Free Speech and Rightful Protest

America has more opportunities and avenues for free speech and political action than anywhere else in the world, despite all our problems and injustice. Let us, therefore, use these freedoms and not resort to violence. And let our civil government protect these freedoms, enshrined in the First Amendment.

If you think destroying other people’s property and threatening their livelihoods is right, then you are bewitched by a debauched utilitarian ethics: The end justified the means. You are not respecting the dignity of individuals (made in God’s image) or their property. If you want to be respected, then show respect. It is the Golden Rule of Jesus, the greatest nonviolent and constructive revolutionary of all time. If you worship him, love your neighbor, even your enemy.

You have a voice, so don’t use a fist.
Speak, even yell, but don’t hit or throw.
Make a sign and show it. Don’t make a bomb and throw it.
You have a vote, so don’t use a torch.
You can protest, but do not destroy.
Be angry, but in your anger, do not sin.
Govern yourself as you seek to reform our civil government.

Street brutality is no answer to police brutality, which is real and must be addressed.

Pray and work. Work and pray. Pray while you work. Work while you pray.

May God bring justice and peace.

 

Moral Theory for Church Leaders

            As pastors and teachers in the church seek to exposit and apply the Bible to their congregations, they need to handle wisely the moral matters discussed in the Scriptures. We need wise positions on hot-button topics, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but we also need a sound theoretical understanding of morality rooted in the Bible. As Paul told 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 (2 Timothy 2:15; see also Titus 3:5-6).

Some parts of the Bible are more directly related to ethics than others. Questions of conduct cannot be avoided when teaching on the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-18; Deuteronomy 5:1-21), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), or the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38). All of Scripture is profitable for guidance on how to live well before the face of God (2 Timothy 3:15-17; Hebrews 4:12). Therefore, all of Scripture, in one way or another, concerns the moral life—our obligation to do good and to avoid evil, our need to learn to become a virtuous person, and our doing of good works.

            It may not be obvious, however, that moral theory can help ground and organize the church’s teaching on ethics.1 Teaching ethics at Denver Seminary—and elsewhere—for nearly thirty years has convinced me of this. So, let me explain and illustrate a few basic elements of moral theory in the hope that preachers and teachers will appropriate them for solid and clear teaching for God’s people.

            In the first paragraph, I said that Scripture concerns “our obligation to do good and to avoid evil.” That phrase captures the deontological aspect of ethics. Deontology concerns moral duties or responsibilities. In the biblical context, duties are based on God’s commands. Our actions should conform to his directives. The Ten Commandments are the moral backbone of biblical ethics.2 Eight of the Ten Commandments are negative: You shall not have another God, take God’s name in vain, worship an image of God, commit adultery, murder, bear false witness, steal, or covet.”3 Positively, you shall keep the Sabbath and honor your parents (Exodus 20:1-18). These commands all address actions to be done or avoided. When Jesus was asked what the greatest command was, he replied:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Jesus is not replacing the Ten Commandments, but rather getting to the heart of them. Loving God and neighbor needs the structure of God’s specific commands, lest “love” be reduced to untutored and unhinged sentiment (as it is so often today). For example, it is never loving to commit adultery, to dishonor one’s parents, or to murder. And Paul writes that “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6). It cannot be loving to delight in what breaks God’s commands.

The demands and commands of God’s law for our behavior always call us up short and point us to the Cross of Christ for forgiveness and new life. In fact, we are commanded to repent and come to Christ. As Paul preached, “God…now commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30; see also John 6:29).

Since the Bible is so insistent on obeying the commands of God, some Christians have neglected two other elements of ethical theory that are revealed in Scripture. The first is virtue.

Virtue theory dates to the ancient Greeks, principally to Plato and Aristotle. For them, someone cultivates particular character traits by finding a moral model and following his lead in the context of a virtue-forming community. The cardinal virtues of this tradition are justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. Christian thinkers added the virtues of faith, hope, and love to this list (taken from 1 Corinthians 13). While Christians should obey God’s commands in their actions, we are also called to be a particular kind of people on the inside. Our characters should be so shaped by the Holy Spirit that we obey God gladly and habitually and learn to respond affectively to situations in a God-honoring way. We may know well that we should not covet anything that belongs to our neighbor (deontology), but learning to be content—through prayer and mental discipline—is a matter of virtue. Thus, the virtues assist us to want to obey God’s law and to do so in the right way, with a heart of love and service.

