Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Wildlife watch, late September

Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. ~Isaiah 35:6

Two does and two fawns grazed casually on the shrubs this afternoon, before playfully prancing across the field toward the pond. Such a beautiful sight.

These were a different set of deer from the three does I saw earlier today as I sat in my vehicle, watching them cross behind the big oak near the playground. The woods are full of deer this year, it seems-- and big ones, too: two of them are larger than most does I’ve ever seen.

Bits & Tidbits, 9/30/08

Monday, September 29, 2008

Pass the salt

Another core idea in Logic-- in general, as well as in logic for theological discussion-- is Consistency.

The fundamental definition of consistency is this: two or more ideas may be true at the same time, in the same context. If two statements can both be said to be true at the same time and in the same context, they are said to be consistent.

All of us are inconsistent. One of my philosophy professors pointed this out in a profound-- and humorous-- manner: “everyone is inconsistent; even a determinist will ask you to pass the salt!”

But our inconsistency matters the most when we attempt discourse and discussion-- particularly when there is disagreement involved. This is because our inconsistencies undermine our more salient points by causing others to question, second-guess, or even outright doubt all of our points.

A couple of recent political events demonstrate inconsistency well. For one, John McCain stood up on Monday, September 15, and declared that our economic system is “fundamentally sound” while addressing the concerns about the Lehman and AIG failures. (He has since backpedaled on that statement, which further underscores the inconsistency.) Meanwhile, Senator Obama (and the rest of the Democrats in congress) have strongly supported a bailout plan approaching $700 billion-- money which will effectively buy off the financial problems of the wealthiest of Americans-- while simultaneously demanding an increase in taxes for the wealthiest Americans. (I guess that is their plan to pay for the bailout.)

Similarly, the entire financial crisis is being blamed largely on the economic policies of President Bush, while President Clinton’s presidency and economic accomplishments have been lauded and praised. But the crisis we are facing now is the fallout of
poor policies of a decade ago, just as a significant amount of the economic prosperity of the Clinton presidency was the fruit of the presidencies that preceded him. It turns out that what we do today actually has impact on tomorrow-- go figure.

A good example from the theological discussion world covers the debates of the past decade or so in the PCA. Back in 2002, the debate du jour was over “good-faith subscription” vs. “strict subscription.” A number of guys opposed the idea of good-faith subscription because, some of them said, it would open the door for too many differing positions on various theological issues. Fast-forward to 2006, and the new debate has turned to a theological view called the “Federal Vision” position-- which was, and is, a variation on the historic position on the prominence of individual salvation. Ironically, many of those who came under fire during the Federal Vision debates, and who took cover under the “good-faith subscription” blanket, were some of the same guys who opposed the passage of the good-faith subscription amendment. In short, many of the same men who would end up benefiting the most from the good-faith subscription vote were those who spoke most vehemently against it.

The difficulty about consistency is that it can’t easily be corrected or improved. Unlike bad argument styles, for example, you cannot simply evaluate arguments by asking a set of questions that will reveal the problems of consistency. To recognize inconsistency in your own arguments, you must begin to learn how to see how ideas connect. You must also develop a memory of what you have said and done, and recognize how those things affect the next thing.

Unlike fallacies, however, defeating inconsistencies doesn’t really require strategies or counter-examples. It simply needs to be pointed out. Once you’ve shown someone to be inconsistent, they will often make things worse by disclaiming, excusing, or digging deeper.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Identity in Christ

I have believed for a long time that the essence of my ministry-- regardless of where it is or to whom-- is to teach people of the truth of the Gospel, our need for it, and its transforming power to give us new identities in Christ. My primary goal at Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church has been, and is, to focus on that.

Here is PCA pastor Tim Keller talking about that transformed identity, in a better way than I am able to explain it:

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Wildlife watch, mid-September

A couple of crows have been at it all day today, cawing and flitting up and down from the trees just outside my window. They surprised me several times with their cawing, and one time the flutter of wings so close to the window startled me.

Late in the afternoon, a pair of deer came out for a snack-- a doe and fawn, with spots still clearly showing on the young one. They munched for a bit, and I noticed them in time to watch for a few minutes, wondering to myself about how good twigs and leaves taste to a deer.

As they made their way around the bend, mother doe was startled by the crows, too-- enough to jump. Young fawn remained careless, not yet accustomed to the need to be wary. Crows are harmless to deer, though, and they continued on their way for a while before finding a convenient hole back into the brush.

Use of the Old Testament

How do the New Testament writers make use of the Old Testament? In what ways did the Old Testament writers understand the inspiration of their writings?

Your answer to these questions shapes your view on Scripture, and these issues are the focus of a new book coming out this fall, called
Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. It looks like it will be interesting, and it is certainly the case that some of these matters are hot topics currently.

If you’re interested in knowing where you fit in the three views, here’s a quick quiz that will give you a general sense. Some of these were questions I had never considered before, and may be new concepts to you, also-- but even if you feel a little lost or confused by these, they’re useful for insight into how complicated this issue is.

