Saturday, December 27, 2008

Arminianism in Diapers

At Arminianism Today the question of the eternal state of infants was pondered. I'll briefly correct the understanding of the "standard Calvinist answer," and then offer some brief critical remarks of the two Arminian positions offered.

1. "However, the standard Calvinist answer is that Jesus died only for the elect so therefore not all babies born are the elect so some do not go to heaven when they die."

The "standard Calvinist answer" is non-committal. It is true that the standard answer is that Jesus died only for the elect. It would follow from this that the standard Calvinist view would be that Jesus died only for those infants who die in infancy that are elect. It is a qualitative stance, period. What is not entailed, or inferred by, this claim is the quantitative position on how many infants who die in infancy are elect. The "standard answer" is consistent with 1 or 1,000,000 (or however many infants die in infancy). You will find some Calvinists who believe that all infants that die in infancy are elect, and some who believe that not all are. Both views are entirely consistent with the standard Calvinist answer. It is dishonest to pretend that there are disparate views by Calvinists on this matter as concerns quality. Those who believe that all infants who die in infancy are elect are not holding to the Arminian position, as the author falsely claims, for they hold that those infants were elected. Indeed, there is only one Calvinist answer - elect infants that die go to heaven.

2. "The standard Arminian answer is that all children go to heaven by virtue of the cross of Christ and the mercy of God given in Christ. Arminians further appeal to the unlimited atonement of Jesus Christ as basis for infants being in God's presence. While Calvinist insist that Jesus died for only the elect, Arminians insist that the atonement was for all. What keeps sinful man from enjoying this salvation from sin and its power? Unbelief, and since babies can not either believe or have unbelief, they simply can not be condemned."

It appears that this view states that Jesus died for all and secured their salvation. Every single person comes into this world saved, then it is "up to them" whether they "lose" this salvation by rejecting Jesus' death for them. Thus no person is born condemned. Not born sinners in need of a savior. Later, if they don't believe, then they lose this salvation. Then, later, if they believe again, they get it back again.

So, even the native in the jungle is born saved. He never hears of Jesus, why does he go to hell, then? The answer is given:

2. a. "Romans 1:18-32 clearly shows that God has revealed Himself to all men through both creation and their conscience but men reject the truth for lies. But babies are not even capable of doing so neither are those who are severely handicapped. Where would the justice of God be in condemning children who have yet the mental ability to even know they are alive let alone sinful?"

But, it is one of the most agreed upon truths of the Christian faith that natural revelation does not reveal salvific truths. It reveals, simply, that God exists and that we are guilty. So the native in the jungle is born saved, and doesn't believe because he has never heard of Jesus death on the cross for him. How can he be held responsible for not believing in a Jesus he never heard about?

At any rate, this Arminian view posits that we are born saved and that we can lose this salvation. Needless to say, the idea that all men whoever are born saved is completely foreign from Scripture. In fact, the opposite seems the case. For example, Ephesians 2 doesn't claim that "once we were alive, then dead in sins, then alive again." It doesn't say that we were all first children of grace, then children of wrath, then children of grace again."

3. However, is it possible that infants are born not guilty for Adam's sin but they are born "saved" standing in original grace given to Adam and restored through Christ, the second Adam? While Adam's sin most certainly brought physical death (and thus why some infants die), does this also mean that Adam also brought spiritual death to infants as well? In fact, if Romans 5:12 establishes the reality of total depravity in all then Romans 5:15 must also signal that all now have original grace in all as well. Romans 5:14 seems to hint at infants when it says, "Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come" (NASB).

i) But position two also logically implies that all are born saved. It does so because if any person whoever dies in infancy, then they go to heaven because Christ died for them, then this means that all men whoever are born saved. So it's hard to see how this position is different that point two.

ii) I am unclear as to how Romans 5:14 hints at supporting this Arminian interpretation? The passage doesn't say that that the "those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam," did not sin at all. Indeed, it implies the opposite, or so it seems. Moo claims that those who did not sin "after" is an important Pauline category meaning "copy" or "likeness" in a "sense which is not identical to, but resembles in some important way, that with which it is concerned" (333, n.84).

iii) Paul is probably talking about people who lived between Adam and Moses, they didn't have special revelation from God in the form of commands (so Schreiner, p.279).

iv) Paul is establishing more than physical death, as v. 16 shows (condemnation, legal categories).

v) If all infants are not spiritually dead, then they are spiritually alive. So, we are spiritually alive, then dead, then alive.

vi) If infants are born in original grace, how is this not Pelagian?

vii) If they are not born guilty, why did Christ have to die for them? He didn't. Hence, since Jesus never died for the millions of babies that die in infancy, then this is millions of people never died for, and so it looks like "all" doesn't mean "all."

Friday, December 26, 2008

The prayer of faith

Craig Blomberg writes about "the prayer of faith" (James 5:13-18).

Fake, but accurate

Darrell Bock looks at the recent Newsweek piece on gay marriage in three posts: here (1); here (2); and here (3).

Lo, how a rose e'er blooming

Frederica von Stade sings this classic German Christmas carol:



Lo, how a rose e'er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse's lineage coming,
As men of old have sung;
It came, a flow'ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When halfspent was the night.

Isaiah 'twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind,
With Mary we behold it,
The virgin mother kind;
To show God's love aright,
She bore to us a Savior,
When halfspent was the night.

O Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispel with glorious splendour
The darkness everywhere;
True man, yet very God,
From Sin and death now save us,
And share our every load.

By their fruits shall you know them

A resource for survivors of abuse in the orthodox churches.

The Sanctitron®

In answer to a question I received:

Christian teachers are always going on about how to defeat lust it's not going to happen through sheer willpower, but it'll have to be through the power of the Holy Spirit. But this is supremely confusing for everyone I've talked to on the subject. What exactly does it look like to be relying on the Spirit rather than on our own power? What does the one relying on the Spirit look like compared to the one attempting to defeat sin on his own power? Both would need to physically and actively do things to avoid and defeat sin -- so it is simply a matter of cognitive awareness of either that makes the difference? That is, if I am cognitively understanding my need to defeat sin as something I have to do with my power or if I am cognitively understanding that God is doing the work through me -- is that what makes the difference?

I doubt most Christian preachers and teachers who talk this way really know what they mean by it. I doubt they’ve thought it through.

1.In many cases, I suspect they say it because it’s a nice, pious sounding thing to say. But they make it seem as if the difference between someone who relies on the Holy Spirit and someone who doesn’t is that as long as we say we rely on the Holy Spirit, then we rely on the Holy Spirit. Telling ourselves or reminding ourselves that we rely on the Holy Spirit is what makes us rely on the Holy Spirit.

But from a theological perspective, if you’re a real Christian, then the Holy Spirit is already at work in your life. It’s not a light switch that you have to consciously turn back on every morning when you get out of bed.

Even if you’re a backslider, the Holy Spirit is still active in your life—to effect a spiritual restoration.

2.In other cases, it may involve a kind of quietism. I don’t do anything; the Holy Spirit does it for me. Indeed, if I try to do it myself, then I’m getting in the way of the Holy Spirit.

Again, though, this fails to appreciate how God is at work in our actions. It’s not as though I must be in abeyance for God to be active, or God must be in abeyance for me to be active. God can be active in my activities

3.Now lots of folks are deeply involved in a ritualistic form of works-righteousness. If you follow a set of spiritual exercises, like the Rosary or the Rule of St. Benedict, then that will make you holy.

There is something fundamentally autosoteric about that approach. It treats salvation or sanctification as a technique. Become a spiritual technician. Use the right words in the right order. Perform certain actions in a certain sequence.

Not surprisingly, this is a pan-religious phenomenon that transcends any particular religion. Catholic monks and Buddhist monks use different words and actions, but the underlying technology is the same. The same mechanistic and manipulative approach to sanctity or piety. Feed your vices into the Sanctitron® and watch them come out virtues.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christ Jesus Came Into The World To Save Sinners

"The whole of Christ’s life was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified, even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after, and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and the morning of one and the same day. From the crèche to the cross is an inseparable line. Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter. It can have no meaning apart from that, where the Son of God displayed his glory by his death." (John Donne, cited in Nancy Guthrie, ed., Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus [Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008], pp. 20-21)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christ & Culture Revisted Review: Reviewd

Jason Stellman complained that I picked on a "joke" post of his and not his more substantive material. I take it that he places his review of D.A. Carson's recent book Christ & Culture in the latter category.

