My Interview with Backpack Radio: Myth of Neutrality

The folks at Backpack Radio were kind enough to invite me to be a guest on their program tonight. If you missed the live stream, you can still listen to the recorded show by clicking here.

You can also listen to my previous guest appearance on the show by clicking here.

Make sure to check out all the other cool programs from Backpack Radio, and “thank you” again to the guys at BPR!

The Day Fred Phelps Died and Jesus Christ Lived: What should the Christian response to the “Westboro Baptist Church” look like?

Fred Phelps is dead.

Phelps is best known for heading up the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). The WBC is infamous for preaching a message of hatred toward homosexuals (“God Hates Fags”) and picketing the funerals of United States military.

An Emotional Response to a Spiritual Problem

Most people are shocked and appalled at the WBC. I do not fault them for that. However, I do fault them for substituting their subjective emotional responses for sound intellectual responses to the WBC. In a society where feelings matter more than substantial thought, even most Christians are satisfied with the purely emotional response to the WBC. But they should not be. The Christian response to Phelps and the WBC has, for the most part, looked no different from the wordly response to Phelps and the WBC. And that’s a serious problem.

When facing the WBC cult, Christians have recourse to a much stronger argument than expressing their own personal feelings about the WBC. They also have more than a cold intellectual reply available to them. They have the Word of God. The Christian response to the false teaching of Fred Phelps must be more informed by the Word of God than it is informed by knee-jerk emotional reactions.

I have watched countless Christians fail to provide any substantial response to Phelps. He was far more evil than those with mere emotional responses give him credit for. Phelps preached half-truths and deceived countless people both inside and outside of his little religious cult. Many Christians are among those who are deceived.

A Biblical Response to an Unbiblical Message

Unfortunately, the WBC has been exceedingly successful in furthering a false message at the expense of the true message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here’s how:

1. They promote unbiblical feelings of hatred.

The WBC promotes unbiblical feelings of hatred, but not always in the manner most people think. They make you mad. The WBC loves that you respond to them with anger. Their actions are intentionally provocative. They promote a message of hate, and people respond to them with hatred. They have been exceedingly successful in getting people to hate each other.

As Christians, we should hate sin, and hate the wickedness that is condoned and practiced by the WBC. However, we must remember that anger itself is most often an expression of our own sinful ways, not the emotional worker of righteousness we so often trick ourselves into thinking it is. We cannot cease to approach those who practice wickedness with grace, though we absolutely condemn their damnable practices. Otherwise we are no better off than the WBC.

2. They promote an unbiblical view of God.

The WBC promotes an unbiblical view of God, but not always in the manner most people think. By focusing in on the wrath of God to the exclusion of other attributes of God, WBC has sparked a response that focuses on the love of God to the exclusion of other attributes of God. The idea that “God is Love” has become a rallying cry for those opposed to all manner of morality, not just those who are rightly quoting it from Scripture.

As Christians, we must remember that God is a God of wrath. God does hate sin. God even hates sinners. That much is the clear teaching of the Word of God. (Ps. 5.5, 11.5; Prov. 6.16-19; etc.) Responding to the WBC by claiming that “God is love” or “God loves everyone” is joining the world in a partially true, unbiblical proclamation of God’s supposed approval of sin. Let’s be clear that unrepentant sinners will face the absolute condemnation of God in hell for eternity. That is not owing to God’s love for those individuals, that is owing to His hatred for them. That same hatred, or wrath, or anger of God towards sin was poured out on Christ Jesus on the cross for all of those who will turn from their sins and trust in His perfect propitiatory sacrifice. The WBC has done an excellent job of making a mockery of this biblical message of judgment and grace found in the cross of Christ through their unbiblical message of the mere hatred of God.

3. They promote unbiblical methods of ministry.

The WBC promotes unbiblical methods of ministry, but not always in the manner most people think. The WBC wants to make it clear to people that God hates sin, will not tolerate it, absolutely condemns it, and the like. People most often respond to the WBC by dismissing their message, calling them a hate group, and attempting legal action against them. Yet their message is partially true, as already mentioned above. Moreover, warning people about the coming judgment for their sins is one of the most loving things anyone could do. The WBC has made the aforementioned argument, and I dare say it is difficult to disagree. Unless, of course, the message of sin, judgment, and wrath are altogether dismissed. And that is precisely the way many people have responded.

