Learning Is a Spiritual Call — Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (1946 – )

theologybookOne of the great legacies of the Reformed tradition is an emphasis on worldview thinking. Every area of life is to be brought under the lordship of Christ, and every legitimate discipline may be used as a means of worshipping God with one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength.

In a recent volume, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., President of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, reminds Christians that life-long learning is a spiritual vocation.

Thoughtful Christians know that if they obey the Bible’s great commandment to love God with our whole mind, as well as with everything else, then we will study the splendor of God’s creation in the hope of grasping part of the ingenuity and grace that form it. One way to love God is to know and love God’s work. Learning is therefore a spiritual calling; properly done, it attaches us to God. In addition, the learned person has, so to speak, more to be Christian with. The person who studies chemistry, for example, can enter into God’s enthusiasm for the dynamic possibilities of material reality. The student who examines one of the great movements of history has moved into a position to praise the goodness of God, or to lament the mystery of evil, or to explore the places where these things intertwine. Further, from persistent study of history a student may develop good judgment, a feature of wisdom that helps us lead a faithful human life in the midst of a confusing world. And, of course, chemistry and history are only two examples from the wide menu of good things to learn.1


1 Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), xi.

The Intolerance of the “Tolerant”

Intolerance is the quickest route to social leprosy on the modern university campus. Intolerance simply cannot be tolerated. So argued University of Chicago Professor Allan Bloom in his courageous book, The Closing of the American Mind. By his account, a student could be known for promiscuity, drunkenness, profanity, laziness, and dishonesty and still be popular among his peers. But if he argued that homosexuality, Wicca, or any other deviant lifestyle or belief system was mistaken and harmful, then he was a marked man. At best, he was shunned, at worst, expelled and sued.

Bloom’s title was, at first sight, a curious one, for the book seemed to describe a very open-minded culture, one free from “Victorian” and “Puritanical” strictures. No longer restrained by “cold orthodoxy,” the university celebrated all sorts of formerly disparaged convictions and practices. But, as Bloom argued, their minds were so open that their brains had fallen out. Doubting the existence of truth, they found no cause to pursue it. So the mind stopped working, its activities replaced by those of the vocal chords, fists, and loins.

Traditionalists charged with intolerance are seldom guilty of that crime, for they passionately defend others’ rights to hold and champion their own positions, however bizarre or obviously self-destructive they might be. No, their crime is to claim that they have truths that others lack, much as Jeremiah proclaimed the faith of the Patriarchs at the expense of idol worship and as Paul preached the gospel at the expense of legalism.

Unfortunately, the issue is scarcely one of truth. It is, rather, a matter of feelings, esteem, and power—a post-modern pantheon. And so it was not surprising that Harvard Law School was convulsed at a professor’s claim that feminists, Marxists, and blacks had contributed little to a particular sector of legal theory. Instead of examining the claim for veracity, they formed a Committee on Healthy Diversity. A new sensitivity course was put in place, and a new speech code considered. It was as though a new right had been added to the original Bill of Rights, the right not to be offended.

Truth is taking a beating, but even more fundamentally, the canons of logic are dismissed. For centuries, logicians and rhetoricians have insisted on fealty to the principle of non-contradiction—one cannot both assert a thing and its opposite; you must be consistent. Now that is counted as an oppressive standard, one that serves only the interests of exacting, disciplined leaders, those more committed to persuading than emoting, those disinclined to “revel in contradiction.”