Fun quizzes, surveys & blog quizzes by Quibblo


Monday, September 22, 2008

Why stereotypes are treacherous, and other logical puzzles

Continuing my Logic for Theological Discussion thread, here are a couple of fallacies that are very common.

I had lunch with a pastor-friend recently, and he told me of a man in his congregation who has begun to doubt. Specifically, these doubts have focused on the man’s belief in a literal Hell-- the man doesn’t believe that there is literally a place that is Hell as the Scriptures describe.

As a consequence of this, the guy thinks he must abandon the rest of his beliefs in biblical truth as well-- in fact, he is beginning to wonder whether this doubt should compel him to abandon his faith altogether. His rationale is that, because he has serious doubts and even disbelief about one teaching of the Bible, he must abandon his belief in all of the teachings of the Bible.

This man is falling into the trap of the Fallacy of Composition. This fallacy follows a basic and common pattern: what is true of the parts that compose a thing must also be true of the whole thing. The tricky part of this fallacy is that the line of thinking is sometimes true-- but we are inclined to believe that it is true all of the time, because it is true some of the time (which is, itself, a Fallacy of Composition).

So, we reason: every blade of grass in my yard is green (true), therefore my lawn is green (also true). If that is true, then it must also be the case that: taking one pill from the bottle of prescription drugs is not poisonous, therefore, taking all of the pills at the same time would also not be poisonous. Or, every atom that makes up my body is invisible to the naked eye, therefore my body must be invisible to the naked eye.

As you can see from these examples, you cannot rely simply on the pattern of thought processes in the argument to determine whether an argument is sound or not. Therefore, this young man’s fallacy goes like this: I doubt one particular teaching of the Bible, therefore I must doubt all of the teachings of the Bible.

A closely related fallacy to Composition is the Fallacy of Division. It is the converse of the Fallacy of Composition, and follows this line of thought: what is true of the whole of a thing is also true of the parts of that thing.

Once again, because it is sometimes true, we often assume it to be always true. But that is not the case. Consider: An airplane can fly through the air for miles and miles; therefore, this hunk of metal I took off of an airplane can fly through the air for miles and miles. Or, I am able to see my desk without help from magnification, so I ought to be able to see the atoms that compose my desk without magnification.

Clearly, as you see, it doesn’t always hold up. Here’s what is interesting: these fallacies are based on the same kinds of conclusions, or inferences, as stereotypes. In other words, based on what we believe to be true of a whole group, we infer an opinion about the members of that group (Division); OR, based on our observations of members of a group, we infer a general principle about that group (Composition). Sometimes these inferences are true and sound, while at other times they are not. This is what makes stereotypes so dangerous.

So we might reason thusly: Everyone I know who has installed Microsoft Vista thinks it is awful; therefore, Vista must be a bomb. (Fallacy of Composition or not? It depends on how you measure it. On the one hand,
several hundred million copies of Vista have sold, making it an inherent financial success. On the other hand, as of August, Windows XP -- the six year old predecessor to Vista-- was still outselling Vista, and the numbers of people who have switched to the Apple Mac platform have increased substantially.)

Or this: Presbyterian churches are stuffy and dull; so this Sunday’s worship at Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church will probably be stuffy and dull, too. (Fallacy of Division? I hope not. Although it is true that some Presbyterian churches-- and some other churches, as well-- are stuffy and dull, this may be an unfair stereotype. It also may be an inference made out of ignorance: someone who is uninterested in worshiping God might find ANY church worship service dull, and even stuffy.)

So what do we do about the fallacies of Composition and Division? It all comes down to a simple question:

What is the justification for making that inference?

In other words, why do I feel safe in drawing the conclusion I have? What are the unstated factors in the argument? Is there a point of data-- or more than one-- that connects the part and the whole? If so, does that data hold up as good reason to draw the inference I have?

In the Microsoft example, there are points of data that might support the conclusion, but you still might question whether the starting point is the best one.

With the young man who doubts the Bible, the connecting points that are unstated are likely based on someone teaching the guy that he had to believe the whole Bible to be a Christian. While the Bible is the Word of God, and we cannot know the truth about salvation apart from it, attaching a required belief onto the saving grace of the gospel makes it into works salvation. While I want every believer-- and every unbeliever too-- to hear and receive Scripture as God’s Word, I cannot deny others their doubts. In short, one can be a Christian and not believe that everything written in Scripture is true.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Learning the words

When I was in college, I took modern Hebrew as my foreign language. I had it in my head that this would give me a head-start on seminary (and it did, to a degree).

As a result, I learned a lot about the Israeli and Hebrew culture. For one thing, my university required that we take a history class that was related to one of our disciplines-- and I chose a “History of Judaism” class that was taught by one of the local rabbis. For another, my Hebrew teacher was an Israeli herself-- she married an English Literature professor when he was doing a sabbatical in Jerusalem-- and she had a good sense that the connection between learning a language and learning a culture was essential.

One of the key “meta-lessons” I learned from this (apart from the interesting stuff about the culture of the Hebrew-speaking people) was how important it is to learn the “language” of a culture. By this, I mean the words, phrases, and concepts that have particular and special meaning to that culture.

