The gospel and abortion

[David Platt, in the Counter Culture Bible study, asked us to state how we see the gospel related to the issue of abortion. In what follows, I draw on some of the points he made in the associated study guide.]

The image of God

Humans are unique because we are created in the image of God.

In Genesis 1, God commanded the various elements: “Let there be light”, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters”, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place”, “Let the earth sprout vegetation”, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens”, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures”, and “Let the earth bring forth living creatures”. When it came to mankind, the pattern changed. God said, “Let Us make man in Our image”. Rather than commanding something to come into existence, or commanding one thing to bring another thing into existence, he “commanded” himself (!) to do the creating, and he himself is the one from whom man came.

Also, in Genesis 1, God created the various creatures to bring forth “after their kind” but of man it is said: “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness … God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” The constant repetition of our creation in the image of God is meant to emphasize it. Unlike any other creature, we are uniquely made to reflect the nature of God.

In Genesis 2:7, it further emphasizes God’s unique involvement in our creation, saying that he formed (or “fashioned”) man from the dust of the ground, and breathed his own breath into him to give him life.

In Genesis 1, mankind is given the commission to multiply throughout the earth and take charge of it. They are given every plant for food. After the fall, things change. The earth becomes hostile to man, man becomes hostile to man, God judges the world through the flood, and Noah starts over. In Genesis 9:1-7, God renews his charge to mankind, but this time he takes into account the fallenness of the world.

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.


Whoever sheds man’s blood,

By man his blood shall be shed,

For in the image of God

He made man.


As for you, be fruitful and multiply;

Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.”

Again, mankind is told to fill the earth. Again they are given dominion over it. This time they are promised that the rest of the creatures will fear them – a promise that is only necessary in a fallen world. This time they are given the right to kill and eat any living creature, except for humans.

However, they are told not to kill humans. The reason given is because humans, unlike other creatures, are made in the image of God. We have dominion over the whole earth, to do what we want with it – but God reserves the right to decide which humans live or die. Perhaps these verses implicitly grant permission for capital punishment, but when it comes to the innocent, God alone has the right to decide when life ends. The point is this: the Bible reserves the right over life and death for God alone, and the reason it does so is because we are created in God’s image. We are God’s workmanship, and no one has the right to destroy that.

Psalm 139:13-16 says:

For You formed my inward parts;

You wove me in my mother’s womb.


I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Wonderful are Your works,

And my soul knows it very well.


My frame was not hidden from You,

When I was made in secret,

And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;


Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;

And in Your book were all written

The days that were ordained for me,

When as yet there was not one of them.


I am convinced by Luke 1:41-43 that the baby in the womb is a living human being, but I don’t think the verses here speak directly to that question. At least the final verse does not: it talks about the days ordained “when as yet there was not one of them”. If verse 16 were talking about the fetus, it would imply that none of his days had occurred yet, and so imply that he was not living yet.  I don’t think that’s what it means though; it is speaking, rather, of God’s foreknowledge of the Psalmist even before he existed at all. Jeremiah 1:5 is similar.

This verse isn’t focusing on what kind of thing the unborn baby is; it’s focusing on how far back God’s creating and fashioning activity extends. It says that God planned us from before we even existed, and was involved in crafting our physical being from the moment it began.

So the question isn’t when we first became alive or first became human or first became a person. It certainly isn’t when we first became viable or when we began to have a heartbeat or a brain wave or to feel pain. The question is, when did we first become the workmanship of God, made in his image? The answer is: from the very beginning.  By the time we know there is a baby there, it is already being fashioned by God and we are already forbidden to exercise our “dominion” to end its life.

The value of life

In my philosophy classes, students often discuss the morality of abortion. I’m dismayed by how frequently they assume that if a baby is going to be born into poverty, it would be a kindness to kill him instead. I often ask if they’d be willing to kill a two-year old for the same reason; many say No, but a sizable number say Yes, they would.

I’ve mulled this over for a couple of years now, and I have come to realize that it is vitally important to me that the value of someone’s life has nothing to do with how much they are suffering. Being unhappy does not diminish a person’s worth!

