Category Archives: Reformed Worldview

That Other Preacher, That Other Religion

He was so passionate, so intense.  He had a conspicuous religious fervour.  The man was on fire; he was preaching.  His pulpit was a small lectern in Tasmania’s Legislative Council.  The topic of his sermon was his “End-of-Life Choices Bill.”

Last week as I watched Mike Gaffney present his bill, at first it merely seemed to me that he was preaching.  But reflecting on it further, I came to realize he was a genuine master of the homiletical arts.   And Gaffney was using his homiletical gifts in service of his religion.

Tasmania (our home for the last 5 years) has held the line when it comes to state-sanctioned suicide.  Australia’s smallest state has faced several attempts to introduce legislation which would allow it, but so far each time those efforts have been in vain.  There’s great concern that this time will be different.  There definitely seems to be a strong degree of public support for it.

Reading or hearing those expressions of support, you often come across the idea that opposition to state-sanctioned suicide comes from religious people, whereas non-religious people (like Mike Gaffney) support it.  It gets framed as a religion versus no-religion debate, often with a few “separation of church and state” sentiments sprinkled on.  But is that really what’s happening here?

It’s all going to depend on how you understand “religion.”  If you understand “religion” to refer to belonging to an organized church (or synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.), the debate could be framed in these terms.  Specifically, most opponents of state-sanctioned suicide belong to Christian churches, whereas many supporters don’t.

However, most dictionaries will tell you that “religion” has a broader frame of reference.  For example, it can refer to sincerely held beliefs about what’s ultimate in life.  From a Christian perspective, whatever is ultimate in your life functions as a god, even if you don’t refer to it as a deity.  If it’s ultimate and functions like a god in your life, then regardless of what you call it, it’s a god to you.  And you’re a religious person.

He’d probably disagree with me, but Mike Gaffney is a religious person.  He’s devout in his commitment to an ultimate belief.  His ultimate belief appears to be personal autonomy.  It’s the right to individual self-determination.  Nothing is above that.  This is the root religious belief driving so many cultural trends:  transgenderism/LGBTQ, abortion, and state-sanctioned suicide.  This belief says that the individual is ultimate – the individual is essentially an autonomous god.  So if “god” says he is now a she, no one may question “god.”  If “god” chooses death for the child in the womb, no one may question “god.”  When “god” says that life is too much and “god” wants to “die with dignity,” then no one should question what “god” says.  Gods are always ultimate in authority and power.

It’s no wonder then that, given a pulpit, devotees of this religion can be such powerful, passionate preachers.  They’re on fire for their religion and will do everything in their power to spread it.  I was going to write “evangelize,” but that would give the impression that this religion of individual autonomy has good news on offer.  It doesn’t.  There’s no good news in a religion promoting death.  Christians have a religion of life – a gospel which proclaims a Saviour who is the resurrection and the life. We have a gospel which leads us to protect and honour life.  So why aren’t we just as, if not more, zealous than Mike Gaffney?


Homosexuality, the Bible, 1946 and all that

I’m just going to say it, no holds barred:  one of the shallowest objections to traditional Christian sexual ethics is that “the Bible didn’t even use the word ‘homosexuality’ until 1946.”  I’m gobsmacked that people actually get taken in by this special sort of tomfoolery.  I know a lot has been written on this canard already, but it can only aid the cause of truth to get one more voice sharing the facts.

Here’s the thing:  it doesn’t matter that the Bible didn’t use the word ‘homosexuality’ until 1946.  The point is completely irrelevant.  Let me illustrate with other phenomena.  Consider:

No Bible translation has ever used the word ‘evolution.’  Does it follow that the Bible has nothing to say about Darwinian macro-evolution?

No Bible translation has ever used the word ‘transgender.’  Does it follow that the Bible has nothing to say about the transgender ideology?

No Bible translation has ever used the word ‘racism.’  Does it follow that the Bible has nothing to say about that?

Christians understand that the Bible’s relevance is not bound up with the use of an exact word.  It would be juvenile to take a word designating a topic (any topic), check an online concordance and, failing to find the word mentioned, conclude that the Bible has nothing to say on that topic.  The classic example is the Trinity.  Imagine someone checking a concordance for any mention of the word ‘Trinity’ in the Bible and, not finding it there, concluding that the doctrine of the Trinity is not in the Bible.  No, the word isn’t there, but the concept or doctrine certainly is.  Christians realize that, to do the Bible justice, we have to take the totality of its witness — that goes far beyond the usage of individual words.

