Hitchens vs. Haldane – a philosophical smackdown

Thanks to Jim for pointing out this debate between Christopher Hitchens and John Haldane (a professor of philosophy at St. Andrews and an amazingly intelligent individual). I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but Jim seems to think that Hitchens gets pretty well schooled in the process, and Jonathan seems to agree.


(part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9, part 10)

The 50 Most Influential Religious Figures in American History

Joe Carter has published his list of the 50 Most Influential Religious Figures in American History. I won’t reprint the list here, but it’s an interesting list. Unfortunately, he gives the list in alphabetical order. I would have liked to see him try to rank these people in order of influence/significance. That’s always an impossible task, but it’s fun to watch people try.

I did notice some surprising omissions.

  • American liberal theology was noticeably underrepresented. What about William Ellery Channing, Harry Ward Beecher, and Harry Emerson Fosdick?
  • And, since we’re talking about American religiosity in general, where are the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau?
  • What about U.S. Hispanic religious leaders? Certainly figures like Padre Martinez or Virgilio Elizondo are worthy of consideration.
  • And, of course, let’s not forget Gary Larson. I think my generation learned more about religion from the Far Side cartoons than any of the above combined.

Is there anyone that you would want to see included in a list like this?

Google’s descent into evil

Here’s a fabulous animated video portraying Google’s descent into evil as it invades privacy, conspires with Verizon (the Devil) to take over the internet, and basically carries out its plan for world domination.



Flotsam and jetsam (8/20)

What Paul might have tweeted


Moises Silva on “the faith of Christ” (pistis Christou)

Thanks to Rod Decker for pointing out Moises Silva’s review of The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies edited by Michael Bird and Preston M. Sprinkle. As Decker notes, the most interesting part of the review is Silva’s own conclusion:

If some scholars are to be believed, Paul did not have enough sense to realize that the phrase pistis Christou is ambiguous. And to make matters worse, he unwittingly misled his readers by using the verb pisteuō with Christos as direct object again and again in the very same passages that have the ambiguous phrase! His bungling proved spectacularly successful, for in the course of nearly two millennia, virtually every reader—including ancient scholars for whom Greek was their native language—understood the phrase to mean “faith in Christ” and gave no hint that it might mean something else.

I haven’t been following this debate as closely as I should, but this sounds like a great, concise summary of the objective genitive view. If anyone knows of a similarly concise summary of the opposing view, let me know.

The Outrageous Prayer of David in Psalm 109 and Charles Spurgeon

I recently read Psalm 109 and was troubled.  I’ve  spent the last week trying to wrap my head around David’s prayer.   I’ll just give the highlights here.  The specific situation that prompts David to write this Psalm is unknown, but he is being accused, slandered, and cursed by an individual or a group of people.  To add injury to insult, it is someone whom David loves and has treated with nothing but kindness and goodness.  He laments that he is repaid “evil for good and hatred for [his] love.”  (vs. 1-5)  This wasn’t what I found to be outrageous.  This happens to good people all the time.  It is a hurtful and wicked thing when those you love hate you.  So, what does David have to teach us about what to do in this situation.  After all, this Psalm is the inspired Word of God.  That’s why I was taken by surprise with what David says next, and prays will happen to this person(s):

Vs. 6 – That someone just like this man treat him the way he has treated David (No problem)

vs. 7 – That he will be found guilty and his prayers considered sin (I’m tracking with David)

vs. 8 – Kill him and give his position and title to someone else (Um…Sure.  Take his job away.  Don’t know I would ask for God to kill the guy though.)

vs. 9 – Kill him – Make his children fatherless and his wife a widow (Ok.  Should I be asking God to kill people?)

vs. 10 – Make his children beggars on the street who live in a ruined home (What?!  His children? Ex. 34)

vs. 11 – Take away all of his families possessions and make his family still living destitute (Ouch!)

vs. 12 – While his children are begging for food and money, don’t let anyone show pity or kindness to them (Is David a God-follower?!?!)

vs. 13 -15- Let his name be two generations away from being forgotten and condemn his family to hell!  (WOW!!)

David goes on again to ask that this man and his family be treated in the very way that he has treated others (Vs 16-20), but that God would treat David with mercy according to his steadfast love.  David confesses that he is needy, poor, hurt, and trusting in the Lord alone.  Something his accuser is not doing.

Didn’t Jesus say in the New Testament to “pray for your enemies and to bless those who curse you”? (Mt. 5:44)  Was this type of language only used in the Old Testament, but now since Jesus and the cross, Christians aren’t to pray or think like this any longer?  Apparently not.  Jesus says of Judas in Mat. 26:24 that it would have been better for him if he had never been born.  Jesus reserved his harshest words for the Pharisees (Mat. 23:13-26).  Paul said that if he or an angel preached any gospel contrary to the one about Jesus, let them be condemned to hell. (Gal. 1:8)  So my question is: Is what David prays for here in contradiction to how Jesus tells us to pray for those in the NT?  The conclusion I’ve come to is: No.  Why?

1.David was praying this about a man who presumably would not repent.  He was an unfaithful Israelite who was wicked to the core of his very being and would not turn from his wickedness. (Ps. 7:12-16)  All who will not repent of sin ultimately face the same judgment as this man (Jn. 3:36).

2. David was asking the Lord to do exactly what God had said he would do to the proud and wicked.  (Ex. 34:6-7; Job 40:12; Prov. 15:25; Jer. 50:32; Is. 13:11)  According to James 4:6 God’s mind on the proud and wicked has not changed.

