The Gigs of a Christian Philosopher

Today I spoke to a group of seventy fifth and sixth graders on what it means to be an author, how to be a good writer, and writing an argumentative essay. As I was talking with a student of mine after this, I reflected on all the different speaking opportunities given to me since I started speaking publically in the late 1970s. Since I love jazz, I will call the gigs. Let me steal a line from Grateful Dead from “Truckin”—“Lately it occurs to me: What a long strange trip it’s been.”

Teachers need gigs, just like musicians. You cannot teach unless someone learns. Jazz musicians need rooms in which to play and people to fill the rooms. Teachers need rooms in which to teach and people to fill the rooms. These are not always easy to come by. If I think I have something significant to teach, I may offer myself for a gig, as opposed to being asked to do one. As I reflected on almost forty years of teaching, several kinds of gigs and specific gigs come to mind.

My first teaching on cultural criticism and apologetics was in 1977. I was a student in a special class at the University of Oregon, which explored the Christian worldview in relation to other perspectives. Since was a new Christian, who had made an idol out of music, I gave a talk on the influence of Eastern mysticism in modern rock music. I was following Francis Schaeffer in critiquing culture from a Christian angle. I taught from a single-spaced outline for about an hour and a half. I still have that outline somewhere. When I asked a friend how it was, he said, “It was good, but too long.”

Just after graduating from the University of Oregon in Philosophy, I was asked to give a Christian perspective on film. Undaunted by that daunting task, I gave a short lecture, which mostly consisted of quoting from a book by Donald Drew called Images of Man. When I finished, perhaps twenty-five percent of the students were still listening, and this included a gorgeous co-ed. Sadly, I did not ask her out. This was the first talk for which I was paid! I think I was given $25.

Working in campus ministry at the University of Oregon brought me more teaching opportunities. A faculty member sponsored me; and, the department approved the content of my lectures. Meeting these requirements allowed me teach a year-long class called, “The Twilight of Western Thought.”

This course was sponsored by the sociology department, but was more theological and philosophical in focus. In the first two quarters, we discussed the Christian worldview in relation to other worldviews and also addressed theology of culture and social ethics. After co-teaching the class for a few quarters, I took it over. I was involved from 1979-84. During this time, I learned how to teach and how to discipline myself to study for teaching and later writing. I am still amazed that I was given this platform in a secular school. Those years were foundational for all my later work as a teacher, writer, and preacher.

In the fall of 1987, my small church asked me to be part of a rotation of preachers. We went through several books of the Bible chapter by chapter. By doing this, I learned how to preach expositionally at the same time I was teaching in the secular classroom at the university. While preaching a message from Malachi, I sensed that the Holy Spirit was palpably present and doing more than could be explained by my oratory. That was a defining moment for my understanding of bringing the Scripture to the church.

In graduate school, I was often a teaching assistant. This is not a glorious gig. My job was to help explain and expand on what the professor was teaching and to grade papers. My time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Oregon, Eugene, strengthened my ability to maintain a Christian perspective in a secular setting without being abrasive or intrusive.

In the summer of 1992, I taught a university course by myself for the first time through the Religious Studies Department at the University of Oregon. I was able to choose my own topic: The Philosophy of Mysticism. This course met every day for about three weeks. The preparation was intense, but the students were engaged and I was in the groove. I knew this is what I wanted to do.

Since graduating with my Ph.D. in 1993, my staple employment has been as a professor at Denver Seminary, where I teach several areas of philosophy. The classroom is my favorite place to be, and I try to make it a sanctuary for knowledge. Teaching the same course many times deepens one’s knowledge and facility with a subject and puts one in contact with hundreds of students, some of which have become good friends.

In the last ten years, I have also taught as an adjunct at several schools, most at Metro State University in downtown Denver. There I taught Introduction to Philosophy and Introduction to Ethics. Most of my students are non-Christians and are far less motived than my seminarians. I fight to get them interested, to keep them interested, and to teach at a level that challenges them. I tell my students that in philosophy classes, arguments are what matter: not opinions and not religious beliefs held without rational backing. I gave both sides of arguments, but on one occasion was reported to the department for proselytizing in class. This was absurd, but the head of the department upbraided me in an email, calling me “an advocacy professor.” Nevertheless, I was offered another course the next term.

Saturday morning is not a good time for a philosophy class, even if it is 11:00 AM. Students came in late or not at all. However, there were a few good students and an avid auditor who took photographs of my white board diagrams and outlines. Near the end of the term, a student asked me this, “Is it just Catholics who think you must do enough good works to be saved?” I replied, “None of the three schools of Christianity claim that you can be redeemed by works. Although they differ, they all emphasize grace as leading to salvation. It is a gift. She looked puzzled as if she had never heard this. Then she asked, “If so, then why would anyone want to do good works for God?” I said, “What if you were adopted and your parents saved you from a terrible situation? Wouldn’t you want to please them? You wouldn’t be earning their love, but responding to it.” She nodded. A few minutes later, she asked me why I became a Christian and not an adherent of another religion or worldview. Since I had gotten in trouble for speaking of Christianity that term before, I asked the students if anyone minded me answering. None did. I then gave a very philosophical account of my conversion. There were no complaints to the Philosophy Department this time.

