Reflections on Relativism

When discussing topics of moral significance, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase “that’s right for you, but not for me”. Implicit in these kinds of statements is the idea that moral values and duties are subjective; that it’s up to me to decide what’s right and wrong for me, and it’s up to you to decide the same for yourself.  At face value, this view—call it “moral relativism”—may appear to be a tolerant position. However, upon reflection, it’s obvious that it faces a number of hurdles that it simply cannot overcome. One such hurdle is that it grates against the fact that, deep down, we all know that some things really are wrong.

Here’s an example. I recently finished reading Laurence Rees’ book “The Holocaust”. The book sets out to answer two questions: how and why the Nazi holocaust came to pass. Throughout the book Rees shares harrowing accounts of the horrors that Jews, gypsies, Soviets, and numerous other people groups experienced at the hands of the Nazi regime. These accounts are, frankly, very grim, disturbing, and unpleasant to read. Rees acknowledges this, writing: “Although the contents of the book… are disturbing, I believe it is still important to understand how and why this happened. For this history tells us, perhaps more than any other, just what our species can do” [i].

When Rees refers to “what our species can do”, he’s obviously implying that mankind is capable of horrendous evil. Now it doesn’t take a genius to deduce that the holocaust qualifies as horrendous evil—palpable, real, and true evil. However, if moral relativism is true, rather than saying “the holocaust was wrong”, wouldn’t it make more sense to say “genocide is right for you, but not for me”, or “murdering disabled and elderly people was right for the Nazis, but it makes me a bit uncomfortable”? Obviously to take such a view is absurd, indicating that relativism is an inadequate account of morality.

Rather than showing that moral values and duties are relative to the whims of individuals or societies, the fact that we perceive some things (such as the Holocaust) as truly evil indicates that good and evil are objective. By objective good and evil, I mean that some things are good or evil regardless of whether people perceive them to be that way. An oft-cited example goes something like this: even if the Nazis had won World War II and managed to exterminate all who opposed them, brainwashing the rest of us so that no one thought the Holocaust was evil, it would still be evil. That is what it means to be objectively evil.

Furthermore, though relativism may be given lip-service, I believe that our innate sense of objective moral values is betrayed in many of the films we enjoy. As Jonathan Merritt points out, film, art, literature, and music can act as a barometer for what the prevailing views are in a society[ii]. And what do we see in many of the popular movies of our time? The actions of innumerable villains portrayed as objectively—not just subjectively—wrong. When Voldemort kills Harry Potter’s parents, when the Joker sends Batman’s love interest up in a ball of flames, and when Anakin Skywalker murders young Jedi in cold blood, we judge their actions as objectively wrong.

In summary, it seems that moral relativism is bankrupt, and we should instead affirm the existence of objective good and bad, right and wrong. Although some people consciously or subconsciously subscribe to relativism, an examination of their judgements of horrors like the holocaust suggests that they actually do believe in objective moral values. James Rachels encapsulates the argument against relativism when he writes, “it does make sense… to condemn some practices, such as slavery and anti-Semitism, wherever they occur… relativism implies these judgements make no sense… [and therefore] it cannot be right”[iii].


 

Citations:

[i] Rees, L. (2017). The Holocaust, p. 429. Penguin Random House, UK.

[ii] Merritt, J. (2016). The death of moral relativism. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/the-death-of-moral-relativism/475221/

[iii] Rachels, J. (2003). The elements of moral philosophy (4th Ed.), p. 23. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY.

Kingship is a theme of the Bible that fits with a big audience

OT Audiences: Big is Good (Clarity of the Bible II)

We can understand the Bible with the help of a community: the authors, initial audiences, and later audiences. In my last post, I emphasised the authors. In fact, the authors and initial audiences overlap. By looking at the authors Paul and Luke last week, we have already started to look at initial audiences. These missionary teammates were in each other’s audiences. Other examples are proverb-writer Solomon reading his father David’s Psalms and several prophet-authors working at the same time, like Daniel and Ezekiel.

In this post, while still following clues from the Bible itself (just the Old Testament for now), we will widen our lens and find that the initial audiences were big.

Now, because we are following clues from the Bible, some skeptics will cry foul. Just as a skeptical shopper questions the claim on the Weet-Bix box that ‘Kiwi kids are Weet-Bix kids’, a skeptical reader questions the claims a book makes about its own audiences. However, a reasonable reader finds clues in a book about its audience. This is how scholars of literature treat books in general. Just as the box of Weet-Bix in my pantry is a clue to my diet, my digestive system, and my demographic, a book’s style and type is a clue to the sort of people it was written for, the relationship they had with the author, and the place his message had in their lives.

