Thursday, January 27, 2011

Unhelpful Answers: On the Incarnation

One of the most persistent criticisms of the Christian faith is that the incarnation is impossible and involves a logical contradiction. This criticism has been around since the time of the apostles and has been raised by Jews, Muslims, ancient Greek and modern philosophers, some theological liberals, and many others. The basis of this charge is the idea that the attributes of the divine and the attributes of the human are mutually exclusive and cannot exist together in the same person or entity. The divine is eternal, omniscient, immutable, and impassible whereas the human is temporal, limited in knowledge, subject to change, and passionate.

A common but unhelpful answer that Christians sometimes give (following Kierkegaard) is that the incarnation does involve a contradiction and that true faith requires accepting such contradictions. As we have frequently pointed out in other posts this is not an acceptable solution. If Christianity involves actual contradictions then it is necessarily false because something cannot be both true and false at the same time. While our faith certainly involves believing things that we cannot fully comprehend (beyond reason) we are never asked to believe things that are irrational (against reason).

If, however, we maintain that the Christian faith is logically coherent how do we respond to the assertion that the incarnation is contradictory and therefore impossible? The most popular response, known as the Kenotic view, is to explain that Christ emptied Himself of certain divine attributes when He came as a man. The chief support for this explanation comes from an incorrect interpretation of Philippians 2:5-7.

 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but made himself nothing [literally emptied himself], taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
(Philippians 2:5-7 ESV)

Despite the popularity of this explanation it has some rather serious problems. If Jesus relinquished divine attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence, etc. then either He ceased to be God while on Earth or those attributes that He gave up are not necessary attributes of divinity. If Jesus wasn’t fully God then obviously Christianity is false. On the other hand, if Jesus was God but was able to give up attributes such as eternality then they are not essential to God. If this is the case then the Christian understanding of God is incorrect and Christianity is false. The Kenotic view requires either a Christ that isn’t fully divine or a God that does not have the intrinsic attributes that the Bible attributes to Him.

A much better logical defense of the incarnation is given by the philosopher Thomas V. Morris in his book  The Logic of God Incarnate . We must realize that the Christian teaching is not that the infinite divine nature was encapsulated within a finite human nature (a common mischaracterization) but rather that the divine nature was united with a human nature. It is not that God laid aside His nature to become human but rather that in the Son humanity is added to the divine nature. A contradiction would arise if any of the essential properties of divinity and humanity were mutually exclusive. Morris argues that this isn’t the case.

First, Morris points out that there is a distinction between being something fully and being something merely. To be something fully is to possess all of the essential properties necessary to its being (an essential property is something that it must necessarily possess in order to be what it is). To be something merely is to possess the necessary properties to be a member of one particular class but does not possess the essential properties necessary to also belong to another class. For example, the Eiffel Tower is fully a radio broadcasting tower but it is not merely a radio broadcasting tower. It has all of the essential properties necessary to be a broadcasting tower but it also possesses other properties that give it a definitive identity as a symbol of Paris that other broadcast towers do not.

Morris then goes on to argue that the criticism of contradiction is the result of a failure to make an important distinction between common and essential properties. If something is an essential property it is necessary that all members of a particular class possess it. Common properties on the other hand are those properties that are generally possessed by any member of a particular class but are not necessary. For example, a human nature is an essential property of humans while arms are a common property. An entity without a human nature is by definition not a human but a person without arms is fully human though they lack something that is common to humans. Morris explains that just because every human possesses some property it does not follow that it is essential. He gives the example of being born within a certain number of miles from the surface of the Earth. Every human who has ever lived has been born on Earth (common property) but it is not necessary that this is the case. If a baby were born in a space station somewhere else in the solar system the child would still be a human being.

According to Morris, properties such as limited power, knowledge, and life span are common but not essential properties of humanity. If this is the case then there is no logical contradiction involved in God taking upon Himself humanity because a being that possessed all of the essential properties of both humanity and divinity would be fully divine and also fully, though not merely, human.

