I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A Catholic Cardinal, Evangelical Pastor and Jimmy Carter define Christianity plus New Years Resolutions
A Catholic cardinal, a former president of the United States and an evangelical pastor walk into the op-ed pages of the New York Times: three conversations, three worldviews on display. Then, why resolutions fail and why the humanistic worldview crashes upon contact with reality.
A Catholic Cardinal, a former President of the United States, and an evangelical pastor walk into the op-ed pages of the New York Times
As we know the biggest questions of life, the biggest questions of worldview are often there lurking right under the headlines. Sometimes, however, they actually become the headline. How about this question—am I a Christian? That was the actual headline in an opinion piece written in the New York Times published on Christmas Eve by influential New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. The full headline was this,
“Cardinal Tobin, Am I a Christian?”
Now before looking at the article itself let’s just acknowledge that’s the most important question we could consider. Here you have a very influential columnist asking the question. And as we shall see, not for the first time, am I a Christian? He asked the question in April of last year addressed to an evangelical pastor in New York, Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. He then asked the question last Christmas Eve of former President Jimmy Carter. And now he asked the question of the Cardinal Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, Cardinal Joseph Tobin. Kristof begins his article with these words,
“What is Christmas about, anyway? Can I be a Christian if I doubt the virgin birth? Can a woman become a cardinal? What would upset Jesus today?” Kristof then says, “I put these blunt questions and more to Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, who was appointed by Pope Francis and is in his mold. Here’s our conversation, edited for space and clarity.”
Now as I said, this is the third of these conversations, and what makes this particular trio of article so interesting is that they basically cover the most important waterfront of Christian theology. The first was addressed to an evangelical Christian, the second to a rather conventional liberal Protestant and now to a rather moderately liberal Roman Catholic. But in all three of the responses, we have a predictable response exactly according to the worldview and to the comprehensive theological system. That is to say that the Cardinal Archbishop responds like a rather conventional Roman Catholic. Former President Carter responded like a fairly predictable liberal Protestant and likewise the evangelical in this trio, Pastor Tim Keller, also responded in a predictably evangelical way. But we are talking about three very different sets of responses to his question am I a Christian?
Kristof begins almost all of these articles by acknowledging his own doubts, his own particular form of skepticism, particularly when it comes to the virgin birth. Kristof speaks to the Cardinal saying that he considers himself to be one who reveres Jesus’s teachings, but he says,
“I have trouble with the miracles — including, since this is Christmas, the virgin birth.” He went on to say, “In Jesus’ time people believed that Athena was born from Zeus’ head, so it seemed natural to accept a great man walking on water or multiplying loaves and fishes; in 2017,” he says, “not so much.”
He then asked, “Can’t we take the Sermon on the Mount but leave the supernatural?”
The Cardinal responded by saying that people are, he guesses, free to take whatever they want. He goes on to say, however, “The most mind-boggling miracle is the incarnation. We believe that the Creator of the Universe, the one who existed before time and before anything else, became one of us. If you accept that, then there are a lot of other things that don’t seem to be quite as unbelievable.”
Speaking of Christianity and particularly of the ministry of the incarnate Christ, the Cardinal said:
“It’s not a magic show. All of the miracles were not isolated or simply altruistic events. They were actually pointing,” said the Cardinal, “toward who God is, and who this carpenter from Nazareth really was.”
Now a similar answer came from Pastor Tim Keller just about a year and a half ago. He insisted that when it comes to the supernatural truth claims of Christianity, those revealed in Scripture, they are to be believed just as they are presented. And what you have here is a very interesting issue when you compare it with the response that came a year ago Christmas Eve from President Jimmy Carter. The former president of the United States made clear that he did not believe that all of the supernatural events that are revealed in Scripture were important to Christian belief. He made himself the deciding factor saying that he and he argues all human beings basically decide what to believe. Former President Carter said you don’t have to decide to believe the virgin birth. Tim Keller said oh yes you do. The Cardinal Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey similarly says yes, it’s a part of historic Christianity. What’s interesting there? Well it is the understanding that here you have an agreement between the evangelical and the Roman Catholic, somewhat at odds both of them with the liberal Protestant.
Cardinal Tobin is exactly right. The miracles are not presented in Scripture as a magic show. They are not to bring attention to themselves, but rather they are pointers to the identity of Christ as the incarnate son of God. When Kristof posed the same question concerning the virgin birth to Tim Keller, he responded by saying if something is truly integral to a body of thought you can’t remove it without destabilizing the whole thing. He went on to say a religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be. He suggested that it would be incongruous to declare oneself a member of Greenpeace and then he says come out and say climate change is a hoax. If that were to happen, Greenpeace would ask him to resign. He said,
“I could call them narrow-minded, but they would rightly say that there have to be some boundaries for dissent or you couldn’t have a cohesive, integrated organization. And they’d be right,” said Keller. “It’s the same with any religious faith.”
