Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Faith of Barack Obama

Thomas Nelson recently published a great little book called The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield. Mansfield is a NY Times best seller and has written several faith biographies over the years (most notably one on G-dub a few years back). This book is well-written and informative--but most importantly it is balanced. When I heard Mansfield was a conservative writing about Obama's faith I expected the normal doctrine bashing and short-sighted criticism that failed to take an adequate look at his life and motivation. I was pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite. Mansfield deftly outlined and concisely summarized the key events in Obama's life that have led him to where he is and helped to mold his theology. But a true theology it is. Barack is not another secularized liberal attempting to squeeze religion out of the public sphere; rather, he is an individual whose faith in Christ has led him to the positions and decisions that he has taken and made. Below is a quick synopsis of the 6 short chapters.

1. To Walk Between Worlds

In this chapter, Mansfield speaks of Barack's troubles in his early life with finding his identity. Born of an African father and white mother he never quite felt at home with either race. It is enlightening for those who want to see where it is that Barack's motivations come from. He identifies, and fits right in with the current postmodern scene because of the diversity he has come from and ways he is able to embrace a certain amount of contradiction.

2. My House, Too

Not only does Obama resonant with postmodern philosophical currents, but also with theological ones as well. It's not just an ideology for Barack, it is a way of life. In the Democratic National Convention speech of 2004--which pushed Barack to national prominence--Obama noted that those in the Blue states "worship an awesome God." In this way he was quick to show the impact that his faith had not only on his life but also on his policy decisions. The famed Rev. Wright is also discussed in this chapter and it becomes apparent that this man has bought into a form of theology (black liberation theology) that comes more from bitterness and resentment than from the Word of God. Clearly, there are past wrongs that have influenced these theologians to develop this theology, but things are still a bit messed up within it.

3. Faith Fit for the Age

This chapter is the only one that really deals with the brand of theology that Obama adheres to. It is fit for the age because, for the most part, it rejects the exclusivist claims of Christianity in order to make it more fitting for a postmodern, pluralist society. This liberal Christianity, though flawed in many respects, still influences Obama at his core. It impacts the decisions he makes so that his life direction has always been flavored by the need to conform to what he conceives of as his Christian duty. Moreover, in an age of full disclosure, Barack is ready to bare his soul and speak on matters of faith that past leaders (and current older ones) have been won't to do. This enabled the public to get a unique few of how he thinks and the tenets of orthodox Christianity that he accepts as well as those that he does not (among those he questions are the exclusivity of Christ, the idea of eternal damnation and the inspiration of scripture).

4. The Altars of State

This chapter deals with Obama's road to the Senate and the campaigns that got him there. Specifically, it is interesting to note how often Obama entreats the liberal democrats to engage with religious citizens of America and to claim their own religiosity. However, it also becomes clear that Obama's religious system (though possibly not his own personal faith) is just a watered-down version of civic religion. Liberal Christianity cannot motivate individuals to sufficiently impact the world for Christ because He is not at the heart of LC. Mansfield takes the issue of abortion to illustrate this clearly. He notes that Obama is farther left than even the National Abortion Rights Action League.

5. Four Faces of Faith

The four faces of faith that are outlined here are Obama, Hilary, McCain and Bush. Obama's is the public faith that is open and genuine. Hilary's is the faith that struggled to make sense of the things happening in the world and the experimentation of the baby boomer generation. She struggled to find a connection to the spiritual life that was meaningful and impactful--and it isn't clear if she ever found it. McCain's is the quiet Stoic Christianity that is so characteristic of older generations. It is a faith that sees Christianity as a duty and the Christian life as consisting of fulfilling these duties--not on transformation and renewal that impacts all of life. Bush's faith, for being so famous, is relatively new. He didn't become devout until well after his college years when he found that his alcoholism was out of control. It is clear that his faith, if young, is sincere.

