God’s Promises: The Foundation of Our Faith—J. I. Packer (1926 – )

A preeminent evangelical theologian, James I. Packer taught and preached in England for 27 years before joining the faculty at Regent College in Vancouver in 1979. He currently serves as an executive editor and visiting scholar for Christianity Today. In his book, God Has Spoken, Packer says that those who see Christian faith as a weak and desperate substitute for knowledge miss the biblical point. Faith is a “step in the light,” a step as sure as the promises of God.

Faith in the Bible is not, as existentialists make out, a leap in the dark, but rather a step in the light, whereby (to extend the metaphor) one puts one’s whole weight on the firm ground of God’s unshakeable promises . . . The truth is that all faith, at every stage in our Christian pilgrimage, is essentially a resting upon God’s promise. It has the nature of assurance, because it relies on God’s assurances . . .

The heart of the life of faith is in fact the recognition that all the promises which God is recorded as having made to His people in the past are still in principle (not always, of course, in detail, because of differing circumstances) extended to each individual Christian in the present . . .

[T]he promises of God are the ground of faith; for where professed Christians are not living in the joy of the knowledge that all of God’s promises are theirs, the truth is that God’s Word is not being heard.

Worshipping the True God at Mamre

18 So Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to the LORD.

Genesis 13:18 (ESV)

Much is made currently of religious pluralism and tolerance. Exponents of this line of thought say, in effect, “With our knowledge of different cultures, different practices, and different religions, we can no longer naively and arrogantly assume the superiority of our religion. We must acknowledge and embrace the totality of religious conviction in our world.” Indeed, the allure of pluralism is so great that cultural commentators, and even biblical exegetes, read this idea back into previous eras, even as far back as the Patriarchs. Abram’s settlement at the oaks of Mamre is a case in point.

Genesis 13 pictures the split between Abram and Lot. Both were wealthy men with great herds. When it became clear that the region near Bethel was too small for the two of them, Abram offered his kinsman Lot the pick of the land. Lot chose the lush plain of Jordan, which proved disastrously to also be the region of Sodom. Abram readily accepted the remaining higher ground, where he settled his family. He could have chosen an isolated patch, away from the corruptions of the surrounding pagans. Instead, he headed to the oaks of Mamre, long the site of pagan worship.

By this choice, some say, he paid his respects to the culture and the customs of the local inhabitants, a matter of courtesy, of security, but also of tolerance. But this argument founders on the last words of the verse. Here, Abram staked his claim, and the claim of his God. At the very location where various tribal deities were honored, Abram honored YHWH. He was not relativizing his religion; he was establishing its uniqueness and superiority. Such was his pattern, for earlier he had built an altar at another Canaanite holy site, the great tree of Moreh (Genesis 12:6-7). Far from courting compromise, he chose to establish a strong witness to the Living God on the very doorsteps of the idolaters. (And it was on this “doorstep” at Mamre that he and Sarah would learn later that they would be parents in their old age, cf. Genesis 18:1.)

In his classic book, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr speaks of believers who prefer to insulate themselves from secular society (“Christ against culture”) and of those inclined to fit in, respectfully, with the cultural elites (“Christ of culture”). But Abram chose neither approach. He strode into enemy territory and planted his flag; his faith was exclusive, but not provincial.

To Christians inclined to cede the world to the devil from the friendly confines of the church building, Abram’s example is an indictment. God’s people must not shrink from proclaiming the uniqueness, necessity, and sufficiency of Christ in the marketplace of religions, no matter how offensive their message of exclusivity might be. Indeed, whatever the cultural context, altars to God are never out of place.

An Atheist’s Unfortunate Education at Formerly Christian Schools—A. J. Ayer (1910 – 1989)

The life of the prominent atheistic philosopher, A. J. (“Freddie”) Ayer illustrates the power of education to shape the soul—for good or ill. When he was a young man, his maternal grandfather gave him a copy of the Confessions. Unfortunately, it was not the famous spiritual autobiography of St. Augustine, but the enlightenment reflections of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau, rather than Augustine, would help mold the life of the infamous, atheist Oxford philosopher.

As Ayer himself testifies his early years were solitary. His parents, a lapsed Swiss Calvinist and a Jewish convert to nominal Christianity, understood little about religion and communicated even less to Freddie. Ayer was sent to boarding school at the age of seven. “It was the beginning,” writes one biographer, “of a very English, which is to say a very unhappy education.”

