Category Archives: apologetics

The Dawning Age of Intolerance

D. A. Carson is coming out with a new book called The Intolerance of Tolerance. Carson is one of the sharpest minds in the evangelical world today. Anything he writes is worth reading but this is a topic that is of great importance for us today. Here is the publisher’s description:

 We live in a culture obsessed with the idea of “tolerance.” Any viewpoint must be accepted —unless it rejects other viewpoints — and whoever is most earnest wins. This idea of tolerance must be thoughtfully challenged, argues D. A. Carson, both for the good of the church and for the good of the broader culture. Otherwise, poorly defined tolerance drifts ironically toward true intolerance.

 Carson examines how the definition of tolerance has changed. It now has less to do with recognizing the right of another to disagree with us, and more to do with not saying that others are wrong. It is impossible to deploy this new tolerance consistently, so that actual practice is often whimsical and arbitrary. Worse, the word “tolerance” has almost become an absolute good, and “intolerance” an absolute bad. Tolerance and intolerance have become merely rhetorical terms of approval and disapproval.

 Despite many negatives about the new, often ethically silly definitions of tolerance, from a Christian perspective there have been gains as well. In fact, Carson says, the nature of the Christian revelation is such that some tension in our understanding and practice of tolerance is inevitable.

 In this extremely readable volume, Carson uses anecdotes and quotes to illustrate his points and ends with practical advice on exemplifying and promoting the virtue of civil civic discourse.

 Here is a clip to give you a foretaste of the things Carson addresses in the book in detail.

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The Way We See the World

As I preach through 1 Corinthians I continue to be impressed by the radical difference between the ways that Scripture portrays a Christian and non-Christian worldview. Here are just a few examples:

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1:18)

“Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God to save those who believe.” (1:20b-21)

“And my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (2:4-5)

“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned…For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” (2:14, 16)

Cornelius Van Til comments on the difference between Christian and non-Christian thinking:

“Reformed Christians should realize that the non-Christian may have, and often does have, a brilliant mind. It may act efficiently, like a sharp circular saw acts efficiently. We may greatly admire such a mind for what, in spite of its basic principle and because of the fact that God has released its powers in his restraining grace, it has done. For all that, it must not be forgotten that this mind is still, be its name Aristotle, a covenant breaker in Adam.

            Aristotle knew how to use logic. [Yet] He came to the conclusion that God is not the Creator of man, knows nothing, is not a person. His conclusion was consistent with his premise. His logic was involved in his metaphysics as his metaphysics was involved in his logic.”

The Defense of the Faith, p. 293.

No human being, regardless of their intelligence or ignorance, has access to “brute” facts. That is, no human being has access to uninterpreted facts. And our interpretation of all facts is based on our assumptions about God’s existence and involvement in the world. We all look at the world around us but we each see it from the vantage point of either faith or unbelief. Then we build our understanding up from that point. This is often not a conscious process, but it is a reality nonetheless. This bottom-line presupposition determines how we understand all other things.

Judgment Day…The Biblical Perspective

Many of us have seen the recent flurry billboards with the message of Judgment Day on May 21st. This is an idea that is being promoted by a man named Harold Camping. Is anyone being persuaded by this? It seems that some are, although anyone I have talked to seems to think he is simply a nutcase. 

This generally negative reaction is good in one sense because Harold Camping is not actually giving an accurate Christian message and it appears that most people are seeing him for what he is. The Bible does not make the claims about a particular date for Christ’s return that Camping does. In fact, it teaches the opposite. We do not know when the Lord will come back. For  instance:

“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only…Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:36, 44)

“But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.” (Luke 12:39-40)

“But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” (2 Peter 3:10)

The repeated teaching of Scripture is that there will be a judgment day when Christ returns. But the date is not revealed to us. God has not given Harold Camping any secret knowledge that would trump what he already said in the Scripture. Jesus could return at any time…today, tomorrow, May 21st 2011, May 21st 3011. God simply hasn’t told us.  

But this brings up two more points of concern that I have with the way Camping is talking about Judgment Day.

