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Posts Tagged ‘C. S. Lewis’

Van Til on Presuppositional Apologetics

August 17, 2017 6 comments

Continuing in the 2017 Challies’ Reading Challenge, some books are more challenging and slower-going, such as a selection for apologetics:  Cornelius Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith,  about presuppositional apologetics.  The writing style itself is not always easy to follow, with a lot of abstraction and philosophy, though some parts are clearer.  Overall, though, I see the basic points of presuppositional apologetics, along with a detailed explanation for why classical/evidential apologetics is not the best approach for communication with unbelievers.

Throughout, Van Til contrasts Catholic and Protestant-Evangelical (Arminian) apologetics, with the understanding of Reformed Theology.  As well-pointed out, what it really comes down to is that Reformed folks should use the same approach for both preaching and apologetics; Reformed preaching proclaims the sovereignty of God in all things, including salvation, as well as the total inability of the lost sinner.  Yet often, Reformed Christians depart from this when it comes to apologetics, turning instead to lost man’s “reason” independent of the authority of God’s word.  The analysis of basic differences in the very definitions of concepts between unbelievers (even unbelievers of varying types, pagan polytheists versus secular), such as the concepts of deity and mankind, is quite interesting, all supporting the point that believers really do not share any “common” point with the unbeliever, in terms of the natural man’s thoughts and reasoning.

The Reformed Christian is often Reformed in preaching and Arminian in reasoning.  But when he is at all self-conscious in his reasoning he will seek to do in apologetics what he does in preaching.  He knows that man is responsible not in spite of but just because he is not autonomous but created.  ..  He knows also that the sinner in the depth of his heart knows that what is thus held before him is true.  He knows he is a creature of God; he has been simply seeking to cover up this fact to himself.  He knows that he has broken the law of God; he has again covered up this fact to himself.  He knows that he is therefore guilty and is subject to punishment forever; this fact too he will not look in the face.

And it is precisely Reformed preaching and Reformed apologetic that tears the mask off the sinner’s face and compels him to look at himself and the world for what they really are.  Like a mole the natural man seeks to scurry under ground every time the facts as they really are come to his attention.  He loves the darkness rather than the light.  The light exposes him to himself.  And precisely this neither Roman Catholic or Arminian preaching or reasoning are able to do.

Van Til points out that evidentialist apologetics does the first part of evangelism by appealing to the natural man’s thinking, and challenging the atheist/agnostic unbeliever with the fact, the existence, of God.  Only after this first part of “accommodating” the unbeliever, the apologist then “switches” to the Christian perspective and why one should believe the Bible, etc.  The unbeliever can certainly follow along at the first point, since nothing is being challenged in his fundamental human reason.  As Van Til observes, the result is a two-phase approach to Christian conversion:  first to Theism, then, later, conversion to Christianity.  This method obviously does ‘work’, as God’s sovereign purposes in calling His elect include even faulty apologetic methods; but Van Til makes the case for a true Reformed approach to the matter.

It helps to relate what Van Til is saying to real-world examples.  What Van Til described here, describes the conversion story of C.S. Lewis, who was an atheist when he met colleague J.R.R. Tolkien at Oxford in the 1920s.  Much has been said on the negative side regarding the theology of both of these men – though as has also been noted, Tolkien converted Lewis to Christianity in general, not to Catholicism.  Yet as Lewis himself described it, his conversion was indeed a two-phase process: first, conversion to theism, and then – about two years later – to the Christian faith.  Van Til’s critique of classic apologetics provides the clear explanation for the very process/method of Lewis’ conversion experience.

Though the overall reading is not easy, I’m now over halfway through, and some parts are quite good, with insightful quotes.  In closing, here are a few great quotes from Van Til:

The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. And it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or indirectly. It tells us not only of the Christ and his work but it also tells us who God is and whence the universe has come. It gives us a philosophy of history as well as history. Moreover, the information on these subjects is woven into an inextricable whole. It is only if you reject the Bible as the Word of God that you can separate its so-called religious and moral instruction from what it says, e.g., about the physical universe.

And

Time rolls its ceaseless course. It pours out upon us an endless stream of facts. And the stream is really endless for the non-Christian basis. For those who do not believe that all that happens in time happens because of the plan of God, the activity of time is like to that, or rather is identical with that, of Chance. Thus the ocean of facts has no bottom and no shore.

 

Aslan of Narnia, ‘The Shack,’ and the Second Commandment

March 1, 2017 3 comments

Tim Challies recently posted an article that provides a good contrast between ‘The Shack’ and the Aslan character of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series.  I find such articles interesting, as they consider and contrast different types of literature–in answer to the many superficial comparisons made by people who would lump all fiction into the same category.  In a post last year, I referenced a good online article that examines in detail seven key differences between Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter in reference to the literary use of magic.

