Monday, 26 December 2011

Dawkins and 'The Magic of Reality'

One of my Christmas presents (requested by me) was Richard Dawkins' book for children, 'The Magic of Reality'.

He gives a definition of 'reality'. It is 'everything that exists'. How do we know things exist? 'We are only going to call something "real" if we can detect it with one of our five senses'. What about radio waves, for example, that we can't see or hear? Well, we know they exist because of what they produce - the signals that we can see or hear on TV or radio. Dinosaurs don't exist now, but we know they did because of fossils. So evidence has a lot to do with our knowledge. That opens up a big area which predictably enough the author ignores.

He then moves on to define 'magic' under the heading 'Science and the supernatural: explanation and its enemy'. He gives three definitions of 'magic': first, 'supernatural' magic which is the kind we find in myths and fairy tales, the magic of witches and fairy godmothers. Secondly, there is 'stage ' magic, that of Derren Brown and Penn and Teller. Third, there is magic as Prof. Dawkins uses it in this book, 'poetic magic': on a page with a beautiful sunset view, we are reminded (or told) that we are moved to tears by a beautiful piece of music, we are breathless with joy in the presence of a night sky; 'magic' in this sense means exhilarating, deeply moving, good-to-be-alive. This is 'magic' for Dawkins' purposes.

I have often thought that Richard Dawkins would have been at home at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A blend of rationalism and, for the 'goose-bumps' things in life which reason cannot explain, there is romanticism. What if one happens to be looking at the bits of reality which consist of the severed limbs of a Baghdad bomb victim or a million children dying of starvation or even nature red in tooth and claw - is that 'magic'? Magic for our author is the life of the emotions in response to the wonders of nature - not an unreal thing at all and delightful as we know, but for him it becomes a substitute for the supernatural, a tame, easily explained, undemanding and unthreatening substitute.

'Now', he proceeds,' I want to return to the idea of the supernatural and explain why it can never offer us a true explanation of the things we see in the world and universe around us. Indeed, to claim a supernatural explanation of something is not to explain it at all end even worse, to rule out any possibility of its ever being explained. Why do I say that? Because anything 'supernatural' must by definition be beyond reach of a natural explanation. It must be beyond the reach of science and the well-established tried and tested scientific method that has been responsible for the huge advances in knowledge we have enjoyed over the last 400 years or so. To say that something happened 'supernaturally' is not just to say 'We don't understand it' but to say 'We will never understand it, so don't even try'. Science, he goes on to say, uses its inability to explain everything and uses it as spur to go on to find answers for unexplained things - it is not lazy as are those who use a 'supernatural' explanation. Then there is an exposition of how evolution gives the answer to how life as we know it came about.

You can see what he is targeting. But

1. Notice that he has re-introduced the word supernatural here - after using the same word to define the 'witches and fairy godmothers' kind of magic he earlier dismissed. This is sadly typical of Dawkins - he is thoroughly dishonest in the way he argues. He subtly builds up a case by allusion and inference, the aim here being to put religion in the same camp as 'fairy tales'.

2. What of the great scientists who have been Christians, or at least convinced theists, and who see a Creator God behind all things, and find the task of 'thinking God's thoughts after him' as more than enough spur to finding answers to life's puzzles? Who are these people who use 'the supernatural' as an excuse for being lazy? Well of course, we know who they are in Dawkins' mind - they are the knaves and fools who do not believe in atheistic evolution.

3. Would the great advances of the last 400 years have been possible without a Christian world-view behind science? Modern-modern science as Schaeffer calls it is actually cutting off the branch on which it sits. Science has become what Schaeffer called 'sociological science', interested more in propaganda than in truth.

4. Dawkins operates with a 'God of the gaps' presupposition which assumes the only purpose of the 'supernatural' is to explain what cannot yet be explained by science. The supernatural as Christians properly use it is the presupposition behind everything that exists, whether explained or not; it tells us the purpose to life which science can never do (though I feel sure Prof Dawkins is going to tell me that Darwin gives us that as well). To say that something has a supernatural explanation is not to put it beyond the reach of science because all of nature has a supernatural explanation. But it is to say that there may be some things that science in itself cannot explain - such as miracles, the incarnation, the resurrection, the origin, nature, purpose and destiny of the human soul.

