It was His Love

hbu cross 2013The cross may have been old and rugged
The cross may have been firm and secure
But it was not the cross that held my Lord up at Calvary
It was His love for you and me

The nails may have been long and sharp
The nails may have been sturdy and straight
But it was not the nails that held my Lord up on the cross
It was His love for you and me

The soldiers may have been fit and trained
The soldiers may have been ruthless and hardened
But it was not the soldiers who hoisted my Lord on the cross
It was His love for you and me Continue reading

The Baptists – Down And Out But Not [To Be] Forgotten

“Baptist” is not the most popular of names today. Both the news and the numbers are bad. In the news Baptists are viewed as legalistic, as divisive and disruptive, as favoring the appearance of devotion over depth, and the greatest sin of all – as being “out of touch.” Indeed our denominations are marked by controversy and our congregations are often clouded in chaos.

The numbers are not much better. Rather than another rehearsal of declining statistics I will venture to capture the Baptist psyche of the last several decades by offering a distinctly American Baptist voice paraphrasing the Pharisee’s prayer (as opposed to that of the tax collector).

70s         I thank thee God that we, the Baptists, are not like the godless Europeans, whose churches are emptying at a record pace…

80s         I thank thee God that we, the Baptists, are not like the declining liberal denominations here in America that are losing market share, members, and money…

90s         I thank thee God that we, the Baptists, are not declining as rapidly as the liberals around us…

2000s     I thank thee God that we, the Baptists, are not like the godless nation that surrounds us and holds us in disdain…

The news and the numbers are not good. So why not forget the Baptists?

The Baptists have a history of flourishing when they are hounded and harassed. While they may not rule well, their convictions shine the brightest when they are the weakest; their convictions don’t die even if the Baptists might. In their weakness they have ventured to bear witness to the larger Church. Two convictions merit consideration. 1) Baptists hold that baptism should express the faith of a believer who professes his/ her new identity as a disciple; this profession is not a mere declaration of belief but the identifying mark of a new life, community, and identity – believer’s baptism. 2) Baptists believe that the Church is comprised of only baptized believers – believer’s church. Many in the Church have received this witness. Much of the explosive growth of Christianity has occurred in the “majority world” among nondenominational and charismatic circles (and others) who embrace these two convictions. Baptist need not exaggerate that we were the first to grasp or recover these convictions (think Anabaptist) or that we have labored alone (think Churches of Christ), but we can be grateful for the legacy of witness to these convictions that has persisted through suffering and persecution.

The witness of baptism picturing new life emerging from death is well- rooted in Easter; the potency and truthfulness of this conviction is more grand and enduring than the Baptist brand.

Writing and Thinking in the School of C. S. Lewis

In a previous post, I wrote about using the essays of C.S. Lewis to help college students learn to write well and think well at the same time. While writing and thinking seem to go hand in hand, they frequently do not. But why should that surprise us? Humans are perfectly capable of speaking without thinking. In fact, considering the human capacity for communication without any real reflection, it should surprise no one that the hardest part of teaching college students to write is getting them to shed their habitual mental blinders, look about themselves, and think a little.

C.S. Lewis is in a class of his own when it comes to reasoning by analogy, which makes his writing extremely attractive to a professor who is desperate to get students to think. In the final paragraphs of “Religion: Reality or Substitute,” Lewis turns his attention the relationship of faith, reason, and doubt. Lewis recognizes that doubt is not the enemy of faith but a part of human experience. He points out that humans are subject to fears, passions, and moods that threaten to overwhelm one’s faith. Clearly, Lewis is not a fideist, someone who sees an adversarial relationship between faith and reason. But almost every college student has been trained by our culture to see just such a conflict between faith and reason, so they are a bit bewildered by Lewis’s claim that “When we exhort people to Faith as a virtue, to the settled intention of continuing to believe certain things, we are not exhorting them to fight against reason.” Even if they agree with Lewis, they are not sure why.

In the past, I have asked students to take note of the analogies Lewis uses to make his case, and then write their own analogical account of faith, reason, and doubt. On this point, Lewis likens faith to the experience of learning to swim. The instructor tells the student that he will be safe in the water and the student listens to the reasons given, agrees with them, and agrees to proceed with the project of learning to swim. But once in the water, he feels a little differently. With nothing underfoot and nothing to hold onto, the new swimmer might seriously doubt his instructor. Regarding this experience, Lewis writes, “You will have no rational ground for disbelieving. It is your senses and your imagination that are going to attack belief. Here, as in the New Testament, the conflict is not between faith and reason but between faith and sight.”

