Monthly Archives: January 2016

Richard Dawkins’ Comments Comparing Christianity and Islam Show Knowledge, Not Wisdom

Image from here.

Image from here.

Very interesting five-year-old comments made by the famous atheist Richard Dawkins re-surfaced on the internet last week. Now some reading the title of the post might think I am going in a political direction here in response to Dawkins, but I’m not – at least not directly. My goal is actually to “hook you” and lure you into philosophical depths you might otherwise shy away from.

I enjoyed this engaging and inspiring (for this Christian!) 5-minute video from Lutheran pastor Jonathan Fisk, which explores Dawkins’ comments in some depth. At the same time, if I were to actually try and start a conversation with Richard Dawkins, I’d go in another direction (as would the good pastor, I am guessing).

Fisk points out that Richard Dawkins, given his professed atheism, has no way to talk about why something is “worse” or “better” in “a world without meaning”. True enough in one sense, for Dawkin’s has admitted that he does not believe that good and evil really exist. Point to Fisk.

But from the perspective of the matter of survival – or simply “continuing to live” (see here for more on this) – doesn’t Dawkins have a good point, regardless of the deeper issues of morality at play here? Point Dawkins, it seems!

That said, most persons don’t want to give the impression that the only thing that matters is what human beings think is practical to survive and flourish! Simply put, personal responsibility and consequences for actions have to be more than a purely pragmatic matter, right? And Christians in particular certainly don’t want to give the impression that atheists only know that the only thing that matters is being practical. Many – perhaps even Dawkins – would insist that as human beings they have deep feelings and convictions about matters of good and evil, right and wrong (even as persons like Dawkins don’t think it really exists “out there” for us in any sense).

We cannot escape the notion of “the good life” (but see footnote 1)

We cannot escape the notion of “the good life” (but see footnote 1)

And of course they do! – even if the content of their convictions regarding these things is godless and hence off to this or that degree. And even if their naturalistic philosophy, culminating in a ruthless modern scientific and technological mindset, in fact undermines all stable rational ground for those convictions.[i] It is just that for them, ultimately, man (that is certain men, by definition the “reasonable” ones) does indeed end up being the “measure of all things”.

The believer believes that real rights and wrongs derive from God, but the unbeliever will state they believe in these things for different reasons. Nevertheless, we can insist that everyone knows – even if this, like knowledge of God, is suppressed deeply within their hearts – that we must speak not only of something we call wisdom, but goodness and righteousness as well.

Let’s explore this in some more detail. First, what is wisdom? Is there, perhaps, even wisdom in Dawkin’s remarks? I would not go that far. I would say there is knowledge – and publicly accessible knowledge[ii] – in Dawkin’s remarks. And scholars like Dawkins often have a lot of knowledge they can share because they indeed are devoted to the practice of scholarship. So why, more exactly, is scholarship distinct from wisdom?

We might say that scholarship at its best is about “discovering the unknown or rediscovering the forgotten” (desire from curiosity and to solve problems both are involved here). And here, it must be said, that scholarship is distinct from the search for wisdom, which, as far as the world (not the church) goes, we can associate with pre-Enlightenment philosophy (generally not post-Enlightenment philosophy). Here Socrates said “the ignorant [do not] seek after wisdom; for herein is the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good not wise is nevertheless satisfied with himself.” At the same time though, in another sense, no one can avoid being a philosopher!

For all real philosophy – even today – is simply about what it means to be a human being. This means it is about how we are to live, and all persons also believe that not just any way or “form of life” will do – some, in fact, must be discouraged or even actively suppressed. This is why many in the modern West have fought against religious practices like sentencing heretics to death, sati (widow-burning), and female circumcision, for example. And as is becoming increasingly clear today, even some of our most “enlightened” people want to take this even further (where, for example, even certain conscience-driven practices that do not cause physical harm must nevertheless be made unthinkable). And in this regard, all human beings – even the most “postmodern” among us – are constantly trying to organize, define, and state what is true – particularly regarding who we are and how we are to live – our purpose (here, the element of “story”, or narrative, is inevitable as well).[iii]

“The [scientific] purification [of philosophy] made it no longer sensible to speak of nature, including human nature, in terms of purposes and functions.”

“The [scientific] purification [of philosophy] made it no longer sensible to speak of nature, including human nature, in terms of purposes and functions.” (see here)

The key point here? “Teleology”, according to Wikipedia, “is a reason or explanation for something in function of its end, purpose, or goal.” And granted what I have said above, we are all philosophers and philosophy is, at bottom, teleology and morality.[iv] And it also follows that the matter of truth – even if we are just talking about small truths (not “big T” truth) – must to some degree be tied up with this.

One major reason for this is because if we grow disposed to ignore truth, our neighbor will not let us do so entirely. He will “communicate” this to us in one way or another, through a respectful conversation or not. It is also for this reason that all cannot but speak of relatively “wise” and “righteous” persons – these are those who understand they must live in the world in accordance with what ultimately is (not what “is” contingently among human beings), sensing at some level that what is cannot be separated from notions of teleology.[v] And I would argue that those who say “we don’t ‘know’ this” actually do know this at some level – as their attitudes and actions towards certain undesirable “forms of life” ultimately show.

To say the very least, can most of us not agree that a good person…. a righteous person… a true person… lives well by recognizing seemingly permanent limits in the cosmos – and their own limitations?[vi] This, of course, would include recognizing the things in life as being more than mere mindless and purposeless matter – or even more than mindful and purposeful matter! (see Thomas Nagel) – to be fashioned or even overcome by sheer wit, intelligence and will – and even the human spirit.[vii] And all of this, I submit, can also be evaluated primarily on the basis of external behaviors.[viii]

To begin to say more, we can, for example, puzzle over the mystery of justice and gratitude – these things, though often fuzzily understood, are, as well. As the Christian philosopher Thomas Reid pointed out many years ago, “gratitude for favors only makes sense because a favor goes beyond what is just.” The truth of this realization must be wrestled with: for it is not just unique to any particular human culture… some matter which is clearly contingent. What does this mean?

