Category Archives: Christian Apologetics

What should Christian counseling look like?

 I posted this little item for my last guest blog at www.christianpsych.orgfor the month of July. In it I mention “Christian Counseling: An Introduction” by Malony and Augsburger (2007).

And no, I don’t say what it should look like–merely a comment that we still need to figure out how we handle the faith/science dichotomy that we’ve been handed all these years.

Those who have been around wisecounsel for a while will remember I blogged through each chapter. If you are interested in seeing those posts, just use the search engine on this page to find posts mentioning Malony.

1 Comment

Filed under Christian Apologetics, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling science, Doctrine/Theology, History of Psychology, philosophy of science, Psychology, teaching counseling

The God I Don’t Understand 7: How does the Cross work?

My apologies to those waiting for the next chapter in Wright’s book. Some other writing assignments require me to put down my fun books and pick up some work-related reading these days. But enough of my excuses… In chapter 7 Chris Wright admits that one answer to the question, “How did the cross achieve salvation for us?” is simple and from Scripture: “Because it did.” But he like many others would rather not stop there. And he contends the bible doesn’t stop there either.

He reminds the reader that evangelical interpreters of the Bible regard the most helpful metaphor of the cross as judicial–substitutionary atonement. There are other metaphors used in the bible to explain the “how” but 1 Cor 15:3 underlines and emphasizes that Christ’s death on the cross was sacrificial and substitutionary. Here Wright brings up the controversy surrounding “penal substitution” and the grounds by which some reject this forensic focus to substitutionary atonement. Of the 7 reasons he lists, the primary ones (in my eyes) are the sense that penal substitution focuses too much on guilt, portrays God as mechanistic or always angry, and emphasizes the only way to deal with sin is with violence.

Wright believes the arguments for rejecting penal substitution would be good if in fact evangelicals held them. But he fears that the arguments against the penal metaphor are caricatures. From this point he looks at how the bible paints God’s love and anger. His anger and love must be, he contends, taken together as part of a whole, rather than having one negate the other. The two expressions are not contrary to each other any more than we may be angry with a loved one for bad behavior and yet still love them at the same time. He suggests the Cross satisfies both God’s love and anger.

He further rejects the conflict between God the father and Jesus the son. God is not the angry father and Jesus the loving son who steps between us. That viewpoint would destroy God’s essential unity (see John 17 for this). He uses extensive quotes from John Stott here to bolster his argument

Finally, he addresses the concepts of guilt and shame. The argument has arise that penal atonement only makes sense in cultures with a “developed sense of personal and objective guilt.” Shame cultures, it is suggested, would not be able to identify as well. Further, in a postmodern world it appears that shame is the more likely experience (of not being internally consistent with oneself). But Wright says that both shame and guilt are addressed by the cross and both are related. He points to Ezekiel who talks about being shamed and feeling shamed (36:16-32). The cross (and the forgiveness behind it) takes away the shame quality even though they still feel it when they remember what God has done. Wright suggests that ongoing feeling is healthy. He quotes from another of his books

Israel were not to feel ashamed in the presence of other nations (36:15), but they were to feel ashamed in the presence of their own memories before God (36:31-32). Similarly, there is a proper sense in which the believer may rightly hold up her head in company.

He then talks about how God in the OT and Jesus in the NT publicly affirms those who were shamed. God removes their shame, no matter what others think of them. They now hold their head high. And yet, Wright tries to articulate that this person may still feel shame when remembering past sins but he is quick to point out that this feeling does not crush but fuels “genuine repentance and humility and for joy and peace that flow from that source alone.”

While the content of this chapter seems a bit more about confronting a wrong he sees in the penal substitution debate than about answering how the cross works, nonetheless I find his writing about guilt and shame quite helpful here–especially how he distinguishes the kinds and sources of shame. I think it might be helpful for those who trust in Jesus but who struggle with shame to consider for a moment what their shame drives them to do. To hide? To be grateful for God’s restorative work?

Next week, we’ll look at his final chapter on the cross.

Leave a comment

Filed under anger, Biblical Reflection, book reviews, Christian Apologetics, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, sin, Uncategorized

The God I don’t Understand 5: OT violence?