Stellman’s review1 of Carson’s book2 begins with the obligatory summary of the book’s structure, a brief (very brief!) tour of part of the ground covered in the book, the usual, obligatory lauding of the author on some points (e.g., “I wholeheartedly agree with Carson here,” or “Carson is right to point out,” or “I applaud” etc.,), and the obligatory “critique.” There’s not too much to comment on the overview aspects of the review (though I could quibble with some things even here), so I’ll just look at Stellman’s “obligatory critique” of Carson.

Stellman hits on one of Carson’s comments about Stellman’s old WSCAL prof, Darryl Hart. Carson deems approaches to “Christ and culture” like those of Hart, “minimalist.” Stellman sums up Carson and then offers his critique. I’ll quote him at length to provide all the necessary context and to ensure proper representation of Stellman’s critique:

Carson argues that if all these authors were doing were offering a warning against utopianism, then all would be well. But such pessimism "fail[s] to see the temporally good things we can do to improve and even transform social structures" (217-18, emphasis original). Listing examples such as abolishing slavery, curing disease, and reducing sex traffic, Carson maintains that "in these and countless other ways cultural change is possible. More importantly, doing good to the city...is part of our responsibility as God's redeemed people in this time of tension between the 'already' and the 'not yet.'"

While I would concur that "it is unwise to speak of 'redeeming culture'" (217), I find Carson's antidote to minimalism too, well, maximalist. The assumption seems to be that the "we" who desire to accomplish such obviously welcome goals as ending slavery and curing disease must be "we Christians." What Carson overlooks is the fact that history is filled with examples of sinners who disliked cancer, as well as with saints who defended slavery. In other words, one does not need to affirm Chalcedonian Christology in order to work toward the curing of disease, nor have all who affirmed that Christology wanted slavery to end. This idea-that believers have a monopoly on morality, that cultural clean-up is a kingdom responsibility, and that Scripture furnishes the saints with a clear idea of what godly society would look like-seems to ignore both the fact that the Bible's authority is limited to those loci it actually addresses clearly and that all people share the imago Dei, as well a common basis for morality provided by the works of God's law written on our hearts. In a word, pagans are often more horizontally good and the pious horizontally bad than we usually care to admit.
It is my opinion that Stellman just falls back on the all-too-common two kingdom caricaturing of their opponents, hits us with some two kingdom buzzwords, attacks non-existent positions (or, if they’re existent, they’re held by ignorant-but-well-meaning Christians), and generally fumbles the book review football. Here’s how:

1. I’m unsure it’s proper to say Carson is offering an “antidote” to minimalism. As anyone who has read the book will be aware, Carson leaves a lot of room open for relationships between Christ and culture. As Carson repeatedly makes clear, some relationships may work in some kinds of cultures while those same ones will not work in other cultures. Carson would not recommend any one response to culture in any and all cultures.

2. Apropos (1), even Stellman recognizes that Carson isn’t settling on any solid “antidotes” or “approaches” to Christ and culture. Says Stellman, “Still, I wish that, when all was said and done, he had landed upon more terra firma rather than leaving the reader with his feet planted in midair.”

3. The “we” is the same “we” Hart mentions. The question is about how Christians should act in various cultural settings. I find nothing objectionable about this. It’s the same “we” sophisticated two kingdom advocate David VanDrunen talks about. So VanDrunen:

We know that a nation with increasing numbers of cocaine-addicts, abortions, thefts, child-abuse cases, illiterates, etc., etc., will not retain desirable levels of peace and prosperity for long. Therefore we do have an obligation to do things which will, if not eliminate such things, at least substantially reduce their rate of occurrence. The peace and prosperity of our society, not to mention our personal peace and prosperity, depend on it. And the political sphere certainly is one of the institutions of culture which will make its indelible stamp on the peace and prosperity of the society. Christians therefore should have an interest in the political process when their form of government allows it, as ours does. To turn our backs on politics would mean to turn our backs in part to the command of God to seek the peace and prosperity of our nation. We may debate amongst ourselves which political positions to promote and how much emphasis should be given to the political process, but the interest and involvement in politics which we see among the "religious right" is in itself a good thing. (source, emphasis mine)
4. Stellman then takes us on an epic adventure of non sequiturs.

a) Nowhere does Carson even remotely imply that it is “only we” who engage in some structure transforming activities.

b) In fact, he implies the contrary. As anyone who’s read the book knows, Carson engages in some lengthy and detailed analysis of just what “culture” means. Carson’s working definition of culture is, following Geertz. “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions, expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about life and attitudes towards life” (Carson, 85). Carson claims, repeatedly, that there will be more or less agreement between cultures at various times and places, given various phenomena. So, “the locus of a particular culture is variable and may overlap with other cultures…” (ibid). At various places Carson “underscore[s] the fact that [various cultures] may embrace many shared cultural values” (Carson, 119). And again, “… we manage to form ‘co-belligerencies’ on some strategic issues” (Carson, 196).

c) Stellman claims that Carson “overlooks” the fact that some non-Christians have done good while some “Christians” have had better moments. But Carson says the opposite in many places. One example might be: “Of course, in the richness of God’s common grace, there are governors who genuinely have a servant’s heart, governors who are not unduly corrupted by power. Sadly, there are ecclesiastical leaders who take their cue as to what leadership is from the surrounding world, who sell their souls for pomp, flattery, and lust for ever-increasing manipulative control” (Carson, 168). And one of Carson’s main points, “the non-negotiables” of biblical theology, directly contradict this claim. Carson admits in many places that the biblical theological category of the fall entails that Christians manage to distort even the best things (e.g., p.74, also cf. pp. 45-49).

d) So, to claim that Carson even remotely implies that one needs to “affirm Chalcedonian Christology in order to” do “horizontal goods” is so far from a charitable reading of Carson that only the desire to get off one’s “talking points” can account for this massively distorted missive. Indeed, Stellmen speaks of the idea “that believers have a monopoly on morality,” yet doesn’t tell us who’s idea this is. Surely he’s not claiming that Carson believes this! But then who?

“Before entering the discussion about moral reality, I must make a couple things quite clear. First, I am not discussing the idea that one must believe in God in order to be a moral person. (Ganssle, Thinking About God, p.86).

"The question here is not: 'Must we believe in God in order to live moral lives?' I am not claiming that we must" (Craig, God?: A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist, p.18).

“In fact, I claimed that there is a sense in which the atheist most certainly can be moral (the minimalist sense agreed to by both sides). In fact, in this sense, many atheists may be more moral than Christians.” (Paul Manata! See here)

These are just some quotes on hand at the moment. I have seen theists of the most “evangelical, “right wing” variety, claim that atheists can be just as moral, if not more so, than Christians (only in the sense of civic goodness). Now, it is true that I once heard an old grandma claim that all non-Christians were moral monsters. Is that who Stellman is attacking?

e) Stellman gives the impression that Carson is claiming that “Scripture furnishes the saints with a clear idea of what godly society would look like.” But Carson doesn’t give that impression, not at all. “Initially more impressive is the insistence by some writers that Romans 13 does not so much tell believers how to govern well as how to be governed. In the flow of Paul’s argument, that insight is fundamentally right" ( Carson, 161, emphasis mine).

f) Apropos (e), if Stellman wishes to scale back his claim and say that Carson gives the impression that Scripture tells us some things about what a godly society looks like, clear or unclear, then he would be correct. So Carson again, “Nevertheless, in making his argument, Paul tells us at least a little of what he thinks good government looks like” (ibid, emphasis mine). But if Stellman moves the goal post to this weaker claim, or says that’s what he originally intended, he doesn’t let the reader know that Carson defends this claim in a few places, most directly on pages 161-173.

