Monthly Archives: April 2012

Some good books on Christianity in America

Patrick Allitt’s Religion in America is organized around the paradox of religion in American culture  from the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan in September 1945 to the attacks of September 11, 2001. This paradox is defined in these terms: America is the great exception to the Western nations, in that religion is an active force in the culture and politics of the nation, and yet, it is profoundly secular, especially because of the separation of church and state in American society. The book narrates the major religious issues, trends, and events between the end of World War II and the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is a very helpful work, especially in helping the reader to understand the significance of religious pluralism in America since 1965.

     Frank Lambert asks the question, how did the Puritan vision of a Christian nation change into the separation of church and state by the Founders? Lambert finds the answer in the “changing meaning of freedom in the concept of freedom of religion” (3). The main difference between the Puritans and the Founders was that the Puritans found their source of religious freedom in divine revelation. The Founders looked to free, individual, rational inquiry in addition to basing their arguments on divine revelation. Lambert identifies three dynamics of change in colonial America which accounts for the shift in the way the relationship of religion in the state was viewed. The Great Awakening, the Enlightenment, and radical Whig ideology all helped to transition American conceptions of the role of religion in the state from that of a Christian commonwealth to a nation with religious freedom.
     Carl Becker, in his classic work on the Declaration of Independence, seeks to show that the conclusions of the Declaration were less important that their premises, namely 1) “that all men have imprescriptible natural rights; 2) that the British empire is a voluntary federation of independent states” (ix–x). While not a book dealing directly with Christianity in America, the Declaration is the only founding document that mentions God and bases natural rights on the assertion that God grants them, not the state. Becker noted that the idea of natural rights was so taken for granted in the 18th century, that Jefferson defended it by appealing to common sense. Locke does the same thing, but it is perhaps more surprising that Jefferson felt the necessity to do this, since the Declaration was addressed in part to the British king who would also have taken individual rights for granted. This work should be required reading for every American citizen.

An excellent go-to reference on apologetics

     The New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics is a reference work for scholars and laypersons published by InterVarsity Press. The work seeks to serve as a resource as Christians enter the marketplace and present their faith to non-believers. The work also presents a comprehensive treatment of contemporary issues that relate to apologetics in the twenty-first century. The topics covered in the dictionary are arranged in such a way as to encourage the reader to make connections between the topics, not seeing them in isolation, but as parts of one whole discipline devoted to the defense and explanation of the faith. This is done as a reflection of the biblical worldview the editors and authors embrace—“seeing all of reality and existence through biblical revelation, the chief focus of which is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ” (vii).
     The dictionary is introduced by six introductory articles on apologetics, pertaining to 1) apologetics in the 21st century, 2) various approaches to apologetics, 3) legitimacy of apologetics, 4) viability of apologetics, 5) relationship between apologetics and theology, and 6) apologetics outside of the West. Each of these articles presents some important contemporary issues, laying them out and giving clear explanation. These introductory articles are helpful in keeping the current state of apologetics in view, as well as understanding the reasons why the articles themselves were included in the dictionary.
     The greatest strength of the dictionary is the range of topics covered by the contributors, which is quite wide. Alongside the article on the Dead Sea Scrolls is an article on depression; next to the article on Bonaventure is a treatment of boredom; cyberspace can be found among the articles, as can piercing. The article after piercing is entitled, “Plato.” So, a brief perusal of the dictionary shows that the contributors have certainly commented on a wide range of topics, with the goal of comprehensive treatment of topics relating to apologetics at the start of the new century.
     Many of the articles betray the particular biases of the authors. For example, the article entitled “Determinism, Chance and Freedom” written by John Frame, is written from his reformed perspective. His treatment of libertarian freedom is there, but he spends a great deal of time refuting the idea, and concluding with the statement, “these considerations lead to the conclusion that the Bible teaches theistic determinism. . .” (220). Such statements do not seem consistent with the goal of the work, which is not to provide direct answers to the issues involved, but to present the issues as objectively as possible and to show them as part of a unified response to the unbelieving world.
     This dictionary will, however, undoubtedly prove to be an invaluable resource. The contributors to the dictionary are many, and they have sought to identify as many issues that relate to the defense of the faith as possible. Recognizing that mundane issues that are accepted in everyday life by most people can have profound theological meaning and limitless potential in bringing the lost to faith, while at the same time treating issues one would expect to find in a book like this, the contributors have offered a resource that is truly unique. The twenty-first century most certainly offers challenges that cannot be met in the old ways, i.e. with the assumption that everyone has the same general presuppositions about religion. The work represents a strong effort on the part of Christian scholars to offer a balanced and informed approach to providing a resource to help the body of Christ defend the faith.