This is as true in the church as it is anywhere. The church is a culture (and sometimes it degrades into a sub-culture; more on this another time), and the people of that culture have their own language. Sometimes this is almost comical, but in the ways that it is serious and important, we must learn the language of that culture.

I’m thinking about terms and phrases like these:
  • Justification
  • Salvation by grace alone
  • Atonement
  • Propitiation
  • The inerrancy of Scripture
Are these familiar to you? Can you offer something in the way of a basic definition of these?

Here’s the thing: these are words taken straight out of the Bible. They aren’t just lingo for stuffy theology professors, but are supposed to be the stock-in-trade of the Christian. There are others, too-- and you ought to learn them.

No one takes up a hobby without expecting to learn some new terminology. If you know what a Birdie is to a golfer, if you can describe a car’s differential, or if you understand what RAM does in a computer, then you bothered to learn terms that were, previously, esoteric and irrelevant to your life. Why would you treat your
faith-- which is what grants you eternal life and security-- with less appreciation for the terms and language that accompanies it?

Along those lines, Michael Horton and R.C. Sproul discuss this idea briefly in part of their conversation from a recent episode of the
White Horse Inn, a (normally) audio resource that is available in podcast form. Here is the interview:

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bad argument styles #3: you can't, but we can

When I was in college, I took a public speaking class (didn’t everyone?), and my last assignment was to present a persuasive speech. The topic had to be approved by the professor, and I wrote a proposal to deliver a speech on the topic, “Why we can trust the Bible.”

My professor denied my topic, because, as he said, in order to speak on that topic I would have to appeal to the authority of the Bible, and he wouldn’t allow that. Imagine my surprise when one of the first speeches given by one of my classmates was on the topic, “The Bible is just a bunch of myths and legends.”

(What made it worse was that the guy basically appealed to the fact that the contents of the Bible has been referred to as, “the greatest story ever told,” and we all know that a
story is fiction. Yep, that was the gist of his argument-- persuasive, right? See my forthcoming post on the fallacy of equivocation...)

This is a classic example of what I call the “you can’t, but we can” argument style. The essence of it is this: one party declares a certain topic, appeal, source of authority, term or phrase, or whatever, to be off-limits. The other side agrees. Then the first side proceeds to appeal to that topic, phrase, etc.; but when the other side brings it up, they are reprimanded for speaking on an off-limits topic.

This has plagued the political campaigns this year. Senator Clinton committed it when she castigated others for holding her gender against her, only to turn around and declare that a vote for her is a step of progress for women everywhere. Senator Obama has done something similar with regard to race (and his “youthfulness” as well). Most recently, the McCain/Palin campaign has employed it, first saying that Governor Palin’s pregnant daughter should be “out of bounds” for political discussion, then parlaying it into a mark in her favor as a Pro-Life candidate.

But it happens in the church, too-- and that’s where I’m even more concerned about it. A good example is this excerpt from one of my favorite books on the sacrament of Baptism,
William the Baptist by James M. Chaney. This is a dialogue between William, a devoted Baptist, and his wife’s Presbyterian pastor, on whether immersion is a biblical mode of administering the sacrament (from pp.30-32):

William: ...I cannot express my astonishment to learn that you regard immersion as an unscriptural mode of baptism. You will find but few who will agree with you in that extreme view.

Pastor: Immersionists are zealous in their labors to make such an impression, but it is very erroneous. The ministers of our Church, as a body, agree with me. A few, regarding it as a mere external, look upon it with such supreme indifference that they can scarcely be said to have an opinion on it; and such may sometimes make concessions which our opposers are very quick to catch up and use to their own advantage. I have know a few who would push this question of indifference to such an extreme that, while unhesitatingly declaring immersion unscriptural as a mode of baptism, would yet, on request, administer the rite in that way. The Presbytery of Lafayette, in answer to a memorial, declared by a unanimous vote that, “it is inexpedient and IMPROPER for a Presbyterian minister to administer the rite of baptism by immersion.”

William: Such facts are new to me. But are you not mistaken as to the number of those who make such concessions? I have heard many sermons on the subject by immersionists, and by their quotations and statements they succeeded in making the impression on me that all Pædo-bapists agree in concessions that would seem to render the further discussion of the question unnecessary.