Jesus suffered greatly in Gethsemane and on the cross, but his life on earth was as valuable as it is possible to be. Because he suffered for love’s sake, and completely fulfilled the Father’s call for his life on earth, his life was full of meaning and purpose and majesty.

What has happened is that my students are assuming that the only value someone’s life has is that it makes him happy. When he is unhappy, then it is not worth so much anymore. What an impoverished view of human worth!

It is true that we often identify value with success. Those who are rich, happy, and influential somehow seem more worthwhile than those for whom the opposite is true. The message of Jesus’ ministry, and especially of the Beatitudes, is contrary to this. It is those who suffer, who are powerless, who are vulnerable, that are the Blessed.

I believe abortion is a tragedy, but I am not convinced at this point that it is my role as a Christian to wage a political war against it. (I’m not saying it’s not your role – I’m just not convinced it’s mine.) What I do want to stand for, though, is the truth of the enormous value of human life. In the course of debating abortion and euthanasia and evolution and many other things, we have slipped into thinking of human lives as commodities that can be assessed and then itemized in a cost-benefit analysis. The truth is that our lives have transcendent value. We are magically, mystically wonderful beings! Not because of what we do for others, and not because our lives feel good to us, but because of how God sees us and His creatorship and ownership of us. That is at the core of the gospel. You are loved; you are planned; you are called. These are at the heart of the gospel message. You matter, not because of you’ve done, and not because of how you feel about yourself, but because of your part in God’s plan.

I want people to see the baby in the womb that way, but I also want them to see themselves that way. The gospel is the story that God is telling about our lives, and understanding and receiving it lets us step into that story.

Political controversies

I’ve been frustrated for years by political controversies. I decided a few weeks ago it’s time to start working out what I think for real.

My first avenue of attack is to decide how I think the discussion should proceed. I want to work out the rules I think are essential for a productive dialogue, and then let that guide me to the people I trust to show me how to think about political things.

One of the first moments of clarity for me came after listening to this iTunes U philosophy lecture.  The one I have in mind is #7, “Understand Skepticism About Climate Change”.

I describe the whole lecture over here. This was my conclusion:

Suppose conservatives and liberals disagree over factual issue X. Then I think the following are key to a discussion that actually makes progress.

  • Realize that people make decisions about X based on who they trust. It isn’t that one side is willing to look at the facts and the other isn’t. It’s that each side has its own experts telling it what the facts are.
  • Expect people on each side to be rational and honest. It’s just that liberals and conservatives have different presuppositions and trust different people.
  • Don’t use X to push a liberal/conservative agenda. That instantly makes you untrustworthy.
  • Help opponents find a way to believe X while remaining conservative/liberal.That’ll take creativity, but it gives people space to look at X without feeling like they’re being pushed into something else.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to think about how this would work in the case of scientific creationism / evolution, or the question of who was to blame in Ferguson, or the question of whether Obamacare was a good idea.


Truth in movies

Philippians 4:8 says this:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

Note what the verse does not say. It does not say we are to avoid anything that is false or dishonorable or whatever else is the opposite of the verse. It doesn’t talk at all about whether we are supposed to avoid bad influences. What it says is that we are supposed to focus on the good influences.

We live in a world in which most things both good and bad at the same time. In our world, every movie, every book, every song, is a mixture of truth and error, a potential influence both for good and for evil. Paul does not say, “Avoid all the evil”, but he does say, “Whatever you may encounter, notice and focus on the good.”

When it comes to movies, the same verse applies. We are not commanded in this verse to avoid every movie with error in it, but to sift what we see so that we can focus on the good. There certainly are movies we should avoid, but that’s not the meaning of this particular verse.

All this was already said by my daughter Hannah here. She is starting a blog series on movies and Philippians 4:8, and invited her readers to talk about movies and truth first. Since I’m one of those readers, here is what I have to say.

Hannah also already looked up the Greek word for truth in Philippians 4:8 and found three different definitions: a) reports the facts, b) authentic, and, from a very literal translation of the Greek word, c) unconcealing. She focused on authentic. I am going to focus on unconcealing.

A lot of people only care about the report-the-facts aspect. If something is true, it means what it says is a fact, and if not, not. Most movies are fictional, though, so what does it mean for a made-up story to be true? To answer that, I want to turn (just for a moment, I promise!) to philosophy.

