Last week the satirical news site Babylon Bee made the national news with a post distasteful to some, mocking a health-and-wealth guru after she proved herself a fraud by dying. While that story was making the headlines, a less popular post titled “Conservative Christian Trying To Remember What He’s Supposed To Be Conserving” caught my attention. It did so because in the conservative evangelical world, there is often little agreement on what should be conserved. Some conserve a whole confessional heritage, others a block of “fundamentals,” and others a centerpiece of theology regarded as the linchpin of the Christian faith (e.g., inerrancy or “the gospel”); some conserve a formal liturgy, others a hymn tradition rich in doctrine, and others some flagging worship style that has been left behind by the progressives; some cling to a nostalgic way of life when things were simpler and common grace more abundant; and still others don’t care so long as a Republican is in the White House trying to stop abortion and get the Bible and prayer back into the public schools. Hence the Babylon Bee’s satirical confusion—what are Christian conservatives actually conserving, if anything?
As a self-identifying “conservative,” I mean by the label that I am a foundationalist. That is, I believe that within God’s order are fixed and inalienable standards of right and wrong in the spheres of truth, goodness, beauty, and in fact every philosophical sphere. The standard of right in each case is defined by God and is not subject to progress. So while the world around me experiments continually with alternative universes in which goodness, beauty, and truth are other than what God defines them to be, I refuse to do so on principle, viz., the conservative principle.
In the spheres of truth (what I know/believe) and goodness (what I ought/do) God supplies in his written Word a wealth of propositional data, and being “conservative” in these matters largely reduces to believing God’s Word: to be conservative is to believe in biblical inerrancy. Other philosophical spheres (e.g., beauty), however, are not so fully addressed in Scripture, a state of affairs captured succinctly in J. M. Spier’s Introduction to Philosophy. On p. 44 of this volume Spier suggests fourteen “spheres” which, while because of their increasing simplicity are the object of progressively less and less propositional data in Scripture, still remain fixed in the divine mind. IOW, everything is foundational to God, even what is not explicitly expressed in Scripture:
As we proceed down this list we (arguably) find less direct biblical revelation at each successive level, not because God is neutral/undecided/ambivalent about these issues, but because these issues are progressively simpler and less objectionable to the depraved mind (i.e., few people doubt that 2+2=4—not because the Bible tells me this statement is true in so many words, but because the arithmetic first principles of the Christian worldview are assumed and accepted by virtually all people without objection).
The conservative admits that warrant for identifying truth and ought in the interior disciplines is sometimes difficult (for an interesting attempt to do this, see Roy Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality), but approaches the task by summarily denying the idea of neutrality (i.e., non-foundational data) in any sphere, and by affirming the need to discover and embrace what is right in every sphere. This contrasts with the non-conservative, who believes that God’s revelation is sufficient only for spiritual truth, that neutrality is a common feature of many philosophical spheres, and that there is consequently little or nothing to conserve in them.
Being a conservative is not an easy thing in a world (and sometimes in churches) that embrace progressivism (the opposite of conservatism). But the foundational nature of God’s truth system cannot ultimately survive without it.
Jeremie Roy, recent DBTS graduate and missionary to the Dominican Republic, reminds us from Romans 8:18-25 that because of the greatness of the coming Glory, we must see trials as trivial.http://dbts.edu/podcasts/Roy-5_23_16.mp3
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Last Saturday at the Cincinnati Zoo, a gorilla was killed to protect the life of a 4 year old boy who had fallen into the gorilla enclosure. The gorilla, named Harambe, was a member of an endangered species, with less than 175,000 western lowland gorillas worldwide.
This incident has created quite a bit of controversy. An online petition asking for “Justice for Harambe” by holding the parents of the boy responsible for the death of the gorilla has garnered over 475,000 signatures to date. While the petition indicates the decision to kill the gorilla was “heartbreaking” it was “made in the best interests of keeping the child…safe.”
But not everyone agrees that the child’s life should have taken priority. I read through some of the comments following a statement by the zoo posted on Facebook. Two comments in particular stood out to me (though several others expressed similar sentiments). The first said that, since the gorilla was an endangered species, his life should be worth the lives of at least ten children. The second asked how anyone could possibly argue that a human life was more valuable than a gorilla’s life without assuming an anthropocentric view of the world—the idea that humans are the most significant beings on earth.
