Monday, December 2, 2013


This is a revised version of a paper that I presented to the Southwestern Apologetics Group in October. Thanks to the students and faculty whose input was valuable in the revision process.
By Matt Sanders

The task of Christian apologetics is to provide a reasoned defense or a rational basis for the Christian faith. The ever-present danger and question is when bringing together reason and faith, which one drives the other. Is it as Anselm said, “Faith seeking understanding” or must our doctrine make sense before we can believe it, much less defend it? Providing a reasoned defense means that presuppositions, evidence, and interpretive devices (which can be a kind of presupposition) all come in to play. In any argument this is challenging because a perfectly logical argument can still be wrong if it is using insufficient or incorrect data. It can also be logical, but wrong, if it is based on presuppositions that cause it to devalue or reject evidence. An apologetic for the Trinity is even more difficult, because Trinitarian theology is based on certain presuppositions regarding the authority of the Bible and its proper interpretation, appears to be illogical, and is based in part on scarce experiential evidence.
               The Christian God is Trinity, and it would seem that one of the major efforts would be to provide such a defense or basis for this central and key doctrine. Trinitarians believe that there is one God, that the Bible is the divine revelation, and that there is one correct interpretation. But if the opponent or the audience does not accept the authority of our sources of evidence, our arguments will be little more than dogmatic statements that to most people seem contrary to logic. How can God be three and one at the same time? Even if an explanation is given (e.g., one substance expressed in three persons), without an authoritative source that reveals this it seems like an unnecessary complication that runs contrary to what appear to be the equally or even more logical understandings of strict monotheism, polytheism, or atheism.
               For example, the understanding of God as Trinity is found in how He has revealed Himself:
               -the Bible
               -the person and atoning work of Christ
               -the new life lived out by the Spirit in the community of faith
               If someone does not accept these revelations, it is difficult to use them as proof to this person. For example, if the Bible is not viewed as authoritative, it would be akin to using “Star Wars” to prove that there is a force in the universe that has a good side and a dark side. If one accepts “Star Wars” as truth, it could provide the basis for believing in the force. However, even if you could show some evidence of a Jedi mind trick, skeptics who reject the divine inspiration of George Lucas’ hexology would still not necessarily accept this as evidence of the force.
               Even if someone accepts that the Bible is authoritative but has an incomplete view of the atonement, you may convince them that the Bible reveals God as Trinity, but they would only be able to admire it or worship it as a great mystery or misuse it. If we return to the “Star Wars” example, let us say that the story is true and people believe it but do not really understand it. They would be in awe of the force or they might try to use it for themselves, but they would be doing so without context and understanding. The same would be true for someone who might have a complete understanding of the atonement, but an incomplete experience.
               This would seem to indicate that the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be defended. What then can we do? When two out of three ways have been shut, we must move to the third, no matter the risks or misgivings. Immanuel Kant summarized not only Enlightenment thinking, but much of the church’s thought about the Trinity throughout most of the church’s history when he wrote that the “doctrine of the Trinity provides nothing, absolutely nothing, of practical value.”[1] At most, the doctrine of the Trinity has been a glorious mystery clearly taught in Scripture that should be rightfully adored. It is a mantelpiece doctrine, a test of orthodoxy, an icon of the church. The doctrine of the Trinity is treated almost like the embarrassing uncle who comes to every family get-together. “Oh don’t worry about Uncle Joe. He’s odd, but harmless.”
               We all understand that right theology is pointless if it does not lead to right living. We all seem to understand the essential relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, except when it comes to the Trinity. Why is that even when the Bible clearly connects who God is with who we are as those made in the image of the Triune God? There are likely numerous factors, some legitimate and others not, that have drawn our attention from contemplating how the orthodoxy of the Trinity should be lived out. We will look at only one: The demands are too high and the implications of failure are too devastating.
               In John 17:21, Jesus makes the connection between his relationship to the Father and our relationship to one another. His prayer is that his followers would share the same oneness that the Father and the Son share, and he prays this on a church that he knew would include people who at that time hated each other because of ethnic, gender, and socio-economic differences. Much of the New Testament details what this intimate relationship should be. Understand that whenever the Bible describes how Christians should treat one another, these descriptions are connected to who God is as Trinity. We are not just called to love, but to Trinitarian love by which we share without selfishness and cooperate without competition. We do all for the glory of God and the betterment of the community of faith and ultimately the betterment of the world. And as great as this might seem, the demands are also great. It requires us to stand against an inner and outer culture that is dominated by selfishness, materialism, individuality, and competition. We have so little time and so few resources to really live in community the way that the Bible teaches, and we admire but dismiss those who preach it and dare to live it.
