Author Archives: Tim Enloe

Resident Pilgrims

Reformed author Michael Horton has pointed out the paradox of two old Evangelical hymns, the one which says “This is my Father’s world,” and the other which says “This world is not my home; I’m just passing through.” Horton wondered, rightly I believe, “If this is my Father’s world, why am I just passing through?” Although a prominent strain of Christian spirituality holds that the only things which really matter are the things which are eternal, Christians are people who in fact have two distinguishable ends: a spiritual end and a temporal end.

We are, born by grace, indeed citizens of the heavenly kingdom who are passing through this world on our way to the place that Christ is preparing for us. But at the same time, born by nature, we are also citizens of the earthly kingdom. As Christians, we have two ends and two citizenships. It is not only the life to come, “when we’ve been there ten thousand years” (as the old hymn goes) that matters. This life, our life in the here-and-now, also matters.

It is certainly possible to be a “worldly” Christian in the sense of culpably forgetting one’s spiritual duties and becoming infected with the ideals and mode of living of “this present darkness.” As Christians we are, of course, to shun this sense of being “worldly.” But there is a sense of being a “worldly” Christian that is actually a good thing: the sense in which we care about this world in which God has placed us and strive to use the abilities He has given us to positively impact this world.

The fields are white unto harvest, and we must work in the fields – we must be concerned with the spiritual end of both ourselves and our fellow men (Luke 10:2). But at the same time, there is more to this life than working the fields: “Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works” (Ecc. 9:7).

True, indeed, is this: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.” (Mt. 6:19-20) But equally true, indeed, is this: “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun” (Ecc. 8:15).

What all this means, I think, is that as Christians we are not just pilgrims. We are passing through, but we are not just passing through. “This world is not my home” does not mean this world is not our home in any sense at all; it means that this world is not our final home. Like the great heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, we look for the world to come. But like the great heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 we still have to live in this world. Like Abraham, we look for a city whose builder is God. But like the Jews in captivity, we should “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.” (Jer. 29:7)

Like a lot of things in Christianity – predestination and free will, Scripture and tradition, men as justified and sinful, the kingdom already here and not yet here, Jesus as God and man – the notions of who we are and what we are supposed to be doing are wrapped up in paradox. We are bound for the Promised Land, but until we arrive there we have to live here. The Kingdom of which we are a part is not of this world, but it is in this world. Thus, as Christians we are pilgrims but also residents.

Exploring what it means to be a “resident pilgrim” is what this website is about.

“Lead Quiet and Peaceable Lives”

I’ve found myself wondering of late how 1 Thess. 4:11-12 and 1 Tim. 2:2 pertain to our popular conservative Christian activity of “culture warring,” especially when election fever gets hold of us and we start pining after that old Puritan “shining city on a hill.” Both of these passages enjoin Christians to live in a way that seems opposed to the frenetic, gun-slinging ways of “culture warring.” To wit:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thess. 4:11-12)

Pray for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Tim. 2:2)

As I’ve tried to think these passages through to determine what application they might have to our present cultural circumstances, it’s occurred to me that there may be a parallel between ourselves and the early Christians to whom these epistles were directly written.  That parallel subsists in the fact that in both societies Christians were a minority voice in an overwhelmingly ungodly cultural stream.  For the first 300 years of the Faith, Christians were not only a cultural minority, but were frequently subjected to terrific persecutions.  “Christian culture” (to use today’s terminology) advanced by (to use that day’s terminology) the seed of “the blood of the martyrs,” not by the exercise of freedom in the voting booth.  It was in the context of a governmental system in which most people had no voice that the early Christians were exhorted to seek to live “quiet and peaceable lives” so that they might win the respect of outsiders to the Faith.

At first glance this doesn’t seem all that parallel to our situation.  For, as we all know, it’s quite popular for politically-active Christian leaders today to up-play America’s “Judaeo-Christian heritage” and to claim that we are a “Christian nation” in order to rev up the voting bloc to pull that lever for The Favored Candidate Who Will Best Move Us Toward Godliness.  This seems to me to be mostly just the self-insulating rhetoric of a sub-culture rather than a reflection of the actual mainstream culture.  We are a nation with many millions of self-professing Christians in it, but to take this fact, combine it with the historical situation of our having been founded largely by Christians, and deduce from these facts that we are a “Christian nation” in the sense of a culture permeated with Christian assumptions seems unwarranted.

