December 18, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, December 18, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Wheaton controversy irreducibly theological: one cannot know the living God and deny his Son
The controversy over controversial statements made by a professor at an evangelical college, that controversy continues to expand, and it expands not only in terms of volume, but also in terms of importance. One of the things we need to watch in an expanding controversy like this is whether or not there is a real issue here. One of the things Christians quickly come to understand in terms of a public debate is that often there really is not much to a controversy; behind the headline sometimes there just isn’t that much there. But this is the kind of controversy that underscores the fact that sometimes when you take a closer look, there’s even more to the story than first appeared. In the middle of this week the story broke that a professor at Wheaton college, one of most prestigious evangelical institutions in America, had been the subject of controversy because she had decided and announced she was going to be wearing a Muslim hijab for the holiday season in order to express solidarity with Muslims, and that was something that got a great deal of attention. But what got even more attention theologically speaking, and what was far more important, is where this professor said in a Facebook posting that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
Now in immediate aftermath, Wheaton College has taken action consistent with its responsibility, and the controversy has now spread not only throughout the United States but beyond given the contemporary climate, given the issues of Islam in the public square, and in public debate, it was inevitable that it would be so. But Christians thinking from a biblical worldview have to understand that there is an issue of enormous consequential and inescapable importance here, and that is the very question raised by the statement this professor made theologically–not the gesture concerning what she was going to wear, but rather the claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.Show Full Transcript
I addressed this already on The Briefing this week, but the issue has expanded and it has also become more focused. It’s now very clear that this professor, according to a statement from Wheaton College, has not defined the issue differently than she had on that Facebook posting, and that’s why this is now such a big issue in terms of public debate. Now watch how a secular culture is dealing with this–the secular culture that by and large doesn’t take any theological claims seriously, and doesn’t fundamentally believe that any theological issues are real, well, that secular culture looking at this and saying it’s absolutely ludicrous to even ask the question as to whether it would be true that Muslims and Christians would worship the same God. The fact is that an increasingly secular elite that doesn’t believe in a god of any form is in no position to judge the relative importance of theological issues, much less to answer the question–even from what we might expect would be an informed understanding of history. That’s simply too much to expect from most secular reporters today. But the question as to whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God essentially comes down to this–this is the single question of utmost and indeed of eternal significance–is it possible to know the one true and living God if one denies Jesus Christ as his Son?
Now as I stated on The Briefing on Wednesday, that is, biblically speaking, impossible. It is impossible to argue biblically from the New Testament that it is possible to know the one true and living God and deny that Jesus Christ is his Son. The Quranic teachings of Islam officially deny that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God, but evangelical Christians looking at this have to recognize that even as we are committed to Sola Scriptura–to the final authority of Scripture alone–and that puts us in a different place not only than secular observers, but also than the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Francis Beckwith, writing at the website The Catholic Thing–and Beckwith is a major philosopher and a major Catholic thinker who at one time had been an evangelical–Beckwith writes this in response to the controversy,
“Abraham and Moses did not believe that God is a Trinity, but St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Billy Graham do. Does that mean that Augustine, Aquinas, and Graham do not worship the same God as Abraham and Moses? Again, of course not. The fact that one may have incomplete knowledge or hold a false belief about another person – whether human or divine – does not mean that someone who has better or truer knowledge about that person is not thinking about the same person.”
Now that’s an issue that Francis Beckwith begins with in his logic with the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Someone may know something about him, another may know something else about him, but that doesn’t mean they’re not talking about the same person. Yes, but here’s what’s really crucial: you can’t really know Thomas Jefferson as the third president of the United States if you deny that he was the third president of the United States. That is actually the apt metaphor here. We’re looking at the fact that Muslims are denying that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; they are thus denying that God the Father has a Son, and that is the crucial issue. As we talked about on Wednesday, Jesus answered this directly as he was responding to Jewish leaders in the Gospel of John chapter 8. At the same time, we look to the book of Acts in chapter 17, we see the apostle Paul at Mars Hill and we also read the first chapter the book of Romans, and we understand that Paul is arguing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that everyone knows something true about God, that is very clear in Romans chapter 1. When Paul was speaking to the Athenians in Acts chapter 17, he makes very clear that they know something about the one true and living God, but they do not know him as he must be known. That is why Paul preached Christ to them, and the big issue here, as Francis Beckwith raises Abraham and Moses, is the very fact that Jesus in John chapter 8 made clear that Abraham knew Him. That’s what’s really, really crucial. Abraham never denied that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father, nor did Moses. As a matter of fact Jesus Christ was explicitly claiming to be the fulfillment of the very promises made to Abraham and to Moses, and in the gospel of John Jesus explicitly says that Abraham knew Him.