But I think to really consider questions like those raised above, we need to step back further and ask why we would consider a gorilla’s life valuable in the first place. There is almost universal agreement that the gorilla’s death was tragic, but why would we say that? Richard Dawkins has stated: “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life). Thus, if naturalistic evolution is true, life itself has no more real value than death. And the death of Harambe was in no way tragic, because nothing is either good or tragic. It just is.
Perhaps one could argue that life is good because survival is the goal of evolution/natural selection.* But the goal of evolution/natural selection would only include the survival of your species as a good thing. This argument would result in a extreme version of anthropocentrism, in which the only lives that matter are human lives and the only good is the continued survival of humanity. It is hard to see how a gorilla in a zoo contributed to humanity’s survival, so his death—or the death of any other creature—is in no way tragic. Rather, it is at least insignificant and at most something to be celebrated, since it diminished the population of a species that could serve as a threat to humanity’s survival.
So does a gorilla’s life matter? According to the Bible, there are at least two reasons why a gorilla’s life matters. The first is that life itself is a good gift from God, and that includes the lives of animals (Gen 1:31; 1 Tim 6:13). Death is not part of God’s good creation (Rom 5:12; 8:20-23). Thus anytime life is destroyed, it is tragic. God not only created the animals and gave them life, but He also continues to care for them. He provides food for them to eat (Ps 104:14; Matt 6:26) and wants to avoid their unnecessary deaths (Jonah 4:11).
Since God provides the basis for the value of animal life, God also provides the proper understanding of the value of human life. And God is clear that human lives matter more than animal lives, since humans are made in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). Humans are permitted to take the lives of animals for food or to protect human life, since human life is supreme on this earth (Gen 9:2-6). God cares for the lives of animals, but that care highlights His even greater concern for the humans He has made in His image. If we understand God and His creation, we understand the value of animal life and the value of human life.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matt 10:29-31)
*This is not a valid argument. It confuses “is” with “ought.” It moves from saying that evolution and natural selection are directed toward survival to saying that survival, and by extension life, is a good thing. But there is no valid reason to make that move. But since it is a common (though flawed) argument I consider it to see its implications.
As the baby boomer generation continues to age, the percentage of Americans at retirement age is expected to explode, with about 9000 reaching age 65 each year. “Forty-eight million Americans were age 65 and older in 2015, 18 percent more than just five years earlier. The number of older Americans will increase to 74 million by 2030, and 98 million by 2060” (http://www.urban.org/features/how-retirement-changing-america).
For many, retirement holds promises of travel, relaxation, and leisure. God certainly wants His children to enjoy the good gifts He has provided. But He also expects us to live our entire lives for Him, not just our working years. That’s why Christians don’t retire from being Christians—you never cease serving Christ.
I’ve had the privilege to work closely with several members of our church who have used their retirement as an opportunity to serve with our campus ministry at Wayne State University. One of the greatest examples I have seen of using your retirement for the glory of God was Clif Tally.
After retiring from being an engineer, Clif audited several classes here at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, simply because he wanted to better understand God and His Word. He became more involved with multiple Bible studies at different retirement homes. He helped start the campus ministry at Wayne State University in 2003 and served there faithfully for the last 13 years. He would spend 25-35 hours a week leading 10-15 different small group and one-on-one Bible studies. He built relationships with scores of international students (many of which were Chinese), spending an hour in English conversation and an hour studying the Bible with them each week. He helped to collect donated furniture and organize a furniture give-away for incoming international students each fall. He incorporated his love of bird-watching into two annual trips with international students to bird-watching events as a means of strengthening the relationships for the sake of the Gospel. Clif never retired from serving Christ, but on Monday God called His good and faithful servant home to enter the joy of his Lord.
Clif exemplified the truth that Christians do not look for their home in this world but in the world to come. They enjoy this life, but they are more concerned with investing in eternity. The years of retirement are an excellent time to serve Jesus. It’s an opportunity to take the wisdom, understanding, and experience gained over the years and pour them back into the lives of others.
