2010 Ligonier Regional Conference - Session 4 - R.C. Sproul Jr.
Friday evening, Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr., founder of Highlands Ministries and teaching fellow for Ligonier, closed out the first day of our Being a Christian in a Post-Christian Culture conference with a lecture on “Tearing Down Strongholds.”
The Crafty Serpent
Dr. Sproul Jr. began his talk by noting how it has become a habit of his to remind the church of the character of the Devil and the nature of the war between the serpent and the people of God. The first place to start in looking at Satan’s methods and goals is Genesis 3:1, wherein we are told that “the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.” Notice that the text doesn’t say that the serpent is the most powerful tempter but that he is crafty. His most potent weapon is his cunningness — that is what makes him so dangerous.
After Adam and Eve succumbed to the serpent’s temptation, God pronounced a curse on the Devil, and this curse is recorded in verses 13–15. The Lord in this curse put enmity between the serpent and the seed of the woman, explaining that the victory of the woman’s seed over the serpent will be sure but that the price for victory will be high. There is a war between the Devil and his minions and the Lord and His people, and this war continues until Revelation 22. Until Jesus returns, the church will do battle against the Devil.
In any battle, it is advantageous for one side to fool the other about the nature of the struggle. On the one hand, Satan tries to get us to forget that the battle is being waged. But if this is not successful, the Devil does not give up. His attack is two-pronged, and he has another strategy for those who are zealous for the kingdom of God. For these people, the Devil works to make them forget where the battle really lies. As we are storming the gates of the Enemy, the Enemy tries to get in our heads.
C.S. Lewis said in The Screwtape Letters that it is the aim of the Devil to make us believe we are making our way in the world when the world is really making its way in us. It is easy to denounce naturalism, pragmatism, postmodernism, and other false isms in the world, but it is harder to see how they infect the church. These views affect the thinking of the people in the pews as well. We have met the enemy and he is us.
The worldview of naturalism embodies what Solomon calls “life under the sun” in the book of Ecclesiastes. It is a view that says that this physical world is all that there is, nothing transcends what we see with our five senses. Yuri Gargarin, the first man in space, encapsulated this view in a statement attributed to him. After being launched into space, it is reported that he said, “I don’t see God up here.”
Satan often likes to make us think that those who use long words are smarter than us, and in the twentieth century, naturalism often was went by the moniker of logical positivism among philosophers. This view says that only those statements that can be empirically verified with the five senses have any meaning. Of course, this idea of logical positivism is easy to refute. Just ask the one who affirms it: What color is that statement? What does it smell like? The proposition that says meaning only attaches to those propositions that can be empirically verified is itself not empirically verifiable. It is self-referentially absurd. Naturalism likewise cannot account for the existence of non-physical entities like the mind or the laws of logic.
The fool has said in his heart that there is no God (Ps. 14:1), so we should note that we are in a battle of wits with unarmed men. But these views have driven Western society for decades, and to some degree they continue to do so.
The dangerous thing, however, is that we in the church often think we are immune to such views. But naturalistic thinking has colored the way we look at things despite the existence of many excellent ministries that promote intelligent design and the case for the existence of our Creator. How do we see these views in the evangelical church? The answer is that we are prone to think of the earth and universe as machines. Scientists tell us that the earth is tilted so precisely on its axis that any variation would make it a burning ball of fire or a frozen wasteland. We look at this evidence that the earth is finely tuned for life and talk about how it proves God’s existence, much as an exquisitely designed building points to an engineer. This is true as far as it goes, but God is no mere engineer. Engineers must work with stuff that is already there, but God made everything that there is. There was no pre-existing matter for Him to shape, for He made it all. And He could have made it another way. He could have put the poles on the equator and vice versa. He could have established things differently.
The earth and the universe are not machines. We do not exhaust the truth about them with physical descriptions. Scripture says that God calls the stars by name, not that they are flaming balls of gas. The universe is not a machine but a dance or a poem
Among Calvinists, the naturalistic tendency to see the world as a machine can manifest itself as practical deism. Deism says that God created everything and then sit back, much like you might wind up a toy and then watch it go. Calvinists, if they are not careful, can take the truth that God ordained all things — everything that comes to pass is subsumed under his will — and then we act as if God just stands back and watches it all happens. Of course, God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass, but He did not just ordain the course of history and then step back. He wrote the story, but He is also a character in the story. He intervenes in space and time. When we pray, God comes to help. He ordained that we would struggle and that we would pray, but He also ordained that He would come to our aid when we pray. He moves within His plan and does not merely watch history unfold.
Modernism and Education
Naturalism was just one of the many views that gave birth to modernism and its emphasis on empirically verifiable objective truths. This view of modernism is now giving way to postmodernism, which denies objective truth, but the demise of modernism is grossly overestimated. We still see its influence in the promotion of education.
