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”)!

Christian Worldview with Tawa Anderson

In this article, I interview Dr. Tawa Anderson about Christian worldview. 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: Christian Apologetics.

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.

Two years ago, you and your co-authors published An Introduction to a Christian Worldview: Pursuing God’s Perspective in a Pluralistic World. Could you explain what “worldview” is? What a “Christian worldview” is? And why you chose that subtitle?

We define worldview as “the conceptual lens through we see and interpret the world and our place within it.” Worldview is like a set of glasses that we wear, through which we view and interact with reality. If we wear pink-colored glasses, the world looks pink (even if it’s not); if we wear the wrong-prescription lenses, the world will look very distorted. So having the right set of glasses is important—it helps us to see the world the way it really is.

The subtitle of our book was chosen as an indication that a Christian worldview is, ultimately, a pursuit of God’s perspective on reality. Christians recognize that God alone has a true and accurate understanding of life, the universe, and everything—our goal is to chase after God in relationship, but also in understanding. If God sees reality truly, then we want to see the world the way that God sees the world, so that we also might understand reality truly.

A Christian worldview, broadly put, is one which embraces the biblical contours of Creation – Fall – Redemption – Glorification, places the Triune God at the center of reality, and embraces Scripture as the inspired and authoritative self-revelation of God to His people.

If our worldviews are really so pervasive in how we interpret things, then how can we ever reach consensus? How could we ever get people to see things “our” way?

We talk about worldview impacting people in four ways: confirmation bias, experiential accommodation, the pool of live options, and life motivation. Confirmation bias describes our tendency to look for and accept information or arguments that agree with or support what we already believe. Experiential accommodation is the process of interpreting new data or experiences in a way that fits with our existing worldview. The pool of live options is the set of possible explanations that our worldview will permit. Life motivation describes the way that our worldview encourages us to behave and react.

With respect to those first three worldview influences, we can see how people with different worldviews will generally fail to reach consensus, and why it seems nearly impossible to get people to ‘see things our way’. Our very fundamental worldview means that we see the same data, but interpret that data in very different (perhaps even contradictory) ways. Within my Christian worldview, for example, the sudden remission of Aunt Martha’s cancer will readily be interpreted as an answer to concerted desperate prayer; but within my sister’s non-Christian worldview, such a miraculous interpretation of events is outside the pool of live options—there will have to be some other explanation.

With a plurality of competing worldviews, and the strong influence that worldview has upon us, how can we pursue consensus?

The first step, I think, is promoting worldview awareness—we need to be aware of the impact our worldview has upon us when interacting with other people. When are my worldview presuppositions causing me to dismiss someone’s position or arguments? Do I reject this piece of data for good reason, or simply because it doesn’t fit with my pre-existing understanding?

But, of course, it doesn’t help much if we are aware of our worldview influences but other people are not. Hence, it is important to try to educate people broadly about the existence and influence of worldview presuppositions—not in a way that challenges people to re-think their fundamental commitments, but rather asks them to become consciously aware of their worldview.

Why should Christians think through their own worldview and those of others?

We confess that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” (John 14:6), that Christ has come to “testify to the truth,” (John 18:37) and that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). So, it seems, truth has a central role in a Christian worldview. Hence, a Christian should be in constant pursuit of truth in his or her own worldview. Obtaining an increasingly true worldview will bring us closer to a full knowledge of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The only way to obtain an increasingly true worldview is to subject our worldview to rigorous, conscious, and logical self-examination. We talk in our book about three “worldview truth-tests” that can help us adjudicate the accuracy of our worldview (and those of others): internal consistency (logical coherence), external consistency (evidential correspondence), and existential consistency (pragmatic satisfaction). Applying these tests to worldview components can help us apprehend truth more accurately.

How has studying Christian worldview changed your relationship to Jesus?

Probably the most fundamental impact has been my increasing awareness that I do not possess the full truth. I have always known this in some sense, but I have generally been overly confident (and dogmatic) about particular stances or beliefs that I hold. There are two sides to this.

First, many of those beliefs end up being secondary within a Christian worldview—not unimportant, but not central to the faith. In our textbook, we differentiate between “Core,” “Secondary,” and “Peripheral” worldview beliefs, and note that what identifies overarching worldviews (like Christianity, atheism, Islam, Buddhism) are Core beliefs. Worldview study has helped me to more clearly (I think) identify the core tenets of the Christian faith—those beliefs, attitudes, loves, and behaviors which are central, and without which there is not an authentic Christianity. Gary Habermas likes to crystallize core Christianity around the deity, atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I think that’s helpful, but prefer to think of the ancient creeds (Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed) as fuller articulations of essential Christian doctrine. I have had a tendency to make secondary things ‘hills to die on,’ and I feel that as I grow in worldview awareness (and hopefully Christian maturity), I am less likely to make mountains out of molehills. For example, there was a time in my Christian life when I would have held that someone who embraces theistic evolution has left behind orthodox Christianity. Today, while I still reject the modern Darwinian synthesis (random mutation and natural selection as a sufficient explanation for the diversity of biological life), I recognize that someone can be an authentic orthodox Christian and embrace divinely-ordained evolution as the means of God’s creative activity. The issue of how and when God created are secondary; the doctrine that God created is primary (core).