There are other arguments in Morris’ book that are problematic but his demonstration that the incarnation does not involve logical inconsistencies is brilliant. He shows us that there are reasonable responses to such criticisms that do not require abandoning the historical claims of the faith or a retreat into an irrational mystical faith emptied of doctrinal content. There is no reason to retreat from the faith in the face of critical arguments because they will all fail, just as they always have “for it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (1 Cor. 1:20).

Monday, January 24, 2011

Studie to shewe thy selfe approued

The King James version translates 2 Timothy 2:15 as “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” A number of other older translations give the same or a very similar translation (the title of the post was taken from the Geneva Bible (1557) translation of the verse). None of the modern translations that I am aware of translate the verse in this way. The word “study” is translated variously as “be diligent”, “do your best”, or “work hard”. I was asked if the KJV mistranslated the verse, there is a variant reading in the manuscripts, or if the modern translators are being influenced by some other concern.

The fact is that the difference in the translation of this verse between the KJV and the more recent (and actually some even older ones like Wycliffe & Tyndale) translations is not the result of any of these factors. The fact is that it is not really a different translation at all. Languages change over time and particular words often have a shift in their potential meanings. Every word has what is called a semantic range which is the range of various meanings that the word carries. Over time the semantic range of any word may change. Sometimes words come to have a broader range of meanings (such as the word icon) and in some cases the range of meanings will become more restricted (like the words engine, meat, or accident). Most English words have at least 3 or 4 distinct potential meanings.

The differences in these translations are the result of a semantic shift between the Elizabethan and modern definitions of the word “study”. The Greek word that is being translated is the word σπούδασον which means to make an effort, pursue diligently, or to be prompt. At the time that the King James Version, the Geneva Bible, and others were being translated this is exactly what the word “study” meant. The original readers of the KJV would not have thought that the verse was a reference to bible study, but rather to urgent and diligent effort. There are many similar examples in the KJV where a word appears that is a commonly used modern word but has a shifted meaning. Examples include the words let, communicate, against, prevent, and ought, which are just a few of the words that have different meanings in the KJV than they have in modern English.

The translation of 2 Timothy 2:15 is actually the same in both the King James Version and most modern translations though each uses vocabulary appropriate to its own time. This is not an example of differences in the manuscripts or translation philosophy it is simply that the English words most appropriate to convey the meaning of the Greek word are different today than they were in 1611. I love the King James Version. It is the most significant book ever published in the English language and its influence is virtually incalculable in many different ways. Everyone who can afford a copy should have and use one but it is important that we take the time to understand it on the basis of its word usage rather than that of modern English.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Glimpse of Providence

Late in September of 1805 Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their corps of discovery had just overcome (with the help of Indians) perhaps the most significant obstacle of their historic journey. Their men had been on a forced march with little food over unforgiving terrain in the Bitterroot Mountains. As they descended the mountains the captains had reason to believe that they were within a couple of weeks from reaching the Pacific Ocean thus accomplishing one of the main goals of the expedition. However, while lodging with a group of Nez Perce Indians as they made preparations for their trip down the Columbia River to the ocean most of the men became ill. It was some kind of gastrointestinal malady possibly caused by bacteria on some fish they had eaten.

This U.S. military expedition was totally isolated, completely surrounded by Indians, and due to illness had a much reduced ability to defend itself. Had the Nez Perce killed the men, which they easily could have done, they would have taken possession of an impressive cache of supplies and weapons giving them valuable goods to trade as well as armaments that would have shifted the balance of power in the region. The Nez Perce were one of a number of tribes that did not have direct access to European or American goods. Had they taken the expeditions supplies they would have come into possession of the most powerful concentration of weapons (air-gun, small cannon, etc.) west of the Mississippi river at that time. It would have allowed them to better defend themselves against raids by other tribes such as the Blackfoot Indians (who had access to firearms) as they made their trips to hunt in the buffalo country each year thus expanding their power, influence, and access to important resources.