Campbell-Jack, W. C., Gavin J. McGrath, C. Stephen Evans, and Steve Carter. New Dictionaryof Christian Apologetics. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Is America the greatest nation in human history?

I am working on a paper on American exceptionalism that hopefully will lay the groundwork for a book in the not-too-distant future.

I would like to solicit some insightful feedback on the question, Is America exceptional? A number of questions fit under this larger question–

  • Is America the greatest nation in human history?
  • Is America the hope of the world?
  • Is America a city on a hill?
  • Does America enjoy unique blessings from God?
  • Does belief in American exceptionalism serve as a litmus test for authentic patriotism?
  • Can one affirm American uniqueness without affirming American exceptionalism?
  • What warrant is available to base a belief in American exceptionalism?
  • Have any other nations in history claimed exceptionalism? Could any nation in history claim exceptionalism? What would that mean for America, if other nations could make legitimate claims on exceptionalism?
  • Has America always been exceptional? In other words, could America claim exceptionalism before it was a world power?
  • Is exceptionalism demonstrated by economic indicators? Military? Cultural? Religious? Political? Aesthetic? Demographic?

I’d love your thoughts and ideas. If you have other questions that should be added to the list, I’d love those, too. Also, if you’ve read any relevant books or articles on this issue, please let me know.

Helpful Resource on the Problem of Evil

     John Feinberg sets out to defend seven independent, but related, theses in The Many Faces of Evil. These thesis are divided into two categories. The first category covers the notion of the problem of evil. Feinberg’s point is that, rather than there being such a thing as the problem of evil, there are several problems of evil. There is a religious problem of evil (dealt with autobiographically in the last chapter) and the theological/philosophical problem of evil. Even with this distinction, there are other sublevels of problems of evil: there is the existence of moral evil and natural evil, which Feinberg treats at length in his study. There are also the issues of quantity, intensity, and gratuitousness of evil. Also, there is the problem of animal suffering, and the problem of hell. Finally, the theological/philosophical problem of evil must be addressed in terms of the logical and evidential forms. Thus, Feinberg makes the point that both theists and atheists must clearly define which particular problem is being addressed before any progress can be made in the debate. He writes, “An acceptable solution to one problem of evil isn’t nullified because it doesn’t solve any or all other problems.” (27) The second category covers the ground rules for treating the logical problem of evil. Feinberg states that “the most fundamental rule for handling [the logical problem of evil] is that any problem of evil posed in its logical form is about the internal consistency of a theological position.” (27) Thus, theists must construct arguments do not contradict themselves. Atheists must “specify a problem that actually arises withinthe views of the system they attack.” (27)
     The first half of the book is devoted to presenting the logical problem of evil as well as to showing the various forms of the theological-philosophical problem of evil. Feinberg lays out the differences between theonomy on the one extreme and Leibnizian rationalism on the other extreme, with modified rationalism in between. He then summarizes several different theodicies (soul-building, greater good, free will), and then presents his own “defense” (note: not theodicy) which he describes as moderately Calvinistic. Feinberg, like others, takes a middle ground between theonomy and Leibnizian rationalism, and embraces modified rationalism. His position is that God cannot remove evil without being responsible for creating greater problems. He outlines his own position in chapters six and seven.
     The second half of the book treats the evidential form of the problem of evil. Feinberg does a thorough job of presenting both atheistic and theistic treatments of the problem, and presenting his own position in chapter twelve. The problem of hell is addressed in chapter thirteen, with attention given to both the logical and evidential forms of the problem. Feinberg’s position is that it is possible to defend the traditional doctrine of hell based on the seriousness of sin and the holiness and majesty of God. Finally, after a thorough discussion on the theological/philosophical problem of evil, Feinberg addresses the religious problem of evil from his own perspective as someone in the midst of a profound struggle with what seems to be excessively intense anguish. His goal is to approach the problem pastorally first and intellectually second, which, he says, is the appropriate way to treat the religious problem.
Feinberg, John S. The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil.Wheaton: Crossway, 2004.