What clues in the Old Testament indicate large audiences? Much of Moses’ books are covenant or agreement documents, formally outlining the relationship between Yahweh and Israel, complete with instructions for land use, holidays, an order of priesthood, concepts of purity and perfection and much more. In other words, they were written to a whole nation on purpose to define that whole nation.

The Old Testament books after Moses are also designed for immediate and wide sharing, from temple songbooks (many Psalms) to criticisms of the nation (much of the prophets) to practical proverbs about everyday life. Even the lyrical Song of Songs is dedicated to (or perhaps by) a king.

So we have large audiences right in front of the authors using books together for a range of purposes.

Contrast this with the opposite: a lone, isolated reader who doesn’t need to do anything about the book. When I was about thirteen I read Lord of the Rings. Afterwards I felt a little guilty, because my mother would report my achievement in glowing terms, yet I knew I had bitten off more than I could chew at the time. I found it very confusing and scarcely followed the plot. Why was Aragorn the rightful king? Why did the Rohirrim ride horses into battle and not those giant tree-men? I could not have answered either of these to save my life. Fortunately, I did not need to answer these questions to save my life, or for any other urgent purpose. Again, I was a lone, isolated reader.

Yet the readers of the books of the Old Testament did use those books to support (or oppose) kings, organise battles, and do all sorts of other things. They could not afford to pose with the books and look smart one by one, like thirteen-year-old me with Lord of the Rings. They received the books as a group. The books called for an active response. And there are signs that the call got through. The books are full of clarifications in sophisticated detail. There are careful closures of loopholes in the Law of Moses, choir instructions in the Psalms, and shock tactics from angry prophets. The authors would only bother clarifying particular points like this if a lot of their message was already understood as they intended.

Each of those examples of clarification is a technique, and a set of techniques makes up a genre. A genre serves a big purpose. So, in the Old Testament, there are both clarifying techniques (like legal loophole closure, choir tips, and shock tactics) and purposeful genres (like covenant, worshipful singing, or king support) – both fine details and big ideas, all forced out onto the page by the drive to communicate. When we open those pages and read today, we have a chance to be a new audience, hearing the message again.

We should be grateful for the drive to communicate, and for the initial audiences who helped to stir it in the human authors’ hearts.

Next week, we’ll look at how balanced a portrait we get in the Old Testament about its audiences, why honesty is a much better explanation than skillful fiction, and how this, too, helps us to understand the text.

Authors (Clarity of the Bible I)

‘Go on, say it to her,’ my would-be tutor encouraged me, pointing to a pretty Chinese girl sitting nearby. ‘Don’t be shy. It’s just a greeting. You wanted to learn some new words, right?’ His impish grin did not inspire my confidence.

It’s one of the oldest tricks in the language teaching book: Tell the student a complete lie. The deception lasts until the girl who is ‘greeted’ frosts over, giggles, or bursts out in laughter. Deceptions like this range from fairly harmless to cruel. But, in general, they are fragile. The serious language student will practice their new words with many native speakers. The more trivial errors are more likely to persist, but the outrageous ones tend not to survive the environment of a community in conversation.

There is a similar remedy to mistakes and deceptions about the Bible. The more outrageous ones are fragile in the environment of the Bible community.

Who is in this community? The human authors of the Bible, their initial audiences, the readers in the generations since then, and even us today.

Today, let’s consider the first group: the human authors of the Bible. There were dozens of them over thousands of years.

First example: Luke and Paul. When Luke gives us Jesus’ model prayer, it is usually understood as a series of verbal requests to a personal God to bring about his good rule in the world, to supply our needs, and to forgive us. But could it instead be self-affirming, desire-free, vague meditation? Well, if for some reason we are unsure what Luke meant, we can check with Paul. Paul was in a missionary team with Luke. In the New Testament books that Paul wrote, he shares many of his own prayers, confirming that it involves requests to a personal God.

The Old Testament writers are also a part of the community. King David sheds light on Christ’s prayer, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, because this prayer is a direct quote from his Psalm 22. King David writes these words as a good man agonising over God’s refusal to step in, yet still trusting God with his every breath (read the whole psalm). This matches how Matthew and Mark present Christ. The same principle is at work when a recent movie makes a reference to a classic movie, and you watch the classic movie to check that you understood the reference right.

Christ quoting David like this is a fitting example of the link between the books of the Bible. To the writers of the newer books, the older books were a precious heritage – authorities even. Yet many are quick to assume that newer writers disagreed with their authorities. For example, Leo Tolstoy was sure that Christ was in fact preaching a stateless, churchless (and synagogue-less) society, though Christ failed to actually say so. Tolstoy insists that this idea, though so alien to the Old Testament, is there when you read between the lines of the New.