6. A Time to Heal

Finally, Mansfield exhorts his readers to take Obama seriously. Even if he doesn't win the election, he still speaks for a large portion of society. It isn't just the democratic portion but the portion who are Christian and liberal, followers of Christ and sympathetic to the worries of a postmodern world. Obama's is not a faith that has no effect on his policy (as Dean so arrogantly bragged in the 04 elections); it is faith that is active, and activist. It is a faith that is tired of a Christianity that is socially irrelevant and doing nothing for the ills of society. We must first understand Obama because of what he represents, only then can we comment on his fitness for office.

In the end, I think Mansfield did an excellent job in his book. He outlined Obama's faith in an easily accessible and immensely fair way. Though I am still undecided on the vote, I know understand just how important a factor Obama's faith is to him. It is not just a political ploy to win more voters. Even if the theology is misguided, it is genuine. And it is in development.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sin in the Life of a Believer

What is the role of sin in the life of a believer? I know that believers are free from the eternal consequences but sometimes I wish I was free from all of the power of sin here and now. To what extent can that really happen? Namely, what kind of temporal freedom from sin can the believer hope for on earth? I guess I have just been convicted by some passages in 1 John that speak of believers continuing on in sin. John says that those who walk in the light won't continue in sin and I just can't quite figure out how he means it. At first glance one would think that John actually means that once you become a Christian you never actually sin again, but that can't be it right? If that is what he means then I guess I'm not really a believer...except that I know I have the Holy Spirit inside of me who testifies to my status. So how do I reconcile the fact that I'm a believer and yet still sin?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The New Calvinism

Oh gosh...this article below is absolutely amazing. I really appreciate how Dr. McCall points out the positive aspects of the New Calvinism but cautions against its defects at the same time (not even on strictly theological grounds).

"No theological tradition has cornered the market on arrogance. I have been accused of it (sometimes, I fear, with very good reason). Yet there seems to be – though I’m sure that what I say here is highly fallible – an amazing quantity of it among the New Calvinists."

This is, for me, the true heart of the issue. One of those reading it wrote an especially insightful comment: "I appreciate the new theology and the stress on doctrine and on Biblical Theology as a discipline. I regret that this can be accompanied by the idea that this doctrine is inerrant rather than the Bible being inerrant."

Just as we as Arminians have to be open to other traditions and other theology, so too the New Calvinists should recognize that Calvinism is only a school of thought and not (even as some renowned preachers would have it) equivalent to biblicalism.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The New Perspective

Was Paul preaching about salvation by works vs. grace or about something else entirely?

I'm not sure what I think about the new perspective on Paul and I'm not even sure I understand all of the implications. Is there legitimate support for the view that Paul is talking about Jews boasting in their own election and not as trying to earn salvation by merit? I think some of the arguments proposed seem to be compelling, but I don't know much of the other side. Well, in a way I guess all I know is the other side, the traditional reading of Paul, I just don't know much of the response to the NPP. Of course, I know where there are tons of resources to read about it - and I have read a few - but I wanted some opinions on what you all think of the perspective.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Postmodernism: Critique and Apology

I think Postmodernism has received a bad rap from much of Evangelical theology in recent times. Some of that criticism is deserving, but much of it is misplaced. In the following I want to try and critique the negative while commending the positive. Let me know what you think.

The Apology (Defense) of Postmodern Methodology:
While there are certainly negative, and even harmful, vices of the postmodern movement, we in the Evangelical church have much to learn from their methodology. Put simply, it makes sense to appeal to a culture for norms of style, approach and technique. In fact, this understanding is itself biblical. When Luke recounts the journeys of the early church in Acts he specifically points to a change in evangelistic approach based on the receiving culture. For instance, in Acts 17 Luke details the efforts of Paul in Thessalonica, Berea and Athens. In the first two cities, Paul went straight to the synagogues (as was his normal custom) to convince the Jews and God-fearing Greeks that Jesus was the Messiah who fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies. However, he tried this approach in Athens initially and discovered that they didn't have as thorough a knowledge of the O.T. as the other cities did and so he shared the good news by comparing God to their myriad of deities, and explicating His unique supremacy. All that to say, some methods work and others don't - Christ doesn't care (for the most part) how we approach people with His Word as long as that's what we're doing. Rock music is okay, jeans are okay, sandals are okay. It's the heart of man that matters right?

