Pursuing a better Enlightenment

Or, do you study the Bible like an atheist?

Below is a recent paper I wrote responding to Charles Spurgeon’s lecture The Preacher’s Prayer.

Since the Enlightenment there has been an obsession with rational inquiry. That is, the prevailing opinion was that if humans simply studied, thought, and reasoned well enough, we could build better technology, a better society, and even a better morality. Reason alone was sufficient and it was applied to arenas of science, philosophy, politics, and religion. As Michael Legaspi has described in The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, the Bible suddenly became subject to academic scrutiny and analysis. This happened most profoundly in Germany, but critical biblical studies spread to both sides of the Atlantic and in many ways birthed liberal theology. [Fittingly, such liberal theology is marked by championing reason over divine revelation, whether explicitly or implicitly. It is happily at home in the Enlightenment and with modern man.]

And in my own study of the Bible, I have often felt the pull of this Enlightenment tendency—though would not have called it that! That is, I am often tempted to study the text devoid of prayer. I look at the Greek, consult commentaries, check all the cross-references, journal about the passage, and stare at it for hours. And yet I am slow to pray! Perhaps I will briefly ask the Spirit’s help in understanding, but only in a perfunctory manner. When wrestling with doctrines and hard texts I am prone to think my reason is sufficient for understanding, and my actions reflect such an Enlightenment perspective. While I pray for conversion and spiritual growth, I hardly pray for my daily bread, for safety in driving around town, or for wisdom on ‘practical’ matters. Per the Enlightenment, I have divided my world between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’. For the sacred I call out to God and for the secular I call upon my own abilities. Yet how far the Enlightenment tentacles go, if I conceive even of Bible study as a secular activity not needing God’s help!

What does this have to do with Charles Spurgeon and prayer? He suggests a different course and it is an exceptionally helpful corrective. In the beginning of his lecture he comments, “Texts will often refuse to reveal their treasures till you open them with the key of prayer” (57). What Spurgeon helps us to do is to spiritualize the text. He reminds us that the Bible is not simply an historical document, but the very word of God. Secular students of the Bible are limited by the natural tools at their disposal when studying. Yet while Christians possess commentaries, textual analyses, and Greek lexicons, we also posses Someone of infinite more help: the Spirit of God!

He who taught the apostles “all things” and brought to their remembrance all that Christ said to them (John 14:26), “carried men along” as they prophesied (2 Peter 1:21), and “breathed out” the very words of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), also indwells the regenerate believer. He is “the Spirit of truth” who comes and “guide[s] you into all the truth” (John 16:13). The Spirit is the one who opens up God’s word to God’s people.

How then do we gain access to this Spiritual insight? As Spurgeon notes, it is through prayer! There we plead with God that we would behold wondrous things in his law and that he would give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God. As God has sovereignly initiated his own revelation to people in general—through nature and through Scripture—so God sovereignly reveals himself to specific persons. The pattern is the same: we come to know God through his gracious self-disclosure. We only discover what he reveals.

Therefore, let us not study the word of God as atheists. Instead let us by faith pray to God, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that we would comprehend even the very thoughts of God. For “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12).

Modern Man and the Ancient Church

The modern man no longer needs one another. He needs others but he does not need another.

The modern man sits in his modern condo and uses modern appliances to do modern things. Others made them, but he does not know them.

He has never been to the store and he has never been to work. He stays at home and is more efficient that way. Others grow his food and work alongside him, but he does not know them.

Because he is a modern, the man shops online. He buys online and returns online. Packages arrive and depart from his doorstep. Others produce for him, but he does not know them.

The modern man has no thoughts of family. He does not need a wife for sexual fulfillment. He has limitless partners awaiting him online. Others please him, but he does not know them.

He also plays online. He does not have friends come visit him, or he visit them, but he meets his friends on video games and website forums. He sometimes posts on their social media accounts. Others leisure with him, but he does not know them.

The corporation moves him across the country. He lives near his parents now, but it makes no difference. Others raised him, but he does not know them.


Our man is a modern man through and through. He is an individual and the Enlightenment has succeeded.

The modern man is lost in a sea of anonymity. If this became mostly true with the advent of department stores, it has been made perfect through online shopping.  The modern world is far too efficient and rational for life to be personal.

But it was not always this way. There was a time in Western society when men and women knew one another. Buying shoes, getting a tool fixed, traveling, and acquiring food were once personal endeavors, but they are no more.

