Disturbing the Disturbed

“Disturbing the corruptions of men who will oppose out of malice is not something to be greatly regarded. When Christ was told that the Pharisees were offended He cared not for it, but made a great matter of the offending of any of His little ones” (Burroughs, Irenicum, p. 114).

The Guy in the Teapot

Not surprisingly, Richard Dawkins places the evolutionary process at the center of his argument.

“This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution” (p. 31, emphasis in the original).

This might be hard for scientific laymen to grasp, so I will try to provide a couple illustrations. This factory, for example, full of fantastically complex machinery and robots for the manufacturing of various ingenious devices of intricate design, is something that cannot itself be designed. For when confronted with a world full of designed things, it is not unscientific to allow that many of them were in fact designed, so long as you insist that the most intricate and complicated one, the one making all the others, happened all by itself. This Swiss watch exhibits design, to be sure, and we can allow that it was made, on purpose, in the factory. But the factory for making Swiss watches, far more complicated than any of the watches made in said factory, had to have been the result of a huge explosion in a nearby auto salvage yard. If you don’t follow this argument, you probably didn’t take enough science courses in high school.

If you need to hang some really heavy things from your sky hook, make sure to fasten the socket for that sky hook at least fifteen feet higher in the air than you otherwise would. The bolts work better a little bit higher like that.

Before I get some comments from scientists who think that I am not being sufficiently Respectful, let me defend myself by quoting Dawkins, quoting Thomas Jefferson.

“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus” (p. 34).

I am glad that Dawkins taught me this principle, for I have long failed to comprehend any distinct notion of something that travels like a wave and arrives like a particle. Or maybe it is the other way around, traveling like a particle and arriving like a wave. See? A positively indistinct concept. I don’t think it could be me.

The backdrop for many of Dawkins’ worries is his idea that the United States has turned into this huge Theocracy. And, by European standards, maybe we have, but that is not saying much.

“The paradox has often been noted that the United States, founded in secularism, is now the most religiose country in Christendom, while England, with an established church headed by its constitutional monarch, is among the least” (p. 40).

Dawkins swallows the standard propaganda about the deism of the Founders, and laments how far our fair republic has fallen.

“The genie of religious fanaticism is rampant in present-day America, and the Founding Fathers would have been horrified” (p. 41).

Horrified, aye. The preachers at the time of the American Founding were the kind of men who spit on their hands before they started to preach, and taking one thing with another, they made the average Religious Right evangelical today look like the Rev. Caspar Milquetoast. At Yorktown, all George Washington’s colonels (with one exception) were elders in Presbyterian churches. Horace Walpole said “cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson,” referring to Witherspoon. Over half the Continental Army were Presbyterians, and the rest were Congregationalists and Baptists, fellow Calvinists all. The black robed Presbyterian preachers were called “the black regiment” because of their importance to the war effort. One of the names for the war in England was “the Presbyterian Revolt.” I could go on, but Richard Dawkins seriously needs to strike up a friendship with Gary Demar and try to sneevel some free books out of him.

All that may be, but luckily it doesn’t matter.

“Whether Jefferson and his colleagues were theists, deists, agnostics or atheists, they were also passionate secularists who believed that the religious opinions of a President, or lack of them, were entirely his own business” (p. 43).

Here is Jefferson’s famous wall of separation, the wall that separates, as every intelligent school child knows, the right side of the brain from the left side of the brain. This wall, so important in modern secular politics, prevents us from thinking straight, for, as we all know, thinking straight would lead us into Difficulties.

I am fond of the following thought experiment. A man is running for high office, and in the course of the campaign he says this, in response to a question: “You know, my faith is very precious to me — too precious in fact to mix with the secular duties that are connected with this office. If elected, I pledge to the American people that I will not allow my private religious convictions to affect in any way how I discharge my duties.” Two years later when he is found with two hundred thousand dollars in his freezer, a mistress in the Bahamas, Jack Abramoff in his closet, and dry rot in his soul, certain penetrating questions are asked at a press conference. But the best defense is a good offense, and I would love to see Sen. Snoutworst stick to his guns. “There is nothing to apologize for in this. I openly promised the American people in the campaign that my personal relgious convictions, which are very precious to Cathy and me (not to mention Kimberly), would not be allowed to intrude into how I conducted myself in office.” Secularism defined this way is not just wrong, it is incoherent.

