10/31/14

In Him We Have Our Being

image credit: stockfresh; by solarseven

image credit: stockfresh; by solarseven

“The self-attesting Christ of Scripture has always been my starting point for everything I have said.” (Cornelius Van Til, Jerusalem and Athens)

I’ve thought for a long time that many of the theological disputes about Scripture stem from misunderstandings that occur because God’s eternal truths are being revealed in the space-time of our existence. Some things that are true about God and his creation cannot be made fully comprehensible to creatures who exist in space-time because God and his eternal truth are outside of time and space. Even here the words I have to use are inadequate, because into, outside and before all refer to space-time conditions. How can we conceptualize something existing outside of the universe we live in?

The distinction between God as the Creator and everything else (the creation; the heavens and earth) is a fundamental Christian belief. Starting with an acknowledgement of this distinction is essential for clear thinking about God, Scripture and theology. While I assume that most if not all Christians would agree in principle with what I’ve said here about the Creator-creation distinction, they can come up with radically different ideas about what God revealed in creation and said in Scripture, let alone how that revelation should be applied to our lives.

An analogy would be a photograph of a large three-dimensional object like the Cathedral of Learning in a two-dimensional world. It could really be a photo of the Cathedral, but it would not capture the grandeur of seeing the structure with your own eyes in three dimensions. But you couldn’t ever do that, because you exist in two dimensions. For creatures who live and move and have their being within two-dimensions, the photos of the three-dimensional Cathedral of Learning would at times seem contradictory and at odds with one another.

Even the photo thought to be the clearest representation of the Cathedral of Learning, would have inherent limitations. You can’t completely capture a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional photo. You can’t comprehensively portray a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional world.

Nevertheless, we could still say that each of the different pictures was really a picture of the Cathedral. But that would require a starting point that existed in three dimensions—like a photographer—to take the pictures. And we would need to trust that photographer to communicate to us honestly and truly in two dimensions what actually existed in three dimensions. In Christian theology, the God of Scripture is that starting point.

We could illustrate these ideas in the following way. I’ve borrowed the concept of connected circles to represent the Creator-creature distinction from the work of Cornelius Van Til. The additions are my own.

creator

 

There is a necessary distinction between God and creation, meaning the entire universe. We exist within that created order, where God has embedded truth about Himself within the very fabric of creation. So whether we study the irreducible complexity of biochemical systems within the human body or the incredible fine-tuning of the universe for human life, we see the evidence of His hand in the design and functioning of the cosmos. In Him we live and move and have our being.

But this evidence in creation is open to some interpretation. The fine-tuning of the universe can lead you to the conclusion of a Designer and God. Or it could lead you to hypothesize the existence of multiple universes, where the probability of one “just right” for life and devoid of the benign hand of a Designer is more statistically probable. The first concludes there is a God. The second finds Him unnecessary.

We were given specific, direct communication about God and His eternal truths in the Word of God—the Word written and the Word revealed in Jesus Christ. Both the written Word and the embodied Word possess a duality of being in the sense that they simultaneously exist within and outside created space-time. There is even more potential here for misunderstanding—partly because of the entrance of eternal truth of the Word into space-time. Apply the above Cathedral of Learning analogy here. So another fundamental Christian belief is that God reveals Himself to us in creation and communicates to us through his Word; and  we can trust these revelations.

If the general revelation of God in creation is denied or distorted, then we lose the ability to truly comprehend the glory and majesty of its Creator. When we misconceive the entrance of the divine Word (written or revealed in Christ) into creation, we lose the ability to commune with our Creator. If God existed without our ability to know Him in these two ways, then He truly would be unnecessary.

Another issue that contributes to the misinterpretation of Scripture is that we don’t want to be beholden to special revelation from God in order to understand anything—ourselves, creation and even God or His eternal truths. The story of the Fall in Genesis indicates how humanity wanted to be like God, knowing good from evil. So here is a third fundamental Christian belief—the rebellion of humanity. But that is a topic for another time.

06/27/14

God Breathing on Us

Creation Concept

image credit: iStock

In my turning-from-adolescence-to-adulthood rebellion years I resisted my father’s attempts to make me go to church. My mother convinced him to not press the issue. So for the next eight years when I stayed overnight on Christmas and Easter, he would ask me if I wanted to go to church with him and the family. I always declined.

One of the first changes that came over me after I made a commitment to Christ was a strong desire to know the Word of God. So that Christmas, I gave Bibles as Christmas presents to several members of my family.  I remember trying to match each person with the “right” translation. I gave my father a NASB—New American Standard Bible. I didn’t realize at the time that since he was Roman Catholic, the New American Bible translation would have been a better choice.

So from the beginning of my faith walk, the Bible has been important to me. It has been THE holy book to me. Part of the reason I chose to attend Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia was its commitment “to Scripture and to the systematic exposition of biblical truth known as the Reformed faith.”

This last phrase, “known as the Reformed faith,” didn’t have the significance to me then that it does now. I was drawn to Westminster because of reading Cornelius Van Til. I knew he had taught there and I wanted to attend the seminary where he had taught. I also had a suspicion that I would try to opt out of studying the original biblical languages if the going got tough and I could and still complete my degree.

