Avoiding Plagiarism from the Pulpit

Plagiarism is a sin. In a wonderful talk “Meta-Apologetics” (available online here), Douglas Groothuis observed that the plagiarizer, by taking someone else’s work as their own, breaks at least three of the Ten Commandments: (1) they covet, (2) they steal, and (3) they bear false witness. He handles this issue when calling apologists “to be above reproach in citing our sources in our speaking and writing.” In this essay, I want to affirm the sin of plagiarism and suggest three practical steps to avoid it.

Of course, plagiarism has become a hot topic in evangelicalism, specifically among Southern Baptists, after allegations of plagiarism were brought forward against the new President of the Southern Baptist Convention. I have no desire to delve into denominational politics here, but I do want to say that this conversation has brought up an important topic for all pastors to consider: plagiarism in the pulpit.

1. Preach Your Bad Sermon

In John Piper’s newest revision of The Supremacy of God in Preaching, he adds a chapter called “In Honor of Tethered Preaching.” In this chapter, he addresses the difference between a “Bible-oriented preacher” and an “entertainment-oriented preacher.” I would recommend reading this chapter to understand this distinction alone. He claims that the Bible-oriented preacher sees himself as “God’s representative sent to God’s people to deliver a message from God.” Insofar as this is an accurate picture of a faithful preacher, we must acknowledge the need to represent God in truth if not in perfection. Typically, the desire to plagiarize arises out of a desire to be seen as a good preacher or a smart preacher or a fill-in-the-blank preacher. Pride leads us to the sin of plagiarism when we cannot stand to face our congregation with our own inadequate, imperfect, un-alliterated thoughts on a passage of Scripture.

Your people need a steady diet of faithful preaching (preaching drawn directly from the text of Scripture that communicates the gospel clearly and applies it to the life of the listener). They don’t need you to preach a sermon worthy of going viral every week. In recent decades, the internet has provided great resources online for pastors to learn about writing and delivering sermons. It has also given them access to huge catalogues of preachers across the globe that they can learn from, but it also leads to the temptation to “borrow” just a little more from someone else.

It’s Saturday night. It’s been a long week of pastoral visits in hospital parking lots, during lunch, and randomly in the pastoral study. The week left you behind. You haven’t gotten any further on your sermon than when you worked on it Monday morning. You have some ideas. You’ve meditated on it throughout the week, but now you have to plan what you’ll actually say. This is the critical moment. Do you write the subpar sermon that is drawn from your own ideas on the text and merely checked for truth by outside resources? Or do you go online type in the name of your favorite preachers and listen to their sermons on the text?

It doesn’t take a long week or a sermon written the night before to lead someone to cut corners. Sometimes we see the plethora of good resources and become disheartened by our insecurities and imperfections. We lean on someone else’s work—someone else’s sermon, someone else’s exegesis.

The first step in avoiding plagiarism in the pulpit is simple: when you get to those moments where your sermon just hasn’t come together, preach your bad sermon anyway. Make sure it is drawn from the biblical text. Make sure you preach Jesus. Make sure you address the hearts of the listeners. But when the transitions are weak, the points aren’t coming together, and you can’t help but think a YouTube preacher could do it better than you, preach your bad sermon anyway.

2. Struggle with the Biblical Text

I preach weekly on Wednesday nights for 6-12th graders. I only preach on a Sunday morning roughly once a month. Although I still have the pressure of weekly sermon prep, I’m not writing a 35-45 minute sermon for a whole congregation on a weekly basis. This allows me more time to write my next Sunday sermon. I often try to write a few weeks ahead of time which allows for new ideas and illustrations to be added, but it also makes sure I have a sermon ready to go in case my pastor is suddenly unavailable.

I last preached Mark 1:1-8, and I really struggled with it. I wrote it over the course of several weeks, and for the first couple weeks, I was lost. Should I end in verse 8 or push it forward? How do I preach Christ when he is only mentioned in verse 1? How do I handle this text without just going to a commentary to guide me? I spent at least 80% of my sermon prep time just wrestling with the passage on my own. I only consulted study Bibles and commentaries to see where they split the verses as independent thoughts to make sure my division wasn’t completely off base. I can say that if I had consulted other resources before that wrestling I would have been extremely tempted to take their points, thoughts, illustrations, and preach their sermon or a mix of a couple commentators’ sermons. I did consult resources for some study help to understand the context of the Old Testament Scripture being quoted and to understand the role and meaning of John’s baptism in the history of Israel. But otherwise, I allowed my own understanding of the text to drive the sermon.

I let myself struggle with the passage on my own for as long as I could. I didn’t let my misreading override the majority of commentators, but I did allow my legitimate reading to trump over other commentators’ legitimate readings. Let the text be the driving force, not a commentators explanation of it.

3. Cite Your Sources and Confess Your Sin

Besides the advice given above, the best way to avoid plagiarism is to give credit where credit is due. Cite your sources. No, this isn’t Junior English or Comp 1, but it is real life. The result of plagiarism isn’t just a bad grade, but it’s the integrity of your ministry before God and before your people. Don’t use another preacher’s words without giving him credit. Don’t take an idea from a book without giving its author credit. Don’t quote those song lyrics without giving the composer credit. Give credit where credit is due, and cite your sources.

Can you give credit to a whole sermon and then preach it? No. No publisher will publish a book that says, “C.S. Lewis writes: …” and then proceeds to type out The Abolition of Man in quotation marks. You can’t cite someone and take all of their work. You can reference all of their work. But you can’t spend a whole sermon quoting someone else. Cite sources when you use another’s work, but don’t make their work look like yours with an asterisk.

Finally, I would say that if you have plagiarized in your preaching—whether not attributing quotations, stealing outlines, or preaching whole sermons—confess your sin. If your church has a leadership team or a body of elders/pastors, reach out to them and confess your sins in genuine repentance seeking reconciliation with them and God. Allow them to decide how to discipline. It won’t be easy, but it will be right. If your church does not have a leadership body, you may confess it to your denominational leaders who exhibit authority over your local church. However, if you do not have either a leadership body within the local church or a leadership body outside of it, you should publicly confess your sin before the congregation and encourage them to pray and seek a biblical response to this problem.

When you plagiarize in the pulpit, you don’t just commit a sin, but you commit a sin that compromises your church’s trust in you and compromises your authority as a teacher. Therefore, you must seek reconciliation by confessing your sin to those you have wronged.


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.

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.

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.