As I look at the historical record, it seems clear to me that a real “Christian nation” will certainly have many sins, but it will, despite those sins, look far different than a non-Christian (or at least post-Christian) nation that just happens to have many Christians in it.  And I believe we are the latter, not the former.  The Roman Empire for the first 300 years of Christianity had many sins in it, but no one thought it was a “Christian nation” just because it had many Christians in it.  After the conversion of the Empire with Constantine, Christians started treating the Empire like a “Christian nation,” and though it still had many sins in it, its fundamental course as a “Christian nation” was demonstrably different from when it had been just a pagan nation with many Christians in it.  Christians gained real cultural power, and put it to good effect for the next millennium.

Contrary to the Roman Empire prior to Constantine, America started out as a real “Christian nation” and continued that way for a while.  But history seems clear enough that step-by-step American Christians gave the store away to unbelievers, until at last we live in a so-called “Christian nation” that aborts millions of babies every year, demands that Christians keep their religion out of education, and the voting booth, pursues unjust wars all over the globe in the name of the god Demos, continually courts naked avarice in its domestic and foreign economic policies, and teeters on the brink of redefining marriage as including “LGBTs” (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgendered people).  I don’t see how it’s intelligible to claim that this sort of country is a genuine “Christian nation.”  At best it’s a nation with many Christians in it, but that doesn’t make it a “Christian nation.”

But regardless of how that debate (for it will surely be one!) might turn out, the question about seeking to live a quiet and peaceable life remains on the table.  Christians who are gung-ho for “culture warring” seem often to pursue their war on the basis that this is, in fact, a “Christian nation” and that, therefore, we Christians ought to fight for it.  We ought to use every weapon at our disposal, especially political ones, to war against the forces of darkness trying to corrupt our “Judaeo-Christian heritage” and replace it with “secular humanism.”  They don’t believe the replacement has fully happened yet, and they think that culture-warring is the way to keep it from fully happening.  The problem is that if one is spending one’s days conducting the cultural equivalent of World War I trench warfare, one is not aspiring to live a quiet and peaceable life that wins the respect of outsiders, as the Scriptures cited above say.

Is there a way to reconcile this seeming contradiction?  I should make clear that I am not a political quietist.  I do not believe we Christians should accept the demands of Modernity that we keep our faith private, locked up inside our hearts and the walls of our churches, never daring to bring it into engagement with the larger culture.  Since I am Reformed and some of my readers are as well, I should also say that I am no fan of the so-called “R2K” theology of Westminster West.  This inquiry I am making has nothing to do with the notion that we should be happy with what one professor at that seminary calls “A Secular Faith.”  I am a firm believer in Christians being active in our culture and seeking to transform it for Christ.  Many readers know well that I spend a great deal of time trying to apply classical Christian ideas about politics to our present political circumstances, so the last thing in the world I can be justly accused of is writing a post like this because I am some sort of quasi-gnostic who thinks only “spiritual” things matter.  What I am asking in this post concerns the manner in which we work for cultural transformation.  I am asking a how question, not a whether question.

So, this said, how do the above-cited verses pertain to our political activity as culture-transforming Christians?  The early Christians, to whom those epistles were directly addressed, changed the culture over several centuries by living quiet and peaceable lives that more often than not culminated in martyrdom.  There might be something to an argument that there is a parallel between us and them, and that the way forward for us, in this seemingly post-Christian culture, is also martyrdom – if not physical martyrdom, perhaps another form.  But again, they lived under a governmental system on the operations of which they had little to no say.  Although Scripture’s truths themselves never change, most thinking Christians realize that the applications of those truths might from time to time change.  We don’t live in the same governmental situation as those who first read Paul’s epistles.  Does (or should) that fact change how we apply Paul’s words to our own lives?

Is culture-warring an acceptable activity since our system of government allows us to mobilize and try to change the laws we live under?  Or do those simple words from so long ago mean precisely the same thing for us as they did for Paul’s original readers?  Or, perhaps a third way: is there a way actually to combine culture-warring with seeking a quiet and peaceable life?  I have some ideas on the third possibility, but I’d like first to hear from others.

