This paper concerns itself with objections to the doctrine of divine timelessness. Since, however, the doctrine needs careful articulation before such objections can be considered, I begin by briefly defining it. In so doing, I elucidate three distinct positions that its advocates may take. Finally, I consider objections to the doctrine which have appeared in the contemporary literature, concluding that none succeeds.
The Doctrine Defined
Some theists maintain that being eternal amounts to existing everlastingly in time. In their view, God enjoys a beginningless and endless temporal existence. Thus, they affirm that
(1) For every time t, God exists at t.
Such theists I refer to as temporalists; their view I refer to as temporalism. Not all theists are temporalists; some deny (1). They do so not because they think God exists at some but not all times; instead, they maintain that God’s existence is not temporal, that he is timeless.
Nelson Pike separates the view that God is timeless into two distinct claims. “First,” he states, “if God is timeless, He has no duration, i.e., He lacks temporal extension…Secondly, if God is timeless, God also lacks temporal location.” Now while it might be possible for one to be temporally located without being temporally extended, it is not possible for one to be temporally extended without being temporally located. To be temporally extended is to exist for the length of some temporal interval. But since a temporal interval amounts to nothing more than an unbroken series of temporal locations, to exist for the length of such an interval is to exist during a series of such locations. Thus, one cannot be temporally extended without being temporally located. For this reason, the claim that God is timeless can be reduced simply to the claim that he lacks temporal location. Or so it can on Pike’s account of it. On his account, then, advocates of divine timelessness are theists who affirm that
(2) For every time t, it is not the case that God exists at t.
Such theists I refer to as atemporalists; their view I refer to as atemporalism.
Richard Swinburne attributes to atemporalists the view that “[t]here is no temporal succession of states in God.” On its face, this attribution seems well-founded. Since having temporally successive states involves having some state s1 at some time t1 and having some other state s2 at a later time t2, one has temporally successive states only if one exists at both t1 and t2. But if one exists at both t1 and t2, one is temporally located. Thus, if one has temporally successive states, one is not timeless. Or, at least, not on Pike’s account.
So, on that account, the doctrine of divine timelessness entails the absence of successive states in God. That this follows from (2) indicates a serious inadequacy in Pike’s understanding of that doctrine. For, however surprising it might be, one can coherently maintain both that God is timeless (in a significant sense of ‘timeless’) and that states of the divine mind are successively ordered. This follows from the fact that God might be located at a time (or times) not temporally related to the present moment.
Here I need to introduce a notion which features prominently below—the notion of a temporal array. Let a time t be temporally related to a time t* just in case t is earlier than t*, simultaneous with t*, or later than t*. Roughly put, a temporal array is a set of times temporally related to one another. The present moment happens to be a member of infinitely many different temporal arrays; and among the temporal arrays having that moment as a member is one which has no members temporally related to times not belonging to it. Such a temporal array I refer to as a complete temporal array. More formally, these points can be put as follows:
(3) For any set of times T, T is a temporal array if and only if every member of T is temporally related to every other member of T.
(4) For any set of times T, T is a complete temporal array if and only if (i) T is a temporal array, and (ii) no time which is a member of T bears a temporal relation to a time which is not a member of T.
Let the complete temporal array to which the present moment belongs be t. Atemporalists affirm that
(5) For every time t, if t is a member of t, it is not the case that God exists at t.
From (5), (2) follows only if every time is a member of t. Is every time a member of t?
Since the existence of a time which is not a member of t entails the existence of at least one complete temporal array other than t, the question of whether such a time exists amounts to the question of whether t is the only complete temporal array. Is it? Perhaps, but perhaps not. For while t might be the only complete temporal array, it certainly seems possible that there be others.
Atemporalists who believe it possible that complete temporal arrays other than t exist might characterize eternity as just such an array. Such atemporalists might view eternity as a complete temporal array having only one member, namely, the divine present. Or they might view it as a complete temporal array having, say, infinitely many members. On the latter view, states of the divine mind might be successively ordered, even though God is not temporally located in t. Hence, atemporalists holding this view could affirm both that there is succession in the divine mind and that God is in a significant sense timeless. On such a view, states of the divine mind would be successively ordered, but God would not exist at any time temporally related to the present moment. Advocates of this view would affirm (5) but deny (2). So also advocates of the view that eternity is a complete temporal array which has only one member—namely, the divine present—would affirm (5) but deny (2).
Hereafter I refer to atemporalists who affirm (5) but deny (2) as relative atemporalists and to their view as relative atemporalism. I refer to relative atemporalists who view eternity as a complete temporal array having more than one member as extrinsic atemporalists and to their view as extrinsic atemporalism; I refer to those who view eternity as a complete temporal array having only one member as intrinsic atemporalists and to their view as intrinsic atemporalism. Not all atemporalists deny (2). I refer to theists who affirm not only (5) but also (2) as absolute atemporalists and to their view as absolute atemporalism. According to absolute atemporalists, eternity is notproperly characterized as a complete temporal array. Elsewhere I argue not only for atemporalism broadly construed but for absolute atemporalism. What follows, however, concerns itself not with any specific version of atemporalism but rather with atemporalism per se.
The Doctrine Defended
An examination of objections to the doctrine of divine timelessness is worth undertaking for at least two reasons. First, if any of these objections were decisive, whether God exists temporally would be a settled issue. Second, even if none of these objections were to settle the issue, they might nonetheless be instructive for its advocates, providing constraints for atemporalists and thus establishing parameters for delineating their view. Determining whether they in fact provide constraints and set parameters for atemporalists requires considering them carefully. So, then, the remainder of this essay comprises an examination of the more prominent objections to the doctrine of divine timelessness in the contemporary literature.
The Objection from Simultaneity
Perhaps the most prosaic objection to the doctrine of divine timelessness is one which arises from the transitivity of simultaneity. This objection finds eloquent expression in the work of Anthony Kenny, who takes the doctrine’s incoherence to follow from a straightforward understanding of simultaneity. His argument goes as follows:
Indeed, the whole concept of a timeless eternity, the whole of which is simultaneous with every part of time, seems to be radically incoherent. For simultaneity as ordinarily understood is a transitive relation. If A happens at the same time as B, and B happens at the same time as C, then A happens at the same time as C. . . . But, on [the atemporalist’s] view, my typing of this paper is simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Again, on [this] view, the great fire of Rome is simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Therefore, while I type these very words, Nero fiddles heartlessly on.
Kenny thus sees the transitivity of simultaneity as a serious threat to atemporalism.
Is he right? Well, if it follows from atemporalism that the burning of Rome is simultaneous with the typing of these words, then atemporalism is indeed untenable. So if Kenny’s argument turns out to be sound, atemporalists face insuperable difficulties. Fortunately for atemporalists, however, his argument does not turn out to be sound. To see this, consider the argument more closely. It goes as follows:
(6) For any times t, t*, and t**, if t is simultaneous with t* and t* is simultaneous with t**, then t is simultaneous with t**.
(7) If the doctrine of divine timelessness is true, then eternity is simultaneous with every moment in history.
(8) If eternity is simultaneous with every moment in history, then every moment in history is simultaneous with every other moment in history.
(9) But every moment in history is not simultaneous with every other moment in history.
(10) Therefore, the doctrine of divine timelessness is false.
The conclusion, (10), follows from (7), (8), and (9). (8) follows from (6). As nothing more than a statement of the transitivity of simultaneity, (6) is beyond reproach. (9) is surely true. So if (7) turns out to be true, the argument succeeds. As it turns out, however, (7) is not true. According to the doctrine of divine timelessness, eternity is not simultaneous with every moment in history. Indeed, it is not simultaneous with any moment in history. Since the doctrine stipulates that God is not located at any moment temporally related to the present one, eternity cannot be simultaneous with any such moment according to atemporalists. Hence, on their view, it cannot be simultaneous with every such moment.
In attributing (7) to the atemporalist, Kenny takes too literally atemporalist attempts to characterize God’s uninhibited access to every moment in history. Let us say that one has ‘uninhibited access’ to an event e if and only if there is no temporal distance between the occurrence of e and one’s access to e. While a temporal being might enjoy uninhibited access to certain events which occur in 2014 and certain other events which occur in 2017, its uninhibited access to events occurring in 2017 comes at the expense of its uninhibited access to events occurring in 2014. To be sure, such a being might have uninhibited access to each set of events. Even so, its uninhibited access to the first set must be temporally distant from its uninhibited access to the second set. But the timeless God suffers no such indignity. While he enjoys uninhibited access to events occurring in 2014 as well as uninhibited access to events occurring in 2017, no temporal distance stands between his uninhibited access to the first set and his uninhibited access to the second set. If atemporalists appropriate the language of simultaneity in order to make this point, they clearly do not use it in its ordinary sense. William Hasker is correct: “the statement about simultaneity is simply a metaphorical way of putting the point that all of time is ‘present’ in the ‘now’ of eternity.” So for the objection from simultaneity to succeed, atemporalist claims that eternity is simultaneous with every moment in time must be understood in a flat-footedly literal sense. Given their commitment to the doctrine of divine timelessness, however, atemporalists clearly do not intend such claims to be understood in this way. While the ordinary understanding of ‘simultaneous’ is ‘at the same time as,’ atemporalists use it to mean something like ‘at no temporal distance from.’ By thus appropriating ‘simultaneous,’ they make the point about God’s uninhibited access to all temporal events mentioned above. So, then, the objection from simultaneity fails.
The Objection from Agency
Theists hold that God created the universe and sustains it in being. Moreover, they claim that he plays an active role in the course of temporal events. He speaks to Moses from a burning bush, protects Daniel by shutting the mouths of lions, hears Jonah’s prayer and delivers him from a great fish. According to Robert Cook, however, “it is difficult to fathom how an atemporal God could do anything at all.” Being active, J. R. Lucas claims, presupposes being temporal. “To act purposefully,” William Kneale tells us, “is to act with thought of what will come about after the beginning of the action.” Lucas and Kneale thus suggest the notion of atemporal agency turns out to be incoherent. Unfortunately, however, they offer little by way of argument to support their suggestion.