g) Stellman then makes the ridiculous claim that Carson “seems to ignore both the fact that the Bible's authority is limited to those loci it actually addresses clearly and that all people share the imago Dei, as well a common basis for morality provided by the works of God's law written on our hearts.” I have a few points in response:

i) Of course a scholar of Carson’s stature doesn’t ignore the imago dei or the law written on the heart. So, again (!), Carson: “…all human beings have been made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26), … and this image is “the dignity of human beings” (Carson, p.57, 136, also see pp. 45-47, 49, 56-58, 87, 120, 136, 138, 193, 207). Of course Carson doesn’t discuss what “grounds” ethical norms, nor does he need to! For Christ & Culture isn’t a book on metaethics.

ii) It is also nothing but stacking the deck in your favor when you demand that people can only appeal to what the Bible “clearly” addresses. Is that “clearly addressed” in the Bible? And, often what is “clearly addressed” is in the eye of the beholder.

iii) The Bible’s authority pertains to what the confession says: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6). Is Stellman meaning to say that we should keep the insights of Scripture out of our ethical decision making processes? If so, that is a very radical position. Even staunch two kingdom advocate David VanDrunen wouldn’t say that. So VanDrunen,

Making Bioethics Decisions
Before turning to a specific bioethics issue, it is helpful first to consider some general guidelines. When confronting difficult bioethics decisions, Christians initially must strive to identify relevant theological truths. Though Scripture does not speak specifically about contemporary bioethics, its teaching does have important implications for it. (source)
One of VanDrunen’s relevant theological truths is that the Bible teaches some form of anthropological dualism. But is this clear? I certainly think so, but your Christian constitutionalist will not agree (so Corcoran, Merricks, etc). Moreover, all the best scientists agree that “we have no more need” to posit a soul. That’s an outdated picture of the world. And men like Stellman are well-known for their attacks on “fundies” who hold to an “out dated” young earth creationism. Yet they suddenly get all backwoods and toothless when it comes to a “soul.”

5. For these reasons, I find Stellman’s review underwhelming. I find it as symptomatic of more fundamental problems. For example, expending all your energies on ignorant-but-well-meaning Christians will have a negative effect when you decide to “play with the big boys,” like Carson. I find many internet two kingdom proponents want to move as quick as they can to use two kingdom buzz words and pejoratives whereby they can pontificate about all the evils resulting from abandoning two kingdom theology. The basic case for two kingdom theology, as I understand it, is fairly sound. But it seems as if proponents aren’t satisfied with this basic case and are seeking more “outrageous” attempts to prove its merits. If so, they have fallen into the trappings their opponents like Osteen have fallen into. Proving two kingdoms by sensationalistic and, frankly, dishonest tactics, is not what two kingdoms needs right now. I propose a more sober minded approach to the Christian public. A more scholarly approach. If not, then they have no one to complain to but themselves when the majority of Christians (rightly or wrongly) reject their teachings because it is delivered with, in my honest opinion, a bit of a haughty kind of presumptuous spirit.

1 Jason J. Stellman, “Christ & Culture Revisited" by D. A. Carson, in "Beyond Nostalgia: The Risk of Orthodoxy" Sept./Oct. Vol. 17 No. 5 2008 Pages 50-51

2 D.A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, Eerdmans, 2008.

"True love waits"

“All of us in the CICCU [Cambridge Intercollegiate Christian Union], I think, accepted the fact that a Christian should not have sex before marriage. With all the colleges being single-sex and only two of them being for women, there was not the pressure of continual contact experienced in modern universities. Most of us hoped to be happily married and were content to wait till marriage had come into sight as a practical possibility before forming alliances with girlfriends. The women of the two colleges had recently formed their own Christian union and they brought their friends to the CICCU evangelistic sermon where they sat is rows reserved for them, but there was virtually no mixing up of men and women. Incredible though it may sound today, this was to us one way of ‘seeking first the kingdom of God.” And God wonderfully added the blessing of happy marriages to nearly all of us. Some sixty of us went down from Cambridge in 1934 and we kept in touch with each other by six-monthly duplicated letters thereafter and, in spite of prudish upbringings and lack of sexual knowledge, not a single one of our first marriages went wrong,” J. Wenham, Facing Hell: An Autobiography 1913-1996 (Paternoster Press 1998), 54.

Porn addiction

I. Porn Addiction

Recently I’ve been asked about how Christians should deal with porn addiction. Since this is an issue of general interest and importance to the Christian community, I’ll do a post on the subject.

I don’t claim to be an expert on how to deal with the problem. I’m just offering my advice for what it’s worth. Commenters are welcome to improve on what I’ve said. However, I’m not interested in remarks by commenters who simply take offense at my even attempting a frank discussion of the issue. And I’m also not interested in commenters who can’t bring themselves to have a grown-up discussion of grown-up problems. Comments like that will be summarily deleted.

In preparing to write this, I Googled some Christian websites to see what they have to say on the subject. One or two of them said some of the things I’d say, but a number of them were less than generous about dispensing free advice. Instead, they want to sell their services.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Some porn addicts may need professional counseling. However, I also suspect that, in some cases, professional counseling, like so much psychotherapy, is an expensive, open-ended commitment which can drag on for months or years without solving the problem. It’s just someone to talk to while the meter is running.

This post is not addressed to professing believers who don’t think there’s anything wrong with pornography. There’s probably nothing I can say that would persuade them to the contrary, so I won’t even try. Instead, this post is addressed to Christians who recognize the problem, and want some guidance on how to deal with it.

This post is written from a male perspective because I have a firsthand knowledge of male psychology.

It’s well-known that porn addiction has become a problem in the church. That’s hardly surprising. In the age of DVDs and the Internet, it’s easier than ever to anonymously indulge in pornographic lust.

Is this a scandalous situation for the church? Yes and no. It’s scandalous in the sense that pornography is contrary to Christian ethics. However, Christian men are sinners, too. Christian men are wired the same way as other men. So this phenomenon doesn’t come as a shocking development—especially when many Christian men developed their addiction before they came to Christ.

Someone might object that it’s scandalous because Christians are held to a higher standard. Actually, we’re not. God holds everyone to the same moral standard. It’s just that Christians acknowledge the standard.

Someone might also object that it’s scandalous because it’s hypocritical. That’s true, but from God’s perspective, a hypocritical sinner is no worse than a shameless sinner. Suppose you’re a porn addict who doesn’t pretend to be a Christian. Well, that may absolve you of hypocrisy, but that doesn’t absolve you of sin.

So there’s no reason for the church to engage in ritual self-flagellation about the scandal of porn addiction in the church. Rather, the church has a special mission to address this sin, since the role of the church is to address sin generally.

Christians have the same problems as everyone else. The difference is that we have spiritual resources that unbelievers do not.

II. Secret Sins

One thing that makes porn addiction difficult for Christians to cope with is that, as a practical matter, it tends to be a very private sin since there’s a debilitating stigma that attaches to porn addiction. Take a pastor who’s addicted to porn. Who’s he supposed to turn to? If he tells his wife, she may divorce him. If he confesses his sin to his congregation or his ecclesiastical peers or superiors, he may lose his job.

So it poses a dilemma. It’s not a sin that we can easily conquer all by ourselves, but it doesn’t feel safe to share our problem with others. Especially those in authority, since the authority figures are the very people in a position to sanction us if we confess our secret sin. Kind of like turning yourself into the authorities. This isolation exacerbates the sense of being trapped in your addiction, with now way out. I’ll deal with this dilemma in section IV.

III. Wrong Turns

What are some misguided ways to deal with porn addiction?

1. Monasticism

Traditionally, one way to deal with various temptations, whether sexual or otherwise, was through the suppression of pleasure. Deny your desires.

While there’s a grain of truth to this, which I’ll come to later, as a general program this is counterproductive. When you deny your natural desires, including perfectly legitimate pleasures, you fuel temptation. You pour gasoline on temptation.

2. Quietism

A more recent way of dealing with temptation, which is popular in charismatic circles, is to expect a quick fix. If you just pray to God to take away your sinful desire, or receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, or have a faith-healer cast out the demon of lust, then you will be cured.

Like monasticism, this is also counterproductive. It sets up a false expectation. And many men have left the faith because they tried the Pentecostal shortcuts, and the “solutions” didn’t solve the problem. So they became disillusioned.

