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Christian education

A Christian perspective on 2+2

What does math have to do with God? Many people see no connection. Aren't logic, numbers and geometry the same for Christians and atheists? Math is thought to be the hardest subject to integrate with Christianity. Yet, there are very close links between math and God. Mathematical realism The key question concerns truth. Most mathematicians believe that mathematical truths such as "6+1=7" are universally and eternally true, independent of human minds. They believed that they are discovering properties of, say, numbers, rather than merely inventing them. This view of math dates back to Pythagoras (582-507 BC) and Plato (427-347 BC). They held that mathematical concepts apply best to ideal objects. For example, geometry deals with exact circles, but no physical object is exactly circular – perfect circles don’t actually exist. Furthermore, such things as the number "7" seem to exist at all times or, even, beyond time. This led to the notion that math exists in an ideal world of eternal truth. This is called mathematical realism. Where do such eternal mathematical truths exist? Augustine (354-430) placed the ideal world of eternal truths in the mind of God. He argued that eternal truths could not arise from material things or finite human minds. Rather, mathematical truths must depend on a universal and unchanging Mind that embraces all truth. Only God can have such a mind. Thus math was held to be true because of its supposed divine origin. It was held, moreover, that God created the universe according to a rational plan that used math. Since man's was created in the image of God, it was thought that man should be able to discern the mathematical structure of creation. Indeed, since man was God's steward over creation, man had the duty to study nature and to apply the results towards the glory of God and the benefit of man. Such theological considerations were key factors motivating the scientific revolution. Most founders of modern science, such Kepler, Galileo and Newton, were all driven by their Biblical worldview. Naturalist math Ironically, the very success of mathematical science led to the demise of the Christian view. The universe seemed to be so well controlled by mathematically formulated laws that God was no longer deemed necessary. Such over-confidence in scientific laws led to a denial of biblical miracles. This undermined biblical authority. Consequently, many scientists banished God and embraced naturalism, the notion that nothing exists beyond nature. THE LOSS OF CERTAINTY With the rejection of a divine Mind, there was no longer any place for eternal truth. This, in turn, led to the collapse of mathematical realism. Naturalists came to consider math as just a human invention. But if math is just a human invention, why should it be true? Mathematicians tried to prove the truth of math using the axiomatic method. Math was to be grounded on a set of undoubtedly true, self-evident principles, called axioms, from which everything else could be derived. The axiomatic method had been used with great success by the Greek mathematician Euclid (circa 300 BC). He derived all the truths about normal (or Euclidean) geometry from only 10 axioms. This became the model for the rest of math. Towards the end of the 19th century the search was on for a set of self-evident axioms upon which all of math could be based. Any system that yields a contradiction is, of course, false. A system of axioms that will never yield a contradiction is said to be consistent. A system is said to be complete if all true theorems (and no false ones) can be derived from the axioms. The goal, then, was to find a set of axioms that could be proven to be consistent and complete for all of math. Initially, there was some success. Simple logic and Euclidean geometry were proven to be both consistent and complete. Unfortunately, in 1931 the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel proved that the program was doomed. He proved that any large system of axioms (i.e., large enough for arithmetic with addition and multiplication) will always be incomplete.  There will always be theorems that can be neither proven nor disproven by the system. Thus all of math can never be based on a finite set of axioms. Math will always be larger than our human attempts to capture it within a system of axioms. Moreover, Gödel proved also that we can never mathematically prove the consistency of any system large enough for arithmetic. Hence we cannot be sure of the validity of arithmetic, even though we use it all the time! The soundness of math now had to be accepted largely on faith. THE LIMITS OF INVENTION Rejecting theism affected not only the soundness of math but also its content. Classical math was based on the concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and infinite Ideal Mathematician. The operations and proofs allowed in classical math were those that could in principle be done by God. It was thought that, if math is just a human invention, its methods should be adjusted accordingly. Only those mathematical concepts and proofs were to be considered valid that could be mentally constructed in a finite number of explicit steps. The "there exists" of classical math was to be replaced by "we can construct." This came to be known as constructive math. It entailed a new approach to both logic and proofs. Classical math is based on what is called two-valued logic. Any mathematical proposition is either true or false. Take, for example, Goldbach's Conjecture concerning primes. A prime is a number that is divisible only by itself and 1 (e.g., 2,3,5,7 & 11 are the first five primes). Goldbach's Conjecture asserts that any even number can be written as the sum of two primes (e.g., 10=3+7; 20=13+7). No one has ever found a number for which it did not hold. But no one has as yet been able to prove it. Classically, this conjecture is either true or false, even though we do not yet know which it is. Constructionists, however insist that there is a third possibility: a proposition is neither true nor false until we can construct an actual, finite proof. The rejection of two-valued logic restricts one's ability to prove theorems. Classical math often uses an indirect method of proof called Proof by Contradiction. To proof a theorem, one first assumes the theorem to be false and shows that this leads to a contradiction; hence the initial assumption is false, which means that the theorem is true. Since such proofs rely on two-valued logic, constructionists reject them. They accept only those theorems that can be directly derived from the axioms. Unhappily, this means rejecting so many results of classical math that one lacks the sophisticated math needed in modern physics. EVOLUTIONARY CONJECTURES If math is just a human invention how did it ever get started? Naturalists propose that evolution has hard-wired our brains to contain small numbers (e.g., 1,2,3…) as well as a basic ability to add and subtract. They conjecture that all our mathematical thoughts come from purely physical connections between neurons. Even if an evolutionary struggle for survival could account for an innate ability for simple arithmetic, it is hard to see where more advanced math comes from. Our ability for advanced math is well in advance of mere survival skills. The evolutionary approach fails to explain also the amazing mathematical intuition of leading mathematicians. Further, if our mathematical ideas are