Certainly, writers added developments to the heritage of the older books. There is a reason why the second part of the Bible is called the New Testament. But the developments are the very things likely to be spelled out, not hidden between the lines. The new claim that the Messiah had arrived was endlessly debated between Christian and non-Christian Jews. The issue characterises the entire New Testament. Stephen’s trial and defense speech in Acts 7 presents us with one of the specific clashes. Even in its differences, a community helps us to understand.

Paul says, ‘The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God’ (Romans 3:2). The Jews were the human authors of the Bible (Luke was arguably an exception, but he certainly knew the Jewish heritage). God did not give his verbal revelation independently to isolated corners of the earth, but to a distinct nation with a rich sense of history. In the environment of their conversation, their real intentions and messages come to light.

My next few posts will be about another part of the community: the initial audiences.

Holding out for a hero

A common apologetic among Christians – here it is, in traditional syllogism:

Premise 1: Person A is a Christian

Premise 2: Person A is a well-respected celebrity or cultural icon

Conclusion: Christianity is a reliable worldview

You won’t find this argument in any apologetic textbook but, nonetheless, there are countless examples. Bear Grylls on Alpha course posters. The recent hype around Chance The Rapper’s latest album, Coloring Book. Whenever Kendrick Lamar says God. Even New Zealand gets in on the action – rugby legends, DJs, and politicians fill a list of New Zealand-celebrity-Christians.

Christian news providers jump at the opportunity to publish when celebrities make even a passing comment about their ‘relationship with God’ or their personal spirituality. These comments almost never contain anything religiously distinctive, leading the hearers further from truth and closer to tragedy. Why do Christians do this? Why do the people of God feel this need for justification from on high?

Cult of personality 

In many cultures, celebrities are respected and adored for their success and skills. That is why we flock to buy things with their faces on. People are simply more likely to subscribe to a good or service that fame is endorsing. I don’t know about you but I can’t see any difference between 1) buying Proactiv cause the Biebs said so and 2) Christianity being believable because he went to Hillsong two years ago. The Christian industrial complex is putting famous faces on their product, to increase souls. What type of message does this convey? That through the ways of the world, Christianity can achieve its goal. 

The only problem – this is antithetical to the ways of God. 

Wouldn’t it be nice…

Don’t get me wrong – we should rejoice when those with cultural influence are saved by Christ. But this should be no different to any other song of thankfulness.

I catch myself thinking for a second – how amazing would it be if Richard Dawkins became a Christian? What a testament to the power of the gospel it would be! He would become a poster-boy for the cause. Christians would remind each other around campfires of the great day that the modern walls of Jericho fell – the day the stone surrounding Dawkins’ heart came tumbling down. Jesus reigns. 

The other side of the same coin – Dawkins continues his delusion, countless more reject the faith, and Christianity is further squeezed out of the public sphere. But Jesus still reigns. His gospel accomplishments on the sinner’s behalf still resound, still light the dark, still bring flesh to bones,

Jesus has no need of sidekicks or sponsors or hype-guys or makeup artists or audio-visual technicians or athletes or politicians. It is in coincidence that Christianity started its long decline when Constantine made it cool. The glory of this world will never bring about the glory that matters. Need I remind us all that Jesus was betrayed, tortured, and executed on a Roman cross – the most unglamorous and ugly combination of evils known to man.

A better way

The New Testament authors prick the ears with a different tune   –  the good news of God saving sinners always was, is, and will be foolishness to those who are wise, strong and influential in this world. Christianity’s missions is left in the hands of the stupid, weak and unimportant. Why would we then place our hope and trust in the trending? “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

The gospel isn’t foolishness if the Greeks think it’s cool.

Foetus in the womb

The Ethics of Abortion: A Pro-life Perspective (Pt 3)

Welcome back for Part 3 of this series, in which I’m presenting a pro-life case against abortion. To recap, in Part 1 we examined the controversy surrounding abortion, and I argued that the rightness or wrongness of abortion rests predominantly on the nature of the unborn. This was expressed with the question “what is the unborn?”. In Part 2, I offered the following argument for the pro-life position:

  1. It is wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being.
  2. Abortion intentionally takes the life of an innocent human being.
  3. Therefore, abortion is wrong.

I then defended the second point with scientific evidence, demonstrating that the unborn is undeniably a human being. In this post, I’ll examine a further distinction that’s sometimes offered to justify abortion; namely, the distinction between a human being and a person. As we continue, I’ll offer reasons to think that this distinction cannot be sustained, and offer a better explanation of human value.


