An Honest Atheist Reaction to the Gospel

I’ve been hoping to find something like this for a while.

Polly Toynbee writes the following excerpts for the Guardian against the first book in The Chronicles of Narnia.

Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart. Every one of those thorns, the nuns used to tell my mother, is hammered into Jesus’s holy head every day that you don’t eat your greens or say your prayers when you are told. So the resurrected Aslan gives Edmund a long, life-changing talking-to high up on the rocks out of our earshot. When the poor boy comes back down with the sacred lion’s breath upon him he is transformed unrecognisably into a Stepford brother, well and truly purged.

She concludes as follows.

Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass. Everyone needs ghosts, spirits, marvels and poetic imaginings, but we can do well without an Aslan.

Let us be careful not to overgeneralize, but what Ms. Toynbee writes seems to represent more than her alone. She may not see a distinction between the teachings of present-day Evangelicals and the old Evangelicals of the Sixtheenth Century, but I know that there are differences among the doctrines of atheists. She represents only one point of view. C.S. Lewis probably represented a different atheist point of view before his conversion to Christianity.

Variations in atheist doctrine notwithstanding, I am thankful that Ms. Toynbee has written these words, because they clearly and pointedly express exactly the problem she has with the Christian faith and with Christians. Perhaps she is not far from the Kingdom of God. I pray that she, like Lewis, is drawn into it.

The Value of Life

There is an exciting possibility at church this year. We’ve been talking about starting a school, and the best ways to do that from scratch. Now, there is a likelihood that we will be able to start with students and families who have been attending another Christian elementary school, as it transitions into our new classical Christian day school. That could be rolling as soon as September! Please pray for the congregation, students, and their families as we work toward that end.

In the midst of this flurry of activity, here is something worth posting, and hopefully worth reading. When I was in (public) Jr. High school, a group of students were involved in the “Great Books” program. I suppose it was a precursor to the current federal Common Core program, which seems to be pretty much the opposite of classical education. One of the discussions we had involved four people in a lifeboat at sea, with only enough supplies for three to survive. We were supposed to wrestle with the value of human life, and perhaps defend a distinction between the four different people in the boat.

A conversation in our kids’ school this morning (a classical school at home) centered upon the question, “What gives a person’s life objective value?” People seek to find value in their lives through things like health and appearance, in diet and exercise; through their education and jobs; through popularity; or in the simple fact that they are alive or that they are human; or that they were created by God. The former options are self-evidently shallow. The latter options sound better, but still fall short of the answer. There are many living things, and a reasonable person can see the difference in value between a tree or a fish and a human being. Moreover, all of those living things were created by God.

The answer is this. A person’s value is determined not by something in themselves, but by the most external thing possible: by the love of God, which is expressed emphatically in the incarnation and death of His only-begotten Son. When we say that Jesus Christ died for all people, to reconcile us to God, that sets the value of every human life as high as it could possibly be set, because God was willing to pay the greatest price for it. John 3:16 tells us the objective value of every single human life.

Scientific Jury Still Out on Hypothesis

The title of this post is something like a tautology in that no scientific hypothesis is considered the final word. Unless, that is, you are listening to certain people about the “theory” of evolution. It’s not a theory in the sense that it can be disproven (the classic sense), but in the sense that people use it as a model for trying to understand new evidence. So it’s more like a hypothesis, which means a claim (or “thesis”) that’s somewhat less (“hypo”) than fully developed. To hear some people, evolution is settled science. In reality, it’s just the best alternative they have found to biblical creation.

Along those lines, an article linked today on Drudge caught my eye. Though written from an evolutionary point of view, it’s rich for pointing out the weaknesses of that “theory.” If you read it, just keep in mind that the ages mentioned there don’t disprove the biblical timeline, because they are based on a number of assumptions, several of which may easily be wrong.

But one thing above all seems noteworthy in that article. It discusses several different species identified in this research, which are “theoretically” related to human beings (homo sapiens). It says,

Meanwhile, using improved methods, Dr. Paabo, Dr. Meyer and their colleagues assembled a rough draft of the entire Neanderthal genome in 2010.

That discovery shed light on how Neanderthals and humans’ ancestors split from a common ancestor hundreds of thousands of years ago. It also revealed that Neanderthals and humans interbred about 50,000 years ago.

My point is this. If Neanderthals and humans interbred at some point, then they are really the same “kind” of creature, as described in Genesis chapter 1. So not only are the ages applied to these discoveries wrong, but even the classification of creatures like Neanderthals as “non-human evolutionary relatives” must also be wrong. Rather than evolutionary relatives and ancestors of mankind, this research is identifying something more like a variety of races within the human family tree. That sounds biblical.