5. I look forward to seeing if Dawkins will explain why he thinks man has the capacity to be made 'breathless with joy' (he avoids using the word 'awe') at the wonder of what we see.

6. How will he explain why we should believe him when we say the supernatural will not help us to explain anything and will even be a barrier to explanation? How does he know that his explanations will not soon be re-explained? How, in short, can he be sure he knows what he thinks he knows?

I shall read on but I feel this book is likely to be less interested in teaching truth than in propaganda. Surprise, that...

Thinking theologically (4)

Contemporary Battles

As we must not lose sight of the unity of truth, neither must we lose sight of the unity of error. There is a unity of truth, a unity of falsehood and a unity of the human person in which the battle is fought out. None of these unities must be allowed to be fragmented even though we need to distinguish between different elements in all three.

Now we look at falsehood. It comes from the Devil, the father of lies, and is therefore primarily a spiritual battle. We wrestle not against flesh and blood (Eph 6:12). Its great purpose is to steal the glory of God and destroy his work. It has taken multiple forms over the millennia and affects us in body and soul. It affects all creation. Its presence in the flesh and in the world means that the Christian life is a daily battle.

It takes particular forms in different generations and we need to take a brief look at those forms in which opposition to the truth is apparent today. Some have been around a long time but are still strong or even particularly strong today; other enemies are more recent (and yet nothing is new!).

1. Rationalism

Rationalism enthrones reason over revelation. The Christian asserts the importance of reason, indeed even its supremacy among gifts God has given us, but always subordinate to revelation. It is how we receive and understand revelation; it is not a source of truth in itself. Rationality is part of being human; rationalism idolises reason.

2. Postmodernism

Postmodernism is (rationalistic) modernism run to seed. It recognises that reason cannot tell us what truth and meaning are. Instead of striving for them (as does modernism, which is still with us), it makes a virtue out of necessity and says ‘there is no absolute truth, there are no metanarratives out there’. It glories in irrationality. The Christian will agree with much that postmodernism tells us about the inability of reason to do what rationalists have long proclaimed, but it will not at all approve the solution that postmodernism proposes.

In the field of literary criticism, where postmodernism began in its self-conscious form, we are left with the notion that the text means what the reader wants it to mean. Everything is a matter of interpretation; thinking merges into imagination as objective controls are absent.

3. Relativism / pluralism

Relativism is the denial that there are absolute truths or values (that is, that certain things are true for all people everywhere always); or that if there are such truths or values they are beyond our grasp, either at present or permanently. Pluralism (in this context) is the idea that all religions are of equal validity, which is the corollary of relativism.

It is worth pausing here to ask: what impact do these three positions (rationalism, postmodernism and relativism/pluralism) have on ‘thinking’?

In view of what we have said above: rationalism rejects revelation as ultimately authoritative, so reason has nothing to respond to; it has to find out truth itself. Such a task is beyond it and leads to despair – despair which has been evaded but not answered in the last century by existentialism (finding meaning, for example, in the assertion of the will) and more lately by postmodernism.

Postmodernism spells the death of thought because it exalts unreason.

Relativism meanwhile more subtly destroys true thought because every potential system of truth is reckoned to contain a virus that says ‘this is not true except for me and those who happen to agree with it’. Truth demands to be universalised and the impulse of logic is destroyed when it is seeking truth but has to regard it as mere opinion. Allen Bloom in 'The Closing of the American Mind' argues that the ‘supervalue’ of ‘openness’ or cultural egalitarianism is actually closedness. It commits us to the acceptance of the status quo and prevents reason pursuing knowledge as it should.

John Owen said: ‘Without “absolutes” revealed from without by God himself, we are left rudderless in a sea of conflicting ideas about manners, justice, right and wrong, issued from a multitude of self-opinionated thinkers. We could never know who God is, how he may be worshipped, or wherein true happiness lies’ (Biblical Theology, p xl).