  1. The Lord can come whenever he wants, but assuming God does not select the same date as Harold Camping, May 21st will pass without any fanfare. (Our church as scheduled a seminar on the 21st on the topic of preparing for a future marriage so you know how much stock we are putting into this date!) For non-Christians who have heard his message, and wrongfully associated him with the biblical teaching, this may have the effect of diminishing the credibility of any teaching that God will judge humanity. It will just sound like another religious eccentric droning on with a gloom and doom message. The tendency to say “we’ve heard that before” will be understandable. So let’s distinguish between date-setting eccentrics and those who patiently live in spiritual readiness for the return of Christ. 
  2. It is good to talk about the return of Christ to judge and save. But the way Camping talks about judgment seems to be missing something significant: the judgment that already happened. The irony is that the judgment of Christ on the cross of Calvary 2000 years ago is sort of left behind in all of this. But we can’t really understand the judgment to come without understanding the judgment that already happened. And we certainly can’t be spiritually ready and watchful without understanding this. At the cross, our sins were judged. God has judged the sins of his people in the wrath that he poured out on his Son as our substitute. The sinless Son of God was our sin-bearer at the cross and all who repent of their sins and put their faith in him will find mercy from God. They are forgiven of their sins and given the free gift of eternal life. Camping’s billboards and radio programs say that people should cry mightily unto God, but why bother if all they hear is that God is angry and they are going to be toast anyway? Without the good news of the judgment that happened 2,000 years ago, there would be no hope for people preparing for a future judgment. But there is hope and that hope is in Christ.

What should the church do at this point? Well, we should distinguish between the teaching of the Bible and unorthodox teachers like Camping. And we should be ready to minister the good news of the gospel to a group of very disillusioned people on the 22nd of May.

James White has put together a nice list of resources for those who are interested in further study.

The Day Is Coming For Trash-Talking Death

What do Kobe Bryant, Super-Bowl spectators, and the Bible have in common? Give up? Inevitably, they all end up doing a fair amount of trash-talking.

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets…” (Heb. 1:1). It may come as some surprise that one of the many ways that God spoke through his prophets includes trash-talking. Ok, the term trash-talking is not in the Bible, but the idea of trash-talking definitely  is. The biblical term for trash-talking is a “taunt” or a “taunt song.” Old Testament scholars recognize this as a literary genre and technically define it as:

“Any work of literature in which the central ingredient is a mocking, jeering, or put-down of an enemy or guilty party, often in a formalized manner…”

Granted, this trash-talking is a little bit different than the form that I perfected on the basketball courts as a kid. In fact, the kind of self-glorying trash-talking that I did as a kid is a microcosm of the kind of anti-God arrogance that God deals with severely in Scripture. All forms of human self-exaltaion are fair-game for a divine taunt. Put simply, God taunts his enemies for the sake of exalting his glory.

In the Old Testament there were numerous times where God told his people to taunt their enemies. And other times, God’s people made themselves into his enemies and they receive taunting from God. The taunt would come when these pompus enemies of God finally came under God’s judgment and their power and pride were stripped from them. Here are just a few examples:

“You shall take up the taunt against the king of Babylon…” Is. 14:4

“You shall be a reproach and a taunt…when I execute judgments on you in anger and fury…” (Ezek. 5:15)

“He who sits in the heavens laughs, the LORD will hold them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury…” (Ps. 2:4)

“Shall not all these take up their taunt against [the arrogant man]” (Hab. 2:6; cf. v. 5)

But the greatest of all taunts is yet to come because the greatest of all enemies is yet to be put down for good. As Paul says,

“For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor. 15:25-26)

When this happens, all God’s people will be involved in the biggest God-glorying, trash-talking fest that has ever been witnessed. Scripture says,

“then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'”                  (1 Cor. 15:54-55)

I think Athanasius captured this as well as anyone I know:

“For as when a tyrant has been defeated by a real king, and bound hand and foot, then all that pass by laugh him to scorn, buffeting and reviling him, no longer fearing his fury and barbarity, because of the king who has conquered him; so also, death having been conquered and exposed by the Saviour on the Cross, and bound hand and foot, all they who are in Christ, as they pass by, trample on him, and witnessing to Christ scoff at death, jesting at him, and saying what has been written against him of old: ‘O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?’”[1]

Trash-talking death is the flip side of exalting the resurrection of Christ.
This taunt serves the purpose of exalting the ultimate authority, power, eternality, deity, all-conquering grace, and total supremacy of God over all of his enemies. Paul quickly flows from taunting the great enemy of God and men to praising God through his Son!
“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (v. 57)
The present joy of the Christian is in the knowledge that the victory is as good as done.  We no longer live in the slavery of paralyzing fear of our enemy death. Instead we rejoice in the death of death in the death of Christ! Because Christ lives, we who are in Christ will live also. We will happily proclaim the ultimate taunt over the last enemy in consequence of the death and resurrection of Jesus which has already taken place!

[1] Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, NPNF, vol. 4, p. 51.

Christian Fellowship While We Are In the World

During the first four months of 1935, J. Gresham Machen gave a series of radio lectures on the topic of the Christian faith. The specific topics were among the ones that were being particularly contested in his day (the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the nature of God, and the person of Christ). Machen was truly a defender of the faith. With sadness, the cause of truth led him to separate from the increasingly liberal Princeton Seminary where he had taught New Testament from 1906-1929, in order to found Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. Then six months before his death, he was a leader in the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church after separating from the liberal PCUSA. When he gave these talks in 1935, he was in the latter years of his controversy-filled life which ended somewhat abruptly in January of 1937. The broadcasts were later compiled and published (after his death) in 1945  under the title “The Christian Faith in the Modern World.”