And what does it mean that you and I and most any other educated human being can even have this conversation? What does it mean that you know exactly what I am talking about? How is that even possible? Some of our friends, generally those on the political left, say that it is always true that “we” only makes sense relative to a particular community – only particular “communities of practice” can really understand their own. But if you are a non-Christian who is generally tracking with what I am saying in this post, this fact alone shows such claims to be nonsense. After all, do we not recognize other human beings, among all the creatures in our world, as those to whom we can relate to and communicate meaning with (giving and receiving reasons), precisely because we share a common humanity? In our scientific age, we might point out that the classical philosopher Aristotle may have gotten much wrong – but not this “rational animal” thing!

God’s child, Richard Dawkins (Acts 17:29), expressing true joy from the Lord (Acts 14:15).

God’s child, Richard Dawkins (Acts 17:29), expressing true joy from the Lord (Acts 14:15).

And why is this? To update Aristotle for today, I would suggest that it is because there is indeed a human community of practice. Much of what this community does – the “game” it plays – is trans-cultural and trans-historical. Or again, at the very least it is potentially trans-cultural and trans-historical (thinking of feral children here). After all, it seems clear that many of the things in the world – making their presence known with their more or less intractable ways – have been structuring our attention from humanity’s first breath.

Again, teleology is rightly seen as being connected with our ethics, our view of what is right and wrong – how human beings should act in light of what ultimately is… how we fit in with that.[ix] Life is about more than being practical, which includes as a core component recognizing seemingly permanent natural limits and one’s own limitations. It is also about beginning to realize and respect a) the deeper ends or goals that cause this to be the case, and b) that there is in fact an enduring moral order, much of which seems to be an inviolable and permanent part of being human.

As to where we go from here I note that the Christian philosopher Gregory Schulz says philosophy is best done in dialogue – and would this not, as he says, go especially for dialogue with God Himself? (given that He is real, is it not likely He would desire to clearly communicate with us in some way?). I suggest reading at Romans 1-3 and wrestling with what the Apostle Paul says there (don’t miss the good news at the end of chapter 3!).

There, you will find desperately needed wisdom. And that is the real reason for looking to the “bulwark of Christianity”. The mighty fortress that is our God.



Images: Dawkins ( ; found via a Creative Commons Search in Flickr images for “joyful boasting”


[i] I.e., none of them trust in any non-material force, being, thing or entity that is really good or strong enough to dissuade a particular human being who has the power to impose his evil will on other human beings. This does not mean that some do not believe there is truth that can do this, or should be able to do this. In her book Plato at the Googleplex, Rebecca Goldstein explains Spinoza’s views, which derive in part from Plato, which she explains by saying: “The beauty of proportionality that has led one on, because one loves it, would cause one to abhor a situation that would bring one into disproportion with everyone else… the impersonally sublime is internalized into personal virtue.” (p. 392, 393, see Gorgias 507e-508a, Philebus 64e, and Timaeus 47b-c). On pages 384-385, she says “Plato… is firmly on the side of the Reasonables. Everything we need to know – intellectually and morally – is out there” and “there is no escaping evaluation, no more in deciding what is rational to believe than in deciding what is ethical to do”. But here, one is really only left with notions of balance, moderation, and proportion regarding morality, perhaps to be negotiated over with one’s fellows. Hence, Plato portrays Socrates in his dialogues as being interested in the proper nature and goals of pederastic relationships.

[ii] Some would argue that anything that we might call knowledge must be publicly accessible. I think this is a reductionistic way of looking at things that is deeply wrong.

[iii] All, at some level, have felt and feel the need to explain the world in a way that brings coherence to the truths or “facts of life” we can all know – particularly those that capture attention trans-culturally and even trans-historically – even as various persons are either more or less confident that they have a “sense of the Totality” which they grasp. In any case, we should not be so naive to think that we are not always attempting to guide others’ consciences (i.e. “indoctrinate” to this or that degree) – we cannot avoid this. Therefore, while I am highly sympathetic to this essay about the recent madness occurring on college campuses, I am hesitant to give a full-throated endorsement, as it seems to lack the necessary nuance. Should normative ethics never be taught in a university?

[iv] Stated a bit more carefully, perhaps we could say that all significant questions and problems philosophers attempt to seriously address and make conclusions about emerge in part because of specifically moral – and teleological (with happiness or contentment being the end) – considerations. At the very least we can say this: in short, we should all be asking to what extent the sense of morality that we feel convictions about (often based on our personal experiences with others and our evaluations of the shorter or longer term consequences of our actions) drives or at least influences our consideration and evaluation of various kinds of evidence and their significance (correspondence theory of truth considerations) as well as various kinds of worldviews and their significance (coherence theory of truth considerations)

[v] Of course all agree some things, here and there, should change. The cosmos is not some perfect machine nor are we justified in thinking it is a machine of any kind. Proposition here about these contingent things that can and should change: any true progress would entail definite and discernible goals that we should work to be aware of and that we should work towards – where the vision of what is good is not always changing. If the answer is that the vision is something we totally invent and not primarily discover, how do we effectively and realistically work to change what needs to be changed in the world when we are always changing our minds? (channeling Chesterton here). For their part, Christians assert that believing in some kind of design in the world (often called “natural law” or the “law of nature”) does not mean that even everything that appears natural in humans is “good”. For example, racism, slavery, and the oppression of women, children, and the poor have at times throughout history – even to the greatest and most noble of thinkers – seemed to be “natural” to man (and these can only be countered with deliberate human intention, for whatever motivations), but in truth are corruptions of purpose and “not the way it is supposed to be”. I note that this explains in part the enthusiasm that many practicing Christians had for the program of Francis Bacon – who as part of his critique of Aristotle criticized his “knowledge” about the discernible purposes of this or that thing – as well as for the program of the Enlightenment (are not even liberty, equality, and fraternity in fact biblical concepts? And where in the history of philosophy, has philosophical faith in “the force of the best reason”, for example, shown that “all humans are created equal and are entitled to equal rights”? Really, which non-Christians philosopher ever said this and what were his/her reasons? Yes, the silence is deafening….). Here, arguments like atheist Michael Shermer’s are shown to be lacking in an immense way (Incidently, Shermer also admits that most of his fellow atheists, like Dawkins, think it is impossible to ground morality in anything objective, or outside of human beings).