3. David trusted himself to the good and just judgment of God to deal out the retribution. David would not take matters into his own hands.  The Christian in the New Testament is still called to this. (Rom. 12:19)

God’s steadfast love is a powerful and unchanging reality for those who love Jesus.  However, for those who remain unrepentant and love wickedness, this prayer may still be applicable today.  Charles Spurgeon’s commentary on this was insightful as well:

Those who regard a sort of effeminate benevolence to all creatures alike as the acme of virtue are very much in favor with this degenerate age; these look for the salvation of the damned, and even pray for the restoration of the devil.  It is very possible that if they were less in sympathy with evil, and more in harmony with the thoughts of God, they would be of a far sterner and also of a far better mind.  To us it seems better to agree with God’s curses than with the devil’s blessing; and when at any time our heart kicks against the terror of the Lord we take it as proof of our need of greater humbling, and confess our sin before our God.

Concerning David’s prayer that this man’s children be consigned as beggars and shown no mercy, Spurgeon writes:

We confess that as we read some of these verses we have need of all our faith and reverence to accept them as the voice of inspiration; but the exercise is good for the soul, for it educates our sense of ignorance, and tests our teachableness.  Yes, Divine Spirit, we can and do believe that even these dread words from which we shrink have a meaning consistent with the attributes of the Judge of all the earth, though his name is LOVE.  How this may be we shall know hereafter.

Finally, the actual writing of this Psalm and the detriment to this man’s children may have been a great mercy.  It is addressed to the choirmaster and was probably sung in the Jewish synagogue.  It may be that many who sang this song would have heeded the warnings within it and repented themselves.  I wonder what would happen if we sang songs in our churches today that had such warnings in them.  Can you imagine singing a song that had lyrics like: “May all those who lie and gossip about other people and refuse to repent lose their loved ones and all their earthly possessions in hopes they may turn to Christ.”  Not sure what tune that would go to or how popular it would be.  It may also be that as this man’s children lived in destitution because of the sins of their father, they would realize the wickedness of their fathers way, and walk after the Lord.  It might be that even in this prayer of judgment, David is seeking mercy for later generations.

Just because…”handerpants”

Thanks to Steve Hall for pointing this out on FB. I should get a pair of these before winter sets in.

Rethinking the purpose of tests in theological education

Yesterday, James McGrath asked about the impact of technology on the way that we are teaching our classes. And, he specifically wants to know what impact this does (or should) have on our testing methodology. As he puts it:

I have found myself considering phasing out exams of the traditional sort, in which I essentially test what they have been able to remember. Information is available with a few clicks of their thumbs, and so it seems better to instead test students’ ability to find reliable information online, rather than test their ability to remember it.

I’ve been wrestling with a similar question in my theology classes for a while now. What exactly is the purpose of an exam in a theology class? The theology exams I took as an undergrad focused primarily on simple recall. As long as I could memorize and retain the information from the notes, I was good to go. Seminary upped the ante by making better use of short-answer essay questions. Even here, though, the focus was on remembering the notes and discussions so I could answer the essay questions properly. But, as McGrath points out, in our technological age, recall simply isn’t as important as it used to be.

So, if recall isn’t the point of a theological test, what is?” What exactly should I be trying to assess? The conclusion that I’ve reached is that a theological exam (I think the purpose of an exam varies from one discipline to the next) should be about what students can do with the knowledge that they have, rather than just what they can recall. And here my emphasis has gone in a slightly different direction than what McGrath proposes. In his post, he focused on the skill of being able to find information. That’s an important skill that should be taught and assessed. But it seems more rightly assessed in papers and other assignments. Since I’m largely training people for ministry, I’ve chosen to focus my examinations more on the students’ ability to use their theological knowledge by applying it to new issues and situations. In other words, I’ve focused my exams on assessing whether students can “think theologically” when they encounter real-life situations in ministry.

But, how do you do that? This, of course, is the challenging question. And, I’m open to suggestions. The way that I decided to do it last year was to redesign my exams entirely around case studies. I would first determine the theological issue that I wanted to examine my students on. Then, I would reflect on how that theological issue has contemporary significance for life and ministry. And finally, I’d create a question that (hopefully) forced students to apply their knowledge to a real-life situation, many of which were drawn from my own ministry experiences.

For example, in an exam dealing with theological anthropology, I wanted a question on creation/evolution issues. I could simply have asked the students to write an essay explaining/defending their position. Instead, I went with the following:

You’re having a meeting with a youth leader who has been teaching students that God created humans through evolutionary processes (i.e. theistic evolution) and a parent who is upset because he believes that this contradicts the Bible. How will you handle this discussion? Will you side with one person or the other? Why? What would you like to see happen as the result of the conversation?
The advantages of a case study question like this are (at least):
  • The question itself continues to show students that theology is not an abstract discipline. It has direct bearing on life and ministry. I think a good exam should continue to teach by reinforcing what you think is important.
  • It pushes beyond a mere statement of the students’ position, though it should still elicit that. It asks the student to apply their perspective to a real ministry situation.
  • The final part of the question is there to see if students have made the connection between theological conversations like this and spiritual formation. I want to see if they’re just going to focusing on “winning” the argument, or if they’ll see this as a way of growing people through theological dialog. (We discuss this in class; so it’s not unexpected.)

I did learn some valuable lessons from this last year. First, exams like this take the students a lot longer to complete. I had to make mid-semester adjustments to keep the exams within reason. Second, writing questions like this is harder than I expected. I routinely received good answers from students that weren’t quite what I was looking for. The evolution question above, for example, often elicited responses that said almost nothing about the students own perspective. (They focused more on how to “handle” the situation.)  Since I want that to be a part of the response, I’ll need to adjust the question next time. Third, the students liked the new approach (or they lied to me, one of the two). The exams became opportunities for lively discussion afterward and several students commented that they even shared the exam questions with people at their churches.

What do you think? What should a theology class in a seminary be trying to accomplish, and how do we best assess whether that has happened?

Flotsam and jetsam (8/19)