just the result of the physics of neural connections, why should they be true? Such accounts of math cannot distinguish true results from false ones. Indeed, if all knowledge is based on neural connections, so is the idea that all knowledge is based on neural connections. Hence, if true, we have no basis for believing it to be true. In spite of naturalist objections, most mathematicians remain realists. They view new theorems as discoveries rather than inventions. The excitement of exploring an objective mathematical universe is a powerful incentive for research. Realism explains why mathematicians widely separated in space, time, and culture end up with the same mathematical results. Moreover, if math is just a human invention, why is it so applicable to the physical world? Math is indispensable for science. Further, if math is a human invention, one might ask: how did math exist before Adam? Are we to believe that "2+2=4" did not hold, so that two pairs of apples did not add up to four? Christianity and math How does math fits within a Christian worldview? The Bible tells us that man was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-30). The divine image included not only righteousness but also rationality and creativity. This involves the capacity for abstract thought, as well as the ability to reason, to discern and to symbolize. Man was created with the innate potential to do math, to help fulfill his role as God's steward (Gen. 1:28). Adam could have confidence in his mental abilities because God created these to function properly. He was the result of God's purposeful plan rather than an evolutionary accident. With Adam's fall into sin, man lost much of his original image. Yet, man's mathematical ability is still largely functional. It seems that we are born with various basic, innate mathematical abilities such as those of logic, counting and distinguishing shapes. JUSTIFYING MATH How can we justify human math from this basis? One could try to ground the soundness of math on the Bible. After all, the Bible frequently uses logical arguments (e.g., I Cor. 15:12-50 or Matt. 12:25-29) and arithmetic operations (e.g., Luke 12:52). Gordon Clark claimed that all the laws of logic could be deduced from the Bible. Similarly, J.C. Keister asserted that all the axioms of arithmetic are illustrated in Scripture. Although such biblical examples may confirm our rules of arithmetic and logic, they fall short of rigorous proof. One must be careful in drawing general conclusions from a limited number of specific cases. Moreover, this method gives no basis for the vast bulk of math that extends beyond basic arithmetic and logic. A better approach might be to ground the truth of math on the attributes of the biblical God. For example, God's character has a logical aspect. God's word is truth (John 17:17); God never lies (Titus 1:2) and is always faithful (Ps. 117:2). God means what he says, not the opposite; hence the law of non-contradiction holds. God's identity is eternally the same; hence the logical law of identity must be eternally valid. Thus the very nature of God implies the eternal and universal validity of the laws of logic. Logic is not above God, but derives from God's constant and non-contradictory nature. God's character also has a numerical aspect: the Biblical God is tri-une, consisting of three distinct persons. Since the three persons of the Godhead – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are eternal, so are numbers. Consider further God's infinite power and knowledge. God knows all things. This includes not just all facts about the physical world but also all necessary truths and even all possibilities. As such, God's knowledge surely embraces all possible mathematical truths. Thus math exists independent of human minds. God surely knows whether any proposition is true or false. Hence the usage of two-valued logic in math is justified. God is the source of all being, upholding everything. He even establishes necessary truths and contingent possibilities. God upholds all truths, including truths about math. God surely knows whether any mathematical proposition is true or false. God's knowledge includes that of the actual infinite. The concept of infinity is crucial to the philosophy of math. We can distinguish between potential infinity and actual infinity. Potential infinity is the notion of endlessness that arises from counting. Given any large number, we can always obtain a yet larger one by adding 1 to it. There seems to be no largest number. Potentially we could go on forever. Actual infinity, on the other hand, is the notion that the set of numbers exists as a completed set. Augustine, however, considered actual infinity to be one of the mathematical entities that existed in God's mind. He wrote, "Every number is known to him 'whose understanding cannot be numbered' (Ps. 147:5)." Since God knows all things possible, this must surely encompass also the totality of all possible numbers. A BASIS FOR MATH Modern math is based on set theory. A set is a collection of objects. We can consider the set of all dogs, or the set of all even numbers, and so on. We use brackets {} to denote a set. Thus, for example, the set of even numbers is written {2,4,6...}. Treating each set as an entity in its own right, we can then do various operations on these sets, such as adding sets, comparing their sizes, etc. Remarkably, almost all advanced math can be derived from the nine axioms of modern set theory. Not all math, since Gödel proved that all of math can never be derived from a limited number of axioms. Yet, it does cover all of the math that most mathematicians ever use in practice. So far no contradictions have been found. Can we be sure, however, that no contradictions will ever be found in this system? Gödel, you will recall, proved that it cannot be proven mathematically that the system is consistent. The best we can do is to appeal to the plausibility of the individual axioms. Everyone agrees that the axioms all seem to be self-evidently true when applied to finite sets. Several of these axioms, however, deal with infinite sets. They postulate that certain operations on finite sets apply also to infinite sets. Infinite sets are needed to get beyond number theory (which just concerns whole numbers) to real numbers (such as √2 = 1.414213..., which requires an infinite number of decimals to write out fully). Real numbers are needed for calculus, upon which physics heavily relies. The axioms concerning infinite sets are rejected by constructionists since infinite sets cannot be humanly constructed in a finite number of steps. However, these axioms are very plausible given an infinite, omniscient and omnipotent being. Georg Cantor (1845-1918), the founder of modern set theory, justified his belief in infinite sets by his belief in an infinite God. He thought of sets in terms of what God could do with them. Cantor believed that God's infinite knowledge implies an actual infinity of thoughts. It included, at the very least, the infinite set of natural numbers {1,2,3...}. Actual infinity could thus be considered to exist objectively as an actual, complete set in God's mind. Cantor believed that even larger infinite numbers existed in God's mind. Even today, almost every attempt to justify the principles of set theory relies on some notion of idealized abilities of the Omnipotent Mathematician. The existence of sets depends upon a certain sort of intellectual activity - a collecting or "thinking together." According to Alvin Plantinga,