Pastor: Such concessions form the burden of their books and sermons on the subject. Some years ago I put myself to some trouble to hear a Baptist minister, who proposed to discuss the subject purely from a Bible standpoint. I was anxious to know what a man could say in favor of immersion, in three sermons an hour each, who would confine himself to the Bible, and let lexicons and Pædo-baptist concessions alone.
A worthy Baptist minister introduced the services by an earnest prayer, the burden of which was praise to God for His Word, for the clearness of its revelations, and its sufficiency in all things. I was delighted with the prayer: I regarded it as a prelude to a Bible discussion, and thought that a desire, long entertained, to hear such a discussion, was about to be gratified.
A gospel song was sung, and the minister, with only the open Bible before him, began his task. For about fifteen minutes I was charmed with an eloquent eulogy on the Bible. It was in the spirit of the prayer that preceded it. The massive Book, with its pages opened, was held up to our gaze; and “
here,” said the speaker, “not in Creeds and Confessions of Faith, but here, in the Word of God, are we to look and find the mind of the Lord. TO THE LAW and the TESTIMONY if they speak not according to this word, IT IS BECAUSE THERE IS NO LIGHT IN THEM.”
What more could I desire? A Bible discussion of baptism! what I had so longed to hear.
As the sound of the speaker’s voice (in giving the quotation) was dying away, in a most reverent manner he gently closed the sacred volume, and with as much reverence as the case would admit of, he slowly pushed the source of light to his extreme left, taking one step to enable him to get it sufficiently far. The movement was inexplicable. But, in less time than it requires to tell you, the speaker was almost hidden behind books, large and small, which he piled before him, and on his right and left.
And now the Bible discussion!! For
two hours we were treated to a learned dissertation-- by one who knew nothing of the Greek language-- on the meaning of “baptidzo.” Greek lexicons and Pædo-baptist commentators and writers were the sole witnesses. The Bible was wholly ignored. It was not mentioned once. No text was quoted from it!!
If it had been but a human production, I could but pity it on account of such treatment. Sacred volume, lifted so high to fall so low!
My disappointment was great, but I went to hear the second and third discourses, “
et ab uno, disce omnes.” The discussion of the subject, in all, occupied more than five hours, and only at the close, and then only for about fifteen minutes, did the Bible receive any notice, and then all that was done was to quote a few favorite passages, taking it for granted that they were conclusive in favor of immersion, but making no attempt at proof.

William: In all the books I have read on the subject, and in all the discussions to which I have listened, I have noticed that such was their method, and I think it proper. It served to establish me in my views. with such concessions, and the plain teachings of the Bible, I have come to regard the question as removed from any debatable ground, and I cannot express to you my astonishment that you would intimate that a Pædo-baptist would undertake to uphold his views from the Bible alone! Am I correct in drawing the inference that any one would undertake such a task?

Pastor: Do you think any other method legitimate and satisfactory?

William: I certainly thing such a method best; but I see no objection to other aids, especially to the ad hominem arguments to which you have referred.

The gist: the Baptist pastor asserts “no creeds or confessions of faith” are admissible, but “the Word of God alone”-- in other words, “you can’t use your creeds or confessions” (which is convenient, since the Baptist church is ostensibly a “non-creedal” body). Yet, out come the commentators and Baptist resources-- perhaps what we might construe as the confessions of faith for a group that eschews confessions of faith.

So, here are some questions to ask to avoid this argument style:
  • What are the topics, terms, phrases, ideas, appeals to authority, etc., that I consider “off-limits?” Why do I regard them as such?
  • Is my desire for such a limitation an emotional response, or do I have reasons for it? What are the reasons?
  • Is my perspective on these topics, etc., fair and just? Do I consider them “off-limits” because I am trying to cripple my discussion partner? If I allowed them into the discussion, would I simply have more work and research to do, or would I be admitting a harmful element into the debate?
  • Am I willing to subject myself to the same (or similar) limitations? Have I represented my position and/or argument as one that IS subject to the same limitations, but have failed to fulfill that?
  • Is the limitation I am proposing a matter of vital importance, or simply a difference of opinion? Would my discussion partner categorize it in the same way? (And what is suggested by an answer of “no” to that last question?)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Book Review: A Handful of Pebbles

Banner of Truth asked me to write a more detailed review of this book, so I’m posting it here.

Publisher: Banner of Truth Trust
Publication Date: 2008
Rating (1-10 scale): 7+

Anytime I hear the term "liberal" these days, I'm not sure what to think. On the one hand, the word can mean a number of things that are threatening to orthodoxy, or it can mean some things that are actually very good. On the other hand, I wonder if the term has served its purpose, and no longer is the broad-sweeping inclusive category that it once was. So when I received my copy of A Handful of Pebbles and saw that it was subtitled, "theological liberalism and the church," I wondered which of these it would be.

Fortunately, author Peter Barnes is quick to define what he means by liberalism, even granting that it can sometimes have good associations-- yet qualifying how the liberalism he intends is that which is a threat and challenge to biblical orthodoxy. What follows is Barnes's summary of what liberalism is, how it came to find its way into the church, and how an orthodox Christian ought to respond.

This small book offers a brief history of the rise of liberalism in the church, and it does a fair job of that. The first half could be an outline to a historical theology class, if that class focused exclusively on the rise of heresy and philosophical departure from orthodoxy. I appreciated some of the discussion about key doctrines, especially, and thought the content in the couple of chapters given to the problem of "what do we do about it?" were helpful, at least in a limited way, to give the reader some idea about why theological liberalism is at odds with orthodox Christian beliefs.

However, at the end I was left with a nagging question about who the intended audience for the book is. If it is for pastors or professors, it is far too thin on history and foundations to be of great use; It clearly is not intended as an academic reference. If, on the other hand, it is intended as an apologetic for liberal thinkers, it is likely too thin on refutation and discussion of problems; only the most willing and self-skeptical liberal would be convinced by this little tome.