We come to part two of Christopher Wright’s, The God I Don’t Understand(IVP, 2008). In the last section he muses about the problem of the existence of evil but in this section he considers the struggle to understand the violence and wrath of God found in the Old Testament. Wright says that atheists like Richard Dawkins have no trouble understanding (in their way of thinking) the God of the OT. He’s just a “petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak…vindictive, bloodthirsty…malevolent bully.” (as quoted on p. 73). Wright says their struggle is only to understand Christians who say they believe in this kind of God. It is Christians who struggle to understand the character of God and how punishments on whole families fits with the God of love we imagine. For the next two chapters he wants to consider the following question:

How are we to understand the language of God’s anger, jealousy, or vengeance alongside of what we have been taught about God’s love, mercy, and compassion? (p. 74)

And he wants to apply this to the treatment of the Canaanites.

We’ll look here at his chapter 4 which outlines three popular (but in his mind wrong) attempts to get around the interpretation of a capricious genocidal God.

1. OT God vs. NT God. That is, some try to ignore the problems of the OT by claiming that the NT sets to rights the OT. Wright says that behind this assumption is that the OT God is all “fire and brimstone, war and vengeance, blood and punishment. The so-called God of the New Testament is much nicer altogether.” (77).

Wright disagrees with this assumption because the OT has much to say about God’s compassion and love, the NT, “has much to say (and more in fact) about the anger and judgment of God…[and] because Jesus and writers of the New Testament never seem embarrassed by Old Testament stories, nor do they reject or even correct them (though they do move beyond them).” (ibid.)

To bolster his argument, Wright examines a number of OT passages (e.g., Ex. 34:6-7 [which he says is the “most pervasive definitions of the character of God in the Bible…Love is for thousands; punishment is for thre and four.”], Ps. 103:8-14, Jer. 31:3, 20, Eze 33:11, Deut 7, 10). Then he examines Jesus as the most frequent discussant of hell, the day of judgment, and then cites John Wenham’s observation that while the OT focuses on temporal punishment, the NT focuses on eternal punishments.

Finally, he addresses the ways the NT writers refer to the OT. They refer to the punishment of Sodom and of Korah. They refer to other horrors and do not re-interpret (though they do include Samson in the lessons of faith). And so, he concludes that you cannot and should not put the NT against the OT to resolve the problem of violence.

2. The Israelites thought they were doing God’s will to wipe out the Canaanites but were wrong. This is the 2nd way some try to get around the violence of the OT. God couldn’t have been behind it. It must have been the Israelites mistaken view that God was telling them to destroy the inhabitants of the land. Wright believes this argument fails because (a) when people speak falsely or act falsely for God, it is corrected [hmm., is that always true?] as in Nathan’s advice to David or in Jehu’s bloodbath murder of Baal priests. Since nowhere does the conquest of Canaan get rebuked…therefore it cannot be a misinterpretation of God’s will, and (b) in fact, the unwillingness to conquer the land (after the spies came back) led to the the wilderness wanderings and is seen as disobedience of God in both testaments. Wright concludes,

you simply can’t surgically remove the conquest alone from the great sweep of Bible history…while leaving all the rest of the story intact within the sovereign will of God. At least, you can’t if you treat the Bible seriously as a whole. (p. 83)

3. The conquest passages are allegory for the purpose of getting a “spiritual lesson” from them. Wright doesn’t deny the value of spiritualizing texts. But, he concludes that the “spiritual use of the Old Testament narratives is secondary and derivative. Their primary form is simply historical narrative.” (p. 84).

No one (and I imagine native Palestinians would be included) believes that the stories of the OT are intended as fictional accounts, even if numbers of people killed are somewhat symbolic or estimates.

So, if these ways of thinking about the conquest are not helpful, what is? That will be the content of chapter five.


Filed under Biblical Reflection, book reviews, Christian Apologetics, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, sin

The God I don’t understand 4: Defeat of evil

We come to the 3rd chapter of Christopher Wright’s book, The God I don’t Understand(2008, IVP). Poking a little fun at theologians he tells us that while they want to explain evil, God intends and will destroy it. He reminds us that in the 1st chapter he called us to accept the mystery of evil and in the 2nd to protest and lament it. In this chapter he calls us to rejoice over evil’s final destruction.

The whole Bible, indeed, can be read as the epic account of God’s plan and purpose to defeat evil and rid his whole creation of it forever. (56)

Wright wants us to look at 3 ways the cross helps us understand God’s response to evil. “They are: the utter ‘evilness’ of evil; the utter goodness of God; and the utter sovereignty of God” (p. 57). The cross holds these 3 things together and Wright argues through the chapter how each of these things must be part of our understanding of how God defeats evil.