On the Relevance of Thomas Aquinas to Protestant Thought

A few years ago, I was asked to write a short piece on the relevance of Thomas Aquinas to Protestant thought.   Such a broad topic deserves a much longer exposition, which in a number of ways I am not qualified to give,  so in the spirit not of scholarly analysis but of lay exhortation, I would suggest three basic themes that should interest us as Protestants in Aquinas.

First, Aquinas helped theology to recover the importance of this world as the sphere of God’s redemptive actions.  Prior to his day, most theologians focused on the next world so intensively that this world was drastically de-emphasized.  Although he is often criticized for making serious use of Aristotle’s philosophy, it was by the constructive, biblically-oriented use of Aristotle’s concern for this world that Aquinas was able to point Christian theology back in the direction of embracing the created world as a good thing.  Though he was by no means a proto-Protestant, this theme of Aquinas’ would find eventual fulfillment in the Reformation, which freed the ordinary Christian to serve God in a way that, while not being of the world nevertheless remained firmly in it.

Second, Aquinas shows us a constructive way to relate the teachings of the Bible to a robust use of the intellectual side of our human nature.  Aquinas defined faith as simple trust in the things that God tells us, that is, simple trust in the authority of God, just because it is God who speaks.  Belief in God’s Word does not require rational proof, for faith as a way of knowing truth transcends the best that our finite reason can accomplish on its own.  Nevertheless, Aquinas also insists that reason can play a significant role in the Christian life by providing a way to systematically and intelligently articulate to the world the things that we believe just because God says they are true.  Reason does not provide faith itself, but is the perambula fidei, the “preambles to faith.”  As such, it is always the servant of faith – a most useful servant, indeed.

Third, Aquinas shows us a constructive way to engage contrary worldviews.  Much of his work, which rationally articulated the content of what Christians hold to be true by faith, came about because of the need to answer false worldviews – in his day, Judaism and Islam.  But far from getting frustrated with falsehood and those who militantly defend it, and far from adopting a merely negative, polemical posture against falsehood, Aquinas held that faith and reason never do truly conflict, but always mutually support each other.  Consequently, he was able to engage contrary worldviews with respect for the rational nature of their adherents as men made in God’s image, and yet at the same time, argue against them with confidence that at the end of the day, Christian theology would always stand vindicated against the claims of other religions.

Notes on Apologetics

Introduction

The word “apologetics” comes from the Greek apologia.  This is the word that was used in the ancient Greek and later the Roman court systems to describe giving a defense against a prosecution.

The basic word apologia appears in Acts 22:1 and 25:16 in the context of the Apostle Paul giving a verbal defense of his faith before the authorities.  So, apologetics is essentially “giving a defense of the Christian Faith when people raise objections to it or ask questions about it.

Why should we be interested in apologetics?  The most basic reason is that there are many examples in the Bible itself of God’s people “giving a defense” against objections to their faith.

The locus classicus, or classical place in the Bible, that talks about apologetics is I Peter 3:15, which says – “Sanctify the Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you…”

That is the Scripture that is most often quoted as a reason for doing apologetics.  It is important to understand, however, that that is not all that verse says.  Most who quote the verse to show why apologetics should be done do not quote the last part of it, which says, “…with gentleness and reverence.”  

That’s very important!  We are, indeed, supposed to be always ready to “give an answer,” but we are supposed to give that answer “with gentleness and reverence.”  The next verse, verse 16, goes on to say, “Having a good conscience, that those who speak evil of you may be ashamed of their false accusations about your good faith in Christ.”

So then, the purpose of apologetics is to answer those who raise objections to or ask questions about our faith in Christ, so that we can show that we have a good conscience and make them ashamed to speak ill of us because of our faith in Christ.

Unbelief’s Questions and Objections

There are an enormous number of objections to the Faith and questions about it floating around in today’s world, and they arise from practically every area of human experience.  There are historical objections, philosophical objections, scientific objections, aesthetic objections, moral objections, and so on.

There are two basic ways that Christians approach these various objections: either we can take them seriously on their own terms and seek to give intelligent, responsible answers to them, or we can refuse to take them seriously on their own terms and so instead seek to win the battle rhetorically.  We have The Truth, They do not, and what’s more, They are stupid idolators who know the The Truth but refuse to give assent to it.

The second approach seems to be borne out by Romans 1:18 ff., in which Paul seems to mock unbelievers as fools who have deliberately exchanged the truth about God for lies because they do not like the truth and have set themselves against God.

