Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Future of Protestantism?

The following was originally planned as part of my series on becoming Orthodox, but in retrospect it hasn't been as significant for my journey as it initially seemed. Nonetheless, the whole conversation sparked by Peter Leithart is terribly fascinating and encouraging, and I might as well share my summary in the hope of sparking your interest. For historical context, this post is set in early 2014, when I was processing through my doubts about Protestant teaching, feeling increasingly concerned about divisions in the church, and just beginning to discover the Orthodox Church (still with significant reservations).

In the midst of all of this terribly important pondering about the divisions of the church and discovery of the fullness of the Orthodox Church, I came across a series of web correspondences on ecumenism that I felt could only have been God-sent. It all started when Peter Leithart of First Things, a Christian journal of religion and public life, posted an article ominously titled "The End of Protestantism". In this article he articulated some concerns with the state of Protestantism that were surprisingly similar to my own: defining one's denomination or tradition negatively (in this case, as not-Catholic); looking down on non-Protestants as somehow less than true, "Bible-believing" Christians; focus on individual salvation; a selective take on Christian tradition; a narrow, modern view of biblical interpretation; "low-church" worship that is indifferent or even hostile to liturgy. He advocates instead for "reformational Catholicism", embracing our common ground with our Catholic brothers and sisters, opening ourselves to other traditions, Christian liturgy, even (though not without some bewilderment) the allegorical method of interpretation used throughout much of Church history. It was an ear-opening call for ecumenism, a promising vision of how we might at least move towards closing the gaps between Christian traditions, beginning with admitting the false turns we have taken as Protestants.

A reply came from Fred Sanders of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, titled "Glad Protestantism". He wonders if Leithart wasn't setting up a "deplorable Protestant" strawman to contrast with his bright depiction of the near-mythical "Reformational Catholic". He accuses Leithart of some inconsistency in adopting such a negative view of Protestantism largely for its negative view of Catholicism: "You don’t beat the man of ressentiment by resenting him harder." He tries to show how the kinds of riches of the Christian tradition Leithart says are wanting within Protestantism are really there—for those who look. There is no need to jump ship: "What bothers me about 'The End of Protestantism' is that it gives people like this the message that the trailhead to the great heritage cannot be picked up in their own church. The trailhead must be in some other church or denomination. Leithart’s unfortunate language effaces all signs of the trailhead, covers the tracks that we could follow back, demands a leap." Lastly, he points out that Leithart may be redefining the very term 'Protestant' in a new, negative way: "Wise readers will pick up on the tiny clue here, that the whole point of actual Protestantism (when it’s not having a new meaning forced on it as a term of abuse) is to claim the full heritage of the church while making necessary adjustments in recent deviations."

In his response to Sanders, Leithart wonders if they might merely be disagreeing over language. Both of them find the kind of Protestantism described in Leithart's original post deplorable; Sanders simply objects to the use of the unadorned term "Protestant" to describe it. Neither is he trying to commit a "catastrophic act of mass silencing" of the Reformation tradition in favor of what came before. His focus is on the present situation: call it what you will, but the kind of Protestantism his original post described does exist. What do we do about it? In response to Sanders' accusation of "beating the man of ressentiment by resenting him harder", he says, "I wonder, What is one to do about trends in the church that we regard as 'deplorable'? Should we deplore them? Can we deplore without running the risk of a squint, a stoop, and a cramp?" He clarifies that he never meant to say that the trailhead to authentic Christianity cannot be found in Protestantism; rather, "my aim was to show that Protestants can embrace the whole as heirs of the Reformation, that we can remain Protestants while avoiding the “deplorable” errors of Protestantism."

Eventually, someone had the idea of inviting Leithart to Biola, along with Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary, to continue this conversation face-to-face. A summary (with link to the whole two-and-a-half-hour panel) can be found here; Brett McCracken's summary post was what introduced me to the whole conversation. Leithart repeated his point that, "insofar as it defines itself in opposition to Catholicism or Orthodoxy, Jesus bids Protestantism to come and die." He wants Protestants to view Catholics as our brothers (albeit estranged) rather than criticizing them from a distance. He believes that God's creative work in His Church is not done yet and compellingly expresses a vision for a "Church of the future" in which its present divisions are healed. To this end, he gives a "partial wish list" of twenty things he imagines in this Church of the future (summarized in McCracken's post), which is overall an excellent vision of ecumenism and humble willingness to admit error in his own tradition.

For his part, Sanders takes a slightly more conservative tack, calling for Protestants to reclaim the full heritage of their Christian identity much as his students at Biola learn to do. Referencing 1 Corinthians 3:21-23 ("all things are yours"), he outlines the value of exploring Christian tradition and calls Protestants to look for the two principles of scriptural authority and salvation by faith throughout. Overall, it is one of the best affirmations of tradition I have heard from a Protestant. Trueman is more of a Christian historian than a theologian, and he agrees that classic evangelicalism (not merely the modern neo-evangelical movement that has taken over the term) has the resources to meet Leithart's critiques. He also takes a pastoral stand for the potential impact of this conversation on pastoral ministry, expressing concern that the proposals of "reformational Catholicism" will obscure the basic solas of the Reformation on which the people of the local church stand for their assurance of salvation.

In his response, Leithart agrees with Sanders' backward-looking vision of classical Protestantism as based on two principles, seeing no incompatibility with his forward-looking vision of the "Church of the future"; he is critiquing Protestantism as it all too often is, not as a set of doctrines. He examines ways different churches often try to collaborate which are often "frictionless", involving little in the way of substantial conversation of comparison of traditions. He raises the perennial conversation behind ecumenical conversations: how do you set the boundaries of who is "in" or "out" of the Church? In his broader definition, he is not denying the core truths of the Reformation, but relativizing them, seeing them as less than mandatory (but still desirable) for the "true Christian". He repeats his call to Christians everywhere to repent of tribalism and to see Christians belonging to other traditions as family, not simply "those people" who get things wrong.

I didn't share much of the panelists' loyalty to Protestantism, but their critical thinking about the bad fruit of their tradition and openness to other ones was immensely refreshing. I learned even more from this humble, reconciliatory attitude than from their actual conclusions (though I still hold up Leithart's "partial wish list" as a great set of guidelines for Protestant churches to pursue ecumenism). I highly recommend that you watch at least part of the conference for an example of how Protestants (or even all Christians) can seek after church unity in the midst of seemingly endless division.

Looking back at this conversation, I think I can still learn much from it. Leihart critiques from within Protestantism many of the things I have called attention to from without. As an Orthodox convert, I am probably at a more real risk than ever of defining my faith in terms of what it is not. Leithart's dream and Sanders' measured responses challenge me to embrace my new tradition with gratitude, but simultaneously not to make it out to be more perfect than it is, and to be open to learning from other Christians of various stripes, as I will cover in the conclusion of my series. As well, the conversation is a challenge for Protestants to look and live up to the fullness of their historical heritage, which is simultaneously a decisive step towards Orthodoxy.

My Journey, Part 14: Worshipping with the Church

This is part 14 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

Unlike ecclesiology, Scripture, epistemology, and the gospel, the subject of worship was not one of the reasons why I chose to become Orthodox. Rather, it was an interesting surprise for me as I started to visit an Orthodox church service (called the divine liturgy) last year. So don't hear this post as an explanation of why I'm fed up with evangelical worship (though there are some Orthodox who are very critical of it), but as an explanation of why I have come to think Orthodox worship has more to offer and is at least worth seriously thinking about.

This isn't my priest, but still an amazing picture.
Suffice it to say that Orthodox worship is totally different from any other church I've experienced. The closest was the more traditional Lutheran church my mom grew up in, which we would visit sometimes, but even this was only a slight resemblance.


I pretty quickly realized that Orthodox worship doesn't share the common evangelical concern for "user-friendliness" or "seeker sensitivity", for being as nonthreatening, welcoming, and accessible as possible to someone who has never set foot. The meaning of the actions performed and the words spoken is not always immediately obvious, which is a big shift for me. So much so that a 12-point article explaining some parts of worship is frequently shared with inquirers like myself. Having done my homework, I was excited and nervous for my first visit to a divine liturgy last May. I still didn't really know what to expect.

Upon entering the church, I was immediately hit by the rich smell of incense. I heard indistinct chanting coming from a distance. After being warmly greeted and handed a program, I made my way towards the main part of the church. I pretty quickly noticed people doing things I wasn't used to: bowing, crossing themselves, kissing icons (more on that later), and so on. I took a seat and tried to be as invisible as possible, taking everything in. I'll talk about my visual impressions of the cathedral later: for now, I'll focus on the order of worship, and what everyone was actually doing.