As Christians, we must remember that people stand condemned before God, dead in their trespasses and sins. We justly deserve the righteous wrath of God. We are sinners. The only way to avoid the judgment of God is to be saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. The WBC errs in preaching a message of the hatred of God toward sinners while assuming they know the identities of the non-elect, those who will ultimately never repent, but remain reprobate, thus ensuring that the WBC will never preach true repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ as the only way anyone can ever avoid the judgment of God for sins that the WBC is so fond of trivializing through their insensitive arrogance, crude language and gaudy placards.

The “Gospel” of Phelps versus the Gospel of Christ

The message of Fred Phelps is not the same as the message of Jesus Christ. However, the most potentially dangerous part of the message of Phelps is not what he got wrong, but what he got right. A tidbit of truth is enough to poison the minds of many, leading them to either imbibe the lies of Phelps in their entirety, or else to reject even the very Word of God which makes its occasional appearance in the attempted justifications of this wayward religious cult. The message of Jesus Christ is the good news about His death, burial, and resurrection for our sins. We do not hear that message associated with the followers of Phelps, because they are false teachers. May we as Christians address them as such, rather than joining the unbelieving world in dismissing them because we find the WBC ignorant, offensive, or otherwise icky. May we continue to preach and defend the true gospel of Jesus Christ with boldness and humility even when it is not politically correct to do so.

Bill Nye on U.S. Denial of Evolution

Bill Nye made some comments concerning evolution that have since gone viral.

There are a lot of questionable claims in Nye’s comments. He believes that the “denial of evolution” is a “world view” that not only will “harm young people” but “hamper scientific progress.”

The first problem is that Nye never defines for us what he means by “evolution.” He does note that, “Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology,” but again, he does not define what this idea is. He also lists a string of entities he apparently thinks evolution includes, pointing out that, “Here are these ancient dinosaur bones or fossils, here is radioactivity, here are distant stars.” Virtually no one rejects the existence of dinosaur bones or fossils, radioactivity, or distant stars. Perhaps Nye means to say that the “idea of deep time” or “billions of years” is the best or only way to explain the aforementioned entities, but here Nye has started talking about disciplines that are not life science or biology, the disciplines which allegedly rest upon evolution, whatever that is according to Nye.

The second problem is that Nye plays the “children” card. If you have ever spent much time with militant atheists, then you know the drill. Here Nye claims that he is “fine” with adults wanting to “deny evolution” and live in their own world that is, “completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe.” He then pleads with those same adults not to, “make your kids do it.” Why not? “[B]ecause we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can – we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.” Nye should realize that the reason adults might try to persuade their children to believe the way they do is because those adults think they have the truth. Even granting Nye’s comment about voting, what on earth does paying one’s taxes have to do with evolution? This is laughable stuff. And has Nye been living under a rock since his show ended in 1998? Does he not realize that there are plenty of engineers around right now who can “build stuff”?

The third problem follows from the paragraph above. Nye seems to think adults can make children reject evolution and believe in something, “completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe.” And when children do this their, “world view just becomes crazy, just untenable, itself inconsistent.” Moreover one’s, “world just becomes fantastically complicated when you don’t believe in evolution.” Does Nye really think that adults can make children believe in something, “completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe,” “crazy, just untenable, itself inconsistent,” and “fantastically complicated”? That seems rather unlikely. Perhaps his greater concern is that the observations and alleged results of rejecting them are not as clear-cut as he seems to think they are. After all, even Nye praises the United States for its “technological innovation,” “intellectual capital,” and “general understanding of science.” Perhaps the “denial of evolution” that Nye rightfully ascribes to the country is not as detrimental to its health as he rather inconsistently thinks that it is.

The fourth and final problem is Nye’s ignorance of the role of presuppositions evidenced above. We can spend a bit more time on this difficulty. Nye does not seem aware that maybe, just maybe the reason people do not interpret the evidence the same way he does is because they have different presuppositions. Nye throws around bold proclamations about “everything we observe in the universe,” “ancient dinosaur bones or fossils,” “radioactivity,” and “distant stars” as though they prove something in and of themselves. Yet one cannot talk about facts without talking about philosophy of facts. Unfortunately, most scientists today are woefully inadequate when it comes to the realm of philosophy, and will sometimes even deny that their discipline is based quite firmly upon various philosophical principles. The evidences Nye cites do not say anything one way or another all by themselves. Rather, they are interpreted according to the presuppositions one brings to the evidence.

