Books: Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin (Part 1)

Since life is both complex and difficult, we all need a method to search for lifes meaning. Lesslie Newbigin provides a fascinating survey of how that task has been carried out in Europe and America. Newbigin (19091998) was a British missionary and pastor whose liberal theology expressed a high view of Christ but a flawed commitment to the reliability of the Bible.

Newbigins book Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995) does two things really well. First, he presents a convincing history of how people in the West perceive reality and develop a worldview. Reading the first three chapters reminded me of how excited I felt reading Francis Schaeffers cultural analysis for the first time. The second thing Newbigin does well is to summarize the idea of personal knowledge developed by the Hungarian scientist Michael Polanyi.

Newbigin sees two streams of thought as combining in Europe and America: (1) the philosophy of classical antiquity (Greece, Rome, Plato, and Aristotle), and (2) the history of the people of God mediated through Israel, the Bible, and the Christian church. Classical philosophy followed Plato in seeking an ultimate reality of ideas through asking questions (Plato) and analyzing causes (Aristotle). Gods people claim that ultimate reality is knowable through Jesus Christ, God personally with us.

Newbigin makes the interesting point that classical philosophy sought answers by asking questions of (impersonal) nature and our experience; in this approach, questions flow one way. But the Christian viewpoint asks questions within personal relationships with Christ and with other Christians; questions flow both ways. So, Jesus asks the disciples, Who do you say that I am? (Matthew 16:15).

One important development in the Christian understanding of reality was the slogan of Augustine of Hippo (354-430): I believe in order to know. Augustine said that knowledge begins with the faithful acceptance of the fact that God revealed himself in Christ. But Newbigin points out that such personal knowledge involves risk. To gain the knowledge that Christ brings involves a total commitment to him.

In the next post about this book I will try to summarize the ideas of Michael Polanyi and show how they relate to Christian discipleship.

Copyright 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.

Books: Salvation and Sovereignty by Kenneth Keathley

Salvation and Sovereignty by Kenneth Keathley is an outstanding book, but it is a challenge for anyone not prepared to deal with the twists and turns of Calvinistic theology. If you want to learn about Calvinism and its limitations, this book is outstanding.

For starters, don’t judge this book by the cover, which lacks any appeal whatever. The publisher let the author down; that is a common experience.

Aside from clear writing about a complex subject, the special value of this book is that it tries to explain how Molinism (see below) combines with Calvinism to make a biblical and sensible explanation of salvation and sovereignty. At the end of the day, I don’t buy it, but there was never much chance the author could bring me to the somber shores of Calvinism no matter what boat we sailed on.

Molinism

Let’s take a minute to introduce Molinism (also known as “middle knowledge”). The Jesuit scholar and priest Louis Molina (1535–1600) originated a way of applying God’s comprehensive knowledge to the issues of sovereignty, human freedom and salvation. It’s a bit of a head-spinner, so hang on!

Molinism hinges on the words could, would and will. First, God knows everything that could possibly happen; he knows all possible worlds that could be created. Second, God knows everything that would happen; he knows which worlds — out of all the possible worlds — would accomplish his purposes. Third, out of all the possible worlds that would accomplish God’s purposes, he chooses one and creates that one world. In that one created world, God knows everything that will happen.

Now, let’s stop and ask one simple question: where is any of that stated in the Bible? If you answered “Nowhere!” to that question, then give yourself a reward. Keathley says: “Scripture never states explicitly that God utilizes middle knowledge to accomplish his will. But when all the disparate components of the biblical witness are brought together it becomes clear that Molinism is a reasonable proposal.”[1] The kind of philosophical reasoning such as that in the previous paragraph is typical of the sixteenth century, and here we are talking about it in 2011. See my previous post for more on how that happened.

Back to the story of Molinism — the key to the Molinist argument is a kind of trick typical of this kind of philosophical theology. Because God knows everything that would happen in the possible worlds that would accomplish his purposes, he also knows how humans would behave in those worlds. But because God has not yet selected which world he will ultimately create, the human beings in those worlds are acting freely in making their decisions. That being so, there can be no accusation that anyone other than those people are responsible for their behavior. They have complete free will, so this (hypothetical) fact upholds human freedom. It also means they are responsible for the sins they commit.

Next we get to the final step where God picks the world that best suits his purposes. Once he chooses that world and creates it, he has picked a world where nothing can happen other than what he has chosen. He knows what will happen in that world — our world, by the way — so God is shown to be sovereign over every detail of that world. Yet he cannot be responsible for the sin in that world because the humans inhabiting it freely chose such sins before he chose to create that world.

This clever scheme upholds both human freedom and divine sovereignty. So, I guess it is time to break out the champagne and celebrate. Not so fast! Many Calvinists and Arminians have rejected middle knowledge, each because it makes concessions to the other side of the argument. Some on each side are still trying to work out the issues.

