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Archive for April, 2012

Charles Murray is a controversial social analyst whose latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, covers a slice of history in America that spans a significant portion of my own life. This interview that provides a good introduction to Murray’s worldview.

Please consider watching the entire 34+ minute clip, so you can savor this articulate descriptive analysis whose crescendo begins at 31:37, leading to a startling denouement lasting from 33:16 until its peak at 34:25—I’ll explain why it’s startling after you listen to the interview.

Indeed, this is what it means to be living in a post-Christian culture: “The most impoverished part of all is they [members of the new lower class] don’t know there is anything better out there. We have kept that information carefully to ourselves.”

Charles Murray: “We have to address it [the cruelty of permitting deep cultural despair among the lower class] by a deep introspection and do what we most deeply believe about the sources of satisfaction in a human life.

Ronald Bailey: “And how do we transmit that [knowledge about the deepest sources of satisfaction in a human life]? We live it.”

Charles Murray: “We live it openly. And we don’t make it easy for people to live miserable lives.”

I’m not sure what Murray’s last statement means, but the Bailey-Murray exchange about living openly from the sources of our happiness—religion, family, vocation, and community—symphonizes well with the gospel driven cultural obedience that constitutes the preeminent “show and tell” form of the church’s cultural evangelism.

This Matthew 5:13-16 style will lead inevitably to a 1 Peter 3:15 encounter!

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How must we explain the gifts of unbelieving scholars and artists?

To these questions Reformed New Testament professor Dr. Jakob van Bruggen provides a succinctly helpful answer.

In the entire creation-work of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit are co-creating. The Spirit hovered above the waters. And through the Word everything that exists came into being. To that creation belongs also every good gift that comes down from the Father of lights (James 1:17). The devil breaks what God creates, but he himself cannot produce anything beautiful or good, because what is beautiful and good comes from a pure source. Fortunately the world is still full of God’s creating and preserving work, not only in plants and animals, but also in people and their special beauty or extraordinary gifts. The great sin of human beings is that they proceed to develop that beauty and often exploit it as though it were their own possession. And their sin is that they proceed to develop their own particular abilities as they see fit and often with pride. Nevertheless this sin of human beings cannot obstruct the reality that there are good gifts and with them God accomplishes his own work. Perhaps the symphony conductor is condemned because of pride while at the same time his musical performances may be an encouragement to many people (assuming that such performances indeed served the beauty of sound that comes from God).

For some Christians it is perhaps confusing that the Spirit who is given to us in Christ should also be at work in technicians or artists who are totally unbelieving. We could distinguish between the work that the Spirit performs as Creator (proceeding from the Father and the eternal Son) and the work that he performs as Redeemer (proceeding from the Father through the incarnate Son who now sits at the Father’s right hand). This distinction signifies no separation, for the creating and maintaining work of the Triune God is tied to his redeeming and restoring work.

The statement that “the Holy Spirit works only in the hearts of believers,” seems to me to be formulated too narrowly, with the result that people have trouble with the rest of the Spirit’s work. I would change that statement this way: “The redeeming work of the Spirit of Christ occurs only in the hearts of all those who are reborn unto faith: at that point the human heart is opening up for that same Spirit who has always been doing his creating and maintaining work in all people, very often without these people giving God the honor for that work.”

Dr. J. van Bruggen is emeritus professor of New Testament at the Theological University in Kampen. He is also the editor of the recently completed New Testament Commentary series. You can find his personal website, and his succinct response in Dutch, here.

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This tribute was stimulated by a rereading, this week, of How Now Shall We Live?, by Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1999). It remains a life-changing read! Realizing that the book has flaws, we choose rather to express our deep gratitude for this wide-as-the-world manifesto articulated by one who came to confess Jesus Christ, and by his own testimony as a Southern Baptist, one who came to be profoundly shaped by the thinking of John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, Cornelius Van Til, and Francis Schaeffer.

* * *

Explaining the biblical doctrine of creation as both the starting point and the battleground of the Christian worldview, Colson wrote:

For if God created all of finite reality, then every aspect of that reality must be subject to him and his truth. Everything finds its meaning and interpretation in relation to God. No part of life can be autonomous or neutral, no part can be sliced off and made independent from Christian truth. Because creation includes the whole scope of finite reality, the Christian worldview must be equally comprehensive, covering every aspect of our lives, our thinking, our choices. Both friends and foes of Christianity realize that everything stands or falls on the doctrine of creation (98).