To mercifully shorten this essay, I will recount a few exceptional gigs. Perhaps they will inspire you.

My book, Deceived by the Light, came out in 1994. Near-death experiences were popping up everywhere, so I wrote a critical analysis of the phenomenon. I was eager to attend a lecture on the topic given by a local Baha’i group. A low key fellow began to mumble for a few minutes, before pulling out a copy of a recent book on the subject: Deceived by the Light. I raised my hand to tell him that I wrote the book. At that, the speaker asked me if I would like to finish the lecture. I did so, giving my Christian and philosophical perspective on it. I stayed long afterward to engage non-Christians on this topic.

“The God Who Wasn’t There” is an atheist film, claiming that Jesus never existed. I was asked—on short notice—to debate an atheist after the showing of the film. I could not see the film before the gig, but was able to put together a short response. Then the atheist gave his response. He said little, only reporting that he was from Iran, but had become rational and, therefore, an atheist. He flashed a few atheist books at the audience for good measure. We made a few comments on each other’s views, but most of the time was given to questions from the audience. Soon, the audience turned on me and ignored the newly rational Iranian law student. I would turn to him and ask if he wanted to respond and he declined several times.

The audience was hostile and even heckled me. After a while, all the questions concerned hell. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit of Truth kept me calm and sharp through it all. One woman tried to trick me by telling a story and asking me a question. (I won’t go into the details.) But I figured out what she was doing and undermined her trick. I have seldom felt more alive and joyful. Many people wanted to discuss the event afterward. I later learned that a young Christian woman who attended the event was so moved by my defense of the faith that she decided to be baptized and to more seriously follow Christ.

The University of Colorado at Boulder is not part of the Bible Belt. I speak there as often as I can because of the hostility to Christianity. After my apologetics tome was published in 2011, a philosophy professor at this school told me he was using it for a class on the philosophy of religion. I was elated. But there was more. He asked me to speak in his class for an hour and answer questions from the students concerning the text. I was even more elated and accepted immediately. The students were sharp and asked stimulating questions. The atheist professor said little and let me have the floor. I have seldom been more grateful to God for a gig.

My last report is of a dialogue on Hinduism which was held at the Theosophical Lending Library in Seattle, Washington around 1985. An American Hindu meet with me several times to discuss Christianity in light of his beliefs. He proposed that we have a dialogue on the matter. I agreed. The exchange was cordial and meaty. The audience of about fifty was about evenly split between theosophists (or like-minded believers) and Christians. I was able to articulate the Christian worldview in clear relief to the Hindu worldview and explained the Gospel. My interlocutor did not become a Christian and I (you may guess) did not become a Hindu. However, a dialogue of this kind in a very non-Christian setting is nothing to laugh at. I wish I could do it more often, and am trying to score a gig to dialogue on Christianity and Buddhism at The Naropa University in Boulder.

I could go on, as you may imagine. As an old philosopher (I just turned 59), I look back with thanksgiving and even awe at the opportunities God has given me to commend and defend Christianity before the watching world. Despite all my discouragement, disobedience, and even despair (in recent years), I cannot go back. Go back to what?! I hope to honor God with a rational Christian witness until my dying breath. Leaving this world while teaching apologetics to a hostile crowd is not a bad way to die. The church’s first martyr, Stephen, was doing apologetics when he was stoned to death (Acts 7).

The Meaning of Book Endorsements

Why buy a particular book? We answer that partly by finding who wants us to buy the book (besides the author). We check the endorsement, which are found in one or more places: front cover, back cover, and opening pages. Some authors do not need endorsements, since they are industries in their own right, such as Stephen King and J. K. Rowling. Lesser mortals court endorsements. But what should we make of this practice? What does it really mean?

Book endorsements are both reviews and benedictions. Generally speaking, the greater endorses the lesser. Thus, I was elated that my first book, Unmasking the New Age (1986), was endorsed by Walter Martin, the father of the counter-cult movement in America and author of the classic, The Kingdom of the Cults.

The endorser briefly sums up the book and wishes it well: “This book deserves a wide reading,” for example. The endorsement is meant to help the book along its literary way. It works this way:

S endorses P for reason Q.