First and most obviously, there are no instruments in Orthodox worship; all of the music is sung or chanted a capella (some Greek churches have become fond of using the organ, which serves to make them sound less old-fashioned). And the music is not contemporary worship hits, or even the centuries-old hymns I'd come to associate with "traditional" church music, but ancient hymns written long before the Reformation and translated from Greek or Slavonic, with chanted melodies and none of the verse-chorus structure (or rhyme and rhythm) I was so used to. The normal liturgy used in Orthodox churches around the world was originally written by one of their most revered church fathers, St. John Chrysostom, over 1600 years ago (!), though it has had some revisions in the intervening centuries. Since I started to attend the divine liturgy, I have consequently viewed "old" Protestant hymns, even those written by Luther, quite differently.

The result is that the worship is simply off my scale of "traditional" or "contemporary". Rather, it feels completely and totally other to what I was used to—and I think that's a good thing. I genuinely appreciate how not just the general message but the actual style and content of the liturgy are not left open to individual churches' creative interpretation but are received and enjoyed as a treasure. I felt connected to the countless other Christians who shared in this same liturgy both around the world and into the early history of the Church. Additionally, there is much less of a distinction between "worship" from the rest of the liturgy; except for the sermon and a few other small parts of the liturgy, everything is sung or chanted. This makes it easy to see that worship is more than just singing.

I'll try to explain the theological and ecclesiological basis for these features of Orthodox worship as best I can.

Liturgical Worship: "According to the Pattern"

Orthodox don't believe that traditional worship is just a matter of personal preference (as is implicitly admitted in the multiple styles of service held in many Protestant churches). The reason for this is one of the central points of Orthodox theology of worship, which will be the basis for much to come: Orthodox view worship as "heaven on earth", the redemptive meeting of two worlds, where worshippers are "taken up to the heavenly places" (in Bishop Kallistos Ware's words, The Orthodox Church, 265) or, equally, heaven comes down to fill the church. During worship, Orthodox believe that the whole universal Church—not merely fellow believers elsewhere on earth, but all the saints throughout history, the angels, the Mother of God, and Christ himself—is mystically present, worshipping alongside the parishioners. The Greek root of the word "liturgy" means "work of [or for] the people"; it is our participation in the heavenly worship and in the work of redemption God is doing in and through us. This point is tremendously significant.

For this reason, Orthodox worship intentionally seeks to reflect heavenly worship in all its glory. When Vladimir, the prince of Kiev who converted to Christianity, sent representatives to Constantinople to see how eastern Christians worshipped, they reported, "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty." (Quoted in Ware 264) I have experienced and am already learning to appreciate that beauty for myself.

This is the reason for a lot of Orthodox worship practices that Protestants may find odd. Orthodox worship is informed by biblical depictions of the "pattern" set by worship in heaven which often go unnoticed in Protestant theology. It is not merely an imitation of the worship in heaven, it is a participation in heavenly worship. When the Eucharist is first brought out, the people sing a hymn beginning with "We who mystically represent the cherubim..."; the cherubim, that is, who surround God's heavenly throne and never cease to sing his praise. This article by an Orthodox convert from a Reformed background explains pretty thoroughly the ways in which Orthodox worship is based on the heavenly pattern. I will simply try to summarize:
  • Acts 7:44 and Hebrews 8:5, 9:23-24 speak of a heavenly pattern for Israelite worship given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai, in Exodus 25-31, which is repeatedly referred to as God is giving the specifications for the tabernacle. (Exo 25:8, 25:40, 26:30, 27:8) For the Israelites, worshipping God rightly meant conforming to his prescriptions for worship as well as having one's heart in the right place.
  • Orthodox worship (and the basic layout of an Orthodox church) is patterned after worship in the tabernacle and the temple of Solomon. It is also patterned after the biblical glimpses of heavenly worship such as in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4-5. (This article gives more examples from Revelation of heavenly patterns for elements of the liturgy like altars, incense, candles, vestments, sacred writings, and prostration)
  • Specific elements of worship like vestments, incense, and images (more on this later) are also directly based on analogues in the Old Testament.
  • Malachi 1:11 predicts a universal worship of God (through incense) which is fulfilled by the Church.
  • Hebrews 13:10 refers to worship involving an altar.
  • Numerous verses (like Isa 61:4-6, 66:21; 1 Pet 2:5,9) refer to a continuing priesthood.
As I mentioned in the post about Holy Tradition, Tradition involves not just theological doctrines or writings, but also worship, prayers, and sacred images. The liturgy is a part of the rich, unbroken tapestry of Tradition. In fact, it is a major way in which the beliefs of the Church are preserved and expressed. The word "Orthodoxy" equivalently means both "right belief" and "right worship"; the two are closely analogous. The Orthodox Church is less prone to expressing its doctrines in authoritative encyclicals (as in the Catholic Church) or in numerous creeds, confessions, and statements of faith (besides the canons of the councils) as in Protestant denominations. Rather, much Orthodox theology is most clearly and truly expressed in prayer and worship. I think this is an important reason why it is more successful at bridging the gap between academic theology and the everyday life of the Church. The place of worship within Holy Tradition, its role as an aesthetically fitting and theologically sound expression of doctrine, and its nature as a participation in the heavenly worship, patterned after it, explain why Orthodox liturgy is so uniform and (to Protestant eyes) static. Worship is an expression of the heart and mind of the Church; to change one is to change the other.

So from an Orthodox perspective, it is not traditional, liturgical worship that is strange and in need of explanation, but contemporary worship. Orthodox worship is guided and shaped by its purpose of conforming to and partaking in the worship of heaven. But central to contemporary worship is an assumption not shared by liturgical churches: that the form (or "style") of worship is a matter of personal preference and a passive vehicle distinct and fully detachable from the content ("message") of worship. This results in worship that seeks to convey "timeless Christian truth" in a manner that is accessible, attractive, and engaging. Contemporary worship is also highly experiential; another motivation for pursuing a certain style of worship is to produce an appropriate feeling or attitude in the worshipper.

Brett McCracken, the author of Hipster Christianity, disagrees with the assumption that form and content are so cleanly separable. He argues (in a quintessentially Orthodox way) that the nature of the Incarnation speaks against this dichotomy; the gospel did not come to earth as a formless spiritual message to be packaged in a way determined by the culture and preferences of each recipient, but in the form of the God-man Jesus who lived in a specific time and place. He further argues with examples:
“Be Thou My Vision” is a different experience when sung a capella by a group of Christians in a house church than when performed by a loud, seven-piece worship band in an arena megachurch or on a tiny bar stage by a somber David Bazan. The Apostle’s Creed is a different thing when an individual silently reads it on a page than when a church stands and recites it corporately. The words may be the same, but different forms necessarily imbue them with slightly different meanings. There is plenty of truth in Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage “the medium is the message.” 
Given this, we must admit that the particular shape and style Christianity takes has some bearing on what people perceive it to mean. Does the gospel message conveyed in a glitzy American suburban megachurch equal that which is conveyed by the beleaguered churches of Iraq or Syria? Does the fact that a church meets in a bar, or a cathedral, or a gutted shopping mall, or someone’s living room, make no difference whatsoever in how the church’s faith is understood?
The form-content dichotomy is ultimately dualistic, in stark contrast to the thoroughly incarnational nature of  Christianity. So while contemporary worship is not entirely without value (oftentimes it more closely resembles corporate prayer and devotions), insofar as it is shaped by this dualism, I believe it falls short of the biblical vision of worship and that liturgical Orthodox worship, with its focus on partaking in the form (not just the message) of the worship in heaven and its joyous use of all five senses, is much more in keeping with the mystery of the Incarnation which is commemorated weekly in Orthodox churches around the world.

I also no longer believe that the purpose of worship is simply subjective, to meet our needs and preferences or to engender a certain feeling or experience in us. If form really is inseparable from content, if the truth of the faith is expressed not only through some disembodied "message" being conveyed but through the concrete, sensory details of the liturgy, then changing the style of worship is no longer merely a matter of opinion or producing the right attitude in us, but of Christian truth. If you would rather worship God with contemporary hymns to rock music than according to the heavenly pattern because you find the former more enjoyable or conducive to a "religious experience", what needs to be changed is not the worship style but your heart. We rightly shudder at the thought of changing the doctrines of the faith to suit ourselves; why should worship be any different?

About those Icons...

I am addressing the visual aspect of Orthodox worship separately because it is a major point of tension with Protestant Christians, especially those of a Reformed disposition. The incarnational nature of Orthodox worship is expressed in its adherence to the heavenly pattern: the incense, the vestments, the altar, the candles, and so on. But it is also reflected in the church itself, which is covered in and filled with hand-painted images (icons) of Jesus, Mary, other people from the Bible, and saints from the history of the church. Here is a picture of what the front of my church looks like.

This one, taken from a different angle, shows something like what a worship service looks like, with all the decorations out (though not actually taken during the liturgy).