In 1923, Ayer left the Ascham School in Eastbourne on a scholarship to Eton College. He was twelve years old. Ayer’s status as a king’s scholar placed him in the intellectual elite of a school that claimed to represent the social elite of England. Tragically, Ayer’s education seems to have progressed without a single Christian influence from either a teacher or a friend. Perhaps the most hopeful source of such instruction emerged as the most destructive. The headmaster of Eton, the Reverend Cyril Alington, also taught divinity to the students. His reaction to Ayer’s teenage posturing and iconoclasm was to assign as reading W. E. H. Lecky’s History of Morals—a skeptical rebuttal of Christianity. Lecky’s work had also profoundly influenced Bertrand Russell in his school days. In his autobiography Ayer simply notes that the book provided him with a “storehouse of ammunition” against Christianity. At the same time he was captivated by Bertrand Russell’s Sceptical Essays.

From Eton Ayer went up to Christ Church, Oxford, to read Greats (Classics). There he came under the influence of the atheist philosopher Gilbert Ryle—who was, perhaps, most famous for defending philosophical materialism and for his arguments against the human soul. With such a man as the “most important” influence on Ayer during his time at Oxford, it is no surprise that Ayer developed into a passionate and skilled advocate of secular humanism and atheistic philosophy which declared religion and ethics meaningless. His popular doctrine, “logical positivism,” counted as nonsense all things not immediately observable to the senses, including God. Through teaching, writing, and frequent media appearances, he helped to shape the culture of the United Kingdom.

The tragedy of Ayer’s life is that he was shaped by those who should have walked faithfully with Christ, but utterly failed in their calling. His father was from a Christian home and professed some vague beliefs, but as Ayer recalls, “[o]fficially my Father was a Calvinist . . . [but m]y parents never went to church, with or without me. . . .” Doubtless Ayer’s parents recognized his talents from his early years. Such a genius required compassionate discipline and a rigorous Christian education from his parents, which he missed in boarding school.

Both Ascham and Eton were schools founded on Christianity, yet all Freddie encountered was harsh overbearing discipline and the corroding effects of apostasy from the faith. At Christ Church he was educated by the grandson of the famous evangelical Bishop of Liverpool, J. C. Ryle. But Gilbert Ryle’s family had turned from the truth, and the Bishop’s grandson became one of the most vigorous critics of the Christian faith in his generation. Ayer’s talents were such that he could have turned the world upside down for Christ—instead his education prepared him to live a grossly immoral life and to undermine all that is pure and good.

Preserved for a Purpose—Fred Shuttlesworth (1922 – 2011)

Press coverage of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s passing has understandably focused on his work for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, but we don’t hear much about his service as a pastor proclaiming the gospel of Christ to his congregants — and about the Christian love that motivated his non-violence and non-retaliation in the face of persecution. Here’s a brief account of the man in that broader context.

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On Christmas night 1956, Fred Shuttlesworth—pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama—reclined on his bed, talking to a church deacon, Charlie Robinson. With their families downstairs enjoying their new Christmas gifts, pastor and deacon had retired to the bedroom to converse. About 9:40, the minister’s daughter Ricky heard a sound outside, like a newspaper being thrown on the front porch. Seconds later, a thunderous explosion ripped through the parsonage, collapsing the roof on the front part of the house and blowing the support pillars fifteen feet into the yard. Groping about in the dust, Shuttlesworth found his family—all safe and unhurt—and stumbled into the front yard.

A white police officer, surveying the destruction, whispered to him, “I didn’t think they would go this far. I know these people. Reverend, if I were you, I’d get out of town as fast as I could.” Stopping him short, the pastor replied, “Officer, you are not me. You see God saving me through all this. So you go back and tell your Klan brethren that if God could keep me through all this, then I’m here for the duration.”1 Speaking to reporters a few minutes later, he testified: “I know it was the hand of God. I know I was preserved for a purpose: to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to implement that gospel insofar as possible as it relates to human dignity and human rights.”2

Time was ripe for change. In 1948, President Truman had signed an executive order ending racial divisions in the armed forces. In 1954, the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education repudiated the “separate but equal” approach to racial discrimination in the public schools. Now in 1956, the Montgomery bus boycott had just ended in success, and Shuttlesworth announced that Birmingham would follow suit. According to plan, thousands of black citizens would board the buses on December 26 and sit in the “white” sections until city officials repealed the racial segregation laws.

Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth was not primarily a civil rights leader. He was a pastor. Throughout the movement, he maintained strong and vital ties to his congregation, preaching to them on most Sundays despite a nation-wide speaking schedule. His sermons were fervently evangelical, expounding the truths of the gospel and calling sinful people to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. He called on church members to consecrate their lives to Christ’s service—and to act in furtherance of God’s kingdom.