With the trials and trauma of Machen’s heroic life in mind, it is very meaningful to read a series of remarks that he makes in the introduction to his final lecture in the series. He says:

“These are rather trying days to a man who sorrows when a visible Church that professes to believe the Word of God turns away from it so often into the pathways of unbelief and sin; and in such days it is doubly comforting to converse with those who truly love the Gospel of Christ and believe that it alone is the message that is forever new. I do rejoice with all my heart in the Christian fellowship which we have together, and I trust that God may richly bless you, both in joy and in sorrow, and may by His Holy Spirit cause you always to be grounded upon the rock of His Holy Word.”[1]

Machen found his trek through the Christian life to be tiresome in both soul and body. Yet, for him, the Word of God was a solid rock on which to stand and he was greatly encouraged that he did not stand there alone. I hope that you have the same joy in the Holy Spirit, stability in the Word of God and sweetness of Christian fellowship while in the world. I am reminded of the words of our Lord Jesus:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
(John 16:33)

[1] J. Gresham Machen, The Christian Faith In The Modern World, p. 231.

Apologetics Conference

The Mid-Atlantic Bible Fellowship Fall Conference will be held in Columbia Maryland on Saturday, Oct. 30. I am told that these conferences are done well and the topic this Fall is certainly an important one, presuppositional apologetics. In addition, Nate Graham, a friend and local Delaware pastor with a strong biblical ministry, will be teaching the session on the deity of Christ. 

A Christian’s approach to defending their faith should reflect the basic convictions of that same faith. What a Christian believes about the Bible, about God, about man, about Christ, about the Christian faith in its entirety, will (or should) dictate the way he defends those same doctrines. In other words, an approach to apologetics should never be separated from our theology. This is why I appreciate the Calvinistic doctrinal convictions of the MABF which govern the approach to this conference. As Cornelius Van Til has said:

“Apologetics, like systematics, is valuable to the precise extent that it presses the truth upon the attention of the natural man. The natural man must be blasted out of his hideouts, his caves, his last lurking places. Neither a Roman Catholic nor an Arminian methodology has the flame-throwers with which to reach him. In the all-out war between the Christian and the natural man as he appears in modern garb, it is only the atomic energy of a truly Reformed methodology that will explode the last Festung [fortress, stronghold] to which the Roman Catholic and the Arminian always permit him to retreat and to dwell in safety.” The Defense of the Faith, p. 127.

It is sure to be a  profitable day. Check it out if you have the time. Here is a blurb:

How can a Christian declare the Word of God to the unbeliever when that unbeliever does not even believe anyone can be certain about God or His Word? How can you accomplish this in a God-honoring manner that also does not compromise the authority of the Bible?

The Mid-Atlantic Bible Fellowship Fall Conference will demonstrate how to use the Word of God to defend the Christian faith and challenge the unbeliever’s worldview. This conference is designed to show the believer in Christ why he should proclaim the Gospel of Christ boldly, and trust the power of God to persuade men. It will also help to deepen the conviction that the Bible is the self-authenticating word of God and can be used to evangelize everyone from atheists to those committed to another religion.

A Smoking Argument and a Smoking Pipe

I am reminded of Ps. 2. The heathen rage…God laughs.

HT: Justin Taylor

Conduct In Controversy

I love regularly returning to study the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Recently, I picked up the short book Justification Vindicated by Robert Traill and found a surprising nugget at the end. In his day (1642-1716), controversy swirled around this precious doctrine of the gospel. After forcefully defending the doctrine itself, Traill found it profitable to give a few words regarding the proper way to conduct oneself in the midst of controversy. His advice is wise and a few of his thoughts are worth reproducing here for our edification:

So that good may come out of this controversy, let me request a few things of my brethren.

1. Let us not recieve reports suddenly of one another. In times of contention, many false reports are raised and rashly believed. This is both the fruit and fuel of contention…

2. Let us make Christ crucified our great study, as Christians; and the preaching of him our main work, as ministers (1 Cor. 2:2)…

3. Let us study hard and pray much to know the truth and to cleave to it…

4. Let us not run into extremes, upon the right or left hand, through the heat of contention…

And at the end he adds:

The wisdom of God sometimes orders the different opinions of men about his truth for the clearing and confirming of it; each side watch the extremes that others may be in hazard of running into. And if the controversy is fairly and meekly managed in this way we may differ and plead our opinions and both love and edify those we oppose and be loved and edified by them in their opposition.