But this is a book about atheism, and so we get back to the God-issue. Dawkins brings forth Bertrand Russell’s argument concerning the burden of proof. If someone were to assert that between Earth and Mars a china teapot was orbiting the sun eliptically (p. 52), and that it was too small to be detected by our most powerful telescopes, it would be impossible to prove the theory wrong. But Russell argued that the burden of proof remains on the teapot enthusiast. And okay, I can go for that. So why is this a bad example on the God question? Why are the outer space teapot and the God who created all things not comparables? The reason they don’t compare is that God does things, and He says things. If the teapot were out there and sending messages, we would know how to decode those messages. Dawkins actually acknowledges this in his discussion (in this same chapter) of the search for extraterrestial intelligence. While talking about our attempts to understand messages coming toward us, he asks, “A good approach is to turn the question around. What should we intelligently do in order to advertise our presence to extraterrestial listeners?” (p. 71).

Very good. And if someone in this cosmic teapot were sending SOS messages because the cosmic tea cozy got stuck and he could not get away in the standard teapot escape pod (as the apostle Paul would put it, I am out of my mind to talk like this), we would know how to decode his distress messages because we have the ability to distinguish information from background noise. We know what information looks like. Now, what if the universe we live in has information embedded in it throughout? What if the triune God who spoke it all into existence has left notes everywhere? What if every living cell contains a library that makes the Library of Congress look like my grandkids’ coloring books collection?

Dawkins gets one thing right.

“As I shall argue in a moment, a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?” (p. 55).

“I return to the point: a universe in which we are alone except for other slowly evolved intelligences is a very different universe from one with an original guiding agent whose intelligent design is responsible for its very existence” (p. 61).

He is quite right. A universe spoken into existence by God is a very different place than a chaotic multiverse that has just staggered onto the cosmic stage and is looking around bewildered. “What is this?” it whispers frantically. “Waiting for Godot” the prompter hisses back.

“Like nothing else, evolution really does provide an explanation for the existence of entities whose improbability would otherwise, for practical purposes, rule them out” (p. 61).

Right. Libraries write themselves, factories build themselves, and bridges design themselves. This doesn’t usually happen, to be sure, and if it weren’t for evolution, it would be reasonable for us to rule such things out. In fact, I think the only person who wouldn’t rule them out would be the guy in the teapot.

In Which I Give Merit Demerits

I honestly do not see how it can be considered possible to separate Christ from His benefits. So when I speak of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, this means that I am ultimately speaking of the imputation of Christ Himself, and there is no way to understand this apart from the Pauline idea of union with Christ. We may distinguish Christ and His benefits (as the Bible frequently does), but if we try to separate them, we are guilty of a very serious mistake.

We can see this clearly in Ephesians 6, where the apostle tells us to put on the full armor of God. Every piece in that panoply is given a separate name, as though it were a discrete thing. The breastplate is righteousness, the belt is truth, the helmet is salvation, and so on. But Jesus is our righteousness, Jesus is the truth, Jesus is our salvation. Putting on the armor of God is another metaphorical way to speak about putting on the Lord Jesus Himself, which we are told in numerous places to do. This is even clearer when we see the passage in Isaiah (59:16-21) where this image comes from — the Lord Himself is the one who puts on the armor. The Lord saw that there was no man, and so equipped with His own righteousness, He stepped into the breach. Paul then tells us to do the same thing, to put on that same righteousness. But it cannot be our own righteousness — the Lord is our righteousness (Jer. 23:6; 33:16).

After I wrote last week about the passage in Zechariah where Joshua the priest was clothed in a clean garment that was transferred to him (across the courtroom), I received an email from a friend, a fellow FVer. He said, “I don’t have a major objection to reading Zech. 3 as an ‘imputed righteousness’ passage . . . [but] it seems more fitting to see the rich robes with which Joshua is clothed as Christ himself, per Gal. 3, rather than merely Christ’s righteousness.” And my response to this is, “Well, certainly. Of course it is Christ Himself.” Honestly, it is has never occurred to me that the benefits that flow from Christ could ever be enjoyed outside His presence, or apart from Him.