4. Pragmatism

The ‘what works rules’ principle that relies on results to validate practise. Not wrong in every situation, it nonetheless substitutes calculation for true thought. As in other cases, the loss of something absolute and objective changes true thinking into something else – creating truth, meaning or one’s own reality, and here – calculation.

5. Mysticism

The Christian faith certainly rejoices in mystery, for God takes the believer beyond the limits of reason, and faith grasps what reason cannot. But Christianity is not anti-rational or irrational. The gospel is called a mystery, says Owen, only because the reality of the gospel as revealed to men exceeds human reason and the Holy Spirit instructs the believer in Scriptural mysteries which are beyond the comprehension of the natural mind (Bib. Theol, p 11). To the believer is made known the ‘mystery of his will’ (Eph 1:9) by a ‘spirit of wisdom and revelation’ (1:17).

The mysticism often regarded today, however, as implicit in religion is anti-intellectual. There is the ‘inner voice’ kind of mysticism seeking and relying on new ‘revelations’ instead of humbly receiving what God has said and meditating on it; but also a mysticism of the emotions, with worship for example not so much accompanied by music as driven by it. It is the pursuit of experience apart from revelation, by-passing the mind.

6. Fragmentation

I referred earlier to the fragmentation of knowledge, against the Christian view of the ultimate unity of all truth. Scholars and academics in all manner of disciplines are specialising in smaller and smaller areas of their subject, with the result that any connecting principles between them are obscured.

7. Amusement culture

Neil Postman dissects the triviality of TV culture in 'Amusing Ourselves to Death'. He observes, ‘I believe I am right in saying that Christianity is a serious and demanding religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether’ (p 124).

These ‘enemies’ are serious not so much because they are substantive attacks on Christian faith and doctrine (though some of course are), but because they undermine the process of thinking itself.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Prime Minister and the Bible

The speech given by David Cameron last week to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the KJV is one of the most remarkable I have ever seen from a politician.

Richard Dawkins has responded by saying the Bible is a dangerous moral compass, and representatives of the Secular Society and Humanist society have waded in, accusing the PM of using religion as a form of social control (which is of course a perfectly valid criticism of too many political interventions in the spiritual and moral sphere). Nonetheless, there is much of great interest in the speech and taken on its own terms it is heartening.

He begins by saying he comes not as a 'great Christian' on a mission to convert the world but is proud to celebrate the achievements of the KJV. It is as relevant today as as at any time in its 400 year history. He is a 'committed but vaguely practising Church of England Christian'. The Bible with 3 sold or given away every second will continue to have a profound impact on our future.

There are three particular areas of importance: it has shaped our language and culture, our politics, and our values.

In the first area he gives the usual list of literary debts owed to the Bible from Shakespeare to Abe Lincoln, and the music of Bach and Handel and the art of Giotto (the KJV?). One of his favourite lines he says is 'looking through a glass darkly' and compares unfavourably the NIV and GNB translations.

As to politics, he says that 'the knowledge that God created man in his own image was, if you like, a game changer for the cause of human dignity and equality'. He then ties this in with the emancipation of women and laments that some churches still haven't got the point! Still, the point about the image of God is well taken - not one that evolutionists could easily swallow.

As to values, he is clear that British values are Christian values and we should not be ashamed to say so. These include tolerance of other faiths, but we should not be afraid to say things are right or wrong. 'If we don't stand for something, we can't stand against anything'.

He has has a bit of a go at the C of E and tells it to do its job. Perhaps we need to be reminded that it was non-conformity that did probably more to instil Christian values into this country than the C of E.

Nonetheless, some encouraging points from the PM. How will he mesh that in with 'gay' marriages? But then, that will come down to a selective reading of the treasured text.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Thinking Theologically (3)

Christians as Thinkers

1. A renewed mind

The work of the Spirit is essential in enabling us to see spiritual things and thereby be converted (1 Cor. 2:14-16) It is subsequently by the renewing of the mind that we are transformed, the process of sanctification. The ultimate goal of the mind is conformity to Christ, a moral transformation not merely an intellectual function. After all, it is his mind that we have (1 Cor 2:16) and which we are commanded to exercise (Phil 2:5).
This renewal is to be reflected in our thinking about all things – work, sport, gardening, politics, – as well as our more specifically spiritual thinking about God, the Bible or our spiritual lives.
This does not mean that unrenewed minds can never think any true thoughts. Unbelievers think true thoughts all the time and have all manner of insights into all things – even theology. A truth in science for example is true whoever discovers it. But their problem is that they cannot be sure why their thoughts are true; nor can they relate their true thoughts to the ultimate purpose of all things.