The differences from a typical Protestant church (traditional or contemporary) are pretty obvious. The walls, the windows, and even the ceiling are covered with images. Protestants, especially those of a more Puritan denominational background, may feel uneasy about this. Isn't this idolatry, the worship of manmade constructs of wood, paint, and gold leaf? Did God not command us not to make any images (Exo 20:4-5) but to worship him alone? I will first address concerns about the use of physical images in worship, then the misconception that Orthodox worship those images as idols.

As an initial point, the second commandment does not prohibit the use of all images in worship but the construction of pagan idols. The KJV/RSV translation "graven image" is highly misleading; the Hebrew word used here, pecel, basically means "idol" and its usage in this manner is evident throughout the Old Testament. The Greek word used in the Septuagint, eidolon, is even clearer. As well, the use of images can't be generally prohibited because God goes on to instruct the Israelites to build them for tabernacle (and later temple) worship. The ark of the covenant has two golden cherubim above it (Exo 25:17-22), and the curtain of the tabernacle also has images of cherubim (Exo 26:1, 31-33). Solomon made two giant cherubim for the inner sanctuary of the temple and carved more images onto the walls and doors of the temple (1 Kings 6:23-35, 2 Chr 3:10-14). The prophet Ezekiel, in his prophetic vision of the heavenly temple, again sees carved images on the walls. (Eze 41:15-26) In the Old Testament, at least, the use of images in worship, far from automatically constituting idolatry, is actually commanded by God and appears in depictions of heavenly worship. However, before Christ those images are simply of the created order, as a means of praising and honoring their creator by way of his handiwork.

Has the situation somehow changed in the New Testament and the Church age? Quite the opposite! The rationale for the prohibition against idols in Exodus 20:4-5, besides the need to set Israel apart from her pagan neighbors, was because God was spirit and bodiless, unable to be depicted in physical form, so any attempt to depict him could not be anything but idolatry. Well, not anymore. Through the Incarnation, God has taken a physical, flesh-and-blood body and graciously enabled himself to be depicted in images (though not, of course, in his divine essence). As I have already described, the Incarnation is hugely consequential for Orthodox theology. They take it as an authoritative divine declaration that matter as well as spirit is good and able to be redeemed, and so Orthodox worship with their bodies, with their five senses as well as in their spirits. John's refutation of the Gnostics in the beginning of his first epistle, that the incarnate Word is "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands", applies also to the puritanical logic which sees idolatry in physically manifested worship. Bishop Kallistos Ware writes:
God took a material body, thereby proving that matter can be redeemed: 'The Word made flesh has deified the flesh,' said John of Damascus. God has 'deified' matter, making it 'spirit-bearing'; and if flesh has become a vehicle of the Spirit, then so—though in a different way—can wood and paint. The Orthodox doctrine of icons is bound up with the Orthodox belief that the whole of God's creation, material as well as spiritual, is to be redeemed or glorified. (The Orthodox Church, 33-34)
Though the Incarnation of the Word of God is a truly unique event with cosmic significance, Orthodox also view it as a type for the deification (union with God) of all of creation, including his image-bearers. As St. Athanasius said, "God became man that we might become god." So the Incarnation is the basis for the use of icons in worship. They are made possible by the mystery of God taking on human flesh, and they serve as revelatory "windows to eternity", as eschatological glimpses of the new, deified creation bursting out from the old. Nicolas Zernov beautifully writes:
[Icons] were for the Russians not merely paintings. They were dynamic manifestations of man's spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty and art. The colors and lines of the [icons] were not meant to imitate nature; the artists aimed at demonstrating that men, animals, and plants, and the whole cosmos, could be rescued from their present state of degradation and restored to their proper "Image". The [icons] were pledges of a coming victory of a redeemed creation over the fallen one...The artistic perfection of an icon was not only a reflection of the celestial glory–it was a concrete example of matter restored to its original harmony and beauty, and serving as a vehicle of the Spirit. The icons were part of the transfigured cosmos. (quoted in The Orthodox Church, 34)
And lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that icons are not a late corruption of worship, but have been in use since the early Church and were well established by the fourth century (besides the aforementioned use of images in pre-Christ Jewish worship).

Enough about the principle of using images in worship. Do Orthodox then worship images, since they kiss them, prostrate themselves before them? Absolutely not. This concern is much older than Protestantism; it was the rallying cry of the iconoclasts (icon-smashers) of the eighth and ninth centuries. They believed that to pay honor to a religious image was to worship it rather than the one true God, and thus to commit idolatry. To which Orthodox Christians responded that there is a real and important difference between honor or veneration and worship. This distinction was eventually dogmatized by the seventh ecumenical council in 787, which rejected the implicit dualism of the iconoclasts and continued to grasp and apply the profound theological implications of the Incarnation (as the sixth council did for monothelitism). St. John of Damascus was one of the leading defenders of icon veneration in this time. This article summarizes his thought on the issue as follows, tying it in with the previous point about the deification of material creation through the Incarnation:
The icon stands for something other than itself. An icon is a representation of a real sacred person or event, and is designed to lead us to it. An idol lacks this authentic symbolic character. Icons are based on the same principle as the theophanies of the Old Testament and the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. All spiritual revelations have to use material media. We honour the icons just as we honour the Gospel or the Cross. Things made by our own hands can be holy if they are set apart for the use of God. Through matter, they can lead us to the invisible God. We do not venerate the icons as God but only as filled with the energy and grace of God. The veneration of icons belongs to the tradition and many miracles are wrought through them. Hence, to depart from them is a sin. John of Damascus also quotes St. Basil the Great who said, 'The honour which is given to the icon passes over to the prototype.' The prototype honoured is, in the last analysis, God, as God created man in His own image.
In the case of icons of Jesus Christ, we do worship the one depicted through the icon, not of course worshipping the physical icon itself. In the case of other icons, we honor (or venerate) the one depicted and, therefore, worship the God who works wonderful things through them. The central point is that it is possible to distinguish between the icon and the person(s) it depicts without rejecting icons as worthless distractions from "true", purely spiritual worship, so that rather than becoming an object of worship the icon serves as a sort of physical conduit for our worship of God, the redeemer of all things, and our apprehension of his presence and his truth. As Jesus said, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jhn 14:9); if Jesus' disciples could glimpse God through his human face, then why not through other material means as well? Ware summarizes more briefly: "When an Orthodox kisses an icon or prostrates himself before it, he is not guilty of idolatry. The icon is not an idol but a symbol; the veneration shown to images is directed, not towards stone, wood, and paint, but towards the person depicted." (32)

The concept of icons as symbolically representing a deeper reality is used in other ways as well. The Bible is called a "verbal icon" of God and is likewise venerated in worship services. Jesus himself, in his humanity, can be considered an icon (of sorts) of the Father, whom he represented to the people of Israel during his time on earth. And Orthodox believe that human beings are also living icons, since we bear the image of God. This helps explain how the Lord can say, "as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. ... as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me." (Mat 25:40, 45)

The use of icons in Orthodox churches is also an application of the communion of saints, the Orthodox belief that earthly worship is a participation in heavenly worship and that the whole catholic Church is present. The presence of icons of the angels and saints from throughout the ages visibly affirms this. Ware writes:
The icons which fill the church serve as a point of meeting between heaven and earth. As each local congregation prays Sunday by Sunday, surrounded by the figures of Christ, the angels, and the saints, these visible images remind the faithful unceasingly of the invisible presence of the whole company of heaven at the Liturgy. The faithful can feel that the walls of the church open out upon eternity, and they are helped to realize that their Liturgy on earth is one and the same with the great Liturgy of heaven. The multitudinous icons express visibly the sense of 'heaven on earth.' (271-272)
And finally, icons can also serve in a teaching role. They say a picture is worth a thousand words; so icons are able to depict spiritual realities in an immediate and intuitive (not to mention visual) way that words of theology alone cannot. (This is also an advantage for children and, in former ages, illiterate people) For example, in the first image of my church you can somewhat see that a larger-than-life icon of Mary with arms outstretched in the hindmost part of the cathedral (technically called the "sanctuary"). Is this because Mary is more important than Jesus? No! Rather, because the sanctuary ("holy place") is where the scriptures (the Word) are kept, and where the elements of Jesus' body are prepared for the Eucharist, Mary is traditionally depicted in the sanctuary because, like it, she also acted as a physical vessel for Christ. This is one example of the symbolic, intricately interconnected way in which Orthodox iconography works. Icons depicting events in the life of Christ (such as his birth, death, and resurrection) are especially informative of the Orthodox faith.

Also, notice the ornate wall covered in icons (apparently made in Russia and shipped here over a century ago) partially separating the sanctuary from the rest of the cathedral; this is called the iconostasis. Is this a return to the curtain in the Jewish temple separating the Presence of God from everyone, which tore in two at Jesus' death (Mat 27:51)? No! The iconostasis has three doors which are usually kept open, allowing worshippers to see into the sanctuary; though worshippers aren't exactly free to go back there, there is little secrecy involved. Generally the two side doors are used for access into the sanctuary; when the center door is opened, closed, and used, it is for a symbolic purpose. When the scriptures are brought out through this door, it represents the divine inspiration that gave birth to them. When the elements are processed out through it, it is a weekly depiction of the cornerstone of Orthodox theology, the incarnation by which God became man and dwelt among us. Through Orthodox worship, the drama of the gospel narrative of redemption is reenacted weekly.