               The third way is not shut. But it is the most difficult. The question of the theodicy is often called the Achilles’ heel of classical theism. The scarcity of evidence of Trinitarian living is the Achilles’ heel of Trinitarianism. Any religion can produce a good individual. To use the argument that Christianity makes a person better then is easily countered. But only Christianity can produce Trinitarian communities and bring a positive Trinitarian force into the world. Our non-Trinitarian opponents already have the greatest argument against what we believe if they only knew. They only need ask: Where is this Trinity?  Where are these communities? The scarcity of experiential evidence of churches even attempting to be Trinitarian gives the opponents of Trinitarianism much support for their positions. If we walk this path, and it seems that we must, we must be aware that it is not the easy path and at first it will be lonely.
               So how can we walk this necessary path? The answer lies in allowing the Trinity to defend us. In some sense, we have more to lose in any encounter with opponents of Christianity than they do. If one Christian even appears to lose his or her temper in a confrontation with an angry mob of opponents, the Christians are the ones representing God and his kingdom. They are the one who failed to live up to what they believe. We must then engage in apologetics in the Spirit of the one whom we are representing, the God who is Trinity. The Trinity is God and we are made in the image of the Trinity. If we are believers in Christ and we have been made new so that we have the indwelling Spirit (God) transforming us to become more like Christ (God) in fellowship with the Father (God), then all we do should be Trinitarian, including apologetics.
               Here are some steps in that direction.
             1.        Know the doctrine of the Trinity. It should be a lifelong process. This is not so that we can prove the Trinity through argumentation alone. But many non-Trinitarians will at least want to know that you understand what you believe.
             2.        Understand God’s Trinitarian vision for his kingdom and be able to articulate it.
             3.        Allow our knowledge and understanding of the Trinity to affect our lives, relationships, and churches.
             4.        Connect our apologetic activity to the church. Drink deeply from those who have come before us and those who stand with us now. It should not be the lone Christian standing against the culture. As we learn, we should teach the community of faith and as a community we should live in the life of the Trinity.
The truthfulness and superiority of the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be proved through argument alone. It must be demonstrated in life. The doctrine of the Trinity is its own defense, but only when this doctrine is evident in the life of the church. Trinitarian apologetics is then not a defense of the Trinity per se, but apologetics done in a Trinitarian way.
               If an apologetic in the more traditional sense is required, the best way forward is to present God’s Trinitarian design for humanity, a design that brings together in divine love those divided by sin, hatred, jealousy, greed, pride, and the dominating desire to survive. God’s design, when properly presented, is so wondrous that even those who do not believe it is true will wish that it were. An apologetic also needs to make clear that there is no other way to achieve these ends unless it is the way of the Trinity, which is the way of the cross.
               When engaging in apologetics, our purpose must be as it should be in all of life, which is to bring glory to God. God is most glorified when his presence is manifest. Our purpose then should be to reveal the God who is Trinity in all we say or do. Our purpose cannot be to make an opponent see God for that is the work of the Spirit. But that should be our desire, that they see and come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ so that they might know and reflect the God who is Trinity. Our purpose cannot be about winning an argument, unless by winning an argument one might win a brother or sister. The objective is to reveal the Trinity, even when the Trinity is not the topic being discussed. We must keep in mind that the Trinity is God, therefore all theology is Trinitarian. Context is everything. The Trinity is the context.
               If we understand the doctrine of the Trinity and how this doctrine relates to our lives and if we communicate in the Spirit of the Trinity, then the Trinity defends us. The Trinity keeps us from being justifiably accused by the world of being a hypocrite. The Trinity prevents us from becoming a stumbling block to the lost and a hindrance to the advancement of the kingdom. The Trinity prevents us from having to appear before the thrice holy God to account for why we “defended” God in an unworthy way. Know the Trinity and live the Trinity. When we do and our opponents ask, “Where is this Trinity?” We can say, “There. And there. And there. And here.”