Do you believe that all human beings have a right to life? If so, then you should adopt a pro-life view on abortion. As we’ve seen, the unborn is a distinct, living, and whole human being, which means that if all human beings have a right to life, then the unborn has a right to life. To say that someone has a right to life is simply to say that they have a right not to be killed without sufficient justification. Since elective abortion kills the unborn without sufficient justification, it follows that it violates his or her rights.

Of course, this entails that abortion is wrong—an undesirable inference for many. As such, pro-choice advocates have forged a path that avoids this conclusion. By abandoning the idea that all human beings have a right to life and embracing instead the idea that only some do, we can put the unborn in the category of “human beings without a right to life”, and thus deny that abortion violates those rights.


Do all human beings have a right to life?

When presented with this question, it’s reasonable to suppose that most people would intuitively answer “yes”. However, many ethicists who argue in favour of abortion contend that this isn’t the case. Rather, they propose a distinction between a human being and a human person. The former does not possess a right to life, while the latter does. As such, it is morally permissible to kill a human being but not a human person.

If we consider this line of reasoning in relation to pro-life argument offered above, we can see that it constitutes a denial of the first point (it’s wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being). Rather, proponents of this view hold that it’s morally permissible to kill human beings—as long as they’re not persons. Applied to abortion, this reasoning tells us that it is not wrong to kill the unborn human being if they are not yet persons.

This raises an obvious question: what makes human persons different from human beings? How can we tell the difference? In response, pro-choice advocates have suggested a number of criteria that ostensibly grant human beings personhood and thus a right to life. You’ve probably heard of a few of them: consciousness, brain waves, human appearance, size, viability, desires, etc. It’s argued that human beings who have brain waves, or who look like mature human beings, or who have the capacity for desires etc., are persons; all others are not. In this way, personhood is granted to human beings who perform some function or have some capacity. We can refer to this position as the “functional view” of personhood.

At first blush, the functional view may seem reasonable. However, many scholars contend that it leads to overwhelming difficulties. As it’s well beyond the scope of this post, I’m not going to address each of the proffered criteria of the functional view individually. Rather, I’ll point out a major problem with this view, and leave references in the endnotes for those who wish to pursue the topic further[i].

One of the greatest difficulties with the functional view is that the criteria offered to distinguish persons from mere humans either exclude obvious examples of persons, or include obvious examples of non-persons. Let me explain. If we know that an individual is a person, and a personhood-criterion excludes that individual, then the criterion must be mistaken. Similarly, if we know that an entity is not a person, and a personhood-criterion includes that entity, then the criterion must, once again, be mistaken. For example, if we know that a comatose human being is a person, yet our criterion tells us he/she is not, then we must abandon the criterion. On the other hand, if our criterion tells us that a cow is a person, and we know that it is not, we have ample grounds to reject that criterion.


The SLED Test

In his book The Moral Question of Abortion, Stephen Schwarz[ii] offers a succinct method of summarising and demonstrating this problem. His method is known as the SLED Test. In the SLED test, each of the various criteria proposed by proponents of the functional view are grouped into one of four categories: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency. Take the first letter of each of these headings, and you have the acronym SLED. By reflecting on these categories, we can see that none of these attributes (or the lack thereof) provide good reason to kill human beings at the foetal stage, but not at a further developed stage.

  • Size

Some pro-choice advocates have suggested that the unborn is too small to be a person and therefore to possess a right to life. However, an 8-year-old child is smaller than a 30-year-old adult, yet it would be absurd to suppose that therefore the child has less of a right to life than the adult. I’m taller than my wife, my dad, my mum, and my sisters, but that doesn’t make me more of a person than they are. Defining personhood in terms of size would commit us to believing that I am, and therefore size is not an adequate criterion.

  • Level of Development

Others argue that the unborn is not developed enough to be the subject of rights—perhaps the unborn isn’t a person because they haven’t reached a certain level of physical development. However, toddlers, teenagers, and adults are all more developed than infants—but that doesn’t mean they have a greater right to life. Furthermore, if physical development determines personhood, then what level of development is sufficient? If a particular stage or bodily state can be identified, why accept that stage/state rather than another? What’s unique about it that makes it the defining moment when a human being becomes a person with rights?

Another stage of development at which human beings are thought to gain value is the stage at which they become conscious/self-aware. It’s said that persons are human beings who are conscious, and, since the unborn is not conscious, the unborn is not a human person. However, if this is true, then infants and comatose adults aren’t persons either, as they aren’t self-aware. Furthermore, sleep is an unconscious state, yet it would be absurd to think we can kill human beings while they sleep because they lose their rights when they lose consciousness. Finally, many animals are more conscious than new-born babies. Are we to forbid killing the former but allow killing the latter?