Language is always in flux.  During our family worship, we take turns reading from the Bible.  My wife and kids read from the ESV while I read from the KJV.  I’m always surprised at how words change over the centuries.  For example, the KJV uses the word ‘corn’ in several places.  When we think of ‘corn,’ we think of the crop developed from maize.  It’s a New World crop — it didn’t grow in Israel in biblical times.  However, the KJV simply used the word ‘corn’ to describe any type of grain.  The English language has changed and Bible translations change with it.  Today there’s no corn in modern English translations.

While language changes, biblical truth does not.  Bible-believing Christians didn’t suddenly start seeing homosexuality as a problem in 1946.  Nor did Bible-believing Christians wake up one morning in 1946 and decide that they needed to have a Bible translation that supported their views.  History matters and history testifies that Bible-believing Christians have consistently maintained that homosexuality is contrary to God’s will for humanity.  Let me give two examples to illustrate.

The Heidelberg Catechism was written in 1563 for the teaching of children in the German-speaking region known as the Palatinate.  Lord’s Day 41 deals with the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”  Someone might read Lord’s Day 41 and note that it makes no mention of homosexuality.  But you shouldn’t conclude that Reformed churches therefore have no problem with homosexuality.  Answer 109 says that God “forbids all unchaste acts.”  One of the biblical proof-texts is 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, a passage which has traditionally been understood to refer, in part, to homosexual behaviour.  Zacharias Ursinus was the main author of the Catechism and he wrote a commentary on it — actually lectures to his seminary students.  While the Catechism addressed to children understandably avoids this subject, his commentary definitely discusses homosexuality.  He speaks of it as being “contrary to nature.”  Homosexuality, according to Ursinus, is a heinous sin and an abominable transgression.  True, he doesn’t use the word ‘homosexuality’ — he couldn’t because it didn’t exist yet!  Nevertheless, the concept is there.

You can see the exact same thing in John Calvin’s commentary on Romans 1:26-27.  Again, Calvin doesn’t use the word ‘homosexual’ and neither should you expect him to.   Yet he still speaks of “the dreadful crime of unnatural lust” and of a “filthiness which even brute beasts abhor.”  Calvin found what we call ‘homosexuality’ to be contrary to God’s will, even though he didn’t use the word itself.  Were he alive today, he would no doubt find it ludicrous that some would argue that the Bible has anything other than condemnation for such things.

What Christians need to learn today is another important word:  revisionism.  In an effort to make homosexuality acceptable to Christians, progressive sorts are constantly trying to revise our theology and history.  This revisionism ought to be self-evidently anti-biblical.  In other words, it isn’t true to the Scriptures.  However, it can appeal to those who, for whatever reason, wish for a happy union between Christianity and homosexuality.  It appeals to those who think:  “Wouldn’t it be nice if our Christianity wasn’t so counter-cultural?”  Yet:  let no one join together what God has put asunder.


Book Review: The Gathering Storm

The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church, R. Albert Mohler Jr..  Nashville: Nelson Books, 2020.  Hardcover, 223 pages.

Albert Mohler has a well-deserved reputation as one of Christianity’s best culture critics.  He has a daily radio program (The Briefing) with thoughtful worldview analysis.  His blog (AlbertMohler.com) is on my must-read list.  When Mohler speaks or writes on a topic, you can be sure of two things:  1) he’ll be starting with the Bible as his foundation and 2) he’ll be aiming for the glory of God through the advance of the gospel.

He does it in this book on our contemporary cultural challenges too.  Here he’s addressing the overarching problem of secularism.  At the outset, I should say he’s writing as an American for an American audience.  I read it as an ex-pat Canadian living in Australia.  Some of the material in the book may seem irrelevant to people like me — the Appendix, for example, deals with the American Supreme Court and the role it plays in political decision-making.  You may have to stop and think about how that transfers to the Canadian or Australian situation (I think it does).  That said, Mohler does pay attention to developments elsewhere in the world.  He writes about situations in British Columbia, Alberta, France, and elsewhere.

The book contains both description and analysis.  If anyone has been paying attention, a lot of the descriptive material is going to be familiar.  He describes how secularism is a threatening storm in regard to civilization, the church, human life, marriage, family, and gender/sexuality.  Mohler’s analysis of these trends is where I found the real money for value in this book.

Let me share a few points of appreciation that might whet your appetite.

Already in the Introduction, Mohler explains that secular doesn’t mean “irreligious” or “non-religious.”  It means “that Christianity, which forged the moral and spiritual worldview of Western civilization, is being displaced.”  In the first chapter, he elaborates:

Secular, in terms of contemporary sociological and intellectual conversation, refers to the absence of any binding theistic authority or belief.  It is both an ideology, which is known as secularism, and a consequence, which is known as secularization.  The latter is not an ideology; it is a concept and a sociological process whereby societies become less theistic, and in our context that means less Christian in general outlook. (pp.4-5)

Elsewhere in the book he illustrates how secularism and secularization have religious and theological values.