2. A dependent mind

Faith is the ground of knowledge. We believe and therefore understand. This was how Adam and Eve were to continue to live. The unbelieving mind has asserted its independence of God. The logical intellectual conclusion of this is rationalism which asserts the supremacy of reason over revelation. Christianity asserts the value of reason, indeed its necessity, but subject to the authority of revelation. We are dependent on God for our knowledge of truth and our ability to think truly. True thinking begins with faith.
This will mean that we pray for our thinking to be guided and faithful to truth.

3. A relational mind

Building on the first two points, it is clear that Christian thinking will be done in relation to God. All human knowledge comes back to the question of commitment to God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This will express itself in worship. Listen to John Owen: ‘Let us proclaim it boldly – the man who is not aflame with divine love is an outsider to all theology’. Did a charismatic or ‘emergent’ Christian ever express himself on the emotional life more strongly?

4. An evangelical mind

‘The perspective which the Christian has about everything is founded upon the reality of Jesus Christ in the gospel. The Christian, of all men, sees life not in abstract terms, but in light of the concrete events of Jesus Christ’ (Thomas N. Smith, R&R magazine, 3:3). We do not ‘leave our minds outside the church door’, but we do lay them at Christ’s feet and renounce attempts to construct truth on the assumption of the supremacy of reason.

This is the light in which to see much of the use of the word logizomai, occurring some forty times in the New Testament (thirty four times in Paul). It is a relating of life to faith, a reckoning and deduction; for example, God does not reckon a believer’s sins against him (2 Cor 5:14); we are to think about good things (Phil. 4:8); and evaluate ourselves and others rightly (Phil. 3:13; 2 Cor.10:2; 12:6). Christian thinking is an evaluation of life in the light of the cross. Worldly wisdom rejects the cross which is the wisdom of God, and Christ who is the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:18-31).

5. A mind captive to the Word of God

Closely allied to the above, the Christian mind will be thoroughly submitted to Scripture. The first duty of man is to receive and respond to God’s Word. Every thought is to be taken captive to obey Christ (2 Cor. 10:6). The believer will be one who loves and meditates on God’s Word (Pss. 119:97; 1:2). He will submit to Scripture (a) in its necessity as the sole authoritative source of saving knowledge of God; (b) in its authority as the very Word of God; and (c) in its sufficiency in that he will not look anywhere else for God’s Word.

The Christian mind will also be passionate about Truth. ‘All intellectuals are in love with ideas; not all intellectuals are in love with the truth’(James Sire, Habits of the Mind, 77). The pursuit of truth, the defence of truth and the proclamation of truth will be the great concerns of the Christian. The Christian should be ready in principle to say ‘If it were proven to me that the Bible were not true, I would ditch it’. In practice this will not happen to the regenerate person because the Spirit will increasingly witness to the Bible’s truth. The Christian will increasingly be committed and submissive to Scripture as the source of the truth that controls his life.

6. A mind integrated with the whole person and leading to obedience

The mind in biblical thought includes the affections and will. Thinking goes on in the heart. This is particularly true in the Old Testament. ‘For the Israelites, thinking or planning takes place in the heart, where their psychology located the matrix of feelings, thinking and willing’(NIDOTTE, 2:306). In the New Covenant the law is put in the mind and written on the heart (Jer. 31:33). In Phil.2:5 the ‘mind’ of Christ is more of a disposition than an intellectual organ and we could of course use the word ‘mind’ as broadly as that today. Biblically it is clear that thinking is not merely an intellectual activity.