Though it wasn't one of the reasons I originally sought after a different kind of Christianity, Orthodox worship came as an answer to a journal entry I wrote a year before learning about the Orthodox Church, after visiting some beautiful Anglican churches in England.
God coming down to our level is only half the story. The other is Him bringing us up to His, and I see that in these magnificent churches, once the center of community life—all of life—in their villages. ... [My church] recognizes the danger of a sacred-secular divide and so does away with "sacred spaces" like Christchurch Cathedral, to try to pervade the everyday with the spiritual. But maybe all spaces are supposed to be sacred spaces. (2013-4-24)
I think that last statement describes the intent of the Incarnation: to transform human hearts, human bodies, human societies, the whole world, the cosmos into "sacred space". But this transformation has a definite starting point in the proclamation and practice of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Lewisian terms, Orthodox churches are beachheads for the divine invasion and ongoing redemption of the material world.

Further Reading

Hipster Christianity, revisited
Orthodox Worship versus Contemporary Worship
Christian Worship or Pagan Worship
Let's Get Physical
Puritan Sacramentalism (by the ecumenically-minded Protestant Peter Leithart; the next three articles are Orthodox responses)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

My Journey, Part 13.4: The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel

This is part 13.4 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

The material in this post is less important than in the two or three previous ones. It is more peripheral than central to the gospel, and exists more in the form of tendencies on the popular, applied level of evangelicalism than of doctrinal teaching in its theological core. I am not trying to completely describe evangelicalism here (if such a feat is even possible), but to call out several gospel-related habits which I think are significant within it and which are part of the reason why the gospel according to Orthodoxy is more attractive to me. I will hopefully keep this much briefer than the previous posts.

The duration of salvation

What happens at the point of salvation?
What is salvation?

As I mentioned last time, evangelicalism tends to draw on the Lutheran dichotomy between justification and sanctification; the former is something instantaneous that happens at the moment when unbelief turns to faith and, along with the rest of the steps in the "order or salvation" that simultaneously accompany it, is roughly equivalent to "getting saved" or being "born again", the latter is the confirmation or manifestation of salvation in a new believer's life as he/she is transformed into Christ's likeness through the power of the Holy Spirit. In Orthodox soteriology, on the other hand, no clear distinction is drawn between justification and sanctification, or between the initiatory and continuing dimensions of salvation. I think it would be accurate to say that for the Orthodox, salvation is an eschatological (or in common parlance, "already, not-yet") reality, something that mysteriously is fully present in all who are in Christ, yet needs to be "worked out" (Phil 2:12) throughout the believer's life. Though this dynamic is far from alien to evangelicalism, the crucial distinction is that it is applied consistently, to every dimension of salvation; it is not as though some are completed instantaneously and others are ongoing projects.

This was attractive to me because I was previously having trouble following the evangelical focus on the initial "point of salvation" over what comes after it. This was one of the causes of the episodes of doubt described in post 2. I saw conversion as totally central to and determinative of everything that came afterward; on Summer Project, for example, I viewed doubts and lack of fruit as potential indications that my supposed conversion experience hadn't really "taken" and that I had better try again. (I am far from the only evangelical to have had this concern) For all its emphasis on faith alone, I think evangelicalism is ironically at risk of turning conversion into a work by placing so much weight on it. Focusing on the initial point of salvation over its continuing dimension is one of the gospel distortions that I was happy to see corrected by Orthodox teaching.

The size of the gospel

How can we see through the human additions and distortions to glimpse 
the essence of the gospel?
How do we believe, pray, worship, and live the gospel in all its richness?

Evangelicalism tends to be minimalistic in its description of the "gospel", at least of the form to be shared with non-Christians. It is basically treated as a message of personal salvation, on who God is (the omnipotent, loving creator of all things who desires to be in relationship with us), who you are (a sinner separated from God), who Jesus is (the son of God) and what he did (died on the cross to make a way for our sins to be forgiven so we can be reconciled with God), and what you should do (pray top accept Jesus into your heart). Even if there is plenty more evangelical teaching filling in the details, the implication is that the "raw" or "essential" gospel, all that is really required for salvation, is something that can be shared in under five minutes and summarized by a string of brief quotations from Paul's epistle to the Romans. I began to notice this on my own as I was rethinking my evangelical beliefs:
Protestants take a very minimalist view of salvation, like a student asking, 'what's the least I need to do to pass?' There are no right answers to wrong questions. (2014-1-24)
Granted, this minimalism was well-intentioned—it was for the sake of removing unnecessary obstacles and making the message of salvation as freely available and easily graspable as possible. But I couldn't shake the feeling that something essential was lost in this drive to boil the gospel down to its essentials, to distill it to a five-minute message. For one thing, it made it hard for me to see how I fit into the mission of the church, bad at evangelism as I was.
If we reduce the gospel from a new reality to a message to be proclaimed, the range of acceptable parts of the body of Christ shrinks distinctly. (2013-4-7)
And it led to me seeing the gospel as somewhat circular, as also described in post 2: it seemed like the point (or a major point) of responding to the gospel was to share it with others—but this bypasses the question of what the gospel really is; I was growing restless with the minimal version of the gospel I was being taught.

In contrast, Orthodoxy embodies the "maximalist" understanding of the gospel I mentioned vaguely desiring in post 8. Though the liturgy contains plenty of brief, sweeping statements about the gospel, it is never supposed that they exhaust or fully define it. There is no impetus to boil the faith down to a set of essentials, first principles, or "fundamentals". In the Orthodox Church, salvation is ultimately a mystery, not at all meaning a contradiction or paradox that you just have to accept, but something divine, too vast and glorious for anyone to fully master or comprehend. This is because it leads us to the deeper and greater mystery of union with the divine. The gospel is something that can change your life in an instant, but which you can spend a lifetime learning and growing in. It encompasses the incarnation, life, teaching, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus (and by the way, the Orthodox view on the gospel is centered, logically enough, around the four gospels rather than Paul's epistles), the teachings of Paul, the types and echoes woven throughout the Old Testament. Even after the Bible, the Church has spent its two-thousand-year life continuing to uncover and treasure new facets of the gospel; this is one way of thinking about what Holy Tradition is. I am truly thankful that it has preserved the gospel in such indescribable, maximalistic richness.


How can we get as many gospel presentations and decisions for Christ as possible?
How can we faithfully treasure and preserve the apostolic faith?

Behind both of these things is a tendency (especially in popular-level evangelicalism) toward what I call "conversionism". Presupposing a focus on the initial point of salvation as especially significant for the Christian and a working definition of the "gospel" as a simple message of salvation, conversionism is characterized by at least three other habits: 1) treating "salvation" as something atomic, that you simply have or don't, 2) an individualistic outlook on salvation, and 3) a strong concern for finding "assurance" of your salvation.

What I am addressing here is largely evangelicals' pietist heritage. Initially a response to Reformation dogmatists' prizing of doctrine over heartfelt faith, pietism was spread by pastors like Phillip Jakob Spener, who valued personal Bible devotions and called Christians to higher Christian standard than doctrinal correctness and decent living, and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. As Pietism spread through emotive preaching and religious revivals, it was characterized by a renewed focus on authentic, personal faith back by Bible study and devotion, a simple gospel to be spread everywhere (even by lay preachers) in fulfillment of the Great Commission (Mat 28:20), emotional conversion experiences, and subsequent assurance of salvation.

Clearly there was much about the rigid orthodoxies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the pietists were right to protest; the Thirty Years' War stood in everyone's mind as an example of the atrocities confessional battles could lead to. But as is so often the case, pietism led not to restored equilibrium but a Christianity that is similarly imbalanced, just in different ways. (Modern evangelicalism, especially of the Reformed variety, tends to incorporate a concern for Protestant orthodoxy and pietism; they are clearly not incompatible). The two habits I described above (salvation as something punctiliar and the gospel as a simple message of forgiveness of sins) made it possible to think in terms of an absolute, binary dichotomy between "saved" and "unsaved", and to make this distinction central to Christian ministry. The job of the evangelist, it is though, is to share the gospel with the "unsaved"/"lost" so that some might accept it with faith and become "saved".

