Merton on Salvation by Grace

"I believe, with Diadochos of Photike, that if at the hour of my death my confidence in God's mercy is unfaltering, I will pass the frontier without trouble and get by the dreadful array of my sins as if they were not there, because of God's grace and the Precious Blood of Christ the Lamb of God, and the compunction He gives to the repentant. And I will, by his mercy, leave them behind forever."

— Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Image Books 1968) p. 143

Jenson on the Christian Calling to Intellect

"Christians' calling to intellect is the calling to nurture the word, to tend books and foster argument … We serve a talkative God, who does not even seem to be able to do without a library. In his service, we will be concerned for talk and libraries. And some of us will have the privilege of spending a lot of time at that concern."

— Robert Jenson, Essays in Theology of Culture, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1995) 

Blessed to Preach

Last night I preached in a hacienda to a group of children and their parents. A number of people raised their hands to indicate that they wanted to receive Christ as their Savior. Today I preached to a group of policemen and after the message some of them thanked me for sharing to them the gospel. There is great joy in preaching the gospel – joy that money can’t buy! No wonder Paul wrote:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16)

Ramm on Religious Authority

In the matter of religious authority the Spirit and the Word are insolubly conjoined. The Scriptures function in the ministry of the Spirit, and the Spirit functions in the instrument of the Word. In this vital relationship of Spirit and Scripture the Reformers grounded their doctrine of religious authority.

— Bernard Ramm, The Pattern of Authority, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1957) p. 29

More Thoughts on the Da Vinci Interview

Sometimes the best answers you can give to a TV interview host are the ones you think of after the show is over! Anyway, here are some of the thoughts that occured to me just a few minutes ago: Regarding being open-minded about new things that come up which threaten the established faith, I could have said something like this: "When something like the Da Vinci Code comes up which makes assertions threatening what I believe I should remind myself that what I believe has stood the test of time and has weathered the storms of controversy throughout the centuries, not to mention that it has proven itself as worthy and true in my experience. This new thing still has to prove itself. I shouldn't dismiss or reject it outright but neither should I put it immediately on the same level as my time-tested faith. I have a right to listen to the warning signals triggered by my time-tested faith. And I have a right to evaluate this upstart contention with my time-tested faith serving at least as a preliminary framework. If this upstart proves itself worthy of upsetting my faith in the end, so be it, but it certainly does not deserve to be accorded the status of prima facie validity upon first meeting! It's like tennis a chess tournament: the no. 1 seed meets the lowest ranked player at the beginning of the tournament and people have a right to place their bets on the higher ranked player. When they do that they're not preventing the other player from playing; they're not claiming game over even before it's started. The game goes on, but the point is people have a right to place their bets in the way above-mentioned and if the result of the game goes their way the more you can't blame them!

Back to the Da Vinci Code. We've got a historically based religion like Christianity that has stood the test of time and here comes the Da Vinci Code saying, "Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, etc." We place our bets on the no. 1 seed but that doesn't mean we're claiming "game over" before it has even started. We allow the game to go on; we do the research, and then we find out we're right and Dan Brown's wrong! Which is not surprising at all. At any rate, at the end of the day the historical and theological distortions of the Da Vinci Code are there for all to see. For a list of resources on the subject, see my previous post here.

Da Vinci Interview

I was interviewed on TV a couple of hours ago on the Death Penalty and the Da Vinci Code. I did quite well, I think, on the the Death Penalty issue but I was on the defensive on the Da Vinci Code. The host threw a number of unexpected punches and I sometimes had to duck, but sometimes the punches hit their mark and I appeared at times disoriented and groggy. What happened was we didn't get to discuss the Da Vinci Code that much. The host steered the interview to the issue of whether I would encourage or discourage people from seeing the movie. I said there were a number of options and that Christians sincerely differ on what to do. Personally I was inclined towards discouraging people from seeing the movie but I clarified that the best I could do was probably inform people that the movie was about lies and distortions about the Christian faith, show them the evidence for that, and leave it to them to make up their minds to see the movie or not. I said my approach was that of persuasion not coercion. I'm not trying to prevent anyone, but I think I have the right to inform people of what they're in for. The host then questioned the attitude of most defenders of the faith (which means me, in the immediate context!) of closing their minds immediately to anything new that comes up which threatens the established faith – the attitude, he said, which immediately looks for flaws instead of being open to the possibility that we're dealing with something that's true. I wasn't prepared for that turn of events. I thought the interview would be about discussing what the Da Vinci Code was all about and not about so-called attitudes of religious defenders. Anyway, I explained that I wasn't against people making up their own minds, their right to weigh evidence for themselves, but we do have credible "fore-warnings" available to us. We already know what the movie will be about, and we can already make decisions based on that knowledge. Besides, I did read up and study the matter based on available resources, and the historical distortions were just there. It's not that I was intent on finding them beforehand, they're there because Dan Brown put them there and not I. And these historical distortions are significant and crucial and we have a right, as people of faith, to respond to them and tell people about them.

I wrapped up, during the time given me for my final say, in this way: this looks like a clash between intellectual liberty and the pre-commitments of faith. But no one's absolutely neutral; we all have our presuppositions. Nevertheless many of us didn't arrive at our faith lightly: we've done the hard work of studying what our faith is all about. And it's a legitimate framework to use in evaluating issues like this. It's not about being close-minded at all, it's not about dismissing and condemning something beforehand. It's about already having a fund of hard-earned knowledge and background, with which to evaluate something like the Da Vinci Code. And we don't skip the hard work of fairly evaluating the other side according to its merits. That, however, does not require that you give up what you already know beforehand, like make your mind a blank slate, before you can engage in the process of evaluation in a fair and legitimate manner.