Brief Review of “Hey Mom, What About Dinosaurs?”

I received this book from a source that I have since forgotten, and must apologize if someone passed it to me. The good news is that I finally read it. The author is Russell Husted, described on the cover as a university researcher and former teacher of evolutionary science. “He decided to test the original Hebrew Scriptures, treating the creation account as if [it] was a scientific theory. What he discovered revolutionized his faith (and his scientific thinking).”

Husted certainly learned some Hebrew, and translated from the original text of Genesis. He also used linguistic tools available for correlating the usage of Hebrew words in Genesis to their usage elsewhere in the Old Testament. His endeavor was intriguing from the start.

I had hoped that Husted would examine existing scientific evidence in light of the biblical text, allowing the natural meaning of Scripture to guide him, but was disappointed to find that this was not his method. Instead, he has strategically chosen from the possible meanings for the Hebrew words of the creation account, and has made certain hypotheses about the implications of those meanings, so that the account would mirror the hypothetical sequence of events posited by naturalistic science that has supposedly brought about the universe and the world we know today. In other words, the accepted sequence hypothesized by naturalistic science takes a somewhat higher priority for Husted than the natural meaning of the biblical creation account.

To be fair, Husted makes some interesting points about the meaning of certain vocabulary in the creation account, especially in view of the prevalent understanding of that vocabulary among English speakers. For example, where the NKJV in Genesis 1:11 uses the word “grass,” following the Authorized Version (KJV), Husted points out that a more precise rendering might refer instead to the microscopic flora much more prevalent across the face of the earth than what we usually call “grass.” In similar ways, he reconsiders what the most precise rendering would be for each item created, given the present-day conceptual model of the world around us. Some of his suggestions seem to have merit.

However, Husted’s agenda is to demonstrate to evolutionists that the biblical account of creation is not as far as they thought from their own beliefs. Coming from the other side of that conversation, I think that the Bible ought to be the starting point for Christians, rather than naturalistic theory.

While Husted’s work is appreciated, he also demonstrates that he is not an expert linguist, at least in biblical Hebrew. For example, much of his later reasoning depends heavily upon a distinction between the Hebrew word Adam (meaning the ground, and later the name of Adam) and the Hebrew word ha-adam. He supposes that this shows a distinction on God’s part between a sub-human creature like the Neanderthals, and the humanity of Adam and Eve. But really, the only difference between them is that the latter word has the Hebrew definite article attached to it, as in “man” vs.\ “the man.” I am not an expert Hebrew linguist either, but I know a definite article when I see one, even in transliteration (latin characters).

The reasoning of Husted’s presentation becomes quite forced toward the end, when he suggests that the description of Eve’s creation really means something quite different from the natural meaning of the text. Perhaps the meanings he attributes to the Hebrew words can be justified from Hebrew dictionaries, which simply list words without context, but multiple layers of context here point the reader toward the traditional understanding of Eve’s creation. Besides the context in Genesis chapters 1 and 2, we also must consider that readers of Hebrew much closer to the time it was written have agreed with the traditional understanding. The Hebrew words date to about 1450 BC, and may have been translated by Moses (with divine guidance) from an earlier language. For the Bible to have the authority it does, we must maintain that it was inspired and preserved by God so as to present clearly what He wishes us to know.

While I don’t question Husted’s sincerity as a Christian, it seems that his desire to make the biblical creation account palatable to his evolutionist colleagues has introduced a naturalistic presupposition that undermines the authority of divine revelation. If we can accept that God created all things, including Eve, with a power we would consider to be miraculous, then the only reason to conceive of such a convoluted alternative explanation for her creation is to align the Bible with naturalistic science, which denies the possibility of miracles as a basic premise. It may be an entertaining exercise, but the Bible is divine revelation about our origin, identity, and salvation. It’s dangerous to entertain the possibility of a higher authority, and much more dangerous to accept one.

As a result, I can’t recommend Husted’s book for Christians who are drawn to the question in the title: “Hey Mom, What about Dinosaurs?” It may be appropriate for exegetical and scientific discussion, but not for general consumption.