The Nez Perce, however, did not attack them. According to the oral tradition among the Nez Perce, there were deliberations about what to do with these white men. As they discussed the merits of killing them and taking their weapons an older woman named Wetxuuwiis (wet-COO-ees), discouraged the men from killing the travelers explaining to them that these men were from a people who had once helped her. Some years earlier this woman was captured by Blackfoot Indians who sold her to Canadian traders that took her as far east as the Great Lakes where she lived among them for some time before escaping and finding her way back home. She saw this as an opportunity to show gratitude for the kindness that she had been shown by the white men who treated her much better than the Blackfoot had.

To what extent the entire course of American and thus world history was altered by the simple kindness that a few white traders showed to a single Indian woman far from home will never be known. Every one of our actions and words ripples through the world in unpredictable ways. The smallest things can change history forever and it is a marvelous thing that the Lord works through all of those human decisions, good and bad, to ultimately accomplish His purposes. There are no accidents and no such thing as luck. One of the great comforts of the Christian life is that this life and everything in it has significance and purpose. As believers we can look back upon the tapestry of history that led to the particular circumstances of our salvation and know that it wasn’t an accident. For “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bad Philosophy can Land You in Deep Doo-Doo

“Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.”
-Romans 10:1-2 ESV

There is a well documented and easily observed culture of doctrinal indifference within many evangelical churches. Doctrine is considered divisive and obscure, something not worth getting tangled up in. The preference is to focus on living like Christ, being kind to our neighbors, and having a passionate commitment to the gospel. Emotion and initiative are often considered to be more valuable than learning and preparation. Of course, this is nothing new.

In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, published in 1846, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard argued that a pagan who prays to an idol with “the passion of the infinite” is more “in truth” than the orthodox Lutheran who prays to the true God in a false spirit. For Kierkegaard and those who follow his reasoning the what of belief is less important than the how of belief. This elevation of the experience of religion over the intellectual content of faith is really a rejection of the objective nature of the claims of Scripture in general, and Jesus Christ in particular. Unfortunately a subtle form of this kind of thinking has become a major and I fear growing influence in professing Christendom.

Perhaps it never occurred to Kierkegaard that the heathen praying to an idol as well as the hypocritical Lutheran who prayed in a false spirit would both be unpleasing to God but that is the message of the bible. Notice in the passage above that the zeal of the unbelieving Jews did not save them because it was “not according to knowledge”. The Scripture nowhere says that we can be saved solely by our understanding or our zeal.  The Truth must not only be understood but it also must be believed. A false belief though held passionately, is likewise useless. We are saved by faith in the Truth alone. What we believe matters and incorrect beliefs have bad consequences no matter how passionately they are held.

This isn’t only true of theological questions. Consider the ancient philosopher Hericlitus of Ephesus (535-475 b.c.), famous for his observation that one cannot step into the same river twice. He believed the universe was in a constant state of flux and part of his explanation of this was that there was a type of cosmic fire that was the basic element of change and animation in the world. Eventually Hericlitus became seriously ill with a disease (probably Edema). Convinced of his theory that the life force was some type of divine spark he attempted to increase his temperature in order to bring about a cure and had his followers smother him in fresh cow manure. He died.

It is true that few, if any, of our philosophical or theological errors are likely to land us literally in deep doo-doo like it did for him but the consequences for us are even greater. Passion and initiative are important but they must flow from what we know and authentic Christian passion cannot be separated from knowledge of the truth. We cannot live like Christ unless we know Him and how he lived. We cannot be kind to our neighbors unless we know who they are and what kindness is. Finally, we cannot have a passionate commitment to the gospel without knowing what it is. All of these things find their definitive explanations in God’s word (i.e. doctrine).