[vi] This would go hand in hand with recognizing that there are seemingly permanent orders and structures in the cosmos that demand our respect. In which case, it would seem that what is good and right and true is about more than what is pleasurable and what is evil and wrong and false is about more than what is painful. Not only as concerns short-term and fleeting excitements but also as regards some longer-term, seemingly meaningful, and fulfilling pleasures.

[vii] Curtis White, for example, is a “Romantic” but is nevertheless “in the tank” with the philosophical naturalists: the attack on the arts is “also an attack on our earliest human instinct: our ability to invent our way to survival.” (p. 91, italics his, The Science Delusion). Furthermore, progressive Christian Eric Reitan seems unable to separate pragmatism from morality (see here).

[viii] I.e. because we are rationally inconsistent creatures our actions are finally that which must define us. For example, when it comes to this or that, mere curiosity about what ultimately is, not conviction, often describe our beliefs and attitudes (because, as Woody Allen said, “the heart wants what it wants”).

[ix] Should the fact that the connection between “male”, “female” and “offspring” is clearly more than linguistic mean a lot more to us than it currently does? J.B.S. Haldane said “Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.” Further, Matthew Crawford, in his The World Outside Your Head (pp. 50-51) says, “the world is known to us because we live an act in it, and accumulate experience… we think through the body” and as R.R. Reno has asserted, our bodies have intrinsic moral meaning. This is a different – though very related – discussion than the one I have laid out here. Nowadays, of course, it relates in that in connects with what I wrote in the footnote above about what is related to true progress – “true becoming”.

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Posted by on January 21, 2016 in Uncategorized


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A Very Nice Explanation of Progressive Religion, Filial Foe of Christ

First of all, this post is not about the recent Wheaton college controversy (see last post here), but I think it is likely highly relevant to the situation. It seems increasingly clear that persons like Larycia Hawkins and Miroslav Volf, in spite of their vaunted tolerance, simply have zero respect for the views that Wheaton’s administration holds. Volf has insinuated or directly spoken of hatred, enmity, and bigotry and added that the removal of Hawkins was morally wrong. Hawkin’s recent public statement in no way attempts to conceal but in fact reveals the contempt she has for those who would challenge her.

Martin Luther, enemy of progress?: "Only the 10 commandments are eternal."

Martin Luther, enemy of progress?: “Only the 10 commandments are eternal.”

The content of the video above is, I suspect, what a lot of persons in the Evangelical Christian camp (and yes, perhaps some in my own more conservative Lutheran camp) believe but not all of them will say – at least yet. This more courageous man, Eric Reitan, very nicely articulates (making very clear and understandable!) the main ideas behind progressive religion – really “progressive Christianity” (this is why it makes sense that many of us might find ourselves very attracted to certain things that he talks about, for example, the objective goodness of creation, the seemingly unnatural rejection of concepts like “fate”, the sacred dignity of each human being, etc.), something I think can only really exist where traditional Christianity is also a presence. What I am saying is that the presence of Christianity has had and continues to exert a world-leavening effect which makes a Christian heresy like this possible (see the summary here for more).

Progressive religion is like Kylo Ren, not because of temperment, but... (no plot spoilers)

Progressive religion is like Kylo Ren, not because of temperment, but… (no plot spoilers)

Reitan talks about how this progressive religion is a “religion of hope” and the alternative religion is a superstitious “religion of fear”, based on punishment (though he acknowledges great overlap, saying progressive religion has elements of fear as well, but tries to minimize this in itself and others). I think, however, that with these two types he is really just talking about two religions of the law.

For example, he says about his “religion of hope”:

“Belief is a matter of deciding to live in hope despite uncertainty… live as if a hoped for picture of the world is true, in the face of a world that is recognized to be conceptually malleable – a world that can be interpreted in innumerable ways. The rationale for doing so is ultimately a kind of pragmatic or moral one….”*

One sees the focus on what one must do here… or else? (is the judging God of Arnofsky’s Noah a possibility?). He seems to think not, as he also says, later in the talk:

…Faith refers to the decision to live and act in the world as if reality is in some fundamental way on the side of goodness. And that’s an act of hope that can’t be motivated by the image of a fearful tyrant in the sky….For religious progressives, any belief we have about what transcends the empirical world it is necessarily going to be a contestable interpretation that goes beyond the evidence, even though it may be consistent with the evidence. And for the progressive its ultimately only the pragmatic value of faith understood as an act of hope that can justify believing beyond the limits of the evidence….**

What is Schliermacher's "intuition of the infinite in the finite"? Without any sure word from the Lord, "selfie theology".

What is Schliermacher’s “intuition of the infinite in the finite”? Lacking any sure word from the Lord, “selfie theology” – a worship of the creation and not the Creator. More here.

…but three things, at least, should be in doubt here:

  • the idea that evidence and faith should not or do not go hand in hand (see footnote ** below) ;
  • whether anything less than the merciful Jesus Christ of the Bible can avoid being a “fearful tyrant” (i.e. people will still, because of the ambiguity we see in the groaning and fearsome creation, fear the divine because they do not know real forgiveness and peace through Jesus Christ, who forgives the real sins we are culpable of) and hence ;
  • the long-term sustainability of these views on a broad scale (see second paragraph).