The endorser (S) should be in a position to give a competent judgment (Q) concerning the book (P). To do this, S should have some expertise in the subject matter of P. Thus, I asked philosopher and mathematician, William Dembski, to endorse my book, Christian Apologetics (2011). It was a high honor that he did so. However, no one has asked me to endorse a book by Dembski that is filled with mathematics, since I am helpless in that. However, I did endorse his book The End of Christianity, since it fit my areas of expertise.

Endorsements go awry when S endorses P when S is incompetent to endorse P. This is akin to saluting a flag of a country about which one knows nothing. I have seen it too often. These endorsements may have the opposite effect of what is intended, since empty praise from an ignoramus is worse than faint praise from a professional.

Yet experts may fail to give adequate grounds for their recommendations. This is akin to cheerleading. S is an authority on P, but S gives no reason for endorsing P. For this, we take it on trust: S knows his stuff, so we trust him on P. Maybe so, but we must appeal to S’s raw authority about P apart from the authority’s justification (Q) for his judgment.

Notoriety matters, too. If S is a maven on P, but few know this, then P’s endorsement will not win many people over, unless they accept P’s title or accomplishments as giving them credibility. The best combination for an endorsement is, then, notoriety and expertise. For example, if a book on New Testament theology received an endorsement from N. T. Wright, the author would be rightly elated and the potential reader would be rightly impressed.

However, the concern for notoriety can go afoul. Consider again N. T. Wright. One of his books was endorsed by Rob Bell. This is akin to an ant saluting an elephant, since Bell is no scholar; in fact, he is not even a serious thinker. Bell was solicited, no doubt, for his undeserved popularity. But one may be popular for the wrong reasons. As Jesus said:

Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers to the false prophets (Luke 6:26, KJV).

He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight (Luke 16:15, NIV).

And consider Moses:

Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd (Exodus 23:2, NIV).

I would not have Donald Trump endorse one of my books; and, I would not accept an endorsement from Lady Gaga.

Taste matters for endorsements as well. Jesus prophesied that “the meek will inherit the earth.” Meekness is not weakness; it requires that we be understated and humble. If an author piles up a mountain of endorsements, covering several pages of text, it is unseemly. Some publishers may push for this against the author’s wishes, however. It is better to wait for the book reviews—which would likely be more fair-minded—for this volume of commentary. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Cronyism is a creeping plague in book publishing as well as in politics: think crony capitalism. A crony is a groupie who wants her share of the action. A crony does not give praise where praise is due, but who gives praise to receive favors in return. Cronies are favored for reasons other than merit. Some endorsements exude an odor of cronyism. X endorses Y and Y endorses X. It makes one wonder sometimes. Is this a legitimate endorsement or a mutual admiration society? I became cautious of this after a notable Christian writer said he would not endorse my book if the book was also dedicated to him. It had to be one or the other. (I was going dedicate it to him and two other heroes.) He said, “You have to avoid anything that smacks of cronyism.” Indeed, you must.

In some cases a reliable expert in an area wrongly endorses a book. For example, Eugene Peterson, a superb writer on pastoral theology, endorsed the idiosyncratic (at best) novel The Shack. However, it is unlikely that several solid references will all err in recommending a book, although it happens. Several evangelical luminaries endorsed Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry by Gregory Alan Thornbury. Despite the noble endeavor to laud and emulate Carl Henry, the author was not up to the task, and egregiously failed to address Henry’s epistemology.

Lastly, if one person endorses many books, the currency declines. It looks promiscuous, as when an inebriated patron keeps ordering rounds of drinks for everyone at the bar.

The final test for any book is not who endorsed it, but its objective worth. If the book imparts knowledge about that needs to be known to glorify God, to advance his Kingdom, and to turn back the powers of darkness, then God himself endorsed that book. May we read and recommend these books.

Worshiping Money

While trapped at Groove Toyota waiting for a ride home, I could not avoid “The Price is Right,” which was bombastically glaring and shouting at me. I could not shout back. I could barely think or pray.

I was peering into a phantasmagorical world of worship. People were whipped into an ecstatic frenzy, standing and cheering without shame. Contestants emoted egregiously in anticipation of receiving something for nothing based on their ignorant guesses of the prices of unnecessary objects. They cheered passionately for things to happen over which they have no control: the luck of the draw.

Two female models stood at each side of the mystical dispenser of manna, emanating beauty sheered of personality. They were perfect–and not there.

And a man is paid to be the master of absurdities. Some sad souls watch this by choice, and perhaps worship along with the throbbing throng.

The Incarnation and the Battle for Knowledge

John’s Prologue to his incomparable Gospel is one of the most significant works of epistemology ever penned. Its intellectual treasures are as limitless as is its subject—Jesus, God Incarnate. This overwhelms me every time I teach, preach, or write on this marvel of biblical revelation. Every battle between truth and error is explained at the deepest level by this assembly of statements. Intrepid soldiers of truth, take heed. Cognitive slackers, wake up.