Wherefore, since we desire to understand the eternity, and equality, and unity of the Trinity, as much as is permitted us, but ought to believe before we understand; and since we must watch carefully, that our faith be not feigned; since we must have the fruition of the same Trinity, that we may live blessedly; but if we have believed anything false of it, our hope would be worthless, and our charity not pure: how then can we love, by believing, that Trinity which we do not know?[2]

[1] Leonardo Boff quoting from Kant’s Der Streit der Fakultaten (Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. Paul Burns, [Maryknoll, N. Y.: Orbis Books, 1997], 19).
[2]Augustine, On the Trinity, 8.5.8. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953) and Second Series, ed. Schaff and Henry Wace, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952-57), electronic versions Oak Harbor: Logos Research System, 1997.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Real Danger of the Marriage Wars

The tragedy of the homosexual marriage debate is that most people on all sides of the issue do not seem to know that the endgame is much larger than simply redefining the traditional understanding of marriage.

The issue is portrayed as a freedom or discrimination issue or religious/moral issue. One side attempts to paint it as a civil rights battle while the other sees it as a continued move away from the Judeo-Christian values upon which the United States was formed. The issue is a freedom and religious issue, but not in the way that most people think.

Most eyes are focused on the here and now and the me and mine. “How does this affect me and the ones I support now? What are we being denied? What is being taken from us?” Some will talk in national terms: “Our nation will be better or worse if we … .” But what they usually mean is “Our nation will be better for those who believe like me if we… ” with little thought for the other side. While the pawns fight their battle they miss the war. They mistake their cause for The Cause, and the real power fighting the real struggle encourages them to believe their skirmish is all that matters.

There have always been two great threats to human freedom – religious and political tyranny. History has shown us repeatedly the tragedy of what happens when one or the other wins or, worse, when both join forces. At times, the pope or ayatollah anoints the leader. At others, the king declares himself priest or even divine. Sometimes, there is no God. Sometimes, there is only God. Sometimes, there are many. The religious and political are simultaneously at war with each other while knowing that the first and most important battle is the control of the masses, which is best accomplished when power is shared.

These threats do not exist because of the evil of tyrants. They exist because the masses need leaders. The alternative is anarchy, and anarchy always fails because those who ban together and have strong leaders will always defeat those who live individually or will not follow others. Instinctively, most people know that the chances for survival increase when people join together, but joining together always means the surrendering of some freedom to laws and leaders.

Part of the genius of the United States is the bringing together of the masses, the government, and religion in a unique partnership. The great tension in American democracy is human freedom in a society governed by laws, or put another way, a society governed by laws intended to promote and preserve human freedom. This worked because there was a common belief that these laws, the government, and freedom were ordained by God. The religious was simultaneously independent and integral to the nation.

For much of our history, right or wrong, the majority of Americans believed that we could dually align with the separated powers of religion and government. This was based on the perception that our government and predominant religion (for most some form of the Judeo-Christian faith) agreed on what mattered most. The two were doing in their spheres of influence essentially the same thing, with the same end. The two powers did not join forces and often helped check one another. People did not have to choose because of the perceived fundamental agreement, and should government or church stray from this agreement the people had a voice at the ballot box and the offering plate.

In the third century of the Grand Experiment of America, this is no longer the case. For some time, a growing number of Americans do not believe that government and religion agree and that they must choose between them. Part of this can be attributed to increased religious diversity in the nation along with pluralism coupled with the deconstructionism of post-modernism that has crippled in the minds of many the authority of religion to do much more than speak into the life of an individual who chooses to let it do so. Private religion and private interpretation of sacred texts is the dominant attitude even among the devout. Few willingly submit to a teaching that they do not like. But the lack of a centralized, common religious voice is only one of the problems. There is also the rise in the power of the state.

