Category Archives: Review

Timothy George On The Trinity: From A Theology For The Church

tftcI have been reading A Theology For The Church edited by Daniel Akin and came across something that I had to share. I always find it odd the way we talk (or neglect to talk)about the Trinity. It is often treated as the black sheep of the family of essential theological beliefs. We would rather not bring it up and hope nobody else does either. So you can imagine how refreshing it was for me to come across the passage below in Timothy George’s section on the nature of God..

“Though followed by many orthodox theologians, there is a subtle danger in the former pattern (de uno deo). The danger is that it can lead to a low-grade unitarianism that reduces the doctrine of the Trinity to an afterthought. If we begin by treating the essence and attributes of God in the abstract and then come along and say, “Oh yes, this God is also a triune reality,” the latter affirmation can easily become a secondary or even dispensable element in one’s theological system…

We should introduce one further distinction before turning to some key biblical texts. The economic Trinity refers to God’s works ad extra, that is, what God has done outside himself in creation and redemption while the immanent Trinity denotes God’s relations ad intra, that is, his eternal intratrinitarian communion as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The immanent Trinity is also called the “ontological” Trinity…

The doctrine of the Trinity is the necessary theological framework for understanding the biblical account of Jesus as the true story of God-and if what the Bible says about Jesus is anything other than that, we have no gospel.”

Here George discusses the tendency to discuss the one God as opposed to discussing the Trinity. On the surface this comes off like a simply error but the constant habit of doing this tends to cause one to think theologically in terms of God as a single modality instead of the Triune God that He is. For God to be a single solitary modality would mean the loss of Godlike qualities the biggest of which is his self-contained fullness, that fact that God requires nothing outside of himself for His own existence.

George also introduces the distinction between economic and immanent or ontological Trinity. The economic Trinity explains such things as how the Father creates, the Son saves, and the Holy Spirit sustains us. It’s what he means when he says that the doctrine of the Tinity is the necessary theological framework for understanding the Gospel. Foundational to everything is the ontological Trinity. The idea that from all eternity existed a personal God who loved, had volition, and created all things including us in His image.

I really appreciated the way George handles the doctrine Trinity in this section. As I read through A Theology For The Church I find many of the sections to be like this brief, to the point, and without the complexities common in other theology texts. I would recommend this volume for any level of Christian. All that the book requires is that you have an interest in the study of God.

From the publisher:

A Theology for the Church, an immense 992-page work edited by Daniel Akin, with contributions from leading Baptist thinkers Albert Mohler, Jr., Paige Patterson, Timothy George, and many others, addresses four major issues in regard to eight Christian doctrines.

What does the Bible say? Each Christian doctrine is rooted in the Bible’s own teaching in both the Old and New Testaments.

What has the Church believed? Christians have interpreted these doctrines in somewhat different ways through the centuries.

How do the doctrines fit together? Each Christian doctrine must cohere with the other doctrines.

How does each doctrine impact the church today? Each Christian doctrine must be meaningful for today’s church. It’s sure to become a widely-used resource in systematic theology study.

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A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell: Part V The Moral Argument For Deity

 

The moral argument for God’s existence. This is a popular one among contemporary Christian apologists such as CS Lewis in Mere Christianity. Although different variations of it can be seen as far back as Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) in the fourth of his Five Ways. Ironically the German philosopher Immanual Kant (1724 -1804) argued that if you come across a man who tells you he has five proofs for the existence of God, you can be sure he doesn’t have any, because if he had any it would only take one. So which argument did Kant chose? The moral argument for God.

Kant’s version of the moral argument becomes very influential in the history of theology and philosophy. He held that moral beings will “the highest good” if they can have confidence that within the causal structure of nature the highest good can be achieved by moral means. Thus belief in God is the guarantor that the highest good is achievable. And from this you might be able to detect the dilemma Russell will present us with. Because if one were to remove God from this equation you can see how the whole moral project implodes.

The reason I mention Kant is because Russell mentions him in his rejection of this argument. He writes,

“Kant, as I say, invented a new moral argument for the existence of God, and that in varying forms was extremely popular during the nineteenth century. It has all sorts of forms. One form is to say that there would be no right or wrong unless God existed.”

You might have heard Christian apologists who argue the way Russell is explaining. It seems compelling since many non-believers have not consider the nature of morality. As a result some will confess that they don’t know where morals come from. There are some in “new atheist” literature who aren’t amused by the question in the slightest. Some of them will say that morality is the utilitarian standard of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Others might give a pragmatic response but one thing they are sure of is God is not a necessary condition for morality. Granted I believe these points can be refuted successfully by the theist and in fact should be. However, when you think about it, are these individuals being consistent with their own perspective on reality and the world? They are after all doing what Paul describes and suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. Thus for them to insert the idea of God as evidence for morality is like putting the square peg in the round hole.

