By / Jan 4

Several years ago, The New Yorker published their weekly magazine with what can only be described as a damning photo. On the magazine’s 90th anniversary cover (one of nine), the issue depicted a man holding a phone in what’s become a sadly ubiquitous posture. Ignoring a cloudy sky and the flight of a butterfly directly overhead, this man, with his thumbs at the ready, is “bent in on himself,” staring at his little “glowing rectangle.”  

If you spend any amount of time in public spaces these days, you observe this scene with unremitting frequency. In the grocery line, at traffic lights, even sitting across the table from a friend, the glow of our smartphones has pulled our attention downward and inward. More visibly than ever, we are creatures, as Augustine and Luther long ago described us, “deeply curved in” on ourselves. The iPhone, and all its representative progeny, could not be more appropriately named. 

The formative power of habit

One of the genius design features of the modern smartphone is that it places its user at its gravitational center. All smartphone activity revolves around the person holding it, creating a subconscious bodily ritual or liturgy, as Justin Earley argues in The Common Rule. What this means for us is that as long as we hold a phone in our hands, we function as the acting center of our universe. To put it more bluntly, our world becomes self-centered. 

We would likely all agree that our collective forward-hunched posture, the constant peering into the screens of our smartphones, is a habit we’ve let get out of hand. What we may not be aware of, however, is the formative power of this habit and its encroachment into all other areas of our lives. To that point, Earley argues that our habits, whether we’re aware of it or not, actively “form our hearts.” So, if habits, as he suggests, possess the power to shape us deep down at the heart-level, and one of our most frequent habits involves this inward bend toward a phone—and toward the self—we must ask: what sort of person is this habit forming us to be?

Habits and distorted discipleship

Our smartphones have more power over us than we’re willing to reckon with. We have sold our souls to these all-powerful devices in exchange for the very real conveniences they promise. And, in so doing, we’re reaping the consequences. No corner of our lives is left unaffected by our ritualized devotion to our phones, namely the three “corners” most consequential: knowledge of God, knowledge of self, and love of neighbor. In effect, this yielding to our phones has disrupted and disordered these most fundamental competencies of the Christian faith. 

  1. Knowledge of God

John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, says that “wisdom consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” In modern life, as we have turned inward, we have deprived ourselves of this wisdom that Calvin speaks of. Being “deeply curved in” means not just that we’ve neglected our pursuit of God and the knowledge of God, but that we’ve convinced ourselves—thanks, in part, to this bodily liturgy—that his existence is inconsequential. 

Being self-centered is a statement of theological belief with real-life consequences; it is an act of enthronement, a declaration of the assumed supremacy of the all-powerful “me.” This ritual that we daily participate in, if we lack prudence and vigilance, is actively forming us wayward from the God who made us. Our constant phone-ward gaze is a visual representation of just how absurd self-centered living looks. 

  1. Knowledge of self

Without the understanding that “our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone,” as Calvin says, then our ritualized, self-centered habits will only perpetuate a deeper and more rigid commitment to our own perceived self-importance and self-sufficiency. Bending inward upon oneself does not beget a greater knowledge of oneself. Rather, it welcomes the whispers of our foe (Gen. 3:5) and seeks to reign independently rather than in submission to our Maker. 

When we view citizens as digital avatars instead of people, or when we engage with fiery rhetoric instead of gentle Christlikeness, we can be sure that we’re acting as disciples of our smartphone rather than disciples of our Savior. 

As a result, our knowledge of self is not just reprioritized, but it is impoverished. The self is given a faux supremacy while simultaneously being stripped of its true vocation; we become a shell of who we were created to be. We are not meant to assume the role of God over our lives, but this is precisely what we attempt when we maintain this contorted posture.

  1. Love of neighbor

When we live our lives with the glow of our phones constantly upon our face, we are being formed for Christian malpractice. No longer is Jesus’ second greatest commandment concerned with the love of neighbor; we mistakenly prioritize ourselves. As it relates to our civic engagement, our political philosophy takes an identical inward turn. With the individual acting as the gravitational center of his or her political concern, the love of neighbor becomes a secondary consideration when we participate in this American rite. When we view citizens as digital avatars instead of people, or when we engage with fiery rhetoric instead of gentle Christlikeness, we can be sure that we’re acting as disciples of our smartphone rather than disciples of our Savior. 