He moves immediately to make this profound connection:

Christians often seek to evangelize others by starting with salvation—John 3:16 and the gospel message (98).

This approach worked for an earlier generation where most people had some kind of church experience. But in today’s post-Christian world, where most people lack understanding of basic biblical terms, a different starting point for testifying to Jesus Christ as Redeemer is required.

Consequently, in today’s world, beginning evangelism with the message of salvation is like starting a book at the middle—you don’t know the characters, and you can’t make sense of the plot. Instead, we must begin with Genesis, where the main character, God, establishes himself as the Creator, and the “plot” of human history unfolds its first crucial episodes (98).

* * *

Here’s the conclusion of the matter:

How now shall we live?

By embracing God’s truth, understanding the physical and moral order he has created, lovingly contending for that truth with our neighbors, then having the courage to live it out in every walk of life.

Boldly and, yes, joyously (487).

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(Please note the use of the continuous present in the title.)

Lesson #1: Sarcasm is a weapon of the weak, whereas irony is a tool of the strong.

Corollaries to Lesson #1:

1.1 I am deeply chagrined by my own surrender to the impulse to score an easy hit with the send key. Too much like drone warfare—technologically clever, but too remote and impersonal for limiting collateral damage.

1.2 Irony is not sarcasm. Among the differences: irony sparks a wry grin through growth in wisdom, while sarcasm draws a grimace through diminished tenderness. Irony is paid homage by sarcasm posing with the gesture of victory amid certain defeat.

Lesson #2: There is real, indispensable truth on every side of this multi-faceted discussion.

Corollaries to Lesson #2:

2.1 Advocates of the formerly-termed NL2K are so very right about a number of things, like the centrality of the church and her worship; the essentiality of the church’s life and ministry for redeemed sinners making it to heaven; and a lot more. I’m being serious—serious enough to have focused much of my vocational activity on the life of the church. For the past twenty years, “pilgrimage” has been a constantly recurring theme in my preaching, teaching, and writing.

2.2 Any response to perceived error, therefore, must acknowledge such truth as exists on the various sides, while seeking simultaneously to articulate anew and afresh the received truth of one’s own position.

Lesson #3: Because this is as crucial a discussion as any other that has hit the Reformed/Presbyterian community in the last generation, and because an increasing number of “users” are (or ought to be) investing in this discussion, the terminology software needs upgrading.

Corollaries to Lesson 3:

3.1 Because faith, religion, church, and Christianity comprise different-though-related realities, moving the discussion forward will require steadfast clarity about these differences. For example, to argue for a kind of separation between church and state is not to argue for the separation between faith and politics, or between religion and politics, or between Christianity and politics.

3.2 Perhaps this may be a safe and helpful claim: just as “the” two kingdoms doctrine exists nowhere in Reformed, Protestant church history, so too “the” Christian answer to public social policy regarding __________ (you fill in the blank) exists nowhere. Keep in mind that because policy is not the same thing as principle, good people can disagree about the former while agreeing on the latter.

3.3 I think “users” are ready for version 2.0 of the terminology software. So download this upgrade and take it for a spin. Version 2.0 is entitled GDCO—Gospel-Driven Cultural Obedience. Version 2.0 will guide us in engaging others who are talking about how worship affects living, and how cultural obedience can display a style that is recognizably Christian without being religiously uniformitarian or unbiblically triumphalistic. I’m thinking of the need to engage seriously those works in the area of “gospel culture” written by authors like James K. A. Smith, James Davison Hunter, David K. Naugle, N. T. Wright, and others. Are there questions? Lots of them! (Like: Can a social ethic be Christian? Is there such a thing as “cultural obedience”?)

Enough to keep us busy applying what we’re learning.

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Perhaps the passing of a few years provides an opportunity for a somewhat more appreciative engagement with the content of Rick Warren’s purpose-driven projects.

Back in 2005 this four-part review of both The Purpose-Driven® Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?, and The Purpose-Driven® Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission, was published in Christian Renewal, a magazine of news and commentary serving Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America.

The potentially provocative claims found in the review include this:

[T]he tendency to reduce the practice of covenant living to inter-generational family relationships seems to have led many Reformed believers to live and act as if relationships within the church do not matter, especially in terms of accountability, participation, and service.

