Friday, August 31, 2007

The problem of (my) evil

On a rather different note, I wanted to share something from the Puritan Thomas Watson:

Repentance is necessary for God's own people, who have a real work of grace and are Israelites indeed. They must offer up a daily sacrifice of tears. The Antinomians hold that when any come to be believers, they have a writ of ease, and there remains nothing for them now to do but to rejoice. Yes, they have something else to do, and that is to repent. Repentance is a continuous act. The issue of godly sorrow must not be quite stopped till death.

The pursuit of joy is not accidental to the Christian life; rather it is the very heart and soul of being a Christian. But let's not forget that as we run after joy, we often stumble and fall. Ultimately, our joy and our rest are waiting for us, secured by Christ. But to get there we have to walk the road of repentance. Continual sin calls for continual repentance, continual rebellion calls for continual sorrow. Not sorrow without hope - but sorrow that, having such a sure and certain hope, I still betray over and over again my Lord and Master.

I am reminded, as I often am, of the hymn by A.M. Toplady:

A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on, my person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.

The work which His goodness began, the arm of His strength will complete;
His promise is Yea and Amen, and never was forfeited yet.
Things future, nor things that are now, nor all things below or above,
Can make Him His purpose forgo, or sever my soul from His love.

My name from the palms of His hands eternity will not erase;
Impressed on His heart it remains, in marks of indelible grace.
Yes, I to the end shall endure, as sure as the earnest is giv’n;
More happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in Heav’n.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Problem of (No) Evil... again

I wasn't planning a sequel to this post, but there has been a bit of comment on the original (on Facebook, alas. So sorry if you're reading this on the 'blog. And if you're reading this on Facebook, why not cross-post your comment to the 'blog?). I wanted to clarfiy a few things and state the argument in a slightly more robust way - which inevitably means that this post will be more argumentative and contain less of my feelings on the subject. Let me begin by clearing up what I am not trying to do.

Firstly, I am not trying to prove the existence of God. If I wanted to do that I would take another tack completely. As it happens I do not want to do that, for reasons which I won't explain right now. To be clear: the fact that I do not think morality makes sense without God does not provide any sort of argument for the existence of God. It merely means that as far as I can see one must not pretend that morality exists as most people normally think of it if one is an atheist.

Secondly, I am not trying to show that theists are, as a matter of fact, more ethical in their lives than atheists. I am not even saying that Christians are more ethical than people who are not Christians. But I am arguing that theists have a basis for a moral system that is lacked by atheists. (Of course for some (or all) theists it must be the basis for a wrong moral system, since their systems differ. But that is strictly irrelevant to the point I am making).

Thirdly, I am not trying to say that for the theist issues of ethics and morality are straightforward. I acknowledge that for everyone, from whatever starting point they come, ethical issues are tricky. I would even go so far as to say that often there is no absolutely right answer. However, I am trying to say that an atheist has no right to even engage in the conversation about what is right and wrong. (Understand what I am saying here. An atheist may and must, de facto, as a member of any society engage in such conversations. I am glad that they do - consistent atheism would be a terrible thing! - but I do not think that de jure they can engage in such conversations, for reasons which will become clear).

So what I am trying to do? I am trying to flag up the following three problems for the atheist moralist - problems which I think are impossible to resolve within atheist presuppositions. (Some of this will be retreading my earlier post, but in a more philosophically acceptable way). Here they are:

Firstly, the problem of objectivity. This problem is most easily demonstrated by contrasting different cultures across the world and through time. For example, in ancient Rome the right thing to do with a sickly baby was to leave it by the backdoor until it died; in modern Europe, that is murder, and actually one of the most morally repugnant things we can imagine. So, is it right, or is it wrong? Within what framework would the atheist judge this question?

The issue can be thrown into sharper relief by imagining that we live in the third century. The rapid Christianisation of the Roman world means that for many exposing babies is now immoral. But there are still many pagans who regard it as the right thing to do. These two groups co-exist. Which is right? Should the state punish those who continue to expose their children? If so, why? At what point should it start to do so? When the Christians become the majority, perhaps?

In order to make morality objective, there must be some sort of objective value to which we could appeal. The atheist might appeal to the good of society - but they would then have to define what that 'good' is. They would also have to provide a framework for arbitration between two disagreeing societies. They might perhaps appeal to the need to preserve the species. That is well and good, but why is it a good thing to preserve the species? I do not think they can answer.