Habits and Christian discipleship

Since that fateful day when the garden-intruder convinced Eve that she and Adam should rule in the place of God, we have been grasping for God’s throne. Subtly, and subconsciously, our growing dependence on our smartphones is often a manifestation of this grasping for authority and autonomy. And it is forming us into a people with an impoverished knowledge of God, an over-torqued knowledge of self, and a misapprehension of the second greatest commandment. It is inhibiting us being conformed to the image of Christ. This doesn’t mean that the smartphone is an evil device that we should shun, though. But it does mean that it’s a powerful device that we should respect. What are we to do, then? 

The very act of peering down and in toward a phone is a powerful act of discipleship, developing scores of navel-gazing persons. To combat this, the church needs new habits. Though it may seem trite and simple, the most effective habit in this fight for Christian formation may just be divorcing ourselves from our phones more frequently. Cultivating a growing knowledge of God and self, and an increasing faithfulness to loving our neighbor, requires that we dethrone our devices from their seat of supremacy. It requires that we vacate that seat ourselves.

To know God, we must develop the habit of lifting our eyes from our smartphones and gazing upon his beauty. To know ourselves, we must develop the habit of lifting our eyes from our smartphones and hearing from the God who speaks to us through his Word. And to love our neighbor, we must develop the habit of lifting our eyes from our smartphones and assuming not the contorted posture of our digital age but the cruciform posture of Jesus. 

By / Nov 5

Ever since Adam’s rebellion plunged mankind under the curse of sin, humans have sought to answer the question of how to live full and flourishing lives. Historically, individuals known for providing answers to this question have been given the distinction of philosopher. At the thought of this title, most will recall thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, or Kant, but one influential figure typically left out of such a company is Jesus Christ. This exclusion is probably unsurprising to most. After all, both Christians and non-Christians agree that he was primarily a religious figure, one concerned with making humans right with God. This project seems to be in an entirely different category than the philosophical pursuit of happiness in this world. 

In his new book, New Testament scholar Jonathan Pennington (Reading the Gospels Wisely, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing) charges that though this vertical, religious view of the person and work of Jesus is correct, it only tells part of the story. He argues that the Holy Scriptures are concerned with more than simply how to get to heaven when we die—they also present us with an ethic for the Good Life. By walking through the big ideas presented throughout Scripture, the Christian approach to emotions, relationships, and other themes, Pennington’s Jesus the Great Philosopher provides a rich and relevant guide into how the Christian gospel gives a whole-life philosophy that makes possible a flourishing existence in the here-and-now. 

Summary

Pennington begins with the observation that modern evangelical Christianity often presents a truncated picture of Jesus’s message that is bereft of his philosophical whole-life wisdom. He argues this has resulted in four key problems:

  1. Our faith has become disconnected from every other “non-religious” aspect of our lives.
  2. We turn to alternative sources for wisdom for the Good Life.
  3. We fail to seek from Scripture its answers of how to live rightly in the world.
  4. Our inability to confront these questions has limited our witness to our neighbors (10).

To address these problems, Pennington builds his case for seeing Jesus as a philosopher, beginning with a survey of whole-life teachings in the Old and New Testaments. He then explores three different issues and presents their Christian solutions. These issues include educating emotions, which involves liturgically shaping (not coldly disregarding) them in accordance with Scripture (104). Next is a discussion on restoring relationships with both individuals and broader society in which the local church is the central “worshiping polis” (168). To conclude, Pennington asserts that the goal of the Holy Scriptures is to return mankind to a life of happiness by “reshaping humanity into the image of Christ” (204). In this manner, he shows that the Christian faith is a philosophy that not only presents answers to the religious questions, but also a whole-life ethic that gives instruction for the Good Life.