Still, other opponents of atemporalism have offered arguments for eschewing atemporal agency. Richard Gale argues that
Our ordinary concept of causation involves some sort of temporal relation, which can be that of simultaneity, between cause and effect. This holds even for the notion of agent causation in which the cause is not an event but a person. God’s timeless causation is a species of such agent causation but one that has no temporal relation to its temporal effect. Our ordinary concept of causation does not make room for timeless causation…
If one then employs the “ordinary concept of causation,” the notion of atemporal agency makes no sense. Hence, if one wants to save that notion, one must “give a mystical interpretation” to the doctrine of divine timelessness. “But,” Gale argues, “the theist must pay a significant price for going this mystical route, namely, he winds up with a God who is a nonperson.” Now whether the ‘mystical route’ leads to a God who is not a person is an issue which need not detain us. For given the notorious problems associated with the concept of causation, I see no reason for thinking Gale correct that only such a route can save the notion of atemporal agency from incoherence. He assumes that all causes either precede or are simultaneous with their effects. Since an atemporal agent’s actions would neither precede nor be simultaneous with its effects, he concludes that no such agent is possible. But what atemporalist would grant the assumption upon which Gale rests this conclusion?
Even if effects cannot precede their causes (and this is a matter of debate), why can the atemporalist not claim that
(11) Necessarily, for any cause C and effect E, if C causes E, then it is not the case that E precedes C, rather than
(12) Necessarily, for any cause C and effect E, if C causes E, then either (C precedes E) or (C is simultaneous with E), is the appropriate principle here? Both (11) and (12) seem consistent with our experience of ‘ordinary causation.’ But unlike (12), (11) is also consistent with timeless agency. Since Gale’s argument hinges on eschewing (11) in favor of (12), he needs to argue for the truth of (12) over (11). Otherwise, he begs the question against the atemporalist. Unfortunately, he offers no such argument. Thus, Gale’s argument against atemporal agency fails.
The Objection from Omniscience
While those who raise the objection from agency claim that the doctrine of divine timelessness is inconsistent with the activities which theists traditionally ascribe to God, those who raise the objection from omniscience claim that it is inconsistent with the knowledge which theists traditionally ascribe to God. Perhaps the best-known statement of this objection comes in the following passage by Arthur Prior.
I want to argue against [divine timelessness], on the ground that its final effect is to restrict what God knows to those truths, if any, which are themselves timeless. For example, God could not, on the view I am considering, know that the 1960 final examinations at Manchester are now over; for this isn’t something that He or anyone could know timelessly, because it just isn’t true timelessly. It’s true now, but it wasn’t true a year ago (I write this on 29th August 1960) and so far as I can see all that can be said on this subject timelessly is that the finishing-date of the 1960 final examinations is an earlier one than 29th August, and this is not the thing we know when we know that those examinations are over.
Since, then, a timeless being could not know such propositions as
(13) The 1960 final examinations at Manchester are now over,
such a being could not be omniscient.
What Prior claims a timeless being could not know are tensed propositions. It might seem that such propositions can be reduced to dated, tenseless ones. So, for instance, one might think that
(13) The 1960 final examinations at Manchester are now over,
expressed on August 29, 1960, can be reduced to
(14) The 1960 final examinations at Manchester are (tenselessly) over on (or before) August 29, 1960.
If such a reduction were plausible, atemporalists could offer as a plausible response to Prior the argument that a timeless being could know propositions such as (14) and thus know ones such as (13) as well.
According to Prior, however, such a reduction is not plausible. Here, he states,
I cannot think of any better way of showing this than one I’ve used before, namely, the argument that what we know when we know that the 1960 final examinations are over can’t be just a timeless relation between dates because this isn’t the thing we’re pleased about when we’re pleased that the examinations are over.
So, on Prior’s view, propositions such as (13) are essentially tensed and cannot be reduced to tenseless ones. If propositions such as (13) turn out to be essentially tensed, it seems that no timeless being could so much as entertain them; and propositions one cannot entertain are also propositions one cannot know.
Although Prior’s claim that tensed propositions cannot be reduced to dated, tenseless ones is far from true, let us suppose it to be correct. Given this supposition, what plausible response can atemporalists make to the objection from omniscience? Well, as Patrick Grim points out, being omniscient seems no more compatible with the truth of essentially indexical statements such as ‘I am making a mess’ than it is with those such as ‘the 1960 final examinations at Manchester are now over.’ It thus follows that first-person knowledge creates for temporalists whatever problems knowledge of the present creates for atemporalists. So if arguments involving essentially indexical statements raise problems for atemporalists, they do so for temporalists as well. Or, to put the point differently, whatever force the objection from omniscience has against atemporalists, similar objections have the same force against theists more generally.
Given these considerations, then, all theists have good reason to conceive of divine knowledge in a way that does not fall prey to objections involving essentially indexed statements. This can be accomplished by understanding omniscience not in terms of what an omnipotent being knows but rather in terms of the cognitive power possessed by such a being. On such an understanding, being omniscient amounts to having unsurpassable cognitive power. Since one’s having unsurpassable cognitive power does not preclude the possibility that there are truths which one could not know, such an account provides atemporalists who agree with Prior about the irreducibility of tensed statements to tenseless ones with an obvious response to the objection from omniscience. Even if a timeless being could not know what time it is now, such a being may nonetheless possess unsurpassable cognitive power.
The Objection from Personhood
Stewart Sutherland claims timeless beings cannot utter, represent to themselves, create, deliberate, reflect, anticipate, intend, remember, suspect, confirm, or love. “The question which inevitably arises,” he tells us, “concerns what sense, if any, could be attached to the claim that a God who cannot do any of these could be regarded as a person, or even as ‘personal’.” He thus argues against the possibility of a timeless person. Since God’s personhood is an essential tenet of theism, a successful argument against the possibility of a timeless person would thoroughly undermine atemporalism.
Since this objection involves claiming both that there are certain activities in which a timeless being could not engage and that a necessary condition of being a person is being able to engage in those activities, atemporalists have two available responses. First, they can deny that being able to engage in the activities in question is necessary for being a person. Given the notorious difficulty of delineating an adequate conception of personhood, atemporalists can simply maintain that any conception of personhood according to which no timeless being could be a person ought ipso facto to be rejected. If Sutherland expects the objection from personhood to be persuasive, he needs to provide compelling reasons for thinking that the conception of personhood underlying it ought to be accepted; he provides no such reasons.
Second, atemporalists can argue that a timeless being could engage in at least some of the activities in question and thus count as a person. Consider, for instance, Moses’ request that God show him his ways. This request pleases God and Moses receives a favorable answer to it. If God is timeless, his being pleased does not occur after Moses makes the request. Moreover, Moses’ making the request does not occur before God answers it. It nonetheless remains true that both God’s being pleased and his answering Moses’ request result from Moses’ making it. If Moses had not made the request, God would neither have been pleased about his doing so nor have answered it favorably. In such a case, then, it makes perfectly good sense to maintain that Moses’ making the request affects God and that God’s answering it amounts to his responding to Moses. As far as I see, Sutherland does nothing to show such a case to be impossible. Thus, he fails to show that the conception of personhood he employs precludes the possibility of a timeless person.
The Objection from Theological Inadequacy
Although coherent, William Hasker maintains, the doctrine of divine timelessness turns out to be religiously inadequate. This follows, he tells us, from the account of divine knowledge to which the doctrine commits its advocates. On this, he states,
It seems inescapable . . . that if God is eternal, he knows us only by contemplating in eternity his own unchangeable “similitudes,” “images,” or representations of us. But I find this extremely difficult to accept as the truth of the matter. I can tell myself that an eternal God can still cause there to exist in time all of the events that we experience as his historical interventions, as his gracious presence in our lives, and the like. But that God in very truth knows us, and relates to us, only as the eternal representations in his own essence—this is a hard doctrine.
So in the end, Hasker concludes, the doctrine of divine timelessness “leaves too great a distance between the God who is affirmed theologically and the God who is known through Scripture and experience.”
Let us regard as too hard to accept a doctrine according to which God knows and relates to us only as “eternal representations.” Still, the question remains, why think the doctrine of divine timelessness is such a doctrine? Hasker gives his reasons for thinking this in the following passage.
One can be immediately aware only of what is present for one to be aware of; what else, after all, can “immediate” mean? If God is timeless, he can be immediately aware of (supposedly) temporal facts only if these facts really are timeless after all. If, on the other hand, the world really is temporal, only a temporal God can be immediately aware of it—and then only of its present, not of its past or future.
From the claim that objects of immediate awareness must be present to their knowers, Hasker thus concludes that a timeless God could not be immediately aware of temporal beings.
Put more formally, his argument goes as follows.
(15) For any knower K and object of knowledge O, if K is immediately aware of O, then O is present to K.
(16) Thus, if God is timeless, then God is not immediately aware of temporal beings.
Now, as it stands, this argument is invalid. In order to deduce (16) from (15), Hasker needs something like
(17) For any knower K and object of knowledge O, if K is timeless and O is temporal, then O is not present to K,
to be true. Of course, from (15) and (17) it follows that
(18) Thus, for any knower K and object of knowledge, if K is timeless and O is temporal, then K is not immediately aware of O.
And, moreover, (16) follows from (18).
In order for Hasker’s argument to succeed, then, both (15) and (17) must be true. In support of (15), Hasker simply asks what else ‘immediate’ can mean. But one is immediately aware of something if both one is aware of it and one’s awareness of it is not mediated by something else. That (15) follows from this is far from obvious. In fact, as I see it, such an understanding of ‘immediate’ provides no reason whatsoever for accepting (15). Moreover, while Hasker claims that a timeless being’s awareness of temporal beings would be mediated, he does not tell us what would mediate it.