  • Environment

Another distinction said to disqualify unborn human beings from personhood is environment or location. According to this view, the unborn is located within another person’s body, and therefore is not a human person. However, we know that your value as a human being doesn’t change when you cross the street, fly to China, or roll over in bed. Why, then, should we think that the unborn suddenly becomes a human person when she travels through her mother’s birth canal? A new-born infant is, after all, identical to herself before birth, except she’s in a different location. Moreover, on this view a 39-week unborn child would not be a person, but a prematurely delivered 25-week infant would be. This, however, seems arbitrary and counter-intuitive, indicating that environment is irrelevant when determining value.

  • Degree of Dependency

Finally, others have suggested that human beings become persons when they become viable; that is, when they don’t depend on others or on certain equipment or medication for their survival. Thus, the unborn is only a person once it can survive outside the womb. Once again, however, this criterion excludes an array of human beings whom we know are valuable persons. On this view, the patient whose life depends on insulin or kidney medication would no longer be a person, elderly folk who require the assistance of carers would no longer have rights, and conjoined twins who share bodily systems could be killed without justification.

To compound the problem, viability is technologically dependent. With current technology, foetuses are viable at an earlier stage of development than they were before the modern era. Are we to think that foetuses developing in modern times are persons at 22 weeks of pregnancy while foetuses at that same stage prior to modernity were not? Surely not. As such, viability is not a good reason to attribute value to the unborn.


A Better Explanation[iii]

Clearly the functional view of personhood raises numerous questions and poses apparently insurmountable difficulties. It seems inadequate due to its inability to account for our moral intuitions regarding human value. By “moral intuitions” I mean moral truths that we perceive without having to extensively reflect or deliberate about it; for example, that it’s wrong to kill people in comas, or people who depend on medication for their continued existence. Rather, it makes more sense to say that humans are valuable persons with a right to life in virtue of the type of creature they are. Human beings have intrinsic value simply because they are human. On this view, comatose persons are valuable because they are living human beings. Infants, though not self-aware, nonetheless have a right to life because of the kind of creature they are. The unborn, though smaller, less developed, in a different environment, and more dependent than other human beings, is a valuable person in virtue of its humanity. 

If the case I’ve offered in Parts 1 – 3 of this series is sound, then abortion is wrong. As we’ve seen, the moral permissibility of abortion depends on what the unborn entity is. If the unborn is a human being, and it’s wrong to kill innocent human beings, then abortion is wrong. Science demonstrates that the unborn is a human being, and therefore if all human beings have a right to life, then the unborn has a right to life. Finally, the inability of the functional view of personhood to account for our intuitions suggests the following: if we want to embrace human equality, then we should ground it in the only thing that all humans share equally, namely, their human nature. We should embrace all human beings, defending most vigorously the rights of the weakest and most vulnerable among us—the unborn.


 

Citations/Endnotes:

[i] Helpful resources include Chapter 6 of Francis Beckwith’s book Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, session 4 of Making Abortion Unthinkable, an audio set by Stand to Reason, Chapters 2 – 4 of Scott Klusendorf’s book The Case for Life, and Christopher Kaczor’s book The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice.

[ii] Schwarz, S. D. (1990). The moral question of abortion, pp. 15-19. Chicago: Loyola University Press.

[iii] For more on this view of human value, see Chapter 6 of Francis Beckwith’s book Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, or click here for an informative lecture by Scott Klusendorf.

The death of Truth

You can’t handle the truth

In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche pronounced the death of God. In 1900, God pronounced the death of Nietzsche. In the years between, this German philosopher sought to open the eyes of the masses to the sheer pointlessness of existence using his biting, nihilistic rhetoric.

In 1966, TIME Magazine’s cover echoed Nietzsche’s sentiment, albeit in question form. “Is God Dead?” in giant red letters has become an icon of 20th century history. Nietzche’s intellectual descendants were proud of their his voice now influencing on an even grander scale. Hopelessness bred hope.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of this iconic cover, TIME published some new red letters – same style, different subject. “Is Truth Dead?” was the question for 2017. As a keen cultural observer, my ears were pricked. The subject matter of this piece was the Trumpian concept of truth as a malleable tool – an important conversation, no doubt. But I can’t help but think that TIME Magazine missed an opportunity to be truthful about truth.

Good job, TIME. Bad job, TIME.