When students are forced to imagine their own every-day analogy of a conflict between faith and sight, they are forced to step away from many of their bad writing habits. Instead of sitting down to write an essay and looking for lots smart-sounding but insubstantial nonsense, students are forced to think: when have I been tempted to doubt something I knew to be true? They begin to examine their own experience. They begin to examine their own reason. They begin to think twice about what they always believed about doubt.

Students might write about flying on airplanes. Reason tells us that they are less risky than driving in cars. But once you are inside a metal tube, going several hundred miles per hour, several thousand feet in the air, well, not only sight begins to rebel against reason, but the other sensations do as well. Or students might write about a relationship. That girlfriend who you know to be kind, thoughtful, beautiful, and self-giving might seem not to be “the one” after all when you are having a wretched day and she neglects to notice and actually says some pretty heartless things about whiners.

When students write an assignment like this, I am not interested in seeing academic-speak. I am interested in organized paragraphs and well-wrought sentences, as always, of course. But more than that, I am interested in guiding them to participate in Lewis’s reasoning, which, this case, is particularly important because he is connecting reason with faith. In many ways, students must be asked to reason because only by doing so will their faith be strengthened. Hopefully when they try to write their own analogy about faith, reason, and doubt, they will begin to understand how human reason, though fallen, is not the adversary of faith. As Lewis notes, faith needs reason and reason needs faith. But faith is a both a virtue and a gift, and our reason must be redeemed. Our culture is not accustomed to seeing faith and reason in such a light; hopefully, after following Lewis’s example of reasoning by analogy students gain not only greater writing skills but greater insight into themselves and their own doubts, not as the assertions of rationality but as the temptation to reject reason.

You Should Take Latin

“You should take Latin.” I bombard every student I meet on campus with this phrase. So much so that normally students see me coming and instead of running away turn to meet me and see how long it takes for me to turn any conversation into an apologia for the Latin language. They think they are impervious to my wiles. They think they wont be the ones to give in. But they are wrong. Eventually many relent. Frequently it’s the ones who put up the biggest fights up front that tap out first. But what is my secret? How do I persuade? Here is favorite approach. I tackle head on most people’s chief complaint.
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Wreaking Havoc on Scientific Materialism: C.S. Lewis on Natural Law and Divine Action in Nature

There are two rather typical responses from materialist scientists and philosophers to the suggestion that a creator God guides the development and sustains the order of nature:

1) Our current scientific theories on the evolution of all things are sufficient to explain all natural phenomena. The idea of a creator has been rendered superfluous.

2) Science doesn’t have it all figured out, and truth be told, it may never give us comprehensive knowledge of natural history or a full explanation for the stability and regularities of the cosmos, but plugging God into these knowledge gaps is no better than the ancient Greek practice of attributing thunderstorms to Zeus.

Standard practice for an apologist faced with such statements is to describe the evidence for cosmic and biological design or the shortcomings of naturalistic theories when it comes to explaining the indications of rationality in nature. The apologist uses science to argue for a God-designed, God-guided natural world. This is a solid technique and one that I often use. However, it isn’t the only angle from which to approach such a discussion, which is great news for faith-defenders lacking scientific expertise.

god in the dockIn the C.S. Lewis collection God in the Dock, there are two essays that are incredibly insightful and instructive. Lewis was not a scientist, though he knew a great deal about the reigning theories of his era and commented upon them in many of his writings. But he was wise to the fact that, more often than not, the core issue is philosophical, though the materialist scientist rarely recognizes this. Lewis’s tactic for dealing with materialist claims such as those above was quite powerful, as we see in “Religion and Science” and “The Laws of Nature.”

In the first essay, Lewis addresses the question of divine intervention in nature. He sets up a Socratic dialogue between himself and a materialist who insists that “modern science” has proven that there’s no transcendent cause for the workings of nature.

 “But, don’t you see,” said I, “that science never could show anything of the sort?”

“Why on earth not?”

“Because science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists—anything ‘outside.’ How could you find that out by studying simply Nature?”

This is a key point that is all too often missed by those claiming that science has ruled out the existence of God. But Lewis’s interlocutor persists in his objections:

“But don’t we find out that Nature must work in an absolutely fixed way? I mean, the laws of Nature tell us not merely how things do happen, but how they must happen. No power could possibly alter them.”

In other words, because there are “laws of nature,” it is impossible for anything to disrupt the regular course of nature. Such a thing would, he says, result in absurdity, just as breaking the laws of mathematics would.