The first approach, taking the unbelievers seriously on their own terms, seems to be borne out by Acts 17, the famous encounter between Paul and the pagan Athenians on Mars Hill.

In light of passages such as these, a pretty serious disagreement that comes up among Christians as they seek to do apologetics well.  Should we follow the model of Romans 1 or the model of Acts 17?  Romans 1 is extremely confrontational; Acts 17 is extremely personal, really, almost downright friendly.

In other words, is apologetics – the giving of defense speeches – prolegomena or just another form of witnessing?  The answer to this question can directly affect how we approach our task to answer the questions and objections of unbelievers.

Prolegomena means “things said beforehand,” before the main body of a message is given.  In this context it means that apologetics is what some have called “pre-evangelism,” or, the process of removing intellectual obstacles and excuses that people put up so that the claims of the Gospel do not seem quite so powerful to them.

Since it is “things said beforehand,” prolegomena is not a matter of confronting someone with a demand to do something.  By its very nature as a rational enterprise, it has to be more “low-key,” focused more upon setting the stage for the main message.  It is not itself the main message.

So, if apologetics is prolegomena, then the way we approach the objections and questions of unbelievers is to answer their questions and objections with gentleness and respect, treating the questions and objections as if they are good ones deserving of good answers.

If we approach apologetics as prolegomena, we will not see its goal as winning the soul of the unbeliever, but only as removing obstacles to his properly hearing the Gospel, which comes after we’ve discussed his objections.

Witnessing, by contrast, is a common word for presenting people with the Gospel and calling them to repent of their sin and come to Christ.

If we approach apologetics as just another form of witnessing, we will present our defense arguments as demands for repentance.  This is incorrect, because repentance only comes when God grants it, and He grants it in the context of the preaching of the Gospel.  “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17).

Also, the natural man cannot understand the things of the spirit because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14), and it is God who sovereignly raises spiritually dead men up from their graves and makes them alive (Col. 2:13).

In this light, I think the way to evaluate whether apologetics should proceed in Romans 1 style or Acts 17 style is to be aware of the context of each of these passages.  It is a generally accepted rule of biblical interpretation that the interpreter should observe genre and context, and allow these, and not his own preexisting theological commitment or system, to inform his interpretation of the text.

Romans is a letter written by a Christian to other Christians for the purpose of making the theological case that all men are sinners and justly deserve God’s wrath.  It is a very rhetorical passage that is striving to make a universally condemnatory point so that it can subsequently make a very particular redemptive point.

Acts 17, on the other hand, is a direct, face-to-face encounter between a Christian and unbelievers for the purpose of persuading the unbelievers that, on the basis of things that they already know to be true, they ought to go the whole way and embrace the full message about God made manifest in Christ.

The defense of the Gospel is not itself the Gospel.  Apologetics, then, is not the same thing as preaching the Gospel.  Its goal is not to save a man’s soul, but to illumine his mind in the way that the Church Fathers called preparatio evangelii, preparation for the Gospel.  It is not another way to demand the repentance of the unbeliever.  It is only a way to remove objections to the Gospel so that the preaching of the Gospel is not obscured by extraneous matters.

As R.C. Sproul wonderfully expressed it, “If theology is the queen of the sciences, apologetics is her handmaid.  It introduces people to the queen and demonstrates her majesty.”[1]

Dialectic vs. Eristic

Dialectic means respectful, rational conversation.  It’s ordinary usage in Greek referred to philosophical discussions, such as those in which men like Socrates and Aristotle engaged.  But we should recognize that dialectic is not just for pagans.  Scripture itself uses the word to describe several of Paul’s defense speeches.

For example, in Acts 17, in both Thessalonica and Athens, the word dialegomenos, meaning “to argue” in the sense of making rational arguments in conversation with other people, is used of Paul’s attempts to persuade the unbelievers of the truth about Jesus.  The same word comes up in Acts 18:4 and Acts 19:8 in the context of Paul’s arguments in the Jewish synagogues.

Eristic, on the other hand, means arguing just for the sake of arguing, or arguing to fulfill some emotional need in ourselves.  The Greek word eris means “strife.”  Several places in the New Testament warn us to avoid strife and instead to cultivate such godly virtues as peace, joy, contentment, and a love that covers a multitude of sins.