Now what presuppositions might prevent someone from interpreting the evidence the way Nye does? And why do most United States Americans reject evolution? It certainly is not because of scientific ignorance, because Nye credits the USA with a general knowledge of science. It is not because of lack of resources either. Nor is it because of an inclination to reject whatever allegedly authoritative view is out there in science, because Americans don’t reject all, or even most of those. Alvin Plantinga, noting the previous point, hits the nail on the head regarding the reason most Americans reject evolution.

The answer, of course, is obvious: it is because of the entanglement of evolution with religion. The vast majority of Americans reject atheism, and hence also naturalism. A solid majority of  Americans are Christians, and many more (some 88 or 99 percent, depending on the poll you favor) believe in God. But when that choir of experts repeatedly tell us that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, it’s not surprising that many people come to believe that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, and is therefore an enemy of religion. (Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, 53)

Now I am not going to address whether or not it is true that evolution is an enemy of religion. I have made my thoughts on that matter as clear as possible elsewhere. I believe that the answer to that question depends largely upon what one means by “evolution.” As already mentioned, Nye is not clear on that. How might he respond to Plantinga?

He would likely exclaim that when science and religion are in conflict with one another, it is the religion that must go. But that is easier said than done. Beyond societal and emotional causes for belief in God and Christianity in particular, many believers are convinced that the scientific endeavor is impossible apart from a theistic worldview.

For example, what are we to make of the concern of the Scottish skeptic David Hume, who noted, “The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality…That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise”? He continued, “As to past experience, it can be allowed to give direct and certain information of those precise objects only, and that precise period of time, which fell under its cognizance: but why this experience  should be extended to future times, and to other objects, which for aught we know, may be only in appearance similar; this is the main question on which I would insist.” Hume was sharp enough to see that inductive inferences involve a mighty assumption that the future will resemble the past. He was honest enough to admit that he had no reason for accepting that same assumption. But if we cannot move beyond the present testimony of our senses, we cannot make predictions concerning anything, and we have lost our basis for the scientific endeavor. Hume destroyed science with his so-called “problem of induction.”

Of course, if one is a Christian, then one believes that God has created and sustains the universe in an orderly fashion, enabling us to be confident about the future behavior of all of nature and the particular things within it, so that we can make successful scientific predictions without worrying about irrationality plaguing us at every step. This is just one example of how belief in God serves as a precondition for the intelligibility of science, rather than as a hindrance to it, as Nye would likely see things.

In my view, Cornelius Van Til is right about the quagmire of evolutionary debate when he writes, “It is quite hopeless to fight evolution in the public schools and think that in doing so you have gone to the bottom of the trouble. Back of evolution lie relativism and impersonalism.” (Cornelius Van Til, Foundations of Christian Education, 9) Back of relativism and impersonalism lie atheism. Naturalistic evolution is a symptom of a deep spiritual problem, not the problem itself.

(Originally posted at Choosing Hats August 29, 2012)

Pragmatic Apologetics?

‘Pragmatism’ pertains to what ‘works.’ Pragmatism is a philosophy of the practical. But what does it mean for something to ‘work’? Work for what? Work to what end?

With some solid goals in place we can see more clearly the practical value of our thoughts, words, and actions. It turns out they have some ‘cash value’ after all. We just have to be careful not to make a sort of ‘silo’ of knowledge pertaining purely to the practical.

When we posit pragmatism in terms of the Christian worldview we get a workable philosophy. Nothing is more practical than Christianity. It’s not a sin to point this out in our apologetic encounters, but it is probably a sin not to.

Historical Apologetics?

Biblical apologetics are historical apologetics. What do I mean? At least five points come to mind.

1. Apologetics are not Scripturalist.

Scripturalism is somewhat analogous to Scientism. Scientism has become a major religion in the West. Scientism is the belief that science is the only means to knowledge. (Of course, the claim, ‘Science is the only means to knowledge’ is itself unknowable through science, and hence scientism is self-refuting.) Scripturalism, then, is something like the belief that Scripture, or the Bible, is the only means to knowledge. The difficulty here is that the Bible itself rejects such a claim. Knowledge is available through God’s creation (e.g. Psalm 19, Romans 1.18ff) even outside of the Bible.