And I was right; I would have if I could have. Westminster didn’t give me that option, for which I continue to be grateful. In frustration I once crumpled up a Hebrew vocabulary quiz and threw it towards the front of the classroom. Doug Green, my professor, quietly picked it up, smoothed it out and returned it to me. I failed that quiz, but eventually passed all the language requirements.

Now, most of the in depth bible study I do is with my computer. The power of Logos Bible Software makes up for what my linguistic skills lack. Some of the same reference works I used in print I now use electronically. Is it wrong to admit that I find exegetical work less tedious now?

I believe the Scriptures to be the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. This has been a personal and spiritual confession that has grown with time. These days, there is an ongoing dispute among evangelicals over the appropriateness of attaching the words infallible and inerrant to a statement of faith regarding the inspiration of the Bible.

I don’t have the linguistic or exegetical skills to contribute constructively to this debate. But I believe the end result must be compatible with the belief of the Christians who went before us. They used the terms infallible and inerrant to communicate what the inspiration of Scripture meant in their time and culture. I want future generations of believers to experience the wonder I did as I began to understand the significance of 2 Timothy 3:16. I still remember the class where Dr. Gaffin taught how Paul was saying that all Scripture was theopneustos; inspired by God—that it was God breathing on us with His Word.

Peter Enns is one of those individuals who has the linguistic and exegetical skills to contribute constructively to the work of communicating what the inspiration of Scripture means in our time and culture. I don’t agree with everything he said in Inspiration and Incarnation. But I do think he’s right that we trust the Bible because of the gift of faith. “By faith, the church confesses that the Bible is God’s Word.” If our generation ultimately decides that words other than infallible and inerrant are needed to describe the Bible as the Word of God, let it be by the same Spirit that moved previous theologians and inspired the original autographs.

“It is up to Christians of each generation … to work out what that means and what words work best to describe it.” But it must still convey a sense of theopneustos, God breathing on us with His Word.

Do you believe the Bible is inspired in the sense of theopneustos, God breathing on us?

05/23/14

Thinking God’s Thoughts

I recently discovered that the German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer Johannes Kepler used the phrase “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” Referring to his work in astronomy, Kepler said: “I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after Him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.”

This idea can become rather Stoic at times. It has that sense in Twenty-Four Hours a Day, a book of recovery meditations for members of Alcoholics Anonymous. The December 18th meditation said that the nearer astronomers get to the ultimate composition of all things, the nearer the universe approaches a mathematical formula, which is thought. The universe itself may be the thought of the Great Thinker. Therefore, “We must try to think God’s thoughts after Him.” We must try to get guidance from the Divine Mind as to what His intention is for the world “and what part we can have in carrying out that intention.”

van-tilSince my time in seminary, I have been deeply influenced by the writings of Cornelius Van Til and his very different sense of thinking God’s thoughts after Him. Van Til said that as creatures of God, we are analogues of God. “God is the original while man is the derivative. Man’s thoughts must therefore be patterned after God’s thoughts. Man must, as we often express it, think God’s thoughts after Him.” (Essays on Christian Education)

Christianity presupposes the self-sufficient God of Scripture. God created the universe for and unto himself. “By his providence, God sustains the universe in order to realize his ultimate purpose with it.” There is purpose in the universe because God has made it so. And every purpose in the universe must be referred to God. “Without this reference to God, no purpose within the universe has meaning.” (Christian-Theistic Evidences)

If man is not autonomous, if he is in fact what Scripture says he is—a creature of God and a sinner—then he should “subordinate his reason to the Scriptures” and seek its light to interpret his experience. God’s revelation in nature as well as Scripture is always authoritarian. “The truly scientific method, the method which alone can expect to make true progress in learning, is therefore such a method as seeks simply to think God’s thoughts after him.” (The Defense of the Faith)

If theism is true, only that thought and interpretation on the part of man is true which recognizes God as the source of man and man’s interpretation. Hence we hold that in the nature of the case there is not only one true religion, but only one true interpretation of all science as well. We hold that all science that does not recognize God as the maker of the facts with which it deals and the mind with which it thinks as created by God and as properly thinking God’s thoughts after him, is false science. (Psychology of Religion)

The modern, understanding of science asks us to grant the theoretical relevancy of any hypothesis. It also asks that we test the truth of any hypothesis by experience. Lastly, the modern scientific method assumes the reality of neutral, brute, facts. But if God exists, there are no brute facts. Our study of facts must seek to know them as God wants them to be known by us. “We must then seek to think God’s thoughts after Him. To assume that there are brute facts is therefore to assume that God does not exist.” The autonomous human mind thinks of itself as acting completely independent of God. (Unpublished Manuscripts of Cornelius Van Til, Electronic edition)

So in this blog and in the other material on this website, I seek to “Think God’s Thoughts” in the sense meant by Van Til.

Do you agree that for both science and Scripture our thoughts must be patterned after God’s thoughts?