Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Blind Men and the Elephant: Another Perspective

In our skeptical culture it has become unpopular to assert that we can know anything with certainty, especially religious truth. Since the denial of any particular fact is also an assertion of some other fact (about which we must also be skeptical) no religious view can be correct but neither can any be denied. Therefore, all religious views are considered objectively false but each contains elements of the truth and so are equally valid. One of the most popular illustrations used to try to show how such divergent religious opinions can all be equally valid is the “God is like an elephant” analogy.

The analogy is that there are four (sometimes six) blind men who happen upon an elephant. These men have never encountered an elephant before and are attempting to describe it to one another. The first man reaches out, grabs the trunk, and explains that it is like a snake. The second grabs one of the elephant's legs and insists that it is like a tree. The third feels the elephant's tail and explains that it is like a rope. Finally, the fourth blind man walks forward, encounters the elephant’s side, and concludes that it like a wall.

The idea is that each of the men is wrong in an ultimate sense but all are communicating some truth about the elephant. The elephant is supposed to represent God and the blind men are supposed to represent various religions that, while all limited in an ultimate sense, are all actually describing the same thing. The assertion is that no religion fully understands God and yet all religions contain some truth about God. Therefore, all religions must be recognized as limited but since none are complete they each should be accepted as equally valid.

From a logical standpoint, there are many problems with the underlying argument. My goal in this post is not to work through those issues but if you are interested in that kind of analysis I recommend you check out William Lane Craig’s work in this area. My purpose instead is to turn the illustration on its head and use it to argue for, rather than against, the Christian view of religious knowledge. When looked at from a slightly different perspective, the analogy highlights the necessity of God’s revelation and provides an important lesson for modern evangelicalism. Let me explain.

First, notice that the people in the illustration are blind. They are deprived of the natural function that would allow them to clearly see and evaluate the elephant. They are therefore limited in their perspective and must grope at the object they are trying to understand. This is an accurate description of fallen humanity and the Bible also describes the spiritual condition of humans as blindness. Because of sin, we no longer have the natural ability to see God as He is. Apart from His grace, the best we can do is grope in the darkness in our effort to know and understand Him. Like these men we are not completely without knowledge of God but the knowledge we do have is limited and distorted.

Notice also that the elephant exists apart from the experience of the men. There “is” actually an elephant and although they do not accurately describe the creature, it is there and its attributes are objectively real. This too is an accurate picture of the human condition. Many may deny and distort the knowledge of God but the fact is that He is there and He is not dependent upon our assessment of Him. In the same way that the elephant remains every bit an elephant despite the errors of the blind men, God remains every bit God. We may be mistaken about Him but that does not change the objective reality of who He is. Perhaps though, we should not be too critical of the men at this point. After all, what they did was reasonable considering the situation they were in. The only way for them to get information about the elephant was to do what they did. Their mistake was not in the attempt but in assuming that the creature was defined by their subjective experience.

The crucial difference between what is happening in this illustration and our ability to know the truth about God is that we are not completely reliant upon our religious experience. Think about how the lesson changes if there was someone who could see the elephant and explained to the men what they were not seeing. What if, even having this information they continued to insist that they were correct based upon their limited experience? Obviously, we would see them as fools for clinging to opinions based upon incomplete and unreliable experience while rejecting better information.

Sadly, this is often what many people do. Personal experience too often becomes the basis by which people try to understand God. The inconsistent and fluctuating feelings of the limited human intellect become the filter for all that is transcendent and divine. This is not just an issue in unbelieving society. The emphasis on subjective religious experience has continued to grow and influence evangelical churches and seminaries. As a result, it permeates worship styles, teaching methods, and counseling sessions. God, however, has not left His people to grope in darkness. He has spoken to us in His holy Word and through it has communicated the truth about Himself.  He has also sent an unbroken line of witnesses including God the Son as very man and His church to testify to who and what He is.

The lesson for us should be obvious. The Bible is of paramount importance to the Church. Without this revelation from Him, we are in the same position as those blind men; each one grasping some small but ultimately incomplete or inaccurate glimpse of the divine majesty. Personal experience is a wholly inadequate basis for knowing God, especially the experience of fallen creatures like us. The modern emphasis on religious experience in our churches is dangerous. If we are to know God, we must interpret our experiences in the light of His holy and inerrant word and not the reverse. When evaluated in light of the Word, religious experience magnifies the glory of God in our lives. Divorced from the Word it is nothing more than groping in darkness.

Bible Study Tips: Use Wordle

One of the most important things to do when studying any passage is to look for repetition. Repeated Words or phrases are one of the easiest ways to identify the main themes and zero in on what the author is emphasizing. Traditionally students are encouraged to circle, underline, or color code repeated key words. Despite all of the new tools we have available, I think the old way is still the best way because it forces students to engage the text and read it repeatedly. There are times, however, when this approach may not be optimal. If, for example, a person is working with a digital text, is dealing with a large section of text (the Pentateuch for example), or needs the information quickly they may be looking for another way to do the analysis.