The Roman Catholic Church–which recently had a commission from the Vatican, released a statement saying that Christians should no longer seek to convert Jews–is in a very different theological position than evangelical Christians. That is a theological and historical understatement, but that becomes even clearer in terms of the current course of this controversy. Responding directly to the controversy is an authority that was cited by this professor at Wheaton College herself–none other than Miroslav Volf, a professor at Yale University. In an argument that was published at the Washington Post, Volf argues that the suspension of this professor,
“Reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.”
Well, Miroslav Volf has long argued–even in an official statement to which I responded years ago called,
“A Common Word”
–he has long been saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, even as he identifies himself as a Christian. In this particular claim, he’s arguing that the response to this professor and her claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, the negative response to that statement is, he says, just,
“a theological guise.”
You could use the word ‘disguise’ of concern for Christian orthodoxy. Well, here’s a key issue that we need to note: an argument like that just might have a certain amount of theological traction if it is made by someone who consistently and publicly acknowledges the truth that Jesus Christ is the only Savior, and that salvation comes only to those who come to a conscious faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s a key issue here. When we see theological authority cited in response to this kind of controversy, we need to ask the question, is this a theologian who actually understands the gospel as we do? Because that is a fundamental issue here. But this also reflects the fact that, increasingly in our society, if you say that you disagree with someone, you are then said to be at enmity with them, and that is just not intellectually honest. That is a recipe for a complete breakdown not only of truth telling, but of evangelism and missions.
One final note on this controversy, the initial headlines had to do with the fact that this professor was in controversy over her statement that she was going to wear Muslim garb traditional for women during the Christmas season in order to express solidarity with Muslim neighbors. We need to note that in The Atlantic a very interesting revelation about that has been made. Ruth Graham, writing for The Atlantic, says, you know the controversy over that aspect of the professor’s statement is really not coming from the right at all; it’s coming from the left. Arguing from the more theologically liberal position, some have criticized this professor in terms of her idea of wearing Muslim dress as attempting to,
“try on oppression”
rather than to genuinely experience it. That’s the kind of argument that gains traction on the left. But it’s really important that even The Atlantic understands that the basic issue here for most Christians is indeed theological. There it is and there it must be.
Pro-abortion movement laments pro-life direction of country, denies real effects of Roe
Next, a clear signal about the direction our country is taking on the issue of abortion and the sanctity of human life, Newsweek magazine ends the year with a massive cover story on abortion in America. Kurt Eichenwald, a journalist of no small amount of controversy, has written this article in which he is basically telling the pro-life movement it needs to simply shut up and get out of town. But he starts out with what he calls the essential contradiction in the American mind on this. He says,
“I am opposed to abortion. I believe women have the right to choose.”
“This is not a contradiction.”
Well, if you’re operating from the worldview of the secular morality in which you can reduce everything to its pragmatic essence, you might be able to say that that is not a contradiction. But if it’s not a contradiction, putting together the statements,
“I am opposed to abortion. I believe women have the right to choose,”
that means that one is saying that a woman’s right to choose is essentially equal to or in this case, even greater than opposition to abortion on the basis of the sanctity of human life. That’s the key issue here, but it also tells us a great deal that Newsweek has run this massive story by Eichenwald on abortion, and that the story turns out as it does. We also need to look at some of the particulars of his argument. He raises some of the big questions about abortion, some of the most controversial issues, but he also makes his own very controversial claims. One of the key claims he makes in this article is that Roe v. Wade in 1973 wasn’t that big a deal. He actually argues that if abortion were made illegal all across America, it really wouldn’t even decrease the number of abortions. Now that’s one of those arguments we simply have to look at, because you will see it cited over and over again. You will see people say there were 1.2 million abortions a year in America, mostly illegal abortions, prior to Roe v. Wade in 1973. The problem is, there is no accurate count of those illegal abortions in America, and that is a constructed figure that is actually denied by the very reality of what did happen in Roe v. Wade and thereafter. Eichenwald speaks to the pro-life movement and he says,
“Making abortions illegal or more difficult to obtain will not necessarily decrease the number of terminated pregnancies.”
