Athanasian Dance

Good morning!

I just finished Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man, and I highly recommend it. It’s like reading a good coffee stout.

In one of his final chapters, Chesterton comments on how strange, how contra mundum Christianity is. He notes that if there is one thing the enlightened and liberals of every age have pointed to as exemplary of the endless argument and disagreement that is Christian theology, it is “this Athanasian question of the Co-Eternity of the Divine Son;” and that if there is one thing that these same enlightened and liberal offer as simple, pure and unspoiled Christian thought, “it is the single sentence, ‘God is Love.'” He then says this:

Yet the two statements are nearly identical; at least one is very nearly nonsense without the other. The barren dogma is only the logical way of stating the beautiful sentiment. For if there be a being without beginning, existing before all things, was He loving when there was nothing to be loved? If through that unthinkable eternity He is lonely, what is the meaning of saying He is love? The only justification of such a mystery is the mystical conception that in His own nature there was something analogous to self-expression; something of what begets and beholds what it has begotten. Without some such idea, it is really illogical to complicate the ultimate essence of deity with an idea like love. If the moderns really want a simple religion of love, they must look for it in the Athanasian Creed.

Thanks for that, GK. Eschewing a logical Christianity for a colorful one leaves us not with a colorful Christianity at all, just the hopeful and ultimately substance-less idea of color. A God who is able to love, yet not eternally, is more Athenian than Athanasian.


Bring It All In

Hey again,

I’ve had some half-formed ideas running though my head for a while, and a stanza from a George Herbert poem helped to cement one a little bit. This is stanza 72 in his poem “Perirrhanterium:”

Judge not the preacher; for he is thy Judge:
If thou mislike him, thou conceiv’st him not.
God calleth preaching folly. Do not grudge
To pick out treasures from an earthen pot.
The worst speak something good: if all want sense;
God takes a text, and preacheth patience.

It was the last line or so that caught my eye: “The worst speak something good: if all want sense;/ God takes a text, and preacheth patience.”

I’m still having some difficulty articulating this, so bear with me. It seems that this is an example of the value of means- is that the right way to say it? Typically, we value ends; results; that which we set out to achieve when we set out to achieve something. The means- that which we do in order to get the result we want- is secondary. It may be necessary; it may sometimes even be enjoyable; but it is still secondary.

For example: When I am in my home and I want to eat a sandwich, I first must make a sandwich. This is (I think) common knowledge. The actual making of the sandwich holds no particular pleasures for me; I do not think to myself, Boy, I really could go for making a sandwich right now. I think people would begin to notice if I went around making sandwiches with great delight yet never eating them. The sandwich making is merely a means to an end. And largely, we do not associate the means with value. Perhaps in things we must practice, we think means are valuable- in learning to drive a car, for example. But not generally.

Here the line from Herbert comes in. When I sit in the church pew to hear a truly awful sermon, I’m usually not very happy; after all, I came here for the end of obtaining knowledge, receiving instruction, being stirred up in the faith, and so on, and to sit through the sermon in order for those things to happen is bad enough. Worse still is it when the text is poorly explicated by a passionless minister without a drop of charisma. Yet Herbert hits upon an important point: the event of preaching itself- whether the preaching is good or bad- is an occasion for God to teach a lesson which I could not have anticipated.

Isn’t that just like life? When I was in high school I strenuously objected to being forced to learn algebra and precalculus because I knew, I just knew that I was never going to use those things in real life. I seem to have been right thus far, in that since I graduated from high school six years ago no one has shoved a quadrilateral under my nose and demanded that I solve for x. But the equations themselves, I’ve come to realize, were the least of what I learned in my precalc class under Barney Mitchell those years ago.

Learning math, I am convinced, has helped my theology. After all, where did I learn the importance of caution in my reasoning? Where did I learn to show my work, so others might be able to learn from my method as well as correct my mistakes? Where did I learn to patiently labor at that which I did not understand, yet that which was right in front of me? I have to say, if I remember correctly, that I learned all of these things from good old Mr. Mitchell in math class. And there are a thousand examples of this.

I hope I’ve articulated myself well enough. Lord willing, I will have more to say on this subject.


Ends and Means


I am, as might be evident from certain previous posts, a Calvinist. I remain so, even though my good friend David has taken me to the dry cleaners on the issue of limited atonement in the comments of another post concerning that doctrine (David, if you still follow this blog, I’d love to continue that conversation; I’ll get in touch with you).

An important aspect of theology is the discussion of categories, and an important aspect of Calvinist theology is having a category for ends and means. Ends may be thought of (a little simplistically) as things to be accomplished, and means may be thought of as how those things are to be accomplished.

In conversations with people, I’ve always struggled to know how to communicate this in a clear and understandable way, and my friend/boss/pastor Kerry Bender gave an illustration the other day which I think nailed it. Here it is:

Once a little girl was spending the weekend at her grandparents house. When she woke up one morning, she wandered downstairs and into the kitchen to find both her grandparents sitting at a little table while water boiled in a kettle on the stovetop. So the little girl asked her grandfather, “Grandpa, why is the water boiling?”
“Well, sweetheart, when your grandma turned the knob on the stove,  gas started flowing through the burners and was ignited, creating a flame. That flame is transferring energy in the form of heat to the copper kettle, and since copper is a very good conductor, the heat is quickly and efficiently being transferred to the water inside. As that heat is being transferred it’s causing all the little water molecules to heat up and become agitated, and eventually reach a point of such agitation that it has become visible, and that’s why the water is boiling.” With that the little girl’s grandfather sat back in his chair, confident that he had given a solid scientific answer. But the little girl turned to her grandmother and repeated the question: “Grandma, why is the water boiling?”
With an amused look at her husband, the old woman replied, “The water is boiling because we’re having tea.”