This, in the end, is a theology isolated from the true God, and hence has no true love – that is, Christ-driven love – for its fellow man. It will not create universal harmony, but rather fractures true community, destroying bonds of trust and love.***

In short, Christianity does not fit into either of Reitan’s “types”. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, deftly takes care of the legitimate emphases of both of his categories.

A couple further points. First, Reitan would claim he does not have an “out group” – all of mankind are his brothers and sisters – but can anyone strictly holding to his views abide the kind of figure portrayed in the whole of the Bible – Old or New Testaments? (after all, our God is, as he says, “an absurd mismash of opposing characteristics” – might Law and Gospel be of help here? [no Hegel necessary!]….)

G.K. Chesterton: "[Today] progress does not mean that we are always changing the world to suit our vision (whether in line with God’s vision or not) but rather that we are always changing our vision

G.K. Chesterton: Today progress does not mean that we are always changing the world to suit our vision (whether in line with God’s vision or not) but rather that we are always changing our vision

Second, I also found it interesting that he seems to sets reading the biblical text “holistically”, or as a collection, as being something that is necessarily opposed to the notion that the Bible is not just man’s word but God’s (he says that those who believe it is God’s inerrant word read passages in isolation and not holistically, it seems inevitably). One might think that taking the Bible as a whole would not be supportive of Reitan’s position (for instance, doesn’t meek and mild Jesus consistently talk about the very real punishment of hell more than anyone in the Bible?), but he seems to think that it is.****

And by the way, Reitan’s view on the Wheaton college controversy? He, in part, thinks that they have stifled academic freedom too much, even if “some constraints are legitimate given the kind of institution Wheaton is.” This is to be sure, a very measured answer as  academic freedom of course only goes so far in every context. As Jonathan Haidt is fond of pointing out, some issues and inquiries are always “beyond the pale” for this or that group. Christian colleges concerned with upholding the Scriptures as being God’s word, i.e. the church’s tradition, might want to take note and act accordingly.

Even as many who have inherited Christianity’s spiritual and moral capital now think they can be most “Christian” by leaving Christianity behind, let us remember. Let us remember always, and with the joy befitting Him, the only One who is true God – and the only source of free forgiveness, life, and salvation – of all true Light and Love, now and forever.




*He goes on: “If we embrace this hopeful vision and live our lives in its light, we get on better with our neighbors and are more likely to achieve reconciliation in the midst of hostility….” For my part, I notice the equating of pragmatic views with morals. I suggest that this is inevitable when pure Darwinian views now underlie and increasingly, it seems, determine all.

** He goes on: “And so religions that profess to have knowledge of the divine are professing to have what can not be had, and if they go further and inculcate false certainty in their followers by warning them of the dire consequences of unbelief [don’t expect any encouragement from religious progressives]” Of course, Christians would say this bit about there not being evidence goes much too far, the faith being entirely an incarnational faith. See I Corinthians 15, which suggests that faith even flows, in part, from empirical evidence, and the end of Acts 17, which also points us in this direction. I suggest the devotees of the Enlightenment also reflect on whether even oral family histories can be “knowledge”. If not, why not, and if so, how might this apply to the “faith once delivered to the saints”?

*** Quote found on Rod Dreher’s blog, from the political theorist Patrick Deneen:

“Liberalism thus begins a project by which the legitimacy of all human relationships—beginning with, but not limited to, political bonds—becomes increasingly subject to the criterion of whether or not they have been chosen, and chosen upon the basis of their service to rational self-interest…

Liberalism often claims neutrality about the choices people make in liberal society; it is the defender of “Right,” not of any particular conception of the “Good.”

Yet it is not neutral about the basis on which people make their decisions. In the same way that courses in economics claiming merely to describe human beings as utility-maximizing individual actors in fact influence students to act more selfishly, so liberalism teaches a people to hedge commitments and adopt flexible relationships and bonds. Not only are all political and economic relationships fungible and subject to constant redefinition, but so are all relationships—to place, to neighborhood, to nation, to family, and to religion. Liberalism tends to encourage loose connections.

The second revolution, and the second anthropological assumption that constitutes liberalism, is less visibly political. Premodern political thought—ancient and medieval, particularly that informed by an Aristotelian understanding of natural science—understood the human creature to be part of a comprehensive natural order. Man was understood to have a telos, a fixed end, given by nature and unalterable. Human nature was continuous with the order of the natural world, and so humanity was required to conform both to its own nature as well as, in a broader sense, to the natural order of which human beings were a part. Human beings could freely act against their own nature and the natural order, but such actions deformed them and harmed the good of human beings and the world. Aristotle’s Ethics and Aquinas’ Summa Theologica are alike efforts to delineate the limits that nature—thus, natural law—places upon human beings, and each seeks to educate man about how best to live within those limits, through the practice of virtues, in order to achieve a condition of human flourishing.

Liberal philosophy rejected this requirement of human self-limitation. It first displaced the idea of a natural order to which humanity is subject and thereafter the very notion of human nature itself. Liberalism inaugurated a transformation in the natural and human sciences, premised on the transformation of the view of human nature and on humanity’s relationship to the natural world.” (see more here as well)

**** For progressive Christians like Reitan, the “Heavenly Community of Practice” (Elohim/Trinity) has clearly not spoken with any real clarity – in the whole or in the parts!… In his view, what Christian Preus says, namely: “And as we catalogue loci communes, clear passage after clear passage [from the Scriptures] on the same topic, in our minds, we overwhelm this hermeneutic of suspicion and doubt with the sheer clarity of God’s word” (quoted in this post), would clearly not be a way of treating the Bible as it is to be treated. As best I can tell however, Christian Preus is articulately voicing what Christians have, in one form or another, always believed about the Bible and its authority.