While there is a profound difference between those who are "in Christ" and those who aren't, to absolutize and centralize this difference to the degree I have seen in evangelical preaching is reductionistic, like filtering a famous painting down to two colors. The original is still recognizable, but almost everything of it has been lost. I think this way of viewing and speaking of salvation as something indivisible that you simply have or don't is responsible for a good deal of crises of faith, some of my own included (as on summer project). As I commented:
If the only two categories we have are 'saved' and 'unsaved', the only alternative to everything being great between you and God is admitting that you're unsaved. (2013-5-8)
I realize that this is not consistently taught in most evangelical circles, but it seems to be at least an unspoken assumption behind talk of "the lost", being "saved", and other such language. It was what I took away, at least. The following year, I contrasted this "spiritual object" approach to salvation with an undefined "relational" approach.
I've been thinking about salvation as a spiritual object again, as something that God ties up with a proverbial bow and hands to us in exchange for either faith or good works. But again, this is a disconnected, non-relational way of thinking of it. (2014-1-30)
I also noticed that this tendency (along with the theology of atonement and justification I've discussed in the last two posts), when systematized, has some unfortunate implications for children too young to receive the gospel (to say nothing of the mentally handicapped or the unevangelized). Of course if you make receiving salvation the most important thing in Christianity and justification by personal faith alone in Jesus Christ alone as your savior, you will raise questions about those who, by no fault of their own, are unable to exercise such faith.
Our model of sin and salvation doesn't apply to children—so you get wonky debates on paedobaptism and infant salvation. (2013-6-17)
Scot McKnight (himself an evangelical) has used the term "threshold evangelism" in much the same way that I use "conversionism" to describe how evangelicals can boil salvation down to moving from the "unsaved" to "saved" category, how this tends to lead to results-focused ministry, reducing the "gospel" down to a short presentation, and how it is problematic for "full conversions". He argues (and I agree) that evangelism should be based on centered-set thinking (which thinks more in terms of continued movement towards or away from the center, Jesus) than on bounded-set thinking (which focuses on a minimal set of criteria for being "in" vs. "out" and getting as many people as possible past that threshold. He also mentions a bridge illustration for salvation similar to the one I journaled on (admittedly overgeneralizing in the second part):
I get this image of a celestial bridge across a great divide. The bridge is the gospel, and it spans from Death to Life. Other bridges go from nearer outcroppings to Death, and people thing the outcroppings are life. The point of crossing the gospel bridge is to get to the other side and lie there, never forgetting where you came from and how you got there. ... The whole focus of evangelicalism is the bridge—how wonderful it is that it's there, and getting other people to cross it. (2012-10-13,14)
Threshold evangelism also naturally places a lot of weight on the "decision for Christ" (as the punctiliar crossing of the threshold), which I have been questioning at least since my series on God's providence for the attention it tends to draw to trying to "figure out" the mystery of divine sovereignty and human freedom in this one crucial decision. But what if one decision was never supposed to be the condition for the whole work of salvation? As well, the drive to secure these decisions began to feel manipulative to me, like trying to sell something to people who felt more like customers than recipients of Christ's love.
Though telling someone the gospel of Jesus is supposed to be one of the most loving things we can do for them, often we don't do so as if it were an act of love—more as if we're trying to sell something, or be the ones to save them from ignorance. (2013-10-7)
Conversionism is also naturally individualistic due to its focus on personal salvation, which has been around at least since the Wesleys. While I have a lot of respect for John Wesley's compassion and spirituality (especially after reading this book), his description of his own conversion experience is trend-setting in ways both good and bad (emphasis added).
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
This article, while technically about the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage, also describes quite frankly how the evangelical focus on the conversion narrative leads to a more individual, subjective take on the gospel, which I have definitely seen in my own experience. I also can't help but wonder if the western focus on the juridical aspect of salvation (which is inapplicable anywhere beyond the redemption of humans) has something to do with this inward turn. Overgeneralizing again:
How is the gospel usually stated in evangelicalism? 'God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, so He sent Jesus so that your sin could be forgiven and you can have a personal relationship with Him.' With such a personal understanding of the gospel—as being all about you and God—is it any wonder that so many American Christians have a self-centered faith? (2013-1-10)
In parallel with this is the drive for assurance of possessing this personal salvation (which, again, only makes sense if salvation is instantaneous and simple). This last journal entry is rather bitter and unfair, but I think there was some truth to the feelings I was expressing.
I'm so accustomed to hearing that salvation is conditioned on faith—but what faith! Evangelical culture fetishizes the spiritual object of 'salvation'—what it is, how to obtain it, how to know you have it—and to prevent hysteria from breaking out it is made very easy to obtain. But 'salvation' is not the point—living and sharing Christ is. But then, we turn the gospel into the message of how to obtain salvation. (2013-9-6)
I have already described many of the ways in which Orthodox teaching, worship, and practice differ from conversionism. In Orthodoxy "salvation" is continuous and eschatological in nature, a past, present, and future process, so that one can talk about a point when he/she was "saved" but still pray for the realization of that salvation every day. Though it is still possible to make the distinction of "saved" vs. "unsaved" (and it is not coextensive with the visible Church), it is equally possible to speak of degrees of salvation, since justification and sanctification are not sharply divided, and of greater and lesser sources of "salvation", which are ultimately all instruments of God. Though Orthodox are of course interested in the salvation of the world, faithfully preserving the knowledge and richness of what we are saved to is at least as important. Quality arguably takes precedence over quantity.

I have already seen this firsthand in the surprising (to me) lack of urgency in incorporating me into the Orthodox Church. In the early church, the catechizing of converts before their baptism could take years; though it will only be a few months for me,  Far from the senseless workings of a bureaucracy or the erection of "barriers to salvation", I see this deliberateness as genuine concern for the authenticity and fullness of my conversion, as the desire to make me more than a number or an evangelistic project but to walk with me every step of the way to provide guidance and encouragement as I enter into the life of the Church (and to make sure that my heart and mind are in the right place, which is a concern I don't often see in the evangelical quest for "decisions for Christ").

Without an instantaneous concept of salvation, Orthodox soteriology deemphasizes the singular salvific decision, largely sidestepping the seemingly intractable debates about sovereignty and free will of which the Arminian controversy and its reverberations are examples. Though salvation is incarnationally dependent on our will and God's, our role in salvation is not simply a single decision, but our continued synergistic, incarnational, grace-enabled willing and cooperation with God's energies, which (in terms of efficacy) simply means not resisting them.

Similarly, I think Orthodoxy preserves the value of the individual in salvation without reducing salvation to largely individualistic terms. This is not so much about content of teaching as it is about how that content is preached, prayed, sung, and generally understood, in a more or less balanced way. More often, and especially in corporate settings, the Church or even the entire cosmos is the locus of salvation, the beneficiary of redemption, though the individual dimension comes to the foreground more in private prayer and study. The cosmic drama of the gospel, frequently mentioned but too often forgotten by evangelicals, saturates the writings of the Church Fathers. N.T. Wright, unpacking his New Perspective understanding of the gospel, confirms this:
We are not saved from the world of creation, but for the world of creation (Rom 8:18-26). Humans were made to take care of God's wonderful world, and it is not too strong to say that the reason God saves humans is not simply that he loves them for themselves but that he loves them for what they truly are--his pro-creators, his stewards, his vice-regents over creation. To make this utterly Pauline move is not merely to adjust some nuts and bolts at the edge of his doctrine of salvation, but to shift the weight of the whole thing away from where it has been in the Western church since long before the Reformation and--without losing the necessary Western emphases on the cross--back towards the cosmic focus which Eastern Christians never lost. ... "'Salvation' is from death itself, and all that leads to it it and shares its destructive character (tribulation, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, weaponry) and all the powers that use these things to oppress humans and deface God's world. (Justification, 207)
And finally, there is far less of a tendency to focus on receiving "assurance" of salvation or holding onto it tightly amid doubts. Again, I think this is because Orthodox theology doesn't divide the gospel up between instantaneous justification and continuing sanctification or reduce peoples' "status before God" to a simple duality. Salvation is not something passive that we simply "have" or don't. We gain access to all the blessings of Christ at the "point of salvation", but continue to grow and live in them by grace within the Church. Our active participation in this new, incarnational, eschatological life, not simply the observation of "fruit", is such a firm basis for assurance of salvation that is it not a topic of major concern; the point is finally not to answer doubts, but to make them unnecessary. As I think Hebrews 3:14 ("For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end") teaches, assurance of salvation, like the other graces that are ours in Christ, is both a present and a future reality whose final confirmation is faithful perseverance.