Eristic can occur when we feel threatened by another viewpoint and respond out of our feelings of being threatened.  It can also occur when we think we know a whole lot about something, and our opponent does not, and so we are going to let him have it, to show how ignorant he is and how informed we ourselves are.

Apologetics should not follow the eristic mode, because it is not about arguing to prove ourselves superior, or arguing because we like to argue, or lashing out because we feel threatened and feel we need to say something in response.

A key point: apologetics properly considered is not unremitting ideological warfare against other human beings, as some maintain.  It is defensive, not offensive.  We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against demonic powers – we may be talking to an atheist or Muslim or a Hindu, but that human person is not our enemy: the demonic forces of falsehood and deception that motivate his position are our enemies.

We are fighting the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places, and this sort of fighting is done with spiritual weapons.  What we want to be doing toward the human person who faces us with objections and questions is to talk to them, not attempt to destroy them.  If apologetics is giving a defense of our faith, then we must attempt to persuade them of our position.  That is what a defense speech in a court of law is about, and again, the term apologia originally came from the legal world.

Consider what King Agrippa says to Paul after Paul’s defense speech: “almost you persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:28).  Also consider some of the hearers at the Areopagus, who, after Paul’s discourse said, “we want to hear you some more on this matter” (Acts 17:32).  Because of Paul’s defense speeches, his apologetics, the people in these passages were wavering on the edge of being persuaded.

This all sounds nice, but of course there are people out there who do not wish to be persuaded of Christianity and who will, in fact, treat their interactions with us as warfare and ourselves as objects to be destroyed.  In such cases, we may reluctantly, have to go to war.  But warfare is not apologetics.  Warfare is more properly called polemics – apologetics is “defense;” polemics is “attack.”

Sometimes apologetics and polemics may overlap.  Let’s say we are defending creation against evolution, and in the course of our positive defense of creation we find ourselves making negative arguments against evolution.  At that point, we are transitioning from apologetics, defense, to polemics, attack.

However, whether doing apologetics or polemics we must remember to conduct ourselves dialectically, not eristically.  Dialectic means conversational.  It is a give-and-take process of reasoning with someone in order to persuade them of the truth of our position.  Again, we are talking to a human being made in the image of God, not monsters.  We are trying to persuade a person, not destroy an enemy.

Eristic is entirely different.  An eristic approach to another person is an approach that is based on hostility, not on gentleness and respect, as 1 Pet. 3:15 enjoins us.  Our goal when we do apologetics should be to model dialectic, not eristic.

Consider the way that the Apostle Paul treated the pagan idolators on Mars Hill in Acts 17.  Does he mock them to scorn?  Call them stupid for not believing truth?  Treat them like enemies to be destroyed?  No.  Paul treats the pagan idolators as human beings deserving respect because they are image bearers of God and, significantly, because for all their paganism and idolatry, there are in fact a number of truths about God and God’s world that they know, and Paul uses these as stepping stones to proclaim what they do not know.

Unfortunately, the line between dialectic and eristic is sometimes easily blurred because there often seems to be so much at stake.  We can all too easily begin to feel like we must defeat the skeptic or else the Faith itself will suffer defeat.

This is a false perception: Truth considered in itself is not dependent on anyone’s ability to cogently state it and defeat all comers in battle; likewise, Christianity is not dependent on our defenses of it.

The eristic approach is also easy to get wrapped up in because apologetics is often very “heady” stuff.  It often involves heavy duty intellectual content, and it is very easy to get puffed up about all that we think we know in our heads.

This too is a false perception: no matter how much we learn there will always be 1,000 things that we know next to nothing or perhaps even nothing about.  The more we learn, the more we should remember the ignorance we came out of, and so the more we should try to cultivate humility in how we present what we know to others.  This is especially true because we are defending our Faith, which is close to our heart.

A passion for truth is not the same thing as a passion for fighting.  Again, we need to remember that we are talking to human beings made in God’s image, not monsters.  We are trying to persuade them, not destroy them.  As Augustine wisely said in the City of God, Christians should always remember that God’s kingdom gets its members from the Devil’s kingdom, and so we should “bear with their hostility until we find them confessing the faith” (I.35).


[1] Classical Apologetics (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 1984), pg. 16.