Let us suppose that a timeless being is indirectly aware of some temporal being. What is mediating its awareness? The most plausible answer to this question is that those ‘eternal representations’ to which Hasker refers are mediating its awareness. Such representations amount to ideas (i.e., ‘images’ or ‘similitudes’) within a timeless being’s mind which correspond to the temporal beings known by such a being. Were he so to answer, however, Hasker would undercut his argument against the possibility of a timeless being’s immediately knowing temporal beings. For if such representations were mediating a timeless being’s knowledge of temporal beings, it seems that they would be directly related in some way to the temporal beings which they represent. But if they could be so related, why could not the timeless being itself be so related? So, then, Hasker’s admission that a timeless being could know temporal beings indirectly undercuts his argument that such a being could not know them directly.
Here it also seems worth noting that what it means for an object of knowledge to be ‘present’ to its knower is far from clear; and as long as this remains the case, determining what (15) means will be a difficult task. Still more difficult will be the task of determining whether it is true. Of course, if its meaning were perspicuous, perhaps the truth of (15) would be evident. Even so, Hasker will find little comfort in this fact. For, even if (15) were to turn out to be true, it also might turn out that temporal beings can be present to a timeless being in the sense of ‘present’ at issue. Thus, even if (15) is true, (17) might nonetheless be false.
For (17)’s truth, Hasker offers no argument. Since he himself does not invoke (17), this is hardly surprising. Still, if his argument is to succeed, he needs (17) (or something like it) to be true. Unfortunately, as Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann point out, he seems simply to assume the truth of something like
(19) x can be directly aware of or epistemically present to y only if x and y share the same mode of existence.
Such an assumption, however, has little to commend it. Few theists would accept (19) with respect to space. In fact, since theists have traditionally maintained that God is spaceless, no traditional theist would accept (19). “And,” Stump and Kretzmann argue, “if traditional theists cannot accept [(19)] as applied to space, they cannot reasonably apply it to time.” So, then, traditional theists—both temporalists and atemporalists alike—have compelling reasons to reject (19). Moreover, given the apparent incompatibility between (17) and a timeless God’s direct awareness of temporal beings, few committed atemporalists are likely to grant the truth of (17). If then Hasker expects his argument to succeed, he needs to offer compelling arguments for affirming (17) (or something like it). Since he fails to provide such arguments and since the general principle which underlies (17) is inconsistent with traditional theism’s view of omnipresence, I conclude that the argument for (16) from (15) and (17) fails.
Having weighted five of the most prominent objections to atemporalism in the recent literature, I find them wanting. Of course, the failure of objections to the doctrine of divine timelessness does not entail its truth. So whether some version of atemporalism succeeds remains an open question. As mentioned above, I argue elsewhere for absolute atemporalism. Here I have attempted to show that atemporalism per se is neither indefensible nor one-dimensional.
Questions related to origins are some of the most divisive in the church today: How old is the earth? Is there good evidence for intelligent design? Did God use evolution? Sadly, rather than discussing differences in a sober and gracious manner, conversations are often characterized by defensiveness, misunderstanding, and personal attacks. What a shame!
But this need not be the case. The recent book Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation? demonstrates that leading voices in the origins debate can come together and wrestle over big questions of faith and science with both “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15) ...
I had not given the subject of time much thought until, as a fairly new professor at Wheaton, I picked up a 1975 Eerdmans Festschrift for a long-time Calvin professor — God and the Good: Essays in Honor of Henry Stob. One of the chapters was “God Everlasting” by Nicholas Wolterstorff, a piece that has been anthologized frequently in the philosophy of religion. Therein, he argued it was unnecessary and puzzling to say God existed outside of time, and that he was “atemporal.” Besides, the Bible did not require or even suggest that we must talk this way.
I was fresh from a doctoral program where I was most impressed with the empiricist and pragmatist philosophers, and impatient with the way in which metaphysicians spun all sorts of fantastical schemes from their dubious presuppositions and postulates, generating systems of thought which were untestable and unaccountable to common sense. Their schemes, floating in air, if you will, were, to use a technical expression, “very cool,” but it was not clear how you might adjudicate among them, for each had its own internal logic and conceptual splendor. And though we did not have the notion of “post-modernism” at hand in that day, these metaphysicians, with their rival, unverifiable conceits, were setting us up for the day when we would throw up our hands and deny that there could be any valid metanarrative. You had your truth, I had mine. This worked for you, and that for me. Of course, the metaphysicians did not mean it that way, for each was sure that his overarching account was correct. But the futility of validating one as over against the other tended to give metanarratives a bad odor.
My first-semester course in German Idealism at Vanderbilt showed me how much fun the spawning of rival systems could be, but how hopeless it could be to declare one the winner. We began with Kant, who argued for a “Copernican Revolution” against the empiricists, such as Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. These were the Brits who more or less bought into the notion that the mind was, at first, a passive receptor of sense impressions (a tabula rasa, or “blank slate,” to used Locke’s terms), and that it then had the task of sorting what it had received into a workable system of thought. Kant tried to blow up this thinking, saying the mind was comprehensively aggressive in pre-sorting whatever was out there, so once it reached our consciousness, it was bundled into discrete, countable entities, embedded in causal series, located in space, varying in magnitudes, and so on. He gave us a double-decker world, with readily grasped phenomena at hand, backed up by more-or-less inscrutable noumena, realities as they really were.
Once, Kant gave the mind such organizing power, the Germans were off to the races. Fichte argued that it was his mind rather than each and every other mind that ran things—a kind of solipsism (though he did wax eloquent over the splendor of the German people). The professor (an energetic, demonstrative, Hungarian refugee who repeatedly won the Chancellor’s Cup for excellence in teaching) gave us a particularly dramatic lecture on Fichte’s The Science of Knowledge (Wissenschaftslehre), one in which he stacked up an imaginary wall of blocks, only to knock it down with relish (something we kids used to do in the church nursery, as I recall). The point was that the mind constructed a challenging world for itself, one in which it could grow by overcoming self-imposed difficulties.
And then came Hegel, who said that, no, it was not our minds or my mind in charge, but The Mind, the Weltgeist, the Absolute Spirit, which ran the whole show. History itself was its “thinking” as worked through developmental challenges (“antitheses”), whose conflict with current notions and events (“theses”) generated brand new things (“syntheses”), which, in turn, became theses, against which rose antitheses, and so on.
Other Germans riffed on this theme of the marching, powerful mind. (You can almost hear the rhythmic tramp of Reich battalion boots, accompanied by Deutschland, Deutschland, über Alles.) Marx (along with Engels and Lenin) espoused a “dialectical materialism” (a dialogue of matter) to supplant Hegel’s “dialectical idealism” (a conversation of concepts), thus giving us the naturalistic base for Communistic atheism. Schopenhauer, in The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung) got depressed over the pervasive grind of willful struggle that is human living, and he waxed rhapsodic over the arts, which he called a sort of Sabbath, a place of relief from the dog-eat-dog workings of our circumstances and natures. (Ricky Stark recently received his Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after defending a dissertation on the similarities and dissimilarities between the Lord’s Day and Schopenhauer’s Sabbath.) Not surprisingly, Schopenhauer was taken with Eastern thought, since Buddhism advanced a regimen of deliverance from the strivings and worries of desire.
Nietzsche followed with his Will to Power (Der Wille zur Macht) and “Superman” (Übermensch), who should lord it over the wimpy Judeo-Christians, who had replaced original, intimidating nobility with pathetic values such as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control,” the only personality features that losers could manage. And, this sort of thinking trickled down to France, where existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre said that we create our own values. (Our “existence precedes our essence,” so that we are not at all answerable to such silly things as pre-existing human nature or universal ethical norms.) On and on it went in this triumphal mode, thanks, in large measure to Kant’s anointing of the mind as the world-shaper.
By the turn of the 20th century, a Germanic idealism had made its way into the British heartland of empiricism, thanks to F.H. Bradley, who was quite the rage in his day. Indeed, the English were capable of spinning out their own metaphysical tales, as in the case of Alfred North Whitehead (later of Harvard), whose “Process Philosophy” gave us the neologisms appetition, concrescence, comformal, formaliter, ingression, prehension, regnant society, and superject.
But then came the revolt in both the UK and America (with some major help from Vienna). A group calling themselves “logical positivists” insisted that enough was enough, and hereafter, the only legitimate propositions were those which entailed scientifically-testable results. No more of these gaseous speculations which could neither be confirmed nor disconfirmed. And in the U.S., men like Charles S. Peirce and William James said you had to be able to find “cash value” in a claim—cash in terms of actionable intelligence and real-live eventualities—for it to be meaningful. While A.J. Ayer said a proposition should be “verifiable,” Karl Popper said it should be “falsifiable,” but they agreed on the need for testability. So you can have your fun with Fichte, Hegel, and Schopenhauer all you want, but your ratiocinations and fulminations come to naught in the light of a cognitively-responsible day.
Unfortunately, the positivists cleared out more than the weeds of groundless speculation. They also wiped out ethics, aesthetics, and religion, saying these matters came to no more than personal emoting, just a matter of booing or cheering. But, to the contrary, most people understood that “God exists” and “Slaughtering and eating babies is wrong” and “Rembrandt is a better artist than my grandchild, whose work I put on my refrigerator door” are more than mere subjectivities, relativities, and proclivities. Indeed, it became clear to most that the pendulum had swung too far back in the other direction, the direction in which Hume took empiricism when he discounted religion, undermined causality, and deconstructed the notion of the human soul. A sign of this discontent was the establishment of The Review of Metaphysics in 1947, edited by Jewish philosopher Paul Weiss and sponsored primarily by The Catholic University of America.
Observing this back-and-forth through the years, I have turned to the biblical image of Jacob’s Ladder, upon which the angels were descending to earth and ascending to heaven (Gen 28:10-19). In my estimation, the German metaphysicians were comfortable at the top of the ladder, offering a “God’s eye” view of the universe (albeit a false one), but they were not at all adept at producing testable entailments that might show their theories to be either sound or bogus. (The same goes for the pantheistic, Amsterdam Jewish philosopher, Spinoza, but that is another story.) On the other end of the ladder, the positivists were good at earthly tests (e.g., water boiling at 100 degrees centigrade; the economic impact of mercantilism; the psychological effects of opioids), but they were indifferent, indeed, contemptuous, toward the important things going on at the top of the ladder e.g., intelligent design in the universe.