And this:

Could it be—God forbid, but could it be—that one reason for our merciless criticism and ruthless carping about suggestions advanced by non-Reformed people, people like Rick Warren and Promise Keepers and a long line of other would-be-reformers, is that we’d rather not face the weaknesses they seek to expose? Could it be that as church members, we don’t want to be accountable to others in the church, since, in truth, our family is really our pride and joy, really all that matters? Could it be that we are quite satisfied with reducing “covenant” to the family, especially if that allows us to hide from others outside our own family our verbal ruthlessness, our brutal stubbornness, our authoritarianism, and our self-justifying rigidity—for all of which sins we allow no one to hold us accountable?

That’s the sandpaper scrubbing needed to ready the fine piece of wood for a new coat of varnish. The last coat looks like this:

In summary, this biblical image of growth supplies both churches and individuals with an eschatological perspective that encompasses a future history and emboldens both churches and individuals to cultivate a vision of task and goals designed to assist us in traveling toward that future.

In short, the essay summons us to a practiced eschatology—to an intentional way of life that envisions and pursues purposeful relational living in our churches and homes.

Enjoy.

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Some are claiming that a Christian school does not provide Christian education, since that commodity is found only in the church. The attributive noun “Christian” is suitable for describing only those matters directly related to the Christian gospel, like worship, church education, and things church-related. Allegedly, the most we can say regarding, for example, “Christian” education is that the noun “Christian” describes not the process or the product, but only the person teaching, and the latter only in terms of motivation.

By now readers will have discerned that the questions surrounding the unique character and significance of Christian cultural activity are far from benign. Snickers about “Christian plumbing” and “Christian football” notwithstanding, many North American believers refuse to settle for a “Sunday only” expression of Christian faith because they yearn for the healthy integration of faith and life.

With this brief post we’d like to direct you to a very significant chapter from a translated book that is awaiting publication.

The book is entitled Foundations of Christian Ethics, by J. Douma. Published in 1999, this expansive work of 413 pages presents thorough discussions of the following (these are chapter titles):

What is distinctive about ethics?
What is distinctive about Christian ethics?
A utilitarian or deontological starting point?
Holy Scripture as source for ethics
Christ and our humanness
Virtue
Gleanings from the history of Christian ethics

Considering this material to be an immensely helpful contribution to the ongoing discussion, we offer our translation of Foundations of Christian Ethics, chapter 2: “What Is Distinctive About Christian Ethics.”

If you’d like further incentive to engage this material, consider these section headings in this chapter:

A morality standing on its own feet?
Narrow and broad morality
“Beyond the ordinary”
Does Christian ethics deal only with Christian motivation?
Objections
With universal and Christian arguments
A definition of Christian ethics

Here you will find a substantive, competent, and classically Reformed analysis of one of the issues lying at the heart of the current NL2K discussion. It deserves—and will repay—careful study and reflection.

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It seems that our previous blog posts (1) and (2) on this topic have caught the attention of a variety of folks, some critical, some sympathetic.

I begin this third installment with a provisional apology, both to readers of those previous posts and to Dr. Noe himself, for apparently having failed to grasp his point. My continuing confusion will be apparent if you first reread those earlier posts, together with my statements of incredulity and alarm, and then read the following.

For Dr. Noe has now sought to clarify his original essay, published online by the OPC magazine, Ordained Servant Online, by replacing his original example of a Tour de France cyclist finishing the race on Sunday with that of a suit maker, and by indicating that his original essay wasn’t dealing at all with Christian day schools.

He writes:

And, though I want to keep my powder mostly dry in case there are multiple heated replies to OS and I get from the editor a chance to respond, I would note, contra some webetary, that Christian day schools are not at all discussed in the article. I think there are good reasons for Christian schools (schools run by and for Christians – I teach at two of them right now). My focus was on whether there would be observable differences in matters that did not relate directly to the content of special revelation. And even there, I expect there will be some differences, as I believe my argument allowed, but that these primarily concern our reasons for teaching and thus are known, for now, only to the Lord. Such differences are still important, cf. WCF XVI.

We must be encouraged to learn that Dr. Noe thinks there are good reasons for Christian day schools. He himself is a Christian school teacher.

Not wanting to risk making additional erroneous claims or sounding needless alarms, I’ll simply offer a summary of this latest clarification and ask a question for the purpose of gaining clarity.

Let us summarize his most recent claims:

(1) Christian day schools are not at all discussed in the original OS essay.
(2) Dr. Noe thinks Christian day schools—schools run for and by Christians—are defensible.
(3) The original focus of the OS essay was on whether there would be observable differences in matters not directly relating to the content of special revelation.

