April 2023

The Origin of Paul’s Religion

The Origin of Paul’s Religion: A Classic Defense of Supernatural Christianity, by J. Gresham Machen ★★★★★

JG Machen was a seminal individual in conservative Presbyterian circles defending against the progressive liberalization of the church. This text is one of his arguments against attempts to turn the apostle Paul into a fabricated character of the liberal scholar. Liberal scholarship in the late 19th century and 20th century, mostly from Germany, have attempted to remove the miraculous from the life of Paul, and turn him into a product of various political and religious influences. This book originated as a series of talks given by Machen.

Machen first introduces the problem. Attempts have been made to explain away the phenomenon of Paul, his conversion, and his ministry. A lengthy introduction describes the problem at hand. Machen then discusses the early life of Paul. Notably, Paul was born and grew up in the dispersion (Tarsus), but claims that he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, suggesting that even though he probably learned Greek early in life, his life and language were Hebrew. Being a strict Pharisaical Jew, he clearly would have been adverse to the pagan and liberal influences strongly present at the time of his childhood. In the chapter titled “The Triumph of Gentile Freedom”, Machen explores Paul’s interactions with the church leadership in Jerusalem. Machen notes that while liberal theologians would love to paint a scene of severe disagreements between Paul and the 11 apostles as well as with James and other Jerusalem church leadership, close examination shows that such was not the case, and that there tended to be mutual appreciation for the theologies of Paul and the Jerusalem church. The chapter that follows, “Paul and Jesus” looks further into the congruence between Paul’s theology and that as found in the words of Jesus. The point is that Paul, though he probably never met Jesus face-to-face, was able to obtain detailed information about Christ’s life, even beyond what is found in the four gospels.

Machen then takes on challenges from the liberals who attempted to reduce Paul to a product of either Jewish sources or pagan sources. In the course of three chapters, Machen is able to demonstrate adequately that such suggestions are completely out of touch with what we know about Judaism and paganism in the 1st century of the church. Finally, Machen addresses the issue of Jesus being called “Lord”, which in ancient times was synonymous with calling Jesus God.

This book was a delightful tome to read. I enjoy Machen’s thought processes and how he is able to cut down the liberal arguments with simply logic and presentation of the facts. It is a pity that more theologians today are not defending the historic faith as Machen did; they seem to desire more the ability to maintain “status” among the academic liberals rather than to fearlessly fight for the truth. The Origin of Paul’s Religion is not a book meant for anybody to read. Those who enjoy a first-class theological discussion of the defense of historic Christianity will be amply served with this book.

Without Roots

Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, by Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera ★★★★

This book consists of simultaneous lectures given in Rome by Joseph Ratzinger (soon after changing his name to Pope Benedict XVI) and Marcello Pera, president of the senate of Italy and philosophy professor. This is followed by a commentary letter from Pera to Ratzinger and a return letter from Ratzinger to Pera.

Pera’s speech is given first. In it, he comments on the identity crisis of the west, being faced with relativism from Islam, contextualists, deconstructionists, and even within the church. With the loss of identity and ability to value older Christian tradition, and with the loss of belief in truth, the west has been left without a legitimization for its own existence.

Ratzinger follows. Europe, according to Ratzinger, is entirely a product of Christian civilization, and for which they were intimately intertwined. Christianity essentially defined Europe and its culture, that is, until quite recently.

Pera responds with a letter addressing Ratzinger’s talk, and Ratzinger responds in kind with a letter. Both letters were complementary, and relates to Europe’s abandonment of its Christian roots. Pera focuses on political aspects of Europe, debating why Europe is unable to construct a unified constitution, and exploring the relationship between the secular and Christian Europe. Indeed, as Europe sees Christianity as an expired and judgmental notion, Europe also enters into what Pera terms self-hate, but I think that self-loathing is probably a better description of what is going on in Europe. Pera’s discussion becomes muddied. He describes the continual state of war in Europe (and the world) as normative, and thus to not think of war as intrinsically evil. This is misguided, since many evils are normative in this world. The Catholics do have the doctrine of original sin! Pera advocates for a non-denominational Christian religion. Ratzinger takes the discussion from here, agonizing over the division of Christianity in Europe following the Reformation. He suggested (in 2004 when the book was written) that America was doing a much better job with maintaining Christianity in the public square. If Ratzinger were alive today, I think he would take back most of his remarks. Ratzinger astutely notes “Statistics tell us that the more churches adapt themselves to the standards of secularization, the more followers they lose”. Ratzinger offers reflections on how Christianity could be in a non-denominational manner more present in the public square. This is an issue that will foster debate and discussion in both Europe as well as the now deeply secular United States of America.

I always appreciate reading Ratzinger/Benedict. He had a strong conservative Christian mindset, and displays how the Roman Catholic church still has elements of conservatism, and still has the same battles as the Protestants in fighting against secularism, relativism, invasion of other cultures (esp. Islam), and abandonment of the concept of truth. This exchange between Pera and Ratzinger supports JI Packer’s thesis of the value of maintaining rapport between conservative Catholics and Protestants. Both sides have great thinkers who would serve better if they would engage in talk with each other.

