Ante Studium

Greetings all,

Sorry I didn’t post last week–I’ve been occupied with college orientation, which, as intended, has kept me far too busy to be homesick (or to do anything else!). I hope to continue my philosophical pursuits on this blog this year, but my posting may be more sporadic until I’m more settled. In the interim, I wanted to share a prayer from Thomas Aquinas I recently discovered that seems appropriate for this transitional time of year. Thank you immensely to all who have contributed to this blog in the past months by reading! Enjoy these words and blessings on your future adventures in learning.

-Ruth, The Interminable Socratic

Ante Studium

Creator ineffabilis,
qui de thesauris sapientiae tuae
tres Angelorum hierarchias designasti,
et eas super caelum empyreum
miro ordine collocasti,
atque universi partes elegantissime disposuisti,

tu inquam qui
verus fons
luminis et sapientiae diceris
ac supereminens principium

infundere digneris
super intellectus mei tenebras
tuae radium claritatis,
duplices in quibus natus sum
a me removens tenebras,
peccatum scilicet et ignorantiam.

Tu, qui linguas infantium facis disertas,
linguam meam erudias
atque in labiis meis gratiam
tuae benedictionis infundas.

Da mihi
intelligendi acumen,
retinendi capacitatem,
addiscendi modum et facilitatem,
interpretandi subtilitatem,
loquendi gratiam copiosam.

Ingressum instruas,
progressum dirigas,
egressum compleas.

Tu, qui es verus Deus et homo,
qui vivis et regnas in saecula saeculorum.

Amen.

A Prayer Before Study

Ineffable Creator,
Who, from the treasures of Your wisdom,
have established three hierarchies of angels,
have arrayed them in marvelous order
above the fiery heavens,
and have marshaled the regions
of the universe with such artful skill,

You are proclaimed
the true font of light and wisdom,
and the primal origin
raised high beyond all things.

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness
into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul
the twofold darkness
into which I was born:
sin and ignorance.

You make eloquent the tongues of infants.
refine my speech
and pour forth upon my lips
the goodness of Your blessing.

Grant to me
keenness of mind,
capacity to remember,
skill in learning,
subtlety to interpret,
and eloquence in speech.

May You
guide the beginning of my work,
direct its progress,
and bring it to completion.

You Who are true God and true Man,
who live and reign, world without end.

Amen.

A Philosopher’s Thoughts on Job

Unquestionably, one of philosophy’s oldest questions is the issue of theodicy: why does a good God let bad things happen to good people? This question is at least as old as what may be the oldest book in the Bible–namely, the book of Job, which explores the question in narrative form. Interestingly, though, by the conclusion of his journey, Job knows not more about God and His ways but less about Him; instead, Job comes to know God Himself. By demonstrating the inherent incompleteness of human knowledge, the poverty of man’s logic, and the immense magnitude of God Himself, the author of Job shows that faith, not reason, provides the clearest vision of the heart and will of God in suffering.

The book of Job tells the story of its title character, a Gentile but nevertheless exemplarily righteous man who lives in the obscure Middle Eastern land of Uz. In the opening chapters of the book, Job suddenly and unexpectedly loses his great wealth, his family, and eventually even his health after a heavenly confrontation of which Job never learns. In His heavenly court, God grants authority over Job’s life to Satan after Satan questions whether Job’s righteousness is anything more than a response to God’s kindness. In the proceeding chapters, Job vacillates between despair, anger, and faith in the midst of his circumstances, in time beginning to doubt God’s power and justice. Meanwhile, his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar attempt to comfort him with assurances that his sufferings are the result of some hidden sin and promise that all will return to its former state once he repents, but Job, conscious of his own innocence, refuses to follow their suggestions. After three cycles of accusation, defense, and soliloquy that span twenty-eight chapters of traditional Hebrew poetry, Job’s friends fall silent and a young man named Elihu confronts the group claiming to speak for God, initially accusing Job as his friends have but eventually challenging him to turn his eyes from his sufferings to the immeasurably greater wisdom, majesty, and mercy of God. Finally, God Himself answers Job. First, He entreats Job to tell Him of the intricate workings of the universe; presented with his own insufficiency, Job promises silence. God then describes Behemoth and Leviathan, two frightfully powerful yet awesomely magnificent beasts, and asks Job how he would tame them. Humbled by the majesty of God, Job confesses God’s might and his own weakness, repenting for “utter[ing] what [he] did not understand” (42:3, ESV). Before the close of the book, God rebukes Job’s friends for their simplistic view of divine justice and ultimately restores Job’s possessions, making his estate far greater than it had been before his trials. In the course of this narrative, the narrator makes three significant philosophical assertions regarding the insufficiency of human reason.