Through the years, professors have steered their students away from ad hominem argument (attacking the person instead of his case) and the genetic fallacy (dismissing something because it had a flawed beginning). These are no longer “sins”; now they are “virtues,” the very stock in trade of “deconstructionists,” scholars who read an oppressor and his victim into every line of text. When they hear, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .” they can only muster contempt for the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Instead of appreciating fine words by a flawed man (Thomas Jefferson), they read the horrors of patriarchalism (“all men”) and religious bigotry (“Creator”) from the pen of a slave holder. Forget the objective truth of the text; focus on its nefarious subtext.

anti-christianAlas, this perspective operates beyond the walls of the academy. For instance, Canadian Hugh Owens was fined $4,500 by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission for placing a newspaper ad citing Scripture which was critical of homosexuality. Though such an act of “sensitive” intolerance may be shocking, Paul projected this sort of thing 2 Timothy 3:1-4, when he wrote, “There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves . . . unholy . . . without self-control . . . not lovers of the good . . . lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God . . .”

Under these circumstances, the Church would most naturally stand in stark contrast with the culture. The pastors would be prophets, their congregations, warriors. But Paul anticipated a shocking spectacle: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

As error flies all about the Church, the pulpit must become a fount of truth. If any churchman would presume to insist that the sacred desk avoid offense, then that man has gravely misunderstood both the times and the preacher’s sacred task. He needs to repent and then defend Paul’s mandate to his successors—“Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2).

The world will not tolerate this; the Church must tolerate nothing less.

Understanding the Times

world_missions23 These are the numbers of the divisions of the armed troops who came to David in Hebron to turn the kingdom of Saul over to him, according to the word of the Lord . . . 32 Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command.

1 Chronicles 12:23, 32 (ESV)

A few wise men are more valuable than thousands of fools. Large numbers of people are helpful in the right context, but unless at least a few of those people are prudent, discerning, and able to lead, a powerful army may deteriorate into an angry mob.

David received the affirmation of the entire nation without exception (cf. 1 Chronicles 12:23-28). While thirteen of the tribal censuses recorded the specific number of fighting men, the account of the tribe of Issachar included “200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command.” Who were these “chiefs”? Some have suggested that they were astrologers, but this is surely false. Divination and the magical arts were not tolerated, let alone celebrated, among God’s people (cf. Leviticus 19:26). The men of Issachar were singled out as men who had an extraordinary grasp of the political context. They understood the times and knew what Israel ought to have done.

David undoubtedly appreciated the thousands who came to his side at Hebron. The 7,100 mighty men of war from Simeon, the 50,000 seasoned troops from Zebulun, and especially the 120,000 who came from across the river were all crucial additions to his army. But without the 200 men of Issachar to provide the strategic wisdom, the army would be merely a mindless militia.

As leaders in the churches, pastors should be “men of understanding” who are able to lead God’s people effectively and wisely. Pastors must be discerning men of courage, vision, and faithfulness to the Lord. They should understand their times so they can lead God’s people to engage the world around them.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the nineteenth-century “prince of preachers” in London, used to say that effective preachers held a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Clearly he did not mean that the newspaper became the preacher’s text. What he meant was that those who ministered the Word effectively had to know their culture in order aptly to apply Scripture to the needs of the hour.

Christian cultural engagement is less about large numbers and more about understanding the times.

Why Do We Pray “in Jesus’ Name”?

One night recently, I was praying with my three-year-old before bed and I concluded the prayer like I always do: “in Jesus’ name, amen.” When we finished praying, she asked, “Why do you say, ‘in Jesus’ name, amen?’” It was a good question—not just for a child, but for an adult—and it got me thinking.

prayer2The idea appears in John 14-16, where Jesus said at least three times in a prolonged address to His disciples the night before His crucifixion that they were to pray in His name. Jesus explained, among other matters, that the only way to access God the Father is by having a personal relationship with His Son (John 14:6). In that context, He taught that only those who know and love Him can have fellowship with the Father through prayer.

The New Testament epistles explain in greater detail the nature of believers’ access to God. Though sin once separated us from Him, we “have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). When Jesus died on the cross, God placed the sin of humanity on Him and poured out on Him the judgment that sinners deserve (2 Corinthians 5:21). All who place their faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior are reconciled to God; Christ’s death “killed the hostility” that God once felt toward them because of their sin (Ephesians 2:16).

