Monday, July 23, 2012

Are Things Getting Better or Worse?

Are things getting better or worse? At first glance, this seems to be the type of question that is easily answered just by looking around but it is not quite that simple. Our perspective on this question, like all questions that require some form of qualitative judgment, depends heavily on a number of our presuppositions including our understand of what “goodness” is and how it can be objectively measured. Even the idea that history moves in a linear fashion at all has been debated. Friedrich Nietzsche, like some ancients, toyed with the idea that history did not move in a linear direction but instead that it moved in circles.  He pondered the possibility that history is an endless cycle where everything that is, was, and will be again some day again. If that is true then questions such ours would be meaningless.  

The Judeo-Christian view of history, however, is decidedly linear.  The scripture says that God created “in the beginning” so history has a definite starting point. Scripture also teaches that there is a definite end when Christ will come and sit in judgment over history itself. We know that God ultimately triumphs so in an ultimate sense all Christians assert that history is moving toward an eternal state of peace, goodness, and justice. The question remains, however, if earthly history, that which happens within the temporal timeline, is growing progressively better or progressively worse as we approach the final chapter where God prevails. As we look at the world around us, the answer is obvious. The problem is that while others might also see an obvious answer they may not necessarily agree with us about what the answer obviously is. The way that we interpret the events in the world around us depends heavily upon our theology.

As Christians we may agree on the standard of goodness but we still have divergent views on historical progression because within Christian orthodoxy there are differing philosophies of history. A person’s view of the doctrines of the last days (eschatology) are a part of a broader theology of what God is doing in history and have an influence on how we understand our current place in redemptive history.
For simplicity sake, we can organize the various historical views using their more widely known end-times descriptions. Each of these major views; Postmillennialism,  Dispensational Premillennialism, Historic Premillennialism, and Amillennialism entail not only an end times viewpoint but also an overarching theory of history. Each of the views recognizes that there are fluctuations in the progression of history but each understands history to be generally moving in a particular direction. We tend to interpret things as getting progressively better or worse depending upon which theological position we accept.

Postmillennialists believe that the evangelistic efforts of the church will be so successful that at some point there will be an extended period (the millennium) of peace and justice prior to the return of Jesus Christ. They therefore understand history to be moving in a positive direction. They believe that goodness will ultimately triumph in human history. Though not ignoring the negative, they are encouraged by many things that they see as part of the foundation for that triumph. For example, large parts of the world are now being evangelized that had been previously been cut off such as China, South America, and Russia. The conversion rate in many of these places is astounding and hundreds of thousands of people are now professing Christian faith where virtually none had been before. The technology and resources for communicating the Gospel and studying the Bible are better now than at any previous time. Many also claim that various progressive developments in economics and world politics are more favorable than they have typically been historically for the common person.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are Dispensational Premillenialists who believe that evil will have ultimate triumph in human history prior to God’s intervention. When the time comes God will even remove His church from the earth for a time by a secret rapture and evil will rule virtually unopposed until Christ returns, defeats His enemies, and ushers in a thousand year reign of peace and justice. The DP’s believe that godlessness is steadily increasing all around the world. They point to the moral decay of society as well as the unprecedented brutality and corruption that seems to dominate the news. According to DP’s the decline in the influence of the Bible and Christianity on social, political, and popular culture is considered virtually irrefutable evidence of the increasing influence of godlessness.

Historic Premillennialists (HP) on the other hand believe that instead of a general progression in either direction the world will see an increasing polarization of good and evil within history until Christ intercedes to judge the world and usher in an extended reign of peace and justice (the millennium). HP’s point out that despite the increase in the intensity and distribution of evil that we see in the world around us the Church continues to grow. HP’s argue that eventually the polarization will be so great that the Church will undergo widespread and intense persecution but that God will be honored through its witness. HPs therefore acknowledge both positive as well as negative historical development as part of an ongoing struggle between the Church and world that will only end when Christ returns.