1. If evil isn’t that evil or rather was necessary, then God is somehow stained by it
2. God is utterly good. And his sovereignty over evil people and his use of their acts of evil does not stain him either.
3. God is sovereign and whether or not you try to distinguish between God’s permissive will and his declarative will, he is sovereign over all things.

Wright then recounts the Joseph story to show these three truths. Evil is evil in the life of Joseph. God is good to him and the whole area. God is sovereign, even over the evil behavior of his brothers.

And then he moves to the cross,

First, the cross exposed the utter depths of human and satanic evil–in hatred, injustice, cruelty, violence, and murder…

Second, the cross happened fully in accordance with God’s sovereign will from eternity…

Third, the cross also expressed the utter goodness of God, pouring out his mercy and grace in self-giving love. (62-63)

Finally, he finishes the chapter with an exploration of Revelation as it illustrates the centrality of the Cross in the defeat of evil. “Christ’s power to control these evil forces [the horsemen in Revelation] is the same power as the power he exercised on the cross.” (p. 67). And so, Rev. 21 tells us of the evils that will be banished (sea, death, pain, sin, darkness, shame, strife, curse, etc.).

This is a short but nice chapter on the power of the cross over evil–how God brings evil and righteousness together in one act in order to destroy all evil. Whenever human goodness and evil combine, the result is impurity. But God’s weakness/innocence on the cross results in the destruction of all that is evil.

From here we’ll move to questions about all the killing in the OT, of the destruction of the Canaanites to give Israel a land. How are we to understand that?


Filed under book reviews, Christian Apologetics, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology

The God I don’t Understand 2: Chapter 1

Chapter one of Chris Wright’s The God I don’t Understand (Zondervan, 2008) is the first chapter of his section entitled: “What about evil and suffering?” He reminds us that everyone struggles with the existence of evil in the world but that it is a particular struggle for the Christian  given our view of a good and sovereign God.

We Christians believe that there is one living God, the creator of the whole universe, who is personal, good, loving, omnipotent, and sovereign over all that happens. (p. 27)

He asks,

What help does the Bible give us in holding these jarring contradictions together in our minds in such a way that, even if it does not give us an answer we can fully understand, it does give us hope that we can fully trust? Or to put it another way: Whereas we often ask, “Why?” people in the Bible more often ask “How long?” (ibid)

So chapter one explores the mystery of evil. The Bible, he says, “compells us to accept the mystery of evil” (p. 29) in terms of its origin since the Bible does not explain its ultimate origin.

Despite the mystery, Wright tells us the origin of the “vast quantity” of evil can be known–the result of human sin and wickedness. So he distinguishes moral from natural evil. Moral evil is both intentional and unintentional acts (or failure to act) that cause human suffering. Of these Wright says,

Somehow, we manage to live with such facts, simply because they are so common and universal that we have “normalized” them, even if we regret or resent them and even if we grudgingly admit that humanity itself is largely to blame. (p. 31)

But, when we think of natural causes of suffering, “the cry goes up, “How can God allow such a thing? How can God allow such suffering?…Our gut reaction is to accuse God of callousness or carelessness and to demand that he do something to stop such things.” (ibid)

He muses that God might respond to such an accusation (especially those who don’t believe in God) with,

Well, excuse me, but if we’re talking here about who allows what, let point out that thousands of children are dying every minute in your world of preventable diseases that you have the means (but obviously not the will) to stop. How can you allow that?

If the large majority of sin is from human wickedness then Wright says we have to admit that none of us escapes the judgment. We both do evil and are complicit in evil. We benefit from the evil done elsewhere (think cheap clothing made in Asia). However, Wright doesn’t want us to wallow in guilt:

I say that not to turn all our enjoyment of life into guilty depression. Rather, as we enjoy the good gifts of God’s creation, we must at the same time accept the Bible’s diagnosis of how radical, pervasive, and deeply ingrained sin has become in all human life and relationships. (p. 35)

At this point in the chapter he steps back to ask where evil comes from even though he already stated we have no answer. “Evil seems to explode into the Bible narrative , unannounced, already formed, without explanation or rationale.” (p. 35) What can we say about evil from the Biblical record. Wright says, (a) It was not God, (b) it was not another human being, but (c) it was something from within creation. “Whatever the serpent in the narrative is, then, or whatever it represents, it is out of place, an intruder, unwelcome, incoherent, contrary to the story so far.” (p. 36) We have warrant from elsewhere in Scripture to see Satan as a fallen angel. Wright then asks about Satan. He reminds us that Satan isn’t God, isn’t omnipotent nor omniscient nor omnipresent. Wright suggests that we, “should take Satan seriously, but we should not dignify him with greater reality and power than is proper for a creature.” (p. 36)

Wright goes on to explore the differences between the devil and humans and gives us this pithy little statement, “The Bible calls us not so much to believe in the devil as to believe against the devil.” (p. 38.)