Not all of us have the same level of understanding or ability to articulate our faith but we are all saved by the same faith because there is only one kind of faith that can save, namely, faith in the Truth.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Ten-ish Commandments

One of the most well known and important passages of scripture for all Christians is the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments. These ten commands are a succinct summary of the moral law and often serve as a symbol of biblical morality in its entirety. It is probably for this reason that arguments about displaying them or removing them from public buildings such as courthouses and schools evoke such passionate responses from both sides. Posting them is not only a recognition of the various commands but also of the authority of the lawgiver from whence they arose. After all, there are many other commands and prohibitions in scripture but the bible tells us that these ten were written by the very finger of God (Exodus 31:18). Although many of these laws are recognized as good standards by people who do not believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob this particular compilation, especially with its first commandment, cannot be separated from the authority and character of the God of the Bible.

Given the importance of the Ten Commandments and their foundational theological function one would assume that there is a cut and dried list upon which all orthodox Christians (and Jews for that matter) agree. What many people do not realize is that while all orthodox Christians accept the same set of imperatives there is not agreement about how those commands should be grouped. The following chart is a general comparison of how each tradition approaches the grouping.


The Jews categorize these texts in a grouping of 10 sayings rather than commands primarily as a result of the way in which these texts are referred to elsewhere in the Old Testament whereas the Christian categorization tends to focus more on the commands or moral imperatives grouped together in such a way as to be related to ten distinct emphases. Notice that there are more than 10 specific commands listed. Exodus 20:17 alone contains seven specific commands which are combined into either one or two “commandments” depending upon the tradition. Since the last of these, not coveting anything of your neighbors, entails the other 6 (wife, house, ox, etc.) plus the fact that the order of these is different in the listing given in Deuteronomy 5:21 the idea that they are all part of a single categorical command is reasonable.

Protestants often allege that the Roman Catholics essentially deleted the second commandment in order to support their use of iconic statues. Catholics claim that Protestants changed the grouping in order to support their opposition to the use of such figures. Did the various groupings arise as the result of an iconoclastic dispute?

If so, it was not the iconoclast disputes of the 1500’s. The current Jewish grouping can be found in the rabbinical literature going back at least as far as the third century. The Catholic grouping can also be found as far back as the third century, most prominently in the writings of Augustine (around 400 a.d.).  The Orthodox grouping also goes back to the early church and can be found in the writing of Origen (around 200 a.d.). Perhaps most interesting is that both Josephus, the Jewish historian, in his Antiquities of the Jews (around 93 a.d.) and Philo, the Jewish philosopher, in his De Decalogo (before 50 a.d.) both give a grouping that supports the Orthodox categorization.

Though some Catholics claim that the Protestant grouping is an innovation it is essentially the same grouping that is accepted by the Orthodox churches and is found in 1st century Jewish sources as well. It is clear that this categorization did not arise as solely out of a response to the Catholic use of figures but was well attested traditional grouping. It is also clear that the Catholic ordering did not come as a response to Protestant criticisms.

It seems likely that the Roman Catholic Church made changes to the grouping as a result of an earlier theological concern. I say this because the division of the 10th looks like a deliberate attempt to retain 10. This would only make sense if the 2nd was actually absorbed. In fairness, however I must point out that the Catholics do not delete the prohibition against graven images; they simply append it to the first commandment. The prohibition is not removed but rather interpreted differently. For example, the Orthodox who retain the prohibition as a separate command do not use graven figures but do use painted icons.

I accept the Protestant/Orthodox reading primarily because it seems to be the plain interpretation of the biblical text in both Exodus and Deuteronomy that the prohibition against graven images is a separate command (it is introduced with the “you shall not” formula found at the beginning of all the other negative commands).

Even if we understand the 2nd commandment to be an extension of the 1st it does not mean that the prohibition is solely related to worship rather than production. The interpretation of the imperatives is of more importance than the particular order or grouping. In fact, the commands themselves do not always appear in the same order in ancient manuscripts containing the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages. For example, the order of the commands against murder, adultery, and theft, as now given in the Masoretic text (and therefore most English bibles), in Josephus, and in the Syriac Hexapla, is not followed by the Septuagint, the Codex Alexandrinus, and Ambrosianus (which are ordered "murder, theft, adultery"), nor by Philo (who orders it "adultery, murder, theft"), nor by the Codex Vaticanus (which has adultery, theft, murder").