"If the collecting or thinking together had to be done by human thinkers there wouldn't be nearly enough sets - not nearly as many as we think in fact there are. From a theistic point of view, sets owe their existence to God's thinking things together."

Plantinga grounds set theory on God's infinite power and knowledge. He concludes that theists thus have a distinct advantage in justifying set theory. A detailed theistic justification of modern set theory has been developed by Christopher Menzel (2001). Ultimately, the consistency and certainty of math can be grounded upon the multi-faceted nature of God Himself. Trust in God generates confidence in math. Bibliography John Byl’s The Divine Challenge: On Matter, Mind, Math & Meaning (2004) Christopher Menzel’s "God and Mathematical Objects" in Mathematics in a Postmodern Age: A Christian Perspective (2001) edited by Russell W. Howell & W. James Bradley Nickel, James Nickel’s Mathematics: Is God Silent? (2001) Alvin Plantinga’s "Prologue: Advice to Christian Philosophers" in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy (1990) edited by Michael D. Beaty Vern Poythress’ "A Biblical View of Mathematics" in Foundations of Christian Scholarship (1976) edited by Gary North

This article first appeared in the February 2008 issue of Reformed Perspective under the title, "A Christian perspective on math." Dr. John Byl is the author of "God and Cosmos: A Christian View of Time, Space, and the Universe" and "The Divine Challenge: On Matter, Mind, Math & Meaning." He blogs at Bylogos.blogspot.com

Some guidelines in teaching math  The goal of Reformed education is to prepare students to serve the Lord (I Cor. 10:3). This entails teaching them to think and function within a Christian worldview. In any discipline one must teach not only the subject matter but how this coheres with other disciplines and finds meaning within the Christian worldview. God's truth functions as a comprehensive unity. Math should thus be taught in terms of various contexts. 1. Mathematical Context In addition to mathematical knowledge we should instill insight into why math works, an appreciation of its beauty and a love for math. 2. Theological Context Math must be connected to the Christian worldview. We should show how Christianity explains mathematical truth, the rational structure of the universe, and our ability to do math. Studying math should be motivated by the love of God and directed to His glory. Studying math tells us something about God (e.g., His wisdom, coherence, boundlessness, consistency, dependability, righteousness). 3. Applied Context We should illustrate how math is an important tool for other disciplines, such as science. Math helps us to fulfill the cultural mandate and to more deeply appreciate God’s wonderful world. We should stress both the strengths and limits of mathematical models: these have to be applied and interpreted in ways that are consistent with Scripture. More generally, math helps to develop logical thinking and analytical problem-solving abilities, skills that are useful in all facets of life. 4. Social context Math teaching can be enriched by linking topics to their historical-cultural context. One could tell interesting anecdotes about pertinent mathematicians, touching also upon their religious motivation. This will bolster also the theological context since Christianity played a large role in the scientific revolution and since most leading mathematicians  (e.g., Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Euler, Cantor, Gödel) were theists.