BTW, I’m not commenting on charismatic theology in general, or its more respectable and responsible exponents (e.g. Craig Keener, Gordon Fee).

Rather, I’m talking about the pop version of charismatic theology peddled by Televangelists.

IV. Coping With Porn Addiction

So how should a Christian who struggles with porn addiction try to wean himself of that obsessive-compulsive disorder?

1. Never Despair!

Some professing believers give up the fight because they see so little progress. I’m not talking about porn addiction in particular. Just generally, there are professing believers who become so discouraged in their battle with some temptation or another that they eventually leave the faith altogether.

Here I’d introduce my cardinal rule: never despair, never give up!

Why do I say that? Because despair is futile, and futility is futile.

If you stay in the game, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

If you throw in the towel, you have nothing to gain and everything to lose.

If you turn your back on the Christian faith and die in unbelief, you will go to tell. So what good did that do you?

No matter how often you face a spiritual setback, the alternative to perseverance is guaranteed to be a losing proposition.

So even if it feels like one step forward and two steps back, that’s far better than taking the expressway to hell. The only way you’re sure to fail is to drop out of the race before the finish line.

2. Moderation

i) We sometimes create artificial problems for ourselves by imposing artificial standards or unrealistic expectations on ourselves. It’s futile to overcome a natural desire. You can channel a natural desire, but you can’t suppress it.

ii) In men, the visual sense is a dominant feature of sexual attraction and arousal. There are some practical reasons for this. Round hips and breast development signal sexual maturity in a woman. That’s why men find these features appealing. It’s a way of distinguishing a potential mate from a prepubescent girl. We want men to be able to draw that distinction!

To some extent it also distinguishes a woman in her childbearing years from a woman who is past her childbearing years. That, too, is practical.

iii) At an imaginative level, the visual sense also has a tactical component. What it would feel like to run your hand down those smooth, soft contours.

iv) There are other features that men find physically appealing in women that are not as easy to explain on a purely functional basis, viz. a certain complexion, or eye color, or hair texture, or full lips, or high cheekbones, or long, shapely legs, or dulcet voice.

Here the appeal is purely aesthetic, albeit distinctively feminine, and figures in the more generally mysterious question of why we find anything beautiful. Why we find certain colors and symmetries appealing. To some extent there is no ultimate explanation for this. It’s just the way we were made.

v) But it also goes to the fact that a woman is more than woman. A woman is an ideal. A woman represents the Church. And God has programmed men idealize women because a woman is emblematic of something even greater than herself. Woman as metaphor.

At one level, there’s a ridiculous quality to a lot of love poetry. The sonnets of Shakespeare and Donne. It’s so out of proportion to the actual object. But there’s a reason for that. A theological reason. A reason that God has encoded in the male psyche. Subliminal theology.

I assume that’s why we traditionally dress the bride as if she’s a queen. For, theologically speaking, every woman is a queen—as a token of the Church she represents. The Bride of Christ.

Evolutionary psychology is unable to explain this. Only Christian theology can explain it.

vi) This isn’t limited to women. There’s a symbolic dimension to the natural world in general. That’s why the Bible uses so many natural objects to illustrate spiritual truths.

vii) Should a teenage boy enjoy looking at Jeri Ryan in a cat suit? This strikes me as a fairly innocent pleasure. The boy is forming a feminine ideal. That’s a necessary stage in his maturation.

The problem occurs when a man is unable to reconcile his ideal with reality. The ideal should prepare him for marriage. But he needs to distinguish woman qua woman from woman qua metaphor.

A woman points to something beyond herself. But you don’t marry the metaphor, you marry the woman. You need to value the woman qua woman.

To take a comparison I‘ve used before, human fathers symbolize God. That’s why dad is a godlike figure to a young son. But a son needs to outgrow that aspect of filial devotion. If he can’t transfer that aspect of filial devotion from his father to God, he will remain in a state of arrested development.

Of course, a married man can still appreciate the beauty of a beautiful woman. But he needs to keep that in check—unless it’s his own spouse.

viii) When counseling young men, we need to avoid alarmist rhetoric. It’s like those old cautionary shows about Reefer Madness and “this is your brain on drugs.”

It’s true that if a teenage boy dabbles in pornography, he may end up being the next Ted Bundy. But that’s extremely rare. Most boys who dabble in pornography don’t become the next Ted Bundy. It’s fine to mention that danger, but if we overemphasize the worse-case scenario, we lose credibility.

We need to make our case by using more modestly prudential arguments. Pornography can do a lot of harm short of turning you into a serial killer. For one thing, it brutalizes woman involved in the sex trade. For another, it nurses an unobtainable and often twisted ideal which an ordinary woman cannot fulfill and should not fulfill.

Pinup girls are unobtainable women, and even if they were obtainable, many of them are so vain and jaded that they would make terrible wives.

ix) Having said that, I’d hasten to add that the danger of romanticizing the opposite sex cuts both ways. There are men who have reason to be dissatisfied with their marriage. For there are women who hold men to impossible standards. And there are women who don’t know what it means to be a woman. Their own preconceptions of masculinity and femininity are drawn from the pop culture. From all that’s decadent and depraved. There’s a need for renewal on both sides of the coin.

x) On a related issue, I can’t help noticing that a many women invest a lot of money in their appearance (e.g. clothes, hairdo, make-up, jewelry), yet have no idea of what’s attractive to a man. I’m not talking about woman who don’t care about their appearance. I’m talking about women who are very conscious of their appearance, who want to be physically attractive to the opposite sex, but it doesn’t occur to them to consult the opposite sex about what is attractive to the opposite sex.

Instead, they simply imitate other women, imitate modern movie stars and TV stars and pop vocalists and anorexic fashion models in teenybopper magazines or Abercrombie & Fitch catalogues.

It’s really rather odd, when you think about it. They want to attract a man, but they don’t ask what a man finds attractive. They simply dress according to the latest fashion statement. And keep in mind that many fashion designers are queer, so they lack any real appreciation for the feminine form. Instead, they prefer androgynous young women who look like adolescent boys.

For the moment I’m not saying if a woman should dress to attract a man. That’s up to her. Rather, I’m making the point if that you are going to go to all that time and expense, it wouldn’t hurt to find out what kind of make-up and hairdo and attire the average man likes in a woman. To take one example, you’ll never see a poster of a scrawny, bony girl inside a boy’s locker.

If you want an example of what normal men find physically appealing in women, look at some of the movie stars from the 30s and 40s.

To take another example, I notice that some women wear high-heels with a pants suit. But wearing a pair of pants defeats the purpose of wearing high-heels. If you’re going to don a pair of stilettos, wear a skirt. That’s the point.

A lot of contemporary young women also don’t seem to realize that, in many cases, less is more and more is less. Unless you have a figure like Cher or J-Lo or Marlene Dietrich or Sophia Loren, maximum exposure is not all that appealing. And even beautiful women appreciate the value of good tailoring to improve on Mother Nature.

Once again, I’m not suggesting that a woman should be a clotheshorse, like Alexis in Dynasty. And we also live in a time when too many women dress too provocatively. There’s a happy mean between dressing like an Amish milkmaid and dressing like a streetwalker.

xi) On a related note, some women try hard to look pretty when they’re dating, but let themselves go after marriage. In that event, it’s not surprising if this makes a husband more observant of the competition.

Of course, that cuts both ways. One can also see out of shape men married to shapely women. And one can also see couples in which neither spouse is concerned with how he or she looks. That’s fine, because it’s by mutual agreement.

In general, though, it wouldn’t hurt most couples to resemble the individual at the altar—when they tied the knot. You don’t have to look like Tyra Banks. Just look like the woman he married, and vice versa. A husband and wife shouldn’t forget how to be a bride and groom. What they woke up to on their honeymoon.

We should try to be whatever our spouse saw in us at the outset. That’s why our spouse chose to marry us. What drew the one to the other. That, of course, goes beyond appearances, but if appearance was a factor, it should not be neglected or taken for granted.

3. Starvation

If you have an addiction, you need to starve it rather than feed it. That should be obvious. And that’s the grain of truth in monasticism.

Of course, it isn’t sufficient to starve your addiction. There’s no one thing that will sanctify your desires. We need to do several things at once.

