Thursday, March 29, 2018

Attack of the Killer Reason

“Chaaaaarge!”

A half-dozen knights leap over a hill to attack a rabbit.

Unexpectedly, the little white bunny turns and attacks the knights, killing some and wounding others.

“Run away! Run away!”

Scattering shields and armaments, the terrified knights clamber back over the hillock, and duck in shame.

*   *   *   *   *
It’s a famous scene called “The Killer Rabbit” from the 1975 comedy feature film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I’m reminded of it every time I talk with a Calvinist.

Rabbit Calvinists

Calvinists have a “tight” system of belief: it’s a neat little package that, for them, explains as much as necessary. At the same time, its tightness produces a whole lot of loose ends — things that make no logical sense, or even that are wildly contradictory.

They love their system because it seems so neat and complete to them; and they attack with great enthusiasm every person who expresses any doubt about their central points of belief. In fact, they don’t usually even wait; they provoke disagreement with those who are not even trying to disagree, then gleefully smite them with whatever rote rebuffs may be at hand.

“Chaaaaarge!”

They can’t wait to get at it. And they will tell you that’s because they’re “preaching the gospel” (meaning the “gospel” of John Calvin or, more recently, of John Piper’s “Gospel Coalition”). If you want to have some real fun, just say a phrase like “repent and believe” or “receive the Lord” in front of them, then watch the fireworks begin. They’ll take a bite of you instantly; and you’ll have a better chance of shaking off a pit bull than of getting them to quit. Out comes the entire stock of (alleged) Calvinist proof texts, faster than you can probably respond.

However, their limited supply of trite answers runs out rather quickly as soon as a few basic questions appear: questions like, “If God elects the saved, does he also elect the damned?” or “How can we honestly offer the gospel to all, if not all are even potentially able to be saved?” and above all, “If God’s will is the only effective will in the universe; how can you avoid attributing evil to him?”

Suddenly the great cry goes up: “Run away! Run away!”

Excuses of Clay

The “run-away” strategy is quite predictable. It begins with a pious roll of the eyes, and the exclamation “Well, we just have to accept that some things are a profound mystery.” A more sophisticated (but no more reasonable or fair) evasion is what I call the “Potter’s Freedom” dodge: quoting Romans 9:20 (“Who are you, O man, who answers back to God?”), they proclaim that not only is it impossible to answer such questions, but that human beings aren’t even legitimately allowed to think about them, since God has the right to do whatever he wants even when it makes no sense, is illogical or appears downright unjust. No further thought allowed. No further explanations required. No more to be said. If you ask God questions you’re just plain impertinent: so you have no right to ask about the holes in the alleged ‘plan of God’ as spelled out in Calvinism.

Really? Well, from Abraham to Moses and David, to the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Habakkuk, saints have asked plenty of pointed questions to God, about what he was doing and why. Even Paul, who penned the “potter” analogy in Romans, was not above asking the occasional question.

If questions about God’s plan are all out of court, then are we to think all these saints were doing the wrong thing? And what are we to make of the fact that the Lord himself, suffering on the cross, with his expiring breaths posed just such a question to the Father: “Why have you forsaken me?

Let Us Reason

On the contrary: “Come, let us reason together,” says the Lord. Of course no person can ever demand that God must answer to him. But to ask questions with a view to understanding the purposes of God so as to build faith and cooperate with them, well, that’s is quite a different thing. Nowhere in scripture is such a thing forbidden, and everywhere it is encouraged. The Calvinists are whistling past the graveyard on that one.

By the way, if you don’t believe me that this is a thing, watch Calvinist poster boy John MacArthur pull the trick repeatedly right here. Now, you’ll note what he says. He admits he “feels all the tensions” that his critics feel between his ideology and basic logic. But he claims we all just have to write off these tensions as unknowable mysteries, because “God can resolve mysteries I can’t” (no points for special wisdom on that, John), and we can’t expect him to “unscrew the unscrutable [sic]” (points for cute phraseology, wisdom points still pending).

Whether or not you are inclined to agree with John MacArthur’s assessment of the impossibility of resolving a particular scriptural seeming-paradox or not, we cannot avoid recognizing what this answer does to any question to which we apply it: if accepted, it shuts down thought.

It does so in the name of reverence. It does so in the name of humility. It does so in the name of bowing to whatever the scripture says.

Alas, it does so even to the point of making nonsense of scripture itself.

Reverence, or Unreason?