“In the beginning was the Word,” John writes, alluding to Genesis chapter one: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This Word was with God and was, in fact, God (vs. 1:2-2)! The Word in Greek is Logos, a term often used in ancient Greek philosophy. The Greeks, however, did no know the Logos as God and with God, since their conception was of an impersonal and faceless principle of logical ordering and meaning in the cosmos. John may have been giving the Greek term a new meaning, as many early church fathers believed. Or John may have been referring back to the Hebrew notion of God’s revealed word and wisdom. Either way, we learn that God is The Word.

Words can communicate ideas. Words make up sentences. Declarative sentences are either true or false. True sentences are those that agree with reality. True sentences, rationally grounded, offer us knowledge. It was no accident that the Apostle refers to The Word to name God. God is a God who reveals knowable truth through many means: nature, the Bible, and Jesus, the Word. As Carl Henry wrote, “The living God of the Bible inescapably and invincibly shows up and speaks out.” (God, Revelation, and Authority: God Who Speaks and Shows: Preliminary Considerations.  p. 18.) We speak words that can convey knowledge. God spoke creation into existence as Genesis 1 tells us. John agrees, of course:

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made (John 1:3)

The made bears the mark of its Maker, as Paul tells us.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse (Romans 1:18-20).

All the words of creation and all the words of inspired Scripture lead up to and culminate in the Word became flesh. Perhaps no one put this better than the venerable C.S. Lewis in Miracles.

The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this. Just as every natural event is the manifestation at a particular place and moment of Nature’s total character, so every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation.

The Incarnation is the communication of knowledge through the person and achievements of Jesus, the Christ. This is God’s epistemology. We are made in the divine image to know God through our minds. Again, listen to Carl Henry.

The image of God in man . . . bears noetic implications that have constrained some of Christianity’s profoundest theologians to insist that God is the source of all truth, that the human mind is an instrument for recognizing truth, and that the rational awareness of God is given a priori in correlation with man’s self-awareness, so that man as a knower stands always in epistemic relationships with his Maker and Judge (Ibid. 78).

To that end, God makes truth about himself known that we may know him intellectually and relationally.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

Notice that Christ is “full of grace and truth.” Untruth has no part in The Word, and the Word appeared to be known. By his grace, we can know his truth, since he is full of grace and truth. In fact, he is the truth:

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:5-6).

This mighty Gospel prologue ends with a profound philosophical punch.

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known (John 1:18).

The New American Standard Bible translates this as:

No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (emphasis mine).

While the Word has explained God to us, some resist this divinely-revealed knowledge. As John’s prologue unfolds, we find conflict between the Word and darkness. We are told that the Word’s light “shines in the darkness” when he said, “Let there be light.” But a spiritual darkness asserts itself against this matchless revelation.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (John 1:10-11).

The Word that made the world and became flesh for its sake was not welcomed by all. Some covered their ears and closed their eyes and loved ignorance more than knowledge. We find this in Herod, the godless ruler of Bethlehem in Jesus’ day. Having learned of the birth of Christ from the Magi, he feigned the desire to worship him; yet he feared his rule and wanted to kill him. Since the ministry of the Word would not be overruled by a tyrant.

But Mary and Joseph escaped to Egypt, since the ministry of the Word would not be overruled by a tyrant (Matthew 2:1-15).

We cannot escape this conflict between the Word and a rebellious world that fears the knowledge of the truth. Paul warns of those who are “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). But we must take sides, don our soldier dress, prepare for battle, and launch ourselves into the fray for knowledge. Soldiers in this battle need supernatural strength, a reality only the Word can communicate to us. Despite those who resist and reject Christ, we may believe and receive him. John gives us hope based on reality.

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:11-12).

The Word of creation and revelation is also the Word of redemption. Through him, we may be born again into a new identity and a new life. As Jesus told Nichodemus:

Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.

How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’ (John 3:3-7).

Those who are born again, whose sins are forgiven through the death of Christ on the Cross, should be knowledge warriors. Paul was one such soldier.

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

Paul is speaking of sound doctrine in church discipline, but the principle applies everywhere. We are in a contest for knowledge. Therefore, we must acquire the knowledge of God, explain it to others, defend it (apologetics), and live it out in the power of God. Nothing less than everything is at stake. Women and men must be born again to escape God’s judgment, as Jesus proclaimed:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:21-29).

Those who believe and receive the Son are supernaturally given eternal life now and forever. They receive deliverance from judgment at the resurrection of the dead. This knowledge is worth fighting for. But how ought we wage war?

First, we must grow in our knowledge of God. Paul makes this plain when he speaks of his teaching to the Colossians, those at Laodicea, and for all who had not met him personally.

My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments (Colossians 2:2-4).