4. Substitute Pleasures

i) Beyond starving an addiction, we need to change our diet. Substitute licit pleasures for illicit pleasures. By itself, starvation makes you hungrier, not less so. So you need something to fill that empty stomach.

Do something sexy with your spouse, like take up pair skating or Latin ballroom dancing. Not only is that good exercise, but it’s very romantic. Generates a lot of heat—in more ways than one!

ii) I think that one reason some marriages fail is that couples often put a lot more effort into attracting a mate than keeping a mate. Once they’ve tied the knot, they feel as if they now have their spouse safely in their corner. So it’s easy to become complacent and neglectful.

I think it would be a good idea for more couples to keep dating after they’re married. To keep doing the things they did with each other when they were trying to attract a mate. (This has reference to Christian dating, where premarital sex is not an option.)

iii) On a more general note, if you’re unhappy, you’re more susceptible to temptation. The temptation may be symptomatic of a general unease. Dissatisfaction about your life in general. Itchy and restless.

Not that we can expect to be happy all the time. Life has its dry spells.

iv) A sense of humor is also a great preservative in a relationship. If you don’t have one, work on it.

5. Accountability Relationships

i) As many 12-step programs have discovered, knowing someone who shares your struggle can make it easier for you to resist temptation. If you’re a porn addict who’s trying to kick the habit, it’s helpful to have a few others friends who are trying to kick the habit, too—friends you can turn to at any time, day or night, if the urge becomes overwhelming. Friends you can call anytime. Friends you can see anytime. Go over to their house.

Because you’re both in the same boat, there’s less danger that they will betray your confidence. If their secret is safe with you, then your secret is safe with them.

There is one potential downside to this. If your friend goes off the wagon, he may try to drag you down with him. So sometimes you may need to keep your distance.

ii) This also goes to a general issue: our society fosters the silly notion that your spouse can supply all of your emotional needs. That’s romantic nonsense.

It’s important to maintain some other relationships, with parents, siblings, and old friends. Temptation is more likely to strike when we’re alone or lonely.

6. Besetting Sins

To struggle with sin is a good thing, not a bad thing. It’s a sign of life. Spiritual vitality.

I once read a writer say that what makes a man a saint is not his virtues, but his vices. What he meant is that what makes a man a saint is how he copes with his weaknesses.

7. Means of Grace

By the means of grace I mean things like the Bible, Christian fellowship, prayer, Christian music, and other suchlike.

Some readers may wonder why it took me so long to get around to the spiritual stuff. That’s because a lot of Christian writers jump right into the spiritual stuff. They begin and end with that, to the neglect of other considerations.

But we need to remember that this is God’s world. God’s handiwork. It’s not as if natural goods are unspiritual.

As we struggle with sin, it’s useful to read about the struggles of those who’ve gone before us. To read about the heroes of the faith in the OT. To read Christian biographies.

It’s also edifying to read the Psalms, with their emotional candor, turmoil, and deliverance. Two good devotional commentaries on select Psalms are:

Alex Motyer, Treasures of the King: Psalms from the Life of David

O. Palmer Robertson, Psalms in Congregational Celebration

8. Diary

If I were a younger man, I’d try to keep a diary. The providence of God is often a subtle, evolving thing. The emerging pattern can only be discerned in retrospect. If more Christians kept diaries, which they reviewed from time to time, I suspect that more Christians would be more aware of God’s oblique guidance in their lives. Of how he blessed them by providing various opportunities and delivering them in various ways.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Neglect Of Christmas Apologetics

Recent polling in England probably reflects where the United States is headed:

"Young people were particularly doubtful about the nativity, with 78 per cent of 16-24-year-olds saying they were not convinced of its historical reliability....Almost a quarter of those questioned who described themselves as Christians admitted they did not believe certain aspects of the Bible's teaching about Jesus....A separate study by Mothers' Union, a Christian charity, showed that more parents encourage their children to believe in Father Christmas than in the nativity."

And I suspect that most of those who affirm the historicity of the infancy narratives could be persuaded to abandon that belief without much difficulty. The church should be giving far more attention to Christmas apologetics.

Early this year, I participated in an email discussion about why Christians seem so uninterested in studying and arguing for the historicity of the infancy narratives. Here are a few points I made at the time:

- Many of the problems with Christmas apologetics don't seem to exist with Easter apologetics. There are far more books on Christ's resurrection than on the issues surrounding the infancy narratives. Arguments for the resurrection are much more advanced than the arguments for the infancy issues. Apologetic material seems to be included much more often in Easter sermons than in Christmas sermons. Etc. Any explanation for the lack of Christmas apologetics has to take into account the far larger amount of Easter apologetics that we've seen. Many of the problems you've mentioned either don't exist in the context of Easter or exist to a lesser degree. In some ways, that difference is justified. Scripture says more about the resurrection than it does about Jesus' infancy. Scripture often refers to the importance of the resurrection (every gospel concludes with it and the events surrounding it, Acts 17:31, 1 Corinthians 15:14, etc.). We have better evidence for Jesus' resurrection than we have for something like the virgin birth or the Bethlehem birthplace. And Easter focuses on Jesus' resurrection, one event, whereas Christmas involves more issues and, thus, more complexity. Still, the fact that it's understandable that there are more and better apologetics for Easter than for Christmas doesn't explain why the Christmas apologetic material is so poor. I think that Easter has in some ways been handled much better than Christmas by the Christian world. It's an example of what could be done with Christmas, but hasn't been done so far.

- I think that Christmas is so important to people in some non-apologetic contexts, such as emotional memories and relationships with relatives, that people often don't want to think about apologetic issues that seem disruptive to their enjoyment of the season. They don't want their family reunions and Christmas shopping disturbed by questions about the historicity of what the holiday celebrates. They want to keep the season highly emotional and positive, and thinking through issues like the historicity of the census and where Jesus was born seems disruptive. I don't think that people associate Easter with the sort of emotions, relationships, etc. that are associated with Christmas. People are more occupied with other things at Christmas than they are at Easter.

- Some of liberal scholarship's objections to the infancy narratives can appear more credible on the surface than they are upon closer scrutiny. For example, in both the scholarly literature and at lower levels, it seems that there's been widespread acceptance of the concept that the events of the infancy narratives are too distant from the people who wrote about those events in the gospels. If Matthew and Luke wrote in the second half of the first century, how much access would they have had to information surrounding events of several decades earlier? It seems to me that many people, even conservative scholars, underestimate the significance of the early church's access to sources like Mary and James. I've seen little acknowledgment, even among conservative scholars, of the fact that issues like where Jesus was born and other circumstances surrounding His birth would have been of interest to both the early Christians and their enemies long before the gospels were written. People would have been thinking about and discussing the issues long before the gospels came along. Just as Paul's relative silence about Jesus' public ministry shouldn't lead us to the conclusion that there wasn't much early interest in the subject, the same is true of silence about the infancy material in the earliest sources. My impression is that scholars often recognize this fact with regard to something like Jesus' public ministry, but rarely acknowledge it with regard to the infancy events. I find it hard to believe that an issue like where Jesus was born wasn't prominently discussed even before Jesus died. Yet, scholars often act as if there probably wasn't much consideration of the infancy events until around the time when the gospels were written. Even conservative scholars seem to often underestimate how much interest in the events of Jesus' infancy the earliest Christians would have had. It seems that much of what conservative scholars have recognized and argued with regard to Jesus' public ministry, the resurrection, the ministry of Paul, etc. hasn't been applied to the infancy narratives. The evidence for the infancy material isn't as good, but many of the same principles could be applied to a lesser extent. They aren't applied as much as they ought to be. I suspect that liberal scholarship's emphasis on the gap of time between Jesus' birth and the gospels has left a major impression even on many conservative scholars, so that even conservatives often view the infancy narratives as having little apologetic potential. They have difficulty moving beyond that false initial impression. I think the same occurs with many conservative Christians outside of scholarly circles. Some liberal arguments initially seem much more significant than they actually are, and many people don't get beyond that initial perception.