Assorted

The Bible and Alcoholics Anonymous

The following is a transcript of a Feb. 21, 2016 Truth in Love podcast produced by the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) and used here with permission.

*****

Dr. Heath Lambert: Addiction is a common problem, in fact, for me it has been more than a common problem. My mother who died several years ago battled alcohol addiction for most of her life; she was enslaved to alcohol for over twenty years. As a little boy on up into my teens, I have been to dozens and dozens and dozens of meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). I am thankful for all the good things that AA brought into my Mom’s life to cause her ultimately to stop drinking, but it raises the question, what is a biblical response to addiction? What is a biblical understanding of AA? To help us address this very important issue, I have invited to the podcast this week, Mark Shaw. Mark is the Executive Director of Vision of Hope and a pastor at Faith Church in Lafayette, Indiana. He is also an ACBC certified counselor and is the author of The Heart of Addiction. Mark, we are glad you are with us and as we think through this issue of addiction and AA, the word addiction is really not a word that we find in the Scriptures. How should Christians think biblically about that idea? Mark Shaw: I think words are very important and they are like signposts; they point us in a direction. I think about 1 Corinthians 2:13 that says,

And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

So with biblical language in regards to words like “addiction,” – I use that in my book title – and words like “relapse” and “alcoholism”; I use those words sometimes to help people know what the problem is. Then, when I write about it in my books like The Heart of Addiction I talk about a biblical, habitual sin nature problem and one of idolatry and of sin rather than as the world characterizes addiction. Dr. Lambert: How does the world characterize addiction that is different than what the Bible understands as a habitual sin? Shaw: These words are signposts and so they point people, I think, to a disease outside of themselves; to a problem that is not me, it is not really who I am, it is my disease. It is this thing outside of them rather than recognizing it as their own sinful problem that they need Christ to forgive them of and to begin the transformation process in their own hearts. Dr. Lambert: Ok, so if that is what a biblical understanding of addiction is, then help us understand Alcoholics Anonymous; what is AA? Shaw: AA is a program that started in the 1930s by a couple of guys: Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson. They started this program and really watered down some biblical teaching and biblical truth; no other way to say it than they just watered it down to make it more appealing to other people. So, you will hear some people who say that there are biblical truths in AA and in the organization’s Big Book, and that kind of thing, which undoubtedly are true; there are some biblical truths there but they don’t go far enough. For example, one is that you admit that you are an alcoholic or you admit that you have a problem. Admission is good but confession is what the Bible says we should do. That is admission plus taking it the next step further of confessing it to a holy God that you have sinned against Him, that you need Christ’s forgiveness, and that you need this transformation to work in your heart by the Holy Spirit. There are words that they use that are good like “admission” and “making amends” and that kind of thing, but biblical truths are more excellent. Biblical truths point to the whole wisdom of God and so I think half-truths in AA can be dangerous for people. Dr. Lambert: Ok, so let’s talk about that for a little bit because there are going to be a lot of people listening to this podcast who have had some kind of experience with AA. This is an organization that has affected and impacted untold millions of people. I mentioned at the top of the podcast that my mother went to AA for years and years and years. I have been in more AA meetings than I know how to count. “Keep coming back, it works.” “It works if you work it.” “One day at a time.” I have been there; I know the stuff. I am thankful, as many who are listening to this are thankful for the good fruit that has come into the lives of people through their interaction with AA. Yet, as biblically minded Christians, we want to have concerns about AA. Why should biblically minded Christians be concerned about AA? Shaw: AA sets itself up as a spiritual program. So right there I have a moment of pause; ok this is a spiritual program, but if you read the Big Book and what it teaches, the only higher powers that it mentions are like an enlightenment and something other than Jesus. By the very definition of the program it is a higher power of your own choosing, well, that is the very definition of idolatry. If I can choose a higher power, then I can make anything my higher power and that is idolatry. Those are super huge concerns from my perspective about being careful to send people to this so-called spiritual program that says any god will do; we know there is only one