Overlapping Magisterium: Engaging Culture from a Philosophical-Theological Viewpoint

We live in an age in which it has become fashionable to talk about the rising tide of agnosticism and atheism.  But the truth of the matter is that we live in a society flush with faith.  You have to have faith when you live in uncertain times. You go looking for answers. As long as human beings have been walking planet earth, they have consulted spiritual authorities — priests and prophets, artists and magicians, philosophers and theologians.  These key intellectuals and leaders often set the course which a culture will take. And people follow. Worldviews are born.

In our time, Western societies stand on the brink of a great turning point in history. For nearly two millennia, our mores and systems of government have been influenced by three ancient civilizations: Jewish, Greek, and Roman. But it was largely Christian thought, shaped by biblical revelation, that brought the pieces together into a coherent framework. The idea of one true God gave inspiration to the foundational notion of modern science — that the natural world can be understood because a rational Creator put it together in the first place. No one doubts that the Bible has inspired more works of art, music, and literature than any other single text.

By way of contrast, the past two centuries have called into question the truth claims of the Scriptures.  Certain crucial thinkers since the eighteenth century have sought to distance the conclusions of philosophy or science from the results of theology.  The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould suggested that science and logic could be decoupled from faith — they are “non-overlapping magisteria,” as he memorably put it. Once considered complementary, the two disciplines have been decoupled. They often regard one another with suspicious minds.

But it was not always this way.  Pick up any standard text from an introduction to philosophy and you will find great works of philosophy written by . . . great theologians. Anselm, the twelfth century Archbishop of Canterbury, devised the ontological argument, one of the most famous arguments for the existence of God.  But he did so in the context of a supplication. “Lord, it is Your face I seek,” he prayed. “I believe in order to understand.”

Anselm was not alone. A long line of the greatest philosophers the world has ever known — men like Thomas Aquinas and Jonathan Edwards — saw an uninterrupted line between the truths that could be acquired by the rational mind and those revealed to us in God’s Word. They saw no contradiction. What’s more, they saw theology systematically, and believed that the Lord Jesus Christ gets glory when biblical truth is organized in such a way that believers can simultaneously think rightly and live rightly.  For it is a dubious proposition indeed to suggest that people can act better than what they know.

It is unwise to abandon anything simply because it is old or tried or reliable.  For the Scriptures themselves are ancient. Rather, we begin this blog with a prayer ourselves — that a Christ-centered knowledge of the Bible would lead to the loftiest — and yet most practical — intersections between philosophy and theology.

Greg Thornbury (Union University) for BibleMesh

The Checkout Clerk Is an Ethicist, and So Are You

In Moliere’s 17th-century play, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (“The Rotarian,” so to speak), a Mr. Jourdain asks his tutor to help him write a love letter. When asked, in return, whether it should be a work of poetry, Jourdain says no. In that case, it’ll have to be “prose,” replies the tutor. But Jourdain doesn’t want that either – until he’s told it’s got to be one or the other. When he finally figures out he’s been speaking prose all his life, he feels pretty sophisticated; he now has a fancy word for what he’s been doing right along.

Well, sophisticated or not, everybody is doing ethics all the time, whether they know it or not. Judgments of moral value and duty are everywhere, whether we’re saying, “That checkout clerk shouldn’t chit-chat with the customers when the line is so long,” or “I’m happy to recommend Bob for a teaching job at ETHS.” In these ordinary ways, we’re revealing our notions of responsibility and decency, or the lack thereof. We’re calling one person blameworthy and the other praiseworthy.

These judgments find their way into every crevice of our lives. I see it every semester in my ethics classes at Southern Seminary. Salted in among the typical papers on divorce, capital punishment, and homosexuality are essays on TSA screening, public school spanking, eating out on Sunday, Braille worship material, Zoloft and Prozac, business “middlemen” in Malaysia, Bible smuggling, Muslim-veil bans, and autopsies.

When students tackle these topics in class, I press them to propose biblically-serious, working rules and principles, and then trace the implications. If the government can’t pat me down at the airport, does that mean army doctors have to keep their hands off me at a military induction physical? If we allow Muslim women to walk around town in veils, should I be allowed to walk around town in a hockey goalie mask? When does it get too creepy or ridiculous? Where do we draw the lines? And how should we tweak our proposals?

