The Problem of Evil with Tawa Anderson

In this article, I interview Dr. Tawa Anderson about Christian apologetics. Anderson is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Assistant Director of the Honors Program at Oklahoma Baptist University. He co-authored An Introduction to Christian Worldview: Pursuing God’s Perspective in a Pluralistic World which released in 2017. Anderson frequently speaks on issues concerning Christian apologetics, worldview, and philosophy for churches, seminaries, universities, and schools.

See my previous interview with Dr. Anderson on Christian Apologetics here.

Or, see my previous interview with Dr. Anderson on Christian Worldview here.

Thank you to Dr. Anderson for taking the time out of his schedule to answer these questions for us. My questions and comments appear in bold font, and his responses follow them.

What is the “problem of evil”? And what makes it a problem?

The ‘problem of evil’ as traditionally held is an argument against the existence of God based on the existence and/or prevalence of evil and suffering in the world.  In its classic form, as articulated by Epicurus, David Hume, or J. L. Mackie, the problem of evil suggests that if an all-powerful and all-good God exists, there should be no evil in the world.  Why?  Well, as the argument goes: (1) if God is omnipotent, he has the ability to prevent evil; (2) if he is all-loving he desires to prevent evil; and (3) if he is omniscient, he knows how to prevent evil.  If the God of Christianity exists, then, he wants to, knows how to, and has the ability to prevent evil.  Given the presence of evil, then, it would seem that God cannot exist.  It would seem, then, that evil presents a ‘problem’ for Christian belief!

I should note, however, that every worldview, not just Christianity, needs to account for the evil and suffering that exists in the world. There are two sides to the broad worldview problem of evil: first, defining and grounding evil; and second, explaining how evil fits coherently within the overarching worldview.

Many people consider the free will defense as a decisive victor against the logical problem of evil. Could you briefly outline the defense and explain why you do or don’t agree on its impact?

The freewill defense, as articulated by Alvin Plantinga, suggests (broadly) two things.  First, if God creates free-willed creatures (like human beings), then he cannot determine that they will use their freedom to always choose ‘good’ rather than ‘evil.’  After all, if God determined that they use their freedom only for good, then they would not be truly free at all.  Hence, even an omnipotent God cannot create free-willed creatures who only do good. 

Second, it is possible (I would argue likely) that God was committed to creating free-willed creatures who (a) would freely do more good than evil and (b) could know and worship him freely.  Hence, it could be that God created human beings with free will, knowing that we would use our free will to cause evil (even tremendous evil on occasion), but also know that it is better to have free-willed creatures who sometimes go wrong, than to have no free-willed creatures at all.

If this is the case, then God has a morally sufficient reason for creating free-willed creatures who cause evil.  Yes, God has the power/ability to prevent evil—but only by not creating free-willed human beings at all.  Yes, God has the prima facie desire to prevent evil—but that prima facie desire is overridden by his desire to create free-willed creatures who will frequently choose to love and serve him.

It is the consensus of contemporary philosophers that the free will defense has conclusively rebutted the logical problem of evil.  That is, there is no logical contradiction between the presence of evil in the world and the existence of God.  I tend to concur with this assessment—Plantinga and others have demonstrated the consistency of God’s existence with evil.

We should note, however, that the logical problem of evil is only one version of the problem of evil. Even if it is defanged, there are other aspects of evil in the world that can cause problems for the Christian faith.

Although the logical problem of evil may have appeared on the debate stage, it seems most people approach evil from a place of emotion. How should Christians engage people that see evil as a natural sign that God does not exist?

There are three versions of the problem of evil: logical, evidential, and existential.  We’ve already talked briefly about the logical problem of evil.  What you’re talking about here is what I call the existential (or experiential) problem of evil.  It seems to me that this is actually the dominant expression of the problem of evil. 