And this leads me right back to the discussion of merit, and why I object to it. But further, lest I create more confusion in an already confused situation, let me say that my following description of merit is what I am objecting to, and if someone doesn’t hold to that which I am describing, but wants to use the word merit anyway, let’s shake and be friends. I don’t want to get into a wrangle over words merely.

At the same time, I believe there is a genuine substantive confusion going on here, and having this debate is a reasonable price to pay in order to get this confusion out of our system. I don’t ever want to use the word merit in a way that lends itself to the continuation of that confusion. In the medieval system (which continues down to the present in some quarters), merit was a quantifiable substance. In Roman Catholic theology, it is possible to have a resevoir of merit, into which the “merit” of works of supererogation can go. Merit is therefor a stackable, fungible and transferable substance, detachable from the persons who initially generated it. Merit is awarded to any action that is “above and beyond the call of duty.” In Roman Catholic theology, this resevoir can be drawn on by us, and can be contributed to by Mary, the saints, and other volunteers. In the world of good deeds, or so it is thought, it is possible to run a surplus and have a bunch left over — which other people can then use.

I imagine there are any number of criticisms that can be brought against this, and the central one of course is that it is not in the Bible. But I would like to bring a particular criticism that may help shed some light on this internal Protestant debate we are having. Works of supererogation depend upon a particular book-keeping mentality, one that depersonalizes the whole idea of obedience. My good works are in principle detachable from me, and could therefore be eventually put down in someone else’s account. Now we all agree (good Protestants all) that none of us gets any merit from Mary or the saints. But one of the FV concerns is that some Protestants have kept the medieval definition of merit itself, while limiting (in an important biblical direction) the number of people who are allowed to contribute to the pile of surplus merit. In this particular Protestant view, only Jesus generates surplus merit. Now if you must cast the debate this way, I am with them rather than with the other guys. We are saved by Christ alone, solus Christus. But further questions beg to be asked. Can we really detach Jesus from the merit of His obedience like this? I don’t believe so. This view (whether Protestant or Catholic) presupposes that merit can somehow be impersonal.

If you believe that in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord, God was operating a divine distillery through which He extracted the merit of Christ’s obedience from that obedience, storing it in a separate container in a separate place, then you hold to the view of merit that the FV is rejecting. If you don’t hold that, there is no need to get irate and post a hot comment, because if you don’t hold that, we are not rejecting it. If you hold that every blessing received by us is on the basis of God’s gift to us of Jesus Christ Himself, then you are in sympathy with one of the central FV concerns (whether you are comfortable with that sympathy or not).

One other thing. Union with Christ does not exclude the more traditional expressions of imputation. Rather, in my view, it provides a platfrom from which such expressions of imputation make better sense. This is important when we are talking about the differences between elect and non-elect covenant members. If I hold that non-elect covenant members can have union with Christ (in some sense), then is there a sense in which the elect covenant members receive something of Christ that the non-elect covenant members don’t? The answer that I would give here is an unambiguous yes. This is where the language of imputation (found in Westminster) gets pushed into the corners. A regenerate covenant member is justified (personally and individually) in a way that a non-elect covenant member is not, just like the Confession says. But I would also want to say that the justification of the elect covenant member is profoundly connected to his union with Christ. The imputation is personal, forensic, judicial and declaratory — all of that. But the imputation does not occur across an infinite distance. It is for someone, though once far off, who has been brought near.

Go back to the Jeremiah passages cited earlier. “The Lord our righteousness.” The prophet doesn’t say “The Lord has rightousness, better get some from Him.” The Lord, the Lord Himself is our righteousness. And in Him, we find all is ours (1 Cor. 3:21-23).

Waking Up in Time

When we come to this Table, we are not just coming to it, but rather learning how to come to it. This is particularly true of your children. The law of prayer is the law of belief. Lex orandi, lex credendi. The way we worship shapes the way we think. And the way we grow up worshiping shapes the way we will live for the rest of our lives.