The result must be that 'right' and 'wrong' come to mean only what the majority consider to be right and wrong. Atheists must not be permitted to fudge the issue by appealing to what the 'discerning' think, for what is there for the discerning to discern? Why should any one person's opinion count for more than any other person's? If there are no objective values, what makes Socrates wiser than the fool?

Secondly, the problem of obligation. I challenge the atheist to give me any reason to be ethical when it doesn't suit me. Even if we could show that some things really are right and others are wrong (and I do not think the atheist can do so), why should I do what is right? Why, for example, should I not fiddle my insurance claim if I can get away with it? What is there that obliges me to do what is right?

Understand that the idea of obligation is central to ethics. 'What is right' means the same as 'what I ought to do'. But there is no 'ought' in an atheist world. To whom do I have an obligation? If you say, to society, I ask why? If you say, to my friends and family, again, why? On what grounds do you postulate any sort of obligation to be moral?

Thirdly, the problem of naivety. I suppose this is the least philosophical point, but it is the most practical. Continually, appeal is made to the good nature of human beings. To quote from one of the comments on my original post "there is a common part of our nature that has a basic social consideration and respect for the interest and well being of others". I suggest that this simply is not true. There is a certain, middle-class, well-taught morality that causes many to consider others beyond themselves. But it is frankly plain to see that this is not part of human nature, but a learned behaviour (and one that is without reason on atheist presuppositions).

Consider one of the examples I cited in my original post: the bunch of youths who wilfully damaged another man's property, and then kicked him to death when he came out of his house to protest. Were they not human? Did they lack this "common part of our nature"? Things like this happen all the time, and the atheist, who does not believe in metaphysical evil, cannot explain them or suggest any solution that does not itself smack of tragic naivety.

Nietzsche is a man for whom I have a lot of respect, despite hating almost everything that he said. He had the courage of his convictions. He knew that in the absence of God, anything goes - and therefore the strong will, if sensible, impose their will on the weak. The weak, in turn, will take advantage of any opportunity they can to advance themselves at the expense of others.

After all, why not?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Problem of (No) Evil

We all know that one of the strongest objections to any sort of theistic belief is the so-called "problem of evil". The gist is that if there is a good and omnipotent God, he would surely desire to end all evil, and would have the power to do so. Since evil exists, God is either not good, or not omnipotent, or not existent.

So much for that, and I don't intend to delve into the many defeaters that can be offered to this objection. The problem of evil is a serious one - the only serious argument against theism, I would suggest. But what about the problem of no evil? That is a serious problem for atheism, and one which I think destroys any form of "positive" or "optimistic" atheist philosophy.

Let me explain what I mean.

Over these last few weeks dreadful things have happened. I am thinking of several horrific murders, particularly the shooting of a young boy and the beating to death of a man who tried to defend his property from a gang of youths. Other horrible things have occurred, no doubt. Those are just the ones that made the news, and made an impression on me. Within my Christian frame of reference, I see these things as evil. The perpetrators of these acts have done something that is truly wrong, contrary to the will of the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. They therefore deserve punishment from society, and unless they are repentant they will also receive punishment from God.

But what about those who have no room for God in their worldview? Judging by the media reaction to these killings, they still want some sort of justice, and demand punishment for the guilty and restitution for what has been done. But on what grounds? Why do atheists think that these things are wrong? Why shouldn't the strong beat up on the weak, if they want to?

Let me put the problem in the clearest possible way: If there is no God, there is no right and no wrong. Of course, you are free to construct your own value system and arrange it however you like, but I do not see why you should be able to impose it on anyone else. If you do, it is merely an arbitrary imposition - indeed, it is violence. You can sustain it for as long as you are the stronger party. As soon as someone else is stronger than you, their "values" will become the "right" ones. If, in my value system, it is okay to kill a young boy, then who are you to tell me otherwise?

Thus Nietzsche, the prophet of our age:

When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality right out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident... Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together.By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole. Nothing necessary remains in one's hands.

His conclusion is simple and accurate:

There are no moral facts.

I grieve for this sorry culture, where nothing is right or wrong. I grieve for those lost on a sea of moral uncertainty. But we have spent centuries - ever since the "enlightenment" - making this bed, and now I guess we have to sleep in it.

Friday, August 24, 2007


Christian bloggers everywhere are piling in to a big discussion about baptism at the moment. (See Adrian Warnock's blog if you need to catch up on this!) How could I not join in?

Obviously, baptism, and particularly the question of whom to baptise, has been debated for ages. Those who know me will know that I am somewhat in favour of believers' baptism, and somewhat opposed to infant baptism. Those who know me well will know that this is putting it mildly. But the debate at the moment revolves around something different: should those who believe in baptism for believers only join in communion with those who were baptised as infants? Should a credobaptist church require credobaptism as a condition of membership?