For most people, evil and suffering do not pose an abstract philosophical problem.  It’s not that they think about the attributes of God, and think about the existence of evil, and come to the rational conclusion that God and evil are inconsistent.  Rather, it seems to me that most people question the goodness or existence of God when they experience (or observe) significant evil and suffering in their lives (or in the lives of loved ones).  We encounter someone who hurts us terribly—through physical or psychological abuse, or abandonment, or betrayal.  We experience intense physical suffering—disease, sickness, injury.  We suffer exquisite emotional pain—the death of a beloved friend or family member.  And we wonder why, if God loves us, would God permit this to happen.  If God is all-powerful, surely he could have spared me from this evil and suffering.  So when we encounter evil and suffering personally, we are led to question God’s goodness, and perhaps even his very existence.

It is important to emphasize that people who encounter the existential problem of evil do not need philosophical answers to philosophical questions.  Instead, they need personal comfort and love.

In terms of engaging people who see evil as a sign that God does not exist, I suggest a couple of things.  First, remember that every worldview needs to account for the problem of evil.  Why is evil objectively evil?  And why does it exist?  It is fair to require Christianity to deal with the problem of evil; but it is also fair to require someone who uses evil as a reason to disbelieve in God to account for the reality and existence of evil.  So, for example, if someone uses evil as a reason to reject the existence of God and becomes an atheist; then we should ask them how an atheistic worldview can explain the objective reality of evil.

Second, Christians need to do a better job of presenting the full reality of a biblical worldview.  It is a tragedy that so many people in contemporary Western society believe that God is supposed to be like our personal genie—providing us with health, wealth, and happiness (sugar, spice, and everything nice).  But Scripture does not give us any reason to expect such a peaceful and pain-free life—at least, not on this side of death and resurrection.  A faithful biblical worldview will expect there to be pain and suffering in this life—we live in a world beset by the fall, in which humans perpetrate evil, and there is no reason to expect our lives to be exempt from the suffering.

How should local churches teach, preach, and counsel their people on issues of evil?

As mentioned above, churches need to teach the full breadth of the Christian worldview, particularly emphasizing the reality and impact of the Fall.  There is a desperate need to recapture the biblical notion of lament, and the biblical expectation of suffering in this life.

In addition, it would be helpful to be pro-active and pre-emptive in our preaching and teaching on evil and suffering. It seems to me that the contemporary church is frequently reactive: we preach and teach about evil after events like 9-11. Far better, it seems to me, that we preach and teach about evil six months before 9-11. We need to help prepare our congregations to face the evil and suffering that will inevitably come to them by presenting the fullness of the biblical teaching.

You’ve given an argument before for God’s existence from evil. Can you explain your motivation behind that argument and when you find it useful? Is there a time when it may not be the right approach?

In fairness, I consider the argument for God based on evil to be a purely intellectual exercise.  Here’s how it works (in short).

  1. ~(~PE) It is not the case that there is not a problem of evil. That is, there is a problem of evil.
  2. ~OEכ~PE If there is no objective evil, then there is no worldview problem of evil. If there is no objective evil, then worldviews need not explain, ground, or accommodate evil.
  3. ~(~OE) Combining 1 and 2 (via Modus Tollens), therefore it is not the case that there is no objective evil. That is, there is objective evil.
  4. ~OMVDכ~OE If there are no objective moral values and duties, then there is no objective evil. The understanding here is that objective evil requires an objective moral standard, such that acts (or intentions) that violate (or fall short of) the objective moral standard are objectively wrong (or evil).
  5. ~(~OMVD) Combining 3 and 4 (via Modus Tollens), therefore it is not the case that there are no objective moral values and duties. That is, there is such a thing as objective moral values and duties.
  6. ~Gכ~OMVD If there is no God, then there are no objective moral values and duties. This part of the argument is far too involved to defend briefly here; but simply put, it seems to me (and many other philosophers, theists and atheists alike) that the only way to ground the existence of objective moral values and duties is in the existence of a transcendent moral divine being (i.e., God). Hence, if there is no God, there are no objective moral values and duties.
  7. ~(~G) Combining 5 and 6 (via Modus Tollens), therefore it is not the case that God does not exist. That is, God exists. If you start with the ‘worldview problem of evil’ (Premise 1), or even if you start with the existence of objective evil (Premise 3), then you arrive at the conclusion: Therefore, God.