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Posted by on January 11, 2016 in Uncategorized


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My Pastor’s Sermon on Luke 2:52: “And Jesus Increased in Wisdom and Stature and in Favor with God and Man.”

The boy Jesus in the Temple.


[Special thanks to my son Sam, who formatted our pastor’s sermon text for this blog post]

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, when I was working as a kitchen installer in Germany, I was taught a saying which the workman went by there, and that was this:

“There are only two ways to do something: the right way, and the wrong way.”

Now that made some sense to me.

For when I had worked at Taco Bell while in high school in Colorado, I went through a great deal of training on how to make every item they sold there the right way.

You would think it would not be that complicated, but it was somewhat, and it took quite some time to learn to place the right amount of each ingredient on each item. We even had a scale handy. And every once in awhile, a burrito or taco or tostato would be weighed to make sure that we were making every item exactly as we should. We were doing everything the right way.

Of course I think that learning to do things the right way is a common work experience no matter where we work. Whether in a factory, a corporate facility, a hospital, or in the military, people are trained to do things the right way. And they do in fact learn to do things the right way. But then something changes. The store, company, or hospital is bought out. New managers appear, and suddenly, the “right” way of doing something is no longer the “right” way.

A new “right” way must be learned. Nowadays of course, that has come to be somewhat expected.

We have grown used to change. No, we may not like it, but we have grown used to it. Every electronic device is a new adventure. Every new car has features never seen before. Even a trip to the grocery store can be a journey into the “change” as every once in awhile, the store is shifted around.

“The only thing that remains constant” so the saying goes nowadays, “is change”. Of course, that has not always been so. At times in history, things were done the same way, for not just a few years, or decades, or even for centuries. And so people then learned how to do something a certain way:

  • make shoes,
  • sew clothing,
  • weave cloth,
  • milk cows,
  • build houses,
  • catch fish,

…stuck to that way, and could make a living at it.

Living their entire lives doing the same thing, the right way. And there is appeal to that, isn’t there?

All this change we experience daily, after awhile, just gets to be tiresome. Now that being said, there is one area in our lives as Christians where change has not occurred where it actually should. Here I am talking about our need to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In other words, within the Christian life, our life in Christ, whether we like it or not, there should be change involved. And that change involves our learning. But that is (learning that is) what makes change so hard in general, isn’t it? I mean, it is not that change does in fact occur, it is the fact that WHEN change occurs, we MUST LEARN. And let’s face it, sometimes we just don’t want to learn anymore.

I mean, we know enough already, we know enough stuff to get along. We have learned enough to live in this world. Why should we need to figure out the difference between Ethanol and E-85? Why do we need a smart phone, when the one that hung on the wall for 30 years worked just fine? Why do we need to go hunting for an ingredient at the store that was on the same shelf, in the same isle for years, and now it is probably on the other side of the store. The issue really, is the learning. Isn’t it?

Think here now of our Christian faith. We know we were created by God. We know we were born sinful, and in need of a Savior. We know that Savior is Jesus Christ our lord. We know that through faith in Him, faith is created by the Holy Spirit within us at our baptisms. Or when we first heard the Word of God preached to us, that all that our Savior has done for us, is credited to us, that through faith in his son, God, in his grace, has deemed us righteous and holy.

I mean, what more do we need to know? What more do we need to learn? After all, we spent all of that time in confirmation class. We have that certificate somewhere. Why do we need to know any more?

And then we hear about the boy Jesus in the temple, the very Son of God, listening to and asking questions to the teachers there. What was he doing? I mean, why does very God need to learn about himself? And then we read our text: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. Okay. How is it that very God, of very God, could increase in Wisdom? How is it that the Son of God (become sinless man in Jesus Christ) could increase in favor with God? Now, the short answer is that this text mainly refers to Christ according to his human nature, not according to his divine nature. So as God, yes, Christ did know everything, but as man, He did not.

Consequently, Christ did learn and grow in wisdom, and in favor with God. As the son of Mary. Yet, even as the son of Mary, Jesus was sinless. And being sinless, why would Jesus need, even as man, to learn? To grow in wisdom? Even to grow in favor with God?

So here we need to remember that even if we were sinless, that would not make us omniscient. That is, if we ever found ourselves to be without sin, that would not mean that suddenly we would know everything that we needed to know, or even that we had matured into what we are to be.

The angels, for example, have no sin, but that does not make them all-knowing. Now here as Christians, interesting enough, according to our New Man, we are, like the angels, without sin. In other words, our New Man simply does not like sin by definition. Our old Adam does of course, but not our New Man. But even though that is true, it does not mean that our New Man knows everything it could or should know. Nor does it mean that our New Man has matured into that which it should ultimately be.

How to understand this? Think of a sapling of an apple tree that we would plant in our yard. Now there is nothing wrong with that sapling, it is exactly what it should be as a sapling. But as it grows into a mature tree, what does it do but provide shade for our lawn, beautiful flowers in the spring, a place for birds to nest, and squirrels to hide, pollen for the honey bees, ultimately fruit, good fruit for us to eat. Now there was nothing wrong with the apple tree when it was a sapling, it was just not fully matured into a fruit bearing tree. Similarly, there was nothing wrong with our New Man when it is created within us, we are baptized, or come to faith in Jesus Christ. But, we must say like the boy Jesus , Jesus according to his human nature: “There is room to grow, room to bear fruit, room even to do those things which are pleasing to God.”

So that then is why, along with the assurance that our sins have been forgiven, that we continue to remain in the Word of God, (as we do in our Worship Services). We continue to receive the Lord’s Supper. And we continue to read, and learn, and inwardly digest the very Word of God.

If you are not doing that presently, now, in the New Year would be a good time to start. There are for example, any number of devotional books which can be used that purpose. We provide for example, Portals of Prayer quarterly. But there are others.