Challies’ post provides similar comparison between the Chronicles of Narnia and another newer fiction work, The Shack, noting three key differences:  these are different genres of literature, portray different characters, and teach different messages.  He makes good points concerning the difference between Narnia and The Shack in overall terms, of the type of fiction and especially the serious doctrinal error being taught in The Shack.

Challies notes these differences, and then concludes that because of these differences, The Shack violates the Second Commandment, but Aslan the Lion of Narnia does not.  As he points out, The Shack has characters representing all three members of the Godhead:  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, whereas Narnia only represents the second person of the Trinity, the Son.  However, I think Challies’ answer on one particular point is weak:  his assertion that Aslan is like Christ, a Christ-like figure rather than actually representing Christ:

Aslan is a Christ-like figure, but is not Christ. We should expect to find a general but not perfect correspondence between the words and deeds of Aslan and the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. A right reading of Narnia does not lead to the declaration, “Aslan is Jesus,” but the realization, “Aslan is like Jesus.” Lewis meant for Aslan to evoke a kind of wonder that would cause the reader to search for someone in the real world who is equally awe-inspiring.

The Narnia stories, through the “general allegory” fiction, present many Christian doctrines.  True, not all doctrines are brought out within the context of the seven stories—and a few of the doctrines presented are Arminianism and “wider mercy” (both in The Last Battle: the dwarves with free-will, and Emeth the saved pagan).  Yet it is clear that Lewis intended an actual identification of Aslan with Christ, and not merely “to evoke a kind of wonder that would cause the reader to search for someone in the real world who is equally awe-inspiring.”  Keep in mind the following specific points.

  • In the original volume (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) Aslan only dies for Edmund.  However, in The Last Battle the last Narnian king (Tirian) holds to an atonement belief that encompasses all Narnians:

He [Tirian] meant to go on and ask how the terrible god Tash who fed on the blood of his people could possibly be the same as the good Lion by whose blood all Narnia was saved.

  • At the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund that they cannot return to Narnia because they are too old, and adds that he is known by another name “in your world” and that they will come to know him better by that name.

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am [in your world].’ said Aslan. ‘But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

The ending of The Last Battle provides Lewis’ clearest and direct identification of Aslan with Christ.  His stepson Douglas Gresham, in an email discussion years later, also specifically pointed this out. Notice the use of the capital letter in the pronoun He:

And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion…And for us this is the end…But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

So, while The Chronicles of Narnia clearly is a different genre of fiction, and clearly teaches a different message than the blasphemy of The Shack, the question of Aslan in reference to the Second Commandment and images representing God, is not so clear cut.  From googling, I found a few other articles that have previously considered this question–at the time of other movie releases such as Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and the Disney version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”  A sampling of these includes people who recognize the close connection of Aslan to Christ, and thus do consider the portrayal on film of Aslan the lion as a Second Commandment problem.  One example is R.C. Sproul Jr’s comments at the Ligionier blog:

The root of idolatry, however, is here—images move us at a basic level, and evoke worship in us, worship that God abhors. I first felt this watching another movie that presented an image of Christ—The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. When Aslan first appeared on the screen my heart swelled and like a teetotaler taking his first drink, a health nut tasting his first Twinky, I thought, “Oh, so this is what He warned us about.” I was taken up, enraptured, spellbound because of the sheer majestic beauty of the Lion.

This discussion from 2005 at the Puritan board is also helpful, a Reformed perspective on the question of Aslan and other fictional works, especially this observation:

To me, a devout Christian writing a story about a Lion who is a king and gives his life for his people is a bit too obvious not to be seen as a direct representation of Christ.

Furthermore, since the second commandment applies equally to all the readers and viewers just as much as it did to Lewis himself, does his authorial intent really even have any bearing on people’s own obedience to the commandment when they see Aslan and purposefully think of Christ?

So, while Challies’ article is helpful for pointing out the major differences between Narnia and The Shack, it misses the mark in his attempt to downplay the role of Aslan as not really representing God the Son.  Lewis’ writing and intent was rather obvious, of Aslan representing Christ, the Son of God — as Lewis saw it, Christ as He would choose to reveal Himself if such a world as Narnia existed.  For further study, the following article looks at the many parallels between Aslan and the Son of God: Symbolism and the Identity of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia.

I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would have happened.’