In the 20th century, philosophy split into two branches. One was analytic philosophy, which predominates in the US and in Britain, and focuses on accurately defining all our terms and concepts so that we can analyze them as precisely as possible. The other branch was Continental philosophy, which predominates on the European continent – for example, in France and Germany. It focuses on understanding the things that we can’t define – either because they are just not the kind of things that can be captured by language, or perhaps because we are prevented by our own personal cultural and linguistic framework from thinking about them clearly.

Analytic philosophers seem to want to be scientists. Continental philosophers seem to want to be poets.

Heidegger, one of the most famous Continental philosophers, noticed that “truth” in the Greek was literally “unconcealing”, and used that notion of truth extensively. The problem with truth, he assumed, is not that we can’t find, but that we hide it from ourselves, even when – or especially when – we analyze it. With each step we take into more precise definitions, we further cut ourselves off from the thing we were actually trying to talk about.

For Heidegger, one of the best ways to see truth was art. Art has a way of pointing us that which we have been busily concealing from ourselves. The truth of an artwork is the unconcealing that happens when it sneaks around behind our intellectual fences and shows us not just as another fact to believe, but a whole new way of thinking and seeing everything.

Art, said Heidegger, clears a space for truth.

With regard to movies, I take this to mean the following: a movie introduces us to a new way of thinking about the world, a new way of seeing it, which raises possibilities for us that we would not have thought of on our own. Movies don’t do this by telling us what to think, but by letting us experience something. They put us inside a story. They put us in a relationship with the characters. That’s why Hannah says that she can vicariously live someone else’s life in a movie.

Because they draw us into an experience instead of just telling us about an idea, they can introduce things into our minds without having to put them into words. We have been changed afterwards, but it make take us some time to say exactly how.

Sometimes, once we have had the experience we can put it into words. Unlike Heidegger, I think there can be a great value to articulating what we think we know. The point is that, before the movie, there are concepts we could not have thought of. There are distinctions we would never have made. There are nuances we would never have cared about. And, therefore, there were truths that were inaccessible to us. After we have absorbed what the movie had for us, we can see more. A few of those things we can even put into words.

The truth of the movie is not a set of facts, but it is a new way of seeing that makes us more alert to all sort of facts we had been missing.

So … examples.

Remains of the Day: Lots of people make movies (and speeches) about the need to take a risk, and not let life slip away from them, but most of them make no impact on me because I am not sure they know what they are talking about. This movie, though, which is about two very proper English servants who fall in love but never get together because of their emotional reserve, really stuck with me. I saw, in a way I’d never realized before, how one’s caution about relationships can simultaneously be generous to others and imprisoning for oneself. It showed very precisely how that can happen.

Another Emma Thompson movie with a somewhat different insight about emotional reserve and propriety is Sense and Sensibility.

What was true about these movies? Not the facts, and not the moral of either story, but rather the experience each offered, an experience which not only tells the truth but makes it possible for it to be seen.

Rocky: This movie tells the truth about courage in an ordinary life by an ordinary guy. Even if I can’t say what courage means, I can think of Rocky and think, “That. Courage looks like that.”

All The President’s Men: Some movies, like this one, are clearly fact-based, but that doesn’t make them truer in the important sense. Personally, I dislike most pictures based on true events, because I don’t trust them. Even if the movie gets all the facts right, I’m always worried that they’ve interpreted them wrong. Whatever it was like to really live through the events, I’m sure it was different from the way the movie showed it.

So when I say this movie is true, I don’t just mean that the things it talks about actually happened. I don’t mean that it accurately reports the way that the Woodward and Bernstein felt. I mean that the movie used their story to communicate a specific way of thinking about Watergate, and journalism, and government. I think the fact that Nixon really did all that stuff is important for the success of the story, but the way in which the story unconceals isn’t found in the events it recounts but in the way it interprets those events through the eyes of the main characters.