The second chapter is entitled “The Gathering Storm in the Church.”  Mohler notes how the prophets of theological liberalism predicted that churches would need to adapt to the culture in order to survive.  He quotes a Baptist minister and lawyer, Oliver Thomas:  “Churches will continue hemorrhaging members until we face the truth:  being a faithful Christian does not mean accepting everything the Bible teaches” (p.30).  However, the truth is quite the opposite:  “it was actually liberal theology that lead to the evacuation of these churches” (p.19).  Mohler doesn’t discuss this, but I’d note that we heard the same canard from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands about women in office.  Some from the RCN argued that the church can’t survive and grow while restricting the special offices of the church to men.  I wonder how that’s going for them.  If you look at the Christian Reformed Church in North America, after their decision to allow women in office in 1992, they’ve been on a steady downward trend in membership.  Adapting to the culture is not a recipe for growth.

That same chapter also issues a cry for the need for creeds and confessions.  Says Mohler, “Churches and denominations that have no confession of faith, or have a confession in name only, disarm themselves doctrinally” (p.36).  Quite right!  Historic Christian confessions which faithfully summarize the Bible are indispensable for keeping our doctrinal heads screwed on straight as the storm of secularism starts blowing in.

The chapter on gender and sexuality discusses the infamous Revoice Conference of 2018.  This conference was held to support, encourage and empower “gay, lesbian, same sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.”  This illustrates “the revolution’s demand on the church of Jesus Christ.”  One thing Mohler doesn’t mention is the fact that this conference was hosted by a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America.  In fact, the epicentre of the Revoice controversy has been in the PCA and how the church and its courts respond to it.

One of the troubling things about the Revoice Conference was the idea that a Christian can identify himself/herself in terms of being gay or lesbian, etc.  In other words, you can be a “gay Christian.”  Mohler dissents.  The most significant problem “is the idea that any believer can claim identity with a pattern of sexual attraction that is itself sinful” (p.108).  Some associated with Revoice argue that the attraction itself is not sinful.  Mohler’s response to this is worth a careful read:

The issues here are bigger than sexuality.  As Denny Burk and Rosaria Butterfield rightly explain, we confront here a basic evangelical disagreement with Roman Catholicism.  Ever since the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Roman Catholic Church has insisted that involuntary incentive to sin is not itself sin.  In the most amazing sentence, the Council of Trent declared: “This concupiscence, which the apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin.”  Don’t miss the acknowledgement that the doctrine of Trent is contrary to the language of the apostle.  (p.109)

That was new to me; both the connection to Roman Catholicism, and how explicitly the Council of Trent repudiated biblical teaching on this point.

Finally, Mohler has a great chapter on the challenges facing our young people.  Again, the description is good, but the analysis is better.  But best of all is the way Mohler lays out a way to “apply the gospel power in order to engage the storm gathering over the coming generations.”  He argues that Christian parents have to lay hold of three things:

  1. Because it’s where the gospel is preached, church has to be the utmost and highest priority for Christian families.
  2. Christian parents need to both understand the challenge of technology, screen time, and social media and rise to meet that challenge.
  3. Christian parents have to disciple their children through family worship and quality family time.  (pp.140-141)

If I could add one item to this list:  recognizing the need for and value of Christian education.  After all, public education is one of the primary ways secularism seeks to indoctrinate our children.

I first became aware of The Gathering Storm through its promotion online through Mohler’s blog and other sources.  However, what really led me to buy it and read it was a friend and colleague from Canada who was doing a course for Christian school teachers on the biblical worldview and contemporary challenges to it.  I’d say that it is a must-read for Christian educators.  But no less so for parents and far more so for office bearers in Christ’s church.  I do wonder whether the storm is still gathering or whether it is upon us.  Whatever the case may be, none of us can be doing the ostrich thing.  We need to see what’s going on and then also realize that if we’re truly Christians, we have the solid foundation under our feet to weather it — and even see the gospel advance despite it.

 

 

 


FRC Launceston Wednesday Evening Message — Colossians 1:15-20


Book Review: Reforming Apologetics (3)

See here for part 1 and here for part 2.

The concept of “common notions” plays a large role in Fesko’s critique.  Chapter 2 features a treatment of the concept from the perspective of historical theology.  As far as a definition goes, he provides that of Anthony Burgess:  “ ‘The Law of Nature consists in those common notions which are ingrafted in all men’s hearts,’ some of which include the existence of God as well as a general knowledge of the difference between good and evil” (30).