I was reminded of this fact when my state got hit with 30+ inches of snow and the most remarkable thing happened. People met each other and if not for the first time, then certainly the first time in a long time.

Forced by the shoveling to venture outside, neighbors were with one another. By necessity we spurned Netflix, Hulu, Facebook, and everything else that draws us into isolation. Doors opened, kids played in the snow, dogs ran up and down the street, and neighbor helped neighbor. We got to know one another.

A few days later I visited the home of a 70+ year old saint and there I noticed an old church pew on his front porch. When asked why he had it, he responded, “I want to bring back the days when people were neighbors. Back then, we knew one another”.


In this age of rampant individualism the Church stands in the unique position as being the people of God. When individuals wonder about their place in society, the church has the opportunity to show them the body of Christ. There they can know and be known. There they can be one with others who are radically other (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). The church is a community of faith that brings Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, liberal and conservative, young and old, together as one man (Ephesians 2:15).

God’s eternal purpose has always been creating and setting apart a people for himself. This was true for Adam (and Eve), Abraham (and his descendants), and Christ (and his brothers and sisters). And this glorious reality–God making those who were not his people to become his people–is displayed every Lord’s day in local churches across the globe.

There brothers and sisters gather around the table for the family meal (the Lord’s Supper). There they gather to celebrate the adoption of new family members (baptism). And there they gather to sing praises to God, communion with him through prayer, and hear from their heavenly Father through his word. There the Church makes the people-creating gospel visible.

Authentic Theology (Part 1)

Charles Taylor has famously called our era the “age of expressive individualism”. This is evident even in the constant tweets, Facebook posts, news articles, and advertisements which beckon the person to ‘be yourself’. Just let it out. Don’t let anyone tell you who to be. Chase your dreams. Don’t be defined by some distant authority. You decide what is right for you. Do what feels right to you.


This individual autonomy has deep roots in American history. As a nation, we have always been prone to individualism (prioritizing the individual over the collective) and a rejection of authority (e.g. the British Empire, the federal government, a state church, etc.). For a summary of how this liberal impulse to individual autonomy clashed with mass media and hyper-modern society, see George F. Marsden’s recent “The Twilight of the American Enlightment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief”. (Interestingly, the late psychologist Erik Erikson stated that  Martin Luther’s stand at the Diet of Worms was the first instance of modern individualism.)


It is a rich irony that as our culture has become more captivated and controlled by mass media (originally newspaper, radio, television, and magazines but now the internet and social media especially) there has been a pronounced increase in the rhetoric of individual autonomy. As culture has become more dependent on conformity (for example, cookie cutter houses and neighborhoods), so too has the anxiety for individual identity blossomed.


But this is perhaps best seen in our culture’s approval of nearly all sexual expression. The narrative goes something like this: “If you feel a certain way, don’t deny it. Don’t let anyone tell you its wrong. Do what feels good to you. And if you don’t act on your feelings, it must be because you are repressed and controlled by domineering (read: conservative and religious) authorities”. Thankfully, this logic is not applied to rapists, pedophiles, polygamists, and the incestuous. Yet, the modern ‘individual’ is still being controlled. He or she has simply changed Masters. No longer is the church the dominant authority. Buzzfeed is.  And the tragic fact is that the modern sexual revolution has proven to be a harsh Master indeed indeed. Statistics of divorce, remarriage, single parenting,  STDs, rape, and depression need not be multiplied here.


This would be destructive enough. However, much of modern theology, especially of the liberal variety, has been infiltrated by such a worldly philosophy. It is surely true that Jesus calls us to avoid hypocrisy (see Matthew 5-7, 23). But this is never at the expense of condoning sin. As Christians we are never called to rejoice in our sins, stating “This is who I am and you (whether God or neighbor) had better deal with it”. In many instances expressive individualism has promoted pride, selfishness, and blatant sin in the church of Christ.


But the problem of individual autonomy, divorced from biblical and Theological wisdom, is not new. It has been present seen the the Fall (see Genesis 3). Indeed, as Judges 21:25 states, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes”. So while our post-modern Western mood may exasperate the problem, it is plainly evident that we are the problem. Fallen humans are ever seeking approval to act on their sinful intuitions. And we will go to any lengths to secure such approval–whether that entails rejecting authority or appealing to it.