- One of the rare Christmas apologetics books I've seen in recent years is Lee Strobel's The Case For Christmas. It's a small book, and my understanding is that it does little more than reproduce some chapters from The Case For Christ. (Thus, I haven't read it.) Judging from amazon.com rankings, it seems that the Christmas book has been selling much less than Strobel's other Case books. I don't recall seeing Strobel interviewed for the Christmas book as much as he's been interviewed for the other Case books. The fact that he and Zondervan chose to reproduce chapters from an earlier book, as opposed to giving more space and more originality to a Christmas book, seems significant. If Lee Strobel can't sell Christmas apologetics, I wonder who could. I suspect that one of the reasons for the rarity of material on Christmas apologetics is that it's been tried by publishers from time to time and has largely failed.

I think we could cite some other reasons for the neglect of Christmas apologetics, but whatever the reasons for it, Borg and Crossan are right about the significance of Christmas and the Christmas season. It's a major lost opportunity.


A little more than thirty years ago, during the Christmas season of 1976, Raymond Brown wrote the foreword to the first edition of The Birth Of The Messiah (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999). In that foreword, he noted that the infancy narratives were in some ways "the last frontiers" to be crossed in gospel scholarship, an area of neglect among both liberals and conservatives (p. 6). A few decades later, other scholars (recently Joseph Kelly, Geza Vermes, Marcus Borg, and John Crossan, for example) have joined Brown in advancing a liberal view of the infancy narratives, with much influence in academia and the media. Conservatives, within and outside of scholarship, have been more apathetic.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Once in Royal David's City

I thought this was beautiful:



Once in royal David's city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby
in a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor, the scorned, the lowly,
lived on earth our Savior holy.

And, through all his wondrous childhood,
he would honor and obey,
love and watch the lowly maiden
in whose gentle arms he lay:
Christian children all must be
mild, obedient, good as he.

For he is our childhood's pattern,
day by day like us he grew;
he was little, weak and helpless,
tears and smiles like us he knew.
and he feeleth for our sadness,
and he shareth in our gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see him,
through his own redeeming love;
for that child who seemed so helpless
is our Lord in heaven above;
and he leads his children on
to the place where he is gone.

Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing round,
we shall see him; but in heaven,
set at God's right hand on high;
when like stars his children crowned,
all in white shall wait around.

If you're interested in purchasing a CD of the same, you might consider this one. Or if you're interested in a related DVD, you might consider this one. Or if you'd simply like more info, see here.

HT: Nicole Starling.

On Election & Fatalism (A Response to Persiflage)

I’ve been having a discussion with a commenter named Persiflage on Steve’s post entitled Soul-murder. As is typical of internet discussions, we’ve quickly strayed from the original point of Steve’s post. Since Persiflage has expressed interest in continuing the discussion along the lines we’ve gone, I’m creating this post to help with that, as well as to bring the issue to light for those who do not read comments since, in my opinion, this is an area of Reformed thought that should be investigated more often.

I encourage any who are interested to read through the entirety of the comments in the previous post. For some background, however, I’ll start by quoting one of my original comments:

Persiflage said:
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Precisely - most Calvinists are not fatalists in the sense that every single action on earth is predestined by God.
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Actually, that's not what I meant. Fatalism is actually closer akin to the typical Arminian view of God than the Calvinist view of God. This seems wrong to most people, but look at the logic of it and you'll see it's true:

Calvinists are not fatalists because we believe that God ordains the means as well as the ends. Furthermore, we hold that two moral agents can both will the same event for radically opposed reasons, such that for one moral agent the action is moral while for the other moral agent the action is immoral.

To give a Biblical example, when God used Assyria to punish Israel, it was God's sovereign decree that Assyria do such. Assyria willingly went along with this, because it was Assyrias desire to tear down nations and uplift themselves as pseudo-gods. The net result: God's will occured, and Assyria was later punished for it (cf. Isaiah 10).

So let me be clear. God predestines everything that occurs. Or as the Westminster Confession puts it: "God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established" (WCF III:1).

This is not fatalism because the will of the agents involved is not infringed. Another example are the Pharisees who killed Jesus. They did what God ordained they would do; yet they did so because they were wicked. They were not forced to do this, but rather it was what their wicked hearts desired to be done. God, however, willed it for good.

As I said above, the Arminian position is more closely related to fatalism. This is because the Arminian will typically say such things as "God ordains the ends but doesn't do the little details." The net result is that either God knows in advance what people will do (the foreknowledge argument Arminians use), which renders His ordaining of events as superfluous since they will happen regardless of His ordanation; or God does not know what people will do (a la Open Theism) and must work to fix things after the fact. Most Arminians reject Open Theism and state the first alternative, but really hold to something like Open Theism. Namely, God ordains the ends, and then knows what people will do and, because He is smarter then they are, can work what people do back to His own ends.

The problem with this idea is that that just is what fatalism is. Fatalism is the idea that no matter what you do, you cannot escape your fate. In the Arminian scheme, this cashes out as the fact that God's end will result no matter what you do; you cannot thwart Him because, like a superior chess player, He will always beat you.

Calvinists, on the other hand, do not hold to that position at all. It is not a case of "no matter what you do" but rather "this is why you do what you do." In other words, rather than having a fate you cannot avoid (Arminianism), God has an ending that is intended to include you as a means to that end.

In other words, under a fatalistic scheme, it would be like an engineer who builds an engine and takes a piece that doesn't fit but jams it in until the engine functions. No matter what the piece's shape is, it will be forced to do it's part. Calvinism teaches instead that God crafts the parts to the engine such that when a piston is needed for the engine to run, the piece is exactly what is needed. This isn't fatalism; rather it is a well-designed plan.
I shall now interact with Persiflage’s response to the above. Also, for the record, Persiflage has stated he intends to do a five point series on his website—when he does so, I encourage him to post a link to it, as he at least has shown himself to be a more reasonable opponent than certain other responders of late! (Yes, Mandalay, this means you.)

Persiflage said:
So a few major points -

- you quote from the Westminster Confession’s - “God ordains whatsoever comes to pass”, which then tries to qualify it with “but he’s not the author of sin” and “this doesn’t deny free will.” You say this is possible because “two moral agents can both will the same event for radically opposed reasons, such that for one moral agent the action is moral while for the other the action is immoral.” Assyria conquering Israel is an example. God put it into their heads to go down and conquer Israel in order to punish them for their disobedience.

So this argument is our biggest problem. I don’t see where in Scripture it says that “God ordains whatsoever comes to pass” or that everything is God’s will. The Confession then flat out contradicts itself by trying to make qualifications. Hey, either everything that happens is God’s will (including Adam and Eve eating of the tree in rebellion to God) or it’s not. The Bible is clear that God predestines the elect to salvation. It is not Biblically clear that God predestines the lost to hell, nor that God predestines “every single action on earth.”
Let’s start with the first part: “I don’t see where in Scripture it says that ‘God ordains whatsoever comes to pass’ or that everything is God’s will.” The WCF itself provides Scripture references for its claim. You can find these at http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/. Additionally, and in no particular order, from the ESV (unless otherwise noted):

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will… (Ephesians 1:11 – emphasis mine)

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD (Proverbs 16:33).

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father (Matthew 10:29). “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father” in NIV. “And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will” in NKJV.

Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps (Psalm 135:6).

… he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, "What have you done?" (Daniel 4:35b)

For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45) Note: this shows God’s dominion over the natural realm; that is, God’s will extends even to the weather, etc.

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place… (Acts 17:26, emphasis mine).

Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." (James 4:13-15)

Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? (Lamentations 3:37-38)

“‘See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.’” (Deuteronomy 32:39)
There are many more passages like this. But even with just the above, we can see that God is sovereign not only over election, but also over life and death; the minutia (sparrows that fall to the ground, and we are worth far more than sparrows, as the passage continues); the weather; the decision of lots (i.e. so called “random” events); nations and kings; good and evil. In short, God’s decrees cover every aspect of our lives on Earth, from our birth to our death.

Moving on to the second point, Persiflage states: “The Confession then flat out contradicts itself by trying to make qualifications.” The problem with this is that the qualifications are not contradictions at all, but rather clarifications. Indeed, the clarifications are necessary because simply saying “God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass” is not sufficient to distinguish between fatalism and the Calvinist’s compatiblistic view.