There is still enough of an evangelical in me to realize that all of this may well be less than convincing to many of my readers. Partly because of the things I have been discussing in this post, the gospel according to Orthodoxy (and, arguably, to evangelical theology in its various forms) is not something that can be even remotely captured in a blog post. It is much more than a message that can be simply "shared" and decided upon in a matter of minutes. It is the life of the Trinity, incarnation, it is the crucifixion, it is the resurrection, it is the fulfillment of God's promises, it is eternal life, it is union with God in and through the Church.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Everything I have written is from my own preliminary glimpses of the richness of Orthodox theology, as one even less than a spiritual infant in the Church. If you are interested in hearing from someone who has a better idea of what he is talking about, I highly recommend St. Athanasius' timeless book, On the Incarnation (the translation used by CCEL and the Kindle Edition is particularly good), or perhaps St. Irenaeus' Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. Some more modern (but non-free) sources expressing the mind of the Church are The Orthodox Church (which also includes a helpful historical section) and The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware and For the Life of the World by Fr. Alexander Schmemann.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why I Am an Evolutionary Creationist

This post is intended as a quick reference and resource in support of my position on the origins of living things, sometimes referred to as theistic evolution but which I (and others) prefer to call evolutionary creation. Evolutionary creation is defined by the Christian organization BioLogos as "the view that all life on earth came about by the God-ordained process of evolution with common descent". In other words, it understands evolution as the means by which God created life on earth.

I will begin by presenting, as clearly (but concisely) as I can, the evidence for creation and evolution, followed by my reasons for combining them.


"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The very first words of the Bible express an unequivocally creationist (not to be confused with young-earth creationist, old-earth creationist, or other particular theories on the when and how of creation) viewpoint. The rest of Genesis 1 (and beginning of chapter 2) expound on this summary statement: in six "days", God separates light from darkness, the heavens/firmament (a solid dome thought to hold up the rain and snow) from the earth, and the land from the sea, then populates the earth with birds, sea creatures, plants, and land animals. This culminates in his creating man "in his own image" (Gen 1:27), male and female, to have dominion over the rest of the creation. So the center of Christian revelation begins with an account of God as creator; literarily, at least, "creator" is the foremost of his many names. By "creationism" I simply mean the fact that God is the creator of everything else. (See also Eph 3:9, Rev 4:11, 10:6)

Historically, the focus of creationism has been on the character of the creator (in the Nicene Creed: "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible) and of the creation (its distinctness from God, Heb 1:10-12; its dependence on God, Psa 65:9-13, Col 1:16-17; its witness to God, Psa 19:1-4, Rom 1:19-20; its essential goodness as God's handiwork, Gen 1:31, 1 Tim 4:4). The Bible consistently depicts God as the author, sustainer, caretaker, and redeemer of the created order. The questions about creation which divide Christians today (the historical/scientific process of creation, the age of the earth, the means by which life arose) were never dogmatically defined by the historical church and are not the primary focus of the doctrine of creation. To lose sight of the essential truths of creationism in the midst of controversies over its peripheral implications is to forsake the historical understanding of the church.

Besides the biblical witness, I believe natural theology offers other reasons for the truth of creationism. There is the cosmological argument for the existence of God, which (in its stronger, nontemporal form) holds that the existence of something (particularly the particular cosmos we live in) must have a reason or explanation of some kind, and this reason can only be a self-existent, personal, eternal, omnipotent creator. There is the teleological argument or "argument from design", which argues that the existence of order and logic in the natural order (or perhaps in the laws governing it) is best explained by a designer. There is the fine-tuning argument, which points to the multitude of conditions, from physical constants to cosmological conditions to the place of the Earth in the universe, which are "just right" for life to exist here. And there is the ontological argument, which argues that an infinite number of Gods must necessarily exist by definition...oh, maybe not. Ignore that last one.

Anyway, I believe that all of these arguments are better answered by theistic creationism than by alternate worldviews like pantheism or naturalism. For the sake of brevity I will refrain from going into more detail on this here. Of course natural theology is just as indicative of the truth of Judaism or Islam as of Christianity, buy hey, it is also possible (I think) to be a Jewish or Muslim evolutionary creationist.


Creationism fills in the "who" and "why" of origins; the theory of evolution supplies the "how" and the "when". Evolution is, according to renowned biologist Ernst Mayr in his helpful book What Evolution Is, "the gradual process by which the living world has been developing following the origin of life." The theory of evolution proposes that the diversity of living species today has its origin in common descent from an ancestor, combined with gradual modification by genetic mutation, combined with the preservation of certain advantageous mutations by natural selection. It makes the claim, audacious at first sight, that this seemingly random mechanism is the source of all the kinds of life we see today, even human beings.

Mayr outlines the evidence evolutionary scientists marshal for the theory. Most basically, evolution, like any scientific theory, is based on systematized observation—in this case, observation of the fossil record, the patterns of fossils discovered in various layers of the earth, or "geological strata". Since we can match these strata up with like layers around the world and date them with a variety of reliable methods (e.g. patterns in layers of sediment and radiometric dating of volcanic ash and igneous rock), fossils serve as partial records of organisms that lived in the time corresponding to the fossils' geological age. The most basic evidence for evolution consists in observations of developments in this fossil record—particularly the fact that more recent fossils bear more resemblance to living organisms, while older fossils tend to be more different. Darwinian theory predicts a smooth transition from species to species, but because of the incompleteness of the fossil record (due to the rarity of the conditions for fossilization), there are often gaps, though some lineages (such as the transition from reptiles to mammals, or whales and their land-living ancestors) are "remarkably complete".

In a bit more detail, the study of the degrees of similarity and difference of various fossils is called "homology". These similarities may be structural, physiological, molecular, or behavioral (as best as we can extrapolate it). Evolution supposes that the features of species change gradually due to mutation and natural selection, and the accumulation of such changes gives rise to new species. When a common ancestor is found for two species that demonstrates a point of divergence for their respective features, or when a transition fossil is found between a species and its purported ancestor, it is counted as evidence for the theory of evolution.

Another strong evidence is that, as method of dating fossils become more reliable, each fossil type is found at the time that it is "expected" in the record according to evolution. Evolution is extremely easy to disprove observationally. A single fossil determined to have been found in the wrong geological layer (e.g. a modern mammal fossil in a geological layer dated to 100 million years old) would be sufficient to cast serious doubt on it, or at least necessitate a major rethinking of the "tree of life". Yet no such too-early fossils have been found; the fossil record stubbornly refuses to (seriously) deviate from the patterns predicted by evolution. That constitutes strong evidence for its truth.

Originally, Charles Darwin formulated the theory of evolution not so much from observation of the fossil record as of extant species in the present. He noted the differences between similar species: namely, three species of mockingbird on three of the volcanic Galapagos Islands which got there by a single colonization from South America 1000 km to the east. If a single species of mockingbird was responsible for colonizing the islands, then all three modern species are descended from a single, common ancestor species; the differences between island species (e.g. in beak shape) were most likely adaptations to different conditions, different kinds of food, etc., which were selected for over time since they were advantageous for survival. Eventually, Darwin realized that this mechanism of common descent and mutation with natural selection could apply not just to birds, but to all species on earth. The "origin of species", in Darwin's view, was a single, common ancestor in the distant past.

Darwin's theory of common descent solved the biological mystery of why certain groups of organisms (mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, etc.) share many of the same characteristics: they are descended from a common ancestor. They get their similarities from this common ancestor, and their differences from subsequent changes. The fossil record provides abundant support for common descent, offering common ancestors of dogs and bears, dogs and cats, rodents, ungulates, birds, reptiles, fish, mammals, etc. The hierarchy of animal taxa was known to biologists before Darwin; what he provided for the first time was an explanation for why animal taxa exist in a hierarchy. Some specific kinds of similarity that are well explained by common descent are:

Morphology: "Very suggestive evidence for common descent is provided by comparative anatomy," says Mayr. This is the most immediately obvious way of assessing similarities and differences between species, and it is easily grasped both for living species and fossils. It is the kind of similarity that allowed for the creation of hierarchical animal taxa even before Darwin. Patterns in morphological similarity are some of the strongest and earliest evidence for common descent.

Vestigial Structures: Why do species have morphological structures that have no functionality at all (or much less functionality than their homological equivalents in other species), like the appendix (which appears to help other mammals digest leaves but which we have little use for), human wisdom teeth, teeth in baleen whale embryos, hind legs in whales, or eyes in cave-dwelling animals? Again, vestigial structures are explained by common descent, by a shift in lifestyle resulting in vestigial structures no longer being utilized or promoted by natural selection.

Biogeography: Evolution also helps explain the distribution of plant and animal species. The relative similarity of species in different geographic regions is correlated with the amount of time the regions have been isolated from each other; when they were last connected, a common ancestor would have been present in both regions. In this way, taxonomical similarities can be correlated with geology. For example, North America and Europe were connected by a land bridge 40 million years ago while South America and Africa have been separated for 80 million years, which explains why there is more similarity in North American and European species. Common descent and dispersal from a single point of origin explains why there tend to be no mammals on oceanic islands but plenty of birds and plants; mammals tend to be worse at crossing water gaps.

Molecular Evidence: More recently, it has become possible to study organisms at the molecular level as well as the morphological. Comparisons of molecules indifferent species tends to confirm the evidence of morphology, though occasionally it tells us things we didn't know before. The study and comparisons of genes has allowed us to find deep similarities not just between humans and other mammals, but with plants and insects as well. It is possible to trace the evolution of genes in much the same way as the evolution of species.