Second, my growth in worldview awareness has helped me better identify the perspectival nature of human knowledge. Other people who are just as intelligent and well-meaning as I am come to radically different worldview conclusions. They, like me, are triply f’ed-up: we are all finite, fallen, and fallible. Hence, I cannot claim to have a monopoly on truth, and neither can they.

How has studying Christian worldview changed your relationship to those around you?

Four things to say here.

First, with respect to non-Christians who hold different worldviews, I think I have become more gracious. I am able to enter into their worldview, and understand why they might see the world the way that they do. This does not make me any more likely to believe that their fundamental worldview is true, but it does help me to understand who they are and why they stand where they do. In turn, this helps to build bridges between my worldview and theirs, such that I can (Lord willing) help them consider the winsomeness and truthfulness of the Christian worldview.

Second, with respect to non-Christians who claim that their worldview is obviously true and Christianity is obviously false, I think I have become more stringent. It pains me to see people who are so blinded to the possibility that they could be mistaken, and who seem to mock those who would embrace the ‘ridiculous superstitions’ of traditional religion.

Third, with respect to fellow Christians who think differently than I on secondary or peripheral issues, I have (again) become more gracious. I have a long ways to go here, and I know that in the past I have hurt fellow believers by arguing too vehemently about secondary issues. The biblical appeal for unity within the body of Christ requires that we accurately identify the core of Christianity, such that we fight for that, and never fight over the secondary issues. I’m getting there, but clearly am not there yet.

Fourth, with respect to people who profess Christianity but reject the historical core of the Christian worldview, I have become less patient. I would join the late Ronald Nash in appealing for ‘honesty in advertising’. If one is going to reject the objective existence of the Triune God, reject the inspiration and authority of God’s self-revelation in Scripture, reject the objective divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, reject the historical resurrection of Jesus on the third day, reject the notion of Christ’s death on the cross atoning for sin, and reject belief in life after death—then that person has no more right to call themselves a Christian than I have to call myself a black woman.

Thank you again to Dr. Anderson! Look for more interviews with Tawa Anderson and others in the near future! If you missed his interview on Christian Apologetics, you can view it here: Christian Apologetics.

Pastoral Theology with Matthew Halsted

In this article, I interview Dr. Matthew Halsted about pastoral theology. Halsted is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of McLoud, OK and a lecturer at Oklahoma Baptist University. His academic research has focused on biblical hermeneutics (i.e., interpretation) and the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament especially in Paul’s letters. He is the founder and director of Trinityhaus (a center for Christian thought). He has presented papers and given talks nationally and internationally, and he is passionate about bringing academia into conversation with the local church.

Thank you to Dr. Halsted 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 pastoral theology? And what interests you about pastoral theology?

Broadly speaking, “pastoral theology” can be defined as fleshing out theological truths within the context of Christian ministry—particularly at the local church level. It is, by definition, applying God’s unchanging truth to the ever-changing circumstances of the lives of a worshiping congregation.

I suppose what interests me most about pastoral theology is that it requires attentiveness to both the needs of the congregation and to the biblical text. This relationship between Scripture and congregation is fascinating to me. Pastors must remain faithful to the Bible as God’s Word and, at the same time, be creative in how the truth of the Bible is fleshed out into the life of the congregation. This relationship between the truth of the fixed text and its fresh application to the contingencies of parish ministry is the heart and soul of pastoral theology.

Because pastoral theology covers several different topics, I would like to give you space to share your thoughts on a few different ones. How about we start with the office of pastor? Do you think pastors have a special kind of authority? Why or why not?

That’s a good question. There is a sense in which pastors should recognize that their position is one of “authority.” It has to be remembered, though, that it is a derived authority. That is, pastors are not ultimately in charge of, or responsible for, the church (thank God!). Rather, a pastor’s authority is authoritative in so far as it is connected to the truths of Scripture. My Protestantism may be getting the best of me here, but under no circumstances is a pastor to be considered authoritative unless that pastor is operating within the boundaries of biblical, orthodox truth—which has been handed down through the ages.

I have to add one more thing, if I may. Our culture is obsessed with “authority” and “being in charge.” I immediately think of the situation in Mark 10. In that chapter, James and John requested positions of power and glory in the kingdom, but our Lord admonished them to be cautious. The pagan leaders, Jesus said, were too fixated on how they could “exercise authority” over people (v.42). This is not to be the way of Christ followers. Because I think Jesus remains the best mentor for pastors, I think his own model is worth following: Instead of being preoccupied with notions of power and authority, people would do well to become servants. Pastors ought to be the first servants of the church—if they desire to be faithful followers of their crucified Lord.