The second element of moral theory besides deontology is consequences or the consequential aspect of morality. Some moral theories, such as utilitarianism, make the achievement of good consequences the entirety of ethics. Utilitarianism teaches that we must bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. Now the question becomes, “What is the good to be brought about for the masses?” Utilitarians may answer this differently, but the standard model claims that the good is pleasure. God is not against pleasure, since he invented it as good in the beginning, but what fallen humans take pleasure in may not be truly good—for themselves or for anyone else. Think of the pleasure some derive from pornography or the pleasure derived from being a ruthless and heartless businessperson, who will do most anything to make more and more money. 

Christians can agree what we should do as much good to as many people as possible, but we should not attempt this apart from moral duties (deontology) and moral virtues. James tells us that our saving faith is verified by our good works (James 2:14-26; see also Ephesians 2:1-10). Jesus tells us to serve “the least of these” who are his “brethren” (Matthew 25:31-46). God told the Jewish exiles to seek the welfare of the city to which they were banished, because when it prospered, they would prosper, too (Jeremiah 29:7). Only as we our definition of good goes beyond mere pleasure can we bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. We cannot violate the law of love to bring about more pleasure for more people. Moreover, our moral goal is not pleasure per se, but the service of God and neighbor through lawful and virtuous obedience to God. One abolitionist, John Brown, said that American slavery had to be abolished even if all Ten Commandments had to be broken to accomplish it! Of course, no thinking Christian would every believe that. 

Christians can sometimes seek results at the expense of principles and godly character. I was in an evangelistic meeting where the teacher asked for eyes to be closed while he asked people to put up their hands if they wanted to become Christians. I kept my eyes open. Just after he asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to accept Jesus as Lord, he said, “I see hands going up everywhere.” They weren’t. I looked. After he lied, other hands went up. Only God knows how many people were born again that evening, but deception is never the proper method for evangelism or disciple making. Paul made this clear when he wrote to the church in Thessalonica:

For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young childrenamong you (1 Thessalonians 2:3-7). 

Much more can be said about moral theory in relation to the Bible, but I hope I have shown that the categories of deontology, virtue, and consequences are pertinent to moral decision making and moral action for the Christian. Teachers and preachers in the church can help clarify the moral vision of the Bible by explaining these terms and showing how the Bible’s teachings about ethics can be understood in these terms.  


1 For an in-depth treatment, see Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), chapters 1-3.

2 To defend this claim, see the exposition of the Ten Commandments in The Westminster Longer Catechism.

3 On the significance of this negativity, see Rousas John Rushdoony, “The Negativism of the Law,” in The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1973).

Honoring Ravi: Apologetics!

You can honor the ministry and legacy of Ravi Zacharias by doing one thing. Make the presentation and defense of the gospel a high priority in your life just as he did. You won’t be as winsome, but so what? As someone said about Ravi, “Unlike many Evangelicals, he actually evangelized instead of being all about politics.” We need both, but Ravi knew his calling, and we are all called to make the gospel known in our generation. Perhaps we need less political pontificating.

So, read a few of Ravi Zacharias’s books. Watch his incomparable messages on line. Perhaps get some training at The Zacharias Institute. Consider donating to RZIM. Then bring the gospel to others in any way you can: prayer, talking to people, listening to people, inviting people to church, writing cards and letters, sending emails, being a godly presence in people’s lives over time, speaking publicly for Christ, writing articles that commend Jesus, doing good works in Jesus name without bragging, being on panel discussions where the gospel is addressed, doing debates and discussions with non-Christians while speaking the truth in love. If you are a preacher, then preach on apologetics when fitting. If you are able, teach an apologetics class at your church. Don’t let any high school student attend a secular university without training in apologetics!

Always “watch your life and doctrine closely,” as Paul told Timothy (1 Timothy 4:16).