The best audience I can think of for this book is the average church member in an evangelical church, who is himself/herself already committed to orthodoxy; for this person, it would be a good introduction to the indicators of liberal theology and their problems. I could see it being especially useful to put in the hands of a "liberal church refugee," stepping into an orthodox church after years of having the edge taken off of his or her beliefs. Or perhaps it might be a good tool for church officers, who may at times encounter mild or vague questions along the lines of what this book answers.

At times the tone of the book is a bit too defensive or even aggressive. While this may be justifiable given the subject matter, it undermines the brief urging at one point of approaching those in error with love and forbearance. I would have liked a bit more gracious attitude in a book like this.

Overall, I appreciated A Handful of Pebbles, even if I felt it was appropriate for only a limited audience.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"In God We Trust"

A friend of mine recently posted a series of notes on his social network discussing his concern for the fact that our national motto, “In God We Trust,” is being moved from the face of coins (as is common today) to the sides, or edges, of coins in some proposed future designs.

My friend’s concern is that, once the motto is moved to the edges of coins, it won’t be long before it is removed entirely. This is a
Slippery Slope argument, but that’s not what I’m concerned about here. Instead, I’m bothered by my friend’s insistence that this bodes badly for the spiritual state of our nation.

He asserts that we see all references to God being systematically removed from the “arenas of our culture.” This, he says, is a problem because, as with the motto on coins, this removes from the consciousness of the culture the truth of the
Biblical God. I think he assumes too much in this.

We in the church are accustomed to seeing the word “God” and immediately associating it with Yahweh, the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the trinitarian God. But I think the idea of “god” has become so vague and passé outside of the church that there is little or no association with the Christian God in the word itself.

For that matter, in a culture like ours-- where almost everyone has had
some exposure to more than one religious belief system-- the notion of “God” may, as often as not, conjure up an association with Allah (the god of Islam), Gaia or some other pantheistic idea, Hinduism or some eastern religious concept, or even some personally-invented idolatry or paganism. It is clear from the studies that have been done that, while a very large majority of the population of the U.S. say they “believe in God,” the idea of god that those respondents hold is frequently anything other than an orthodox understanding of God.

In stark contrast, I get the sense from my friend’s posts that he considers the presence of our national motto as a great boon for the spread of the Gospel. While this might be an interesting conversation starter that could lead to an evangelistic opportunity, I’ve never heard of anyone who actively inquired about spiritual truth because of the U.S. motto on currency. I could be dead wrong on this one, but I rank the motto on a coin as several notches below bumper stickers, t-shirts, and coffee mugs as tools for outreach.

So here’s my point: should my friend be up in arms? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it is time and energy that is misplaced, that could have been spent doing actual ministry of evangelism and outreach. (So, too, is this post-- consider me sufficiently convicted.)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Wildlife Watch, early September

Well, the does are back to making frequent appearances. Sunday morning I saw the “pair” that regularly moved together last fall-- I think a mother/daughter couple. Only this time, they were accompanied by two fawns, spots still showing. They moved down the left side of the field, then stepped into the woods about 50 yards from my window. I’ve seen them several times, and the other group as well.

I’ve also seen bucks a couple of times. One was just a glimpse of the big guy I first saw last fall; he stood at the edge of the far side of the field for a moment, then turned quickly back into the woods. The other was a younger (looking), smaller buck who crossed the field on his way to the pond. Thirsty in the late-summer heat, I suppose.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Good friends

In a (very) brief trip to St. Louis, I had the pleasure of staying with my friends Craig and Megan, and their lovely girls. We met these sweet people as they were moving to St. Louis to begin seminary a couple of years behind us, and they have become dear friends.

I’ve stayed with them before, and each time has been similar: I come in late, displace someone from their bed, visit briefly with them in the morning, and leave. I’m sure their girls (who are growing up so fast!) think I’m a little crazy (maybe I’m the
Mr. Edwards of this half-pint house) but they are gracious and loving, never complaining about the fact that I took one of their beds.

My friends have moved into a new house, and it is great! They have a lot of good space, and they’ve already done some pretty fantastic work to make it theirs. They have a good vision for the place too, so I’m sure it will be a great home for them for years to come. (Megan, I still think the pinstripes will do best. Maybe a medium-dark blue with white pinstripes?)

I’m so grateful for you, my friends. Thanks for being so inviting--
you are the very model of a house of hospitality.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

On counseling and medication

An interesting discussion on counseling and medication over at another blog raised a good point that I’ve often found is a stumbling block to Christians. David Powlison, quoting the Director of the National Institute on Mental Health, said:

Psychiatric medications can sometimes take the edge off symptoms, but they can't give people what they really need. People need meaning and relationships. Psychiatry can't give that. Medication can't give that.

This is something that is apparently difficult to understand for those who have not had immediate contact with the effects of this kind of medication (known as “psychotropic” medication).

I once had a student whose comment revealed that even those who HAVE had contact sometimes misunderstand. She said in an off-hand manner, “I’ve taken anti-depressants. They make you happy!”