The Brewing Controversy in WELS and How to Avoid It

A distant acquaintance of mine, Rev. Paul Rydecki, has been suspended from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod for teaching false doctrine. This has come to me even through some of my own members, who are concerned and a bit confused. The accusation is that Pastor Rydecki denies the doctrine known as Objective Justification (OJ for short), also called by some Universal Justification, or for those who like many words, Universal Objective Justification, which I find a bit tedious. OJ is a biblical teaching emphasized by various people in our Lutheran heritage, notably C.F.W. Walther, who has been nicknamed “The American Luther.” Luther himself emphasized it in several places, as do the Lutheran Confessions. It’s an abstract proposition closely connected with the doctrine that the suffering and death of Christ has made full atonement for every sin ever committed by a human being. On the basis of that atonement being paid in full, Christ rose from the dead in proof that God has accepted this as propitiation for all of those sins. Objectively speaking, Christ’s work has justified every sinner. This is an important doctrine, because it allows us to speak the Gospel of God’s forgiveness to every person we meet, at any time they ought to hear it. Because justification is objectively accomplished, there can be no doubt that this proclamation of forgiveness is true, whether we are speaking it to our neighbors, or we are hearing it applied to our own sins.

Over the last century or more, our appreciation for OJ has increased dramatically. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, our appreciation for OJ’s sister doctrine, which is equally true, may have diminished: Subjective Justification (SJ for short). This is also emphasized in the writings and confessions of the Lutheran heritage. It’s complementary to OJ. In fact, they are equally necessary for our salvation. SJ is possible because of OJ. Somewhere, I think Luther uses the illustration of a poor beggar who is discovered to be the heir of a prince. His newly-discovered identity gives him not only a new family and title, but eventually even lands, castles, etc. All of these things are objectively his, but it doesn’t benefit him at all unless he believes that this is true. If he rejects the royal messenger and goes on begging for the rest of his life, it doesn’t change who he is and what he possesses. However, none of those possessions would help him in the least. Likewise, OJ is received and becomes a benefit to the sinner only when God creates faith in his heart to believe the message of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. That’s SJ. Every time the Lutheran Confessions mention justification “by faith alone,” they are speaking of SJ, often in opposition to the notion that it involves human works or merit.

It’s part of human nature to make mistakes. Yes, even WELS (or ELS) pastors have this nature. Yes, even ELS (or WELS) officials and administrators have this nature. Shocking, to be sure, but true nonetheless. But since we have a Savior, these mistakes need not trouble us. Instead, we should be troubled when we fail to recognize, repent, and correct any of our mistakes. Thankfully, we are often quite vigilant in helping to correct the mistakes of our Christian brothers. It comes naturally, because we so easily see the specks in their eyes, while the planks in our own remain invisible to us. This process of correction requires and encourages humility.

It doesn’t appear to me that Pastor Rydecki made any serious doctrinal mistakes that should threaten the integrity of the body of Christ. I could be critical of some things, but they would probably fall under the category of nit-picking. He has, however, done a great service to the Lutheran Church by restoring a measure of focus upon SJ and its necessity. He has called attention to some places where individuals in the WELS have perhaps been a bit careless in their vocabulary, or even emphasized OJ to the point of denying the need for SJ. As an example of sloppy vocabulary, consider one of the litmus-test questions asked him by his ministerial supervisor, “Did God forgive the sins of the world when Jesus died on the cross?” My response might be, “How precise an answer do you want?” If a precise answer is required, I would then ask, “Do you mean ‘forgive’ in the sense that the world appropriated this forgiveness and was thereby saved? Because that’s how I usually use this word. Or do you mean that God accepted Christ’s atonement as the all-sufficient basis for providing forgiveness to every sinner, who must then receive that forgiveness individually through faith in the Gospel?” You may not see a difference, but there is an important one, flowing from the distinction between OJ and SJ. If you don’t get it, then read the question again, carefully this time.

Without careful attention to the way we communicate the truths of holy scripture, there could well be a raging controversy about the article of faith by which the Church stands or falls, the very doctrine restored to its position of importance by the Lutheran reformation. How ironic that would be.

How about the supervisor’s second litmus-test question, “Has God justified all sinners for the sake of Christ?” If precision is required, we must reply with a second question, “Do you mean OJ or SJ?” Pastor Rydecki seems to have had SJ primarily on his mind, due to the recent unfortunate trend that has been letting it slide. It seems likely that his supervisor had OJ primarily in mind. The distinction between the two was not fully articulated during the time of the Reformation, as it has been in more recent centuries, but it is nevertheless an important one, as evidenced by the brewing controversy.