To give an analogy (albeit a rather contrived one) it would be like saying: “Football teams need to score to win, and by ‘football’ we mean European football rather than American football.” The clarification shows we are dealing with soccer, which everyone in the world other than the US calls “football”, and not the NFL; yet this clarification is not a contradiction of the original point, because both soccer and NFL have “football teams” that “need to score to win.”

Linking it back to the original point, it is true for both Calvinistic views and fatalistic views that “God ordains whatsoever comes to pass”, but it is only true of the Calvinist view that God’s ordaining does no violence to the will nor does it remove secondary causes (but rather establishes them).

Persiflage continues:
Forget about Adam and Eve’s free will for a moment. Sin is God’s will? How do we know God’s will? By his commands.
Actually, I disagree that it’s His commands that show what His will is (insofar as God's will = what God wants to actually happen). More on that later though. Persiflage finishes the above with:
Genesis 2:16 is a very clear command. From Genesis 2:16, couldn't you say that it was NOT God's will for them to eat of the tree? Could I believe that God commands his people to do one thing, while what he REALLY had ordained for them to do is the opposite? No - and nowhere do I see a God that tricky or underhanded in the Bible. Even if Adam and Eve remained free moral agents willing to disobey God for sinful reasons while at the same time God had ordained for them to disobey him - there was never any question whether they would sin simply because that was what God wanted them to do - that was His will.
Indeed, Genesis 2:16 is a very clear command. However, you also have the following command in Scripture:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).
Coupled with:

Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false (2 Thessalonians 2:11).
So God has in actuality commanded “people to do one thing, while he REALLY [has] ordained for them to do…the opposite.” Indeed, we also have to contend with the following passages:

And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven’” (Mark 4:11-12).

As it is written, "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day." (Romans 11:8)

But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear (Deuteronomy 29:4).

And he [Eli] said to them [Eli’s sons], "Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all the people. No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the LORD spreading abroad. If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?" But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death (1 Samuel 2:23-25).
Again, there are many more examples along these lines, but this is sufficient to start. It should be enough to show us that God’s commands are not equivalent with God’s ordaining of what comes to pass. If that were the case, there would be no sin ever. Instead, we see that often God does ordain that which is in direct opposition to His commands. The logic of this follows from the fact that God is a) sovereign over all aspects of our lives and b) God has stated that He does not will for certain things to occur even though they would be consistent with His commands.

What, then, are His commands for? They are first conditionals that, if satisfied, are true. In other words, it is the case that if you obey all the commands of God then you will, in fact, be a holy and righteous person. But the commands do not lead to righteousness. Instead, we see Paul say in Romans 7 that the law brings death; that is, the commands of God bring about sin.

“If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin” (verse 7) and “apart from the law, sin lies dead” (verse 8). “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment) that promised life proved to be death to me” (verses 9-10).

Yet despite this, the law itself is good: “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (verse 12).

How is it possible for a “holy and righteous and good” command to bring about death? “It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure” (verse 13).

God’s commands therefore do not illustrate His will; they illustrate what is holy, righteous, and good. Because they illustrate these things, their very existence condemns us for not being holy, righteous, and good. They exist so that we may know we are sinners. But this is a temporary thing:

So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith (Galatians 3:24-26).
The commands of God expose our wickedness so that we turn to faith and are thereby saved. God’s commands, therefore, far from revealing the will of God (as it relates to what God ordains), are a tool by which God removes all the excuses of sinful men such that non-believers are condemned and believers turn to faith and are saved by Christ.

So to answer more specifically: was it God’s will for Adam and Eve to sin? Yes, for Christ was slain before the foundation of the Earth (Revelation 13:8), and we were chosen in Him before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:20). God’s plan preceded creation, and that plan included Adam and Eve’s sin (for how else could Christ be killed (another event foreordained by God (cf. Acts 2:23: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men”))?).

Yet that doesn’t take away the truth of the conditional. If Adam and Eve had obeyed, they would have been blessed in Eden. Nor does it mean that Adam and Eve were righteous in their sinfulness for doing what God had ordained, for Adam and Eve did not intend what God intended. They sought evil; God sought good.

Continuing, Persiflage said:
If God ORDAINS everything that ever happens, then God ordained for sin, death, pain and suffering to enter the world because THAT was what would bring Him the most glory. I cannot believe that - and it’s one of the main reasons I’m not Reformed because of what that would mean about God’s character.
Unfortunately, what you state above is incomplete. It is not that God ordained sin because sin qua sin would bring Him the most glory; rather God ordained sin because “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The depths of God’s love could not be demonstrated unless Christ died for sinners. God’s mercy could not be displayed if there were no objects for His mercy; nor His justice if there were no objects for His justice.

God does not ordain sin for the sake of sin. If this world was it—if God did not have a redemptive plan and if God did not have a future judgment—then you would be correct in pointing out that God’s character would be evil. But this world is but a necessary step to something greater, and that is what His word tells us.

That said, I fully understand why it would be difficult for many people to accept this. We all tend to have a myopic view of the world. We live as if history began this morning, and the future is only what will happen tomorrow. We have a very focused and limited view—indeed, we have only our own perspective, for we do not experience today the way that, say, someone in Ethiopia or Indonesia does. Because of that, it’s hard for us to focus on a big picture; but God is all about the big picture. And the things that are unfair to us in the here and now are taken care of by God in His big picture.

So if I may also get more personal, while it is the case that you are not Reformed because of how you view God’s character, it is exactly because of how I view God’s character that I am Reformed. Ironically, we both probably agree to a great extent as to what God’s character is. (This is why I have no doubt that you, and many other non-Reformed believers, are Christians too.) Our differences are on the big picture, and that colors our application of God’s character to real world events.

But I personally cannot believe in a God who is not in control of all events, who is more concerned with some philosophical notion of “freedom” than He is with ensuring His promises are kept. I cannot believe in a God who is scrambling to form Plan B because Adam and Eve didn’t do what He wanted them to do. Especially since all that seems alien to Scripture too.

Scripture tells me that God is in control of all things. It tells me that nothing happens apart from His will. It tells me He is sovereign even over evil. And it tells me that He is a good God, a righteous God, a just God, and a merciful God. All these things I find true in Reformed theology, and that is why I am Reformed.

He shall give his angels charge over thee

I’m going to pull some things out of the combox which are worth addressing on their own:

“[Heather MacDonald] An actress playing one of the three wise men tragically fell to her death while suspended over the stage during a Cincinnati Christmas pageant Wednesday night. According to my stepmother, God sends his angels to hold up the retaining wall of her Los Angeles house in answer to her prayers. Her angels couldn’t have gone out on loan?”

THE PURITAN SAID:

“How should one answer this common provocation from atheists about unanswered prayers and generally why didn't angels (or God or prayer) save this person if they saved that person and so on.”

Several issues:

i) MacDonald’s challenge is predicated on her stepmother’s superstitious believe that angels are propping up the retaining wall of her LA home. That premise is not a serious basis on which to build an argument, and MacDonald knows it. Her stepmother may be a wonderful person, but her stepmother is not a theologian or Bible scholar. This is a case of attacking Christianity by attacking its weakest representatives. It’s a straw man argument. Christian theology isn’t synonymous with what any particular Christian, however unqualified, happens to believe.

ii) You don’t have to read very far into the Bible to see that tragic things happen to God’s people. For example, Adam and Eve lost a child to murder. That’s every parent’s nightmare. What is even worse, he was murdered by his brother.

The Bible is full of stories about believers who suffer personal tragedies of one sort or another. Hence, the Bible doesn’t justify the expectation that bad things can’t happen to God’s people. Just the opposite.

iii) We also need to take reasonable precautions. You assume a certain risk when you allow yourself to be suspended over a stage. An unnecessary risk.

I’m not saying that’s wrong. Life isn’t risk free. It isn’t inherently wrong to take a calculated risk. That depends on the situation. On the level of risk.

But if you gamble, you may lose the bet. You need to be prepared to accept the foreseeable consequences of your actions. If you engage in risky behavior, you can’t blame anyone if things go wrong.

