Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Noetic Effects of Grace: Pagan Wisdom

To further our discussion of education, I think it will be helpful to draw our attention to some of the Bible's own testimony concerning the "wisdom" of the pagans (some of what follows is gleaned from Dr. Johnson's article cited below).

As an adopted son of Pharoah's daughter, Moses served in the king's court and "was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (a fact that, along with Jewish tradition, Stephen highlights with apparent approval, Acts 7:22). At the time of the exile, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah took the Chaldean names Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, and were given by Yahweh "learning and skill in all [Babylonian] literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams" (Dan. 1:17). Finally, the fact that Solomon's wisdom is said to have "surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt" is intended to be impressive, which it obviously would not be if God's people alone were wise (I Kings 4:29-34).

To be sure, there is a stark antithesis in Scripture between the wisdom of this age and that of the age to come. But the sharpness of this antithesis seems most apparent when the spiritual concerns of God's second book, rather than the temporal concerns of his first one, are at issue.

Given these biblical accounts, together with the fact that all people still share the imago Dei even postlapsum, is it not at least conceivable that a child can learn his three Rs in a context that is consistent with the nature of those subjects, namely a common one? And further, is it not sufficient to insist upon a holy education when it comes to subjects that are themselves holy, namely, those contained in the Holy Bible?

(And please continue to be nice to "em," she is a member of my church. Failure to do so may result in my hunting you down and... well, you get the point).

Monday, March 26, 2007

One God, One Truth, Two Books

"All truth," we are often reminded, "is God's truth." Fair enough... But if God is the author of two books, the book of nature given through general revelation and the book of Scripture given by special revelation, then our well-worn slogan will need some nuancing before it will ellicit anything more than a yawn.

Few today would deny that it is the existence of some "higher power" that makes truth real and knowable by human beings (the overwhelming majority of Americans are theists, meaning the standards of qualification, obviously, are not that high). But when it comes to actually studying God's truth, and in particular his first book, the book of nature, how important is it to emphasize the God behind it all? Or to state the question with more specificity: When determining the freezing point of water, how crucial is it to highlight the fact that it is God who, before the foundation of the earth, sovereignly ordained the answer to be 32°?

Westminster Seminary California professor Dennis Johnson writes:
"... If we deny or minimize the motif of common grace, we run the risk of intellectual arrogance, a defensive isolationism from the culture in general and the academy in particular.... A devaluation of God's goodness in common grace may also foster an anti-intellectualism that despises God's general revelation in the created order and his providential dealings in history. Spiritually, ignoring common grace may foster attitudes of suspicion, antipathy, and contempt toward non-Christians" ("Spiritual Antithesis: Common Grace and Practical Theology," Westminster Theological Journal Vol. 64 [2002] 73-94).
If those subjects about which God has not spoken directly in his Word are therefore to be considered common (i.e., neither demonic nor divine), does this mean we can study them with, and be taught them by, pagans idolaters with no regard for God and his law? And will our studies in this environment be unavoidably deficient?

Or more simply, how much educational value are we to expect from the fact that all truth is God's?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Desperately De-Programming Danny

Regarding public schooling, parents often voice the (legitimate) concern that they don't want to have to "de-program" their children each day when they step off the school bus:

Mom: "Danny, what did you learn at Amityville Public School school today?"
Danny: "I learned that I am a highly evolved cosmic accident."
Mom: "Oh dear! Anything else?"
Danny: "Ummm... just that 'Heather Has Two Mommies.'"
But the suggestion that the need for de-programming would cease if our children were enrolled in the local Christian school is naïve, especially if Danny was baptized as a baby:

Mom: "Danny, what did you learn at Pleasantville Christian School today?"
Danny: "I learned that God is lonely and wants me to be converted so he has someone to talk to."
"Oh dear! Anythng else?"
Danny: "Ummm... just that the Antichrist is going to broker a covenant between the godless Arabs and the beloved Jews allowing them to rebuild their temple, the eventual goal being an earthly millennium during which the Levitical sacrificial system will be reinstituted."
(Hyperbole? Maybe, but only just....)

I trust you see where I'm going with this: If a family lacks either the luxury of having a theologically like-minded Christian school in their vicinity, or the thousands of dollars each year to pay for it, then chances are some de-programming will need to occur. The question, then, is which is a better message for little Danny: "We're not like those unbelievers," or, "We're not like those Arminian, dispensational, charismatic evangelicals."