The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17; 16:13), provides the believer with intellectual growth and discernment. Nonetheless, this does not happen automatically. Study is a spiritual discipline that confers knowledge and wisdom over time. Learning that matters means self-denial in order to develop a hunger for lasting satisfaction in knowledge. Most Americans, including Christians, do not read; they watch. They are not edified; they are entertained. They may not even know how to learn, since they have been conditioned to pass tests instead of possessing knowledge. The author of Hebrews gave strong words against this problem (even before television). He is hindered from teaching because his readers are not prepared.

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:11-14).

Second, as the Christian grows in knowledge, he should find ways to make the Gospel known to as many people as possible, given his place in life. Christian teachers of all kinds should not assume their students or parishioners understand or have accepted the Gospel. Neither should they be content to wade (or wallow) in the shallow end of the theology pool for their entire ministry. Paul exhorts his disciple, Timothy:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly (2 Timothy 2:15-16; see also James 3:1-2.

Every time a teacher steps into a classroom, she joins the battle for the knowledge of God. It is contested territory, which should become a sanctuary for knowledge.

As a Christian philosopher nearing the end of my fifth decade of life, I am earnest to communicate Christianity through the media of writing, teaching, and preaching. I pursue many endeavors in order to make the Word known to a wounded world (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6). Recently, I contacted a Buddhist school with the idea of participating in a Christian-Buddhist dialogue. The President of the institution wrote back with some interest.

But my vineyard is not your vineyard. Therefore, seek out areas of life where you have influence and tell the world that “the Word became flesh.” You do not have the luxury of sitting out the battle for knowledge. No Christian can afford to be on vacation from speaking the truth in love in the strength of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:15). Eternity is too long and God’s glory too important to do Christianity on the cheap.

Human Nature and Christian Apologetics

Co-Author: E.J. Johnston

Christian apologetics is pointless unless we know who needs to know the gospel and what they are like. All humans need to come to Christ through the reception of the Gospel message, since Jesus alone is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). As we persuade sinners that they need the Savior, we need to answer the Bible’s own question:

What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:5)

Those we invite to name Christ as Lord are, first, made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:27-28). Thus, humans are “finite replicas of God,” in Cornelius Van Til’s phrase. As such, we are personal, relational, rational, emotional, and volitional. We represent God on earth as does nothing else and are called to cultivate and develop nature (Genesis 1-2; Psalm 8). We mortals are finite and personal; the immortal God is infinite and personal. Since we are finite, we need an infinite reference point in order to find our purpose and the meaning of life and of death. We are not sufficient unto ourselves. We were created to look up to God before we look down at ourselves and the rest of creation.

Since we bear the divine image, it is not strange that God would relate to us rationally and propositionally. Our Creator spoke to the first couple in the garden and they understood him. They did not deny their divinely-given intellect to know God. Their problem was not that God had left them in the dark, but that they chose darkness over light and sided with the lies of the serpent.

Yet even after the fall, God continued to speak to his creatures, and they understood him. Using their capacity for language received from the Almighty, they responded. Equipped with language, humanity could communicate with God and each other; thus, they could establish their dominion over creation for God’s purposes. Otherwise, we would not find Paul arguing with the philosophers of Athens as recorded in Acts 17. The Apostle explains the character of God and appeals to Greek thinkers to establish common ground with his audience. He knows that Spirit-led rational argument was apropos for the non-Christian interested in his teaching. Luke, the writer of Acts, tells us that Paul was a success, even though this was an unplanned mission trip which he took on alone (Acts 17:1-9).

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others (Acts 17:32-34).

The Greeks did not respect the Hebrew Bible; they were not people of the covenant that God made with the Jews. Nonetheless, they could receive the proclamation and defense of the Gospel because they were still rational and moral creatures. On this basis, Peter exhorts Christians to defend their beliefs:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

This answer is an apologetic, a reasoned case for one’s belief given to unbelievers who have no sufficient hope to cope with the suffering of life.

Nevertheless, some argue that man’s fall into sin disables his intellect from following arguments for Christian truths. Sin affects every aspect of our being, including the intellect. Therefore, arguments for Christianity (apologetics) are futile at best and harmful to the Christian cause at worst. Scripture tells us that the fall was no small injury to human beings: As Paul writes:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3).

The divine image remains, however, and part of that image is rationality, the ability of God’s creatures to fathom concepts (such as the Gospel itself) and to follow and give arguments. Jesus conversed philosophically with the best minds of his day, as I argue in On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2003). Surely, he did not deem such discourse pointless or harmful to the knowledge of God!

Nonetheless, our sinfulness makes doing apologetics more difficult, since we and our hearers are often slow to warm to the truth, given self-centeredness. But we should not speculate concerning the implications of the fall apart from what the Bible tells us about human nature and the commendation of the gospel to unbelievers.