I find this approach to the question of evil and God most helpful with people who are abstractly raising evil as a reason to reject Christianity.  I think it is profoundly unhelpful in responding to the existential problem of evil, or in ministering to those who are hurting.  But it poses a robust challenge to those who want to maintain the reality of evil in the world while simultaneously avoiding God.

I also think this argument can be helpful in reinforcing the faith of believers, whether they are struggling in the presence of evil and suffering or just wavering in their faith.

Thank you again to Dr. Anderson! Look for my other interviews with Tawa Anderson here.

Christian Classical Education with Josh Spears

In this article, I interview Josh Spears about Christian classical education. Spears serves as Lyceum Director and Chair of Theology at The Academy of Classical Christian Studies in Oklahoma City, OK, which really means he gets to talk about nerdy things with dialectic and rhetoric students. He is also an adjunct instructor in the Humanities and Philosophy department of the University of Central Oklahoma. Spears is a husband of one and father of four, an elder at City Presbyterian Church, and an Enneagram 5w6. He’s rather fond of making things out of wood, chocolate in the 72-84% dark range, and the peaty export of the Scottish Islays.

Thank you to Josh Spears for taking the time out of his schedule to answer these questions for us. My questions and comments appear in bold font, and his responses follow them.

What is a “classical education”?

Classical education is an art devoted to human-making, the telos (i.e., purpose) of which is to produce wise humans, enabled by virtue, to live excellent lives.

Why should one pursue a classical education as opposed to another model of education?

I would say first that a classical education alone isn’t sufficient for a genuine education. Greek wisdom cannot be the ultimate telos of education. Nothing short of a robust Christological foundation will suffice (arguably, or at least as I understand philosopher Eleonore Stump’s reading of Aquinas, true virtue is impossible apart from the Spirit’s enabling work of shedding love abroad in the hearts of His people). Thus, I could not simply recommend a ‘secular’ classical education, though I would recommend it over a modern, non-classical one. The trouble with modern education, secular and otherwise, is that it has inverted what Christ commands, to wit, seek first the Kingdom and all the other will be added. To the extent that modern education’s goal is to produce, say, a work force, to the exclusion of virtue (theological or Aristotelian), it has failed as a viable model of education.

A pedagogy based on homo economicus (humans as economic beings) will fail to produce virtuous, flourishing humans. Recognizing that we are homo adorans (humans as worshiping beings) reorients both the means and the ends of education. We worship first and foremost, and our loves point us toward and shape our worship. Education is as much about training children to love the right things so they’ll worship aright. Attuned to love the Transcendentals, students will then be free to accomplish whatever vocation to which they’re called.

What kind of learning and what learning outcomes become more important in a classical education model?

I couldn’t speak to other classical institutions of education but my own demarcates four ways of being we hope characterize our graduates. Our graduates:

1. Humbly recognize their place in Christ’s story
2. Expectantly pursue and cherish all that is True, Good, and Beautiful
3. Graciously love their neighbor, especially the most broken and marginalized
4. Joyfully cultivate and embody a cruciform vision of all of life

The trouble, of course, is that these are not quantifiable in the traditional sense required by most evaluators of an educational program. In fact, we won’t know we’ve successfully meet these goals for our graduates until the end of their lives; how could we evaluate until then? ‘Our graduates die faithfully living for Christ their King through loving their neighbor and seeking the True, the Good and the Beautiful in all they do,’ of course, doesn’t fit well in a social media, sound-bite world.

How does studying the classics and the liberal arts shape students differently than an education which may emphasize STEM programs or other models?

Because STEM programs are aimed primarily at getting students into jobs via technology training, they’ll fail to shape students in the proper ways (in fact, there’s a movement to replace STEM with STEAM!). To be sure, all education is transformative, that’s not the question; the question is to what end students will be transformed. Science and technology work only with an imaginative accessing of reality. This imaginative access comes through narratives and poetry, the liberal arts. Ironically, the quadrivium of classical education contains the four mathematical arts; part and parcel of a classical education is what STEM programs are after. But modern education has put asunder what Athens hath put together. STEM makes sense only if it’s founded on the liberal arts. So, we might say that, if a bit melodramatically, STEM without the liberal arts gets you Hiroshima and Enron; scientists and mathematicians who wrought destruction in the name of defense and economic progress.