Following his own preaching, Shuttlesworth served in the street as well as in the pulpit. He was present when Autherine Lucy made her bid at desegregating the University of Alabama in 1956; he rescued several beaten “Freedom Riders” in 1961; together with King, he led the Birmingham marches of 1963 which finally issued in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.3

Besides having his home bombed, Shuttlesworth suffered from police abuse, high-pressure water hoses, and hundreds of threats against his own life. Through it all, he maintained his Christian witness, calling on blacks not to respond with violence, but to love their enemies. In 1957, Shuttlesworth was brutally beaten by a white mob as he tried to enroll his two daughters at Phillips High School. As he left the hospital later that day, someone asked what he was fighting for in Birmingham. He replied, “For the day when the man who beat me and my family with chains at Phillips High School can sit down with us as a friend.”4

Though too uneducated and too unpolished in the eyes of many to be a prominent and effective leader, Shuttlesworth knew his power lay in fidelity to the gospel and to the whole counsel of Scripture. Acting on that understanding as best he could, he helped to bring about one of the greatest social reformations in the history of America. His example is a wonderful encouragement to all believers, as they focus and act upon the teachings of Christ, whatever the cost.

1 Michael Manis, A Fire You Can’t Put Out (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999), 110. (Manis also offers a summary account of Shuttleworth’s service under “Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth: Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement,” Baptist History and Heritage, Summer-Fall 2000 or at http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m0NXG/3_35/94160959/p1/article.jhtml?term=.)
2 Ibid., 109.
3 John Salmond, My Mind Set on Freedom (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997), 32, 90.
4 Manis, 154.

The Bittersweet Rise of the At-Fault Divorce

Divorce is a complicated subject in the US today. And while we should never idolize the past, as if they did not have their own besetting sins, it is helpful to see trajectories that led to today’s culture of divorce. From the Kairos Journal vault is a peak into history.

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In 1788, when Abigail Strong sought a divorce from her abusive husband, the hard-fought Revolutionary War was fixed in her mind as she reasoned, “even Kings may forfeit or discharge the allegiance of their subjects.” Abigail was not alone in her thinking. Marriage, according to the Founders, “was a voluntary association of a man and woman, who contracted in liberty to create the independent legal and civic entity of the family.” According to Thomas Jefferson, if this “voluntary association” should suffer “a long train of abuses,” then it too can be severed. Such reasoning paved the path toward legalized divorce in America.

The burgeoning nation now had a new and complicated responsibility: legalizing divorce while exerting itself as the guardian of marriage. At the turn of the century America grew faster than the government. As a result, though most states required official ceremonies, self-marriages became common and, after them, self-divorces. Since wives tended to be the victims of these self-divorces, states lobbied for a legal divorce where blame could be assessed and the transmission of property clarified. In a sense, as historian Nancy Cott demonstrated, it was the rise of the at-fault divorce:

The plaintiff had to show that the defendant had broken the contract. Rather than aiming foremost at individuals’ freedom, or intending to alter the concept that marriage was lifelong, early divorce statutes aimed to perfect marriage by weeding out the contracts that had been breached. If a spouse was divorceable, it was because he or she had committed a public wrong against the marriage as much as a private one against the partner; the public wrong justified the state’s interposing its authority.

Courts were interested not only in assessing guilt but in perpetuating traditional gender roles; wives were servants; husbands, providers. In fact, even if a wife were to be found guilty of a divorceable offense, at least in the South, judges often required that the husband continue to provide support.

During the nineteenth century, state legislatures increasingly liberalized their divorce statutes. Whereas in the eighteenth century, adultery and desertion were the only recognized bases for a divorce, “states added grounds such as extreme cruelty, fraudulent marriage contract, gross neglect of duty, and habitual drunkenness. Most of them shortened the period of desertion necessary (from five years to one or two).” Some states gave the courts complete discretion to end a marriage. Connecticut, for example, could do so for “any such misconduct . . . as permanently destroys the happiness of the petitioner, and defeats the purposes of the marriage relation.” Indiana, Illinois, North Carolina, and Iowa had similar “omnibus” divorce clauses.

The history of divorce in the nineteenth century is bittersweet. No doubt all parties took divorce more seriously in this era when compared to the present age. Divorce was regulated by the state; courts assessed blame and penalties and, as a result, divorce rates were low (less than two divorces per thousand in 1870). Nonetheless, the trajectory was set. The more the state regulated divorce, the more individuals looked to the state to decide the parameters of marriage. The state did more than print up a license, it entered the business of “blessing” the dissolution of covenant relationships once considered sacred. Cott minced no words when she wrote, “Far from being an institution fixed by God, marriage was in the hands of the legislature . . . marriage was their political creation.”

Christians can debate the extent to which the state should be involved in recognizing and dissolving marriages. What is not debatable is the fact that the Church can never outsource the responsibility of being the conscience of the institution of marriage. Bureaucrats who have made marriage “legal” and divorce “final” for over 200 years in American history may think they have the last word, but they do not—the ultimate Word on marriage and divorce has been given by God to His Church. She is the guardian, the caretaker, and the conscience of marriage. May she not be silent.