Getting Stupid:  Confessions of a (former) atheist Philosopher of Religion

Getting Stupid: Confessions of a (former) atheist Philosopher of Religion

“I have already noted in passing that everything goes wrong without God.  This is true even of the good things he has given us such as our minds.  One of the good things I’ve been given is a stronger than average mind.  I don’t make the observation to boast.  Human beings are given diverse gifts to serve Him in diverse ways.  The problem is that a strong mind that refuses the call to serve God has its own way of going wrong.  When some people flee from God, they rob and kill.  When others flee from God they do a lot of drugs and have a lot of (multiple-partner) sex.  When I fled from God I didn’t do any of these things.  My way of fleeing was to get stupid.  Though it always comes as a surprise to intellectuals, there are some forms of stupidity that one must be highly intelligent and educated to achieve.  God keeps them in His arsenal to pull down mulish pride, and I discovered them all.  That is how I ended up doing a doctoral dissertation to prove that we make up the difference between good and evil and that we aren’t responsible for what we do.  I remember now that I even taught these things to students.  Now that’s sin. 

It was also agony.  You cannot imagine what a person has to do to himself – well, if you’re like I was, maybe you can, what a person has to do to himself to go on believing such nonsense.  St Paul said that the knowledge of God’s law is written on our hearts, our consciences also bearing witness.  The way natural-law thinkers put this, is to say that they constitute the deep structure of our minds.  That means that so long as we have minds, we can’t not know them.  I was unusually determined not to know them, therefore I had to destroy my mind.  I resisted the temptation to believe in good with as much energy as some saints resist the temptation to neglect good.  For instance, I loved my wife and children, but I was determined to regard this love as merely subjective preference with really no objective value.  Think what this did to my very capacity to love them.  After all, love is a commitment to the will of the true good of another person, and how can one be committed to the true good of another person if he denies the reality of good, denies the reality of persons and denies that his commitments are in his control?

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Absolutes, Possibilities and Silence – how to read the Bible properly

Any doctrinal study of any kind must be thorough.  Beginning with the Old Testament, via the inter-testamental period (if necessary) and progressing through the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels, and concluding with Acts and the Letters.  Every study must work through the whole of what every text is a part!  Of course, this approach assumes that Scripture is authoritative and inspired by the Holy Spirit – the Third Person of the Trinity!  To not be convinced of this will lead to eisegesis, a form of study that merely seeks to bolster and promote a view already held – although a belief in the Trinity is no guarantee at all that eisegesis will not win the day!

Cultural and linguistic background studies must be exhausted, followed by exegetical questions about the passage in question, with whatever doctrine is in mind; this is especially true in our day when many within and with-out the Church seem to foam at the mouth regarding “the authority of women”, “women in the Church” or “homosexuality” or whatever!

I think the Bereans of Acts 17:11 are a great acid test here:  “With great eagerness [they] examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true!”  Note: if what Paul said was true!  They surely knew not of whom they spoke!  But all credit to them.  Integrity, openness, honesty and desire all the way.

Anyone engaging in exegetical study, or Bible study, must use sound principles of interpretive method and procedure.  Openness and honesty, as already stated, is primary, especially in any polarised topic or doctrine.

The exegetical student must recognise and distinguish between:

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The God Who is There

Slavoj Zizek, Slovinian philosopher and cultural critic, said that the only way to be a true atheist is to go through Christianity.  This series of videos will do just that!

D. A. Carson takes us through the whole Bible storyline in this excellent series designed for those who know nothing or very little about the Bible or the Gospel.  Enjoy.

Mugged by the Preacher

mugged2After reading a very interesting post about preaching and the use of powerpoint, I made the comment that when preaching relies heavily on various educational/learning theories, something is lost:  it’s like being mugged!

And I suspect we’ve all sat through sermons where we’ve thought we’re being spun a yarn here, a high profile visual there, a cheap anecdote that tries to cover a complicated theological issue somewhere else!  It becomes instinctive to want good preaching.  Why have a hamburger when the Gospel offers steak?

Anyway, whilst walking the dogs this morning, I made mental notes of what sort of things I mean by being mugged by the preacher.  Here’s a few in no particular order, and I’d be delighted if you wanted to add any more…

1.  Emotionalism as a substitute for a poor vocabulary.

2.  Anecdote after anecdote after anecdote after anecdote……

3.  Gospel reductionism.

4.  Moralistic self-improvement try-harder blah blah blah.

5.  Power Point slides for EVERYTHING the preacher says, including all the “Umm’s”.

6.  Pretexts and proof-texts that ignore the context.

7.  Generic appeals from a generic point made by a generic preacher requesting generic behaviour modifications.

8.  Ever thought, “Tell me something I don’t know already!”?  (with thanks to TBWNN for that line.  NB. I would have used their official web site for the link but all it seemed to be was a picture of a horse coming out of a photograph – I didn’t know that already)!

9.  When a poor understanding of the text is painfully exposed in preaching reveals the result of poor reading in and around the subject.

10.  Cliche and sentimental preaching.  A teary eyed preacher running out of ideas, but with high emotion pulls out an X-Factor style story to woo the congregation.

11.  When the preacher leaves me knowing what he’s against, not what i. he is for and ii.  what the Gospel actually is.

12.  When the preacher thinks the Holy Spirit will do his/her homework for him.

13.  The assumption that when preaching, everything has to be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.  Thus ensuring another generation is infantalised.