For people who want to pursue a classical education but either don’t have the finances or the geographical access to a classics school, what would yοu recommend to them?

This is such a good question and I wrestle with it all the time. The Classical Christian movement is overwhelmingly WASPy. On its own, there’s no shame in this; middle class white kids should have a good education. But so should all children. If only those with means are able to access this kind of education, then the Church is failing to provide what is most basic for the least of these. We need people willing to sacrifice their personal resources, we need churches to devote budgets to scholarshiping students, we need state and federal governments to untangle themselves from arbitrary and oppressive statutes that maintain an unfair educational monopoly. There are a number of schools who are attempting to do just this: West Dallas Community School-Dallas, The Oaks Academy-Indianapolis, and Hope Academy-Minneapolis. I serve on the board of St Paul’s Community School, a classical Christian school devoted to serving one of OKC’s poorest neighborhoods.

That said, I’d say to anyone in this situation to ask for help from their deaconate funds; to offer to work for the school to help defray the costs; to talk to schools about scholarships. If you live too far from a good school, there are a number of online resources to start either homeschooling or supplementing current schooling. Classical Conversations (https://www.classicalconversations.com/) is a great entry into the classical education world.

Thank you again to Director Spears! Follow my site to see when I post my next interview on how Josh became Presbyterian and to see more interviews and content.

Free Will with Kevin Timpe (Part 1)

In this interview, I ask Kevin Timpe about free will. This is only part one of my interview with Dr. Timpe which serves as an introduction to the topic. In the second interview, Dr. Timpe will answer questions about free will and Christian theology.

Kevin Timpe currently holds the William H. Jellema Chair in Christian Philosophy at Calvin University. He’s written and edited a number of books on free will and philosophy of religion. In recent years, he’s turned much of his scholarly attention to issues in the philosophy of disability, intending to finish a book tentatively entitled Disabled Agency. He drinks more coffee than he should but less than he’d like. He, his spouse, and their three children live in Grand Rapids, MI where they sublet a house from three cats. It is rumored that he’s not as much of a curmudgeon as he appears to be on Facebook.

Thank you to Dr. Timpe for taking the time out of his schedule to answer these questions for us. My questions and comments appear in bold font, and his responses follow them.

What does “free will” mean?

Well, that depends on who is using the term. Peter van Inwagen, for instance, means ‘the ability to do otherwise.’ He says as much, for instance, when he asserts that “to be able to have acted otherwise is to have free will.” But not everyone means that same thing. I used to be more optimistic that philosophical phrases like “free will” had one meaning, but I’ve come to think that’s not the case in many instances. It’s really important for us to be clear which meaning we have in mind when we use such terms because if we don’t we can fail to notice that our claims may not be tracking with our interlocutor’s meanings.

Lots of the ‘folk’, as they’re sometimes called, seem to mean something like “non-coerced” when they use free will. But there are plausibly things we do that aren’t coerced that nevertheless may not raise to the level of free will. And, though this is contentious, I think that it’s possible to be coerced and have one’s free will remain intact. Some coercion just drastically shifts one’s incentives rather than removes moral agency. So depending on the context and what use we want to put the concept of free will too, I think the term can pick out different concepts such that there’s not just one thing that ‘free will’ means.

What are the primary ways of understanding free will?

As indicated above, there are some folks who hold that ‘free will’ means having the ability to do or act otherwise, and so they understand free will to be or centrally involve what I refer to as a ‘leeway approach’ to free will. But others understand free will not as always requiring alternative possibilities but rather as the kind of control over one’s actions—that is, being the source of one’s actions—in the way required to be morally responsible for their actions. This is what I refer to as a ‘sourcehood approach’ to free will.

It’s quite natural for lots of people to associate leeway approaches with libertarian views of free will, but I think that’s a mistake. There are a number of compatibilist views of free will that include the ability to do otherwise. And some libertarians—myself included—think that free will doesn’t always require leeway. I think that free will often involves leeway and sometimes requires leeway, but that’s because I think that satisfying the sourcehood condition on free will entails that the agent at least sometimes has the ability to do otherwise.