But let’s actually look at the facts here. And in order to make sure we’re speaking honestly from the facts, I’m going to use the statistics published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute. That is an institute formerly an official branch of Planned Parenthood. It is not, needless to say, a pro-life source, and looking at the statistics from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, they tell us that in 1973– the year that the Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision–there were 744,610 illegal abortions in the United States. Now let’s see how Roe has its effect. In almost every year thereafter the number of abortions rises. The effect of Roe v. Wade was a radical increase in the number of abortions. By the time you reach the year 1990, Guttmacher says there were 1.6 million abortions in America. Remember the number was 744,000, according to the very same organization in 1973–that is more than a 100 percent increase by the time you reach 1990.
Later in the article Eichenwald writes,
“Then comes the most recent falsehood told to shut down women’s health clinics: secretly recorded videos edited to make it sound as if Planned Parenthood were illegally selling fetal tissue for a profit; it wasn’t. Instead, the organization was asking women who had just had abortions if they would be willing to donate tissue samples to medical research. As the unedited tapes make clear, Planned Parenthood was receiving reimbursement for the cost incurred in getting the tissue to researchers. Yet politicians and activists have played on the public’s unfamiliarity with issues involving fetal tissue, falsely proclaiming that Planned Parenthood is selling body parts, even though no one can explain why anyone would need a baby’s arm or brain.”
Now at this point he is either intentionally misleading or himself absolutely dishonest. There have been multiple explanations as to why someone would seek fetal brain tissue for medical research, and the key issue that was not even denied by Planned Parenthood–it was acknowledged–was that its own medical director was talking about how to strategically destroy a fetus’s body in the womb while trying to preserve specific body parts for transfer for medical experimentation. Planned Parenthood not only acknowledged that its medical director had said those things, but it apologized for them–but more as a matter of embarrassment than any kind of major moral concern. That was made clear by the fact that Planned Parenthood is not going to change its practices. The secular left is continually pulling out its hair because it simply can’t understand that the pro-life movement isn’t going away and hasn’t gone away and shows no signs of going away. The fact is that there are more pro-life Americans now than there were in 1973, and that has frustrated the pro-abortion movement as is given evidence in this article. But the bottom line of the story is this: if you can begin your article by saying,
“I’m opposed to abortion. I believe women have the right to choose.”
And then you say,
“This is not a contradiction,”
Well, if you don’t see that as a contradiction then you simply don’t get it. You are operating out of a worldview so foreign to the actual sanctity of human life that perhaps you can’t get it. In response to this article, we simply have to say that the reason the abortion issue won’t go away is because of that unborn baby in the womb. So long as that baby is ever acknowledged, the issue won’t go away, it can’t go away.
Liberal agenda to move the American conscience on abortion is on display in Hollywood
Next, further evidence at the end of the year how mass media and the Hollywood entertainment complex is also trying to move the issue of abortion–very interesting observations made about popular culture and the abortion issue just in the last several weeks. For example, the ABC show ‘Scandal’ actually depicted an abortion on the part of its main character, even as the music in the background was ‘Silent Night.’ As the Media Research Center said subsequent to that episode,
“Last night’s episode of ABC’s ‘Scandal’ was pretty much an hour-long advertisement for Planned Parenthood. In the most disturbing scene, the main character has an abortion to ‘Silent Night’ (a hymn celebrating the birth of Jesus) playing in the background.”
Now just remember that this kind of storyline never comes by accident. A team of writers, a producer, a director, an entire complex that includes the advertisers for the program, believe that this is a message they want to communicate to the American people in order to move the moral compass in this nation, and in this case that moral compass is on the issue of the sanctity of human life. But that’s not all, there have been other major developments as well. Marvel’s Netflix series known as ‘Jessica Jones’ depicted a medical abortion, and in this case it was an attempt to try to move the American conscience on the issue of abortion, and it’s toward the understanding that abortion is not only sometimes inevitable, according to the cultural logic, it is sometimes a good. That is the actual argument being made by so many of those who are pressing this on the American people. Francine Stock, writing not from the United States, but from London for the Financial Times writes about,
“Why abortion is no longer out of the picture.”
And the point behind Francine Stock’s article is that there has been a huge gap of recent years, indeed almost 2 decades, in which Hollywood didn’t touch the issue of abortion for fear of alienating viewers. But the point she’s making in this article published in recent days in the Financial Times is that evidently, the rules have changed, and in Hollywood it is no longer illicit to touch the issue of abortion. Not only is it being depicted, it’s being depicted in what is attempted as a positive light. More evidence of this comes as Hollywood congratulates itself about a new movie featuring Lily Tomlin. She is presented as an elderly lesbian grandmother who helps her granddaughter to obtain an abortion. As Francine Stock writes,
“The film’s real political significance lies not in age or sexuality but reproduction. The engine of Grandma’s [that’s the title of the movie] plot is the search for funds to terminate her teenage granddaughter’s unplanned pregnancy.”