TIME’s critique of truth massaging is both warranted and hypocritical. Warranted because language of fact and truth, right and wrong should never be distorted for any form of personal gain. Plain and simple – truth is good, falsehood is wrong. The Great Truth Masseuse of Washington would do well to listen.

On the other hand, TIME has missed a contradiction. A bad one, right in their blind spot. TIME refer to “binary distinctions between truth and falsehood” in the Trump piece, yet they represent a culture that flagrantly denies these same distinctions in areas of personal preference. TIME claims the moral high ground on matters of truth and falsehood while representing the wider cultural norm of relativizing truth whenever it suits. 

I guess I would find it hard to see this if I too had a tree in my eye.

Binary – not just for nerds

Abortion and the transgender revolution are two examples of this – the suppression of self-evident truths in favour of Sovereign Self decrees.

Despite this organism inside me being a human, I will disregard its value and kill it. I make the rules.

Despite being a man, I will declare myself a woman. I have spoken.

Despite no supporting evidence, there are surveillance devices everywhere listening to every word my administration says. That is that.

How are these things different from each other? How is one worthy of critique and the others are not to be questioned? You either keep your cake or eat it. You can’t have both.

This 50 year slide from the death of God to Truth is telling – after all, if there is no God, no Ultimate Truth Giver, can things really be said to be true in any meaningful sense? Obviously, we use ‘truth’ and its derivatives daily to convey meaning but are we appealing to our own subjective sense of meaning, or are we rooting these words in something objective, something that is, regardless of who believes it – something greater than our own unstable circumstances and desires.

If TIME are receiving answers to their pointed cover question, I have one – Yes. Truth died a long time ago. But it has risen and reigns.

A mid-week meditation

A thought to think.

The Bible, the norming norm of God, tells us that man is:

  1. Dead in his sins
  2. Filled with hatred for God
  3. Void of righteousness
  4. Destined for wrath

Even when we look deep down for the good that pop culture tells us is definitely there, we find filth all the way (if we are honest).

Our hearts are deceitful, our wills are enslaved, our affections perverted. The damage of the Fall is total – infiltrating and corrupting every part of what makes us human. But what of our minds? Yep. They are messed up too.

Dissenter (potentially played by you): Hold up. I thought this was an apologetics website? Thanks for the theological dissertation but what has this got to do with defending the faith?

Me: Everything (emphasis included).

Sin is not concerned with borders – geographical, physiological and metaphysical boundaries will not prevent it from pillaging all it touches. Our minds are no exception. Rather than unique compartments, all of our faculties are to work together. And all of these faculties have been dramatically altered by a dark descent.

When we attempt to convince non-believers of the truth claims of Christianity and stand confounded as they refuse to believe, it can become far too easy to attribute this either to a lack of consistent education on their part, or a lack of clarity on ours. Never does it cross our minds that the human mind has been mangled – in one sense, it operates as designed and on the other, joyful suppression and consistent inconsistency abound.

A thought to think – sinners hate God. They don’t know Him, nor do they want to. A thousand and one foolproof points will not change the fool.  New hearts, not new arguments, are the goal.

Earth viewed from space

Is a young earth necessary?

Preemptive apology – Trump shall be mentioned.

In some of the circles I found myself in these days, I have found just as much contempt for newly elected Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, than for the new President himself, Donald J. Trump. One American colleague went as far as to say that a Trump assassination wouldn’t do America any good because then “a pro-life, homophobic, evolution-denying evangelical” would ascend the throne.

To avoid contributing to the countless words already spent and spilt on this latest election, I am only going to focus on the last part of this blanket statement. Are evangelicals – those who trust and share the Good News of God saving sinners through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – fairly criticised as the science-haters that so many people seem to think they are? To put the question differently – are Christians required to read the first three chapters of Genesis in a literal sense?

Some readers may be shocked that I am not “taking the Bible seriously” in rejecting a literal interpretation of this passage. Others may be relieved that I have broken the chains of orthodoxy, freeing myself from absolute meaning altogether. These are those who declare “Ask not what this text means, but what this text means to you.” Sorry to disappoint both of you.

What does literal even mean?

Literally

The word literal and its derivatives are having a rough time at the moment. Modern English speakers use the word all the time, ridding it of all meaning in the process. The word means literally nothing right now. In fact, Justin Taylor has recently called for a moratorium on the use of this word in biblical interpretation, due to the varying meanings this word can take.

My experience with literal in a biblical interpretive setting is that of the ‘plain interpretation’ of any given text. In other words, interpreting something in a basic or common sense way, without metaphor or exaggeration. A plain sense reading of Genesis 1-3 seems to suggest a six 24 hour days view with the varying genealogies of Genesis adding up to a rather youthful 6,000 years old.