Mr. Holland’s Opus: I don’t know whether to consider this a positive or a negative example. When I first saw it, I reacted very negatively, because I thought it was telling a falsehood. As I saw it, the story purports to be about a man who loves music, and wants to bring beautiful music into the world. Failing that, he wants to share the love of music with his students, so they can experience the beauty of it for themselves. At the end of the story, he is told that everything is all right because he was kind to his students as he went through his life, and although they still don’t share his love of music or see its beauty, they felt better about his being there for them. I thought of it as saying that there is no real point to beauty, no value in trying to point people to something beyond their own lives, just moments of superficial friendliness. That’s all we can hope to be.

You can see why I didn’t like it!

I thought the “truth” it was teaching was false, through and through.

Later, people convinced me I should interpret the story differently. I should see it as about a man who wanted to show people the beauty in music, and set his heart on it, but by his own choices, made consistently throughout his life, kept choosing to sacrifice that goal in order to show love to the people around him. At the end of the story, he is shown that the reason he valued the music was because of how it could be a blessing to people, and that his love for people was deeper and more important to him than the music. He realizes that he has not lost out. He lets go of his self-pity and embraces the fact that there is beauty that he has shown to others in all the small acts of kindness throughout his career.

If that’s true, then there is some important truth in the movie after all. But personally, I still think it told the story wrong. I think the first interpretation is partly there in the movie too. I like it now, but only because I think both interpretations are there. After all Philippians says “whatever is true”, so if there is some truth there I can rejoice in that even if I reject the falsehood at the same time.

Another negative example: Chinatown.
The truth I think it tells is that there is no truth that we can find. There is not even any provisional truth we can try to live up to. If we simply try our best and do what we can, we are just as likely to ruin peoples’ lives as to help them. It is a very bleak movie.

I think there is some value in understanding what is like to face that bleakness, but fundamentally I think it’s telling a lie about life.

Somewhere out there, there is probably someone who loves Chinatown and was profoundly moved by it. Maybe after talking to them about it, I would be able to appreciate its message, because through their experience of it I’d be able to find whatever is true in it.

Another example: A good friend of mine has a similarly negative reaction to American Beauty.

A final point: what is the Scriptural meaning of “true”? Is it report-the-facts, authentic, or unconcealing? I think that it is not really any of them, but a fourth which is related to the other three. It seems to me that “truth” in the Bible is personal truth, connected to a relationship of trustworthiness and reliability. Truth, in other words, is closely related to being honest and loyal.

Furthermore, truth in the Bible also connotes the really Real, that which lies behind the transient illusions of our life on earth. Jesus is the true vine, as opposed to the mere physical vines we see in the world.

Both meanings come together when we are told that Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life”. We can rely on Him because he is the ultimate reality and because he is faithful and loyal toward us.


So “whatever is true” may mean that whatever we encounter, we should try to see the reality of Jesus hidden behind it. We should look for signs of Him in the movies.

Faith and Reason Conference

I’m very excited right now because I am going to a philosophy of religion conference in just a couple of hours. I haven’t been to a professional academic conference like this for about 25 years, and I am expecting to really enjoy myself, even though most of the talks will probably go right over my head!

The conference is in honor of Richard Swinburne, a giant in the field of philosophy of religion who is celebrating his 80th birthday this year. Every paper is supposed to relate to something he’s worked on. Even though it’s in honor of him, participants are free (even expected) to disagree strongly with his views if they want to.

For my own entertainment, as well as to catch myself up on the philosophical basics everyone else there will already know, I looked at each of the descriptions for the papers that will be presented, and tried to figure out what they will be talking about.

I’m going to post what I discovered here, because I think some of you may be curious about what in the world they’ll be thinking about at a philosophy of religion conference.

The papers have been divided into two broad categories: Natural Theology and Philosophical Theology.

Natural theology is the stuff you can prove about God without appealing to things like the Bible or direct revelation or other stuff that only believers would accept. For example, if the natural world by itself is enough to prove the existence of God, then that proof would be a part of natural theology.

I am guessing that the Philosophical Theology category is for papers which do take certain theological doctrines for granted, and then grapple with philosophical questions they raise.

Anyway, here goes.

Natural Theology

The first two papers (Thursday) share a common theme. They discuss the nature of faith and how it is related to reason.