A philosophy the world needs

Jesus the Great Philosopher is a welcome and well-reasoned rediscovery of the full scope of biblical teaching. It speaks to a multiplicity of issues that encompass human life, highlighting areas often thought to be separate from that to which the Word speaks. While the breadth of topics Pennington addresses is wide, the reader never gets the sense that he has overstepped his bounds. His insights are broad yet concise, informative yet nourishing.

The recognition of our union with God in Christ as our greatest good does not render our horizontal relationships with our neighbors and the world superfluous. Instead, it equips us with the proper tools to rightly relate to it all and advance his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10).

It is also a timely and important work given the tumultuous state of affairs of the past year. For a time in which people are more isolated, angry, and confused than anything in recent memory, Pennington’s book demonstrates that Christianity addresses these issues by offering salvation through faith and the instruction that makes possible a full and abundant life (John 10:10). 

Thy kingdom come

Jesus the Great Philosopher also speaks directly to the belief often implicitly held by modern evangelicals that the redemption offered by Christ merely affects our individual souls rather than creation in its entirety. Its commentary challenges the common American anticipation of an eschatalogical departure from the physical realm to a heavenly existence. Indeed, Pennington’s work helps remind us that the redemption Christ brings isn’t an escape from this world. Rather, “It is the message that God reigns and he is now finally bringing his kingdom from heaven to earth—through Jesus himself” (165)!

This kingdom-focused mindset prompts us to defy a detachment from this world and adopt a God-and-neighbor focus that allows us to embrace and enjoy life to the full. As such, the human experience and its enjoyment are dependent on a right view and ordering of our emotions. While it is important to recognize the necessity for contentment in all things (Phil. 4:10-14) and to model the Lord’s impassibility, to imitate our Savior means to reflect him as he was: “fully emotional, but in a way that was always harmonious, not imbalanced, inappropriate, or disordered” (111). A biblically-informed shaping of our emotions helps us to rightly order the objects of our love such that the Good Life is made possible. 

This right ordering of our desires finally gives us the capacity to delight in this world as God intended. This is not to say that we enjoy such blessings apart from the One who gives them. On the contrary, we delight in them through him. But the recognition of our union with God in Christ as our greatest good does not render our horizontal relationships with our neighbors and the world superfluous. Instead, it equips us with the proper tools to rightly relate to it all and advance his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). Pennington writes that the Christian philosophy emphasizes “an honest assessment of the brokenness of life that is always oriented toward a sure hope for God’s restoration of true flourishing to the world” (218).

Overall, Jesus the Great Philosopher is a clear and enjoyable text that presents an important rediscovery of the broad and robust message of the Holy Scriptures. Pennington effectively addresses a wide range of issues with a skillful yet conversational tone, providing the reader with an active and engaging text. Timely and relevant, this book gives Christians the important reminder that our Lord and Savior is also our Philosopher who gives us not only redemption and salvation, but also the tools necessary for the Good Life.

By / Sep 16

Several years ago Christian Smith made waves with his book The Bible Made Impossible, which argued that the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” of Scripture within evangelicalism gave evidence to an inconsistent doctrine of Scripture. Other scholars such as Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks have more recently made similar arguments against the evangelical approach to Scripture. It is not uncommon to see more crude forms of this argument on social media also, where the evangelical belief in inerrancy is dismissed on the basis that evangelicals themselves so often disagree on the interpretation of Scripture. 

Enter Rhyne Putman’s new book When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity. Putman has formerly written on an evangelical understanding of the historical development of doctrine, and now he focuses on what could be called an evangelical doctrine of disagreement. Its starting point is similar to James K. A. Smith’s argument in The Fall of Interpretation that disagreement is a natural part of the interpretive process, which itself is a natural part of the human condition. Putman then charts the path forward from this truth. It is not written primarily as an apologetic to those outside of evangelicalism, but to evangelicals on constructive ways to approach doctrinal differences.

Why we disagree about doctrine

When Doctrine Divides the People of God is divided up into two major sections, with the first focused on the why question (“Why we disagree about doctrine”) and the second on the what question (“What we should do about doctrinal disagreement”). 