Christians don’t retire. They may stop their earthly careers, but they do not stop their work for God. Because they know one day they will be called to enter God’s rest.
“So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” (Heb 4:9-10)
After 33 years of faithful ministry at DBTS, Dr. McCabe will be retiring this year and moving with his wife to Arizona to live with their family. Paul Finkbeiner sat down with him in his office to talk about his life as a seminarian and Old Testament professor.
Paul Finkbeiner: How did you end up working at DBTS?
Dr. Robert McCabe: Robert Smith, Pastor Doran’s brother-in-law, invited my wife and me to visit DBTS while I was working on my Th.D. After we visited, I sent my resume to Dr. McCune who then offered me a job in the fall of 1983.
PF: What was it like going to seminary?
RM: It wasn’t easy. I married my wife after finishing my first year as an M.Div. student. During my Th.D. work, I worked two full-time jobs, which included working at a publishing house called Eisenbrauns and doing security work too. It took me three years to finish my thesis.
PF: Why did you pursue ministry rather than a secular vocation?
RM: After getting saved, I wanted to serve God however I could. My passion was to be in ministry.
PF: What made you interested in the Old Testament?
RM: The best teacher I had at Temple Baptist Theological Seminary was an Old Testament professor named James Price. After having him for an Old Testament Introduction class, I realized that he was a true scholar, and he became my mentor as I pursued Old Testament studies.
PF: How long have you taught at DBTS?
RM: For 33 years. Overall, I’ve taught for 37 years, and I’ve spent half my life teaching at Detroit.
PF: What have you enjoyed about teaching?
RM: Two things mainly – camaraderie with my colleagues and my students. Besides those relationships, I really enjoyed doing an Israel study hour and Great Britain study tour. Another great experience was going whitewater rafting on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon as part of a young earth creationist tour.
PF: What was challenging for you as a professor?
RM: It was hard getting everything together when I first started and creating my own syllabi. During my first two years at DBTS, I was completing my dissertation while teaching full-time.
PF: What were some of your favorite classes that you taught?
RM: 1st and 2nd year Hebrew, OT Poetic Books, and Ecclesiastes
PF: How do you hope you have influenced your students?
RM: I hope I’ve influenced them to focus more on the Old Testament. And I hope I have influenced them to be pastor-scholars.
PF: How have your students influenced you?
RM: As I’ve aged, they have helped me stay younger. And they have helped me think more carefully about how I relate to them and to see things from their perspective as well as my own.
PF: What’s your favorite book or passage in the Bible? Why?
RM: I started teaching it when I first came to DBTS. And I have continued studying it for many years. My favorite passage is Ecclesiastes 7:13-14. With some of my surgeries these past few years, I’ve gone over this passage again and again for comfort.
PF: What have you learned during your years of study in Ecclesiastes?
RM: I think Ecclesiastes reflects life. Life is full of ups and downs. But in the midst of it all, if we have the fear of God, we can judiciously enjoy life.
PF: What will you miss about teaching?
RM: I will miss my colleagues, my students, and the friendships I’ve developed for 33 years. I’m sure my wife and I will make friends in Arizona, but it can never compare to friends we’ve had for more than 30 years.
PF: What do you plan to do during your retirement?
RM: I would like to find a good church to be involved in. I hope to find a Bible institute where I can teach.
PF: What do you look forward to in retirement?
RM: I look forward to being with my son and three daughters. And I look forward to potentially having a swimming pool in my backyard.
PF: Are you going to miss Michigan winters?
RM: Absolutely not. I’ll come back here to visit friends and family in the late spring or summer.
PF: What advice do you have for seminarians beginning their ministry?
RM: Keep your focus. There’s a lot of other sidetracks that will distract you. Keep your objectives. Keep your family intact. And do as well as you can with the time you have.
After we had completed the interview, we chatted for a little while longer and reflected on the history of DBTS and its future. Time goes on, and no one knows what the future may hold. But certainly, Dr. McCabe’s time spent at DBTS for over three decades has been a wonderful investment, and his influence here will continue as he moves on to the next phase in life. As a professor, colleague, and friend to many, he will certainly be missed.