Again, the reason? In view of the boy Jesus in the temple so that we can do as he did. And that is, grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. So that we too can mature, and serve, and bear fruit.

And the modern question: “What is in for me?” really is not the question.

Here we should be more like the young Solomon when asked by God for what he wanted, requested, (of all the things) that Solomon could have had, Wisdom. Wisdom to be a good king; to be a good ruler; wisdom to be a good judge. What was it in for Solomon was that he could be that which he should be, knowing, that it would then be beneficial for the entire nation of Israel.

Now, would the same not be true for us? If we were to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, would we not become more and more beneficial in our service of love to those around us?

Yes. Is this learned by means of our study of the Word of God? Well yes.

Of course, going back to where we started, we can refuse to change, can’t we? Realize when we do this, it is not our New Man speaking, but our Old Adam. Our Old Adam would like nothing better but to remain and wallow in its hatreds, and prejudices, its arrogances, fears, and envy.

No, if we don’t have a desire to grow as Christians, that is our old Adam within us, talking – which needs to be rebuked, stomped upon, or simply ignored. When it comes to the Christian life, the Old Adam wants to see no growth whatsoever. But the same is not true for the New Man. So let’s listen to the New Man.

Let’s listen to the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God. Let us even follow the example of our Savior Jesus Christ, who although he was very God himself, humbled himself, and becoming man, actually, as man, grew in knowledge, even knowledge of himself. It really can be difficult to comprehend. And yet it is wondrous to grasp, and so we too should seek in this same Christ always to increase in wisdom, and in stature, and in favor with God and man. Amen.

Now may the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.

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Posted by on January 8, 2016 in Uncategorized


Do Proponents of Other Abrahamic Faiths Worship the Same God? The Answer is Not in Philosophy but in the Distinction Between Law and Gospel

Literally the crux of the issue?

Literally the crux of the issue?

Note: this is my third post on this issue. The first one, Wheaton Professor’s Suspension Is Not About Anti-Muslim Bigotry: a Response to Miroslav Volf and Others” (this one is shorter and quite direct), is here, and the second, When Christians Say “Idolatry”, It Is – or Should Be – Because of Love: Another Appeal to Miroslav Volf” (this one is a bit more challenging), is here. This third post will necessarily be the most nuanced, detailed and technical of all of these posts, even as I try to make simple this debate.

To – let’s be honest – bombastic academic theologians like Miroslav Volf who assert that Muslims and Christians worship the same God (and that Wheaton is practicing “enmity towards Muslims”), philosopher Bill Vallicella lays down the gauntlet:

“…it is not at all obvious that Jew, Christian, and Muslim are all worshipping the same God.  That, I submit, is crystal-clear.  And so those who think that the question has an obvious answer are plainly wrong.

But this is not to say that Jew, Christian, and Muslim are NOT worshipping one and the same God. That is much more difficult question.

Do we all agree now?”

For Volf’s part, today he is doubling down again on Facebook, stating that “it is morally wrong of [Wheaton] to withdraw the right to teach from [a person like Larycia Alaine Hawkins]”. But I think Bill Vallicella points us in a more helpful direction, and I would like to add a distinctively Lutheran perspective to the conversation.

First of all, dealing with the political side of this question, according to Luther’s doctrine of the “two kingdoms” Christians can certainly argue for a broad-based religious freedom.  The idea here is not so much based on rights – or that we all worship the same God – but that religion in general can be advantageous in the civil sphere, so long as it contributes to maintaining peace and order. This post does not really deal with this however, but focuses rather on the Christian church’s responsibility to speak faithfully regarding matters of eternal salvation – i.e., dealing with the care of men’s souls.

And here, I suggest that for the very biblically-minded Christian believer, the answer to the question as I put it in the title of this post depends on the distinction between God’s Law and Gospel, and this is true because it depends on the individual person we are talking about. I’ll explain in a moment, but first a short summary of the debate (again, it is quite technical, but I will try to make it as easily digestable as I can).

Those who say that the other Abrahamic faiths worship a different God point out that Christians worship a Triune God – One God (one “what” or nature – a Divine nature), who is three persons (three distinct “whos”, who are not simply different “masks” of the same Being)[i], and that the Son of God, the second member of the Trinity, took on human flesh and claimed on earth to be the God of the Old Testament – Yahweh/YHWH (see John 8, where He says “before Abraham was born ‘I Am’”). And if Jesus is indeed God, it is also important to note, as one Lutheran does, that the Scriptures associate the worship of other Gods with idolatry and that Satan “is cunning and calculating, this deceiver, so he puts his best foot forward…Better to coat poison with sugar.”

Volf's view: not unique

Volf’s view: not unique in church history

On the other hand, those who say that other Abrahamic faiths worship the same God point out that in the Middle East, “Allah” is, in many cases, the generic name of God. One Middle Eastern Christian, Vinoth Ramachandra, therefore argues that the answer is “Yes” and “No”. People are using the same referent, but in different senses.[ii] These folks point out that Miroslav Volf is not the only person who thinks asking whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God should be explored, but that this is a question with a rich history in the church.[iii] Not all of these folks are like Edward Feser either, who thinks that believers in the Old Testament did not consciously worship a Triune God in any sense and thinks that “referring to” (in some linguistic-metaphysical sense, Frege, etc.) is necessarily the same as “worshipping.”[iv] (see for example, this excellent article)

In fairness, it is important to note that many of these philosophically-minded Christians do not want a cheap ecumenism that blurs all the distinctions – rather, the question becomes what differences in belief about God are “fundamental” enough to justify saying: “ok, now it is a different God?”

And that is a good question (even if any ardent secularists reading this may be splitting in their sides now).