So that’s where I’ll be working in this blog — talking about the moral implications  and presuppositions of all sorts of things, both historical and contemporary. We may look at the Magna Carta or Jimmy Carter, at Waterloo, Watergate, or water boarding – “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper [or magazine, book, or mouse] in the other.”

Okay, enough prose. Let me try my hand at poetry:

If he could see the moral grid
Behind the things he said and did
He’d notice every Bible norm,
For joy to which he should conform.

If culture isn’t biblical,
Futility is cyclical,
Wrong to ruin, dumb to dumber,
Ever back to folly. Bummer.

–Mark Coppenger (Southern Seminary) for BibleMesh

Welcome to Thesis, the BibleMesh Blog

On behalf of the BibleMesh team, welcome to the new blog of BibleMesh. BibleMesh is the online discipleship tool designed to teach Scripture as a single, Christ-centered narrative and help people from all backgrounds grow in their knowledge of the Bible.  We’re calling this blog Thesis.

We have started Thesis to help people understand that the Bible applies to all of life. The Bible is not merely a collection of dramatic stories and moral examples. While cinematic in its scope and deeply instructive in matters of piety, it is a message of salvation, a true story about a God who saves sinners and enables them to be “salt” and “light” in a decaying, darkened order (Matthew 5:13-16). This blog is our attempt to equip Christians to be just that: salt and light. We can best do so by helping you to think carefully and thoughtfully about our culture and society from a robustly Christian standpoint.

We will address a plethora of topics on this blog. We will look directly at scriptural passages and their application for our modern lives. We will peer into Church and world history and derive strength and wisdom from the past. We’ll range over a host of topics that draw our interest and require a word of insight, whether Enlightenment philosophy, bioethical practices, or the pleasure of reading. Fueling all of these forays is a restless curiosity about this strange and beautiful world God has made and a desire to think well about it. Among our regular contributors will be expert theologians and BibleMesh editors Mark Coppenger, Michael McClenahan, C. Ben Mitchell, and Greg Thornbury, in addition to other provocative and faithful voices.

We have already posted a number of entries to get you started, but please take note of our first series on the blog, one that tackles an issue that is at the center of our mission: Christian cultural engagement. In the blogs that follow, our editors address how Christians are to carry out this duty within crucial disciplines—ethics, philosophical theology, historical theology, and bioethics. This series, as with the content of this blog in general, will help stimulate your own reflection in these areas.

Enough telling. We’re glad you’re here. We trust that in reading you will have as much fun, and as much spiritual profit, as we have in writing.

–Owen Strachan for BibleMesh

No Mere Legal Code: The Harshness of Shari‘a Law

Today, the expression, “shari‘a” – as in “shari‘a law” and “shari‘a finance” – is heard with increasing frequency. It is important to get clear on just what shari‘a is, particularly since some Muslims wish to bring it to prominence and even dominance around the world.

The great Western scholar of Islamic law, Joseph Schacht, once described the shari‘a as “the core and kernel of Islam itself.” The concept appears obliquely in the Qur’an at verse 45:18: “Then We put thee on the (right) Way of Religion [shari‘a]: so follow thou that (Way), and follow not the desires of those who know not.” This passage underpins the common Muslim claim that shari‘a law is divinely sourced, fixed and immutable, a gift to humanity from Allah, designed to show Muslims how to live and govern correctly. Continue reading

More than Knickers and Goatees: Toward Understanding Our World

Francis Schaeffer, twentieth-century pastor, theologian, and author, is best known for founding the L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland in 1955. His many books and lectures sought to educate Christian leaders toward a creation-affirming and culture-challenging message. In this excerpt, taken from his book The God Who Is There, Schaeffer speaks to a fundamental problem in the modern Church—the lack of understanding of the world in which it lives. Continue reading

Biblical Insight: Let No One Take You Captive

8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, …

Colossians 2:8-9 (ESV)

Deservedly notorious are university professors who delight in stripping their students of admiration for “the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” luring them instead toward secular “isms,” such as atheistic existentialism, Marxism, naturalism, hedonism, relativism, and pantheism. So it is common for a parent, pastor, or youth leader to implore the departing freshman to keep his Christian wits about him—even using the exact words of Colossians 2:8-9. Continue reading