In particular there must be integration not only within the inner man but between the inner and the outer. True thinking will issue in obedience. Truly to hear God’s Word is to do it. Jesus’ parable of the builders (Matt 7:23-27) reveals the disaster which ensues when listening and doing are divorced; see also James 1:22-25. ‘Now whosoever supposes that he can know truth while he is still living iniquitously, is in error’(Augustine, quoted in Sire, 97)

It was the possibility of doing other than we ought, that led to sin in the Garden. Yet that possibility is at the heart of what it is to be a moral creature. The significance of this possibility is suggested by the single prohibition in the Garden. One transgression was enough. The division between ‘want’ and ‘ought’, between God's will and mine, was introduced and man has struggled with it ever since. Paul struggles with it classically in Romans 7:14-24 –the good I would I do not etc. The only relief from the hiatus between what we are and what we know is found in the righteousness of Christ (Romans 7:25).

Meanwhile repeatedly we are taught that the test of true faith and true love for Christ is obedience (John 8:31-2; 13:17; 14:15; James 1:25). The Christian as thinker will never conclude that thinking alone is enough. He will not value the detached academic image. The ‘mind’ that is ‘yours in Christ Jesus’ is a servant mindset and servants do things; the Old Testament values wisdom and wisdom is known by her children, that is, her fruit. It is far more than, and not at all interested in, mere abstract cleverness. Even from a secular background, L. Susan Stebbing says ‘…thinking is primarily for the purpose of action. No-one can avoid the responsibility of acting in accordance with his mode of thinking’ The same author says that ‘to think effectively is to think to some purpose’('Thinking to some Purpose' 15). The great ‘purpose’ is the glory of God and our conformity to his Son (that is, obedience, which was the pulse of Christ’s own life) as the means to that end. All our thinking must be directed to these very practical goals.

7. A confrontational mind

Finally, in a fallen world the Christian mind, the mind that is according to the Spirit and not the flesh, will inevitably be in confrontational mode on a daily basis. We are in a battle and this will be fought with the mind. The renewed mind will be the engine room of transformation and daily sanctification (Romans 12:1,2) which means negatively not being conformed to the world; Paul in 2 Cor 10:1-4 describes his ministry as tearing down strongholds and taking every thought captive, destroying ‘arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God’. This is a daily battle as the new man is daily renewed and the old man, already crucified, is daily put off. The outcome is guaranteed, but the battle still has to be fought. The battle is fought of course not just to destroy strongholds but to establish Christ’s kingdom. It is not just an intellectual battle but a battle of the whole person, and above all a spiritual battle, using weapons which are not of the flesh – the weapons of Word and Spirit.

It is important too that this battle is fought at the point at which the devil is attacking today, not yesterday, and at this point we move from looking at the Christian mind to some particular ‘enemies’ and strongholds which we encounter today.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Hints of a God-particle glimpsed; much bigger hints of God ignored.

'Scientists are set to confirm they have caught a glimpse of the elusive 'God particle' - the so far theoretical concept that helps to explain some of the mysteries of the Universe.'

I find this fascinating.

Only slight emendations are needed to suggest that scientists have found exciting hints of the existence of God, the so far theoretical concept that helps to explain (all of) the mysteries of the Universe.

Moreover, the glimpse of this concept, as opposed to the Higgs boson particle, will take us back to long before, as opposed to just after, the 'Big Bang' or however one characterises the moment when all things began.

Why is so much evidence for God ignored and so little evidence of a conjectural particle greeted with so much enthusiasm?

I am all for scientific advance, and if something big has been discovered that will help us to think God's thought after him, then that is great. But how tiny our minds appear when we insist on thinking this through in a God-less framework.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Thinking Theologically (2)

In TT(1) I began with man made in the image of God and wrote, drawing on James Sire (who was drawing on John Henry Newman): 'three truths provide most of what is needed to undergird the possibility of human knowledge (and therefore, human thought): first, the primacy of God’s existence; second the nature of this God as intelligent, living, personal and almighty; thirdly, that he is the intentional creator of a rational, orderly universe that is not himself (that is, creation is not just an extension of God as pantheism teaches). Only if there is an objective, orderly universe to which our reason correlates, can there be any real basis for human thinking'.