One last point of evidence: while it is true that most of the evidence for evolution is simply observational, we also have some experimental evidence of evolution. We have observed and even directed it both in the laboratory and outside it. (e.g. selective breeding and domestication of animals) As point 12 of this Scientific American article describes, we have even observed the creation of new species of fruit flies (using Mayr's definition of a species as a reproductively isolated community) by selective breeding.  We have also experimentally bred entirely new features into e. coli, namely the ability to feed on citrate. I often hear creationists say that they believe in microevolution (the development of differences within a species, like Galapagos Finches or dogs) but not macroevolution (the mechanism explaining the origin of all species from a common ancestor). But microevolution and macroevolution work by the exact same mechanism; they are only quantitatively, not qualitatively different. As the fruit fly experiment shows, the boundary between the two is not precisely definable. Saying you believe in microevolution but not macroevolution is somewhat like saying you believe in early modern, but not ancient history.

Note that in the whole preceding discussion, I have presented my reasons for believing the theory of evolution without trying to disprove the truthfulness of the Bible, bringing in philosophical notions opposed to a Christian worldview, or paying attention to religion at all. Contrary to what many Darwinists and creationists would have you believe, evolution is, first and foremost, a scientific theory (not a doctrine or interpretation of the Bible), supported by scientific evidence like any other theory, and is entirely distinguishable from the philosophical and sociological conclusions people have drawn from it. Consequently, it is not (methodologically) possible to disprove evolution using philosophical or theological argumentation. The way to disprove evolution is to show that it does not, in fact, adequately explain the observable evidence (e.g. by observing contradicting evidence, like a mammal fossil showing up too early in the record or some kind of bird-fungus hybrid) and to present a different scientific theory that explains it better. This is simply the way that any scientific theory is debunked and replaced.

Evolutionary Creation

I do not believe that evolution and creation are in any essential conflict. Further, while they are certainly conversant with each other, they make their points on fundamentally different levels. Creation is, first and foremost, a theological doctrine, while evolution is, first and foremost, a scientific theory. Confusion on this distinction lies behind a good deal of the supposed conflict between faith and science.

For this reason, I cannot support the efforts of creationists who try to reconcile the Bible and science by massaging the scientific consensus to make it fit their interpretation of Scripture. The first problem with this is that it subverts or distorts what we can know from the creation (which is, of course, God's handiwork) in order to preserve a preferred interpretation of Scripture. It thus denies God's general revelation in favor of (one's own understanding of) his special revelation. I do not believe that truth works like this. The Bible does not simply "trump" verified knowledge from other sources; all truth, as they say, is God's truth. I believe rather than the intelligibility of nature and our ability to study and benefit from it are results of God's creativity; to deny these things in favor of a doctrine of creation is simply self-undermining, tantamount to saying that not everything God made is good. The book of God's words does not contradict the book of God's works. And, of course, Scripture says nothing "on its own" without a human act of interpretation on our part. Even if the Bible is infallible, what justifies our confidence in interpreting it in a way that contradicts the scientific consensus, without any prior grounds for disputing this consensus?

The second problem with this approach is that reconciling the Bible with science in this way can't simply stop at evolution, or even the age of the earth (which is even better-supported scientifically, by literally dozens of independent indicators, than evolution). The Bible contains numerous other examples of the ancient science we would expect from its ancient Jewish authors. Denis Lamoureux, a Canadian evolutionary creationist, describes these in his book on the subject, appropriately titled Evolutionary Creation.
  • The immobility of the earth (1 Chr 16:30, Psa 93:1, Psa 96:10), in contrast to our modern understanding of the Solar System; this was one of the main points on which Galileo was condemned.
  • The earth resting on foundations/pillars, somewhat like a building (1 Sam 2:8, Job 38:4-6, Psa 75:3, Psa 104:5), or on the waters (Psa 24:2, Psa 136:6), again in contrast to our modern conception of a spherical, revolving, orbiting earth.
  • A flat (Mat 4:8), circular (Isa 40:22) or square (Isa 11:12, Ezek 7:2, Rev 7:1, 20:8) earth/landmass with a definite center (Dan 4:10) and ends (Isa 41:8-9, Dan 4:12, Matt 12:42); the Hebrew word translated "circle" refers to a flat, two-dimensional surface. No, the Old Testament does not presage the Greek discovery of a spherical earth.
  • The existence of a circumferential sea surrounding the earth (Job 26:7-14, Job 8:22-31).
  • The underworld, sheol or hades, spatially existing underneath the earth (Num 16:31-33, Pro 5:5, Isa 14:15, Matt 11:23, Luk 10:15). The underworld is also indirectly referred to along with heaven and earth, as being "under the earth" (Phil 2:10, Rev 5:13).
  • The movement of the sun across the sky (Josh 10:13, Psa 19:6, 50:1, Ecc 15); as distinct from the Sun appearing to move because the Earth rotates.
  • The firmament, a solid dome or "vault" of the sky holding up the (rain)waters above the earth (Gen 1:6-8, Psa 19:1). That the firmament is understood as a solid structure rather than simply the expanse of space is shown by the application of the Hebrew word raqa to it in Job 37:18, which is elsewhere used to describe metalworking (cf. job 22:14, Ezek 1:22).
  • Waters above the firmament, in the heavens, thought to be the source of rain (Gen 1:6-8, 7:11, Psa 104:2-3, 148:4, Jer 10:12-13).
  • Foundations of the heavens, holding them up above the earth (Job 26:11, 2 Sam 22:8); mention is also made of the "ends of the heavens" (Deu 4:32, Isa 13:5, Psa 19:6, Matt 24:31).
  • The location of the sun, moon, and stars in the firmament (Gen 1:14-19).
  • The heavens being rolled up and the stars "falling" to earth (Isa 34:4, Matt 24:29, Rev 6:13) or being thrown (Dan 8:10, Rev 12:4). We consider language of "shooting stars" to be merely figurative or poetic today, but only because we know that meteorites are not really stars. The ancient Israelites didn't!
  • Ancient taxonomy: bats are birds (Lev 11:13-19), the hyrax and rabbit are ruminants (Lev 11:5-6).
  • The mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mat 13:31-32, Mar 4:30-32); seeds germinate by dying (Jhn 12:24-25, 1 Cor 15:35-37).
  • An ancient, one-seed model of reproduction in which the woman's womb serves as the "field" in which the man's "seed" (which contains his progeny in tiny form) grows. Hence the biblical language of women as "barren" (Gen 11:30, Jdg 13:2) and the statement that the yet-unconceived Levi was "in the loins of his ancestor", Abraham (Heb 7:9-10).
  • Medical conditions like muteness (Luk 11:14), blindness (Mat 12:22), epilepsy (Mat 17:14-18), and skeletomuscular problems (Luke 13:10-13, 16) are caused by demons, alongside other instances of what appears to be actual demon possession (Luk 8:26-39).
I have never seen anyone (even Ken Ham) attempt to consistently subscribe to the science found in Scripture. Such a feat would be absurd, if not impossible for a modern person; it would involve denying modern geology, astronomy, medical science, biology, the eyewitness testimony of everyone who has been to space, and the existence of the orchid (among other facts). We have accepted all of these other discrepancies between biblical and modern science without much fuss (well, maybe with fuss in the case of the Heliocentric cosmos) and don't consider them to be contradictory to a "biblical" worldview. Why is evolution singled out as the one area of science that apparently can't be reconciled with the ancient science of Scripture?

This also rules out the converse approach, known as concordism, of altering our interpretation of the Bible to match our scientific knowledge. (Which, I suspect, is why the above examples don't bother most Christians; they simply don't notice the Bible's ancient worldview and assume it is speaking to their modern one with all these examples being "poetic" or "phenomenological") Aside from the fact that most concordists do not apply this method consistently (denying the scientific consensus on points like evolution that they cannot read into Scripture), I simply do not think that trying to locate a 4.5-billion-year-old earth, Darwinian evolution, a spherical earth revolving around the sun with the other planets, and modern cosmology all in the Bible constitutes a fair, respectful reading of the text. If we force the Bible to speak in the language of our modern cosmology/geology/biology, we silence its original voice.

I prefer to let both Scripture and science speak for themselves, without prematurely bringing them into conflict with each other. The Christian faith confesses God as the creator and sustainer who made all things good and man in his image; through the theory of evolution, science teaches us details of how he created life. Contrary to what Darwin himself and other skeptics have believed, studying God's means of creating through evolution does not marginalize him any more than studying his means of sustaining the creation through physics, chemistry, etc. does. I think this misconception traces at least partially to the shift in peoples' concept of God described in the first chapter of The Unintended Reformation, in which the loss of the apophatic (negative) view of God, Scotus' idea of metaphysical univocity, and Occam's razor combined to allow God to be "explained away" by reason and Enlightenment thinking. But God is far more than simply an explanation for questions of science or philosophy. Between the true God and our study of his works, then can be no final conflict.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God

The following is a paper written for my apologetics and ethics class.