In one unit of the intro-level philosophy classes I teach, we discuss arguments for and against the existence of God. Sooner or later, one of my students will say, “But faith isn’t about reasons and arguments. It’s faith.” The question is whether faith requires reasons, and what kind of reasons count, and whether intellectually assenting to certain facts counts as faith or whether something more – some kind of commitment or trust or what-have-you – is needed.

The first paper on Thursday is explores the idea that faith is trust, which means it is more than merely a type of belief or knowledge. The author says he will compare his definition of faith to the “preference-based account” of another philosopher. Both accounts move beyond a merely doxastic conception of faith.

So then, here’s a new word for some of you!

  • doxastic = belief-related.


Apparently, Swinburne argued that a life of faith involves belief in certain facts plus an ethical commitment to certain purposes, and said those commitments may be even more fundamental than the beliefs.

The author of the second paper agrees with this.

After developing the idea of these commitments as far as possible, he thinks we will see that they are so central to faith that someone who holds them could be considered to have faith even in the absence of all the doctrinal beliefs and religious attitudes we generally associate with it. (Hmmm … I’m skeptical.) Therefore, he concludes, when we analyze faith we should pay close attention to these ethical commitments, just as much as we do to the doctrines and philosophical beliefs associated with them.


God created everything, but does the universe exist since then independently from him? And if not, how involved is he in its moment-to-moment activities? For example, is the existence of an object from moment to moment best seen as God recreating the object each moment that it exists?

A question with the same flavor is, what makes things happen? When A causes B, how does A cause B? Occasionalism is the view that God is the real cause behind everything. In one sense, when A causes B, it is really God who is the true cause of B.

The first paper on Friday morning (by a philosophical hero of mine 🙂 ) promises to relate occasionalism to the question of free will and determinism.


The next paper relates Swinburne’s aesthetic argument to skeptical theism.

Swinburne’s aesthetic argument: Swinburne argues that the universe has order and that makes it likely that it was designed. To show that it has order, one thing he considers is the presence of beauty.

Skeptical theism: One of the arguments against the existence of God is the existence of evil. If an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God existed, so the argument goes, then there would be no evil. There is evil, and therefore such a God does not exist. One way to defend theism against this argument is to find a way to explain how God could allow evil. A different way is to just say that we have no reason to expect we would understand anything about God’s reasons for doing things. Therefore, if we can’t figure out a reason why he might allow evil, it doesn’t matter, because we wouldn’t expect to understand his reasons anyway. This view is known as skeptical theism.

The problem with skeptical theism is that although it undercuts the argument from evil against God, it also seems to undercut several other arguments for God’s existence. The author of this paper says he will explain a view about aesthetics that is similar to skeptical theism, and then show how it undercuts Swinburne’s aesthetic argument in somewhat the same way.


There have been lots of natural theology arguments designed to show that it is likely that God exists, but for a while many philosophers have felt that none of them work. Swinburne agrees that none of them works by itself, but argues that we can consider their cumulative effect, and that, together, they make it likely that God does exist.

As a key part of his argument, he considers the question of how we choose between competing theories for something, and claims that one of the main criteria is that of simplicity. If one theory is much simpler than another, we should believe it over the other. He argues that based on simplicity, the existence of God is quite likely to be true.

The next paper is going to argue that simplicity is not really the point, but rather, “coherence” is the point, and that that makes Swinburne’s argument less convincing.


Omnipotence is hard to define. For example, if it just means being able to do anything, then can God make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it? Or, can he fail?

One way to define omnipotence is to claim that a being is omnipotent if it can do anything which does not contradict its essential nature. (To create a rock he cannot move would contradict God’s omnipotence, and so he cannot be expected to be able to do it.)

A famous counterexample involves a hypothetical being (a man named “McEar”) whose essential nature is that the only thing he can do is to scratch his ear. If he were to do anything else, it would violate his essential nature. Therefore, the only thing he has to do to be omnipotent is to scratch his ear, and he can do that, so he is omnipotent.

This counterexample means there is still something wrong with our definition.