The Critique of Postmodern Philosophy:
While the methodology of Postmodernism may be useful, it's philosophy is inherently dangerous. I think a lot of the key promoters of the movement - think Brian McLaren, Tony Jones etc. - suffer from an apathy for (or perhaps ignorance of) the philosophical implications more than an actual desire to dismantle the Truth claims of Christianity (for in fact, as the atheistic postmoderns make clear, once we accept all the tenets of postmodernism there isn't even a metanarrative - or God's eye view - of the world anyways). With a postmodern hermeneutics the Bible loses all authority, and with authority, all meaning. With a Bible devoid of meaning we come to a life belief system devoid of truth. There truly is no reason in calling yourself a "Christian" unless by doing so you want to assert that, at the very least, you believe this belief system to be superior to others. I believe in God because I think He is superior to the other gods in this world. But this is impossible without an objective truth grounded in the mind-independent reality (which postmoderns tend to deny our access to). Postmodernism isn't all bad, even philosophically, unless it is taken to the extreme: toleration for a plurality of viewpoints is certainly a virtue, toleration for a plurality of "truths" most certainly is not.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What is Saving Faith?

I have an assignment in my Epistemology class to compare the concepts of "belief" and "saving faith", with a view toward either differentiating the two or explaining their connection. I don't really know which way I am going to argue - I feel like a whole lot of peripheral issues are brought to the forefront when we explore this concept of saving faith. Is saving faith, along the lines of Gordon Clark, mental assent to a set of propositions? Is it belief plus some other mental state (such as trust) or emotional state (such as love)?

When I try to think of the possible necessary and sufficient conditions for saving faith, but really when I analyze the concept of salvation this way, I run into a paradox. Specifically, what could the necessary and sufficient conditions for salvation be. Since I am not a Calvinist I believe that human free choice has to be in there somewhere, but I want to maintain God's sovereign control at the same time. So, let me explain why the diagram below is insufficient.

Necessary Conditions: God's grace + Human acceptance
Sufficient Conditions: God's grace

These conditions say that for salvation it is necessary that both God's grace and Human acceptance be present - we usually call these individually necessary but jointly sufficient conditions. However, we have this individually sufficient condition of God's grace, but if God's grace is both necessary and sufficient then there is no need for any other condition. To show this through analogy imagine that we are trying to figure out what it means to be a legal citizen of fictional country XYZ. In this country, to be a citizen means that you are born within the territorial boundaries of this country. That's it, that's the only way to be a citizen of XYZ. So, in regards to citizenship, being born in XYZ is both a necessary and sufficient condition to achieving this status. Therefore, no other factors come into play. We can't say, for instance, that another necessary condition is that you be Christian since that would make being born in XYZ no longer an individually sufficient condition for citizenship. What this example shows then, is that, if we want to maintain that Human acceptance is a part of the salvation equation we need to make some adjustments.

So to solve this problem we say, okay then maybe God's grace is necessary but not sufficient. Will this solve the problem? Namely:

Necessary Conditions: God's grace + Human acceptance
Sufficient Conditions: None (individually)

While this will allow us to say that Human acceptance is a crucial part of the salvation equation, this turns out to impinge upon our other interest, the sovereignty of God. If we eliminate God's power to give salvation completely independent of man I believe we have done something to His greatness. We now have to say that God's grace is not sufficient alone to provide salvation for people. But what happened to Sola Gratia?

As well, we can easily dismiss the options that have Human acceptance as sufficient (as the early Christian heresy of Pelgianism).

So I guess my question in all of this is not specifically about salvation, but about this "saving faith". What does it mean? Is it an illusory concept as the Calvinists will have us believe, or is there actually something to Human free belief (or the combination of belief+trust+love)?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Name the Author (without google)

This post is intended to illumine some of the real thoughts of the theological giants (keep in mind they are all giants) of the past:

1. "In this [fallen] state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace."

2. "No man is excluded from calling upon God, the gate of salvation is set open unto all men: neither is there any other thing which keepeth us back from entering in, save only our own unbelief."

3. "God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons."

4. “Wherever we find the Word of God surely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there, it is not to be doubted, is a church of God.”