In summary, Wright reminds us that we cannot understand the presence of evil. This, he says, is a good thing.

“…we finite human beings cannot, indeed must not, “make sense” of evil. For the final truth is that evil does not make sense. “Sense” is part of our rationality that in itself is part of God’s good creation and God’s image in us. So evil can have no sense, since sense itself is a good thing.” (p. 42)

Instead Wright tells us that we are to grieve, weep, lament, protests, scream in pain and anger and cry out, “How long …” And he ends the chapter with the bible’s answer, “That’s OK. Go right ahead. And here are some words you may like to use when you feel that way.” (p. 43) What Wright doesn’t say is that our Savior uses these same words to communicate to the father.

Leave a comment

Filed under Biblical Reflection, book reviews, Christian Apologetics, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, sin, suffering

More comments from the SCP conference

Some tantalizing quotes from our recent conference unapologetically taken out of context for your tasting pleasure:

Bill Hathaway: “Psychology is a social construction that gives us pockets of truth about the real world.”

From a presentation on the history of the psychology of religion project begun in the 19th century. He was talking about this historical project that was originally undertaken to explore and explain religious experience. Of course, the explanation was also reductionistic since it was undertaken from a naturalistic worldview–one that rejected the possibility of the supernatural. We should admit that all human explanations are reductionistic. But some more closely approximate the world as God created it. 

Another Hathaway quote: “We don’t need to be therapy prostitutes, doing whatever the client wants.”

I’ll leave that one without explanation.

JKA Smith: “All science is hermeneutic, a take or interpretation of things…Science is culture…so the interaction between faith and psychology or theology and science is cross cultural.” And, “The most important questions of Christian psychology are these, What’s at issue…What’s at stake?”

Richard Schultz:

“Biblical interpretation is not complete by coming to the meaning of any one text.” On the necessity of reading the bible in light of the whole, or, the importance of building a biblical theology.

1 Comment

Filed under Christian Apologetics, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, Doctrine/Theology, Great Quotes, Psychology

God’s problem? Can we Christians sufficiently answer why we suffer?

I heard a great interview on “Fresh Air” with author Bart Erhman, professor of religion from UNC regarding his new book: God’s problem: How the Bible fails to answer our most important question–why we suffer. While I completely disagree with his conclusions, you have to admit this guy talks much about the bible in ways we evangelicals would. But he draws opposite conclusions. Listen here.

Dr. Ehrman is an interesting character: becomes born again at 16, is part of Youth for Christ, attends Moody Bible Institute, and gets his doctor of theology at Princeton Seminary. However, he now says he is agnostic. Why? He sees no satisfactory answer to the problem of suffering. In the interview he describes three common Christian answers, all based in the text. The classic answer says that we suffer because of human choices. There are variations of this view. Simply put, the righteous are blessed and the unrighteous will suffer. Dr. Ehrman points to the OT prophets for this view. He finds this unsatisfactory because it doesn’t answer the problem of what causes Tsunamis. [He doesn’t address in this interview how he handles the argument that while suffering may not come in a 1:1 correlation (sin:suffering), no one is righteous and no one gets to say, “not fair.”] He describes a second view as God is mysterious and doesn’t have to answer (e.g., Job). Finally, he describes Jesus’ view as an apocalyptic view suggesting that suffering is caused by principalities and powers which will be defeated at the end times.

Two questions I’d like to ask Dr. Ehrman:

1. Since agnosticism doesn’t claim a full answer to why there is suffering (or why we should do anything to stop it as Dr. Ehrman believes) why does faith in God have to answer it as well? Since one view allows for mystery, why can’t God not clarify every answer?
2. He sees God putting his thumb on Job and squishing him with his final question to Job. “Were you there when I created the universe.” I guess he sees God’s answer as, “then, shut up.” But is that really the message of Job? If it was, why does God not take Job to task in the 40 or so chapters where he rants and raves?