When Christians pray “in Jesus’ name,” it is an admission that we only have standing to speak with the Father because Jesus granted it to us. It’s a bit like a police officer yelling at a criminal, “Stop in the name of the law,” or a royal servant telling the king’s subjects, “In the name of the king, I declare that everyone must pay their taxes.” The police officer derives his standing to act from the law, and the royal servant derives his from the king. To end a prayer, “I ask these things in Jesus’ name, amen,” is an admission that we have no authority to make requests of God the Father apart from the authority granted to us by His Son.

Of course, praying in Jesus’ name does not guarantee that God will always answer our prayers in the affirmative. Sometimes our all-wise Father knows it is best to take a loved one home to heaven despite our prayers for healing. Sometimes He knows that an opportunity we hope will materialize would lead to our ruin. Sometimes He disciplines us for sin by causing our prayers to be hindered (e.g., 1 Peter 3:7). Yet even when God’s will does not align with our specific requests, or when our sin inhibits the effectiveness of our prayers, He hears our petitions and offers us an intimate relationship with Him through Jesus.

With somewhat predictable regularity, evangelical leaders stir controversy by saying that God does not hear the prayers of non-Christians. Such remarks are often ill-timed or carelessly stated, and certainly an omniscient God is aware of all the prayers offered by all humans. Nevertheless, such statements touch on a foundational spiritual truth: Because of our sin, no one has standing to speak with God as a personal friend. Only “in Jesus’ name” can anyone bridge the infinite gap between a holy God and sinful humanity.

What Does the Bible Say about Murmuring?

Recently, I reread the book of Numbers, but this time in one sitting. What struck me the most was its talk of murmuring, and I started to look for other occurrences of that practice in the Bible. Sure enough, I found them elsewhere in Old Testament Law, Prophets, and Writings, as well the New Testament Gospels and Epistles. Some translate the Hebrew and Greek words as “complaining” or “grumbling,” but the phenomenon is essentially the same.1

thoughtsSo what are we to make of murmuring? Is it good or bad? Well, in the biblical context, it depends. In Exodus 16, we read that the children of Israel were expressing displeasure at their desert diet, comparing it unfavorably with what they had in Egypt. In response, God didn’t destroy them for their ingratitude. Rather, in verse 12, He told Moses, “I have heard the grumbling (telenoth) of the people of Israel. Say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’” Instead of punishing them, He gave them manna and quail. Granted, He wasn’t pleased with their subsequent mishandling of the bounty, but at least His initial response was accommodating.

Sometimes, murmuring is a wakeup call for church leaders. We read in Acts 6:1 that, as the young church was growing, “a complaint (goggusmos) by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” In response the Twelve chose seven men, including Stephen, to tend to this problem, and the results were great.

Still, the overwhelming witness of Scripture is that murmuring is toxic and seditious. Numbers 14 is a particularly pointed example. After the people balked at entering the Promised Land, despite the positive report of Joshua and Caleb, the Lord brought down the hammer of judgment. He asked Moses and Aaron rhetorically, “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, which murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against me.” And then He instructed them to tell the people, “Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward which have murmured against me.”

So while there is a place to express dissatisfaction with church affairs, murmurers must be very careful that their dissent is holy and not merely peevish. Furthermore, they should ask themselves whether their complaints are cowardly and gossipy, fomenting insurrection without respectful, face-to-face expression of concern to the allegedly offending party. To express such unholy dissent is to join the rogues’ gallery of murmuring Pharisees in Luke 15 and 19, or the Philippians to whom Paul had to write, in Philippians 2:14, “Do all things without grumbling . . .”

When we think of grave sins, our minds more readily turn to murder, larceny, adultery, and such, but we mustn’t miss the offense in murmuring. Grumbling may have a righteous source, as when a pastor doesn’t do much or when what he does is unscriptural, including his preaching. But there are honorable ways to deal with frustration (see Matthew 18), and when we initiate or join in a chorus of unhappy talk, we likely displease the Lord.