Christian Worldview: J.R. R. Tolkien and Lord of the Rings

October 14, 2016 3 comments

Both the Deuteronomy and the 1689 Confession study series are at a halt, pending any new lessons yet to be posted online,  and so I am taking a break and revisiting an old love, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  (I consider myself a book purist, and do not particularly care for Peter Jackson’s movie variations.) I first read Tolkien, along with C.S. Lewis, in my early Christian years about 25 years ago.  Tolkien’s LOTR endures through the years, good and fresh for many re-readings; it ranks as number four in the top ten of all-time most read books.  Online articles that mention Tolkien and Lord of the Rings abound to this day, with several such articles in the past few months (note this recent post from Justin Taylor, remembering what happened 85 years ago), and more over just the last few years.  The Gospel Coalition blog alone features several articles, including the aspect of “reading for worldview,” and this good observation:

Those who dismiss The Lord of the Rings as simply Harry Potter for grown-ups, or as a source of bumper sticker material for aging hippies to put on their Volvos (“Not all those who wander are lost”) have really missed the central prophetic vision of the books—a prophetic stance taken against modernity . . . or perhaps what we might want to call mordornity. This is the prophetic element that makes Tolkien’s vision a fundamentally Christian one. There are places where I prefer Lewis’s Protestant take to Tolkien’s Catholicism, obviously, but on this issue Tolkien reflects the ethical perspective of the entire Christian tradition. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

Also, from the introductory “Reading for Worldviews” article:

Oddly, many modern readers are not only drawn to books that reflect their own personal worldview, but also to those that present them with a radically different worldview. On the one hand, they want to see the values they hold dear acted out on a fictional stage, partly so that they may study, and be challenged by, the decisions made by the hero. On the other hand, they want to explore realities that stand outside their normal experience and thus carry with them a sense of danger that is strangely appealing.

Thus, Christian readers are drawn to The Lord of the Rings because they encounter within its pages a world that affirms Judeo-Christian concepts of good and evil, virtue and vice. And yet, at the same time, Tolkien’s epic fantasy has attracted tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of atheist and agnostic readers intrigued by a world that privileges many of the things they reject: absolute standards of right and wrong; hierarchy and kingship; the reality of a supernatural realm that impinges upon the natural; the existence of a higher purpose that chooses us rather than us choosing it.

Yet at least some Christians continue to dismiss LOTR and lump it into the same category of “problematic/evil reading” along with Harry Potter and all fairy tale stories.  The following article Harry Potter vs Gandalf – a rather lengthy essay that may take more than one reading session  — (the author is knowledgeable regarding the literature of Tolkien, Lewis, and J.K. Rowling) takes a detailed look at how “magic” is used in different literature, noting seven literary “hedges” that Tolkien and Lewis employed to “fence off” magic from the reader in this world, hedges which are not present in the Harry Potter novels:

  1. Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to wholly imaginary realms, with place-names like Middle-earth and Narnia — worlds that cannot be located either in time or in space with reference to our own world, and which stand outside Judeo-Christian salvation history and divine revelation. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a fictionalized version of our own world that is recognizable in time and space, in a country called England (which is at least nominally a Christian nation), in a timeframe of our own era.
  2. Reinforcing the above point, in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fictional worlds where magic is practiced, the existence of magic is an openly known reality of which the inhabitants of those worlds are as aware as we are of rocket science — even if most of them might have as little chance of actually encountering magic as most of us would of riding in the space shuttle. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a world in which magic is a secret, hidden reality acknowledged openly only among a magical elite, a world in which (as in our world) most people apparently believe there is no such thing as magic.
  3. Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are numbered among the supporting cast, not the protagonists with whom the reader is primarily to identify. By contrast, Harry Potter, a student of wizardry, is the title character and hero of his novels.
  4. Reinforcing the above point, Tolkien and Lewis include cautionary threads in which exposure to magical forces proves to be a corrupting influence on their protagonists: Frodo is almost consumed by the great Ring; Lucy and Digory succumb to temptation and use magic in ways they shouldn’t. By contrast, the practice of magic is Harry Potter’s salvation from his horrible relatives and from virtually every adversity he must overcome.
  5. Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are not in fact human beings (for although Gandalf and Coriakin are human in appearance, we are in fact told that they are, respectively, a semi-incarnate angelic being and an earthbound star.) In Harry Potter’s world, by contrast, while some human beings (called “Muggles”) lack the capacity for magic, others (including Harry’s true parents and of course Harry himself) do not.
  6. Reinforcing the above point, Tolkien and Lewis emphasize the pursuit of magic as the safe and lawful occupation of characters who, in appearance, stature, behavior, and role, embody a certain wizard archetype — white-haired old men with beards and robes and staffs, mysterious, remote, unapproachable, who serve to guide and mentor the heroes. Harry Potter, by contrast, is a wizard-in-training who is in many crucial respects the peer of many of his avid young readers, a boy with the same problems and interests that they have.
  7. Finally, Tolkien and Lewis devote no narrative space to the process by which their magical specialists acquire their magical prowess. Although study may be assumed as part of the back story, the wizard appears as a finished product with powers in place, and the reader is not in the least encouraged to think about or dwell on the process of acquiring prowess in magic. In the Harry Potter books, by contrast, Harry’s acquisition of mastery over magical forces at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft is a central organizing principle in the story-arc of the series as a whole.