The truth is, they don’t. They might help you to be normal (in a chemical sense), but they don’t make you “happy.” My concern deepened as I counseled this student about this, because she had faced mild-to-moderate depression for so long that she had come to assume that her
depressed state was “normal”-- thus, having that edge of depression taken off was “happy” feeling to her.

Here’s my best analogy of what psychotropic drugs offer: Suppose you love running, and have your heart dead-set on running a marathon in a year. In preparation for a training regimen, you visit your doctor, who informs you that the slight pain in your knee is actually a problem that needs to be addressed surgically; in short, if you don’t have your knee scoped, you won’t be able to train for the marathon, let alone complete it.

Here’s the analogy: if you have your knee scoped, is that going to make you ready for the marathon? No. You’ll still have a lot of work to do to condition your body (and your mind) for running the marathon. But if you don’t have your knee scoped, you are guaranteed that you won’t be able to run the marathon.

So it is with psychotropic medication: they won’t overcome your depression for you, but they might address the physical/physiological obstacles that would keep you from being able to do the work of overcoming depression. (Likewise with anxiety and other clinical mental health issues.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More on the Lord's Supper

Following up (again) on my recently completed series on the Lord’s Supper, I thought this brief (< 1 min.) video from Tim Keller might be another helpful summary of what happens in the sacrament of Communion.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

LTD: the Slippery Slope Fallacy

Picking up on the discussion about fallacies, let’s talk about a very common one: the Slippery Slope fallacy.

The basic idea behind the Slippery Slope fallacy is that one event is simply a step along the way, and it will lead to another and another and so on until we inevitably arrive at something dire and drastic which no one wants.

Slippery Slopes assume that there is a fixed path in one direction for every choice, and that they first step along that path always and inevitably leads to the end of the path.

A good example from the Deaconess/women in diaconal ministry debate (which has become a good case study for understanding logic-- and logical error-- in theological discussion) is the following argument, which I’ve heard or read a number of times over the last several months:

If we allow women to be ordained as Deacons, it will only be a matter of time before we are ordaining them as Ruling Elders and eventually Pastors!

Now, this argument exhibits more than one fallacy (it also contains a “False Cause” fallacy, which we’ll cover another time), but it is a clear Slippery Slope. I’ll demonstrate why in just a moment.

How do you argue against a Slippery Slope fallacy? There are essentially two ways:
  • By counter-example: a counter-example is an argument that follows the same form or concept of an argument, but arrives at a different conclusion. A good counter-example will expose a Slippery Slope’s error.
  • By severing the link: a Slippery Slope depends on the assumed link between the “steps” down the slope; break that link, and you’ve demonstrated the error of the fallacy.
To illustrate: a counter-example might be, “Both the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) have ordained women as Deacons for decades, and both of these denominations are becoming more conservative in their theology in general, not less.”

Meanwhile, here is a severance of the link: “Your argument assumes that the office of Deacon and the office (or offices) of Ruling and Teaching Elder are essentially the same, and that a Deacon is merely an Elder-in-training or something of that sort. But Scripture makes it clear that one is inherently different from the other-- and that it is
not the case that a Deacon is simply a ‘Junior Elder.’ If the offices are different, then one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other.”

Monday, September 8, 2008

Application summary from the Lord's Supper series

As I wrapped up a brief sermon series on The Lord’s Supper yesterday, I thought it may be helpful to summarize the applications, or “answers” to the questions I posed about the sacrament (which were, “what is it?” “when is it?” and “how is it?”):
  • The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a covenantal meal, which means it is a family meal-- thus, it’s not primarily an individual thing, but much more of a group thing, and in a mysterious spiritual way, it is a time of true, living fellowship with God Himself, through which He nourishes our souls with grace.
  • The sacrament is something that we should be devoted to doing: devoted to doing it in the context of worship, accompanied by Word and prayer, because these are the spiritual food that God has given us for nourishment; and devoted to doing it often-- as often as we are able-- because we long to be fed and nourished all the more on the grace of God.
  • The sacrament is something for believers gathered together, not for unbelievers: if we know salvation through Christ alone, we are welcomed through the Gate to take part in this spiritual feast; but if we approach it wrongly-- in an unbelieving way, whether because we misunderstand what the sacrament is for, or because we presume on it meaning that it doesn’t have-- then we are warned of the consequences of judgement being increased on us.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Books for August 2008

I managed to finish a few more books this month than last-- and more importantly (to me, at least), I got my rhythm back for reading. I feel like I’m plowing through them lately, having finished four books in the last 10 days.

