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.

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.

Mary, the Mother of God with Timothy and Faith Pawl

In this article, I interview Drs. Timothy and Faith Pawl on Mary. Tim Pawl is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. He has published two books In Defense of Conciliar Christology and In Defense of Extended Conciliar Christology, and he will soon release a book in the Cambridge Elements series on the philosophy of the incarnation. Faith is an adjunct instructor in philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. She is the author of numerous academic papers, and along with her husband Tim, she earned her PhD in philosophy from Saint Louis University.

Thank you to Drs. Timothy and Faith Pawl for taking the time out of their schedules to answer these questions for us. My questions and comments appear in bold font, and their responses follow them.

Why should we call Mary the “mother of God” instead of just the “mother of Jesus”?

In the history of the church, there have been some claims that have been theological lightning rods. They took on great importance as tools for demarcating the limits of orthodoxy. For instance, at the first ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325, the promulgated creed included a final anathema which cursed those who, among other things, thought that “there once was [a time] when he [the Son] was not” (Tanner 1990, 5). This sentence, contrary to the full divinity of the Son, was affirmed by the Arian party; the orthodox bishops made use of it to counter Arianism.

So likewise, Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople, claimed that while Mary bore the Christ in her womb, she didn’t bear God in her womb – that is, she was not the theotokos – i.e., the Godbearer. At the ecumenical council of Ephesus in 431, the promulgated documents include the claim that Mary is the theotokos. This claim, affirming the singularity of person in the incarnation, was denied by the Nestorian party; the orthodox bishops made use of it to counter Nestorianism.

Why is this affirmation of the singularity of person important? Well, it safeguards the claim that it was really someone divine who became incarnate, really someone divine who entered creation for our redemption, really someone divine who suffered the ignobility of the cross.

Finally, the claim that Mary bore God follows straightforwardly from the orthodox understanding of the incarnation. Not only is it affirmed in the ecumenical councils, as I noted above. One can see how the claim must be included, given the traditional understanding of the incarnation. Whatever happened to the man, Jesus Christ, happened to God, on the traditional view. For that man, Jesus Christ, was no other than the God-man, the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity. And so, given that the man gestated in the womb of Mary, and given that the man is no other person than the Second Person of the Trinity, it must follow that a divine person gestated in the womb of Mary. But a divine person is rightly called “God” on traditional Christian teaching. So, God gestated in the womb of Mary. (For Aquinas on this question, see here.)

If we call Mary the “mother of God”, do we not make her greater than God or at least at the same level as God?

Mary is not greater than God or on the same level as God in any theologically pernicious way, even if we do call her the Mother of God. We must remember that when thinking of Christ, we can consider him with respect to his divinity, but we can also consider him with respect to his humanity. With respect to his divinity, no created thing is greater than him or at the same level as him. None could be.

With respect to his humanity, Mary and Jesus were at the same level in some senses. They were both truly human in a full and complete sense. In some ways, too, she was greater than him – again, with respect to his humanity. As a human son (but not a merely human son) of a human mother, he owed her obedience according to the Law. (For Aquinas’s take on Christ’s submission to the Law, see here.) This should not surprise us, as scripture itself notes Christ’s submission to his parents in Luke 2:51.

We might say that, as her son, she was above him in authority; as her God, he was above her in authority. If we measure greatness all things considered, the whole and entire Christ measured against the whole and entire Mary, we get the answer we expect: Christ is God, and God is greater than Mary in every respect. We should expect that there would be something difficult to wrap our heads around in Jesus’ relationship to Mary. After all, how could a creature be the mother of the Creator? As the 11th century Marian hymn, Alma Redemptoris Mater puts it, “to the wonderment of nature, she bore her creator.” But the fact that this really happened is no more shocking or awe-inspiring than the fact that God became man, that God entered into the ordinary human way of being in the world.

Can we learn anything about God because the Son of God was born of a woman?

Numerous things, no doubt! We see God’s faithfulness to his covenant. This might not be us learning a new thing, but it counts as yet another reason to affirm something we already knew about God. We learn God’s willingness to enter into the quagmire we’ve created for ourselves in being born to a woman, like all of us, and being born to a woman of low standing. (For Aquinas’s take on the value of being born to an espoused virgin, see here; for his take on being born into poverty, see here.) Were he to have simply appeared somewhere, full-formed, one might question his true humanity. Such a birth safeguards his lineage.

Could God have been born a woman?

Yes. Undoubtedly. The medieval disputes about the incarnation were often about whether rationality was required for assumption (“Assumption” is the technical term for what the divine person does to the created nature when that nature is united to the person in a hypostatic union; “hypostatic union” is the technical term for the relation that holds between the divine nature and the assumed nature in a case of incarnation.) This question was disputed. (For Aquinas on what’s required for incarnation, see here.) Whatever the answer to that question, the assumability of a created, rational nature was universally affirmed by Christian thinkers. And so, a female human nature’s being assumed is no more impossible than a male human nature’s being assumed, as both are rational natures.

How is Mary an example for Christian life?

In this time of Advent, we can learn from Mary about saying yes with joy to what God asks of us, and about waiting patiently to see how God will work out His redemptive purposes in our lives and in the world around us. It’s of critical importance that when the angel Gabriel came to Mary, Mary gave God her permission, her fiat, to cooperate with God’s plan for salvation. She used her freedom to offer all she had to be part of God’s work of bringing Christ into the world. There’s a venerable tradition of considering Mary the New Eve, acknowledging the unique way she is able to participate in God’s plan to unravel the harm brought about in the Garden. We see in that tradition both the affirmation of Mary’s freedom and dignity, and her exemplarity in giving her all to God. Twentieth century British author, Caryll Houselander, writes beautifully of Jesus and Mary while Mary was waiting to give birth, “By his own will, Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent: he was absolutely helpless; he could go nowhere but where she chose to take him; he could not speak; her breathing was his breath; his heart beat in the beating of her heart…. In the seasons of our Advent – waking, working, eating, sleeping, being – each breath is a breathing of Christ into the world.” (Houselander, Reed of God) We, like Mary, are called to bring Christ into the corners of the world we inhabit, and to do so with joy and patience.

Thank you again to Drs. Timothy and Faith Pawl! Look for more interviews with the Pawls and others in the near future! If you haven’t read it yet, you can read my interview on Christian Apologetics with Dr. Tawa Anderson here.