When we find ourselves in controversy, may God grant us divine wisdom for a gracious disposition. I am reminded of the words of Colossians 4:6:

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”

Amazed by the Atom

“We hold that the atom is mysterious for us, but not for God…The fact that we do not fully comprehend the atom should not make us grow desperate with respect to the truth of the atom. When a Christian sees the atom surrounded by mystery, he worships God; when the non-Christian scientist sees the atom surrounded by mystery, he worships the void.” Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 61.

‘The Bible is My Creed’ Pt. IV

What about the biblical testimony itself? We are asking and answering a question over the last series of posts: “Can a Christian use extra-biblical words to express Christian doctrine?” Some say no. Sometimes it is assumed by those who promote this errant view that that their view is self-evidently the view of the Bible. But, as historian Tom Nettles points out, “Ironically, no one can demonstrate that the creed of ‘having no creed but the Bible’ can be established by careful biblical interpretation. In fact, biblical expectation of discipleship virtually mandates that followers of Christ make bold confession of propositional truth coherently arranged by which they declare their faith and test its existence in others,” The Baptists: Key People in Forming A Baptist Identity; Vol. 1, Beginnings in Britain, p. 33.

In Scripture, we always come away with the idea that the Bible is the supreme authority over all other authorities and that it is the ultimate source of truth but we never get the idea that the only authority or only source of truth. We come away with the idea that the words of Scripture are uniquely and truly God’s words but we do not come away with the idea that the only way we can say true things about God is to merely repeat the words of Scripture.

In practice, if this errant view were applied consistently then we could actually no longer have preachers of God’s Word. At best, we could only have enthusiastic readers of God’s Word. But this is not what we see in Scripture. We see preaching. We see explanation. We see argumentation. We see clarification. Using extra-biblical words is not the same as speaking unbiblically. To be a servant of the Word requires these things and we see them happening in Scripture with God’s approval.

For instance, in Nehemiah 8, the Law was being read and then also explained in words the people could understand and appreciate better. “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (v. 8). In fact, as Ezra read to the crowd from the platform, thirteen other men were going in and out of the people explaining what those biblical words that he was reading meant (v. 7). Certainly, in “giving the sense,” they were doing more than just repeating the same words that Ezra read, but at a closer distance.

Isaiah says the “LORD God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary” (Is. 50:4). Isaiah says he knows how to sustain a weary person with a word. This knowledge goes beyond merely repeating or reading God’s words. It means that Isaiah has an ability to articulate and apply God’s words in a way that sustains his hearers. He said he shares this ability with others “who are taught” (i.e. who learn to handle Scripture in this way). Since Isaiah says, “Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught,” I believe this is aside from what we would recognize as Isaiah’s specific inspired writing and prophecy which undoubtedly did not occur on a daily basis. This is simply Isaiah daily learning from God and daily learning to handle the word as a disciple.

In the New Testament, Timothy is exhorted by Paul to devote himself, not only to the “public reading of Scripture,” but also “to exhortation” and “to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). Clearly, there is a difference between reading and teaching. Something more than a mere recitation of the words of Scripture is required here.

Paul says false teachers are those whose teaching “does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3). Notice that Paul speaks of agreement, not repetition. Faithfulness to Scripture means we have the same meaning, not necessarily the same wording. In other words, there must be agreement in substance, not duplication in actual verbiage.

Furthermore, it is very likely that there are ancient Christian creeds, which predate Scripture, and later came to be incorporated into the actual text of Scripture. For instance, Paul is well known for his references to “trustworthy sayings” in his pastoral letters. These were expressions that were well-known in the church in Paul’s day. And Paul is telling Timothy that these well-worn sayings that had become common in the church could be counted on as expressing reliable doctrinal truth. This shows (1) that the apostolic church generally felt the liberty to express theological truth in their own words and (2) the apostle Paul even gives his stamp of approval on several of the specific sayings (1 Tim. 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8). An example of a slightly larger creed that found its way into the canonical Scripture is in 1 Tim. 3:16. This is an early confession of faith that Paul quotes and many of the early Christians would have recognized. Most biblical scholars also recognize Colossians 1:15-20 to contain an ancient hymn that Paul quoted in order to tell the Colossian church about the preeminence of Christ.

Even pagans with no knowledge of Scripture can sometimes say true things about God. Paul quotes the words of pagan philosophers in Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12 in order to express and support Christian truth.

A pastor who is going to be faithful must be a servant of the Word of God. This means that he must be prepared to read it, quote it, sing it and pray it.  But it also means that he must be prepared to explain, exhort, clarify, teach, preach, summarize, systematize and apply the Word. I don’t want to be understood to be arguing for less biblical preaching and praying. On the contrary, I want to argue for more biblical and more informed preaching and praying. If we limit ourselves to merely repeating the words of Scripture, we are creating a concept that is foreign to the Bible and we will not be faithful to Scripture itself.

“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:2)