The grouping is, however, important in teaching and memorization with appropriate emphasis. This is no small matter. It is fashionable over recent decades to point to the role of the Decalogue as the moral foundation for our laws and culture but in reality it has a much more important function. In addition to being a moral guide and legal cornerstone the Law of God is a schoolmaster who teaches us our need for a savior and points us to Jesus Christ.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Foundational Sin: Idolatry

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.
(Colossians 3:5-6 ESV)

As fallen human beings we have a natural tendency to minimize the extent and scope of sin in our minds. The default setting of the flesh is to accept the narrowest definitions of particular transgressions to avoid being confronted with the realization of our own depravity. The repeated exhortations of scripture make it clear that even after we are converted the flesh struggles against the spirit rationalizing our sin. One of the sins that this can easily happen with is the sin of idolatry. When we hear the term idolatry our first thought is usually that of people worshipping literal idols, or perhaps pagans worshipping natural objects such as trees or the moon. Granted, enough of us have heard preachers warn us of making money, sports, celebrity, or even our career’s idols to realize that it isn’t just bowing down to statues that is involved but still many of us still do not appreciate the full scope of the biblical view of idolatry. The verses above from Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the companion passage in Ephesians 5:3-6 should help us to see that the biblical concern is broader than is generally assumed.

Notice that Paul here links all that is earthly in us, quite a range of sinful acts, with idolatry. On first glance this seems to be a strange thing to say since we often think of idolatry as one among many various sins. It would make more sense to us had he listed idolatry among those other things that he describes as “earthly” rather than summarizing all of them together as idolatry. We often think of idolatry as something we do, associating it with particular acts of worship, but notice that the list Paul gives is primarily not a list of behaviors. Each of those unholy patterns of thought and desire is idolatrous because at their foundation is a false view of God. A.W. Tozer explains it this way in his book Knowledge of the Holy:

Among the sins to which the human heart is prone, hardly any other is more hateful to
God than idolatry, for idolatry is at bottom a libel on His character. The idolatrous heart
assumes that God is other than He is - in itself a monstrous sin - and substitutes for the
true God one made after its own likeness. Always this God will conform to the image of the one who created it and will be base or pure, cruel or kind, according to the moral state of the mind from which it emerges. A god begotten in the shadows of a fallen heart will quite naturally be no true likeness of the true God. ”Thou thoughtest,” said the Lord to the wicked man in the psalm, “that I was altogether such as one as thyself.” Surely this must be a serious affront to the Most High God before whom cherubim and seraphim continually do cry, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.” Let us beware lest we in our pride accept the erroneous notion that idolatry consists only in kneeling before visible objects of adoration, and that civilized peoples are therefore free from it. The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him. It begins in the mind and may be present where no overt act of worship has taken place.

If idolatry consists in entertaining thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him then this sin is foundational to all other sin because it is a necessary component of the pride involved in any creature raising itself up against the holy, sovereign, and sustaining creator God. In this way the very first sin was an act of idolatry because Eve’s rebellious actions were the result of a false view of God promoted by the Serpent. It is this reason why Paul can aptly summarize all that is earthly in us by using the term idolatry. It therefore also makes sense that Paul would focus on the sin of idolatry in the letter to the Romans as he develops his argument about the universal sinfulness of man and the display of God’s wrath culminating in the cross (Romans 1:18-23). Those things that we often associate with idolatry are merely the fruits of idolatry rather than the thing itself.

All of this should give us pause as teachers and worship leaders. There is a tremendous responsibility to ensure that anything that comes into our worship or instruction will accurately reflect the God of heaven as He has revealed Himself. We must be careful to avoid anything that would contribute to “entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him”. It was this consideration that led the old Calvinist’s (and some others) to prohibit anything in the worship service that was not expressly found in scriptural descriptions of worship (this is known as the regulative principal of worship as opposed to the normative principal used by most other Protestants). Many churches do not hold to this principal and even many who do apply it in various ways that results in a wide range of what is considered acceptable.