The Amillennial position does not hold to any utopian age for men outside of the spiritual rule of Christ over His Church. Both Amillennialism and HP hold that there is a polarization (and eternal separation) between the social institutions of the Church and the world but Amillennialism does not allow for a literal reign of Jesus Christ on Earth the way that HP does. Because of this, the Amillennial system tends to lack a strong emphasis on a theory of historical momentum apart from the inward spiritual experience and the hope of heaven. For the Amillennialist therefore history is in a process of decay but the full promises of the kingdom of God are already in operation within history through the Church. There is to be no hope of an earthly fulfillment of millennial promises. History is therefore universally antithetical to God’s kingdom and although Christ will redeem individuals, He will not redeem earthly institutions and experience.

As we look at the world, we may be tempted to assume that our evaluations of progress (or regress) are somehow objective and obvious. They are not. If we consider our opinions about history carefully, we will find that perhaps they tell us as much about our theology as they do about our judgment.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Transcendental Argument: A Follow Up

When I wrote the earlier article on the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God (TAG), I was hoping to provide a simple explanation of what it is and how it works. I wanted to do this because it is an interesting argument but many people are unfamiliar with it. Because I wanted to keep things simple and there just is not a lot of room in a blog length article, I was not able to provide an example of the argument in the article itself. Instead, I explained what the argument was and how it works and then gave two examples of assertions that one might use TAG to argue for. I then linked to an example of a skilled apologist using the transcendental argument in a debate. If the reader did not listen to the debate or read the transcript then how to construct or use a transcendental argument might not have been obvious. Since I posted the article, I have had some feedback through conversation and the comments left on the site. In light of that feedback, I thought it might be helpful to write a follow up to clarify a couple of things.

First, I provided an explanation of how the argument works but I could have developed that a bit more. Second, there seems to be some question about what exactly this argument proves and what the function of rational arguments in general are in these cases. I will try and briefly address both of these issues. 

As I said in the previous post, a transcendental argument makes the logical claim that (A) is necessary for (B) to be the case therefore if (B) is the case, (A) must also be the case. If there are necessary preconditions for something that exists then the preconditions must also exist. To deny that is impossible. TAG works by showing that if (B) is true then it is undeniable that (A) is also true. This is how it works but it might be easier to understand if we flesh it out a bit more.

To begin with, to use this kind of argument you must have a good understanding of not only the facts and evidence that the unbeliever is using but also the basic ideas (presuppositions) they use when evaluating and interpreting facts and evidence. TAG highlights certain inconsistencies between those presuppositions and some process or assumption that is used by the unbeliever. The argument is used to show that the unbeliever accepts (B) but rejects (A) even though (B) is not possible without (A). Let us walk through an example.

An atheistic worldview presupposes that there is no reality outside of the material world. This means no purpose or design is governing the universe. Everything is random and evolved, the result of chance and the nature of material objects. Therefore, in an atheist world the laws of logic cannot have an existence that somehow goes beyond the minds in which they operate since there is no foundation in a random material universe for laws that are universal, unchanging, and necessary.

Of course, atheists unavoidably use logic but how can they explain it? Various attempts have been made by atheists to explain the laws of logic. They could be descriptions of the way that the neurons in our brains fire or of the chemical processing that takes place there. The problem here is that your brain is not mine and yet the laws of logic are universal not individual. Perhaps they are simply conventions that people have agreed upon, but that leaves the door open to the possibility that some people may decide they would rather use different laws. Unfortunately, logic is not that democratic. Since the laws of logic are necessary to all human thought and communication no such consensus could be achieved. If the current laws of logic are abandoned nothing-intelligible remains. They are not only commonly held but are necessary and unavoidable.

Maybe they are simply a description of the way that our minds have evolved to help us survive and they are universal because they derive from a common ancestor. If true, then they might have evolved differently and thus they are conventions even though not agreed upon. This would mean that at some point in the evolutionary process what is false today might have been true. If this is the case, then at one time a cat may have been identical to a walrus while being completely different from a walrus in every way and circles might have had four sides. Even the mechanisms of natural selection seem inadequate to explain how and why that could possibly be the case.