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Train Up a Child

In the spirit of our ongoing application of the law of Christ to contemporary issues, I would like to broach a subject that engenders impassioned debate on both sides:


There are various ways in which this issue has been approached. Some insist that, since "all truth is God's truth," education must take place from a uniquely Christian perspective (either in the form of homeschooling or through private Christian schools). Moreover, some advocates of Christian schools further insist that an educational model borrowed from the public schools with some Bible lessons thrown in is insufficient, opting rather for a classical, trivium-based approach (indeed, some are so sold on the classical model that they would opt for a non-Christian classical academy over a non-classical Christian school).

Others wonder whether, if a robust view of common grace is held, subjects like science, math, and literature really need to be taught under a distinctly Christian rubric. After all, doesn't our sharing the imago Dei with unbelievers allow us sufficient commonality to investigate these topics together?

And perhaps most importantly, do any of the proponents of the various views have the right to preface their position with "Thus saith the Lord"?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Is All Power Legitimate?

In seeking to show that power must be justified in order to be legitimately exercised, one illustration that has been used is that of a grandparent who yanks his grandson by the arm, causing a moderate amount of pain to the boy. This is obviously an exercise of force that seems quite harsh, at least until we come to understand that the grandfather was pulling his grandson out of the way of an oncoming vehicle, thereby justifying the use of force. The moral of the story is that power is not always legitimate, but must be justified in order to be seen as such.

What, then, constitutes legitimate power or authority?

If it is wrong, as many argue, to employ armed resistance against a lawful government, even if it is oppressive, then what does that say about the American Revolution? And if we conclude that it was illegitimate for the Founding Fathers to take up the sword against the British crown, what does that say of the authority of our government today, over 200 years later?

Or take another example (one which was used in the comments under the previous thread): If China were to invade the U.S. and occupy this country, at what point, if any, should this new regime cease to be seen as illegitimate aggrressors and become legitimate recipients of our dutiful obedience and respect?

Is there a statute of limitations on rebellion? What if there are rival claims upon our obedience, as during the Civil War (err... excuse me: The "War of Northern Aggression")? Ought we simply fall back upon our own individual consciences to determine our answers to these questions?

And how can we maintain Christian unity amid the varying opinions that exist among believers on these issues?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"Rights": Civil and Spiritual

To be sure, the question of the Christian's obedience to the civil magistrate would be pretty easy if the state were simply totalitarian. In other words, if conformity were commanded with all loopholes abolished, then in the spirit of Romans 13 we would just suck it up and "obey their lawful commands" (WCF XXIII.4).

But when the powers that be confuse the matter by actually inviting challenges to their authority when or if it is abused (such as the insistence of the Declaration of Independence that a government should be "abolished" if it fails to secure the rights of the people who established it), then that changes things dramatically.

Here's where the distinction between the ethics of the civil and spiritual kingdoms is so striking, and, further, what makes appeals for "civil rights" that are peppered with biblical language so troubling. When one quotes Jesus to bolster his demand for the better treatment to which he feels he is entitled, not only is he misconstruing his Christian liberty as civil liberty (contra WCF XX.1, 4), but he is demonstrating a woeful ignorance of the cross. If Jesus did not invoke his unalienable right not to be killed, and if "the servant is not greater than his Master," then who are we to appeal to him to avoid suffering? If the kingdom of God teaches us anything, it is that following Jesus means foregoing our rights for his sake.

But the kingdom of man does afford its subjects certain "unalienable rights" (at least in this country’s expression of it). If, therefore, we feel that those rights are being violated, and further, if we choose to fight for them, then appealing the Scripture while doing so would seem to do more harm than good.

"Carnal weapons for earthly warfare" – sounds about right....

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Two Swords, Two Powers, and the Butcher of Wall Street

Both the church and civil magistrate wield a sword, the question is "What kind?"

The sword that Paul recognizes as belonging in the hand of the state is one that is "not borne in vain," being the weapon of him who "is an avenger who executes God's wrath on the evildoer" (Rom. 13:4). The sword wielded by the church, on the other hand, is called "the sword of the Spirit," "the Word of God that distinguishes the thoughts and intents of man's heart" (Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12).

Here is the crucial point relating to our discussion of civil disobedience: The power of the civil magistrate is magisterial and legislative, while the power of the church is only ministerial and declarative. This means that, while the state is permitted to make laws, the church can do no such thing, but can only serve to administer the laws of Scripture by declaring them to the believing community.