This is not to say that all the empiricists were stuck at the bottom end. John Locke and George Berkeley were confessing and argumentative believers, as was twentieth century Anglican bishop, Ian Ramsey, who rebuked the positivists with the simple observation that “God exists” is indeed testable—at least eschatologically—for it is logically possible that one day (when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess”) that even A.J. Ayer would have to admit that Yahweh is real.
Unfortunately, self-professed Christians sometimes cling to the upper levels with little regard for the lower rungs. George Berkeley called out the Roman Catholics for this very thing when he dismissed “transubstantiation,” wherein the elements of the mass supposedly become the body of Christ. While the wine continues to look, smell, taste, feel, and sound like wine throughout the observance, it actually flips from wine substance to blood-of-Christ substance, or so the story goes. Berkeley, a good Protestant bishop, asked, rhetorically, what sort of thing substance might be. Could they describe it? Could they cash it in experientially? His answer was no, and thus he declared the sacrament delusional, literally nonsense.
Locke made a similar move when, in Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he picked up on the free-will dispute. He said he understood what will was, for he was familiar with exercising it regularly, as in choosing to pick up a pen and then doing so, with accompanying decisional and kinesthetic experiences. But what, he asked, was the extra experience that signaled that this was a “free” act? Was this to distinguish it from an unconscious act, like sleep walking, or an involuntary act, like plunging into a ravine when a footbridge collapses, or maybe a non-human eventuation, like the rusting of an iron gate? Well, yes, certainly. But beyond this, what sense could be attached to the question of whether taking up the pen was free? He concluded it was an empty question since the term ‘free’ was undefined. And thus he helped open the door to the widely-accepted notion of compatibilism (popular with many Christians), whereby the sovereignty of God coheres with human freedom: We are free in that we do what we want to do, but we are not free in the sense that we do not choose our wantings. The latter are a function of our nature, whether in bondage to sin or born again, a new creation, indwelt by the Holy Spirit—all a matter of God’s pleasure.
Which brings us to our original conundrum: Is God atemporal or “merely” everlasting? What in the world would it mean for one to be “inside” or “outside” of time? What, exactly, is time?
I am perfectly aware that it is piously fashionable to say God is not in time. Indeed, I work with a website whose video series about the biblical story begins with the words, “Before there was space, before there was time, there was God.” But following Wolterstorff (and, in his way, Swinburne), I am not there yet. For one thing, I cannot see that the Bible demands it (or allows it, for that matter). Some point to Genesis 1:1 to suggest God existed before the beginning (of time), but the beginning of earthly time does not rule out previous activity on God’s part, activity that took time. They also might point to the ESV translation of Jude 25:“to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” But the NIV sticks closer to the Greek with “before all ages,” and, indeed, the ESV offers the footnote, “or before any age.” For one thing, the word in question is aionon, not chronos. And, of course, Jesus existed before historical ages (whether Bronze, Middle, and Machine).
Besides, the Bible is full of accounts of God doing things, actions spread out through time. Over the centuries, he has brought down some rulers and exalted others (Luke 1:52); prompted Balaam’s donkey to rebuke the prophet on his back (Num 22:21-23); sent a great fish to swallow the fleeing, disobedient Jonah (Jonah 1:17); providentially gobsmacked Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-6), and thousands of other things reported in the Bible. Each involved a before, during, and after, to which God was a party.
So what might time be? I think Aristotle was in the ball park when, in Physics (Book IV, 11), he tied it to movement and succession. It is a matter of change, of one state of affairs’ giving way to another. And it is not just physically external, as in the rotation or circumnavigation of planets, for it can be extended to thought, as when one idea succeeds another. And these successions are not in some sort of atmosphere or solution or locale we might call time; rather, they constitute time itself. So, on this understanding, there was no such thing as “before time” as long as the Trinitarian God was doing something, whether thinking or otherwise acting, including deeds of loving fellowship among the persons of the Trinity.
Recall, if you will, the story of Sleeping Beauty, where a spell is cast upon the whole kingdom so that everyone falls asleep and stays that way until she awakens. Extend that big freeze to not only their bodies, but to their dreams, the growth of vegetation, the scurrying of insects and other animals, sunrise and sunset. Everything. And imagine there is no supernatural observer, conflagration on the sun, race of asteroids, incidents of aging. No change in composition or place anywhere. Then, all of a sudden, it all cranks up again. People are talking. The moon is running through its cycles. The crickets are chirping. So then the question arises: How long was everything stopped? The answer is that the question makes no sense. For it is only with reference to something moving, e.g., the sweep of a second hand, a shift in mood, radioactive decay, that we can speak meaningfully of the passage of time. A river needs a bank to be a river, or perhaps it is better to say a riverbank needs a river to be a riverbank. But, of course, there has been no such time stoppage, for God has always been doing things, “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 90:2).
But I can hear the philosophers asking, rhetorically, “How can you say there was a succession of thoughts and actions in the Godhead when ratiocination and rumination require some sort of lack, a chain of reasoning as yet incomplete, a goal not yet achieved?” Surely God does not have to sort things out. He knows immediately. And if you are suggesting that in the Trinity’s internal love relationship, there were needs to be fulfilled, instances of deprivation needing amelioration, then you slight either God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit, or any combination thereof.
In this connection, I am reminded of a question a trustee asked me when I was interviewing for a position at Midwestern Seminary. He wondered if I believed God was impassible, untouched by and incapable of emotion. After all, since he was not subject to surprises, disappointment, dread, bio-rhythms, and such, he could not be subject to the roller-coaster of mood swings that we humans suffer. He must surely sail serenely above the tumult.
Okay, I see the argument, but, as I told him/them, I was first of all a biblicist, and whatever philosophical march I chose to follow, I must answer to the drumbeat of the text. And it seemed clear to me that the text said God was capable of emotion, as when his wrath toward sin was appeased by Christ on the cross (propitiation), when the Holy Spirit was grieved, and when he was pleased with righteous worship.
When I read in Genesis 1:26 that he/they said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness . . .” it seems to me to say, on the face of it, the Trinity came to the point of initiating our species, and they did not have to go slumming into some temporary Timeland, situated after “Before There Was Time” and before “Time Will Be No More” in order to implement this choice. No, it is perfectly reasonable to say God set his mind upon making us prior to the first day of creation. And the initiating act of the whole earthly shebang followed an eternity of Trinitarian activity, an endless succession of godly initiatives and responses, characteristic of a loving relationship within the Trinity, so often stipulated in Christian meta-ethics as the source and template for our own congregational mutuality. And where there is succession of thought and deed, whether earthly or pre-earthly, there is time.
As I read it, the Kalam version of the cosmological argument claims there cannot be an infinite number of prior events culminating in the current moment, for it is impossible to traverse an infinity, so we would have never arrived at the present. Therefore, there had to be a beginning in time. Therefore, we had to have an initiator of time, viz. God. The problem is, we do, in fact, have an infinity of preceding events, namely the pre-Creation activities of an eternal God. And I am disinclined to say we have a firm enough grasp on infinity-theory to insist otherwise.
Of course, I understand why one might want to say that God is outside time. For one thing, the pre in predestination is less troublesome. An atemporal God would not really lock in your choices before you made them since he does not work in the realm of before and after. Also, time seems to be a form of bondage, and we do not want God to suffer restraints, he being omnipotent. But just because I grasp the motives, it does not follow that I have to accept the conclusions. For instance, I understand the impetus for practicing infant baptism. The child is not able to choose Christ on his own, so you want to give him some sort of coverage in case he dies before he can muster a decision. In this vein, the Roman Catholics invented Limbo to give unbaptized babies who die in infancy a better fate than Purgatory or Hell. Similarly, the Presbyterians drew on Old Testament circumcision to analogize the family-of-God advantages that came from the sprinkling of water. But I cannot see good intentions and earnest aspirations suffice. The Bible just will not support the conceit of paedobaptism. (And, I would argue, great harm has ensued since there are millions of church attendees who assume, incorrectly, that something of spiritual significance happened to them because of a hold-over ceremony from pre-Reformation days—a case where the theological apple did not roll far enough from the tree).
But what about God’s ability (or inability) to see the future? If time is a succession of events and some events have not yet happened, then what is there to see? But does not the Bible say he looks into the future, as in Romans 8:29-30?
For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.
How can you foreknow something that does not exist? Would it not be more sensible to appropriate Boethius’s image of God gazing down upon the road of time from a hilltop outside of time, whereby, to one side, he looks directly at 1517, and then, to the other side, he looks directly at 1994, without being temporally tainted by either? But I have two big problems with that. First, the biblical passage does not make good sense if we read it in a libertarian fashion, where God is able to see what choice this or that person will make and then act accordingly, bringing blessings to bear on those whom he sees will choose him. If that is the reading, why would he have to do any predestinating at all? He sees that the fellow has picked up on salvation, so he can just say Amen! and wait for the happy eventuality.
Would not I think it would be better to read it, “For whom he did set his mind upon, he also did predestinate . . . .”? His sovereign choice results in the good things that follow—predestination, calling, justification, and glorification. So how might he know the deliverances of the future? He knows since he is Lord of all that happens, and the future will unfold exactly as he pleases and insures by whatever means he chooses.