How then is the Church to respond? We turn to a biblical rejoinder soon.

The Bloody Cross

Sounds rather grotesque doesn’t it? A naked criminal, hands and feet pierced by nails, hanging from a tree, drowning in his own blood and lung fluid.


And yet this is exactly how Jesus died–which is pretty strange, when you think about it. The King of glory is mocked and spit upon. The Prince of Peace is whipped and shackled, beaten and cursed.


Perhaps even stranger is that Christians love this particular execution. Christians glory in this death. Because, through the death of  Jesus on the cross, we are saved and forgiven (see Colossians 2:13-14). And so early on Christians began making the sign of the cross with their hands, putting it on their churches, and integrating into their art. Even today, it is not uncommon to see people wearing necklaces and bracelets with crosses.


It is the cross which has become a dominant Christian symbol. It is the Christian symbol. However, perhaps not everyone likes it this way.


When browsing through Spotify’s ‘Genre and Moods’ section, I noticed the Christian option. I was happy and surprised to find this secular music provider with a religious music selection (even if only because of the popularity of Christian music). Yet I was intrigued to find that Spotify had chosen a white dove as the symbol to represent this assortment of playlists. The ‘Party’ assortment has a disco ball, ‘Focus’ has a studying lamp, and ‘Romance’ has a heart. The ‘Christian’ selection has a dove.


What is so interesting about Spotify’s ‘Christian’ dove? It is evidence of the tempering and taming of Christianity. The dove represents hope and peace. Who can object to it? On a page dedicated to catering to the interests of customers, the dove offends no one. But the cross represents divine wrath, divine propitiation, and divine intrusion. Who can listen to this teaching? (see John 6:60)


Do Christians love peace? Yes! In many ways, the cross occured so we could be at peace with God and with one another (Romans 5:1, Ephesians 2:14). Colosians 1:20 states that the (bloody) cross has actually brought us peace with God.


But the stubborn fact remains that Christianity is a bloody religion. At the center of our hope, as Christians, is that Jesus bore that divine judgment that we deserved. So let us keep the cross as our religion’s ‘symbol’, even if this disappoints those who want a more tolerable Christianity and a more tolerable Christ.


“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).


“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).


“And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain…And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:6,9).


He is a bloody Savior and we will rejoice in this for eternity to come.


Reflection on ‘The Church’ (Mark Dever)

When I began this book I was anticipating a ‘typical’ 9Marks book. That is, some popular level references and arguments that are helpful and instructive, but in my opinion lacking in some of the substantive depth needed for a foundation. I had longed for a more rigorous exposition of the nature of the church. Happily, this was the book I had been looking for all along! The Church proved to technically proficient and dealt with the most basic issues of what (or who) a local church is.
Early on Dever makes the point that God has consistently been in the business of saving not just individuals, but a people. And specifically, a people that accurately reflects God’s character. And one of the attributes/adjectives that has been used to describe the church is holy. This is very helpful. The church is not merely a group of Christian extroverts coming together to exist however they want. Instead, Christians represent Christ. They are always promoting a message with their lives and doctrine of who God is.

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Does the Bible Prescribe Church Polity?

This Spring 2016 I hope to be at Together for the Gospel. That is, I hope to be worshiping and being equipped with my Presbyterian, Anglican, Bible church, and Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ (among others). I am glad that we can rejoice in and come together for the gospel that is of “first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). But just because a matter is of secondary importance, does not relegate it to the status of unimportance. Such is church polity. And I confess that I have often ignored and dismissed church governance as being unimportant (and maybe even unspiritual!). Thankfully, Bobby Jamieson’s Why New Testament Polity is Prescriptive gives a helpful corrective to such anti-authoritarian and post-modern thought by bringing us back to the Bible.

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Review of ‘Prayer’ (Tim Keller)

In general, I think Tim Keller is pretty good. I think he is great at engaging with skeptics and seekers, but I don’t agree entirely with his philosophy of ministry. I like Dever’s The Church more than Keller’s Center Church. He’s good, but I don’t think he is great. That is, until I read his recent work Prayer! I confess that this is one of the best books…that I have ever read. Yup. I was probably just as stunned by this admission as you are now! As I review my notes I am hard-pressed to choose what to highlight and what to leave aside.

Continue reading “Review of ‘Prayer’ (Tim Keller)”