I have only one objection to Ratzinger, which probably is more of a misconception on my part of his thinking. After reading his book describing the lives of the patristic fathers, he comments fairly harshly on Tertullian for his separatist behavior, yet is kind to Origin in spite of his wild speculative theology. This attitude probably affected his thinking of modern separatists (the Reformation Protestant movement) who, like Tertullian, sought to bring corrective measures to the church. Ratzinger ignores the huge influence Tertullian has had on the Roman Catholic (western) church. This sort of thinking will only do harm to his efforts to usher in a “non-denominational” Christianity in Europe, as it paints the Roman church in a hierarchically superior position to Protestantism. Perhaps that is true. Yet, Ratzinger in his writings assiduously avoids mentioning the sins and faults of the Roman church, including its current idolatries, heterogeneity, and secularism that pervades much of the church. This thinking does damage to the thesis of an otherwise quite remarkable person.

Without Roots can be read in several evenings. Protestants need to accept that many in the Catholic church are probably closer to their thinking than fellow liberal Protestants which promote the elevation of the self to god-like status. Without Roots was a worthwhile read, though I’d be selective with whom I’d also recommend the book.

The Christian View of Man

The Christian View of Man, by J. Gresham Machen ★★★★★

This book was published posthumously, representing a series of radio talks that JG Machen gave before his untimely death. It was originally published in 1937, and this is a Banner of Truth reprint obtained from Amazon.

JG Machen is a true giant of the faith. As a scholar, he studied in Germany under the liberal theologians of the time, later leading the charge against the liberalism that was destroying the Presbyterian church. The warnings and cautions issued by Machen in this text are certainly more relevant today than when he gave his talks. He anticipated the degeneration of society and labeled the root cause as that of the public losing faith in God. He anticipated the development of nuclear energy and the destructive uses that might be forthcoming from that. Machen was very prophetic in anticipating the results of casting God out of the schools and out of government.

This text might better be titled Anthropology 101. In this set of 20 radio talks, Machen explores the theology of who man is, God’s providence over man, the creation and fall of man, our response to God as fallen sinners, original sin, and how God saves us. Machen speaks (writes) in a very simple fashion that almost anybody could understand, yet covers some very complex deep topics that could open a wealth of discussion and reflection. This is truly solid, hard-core theology delivered with the intention of having academic theology affect the practical aspects of life. In this, Machen is completely successful.

The book is highly recommended by me for any Christian serious about his faith. This might have been perhaps my second time through the book, having read it 20-30 years ago. I don’t really remember, but then, it’s a book worth reading twice. It can be easily read over the course of 2 or 3 evenings.

Non-Computable You

Non-Computable You: What you do that artificial intelligence never will, by Robert J. Marks ★★★★

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a hot topic in the news and on the internet. This has been true for at least the last 50 years. Now, with more powerful computer systems and the development of more sophisticated algorithms that allow for incrementally more powerful programs which feign the appearance of being a sentient machine, the question about the capabilities of AI has become a more serious consideration. As a leading developer of “intelligent” systems, Robert Marks quickly puts to rest any notion that machines could actually think. Simply stated, machines will only be able to process algorithmic instructions, which thus excludes the ability of the machine to show creativity, ingenuity, or thinking “outside of the box”. Thus, the sci-fi fears of Terminator-style robots taking rule over humans should remain within the realm of fiction.

Marks does a masterful job of showing how computers will never be able to compete with humans on the thinking tasks that matter most. After quickly putting to rest notions that AI will someday become creative, he offers 12 filters to quell the hype of the AI movement; actually, these 12 filters apply to much of life and to discerning truth from fiction. There follows a section where he discusses the history of AI, which was both informative as well as enjoyable to read. Next, a section follows that explores the thinking of Gödel, Turing, and Chaitin, which is relevant in grasping the more theoretical aspects of thinking through AI, though sometimes a bit muddy. The discussion of the Halting Oracle, or of elegant systems was intriguing but not something I would challenge my mind with, even on a rainy day. I felt that the Marks Tax Collector example had faulty logic that produced an impossible answer.

The ethics of AI was most intriguing to me, and I’m thankful that there are those that are asking these questions. If an AI machine makes an “error” (such as an automatic guidance automobile that hits and kills a pedestrian), who is to blame? The human mind shows a vastly greater ability to manage ambiguous situations than any algorithmic device would ever possess. Thus, caution in the excess use of AI must be exercised. We probably won’t be seeing robots taking over the world and achieving independence from man, but it would be expected that other sorts of challenges will arise when AI becomes more commonplace in society.

This text has brought back to mind a book I read many years ago, and which I hope Marks has read, called Technopoly by Neal Postman. Postman describes how technology is used to solve problems that man has asked, such as, how can I travel somewhere faster than present, or, how could I communicate with someone on the other side of the planet. With technopoly, technology is now used to create solutions where there is no problem. Postman offers multiple examples in his book. Perhaps AI has migrated from simply being a technological tool to a technopoly issue that provides solutions to issues that are not a problem. Perhaps.

This book was a delightful read, and very thought-provoking. For those curious about where AI might be headed, this would be the book of choice for exploring those curiosities.