Thankfully, there are tools that allow a student to do this kind of analysis quickly on large sections of text. The easiest way is to find a Bible study tool or website (there are several) that will show you how often a word is used in the Bible. You can then narrow the count as needed. The most basic approach not using custom Bible study tools would probably be to paste the text into a word processing tool, create a list of each word in the document, and list its frequency. Unfortunately, The most common word processing tool that students have access to is Microsoft Word and you have to load a special macro or add-in to do this. Even so, the output is going to be just a list of words and numbers similar to what you get with most of the Bible study tools. There are a few disadvantages to looking at the data this way. First, many people are visual learners and a simple list of words and numbers does not make it easy for them to understand the relationship between various word frequencies. Second, it can often be difficult to analyze such a list for very large passages.

However, a tool is free, easy to use, and available to anyone with access to the internet that works very well. produces a word cloud, which is a visual presentation of the relative frequency of words, for any text that a person chooses to enter (you can also get a basic list if you want). You simply go to and paste whatever text into the tool you want to examine and the site will produce a graphic that will allow you to see the relative frequency of the words in that passage at a glance. The site automatically excludes common articles and conjunctions (the, and, etc.) and then you can easily exclude additional words by clicking on them. The result is a fast and powerful look at the relative frequency of words within any particular text.

I have found that using this tool allows me to see relationships between ideas quickly that I can then go back and trace through the passage I am studying. For example, I am currently teaching Ecclesiastes. This is the Wordle for the NASB version of Ecclesiastes.

One of the things that I had noticed in my study was that although people often think of Ecclesiastes in terms of negative themes such as vanity there is a more prevalent emphasis on God and other themes than on those we often instinctively associate with the book. Even though I had already noticed this from my study, when I looked at the graphic I realized that I still had not appreciated the extent to which this was the case. This insight led me to closer study of the God, man and time references and an increased emphasis on them in my teaching through the book.

Since the wordle tool allows for a very large amount of text, it is possible to use it for everything from a short passage to the entire Bible. Below are some examples of other selections:

Genesis Chapter 1 (ESV)
1 Peter (NASB)
 New Testament (ESV)

Entire Bible (ESV)
May God bless your continued study!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Book Review: Steven J. Lawson- Pillars of Grace A.D. 100-1564

Pillars of Grace 
By Steven J. Lawson / Reformation Trust Publishing

In this second volume of the series, “A Long Line of Godly Men” Steven J. Lawson walks the reader through almost 1500 years of history calling attention to the development and defense of what later became known as the doctrines of grace. If the reader is looking for sophisticated historical and theological analysis, they will not find it here. What they will find, however, is something that is greatly needed in the evangelical world today, namely a framework for understanding their theology in the broader context of Church history. In addition to his introductory and concluding material, Lawson examines the doctrines of grace in the works of 23 influential Christian teachers between the years of 100 and 1564, including:

Clement of Rome
Ignatius of Antioch
Justin Martyr
Irenaeus of Lyon
Tertullian of Carthage
Cyprian of Carthage
Athanasius of Alexandria
Basil of Caesarea
Gregory of Nazianzus
Ambrose of Milan
Augustine of Hippo
Isidore of Seville
Gottschalk of Orbais
Anselm of Canterbury
Bernard of Clairvaux
Thomas Bradwardine
John Wycliffe
John Hus
Martin Luther
Ulrich Zwingli
William Tyndale
Heinrich Bullinger
John Calvin

Lawson is able to demonstrate that although the emphasis and systemization of the doctrines of grace during the Reformation was dramatic it did not simply appear out of nowhere. He capably shows, with brief biological and historical sketches, that the trajectories of Reformed thought were familiar to Christian teachers in every age. The Reformers saw themselves as defenders of classic Christian teaching but sadly, many who identify as Reformed today have little or no familiarity with any pre-Reformation writers other than Augustine. Lawson does this generation a service in providing an accessible account of this history.

The historical and theological segmentation of the book make the book a bit redundant but the advantage is that each of the segments can stand on their own making it useful as a quick reference or to those who are only interested in particular eras or teachers. The repetition gives it an almost devotional quality as the same themes are introduced and reinforced in segment after segment. The biggest drawback is that at times, Lawson seems to stretch a bit in his analysis. Often quotations are given and applied to themes that were unlikely to have been intended given the context of the original quote. In places, Lawson admits this and does a fair job of pointing out that although the original writer may not have always fully appreciated the consequences of their own ideas and observations that the seeds of those conclusions were nevertheless present.