So here too, as the year comes to an end, we have a signal that the issue of abortion is back in terms of Hollywood’s agenda, in the very straightforward way that Hollywood attempted in the early 1970s and beyond. But then as Francine Stock tells us, Hollywood pulled back from that issue out of fear of alienating pro-life viewers. Evidently that fear is no longer either present or a limiting factor when it comes to Hollywood. One final note on Hollywood, when you have something like this happen, you have to note the copycat element of Hollywood and the entertainment industrial complex, because that’s exactly what happens. When someone features this storyline, eventually virtually everyone else copies it as well. Hollywood is quick to get on the moral bandwagon, so brace yourself for even more Hollywood messaging on abortion in the year to come.
Kentucky school cuts Bible passage from Charlie Brown program, loses meaning of Christmas
Finally, as Christmas approaches, a news story out of Kentucky. Valarie Honeycutt Spears, writing for the Lexington Herald–Leader tells us,
“When students perform the play ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ at W.R. Castle Elementary School in Johnson County on Thursday, the scene in which the character Linus quotes from the Bible is set to be deleted.”
“Johnson County Schools Superintendent Thomas Salyer told the Herald-Leader Tuesday that Christmas programs across the district were being reviewed for possible modifications of religious references.”
Then the story says that,
“Principal Jeff Cochran said all references to the Bible were removed from the Christmas play [again that’s “Charlie Brown Christmas”] after he and others in the district received a message from Salyer.”
And in response to that message, the Bible passages were cut. But that is a very crucial issue, because as Terry Mattingly writing for Get Religion makes clear, that is the actual turning point in the play and in the television special that celebrates its 50th anniversary this very year. As the Herald-Leader news story says,
“In the Charlie Brown play, the character Linus recites passages from the Bible: ‘Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger. And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’ ”
Then Linus says,
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Mattingly raises the obvious question, if you take the Bible verse out, if the Bible is forbidden and Linus can’t answer that,
“That’s what Christmas is all about,”
then what in the world is Linus going to say? What’s going to come before Linus says,
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”?
That is one most insightful questions I’ve seen raised in a long time. If Linus can’t give the answer that is the very turning point of the play when he says,
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,”
then what is that character Linus going to say what Christmas is all about? Several news sources have also pointed out the Charles Schultz, the creator of Peanuts behind the ‘Charlie Brown Christmas,’ actually had a major conflict with CBS, the original network on which the television program was shown, because the network didn’t want the Bible cited either. But Charles Schultz insisted on it, and he won. As Terry Mattingly writes,
“They can’t leave a hole in the script, since the speech by Linus is the turning point of the entire story arc.”
“So what does Linus say? Did anyone ask? Did school officials refuse to answer? I think we can assume that Linus is not allowed to recite the First Amendment. If the answer to the question, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” is not linked to the Christmas story, then what do the script editors have him say?”
Mattingly concluded by asking,
“If you can’t put the Christmas story in a Christmas play, what do these educators propose to put in its place? Why do this play at all?”
Well, there’s the secular conundrum all over again. You actually can’t ask the question, what is Christmas all about? without getting the answer. Here you have a school that’s going to try to put on a Christmas play, but when they raise the very issue, what is Christmas all about? they’re going to be left with a big nothing in the script of their play.
Frankly, I can’t think of any metaphor that better describes the secularist predicament, but at the same time I also can’t think of any metaphor that today offers a greater affirmation of why it is our responsibility, the Christian responsibility–always ready to explain what the Christmas story is not only in terms of the Christmas season, but in terms of the great fact that God was in Christ reconciling sinners unto himself. That while we were yet sinners, Christ not only came for us, but he died for us. My point in directing our attention to this story about this play in a Kentucky school district is not to raise our blood pressure, but rather to underline our evangelistic responsibility, and to make it a matter of our Christian joy to tell all people within the sound of our voice why we celebrate Christmas, and to answer the question–as the question must be answered–about what Christmas really means and why we celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. This school district may leave Linus unable to answer the question, what’s Christmas all about? But Christians have to be always ready to answer that very question, not only with clarity, but with joy.
And that leads me to wish you and your family a most blessed and Christ filled Christmas. With today’s Briefing we come to the end of the season for The Briefing for the year 2015. We’ll be back with you on Monday, January 4, 2016. So between then and now, may you give priority to your family and to your worship and to your celebration of Christmas, and may the Lord bring to you and yours not only a most blessed Christmas, but a very happy New Year filled with all the promises of God.