 

In Defense of Fear

Too often we hear that we should not be affected by fear, especially in the pandemic. No, fear–of the right kind–is good.

“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” the Bible tells us. We should be in awe and hold God in the highest respect, even though he is our friend through Jesus, and even our Father in heaven. We fear not Gods wrath if we are covered in Christ’s righteousness, but we should still fear God.

Fear of the professor’s bad grades is the beginning of academic wisdom, even if the professor is kind and helpful. This fear leads to improvement and academic safety.

Fear of death from a deadly disease is wise. Altering your behavior accordingly is right, given a severe threat. Being cautious and controlling your urges is the better part of virtue.

Going out in public without precautions and screaming about the loss of your “rights” in a pandemic is unwise, imprudent, and potentially harmful to others.

Remember, if you get the virus because you were careless, it may not hurt you too much. However, in so doing, you weaponize yourself and you may give the virus to someone who becomes very ill or who may die from it.

So, be afraid. Be very afraid.

 

Hospitality During the Corona Virus Crisis

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines—Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out.

Although I am an introvert who doesn’t fear long hours alone in study and writing, I long to welcome people into my home. After long years of my residence being more of a hospice than a home, it has been recently transformed into a bright and warm place for others—a place for hospitality. That means a place to offer food and drink, a place for studying and a place for intellectual exploration as I show people around my capacious library and offer to loan books. In the last sentence, I kept writing a place. But now, in virus lockdown, this place is only for my wife, myself, and my dog, Sunny. Any hospitality I now offer is crimped by aloneness. Even time outside is hampered by fear of contagion and the ill-named “social distancing.”

Hospitality is the public outgrowth of love. Compassion and caring always moves outward, towards the other in hopes of friendship, fellowship, service, and community. As Pascal said, “Respect means put yourself out.” How much more does love mean “put yourself out”? Hospitality is a Christian virtue and without it, there is little if any spiritual life in the church and witness to the world. The Apostle Peter writes this:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Peter 4:8-9).

So many other texts could be cited, but we need to realize that the imperative to be hospitable is rooted in God’s own hospitality in offering us hospitality through Jesus Christ. The eternal Son took on a human nature and dwelt among us full of grace and truth, making the Father known (John 1).

Hospitality means welcoming or restoring someone into our good graces—or at least offering this. We can extend kindness to others through all the media available to us and perhaps reach into the lives of others we have neglected. We may seek reconciliation with those with whom we are estranged, as Jesus taught us to do in the Sermon on the Mount. Since “love covers a multitude of sins,” we should not hold others sins against them. By so doing, we become hospitable and refuse to grumble. Even in our aloneness and retreat, we can ponder and pray about the meaning of hospitality being eager for its return to our homes, schools, places of worship, and our life together.

 

 

Crisis, Virus, and Ideology

With social media, anyone can post anything about anything. You are your own editor, publisher, and promoter. Everyone is an expert or can pose as one. Or perhaps the idea of an expert is dead. Since ethos is essential in persuasion, let me “speak as a fool” (as Apostle Paul put it) about myself before making some comments about crisis, virus, and ideology.

I speak for no organization. I am not an ordained minister, not a physician, and not a scientist. I belong to no political party. I am an evangelical Christian who is a philosopher, author, and professor. I am sixty-three years old and have been a Christian since 1976. I have taught full-time as a professor of philosophy since 1993 and have been an adjunct professor at three secular colleges. I have published and taught on many topics, including the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of technology, theology, moral philosophy, social issues, postmodernism, theology of culture, Jesus, Blaise Pascal, and political philosophy. I’ve been around the block a few times. So, here are a few reflections on responses to the current pandemic.

I see people’s political views eclipsing their reasoning and this concerns me greatly. Conservatives are tending to downplay the crisis, fearing that it is some kind of ruse for liberal politics. Criticisms of the President’s handling of the corona pandemic are taken to be merely political. Some seem to think that if you voted for Trump and are not a Democrat, you must never criticize him. Or they think that if you criticize Trump, you support a far-left ideology. That is the fallacy of a false dichotomy. That is not how reality or democracy works. Facts are more important than ideological conformity. Being ideologically blinded is marked by at least four tendencies. (1) You dismiss out of hand views contrary to your own. (2) You consult only news and opinion sources that share you views. (3) You see the world in only stark binary terms (us and them). (4) You are quick to attack the motives of those you disagree with.