But Lewis demonstrates, in his typically charming yet utterly logical fashion, that natural laws only tell you what will happen as long as there is no interference in the system from the outside. Furthermore, those laws can’t tell you if such interference is going to occur.

Science studies the material universe and can say quite a lot about how it operates under normal conditions. What it cannot rule out is the existence of something independent of the universe with the power to intervene in natural affairs. This supernatural activity would entail a cosmos that is an open system rather than a system closed to “outside” immaterial causation. Again, the limitations of science preclude it from ruling out such a state. Says Lewis, “…it isn’t the scientist who can tell you how likely Nature is to be interfered with from outside. You must go to the metaphysician.” It is, it turns out, a philosophical question.

In the second essay, “Laws of Nature,” Lewis examines the question of God’s guidance of the natural world and whether or not the prayers of mankind have any bearing on the course of events.

Lewis walks us through his own thought process in dealing with the assertion that nature is deterministic, functioning according to a set of laws, like balls on a billiards table.  But look, declares Lewis, no matter how far back you go in the causal chain of natural events, you’ll never reach a law that set the whole chain in motion. He says, “ the whole history of the universe the laws of Nature have never produced a single event. They are the pattern to which every event must conform, provided only that it can be induced to happen. But how do you get it to do that? How do you get a move on?”

Natural laws are completely impotent when it comes to event causation; they only tell what happens after ignition, so long as free-willed agents (God included) do not interfere. About the laws Lewis says, “They explain everything except what we should ordinarily call ‘everything.’” Indeed.

“Science, when it becomes perfect,” he explains, “will have explained the connection between each link in the chain and the link before it. But the actual existence of the chain will remain wholly unaccountable.”

There is, then, no contradiction between natural law and the acts of God, for he supplies every event for natural law to govern. Everything in nature is providential! In other words, we don’t need gaps in scientific explanation to have a place for postulating divine activity. But, nota bene, this is not to say that there aren’t real gaps in the explanatory framework that materialist science, by nature, cannot fill.

What does all this mean about the effectuality of human prayers? If a causal chain is already in motion, what difference could prayer possibly make? To answer this, we must be mindful of God’s timelessness and omniscience:

“He, from His vantage point above Time, can, if He pleases, take all prayers into account in ordaining that vast complex event which is the history of the universe. For what we call ‘future’ prayers have always been present to Him.”

And, it’s out of the park, ladies and gentlemen.

The “Big Idea” behind N. T. Wright’s Big Book on Paul

Recently I sat down with N. T. Wright, Research Professor for New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews.  I asked him a variety of questions regarding his new book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013).

David Capes:

Professor Wright, I tell my students that every good book, every important book has a “big idea.” What is the “big idea” behind your book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress 2013)?Paul and Faithfulness of God

Tom Wright:

The big idea is to see how Paul does something which I think he is not usually given credit for, which is that he basically invents something which in hindsight we could call Christian theology.  Now that may seem rather odd, because didn’t the Jews have theology?  Well, they did and they didn’t.  Didn’t the pagans have theology?  Well, not really.  They talked about the gods, but that wasn’t a big topic of analysis.  Paul has this vision that because of who Jesus is, because who the Holy Spirit is, everything that they had known about God from the Jewish Scriptures has to be reworked from top to bottom, particularly for this reason: Paul believes that what has happened through Jesus, his death and resurrection has radically defined the people of God so that the people of God are no longer defined as they were in Israel by circumcision and the Sabbath and the food laws and the things which marked out Jewish people from their non-Jewish neighbors.  So if you are going to have a  single community which is very important for Paul, the unity of the church is very, very important for Paul–not for us and that’s a problem by the way but a topic for another conversation.   If this community is to be united and holy but without those markers to keep it place, how are you going to do that when Paul’s answer is that the whole community needs to be involved in this prayerful, worshipful, Scripture-soaked reflection on who God is, who God’s people are, and what God’s future is for God’s world.  So in a sense this book is about Pauline theology.  In Paul and the Faithfulness of God  I expound all the details of Pauline theology, but back of that is this sense that Pauline theology as a whole is something which he is doing with his congregations because he realizes that without that they are not going to be able to be the people they are called to be.

They way I put it is this.  You know this saying: “Give someone a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.” Paul isn’t content just to give people dogmas: “Here is a true doctrine which you ought to believe.”  He does that and that will help for a while.  What he wants people to do is to grow up in their thinking, to mature as Christians in their thinking, so that then they will be able to sustain their life and the life of the church in days to come because he won’t always be just to tell them: “believe this, don’t do that, whatever.”  So Paul is concerned to teach people to think Christianly which then emerges as Christian theology.   That is the heart of it.