true God. Then when you go to meetings, and you [Lambert] have been, they say things like, “we are spiritual people, but those people who go to church, they are religious people.” “We are spiritual they are religious.” It is characterizing you and me as though we are Pharisees; we are the rule-followers without the compassion and love of Christ. That is just unfair. My concern for biblical counselors is when you send people to these programs, don’t assume that this is a Christian program and that the teachings and the writings – the Twelve Traditions, the Twelve Promises, the Twelve Steps – are going to point them to Christ because, as I said in the beginning, the words that they choose really point people away from Christ to more of a medical solution and to more of just a worldly, secular mindset. Those are some of the dangers and concerns that I have with the program. Dr. Lambert: Many Christians have come to see that there are imperfections and significant problems in AA and so there have been efforts to try to rehabilitate AA with some kind of Christianized version; we think of programs like Celebrate Recovery. Should Christians try to rehabilitate or rescue Alcoholics Anonymous by getting rid of the bad parts and trying to insert some Christian elements into it? Shaw: Yeah, I had a friend once tell me, “When does a lie, ever added to truth, make the truth better, and when does the truth, ever added to a lie, make the lie into pure truth?” Well, it doesn’t happen. So, I like to start with truth, I like to start with the Scriptures, I like to proclaim the excellencies of Christ and point people to the riches of the Bible. I understand there are well-meaning people that are in these programs and they are doing their best and maybe it is all that is out there in their minds. I would rather just start with teaching Scripture, teaching the Word, teaching about idolatry, sin, ruling heart issues and address those matters with these people who struggle with addiction rather than using programs that kinda mix them; the world's teaching with the truth of God’s Word. I don’t think oil and water mix, I don’t think it can be done; it confuses people and it may lead them down the wrong path. Dr. Lambert: So I mentioned that my mom went to AA. In my memory as a little boy, I think she started going to AA about the time I was seven and finally was sober for what would turn out to be the rest of her life by the time I was twelve. So it took about five years for the things that were working in AA to be able to take hold. I am very thankful for that. When she went to the last rehab center they all said she was at death’s door; she nearly drank herself to death. It was interesting because from the time I was twelve to the time I was twenty-five, my mom was a miserable person. She was what her friends in AA called “a dry drunk.” She was angry; she was sad; she was promiscuous. She was one of just the nastiest people I have ever met. She was able to keep a job, she was able to keep a roof over her head unlike when she was drinking, but she wasn’t a better person. In fact, me and my brothers use to seriously wish that she would go back to drinking because you could at least live with her. When she wasn’t drunk you couldn’t live with her when she was this way. The reason I mention that is because what happened when I was twenty-five was I share the gospel with my mother for the umpteenth time...but she believed. She repented of her sins and believed, and heart change began to happen. She began to be a qualitatively different person. So for me it was this powerful demonstration – I am thankful for the good things that AA did, but really AA didn’t take my mom very far; it taught her to go to hell more efficiently. It cleaned up her life but she was still going to hell; she was not a changed person. It was the power of Jesus Christ in the Word of God that really brought her the rest of the way. What is it that the Bible adds that is so superior to the Twelve Steps? Shaw: Well, the Bible talks about our sin, our need for Christ, and that the transformation process is progressive; that we become like Christ. You know, transformation, we have been transformed in justification, we are being transformed and in sanctification, we will be transformed in glorification and in the AA program, in the Twelve Steps, you won’t hear anything about Jesus Christ, you won’t hear anything about confession of sin. You admit you are wrong but you don’t confess sin, certainly not to a holy God, because you are picking a god of your own choosing and of your own understanding. If I choose God, then who is really God? It is me; I am in that position of authority. So the Bible gives us lots of biblical truth that moves us and grows us in a deeper way and in an eternal way rather than the Twelve Step program. Which, I agree has some helpful teaching and some things in it that can really help people to be clean and sober, but our goal is not to be clean and sober, our goal is to be like Jesus for God’s glory and that part is missing in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Mark Shaw is the author of "The Heart of Addiction" and "Addiction-Proof Parenting." This article first appeared in the Sept. 2016 issue.