Moreover, the Holy Spirit, who Jesus calls the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17, 16:13), can open people’s minds through argumentation or by any other means he so choses. No less a luminary than C.S. Lewis was drawn to God partially through rational arguments, as he discussed in his book, Surprised by Joy. More recently, Lee Strobel had the same experience, which is what sparked the writing of his best-selling books, The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. While so much more should be said, a vital lesson must be learned—no Christian should denounce or even shy away from marshalling good arguments for the truth of Christianity (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

Mindful of this, let us engage others in reasonable, rational conversation on matters of eternal import. Let us encourage them to seek truth through their God-given reason articulated through human language. And let us entreat our Lord on their behalf, because without the Holy Spirit’s work (and regardless of how brilliant any apologist or audience may be), embracing divine revelation cannot occur by unaided human reason. It is the work of God.

The Case for Funerals

Mom did not attend a church, but believed in Christ. Shortly before her death in 2010, I learned that she did not want a funeral. I really don’t know why. Maybe it was because she did not have a local church. Perhaps she thought there would be no one to officiate for her. It is also possible that she thought that funerals were too grim, and she wanted to be remembered in a different light. She had arranged for her cremation and burial plot, but thought that a funeral was unnecessary—perhaps even a bad idea.

I was unable to be with her when she died, but said goodbye to Mom about a week before her passing. (I could not stay, but was constrained to return to Denver.)

Without a funeral, something was missing and empty. I had no formal way of saying goodbye. I would have gone back for the funeral. I would have tried to speak at her funeral. Although I do not know why mom did not want one, I do know that funerals are biblical and emotionally healthy.

Our Lord Jesus did not have a funeral. Criminals were not so honored in that day. Jesus was taken to be a law-breaker when, in fact, he was a love-bringer and truth-teller. Christians celebrate his death and resurrection simultaneously in communion until he comes again in glory. But it is because of Christ’s death and resurrection that Christians should have and attend funerals.

Jesus came to earth in order to reverse the powers of the fall. Death invaded the human race because of sin against God (Genesis 3). Ever since, man has mourned the dead, feared death (or claimed not to), and sought to alleviate or postpone mortality. People have also murdered one another, committed suicide, killed in war and self-defense, and killed others accidentally in myriad ways. History is red in spilled blood. You cannot long avoid seeing a grave yard or reading an obituary.

Jesus has no tombstone, and no permanent burial place. The grave is empty. He is elsewhere, at the right hand of the Father and above all death yet still incarnated—God in human form. As the resurrected and ascended Lord, he has died his appointed death, and he lives his life for his people.

Because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them (Hebrews 7:24-25).

Death, however, is still tasted on earth. Death comes from sin. We cannot ignore sin and death. We typically solemnize them through funerals and other commemorations. Yet if Jesus has vanquished death through his death and resurrection, why should be observe funerals at all? Listen to the Preacher of Ecclesiastes.

A good name is better than fine perfume,
and the day of death better than the day of birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
the living should take this to heart.
Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure (Ecclesiastes 7:1-4).

This wisdom was written before the coming of Jesus, but we do not throw it out for that reason. It is Holy Scripture, as Jesus affirmed (Matthew 5:17-18; John 10:33) and as Paul told us:

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope (Romans 15:4).

We can either try to divert ourselves from thinking about death, be morbid about it, or face it with courage. God calls us to have courage in a wounded world and to make the most of our limited opportunities. Going into “the house of mourning” is sobering—and we need sobering up in a culture of diversion. We should “take it to heart.” What is better than going to “the house of mourning” to become wise, to make the most of the few days we have under the sun?

We should attend funerals in order to sober up, to remember a life now ended, and to encourage those who grieve. We should make funeral arrangements to help others solemnize the life that God gave us and to consider that God will take away every life before the resurrection of the just and the unjust (Daniel 12:2; 1 Thessalonians 4:17). Of all people, Christians can face death with courage and hope. One way to show this courage and hope is to attend and plan for funerals.

Read Old Books First

Old is often better. New is often bad. Why think the newer is truer, especially on philosophy and theology? Old books have withstood the test of time. That doesn’t mean they are true, but they are venerable. Most books are printed once or twice, go out of print, and are forgotten. And we spend so much of our time reading ephemera, this listless dust. When reading about physics, we need the latest discoveries and theories, but not so about the first principles and ultimate issues of life. As C.S. Lewis said, inspired by his friend Owen Barfield, moderns practice chronological snobbery, deeming the newest as the truest. There is no reason for it.

New books usually say nothing truly new and say the old things worse than the old books themselves. Who can top The Confessions by Augustine in a modern memoir? No one can, of course. Then why read Blue Like Jazz? We have The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. Then why read Love Wins by hipster and slacker Rob Bell? One could go on, but I will not. Instead, I offer a few old books worth reading, pondering, and rereading. This list is neither comprehensive nor adequately justified. Nevertheless, the reader may, one hopes, find inspiration for reading what ought to be read, instead of reading what everyone else is reading (or claiming to have read).