I have another problem with the hilltop analogy. I cannot imagine what it would be like to experience all of history simultaneously. It cannot just be a matter of God’s sitting in a studio with a massive bank of TV screens, one showing Noah at work on the ark, another what is going on in the Final Four in Phoenix, and yet another covering what President Trump’s press secretary is saying in a briefing three months from now. No, to make this work, you need to have a separate screen for each one thousandth of an inch (for starters) of the trajectory of each shot taken in each game, etc. And, on this model, God would not be able to scan the bank of screens to get a summary of the sequence or a composite, for that would take time, which, so the story goes, God does not do. You would get some sort of Edward Muybridge freeze-frame chronicle of the instants of a horse in motion. But that would not be to see the event, but rather a dissection of it, where the living action is cut up and pinned down on a tar-filled tray. Or, to put it otherwise, it would be like listening to Ravel’s Bolero instantaneously, with its tens of thousands of notes, all up and down and across the score, each assigned to a particular instrumentalist to play and hold. You would have white noise, not melody; chaos, not symphony. It would make more sense to say God observed the collapse of Jericho’s walls in “real time,” and that he was not simultaneously viewing Luther’s defense of himself at Worms. That would come later. Would that really do theological damage?
But wait, what about the bondage of time? Surely you would not want to put God in such a straitjacket, whereby he is limited by time, unable to travel and act freely outside the limits of temporality? But what sort of limit would that be? Certainly, it makes sense to speak of our time limitations. We work with time constraints, with a writing assignment due Tuesday. We miss our plane because we did not leave the house soon enough. We want to get a project completed, but we worry that in our 91st year, we will not be around to see it through. But none of that is a problem for God. He does whatever he pleases, within the bounds of logic. (He cannot make a square simultaneously a circle or preserve the bachelorhood of a married man. Those are simply contradictions, another kind of nonsense.)
But am I saying he cannot return to the day of Moses on Sinai? Well, yes, of course. The past has passed. But, if he so pleased, he could instantly recreate the scene, replete with drowned Egyptians in the rear, deluded Golden Calfers in the flatlands, and a Moses up the hill, with a mind as yet unaware of what would be inscribed on the tablets. But that would be the work of replication in the present. I cannot imagine why the Lord would want to do that, but he could without a hitch. So again, where is the bondage?
Ah, but what about the different time frames mentioned in 2 Peter 3:8, where we read that, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (NIV). Well, a couple of things come to mind. First, God is not a clock watcher, anxious as the hours tick away. He does not see his opportunities or energy or prospects slipping away as the shadows lengthen. So he can relax and take the long view, where we operate in an antsy frame of mind. Second, we are all familiar with phenomenological time, where a thirty minute sermon can seem to take an hour, and a two-hour sermon can seem to run forty-five minutes. And judging from my experience in a batting cage, the same seventy-five mile per hour pitch that seems like a blur to me would have seemed languorous to Ted Williams, who could read the rotation of the stitching as it made its way to the plate.
But you see, Coppenger, you are ignoring anthropomorphisms and insisting that God fit into your experiential straightjacket. Your empiricism is legislative and parochial.
No, it is confessional. I just do not know what you are talking about when you say God is “outside of time.” When I say it is nonsense, I am not doing so contemptuously, as I would be if you told me Billy Graham was a closet atheist. Not at all. I am simply pleading, “Please do not push me in this direction. It makes no sense to me.” And, besides, I do not see that the Bible asks me to head that way at all.
The other evening at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville (there for an evening of Debussy and Ravel), I saw a poster on sale in the gift shop, one published for the January 2011 reopening after the hall after the damage from the 2010 flood had been repaired. It featured a quote from the composer, Aaron Copland, one that read, “To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable.” I would amend it to say, “To stop the flow of absolutely everything would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable,” and that has never happened. For the Trinity has been doing things forever.
Look, there is so much more to say. So many interlocutors to engage, whether McTaggart, Einstein, Stump, Craig, or Helm. But time is up, and I hope that I have at least shown where I am coming from in this conversation, with a measure of warrant.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, Peter J. Gentry, Donald L. Williams Professor of Old Testament Interpretation, talks with Towers editor Andrew J.W. Smith about this new book, How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets.
AJWS: How does one go about finding a genre for the prophets? How do you build a framework for interpreting them?
PG: The prophets, you could argue, are not a specific genre because they use every communication trick in the book to get their message across, including acting. Jeremiah hides his underwear in the rock, Isaiah goes naked and barefoot, Ezekiel cuts off his hair and throws it out the window. But part of prophetic literature in particular is what we would call apocalyptic literature, which uses highly colored metaphors and symbols to describe future events. Some people have not figured out that this is a way of speaking among the prophets. It really comes out of their belief in the doctrine of creation because that’s the central teaching in the Old Testament, that there is one God who created everything. So when your whole world is going to be turned upside down, they talk about it like an anti-creation event. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will be turned to blood. So this apocalyptic language comes out of their belief in the creator God and their understanding of creation.
AJWS: What is a covenant?
PG: A covenant is a serious and permanent commitment to a relationship that is characterized by loyalty, love, faith, trust, and obedience. Family relationships are considered covenantal relationships. A lot of covenant language in the Bible uses family language. When God makes a covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7, he says, “I will be a father to you, and you will be like my son.” So there’s going to be a relationship of faith. You’re going to have to believe what I say. You’re going to have to obey what I say. I’m looking for complete devotedness and loyalty and faithfulness in this relationship. And of course children are supposed to serve their parents. So an obedient son and a servant king is really the idea that is carried through each one of the Adamic figures as we show in Kingdom Through Covenant.
AJWS: How does prophecy as we often think of it — foretelling the future — function throughout the Scriptures?
PG: I would summarize the covenant relationship very simply by saying being completely devoted to the Lord as the only true God, to treat others in a genuinely human way, and to be good stewards of the earth’s resources. So as Jesus said, love God and love your neighbor as yourselves. So that’s a summary of the covenant. So one of the problems is the Israelites are not completely devoted to Yahweh as the only true God. They’re farmers, they’re shepherds, and they’re hedging their bets with Baal at the same time that they’re going to the temple in Jerusalem. They’re putting their eggs in a number of baskets, and they’re not putting their total devotion, their total loyalty, and their total trust in Yahweh. So you’ve got a problem: how do you prove Yahweh is the only true God and Baal is a false god? There is only one true test of deity. That is the being who is God is someone who not only knows but determines and controls the future. If we think about it, this is the one thing in spite of all the greatness of our human technology that we cannot do. If you look, the weather channel is the most-watched channel in America, which shows that we want to know what’s going to happen. And nobody does know for sure what’s going to happen. So prediction of the future becomes part of the prophets’ message to prove two things: first of all, if a prophet makes a prediction and it comes true, then you know according to Deuteronomy 18 that he’s a true prophet. Then when he makes a prediction that occurs beyond the hearer’s lifetime, you believe that because he is now tested as a true prophet by his own contemporaries. So they make predictions of the future to prove first of all that they are genuine, authorized agents. Then they make predictions that demonstrate that Yahweh is the only one who not only knows but controls the future and determines it.
AJWS: How can we rightly identify something as a messianic prophecy?
PG: Well, I show in the book that there are basically three different ways in which the prophets talk about the future. Number one, you could actually simply make a prose statement. Here is what is going to happen without any figures of speech, just straight prediction. And I think there are examples of that although liberal scholarship does not accept them, the prediction of Cyrus the Great as coming to deliver them from Babylon. You can use what’s called typology, and that is very simple. Because God is in control of history and because he is consistent in his character, there will be patterns in events. So certain things in the past are actually patterns or foreshadow events that will happen in the future. Another way you can describe the future is using types. In the Old Testament, God’s great act of deliverance in the past is the Exodus, so the prophets talk about how after the time of judgment God will rescue them, he will deliver them, he will save them — and people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel use language from the Exodus to describe the coming salvation. And the other way they do this is by very colorful metaphors and symbols in what we call apocalyptic language, and it’s very easy to understand. So we shouldn’t be surprised by the different methods that are used to describe the future, because if God is predicting something that’s 700 years in advance or 2000 years in advance, a literal description is not going to be useful.
AJWS: Take students who are reading through the Bible in a year: they get through Genesis and Exodus just fine. They work their way through Leviticus and Deuteronomy and do their best. Then they do the Psalms. Then they get to the prophets, they get to Isaiah and Jeremiah and then they start to slow down because there’s all this complicated material in there. There’s oracles about foreign nations and all these other things going on, and so their reading plan falls apart. What are some reasons that happens?
PG: The idea of repetition, of course, is basic to all Hebrew literature, so they’re going to see this in Genesis. Even in prose you’ll have large sections that involve repetition. Hebrew literature also uses pairs of words, which you can’t get the idea from each word individually, but together they communicate something, so with poetry and with word pairs you get the minimum version of the left speaker and the right speaker. So they’re going to have a lot of experience, they’re going to see this throughout. In Exodus 14 you have a prose version of the crossing of the Red Sea, in Exodus 15 you have the poetry version. Judges 4 is the battle with Sisera described in prose. Chapter 5 is the battle described in poetry. You see other things like long sections that deal with the foreign nations. Those are really connected to the covenant in Deuteronomy, in particular to Deuteronomy 32 because Moses already knows that the people do not have a faithful heart. He says their heart is not circumcised, and it’s just a way of saying, you’re not completely devoted to the covenant. God wants them to realize that he’s not just the tribal deity, but he’s the creator-God of the whole world. He governs all the nations, and his plan through Abraham is to bring blessing to all the nations through Israel. So God is bringing Israel back to himself so Israel can bring a blessing to all these other nations. Israel as a nation never really grasped the purpose of why God had called them and given them special blessing in Abraham. The blessing to Abraham was not for themselves but to be the instrument of blessing and salvation for the whole world. So that’s why you have these kinds of sections.
AJWS: How do we recognize the Bible does go into great detail about this and does have truth that can be applied to our lives while also being open-handed about it?
PG: Well, that’s why I wrote the book. I’ll be honest, most of my writing over the last 40 years has been extremely technical, so I tried to write something that was as popular possible. I’m hoping this will help people know how to read these texts for themselves. I can teach people what I think the Bible is saying, but I’m more interested in them actually learning to read the text for themselves and coming to the right conclusions.