Why I am so excited about China

forbidden_cityToday the greatest Christian evangelism movement ever to occur in any country in the world is taking place in China.  It’s one of the most exciting developments to be happening on the world stage right now and most American and western Christians do not seem to be aware of it.  In part I think that the reason why we are not is because the media that surrounds us in our electronically saturated culture is focused so much on other things.  Perhaps in part also the reason why we Christians in the west are not aware of it is because we are so busy slugging it out in the trenches, trying to save the moral and logistical remnants of our Christian past in a western culture that seems rapidly to be turning in a different direction.  To be sure, slugging it out for the gospel in the west is a valuable mission.  It’s a mission to which I am currently dedicating my life.  But at the same time I do think that a case could be made for saying that we Christians in the west are needed every bit as much on the mission field in China.   At the very least our financial resources are needed on that mission field.  Consider the following points.

1) Chinese people right now are incredibly receptive to the gospel.  Both the mainline, government-controlled churches and also the burgeoning house church movement are being overrun with people who are seeking the love of Christ.  The openness defies region – from Harbin in the north, to Xian in the west, to Guangzhou in the south, to Tsingtao in the east.

2) There is a deep need for grounded theological education on the mission field in China.  While tens of millions of Chinese people are receptive to the gospel, from what my friends tell me there often is an unfortunate lack of theological training among their leaders – especially among the pastors and leaders of the house church movement.  This lack of grounded theology is in part the reason why many house churches are spiraling off into syncretism, which is always a danger for Christian churches.  Pseudo-Christian spiritualist movements like Falun Gong are an ever-present temptation in the absence of good theological training.

3) The numbers do vary a lot, depending on the statistical source.  It depends also on how you count the house church movement.  But the Chinese church is probably today as large as 70-80 million people.  Occasionally I have heard learned estimates of 90 million or more.  If these numbers are right then contemporary China is the third largest Christian country in the world – behind the United States and Brazil.  That’s an incredible demographic shift in just a couple of decades of openness in the post-Deng Xiaoping era.

4) Anecdotally, I have known dozens of Chinese people in my life.  And every one of them has been receptive to the gospel.  Mind you, they certainly are not all Christians.  But every one of them has been interested in hearing the Christian message – considering what it has to say – and not a single one of them has approached spiritual discussions with me in the hardened and cynical way that we Christians have become so familiar with among many of our peers in the west.  Among Chinese today there is not a cynical cultural memory of past Christian misdeeds.

When you think of a Christian today, you still think of a white American Evangelical, or a Latino Catholic or Pentecostal, or an African Anglican.  At least that’s what I think of when I reflect on it.  But one hundred years from now the largest Christian church in the world, by far, will almost surely be in China.  So when our descendants at that time think of a Christian they will probably think of a Chinese layman, a Chinese worship leader, or a Chinese missionary.

The future of Christianity is in China.  It’s time for western Christians to embrace that reality.

Richard Hays on Christology and Intertextuality in the Gospels

Richard B HaysAs a quick reminder, Richard Hays will be giving the A.O. Collins lectures this Thursday (4/3) and Friday (4/4) on the topic of “How the Gospel Writers Read Israel’s Scripture.” He’s speaking about the (divine) Christology of the Gospel writers through the lens of OT intertextuality.

Thursday, April 3rd 7:00 pm; Belin Chapel
“The Manger in Which Christ Lies’: Figural Readings of Israel’s Scripture”

Friday, April 4th 9:00 am; Belin Chapel
“The One Who Redeems Israel: Reading Scripture with Luke”

Richard B. Hays, Dean and the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, is internationally recognized for his work on the letters of Paul and on New Testament ethics. His scholarly work has bridged the disciplines of biblical criticism and literary studies, exploring the innovative ways in which early Christian writers interpreted Israel’s Scripture.

Meditating on Lent

We are just past the middle of Lent, a customary observance that I did not grow up with, but which I now heartily embrace. I admit that people look a bit strangely at one when one talks about fasting. It has not been a major theme in evangelical talk, nor one that plays well. But it is certainly important. What have I learned?

Noah – a Christian Philosopher Review

noahI just watched Aronofsky’s Noah. It was a powerful, disturbing film. I don’t know if it was calculated to please a religious audience, but I think that Christians ought to be pleased by it. What follows is my take on the film, and there are a few spoilers – so be warned.

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