As we are engaged together in the endeavor of building an alternative school system, one natural question arises. Alternative to what? How can we be counter-cultural without knowing what culture we are countering, and what kind of culture we are countering with?
Not surprisingly, the key to understanding this is understanding the lordship and supremacy of Jesus Christ. That sounds good, really good in fact. But we want more than lofty words that resonate well in a spiritual space; we want edifying words that teach us how to set one brick on top of another, and that can teach us how to mix the mortar.
And this means that before the battle for the Bible can be settled we have to fight the equally crucial battle for the dictionary. And understanding that is the key to understanding pretty much everything.
Some might say that this is not necessary. Don’t we all have a common understanding of what common words mean? In a word, no. Define pride. Define hate. Define family. Define girl. Define boy. Define marriage. Define love. In a word, no.
Defining Arrogance in a Narcissistic Age
The title of my talk contains the words arrogance and humility. Who shall define those? By what standard?
So we have a real problem, and I want to illustrate it by telling a little embarrassing story on myself. Not too bad, but here it is.
A number of decades ago I was pleased to publish my first book, a book on a particular theological topic of no real interest here. A short time later, a woman in our congregation who had grown up in another theological tradition told me that she had given it to her father, who had dismissed it as “arrogant.” This really concerned me, as it ought to have, and so I went back and opened the book up. And there, right in the Preface, first thing, I saw that pesky personal pronoun I jump off the page at me. I, I, I. Of course, I was humiliated and went back and told this woman to tell her father that he was quite right, sorry about that, or something along those lines. But then she then astonished me by saying something like, “Oh, it wasn’t that. The reason he thought it was arrogant was all those Bible verses.”
To spell this out for you, I thought it was conceited because there was too much of me in it. He thought it was proud because there was not nearly enough of me in it.
Think of it this way. Let us compare two preachers, two men delivering a sermon. The first belongs to that type that I call the fern-pacer. He walks back and forth between two large ferns, with a transparent pulpit that is equidistant between those two ferns. He is earnest, open, honest, approachable, and transparent—just like the pulpit. You can see right through him . . . except that nobody does. He relates easily with the people, and tells a lot of personal anecdotes, including one about the tiff that he and his wife had in the car on the way to church that morning. He is warm and effusive. He is sincere, and eager to relate. He is humble. And how can we tell that he is humble? Well, because he talked about himself the entire time.
Another preacher comes, enters the pulpit, opens his Bible and says, “I have a word for you people, a word from Almighty God. The one who inhabits the highest heaven has now spoken to man, and it is the part of man on earth to listen. Here is the message, and so hear now the word of our sovereign God.” And then he proceeds, like John Knox, to “ding the pulpit into blads.” What is the reaction to this kind of message? Who does that man think he is? What arrogance! What conceit! He acts as though God just wrote a book or something. And he didn’t talk about himself at all.
“And John the Baptist tarried by the Jordan some days, preaching and baptizing. And immediately after this, prompted by the Spirit, he returned to the hill country of Judea for the space of a fortnight. And when he had gone, one of his disciples asked a man at the back of the crowd why he had not submitted to the baptism of repentance, despite the clear call to come to the water. And the man replied that he did not feel that John was really that approachable, and that his manner was off-putting. ‘And,’ he added, ‘they won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’”
We tend to call the conceited preachers humble, and the humble preachers proud. And so in pursuit of this, our narcissistic age desires to heap up teachers of the first sort, and to recoil from those who are anything like the second.
“But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:3–5).
But the outer darkness of damnation can also be seen as the inner darkness of self. It was perhaps Augustine who coined a most descriptive phrase for this, incurvatus in se, speaking of the soul turned in on itself. And when the soul disappears down that wormhole, the end result is the complete inversion of categories.
“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; That put darkness for light, and light for darkness; That put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Is. 5:20).