I had the occasion to watch a six-part DVD series called PovertyCure, produced by the Acton Institute. It is indeed an eye-opening series that I’d encourage you to watch. Each part is less than 30 minutes long and is available in the Biola Library (BV4647 .P6 P68 2012 DVD). It challenges the effectiveness of the traditional model of helping the poor through foreign aid in regions where there is wide-spread poverty and the economy is largely depressed. This aid can come in the form of government sponsored foreign aid, through global agencies such as the IMF or World Bank, and even from NGO’s (both secular and Christian). By the end of the series, I think most would at least pause to consider if “aid” (as a “handout”) helps to alleviate poverty, or whether it actually exacerbates the problem ...
After hosting nearly 100 episodes of a church leadership podcast that focuses on church growth and writing more than 1,000 articles on the topic, I’ve learned that the most important trait for church growth is an undergirding of prayer and biblical fidelity. Lead the church you serve to have a dynamic prayer emphasis combined with constant Bible teaching, preaching and overall DNA, and you’ll be ready to follow through with practical strategies. If you don’t have this foundation, then you will fall into pragmatism and failure.
But preaching and teaching the Bible, as well as praying, does not automatically result in the growth of a church. There are plenty of churches with this foundation that still lack practical strategy. So what are the keys to church growth?
1. Implement the right systems.
How do you move people from where they are to where God wants them? Systems!
Have clear processes for how you handle the following areas of the church:
- Corporate worship service planning
- Assimilation of first-time guests into members who attend, give, and serve
- Small groups
- Lay leadership development
- Staff development
- Generosity and stewardship
- Evaluative measures
2. Build the right team.
You need to have the right people on the bus and have them in the right seats. They need to be people of character, competence, and chemistry.
Character. It doesn’t matter how talented the people are, if they are not men and women of God, they have no place on your staff team. For pastoral staff members, the Bible has made it crystal clear what kind of character they should possess (Titus 1:5–9; 1 Timothy 3:1–7; 1 Peter 5:1–4).
Competence. There are some people who are extremely godly, nice and sweet but simply don’t have the skillset needed to excel in the church you lead. These are the hardest team members to handle because if they have character and chemistry but are incompetent, you won’t experience growth in their area of leadership.
Chemistry. If the people love God and are really sharp, but you simply don’t get along with them, or if it is awkward being around them, it will not work in the long-term.
3. Develop the right culture.
In order for the church to have a healthy culture, it must have exegeted its community properly, then reverse-engineered how to see a healthy New Testament ministry grow there. The culture should be one of excellence, warmth, energy and enthusiasm. How is that culture developed? Through intentionality.
I conclude with a frustrating story. From ages 11 to 15, I mowed lawns and saved money to buy my first car. The day I turned 16, I opened up the classifieds section of the newspaper (before the days of Craigslist), found a car within my budget, and called the number.
I met with the guy who was selling the Chevy Corsica. It wasn’t the coolest car I had ever seen, but during the test drive, it was smooth.
Two days later, a substance was flying out from the side of the car, and then a rod was thrown in the engine. The seller put sawdust in there and conned me into buying a bad car. The cylinders in the engine weren’t clicking together, and it ruined the entire car.
Friend, you can make some tweaks here and there to make the church you lead experience some growth for a short season. You can throw proverbial sawdust under the hood of the church you serve.
But if you want things to click on all cylinders for the long haul, focus on the foundation of prayer and biblical fidelity, then implement the right systems, build the right team, and develop the right culture. Church growth isn’t guaranteed to come as a result of all of this, but the odds will definitely be in your favor.
When I came to my church several years ago, one of the biggest fears from current members was that I would try to “go contemporary.” Some were okay with the idea of adding a second contemporary service, but I wasn’t going to let them off the hook that easily. I intended to do something even more fearful: figure out how to get college students and young families to invade their pews and worship side by side with them.
A huge part of shaping a unified, cross-generational worship service was figuring out how to get members with different musical tastes and expectations to learn a Philippians 2:4 kind of looking “not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Our older members were deeply shaped by mid-century revivalist hymns. As college students and families began to join, they were shaped by the worship playlists and radio they listened to during the week.
We had to come to a realization as a congregation. Our objective was neither to sound like CCM radio nor to sound like the camp revivals of the 1950s. Our objective was to sound like College Street Baptist Church. We wanted to lift the spirit-filled authentic voice of our saints to the praise and glory of God.
Part of this process was finding new ways to sing hymns together. I wanted to help our older generation pass down these precious gems to the next generation. I also wanted the next generation to be able to take ownership of these hymns. Here are five suggestions for any church who wants to foster this melodic giving and receiving in the body of Christ.1. Add an interlude
In a traditional four-line hymnal, there is no recovery between verses. The congregation holds the last note for anywhere from one to four beats, then must hurry its eyes back up to the top of the page and start immediately into the next verse. This can be vocally taxing and make hymns feel unnecessarily archaic.
I was talking to my friend Ben Brainerd, worship director at Immanuel Baptist Church in Louisville about ways to encourage stronger singing from our congregation, and he taught me this trick. He said, “Just hold the last note. Just hold the last note of the song between verses, and everyone else will follow.” He was talking about an interlude. Giving the congregation a break between verses would allow them to recover their breath and prepare for the next verse–making for more vibrant singing.
An interlude between verses can make hymns more accessible without extra effort. A traditional four-line hymn has a readymade interlude: musicians can simply repeat the first or last line of the hymn between verses. I also love how this provides the congregation a few moments to pause for contemplation or prayer.2. Change the tempo
Sometimes all it takes is speeding a song up or slowing it down. Many hymns can take on a very different feel if you simply sing them at a different pace. A while back, we sang the Southern Baptist standard “There’s Pow’r in the Blood”. It has the word “pow’r” multiple times in the chorus, as in “pow’r, pow’r, wonder working pow’r” — not super user-friendly to younger believers. However, our musicians played the melody at a quicker pace with driving energy, turning the hymn into a celebratory anthem that the whole congregation sang with joy.
A great way to change tempo is by adding light percussion. Is there a member who can keep really good time? Sparing use of a shaker, cajón, or tamborine can be peppered in during congregational worship to set a hard tempo to prevent the congregation from falling into a familiar dragging cadence. These instruments require little experience or space, but they can be a great help in bringing unity to the voices of the church.3. Add an instrument
Look around your church. Is there someone with rhythm? Someone who plays guitar? Others with musical talents going unused in congregational worship? Believe it or not, we had a member who was a very gifted clarinetist. When we added her to our small group of musicians, it was a perfect fit. When you have piano led congregational worship, the additional of a few supporting musicians can help church members both old and young take ownership of their hymnals.
It’s important for the members of the church to realize that they have musical gifts and talents for the building up of the body. A particular favorite hymn of ours emphasizes this truth from Psalm 150: “Praise with every tuneful string; all the reach of heavenly art, all the powers of music bring, the music of the heart.” Restraint and creativity will be key as any instruments added should serve the voices of the people not drown them out.4. Give an introduction
An introduction can make a hymn with outdated language more engaging. Consider the line from verse 2 of “Come Thou Fount”: “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy grace I stand.” The typical complaint goes: What on earth is an Ebenezer? Here’s a suggestion: Rather than throwing out the word or the whole song, maybe your song leader should simply explain what an ebenezer is? Here’s an example:
Ebenezer is the Hebrew word for “stone of help”. In the Old Testament, God’s people would set up a stone, like a monument, as a permanent reminder of the real, tangible help God provided in a moment of crisis. Ebenezers are the milestones we can point to in our lives and say, “This trouble happened, and God’s undeniable grace delivered me!” Ponder those sweet moments of God’s help as we sing “Come Thou Fount” together…5. Sing acappella
The human voice is the one instrument that never goes out of style. Singing acappella builds confidence and gospel boldness in God’s people. Choose a last verse or a final chorus and drop the instruments altogether. Let the voices resound. Kevin DeYoung once said, “The test of a really great hymn is this: can it be sung acappella?”
The church’s voice should be the one instrument that rings out loudest and clearest in the midst of the congregation. A church that sings together is attractive to all generations—and glorifying to God.Firmly rooted in Scripture
The singing of the local church should be an ever-evolving process. As the Lord multiplies his church and adds to those who are being saved, the congregation’s harmony of ages, colors, and backgrounds must be heard in the midst of the congregation.
Firmly rooted in the Scriptures, spurred on by the saints of old, and enlivened by the indwelling Spirit, congregational singing ought to be a unifying endeavor for Christ’s church. To echo the words of Paul, my prayer for your church is “that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:6).
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For the past few years, I have been speaking and writing about the dangers of pornography. Although I have read dozens of books about the effects of porn, I recently heard Matt Fradd discuss it on Unbelievable? radio and decided to pick up a copy of his recent book: The Porn Myth: Exposing the Reality Behind the Fantasy of Pornography. Needless to say, I was not disappointed. In fact, it’s now my top recommendation for a book of its kind.
Without using Scripture or religious argumentation, and relying upon dozens of recent studies, Fradd makes the case that porn is damaging to individuals, relationships, and society as a whole. He is not out to censor porn, but to educate people so they can live more healthy sexual lives ...
Hi Dr. Craig,
I appreciate your work for the kingdom of Christ. You have been of great influence in my life as a Christian.
I recently came across this piece by an unknown skeptic that was reviewing a book by Stewart Goetz ( The Purpose Of Life: A Theistic Perspective)
"The first question that seems fitting when discussing the purpose of life from a theistic perspective is: what is the purpose of God's life? If our being/life is somehow derived from God's being/life, then any relevant discussion of human purpose must be contingent upon God's purpose. But since purpose necessarily entails an initial directive, a beginning-less being cannot have a purpose. A being that has no origin or beginning cannot exist for anything. Since it would follow that this supposed being's actions must derive from the nature of its existence, it would be hard to logically defend the existence of purposeful actions resulting from a being that must be categorically devoid of purpose. "
I'm completely puzzle by this. Does God exist for something? Can it be said that if God had remain in eternity without creating he would be living a purposeless life? ...
You can learn a lot about a church from its website.
Not long ago I researched a church in another state, and I could tell it cares about community. From the small groups offered to the pictures of smiling people drinking coffee together, this congregation clearly works hard to make connections. After watching a few online interviews, it was obvious they value friendship.