The important thing is that any worship or instructional aid should in no way restrict the glory, majesty, or any other attribute of God so as to diminish Him. Any illustration or drama that diminishes the holiness and glory of God is dangerous. Likewise the use of images in the worship service is inappropriate because all such images are the product of human imagination and therefore cannot possibly convey the majesty of God without limiting it. Paul reminds us in Acts 17:29 that “we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.”

Traditions such as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches justify the use of images by distinguishing between images as the objects of worship (as the 2nd commandment clearly prohibits) and images as the objects of veneration which they claim are allowed (there were cherubim on the ark of the covenant etc). Veneration functions similarly to the way most Americans feel about the U.S. flag, it is respected and treated honorably not because of any particular devotion to the fabric or pattern itself but because of what it symbolizes. They argue that while images should never be worshiped (adoration) it is permissible that they be used as objects of veneration because they are a window to the spiritual world, and provide a method for focused devotion apart from the ambiguities of language. Even if the difference between adoration and veneration is clear to the doctors of theology I have doubts that such subtle theological distinctions are clear in the minds of most people as they actually use the images.

Protestants who use visual representations of Christ typically do not use them directly in the worship service but consider them permissible because they are not intended to be a window into the spiritual world but rather simply representations of Christ as a human being. The Catholic and Orthodox point to Christ taking upon Himself flesh in the incarnation as theological support for their view of images because in Christ the divine and incomprehensible took a physically visible form. The Protestants, being less mystical, argue that their images are only intended to depict Christ’s human nature and are not in any way an attempt to visualize The Divinity. Again, I have my doubts that the average person is making those distinctions in the common use of those images.

If Tozer is correct in his explanation of the biblical teaching on idolatry (and I think he is) then we must be very cautious about all of these uses because at the very least they are a danger to the weaker brother. Certainly any image actually used in worship or instruction is much more likely to be understood as a depiction of Jesus in His full personhood and therefore becomes a separate testimony from the scriptural picture in that it necessarily adds to or detracts from that which is revealed there. This is a concern not only for images used in the worship service but something we need to think about regarding all such images however they are used.

There is much more to study regarding these things and not only with regard to images but also any other extra-biblical conceptualizations. We must ensure that every illustration, dramatization, depiction, etc. is consistent with the biblical teaching and its proportions. To emphasize God’s love against his justice (or vise versa), for example, can lead to idolatrous thoughts on the part of people just as much as any image. Any depiction or description of God which is the product of a finite human mind or imagination cannot help but fail to capture the fullness of the transcendent and Most High God and assuming Him to be less is unworthy of Him.

 I pray that in our preaching, teaching, worship, and study that God would strengthen us and convict us of any thoughts in us that are unworthy of Him. I pray that we continually do our best to convey the awesomeness of our God. I believe the best way to do that is to preach and teach about Him just as He has revealed Himself to be in His word.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Rain, Mother, and Gordon H. Clark

Philosophers are notoriously difficult to read. Many of them are poor writers and in addition to this they are usually dealing with difficult concepts and arguments. Even if you find a philosopher who is able to write in a clear and readable way you must pay very close attention to how he or she defines the terms that they use. Failure to do this will often cause a great deal of consternation because usually understanding their conclusions depend upon a solid grasp of the concepts (and terms) they use. No exception is the Christian philosopher Gordon H. Clark. I pointed out in a previous post that that once you finish reading or listening to him you often have to go back and check to see if he really said what you thought you heard or read, and quite often he did.

One of the most remarkable and difficult of Clark’s positions for most people to accept is his theory of knowledge. Clark taught that the only knowledge that was possible to human beings was that which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures or could be logically deduced from them. Recently someone told me that they heard (in a recording) Dr. Clark claim that a man could not know that it was raining outside unless he was able to deduce that truth from the bible. The person thought that this was absolutely ridiculous and was sure that they must be misunderstanding what he meant. They asked me if Clark was basically insane (perhaps too many hours in the library).