For example, many people enjoy water sports. Fine. Nothing wrong with that. But water sports involve an element of risk: a danger of drowning, or encountering a dangerous marine creature. You take a risk when you go boating or surfing or swimming.

iv) Natural evils are natural goods. What makes them “evil” is if you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time. Gravity is a natural good. Our life depends on gravity. It’s a medium we need to respect and exploit.

Imagine a gravity-free environment—like astronauts in outer space. While that might be fun for half an hour, it’s actually quite limiting. Quite impractical.

v) We live in a dangerous world because we live in a fallen world. That exposes us to various perils. In my opinion, even an unfallen world would have its share of natural hazards. But in an unfallen world, we would not be as vulnerable. God would protect us from catastrophic harm.

vi) Imagine a fallen world in which God doesn’t ever allow a sinner to hurt himself. What would be the consequences of that?

Too many sinners already take life for granted. In a harmless, risk-free world, they would be even more frivolous, even more indifferent, even more careless and callous and superficial.

vii) We naturally tend to focus on the disadvantages of living in a fallen world. But a fallen world also has one great advantage for you and me. We are products of a fallen world. We exist because sinners begat us. We exist, as the unique individuals we are, due to the unique circumstances of life in a fallen world.

If Adam and Eve had never sinned, they would still have children, but you and I would not exist. A whole difference set of people would take our place.

That would be a good outcome, but it wouldn’t be so good for you and me. So there are benefits to life in a fallen world: benefits to the fallen.

viii) We’ve all grown up with SF stories in which the main character suffers a personal tragedy. He loses someone he loves.

He goes back in time to prevent that tragedy. And he succeeds.

But his intervention has unseen consequences. In changing one thing, he changes many things. His action has a ripple effect.

Life is all about timing. Take procreation. Which sperm reaches the ovum. An hour earlier, an hour later, and you have a different person in the womb. You conceive Jim instead of John.

That’s not necessarily a bad outcome. A bad alternative.

But there’s a tradeoff. It comes at a cost. John pays the price. John will not exist. Jim took his place.

In this case, what’s good for Jim is bad for John, and vice versa. Each alternative may be equally good, but they’re not equally good for each of the interested parties.

ix) It’s a tragedy when a teenager dies. He had his whole life ahead of him. Now he’ll never marry, never have kids.

Either alternative has a branching series of consequences. Supposed he lived. His kids will make friends. His kids will have kids. That one action ripples out in many different directions which you and I can’t begin to predict. All the lives they touch—for better or worse.

“Also, they say when God restores an amputated limb, as a response to prayer, then they (the atheist) will believe. Etc.”

i) God doesn’t want everyone to believe in him.

ii) There is more to Biblical faith than the bare belief that God exists. Healing an amputee doesn’t make an amputee a true believer. It may simply make him regard God the way he views a politician: “What have you don’t for me lately?”

December 25 And Paganism

Valerie Tarico has written an article for Debunking Christianity on "Ancient Mythic Origins of the Christmas Story". The article consists mostly of an interview with Tony Nugent. I've already addressed much of what Nugent claims elsewhere. The interview ignores some of the most significant issues involved in judging the historicity of the infancy narratives, makes a lot of dubious assumptions and assertions with little or no supporting argumentation, and ignores many better counterarguments that have been circulating for a long time.

What I primarily want to do in this post is address some comments by Tarico. She writes:

"Most Americans know how Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25: The Emperor Constantine chose the date because it was winter solstice in the Julian Calendar, the birthday of dying and rising gods like Mithra and Sol. Some people also know that our delightful melange of Christmas festivities originated in ancient Norse, Sumerian, Roman and Druid traditions - or, in the case of Rudolph, on Madison Avenue."

In an article at The Huffington Post earlier this month, Tarico wrote:

"That said, the Catholic Church chose December 25th (Winter Solstice in the Julian Calendar) to honor the birthday of the Christ for a very specific reason: It was already a well loved holiday -- a time of revelry, gift giving, and yes, celebrating the birthdays of gods....The Fourth Century is our first record of a December Christ-mass celebration....Christmas appears to have its roots in two Roman holidays: Saturnalia (December 17-23) and Sol Invictus (December 25) Saturnalia , the feast of the god Saturn, is said to have been the most popular holiday of the Roman calendar....At the time of Constantine, the cult of Sol Invictus was the official religion of the Roman Empire. Small wonder, then, that he pronounced the 25th as the birthday of Jesus, center of the new official religion."

Elsewhere in her article at The Huffington Post, Tarico cites opposition to Christmas by groups like the Puritans and the Jehovah's Witnesses. I addressed Christian arguments against Christmas in an article I wrote a few years ago.

What about Tarico's claims concerning the date of Christmas? The December 25 date was chosen for multiple (and sometimes unknown) reasons, and it was adopted in different places at different times. It's misleading to claim that "the Emperor Constantine chose the date" or "the Catholic Church chose December 25th".

Joseph Kelly writes:

"In 274 Aurelian [a Roman emperor] instituted the cult of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun....Aurelian made December 25, the winter solstice, the birthday of Sol Invictus and thus a major feast day throughout the Roman Empire....In 336 the local church at Rome proclaimed December 25 as the dies natalis Christi, 'the natal day of Christ,' that is, his birthday. The document which says this does not justify or explain it. It merely says that this is the day, that is, the date had been accepted by the Roman church some time before and since everyone knew about it, discussion of the date was not necessary. But how long before 336 was the date for Christmas accepted? Historians have wondered whether the Christians in the late third century had waged a propaganda war against Aurelian, promoting their Sun of Righteousness [Jesus in the context of Malachi 4:2], the Sol Iustitiae against his Unconquered Sun, the Sol Invictus....We should also recall that Sextus Julius Africanus [a Christian who wrote during the first half of the third century] had already proposed December 25 as the date of Christ's birth. Aurelian's opponents may have plausibly reasoned that if the date already existed [in Christian circles], why not use it against the imperial cult of the Sun?...The second piece of evidence for a third-century propaganda struggle is a work of art, a mosaic on the ceiling of a tomb of the family Julii and now preserved in the necropolis (Greek for 'city of the dead') under St. Peter's basilica in Rome. It portrays Christ driving a chariot through the heavens, just as the pagan sun god Helios did, and Jesus, like the god, has rays of light emanating from his head....They date the mosaic to the late third century, that is, at the time when the emperor Aurelian was promoting the cult of the Unconquered Sun. Significantly, this is the only ancient portrayal of Christ as the sun. Historians find it impossible to believe that this portrayal was just coincidentally produced in the city of Rome at the very time when the pagans were promoting the cult of their sun." (The Origins Of Christmas [Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004], pp. 65-68)

William Tighe summarizes:

"Rather, the pagan festival of the 'Birth of the Unconquered Son' instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the 'pagan origins of Christmas' is a myth without historical substance....Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ’s birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine’s time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death. And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date re-appropriate the pagan 'Birth of the Unconquered Sun' to refer, on the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the 'Sun of Salvation' or the 'Sun of Justice.'"

Earlier this month, Tighe wrote the following in an online forum regarding another line of evidence not discussed in his article:

"St. Augustine observes somethere that the Donatists 'differ from us' in not observing the day [January 6], which was not the case with regard to 25 December, and which in turn implies that 25 December was a 'liturgically significant day' before the Catholic/Donatist split of 310 and onwards."

The Magi

“These verses [Matthew 2:1-12] show us that there may be true servants of God in places where we should not expect to find them. The Lord Jesus has many ‘hidden ones,’ like these wise men. Their story on earth may be as little known as that of Melchizedek, Jethro, and Job. But their names are in the book of life, and they will be found with Christ on the day of his appearing. It is well to remember this. We must not look round the earth and say hastily, ‘All is barren.’ The grace of God is not tied to places and families. The Holy Spirit can lead souls to Christ without the help of any outward means. Men may be born in dark places of the earth, like these wise men, and yet like them be made ‘wise for salvation.’ There are some traveling to heaven at this moment, of whom the church and the world know nothing. They flourish in secret places like the ‘lilly among thorns,’ and seem to ‘waste their sweetness on the desert air.’ But Christ loves them, and they love Christ.” (J.C. Ryle, cited in Nancy Guthrie, ed., Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus [Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008], p. 110)