Humor, Theology

Humor and the life of faith

"And I knew there could be laughter On the secret face of God"  – G. K. Chesterton

*****

Nothing is quite so ironic as to talk seriously about humor. Yet it would be perverse to treat the subject of Christian humor with irreverence or anything approaching vulgarity. And by Christian humor I do not mean those harmless puns and riddles that are often classified as Bible jokes. Who is the shortest person in the Bible? Who is the only person in the Bible who doesn’t have any parents?1 If Christian humor ended there, then we might feel slightly cheated. There must be more. And indeed, humor is more than an occasional joke; it is indicative of a broader attitude to life. We see this most clearly in the word “comedy.” In literature, the term means simply a story with a happy ending – it doesn’t even have to be funny. You might say that the story of salvation is a divine comedy, for it promises a life happily ever after. Of course, to unbelievers this faith in the afterlife is itself a joke. To some extent, then, the question is who will have the last laugh. So let’s take a closer look at this comedy of salvation. Does the biblical narrative include any humor, and what role should laughter play in our life of faith? Humor in the Bible When I was still growing up – a process that may not have ended – my father sometimes liked to refer to “humor in the Bible.” But looking back I had no recollection of what he actually meant by that. Was he referring to some of those funny names in the Bible, like the ones the prophets gave to their kids? Was he thinking of Joshua, the son of Nun? I wasn’t sure, and so I figured that writing this article would be like discovering a forgotten corner of my childhood. Childhood is, of course, an appropriate metaphor for thinking about humor. Those who have studied humor in the Bible suggest, for instance, that the sober attitude of grown-ups obscures the comic aspects of Christ’s rhetoric. Elton Trueblood, in The Humor of Christ, tells how his son burst out laughing at Bible reading over the idea that someone might be so concerned about seeing a speck in someone else’s eye that he failed to notice the beam in his own eye.2 The child has not yet become accustomed to all that is at first glance merely preposterous or grotesque. Trueblood – whose views we’ll focus on here – believes that Jesus is not only a Man of Sorrows, but also a Man of Joys. Jesus’s humor comes from the incongruity of his sayings (particularly in his many paradoxes) and from his sense of irony. Surely, says Trueblood, there is an aspect of comedy in the blind leading the blind, in the notion of “saving by losing,” in the thought that a camel should go through the eye of a needle, in giving Peter the nickname “Rocky.” It is frequently the contrast between the literal and the figurative moment that provides a space for laughter, or at least for a smile. When Christ asks “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed?” our trained inclination is to answer “No, because then no one can see the lamp.” A child might respond, “That would be funny, because then the bed might catch on fire.” The examples can be multiplied – at least according to Trueblood. They show Christ not merely as an ascetic and acerbic preacher – as we sometimes imagine John the Baptist – but as a man who drank wine in genial conviviality and spoke in surprising and shocking language. Whatever reservations we may have about this slightly irreverent view of the Savior, the resulting picture actually fits surprisingly well with the general Reformed worldview, which sees Christ as restoring and renewing life and culture. We all know of Luther’s hearty humor and his penchant for beer. What is humor? There are of course problems as well. If humor encompasses everything from outright jokes to fine shades of irony, then where do we draw the line? In addition, humor is fiendishly difficult to trace in written documents, for so much depends on tone and context. Take, for instance, Trueblood’s explanation of the following words of Jesus from Luke 12:58:

As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison.

Trueblood is surely right that Jesus treats miscarriages of justice with a touch of sarcasm, but he pushes the argument too far when he tries to find the passage humorous: “What Christ seems to be advocating is a clever deal or a bribe. . . . Translated into our language, ‘It may prove to be cheaper to pay the officer than to pay the court, so why not try?’ . . . If this be humor, it is humor with an acid touch.”3 It seems more likely, though, that the adversary is not an officer of the law at all, but is rather a fellow citizen; what Jesus advocates is what we would call an “out of court settlement” – a common practice in ancient societies – and represents prudence, not humor. In the Old Testament There are two other sources of humor that require some attention. The first is, of course, the Old Testament. There are a number of places where God is said to laugh (Ps. 2:4, 37:13, 59:8; Prov. 1:26). This is the laughter of poetic justice: God laughs at the wicked. Surprisingly, the Psalms also suggest that the proper response to God’s laughing judgment should be joy: “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth” (Ps. 98:8-9; cf. Ps. 96). Judgment is no laughing matter, we instinctively feel. However, as the Philistines found out when they placed the ark of God in the temple of Dagon, God will have the last laugh: “When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord!” (1 Sam. 5:3). The man most famed for wisdom in the Old Testament also had a wry sense of humor, something that is often missed. Consider the following ironic passages from Ecclesiastes, that book that we take such pains to explain away:

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1-2).

All things are wearisome more than one can say (1:8).

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body (12:12).

Who writes a book to explain that everything is meaningless? The Teacher sounds tired before he even begins. In fact, in an amusing turn of phrase, he explains that he is too weary to explain weariness. Perhaps the appropriate response when faced with such irony is laughter. There is a bad sort of biblical humor But there is also a negative type of humor. There are hints of it in the nervous laughter of Sarah. This is the laughter of those who sit in the seat of scoffers. The man who suffered most from such mockery was Jesus. All those involved in crucifying him try to turn him into a joke. And the joke is always the same: how can a crucified man be king? The soldiers dress him up in a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns before they torture him. Pilate practices his own version of the laughter of judgment by placing a placard above his head that reads: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). The joke then gets passed on to the chief priests and the teachers of the law, who focus on the final paradox of Christ’s ministry: “‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him’” (27:42). The laughter of the cross is the laughter of Sarah magnified; it is the laughter of skepticism, and it is at heart a nervous defense against the laughter of faith and judgment. As Paul realized, the Christian faith is foolishness to the world, because doubt manifests itself through mockery and laughter. Laughter and tears, comedy and tragedy – the two poles are actually not as far removed from each other as we sometimes think. Since laughter lives on the border with terror and tragedy, it is not surprising that we also find it at the cross. True joy What does this all mean for our life of faith? An elder of mine once pointed out that one of the great gifts of the Christian religion is the joy it provides. And this joy is not simply confined to a kind of internal spiritual peace, although it is that too. The writer G. K. Chesterton suggests that, compared to the Christian, the secular man is generally happier as he approaches earth, but sadder and sadder as he approaches the heavens.4 True – but the happiness of the Christian also extends downwards – to the earth renewed in Christ. There remains one obstacle, however. Franz Kafka once said – in a comment about Christianity – that “a forced gaiety is much sadder than an openly acknowledged sorrow."5 I think this is exactly the problem we face as Christians today. How can we demonstrate the happiness that comes with the good news in a spontaneous way? Laughter is something that you shouldn’t force. So, how can you purposefully live a life of laughter and joy? I think it has to start with something further down in your heart; it has to start with faith and hope. If you start here, then laughter will inevitably come bubbling up. And this is not a nervous laughter, like the laughter of Sarah or the mocking of scoffers – this is a wholesome and healthy laughter. This is the joy of Christ. Endnotes 1 In case you haven’t heard these groaners: Bildad the Shuhite (i.e. shoe-height) & Joshua, son of Nun (i.e. none). 2 Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (New York: HarperCollins, 1964). 3 Ibid., 66. 4 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in Basic Chesterton (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1984), 127. 5 Quoted by John F. Maguire, “Chesterton and Kafka,” The Chesterton Review 3.1 (1976-77): 161.