Let me say first that if he said it I believe Dr. Clark was absolutely serious about that statement. Let me also say that I do not think he was insane. A full explanation of Clark’s theory of knowledge or the philosophical and theological factors that went into its development is well beyond what can be handled in a blog post but there are a few basic things that I may be able to share that will make understanding his position a bit easier.

First, as I indicated in the first paragraph it is essential to pay close attention to the way Clark defines his terms. Like most philosophers he often does not use terms in the way that they would be used in common conversation. Because language is ambiguous philosophers (at least the good ones) precisely define their terms. Once you understand what they mean by their words it becomes a bit easier to follow their reasoning.

Clark taught that only propositions could be the objects of knowledge. The reason for this is because he believed that in order for something to be considered to be “knowledge” it must be true. A false belief, in his view, cannot be considered to be knowledge. You cannot properly “know” something if you are mistaken about it. Likewise you cannot “know” something that is neither true nor false. According to Clark since truth is a property of logical propositions only logical propositions with a positive truth value can be objects of knowledge. Most of the things that we claim to “know” are not really known at all but merely opined. This view significantly restricts what it is that humans can actually know.

Clark then further restricts the potential of human knowledge by limiting the set of propositions that can be known to those revealed or resulting from those that are revealed. According to Clark, no propositions derived from sensation or experience can be certain to be true. His criticisms of empirical theory are quite numerous and some are sophisticated but they tend to be similar to those historically given by other rationalists. He points out for example that nobody can know anything about a tree as a result of experience because nobody ever actually experiences a tree. We experience instead disjointed impulses of color, texture, etc. to which our minds assign the category of tree. We cannot therefore ever actually experience anything as it is in itself. He goes on to point out that even if we could, such experience would be insufficient to establish conclusively the truth of any likewise derived propositions because all sensation and experience based conclusions suffer from the logical fallacy of induction. The next sensation may imply a different state of affairs.

He even goes so far as to deny that on this basis a man can know his own mother or even himself. He argued that when we use a term like “mother” we are actually referring to a complex set of propositions. We cannot establish the truth of the entire set of propositions which comprise our concept of “mother” or “self”. He claimed that only God can know the complete truth about any person, even oneself.

Clark believed that philosophers had underestimated the force of the skeptic’s arguments. In some ways Clark has certain things in common with postmodern philosophers whose theories he would undoubtedly detest. Clark, however, was absolutely determined to uphold absolute truths and avoid pure skepticism. In order to do this he makes an appeal that is as much theological as philosophical. Clark, remaining consistent with his orthodox Reformed Protestant heritage asserted the inerrancy of the bible. He argued that since the bible was God’s revealed word it was the only set of propositions that could be said to be reliably true. In everything else humans may be mistaken but the bible was TRUTH. Clark therefore makes the propositions of scripture the axioms for his theory of knowledge (and his philosophy in general) and all knowledge must therefore be taken from there. Those propositions are unquestionably true and therefore other propositions logically and properly deduced from them must also be true. Nothing else could ever rise to that level of certainty.

A man may therefore believe that he is standing in the rain and respond accordingly but he cannot “know” it is raining unless he can find it taught in the scriptures or deduce it from teaching that is found there. It is controversial and perhaps even radical but it is logically consistent (assuming you believe the bible is completely true) and not as crazy as it first sounds.

This is a rather incomplete explanation of his view and there are many criticisms and difficulties that he addresses and attempts to answer that I have neglected to mention. I hope to have shown, however, that such a strange statement as that which so bothered my friend was not just some nonsense to be quickly dismissed. 