What is the relation between man's being and God's? First, we are dependent on God. In him we live and move and have our being. Second, there is analogy. unlike any other creature our being is like God's. Third, also uniquely among creatures, there is capacity for response - we know God and should adore him and obey him. The medium of such response is God's Word. The first task of the mind is to receive the Word of God, believe it and obey it. The mind should therefore be in the service of a nature that is responsive to God - as God made it.

In Eden Adam received God's Word and for a time obeyed it. His mind was not only dependent on God's and analogous to it but perfectly responsive to God. He heard God's Word and obeyed. He was also called to be creative. He named the animals 'And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name' (Gen 2:19). So by analogy Adam was creative as God was creative. His mind was able to come to accurate assessments and make decisions that pleased God. It is one of the great 'what ifs' of history, to imagine what man's mind might have achieved without the Fall. Even fallen man, even the line of Cain, accomplished wonderful things (Gen 4:17-22). How much more, had there been no sin. Significantly, the first created thing in the line of Seth was the ark. The line of Cain was constructive but on its own initiative; the line of Seth listened to God's Word and provided for salvation. We take a fuller look at:

The mind in revolt

Sin entered human experience (Genesis 3) because Adam and Eve listened to the snake, through whom Satan spoke, rather than God. They trusted Satan and the evidence of their own senses (Genesis 3:6) and distrusted and disobeyed God. True thinking is dependent on faith in God’s Word. Thinking which is captive to the senses is the characteristic of the sinner. Paul describes the world in sin and the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin in Romans 1:18-28. Suppressing the truth they knew about God, human beings, although knowing God, did not honour him or give thanks to him but became futile in their thinking (v 21). Claiming to be wise (how contemporary that is) they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles (v 23). God therefore ‘gave them up’ as an act of just punishment to their lusts and impurity, their dishonourable passions and debased mind (vv 24,26,28).

This is man today. What is the effect of sin on the mind?

First, there is no understanding at all of spiritual truth; the heart is darkened (Roman 1:21; Ephesians 4:18). He does not know God except as barely discerned Creator whom he rejects (Romans 1:18-20). He has a residual knowledge of God but it is a knowledge that only condemns him. He has no understanding of spiritual things for which the heart must be enlightened and opened up by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14).

Secondly, there is defective understanding of all things. The Puritan Richard Baxter put it like this:2 ‘nothing can be rightly known if God be not known; nor is any study well managed, or to any great purpose, if God is not studied. We know little of the creature [that is, anything in creation], till we know it as it stands related to the Creator: single letters, and syllables uncomposed, are no better than nonsense…all creatures, as such, are broken syllables; they signify nothing as separated from God’.

In other words, separated from God we have imperfect knowledge of the parts but no understanding of the whole. We are like non-mechanics confronted with the jumbled components of a car engine: we may understand bits and pieces of what the parts do but have no way of putting them together.

Baxter continues: ‘Were they [creatures] separated actually they would cease to be, and the separation would be an annihilation; and when we separate them in our fancies, we make nothing of them unto ourselves.’

The point he is perceptively making is that in reality, creatures ‘cease to be’ if separated totally from God; when, in our fallen minds, we separate them from God in our perception and understanding, they ‘cease to be’ to us what they really are in that we fail to make any sense of them.

He goes on:

[W] hen man was made perfect, and placed in a perfect world…the whole creation was then man’s book, in which he was to read the nature and will of his Creator. Every creature had the name of God so legibly graven on it that man might run and read it…it was, therefore, his work to study the whole volume of nature, but first and foremost himself. And if any had held this course, he would have continued and increased in the knowledge of God and himself; but when he would know and love the creature and himself in a way of separation from God, he lost the knowledge both of the creature and the Creator…

The point that Baxter makes is profound. Separated from God, our knowledge of creation will never make true sense. We will always be ‘fools’ pretending we are wise. Brilliant though many men and women will be and capable of huge and real achievements in science, arts, technology and every branch of learning, they will never really understand the true use or purpose of anything because they will not honour God and will not know that the purpose of their greatest accomplishments is to glorify him, not themselves. In short, they will not be thinking straight; their thoughts will be futile.