For some, measures taken by governments to hinder the spread of the virus are taken as a gateway to totalitarianism. As a conservative, I have long criticized statism—the notion that the state is the central institution for order and meaning in society. Other forms of government are just as important as civil government: self-government (virtue), family government, church government, school government, and the governments of private organizations. However, the state or civil government has its proper place and—because of its coercive power—can accomplish much that the private sector cannot. Thus, when lives are at stake, it is appropriate for the state to restrict activities, such as closing down businesses, taking economic measures, and restricting public meetings. The public good demands this and all decisions cannot be left to private choices. Remember what Apostle Paul wrote about civil government.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience (Romans 13:1-5).

This does not give the governing authorities carte blanc permission to take away basic human rights or to control the church. May it never be! Scripture tells us of godly people standing up to the state (Exodus 1; Acts 5:26). Citizens must sometimes rise up against tyrannical governments or secretly disobey them. (On this, see Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto.) But the issue today is not so much about civil liberties, as it is about public health and common sense. If the mayor of a city limits the operation of businesses—even though there are only a few reported cases of corona virus in the state—that is no reason to accuse her of tyranny. Rather, the she should be complimented for being conservative in protecting the health of citizens. When the stakes are high—dying of the virus—the measures should be aggressively conservative, because so much is at stake. This is Prudential Reasoning 101.

In times of crisis, critical thinking is often a causality. But the greater the crisis, the greater the need for cool heads—and for warm hearts, wise action, and faithful prayer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus On Publicity and Public Virtue

We live in the great age of endless self-promotion. Anyone can ego-cast through the Internet by projecting images, talking points, endorsements, slogans, memes, pseudo-events, and more. But what is genuine virtue, and how should it be manifested in public? Followers of Jesus must seek out another way that avoids the dangers of image manipulation and various forms of puffing oneself up before the masses.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount charts another path for his followers. After he sees the crowds who are following him, he sits down to kindly teach them what the world would never forget: the beatitudes.

 Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
  Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
  Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
  Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
  Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

  Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:3-12).

These God-bestowed blessings are countercultural, but they define Christian virtue. I commend to you John Stott’s book, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, to elucidate these profound teachings, but suffice to note that the God-blessed life in Christ is one of God-focused gentleness, humility, and good works, even to the point of experiencing blessing in persecution for following the way of blessings. This way of life ensures blessings that move far beyond this present age, extending into the age to come in which the meek will inherit the earth and all who mourn before God will be comforted.

Jesus goes on to teach that this pattern of existence has public implications. Individuals can experience the divine endorsement as they follow Christ in meekness, mourning, peacemaking and more, but these spill over into the marketplace, the highway, the school, on capitol hill, and everywhere.

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:13-16).

Blessed people are salt (seasoning and preserving society) and light (exposing darkness and giving a medium for sight). Their virtue is to be public. This is holy publicity based on public virtue, not worldly publicity based on clever advertising. Virtuous influence is based on godly character and not on worldly celebrity—being “well known for their well knowness,” as Daniel Boorstin put it in The Image (1961).

Paradoxically, not trumpeting your virtue leads to godly influence through the discipline of secrecy. Later in the sermon, Jesus says:

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.

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:1-4).

We ought not seek our reward through the attention we receive by doing good works. God knows our hearts and our acts and will respond accordingly, with or without the attention of the world. Our good lives and good deeds come through being people of the beatitudes. There is no need to announce it with trumpets or through the internet or to seek the honor given by others. If we do, we forfeit the way of Jesus and any true effectiveness we might achieved.

God wants the kind of publicity that comes when his people submit to his rule, are filled with his Spirit, and obey his Word. Public virtue comes from private devotion and the discipline of secrecy. Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount by seeing the crowds who came to him. This perfectly holy man drew many people to himself through nothing but his virtue. We should do the same in his holy power.