Sadly, it wasn’t obvious they value Christ. I imagine they do. They’re a church, after all. But it wasn’t plain from anything I saw that they care most about proclaiming, exalting, and walking in a manner worthy of him.
A community is an organized group of individuals united by a common trait. It could be a love of fly fishing, Harry Potter novels, or political activism. There’s something powerful, fulfilling, and comforting about meeting up with others who share an interest. Certainly churches ought to emphasize themselves as hubs of community, right?
Yes and no.Community in Scripture
There’s no doubt that when we ransack the pages of the New Testament we find pictures of profound community. There was a “day by day” quality to the koinonia of the early Christians (Acts 2:42–47). The church did more than gather on Sunday. New believers spent time in one another’s homes, breaking bread and sharing life.
Paul promoted this church-as-family model. When writing to the believers in Thessalonica, he remarked how much he loved them, and how thankful he and his team was to have shared with them not only the gospel, but also “our own very selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess 2:8).
The apostle modeled what his Savior taught him. Jesus exhorted the disciples to practice community. After humbling himself and washing their feet—communicating intimate care and concern—he said, “You also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). And in case they didn’t quite grasp his point, Jesus added a new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). Jesus valued community.
Over the years I’ve seen countless examples of Christians caring for each other, putting the interests of others first, and generally sharing their lives. Cancer-plagued believers being driven to chemo treatment by brothers and sisters in Christ. Couples learning how to care for children with special needs so that tired parents can have a night out. Families opening up their homes to welcome singles on a weekly basis.
Community is biblical, and it’s important. But it’s not the whole story.But it’s not everything, Christ is
Community is the fruit of Christ-exalting worship. Community is not what we’re to aim for; Christ is. And when we find him (or, rather, when he finds us), community naturally follows.
Take Acts 2, for example. A desire for fellowship didn’t bring the early disciples together. No, the objective truth of the risen Messiah kept them in Jerusalem and made them eager to receive the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). Paul willingly shared his whole life with the Thessalonian believers. But what united them wasn’t Paul’s love or their love. It was the gospel that had come “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess 1:5).
When Paul exhorted Timothy to faithfulness in ministry, he never told him to build community. Instead, he urged his disciple to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2). And when Paul cut to the heart of his own ministry, he put it simply: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1:28).
Paul never pitted Christ and community against one another. But he did prioritize Christ.
Paul knew, like his master, that wherever Christ is championed, community is created.
Relationships are deeper and richer when our ultimate confidence is in Christ and not one another. When you live as if other people can meet all your needs, you will be regularly disappointed. You’re asking them to do something no person can ever do—give you the happiness you so desperately want. But when Christ is your confidence, someone is freed to be your friend, not the god you rely on to meet all your needs.Christ front and center
As a pastor, I love to push my people into one another’s lives. God made us to need each other. He made us to live together as a family of faith. This is why I so often quote Hebrews 3:13: “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” As Paul Tripp put it, we’re to be instruments in the redeemer’s hands, instruments of grace in each other’s lives.
So how do we keep Christ front and center?
It starts by ensuring the Word is proclaimed whenever we meet as a church. The Bible is the Word of Christ, and where the Word is rightly taught, Christ is rightly proclaimed. This is obvious when we gather on Sundays, but it should happen whenever we gather as a church.
Beyond our public meetings, we strive to speak of Christ warmly and often in personal conversation. It’s relatively easy to gather as the body of Christ and listen to sermons, sing Christ-centered lyrics, and engage in Christ-exalting prayers. But what you really value—what is front and center in your life—comes out in your conversations throughout the week. There’s always time to discuss college football, politics, and the latest fashion trends. But we all face the danger of neglecting to naturally talk about Christ as well—how he’s changing you, and how much you need him.
Whether we’re gathered or scattered, staying tenaciously focused on the true King is the secret to true community.You don’t find it by looking for it
Recently Christianity Today reported some statistics on why people start looking for other churches. Lots of reasons were given, from moving out of the area to disagreeing with the pastor. Only 2 percent of respondents indicated they were looking for another church because they “wanted more community.” I’m convinced the actual number is much higher. It’s easier to say you’re leaving the church because you’re dissatisfied with the worship experience than saying you’re leaving because you don’t have friends. It’s hard to admit you’re lonely.
So what should you do if you aren’t experiencing the kind of community you want?
Pray for your church faithfully. Pray the body of Christ you’re part of would grow in this area. Churches fall short. No church is perfect. So pray your church would be so filled with Christ’s love that it would overflow into personal relationships within the church.
Examine yourself. Are there patterns of behavior in your own life that serve as obstacles to the community you desire? Maybe your work schedule makes the kind of face time needed to live together difficult. Perhaps you’re prioritizing certain hobbies over gathering with God’s people (Heb. 10:24–25). Maybe, for whatever reason, you’ve kept others at arm’s length—refusing to let them really get to know you. Consider how you could make a greater effort to create the community you want to see.
Seek solace in Christ. True community is never found by looking for it. It can only be found by pursuing Christ. He understands loneliness better than we do. Jesus hung alone, deserted by his closest friends, bearing the shame of sins he never committed. He knows what it’s like to be ignored, abandoned, overlooked. Fallen humans are inherently disappointing. Only Jesus is perfectly fulfilling. So let your seasons of loneliness point you to his sufficiency.
We all need community. We just need Christ more.
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Joseph, being tempted by Potiphar’s wife:
“How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”
Jones: What kept Joseph from sin? “How could I do such a wicked thing and…”?
Contract an STI? Risk an unwanted pregnancy? Jeopardize my seminary status or my marriage or my church ministry? Disappoint my mentors? While these are legitimate concerns, nothing is higher than Joseph’s answer: “ … and sin against God?”
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”
Jones: Sexual sin for Paul is functional atheism, living like a pagan who does acknowledge God’s presence, fear God’s judgment, or love him for sending his Son to die for me.2 Corinthians 5:14-15
“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
Jones: There must be a conscious belief in God’s constant presence with you. No one would view porn if Jesus were standing next to him, so to view porn one must either ignore or marginalize the Lord’s presence or devalue pleasing him.
Featuring Eric L. Johnson, Lawrence and Charlotte Hoover Professor of Pastoral Care at Southern Seminary
AJWS: In your experience, what factors are involved in a young man’s ongoing pornography addiction? What drives him back to it time and time again — despite negative consequences (getting caught, spiritual lifelessness, relational separation, chronic guilt, etc.)?
EJ: We are born in sin and all of us are inclined to live for ourselves. That is the nature of original sin. How that ends up getting manifested distinguishes people. Original sin is expressed through our bodies and through our personalities. It gets organized in our brains and in our personalities based on biology and our social experiences.
The fact of the matter is that men are more likely to engage in pornography use than women, and that’s partly because of the way men are wired biologically. That is not an excuse. We are embodied creatures; our sin is embodied — Paul’s use of the word flesh is profound on this matter. So, because of the release of testosterone in teenage years and early adulthood, that’s actually the time when the drive is the strongest for sexual activity — and of course that’s great when you’re married and you’re going to have kids, but it creates problems when marriage is delayed into the late 20s, as it often is in our day. It becomes an incredible burden.
Now, every exposure to pornography binds the brain and the mind and the imagination to a particular cycle that is powerful — one of the most powerful kinds of cycles that humans have. When you do that repeatedly, it locks it into a kind of sequence that makes it extremely difficult to break out. It becomes an addiction. Again, there is no excuse here — we are responsible before God for the state of our brains as young adults. That’s a part of our responsibility before God. But it also creates a level of urgency that we not continue the cycle. Every time a person goes back to the internet and re-engages that cycle, it debilitates them that much more.
Part of the recovery process is to do everything we can to help people prevent another cycle. Pluck out the eye, cut off the hand, throw out the computer. Make it impossible for you to have access. Do whatever you need to do.
AJWS: When you counsel a man struggling with pornography, what does a map toward recovery look like? What process do you lead him through?
EJ: We want to help people develop the optimal amount of contrition, and contrition is a painful emotion. Most conscientious Christians, after they have engaged in pornography use, are going to feel bad. We want to encourage them to learn how to do that in a Christ-centered way, and that means taking it seriously, but it also means not jumping into Doubting Castle and getting beat up by Giant Despair every day. That actually crushes the Christian spirit and it aids Satan in tormenting the believer, saying, “You see, you’re outside the pale. You’re irredeemable. You can’t be a Christian.”
I define pornography addiction as regular, ongoing use. It’s not good to engage in any pornography use at all, but when addressing the problem, we need to distinguish a one-time fall from somebody who is engaging in that behavior every week.
When dealing with someone who is addicted, we have to help them break the cycle. That is pivotal. Because if a person is in despair, they don’t feel like they can even go to Jesus for healing. We have to break the cycle, because when you’re in that despair mindset, you can’t do the redemptive steps that are necessary to get clean. You feel dirty, you feel unworthy, you feel distant from Jesus, and so there has to be some break there. So as soon as possible, we want to get people to go before the Lord through a sequence of cleansing. That is a process of going before the Lord and engaging in confession — a conscious and verbal acknowledgment that I have sinned.
There should also ideally be a certain amount of contrition, and that means staying in that state for several minutes before the Lord and doing what the Puritans called “loading the conscience,” or allowing their sin to weigh on them.
The next step is repentance, and repentance is making a conscious break from the behavior. It is saying: “I have done it, and I disavow that — I do not wish to do it ever again and Lord Jesus, help that to be true of me.” Finally, with a Christ-centered model of repentance, we want to help them — before they leave the presence of Lord — to “hear” him say, “Your sins are forgiven, go and sin no more.” Then, they experience the washing and cleansing of forgiveness so that they can stand before the Lord, not in the basement of Doubting Castle, but knowing that they are forgiven. It’s a miracle every time it happens, but it is a recognition that the Lord has forgiven them and they are making a break with that behavior pattern. The idea long-term is to help them internalize that redemptive process of death and resurrection into the new creation again and again and again to build hope, no matter how many times they fall.