Here’s my list for August:
  • Evangelism in the Small Membership Church by Royal Speidel. This book is one of a series, entitled the “ministry in the small membership church” series, published by Abingdon Press. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am by this book. For one thing, most of it really isn’t about evangelism at all; after the first couple of chapters, the bulk of the content is just about pastoral ministry in general. Ironically, the author suggests that the book is a good one for groups of laypeople, but most of the book focuses on the pastoral side of church ministry. Secondly, the author doesn’t speak to small membership churches-- not really; he frequently cites examples from his own ministry experience where he refers to congregations of well over 100, several times mentioning events accomodating more than 500-- even though approx. 60% of all churches are congregations of 100 or fewer. Finally, much of his theology is just poor; there were a number of times that I just shook my head, wondering where he got an idea or how he found what he was saying in the text. While there are a few ideas in the book that I will come back to-- and I’m glad to have read it for those alone-- I simply cannot recommend this one. (3)
  • Waterbrook Press Children’s Extravaganza (children’s books)-- reviewed earlier in the month: God Gave Us Heaven by Lisa Tawn Bergren, When God Created My Toes and God Loves Me More Than That by Dandi Daley Mackall
  • Making a Meal of It: Rethinking the theology of the Lord’s Supper by Ben Witherington, III. I appreciate Witherington’s keen insight into the historical, social, and anthropological culture of biblical times; I’ve long been a fan of his “socio-rhetorical” commentaries. He brings that same insight into this book, giving a comprehensive look at what the institution and celebration of the Lord’s Supper would have looked like in Jesus’ day, and in the early church. There is good stuff to be found here, and Witherington affirms much of what has been something of a revival in Lord’s Supper theology. But I think the subtitle may take things a bit too far: the rethinking began well before this book was published (in 2007). Still, good stuff, even if Witherington is sometimes on the fringes with his theology, which makes me cautious about recommending him. Only because of that occasional theological variance, I rank this one a little lower than I might otherwise. (7)
  • How to Pick a Peach: the search for flavor from farm to table by Russ Parsons. This has been a great and fun read, one I picked up for our vacation in the NC mountains and have recently finished. Parsons offers a season-by-season, produce-by-produce guide for how to know when fruits or vegetables are ripe, how to store them, and even some good advice on preparation and cooking. He also has encyclopedic knowledge of the backgrounds of our modern produce, as well as the food industry (farm and market). His book is peppered with history, science, recipes, and tips for the garden and kitchen alongside a nearly-exhaustive reference for produce. It deserves a place on my shelf alongside my cookbooks and other kitchen references, but I found that I enjoyed reading it cover-to-cover, unlike any reference book I’ve read before. (10)
  • The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in broken bread by Robert Letham (re-read). I re-read this one quickly in preparation for the sermon series I’m about to begin on the subject of the Lord’s Supper. Letham does such a great job of covering this topic, with a lot packed into this little book (only 60 or so pages). I especially appreciate Letham’s practical approach: everything he has put into this book is geared toward a practicable use, and while the content is certainly theologically rich it is also written at a lay-level. So this would be a great book to introduce folks-- maybe in a Sunday School class, or officer training-- to the fundamentals of the Reformed theology of the Lord’s Supper. It’s not comprehensive-- there’s a good bit of Old Testament and historical content missing that is well-covered in other books (such as Given for You by Keith A. Mathison). But it is a great primer. (9)
  • A Handful of Pebbles: theological liberalism and the church by Peter Barnes. This small book offers a brief history of the rise of liberalism in the church, and it does a fair job of that. I appreciated some of the discussion about key doctrines, especially. However, my question is who the intended audience for the book is. If it is for pastors or professors, it is far too thin on history and foundations to be of great use; if, on the other hand, it is intended as an apologetic for liberal thinkers, it is likely too thin on refutation and discussion of problems. The best audience I can think of for this book is the average church member in an evangelical church, who is himself/herself already committed to orthodoxy; for this person, it would be a good introduction to the indicators of liberal theology and their problems. While the tone is a bit defensive, perhaps that is justified given the subject. (7+)
  • The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield. I’ve already reviewed this book on my blog, and you can read my review here. (8+)
  • Serving in Church Visitation by Jerry M. Stubblefield. I was excited about this little book when I first got it-- and I wasn’t disappointed! This introduction to the approach, attitude, and practice of visiting others on behalf of Christ and His church is brief, yet as thorough as it needs to be. This would be a good tool to use in Officer Training, or perhaps more appropriately in ongoing study with existing officers-- though it is not limited to officers in its scope or audience. (9+)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

LTD: Fallacies and what they do

Continuing my “Logic for Theological Discussion” series (which I will henceforth label “LTD”), I’d like to talk today about fallacies: what they are and how they work.

A fallacy is a part of an argument. Specifically, it is a part that is able to be shown to have a logical problem or flaw. Once that flaw is demonstrated, the whole argument fails. (When this is so, the argument is said to be “fallacious.”)

You would be astonished at how frequently fallacies occur in arguments, from the most casual and conversational to the most articulate, meticulously word-smithed presentation. They are as common as the rain.

When a fallacy occurs, it is usually a subtle, and can be hard to detect at first; this is often because more than one fallacy occurs at the same time, and one masks the other. Fallacies come in the form of matters of relevance, vague or ambiguous use of words or ideas, matters of correlation or cause, or exploiting some sort of emotional element in the listener.

A good (and very common) example of a fallacy is the
Ad Hominem fallacy. There are actually several different forms of an Ad Hominem (which is Latin, meaning “to the person”), but they all amount to something along the same lines: when you cannot strongly attack the argument itself, attack the person doing the arguing.