I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in early Church history and especially the doctrines of grace. It should be required reading for anyone who considers themselves “Reformed” and is unfamiliar with the development of these doctrines prior to the Reformation outside of Augustine.  While being an apology for Reformed history it avoids the polemics of earlier works on the topic (Toplady, Gill, etc.). I believe that many will find it interesting and informative.

*A copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher at no cost in exchange for a review. The review is not required to be positive and all opinions expressed are my own.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin

One of the things that amaze me about the Bible is how tight the composition is. There are no unnecessary words or phrases and the imagery, structure, and vocabulary all work together to support the message in a way that far surpasses the greatest human literary achievements. I admit that when I was younger I used to think that the Bible, while true, was not very elegant in its presentation. I thought that at times it was needlessly repetitive, somewhat clunky, and often belabored details that seemed unrelated to the main point. This opinion, however, was more of a reflection on my callow understanding of literature and my lack of patient hours with the text than on the scriptures themselves. In fact, as I have grown I have found that it is often precisely these eccentric details and how they support the message that most strongly highlight the glory of God in His divine authorship of the Bible.

I was reminded of this truth again a couple of days ago as I was reading the fifth chapter of Daniel. The chapter begins as follows:

“King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand. Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. Then they brought in the golden vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.           Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king's palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. Then the king's color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king called loudly to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers. The king declared to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing, and shows me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” Then all the king's wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation. Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his color changed, and his lords were perplexed.” (Daniel 5:1-9 ESV)

Belshazzar is stopped in the middle of his idolatrous use of the vessels of the temple by a disembodied hand that is writing upon the wall. Apparently, what the hand had written was not clear, nevertheless, Belshazzar was terrified by the experience. He then called for all his “wise” men to read the writing and explain it, but they were not able to do so. At this point, the queen mother hears about the predicament and informs Belshazzar that there is a man (Daniel) who had previously interpreted visions and solved riddles and who had the spirit of god.

Daniel is called for and Belshazzar explains to him that he will receive gifts and prestige if he can read and interpret the writing. Daniel rebukes him and tells him to keep his gifts. He reminds him of God’s humbling of his famous ancestor Nebuchadnezzar (which Belshazzar knew about) and rebukes his idolatry. In Daniel’s rebuke he repeats the phrase “you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone” that was mentioned in the introduction to the chapter. Then, Daniel reads and interprets the writing.

And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5:25-28 ESV)

I had always found it interesting that the wise men could not read the writing. Obviously, God intended this so that Daniel would be called for. I thought that perhaps there was something obscuring the writing or that it was in some strange script (a rare Hebrew script perhaps) that the “wise” men would not recognize but that Daniel could. I always assumed there must have been some obscurity to the words for them to be indecipherable to these learned advisors. I had never bothered to study these words before but this time I decided to look them up.

To my surprise, these are not Hebrew words at all, but are Aramaic, which was a language that was quite familiar to the Babylonians. The words written on the wall are closely related to other words with which many Bible readers would be familiar. They are actually words for weights and measures associated with money. The word Mene is related to the more familiar word Mina, which is a little over 1lbs and was used as a measure for gold and silver. 1 mina of gold today would be worth around $35,500. The term Tekel is related to shekel, which is 1/60th of a mina. The final word in the message, Parsin, means to divide. After realizing that they are Aramaic words I think it is likely that the advisors could read the words but that they could not make sense of it. It would seem to be simply be a random list of words for measurements.

Daniel, however, reads the words as verbs and gives the interpretation. As verbs, Mene means to number or measure, Tekel means to weigh, and Peres (the singular form of Parsin) means to divide. The term Peres seems also to be play on words because of its similarity to the word for Persian. Daniel is given the ability to explain the meaning of the words and how they apply to Belshazzar. Belshazzar’s days are numbered because he has been measured, weighed, and found lacking. As a result, his kingdom will be divided.

Having taken the time to look up these words helped to reveal an irony in the message that I never appreciated before. The emphasis of the narrative is on the idolatry of Belshazzar. He was acting as though he was not under the rule of a sovereign God. He treated the things of God as though they were mere objects. He calls for these items as a conqueror who calls for the spoils of the vanquished. Even when he calls for Daniel to seek his help he addresses him not as the great advisor to kings but instead says, “You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought from Judah.” (vs. 13). 

When Belshazzar calls for the vessels, they are specifically mentioned as vessels of gold and silver. Twice the text mentions that they were praising gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. There is a repeated association of Belshazzar with material things and with division (conquest). It is therefore ironic that the very words of judgment pronounced against him are consistent with those same themes. The words of condemnation are essentially a description of the ambitions of Belshazzar’s heart. God, however, measures by a radically different standard and the wealth and power of the king are quickly shown to be given and taken at the mere pleasure of a sovereign God.