A few more links to some interesting posts about the Lord of the Rings, from Christian blogs:

A final thought, excerpted from the above-linked “Tolkien on Fairy Stories”

Perhaps the most persistent (and nastiest!) critique leveled against Tolkien is that his work is “escapist,” that it draws its readers away from the rigors of the “real world.” Tolkien gives the lie to this critique by reminding his readers of something so obvious it is often overlooked: “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

Tolkien is not thinking here of a killer or rapist confined to a jail cell for the protection of society, but of a political or military prisoner who has been captured by the enemy. In the latter case, the prisoner who escapes is neither naïve nor juvenile. Indeed, he is both practical and realistic. Far from donning rose-colored classes or acting like a cock-eyed optimist, he bravely and maturely refuses to define himself by the artificial boundaries around him and yearns for the free open air that he knows exists outside his prison walls.

Bilbo, Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn, and Faramir are all escapists, for they risk their lives to free the world of Middle-earth from the control of forces (Smaug, Sauron, Saruman, Shelob) that would steal life, kill joy, and destroy the earth. They do not accept the creeping darkness that relativizes, existentializes, and uglifies. Rather, in the face of this onslaught, they uphold a counter-vision of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.

Church History (iTunes U): Medieval Scholasticism

August 25, 2015 2 comments

Nearing the end of the RTS Church History series, the last several lectures provide interesting information about the middle and late medieval period, specifically related to Anselm, Aquinas, and the scholastic era. In this section comes consideration of the Christian faith and rationalism, an idea which began with Anselm (late 11th century). Another good basic point — which makes sense considering the variations within Protestant theology and even within overall “Covenant Theology” — is that Medieval Catholicism was not monolithic, with everyone believing and emphasizing the same doctrinal and philosophical ideas. General groups of this time included the mystics and scholastics, represented to varying degrees by several scholars including names I knew at least a little about – Anselm, and Bernard of Clairvaux – along with a few other lesser-known names.

The lectures on the scholastic period note three philosophical approaches to “universals” – ideas about reality and truth and what they are based in — developed especially in the late-Medieval era. As also described in this Wikipedia article, the three views of various Medieval scholastics:

  • Platonic realism: This world is a shadow of reality; universal ideas exist outside of this world, what is actually real; everything in our world is a “shadow” of what exists beyond our world.  (The rationalism /realism of Anselm.)
  • Nominalism takes the opposite view, of skepticism, that there are no “universals” but only what actually exists.  Names associated with this view include William of Ockham and Peter Abelard.
  • Conceptualism / Moderate or Aristotelian realism: a middle-ground position that recognizes universals, but grounds the existence of the universal in the object itself.

The lecture considers as an example the existence of two white stones, and what each of these views would say about it: 1) whiteness is a universal that exists outside of this world and seen in the two stones (platonic realism); 2) no significance whatsoever to the fact that the stones exist and are white (nominalism); and 3) there is such a thing as whiteness but that truth exists in the reality of the stones themselves, not outside. Also briefly noted, over time the nominalist view came to dominate medieval philosophy; and Martin Luther in his early education was taught the nominalist view (which he later rejected). Though all of this is rather abstract, going beyond the explicit teaching of scripture, Anderson observed that these views have implications for our theology, such that he more liberal view of nominalism was thought to be incompatible with the doctrine of the trinity, whereas the two conservative views (platonic realism and moderate realism) do not conflict with Trinitarian understanding.