Again, President Carter affirmed that he personally also believed in the virgin birth of Christ but because he decided so to believe and didn’t want to impose it upon others. So what is the authority for belief? Well here you have the three major options on the Christian scene today. The Roman Catholic would say that the authority for doctrine is indeed the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Responding to Kristof on a moral question, the Cardinal said:
“Catholic tradition didn’t fall out of the air and decide something capricious. It’s based on all sorts of lived experience of people trying to follow Jesus closely.”
Those people are the magisterial authorities of the Roman Catholic Church, most importantly, including the Pope, who appointed this man as Cardinal. When it comes to religious authority asked of President Jimmy Carter, he speaks of his own internal cogitation, his own internal form of faith. He said,
“My belief in the resurrection of Jesus comes from my Christian faith, and not from any need for scientific proof. I derive a great personal benefit from the totality of this belief, which comes naturally to me.”
That’s a really interesting statement and is shared by many Protestant liberals who believe that faith does come quite naturally that religious authority comes from inside. The former president went on to speak and say:
“eventually I decide what I believe, as an integral part of my existence and a guide for my life. This is based on what I consider to be the perfect life and example of Jesus.”
The most important issue there is where he says I decide what I believe. That’s a quintessentially modern statement. But that very modern statement, actually a rather secular statement, becomes mixed with Christianity and what results as liberal Protestantism. When Kristof pressed the former president on how he decides doctrinal questions or questions of biblical interpretation, Carter said, “I make a decision on what to believe.”
Again, he makes the decision on what to believe. Meanwhile, turning to Tim Keller asked the same kind of questions, Keller responds by citing Scripture. That’s the rightful evangelical reflex. That’s the correct Protestant reflex. So here in these three different conversations with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, you have the three different alternatives when it comes to settling the question of religious authority. The Roman Catholic cardinal says it’s the Roman Catholic Church and its interpretation of Scripture is translated into tradition. The liberal Protestant says eventually it comes down to what you and I decide to believe. The evangelical turns to Scripture citing the four Gospels and the entirety of the New Testament. Defending the New Testament is the source for how we know even who Jesus is and why he came and what he accomplished. So for the Catholic the answer is tradition. For the liberal Protestant, the answer is reason and experience, and for the evangelical, the response is Scripture.
Now before turning to Kristof’s last question, I want to recognize that I have engaged him on these questions myself going back for about 15 years, and I also have to acknowledge and state with respect the fact that Kristof has been struggling with these questions now very publicly for so long. A particular doctrinal stumbling block for Kristof is the virgin birth, but it basically comes down to his skepticism about anything that is claimed to be supernatural, including anything that is claimed of Jesus. But here we have to note that Kristof does represent a very quintessentially modernist form of skepticism. This is the kind of skepticism that came into modern Western life in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, most importantly in the aftermath of the Enlightenment’s insistence on human reason as the only authoritative way of knowing.
Three conversations, one question, three worldviews on display
But Kristof’s last question has to do with the exclusivity of the gospel. The question as to whether it is required that persons confess and believe that Jesus Christ is Lord in order to go to heaven. The three answers also reveal those three great alternatives – Roman Catholicism, liberal Protestantism and evangelical Christianity. After making very clear his skepticism concerning the historical claims concerning Jesus, his willingness to accept Jesus as a moral teacher but not as the supernatural son of God, Kristof straightforwardly asked the Cardinal, “Am I a Christian?”
The Cardinal responded, “I would think that if you haven’t completely closed the door on the possibility that God has more to say to you, then I think you’re in the tent.”
The important thing to recognize here is that Scripture teaches otherwise. But what the Cardinal said though contrary to Scripture is absolutely consistent with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching especially after Vatican II. Former President Carter is in basic agreement. When Kristof asked him the same question, making reference also to Gandhi, asking if Gandhi is to be consigned to hell, the former president said:
“I do not feel qualified to make a judgment. I am inclined to give him (or others) the benefit of any doubt.”
So the Cardinal says that someone who has the belief system of Nicholas Kristof is in the tent. The former president of the United States says he’s not going to render a judgment, but he would give any individual the benefit of the doubt. But finally when evangelical Pastor Tim Keller was asked the same question, am I a Christian? And then Kristof went on to elaborate, can I be a Christian while doubting the resurrection? Keller answered:
“I wouldn’t draw any conclusion about an individual without talking to him or her at length. But, in general, if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.”
The article with Keller actually goes on rather considerably after this with Keller offering a rather robust defense of the supernatural claims concerning Jesus made in Scripture and their centrality to the Christian faith. But here you have those three alternatives once again. The Roman Catholic says just about whomever you are you are inside the tent unless you slam the door in God’s face. The liberal Protestant says I’m not gonna really make a decision about that, but I’ll give to all people the benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile the evangelical bound by Scripture says, here’s what the Bible teaches.