We could go at it for hours over exegesis and hermeneutics and be no closer to unlocking the meaning of Genesis’ beginning. While I personally think that the text itself does provide strong arguments for particular positions, a much simpler point of view provides some much needed clarity:

What is the purpose of the Bible?

Two Books

In a previous post, I mentioned the distinction between the two books that God has written – creation (God’s general revelation) and salvation (God’s special revelation). Theological concept becomes reality when we approach the creation account with this distinction in mind. God’s intent in Genesis, as with all other parts of the Bible, is to communicate his great plan of salvation for all of those who would trust in Christ. This means that he is not primarily (or even at all) concerned with teaching his people the age of the earth or the precise processes by which it came into existence.

Any serious student of Scripture knows that the plot of the biblical drama is the salvation of sinners by a gracious God, who has cast Jesus Christ in the leading role of Saviour. This story of salvation is only found in the pages of special revelation – nothing in nature contains words this sweet. If God’s book of salvation (the Bible) has the story of salvation as its content, then what does nature contain? A whole lot of juicy content for sure, but nothing salvific, nothing of utmost importance to beggars like us.

So what about the age of the earth? God may well have had a different intent in these chapters of Genesis 1-3, but can we still discern anything concrete via exegesis? I believe so. Study. Read. Discuss. THINK. But if you miss the forest for the trees, as so many “defenders of the faith” have done in advancing a young-earth-or-go-home ideology, you will end up doing an injustice not only to yourself, but to the world at large. 

A sin-sick world doesn’t need to hear the evils of evolution. It needs the gospel.

Thinking Matters Equip Logo Small

Thinking Matters Equip

A practical training bulletin sent four times per year for free

Our new Thinking Matters Equip is posted out for free to those who want to be better equipped to engage culture with the truth of Jesus Christ.

Key Points:

  • Each issue will focus on a specific topic or area of Christian apologetics and worldview.
  • A main editorial will be written by top international apologist – such as Greg Koukl from Stand to Reason.
  • It will include small-group discussion questions so it can be a resource for small groups.
  • It will include recommended further study: Books, DVDs, websites, blogs and YouTube clips.
  • We will publish a matching blog post on our website so you can discuss the content online.
  • We will include announcements about coming events and other ministry news.

Best of all – this is our gift to you!  Sorry – available only in New Zealand.

 

Old Antique Book

Foundations for interpretation

bible-08Some of mankind’s most enduring questions have been those surrounding the topic of epistemology, or the study of knowledge. What is true knowledge? Where does it come from and how do we obtain it? Are some forms of knowledge more authoritative than others? 

Throughout history, man has sought to understand reality (ontology) and how we can know this is so (epistemology). From the pre-Socratics to their namesake, from Plato to his infamous student, Aristotle, from Kant to Nietzsche – a major part of Western philosophy has been the question of, “How can we know what there is to know?” As we will see below, Christianity is no different.

A  primer in Christian epistemology

A distinctly Christian epistemology is grounded in revelation – God stopping down to our level to communicate truth to us. While modern philosophy believes that man possesses all that he needs (his autonomous reason) to scale the summit of reality, Christianity is a little more pessimistic about man’s ability to reason their way to Knowledge. Due to the noetic effects of sin, we are prone to bias and hubris in our philosophical pursuits. At risk of oversimplifying – we need a helping hand in our epistemology.

In Christian theology, there is a distinction between God’s two books –  general and special revelation. General revelation is the truth of God as revealed in creation and providence – his existence, wisdom, power, goodness, and righteousness perceived through the things around us (Horton, Pilgrim Theology, p41). All man has access to this level of truth through a logical and scientific interpretation of the world. What we choose to do with these truths – suppress or embrace – is an entirely different matter.

Special revelation, or God’s second book, is his authoritative written Word as found in the Bible. This provides particular knowledge about God, salvation and the human condition that we attain through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, correcting our systematic distortion of general revelation at the same time (Horton, Pilgrim Theology, p40).

An important question then arises – how do we, as fallible human beings, faithfully interpret what God is communicating to us through his Word? If God’s general revelation can in some ways be interpreted through reason and the scientific method, how should Christians approach his covenantal Word? To our detriment, various philosophical trends have attempted to answer this question for us and we may not have even noticed.

Philosophy check

The development of postmodern thought in the 20th century has lead to a form of linguistic reductionism where words are removed from their context and given an entirely different meaning from that of the original author. Rather than the locus of meaning being found in the author’s intent, it is now found in the interpretation of the reader. “What does this text mean to you?” becomes an all-to-frequent question at Bible studies.