Saturday, January 1, 2011

On Buying a Bible

I had a somewhat discomforting experience the other day when I set out to purchase a bible. I own a number of different bibles most of which I use for various distinct needs but most of them do not work well as regular readers. They are either too large, too small, too rigid (hardcover) or too fragile (paperback) to endure the punishment of constant carry. Some time ago I began to use one bible for my normal reading and used the other more cumbersome volumes when studying or teaching. For many years my basic reading bible was a leather-bound King James Version (I use the N.A.S.B. as my base text for teaching and study) but a few years ago the wear on the cover and binding was such that I had to retire that old friend. Since I already owned so many other bibles I could not quite bring myself to spend the money to replace it and instead have been reading variously out of the other bibles at my disposal.

Earlier this year, while attending the T4G conference I received a free copy of the ESV study bible. Since that time I have been doing my best to check the quality and nature of the translation (you might notice that I have often used the ESV quotations on this site). Some have criticized the ESV saying it is somewhat archaic in its language and word order and is a bit inconsistent in applying its translation philosophy but overall I think it flows fairly well. I have found some amusing translations in the ESV such as this curious gem in Proverbs 30:25-26,

the ants are a people not strong,
yet they provide their food in the summer;
the rock badgers are a people not mighty,
yet they make their homes in the cliffs;

But overall I have found the ESV to generally be both readable and accurate wherever I have checked it. Various scholarly reviews are available on the internet pointing out both the strengths and weaknesses of the translation and I encourage those interested to check them out.

At any rate, I decided that it was time for me to get another everyday reader that would be convenient to carry and would hold up to the rigors of traveling with me and I decided to purchase an ESV for that purpose. My first choice in purchasing books is to buy them online because the selection is always good, the prices are often better than in the store, and I do not have to find time to get down to the store. In this case, however, it was very important to me that the book felt right when I held it and that the pages and font were right etc. so I wanted to actually hold and read from the book prior to buying it. The local Christian bookstore that I use when not buying online was not open so I made my way to a larger Christian chain store. I was looking for a 2007 text ESV in a convenient size with good binding and cover and no notes or commentary.

I was simply amazed when I got to the store because it was almost impossible to buy a plain text bible with decent binding, cover, and pages. It seemed that virtually every bible was filled with notes or commentary. I must assume based upon the displays that virtually everyone uses a study bible these days because basically the only plain text editions were the cheap small ones that people generally give away. There were tons of bibles with study notes from famous teachers such as MacArthur, Ryrie, Sproul, and others. There were bibles for old women, young women, teens, men, boys, and every other demographic, even some broken down by profession. There was even an entire section of different King James Study bibles, which made me smile since the sixth rule given to the KJV translation committee was:

“No marginal notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek words, which cannot, without some circumlocution, so briefly and fitly be expressed in the text”

-The king would not have been pleased J

I have great respect for many of the teachers who had contributed notes for these volumes and it is a great blessing in our age that we have access to so much information from good scholars and teachers about the bible but there is a danger to this kind of thing. I believe that the main reason for what I saw is pure marketing, but the demand for these things might be there because of another reason.

Perhaps we are not focusing enough on teaching people how to study the bible for themselves. In an effort to be relevant we want to chew all their food for them so that they can immediately benefit from God’s word without having to draw its meaning out from the text themselves. In doing this we deprive them of the discipline of wrestling with God’s word in meditation and study. We replace Sola Scriptura with a cult of personality where certain teachers become the authoritative interpreters of scripture.

Commentaries and study bibles are great tools and can be a tremendous blessing if used properly. They should be supplemental, providing observation and explanation that allows believers to go deeper in their own study. Unfortunately, it seems all too often people use them like cliff’s notes, jumping down to the footnote in order to give them the interpretation of difficult passages. Instead of being one of many tools they become the paper pope giving the “proper” unquestioned understanding.

The Lord has blessed His church with many great teachers and scholars and we should not ignore their insights but we should be doing everything we can as teachers and preachers to teach people how to properly study their bibles so that they have the confidence to engage the Holy Word directly and as a result get the most out of the other tools available to them.

Let this be one of our commitments in this New Year.
God Bless!