None of the materialistic solutions provides an adequate foundation for laws that are necessary, universal, and unchanging. The atheist is thereby challenged to explain how the standards they propose to use in evaluating the evidence (logic and reason) even exist. The Christian then proceeds to the formal argument:

(     A)   Theism is a necessary precondition for the existence of universal, necessary, and unchanging              entities such as the laws of logic.
      B)   The laws of logic exist and they are universal, necessary, and unchanging.
      C)   Therefore, theism is true.

The argument holds that the unbeliever cannot deny the truth of (B) and since an atheistic worldview cannot provide a reasonable and sufficient explanation of (B) without involving itself in a logical contradiction then (A) is undeniably true. The conclusion is that if you deny that God exists then thought itself is impossible. I hope that this explanation is a little easier to understand and is helpful to those who had questions.

Some of the comments also had to do with the effectiveness and use of the argument. One person wrote, “This proof is no more effective than the older ones. It maybe show problems with other systems but does not prove that the Christian God exists.” I replied that I agree it fails as a “proof” and that I did not think you could prove the existence of God using rational arguments to which another commenter replied, “I wouldn't say you cannot prove the existence of God through rational arguments. What other arguments are there, non-rational?”

Let me begin with the second comment first. I was not contrasting rational arguments with some other type of argument. My point was that there is no way for us to prove by evidence or argument that God exists. People do not reject God because of a lack of evidence or rational support. A spiritual not intellectual problem causes men to suppress the knowledge of God.

The particular weaknesses of TAG are technical, require a long explanation, and are beyond the scope of this post. (If you want more information on this, feel free to email me) This does not mean, however, that the argument is not useful. It is effective as a reductio argument. It demonstrates the inadequacy of atheism as a logically coherent system. Even if it is not a “proof” it can still be effective and we need not feel too bad about that. There are many things we cannot “prove”. For example, we cannot prove with certainty the existence of other minds or that we are not living in a constant dream state.

At the end of the day, TAG is interesting and a powerful tool for exposing the unbeliever’s position as irrational but it cannot change a heart. It cannot give new life. A fallen mind will always find sufficient reasons to reject the Truth. Arguments do not change people’s minds… only the Holy Spirit can do that. TAG cannot open hearts, only shut mouths.

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Gift Given to Be Given

I was sitting here today reflecting upon the sermon I heard at church yesterday. My pastor was preaching on Deuteronomy 6 and was calling attention to the responsibility that each of us have to communicate the Word of God to the next generation. As I was thinking about this, I realized what an amazing blessing it is to be able to go to church, hear a sermon, or be involved in a Bible study. We typically think of these things in relation to the value they have for us as individuals as though that were the only goal of such learning. There is, however, another reason why we should express our thankful appreciation to God for the teaching of the church.

The Bible says:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”  (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV)

These references to doorposts, gates, hands, and foreheads show us that the teaching of God is to be such an integral part of our being that we live by it and reflect it in all things that we do. Every thought and every action is to be informed by the Word of God. Notice also, however, that these verses also contain a requirement that the people of God teach their children diligently and talk to them about the teaching of God. Believers are commanded to disciple their children. Jesus even expands this requirement from the immediate family to the broader culture in Matthew 28 when He says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

The people of God are therefore responsible for communicating the revelation of God to others. It is not an option; it is a requirement that we do so. Of course, not every Christian is going to be a teacher or preacher but that does not mean that we are not responsible for sharing the simple Gospel and the basic understanding of who God is. This brings me to the other reason why church is such a blessing. God has required that we share His teaching. In order to share it we need to understand it and be able to communicate it.

The Lord has provided everything necessary to do this in His Word but many of us are not comfortable doing so. God therefore goes beyond just supplying what was necessary and in His grace supplies much more. He gave the gifts of preachers and teachers so that we are led into the Word and so we may learn how to study it, think about it, and apply it. This is not just for our own benefit with regard to our personal salvation and sanctification. It is a help to us in preparing us and encouraging us in the exercise of our responsibility to others. We are able to benefit from the teaching of others so that we would grow in our understanding and be adequately prepared to share with others.