This distinction helps answer the question raised in the comments of the previous thread concerning capitalism. Since the admission that believers are free to resist the state's power when it is manifested in something as insidious as the Third Reich is both easy (since it was so obviously evil) and unhelpful (since it no longer exists), what about a contemporary example of unjust power that is oppressive and can be legitimately resisted (the commenter suggested capitalism)? If it would have been unconscionable to allow Josef Mengele to the Lord's Table in the 1930s', what about Gordon Gekko in the 1980s'?

Rather than pursuing the course of either the "Christian Right" or the "Christian Left" (both of which ironically stem from similar ecclesiologies leading to dissimilar conclusions), ought not the church simply admit that its authority, being ministerial and declarative, does not extend far enough to determine such questions as whether capitalists may commune?

Or to put it more simply, the question may be interesting for Christians to discuss, but the answer falls outside the church's jurisdiction.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Lawful Power and its Exercise

The framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith highlighted the important distinction between lawful power and the lawful exercise of that power. They write:

They who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God (XX.4).
Moreover, in the chapter entitled Of the Civil Magistrate they write:

It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates... to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience' sake (XXIII.4).
These statements invite a couple important questions. First, what would be an example of a "lawful power" exercising its power "unlawfully"? Secondly, does the divines' insistence that we obey the civil magistrate's "lawful commands" mean, by implication, that we are free to disobey its unlawful commands? And if so, what is the standard by which the state's laws are to be measured?

In cases like Paul's, where he expected to receive the treatment to which his Roman citizenship entitled him, it was legitimate to question the abuse of the civil magistrate's power. Likewise for us today, our Declaration of Independence clearly distinguishes between the country and the government, seeing the latter as legitimate only insofar as it receives the consent of the former:
Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [securing the people's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it....

So if a state itself invites us to challenge its own abuse of power, shouldn't we be free to do so without "pretence of Christian liberty" or "disobeying lawful commands," but rather, in the words of the Confession, purely "for conscience' sake"?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Choose Your Weapons

I mentioned in my last post that Paul reminded the Corinthians that "the weapons of our warfare are not carnal" (II Cor. 10:3-5). In other words, when fighting a spiritual battle, spiritual weapons must be used in order to ensure success (cf. Eph. 6:10ff).

But what about the flipside? What if the issue is not that of fighting spiritual battles with earthly weapons, but fighting earthly battles with spiritual weapons?

For example, what are we to make of the invoking of "Christian liberty" on the part of our Founding Fathers to justify their rebellion against England's unfair taxation? This gets especially tricky in the light of statements such as
"They who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God" (WCF XX.4).
What is rarely pointed out in these discussions is what the divines do not say here. They do not forbid all opposition to the civil magistrate's power, but only that done "upon pretence of Christian liberty" (the latter being spiritual, and not civil, in nature, WCF XX.1). This means that our opposition to England, or to any civil injustice, cannot be legitimately justified by citing Jesus' promise that "if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed" (no disrespect, Dr. King).

Could this, however, leave the door open for the fighting of civil battles using civil weapons?

Did not Paul protest the illegitimate use of Rome's power, not on the basis of his heavenly citizenship, but on the basis of his being a citizen of the earthly empire (Acts 22:25)? Though we are commanded to "obey [the civil magistrate's] lawful commands" (WCF XXIII.4), what about when that power is used unlawfully, even by its own earthly standards?

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Law of Christ and the Powers That Be

Though you'd never know if from reading what much of the evangelical and neo-Calvinistic world has to say about "the kingdom," the Reformed view states that "the church is the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ" (WCF XXV.2). Still, the distinction between the civil and spiritual kingdoms, sharp though it may be, is often blurred at the very point where those two lines intersect:

The individual believer.

Because we hold dual-citizenship in the kingdoms of Christ and culture, our allegiances can be difficult to determine, and sometimes even conflicting. For this reason the Bible has much to say about keeping our devotion straight.

We are forbidden by Scripture, for example, from waging a spiritual battle with carnal weapons (II Cor. 10:3-5), and yet we are permitted to disobey the civil magistrate when its laws are in conflict with Christ's (Acts 5:29).

But those are easy. What about more difficult dilemmas like, for example, fighting civil battles with spiritual weapons? Ought we to bother ourselves with civil concerns at all? And if so, at what point, if any, may we legitimately disobey those "who wield not the sword in vain"?

And should we quote Scripture when we do it?