Notice that his original conclusion, however, seems to remain unaltered: Outside the church there is no such thing as Christian education.

For gaining clarity and resolving confusion, I ask the reader to ponder this single question: What service do Christian day schools provide—if not Christian education? Or, to ask it another way: What kind of education does a teacher at a Christian school provide, if not Christian education?

Our assumption is that as historically understood and ideally practiced, Christian day schools are in the business of providing . . . Christian education. That is their claim, their promise, their raison d’être.

*   *   *

This is not the first time that people have offered vigorous criticism of public comments made by leaders in the Reformed and Presbyterian community that seemed to be hostile toward Christian day school education. For the second time now, such criticism is being greeted with the response of: “What are you people getting so upset about?”—followed by either an institutional or a personal assurance to the masses that such implicit or explicit hostility toward Christian education does not entail opposition toward Christian day schools. Evidence? Either “we send our own children to Christian schools,” or “we teach at a Christian school.” Leaving the discerning observer to ask: Why? If y’all believe there is no such thing as Christian education outside the church, then why use Christian schools?

This pattern of conversation is beyond confusing. It is exceedingly disruptive among the churches. The pattern is this:

Step 1: We are given an argument whose necessary implication—or in this case, explicit claim—is dismissive of Christian education as historically understood and ideally practiced in the Reformed and Presbyterian community.
Step 2: That argument is met by accurate analysis and accompanying concern.
Step 3: Legitimate public alarm is quickly met by a claim of appreciation for Christian day schools.

I wish we could do better.

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A new crescendo

I am writing these words as the sun rises on this blessed gift of a Spring day, and as seven of my grandchildren are getting dressed and ready to head off to school. Yes, I am grateful that they’ll be heading off to Christian schools, where they’ll continue to be formed and nurtured by a Christian education that arises from a Christian understanding of the world, of life, of human beings, of truth and right.

As their grandfather, I am deeply invested in this discussion about the legitimacy of Christian education.

As a pastor-theologian, I am joining others in sounding the alarm signaling the astonishing rise in attacks against Christian education, coming not from the outside, but from inside the Reformed and Presbyterian community.

As a Christian cultural observer—which means (1) an observer of Christian cultural endeavors, and (2) an observer of cultural endeavors who is a Christian—I am reporting this morning that overnight, the whirring sound has reached a new crescendo.

The sound, that is, of our Reformed and Presbyterian forebears spinning in their graves.

Perched atop the pyramid of institutions purporting to provide Christian education, ensconced as Assistant Professor of Classics at Calvin College, Dr. David C. Noe is aiding and abetting the enemies of Christian education in this, our rapidly secularizing and paganizing North American culture.

We’re getting shot in the back, folks.

Yet, what the Reformed and Presbyterian community of Christian believers is experiencing today cannot even be called “friendly fire.” Friendly fire is any unintentional discharge or misdirection of firepower or other weapons of war, in an armed conflict, against combatants who are on the same side. The attacks we’re experiencing in this battle for the public, life-encompassing, light-shining, salt-seasoning demonstration of God’s sovereignty and Christ’s royal authority, are neither unintentional nor misdirected, though they are coming from combatants on the same side.

Cornelius Van Til

Meet one of our forebears whose application of the Christian faith to life lived in the academy, the marketplace, the laboratory, and the factory constitutes a legacy among Reformed and Presbyterian believers.

For the remainder of this blog post, I’ll invite you to read some of what Cornelius Van Til wrote about common grace, Christian education, and our calling.

First this:

The conclusion of the whole matter is this. There are two mutually exclusive principles for the interpretation of life. The Christian principle presupposes God who speaks authoritatively through the Bible, giving man basic principles for the interpretation of the whole of life. The non-Christian principle presupposes man who speaks authoritatively of himself. Psychologically, of course, the Christian must also begin with man. But he begins with man acknowledged as the creature of God. So, it is still true that the Christian interprets all of life in terms of God and the non-Christian interprets all of life in terms of man (88).