We should not be simply consumers of God’s truth who should shop for teachers as though we are purchasing a car. Church does not exist to be our personal spiritual servant. It exists so that God will be glorified in us and through us. When we understand our own responsibility to live in a way that is consistent with our new life, we begin to appreciate better the value of those gifts that our Father has provided to help us.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God

(For more information see the Follow Up to this post)

One of the arguments for the existence of God that many Christians are unfamiliar with is the transcendental argument (TAG). Too often descriptions of this argument make it sound complicated but (like most philosophical arguments) it is generally understandable once you have the basic idea. Because it is such an interesting (and I think useful) argument I would encourage more Christians to be familiar with it. For that reason, I am going to attempt a simple explanation of what it is and how it works. If you are already familiar with all of this you can certainly find more detailed discussions about it elsewhere, but if you are not familiar with TAG I pray this will be helpful to you.

The term Transcendental Argument does not refer to any single argument, but rather to a particular type of argument. A transcendental is something that goes beyond (transcends) particular facts, thoughts, or knowledge but are necessary to them. A transcendental argument begins with a given fact or state of affairs and then argues from it for the truth of those conditions that are necessary for that fact or state of affairs to be the case. To put it another way, a transcendental argument makes the logical claim that (A) is necessary for (B) to be the case therefore if (B) is the case, (A) must also be the case.

Transcendental arguments for the existence of God are arguments for the impossibility of the contrary. They try to show that God must exist because if He did not the world we live in would be impossible. The argument attempts to demonstrate that the unbeliever, based on their own worldview, has no rational foundation for logic, mathematics, science, ethics, and other necessary preconditions for knowledge. By appealing to and/or utilizing any of these without being able to provide an adequate foundation for them the atheist is being inconsistent and therefore irrational. Rather than arguing with an unbeliever about the interpretation of any particular fact or evidence TAG challenges the unbeliever to explain how they can explain (on the basis of atheism) the very methods they want to use to evaluate facts and evidence to begin with.

Perhaps some examples would be helpful. Given the space constraints here I can only give a couple of extremely simplified examples but if you are interested in learning more I suggest you click on the recording below of the debate between Dr. Stein  and Dr. Bahnsen and pay attention to the way Dr. Bahnsen is arguing. This is a classic example of TAG by a skilled debater.

Example 1:
Unbelievers often try to use the problem of evil to argue against God but an atheistic system cannot provide any foundation for absolute moral judgments such as good or evil. By using the problem of evil, they are inappropriately importing a theistic concept into a worldview where it can have no logically consistent meaning.

Example 2:
 Many atheists love to talk about how logical they are and how illogical Christians are and all atheists use logic (it is impossible to think, know, or communicate anything without it) but an atheistic worldview cannot account for laws of thought that are necessary, universal, and unchanging. They may be able to show why laws of thought could be universal but not necessary or unchanging. Therefore, the very fact that atheists can think is inconsistent with their worldview.

There have been various criticisms against TAG but by far the most common is that it is simply begging the question. Despite the popularity of the accusation that TAG is simply an example of circular reasoning the criticism fails to distinguish between the assumption of first principals and the premises of a particular argument. Those who are interested can find an excellent explanation of why this accusation is an overstatement at James Anderson’s site HERE. The other criticisms are far less common and more sophisticated so I am not going to try and handle them here.

The bottom line is that the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God simply holds that the non-existence of God is impossible because without Him we have no adequate foundation for knowledge itself. It is a challenge to unbelievers to demonstrate how their worldview can support necessary, universal, and unchanging laws of thought and morality or how they can support the assumptions of causality and uniformity that science assumes. It argues that these things are ultimately dependent upon a theistic worldview and before unbelievers can argue against theism based on what they presume to know, they must first explain how it is that they can justify knowledge itself on the basis of their view. If you are interested in the Transcendental Argument then it will be well worth your time to watch the video below to see how Dr. Bahnsen develops and uses the argument against Dr. Stein.