First of all, thinking about this matter historically, we cannot avoid that there certainly are what we can call the “Abrahamic faiths”. Any person acting in good “leather foot journalism” fashion could establish this.  But even here, looking at the matter from the broad biblical perspective of history, we could say that all religions, not just the Abrahamic ones, “refer” to the same God. Why? Well, all beliefs in some higher being developed among the children of Adam and typically want to refer, in some way, to the God who created the world (the only ones excluded here are perhaps Satanists). This, for example, was one of the things that was not so bad about the new Noah movie: the very interesting faith of Tubal-Cain.

“I give life and take life away, as you do. Am I not like you? Speak to me!” – Aronofsky’s Tubal-Cain in Noah

“I give life and take life away, as you do. Am I not like you? Speak to me!” – Aronofsky’s Tubal-Cain in Noah

Second however, we do want to keep in mind that not even everyone who subscribes to the core content of a particular faith necessarily has the same personal faith. It may seem likely that they do, but even if the teachings of a certain faith mitigate the truth, persons might, in spite of their faith’s official teaching, believe something different. Or, even if the “official teachings” seem to be widely held, there might still be important distinctions and nuances in individuals.

For example, one thinks about the very Jewish Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, baby John the Baptist, Simeon, Nathaniel and Anna – who all seem to have immediately recognized the Messiah they were waiting for from the Lord. Of course there were Jews who were fierce in their unbelief as well, and our Lord, also Jewish of course, dealt with them in a very jarring way, particularly in John 8 (giving them a law answer demanding change). Here one also thinks about the Roman centurion Cornelius, who we are told in the biblical book of Acts (chapter 10) had adopted the Jewish religion and was primed to receive the message about Jesus as the coming Messiah. Writing about this event, Martin Luther gives the impression that a) Cornelius, prior to Acts 10, did worship the same God but that b) he needed – and eagerly recognized his need – to hear the full message about Jesus Christ (a gospel answer!).[v]

Luther on John 14:6, "No one comes to the Father but by me": "There is no other ship or passage."

Luther on John 14:6, “No one comes to the Father but by me”: “There is no other ship or passage.”

So, how to look at these matters overall? I do not deny that detailed inquiry into these questions is of use, and I do not doubt that in some cases, leaving room to talk in this way (“we worship the same God”!) might be of some evangelistic use[vi] (certainly political use, for trying to keep peace). At the same time however, I suspect the reason for minimizing the differences in this fashion is to solve “the problem” of God’s fairness. How could only those who trust in Christ be saved – and not also those who start to do some real good in this life?! (see my recent post here) In drawing this conclusion, am I being unfair myself? I don’t think so – there is simply a strong desire among many in Christendom to help some people “get in” because of their good works. But as Luther said, the Creed, not the law (First Commandment, “metaphysics,” “theism”), is what sets the Christians apart from Jews, Muslims, and false Christians.[vii]

One man, writing how we might view this issue about whether or not two persons are worshipping the same God, said this:

“You may believe that John is a wicked, insufferable person. I may believe that he is utterly delightful and profoundly wise and good. Yet we both know that “John” refers to the same person, despite our contradictory assessments of his character.”

But as I pointed out there is another way of looking at it, and this is the illustration that I use with my students.

“Let’s say you and I are talking and we realize we both know the same person. How cool! Let’s say we go on thinking this is the case for a while… that is, until we start talking about the person in more detail. It is only then – after we have more information – that we realize that we actually were not talking about the same person at all.”[viii]

I could follow up by saying this though: “Now, this may not be the case every time you talk to a devout Jew or Muslim. Perhaps – just perhaps – in speaking with them you think you are finding out that they believe what you believe. Maybe they even say they don’t believe in Jesus, but when you talk to them about that, you realize their picture of Jesus is not the one described in the Bible at all, etc. etc.”

That said, notice what is happening here. If it is true that in certain contexts people of seemingly different religions really do mean the same thing when it comes to words like “prayer”, “worship” , and “God”, the blanket statement that “we all – or even all Jews, Muslims, etc. – worship the same God” would then by default not be true. This is why, I think, in general, taking an approach like I do in my first two posts on this topic is necessary.

Again, as I noted in my first post especially, John 8 is disturbing clear, and I am afraid very un-ecumenical (well, we would have to talk about what ecumenical means or should mean!). And in Acts 17, of course, Paul ends by saying that God has proven to all persons through Christ’s resurrection that this man is going to judge the world. Simply put, some are ready to hear more at this point and others are not and will not – maybe ever. And again, we must remember that Satan, ever eager to be that “angel of light”, “is cunning and calculating, this deceiver, so he puts his best foot forward…Better to coat poison with sugar.” In other words, when difficult and unfortunate situations like those at Wheaton come up (hopefully these can be addressed in the future), this is no time for a trumpet that does not give a clear call (I Cor. 14:8).

Good and strong enough to help.

Good and strong enough to help. For some amazing stories of those discovering this, listen here.

Even as we hopefully are always eager to learn something from any person we are privileged to speak with, we Christians nevertheless need to be clear about our convictions: the only way persons can be saved is by Jesus Christ – not their own goodness, for “no one is good but God alone”. We are all simply beggars showing others where the Bread [of Life] is. And this is the message we must be eager to speak to all – tailored as much as we can to where a person actually is in their beliefs on these issues! I think that all of us – even Christians with one another [ix]– need to learn how to ask one another good questions here.

How can we hold up Jesus Christ – is He not beautiful? Is He not good? Is He not mighty?  Thank God Jesus is God! – and yet simultaneously refuse to make explicit that those gods who are not Him are false? That they do not lead us to the way and the truth? That they do not add to life, but rather take away from it? That the True God does not so much work through other religions, but in spite of them?

