Lutheran and Anabaptist traditions tend to hold these views.

2. Faith Seeking Understanding, presented by Alan G. Padgett. This view holds that reason is insufficient to lead one to faith but that faith under the illumining work of God can “redeem reason”. Faith does not depend upon nor determine other disciplinary learning but may bring illumination of the ways such things may be pursued to the glory of God. Augustine, Anselm and Calvin would be representatives of this group.

3. The Synthesis of Reason and Faith, presented by Craig A. Boyd. This view considers reason to be an endowment of God not obliterated by the fall which may lead us to truth but by itself, apart from faith cannot save us. This approach is most closely identified with Thomas Aquinas, but also Richard Hooker, John Henry Newman and John Wesley.

The editor, Steve Wilkins provides a helpful overview of the three views and a conclusion that considers the Christian way in which these scholars engage, affirm, and disagree. And this is perhaps the books greatest value. Wilkins points out that all three agree on three important points:

1. They all reject the autonomy of reason, reason unaided by faith,
2. All recognize intellectual capacities as a gift of God, and
3. All affirm that faith has epistemic value, that faith leads to a kind of knowledge inaccessible to reason alone.

I found this discussion most helpful in coming to the realization that these three areas of agreement represent an “orthodox” position on faith and reason. The testimony of the differing positions seem, to me, to serve as healthy correctives to one another that save one another from unhealthy syncretism or excessive emphases on either faith or reason. The arguments and the interchange serve as an important witness and example of faith and reason in practice, and of the ability to disagree agreeably.

We could use more of that!

Review: Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Really Is Believing

Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Really Is Believing
Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Really Is Believing by James W. Sire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is everything.
Therefore there is a God.
Either you see this or you don’t.

This epigraph at the beginning of James W. Sire’s latest book captures the “apologetic” for the Christian faith that Sire proposes. In the course of the book, he rings the changes on this syllogism, substituting for “everything” the terms “literature” and “the music of Johann Sebastian Bach” among others.

What he addresses here are the limits of reason to “prove” the existence of God or indeed to convince someone of the truth of the Christian faith. Using his own life story as an illustration, he contends for a “messy” approach to apologetics that is neither deductive or inductive but rooted in the idea that there are “signals of transcendence” that we might encounter wherever we look that point us to God and which are made sense of by the narrative of creation, fall and redemption we find in the story of scripture.

He begins with his encounters with Cartesian philosophy and the autonomy of human reason and the ultimate futility and implicit nihilism that results when human reason is pursued to its logical conclusions illustrated in the works of science fiction writer Stanislas Lem. There is a conundrum is using autonomous reason to articulate the futility of autonomous reason that in itself is a signal of transcendence. But where does one start?

Instead of reason as a starting point, Sire argues that the only place to begin is with God. That is, we don’t begin with what we can know, or epistemology, but rather with being itself, or ontology. We begin with God to know everything else (and either we see this or we don’t!). Sire proposes a threefold argument from this starting point:

1. An argument from God, not to God.
2. An argument from everything to God.
3, An argument from our personal experience — direct perception of God.

The remainder of the book is an unpacking of this argument from the world of literature and the arts interwoven with his personal experience. He begins with a literary theory of the work of authors in creating a “secondary world” that, when done well, points us back to the “primary world” in which we live. Thus, whether the writer believes in a God or not, Sire argues, he or she cannot help but signal the transcendent in their work. He illustrates this with both the works of a Christian, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the work of Virginia Woolf. If there is indeed a God, we cannot create a world that is reflective of Primary reality without also pointing back to God and opening oneself to the possibility of directly perceive the reality of God. He then illustrates this with the fictional account of a bereaved professor from a fictional college in Ohio that seemed to me reminiscent of A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Van Auken.

The concluding chapter moves from our perception, our seeing of God, to the story Sire believes makes the most sense of what we perceive of God and the rest of Primary Reality. He invites the reader to move beyond the signals to the One signaled, narrated in the Christian scriptures and centering in on Jesus Christ, who incarnated the reality of God.

I should confess at this point that I am at least a casual friend of the author. He has spoken on several occasions at collegiate ministry functions I have hosted. We have teamed up as program staff at student conferences. So there is no question of me being a sympathetic reader of his work. The argument he makes is one with which I would concur. But a couple of comments are probably in order.

As I’ve interacted with questioners about the Christian faith, I often find myself asking, “do you want there to be a God?” and “if I were to give reasonable responses to your questions, would you consider becoming a Christian?” I’m well aware that others see the same reality I do and just “don’t see” or don’t want to. Sire really doesn’t address the question of “what about those who don’t see?” And perhaps there is nothing to be said but to commend them to God in our prayers.