The first section describes the steps along the reasoning process where disagreements often arise. The first two chapters of this section focus specifically on hermeneutics and exegesis, areas that will be familiar for readers with training in biblical interpretation or hermeneutics. However, Putman’s eye toward doctrinal diversity within the hermeneutics discussion sets these chapters apart from typical textbook treatments. 

The third chapter on reasoning is where things get really interesting. Putman highlights the roles of deduction, induction, and abduction in the reasoning process. Particularly important here is the role of abduction, described as inferential reasoning through an incomplete set of data. Whereas deduction proves a hypothesis and induction tests a hypothesis, abduction forms a new hypothesis. He likens this process to the detective forming a hypothesis and then using clues such as fruitfulness, coherence, simplicity, and credibility to test the hypothesis. This separates abduction from mere guesswork and creative speculation. Although Putman notes the creative aspect of this process, he pushes the reader continually back to Scripture itself, rather than individual creativity, as the foundation of theological interpretation and formulation.

In the next three chapters Putman highlights several factors within the reasoning process that often lay in the background unchallenged such as intuition, feelings, and biases. As he notes, “Christian theologians have long recognized the role experience plays in our theological formation, but seldom mentioned in our hermeneutical and theological discussions is the crucial role emotions and intuitions play in the formation of Christian doctrine” (122). 

Many theological disagreements arise in just these areas, and so Putman’s walk through them in discussion with neuroscience and social psychology is a valuable tool for theological dialogue. Putman doesn’t let social or biological sciences have the last word in the discussion—he continually pushes back against naturalistic implications in the works he summarizes—but demonstrates how certain findings within these fields can provide opportunities for self-examination and reasoning in the process of theological development.  

What should we do about it? 

The second section of the book moves from the descriptive to the prescriptive, focused on the response to doctrinal disagreements. Although this section is smaller than the first by page count, it’s where Putman’s work packs the greatest punch. It is one thing to acknowledge doctrinal disagreements, but another to move through them with both keen self-awareness and Christian charity toward other positions. This section provides the way forward in both manners. 

The first chapter of this section, chapter seven, magnifies the self-reflection process by asking the question, when should we change our minds? In this chapter Putman moves through a series of diagnostic questions related to theological disagreement. These questions include:

  1. Are we working with the same body of evidence?
  2. If I disagree with a tenet from a particular tradition, am I interacting with its best and most sophisticated representations or with a straw man?
  3. Who exhibits a more thorough understanding of the relevant background material?
  4. Who exhibits greater theological acumen and exegetical skill?
  5. Do both parties evidence adequate time spent assessing the disputed issue?
  6. Do both disagreeing parties display the intellectual virtues such as curiosity, studiousness, persistence, and intellectual honesty?
  7. Does the person with whom I disagree exhibit the fruit of the Spirit?

Each of these questions is important for thinking through theological disputes because they each force acknowledgment of the full weight of other positions.

The eighth chapter builds on Albert Mohler’s idea of theological triage by formulating a tiered system for thinking through doctrinal disagreements. He gives three tests for thinking through these tiers based on hermeneutics, gospel, and praxis, with an eye toward mediation between theological maximalism (everything is equally important) and theological minimalism (unity over doctrine). 

The final chapter provides a test case of this system based on the disagreement and eventual reconciliation of George Whitefield and John Wesley on the issue of Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Putman uses their personal friendship and professional fellowship as the basis for thinking charitably through disagreements with fellow believers.

Putman’s book is helpful on several levels of theological reflection. It combines hermeneutics, philosophy, and theological method to provide insight into personal doctrinal reasoning and doctrinal dialogue with fellow believers. This type of reasoning is particularly necessary and valuable in the age of social media, where disagreements often turn vitriolic and the unity that Christ prayed for in John 17 is dismissed in favor of winning arguments. Putman doesn’t dismiss doctrinal disagreements but gives place for thinking through them in community with other believers. This book will be a valuable asset for any student of theology as a tool for both personal theological formulation and doctrinal discussions with others.