  1. Augustine, The Confessions. Augustine reflects on this life theologically and existentially.
  2. Anything by Thomas Aquinas, the greatest thinker of the medieval world.
  3. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Many condemn Calvin without have ever read him. I always consult his commentaries on the Bible in preparation for preaching.
  4. Martin Luther. The 95 Theses set the Reformation in Motion. See also his commentary on Romans and much more.
  5. Blaise Pascal, Pensees. The polymath’s ruminations on God, man, and Christ. An unfinished apologetic for Christianity.
  6. Anything by Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s greatest thinkers. See his much maligned, but seldom read in toto, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
  7. Creeds and confessions: The Athanasian Creed, The Counsel of Chalcedon, The Westminster Confession and Catechism, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Thirty-Nine Articles, Luther’s Catechism.
  8. Some works of Soren Kierkegaard. SK was a fideist and I am not. However, his insights into the psyche and some of his biblical reflections are profound. See especially, The Sickness unto Death and Purity of Heart.
  9. The Dutch titan of theology, politics, and journalism, Abraham Kuyper wrote voluminously and is experiencing a revival in recent years. Start with Lectures on Calvinism.
  10. The works of biblical scholar and theologian, B.B. Warfield.
  11. The works of biblical scholar and theologian, J. Gresham Machen, especially Christianity and Liberalism.
  12. Anything by G. K. Chesterton, but especially Orthodoxy, a book I often quote. I have memorized several passages from it.
  13. Books by modern, but established, masters of devotion, theology, and social critique: A. W. Tozer, C. S. Lewis, J. I. Packer, R. J. Rushdoony, John Stott, Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness, and Carl F. H. Henry.

Christians should be well-read and discerning people in order to out-think and out-live the world for Christ. A diet of the contemporary at the expense of the perennial is unwise. Read old books and become a wiser soul. Then re-read them.

A Short Philosophy of Tipping

“Christians are the worst tippers.” Waitresses and waiters have told me this over many years. I have no hard social science data on this, but I believe it. That is good reason to address the philosophy of the gratuity. We consider who and how to tip thousands of times in our short lives. Perhaps we should think a bit more about how to approach it.

Gratuity is the noun correlated with the adjective gratuitous, which pertains to something not strictly necessary. A gratuitous insult is unneeded or uncalled for. Thus, a gratuity is an action or bestowal, beyond what is required. In the positive sense, a gratuity goes beyond what duty demands. It is also related to freedom. If we say, “John did that gratis,” we mean he did it without cost.

So, then, what is a gratuity considered as a tip one gives to a service person, say in a restaurant or bar or hair salon? The one serving receives a salary, but they are usually small compared to the work they perform. Our waitress will make most of her money from tips. This may not be true in other tipping circumstances, as with hair stylists. Hence, understanding the situation is pertinent to our philosophy of tipping. But how much should we tip?

Some establishments suggest a gratuity and will calculate what the tip should be given the cost of the goods or services rendered. I was raised thinking that ten percent was the least one should tip. Convention deemed it so. However, if superior service was given, the tip should go up. If inferior service was given, the tip should go down or disappear entirely.

It seems the convention for tipping is now twenty percent. Some establishments make a gratuity mandatory by adding it to every bill and, thereby, flaunting the law of noncontradiction. If we have laid out the facts of the matter, we are ready for specific advice on offering gratuities.

“It is better to give than to receive,” said Jesus Christ, the most generous man in history. The Gospel is God’s gratuity to man, the law-breaker. Being reinstated into God’s favor and gaining eternal life is a gift and nothing but a gift and is to be received as such. This glowing reality should inform and infuse all our transactions. Better to be too generous than stingy. If we have freely received from the hand of God, we should freely give. How might this orientation to God and man find expression in tipping?

We should not forget the economics. Before we go out to eat, we should consider the cost of the food, drinks, and tip. While a tip is technically a gratuity, it is expected by both the owners and the servers, and it is part of the logic of the business. If no one tipped, the business would likely die. Therefore, if you are not going to tip, then do not patronize the establishment.

Perhaps, since you want to give more to your church or to missions or to other worthy causes, you would rather not tip. If so, stay home. Of course, one should not tip at the expense of the tithe and other giving.

Just as a required gratuity is a contradiction, in a sense, so is giving a gratuity for good service, since good service deserves a tip. The laborer is worthy of his tip. However, one is not obligated to tip; so, it is still elective for the giver. In that way, it is a gift. What then is an appropriate gift?

Convention helps. For decent service, twenty percent is the norm. If the service is poor, a bit less is justified. Situations differ, however, and should be taken into account. Consider a few.