The other comment is that Sire argues from literature throughout the central part of this book. This is beloved ground for him and there will be others who appreciate the subtleties in the literature he cites. It is a world I am increasingly coming to enjoy. Yet I realized a great many do not know this world or are even put off by it. I don’t think there is a good response for this except to say to follow the thread of the argument, which connects to everything, and not simply everything in literature.

Sire’s book comes out of a career of teaching, writing, and serving as a traveling apologist. It reflects great wisdom in understanding both the messiness of apologetics and the reality that it will often be those signals of transcendence and our perception of them that will lead to faith. But as he has written, either his readers will see this, or they won’t.

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Stand Firm in the Faith

Ben posted yesterday on one of the other phrases in 1 Corinthians 16:13, “be strong.” As I listened to Rich on Sunday, my attention was caught by the phrase “stand firm in the faith.”

One of the things I most appreciated about what Rich said had to do with not confusing faith and certainty. I find this is a real problem with many. Unless they can be certain about God, or something God has promised, they don’t think they can have faith. Truth is, there is very little in life that I can say that is certain when I think carefully about this. Am I certain my wife loves me? I’m pretty sure of that and I trust her enough to fall asleep in her presence and let her prepare my food. But I can’t prove to a certainty that she loves me. I have faith in her love and after 35+ years of marriage, it seems pretty reasonable to trust her!

On the other hand, there are some who think that faith is simply irrationality–believing what we know isn’t true. Faith may be that for some, but what I propose is that Christian faith is reasonable faith–that God has given us sufficient reasons to believe that he is good and that we can trust Him. The resurrection of Jesus, which Paul argues for in 1 Corinthians 15 is perhaps the most compelling of these reasons.

At the same time, Rich focused on something else that is very important. Sometimes we know all the reasons to believe God and it is still hard to act on what we believe to be true. Rich spoke about the idea that sometimes faith is simply “keeping on”. That is what Paul means when he says “stand firm”. Sometimes the best way to “keep on” is simply to stay put!

This is hardest for me when I am anxious or fearful. One place where I struggle with this is money. Things were very tight for us when I was growing up, and I fear being in that place. Whenever the bills mount up, it is tempting to postpone writing those checks to the church and other places where I give regularly. And I’m more prone to think twice (or more) about helping with a special need. Standing firm or “keeping on” means following my regular routine in writing those checks first–and trusting God to get us through the tight patches.

I fear failure. Yet I find the life of faith calls me into doing new, risky things, at times. It may mean a new situation of speaking about Christ, or a new responsibility where I could crash and burn! The “firmness” in standing firm is not the firmness of success versus the shakiness of failure. It is that whether this new venture flies or flops, I am secure in Jesus–firm.

So a few questions for your reflection:

  • In what instances might you be looking for certainty when God has given you sufficient reason in scripture and your experience that he is good and can be trusted?
  • Where might you be attempted to stop “keeping on” in some practice of faith in your life?
  • Where might the Lord be inviting you to trust him to keep you firm and secure in some new, risky thing?

[This is also posted on Going Deeper, a blog reflecting on the messages at my church on which several of us post]

Review: Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism
Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism by Molly Worthen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading Apostles of Reason was kind of like reading a family history written by someone outside the family (although I am unaware of Molly Worthen’s faith commitments). I consider “evangelicalism” to be the family with which I most closely identify, much as I would take issue with some of the expressions of some of my family members.

On the whole, I thought Worthen gave a balanced and illuminating account of American evangelicalism, spanning the period from after World War II to the present. She charted the tension between the efforts of those like Carl F H Henry to articulate an intellectually rigorous Christianity and evangelicalism’s continued commitment to biblical inerrancy. She also elaborates the varieties of expression that develop through the charismatic movement, growing tensions to confront questions of the role of women, questions of justice, and the beginnings of the political engagement of evangelicals in the 80s and 90s. She also does a good job of representing the intellectual renaissance of evangelical scholarship within public universities, one of the most promising trends of evangelical engagement. She concludes by suggesting that the tensions and diverse expressions within the evangelical movement (whatever that means in our present time) may actually be an asset enabling the movement to reach into various segments of society and balance disparate parts of this movement.

Through all this, she helps us both understand what figures and movements are trying to accomplish in their own terms while also showing the tensions, both internal and with the culture these create. The one thing I found myself wrestling with at times was a feeling that the evangelical community was being scrutinized critically while the larger cultural context it was seeking to engage was more or less “given a pass” and at times the larger culture was implied to be intellectually the superior. That may be true in some of the ivy-ed halls of academia at times but what about the banal, consumeristic, violent, and hyper-sexualized mass culture of early 21st century America? Still, to do what I propose may have meant a much longer work and I must say that I found Worthen’s portrayal of “my family” fair and well-supported.