This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue. Conrad van Dyk is the author and narrator of the children's story podcast "Sophie and Sebastian."

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

The Gospel Comes With a House Key: an instructive, inspiring, downright intimidating look at Christian hospitality 

by Rosaria Butterfield 2018 / 240 pages

*****

This is a scary book. I have heard of several people putting it down after only reading a chapter or two of it, feeling overwhelmed by Rosaria Butterfield’s seemingly heroic examples of daily hospitality to her numerous neighbors and friends. As Carl Trueman states in his recommendation, “She sets the bar very high - and there is plenty of room here for disagreement on some of the proposals and details.” But fear not! As Trueman goes on to say, “The basic case, that church is to be a community marked by hospitality, is powerfully presented and persuasively argued.” Think of it this way. One of your friends just memorized the entire book of Ephesians. You think that’s admirable, but it sounds like more than you can handle. Yet, there are some verses in Psalm 4 that you want to memorize because they comfort you, so this reminds you to do it already. Or maybe your cousin enthusiastically tells you he is part of a “Read the Bible in 90 Days” group that really helped him see the connections between Scripture portions and helped him improve his Bible-reading habit. But when you hear he was reading one hour each day, that sounds like more than you can do. Yet, his example encourages you to increase the amount you are currently reading. Rosaria Butterfield’s The Gospel Comes With a House Key is about using hospitality to spread the gospel. It is about loving your neighbor as yourself and thus spreading God’s love, peace, and salvation to the dying world that is next to you. It is about viewing where you live as the location where God placed you and figuring out how you can, as the saying goes, “bloom where you are planted.” Whose house is it? Hospitality is similar to the Greek word philoxenia, which means “love of the stranger.” The hospitality Rosaria is encouraging is not about inviting your relatives and fellow church members over for coffee or soup and buns on a Sunday, or taking them a casserole at a difficult time. What Butterfield is talking about is what she calls “radically ordinary hospitality.”

Those who live out radically ordinary hospitality (ROH) see their homes not as theirs at all but as God’s gift to use for the furtherance of his kingdom. They open doors; they seek out the underprivileged. They know that the gospel comes with a house key. They take biblical theology seriously, as well as Christian creeds and confessions and traditions…. Engaging in ROH means we provide the time necessary to build strong relationships with people who think differently than we do as well as build strong relationships from within the family of God.

Cost in time and money But how can we manage this, when we are already so very busy, and finances may be tight? Rosaria gives the answer:

Practicing ROH necessitates building margin time into the day, time where regular routines can be disrupted but not destroyed. This margin stays open for the Lord to fill – to take an older neighbor to the doctor, to babysit on the fly, to make room for a family displaced by a flood or a worldwide refugee crisis. Living out radically ordinary hospitality leaves us with plenty to share because we intentionally live below our means.

In other words, we may need to learn to leave some space and not to schedule every moment of every day, filling it up with things that we desire to do. Those who become parents find that life cannot follow a strict schedule, because children have a way of barfing, bruising themselves, or battling with siblings that is always unscheduled. In the same way that we scaled back our desired goals then, we ought to do it to allow for hospitality. If we truly believe that we should “be there” for others, then we may need to be open to the unusual and unexpected. On the other hand, it is possible as well to set aside a period of time each week in which you reach out to your neighbors. Rosaria and her husband started this by putting a picnic table on their front lawn on Thursday evenings and providing food for whoever wandered by and wanted to join them. This eventually grew into a well-attended and beloved activity for a lot of their neighbors, but it started with one dinner time. If you don’t have a house or a picnic table, why not try to visit a neighbor or invite a coworker to have lunch or dinner with you? As for cost, all of our money comes from the Lord – might He not want you to allocate some of it for the hospitality that He asks you to do? Rosaria writes:

Daily hospitality can be expensive and even inconvenient. It compels us to care more for our church family and neighbors than our personal status in this world. Our monthly grocery bill alone reminds us that what humbles us cannot hurt us, but what puffs up our pride unwaveringly will.