Baxter points us to another important conclusion. I shall suggest later that one of the problems today is the fragmentation of knowledge. This, however, should not surprise the Christian even if the extent to which we see it today is accentuated. Apart from God, knowledge and understanding will be fragmented. It is a feature of man as sinner, not just of the twenty first century.

James Sire quotes John Henry Newman to good effect in this context:

'All knowledge forms one whole, because its subject-matter is one, for the universe in its length and breadth is so intimately knit together … then again, as to its Creator (though He of course in His own Being is infinitely separate from it, and Theology has its departments towards which human knowledge has no relations) yet He has so implicated Himself with it, and taken it into His very bosom, by His presence in it, His providence over it, His impressions upon it, and His influences through it, that we cannot truly or fully contemplate it without contemplating Him'.

In simpler language, all truth is a unity because it is from one God. Moreover, even though God is separate from the universe, his relationship to all he has made means we cannot understand creation without at the same time considering God. Although no longer worshipping and obeying God, creation is still dependent on him and its life can only be understood in relation to him. Supremely is this true of Man whose very being is analogous to God's.

In turn, this means that because of the Fall, we are not thinking properly nor can we, until we know God. It is the work of Christ to bring us back to God and as part of the experience of redemption, to ‘see and admire, to reverence and adore, to love and delight in God, as exhibited in his works – this is the only true philosophy’. The Christian is to be restored to something of a true ability to think, and to the true purpose of thinking. What is that? In John Owen’s words, the mind’s place is first ‘recognising, reacting to and conforming to revealed truth…theology is nothing but the pure Word of God and our part is the apprehension of it with our rational faculties as they are illuminated by God’.

So then we need to look briefly at some of the relevant attributes of the Christian mind.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Westminster Conference 2011

I wrote a piece last December called 'Westminster Conference - what's the point?' I was positive but after this year's meetings I want to gush. It was excellent and people who missed it missed something special; what a shame there were fewer than a hundred people there.

The theme was religious liberty. Bob Letham gave us a scholarly introduction to chapter 20 of the Westminster Confession but did not go into depth on the issue of the civil magistrate defending Christian faith, worship or conversation. Knox Hyndman gave a stimulating survey of the Covenanters of the 17th C., leaving me feel that while they won my admiration for the way they chose to suffer than to sin (as they saw it) when persecuted, I am not sure I would like to have been a Baptist under any regime they formed. Obadiah Holmes was a Baptist who suffered for his principles in New England and Stephen Rees gave a powerful and challenging presentation of his life. How ironic that the men who went to New England for religious liberty ended up persecuting others; and those who left these shores to find freedom of conscience, would have probably been more free, at least till the Restoration, had they stayed here. And if the 20,000 who left England in the 1630s alone had stayed - how different would the history of England and America have been?

On Wednesday Lewis Allen gave an excellent paper on why the Puritans 'failed'. Perhaps the broad conclusion was that they failed to take the people with them; imposing godliness by statute can only accomplish so much. By the late 1650s, too many were disillusioned, and ready for change. In the eighteenth century there was perhaps a reaction to doctrinal precision and Robert Strivens charted us skilfully through the departure from orthodoxy on the Trinity and the person of Christ. Many at that time were unhappy to have to sign up to Confessions, including men who were orthodox such as Philip Doddridge - for many reasons he believed it was wrong to tie peoples' consciences to forms of human words. He maintained orthodoxy but others departed from it; while trying to retain the doctrine of the Trinity they varied in degrees of Socinianism and arianism in their view of Christ.

The last paper was a moving and inspiring account of the life and missionary labours of John Eliot, 'Apostle to the Indians'. It was a great note on which to leave and we are thankful to Hugh Collier for it.

The venue was excellent - the Salvation Army 'Regent Hall' in Oxford Street. I hope the Conference will be able to find a new home there. I had looked forward to a soup kitchen, but the cafe was fine.

The Westminster Conference is counter cultural. One has to listen for an hour at a time. Handouts are at a premium. One has to concentrate (did you make it to the end of that word without drifting or reaching for the zapper?). After each paper one is invited to discuss - this was better this year, but a discussion of more than two consecutive contributions on the same issue is rare.