14.  When the Gospel is reduced to “the gospels” and so becomes glorified Sunday School stories.

I have found this exercise both a little fun and quite upsetting.  How we cheapen the Gospel of Jesus Christ!  But, even though I am sure I am guilty of all of these points at some point in my preaching journey, it just goes to show that His grace and mercy are enough to see the silliest of preachers through the darkest of moments, and for that I am a grateful preacher, standing in grace, proclaiming in power.

I would like to recommend a few books and web links (in no particular order) to point budding and growing preachers in the right direction.  They are…

The Glory of Preaching by Darrell W. Johnson

Expository Preaching by Haddon W. Robinson

Preacher, Keep yourself from idols by Derek Tidball

The primacy of Expository Preaching by D. A. Carson

Biblical Preaching an excellent internet resource by Peter Mead at Cor Deo

Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind by P. T. Forsyth (pdf)

Preacher, don’t mug your congregation.  Christian, don’t be fooled by cheap preaching.

Doing Theology

Theology

Theology is the most amazing subject, and one of the most misunderstood.  It can relate to the entire discipline of religious studies, but Christian theology is more specifically the study of what the Scriptures say.  This is not minimalism, since this study includes exegesis, historical criticism, careful analysis of method and epistemology, and then comes the careful presentation of this.  Theology can thus be defined like this:  disciplined discourse about God.  This discourse is fully and finally constrained by the Bible.

Exegesis

Exegesis is the study and work carried out on the final form of the text which is considered as an integral and self-referring literary object.  It includes, but is not limited to parsing, word study, and syntax at various levels (clause, sentence, discourse, genre) while being attentive to literary features and the running argument. The running argument is the idea that the task of the exegete is never complete.  One can study a text using all the skill and tools available, and get to the end of the text and be satisfied, and in this sense it is complete, but the self-referential nature of the authority of Scripture means that an ‘end’ is never achieved, since it is God’s ever speaking Word to us through all generations.  It is because there is always something to discover in God Himself, that there is likewise a never-ending discovery awaiting the careful reader of the Bible.

Biblical Theology

There are about six competing definitions of Biblical Theology, which make it quite hard to define.  However, Biblical Theology may inductively focus on the whole Bible or select biblical corpora.  It certainly involves a salvation-historical study of the biblical texts; this is the understanding and exposition of the texts along their chronological line of development – this aspect of Biblical Theology is vital for preachers today in a age of almost total biblical illiteracy.  Five elements are essential to Biblical Theology:  1.   It reads the Bible as an historically developing collection of documents.  2.  It presupposes a coherent and agreed canon.  3.  It presupposes a profound willingness to work inductively from the text – from individual books and from the canon as a whole.  Its task is to deploy categories and pursue an agenda set by the text itself.  4.  It clarifies the connections among the corpora, i.e. it is committed to intertextual study, because Biblical theology, at its most coherent, is a theology of the Bible.   5.  Ultimately and ideally, Biblical Theology will call all people to a knowledge of the living God.  In other words, it does not stop with the Bible’s structure, corpus thought, storyline, or synthetic thought; it must in a sense, capture the experiential, the existential element.

Biblical Theology focuses on the turning points of the Bible’s storyline, and its most pivotal concern is tied to the use of the Old Testament in the New.  All Christians must read the Old as filtered through the New.  Old and New Testaments are subsets of Biblical Theology, which forms the whole.

Historical Theology

Historical Theology is the written record of exegetical and theological opinions in periods earlier than our own, a kind of parallel to the diversity of exegetical and theological opinions that are actually current.  It is what is known as the diachronic study of theology, the study of the changing face of theology across time.

Systematic Theology

Systematic Theology is Christian theology with a systematic internal structure.  This means it is organised on atemporal principles of logic, order, and need, rather than on inductive study of discrete biblical corpora.  This is why it can address broader concerns in Theology.  Thus Don Carson can say, “It is not merely inductive study of the Bible, though it must never lose such controls, but it seeks to be rigorously systematic and is therefore concerned about how various parts of God’s gracious self-disclosure cohere… The questions it poses are atemporal… the focal concerns are logical and hierarchical, not salvation-historical.”

Some people cheaply knock Systematic Theology, which is foolish.  The issue is not whether it is legitimate, the issue is the quality of one’s Systematic Theology reflected in its foundational data, constructive methods, principles for excluding certain information, appropriately expressive language, and logical, accurate results.  Ultimately, Systematics must be controlled by the biblical data and be aware of going beyond how various truths and arguments function in Scripture, not least because a number of fundamental Christian beliefs involves huge areas of unknown, such as the Incarnation, Trinity, and God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.  It is precisely because the Bible has a unity that Systematics is necessary.

Who Needs Theology?

Theology is the most exciting thing on the planet, no, the universe, no even that’s too small.  Theology is amazing because God Himself is amazing.  I heartily recommend the book ‘Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God’ by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olsen as a great place to start.  It will even make you laugh – who says theology wasn’t fun?  My thanks for the above to Andy Naselli, who has worked closely with Dr Don Carson over many years.  You have made theology exciting to me, and I hope the flame burns bright in others.

Gospel Aspiration

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“Put the advance of the gospel at the centre of your aspirations.  Our own comfort, our bruised feelings, our reputations, the misunderstandings of our motives – all of these are insignificant in comparison with the advance and splendour of the gospel.  As Christians we are called upon to put the advance of the gospel at the very centre of our aspirations. Continue reading