By / Jun 24

Last week there was a considerable amount of conversation generated after multiple screenshots of comments posted in a Facebook group began to circulate on the internet. The name of the group is not important, but both the content in question and the makeup of its members is. In the screenshots, very critical comments were captured about Aimee Byrd, the author of Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. And judging only from the handful I looked at, the comments were obviously intended to mock and belittle. Moreover, they were mostly posted by men. 

That men would take to social media to openly mock and ridicule a woman is disturbing, but worse still is the reality that a large number of the members of the Facebook group in which it was posted are pastors and ministers. To be fair, many people are members of discussion groups on Facebook and elsewhere that they never even visit. And some of these groups have such active participation that even those who engage more frequently can’t possibly be held responsible for the content or comments featured in every post.

But with those caveats aside, the issue is bigger than a small number of men attacking a woman on the internet. Consider for a moment, why some would object to Byrd’s work. In her books and other writings, Byrd questions a lot of established norms. Though she remains substantially aligned with more conservative positions on the roles of men and women in the church, her work has challenged practices that (she believes) wrongly portray Scripture’s teaching in this area and stifle the ability of women to utilize the gifts God has blessed them with. And in making her case and criticizing the status quo—specifically among conservative Reformed evangelicals—she has also criticized things this group holds in esteem. 

Byrd, for instance, has been a vocal critic of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which is perhaps the main exponent of complementarian theology. But more than criticizing the organization, she has leveled specific criticisms at the theology undergirding portions of CBMW’s approach to gender roles and has at certain points questioned the orthodoxy of theologians like John Piper and Wayne Grudem.

Markers of fear and immaturity

Anytime a person questions an established norm they can expect pushback. And it’s generally true that the more significant the object of one’s criticism is, the more intense the pushback will be. When it comes to Byrd’s work, I have found myself challenged by her criticisms but largely in step with those she criticizes. But honestly, I wasn’t surprised by the kinds of mean and misogynistic comments that were leveled toward her, not because those kinds of things are acceptable, but because they are easily explained. In this case, the personal attacks that were leveled at Byrd can be explained, at least in part, by the same reasons that similar attacks are often wielded against other women in conservative theological circles.

Belittling, demeaning, or in this case, making a public spectacle of one’s ideological opponent is more than some kind of cathartic exercise. The truth is that all of us are more fragile than we like to pretend. And when we feel attacked, the natural response is to seek to protect ourselves. Often, when we turn to insult rather than engage someone who questions our beliefs, it’s about reassuring ourselves that we have taken up the right cause. Mocking an opponent instead of engaging their ideas is a way of saying to ourselves and those we agree with, “Look at them. They couldn’t possibly be right. Right?” 

That kind of behavior is a marker of fear and immaturity. It’s a way to stay safe in the retreat position. Besides, if you never actually engage someone you disagree with, you’ll never lose. Not only that, but sometimes we’re threatened by more than a person’s ideas. Sometimes it’s their popularity we find intimidating. We’re concerned too many people are coming under their influence, so we take every opportunity to tear them down in hopes that others would be too ashamed to be associated with such a controversial person or group.

No pass for disobedience

But whether one is surprised or not by this behavior, the point is that none of this conduct is becoming of a Christian. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught those gathered before him to treat others as they desire to be treated (Matt. 7:12). We know those words as the golden rule. And for most of us, they have grown familiar, as though it were Christianity 101. But what is so interesting to me is that many of us tend to act as though the longer we’ve been in the faith, the less important these “elementary” teachings are. In reality, this could not be further from the truth. A believer never gets a pass for disobedience, no matter how many theology books one has read or acts of service one has rendered.

Byrd deserves an apology. And she’s not the only one. No matter how embattled a person or group may feel, if they claim to be followers of Jesus, there is never just cause to treat another person with anything less than the dignity and respect every image-bearer deserves. If anything, this standard is raised even higher when it comes to our brothers and sisters in Christ  (1 John 3:14). And certainly this kind of charity and respectful engagement should be modeled by those in Christian leadership, especially if one believes (as I do) that God reserves specific pastoral and leadership functions for men. Believing this means men are called not only to protect women, but to show honor to them as well. And in this case men failed in spectacular fashion.