A conference on 'leadership' or 'church planting' would no doubt draw many more. After all, such things are immediately relevant and practical. That is how short sighted we have become. We lose touch with our history and historical theology at our peril. This year's papers were of more immediate relevance than usual perhaps because most Christians are aware of the pressure on our liberties from contemporary governments and some of these issues were touched on in questions. But even where this is not the case, we must not be arrogant in our slavery to the present and the immediate.

The next Westminster Conference is 4-5 December 2012; mark it in your diary now.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Thinking Theologically (1)


This is written out of a particular interest in and concern for the task of ministers and ministerial students in defending and preaching the faith of Scripture. How better may we think theologically, that the legacy we have inherited may not only be passed on but even improved upon?

This is also written in the conviction that due to a variety of pressures in our day, theological thinking is under threat. We at least need to address this fact.

This is not the work the subject deserves. Sometimes, though, it is better to say something badly than not at all. Perhaps it will provoke or inspire someone else to do better.

‘The mind’ and ‘thinking’

One could spend much time discussing and trying to define ‘mind’ and ‘thinking’ and that would take me way beyond the purposes of this piece. Yet some starting point is helpful. These are secular definitions but they are helpful and in no sense conflict with the biblical idea of mind I shall be looking at later.

‘Mind’ according to a fairly standard definition (in the 'New Oxford Dictionary of English' is ‘the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought’. The mind, for present purposes, is that faculty with which we think, though it is more than that.

‘Thinking’ has been defined as ‘the process involved in manipulating information either collected through the senses or stored in the memory from previous experience’. It will be instructive to see how a more specifically biblical approach to the subject alters this, if at all.

We are doing it all the time. Thinking is an intellectual activity – it uses the intellect - but it is of course not just for ‘intellectuals’. I am thinking as I write; you are thinking as you read. Sometimes ‘thinking’ is said to be ‘realistic’ in that it is more purposeful, more focused on outside stimuli and on problem solving; other ‘thinking’ is said to be ‘autistic’ in the sense of imaginative, expressive, and responding more to inner stimuli; this includes daydreaming.

Now if thinking is a basic activity that we cannot avoid for long, why do we need any kind of instruction to help us? Well, first, we can all learn to do things better even if they come naturally. Breathing is natural, but I may learn ways that are more efficient. Public speaking may be ‘natural’ but can be improved by better techniques. Second, this is particularly true if I have to think to a specific purpose such as ministers must do when studying the Bible or thinking about theology. Thirdly, it is even more true if there are factors in our culture which are undermining the whole practice of purposeful thought, which I suggest is the case today.

First however we need to put ‘thinking’ in a Christian context.

Humans as Thinkers

1. We are created in the image of God

Man, male and female, is made in the image of God. If God thinks, we can think. His thoughts are infinitely higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8,9), but at least there is analogy in the function of thought itself. We are called to ‘reason together’ with God (Isaiah 1:18). The first task of Adam’s mind was to receive God’s special revelation (Genesis 1:28) and obey. He was also to use his mind analytically and creatively in the context of general revelation by naming the animals. The animals, meanwhile, could not name him.

There is a case for saying that the presupposition of all thought is the existence of God, the infinite - personal Triune Creator God who speaks. Drawing on a paragraph from John Henry Newman’s 'The Idea of a University' James Sire suggests that three truths provide most of what is needed to undergird the possibility of human knowledge (and therefore, human thought): first, the primacy of God’s existence; second the nature of this God as intelligent, living, personal and almighty; thirdly, that he is the intentional creator of a rational, orderly universe that is not himself (that is, creation is not just an extension of God as pantheism teaches). Only if there is an objective, orderly universe to which our reason correlates, can there be any real basis for human thinking.

2. We are to love God with the mind

The greatest commandment, taught Jesus, is to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ (Mark 12:30). This is the first and great duty of men and women and the first duty of the mind. The mind is to be applied to God through his Word and in obedience. ‘For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments’ (1 John 5:3).
A point of interest here is that thinking, if it an expression of love, is evidently to be accompanied by emotion or affection. Love is not merely feeling but it cannot be without it. Thinking is not to be an ice-cold activity.