Christians are naturally affronted by this turn of events and seek to reclaim the meaning of the author for interpreting texts. The reaction to this postmodern hermeneutic is often not balanced – instead of reclaiming ground via a convincing interpretive framework, the reaction to this textual twisting is to force texts through a grid of literalism that the Bible does not require. Passages containing clear figurative language are interpreted literally and much confusion abounds.

Think about your own experience – we use turns of phrase and figures of speech constantly. Do we ever interpret these with the same degree of literalism that we enforce on Scripture?. A few examples will suffice:

  • “Are you getting cold feet?”
  • “I’ve been kept in the dark on that one”
  • “Speak of the devil”
  • “She has a bubbly personality”
  • “You got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning”
  • “He let the cat out of the bag”

Why would we demand a literal interpretation of all biblical texts, regardless of form, if we don’t do this in our everyday use of language?

A more holistic approach is required – one that takes into consideration the original languages, literary features, historical context, redemptive-historical context, and theological truths to name a few. The Bible is definitely more than a text to be critically interpreted, but it is no less than this and so we should seek to interpret faithfully and in a way that does honour to author and Author alike.

The Future of Western Values

The Foundation of Western Values with Dr Ravi Zacharias

You can view a recording of the event here:

The Foundation of Western Values

Examining Christian Values in the Public Square

with international speaker Dr Ravi Zacharias

A cultural revolution is underway across the western world – and our shared meanings and values are being shaken apart with titanic force. Yet God in His wisdom has set foundations on which our lives are to be built, shaping both our public and private values. In this presentation Ravi examines and responds to the challenges facing these foundations within modern culture.


Ravi ZachariasRavi Zacharias has spoken for 44 years in universities and in public forums all over the world – from the opening of the United Nations General Assembly to the White House, and has spoken to the seats of government in England, Canada and the U.S.  He has authored or edited over twenty books and his weekly radio program airs on 2337 outlets worldwide.

For a full bio – including a list of his books – visit RZIM here.


Mark Powell The evening will be introduced with a TED-style talk by Mark Powell, who will speak on The impact of Faith on Business and Leadership.  He will unpack how we all have a faith from which we get our values – and how such faith links to modern business and leadership in more ways than you might think.

A popular New Zealand business leader with more than 30 years executive experience, Mark is best known for his role as CEO of the Warehouse Group, an iconic New Zealand retailer.


John Peachy The evening will be MC’ed by popular Christian radio talk-back personality, motivational speaker and leadership coach John Peachy.

 

 

 

 

Ravi is a dynamic and fascinating speaker who Thinking Matters is hosting for this once-only Auckland event you won’t want to miss.  Please let others know!

WHEN: Friday 3rd March 2017
TIME: 7:30pm – 9:30pm
WHERE: Harbourside Church, 48 Esmonde Road, Takapuna
COST: $5 Individual – $10 Family (cash at door)
IMPORTANT INFORMATION: We have very limited seating for this event.  Please see details here.

SIDE NOTE: Ravi will also be conducting a series of events in Dunedin from Sunday 26th February until Thursday 2nd March. You can check out details of his Dunedin events here.

Jesus The Game Changer

Jesus The Game Changer 10 of 10: REASON & SCIENCE

Pop quiz – Which work of ancient literature contains the following: “Come, let us reason together”?

The answer is, of course, the Bible. The Sunday school teachers or taught may have got that one right, but I highly doubt anyone else did. Reason and religion are oil and water to today’s enlightened mind.

Are religion and science really enemies?

Thanks to a bunch of influential pseudo-philosophers and historians, a vast number of people now think that religious claims lack any authority and are completely at odds with the claims of ‘objective’ science.

In order to do science, one must assume that reality is orderly, intelligible and understandable. Do the dominant narratives of today – materialistic naturalism and humanism – provide these foundations or are they borrowing capital from more capable worldviews?

Only certain subject matter is accessible via the scientific method. For example, science can tell us about the various processes at work in the baking of a cake – the combination of chemical ingredients and their reactions, the force required to mix them together, the heat of the oven and what it does to the cake – but it can’t tell us the why of reality, the deep questions that we all seek answers to. Science can explain the cake rising, but not the reason for which the cake is baked – to celebrate the birthday of a loved one and to see joy spread across their face.

My hope for the future

Pop up quiz 2 – Which religious text contains the commandment to “love God with all your mind”? Contrary to public opinion, you don’t leave your mind at the door when embracing Christianity. Quite the opposite.

These small thoughts can by no means provide a detailed analysis of the relationship between religion and science but hopefully they can start a conversation – one where both sides bring reason and tolerance to a vital topic.