While God’s Word must be the very basis upon which apologetic encounters are carried forth, an apologist is more than warranted in using language, illustrations, arguments, and the like which are not immediately found in Scripture. In doing so, the apologist is standing between two worlds, taking the truth of God found in Scripture and applying it to his or her place in history. Apologetics are interpretive, applicative, contextual, constructive. Apologetics do not merely consist  of repeating passages of Scripture over and over again to unbelievers. They are used within one’s historical context.

2. Apologetics have been used throughout history.

They started in the Bible (e.g. Acts 17). They continued to be used in the early church. Justin Martyr is a notable apologist in history. Many others would follow. Apologetics were not always so radically divided from other theological disciplines in the past, because every discipline was a theological discipline. God was the end of knowledge. He still is, but we fail to recognize it in our modern and postmodern mindsets.

Apologetics are nothing new. Famous apologists litter every era of church history. Some of them were very bad, and others were very good. One cannot be dismissive of apologetics if one has any regard for the place of church history in current practice.

3. Apologetics assume the theological is historical.

Theological liberalism involves, among many other things, a rejection of the authority, infallibility, and/or inerrancy of Scripture. ‘Conservative’ Christians often ponder why theological ‘liberalism’ even exists. At least part of the reason liberalism exists is to satisfy apologetic concerns from an unbelieving human perspective. By driving a wedge between faith and reason, religion and science, and theology and history, liberals have attempted to ‘defend’ a version of ‘Christianity’ without really accepting it at all. In theological liberalism, the text of Scripture must be ‘demythologized.’ The supernatural is rejected in favor of a system of ethics based loosely upon the teachings of Jesus as interpreted by those who are themselves attempting to make moral determinations apart from the authority of God. Liberalism is an unbiblical form of apologetics that begins and ends with humans. It works from the ‘bottom up’ instead of from the ‘top down.’

A ‘top down’ approach to apologetics begins with the Bible and works out from there. The Bible knows nothing of a chasm between theology and history. Rather, God reveals Himself in and through the course of history, providentially guiding it and interpreting it for His glory and the good of His people. Some have understood apologetics to be the application of theology to unbelief. And so it is. But the theological is historical.

4. Apologetics assume the historical is theological.

The Bible records a great deal of history. That history is theologically interpreted. But interpreting the historical by the theological is not a practice that should end with the close of the canon of Scripture. Scripture remains the norma normans. Or, to move from the Latin to the cheesy, history is ‘His-story’ of which we are blessed to be a part. The story did not end with the Bible. Interpreting our own predicament in light of Scripture is the only way to be a biblically faithful Christian.

Recognizing that the historical is theological should give way to the prominence of biblical counseling amongst the carefully constructed and cold intellectual arguments used by many apologists. We have a place in God’s story. Since the historical is theological, apologetics are rigorously evidential in nature, but note that evidences cannot be divorced from their theological context and meaning. Cultural apologetics likewise find their home in the recognition that history does not operate in a vacuum, but in accord with the providential plan of God to bless people through following the principles set forth in His Word.

5. Apologetics are informed by historical theology.

People who believe that ‘the Bible, Jesus, and me’ is a good combination to create good doctrine are in reality setting themselves up to start a good cult. The Bible speaks of a Church founded by Jesus to help me understand the Bible. We find ourselves in a radically individualistic society. The rightful place of historical theology in the life of the Christian can hardly be overemphasized. People have read the Bible for thousands of years. They have interpreted it. They have applied its truths to their lives and societies. They have argued about it. They have debated it. They have thought through difficult subjects. God has blessed us with thousands of years of the testimony of the Church to assist us in constructive theology.

We need not jettison the aforementioned work when constructing an apologetic for the Christian faith. There is no question you or anyone else can ask regarding Christianity that has not already been raised and addressed in some form or fashion in church history. Stop being arrogant and start standing on the shoulders of giants. It is precisely because they miss the place of historical theology in apologetics that most unbelievers build such downright awful cases against Christianity. They are not actually attacking Christianity. They do not actually know Christianity. It’s not as though modern unbelievers are the first people to raise the questions or make the attacks they have. They are just generally ignorant of history. Familiarity with the God of history in church history is therefore an essential aspect of an effective biblical apologetic.