See Pastor Rydecki’s explanation for more on this subject. I’m sure that more will be written about it. Please keep Pastor Rydecki, his family, his congregation, and the WELS in your prayers. Kyrie eleison.

Cast your net on the other side of the boat.

Lutheran congregations are probably not alone in our struggle recently to continue operating with the same degree of material success that we enjoyed in the last fifty years or so. More and more, Christians’ attention is diverted from the mission that Christ has given His Church, including our own growth in the faith. It seems that this happens by necessity, as more time is required for each family to earn enough income to remain solvent. Then, since we spend so much time at the grindstone, we require more down time in recreation apart from the normal demands of life. In other words, when we’re not working hard, we’re usually playing hard. It leaves less and less for the life of the Church.

The effects of this appear in the church attendance pattern of our members, and in their willingness or zeal to give personal time toward the activity of the Church. Bible classes and Sunday schools are emptier than they have been. Fewer and fewer members are more and more involved in sustaining the congregations, placing greater demands upon those individuals. In a way, it’s not the fault of our members, and I don’t mean this as a rant against members with poor attendance or involvement at church. But I do observe this as a trend over time. We could justifiably blame it on the economy, or on social trends. Most likely it’s an attack by the enemy, Satan. My concern here is not so much the cause, but what we Christians might do about it.

The first things we must always do are repent and turn to God in prayer. Never underestimate the importance and power is these things. Much of the suffering in the Bible endured by God’s people was a call to repentance, so that God might forgive, restore, and bless them. Why should we suppose that He works differently today? In fact, we’ve been studying Revelation 2 and 3 in our weekly Bible classes at Bethany in The Dalles, where Jesus clearly calls upon New Testament congregations to repent of various kinds of faithlessness and sin. We would do well to examine our habits, priorities, and assumptions to see whether they are aligned with the will that God has revealed in holy scripture. For that matter, we should also examine our doctrine, practice, and tradition.

Prayer is the privilege of priests, given to all who are justified by faith in Jesus Christ. It’s not vain babbling meant only to externalize our inner demons. It’s communication to our Creator and Savior, Who invites and commands us to approach Him through the blood of Jesus Christ. Prayer is a participation in God’s work in the world. We could make a crude comparison to a program of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans called Thrivent Choice, in which members who hold a certain minimum amount of insurance products with Thrivent can direct the company to give some of its vast financial resources to various congregations or other works of ministry. In a comparable, but far more powerful way, God allows His redeemed children to participate in His gracious workings in the world by praying to Him. He has promised to hear, and He even responds to our prayers in the way He deals with us. That doesn’t mean we can force Him to do something that He knows is not best, but there may be times when He withholds a certain blessing until we ask for it.

An old tradition among Lutherans is to pray and worship at home with a family altar. It takes planning and sacrifice to dedicate and set up space in our homes for such a place for prayer and meditation. We may find ourselves unwilling to make the compromises necessary. It takes more planning and sacrifice to form a daily habit of personal prayer. Even so, we can devote at least some daily time for personal or even family worship. Both the Hymnary and the Hymnal contain many resources to help with this, as does the Catechism and many other resources. How might the plight of our congregations improve if each family devoted itself to daily self-examination, prayer, and meditation? This kind of practical and personal application of faith to our lives is where the most important spiritual warfare happens. May God help us to fight this good fight.

The most apparent pressing need at many congregations is to meet their budget. The flip side of this apparent need is to bring more members into the church. It’s a mistake to focus on these things as the measure of success in our congregations, yet the earthly side of any outward organization requires them. So how can we address this apparent need? In the past, churches have turned to business practices for help. Evangelism programs and mission statements are an outgrowth of this approach. Such things are not necessarily wrong, but they can wrongly diminish our reliance upon God’s grace, and our faith in His Word.

In every age, the Church has existed contrary to reasonable human expectations, because it has existed as a miraculous work of God. Jesus demonstrated this to His disciples when He told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. How should that make any difference? The only difference is that this is what Jesus told them to do. So instead of spinning our wheels in activities that we think ought to be helping our struggling congregations, maybe we should try what Jesus says, even when it seems utterly fruitless and counterintuitive. I challenge you to read your Bible, and see if I’m wrong about this.

Our help and salvation are still found in our gracious God, through Jesus Christ.