The first view (Platonic realism) I recognize as basically a teaching of C.S. Lewis, as brought out in the two “Shadowlands” movies about his life, as well as in a scene from the “Chronicles of Narnia” series’ The Silver Chair. The Narnia setting involved characters who lived underground and had never seen the world above, and Lewis’ character Puddleglum philosophizing to the evil witch (who is trying to convince Puddleglum and two human children that her world is all that ever exists) about the reality of the sun, of which the underground world’s lamp is a “shadow” and “like” the sun. Interestingly enough, though the lecturer never mentioned C.S. Lewis in reference to this idea, he did mention the philosophical idea of a creature that only lived underground and had never seen anything of this world.  An overall observation at this point is that C.S. Lewis (who was not at all evangelical, with questionable theology at many points) was quite familiar with medieval theology and philosophy, to the point of including the pre-Anselm popular medieval “ransom” atonement theory (Christ’s death as a payment to Satan) in the plot of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” as well as referencing medieval scholastic philosophy about universals.

This church history series ends with a look at Aquinas for a conclusion to pre-Reformation church history. Again, I appreciate these seminary class series offered through iTunes U, as informative lessons that explore more in-depth the different topics such as church history and worldviews.

Nashville, New Orleans, and a Right Understanding of Total Depravity

May 7, 2010 Leave a comment

In the wake of the recent flooding in Nashville, devastation on par with the flooding seen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Pastor Jim McClarty observes the great contrast between the two cities and the aftermath, in a positive look at how people are dealing with the terrible flood mess.  As he said, Nashville probably will not get the attention of Hollywood or Katrina-like aid — but that’s actually a good thing.  As he observes,

I’ve seen pictures and video of abandoned grocery stores.  But, the windows are still intact.  I’ve seen businesses and electronic centers closed up.  But, I have not seen any looting.  I have not seen angry mobs busting windows and stealing stuff.  There have been no riots.  There have been no marauding gangs.  There have been no murders.

I’ve heard firsthand reports (from my own brother, no less) of people with boats who worked tirelessly for upwards of 36 straight hours, rescuing their neighbors, their friends, and total strangers, from the rising waters.

This reminds me of comments made by the local pastor soon after Hurricane Katrina, words that bothered me at the time as not quite right, as somehow missing the mark.  Basically, he saw the devastation — and the rampant looting and crime — as evidence of our human fallen nature, our total depravity.  He went on to say that all of us in that situation (New Orleans flooding), and certainly unsaved people, would have done the exact same thing and behaved the same way, because that’s how people behave in catastrophic situations, when the restraints of law and order are removed.  He even mentioned the specifics, that we would all be getting out our guns and shooting at others, as part of acting in our own interest, because we’re all such wicked sinners.

Certainly it is true that sometimes such natural disasters bring out the worst in humankind, as witness New Orleans.  But our history also tells of situations where people come together and help each other out.  I think of the heroic people of Denmark during WWII — not particularly pious Christians, but ordinary citizens who had nothing against their Jewish neighbors and helped them escape Hitler by sending them out in boats to nearby Sweden; now we can add the Nashville flooding incident to the list of many such positive responses to a bad situation.

At the time of the above remarks, I lacked the precise understanding to explain the error. It was more of a recognition that, by God’s grace, not everyone, not even every lost person, thinks like a criminal.  For one thing, not everyone keeps plenty of guns around to act out as the mobs in New Orleans did.  Just because man is sinful does not mean that every person will behave at their very worst in such situations.

Most likely, the local pastor was connecting the post-Katrina events with a common misunderstanding concerning the doctrine of total depravity.  Many people have thought that total depravity refers to outward behavior, that we are as bad as we can be; and on that basis C.S. Lewis even said some clever words in his rejection of the doctrine.  Yet as I’ve learned through good Bible teaching from S. Lewis Johnson, total depravity instead means that all of our faculties are touched by sin — our minds, wills, and emotions — so that we are unable to please God.  To quote S. Lewis Johnson from one of several times that he explained this:

Now it is not total depravity in the sense that we are as bad as we can be.  We are proving that we are not as bad as we can be because tomorrow our society is worse than it is today, as a general rule.  And the chances are that individuals are worse tomorrow than they are today.  So we’re not as bad as we can be.  When we say that man is totally depraved, we mean that all of their faculties are touched by sin: their mind, their wills, their emotions.  Those features that make up their faculties, they’re all twisted and warped by sin.  They’re even capable of certain thoughts that even the world approves of as benevolent thoughts, very good thoughts.  But all parts of them are touched by sin; that’s what total depravity means.

Thank God that we really are not as bad as we can be, as we enjoy God’s common grace to us in this world.  Let us also praise God for the good things coming out of the events in Nashville, that even in the midst of the flooding mess, they’re surviving and helping each other out.  We can recognize that we are sinners saved by God’s grace, without constantly beating ourselves down with pious-sounding words about how we would all act like criminals if our community was flooded — instead holding to a proper and sober view (not too highly or too negatively) of ourselves (Romans 12:3) and what God has given us.