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Review: The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success

The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success
The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The reigning perception of Christianity in the academy is of a faith that is the enemy of reason from which enlightenment humanism liberated us. Rodney Stark would contend that this is a characterization without basis in fact. In The Victory of Reason he argues that the distinctive progress of the west in science, technology, commerce, human rights, and democratic institutions can be traced back to the distinctive character of Christian belief.

What is more intriguing is that he argues that this emerged during what is often called “The Dark Ages” following the decline and fall of the Roman empire. Stark argues that it was the fall of the empire that in fact liberated Christian thought in ways that led to the progress noted above. During this period, free market commerce emerged in enclaves free from state interference in both Italy and parts of northern Europe. Technological innovation drove improved productivity. And the universities arose out of church cathedral schools to promote higher learning. All before the Renaissance or the Reformation, which he would argue were merely the fruit of the ground prepared by the church in the preceding millennium.

But what is it about Christian belief that fosters such openness to reason and its applications and to progress? Stark’s primary argument is that Christianity is not a static revelation fixed for all time, but an evolving understanding of truth that is open to discursive reason and to progress over time. His case study for this is the church’s response to usury and the creation of lending vehicles to fuel the growth of commerce without violating sacred teaching.

He goes on to argue that what hinders the victory of reason translated into material and technological progress is the presence of tyranny–either governments or guilds which restrict economic incentives or rob people of the rights of the fruit of their work. He contrasts Spain and England and their respective colonies in this regard, finally concluding with the connection between religious faith and the profound economic growth witnessed in pre-and post-revolutionary war periods in this country.

There is much in what Stark argues with which I agree. I wholly agree with his contention that Christianity provides the seedbed for the rise of reason and the scientific enterprise as well as concern for human rights and democratic institutions. I suspect, however, that his thesis is open to criticism on several fronts. One is the rise of authoritarian church institutions–is Christian belief too weak to prevent these. The second is the rise of tyrannous rule in “Christian” countries and the use of Christianity to justify tyranny. Finally, there is the question of Christian responses when revelation and reason appear to conflict–particularly efforts seeking to suppress free inquiry. I do not see Stark addressing these “counterfactuals”, and perhaps he could not in a work of this size for an educated general audience. I think all of these objections can be met in a way that do not detract from his thesis, and because of this believe this a valuable addition countering popular misconceptions of Christian faith.

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My Books Are Talking to Each Other!

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My books are talking to each other.  Some of you suspected I was a little crazy–now you know!  Seriously, have you ever had the experience of reading a couple works that either directly, or via your own thoughts, were in a conversation with each other?

I am currently reading Rodney Stark’s Victory of Reason and Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason (reviews in the next couple weeks).  Stark argues that medieval Christianity in fact was responsible for the rise of universities, the scientific enterprise, European capitalism, and human rights–all before either the Reformation or the Renaissance. Stark contends that Christianity, among all the religions, has an openness to reason that is reflected in the development of doctrine over time–that belief is not etched in stone but evolves over time responding to different social situations.  This openness to reason and progress in Stark’s mind accounts for this remarkable development of civilization during the supposed “Dark” Ages.

Worthen is addressing a very different period–the post World War II period up to the present and the neo-evangelical movement led by Carl F H Henry, Billy Graham and others that sought to maintain doctrinal ties with late 19th-early 20th century fundamentalism while promoting an intellectual and social engagement with the broader American culture.  I am only part way into the book but it appears that Worthen is exploring the fault lines that develop in this movement as the tension between its view of biblical inerrancy and authority and its attempt to articulate a reasonable faith become apparent.

The interesting conversation for me is around the differing perceptions of Christianity’s engagement with reason at different points–at some times, a friend, at others, an enemy or at least a bugbear.   I’m considering several questions as I read:  is Stark’s account of faith and reason in early Christian history accurate? is Worthen’s of American neo-evangelicalism?  is there a difference in the ways Christians engage society dependent on whether authority resides in the “magisterium” or in an inerrant or trustworthy scripture personally interpreted by a priesthood of all believers? When does orthodoxy foster creative engagement with the world and when does it stifle it?

While the authors (at least as far as I’ve read) don’t engage each other, their shared discussion of authority, faith, and reason and their differing perspectives provoke hard and good thinking.  That, it seems to me, is one of the important reasons for reading good and significant books.

Years ago, Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago and Great Books fame wrote an article (available as a free .pdf here) on The Great Conversation.  His contention is that the Great Books explore perennially great ideas and that over time, the different writers are engaged in a conversation with each other regarding these ideas.  By reading, we get to join in.

When have you found your books talking to each other?  And how have you been changed by that conversation?