Now, by all means let us be alert to the danger of pushing a theological question beyond the scope of what a human being can even reasonably be expected to know. I’m sure MacArthur’s very sensitive to that one. And it’s legit. When we press beyond the possibility of knowledge, what happens is that we begin to speculate; and the latter outcome of speculation can even be bad doctrine. Fair enough.

But I wonder if Mr. MacArthur is equally alert to the other danger. I mean the danger that we won’t recognize our mental anxiety (or cognitive dissonance) over a question for what it very often is — the signal that we have been believing something false. You see, sometimes when that little fire alarm inside our heads goes off, it’s telling us that one of our bad ideas has just caught flame. We’ve intuited a fault in our logic that needs to be addressed. And sometimes the only way to put out the “fire” is to rethink our whole idea, and come up with a better explanation.

That’s certainly better than setting on fire our whole knowledge of the gospel, the Old Testament, the middle chapters of Romans and much of Ephesians (which is what the Neo-Calvinists so routinely do) instead of responding intelligently to the alarm.

What I have found is this: God is a God of truth. He is a God who delights to be known, and to lead his people into ever-deeper knowledge. He is not per se a lover of secrets; rather, he delights to manifest himself and to make his will plain. He has mysteries, to be sure; but even many of those he makes plain to those who seek with determination, faith and a good heart.

Run, Rabbit, Run

And this I would say to the rabbiting Calvinist: that there is far more danger in cutting off thought and refusing to think any further about the mysteries of God than there will ever be in pressing forward in faith.

In faith, I say. Because we all have to realize that nobody gets any wisdom from God without faith. Cynics and speculative philosophers will get nothing by pressing difficult questions about God to further and further depths, except additional confusion and multiplying error. We have the Lord’s word for that. But we also have his assurances that those who seek with a sincere heart and a faithful disposition will find. The Lord does not fear the earnest questions of a devout seeker. He has answers, and in his own time and way, he delights to make them known to those who love him.

But to cut off such a person … to deny him or her the encouragement to keep asking, seeking and knocking … from where would we ever get the right to do that?

And whose interests would it serve?

A Mere Anecdote

I’ve spent more time in universities than most people ever have … maybe more than people with a lick of sense ever should. But those who know me can tell you I’ve also enjoyed more success at that than many do. If you knew all that, maybe you’d wonder how I have managed to remain a Christian, given that I’ve studied secular literature and philosophy so intensively and for so many years.

Good question. Let me tell you my secret.

Early in my undergraduate years, when I was still (at best) a very weak, immature Christian, I began struggling with hard questions about God and the universe. And I found myself sometimes perplexed by seeming contradictions in scripture, or with paradoxes raised by my readings or cynical puzzles presented by my professors. And early on, I had to make a decision: would I throw over my faith at the first sign of uncertainty? Or would I shut down the question, and just believe without thinking? Or would I persist with the question AND my faith, prayerfully trusting the Lord to lead me into the truths I needed as they appeared?

Had I shut down the questions, my faith would have remained shallow, immature and stupid. Had I capitulated to my own uncertainty, I’d have lost any grip on faith.

But by the grace of God, I was enabled to keep both hands firmly on the necessary: one hand on the difficult question, and the other calmly held by the Lord’s hand. And by the mercy of God to a poor servant, I have been led for many years though the deep waters of philosophy, and have come through with a deeper, richer faith.

No credit to me. The Lord is faithful. That’s what I can tell you.

Down the Rabbit Hole

So to the MacArthurs of the world, let me say this: beware. Your fear of questions, and your readiness to shut down the road to further thought can be very, very damaging. The Christian faith cannot be built up on platitudes and quietism. To do that is to run with your “faith” down into some dark rabbit hole and not to come up again.

Don’t go to ground like that. We cannot be quitters, but must remain truth-seekers; and we must ask from God the wisdom to know when we finally hit some question that genuinely cannot be answered right now, but awaits eternity.

Until we hit that point, however, we have no right to turn off our brains. And in the meanwhile, we must learn to value that fire alarm in our heads that alerts us to the possibility we may have done what the fleshly nature of human beings so often encourages us to do — to value false certainty above truth, and to accept pat answers so long as they leave our current worldview undented, and leave us essentially unchanged.

The opposite of that is called “learning”. And I submit to you that especially for the Christian, it’s a lifelong enterprise. Sure, it’s not a “safe” activity, in the sense that it causes change and growth — these are sometimes painful and difficult processes. But in another sense, it’s perfectly safe. It’s safe for all those who put their abiding trust in the final truthfulness of God.

So where do you want to stand on that?

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