He comes back to this concept in chapter 5.  Here he critiques Van Til’s approach to common notions.  According to Fesko, Van Til “rejected the historic Reformed concept of common notions because he believed it was an example of synthetic thinking” (110).  A little further Fesko states things even more strongly:  “With his rejection of common notions, Van Til departs from the catholic and Reformed faith” (110).  However, this critique fails to persuade.  On the next page, Fesko describes Van Til’s alternative terminology of “common ground” and admits it is difficult to tell the difference from “common notions.”  If that be the case, how can Van Til be described as departing from the Reformed faith because he adopted a different term?  Moreover, Fesko fails to mention other places where Van Til uses (and attempts to refine) the terminology of “common notions.”  For example, in his 1947 book Common Grace, Van Til distinguished between common notions in terms of psychology (which he granted) and in terms of epistemology (which he rejected).  It is not reasonable to conclude that Van Til departed from the Reformed faith because he eventually chose alternative terminology, terminology which he thought to be more accurate.  In Fesko’s mind, it appears that Reformed theologians are bound to the terminology of historic Reformed orthodoxy and can never seek to improve upon it without being accused of forsaking the Reformed faith.

Chapter 5 is a critique of the concept of “worldview.”  This is a concept which is integral to Van Tillian apologetics.  Fesko endeavours to show that the concept is dubious since it has origins in philosophical idealism.  Specifically, his beef is with “historic worldview theory” (HWT).  He claims that “HWT is contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures because it rejects a common doctrine of humanity” (98).  Because we are all created in the image of God, all people have “common notions.”  HWT denies this, according to Fesko.   Moreover, he takes issues with the idea that a worldview “must present an exhaustive explanation of the world.  The Bible does not present an exhaustive view of reality”(98).

The chapter begins with a pass granted to theologians like N.T. Wright and Dennis Johnson, who only hold to a loose idea of a worldview.  Fesko has no difficulty with those who, like Wright, say that a worldview is “the way in which people view reality” (98).  He says that these “uses of the term and concept are benign” (98).  His real problem is with worldview thinking more tightly defined in terms of the rejection of common notions and the claim that worldviews are exhaustive or comprehensive descriptions of reality.

I already noted above that Fesko’s critique of Van Til on common notions does not hit its mark.  At this point, I would add that Fesko fails to reckon with an important distinction in presuppositionalism.  We distinguish between what a worldview says in principle and what individual people think, do, and say in practice.  For example, a materialist worldview in principal stands antithetically opposed to Christianity by affirming that physical matter is all that exists.  However, because of common notions (or whatever other term may be used), in practice, individuals who claim to be materialists often betray their own position.  For example, they cannot account for non-material laws of logic.  Because of this dissonance between principle and practice, there are inconsistencies with both believers and unbelievers.

With regard to the insinuation that HWT leads presuppositionalism to claim an exhaustive, detailed view of reality, there is no evidence to support this.  Fesko makes numerous statements like this:  “The Bible is not a comprehensive survey of world history” (128).  But did Van Til or any other presuppositionalist ever claim that it is?  The biblical worldview is not an “exhaustive” view of reality in the sense that Scripture tells us the details for every field of knowledge.  If that is what HWT claims, then I reject it with Fesko.  But the biblical worldview does supply a basic framework in which to explore and develop every field of knowledge.  There are basic principles supplied in Scripture by which Christians can set out to work in history, science, mathematics, and so on.

The idea of worldview is inescapable.  It is self-evident that everyone has a philosophy of life, even if it is not well-stated or well-thought out.  While reading Fesko’s book, I could not help but notice that even in the world the concept of “worldview” is part of the common (!) vocabulary.  As Christians, we recognize that the Bible presents an objectively true picture of the way things are.  There is a framework in the Bible for how we are to look at the world in which we live, including how we regard ourselves.  In the past, that has simply been described as “Christianity” or “the Christian faith.”  In more recent times, some have taken to describing it as “the Christian story.”

Whether we use “the faith,” “worldview,” or “story,” at the centre of it must be Christ.  This is emphasized in Colossians 1-2, a section of Scripture not discussed by Fesko in this chapter.  In Colosssians 1:17, we read that Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  In Colossians 2:3, Christ is the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  It does not say “some of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” but all.  Fesko critiques Van Til and other presuppositionalists for putting Christ at the centre of the Christian worldview, but regardless of his historical critique of HWT, Scripture speaks against Fesko and in favour of Van Til.  If Scripture says that Christ is at the centre, then Christ has to be at the centre, even if that means it appears we are following idealism’s notion of “deducing a system of doctrine from a single concept” (108).

See here for part 4 (the final installment).