First, the opening chapters of Job testify to the fact that human beings are congenitally unable to know all of reality. Job, a righteous but nonetheless mortal being, cannot possibly know of the unearthly events that have prompted his sufferings; only through an act of divine revelation that evidently is not extended to Job himself do readers of the narrative know about God’s encounter with Satan. God has perfectly good reasons for everything He does, the author of Job thus suggests, but human beings will necessarily often be ignorant of them, just as by virtue of their finitude they are frequently unknowledgeable of many human events that impact their lives. Consequently, Job’s story demonstrates that the human tendency to question God’s motives for suffering is a result of unbelief acting on limited human nature.

Additionally, the facile arguments of Job’s three friends reveal the limited nature of human intuitions. While readers of the book of Job are often quick to become frustrated with the shallowness of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar’s claims, the friends’ suggestions are actually quite understandable considering their restricted knowledge of Job’s situation. Knowing God to be just, they logically infer that Job’s suffering must be a consequence for some sin, and their faith in their own wisdom blinds them to facts that do not fit their narrative. Their failure to grasp reality attests to the fact that humanity requires a certain amount of divine revelation to reason properly about the things of God.

Lastly, God’s speech at the end of the book reminds human readers that the God who created us and our universe is so much greater than we are that we will always ultimately fail to comprehend His will in its entirety. Ironically, the divine revelation Job receives in the last chapters of his story causes him not to begin to reason properly about his circumstances but to resign himself to the far greater wisdom of God:

“. . . I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (42:3)

The book of Job never denounces reason as a means of understanding God’s nature and will; in fact, God eventually denounces Job’s friends for their failure to think rightly about Him and commends Job’s faithfulness to wrestle logically with reality (42:7). Nevertheless, God’s words make clear that His greatness is so much more magnificent than we can imagine that our minds will only ever comprehend a tiny sliver of it.

Indeed, considering the initially philosophical bent of the book of Job, the narrative’s concluding chapters commend faith as a far better window into the mind of God than philosophy. In his last words of the story, Job states:

“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

but now my eye sees you;

Therefore I despise myself,

and repent in dust and ashes.” (42:5-6)

Interestingly, the word translated repent above may also be translated be comforted–in other words, Job finally finds the comfort he has craved throughout the book not in knowledge about God but in seeing Him in His glory and confronting the reality of his own sinfulness and humanity. By the end of the book, Job has received the arbiter between himself and God that he begged for earlier in the narrative (9:33), but instead of speaking for or to him, God Himself has shown Job His face, giving him not the explanation that he thought he needed but the personal relationship with his Creator for which he was made.

This, for Christians, is the glory of the book of Job: like Job, we have been given an arbiter who lays His hands on both us and God, showing us the face of the Father (John 14:9). By revealing Himself to us in the flesh, God has not only given us the fullest expression of Himself that can and should inform all of our thoughts about him; He has also opened our eyes and our hearts to see Him and love Him, setting us free to think and love as He designed us to.

Christianity & Liberalism

This past week, I had the opportunity to enjoy American theologian J. Gresham Machen’s celebrated 1923 work Christianity & Liberalism, a timeless response to then infant so-called “liberal Christianity.” In the decades since Machen wrote this book, liberalism has transitioned from being an innovative theological school to being the very air Christians breathe outside and often even inside the church, rendering Machen’s analysis uniquely enlightening for today’s church. In fact, this book is highly relevant today not only to orthodox Christians but also to all thoughtful experiencers of 21st century pluralism because of its shrewd differentiation between the objective basis of conservative Christianity and the subjective basis of liberalism.

In the book’s opening chapter, Machen presents the thesis he defends in subsequent pages: despite theological liberalism’s appropriation of Christian terminology, historic, biblical Christianity and modern liberal Christianity are in fact two separate and antithetical religions. In an attempt to safeguard Christianity against the then rapidly blossoming naturalistic disciplines of science, psychology, and historical criticism, Machen explains, liberal theologians attempted to extricate Christianity from these fields by reducing Christianity to a lifestyle. Yet in so doing, he contends, they created an entirely different religion that is both unscientific and unChristian in any historical sense.