Here in wintry Minnesota, I went sledding with my boys yesterday. The three year old could not walk up the steep hill. One son said he wouldn’t help him. Another said he couldn’t help him. Only father was both good and strong enough to help. Likewise, only the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – who refuses to be thought of apart from His Son – is strong enough to help us, to save us, from our desperate condition of bondage to sin, death, and the devil.



Images: Tubal-Cain ( ; Volf (


[i] Traditional monotheism has believed that “God” is not so much a proper name, but a descriptive term, for example “the Prime Minister” (see here). Another way to say this is that “God” is a “common noun (a sortal concept) that refers to a class of objects (with only one member…).” (see p. 56 here)

[ii] He writes “The eminent logician Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) famously drew an important distinction between the referent of a word/phrase and its sense or meaning. He took the example of the planet Venus which is, paradoxically, described as both the “Evening Star” and the “Morning Star”. The two expressions have different senses or meanings, but they have the same referent, namely the planet Venus.”

So the question posed here: What might terminological agreement between Christians and Muslims mean?

[iii] See these links, for example: and this book chapter is particularly fascinating. This would be the “Islam as a Christian heresy” view. Regarding the first link, a pastor friend writes: “Semitic Christianity (Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic) likely used those trinitarian terms (not always in orthodox ways: Nestorianism, etc) prior to the emergence of Islam (the Near East look very different around 600AD), and it was then Islam’s claim that it continued, corrected, and concluded the ‘biblical’ revelation of the one true God by trying to show that Mohammed was prophesied in the OT and NT.”

[iv] These seems to be Feser’s view. Note that “referring to” requires no faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, while “worshipping” does. Speaking of the church’s creeds, Martin Luther wrote: “These articles of the Creed, therefore, divide and distinguish us Christians from all other people on earth. All who are outside the Christian church, whether heathen, Turks, Jews, or false Christians and hypocrites, even though they believe in and worship only the one, true God, [better: may believe in ; may call on – see here] nevertheless do not know what his attitude is toward them. They cannot be confident of his love and blessing. Therefore they remain in eternal wrath and damnation, for they do not have the Lord Christ, and, besides, they are not illuminated and blessed by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” large catechism, 3rd article of the creed (italics mine)

[v] Martin Luther, writing about Cornelius in Acts 10, said the following: “Cornelius, Acts 10:1ff , had heard long before among the Jews of the coming Messiah, through whom he was righteous before God, and in such faith his prayers and alms were acceptable to God (as Luke calls him devout and God-fearing), and without such preceding Word and hearing could not have believed or been righteous. But St. Peter had to reveal to him that the Messiah (in whom, as one that was to come, he had hitherto believed) now had come, lest his faith concerning the coming Messiah hold him captive among the hardened and unbelieving Jews, but know that he was now to be saved by the present Messiah, and must not, with the [rabble of the] Jews deny nor persecute Him.”

[vi] Summary of a conversation from another blog: In Acts 17, the “unknown god” is not the supreme God of that pantheon. Why did Paul pick this deity rather than, e.g., Zeus? One person answers: “Well, the shrine to “the Unknown God” is too sweet an opportunity for a preacher like Paul (especially given the history of the shrine, the historical plague behind it, etc.). But following Paul does pick Zeus. The poets Paul quotes are works written about Zeus. That “we are his offspring” is from Aratus’s (d. 240 BCE) poem about Zeus (the “his” refers to Zeus in the poem), and the “in whom we live and move and have our being” is from Epimenides (6th cent. BCE) who is also writing a poem for Zeus (“They fashioned a tomb for you…but you are not dead, you live and abide forever; for in you we live and move and have our being”).” I replied: “Perhaps Paul is offering a subtle course correction here? Namely, the poet was right about what God does, but I am saying now this is not to be attributed to Zeus, but rather this unknown God….”

[vii] A pastor friend notes that “Aquinas[, in his Summa Theologica] discusses the “one God” (based on nature, reason); then he turns to the holy Trinity (based on grace, faith, above reason [but not counter to reason]). And these are not two gods; they are one and the same God”” I think that by nature – however badly nurture goes – all persons really do have knowledge that there must be a powerful divine mind, which can’t responsibly be separated from notions of personhood – responsible for the cosmos. I don’t think Paul is saying that all have a knowledge of “Judeo-Christian theism” that they suppress, but that all do have a knowledge that is at least something like this. And while we are also inclined by nature to seek God, no one apart from the Gospel seeks God as he should be sought or as he is….. What we seek by nature, apart from His grace, is a God of the Law (our grace-infused love of God as we imagine him by reason saves) and not one of the Gospel (His ultimate and ongoing message of mercy is about the rescue of sinful man in Christ Jesus).

[viii] Philosophically speaking, “Failure of reference, on the descriptivist view [see footnote 1], can occur in various ways. First, the description associated with a name fails to identify someone uniquely; it holds true for more than one person. In this case reference is ambiguous and hence unsuccessful. Second, the description is satisfied by no person, in which case the name is empty in that it doesn’t latch onto anyone. Third, the name is associated with a true description, but of the wrong person” (see p. 56 here).

[ix] In Martin Luther’s Smalcald Articles, documents to which confessional Lutherans subscribe, he says that while the Roman Catholics confess the Trinity, they don’t believe it because they officially condemn evangelical trust in the Second Person of the Trinity as their one and only Savior. This will affect how we see the issue at hand in this post. To quote a pastor friend again: “in his 2006 Regensburg lecture (para. 2-4), marked as an important difference between Christianity and Islam not the gospel of free forgiveness in Christ, but whether conversions can be gotten by force or whether an appeal to man’s reason was needed. While that is an important point, and perhaps also an important difference between the two religions, the main and chief difference between Islam and Christianity it is definitely not!… the god of reason is not the uncontroversial commonality among all real religions… whatever Christians believe cannot just be harmoniously be added to what’s already in everybody’s mind anyway.”

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Posted by on January 5, 2016 in Uncategorized


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