As we have told you many times before, your baptized children are welcome to the Table here, provided that you as their parents instruct them carefully each time we partake, and they are capable of tracking with the instruction. We know that a one-year-old comes with a different level of maturity, but he should be coming the same way we do, in accordance with his ability.

When they come to the Table, our children should be doing the same basic thing that the rest of us are doing. All of us are participating in the entire service, worshipping the Lord. So if your child is asleep, do not wake them up just in time to receive the elements. They are learning by what they are doing and how they are doing it—and what they are learning this way is that coming to the Supper is no big deal, and that thoughtless, unprepared approaches to the Lord are just fine.

At the same time, you remember their frame. It is not a problem if a little one falls asleep—but if he does, they should be awakened in time to do what the rest of us do. That is, reflect, sing, hear the Word, and take the elements. If your child sleeps in the sermon, that is fine (provided he is not sixteen), but they should be awakened shortly before the end of the message. You should teach them why, which is that the Word is always to accompany the sacrament, and a thoughtless, disheveled approach to the Table is never appropriate.

If he is exhausted, then let him sleep through the Lord’s Supper also. If, upon waking, he would be really distressed at having missed it, then wake him up in time to hear a part of the message. He is learning, not just by what we do, but also by what he does.

Rocking Back and Forth in His Name

When we come before God, when we gather our families together to worship Him, we are doing something that we have been summoned to do. God speaks and we respond. We are to respond in the words He has given us, and with the heart He has given us. We do this submissively, and this means we must submit to His determination to have the kingdom of God advance as messily as it is doing. Remember that while God is perfect, He is no perfectionist. Look at how the gospel is progressing through the world!

But many times, those Christians who make a big deal out of submission are not zealous for His perfection, but rather zealous for their own private vision of what constitutes the ideal Christian state of affairs. This private vision can be manufactured out virtually any material—wood, hay, or stubble. Instead of seeing our final destiny as one of being conformed to the perfect man, the Lord Jesus, they see an immediate need for everyone to adopt their particular hobby horse.

But we do not want to be a Christ and kind of church. We do not want to be Christ and health care reform or Christ and economics or Christ and liturgical reform or Christ and anything else in the world. But is not Jesus Christ Lord of all things in the world? Yes, He is. He is even Lord of all of our little hobby horses, but we do not acquire wisdom just because we rock back and forth in His name. The fact that He does not blast us to smithereens for riding them is proof positive that He wants us to grow up into maturity. God’s perfections are manifested gradually, and this means that impatience is the sin of the revolutionary. Reform is necessary, but never revolution.

We cannot lurch into maturity. We can have no instant fixes. The kingdom of God is like yeast that works through the loaf, and not like instant anything. As Christopher Dawkins once said, the Christian church lives in the light of eternity and can therefore afford to be patient.

Resenting the Disaster

“This inner sense of confidence helped imbue Muslims with an unparalleled loyalty to their religions. Added to this internal confidence was the fact that Muslims enjoyed outstanding success during their first six or so centuries. To be a Muslim meant to belong to a winning civilization. This pattern of success started right at the beginning: in A.D. 622, Muhammad fled Mecca as a refugee, then returned there in 630 as its ruler. By the year 715, Muslim conquerors had assembled an empire that reached Spain in the west and India in the east” (Daniel Pipes, Militant Islam Reaches America, p. 4).

How Do You Solve a Rose?

“Take a rose. How will you proceed to solve a rose? You can cultivate roses, smell them, gather and wear them, make them into perfume or potpourri, paint them or write poetry about them; these are all creative activities. But can you solve roses? Has that expression any meaning?” (Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, pp. 209-210).

Tolerating the Wrong Things

“We think that it is good simply for a man to love, for example, forgetting that it depends entirely upon what he loves. After all, John told us to love not the world, or the things in it. We believe it is a sin to hate, forgetting that this depends on what we hate. Is the hatred according to the Word or not? We think that it is a virture to tolerate, forgetting that the Lord Jesus rebuked a church for tolerating that woman Jezebel. Everything hinges on what we are tolerating, and our global love for smooth words indicates that what we are mostly tolerating is our own hardness of heart” (Mother Kirk, p. 78).