Prayer seems vital to pastoral ministry. How does your theology of prayer shape your ministry? And how do you teach your congregation to pray?

There is a huge temptation for pastors to reduce their entire ministry down to nothing more than “talking about God.” In many ways, this temptation is always present because—to state the obvious—the pastoral vocation seems to be about doing just that: talking about God. As pastors, we are expected to preach about God, teach about God, and talk about God. To make matters worse, we are expected to teach others to do the same! But if were are not careful, we will make God into an object to be analyzed instead of the One with whom we are to commune. Prayer helps us in this regard.

Indeed, prayer is communion with God. Of course, this involves making requests, lavishing praise, raising doubts, and confessing sin. But these things are not what prayer is; prayer is communion. If we are truly communing with God, then of course we will be doing these things.

Eugene Peterson made a statement once that prayer is not so much about being nice before God but rather about being honest with him. I also agree with Peterson that, if Christians want to develop a prayer life, the Psalter is necessary curriculum. It is indispensable.

Do you think prayer changes how God acts, and if so, in what ways?

I recall reading C.S. Lewis on this very question. His musings, as always, are helpful as we navigate this topic. Following Lewis, I think the ideal prayer request is a request for something good. But if God is good, then surely God would already want the good for which we are praying—independently of our praying or not praying. And if God is powerful, then surely he would be capable in his own strength to bring it about—again, independently of our praying or not praying. So, why pray?

I’ll be the first to admit that prayer is a mystery in this regard. But I think something along the following lines is true. First, because prayer is fundamentally about communion with God (as C.S. Lewis also observes, as I recall), then it only makes sense that God would want to involve his creatures—the objects of his love—to engage him in communal acts such as prayer. Second, if a relationship such as this is to be meaningful in any sense, then a person must be capable of making choices that are significantly free. This leaves open the possibility for God’s people to pray or not pray. And if prayer is to be one of these significantly free acts, it must be—in some way or another—effectual.

What this means is that some things will not happen if we don’t pray. In other words, some prayers are acts that bring about change that, all things being equal, would not have been brought about except through prayer. This seems to be what is meant by certain passages of Scripture such as James 4:2 (“you do not have because you do not ask”). Here, something is not happening because of the lack of prayer.

It is reasonable to suppose that God, in his sovereignty, has set up this world such that his creatures have this sort of significant freedom. This does not imply, of course, that everything depends upon our prayers or that God’s overall plan is itself dependent upon our praying. I have certain metaphysical commitments that permit me to think God, as the Absolute Good, will always get his way no matter what his free creatures choose to do or choose not to do—a subject for another day!

To change the topic a bit, John Calvin argued that a rightly ordered church includes the Word and Sacraments. What are these two different things? And could you explain your approach to both?

I think Calvin is largely correct here. The Protestant emphasis on the preaching of the Word is absolutely important to maintain. It is God’s Word, for example, that brings forth faith; it is God’s Word which instructs, guides, and corrects the church. So the proclamation of the Word, if it is not central, will result in a church that is not rightly ordered. The same can be said of the Sacraments—that is, the Eucharist and Baptism. The Eucharist, mysteriously, functions in the life of the church as a gracious benefit. It is a reminder of God’s goodness—one that is loving and confrontational all at the same time. Baptism, too, is inherently confrontational. It is an initiatory rite into a Kingdom that is opposed to this world’s powers. Like the proclamation of the Word, if the Sacraments are not properly placed within the life of the church, then our witness to the world will go impeded.

For pastors young and old, how would you encourage them to develop their pastoral theology? What resources or biblical passages would you direct them towards? What mistakes would you encourage them to avoid?

Every pastor needs to be a praying pastor. It’s essential. Prayer serves as a reminder that we are insufficient to bring about the Kingdom of God. I think one mistake pastors make is to treat their ministry as if everything depends on them. As a result of this mindset, pastors get emotionally discouraged and burned out. The truth, however, is that the success of the church depends on God, not us. All we are required to do is be faithful to do what he has given us to do, and he will take care of the results.

Again, I think the Psalms are super important for pastors. The main reason is because they will teach us to pray. I also think becoming familiar with the prophets, particularly Jeremiah, would be good for modern pastors. I have found the prophets to be encouraging friends and colleagues. In terms of other resources, I highly recommended Eugene Peterson’s works. His insights are gold.

Thank you again to Dr. Halsted! Look for more interviews with Matthew Halsted and others in the near future! If you missed my interview with Tawa Anderson on “Christian Apologetics” or my interview with Timothy and Faith Pawl on “Mary, the Mother of God”, you can view them here: Christian Apologetics and Mary, the Mother of God.