But what if we run into people who have different viewpoints than ours? What kind of example will that be for our children? Here is where we really need to believe that hospitality is something that God calls us to do.

The truly hospitable aren’t embarrassed to keep friendships with people who are different. They don’t buy the world’s bunk about this. They know that there is a difference between acceptance and approval, and they courageously accept and respect people who think differently from them. They don’t worry that others will misinterpret their friendship. Jesus dined with sinners, but he didn’t sin with sinners. Jesus lived in the world, but he didn’t live like the world. This is the Jesus paradox. And it defines those who are willing to suffer with others for the sake of gospel sharing and gospel living, those who care more for integrity than appearances…. the sin that will undo me is my own, not my neighbor’s, no matter how big my neighbor’s sin may appear.

What will I say to them? If you feel like you don't know what to say to a stranger, just remember that people always like to talk about themselves. Get to know them. Ask about their interests and try to find a common ground in gardening, cars, sports, cooking, knitting, reading, or whatever. If they have a difficulty they are enduring, offer to pray for them before you end your visit – just a simple prayer. Be friendly. This isn’t the type of evangelism where you have to lead them down the Romans Road and get them to sign on the dotted line at the end of your time together. Jesus is the one who saves. The Holy Spirit will draw some people to God, and we are just planting or watering the seeds. We may or may not get to do the harvesting. But the reason we want to be hospitable is because people need to be rescued from their sin, just as Jesus rescued us from our sin. We are living examples of what God has done, and what He can do for others. Hospitality, then, is a chance to put God’s work in us on display.

Radical hospitality shines through those who are no longer enslaved by the sin that once beckoned and bound them, wrapping its allegiance around their throat, even though old sins still know their name and address.

Used by God Rosaria gives a list of how she hopes and prays that her book may inspire us to: Use our home, apartment, dorm room, front yard, gym, or garden to make strangers into neighbors and neighbors into friends and friends into the family of God Build the church by living like the family of God Stop being afraid of strangers, even when some strangers are dangerous Grow to be more like Christ in practicing daily, ordinary, radical hospitality Be richly blessed by the Lord as He adds to His kingdom Be an example of what it truly means to be a Christian to the watching world Have purpose, instead of casting about for our own identity, or wondering what to do with our time Conclusion Let’s not be sidelined by fear that people will hurt us or that we won’t know what to do or say. Using our home regularly to show hospitality brings glory to God, serves others, and is a way of living out the Gospel. It may seem sacrificial, but then aren’t we called to die to ourselves and live for God? So don’t be afraid to read the book. Be inspired, and pray over what God would use you to do.

AA
Apologetics 101
Tagged: apologetics, battle over the dictionary, featured, Importance of questions, insults

One simple question: “What do you mean by that?”

In the May 17, 2016 Breakpoint Daily, John Stonestreet shared a few questions he uses when he finds himself in a tough conversation. The first and most helpful is:

“What do you mean by that?”

The battle of ideas is always the battle over the definition of words. Thus, it’s vital in any conversation to clarify the terms being used. For example, the most important thing to clarify in the ongoing gender discussions is the definition of “gender.” So when the topic comes up, ask, “Hold on, before we go start talking about personal pronouns, puberty suppression, or surgeries, I want to ask, what do you mean by gender?” Often, when it comes to these crucial issues, both sides are using the same vocabulary, but not the same dictionary. So to present the antithesis – to speak God’s Truth to a confused culture – we have to begin by defining our terms.

Defining terms can also serve as a good defense when you’re getting attacked, not with an argument, but simply with an insult. When someone tries to dismiss you by calling you a name, the best response is to question the insult.

“You’re just a homophobe!”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Um, I mean you hate gays.”

“But I don’t hate gays. I do disagree with their lifestyle – I think it harms them by separating them from God. Is disagreeing the same thing as hating?”

“Yeah, of course!”

“But you’re disagreeing with me? Wouldn’t that mean you’re hateful?”

“Well…um….but you deserve it!”

As in this dialogue above, defining the terms might not win you the argument, but it can expose the vacuous nature of what the other side is saying. And even when you don’t win over your debate partner, clarifying the terms is one way to help bystanders see through the name-calling.

However, the most important reason to lead with this simple question – “What do you mean by that? – is because showing the anthesis, making plain what the two sides actually are, brings glory to our God.

And who knows how He might use the seed we plant?


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