The great sacrament of modernism is education. Consider everything that we are told — buckle up, eat your vegetables, and so on. These things may be good and true, but they reflect the idea that people just lack information and that they will do what they are supposed to do if only we educate them. We even see this embrace of education as the cure-all in the church. We refer to unsaved people as lost, as if all they need are directions!
The problem is not that we are not educated enough or that we are ignorant but that we are wicked. It is not enough to go to seminars and study; if we would be wise, we must ask the Holy Spirit to drive foolishness from our minds. Let us not put the Bible under a microscope to study — the Bible is to study us.
Postmodernism and Pragmatism
The great scientific advances of modernism brought great benefits, but they also gave us the Great Depression, chemical weapons, atom bombs, and so forth. The great isms that originated under modernism and promised paradise on earth (Marxism, Nazism, and more) brought us concentration camps, gulags, and more.
Disillusioned with all this, people began denying absolute truth. Postmodernism began talking about “my story” and “your story,” denying that one story holds everything together. Yet the answer to postmodernism is not to embrace modernism but to assert that Christians are all about a story that is true.
Denying absolute truth, postmodern people began asking “What works?” Modernism believes truth is empirical. Pragmatism wants to know what works. The question is, however, works for what? Pragmatism cannot give us a purpose, direction, or end. It cannot tell us whether to eradicate cancer or spread it. It cannot say wealth is good and poverty is bad. To do this, it has to borrow from the Christian worldview. To refute pragmatism, all we have to do is ask what do you want and why.
In the church, pragmatism has manifested itself in the worship wars, the battle between the organ and the guitar. In the end, the dispute over worship is about its goal. What is its telos or chief end? Does worship exist to equip the saints to win the lost or to attract the lost. You can take either position and embrace pragmatism. If the goal is to create tens of thousands of smiling people, you might want to get directions and wisdom from Joel Osteen. If, we say with tongue firmly in cheek, you want grumpy, smart people, ask a Calvinist.
We treat the Bible the same pragmatic way, making it our guide to a happy life. We use it to find the god of personal peace and affluence, as Francis Schaeffer said. But that is not what the Bible is for. It is not to tell us how to live a successful life. It is a book that is designed to tell us how to die well.
Postmodernism and its close brother relativism allow us to construct our own reality according to our own desires. For example, postmodern feminist thinkers might proclaim that they worship Isis. They do not mean that they found the case for Isis’ existence to be the most compelling one after diligently searching through many religions. They do not believe in Isis; they picked Isis because it is a feminist thing to do. It is creating one’s own reality.
Relativism makes a god in our own image. But if I make my own world and reality and you create your own world, eventually our worlds collide. Your reality and my reality, in reality, share the same space. Imagine the problem when relativist Chris thinks he should keep his wallet and relativist R.C. Jr. thinks he should take Chris’ wallet. What do we do?
A good way of refuting the relativist is to say that in my reality you are wrong, objectively wrong. Another simple way is to answer the person says objective truth doesn’t exist, “Is it objectively true that there is no objective truth?”
The entire American University system is predicated on the fact that we do not know anything and that there is nothing to know, but give us your children and money anyway. Prestigious academics start with the idea that we don’t know anything and that all truths are equally vaild. This works itself in ethical categories — relativism as seen in the book of Judges. Every man does what is right in his own eyes (Judg. 21:25).
The real problem is in the church, however. We baptize relativism in Bible studies, sharing with each other the meaning of the text to each of us. “What this means to me is…” This is done in a loving, affirming atmosphere, which means you can never say to your neighbor that you are cuckoo!
Too many of us think that to say right and wrong are based on Scripture is legalism. We speak of the Holy Spirit telling us that we are going to do x and going to do y. What should we do when a spirit is telling us to do what the Bible forbids? We tell the spirit to get back to the hell it just came from. Any idea that contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture cannot be from the Holy Spirit.
Ultimately, we can only combat these views by starting at home. We change the world by changing ourselves. We answer foolishness by not buying into it ourselves. The most powerful, potent work for changing the world is the diligent pursuit of biblical piety. The Devil is not in the details but in our heads.
Every Christian that begins “why” should be answered with “for God’s glory.” Every question that starts “what do we do” must be answered with “repent and believe the gospel.” God promises to forgive our sins as the faithful and just God that He is, and He pledges to cleanse us from all righteousness (1 John 1:8–9). We need to make known the reign of Christ over all by starting with ourselves. We start with meditation on and submission to God’s Word. Wisdom begins with fearing God. It is not an unfair leap to suggest that folly begins with fearing the world. But the world has nothing. Our enemies are already laying dead on the battlefield. We once were like this as well. The promise is that He has made us alive and has made us His soldiers. He equips us for war. He’s given us a sword that is mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. By His grace we learn to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. May we be encouraged, faithful and diligent in this fight.