For example: in the discussions surrounding the issue of women as deacons/deaconesses, something the “pro” side (in other words, they were for some form of diaconal service being open to women) would often say is, “The reason the PCA’s
Book of Church Order is the way it is can be traced back to the reactionary tendencies of the PCA’s founders.”

(Mea Culpa: I’ve said some form of this statement before.)

Let me first point out how this is an Ad Hominem fallacy: rather than addressing the argument-- namely, that the
Book of Church Order as written prohibits any ordination of women to church office-- the response attacks the arguer. In this case, it means either, “The writers of the BCO were wrong because they were reactionaries,” or, “If you agree with the BCO, then you are wrong because, since the writers of the BCO were reactionaries, so are you.”

Neither of these is
relevant to the question of whether the BCO is correct in its interpretation and application of Scripture when it comes to women in diaconal service. Therefore, claiming that the writers were reactionaries has no real bearing on the soundness of the argument.

How do you deal with an Ad Hominem fallacy when one is thrown at you? There are several strategies:
  • Take the higher ground: ignore the fallacy and stick to the facts and real arguments. Give other listeners the benefit of the doubt in being able to recognize the fallacious quality of the argument. (Best when the Ad Hominem is obvious and blatant.)
  • Address it briefly: suggest that there is no reason to get distracted by name-calling, and request that you stick to the subject at hand instead of getting distracted by irrelevant opinions. (Best when the audience is neutral about whether the Ad Hominem is true, and/or when the Ad Hominem is based on a highly opinionated perspective rather than something more factually-based.)
  • Force them to work it out: ask them probing questions about their claim, requiring them to explain the direct relevance of what they have said and gradually exposing their argument as a fallacy. (Best when the audience is favorable toward the fallacious position.)

Monday, September 1, 2008

Book review: The Faith of Barack Obama

I was invited by Thomas Nelson publishers to review one of their new titles, The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield. This is one of a small handful of books that are hitting the stores as the Democratic Presidential Nominee gains more attention in the U.S. and the world. Mansfield, who in 2004 wrote the similarly-eloquent title, The Faith of George W. Bush, brought the same approach to this look at Senator Obama’s life of faith.

You can’t consider a man’s story of faith without considering the story of his life, and Mansfield offers a brief but sufficient overview of Barack Obama’s family, childhood, early adult life, and entrance into the political realm. Senator Obama’s life story is rich and amazing in itself; through Mansfield’s pen it is a delight to read.

From there, the author presents us with Obama’s re-introduction to Christianity-- a more personal one than the senator had encountered before. We also get a closer look at Trinity Church of Christ of Chicago and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, both of which were instrumental in Obama’s spiritual awakening, as well as Rev. Wright’s version of Black Liberation Theology, which was less a part of Obama’s journey. And we are offered a brief contrast of Obama’s faith story with those of Senator John McCain, Senator Hillary Clinton, and President George W. Bush.

As a book, I appreciated Mansfield’s insight and perspective very much. He was light-handed with his own interpretation, instead relying on extensive interviews and quotes to tell the stories of Senator Obama’s life and faith for him. He was also mercifully light on political material or analysis, though at times (especially in later chapters) it emerged more explicitly, though not in a dogmatic way. Due to the timing of the book, I found some parts of it already felt a bit dated-- especially a couple of references to the likelihood that Obama would lose in the primaries-- but overall this aspect was masked fairly well.

As a message-- and every book has a message-- I appreciated Mansfield’s perspective, though less so. As
I’ve mentioned before, I accept Barack Obama’s profession of faith as credible, and find it frustrating when people assume otherwise simply because of his name or his background. Mansfield does a fine job of addressing this, and perhaps that was a major goal for his writing; his style and approach is a positive one, focusing more on affirmation than exposé. But I felt that the questions that needed to be answered in a book like this went unaddressed, such as how much or how little Senator Obama embraces the prominent Black Liberation Theology of his (now former) pastor and church, or how he reconciles some of his more extreme views with his professed faith and trust in the Bible. As such, the book felt just a little unfinished-- as if the rush to press meant that the time ran out for the interviews that would answer these and other questions.

Still, the country and the church-- especially the evangelical right-wing-- need this book, and others like it, to help us understand our brothers and sisters of the evangelical left. Overall, I’ll rank this book at 8+.

Sermon Texts for September 2008

Happy Labor Day, everyone. Here are the sermon texts for the month of September, with the continuation of the series on the Lord’s Supper, and then resuming Luke.

One thing to note: as we move through the fall (even starting in September, though I certainly hope this won’t be the case then), you should take these published texts with a grain of salt. Chances are, the schedule might change last-minute if Marcie should go into labor and the twins arrive. I’m planning to have some guys in the Presbytery “on call” to pinch-hit for me should I need it.

UPDATE: I made a slight adjustment to the last text.

September 7
1 Corinthians 11:23-34 -- What is the Lord’s Supper? Part 3: How is it?
September 14 Luke 7:1-17 -- Great power and humble faith
September 21 Luke 7:18-35 -- Following a prepared path
September 28 Luke 7:36-50 -- How great is the debt?