The Nate Files: The Consolation of Logic

Good morning!

If you read the last Nate Files post, then you know that Nate is a big fan of logic, particularly syllogisms. That man knows his syllogisms, tell me you. And the other day he showed me something pretty neat about logic in the Christian life.

In case you’ve forgotten, a syllogism is a deductive argument in logic comprised of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. If the two premises are valid, then so is the conclusion. For example: All men are mortal (major premise). Socrates is a man (minor premise). Therefore, Socrates is mortal (conclusion). See? Simple.

Now, Nate thinks that this can be applied to the Christian life in an incredible way. But remember first what we said about a syllogism- if the premises are valid, then so is the conclusion. That’s important.

In Nate’s articulation, our major premise is some rule of doctrine, like, “God infallibly forgives and accepts all who believe in Christ.” Our minor premise is a particular circumstance, such as “I believe in Christ.” Our conclusion follows: “Therefore, God infallibly forgives and accepts me.” Here that is again below:

Major Premise: God infallibly forgives and accepts all who believe in Christ.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: Therefore, God infallibly forgives and accepts me.

This is so good. Now, it’s not new at all; Scripture uses this line of reasoning, and Christians have been using it to comfort each other since the Church’s foundation. What I like about this, however, is that it draws attention to the infallibility of the logic. Again, if the premises are valid, then so is the conclusion. I think this is huge for struggling believers. It narrows the scope of their doubts. “Can you invalidate the premises? No? Then you have no reason to doubt the conclusion.” Obviously this doesn’t work for believers who doubt their belief (because that calls into question the minor premise), but then again, this isn’t the only tool in our toolbox.

Does the whole thing sound cold and unfeeling? There’s a reason that fireplaces are lined with stone and not wool. Logic does not depend on feelings, which makes it so comforting. My feelings come and go; my stand on the rock-solid logic of God’s word needs to be more certain than that.

So take a stand on the immovable logic of God’s Word, and rejoice in the solid ground beneath your feet.


The Nate Files: An Introduction


I have this friend named Nate- and if you don’t know him, then I don’t know what to tell you. Move to Minneapolis, maybe? He’s worth getting to know. Nate is a lifelong learner, a logician par excellence, a grade-A theologian (the happy kind), and overall one of the smartest guys I know.

At any rate, Nate and I talk every once and a while, and I find it so encouraging and inspiring that I think some of those ideas ought to be passed along. Since I don’t think Nate uses the internet much, it falls to me to disseminate some small portion of his knowledge and wit.

By way of introduction, let me talk about one of Nate’s favorite things: the lowly syllogism. A syllogism in logic is a form of argument consisting of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. Take the following as an example:
-All men are mortal (Major premise)
-Socrates is a man (Minor premise)
-Therefore, Socrates is mortal (Conclusion)

As Nate would say, the neat thing about syllogisms is that if the premises are true, so is the conclusion. In other words, given correct premises, you have an airtight conclusion. No logical loopholes. It’s not that easy, of course; premises that everyone agrees with are hard to find.

Now here’s where things get fun: according to Nate, in a standard syllogism, every first premise (major premise), is either the conclusion of another syllogism or the conclusion of an inductive line of reasoning.

To break that down using our example, we’ll have to look at premise number one: “All men are mortal.” This gets used often when introducing syllogisms because it is so self-evident. But how do we know that all men are mortal? I haven’t died yet; am I mortal? What proof do I have?

Inductively, the answer can be had by touting out the statistics- historically, the vast majority of men who have lived on this earth have also died. That’s a good precedent, but it has it’s own problems, as all inductive arguments do- least of all because there are always exceptions (7 billion of them right now, in fact).

Deductively, we could set up another syllogism with our statement-in-question as the conclusion, but that just advances us down the turtle-stack one more step (or one more turtle, depending on how you like your metaphors). What of the first premise in the next syllogism? Madness lies not far down that road (Incidentally, it’s not hard to see now why Satan is considered a logician).

If anybody is still with me, here’s where things take a turn. Nate said that every major premise is the conclusion of another argument, either inductive or deductive- that means that logic stretches back into an infinite regress of arguments, right? And each of those has premises or observations which may be invalid- we simply can’t be sure. Suddenly this “airtight logic” isn’t what it was cut out to be. I want my money back.

We can take this and go the way of all flesh, or we can go into the house of the Lord like David, and see some things click. “I AM” says God Almighty, and not a single angel or demon, philosopher or mathematician can say a thing in retort. God is not a syllogism; he is not a conclusion, an observation, a hypothesis, a guess, or an experiment. He is. He is the Premise, our great Unmoved Mover, the Creator of the ends of the earth- he does not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

Why does logic work? Why are there self-evident truths floating around? Because God is. Let all mortal flesh keep silence.