I see several problems with this theory of middle knowledge, at least in the form Keathley describes:

  1. The system is still deterministic enough to leave God responsible for sin.
  2. The created world lacks any life-like dynamism because all the choices were made before the world was created.
  3. The system fails to account for the real-time emotions, actions and contingencies that God initiates in the scenes described by the Bible. A good example is the suffering of Jesus and his resulting prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–44).

Objection 1: Molinism leaves God responsible for sin

Consider my first objection, that Molinism makes God responsible for sin. When God picks world 321 — just one among the infinite possibilities — along with all the specific actions and choices its contains over the course of time, and then creates that world, God is in fact determining that all the actions and choices contained in world 321 will occur without fail. When you think about it, that means God is determining all the murders, instances of sexual slavery, genocides and so on that will occur in the pre-selected “life” of that created world. So, how does Keathley get around this problem?

Keathley treats the would-stage — the specific world 321 that God has not yet created — as if it were an independent compartment sealed off from that world when it is actually created by God at the will-stage. In effect, each person in world 321 is created already responsible for their as-yet-future sins. If not, then God would be responsible for effectuating their lives while already knowing he has determined that they will sin.

How did God pick world 321 for creation? Keathley explains: “William Lane Craig suggests that God ‘chose a world having an optimal balance between the number of the saved and the number of the damned.’ In other words, God has created a world with a maximal ratio of the number of saved to those lost.”[2] Keathley appears to argue that God did the best he could; he made the least bad choice, though Keathley never says so straight out.

Keathley illustrates this view using the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II. General Dwight Eisenhower genuinely desired that none of his troops perish, but he ordered the invasion knowing that some were doomed to death by that decision.[3] To demonstrate Molinism more fully, Keathley later expands that illustration by imagining that General Eisenhower knows exactly what will happen to each soldier in every possible invasion scenario and picks the invasion plan that will result in the least fatalities overall.[4]

Keathley seems to think this least-lost scheme puts God in a favorable light. In fact, the only thing Keathley has done is to maintain what he calls God’s “meticulous command of the minutest details,”[5] which he considers to be a firmly established biblical doctrine. So, in Keathley’s understanding of Molinism and his understanding of the Bible, determinism is alive and well.

Objection 2: Molinism gives us a world without dynamism

Once God decides to create world 321, nothing can happen in the unfolding of that world’s human lives other than what he has already foreseen and determined will occur. Such a world has all the real-life possibilities as a movie on a DVD: that is, it has none! Nothing is going to happen in that world except what the laser has already cut into the grooves of the DVD.

You remember Abraham’s famous string of requests for God to spare Sodom from destruction (Genesis 18)? It reads like a dynamic interchange between the living God and a man concerned for his kinsman. But no, it already happened as part of world 321  a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Once God decided to enact world 321, then Abraham would play his part in due time, just like in the movies. The DVD of world 321 does not change. It can’t!

Objection 3: Molinism mocks contingency and emotions

The Bible is filled with contingent situations, usually marked with the word “if.” Read in Jeremiah 18:5–10 how God shapes his actions to match the repentance or stubbornness of those nations he threatens with judgment. Read in Ezekiel 18:1–32 how God interacts with individuals based on their obedience or disobedience. These chapters express simple contingency where God blesses or curses based on the faith or rebellion of those he is dealing with.

But remember that, in Keathley’s Molinism, world 321 — my designation for the specific world God chose to create — comes into existence with all its questions settled in advance. How can “if” possibly mean anything in world 321? The ugly truth is that in such a world God is not free; never mind the fact that man is not free either.

Molinism also seems to mock emotions. Consider the powerful emotions Jesus expressed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–44 and Mark 14:32–34). It is even more wrenching in the Greek original than in English translation. Jesus said, “Abba, Father . . . everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Does the Father really have a choice here? Jesus says he does, but how is that possible in the pre-determined world 321? How can Jesus feel such strong emotions here and in other cases if he has known for 13.5 billion years — or 7,000 years for you young-earth folks — what was going to happen?

Quick Summary on Keathley’s Molinism

Maybe I’m missing something, but for now it seems that Keathley has only traded problems. He does a terrific job of respectfully showing the shortcomings of standard Calvinism. Keathley appropriately notes that while Calvinism stresses God’s sovereignty above all else, Molinism stresses God’s omniscience the most. Molinism is indeed preferable. Unfortunately, both roads still lead to determinism.

A Final Word

I would add that Keathley does a great job discussing ROSES, the new replacement for Calvinism’s famous TULIP. I may address that another day. He also has some useful insights from historical theology. If you like philosophical theology that has a high view of Scripture and is very well written, this book is for you. I really enjoyed it.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.


[1] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010) 41.

[2] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 153.

[3] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 153.

[4] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 160.

[5] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 23.

 

A short history of the Western Church — Part 3 (end)

If you have not read the previous segments of this history, I recommend you start at the beginning, here.