How does one go about deciding which way is right?

Well, I don’t think we decide contentious metaphysical issues simply by looking at what the dictionary says. And I’m less optimistic that we can come to ‘knock-down, drag-out’ winners than I used to be. Philosophy’s not like an epic match between Ricky the Dragon Steamboat and the Macho Man. I think that in many cases, we have to begin by thinking about what we want something like free will to do. Our concepts are deployed for purposes, and those purposes help shape what counts as an appropriate concept to use. I think that much philosophical work isn’t clearly won by a decisive argument, but by weighing the competing benefits and costs of various positions and trying to come to an overall ranking of which we think is best overall. But in doing so, various folks will both evaluate the options different and weigh them differently. Hence we get disagreement and, sometimes, what John Fischer calls ‘dialectical stalemates’.

That said, that’s at best an argument for incompatibilism (which is the view that our having free will is incompatible with the truth of determinism), which is weaker than libertarianism (which is the conjunction of incompatibilism and the affirmation of the existence of free will). I think the best way to try to show that free will does exist is to show that it’s required for something (e.g., moral responsibility) that itself exists.

What do you think is the most persuasive argument for libertarian free will?

I think that a version of what Peter van Inwagen has called the Consequence Argument is sound. As he originally formulated it in An Essay on Free Will, I don’t think it was. That formulation requires a transfer of powerless principle which he calls Beta:

If nobody has, or ever had, control about whether p is true, and no one has, or ever had, control over the truth of p entailing the truth of q, then no one has, or ever had, control over the truth of q.

Van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument can thus be summarized as follows (taken from his Essay on Free Will, 56):

If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us.

The transfer principle Beta is what justifies the conclusion on the basis of the two earlier claims.

But folks have since shown that Beta is invalid as an inference rule. There’s been a number of folks that have tried to show that other transfer principles can underwrite the Consequence Argument and are not invalid in the same way that Beta is. Joe Campbell has shown that the argument perhaps doesn’t show that free will and determinism are logically incompatible per se (claims of incompatibility are equivalent to necessity claims), since the argument requires a contingent proposition such as “there is a distant past.” But I think that one can show that in a world like we have reason to believe we inhabit, that if determinism were true then we wouldn’t have free will.

What do you think is the most persuasive argument for compatibilist free will?

I think that unless we have good arguments for the incompatibility of free will and determinism, we ought to think that they’re compatible—that is, we ought to be compatibilists about free will. Logical space is big, so to speak, and compatibilism just requires that there is at least some place where there’s free will and determinism is true. Claims of incompatibility, on the other hand, are stronger since they make claims that range over the entirety of logical space—there is no place where there’s free will and determinism is true.

Since I think there are good arguments for incompatibilism, you can infer that I don’t think there are persuasive (well, not persuasive to me) arguments for compatibilism. But other smart people disagree. Truth is often hard to achieve. The two authors whose work is most compelling to me in luring me toward compatibilism are Manuel Vargas and Jesse Couenhoven. Both of their books (Building Better Beings and Stricken By Sin, respectively) are excellent and challenging.

What are some practical implications to how one understands free will?

I think that what we think about free will matters for issues of responsibility—which is itself a complex cluster involving normative issues related to praise and blame, metaphysical issues such as causation and causal powers, legal and political issues, etc…. There are also a lot of clear implications for how we think about religious topics (e.g., heaven, hell). I think that free will is also closely connected with character formation, which in turn means that it has implications for what it means to be a good person (and what it means to be a good parent).

What resources would you recommend for people interested in this discussion?

Well, I think that almost everything in my own Free Will: Sourcehood and Its Alternatives (2nd edition) is true. But there are really quite a few really good books out there that can serve as introductions to the (immensely voluminous) philosophical literature on free will. Meghan Griffith’s Free Will: The Basics is a great lead-in to the literature, as is Joe Campbell’s book simply entitled Free Will. (I’m starting to think that some of us working in the field need to get more creative with our titles!) For many advanced work, Free Will: Four Views brings together four of the most influential current scholars defending positions that they are rightly well-known for: Derk Pereboom, John Fischer, Bob Kane, and Manuel Vargas. Lots of folks seem to have the idea that “science has proven that there’s no such thing as free will,” in part because a number of scientists claim this. Al Mele’s work Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will is the go-to source here.