I actually think that this apparently minor issue could help us to get to the heart of the larger issue (paedo or credo), because it has to do with what baptism is.

I think most credobaptists see baptism as a believer's response to a salvation already received by faith. It is therefore a work, and belongs in the traditional ordo salutis within the realm of sanctification. Hence for Grudem, the effects of baptism are "the blessing of God's favour that comes with all obedience, as well as the joy that comes through public profession of one's faith, and the reassurance of having a clear physical picture of dying and rising with Christ and of washing away sins". What does baptism do? More or less the same as any obedience to Christ, with a little extra symbolism thrown in.

I'm not sure that measures up to the New Testament. Here are a few things I'd want considered:

How do you become a disciple? "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19).

What do unconverted sinners need to do when convicted of their sin? "Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38)

How are people forgiven of sin? "Repent and be baptised...for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38)

How do we participate in Christ's death and come to benefit from it? "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death..." (Romans 8:3-4)

How are we saved? "Baptism... now saves you" (1 Peter 3:21)

Obviously, look up the references and check I'm not ripping them mercilessly out of context!

So, what is baptism? If baptism does all the things above, how are we to hold that we are saved by faith alone?

The answer, I think, is simply this: baptism is a promise, given by God, and therefore we are saved by exercising faith in that promise. Baptism is the offer of forgiveness. So we cannot ask "should baptism come before or after believing?" Baptism is believing! Or at least, baptism is the offering of a promise, effective if met bu faith in the person being baptised. That is why I am a credobaptist, incidentally. I don't believe that baptism is the first step of obedience after faith; I believe that baptism is, or should be, the first step of faith.

So what about communion with people who were baptised as infants? What about rebaptising them? Well, if they are believing the promise of baptism, then I would receive them as baptised. I would not rebaptise them - indeed, the very idea of rebaptising makes me feel a little ill. If, on the other hand, they found that they could not trust the promise of their baptism because of doubts about its validity, I might counsel them to receive a (first) baptism they could believe in - and to regard the former ceremony as empty and no baptism at all.

Baptism is the appointed means of entering the church by faith. Baptism saves us through our faith in Christ. It is not empty symbolism or magic ritual. It is the church's gift, the gift she received from the Lord and offers to all who will take it in faith.

I believe in it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Remembering the story

I've had a pleasant summer reading Gordon McConville's excellent commentary on Deuteronomy. I've almost finished, and I'd recommend it to anyone. Chapter 26 of Deuteronomy particularly caught my eye. It describes, amongst other things, the ceremony of firstfruits, in which the Israelite was to bring the first produce of their annual harvest and present it to the Lord. The symbolism is clear: God gave you this land, and therefore its produce is his continuing gift to you - you acknowledge this by giving some of it back. But what interested me was this passage:

And you shall make response before the LORD your God, 'A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.' And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship before the LORD your God.

This is clearly a creed, but unlike our creeds (which belong within the discipline of systematic theology) this is essentially narrative. It is a remembering of the story of the nation. In reciting it, the individual identifies with the people of Israel as a whole, stretching back through history. "We" were rescued at the exodus. The Lord brought "us" into the land. So this little narrative creed makes the saving events of the past a present reality for the current generation of Israel.

I wonder whether the ascendancy of Biblical theology, coupled with the prevailing ignorance of the overarching Biblical narrative amongst both Christians and others, means that the time is ripe for the writing of a narrative creed to be recited in our churches?

Saturday, August 18, 2007


I've elected to present this post in the time-honoured form of a Socratic dialogue. Readers familiar with this format will be aware that it involves a discussion, usually imaginary, between two (or more) people. Socrates acts as a gadfly, asking annoying questions in order to force his interlocutor to carefully examine his opinions and root out any false ones. The only rule is that Socrates always wins. Those who have sampled Socrates at his "forged-by-Plato" best will recognise the swift caving-in and general kow-towing of the interlocutor as a necessary ingredient of a successful dialogue.

Without further ado...