I think (after googling a little) that Swinburne’s definition of omnipotence relies on the idea that an omnipotent being can bring about any state of affairs as long as the state of affairs does not lead logically to the conclusion that that being did not bring about the state of affairs. This eliminates the heavy stone example, but not the McEar example. Swinburne has since proposed a fix to his definition to deal with McEar. This last paper on Friday explores whether his fix works and whether there are alternatives available.

Philosophical Theology

The first paper on Saturday morning investigates the atonement. We often have the idea that God could not have forgiven us if Christ had not died. The speaker is going to present a particular view of the love of God and argue that it is incompatible with that idea.

My pastor always quotes the Scripture, “Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” as though it were embedded into the nature of the universe that there cannot be forgiveness without bloodshed. Actually, though, the verse says:

According to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood,  and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22.)

In other words, it isn’t saying that forgiveness requires bloodshed by its essential nature, but simply that God chose to set the law up that way — and even that is qualified with an “almost”.

So perhaps God could have set things up differently. Perhaps he could have worked things out so that forgiveness was granted through some other act. Or perhaps not.

I’m not sure,then, whether the verse contradicts the speaker’s views or not. I’ll have to wait and see what she says, since in her description of the paper she doesn’t say yet what her view of God’s love actually is. I think it’ll be interesting.


The second paper on Saturday examines the fact that in liturgy and hymns, “the present tense is used when speaking of Christ’s birth or resurrection”. Why? How should we interpret it? One of the most common theories doesn’t seem to make philosophical sense, and he is going to ask what other options there may be.


After that we get an exploration of “the Doomsday Argument”. I looked that up online and it appears to be basically this: if the human race were going to be around forever, it would be extremely unlikely that we would just happen to born so close to its beginning. Therefore, it is much more probable that the human race will only be around a short while. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that it will last forever.

Apparently this argument, which seems clearly wrong at first glance, is actually hard to refute.

The speaker promises to identify the key premise and then examine whether it would provide an argument against individual people living forever.


The final paper looks complicated. It examines the nature of the soul and relates it to dualism and hylomorphism.

Dualism addresses the relationship between the mind and the body (including the brain). For example, Descartes, who was a dualist, believed that we are the combination of two separate things, a mind and a body. The body is a physical object, obeying physical laws, existing in our physical universe. The mind/soul and its thoughts are non-physical, and not subject to physical laws, but exist nonetheless. Somehow our mind and body interact.

Most philosophers today are not dualists. Typically they say that the mind is the brain – a physical object – or else some aspect of the brain, such as its organization or its functionality or something.

Swinburne is a dualist. He argues that one’s soul must be more than merely one’s body and more than merely one’s psychological characteristics (memory, intentions, etc.)

Hylomorphism (matter-form-ism) is an idea of Aristotle’s that I only partially understand. He said that everything is composed of both matter and form together. When you cut down a tree and cut it into timber and use the timber to make a chair, the same matter keeps being re-molded into different forms. We never see just matter or just form. We always see both together. (Reading this back, it makes it sound like a form is merely a physical shape. That’s not what Aristotle meant, but I will go wrong if I attempt to say anything further, so I’ll leave it at that!) Anyway, it’s possible to argue that the soul is the form and the body is the matter of a person.

It looks like this paper is going to compare and contrast a hylomorphic explanation of the mind/body distinction with Swinburne’s explanation.

Of course, this is all especially significant because we believe that the soul is going to survive being separated from the body and later reunited with a resurrected version of the same body. That means the relationship between the soul and the body matters.


OK, there you have it. Maybe I’ll discover that half of these talks aren’t about what I thought they were going to be about at all! Doesn’t matter – I’m planning on having a blast, regardless.

See y’all later!

P.S. If you were going, which would interest you most? Leave your opinions in the comments.