Balancing Contemporaneity

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

— C.S. Lewis, from his introduction to Athanasius’ The Incarnation of the Word of God

Criteria For Determining the Usefulness of a Praise Song (or Hymn…)

Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller offers these criteria that sound generally useful in evaluating music that may be used in church services. I just listened to an Issues, Etc. segment from August where they applied these criteria to the three most popular praise songs on the CCLI charts at the time. These were not just Christian pop songs, but songs actually written for and used in church services. This concept is a bit foreign to us, because we use our hymnary for almost all the sung music in church, with the occasional exception of sacred choir music. But I think the criteria Pastor Wolfmueller offers may prove helpful for evaluating the text of any song.

He notes that most of these praise songs used in worship are characteristically not didactic in nature. That is, they don’t teach anything. Instead, he calls them mystical in nature, meaning that it’s meant to induce an internal (emotive or psychic) experience of the presence of God, rather than about any objective act of God for us. Here are the criteria:

  1. Is Jesus mentioned? By name or concept?
  2. Is the song clear? Does it use sentences or sentence fragments?
  3. Is it objective or subjective? About what God has done or about what is happening inside me?
  4. Are law and gospel present and rightly divided?
  5. Is there any false teaching? (Or any teaching at all?)

Opgjoer

The Madison Settlement, or Opgjoer (pronounced “up-your”), was a compromise reached in 1912 between the Norwegian Synod, the United Norwegian Lutheran Church, and the Hauge Synod. (1912 was the same year that Arizona became a state and the Titanic sank.) The doctrinal issue was election, or predestination. By then, this controversy had torn apart members of the Norwegian Synod and, to a lesser extent, its sister church bodies like the Wisconsin Synod and the Missouri Synod for many years. It had been one of the points of disagreement between the Norwegian Synod and the others involved in the Opgjoer.

The controversy had been so bitter within the Norwegian Synod that it had withdrawn from the Synodical Conference to lessen its ill effects. Yet during the intervening years, the Norwegian Synod had continued to recognize doctrinal fellowship with the Synodical Conference, and had been welcome participants in its conventions. But in 1912, under the leadership of its new President Stub, the Norwegian Synod was happy to reach a settlement with the other scandinavian-based synods on this doctrine, and submitted it to the Synodical Conference for review.

In the historical volume The Synodical Conference: Ecumenical Endeavor by Armin Schuetze, the response of the Synodical Conference to the Norwegian Synod is included in summary form. I think it shows a salutary discernment on the part of the Synodical Conference theologians. It also shows a certain pattern found in compromise documents, in which a doctrine is described as existing in multiple disparate forms. In Opgjoer, election is described according to two different points of view or senses, which are supposed to be equally valid and exist simultaneously. The problem described by the Synodical Conference was that only one of those points of view or senses was in harmony with the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions. The other one used expressions from the Bible and the Confessions, but was a doctrine arising from human reason or tradition.

This is from page 124 of the above named book:

“In order that the unity of faith existing among us may be preserved,” the Conference made three requests. The first was in reference to paragraphs 1 to 3 of the Madison Agreement. In these paragraphs the Union Committees of the Norwegian Synod and the United Church “accepted unanimously and without reservation” the two so-called “forms” of the doctrine of election. The First Form, set forth in Article XI of the Formula of Concord, held that election is “unto salvation,” or the “cause of faith.” The Second Form with reference to “Pontoppidan’s Truth unto Godliness,” a catechetical book widely used among the Scandinavians, spoke of election “in view of faith.” The Agreement stated, “Since it is well known that in presenting the doctrine of election two forms of doctrine have been used, both of which have won acceptance and recognition within the orthodox Lutheran Church; . . . We find that this [i.e., teaching one form or the other] should not be cause for schism within the Church.” The Synodical Conference asked the Synod “to eliminate from Theses 1-3 of the ‘Opgjoer’ the coordination of the so-called first and second form of doctrine, because only the first form represents the truth of the Scriptures and the Confessions.”

It would seem that this method of settling a controversy is flawed. I might add to the criticism of Opgjoer that the second sense or form of “election,” being a doctrine not really found in holy scripture, represents instead a certain human usage of the word. In this case, the human usage of the word “election” directly contradicts the divine usage of the word found in the Bible. In other cases of compromise, there may be merely human usages that do not contradict the divine usage, but are found to be compatible. While it is important (though sometimes difficult) to tell the difference, it is even more important that the Church confess only those articles of faith that are doctrines clearly taught in the Bible.

Christ is Risen

In celebration of the proof that God has delivered us from the guilt of our sins, and from this place of sorrow and pain, I invite you to take a look at a little experiment I’ve begun on Blogger. It’s called Cross Ventilation. I’m not necessarily the only author there.