A relativistic world seems safe from the religious, but at the mercy of an unchecked government. In this world, the pope no longer crowns the king. He is only at the inauguration by invitation. In this world, people look increasingly to government, no longer in tension with a religious norm, for the definitions and the final words on matters that at one time were sacraments of the church. In this world, only the government wins and, despite history, the masses must put total trust in our government not to abuse its absolute power. Government defines the needy, defines compassion, defines wealth, defines education, defines freedom, defines life. Government has become the definer of morality, the definer of the good, and the chief provider of the good. It does so independent of the church.

The battle over marriage is the distraction. It creates the opportunity to show that the church is divided, the people are wrong, and only government can save. Regardless of what side of the issue that you might be on, you must see that we stand on the precipice of becoming the first democratic nation to give away its democracy.

Socialism, fascism, or totalitarianism will ensue if government, even our government, is left unchecked. It will not happen all at once, perhaps not in our lifetimes. Government knows us too well. We will vote away our freedoms one right at a time. We will change fundamentally who we were founded to be and have been, one vote at a time. But as long as we get what we want or preserve what we want, we will not care. We will not care until we disagree with what government decides, and we decide to draw a line. But it will be too late, and a new revolution will be needed in a world that is unlikely to produce the same kind of patriots who fought the first one.

We cannot blame government. Government is only doing what is natural to those who must not only enforce what is good, but define it. It believes that the masses will be worse off if no one will care for them. It is filling the vacuum, meeting the needs. We cannot blame the masses. They go to the highest bidder even when they are being bribed with their own money. They do not care as long as they have just enough freedom to believe that life is good. But the church, the keeper of the sacred text, is supposed to know better. It is supposed to be better.

Is there any hope? The hope is where it has always been, placed by God from before the foundations of the world. The hope is in the true church of Jesus Christ standing united in His love for God’s glory and not our own. The hope is in the church regaining its prophetic voice and leading culture to push back darkness rather than simply reacting to or drifting with culture. The hope is in not simply believing that His Word is inerrant and inspired, but in living as if it is inerrant and inspired.

This will not be easy for the church so divided, but God is on our side. This will not be easy for the church whose members are enraptured by the Sirens of individuality, comfort, and entertainment. But God is still on our side. Who can stand against? All is not lost, but time is short for America.

It is always difficult to paint with a broad brush. Although you might find my interpretation of history might be general to the point of error, I believe the big ideas are correct. In my next post, I will propose more specifically what I believe the church should be doing. I have resisted giving a strong position (and I do have one) on the issue of homosexual marriage and that is intentional. Forgive me for doing so, but I believe that what I have stated here and will state in my next post is far more important than any position that I might take.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

To the Gates of Hell

The church under siege is the church defeated. It matters not who builds the prison, whether it is one of our own making or that of a dreaded foe.  All that matters is that those commanded to “Go” do not go, but stay, seemingly safe within their walls. “We must protect our children. We must protect ourselves. We must protect our ways. We must protect our God.”

“And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against us,” the church shouts in defiance believing much like a people of another time that God will not let His holy dwelling place fall. But it is an empty shout for gates do not attack.

To prevail against the gates of Hell, the church must go. The church is not a temple, set in stone. It is the body of Christ, the one who tabernacled, not templed, with us. But our adversary knows our fondness for this world, for the security found in things that do not move. The church might claim otherwise, but he sees through our lies. He helps make these fortresses as comfortable as possible. Only a fool would venture far or leave at all.

Restrained by the warmth and comfort of these prisons and subconsciously fearful of what lies beyond the walls, the church is a willing siege victim. “Leave us alone and we will sing our songs and say our prayers and hear our holy words. Leave us alone and we will not bother you. Give us the freedom to worship our God within our walls.”

And the world leaves the church alone. For now.  The church does not have anything that the world wants or needs. Why waste time with the weak and the crippled and the scared? Put down the ones foolhardy enough to emerge alone. Celebrate at their gates. The battle is won without a shot.