Socrates: I should very much like to hear something about your doctrine of the word of God - it's a subject that has always interested me, but about which I know very little. (For it is the way of Socrates to feign ignorance).
Jim the Conservative Evangelical (for it is he): Well, Socrates, I'm very glad you asked, for this is a subject on which I know a great deal. What do you want to know?
Socrates: Well, I have heard the word of God described as "infallible" - would that be a view to which you would subscribe? And what exactly would you mean by it?
Jim the CE: I would indeed take that view, Socrates, though I might prefer in general discourse to use the word "inerrant" so as not to be thought unduly liberal. This reservation notwithstanding, it seems clear to me that such verses of Scripture as Isaiah 55:9-11 show that God's word is infallible, by which I mean simply that by it God always achieves what he intends.
Socrates: Wonderful - that was precisely the passage of Scripture I had in mind. But tell me, do you think that we can tell the intent of God's word from the content of it?
Jim the CE: Despite my vast knowledge of this subject, I am not sure I understand you Socrates. Perhaps you could speak more clearly.
Socrates: Of course. Entirely my fault, I'm sure. What I meant was this: if we read God's word, does God intend to achieve by it what he declares in it? So, for example, if God says "repent", does he mean to achieve repentance, or does he mean to achieve something else?
Jim the CE: Well, God being no deceiver (as both Descartes and the Scriptures inform us), surely if God's word says "repent" then God intends to achieve repentance by it.
Socrates (with a wry grin): Very interesting. I wonder, Jim, have you ever engaged in evangelism?
Jim the CE: Why, of course. I am a Conservative Evangelical, you know. I have memorised all of the best gospel outlines, including Two Ways to Live, One Way to Live, No Other Way to Live and Living - Why Not? Often I have deployed these tools in the context of friendly discussion with my friends, and have found them useful both with and without napkin-based illustrations.
Socrates: Would you say then, that you have delivered the word of God to your friends?
Jim the CE: Yes.
Socrates: And the content of that word has been to call them to repent and trust in Christ?
Jim the CE: Yes.
Socrates: And have any of them failed to do so?
Jim the CE: Er... well...
Socrates: I'll take that as a yes. And yet haven't you delivered the infallible word of God calling them to repent and believe?
Jim the CE: Um... perhaps I didn't do it right, Socrates.
Socrates: Your learning of gospel outlines is exemplary, and so I'm sure we cannot put it down to that. Perhaps the word of God is not infallible all the time?
Jim the CE: I do remember hearing something about the Holy Spirit being needed to persuade people of the truth of the word... But still, I am quite sure that the word of God is infallible.
Socrates: Then it seems that we have only one possible conclusion before us - that what you have been telling your friends is not the word of God.
Jim the CE: Ah, but some have responded in repentance and faith, which I am sure could only be the result of the infallible word of God coming to them.
Socrates: Well, could it be the case that sometimes the same message is the word of God, and sometimes it is the word of men? It seems odd, I know - it was your mention of the Holy Spirit that got me thinking along these lines.
Jim the CE: I'm not sure I follow you Socrates. (For it is essential to the Socratic dialogue that the interlocutor be a little slow-witted).
Socrates: Well, I suggest that the Holy Spirit plays a role analagous to human breath. When I speak to you, my words are carried by my breath - that's what makes them my words. You could repeat them, and in a sense they would still be my words, but not carried by my breath. Perhaps God's word functions in a similar way. If he speaks them, carried by his breath (namely, the Holy Spirit), then they are directly his words, and as such infallible. But if you merely report them, then although they are in a sense still God's words, they are not "first-hand" as it were, and perhaps lack infallibility.
Jim the CE: 'Pon my word, Socrates, I think you've nailed it. Who would have thought that the Holy Spirit did so much! He's even more important than a napkin.
Socrates: Hmm.

Okay, it's partly a wind-up, and I'm not sure how much I want to identify with Socrates here. But I would appreciate any comments!

Sunday, August 12, 2007


Just a random selection of things I have been thinking during the last month of blog-silence...

1. According to 1 John 1, the only way that sin can ultimately hurt me is if I allow it to force me "into the dark", rather than me forcing the sin "into the light". Which is to say, sin confessed and brought out into the open before God is sin forgiven. Therefore, there is no need to hide my sin, but only to present it with repentance and accept God's grace.
2. According to Thessalonians 1, the life of the church comes from God's word, received with power, the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. Therefore no clever strategy will help us - only the gospel coming in the power of the Spirit. I preached something to this effect today.
3. I really love Great Britain. Boo to everyone who would like to arbitrarily override hundreds of years of shared history and partition this wonderful nation.
4. If I weren't theologically opposed to the idea of monkery, and if I didn't have a beautiful and wonderful wife, I would become a monk. This random thought arises from having a great deal of time to read over the last month or so, something I've hugely appreciated.
5. Buying a flat is hard work. Or at least, it is long work. I am bored of it already.
6. I really don't approve of Anglicanism. Expect a more constructive series of thoughts on this in the near future.

That is all.