1 The word in Numbers appears as “murmur” in the KJV and RSV, as “grumble” in the NIV and ESV, and as “complain” in the HCSB and GNT.

Though the Hebrew words for such crankiness (lun, telenoth, ragan) sound a little punchy, the English word “murmur” builds on the sound of a chorus of discontented voices, the sort you hear in a movie when some disturbing news hits the crowd and they turn to each other expressing dismay in a torrent of indistinct utterances.

The NT Greek word which translates as “murmur” (and “complain” and “grumble”) also partakes of onomatopoeia, pronunciation mirroring the real thing (as in “boom” and “crackle”). It’s gogguzo, reflecting the hurly-burly of contentious conversation or the surge of unhappy chatter in a gaggle of observers (the word “gaggle” going back to the noise a “herd/flock” of geese makes).

“The Boundary of a Christian Church”—Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014)

Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German theologian who died September 5, was one of the 20th century’s formative theological thinkers. When he rose to prominence in the 1960s, many theologians believed Christianity could only be accepted by faith but not studied or defended using rational thought. Pannenberg defied this trend by arguing that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was an objective fact that could be demonstrated with evidence. He likewise insisted that Christian truth by and large was rational and objective.[1] Pannenberg influenced many evangelical thinkers even though he did not believe all the miracle accounts in Scripture and dismissed the virgin birth as a myth. Despite his errors, he held the moral teaching of the Bible in high regard, and the results can be surprising to those who might associate his theological liberalism with ethical liberalism.

For instance, Pannenberg will long be appreciated by evangelicals for his defense of traditional sexual morality. He said a church that approves of homosexual acts ceases to be a true church. In 1997 he returned his Federal Order of Merit award to the German government after it bestowed the same honor on a lesbian activist.[2] In this article, he argued that homosexuality is “a departure from the norm for sexual behavior that has been given to men and women as creatures of God” and said heterosexual marriage is the only appropriate channel for sexual expression.[3] Though Pannenberg appears to underestimate the sinfulness of homosexual inclinations (which dishonor God in themselves like all inclinations to sin), his overall emphasis is a timely caution to the Church.

The mere existence of homophile inclinations does not automatically lead to homosexual practice. Rather, these inclinations can be integrated into a life in which they are subordinated to the relationship with the opposite sex where, in fact, the subject of sexual activity should not be the all-determining center of human life and vocation. As the sociologist Helmut Schelsky has rightly pointed out, one of the primary achievements of marriage as an institution is its enrollment of human sexuality in the service of ulterior tasks and goals.

The reality of homophile inclinations, therefore, need not be denied and must not be condemned. The question, however, is how to handle such inclinations within the human task of responsibly directing our behavior. This is the real problem: and it is here that we must deal with the conclusion that homosexual activity is a departure from the norm for sexual behavior that has been given to men and women as creatures of God. For the church this is the case not only for homosexual but for any sexual activity that does not intend the goal of marriage between man and wife—in particular, adultery.

The church has to live with the fact that, in this area of life as in others, departures from the norm are not exceptional but rather common and widespread. The church must encounter all those concerned with tolerance and understanding but also call them to repentance. It cannot surrender the distinction between the norm and behavior that departs from that norm.

Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

[1] David Roach, “Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg Dies,” Baptist Press Website, September 8, 2014, http://www.bpnews.net/43317/theologian-wolfhart-pannenberg-dies (accessed September 15, 2014).

[2] Michael Root, “The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg, First Things, March 2012, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/03/the-achievement-of-wolfhart-pannenberg (accessed September 15, 2014).

[3] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Revelation and Homosexual Experience: What Wolfhart Pannenberg Says About this Debate in the Church,” Christianity Today, November 11, 1996, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1996/november11/6td035.html (accessed September 15, 2014).