And while this may seem self-serving (I mean, I think it is self-serving, but I don’t say it because it is), the Routledge Companion to Free Will that I co-edited with Meghan Griffith and Neil Levy a few years back is 700+ pages of breadth, historical depth, and contemporary overview on free will.

Thank you again to Dr. Timpe! Look for Part 2 of this interview with Kevin Timpe when he tackles questions of free will and Christian theology! If you liked this interview, please like the post, share it with others, and check out my previous interviews and posts under the “Blog” tab.

Military Chaplaincy with Randy Ridenour

In this article, I interview Dr. Randy Ridenour about Military Chaplaincy. Ridenour is Professor of Philosophy at Oklahoma Baptist University, where he has taught for twenty years. In 2017, he retired from a thirty-four year career with the United States Army Reserve. As an enlisted solider, he served as an infantryman and as a chaplain’s assistant. In 2000, he was commissioned as a chaplain, and served three active duty tours at Ft. Hood, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He has been married to his wife, Sheri, for thirty-five years, and they have a daughter, Rachael, and a son-in-law, Josh.

Thank you to Dr. Ridenour for taking the time out of his schedule to answer these questions for us. My questions and comments appear in bold font, and his responses follow them.

What led you to join the military and then become a chaplain?

To be honest, I was attending the University of Oklahoma, but did not have any firm vocational plans, and thus no motivation for attending class. So, I decided to take some time off from school, and to do something else besides waste tuition money. The military seemed like a good choice, and the Army was offering the most in terms of enlistment bonuses and education money.

After nearly five years on active duty in the infantry, I went back to college to study philosophy. I joined the Army Reserve, primarily to earn some extra money while I was in school. I had always felt that I had been called to some kind of ministry, and two chaplains with whom I served helped me to discern that calling, and encouraged me to become a chaplain.

What is the primary job of a military chaplain?

Military chaplains have two roles. The first is to perform or provide religious services for members of the military, their families, and for authorized civilians. The second is to advise unit commanders on matters of ethics, unit morale, and ways that religion affects military operations. This means that chaplains need to be effective ministers, but also skilled counselors, with knowledge in ethics and world religions.

You are a Christian, and you served as a Baptist chaplain. What happened if you had someone come to you from a different Christian tradition or different religion?

Before I can answer that question, I need to explain how endorsement works in the chaplaincy. Chaplains are military officers, and, as such, must comply with the rules and standards that apply to all military officers. There are other requirements, though, that only apply to chaplains. Before one can be a chaplain, one must be endorsed by an authorized endorsing agency. This is usually an agency within the denomination to which the chaplain belongs. For example, the endorsing agency for the Southern Baptist Convention is the North American Mission Board. There are also special endorsing bodies for non-denominational chaplains. These bodies are needed to certify that the chaplain is a minister in good standing, according to the expectations of that denominational body. If the chaplain were to lose that endorsement, then the chaplain could no longer serve. This is important to understand, because endorsing bodies have rules that their chaplains must comply with, for example, an endorser can prohibit certain behaviors or forbid their chaplains from performing certain religious services. Each chaplain can only minister within the bounds determined by that chaplain’s endorser. The military will not force a chaplain to perform a kind of service that the endorser has prohibited.

Some other branches of the military operate differently, but Army chaplains are assigned to units that are battalion size and larger (a battalion can have up to 1,000 soldiers). Obviously, not all members of any unit that I was in were Christians. Whether I could meet a non-Christian soldier’s need, depended on the nature of that need and the requirements of my endorser. For example, if a Jewish soldier came to me expressing a desire for Jewish services on the High Holy Days, I could not perform those services. I am obligated, though, to ensure that the religious liberties of soldiers are protected. I am not obligated to meet the religious needs of all my soldiers, but I am obligated to ensure that their religious needs are met, which is a fine, but important, distinction. In this case, I would meet with the commander to make sure that the soldier had time off on Saturday to attend services led by a rabbi.