Book review: Protestant Concepts of Church and State

Book review: Protestant Concepts of Church and State, Thomas G. Sanders

This book was published in 1964. It looks at the various ways that Protestants have tried to make sense of the connection between church and state from the 1500s all the way up to the mid 1900s. It distinguishes five major strands:

  • A theocentric view (e.g., Lutheran tradition) – There are two realms. God works through the church according to the principles of grace. He works through the state according to the principles of law. Christians can be in politics, but if so they should use the principles of conduct that God intended to apply to the state, not those intended to apply to the church.
  • A sectarian view (e.g., Mennonite tradition) – Christians are to be separate from the world. Christians may need to withdraw from political involvement if to get politically involved would cause them to compromise their Christian principles. For example, many early Mennonites felt that it was wrong for Christians to get involved in politics at all, because to be in government was to use force, and to use force was a violation of Christian principles.
  • A pacifist view (e.g., Quaker tradition) – The state tends to use war and violence, which are against Christian teaching. However, the church shouldn’t withdraw: it should work to transform the way the state functions to be in line with Christian principles. This differs from the sectarian view in that it expects the church to be constantly trying to change the direction of the government and make it more pacifist.
  • A separationist view (e.g., American ideal of wall of separation) – The church and the state need to keep a strict wall of separation between them.
  • A transformationist view (e.g., Reformed tradition) – The church and state need a moderate amount of separation between them, but the church should also work to influence the state in more godly directions.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about what the idea church/state relationship would be, especially in a truly pluralistic society. I’m frustrated that while we have a whirlwind of activism today around the issue of how much the church should influence the state, we have very little reflection on what the ideal would be.

When I learned several years ago that that the church/state question was historically important to early Protestant churches, I decided I wanted to learn more, but I haven’t found many resources about it easily available to a layman.

I picked this book up hoping it would help, and it did. The things I most appreciated learning from it were a) the division into five traditions mentioned above, b) the degree to which early Protestants struggled with the whole idea of Christians being in government at all, and c) the degree to which Baptists and similar denominations spent the early part of the 1900s fighting for a lot more separation between church and state. The last point astonished me because we spend so much time today arguing against too much separation, as though that was always what we’ve believed. (Apparently our earlier passion to build the wall of separation as high as possible was motivated by a fear of Roman Catholicism getting too much influence.)

The one disappointing thing about the book is how old it is. So much has changed since the early 1960s! I’d love to have heard the author’s take on today’s church/state furor.

Would I recommend it? It’s a little dry, and probably impossible to find now, but I suppose, yes, I would, to anyone who is curious about the same stuff.

Would I reread it? Maybe. I think I already got most of the ideas I need from it, though.

How would I rate it? 5/10, maybe. Interesting, worth the read. It didn’t blow me away.

Belief and uncertainty

I wrote in my philosophy blog about whether we are able to choose what we believe. The answer for most Christians will probably be, “of course”, but many secular philosophy students don’t understand how it could be. Aren’t we predetermined to believe what seems true to us? And don’t things seem true to us or not based on what we’ve been exposed to about them? We don’t really have the choice to see something that we don’t see, or vice versa.

My answer there was that we set the bar for how much evidence we will require before we believe something by our own choice. We decide how much proof is enough.

We also decide what kinds of things count as proof for us.

I think we do this constantly in our Christian lives, and we make mistakes in both directions. Sometimes we are too skeptical. Sometimes we are too naïve. Always, though, we have a tendency to be too arrogant. We are convinced, down deep, that we and we alone are seeing the world as it really is. All the other people around us don’t understand. “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Proverbs 14:12.

The biggest thing for us to come to terms with is that we simply don’t know much of anything for sure. We are at the mercy of our senses, of our experiences, of our culture. We are almost certainly wrong about a great many things we take for granted. This should make us all the more hungry for the God who is truth.

It is fashionable in our Christian world to suggest that our era’s most dangerous intellectual error is the rejection of absolute truth. I disagree. I believe in absolute truth: God is omniscient, and so whatever he knows to be true is absolutely true. However, in practical terms, we are not so blessed. We are almost certainly swimming in half-truths (including this one). It’s not that dangerous to give up the pretense of knowing things for sure.

In fact, in my strong opinion, it is when we get comfortable with the idea that it is part of the human condition to be slightly uncertain about almost everything that the claims of Christianity become really attractive.

Christianity is not merely a series of true doctrinal propositions. Christianity is a relationship with a Person who is Truth. The Bible is not merely factually accurate. It speaks to us with power. We encounter the Logos through the written Word. Absolute truth exists, but it is a Him.