Moving on, Russell continues by arguing:

“The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, you are then in this situation: is that difference due to God’s fiat [command or decree] or is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God Himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that He made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.”

Once again Russell offers one of his arguments of dichotomy. The dichotomy is either right and wrong are irrelevant to God, or God must appeal to moral laws which are “anterior” or outside of God. I hope you see the dilemma he is making here. Leave me a comment if you would like more explanation. My response would be that if God was a finite being, such as you and me are finite beings, this argument would have some traction. God however is an infinite Being so that when He says what Right conduct is He is simply reflecting on His own Being. Therefore we say that God is good and is the standard of goodness.

There is no dilemma as Russell is suggesting. Rather Russell is working from the assumption that God is finite and operates at this finite level. Such an assumption gives Russell the impression that he can stipulate standards for himself and impose them upon God from his finite realm of experience. Once again this isn’t the Christian conception of God and therefore Russell hasn’t made his case for not being a Christian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Apologetics

A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell

Russell’s paper might be a little dated (presented in 1927) but its arguments are still being circulated today even among those in “New Atheism”. You can judge for yourself as you read along. Having recently read through Russell’s paper I found plenty of discussion topics to comment on. The first one being Russell’s explanation of what a Christian is.

WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN?

What is interesting about the answer he gives is that it tells us quite a bit about how the Church portrayed itself and the way in which the Church was understood by the culture around the end of the 19th beginning of the 20th century. He begins by saying, “It is used in these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life. In that sense I suppose there would be Christians in all sects and creeds”. In spite of the fact that I disagree with Russell on almost anything and everything, I will agree with him on this point, if Christianity is the cultivation of moral behavior, there would be many outside the church who would be regarded as Christian since there are many who attempt to live a good life. I would say from the Christian perspective there is an aspect of moral living which we call sanctification, but it isn’t as central to Christianity as justification typically holds that place.

Just a few years prior to Russell presenting this paper across the pond another intellectual J Gresham Machen, who is a Christian and was President of Westminster Theological Seminary before his death. Machen wrote a very important book that is still being sold and read today, Christianity And Liberalism. Here Machen writes, “Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time (that is true of this present time as well); there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.”[1] Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life.” So while Russell struggles to find a definition of Christianity based on what he has experienced, Machen is calling for for precision in our teaching for the reason that a Christianity without it results in a faith that “will never stand amid the shocks of life.”

I think we can probably spend a great deal of time unpacking just this quote of Machen’s alone. However the review is on Russell so I will attempt to stay focused. Machen was speaking specifically of theological liberalism or modernism of his day. Early in modernity some decided to practice the “if you can’t beat em, join em” school of ecumenism (Church unity). The end result was a re-configuring of Biblical teaching that was for the most part gutted of true Biblical content. One of the first teachings to go was the atonement. Once that was out the cross of Christ was no longer the means by which our sin was atoned for. Rather, modernists looked at the crucifixion as an act of love one that we ought to emulate. When all was said and done Christianity amounted to what Russell referred to as ” a person who attempts to live a good life”.

It isn’t as if Russell was ignorant about this matter. Moreover, this isn’t a case of an atheist with an axe to grind. Later he wrote in this discussion, “I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full‐blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions”. Notice the distinction between what Russell observed in his day compared to how he describes Christians in the pre-modern era. Moreover, here we are in the 21st century and there isn’t too much that is different from Machen and Russell’s era.

Returning to Russell, he has this to say about defining Christianity, “Nowadays it is not quite that. We have to be a little more vague in our meaning of Christianity. I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anyone calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature ‐‐namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ.” He begins by saying these days are not like the past where people were self conscious of their Christian beliefs. He says that now there is more ambiguity as to what one believes about Christianity. So he offers up 3 things that one must believe which are belief in God, immortality, and some kind of belief about Christ. Interesting choice of words; he is attempting to encompass all that go by the name Christian which is quite ambiguous. Obviously there is more to it than just that. Such a description still falls into the dilemma stated earlier of encompassing those who are not Christian. However, that is the definition that Russell goes by.

At this point I feel that I have bitten off a little more than I can chew for one post so I will have to continue with Russell in a second installment.