Note that as we approach our own times some readers will find that the history of their denomination or church may move away from that shown in this final segment. This segment was originally designed to help people in my home church– Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas learn our particular spiritual heritage.

At the end of the second segment of this history, available here, we paused at the beginning of the nineteenth century in America. That is where our story will resume below.

Religious change in America

After the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, our focus shifts to America, where Protestants prospered in a religiously pluralistic society in which they viewed denominations as voluntary organizations that believers create and join according to their convictions and preferences.[1] But immigration was rapidly changing the national mixture of faiths. Gonzalez says, The Catholic Church (which, at the time of independence, was a small minority) had, by the middle of the nineteenth century, become the largest religious body in the nation.[2]

We should not ignore the sad fact that one issue held back America and the progress of the gospel: slavery. Eventually this led to Civil War followed by an oppressive Reconstruction. Afterward the greatest wave of immigrants came. Davies notes, Europe lost 25 million emigrants to the USA in the last quarter of the century.[3]

Poisonous German ideas

As important as the flow of people across the Atlantic was the westward flow of ideas. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a burst of scientific and engineering triumphs as well as the spread of the theory of biological evolution. German scholars produced a stream of ideas that questioned the historical accuracy and reliability of the Bible: Jesus was just a great man, they said, and certainly could not have risen from the dead. Miracles either had a natural explanation or were just products of inspired imagination. There was enormous faith in man, his future and perfectibility.

Of these developments Gonzales says, Protestant Liberalism was an attempt to couch Christianity in the mold of those ideas, and gained wide acceptance among the intellectual elite of the United States.[4] Seeing this as a threat to the very core of Christian faith, an anti-liberal reaction developed that came to be known as fundamentalism. The fundamentals may be considered to include the following essential doctrines: the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, the atonement of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the miracle-working power of Christ.[5]

The rise of fundamentalism

But fundamentalism did not arise in a vacuum. One driving force may be found in the fellowship and Bible teaching enjoyed by Christian leaders who met annually for 1-2 weeks at the Niagara Bible Conference, held mostly at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, from 1875 to 1900.[6] Such meetings have been widely copied over the years and often given the name the prophecy and Bible conference movement.

But fundamentalism had another strong support, the independent Bible institutes. Sandeen says, During the last two decades of the nineteenth century the unordained Dwight L. Moody [1837-1899] was the most influential clergyman in America.[7] From 1873-75 Moody presented evangelistic sermons to over 2.5 million people in England and Scotland. The Moody Bible Institute in Chicago was established in 1889 and has profoundly influenced evangelical Christianity in America. Across the country, in 1907, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles was also important.

Historian George Marsden has said that fundamentalism was rooted in the eighteenth century idea that truth is available and can be obtained through the inductive method — when used to analyze the Bible.[8] To this Marsden added the nineteenth century experience that combined individualism, revivalism, the centrality of the Bible, personal commitment and inward holiness. Finally, he summarized fundamentalism as an anti-modernist coalition that was resistant to religious and cultural change. [9]

Perhaps the most crucial publication of early fundamentalism was the Scofield Reference Bible, which emerged in 1909. It provided helpful notes and cross references along with the interpretive framework of dispensational modernism’s views about the different ways God had interacted with man through the ages, a system known as dispensationalism. C.I. Scofield (1843-1921), a Dallas minister from 1882-1895 and 1902-1907, was not famous before the reference Bible came out, but he certainly was afterward.

The modern church: World War I (1914-1918) to 1970

From the viewpoint of those who consider the Bible completely trustworthy and accept supernatural acts by God through Christ, the most notable Christian development following World War I was the degree to which American denominations struggled with the penetration of Protestant Liberalism into denominational seminaries. The Presbyterians and the Baptists experienced denominational splits over the matter, and the issue still simmers today.

However, Bible-believing Christians had new options. Sandeen says, Dissatisfaction with the denominations certainly grew stronger with the progress of Liberalism, but the really decisive factor seems to have been the development of nondenominational institutional structures which could function in the same manner as the denomination.[10] By this he means the Bible institutes and the new seminaries and churches that formed in loose relation to them.

One such seminary was Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) which began in 1924. DTS was formed by Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952), who had served from 1914-1923 on the faculty of the Philadelphia School of the Bible. DTS was founded as an institution centered on the Bible. The seminary stands in the stream of theology known as the Protestant Reformation, and within its American successor the early fundamentalist movement.

Sandeen notes that since 1950, the more moderate wing of the fundamentalist movement has called itself Evangelicalism and has manifested an unexpected vitality and appeal.[11]

Copyright 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.


[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols. (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1984) 2:242.

[2] Gonzalez, 2:243.

[3] Norman Davies, Europe: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) 782.

[4] Gonzalez, 2:256.

[5] Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970)xviii.

[6] Sandeen, 134.

[7] Sandeen, 172.

[8] Cited by John D. Hannah, An Uncommon Union (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 43.

[9] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

[10] Sandeen, 240.

[11] Sandeen, xiii.