We all make assumptions

I wrote in my philosophy blog about why philosophy never seems to make much progress. Well, sort of. I describe a paper by philosopher Peter van Inwagen in which he says that philosophy is almost never able to settle arguments definitively. The idea is that every proof depends on the assumptions you start with, and people can always reject the assumptions if they don’t like where things are going. Furthermore, the most important assumptions in philosophy are things that seem intuitively self-evident to some people and not even true to others.

This leads to, and is part and parcel with, a view of knowledge which says we don’t start from a neutral point of view. To think well at all, we need a rich set of beliefs about the world and ourselves and truth and so on. No one makes progress by throwing out all his assumptions to start with. (Perhaps there is no assumption we cannot examine, but we cannot reexamine them all at the same time.)

In other words, life is not like mathematics. In math, we pick a few axioms – maybe just 10 or so – and then prove all sorts of things based on those axioms. All the rest of our mathematical knowledge unfolds from those axioms. Furthermore, it doesn’t really matter which axioms we pick, as long as we get interesting results.

Life is different. First of all, we can’t possibly reduce all the assumptions we need for thinking about real things to just a handful of axioms. Second of all, we can’t just pick the simplest or most interesting axioms, we have to try and pick the true ones. And that is the hard question – which axioms are really the true ones?

I think Christians should have this view of knowledge. It would affect how we defended and used Scripture. Instead of thinking of Scripture as a collection of facts and principles that we reason from – like a collection of several hundred axioms we use in doing our theological proofs – we would think of Scripture as a collection of (true) stories and statements and examples that are intended to push back against our network of pre-made assumptions. I don’t let Scripture teach me by clearing my mind and starting from scratch with no assumptions at all. I let Scripture push back on my ideas about life. I let it make me uncomfortable. I keep having to modify how I think to make it fit what I see in Scripture. Over time the Bible begins to mold the way I think to make it more Christ-like.

One cool thing about this is that we don’t have to make people agree with us first and then show them the Scriptures. We can carry the Scriptures right over to them in the middle of their muddled intellectual worlds and then let the Word begin to do its work.

Teaching and active learning

I had a moment of insight today about teaching. When active learning techniques work, it isn’t because they help students intellectually, it’s because they help students emotionally. If I break students into groups to discuss a concept among themselves, for example, it’s not because that helps them to understand the concept better, it’s because it helps them become more emotionally connected to the material. This goes against a lot of the things teachers say about active learning. But I think it matches what actually happens.

In general, I think that a surprisingly large factor in the learning process is the students’ attitudes towards the material moment by moment. I think the most gifted teachers are those who are highly attuned to that attitude, and instinctively aware of how it can be directed and nurtured on the fly.

Quality of life and suffering

In defending abortion, a lot of people say something like, “If this baby was born, what kind of circumstances would be grow up in? If it was going to be severely disabled or suffering horrible poverty, wouldn’t it just be kinder to abort it now? What kind quality of life would it have?”

One response to this is simply to express outrage that people would consider “playing God” by taking it upon themselves to decide whose life is and isn’t worth living.

Another response is to point out that no one would make the same argument for babies outside the womb. Ask them what they would do if they knew of a five-year old child living in extreme poverty, with parents who beat him. Would they say, “Well, his life isn’t worth living. Let’s just kill him and put him out of his misery!”?

I’d like to respond in a third way, and that is simply to point out that quality of life doesn’t depend much on the amount we suffer. Suffering makes life hard, but it doesn’t make it low-quality. Quality of life comes from joy. It comes from meaning. It comes from bringing glory to God.  Some Christians have endured great persecution and had even greater joy. Others have struggled with joylessness for a time, but still known their lives had meaning to God. If God takes pleasure in my life, if He is glorified in it, then it is a life well worth having. Look how much Jesus suffered! – and yet his life had as high a quality as it is possible to have.

Sometimes I think we make life harder for ourselves than we need to because we think the point is to avoid as much pain as we can. The point isn’t to avoid pain. The point is to live – to trust God and pour ourselves out in love for others, to “know Him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death”. I think joy comes from courageously being who we are called to be, without holding anything back. Can a child raised in severe poverty or with a debilitating physical handicap do that? Of course. I’m not saying it will be easy. I’m just claiming it will be worth it.

(My more philosophical take on this is over here.)