There were many times that I conducted counseling for non-Christian soldiers, because, as their unit chaplain, they had a relationship with me that made them more comfortable speaking to me than to a chaplain from their own faith-group.

What did the work of ministry look like in this context?

Ministry, in a religiously pluralistic environment, begins with building relationships. As tempting as it is to stay in the office all week, preparing for the sermon on Sunday, effective chaplains are out doing whatever their unit’s soldiers are required to do. For example, if soldiers are required to do unit physical training at 0600, then I would be out there with them. If the soldier were at a rifle qualification range, then I would be there. Chaplains are non-combatants, and neither carry nor fire weapons, but ranges gave me a good opportunity to chat with my soldiers as they waited for their turn to fire. The more time that I spent with soldiers during their routine, day-to-day activities, the more likely those soldiers were to come to me when they needed spiritual guidance.

Resources were stretched thin during my Afghanistan deployment, so my ministry had to expand. I was the Protestant chaplain for a NATO base, and I was responsible for all three of the Protestant Christian services on the base. The services differed mostly by worship style – a Gospel service on Saturday night, a liturgical service on Sunday morning, and a contemporary service on Sunday evening. On Fridays, the Roman Catholic chaplain and I would travel, by ground convoy and helicopter, to three other bases that did not have chaplains to perform services there. The rest of the week was spent in counseling, sermon preparation, and activities that enabled me to reach out to soldiers whom I probably wouldn’t see in chapel.

What did chaplaincy change about how you approach ministry in your local church?

That’s an interesting question. First, I began to understand the importance of relationships. Contemporary America is as religiously pluralistic as the Army is. That means that effective ministry cannot be confined to the four walls of the church building. Economic and employment realities may also mean that the worship needs of the entire community can’t be met at the traditional hour on Sunday morning. We spend too much time developing programs, and too little time developing relationships.

Second, I learned that effective ministry may not always be helping people myself, but getting people to the help they really need. I learned quickly in the Army that there are problems that I do not have the required skills to solve, and the best thing that I could do is to enable that person to find the help that they really need. Ministers need to be aware of, and not too proud to use, the caregiving resources of their communities.

Third, I have developed a greater admiration for liturgy. Military life is filled with constant change, and military congregations are always different from week to week as new people rotate in and others redeploy. On one Ash Wednesday, I had taken a Catholic priest out to a training area to perform a service for some National Guard troops. As I watched from the back, I noticed that these soldiers, who came from all different parts of the country, instantly formed a bond because of their common familiarity with the liturgy. Participation in the liturgy results in a natural feeling of community.

Finally, I developed an appreciation of the individual church as being part of something more than just a member of a particular denomination, but as part of the Church, holy and catholic. Working with colleagues who ranged from Pentecostals to Russian Orthodox transformed my suspicion of differences into an appreciation of diversity. This has also led me to always try to keep my primary focus on Kingdom growth, not simply local church growth.

What advice would you give someone considering becoming a military chaplain?

First, make sure that you are considering it for the right reasons. Military ministry has many advantages when compared to the local church: salaries are covered, the utility bills at the chapel are always paid, and the military provides everything necessary for conducting services. Chapel congregations use all of their offering money to support their ministry projects. So, that provides a kind of security that many pastors do not feel. Those are not sufficient reasons, however, to become a chaplain.

Second, be sure that you can minister in a pluralist environment. We must speak the truth, but we must do it in a way that is not degrading, demeaning, or belittling. If you cannot see yourself being able to give a Koran to a Muslim soldier, then military chaplaincy is not for you. Military chaplaincy requires a strong commitment to religious liberty for all, one of the traditional Baptist distinctives. Also, you will have to work with ministers of different denominations and even different faiths. Your ministry will always be within your own tradition, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t have to do administrative work with an Imam or Rabbi.

Third, and the most important practical advice, is to go to seminary. In order to be a chaplain, you must have a Master of Divinity or equivalent. There seems to have been a move away from traditional seminary education for many young ministers today. In the chaplaincy, however, that is not an option, you must have the education.