Letting others know how you can serve them is apt. Reporting on how God is using your gifts is fine. Selling yourself is neither. Let us follow Jesus.

 

 

 

 

Presence

You and I need media to communicate with one another. Speech is one medium to bring thought into oral expression. Writing is another medium to bring thought into the world through inscription of various kinds. When electricity was pressed into communicative service long ago, new media were added to the human scene: telegraphy, radio, telephones, television, cell phones, and the Internet.

All mediation creates a new environment, which changes the communication and changes the people communicating. Those who first used telephones felt it odd that a voice could be so radically separated from a human being who was speaking somewhere in the general vicinity.

Electronic mediation allows for informational extensions beyond that of the immediate. I have FaceTime with a friend in Czech Republic, because we cannot meet at the local pub for now. However, all these electronic mediations separate as well as unite. FaceTime shows me a face and gives me a voice, but I cannot shake hands, put a hand on a shoulder, or pick up the kinetic subtleties I would experience if I were in a room with my friend. Moreover, I depend on the camera to give me the angle of vision. When face to face, I can move around the room, literally lean into the conversation, and communicate with my full body in ways not available through face time. Mediation gives, and mediation takes away.

Now let us open our Bibles. The Apostle John ended two of his three letters with a desire we may read over too quickly.

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 12).

I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face (3 John 13-14).

John realizes the limitations of quill and parchment—that ancient kind of mediation that we understand as pen and the paper—and now, more and more, as keyboard and the screen. His realization was based on his experience of the Incarnation itself, as he tells us.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete (1 John 1:1-4).

The Apostle, Paul, said much the same in two places.

I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith (Romans 1:11-12).

Paul was about to write the book of Romans, the most thorough account of Christian theology in the entirety of holy Scripture. Yet even that was not the same as seeing the recipients of his letter. Paul yearned for the “mutual encouragement” that comes from face-to-face fellowship. He writes the same to his young charge, Pastor Timothy:  “Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy” (2 Timothy 1:4).

Examples like this could be multiplied. They reveal that personal presence cannot be replaced by any medium of communication. Being with someone is not identical to any other form of communication. I am not devaluing letters, emails, texts, or even tweets. However, we gain wisdom when we understand the nature of the medium we are using—its weaknesses and its strengths. But we should not be so deceived as to think that the on-line classroom is exchangeable for the in-person classroom or the on-line church service is exchangeable for the in-person church service. Presence matters because matter matters. It matters to God, and it should matter for us. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Thus, we should practice the presence of God and practice the presence of other people.

For more on these ideas, see Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997).

A Revolution

Here is a revolutionary activity: listen to people who experience suffering beyond your reach. Do not try to put their experience in your categories. Stifle any cliché responses. Rather, listen; then, listen again.

Try to walk in their limping shoes. Try to live in their imprisoned body. Then, be quiet, and listen. Ask questions. Do not try to repair anything right away. Thousands of others have already tried and failed. They are sick of hearing pat answers.

Then, commiserate. Do not say, “It isn’t so bad.” How do you know? How can you know? You are a stranger to their misery and anguish. But you can be a compassionate companion along life’s way. Do not even say, “I understand.” You probably do not.

But, you can be the one in a hundred who dares to suffer well with others, to enter into their misery with no game plan, with no sure path to healing, and with no agenda apart from love.

Coming Soon! The Groothuis App

No more need for the living Groothuis, who can be irascible and curmudgeonly. After all, he can only be in once place at one time. We have now digitized him so that you can have him 24/7/365 without the need to navigate his quirky personality. All you need of Groothuis without Groothuis, thanks to new technology.

That’s right. From videos, articles, books, and interviews, we have captured his core ideas, illustrations, and even jokes (at least the good ones)! No need to actually read any of his books or articles. Hey, some are long! Just get the app, ask a question, and Groothuis own (simulated) voice will answer the apologetics or philosophy question—and in less than three minutes. Unlike real life, when Groothuis would often pause to think or find the right word or even say nothing, all Groothuis App answers come pause-free. You can even vary the rate of voice, just like on Audible.

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