My wife thinks I was too meek. Over-all she felt I did OK, but she thought I sounded unconvincing at times. Maybe that's because I couldn't make up my mind about whether we should watch the movie or not. But I felt the question re: close-mindedness was a tough one. I do think I'm open-minded but I do have faith commitments which are precious and true and act as sensors to warn me that incoming information is suspect. Is it illegitimate to have these faith-commitments? Do you have to temporarily jettison your faith commitments in order to fairly evaluate an opposing view if you want to be entitled to being called fair and open-minded? I guess I already know the answer to my own questions, but I'd appreciate your thoughts on this.

Christian Scholarship

"The point of Christian scholarship is not recognition by standards established in the wider culture. The point is to praise God with the mind … Ultimately, intellectual work of this sort is its own reward, because it is focused on the only One before whom all hearts are open."

— Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994) pp. 248-9, emphasis added.

More on the Death Penalty

Over at the Philippine Inquirer Michael L. Tan wrote a very good defense of the anti-death penalty position. Click here to read it. His arguments are not new but he does score some points against the pro-death deterrence argument by pointing out that "In the Philippines, the role of the death penalty in deterring crime is probably even more insignificant, mainly because the biggest criminals know they are untouchable."

Some of his concerns however are addressed in a very lengthy paper found in a website appropriately named Pro-death Penalty.com, which covers the following topics:

A. THE RISK OF EXECUTING THE INNOCENT
B. THE INCAPACITATION AND THE DETERRENT EFFECTS
C. RACE, SENTENCING AND THE DEATH PENALTY
D. THE COST OF LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE VS THE DEATH PENALTY
E. DEATH PENALTY PROCEDURES
F. CHRISTIANITY AND THE DEATH PENALTY

The paper, however, relies on data which are applicable to the U.S. and there are many things in it which are not applicable to the Philippine setting except maybe by analogy. Those who are pro-death penalty here in the Philippines need to come up with a similar study modeled after this paper but relevant to the Philippine context to support their view. (There may already be one but I haven't seen it yet) It is the last topic – Christianity and the Death Penalty – I am most interested in. An interesting biblical/theological argument I never saw before is the following:

Christians who speak out against capital punishment in deserving cases " . . . tend to subordinate the justice of God to the love of God. . . . Peter, by cutting off Malchu’s ear,. . . was most likely trying to kill the soldier (John 18:10)", prompting " . . . Christ’s statement that those who kill by the sword are subject to die by the sword (Matthew 26:51-52)." This " implicitly recognizes the government’s right to exercise the death penalty." Dr. Carl F.H.Henry, "A Matter of Life and Death", p 52 Christianity Today, 8/4/95.

At any rate, you can read the whole paper here.

Death Penalty

The latest controversy in Philippine politics today is the death penalty – thanks to GMA's "Easter gift" of commuting around 1,200 death penalty sentences to life imprisonment. On the one hand, you can hear sighs of relief over what is perceived as a welcome and long overdue development; on the other, you can hear the cries of disbelief from the families of victims of heinous crimes. This is a highly divisive issue – both from the political and theological points of view. I'm posting here the classic biblical texts that proponents of the death penalty usually invoke:

"Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man." (Gen 9:6)

"For he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer."
(Rom 13:4)

Gen. 9:6 and Rom. 13:4 taken together may be understood as teaching that God, the giver of human life (and who therefore has the right to take it away when he pleases) has delegated to "man" (in this case, human government) the authority to take away life in appropriate cases (in cases where God's wrath – the penalty of death – is justly deserved). The sword is too striking a metaphor and that it refers to or at least includes the death penalty is difficult to miss.

Of course, on the opposite side of the fence are those who believe that whatever may be the force of these biblical texts they are nevertheless superseded by the "law of love and forgiveness". I understand these people as saying that "Yes, capital punishment is a legitimate governmental function in appropriate cases, but that is too low for a Christian. We are called to the nobler and higher task of loving and forgiving our enemies, of overcoming evil with good. Yes, 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,' is alright, but Christ superseded all that when he said, 'Love your enemies and do good.' "(Luke 6:35)

From a biblical and theological point of view, the question now is Which is Which? One factor to consider in resolving this issue is that the Apostle Paul, writing Romans 13, years after Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead, and with full awareness of the law of love and forgiveness which Christ taught, did not seem to see any conflict between this law of love and the death penalty as a legitimate governmental function to which Christians themselves should submit. It is also interesting that in the latter verses of the previous chapter (ch. 12) he makes mention of the need to leave place for God's wrath and not to avenge ourselves.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Nevertheless, he proceeds to write Romans 13 especially verse 4 above-mentioned without consciousness of inconsistency. And the reason for this, it seems, is that in Paul's mind to "leave room for God's wrath" allows for that wrath to be executed by human government as a proper agency or instrumentality of God's wrath. In other words, the law of love and forgiveness does not deprive God of his right to show wrath. But God can choose and has in fact chosen to exercise that right through the instrumentality of human government. What is not allowed is for private individuals to take divine justice into their own hands.

Post-Resurrection Quote

“The philosophers of Greece and Rome doted on beautiful ideals. The Apostles were enthused with love for the living Christ, the tangible Image of the living God. The secret of their power lay in this personal attachment of faith to the living Christ in very person. It was a heart-to-heart love that conquered the world in that early age … When St. Thomas puts his hand on the wound-print in Jesus’ side, sinks to his knees and exclaims: ‘My Lord and my God,’ all the power of personal worship of God in Christ reveals itself. And by this alone the church of Christ has become what it is.”

    – Abraham Kuyper, To Be Near Unto God (WM. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co.) pp. 65-66