Aimee Byrd is not my enemy. She is my sister in Christ, and the cruel treatment she’s been subjected to is wicked and inexcusable. Those with the courage to put forward ideas and offer constructive, if critical, feedback will help make the church stronger. Man or woman, those who would speak and act in good faith, even when it dissents from the status quo, deserve to have their voices heard and their words taken seriously. They don’t deserve to become a punchline, and certainly do not deserved to be mocked or ridiculed on the basis of their sex or appearence.

Seeing this play out on the internet ought to give each of us pause. The sinful desire to mock or shame our opponents is not limited to men or to those with certain theological beliefs. It runs through all of us. We are broken, sinful, and fragile people. We want not only to protect ourselves, but for people to think well of us. But if we are a part of the family of God, we are called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44) and turn the other cheek when we are wronged or mistreated (Matt. 5:39). And if we can do those things, surely we can love and bear with one another even in the midst of disagreement.

By / Apr 14

My parents had a hardback version of Francis Scaheffer’s How Should We Then Live? sitting on a shelf in our house. It was a large, beautiful book, but I never took the time to read it. Honestly, the title never made sense to me as a child, and I had little interest in reading anything that I thought could be difficult to understand.

Years later I enrolled in a Ph.D. program and once again encountered Schaeffer’s work. An entire seminar focused on the ethics of Schaeffer, and I had the task of reading virtually everything that Schaeffer had published. That seminar changed my life and the way I think.

“Taking the roof off” of worldviews

One key element of Schaeffer’s work that I found especially influential was his apologetic method of “taking the roof off.” Schaeffer argued that a person’s worldview is similar to a house; however, there is only one blueprint that can effectively explain all aspects of life and be lived out consistently—a Christian worldview. All other worldviews are defective in one way or another.

Taking off someone’s roof involves exposing the weaknesses and inconsistencies of his worldview. This is a necessary but dangerous task. When a roof is removed, Schaeffer states that “each man must stand naked and wounded before the truth of what is.” The reality of the world in which we live comes flooding in. Therefore, we must carefully deconstruct the roof so that the house can be rebuilt with truth.

Once the roof is carefully removed and the individual has encountered reality, it is time to reconstruct his house. This is where the transformative power of the gospel comes into play. Schaeffer writes, “The truth that we let in first is not a dogmatic statement of the truth of the Scriptures, but the truth of the external world and the truth of what man himself is. This is what shows him his need. The Scriptures then show him the real nature of his lostness and the answer to it.” No longer must one live according to the course of the world. The true truth of the gospel allows us to see the world as God created it. We recognize the influence of the fall and the impact of sin upon our lives, but the believer now has the Holy Spirit to help him make sense of it all.

Changing my approach to engaging with others

Since having encountered Schaeffer’s apologetic method, my approach to engaging others in discussions about life, ethics and theology has changed. No longer do I set out to win an argument or defeat my opponent. I learned to care for his soul and engage in conversation for the sake of long-term life change. The truth of reality hurts when an inconsistent worldview is deconstructed. However, we do not leave the other individual naked and wounded. We provide the answer to building a worldview that can weather the storms—the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ alone.

Francis Schaeffer was a man ahead of his times. When evangelicals were ready to adopt the arguments of abortion-on-demand, Schaeffer was calling us to protect children in the womb. When evangelicals were questioning the veracity of Scripture, Schaeffer was calling us to biblical fidelity. Interestingly, despite the fact that Schaeffer himself was a Presbyterian, he took an interest in the battle for the Bible taking place in the Southern Baptist Convention and personally encouraged some of the key leaders of the Conservative Resurgence to stay the course.

I am thankful for the work of Francis Schaeffer in my own life and the life of my denomination. To this day, I regularly recommend his work to my students. I encourage them to start with his trilogy—The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason and He Is There and He Is Not Silent. For those who want more, they can then move to his classic work How Should We Then Live? Those who take the time to read these books will no doubt walk away changed for the better.