The church must break its siege. To prevail against the gates of Hell, the church must march to the gates of Hell. The gates of Hell are not threatened by a church challenged by its own front door. The church must be willing to risk all to confront a world gripped in evil.

Let there be no doubt. The cultural tide has turned. Battles are being lost. But the war is not over. The church must rise up. “If we die, we do not die cowering within our halls. If we must die, we will die in the streets confronting evil where it lives and raising high the blood-stained banner of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

And what is that banner? The banner is His supernatural, unconditional love. The love by which God sent His Son into the world. The love shown in Christ’s death for us while we were yet sinners, while we were in open rebellion against Him.

The radical, courageous love of the most holy Trinity that cannot be contained, that once received, naturally roars forth finding and filling every loveless crack and corner of the world, never ceasing until all is light. The impossible love only made possible to those born of God through faith in Jesus Christ and by the power of the indwelling Spirit.

The church cannot win if it fights as the world fights. It cannot use evil to defeat evil. To wield the weapons of the world is to admit that goodness is not enough, that God is not omnipotent. The church must march boldly into battle armed only with God’s love and trusting in the one from whom this love flows.

The siege is over.  Throw off the shackles of this world. Lower the gates. March out of our fortress prison. Go forth into the world and love like we have never loved before. Let us show the world that Jesus Christ has truly changed our lives and has given us new life. Let us show the world that we walk in the unity of the Trinity.

If our God is almighty and our God is love, let us love in a mighty way. If we say “whom shall I fear” if the Lord is with us, let us love without fear. Let us love loud. The church triumphant is the church first conquered by the holy love of God. Be conquered by God. Confront the world with His love.

When the world sees God’s love in us, the world will know and we will reach the gates of Hell where the real battle begins.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Prayer for the Nation

Lord, make our nation great, not for our sake, but for Your glory,
Lord, help us fulfill Your mission to live not only for ourselves, but also for the world that You loved and created and redeemed.
Help us avoid the temptation of power for power’s sake and heed Your words that “to whom much is given, much is required.”
Let us truly be a superpower, not to conquer and dominate the world, but to love the world with a love that can only come from You.
That whether the nations love or hate us, they do so because of Your love that flows through us.

Lord, make our nation great, help us to work together to break the bondage of poverty that afflicts so many in our land.
Help us meet the oppressed in the depth of their affliction, not simply with a warm meal but with a way out of their condition.
Though You have said we will always have the poor, help us not grow weary in feeding the hungry and caring for the sick.
With compassion and wisdom and generosity help us free them in Your name so that they will not exchange the bondage of poverty for the bondage of dependency.
Help us work tirelessly to change what is within our nation that creates such bondage and preserve that which stands against it.
And, Lord, help those in bondage to see that You have created them in Your image, not to be slaves to sin or ignorance or people who would seek to take advantage of their situation. But You have created them for a purpose and You have redeemed them at a great price.

Lord, help us fuel competition with love rather than greed.
Lord, help our prisons to be empty and our laws become dusty because we are a people who do what is right because we live by what You have written in our hearts.
Lord, let us lead the world in showing that You can bring together those from far and near, tear down walls, and in our diversity create unity, in our differences establish peace.

Lord, remind us that You make us strong to defend the weak.
That You make us rich to help the poor
That You make us wise to teach the unwise
That You give us eyes to see for the blind
And mouths to speak for those who have no voice
That You give us arms to reach up to You and out to each other
Help us never see Your blessings as something we have earned or deserved, but to know they are from Your abundant grace.

Most of all, remind us constantly that none of this is possible without You.
That we cannot love with Your love without Your Spirit.
That it is You who will see us through the difficult and dangerous times.
That it is You at work even when it seems we are losing.
That in any progress or success that we have, it is only because of Your wonderful, amazing grace.
Lord, make our nation great, not because we have made ourselves into our own image of greatness.
Make our nation great because we reflect Your image, the Most Holy Triune God. Make us great in Your love.