If your server has rendered excellent service, then going above the normal tip is called for. This encourages him in his work and helps him with his finances.

You may receive rather poor service, but you note that this stems from your server having a bad shift. She looks harried, tired, and may even be crying. In this case, she may deserve a small tip, but needs a lift that a good tip can bring.

You know that your server is in a financial crisis and that you can spare more than an average tip. Tipping generously is apropos in these cases. My hair stylist, Karen, told me that a woman she regularly styled once gave her a hundred dollar tip because she knew of Karen’s needs as a single mother. If you know of a student who is waiting tables and has little money, a large tip can be a gift as well. Servers suffer when business is slow, so if you note this, you might want to leave a larger tip to compensate a bit.

But, on the other hand, larger tips may be a mistake. This is not because liberality is dangerous, but because it may have ulterior motives.

Men may over-tip an attractive waitress in order to get her attention. (I suppose a woman might do this with a male waiter, but it strikes me as unlikely.) If done outside of allowable flirting—between unmarried people—it is wrong, since it is an attempt at illicit seduction.

Tipping may also be a way to impress others. If so, the motive is wrong, however much it benefits the server. Good deeds should be done because they are good, not to show oneself as good. Jesus’ statement refers to giving to the needy, but the principle applies to tipping as well:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1).

The gratuity is only a part—although an important part—of the morality of being served. Those who serve us should never be treated as mere means to an end. They are ends in themselves, since they are created in the image and likeness of God. As James warns us:

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness (James 3:9).

Rather than curse, or ignore, our servers, we should greet them with kindness. Jesus again speaks to us.

And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:47-48).

In some cases, our servers—especially the older ones—may be one of “the least of these,” of which Jesus spoke as deserving special honor (Matthew 25:31-46).

Our philosophy of the gratuity says much about us. May it never be that you are known as a bad tipper. Christians, of all people, should be generous. “Freely you have received; freely give,” commanded Jesus, who has given himself freely for all (Matthew 10:8).

Identity, Please

“What am I?” This question came to me once long ago after awaking from a nap in a strange place. The usual question in such cases is, “Where am I?” But my befuddlement went deeper. I was awake, but not awake to much of anything about myself. This question of identity was answered soon after when I came to my senses. Never since have I questioned my basic identity as a Christian male. Today, however, many are not coming to their senses. Instead, they are going out of their minds.

My point is philosophical and simple. Let us start with two propositions to see if they get along with each other. These claims are held by not a few people today.

  1. Humans are constituted by matter and nothing more. This, of course, includes their biological gender. That is, chemistry, biology, and physics determine who they are and what they do. Thus, from this viewpoint, this statement, “I am my body and nothing more,” is true. This is a broadly materialist or physicalist account of human beings. Everything human can be reduced to matter.
  2. Humans are not defined by their biological gender, whether they are male or female. Bodies do not determine their gender identity. On the contrary, humans may identify with any gender preference available, such as homosexual, heterosexual, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, or queer. (Queer Studies is now an academic discipline.) However, these are not fixed categories, since people may change their identities at will. One identifying as homosexual may re-identify as bi-sexual at another time. The categories may be blended as well: John identifies as mostly homosexual, but partially with heterosexual. The possibilities proliferate wildly once the traditional binary topography of gender is trashed. Philosophically conjoining (1) and (2), however, is a headache, and no pain reliever is in the cabinet—or anywhere else. Let me explain.

No one can choose against reality. If humans are only material, then their very materiality must determine who they are—their gender and all their other features. Thus, for the materialist to say that one’s body does not determine gender is a contradiction. To what else can one appeal as the basis for identity? Volition, on this account, cannot float free from one’s body, which is physical and nothing but physical. Consider these examples:

  1. One is anatomically male, but identifies as female.
  2. One is anatomically female, but identifies as male.
  3. One is anatomically male, but identifies as a lesbian.

One could, sadly, go on, but philosophy must speak its piece. According to materialism:

  1. If a human is only matter, then matter must determine their gender.
  2. Humans are only matter.

  3. Therefore (a), matter must determine their gender. By modus ponens.
  4. Therefore (b), humans cannot possibly choose against their material nature, since that is all they are and all they have.
  5. Therefore (c), the claim that gender is not determined by one’s physical body is false.

Put more simply, the materialist who claims that one can identify as what one is not has to affirm two contradictory statements:

  1. I am only my body.
  2. I am not only my body.

If materialism is true, then there are no volitional resources available to choose against one’s body, one’s biological nature. One cannot invent what cannot exist. It is like climbing a ladder of water or jumping out of a bottomless pit. Whatever else we say about gender, let us at least defer to logic and reality. There are laws and facts that cannot be broken. But we may break ourselves upon them.