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Apologetics

A Review of Sutanto’s Covenental Apologetics And Common Sense Realism

I came across Sutanto’s paper in the Journal of Evangelical Theology (JETS 57/4 (2014) and have been thinking it through. Part of the reason this caught my interest is because I live in Southern California and I have noticed how predominant the Argument from Consciousness is in these parts seeing how I believe it lacked the Theological justification for a genuine apologetic. But I struggled to understand why it was that these well intending apologists were so adamant about using the Argument From Consciousness and did use it with every opportunity seemingly. I believe Sutanto does an outstanding job explaining the situation in this paper and if you get the time I would highly recommend reading his paper.

However, here I provide a very simplified and watered down explanation of Sutanto’s argument. Some readers may not be too familiar with the technical language but many will be familiar with the concept the terminology seeks to communicate. Thus common sense realism (CS) is expressed by Sutanto as “referring to those propositions or intuitions that are perspicuously true, upon, or even prior to immediate reflection. When any subject S entertain these propositions, it is supposed, S will come to see the obviousness of the veracity of the proposition, and thus be lured, or even compelled, to adopt a belief in them. (777)” For example the fact that I have hands is a belief I hold from common sense and it would be difficult for anyone to refute. This is what Sutanto is addressing in the CS thesis. The relationship of CS to the Argument From Consciousness (AFC) is that the common sense reality of my conscious awareness points to belief in God. CS provides the epistemic justification for the fact of consciousness. Allow me to explain.

Sutanto begins by looking at the AFC as it is articulated by J.P. Moreland in The Rationality of Theism. It is here that Moreland wants to argue that the existence of non-physical mental states (consciousness) is a defeater of any naturalistic argument that can be offered since a precommitment to naturalism is inconsistent with a notion of non-physicality (i.e. consciousness or mental states). Sutanto frames Morland’s argument this way:

  1. Genuinely non-physical mental states exist.
  2. There is an explanation for mental states.
  3. Personal explanation is different from naturalistic scientific explanation.
  4. The explanation for mental states is either personal or natural scientific explanation.
  5. The explanation is not a naturalistic scientific one.
  6. Therefore, the explanation is a personal one.
  7. If the explanation is personal then it is theistic.
  8. Therefore, the explanation is theistic.

Sutanto seems to be in agreement with Moreland’s AFC. Where Sutanto wishes to “recalibrate” is not the AFC itself but rather Sutanto wants to recalibrate AFC’s foundation.

The argument that Sutanto is going make centers on the matter of the principium cognoscendi (principle of knowing).  Morland begins premise one by denying third person scientific investigation. For Morland premise one is based on first person phenomenology  hence it is at this point that he invokes the CS thesis as his principium. Here Sutanto offers some objections to the understanding of CS as principium.

Sutanto pulls from different sources in the formulation of these objections. The first objection he calls the “Marsden Olifent objection” named after two scholars George Marsden and Scott Oliphint who address this issue of CS in other works. Without going to far into what was said I think I can summarize their position as a historical refutation of CS demonstrating that there is no ground or reference for what knowledge is in fact common. Without a base or start point the pursuit of knowledge that is common becomes vacuous at best. The next objection he refers to as the “Bishop and Trout objection” which comes from Michael Bishop and J.D. Trout’s book Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment. The thrust of the argument is an appeal to a naturalistic epistemology. Because no genuine  agreement among epistemologists or people in general can be found in standard analytic epistemology the authors propose a third person naturalistic approach which is precisely what Morland is refuting.

The next set of objections that Sutanto offers is divine revelation and the noetic effects of sin. Here with the text of Scripture he makes the case that there are two implications of the noetic effects of sin (or the way sin impacts our thinking). The first is that which should be common- namely the knowledge of God- which is treated by the natural man as uncommon. Therefore any appeal to what is thought to be CS can potentially be an appeal to what is uncommon. Thus in this sense the natural man will take for granted that his epistemic equipment is functioning properly when in reality it is working from the noetic effects of sin which suppresses true knowledge.

If the noetic effects of sin are so comprehensive what then can be our  principium cognoscendi. This is where Sutanto turns to the Triune God. He writes “With these objections we have shown that an appeal to common sense to ground an argument is insufficient at best or simply wrongheaded at worst, especially when we live in the post-lapsarian order” (786).  Sutanto goes on to say, “In recalibrating the argument from consciousness, and placing it on divine revelation rather than on natural theology, we preserve its concluding premises from devolving into a proof for some finite god. Instead , we begin from the ontological Trinity, and we lay an argument that concludes, also, with the Trinity” (791).

 

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