Keep on that path and you will find trained theologians saying that the great cleansing of Israel, where multitudes of demons were swept out of their habitations, was the work of Beelzebub himself. Keep on that path and you will discover the true meaning of the long-discussed sin, that of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. What is that sin? It is to invert all the basic moral categories, calling good evil and evil good, and then to double down on that, despite our Lord’s solemn warnings against it.
What the Bible calls the shame of man, we call the pride of man. We have pride marches, do we not? Look around and you will see that we now have a culture-wide mandatory celebration of anal intercourse. If you doubt what I say, just try to refuse to clap. Just attempt it and see what happens. We have adopted a toxic mix of postmodern relativism and sexual perversion, and the result is what I call pomosexuality. And our culture applauds this pomosexuality in the same way North Korean crowds applaud all the missiles in their missile parades. And so it is that we have turned glory into shame (Ps. 4:2).
And it is the underlying disgrace of our generation that we have allowed such people to become the editors of our dictionaries, presidents of our universities and colleges, curators of our vocabularies, and the guardians of our public discourse. It is the shame of the Christians in this generation that we have given this nonsense the time of day.
So real humility hears the words of God, and submits to them. Humility hears the word of God and does it. Arrogance either substitutes an alternative word, or denies the reality of words altogether. And if it does that, it remains arrogance no matter how much it postures or preens as humility.
And the issue underneath all of this is the issue of the truth. What is truth?
A Rock That Is Higher Than I
“Hear my cry, O God; Attend unto my prayer. From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy” (Psalm 61:1–3).
Now how does all this relate to you and your school? Schools in the classical Christian movement are schools that are built on the truth, that instruct children in the truth, that love the truth, that feed on the truth, and which follow the one who is the way, the truth, and the life. Many of your schools are named Veritas—truth.
So here is your word to your students. This is the exhortation that must be passed down to all of them. This is a garland for them to hang around their necks. This is the color of the cord that all of them should wear at graduation.
“Buy the truth, and sell it not; Also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding” (Prov. 23:23).
Buy the truth. And when the epistemological grifters come along in order to cheat them, or deceive them, or get them to sell, the reply should always run along the same lines. No deal. Not for sale. And the same thing goes for all the other things listed on the transcript here—wisdom and instruction and understanding. Not for sale. Not for love or money. Nothing doing.
And this means your students must do more than hold the truth. They must love the truth. And in order for them to love the truth, they need to have parents and teachers who love the truth more than they love life itself. What would you rather? Would you rather lie down in the grave with the truth in your hand, or walk in the sunlight with a lie in your mouth? Choose. Which is it?
And by the truth, I mean bedrock truth, objective truth, true truth, granite truth, 40-carat truth, truth that would have been true had none of us ever been born. I am talking about the kind of truth that does not care about your feelings at all, or mine either, if it comes to that. And in order to have this kind of truth, you must subscribe to what the philosophers call the correspondence view of truth. This means that when I say “the lectern is in front of me,” this proposition needs to correspond to an actual lecterny state of affairs in front of me, and if it corresponds, then it is true. If I cannot say that the lectern is in front of me, then neither can I say that Jesus actually rose from an actual grave, and if I can’t say that, then we are all of us still in our sins.
The Mystery of Sin
We are Christians, and so we must not forget the reality of the Fall. According to Scripture, coming to embrace the truth is a moral question, and not a simple intellectual one.
So I have a simple question for you. Why was Jesus not believed when He taught us during His earthly ministry? He tells us why.
“And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not” (John 8:45).
They did not believe Him because He was telling them the truth.
Measured by our experience, we are living in the middle of a truth famine, a truth drought. But because God’s truth is always and everywhere present, it would be more accurate to say, instead of famine, that our generation is on a hunger strike. It is all self-inflicted, but we have not really lost the truth. The truth is all around us. We have lost the stomach for truth. We have lost the taste for truth. We have lost our love for truth. And as a consequence, we have also lost our minds.