Finally, you must consider the cost, and the cost can be significant. There is the emotional cost: casualty notifications, memorials for soldiers killed in combat, and losing friends and comrades. Most importantly, be aware of the effect that it will have on your family. I was separated from my family for three of the years between 2003 and 2013. Those years were incredible ministry experiences, but they came at a great cost to my family. My wife was essentially a single parent during one of our daughter’s most difficult years. A week before my daughter’s wedding, it was still uncertain whether I would be able to get leave from Afghanistan. Fortunately, I was able to come home, but there was never any guarantee. Soldiers get medals and accolades, but military families are the unsung heroes.

The challenges may be great, but the rewards are even greater. It is a humbling experience to minister to members of the military, especially in combat environments. The things that we often do by rote, prayer, communion, etc., take on an urgency that is rarely felt. In this urgency, the reality of God is experienced in new and profound ways, both by the chaplain and those whom the chaplain serves.

Thank you again to Dr. Ridenour! Look for more interviews on chaplaincy and other topics in the near future! If you liked this interview, please like the post, share it with others, and check out my previous interviews and posts under the “Blog” tab.

How Tom Wright Changed My Life

Yesterday (7 February 2020), St. Mary’s College of Divinity at St. Andrews had an event to honor and remember Tom Wright (a.k.a., N.T. Wright) for his tenure at the university. Professor Wright held a distinguished chair in New Testament for nearly a decade (a chair previously held by Richard Bauckham). As Professor Alan Torrance mentioned yesterday evening, he was responsible for millions of pounds being poured into St. Mary’s via student enrollment and grants. He was also instrumental in Logos (the program I study in) starting and being developed at St. Andrews. But I want to point out a few other ways that I have benefitted from his lifetime of scholarship.

When I was a high school student, I first heard the name N.T. Wright when my pastor and worship pastor wanted to take a group from the church to Oklahoma Christian University where he was speaking. The trip ended up being cancelled, and I didn’t get to go. (I would then meet him New Orleans some years later where he signed every book I had by him at the time, and then I would have classes with him some years after that.) Instead, I wouldn’t interact with Wright’s work for another couple years until I picked up the book Simply Christian and then Simply Jesus after that. Again, I wouldn’t interact with his work in any meaningful way until my undergraduate years.

The two primary things I learned from N.T. Wright which I should have known, but never did, were: the Jewishness of Jesus and the New Testament, and the Christian hope of future resurrection. I grew up in Christian communities that never spent much time thinking about how deeply Jewish Jesus was or the four gospel accounts which talk about him or Paul’s letters or any of it. Jesus is Jewish—not formerly or temporarily Jewish. Jesus continues to be Jewish, as does the New Testament. How are we to read the gospel accounts, Acts, Paul’s writings, the letter to the Hebrews, or the letters from Peter or John or Jude if not as profoundly Jewish texts? Yes, they often write to a wider audience—especially Paul’s letters, but they do so from a religious background and history of thought which is profoundly Jewish.

Finally, Tom Wright taught me the Christian hope. I always imagined death to be the end. I don’t mean that I thought we would just die and that there would be nothing. But I did imagine that we would die and go to heaven—some would go to hell—and that everything would just be disembodied and ethereal. However, in reading Wright’s works, I realized that the New Testament teaches something profoundly different. It teaches that God will raise us bodily from the dead in the end and bring heaven to earth. It teaches that if God doesn’t raise us like Jesus, then we ought to be the most pitied because we are wasting our lives. I can’t even recount the experience of reading The Resurrection of the Son of God for the first time. If I could get everyone to wade through its hundreds of pages, I would want every Christian to read it.

In summary, Tom Wright changed my life. His teaching impacted how my professors read the New Testament. In reading his work, I realized how profoundly he impacted my own professors. In reading his work, I realized essential truths of the Christian faith for the first time. In reading his work, I realized the Christian hope, and in reading his work, I realized that the story of Jesus is the climax of the story of Israel. I, like many, am forever indebted to the life and scholarship of N.T. Wright. May God bless him abundantly in his retirement (even if, it’s just “in name only”)!