In the next chapter, Machen defends this assertion by examining liberalism’s rejection of doctrine and embrace of “Christian experience” as the whole of the religion. He explains that the historical record of Paul’s epistles, the infant Christian church, and even the words of Jesus leave no justification for such a move in the name of Christianity; while it is possible that the message of Christianity is wrong, separating Christianity from its message is utterly historically unprecedented. Thus liberal theologians have created a completely new religion that Machen insists ought to be divorced from the historically established doctrinal faith of Christianity.

In his third chapter, Machen explores the vast differences between Christianity and liberalism even in their fundamental presuppositions about God and man. While Christianity’s view of God is grounded in the facts found in historical documents, liberalism bases man’s relationship to God on subjective human feelings. Moreover, he demonstrates that liberals’ suggestion that God is revealed only through Jesus is logically and biblically indefensible. Similarly, he maintains that the liberal rejection of the doctrine of sin and human nature utterly ignores not only biblical but also experiential reality, as his original readers, freshly weary from one atrocious world war and unwittingly on the brink of an even worse one, would be far less hasty to deny than many modern Western citizens.

Not surprisingly, then, Machen continues, having rejected the presuppositions of the Christian message, liberal theology rejects the message itself, taking a disdainful attitude towards Scripture. He details how liberal attempts to legitimize only certain words of Jesus constitute a grossly unscientific revision of history and insists that though the Christian message is certainly confirmed to an extent by Christian experience, Christianity that espouses only “Christian experience” while rejecting the message of Scripture is not Christianity at all. In Machen’s words,

…liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men. (p. 67)

In the next chapter of the book, Machen explicates the divide between liberals and Christians on the person and work of Christ: fundamentally, Christians view Jesus as the object of godly faith while liberals view him as the example of true faith, the first Christian rather than the author of Christianity. With only a few Scripture references, however, Machen demonstrates that Jesus as presented in Scripture cannot simply be an example of faith because of the audacious claims he persistently makes about Himself in the gospels; in light of these, He was obviously either an entirely different kind of human or else a perfect example of nothing more than lunacy. By rejecting Jesus’ deity, liberal theologians leave the historical Jesus obscure and unknowable, leading them to rely once more on their own subjective opinions and preferences rather than historical reality.

Next, Machen describes some of the numerous ways in which liberalism minimizes the salvific work of Christ–while Christianity considers salvation to be the result of a work of God, on the rare occasions that it acknowledges a need for salvation, liberalism attributes it to humanity. Frequently, theological liberals interpret Jesus’ death as an example of Christian self-sacrifice, but once again, Machen shows, this conflicts with the historic teachings of all who have called themselves Christians. More soberingly still, he notes, by humanizing Christ’s work, liberals also trivialize it. As previously, he demonstrates that the liberal notion of an unconditionally forgiving God is both biblically unsound and indefensible in light of the repercussions of humans’ sins against one another (let alone against God). Throughout, Machen affirms that Christianity is far more than the bare facts of the life of a Jewish carpenter who lived two thousand years ago; undeniably, the joy and intimacy of a relationship with the Creator that liberal Christians so crave is a fundamental component of biblical Christianity–but this joy is always and only found upon comprehending the awesomely humbling truth of the facts of the Gospel.

In his final chapter, Machen concludes with reflections on how conservative Christians ought to respond to the presence of liberalism in the church. Once more, he shows that true Christianity and liberal Christianity conflict starkly even on the purpose of the Church they claim to share because liberals believe the church as a human institution can and will transform society. Gospel-centered Christians, however, recognize that only the saving work of Christ can change the world, and this revolution progresses one redeemed soul at a time. With his final words, Machen encourages struggling conservative Christians to rest in this fact, knowing that God has always sustained His Bride in the past and that He promises to continue to do so in the future.

From the first page of Christianity and Liberalism to the last, Machen’s point could not be clearer: unlike the Christianity of the Bible, liberalism is based on a denial of reality (and while Machen specifically addresses theological liberalism, to an extent the same can certainly be said of political and social liberalism as well). On the outset, this fact may seem encouraging for conservatives–as Machen points out, philosophies founded on fantasy must inevitably fail. Unfortunately, though, these dangerous ideas do have dangerous consequences for the lives of the Image-bearing but fallen individuals who espouse them, individuals who “[love] the darkness rather than the light” (John 1:19 ESV), individuals no true Christian can be content to resign to their own folly. The Christian’s task here certainly is not easy–the world, flesh, and devil conspire against him–but mercifully, with us in our battle against attractive lies we have the ultimate Beauty, the one who is literally “the truth” (John 14:6), the crucified and resurrected Son of God of biblical doctrine who alone can deliver the freedom liberalism only nominally claims to provide.