Then this:

If God’s gifts of common grace such as “rain and sunshine,” are thus seen as being a part of God’s general call to repentance, then believers must also include that in their “testimony” to unbelievers. Believers have by grace repented from sin and undertaken their cultural task anew. They ask unbelievers to join them in a common obedience to God through Christ. “It is for that reason,” they testify, “that God’s good gifts are given you. We beseech you, in Christ’s name, be ye reconciled to God.” It is God’s longsuffering patience which would lead you to repentance that enables you to do all those things which “for the matter of them” are “in themselves praiseworthy and useful.” God intends to accomplish his ultimate end, the establishment of his kingdom. That is the reason why you are now able to contribute positively to the coming of that kingdom. The harps you make, the oratorios you produce, the great poems you have written, the scientific discoveries you have made will, with your will or against your will, all find their place in the unified structure of the kingdom of God through Christ. Now, then, in God’s name repent, for otherwise the Israelites will “borrow” your treasures and you shall perish in the Red Sea like the Egyptians (91).

And finally this:

The Reformed community, we conclude, must follow its own educational program. Much as it appreciates what is done by brethren of non-Reformed Christian persuasion, it is on the Reformed basis alone that a comprehensive Christian view of life can be set over against the world of unbelief. Only the Reformed view shows the full power of Christianity in meeting the challenge of the wisdom of the world and in offering men, with the pleading voice of the Christ who wept over the multitudes of Jerusalem, the reward of their labor for this life and the life to come. The Reformed community takes no delight in building alone. It takes no delight in living in ecclesiastical isolation. But if there is reason for it to live and to work alone ecclesiastically then there is the same reason for working alone educationally. And yet our hope is not to work alone forever. Our aim is the ultimate good of all who love the gospel and all those who should love the truth (92).

All of this cited from Van Til’s publicly available, Internet accessible, Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974).

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In the online magazine, Ordained Servant Online, a magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, OPC ruling elder and Calvin College Assistant Professor of Classics David C. Noe asks an important question: Is There Such a Thing As Christian Education?

His penultimate sentence, beginning: “In short,” and ending seventy-six words later, yields a resoundingly fulsome, clause-conditioned, qualification-suffocated answer: “No, unless you mean church education.”

The incredulous reader is left with but one question: If there’s no such thing as Christian education, then is there such a thing as a Christian college?

Actually, two questions: Who is paying this professor’s salary? Talk about biting the hand . . . .

What’s that whirring sound?

By way of introduction, Dr. Noe received his Ph.D. in 2003 from the University of Iowa in connection with his dissertation on “Oikeiosis, ratio, and natura: the Stoic challenge to Cicero’s academism in De finibus and Natura deorum.”

In the second paragraph of his online essay, Dr. Noe identifies his objective and discloses his assumption: “It is on one particular adjective, namely ‘Christian,’ that I want to focus in this brief essay.”

In the next paragraph, after identifying the first instance where the noun “Christian” is used in Scripture (Acts 11:26), Dr. Noe persistently and pejoratively describes the word “Christian” as an adjective usually applied to “all manner of nouns (counseling, publishing, radio, hip-hop, etc.) . . . .” Though it can be used properly—and he argues that such proper usage is restricted to matters associated principally with Christian worship—he insists that when applied to any other nouns outside his restricted set, the adjective “Christian” generates difficulty.

As as adjective, the word “Christian” describes not a process or a product, but only a person. A Christian who wins the Tour de France has a cycling technique no different than that of a Muslim or a Buddhist cyclist. Generally speaking, outside of the church’s Christian worship, any Christian motivation, goal, or disposition makes no discernible difference at all in the activity that Christians do. He concludes,

[T]he adjective ‘Christian’ is not meaningful with respect to the cultural artifact nor the process that an individual uses to produce it. Both the skills involved and the final product can always be the same for believers and non-believers alike . . . .

In fact, this Calvin College professor admits that for him to try to teach Classics in a uniquely Christian way seems both vain and futile—worse than that: it would be ungrateful. Why? Because such efforts risk denying the common grace God has given the wicked and risks denigrating the rain he has sent on both believers and unbelievers. If the task of education in terms of its process or result cannot be identified as Christian, then

the fact that I am a Christian would make no observable difference in either process or result when it comes to educating students in Plato. If [that is] so, why give the adjective “Christian” to education? Remember that discussing motivations is mostly saying something about persons, not about the task itself in either process or result.

Here we have it: common grace used precisely to “neutralize” the antithesis! There is no such thing as Christian education because of . . . common grace.

That whirring sound you’re hearing?

It’s Abraham Kuyper spinning in his grave. The premier modern expositor of “common grace” and the heroic champion of distinctively Christian activities, organizations, and institutions.

Like Calvin College.

Which promises its students—and presumably its constituency—a Reformed Christian liberal arts education.

If there is such a thing.

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