This is relevant to our task and calling as educators because you cannot teach an asylum full of madmen. You cannot shape hearts and minds if there is no such thing as a heart, and if the mind is simply what the chemicals of the brain would always do under these conditions and at this temperature.
So forget Kant. Forget Freud. Forget Marx. Forget Darwin.
Let’s go back to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Now allow me to backtrack for a moment. There are two aspects of this problem. One is the truth claims of Scripture over against other truth claims, and this is the way things used to be. This is the Bible over against the Koran, or the Book of Mormon, or Darwin’s Origin. We must think here of Scripture over against its rivals. This is a world in which the reality of objective truth is acknowledged, and the debate is over which “truth” is in fact that truth. Truth claims are being made in a world in which truth claims are admitted as being possible. Truth claims are being made in a world in which it is possible to be wrong about it.
But the second aspect has to do with the very concept of truth at all—what I am calling the dictionary and its rivals.
Modernists and evolutionists are idolaters, to be sure, but they do think there is something out there that is true, and that the contraries to it are false. And such idolatry is never good, never okay—but at least it achieves the dignity of error. And such error can be pretty flamboyant, but it does rise to the level of a dreadful mistake. Imagine a ludicrous beauty contest between a chimp that got into the make-up and tried on the lipstick, and then turned to playing dress-ups, and got a string of pearls hung over one ear, over against Miss Tennessee on talent night playing Bach on the violin flawlessly.
But in our postmodern times, we are standing on the very lip of the Void, and it is a trembling lip that is about to give way underneath us. This is the abyss. This is the way of madness. This is a culture-wide delirium, a culture with no categories—we are uprooted trees, restless sea foam, clouds without rain. This is a civilization with the fits and fantods. Yeats described something very much like this.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
So did you come to the ACCS conference this year for a little encouragement? Are you rattled yet? Anxious? Frightened? Then let’s go the opposite way.
These lies and incoherent falsehoods only work insofar as Christians refuse, for whatever reason, to take their swords out of their scabbards. You have the swords. You have the truth. Your students have the swords. They have the truth.
We would have reason to be discouraged, despairing, frightened or panicked if we were limited in the same way our adversaries are. They are without God and without hope in the world. But their limitation is not—glory to God—ours.
What I have actually been describing for you—you dear saints, you soldiers in the Lord’s great army of Christian teachers—is the sad state of the enemy’s defenses. We are coming to the point, we are on the edge of battle. I have been telling each of you—each of you who are in possession of a true Jerusalem blade—that the adversary no longer believes in armor, or weapons, or in sharpening any weapons they might have. All they have is numbers and lies. They make faces at us. They grimace fearfully. They have smoke machines. They have engines to make the sound of thunder that they borrowed from the theater department.
And so here is God’s encouragement for you, as you receive it by faith.
“And ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. And five of you shall chase an hundred, and an hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight: and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. For I will have respect unto you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you” (Lev. 26:7–9).
There is a marvelous phrase from Philippians 1: 28 in Moffatt’s translation—“your fearlessness is a clear omen of ruin for them.”
When God shakes a culture down, He does it so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
“And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain” (Heb. 12:27).
What is it that remains? Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. This has implications.
One Last Thing
All the students in your classrooms are going to live forever. C.S. Lewis once said that we have never met a mere mortal. It follows from this—by good and necessary consequence—that we have never taught a mere mortal. And this means, as Van Til and Berkhof taught us, that teachers labor in the dawn of everlasting results.
You are teaching the children how to build sand castles on the beach while the tide is coming in, and it comes in swiftly. And so you teach them how to make haste slowly — festina lente. And they sometimes ask why you are teaching them to do these hopeless tasks, these writing exercises, these drills, these vocab tests, these sand castle workbooks, as soon as they grasp that the water is approaching. And you tell them—by all the various means at your disposal—that the sand castles were not intended to live forever.
But the builders of sand castles will live forever. And you will have the great privilege of welcoming them into eternal habitations.
This was a talk delivered at the ACCS conference in Atlanta in June of 2019.