The “Great” Stein, Bahnsen Debate
(if you do not see the embedded video above you can watch it HERE or you can download a transcript of the debate HERE)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Dr. Carl Trueman on Celebrity, Authority, and Authenticity

Over the past few decades there has been a tremendous increase in the influence of para-church organizations within conservative Christian circles. There are a handful of teachers and preachers who have gained enormous cross denominational followings although they have no direct pastoral relationship to most of those who follow them. Many of these men are unquestionably gifted preachers and teachers and their work has benefitted the church in many ways. Along with those benefits, however, there are certain dangers that come with the growing popularity and influence of celebrity pastors.

One of the leading voices calling the attention of the church (and celebrity pastors) to this issue has been Dr. Carl Trueman. Dr. Trueman is the chair of Church History at Westminster Seminary, a pastor in the OPC, and a blogger at Reformation21. A few days ago I saw the following interview with Dr. Trueman on the Reformed Baptist Blog where he discusses issues related to celebrity, authority, and authenticity within conservative churches today. As usual professor Trueman’s comments are sharp and thought provoking.

If you do not see the embedded video above you can view it by clicking HERE

Monday, July 2, 2012

Truth & Politics: A Plea to Christians

As the party machinery of the Democrats and Republicans shift into high gear this election season the rhetoric is heating up. There have already been ads from both sides that contain important distortions of the facts. (See examples Here & Here) The political propagandists are masters at presenting information with altered contexts so that even the truthful information they convey is somewhat misleading. None of this is new. In fact, if you study American history you will find that the situation was worse in some of the past elections. Still, it remains an unfortunate element of political discourse that nothing is quite as simple as it seems.

My concern on this site is never primarily political. My focus is on the Word of God and its implications for our lives. This includes politics, but not as an end in itself, but rather as an expression of our priorities and worldview which should be informed by the Bible. With that in mind I would like to offer one suggestion to all my Christian brothers and sisters this election season. Do not get caught up in the propaganda. We are Children of Truth and as such we should seek to honor the truth.

It is easy when we agree with a particular position or candidate to cut them too much slack when it comes to their “spin”. We tend to believe the things we want to believe and so we often accept arguments and justification from those whom we support without really evaluating it. We carefully scrutinize the statements of those whom we disagree and are outraged by their stretching the truth while we swallow whole the same kinds of tactics from those on “our side”. The tragedy is that even while doing this we envision ourselves as the informed guardians of truth and goodness.

You will not often hear me quoting Thomas Merton with approval but he was exactly right when he observed that “Propaganda makes up our minds for us, but in such a way that it leaves us the sense of pride and satisfaction of men who have made up their own minds. And in the last analysis, propaganda achieves this effect because we want it to. This is one of the few real pleasures left to modern man: this illusion that he is thinking for himself when, in fact, someone else is doing his thinking for him.”

My prayer for us this election season is that we as Christians would be careful to make reasonable efforts to evaluate each candidate’s claims. I pray that we would not either knowingly or unknowingly repeat deceptive or inflammatory rhetoric simply because it supports our candidate. I pray we would not get caught up in the worldly nature of the process. Even as we seek to do what is best for the country we must not be motivated by any other goal than to glorify God and to show forth Christ, who is the Truth. We may argue passionately but as Christians we are to do our best to convince one another with the truth rather than cunning arguments or “spin”.

Even among believers there will always be differences of opinion about which policies and political approaches would be best for the country. We should not expect that as Christians we will have complete unity on these kinds of secondary issues but we should be united in our approach to debating the merits of such things. For believers the ends do not justify the means. The world has its own way of doing things and we cannot expect that to change but we can demand that the conversation within our own fellowship exhibits love and integrity.

There is no doubt that elections are very important but as Christians they can never be of utmost importance. Our hope is not in public policy but rather in the power of the Gospel. Our confidence is not in princes but in God who is the sovereign king of the universe and the author of our salvation. We may have strong feelings about what is best for our country politically but the only platform to which we should have unquestioned loyalty is the Gospel. As Paul says, “therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another (Eph. 4:25).