The cosmological argument for the existence of God is one of the most venerable arguments of classical apologetics. It seeks to infer the existence of God from the existence of the cosmos or of objects within it.1 It comes in two main forms which I will attempt to treat concurrently: the temporal form, which is based on the existence of a cause or explanation for the beginning of the universe, and the nontemporal form (or argument from contingency), which seeks an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing.

The temporal form of the cosmological argument is best known today as the Kalām cosmological argument, which was originally developed by Muslim philosophers but is widely promoted today by Christian apologists like William Lane Craig.2 It has the following structure: 1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause 2) The universe began to exist 3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.3 It is temporal in that is seeks to locate the cause of the beginning of the universe (both temporal and ontological), identifying this "first cause" with God.

The nontemporal form of the cosmological argument, or "argument from contingency" is perhaps stronger since it does not depend on the assumption that the universe began to exist. It is best known as the work of Thomas Aquinas, who assumed (per Aristotle) for the sake of argument that the universe is eternal, since its createdness could only be known by revelation.4 It has the following logical form: 1) If any contingent beings exist, a necessary being exists (as the ultimate cause of their contingent existence) 2) Some contingent beings exist 3) Therefore, a necessary being exists.5 Unlike the temporal form, the nontemporal form does not seek to locate God as the "first cause" of the universe, but rather as the nontemporal reason for its existence when it could just as easily have not existed (this is what it means to be contingent), as the reason why there is something rather than nothing.

Besides their temporal/nontemporal focus, the premises of these arguments correlate fairly closely. The first premises seem evident from everyday experience and common sense: we expect there to be a reason or explanation for everything, even if we don't know it; we never consider that something might "just exist" for literally no reason at all. We implicitly hold to what Gottfried Leibniz called the "principle of sufficient reason", that nothing is true or exists without there being a sufficient reason for its being so and not otherwise,6 for objects in the universe; why should it not also hold for the universe as a whole? This principle is also foundational to the scientific method.

The second premise is supported by philosophy and science, Mathematically, apologists argue, it doesn't make any sense to say that the universe is literally eternal, with no beginning; infinity is just a concept, and it is absurd to propose that (for instance) an actually infinite amount of time has progressed in the universe.7 As well, this objection does not answer the nontemporal form of the argument which assumes a beginningless universe; claiming that the universe (or the existence of matter and energy) is necessary as well as eternal simply makes the cosmos itself into Aquinas' necessary being and is actually closer to pantheism (identifying God with the cosmos) than scientific naturalism. So it is fairly uncontroversial to claim that the universe is contingent, that it could have been (or not been) other than it is. Scientifically, twentieth-century cosmology has strongly supported the Big Bang theory, which postulates a clear beginning to the universe;8 the second law of thermodynamics also indicates that the universe has a finite age.

If these premises are both accepted, some conclusions can be drawn about the first cause/necessary being. (Granting that it is not simply the universe itself) At the very least, it would have to be outside space and time, eternal, and omnipotent in order to be the first/ultimate cause of everything else. To avoid an infinite regress of causes, it must be uncaused, self-existent, or necessary. If we grant that the universe had a beginning, it also seems that this being must be personal, since if the first cause were merely impersonal or mechanical, then the universe would be coeternal with it.9

Unsurprisingly, skeptics have raised a number of objections to the cosmological argument. A common one is to point out that no explanation or cause is given for the first cause/necessary being whose existence is being proven. This is taken to be a form of special pleading, a convenient exemption from the general rule of causality which is argued for everything else; if God does not need a prior cause, why does the universe?10 As well, it is argued that the first cause whose existence the argument seeks to prove is hardly the God of Christianity, since it provides no evidence for, say, his singularity, goodness, immanence, continuing interaction with the universe, or even continuing existence.11 As its employment by Enlightenment philosophers demonstrates, the cosmological argument works just as well for deism (not to mention Islam) as it does for Christianity.

Other objections take issue with the premises of the argument. A variety of scientific theories have offered alternatives to the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe, such as the steady state model, a cyclic universe with an endless series of collapses and "bounces", vacuum fluctuation models, chaotic inflation theory, and the many-worlds hypothesis.12 Another approach is to argue that it because time is a property of the universe, it simply makes no sense to speak of anything "before" the Big Bang, or of its having a "cause", since both of these concepts are dependent on time.13

Other objections question the first premise, that everything has a cause. This is true on an everyday level, but is causality truly universal? In other words, since we know our concept of causality via inductive reasoning, can we use it deductively as a premise of the cosmological argument? Already, quantum physics seems to present a counterexample, making causality less than universal. If we can't assume that the principle of sufficient reason applies in a truly ultimate sense, then it would seem we can't be sure of the soundness of the cosmological argument. Perhaps the question of why we exist is unanswerable, or simply meaningless.14

The objection that no cause is sought for the first cause is a misunderstanding of the argument. The first premise only applies to contingent entities, or objects that begin to exist. Since the first cause is understood by definition as beginningless or necessary, no prior cause or explanation is needed to explain it. "It is not arbitrary to deny that God has a cause, because, if God did have a cause, he would not be God."15 Some forms of this objection are reducible to objections to the second premise; if the universe is caused/had a beginning, then it is reasonable to seek an explanation for it. If what is being objected to is simply the possibility of a necessary/eternal being, that is a whole different, more philosophical argument.

Objections to the second premise are unconvincing. Attempts to get around the Big Bang and show how the universe may have no beginning tend to be highly speculative and nearly as faith-based as theism. Additionally, they apply only to the temporal form of the argument: even if our universe is part of some infinite series or tree of universes, the existence of the whole series is still yet to be explained.16 The question "why is there something rather than nothing?" is unanswered, since it is dependent only on the contingency (not the finitude) of the universe. As previously mentioned, if naturalists argue that besides being eternal, the universe is not contingent (i.e. it is necessary), the resulting worldview would seem to be closer to pantheism (the universe itself is God), which is not a place I think many skeptics would like to go.17

The objection that it makes no sense to speak of anything "before" the Big Bang, or its having a cause, is very interesting, since it actually gets at a central mystery of Christian theology proper, the eternality of God, from a scientific angle. It is true that there is no "before" the Big Bang in the temporal sense. But according to what the vast majority of Christians believe about God, he is able to exist and act outside of space and time in ways we cannot even imagine, which does not make it any less possible. It seems more accurate to say that the kind of causality we are talking about when speaking of a "first cause" is more (onto)logical than temporal.

Objections to the first premise are, in my view, the strongest, or at least the most consistent within a position of philosophical naturalism. The idea of the universe being a quantum fluctuation only pushes the question back, since it assumes the preexistence of the quantum vacuum.18 But objecting to the a priori assumption of universal causality seems at least somewhat promising: perhaps the causality that we consider a universal pattern of reality does not apply on the highest level. Can we be sure? Perhaps the existence of something rather than nothing is absurd, a "brute fact" for which no explanation can be given or should be sought. I know of no refutation of this proposition. But it does seem profoundly at odds with the drive of science to rationally seek explanations for everything. Why give up this quest when it comes to the ultimate reason? At the very least, claiming the universe came from nothing or that its cause is unknowable would seem to be just as much a faith-based claim as claiming that it was created.

Once unacceptable responses have been pared away, debates on the cosmological argument reduce to questions of the principle of sufficient reason: does the existence of the universe have a cause or explanation? This is a question whose answer cannot be "proven" one way or another by logic, science, or anything else. Apologetics can point out this underlying difference between theism and naturalism, but cannot overcome it; this is what is meant when someone points out that "you can't argue someone to Christ." Nonetheless, the cosmological argument is valuable in that it demonstrates the difference between positions and how each is consonant with its respective worldview. It can help to overcome derision and caricatures from each side and promote honest, significant dialogue which has the potential to create real faith.

  1. C. Stephen Evans and R. Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 67.
  2. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 96.
  3. Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence that Points Toward God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 98.
  4. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology (600–1300), vol. 3 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 290–291.
  5. Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 69–70.
  6. Craig, Reasonable Faith, 99.
  7. Strobel, The Case for a Creator, 102–104.
  8. Strobel, The Case for a Creator, 104–107.
  9. Strobel, The Case for a Creator, 111.
  10. Austin Cline, “Cosmological Argument: Does the Universe Require a First Cause?”, About Religion, <> (17 February 2015).
  11. Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 70.
  12. Craig, Reasonable Faith, 128–134, 144–150.
  13. Cline, “The Cosmological Argument.”
  14. Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 75.
  15. Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 71.
  16. Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 74.
  17. Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 73; Craig, Reasonable Faith, 109.
  18. Strobel, The Case for a Creator, 117.