He doesn’t give up on his children and he never will. We need to keep going back to him over and over, and that process ends up changing our sense of our identity. The reason why all this is important is because, in Doubting Castle, the addict is actually more likely to go back to pornography. They don’t feel consolation with the Lord, so they are going to try and find a sick kind of consolation in their sin. This is so important: We have to help them find true consolation in Christ’s forgiveness and love and abiding with the Lord in that state.
AJWS: What is the most important thing a person needs to know, do, or experience in order to overcome a longstanding porn habit?
EJ: I think there are two things. The first is contrition before the Lord. There has to be an acknowledgment of my sin before God, handled in a way that doesn’t crush the believer in a sense of failure and hopelessness. Second, I have to know that Jesus will take back the prodigal every time.
I think both those things have to be held in tension. We might say that it’s the balance of law and grace together. The challenge is that the person who ends up beating himself up is overwhelmed by law and has lost sight of grace; the person who is too casual about it doesn’t allow himself to take the time to hear the Lord say, “It’s not okay.” You can become too law-centered and you can become too grace-centered, in a strange way. It’s always both, and I like to think about it temporally: The Christian life is an ongoing movement from death to resurrection. My job as a counselor is to help people learn how to practice that death-resurrection cycle every time they sin.
Some deadly diseases often present no outward symptoms; they just lie within surreptitiously and imperceptibly until they unleash catastrophe. Deep vein thrombosis.
Hypertension. Brain aneurism. Pride.
More than just a sin, pride is a category of sin because, though indeed a sin itself, it leads inevitably to more sin and other sin. Pride is particularly insidious because, unlike pornography, adultery, or thievery it remains socially acceptable — even in the Christian world, particularly in ministry, and especially in the artificial bubble of seminary. Insulated from the challenges of other world views, constantly graded and evaluated in ways that lend themselves to comparison, and surrounded by admirable and attractional people, a seminary student can easily forget that the call of God is to follow Christ alone. Pride can distort the entire experience and suggest that the cross to be taken up must be a designer model, carried in a top-grain leather case, and immortalized in an Instagram selfie.The ultimate secret sin
Perhaps pride persists so perilously because it has a certain utility in the world of the flesh, an expediency in gaining an invitation to sit in the chief seats at the table. It can masquerade as self-confidence in preaching and draw the admiration of others. It can fool a wife into thinking her husband is self-assured and confident when he is self-absorbed and conceited. It can pose as poise and leadership to a search committee or a potential employer who cannot perceive the insatiable appetite for prestige and lust for status lurking beneath the impeccably curated clothing.
Pride, however, has no single uniform. It can infect the seminary student nattily attired in Brooks Brothers, bow tie, and brogues, or equally the one who, just as proudly, refuses to wear anything but jeans and a t-shirt. It can dehumanize a wife into an ornament, and make children think more about maintaining the image of dad than reflecting the image of God. It can pervert a simple thing—like drinking a cup of coffee—into an act of idolatry and fountain of disdain for those with less educated palates. It robs the simplest pleasures of their simplicity and joy, and substitutes instead the convolution and complication of a sinful heart with the sneer of self-righteousness. Pride is so subtle and perverted that it can corrupt the good that we do, ostensibly in service of the kingdom, into deeds of the flesh that cannot please God.
Ultimately, pride robs God of his glory — the eternal — because it delights in self-glory — the temporal, transient, and meaningless.
That’s why seminary is so dangerous. Unfortunately, seminary can become an incubator for nascent pride that, if not defeated by the indwelling Spirit of Christ, will grow into a disfiguring and destructive monster that makes even the most academically gifted seminary graduate of little use to the Kingdom of God. In one way seminary is no different than any other place because pride can grow in any climate and every heart. On the other hand, Satan’s forces are working overtime at seminary because habits and attitudes established here will likely harden and endure throughout ministry — and cause great damage.Overcoming an inflated sense of self
The key to defeating pride lies in truly believing what God’s Word says about every one of us. The Bible is clear that we are all broken. We might be broken in different ways, but one cannot experience degrees of total depravity. When we deny the depth of our own desperate need we fail to see the enormity of God’s grace and redemption in Christ. Not only is pride sinful, but also misplaced. We have nothing to be proud of. If everyone knew the truth about us we would only be ashamed. Apart from Christ, we certainly have no cause for boasting.
We must remind ourselves, therefore, that our salvation, our sanctification, and even our gifting, is all of grace. The more one appreciates and appropriates the grace of God, the less one feels either desire or ability to boast. Grace, after all, transforms mundane things in precisely the opposite direction of pride. Grace puts gratitude where pride once was. The discerning palate, for instance, becomes a heart filled with praise and gratitude for a God who designed taste buds and created coffee trees and different soils, climates, and altitudes so His creatures could enjoy the simple—or complex—pleasure of a cup of java. Clothes and appearance become a strategy to present the gospel and to express a sanctified and unique personality with a thankful heart. Beautiful pens become a way to write encouraging or comforting notes to others rather than a possession to fuel pride. Social media become a tool of discipleship and gospel impact rather than self-centered aggrandizement.
Humility is not thinking lowly of yourself, or even little of yourself; it’s not thinking of yourself. A life filled with Christ and focused on others will not have room nor time for pride. A follower of Christ must evaluate his or her own spirit and attitude in every action with brutal honesty to bring every thought captive to Christ. We strive to be servants, not masters; to be least, not the greatest. We serve one who humbled and emptied Himself.
Southern Seminary is a wonderful place and a gift of God to His churches. I marvel at what God has done here. Our campus is the most beautiful I have ever seen. Our faculty is stunningly gifted and accomplished. Our students and alumni are used of God in great and inspiring ways. May none of that, however, be a source of anything other than gratitude to God with a sense of our own debt to the gospel. We have nothing that we have not received.
Nate Larkin went to a different seminary at a different time, but despite his story he’s not all that different from many of today’s seminarians. He took the biblical languages and systematic theology. He was an excellent student and expositor. He won the preaching prize. He pastored a small independent church while he was in school. He sincerely wanted to follow the Lord’s calling on his life. He seemed, from the outside, enormously successful. Ideal, even. But inside, he harbored pain and guilt from something deep and hidden. Over time, it metastasized.
“When I was in seminary, I felt like I had joined the Marines and that I was the designated hero,” he says now. “I would be the guy who would have the answers for everybody else. I would be a repository of wisdom, I would be the tip of the spear.
“But that’s a concept that militates against much of what the New Testament tells us about the interdependence of all the members of the body of Christ.”
Larkin started looking at pornography long before seminary. But it was during that period that it became truly addictive. At the time, the early 1980s and long before the internet, glossy men’s magazines were the entry point for porn users, and the next stage was adult bookstores. Larkin says he can still hear the sound of a clattering film projector behind him from the first time he visited such a place. One bookstore was halfway between the seminary and his church, and he recalls on many occasions feeling like the car turned into the bookstore of its own volition.
After a post-seminary men’s retreat, he promised himself he would get serious about his sin, even opening up to his wife for the first time and vowing never to do it again. He experienced a period of “abstinence,” as he calls it, and even decided he had recovered enough to plant a church, but he never dealt with his sin at the root or was truly honest with others about the condition of his heart. Eventually, it grew worse.
Larkin describes driving to church one rainy night, where he was going to preach at the Christmas Eve service. He saw a young woman on the street, and deciding he would be a gentlemen and get her out of the rain, offered to give her a ride. But she was not there by accident, and the $100 bill he had in his wallet for the church Christmas offering never made it to the offering plate. It was not the only time, even after he quit the ministry in a desperate attempt to kill his addiction. As best as he can reconstruct it now, during those dark years he spent as much as $300,000 illicitly.
His wife caught him one night, and spoke two words that would finally spark change his life. I’m done. She said she still loved him, but she didn’t like him, didn’t respect him, and didn’t think he could ever change.
Desperate to save his relationship with his wife — the one friend he still had, he says — Larkin started attending 12-step recovery and at last began being honest about his sin.
“It was there that I encountered Jesus in a whole new way,” he said. “It was there that doors and windows were opened on the gospel for me, and I began to see that Jesus was always unfailingly kind to the sexually broken. He never himself endured sexual sin, but he was always unfailingly kind and gracious.”
He started developing close friendships, which forced him to stop minimizing his sin and get serious about it. This is not sin management, one friend told him. They would work hard to confront the behavior, but they would also drill deeper into the heart issues that drove his actions. You have a lot more repenting to do than you know, he told Larkin.
The work took years, like the sprouting of a sapling or the glacial drift of an ice flow. A member of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, Larkin began to grow under the preaching of founding pastor Scotty Smith and honest, deep friendships and openness with other Christian men. The change itself, however, was supernatural. It was the work of the Holy Spirit.
“Eventually, either we surrender to a power greater than ourselves and our addiction, or we lose.”
The friendships Larkin formed during that phase of his life have lasted decades. He has been in recovery for more than 25 years and has used his story to mentor countless men struggling with pornography and sexual sin. Scotty Smith watched Larkin and his ministry flourish during that time, and calls him “one of my favorite people in the entire world.”
Larkin feels burdened to help men with stories like his, and believes the best way to cultivate long-term change is through honesty and companionship. Sanctification is pursued in community, isolation is a breeding ground for sin — and he recognizes few Christians are as isolated as men training for or in the ministry.
“To me, one of the greatest tragedies of contemporary American religious life is that, in the typical American church these days, the pastor is the most isolated guy in the congregation,” Larkin said. “We face a very wily foe, whose game is one-on-one. He is a master of it. He doesn’t play team ball; he plays one-on-one, and he’s only been beaten there once. If he can trap us forever into his game, he will win.
“The most successful pastors I know have managed to construct for themselves a brotherhood. We have to be vulnerable to somebody, and that takes courage.”
Larkin is a writer, speaker, and founder of Samson Society, a men’s ministry with church groups across the United States. Read more about his story and ministry in his book, Samson and the Pirate Monks.