 Dr. Ehrman likes the book of Ecclesiastes. He likes it because he thinks the answer in it is, “live as best you can.” I think Dr. Ehrman needs to re-read the book because it says, “fear God, and live as best you can.” (Phil’s translation)

 I encourage you to listen to the interview. Then afterwards, try Tim Keller’s new book, The Reason for God: Belief in the age of Skepticism. In answer to my title? Can we answer sufficiently? Yes. Can we answer all that we wish we could know? No. But funny, learning what we wish we could know might not be so good (like learning the day you are going to die).


Filed under Christian Apologetics, suffering

The art of disagreeing in public

Continuing from the previous post, I think we ought to consider how we deal in public with differences in theological viewpoints, biblical text meanings, views on Christianity, etc. Its not hard to listen to another person’s opinions and beliefs. But then what do we say to our friends? What do we say in public when describing this other person’s viewpoint? Here’s a few ideas: Continue reading


Filed under Christian Apologetics, church and culture, conflicts, Doctrine/Theology

The art of Christian dialogue about theology

I’ve been thinking about how we Christians talk to, at, and about each other’s theological positions. There are two poles that we tend to be attracted to. On one side we may lean toward criticalness. The plus of this pole is that details matter. We look at the details in great depth and we run with others’ positions to their possible conclusions. The downside to this polarity is that we are inclined to read associations and ideas in their worst possible light, worst possible conclusion. We describe others in ways that they would not recognize. Further, we make divisions where there may not be any. Finally, this polarity usually elevates debate and hinders real listening and dialogue.

The other polarity is apathy. This polarity attracts folks who think theological discussion isn’t all that important. On the plus side, folks over here tend to be pragmatic, relationship oriented, application oriented, etc. However, sloppy thinking and unwillingness to own the logical conclusions of a position are a downside. On this pole, some may elevate questions over answers and decisions. This leaves some really hanging and their faith threatened.

Notice that both poles encourage pride. 

Whenever you describe two poles, many will comment that they are either on both sides at the same time or they choose a completely different pole. Fair enough. Also, when a writer presents two bad poles, the obvious answer is always in the middle, right? No, not always.

But what should Christian dialogue about theology look like? That is the big question in seminaries, churches and other christian organizations. So, maybe we should first talk about some parameters.

1. Do I have the right to be picking the speck out of my brother or sister’s eye if I have significant problem with my own fruit of the spirit? (especially peace and patience) 
2. Do I give the best possible reading to the other’s position? Do I list multiple possible logical conclusions as there may be more than one (or do I just list the worst?)?
3. Do I love this person, even if they are wrong? Do I seek them out privately to dialogue (true dialogue!)?
4. Do I ask them to answer questions that I won’t answer myself? Do I demand black/white answers when I allow my own to have nuances?
5. Am I looking for proof of what I already believe rather than looking for true dialogue and growth on both sides?
6. Am I wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove?
7. Do I engage in guilt by association?
8. When someone is off-base, do I show gentleness in my teaching? Humility? Desire to restore? Recognition that, “there but for grace go I”?


Filed under Christian Apologetics, conflicts, Doctrine/Theology, Evangelicals

How people of faith messed up psychology: A cautionary tale for those who want to save Christianity from destruction

I’ve been reviewing the history of psychology and Christians in psychology because I’m going to be presenting with a colleague on the topic next week at the National conference of the Christian Association of Psychological Studies (CAPS). Psychology is as broadly defined as the planet and what normally gets told is the celebration of theories and advances of “great men” from Rene Descartes to Darwin to Freud to Skinner to modern professional, clinical psychology. Modernist philosophies of science abound in the “story” of psychology and empiricism reigns as King. Faith and belief have little mention in the story other than science’s emancipation from theology that came during the enlightenment.

We people of faith have a tendency to look at the evils of secularization and the refusal to admit belief biases in the sciences. It would be easy to blame those bad unbelievers. Yet, as I look at the history of psychology, it seems to me that faithful people made most of the significant decisions to advance the field while protecting their private faith. That the effort to maintain faith in light of empiricism as the primary way of knowing, these individuals made significant decisions that still impact how we treat the mentally ill today. Continue reading


Filed under Christian Apologetics, christian psychology, History of Psychology, philosophy of science, Psychology