It really tells us something that Nicholas Kristof is asking this question and struggling with these issues so publicly. This is the third of these articles and now we have a tripod of sorts in order to understand the major worldview alternatives that are presented to us here in the 21st century. One final thought about this trio of articles, what this tells us is that even in this secular age, especially perhaps when it comes to Christmas and all the conversation about the incarnation of Jesus Christ, even the people who don’t want to ask these questions can’t help themselves. We need to remember that and be ready with the right answer.
Why resolutions fail and why the humanistic worldview crashes upon contact with reality
But next shifting from Christmas to New Year’s, it seems that the secular world is also fascinated with a very pressing question. Why is it that so few New Year’s resolutions make it even to the midpoint of the New Year’s first month? David DeSteno, who is professor of psychology at Northeastern University, in an article also published in the New York Times on how to keep your resolutions, he says that willpower is for chumps. To make a change, you don’t have to feel miserable. But anyone reading this article is likely to feel pretty miserable about the statistics. He tells us that by January 8 about 25% of all resolutions made by people for the new year have fallen by the wayside. He then goes on to say that by the time the year ends less than one out of ten of those resolutions is reported even by the resolvers to have been faithfully kept. Meanwhile over at the Wall Street Journal, another multipage article in resolutions, in this case Daniel Pink, a major essayist, argues that if we’re going to try to keep our New Year’s resolutions we need to take into effect and into our own thinking the kinds of insights that can come from science on how to back up willpower with certain kinds of practices and insights that might increase the odds of keeping those resolutions.
But what’s really important about both of these articles from the Journal and the Times and frankly pretty pervasive through the media is the fact that what we see here is the failure of a humanistic understanding of human nature to survive conflict with reality. Reality is pretty tough, and it’s especially tough on any kind of artificial understanding of humanity. That’s an understanding of humanity devoid of the image of God and also stripped of any understanding of sin. What are you left with then? Well the modern secular understanding of humanity is basically evolutionary. And yes that comes right out in the New York Times article. DeSteno argues,
“From an evolutionary perspective, the fact that exercising willpower doesn’t come naturally to us makes a lot of sense.”
He explains that for millennia what led to success wasn’t the ability, for example, to study for exams, or save for retirement or go to the gym. But rather in terms of our evolutionary history, what mattered most was immediate action for survival. Now just think about this for a moment. Here you have a secular understanding of humanity explaining that evolution actually programmed us for an absence of willpower. If we are going to blame someone for the failure of our resolutions to survive the new year, we can just blame our ancestors and the process of evolution. The modern secular humanistic understanding of humanity basically presents a very rosy picture of what it means to be human. But that rosy optimistic picture of humanity crashes in terms of reality. It simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in the crib. It doesn’t work on the playground. It doesn’t work in the mirror. It doesn’t work with New Year’s resolutions.
Now we have to blame something then for the failure of this optimistic, humanistic understanding of what it means to be human, so we’ll have to blame something like evolution. But that’s also a problem because if it is indeed an evolutionary problem it’s not going to be one that we can deal with no matter how much willpower we might try to muster. We’re not going to overcome the impetus and the trajectory of evolution in a single generation. That’s why those who try to hold to this evolutionary understanding of humanity find it virtually impossible to hold to an optimistic view of humanity. It becomes inherently pessimistic because evolution according to the theory as it is propounded simply presents us with facts and the way things are. There’s not much of an opportunity for change not to mention redemption.
This explains why our secular neighbors based upon a very vague understanding of both human nature and evolution will insist that human beings are basically inclined to good. They’ll deny the basic Christian insight of original sin not to mention total depravity and just argue that human beings are inclined to the good. They just sometimes do that which is wrong or fall short. But of course that doesn’t explain the headlines. It also doesn’t explain ourselves, our knowledge of ourselves. It doesn’t explain why less than one out of ten of our resolutions survives to the end of the year. And honestly, that’s probably overly optimistic. We also need to understand that if you do hold to this evolutionary understanding of humanity then human beings are just a cosmic accident, and given the way human beings behave, you’re simply going to come to a very pessimistic understanding of the human reality and from the very beginning without any expectation or hope of redemption. This is why the contradiction between biblical Christianity and the modern secular worldview is and always is a matter of direct collision and antithesis.
The biblical worldview explains full well why so few of our resolutions survive the new year. It’s because of sin and the effects of the fall. But this doesn’t leave us with a pessimistic understanding of humanity, but rather a realistic understanding of humanity. And furthermore the biblical worldview begins with the fact that every single human being is made in the image of God not a cosmic accident. But every single human being is also a sinner bearing the full weight of what it means to be a sinner. And thus, the biblical worldview explains reality as we know it, reality as it is.
But the biblical worldview also points as far beyond the quandary of crashed resolutions by pointing us to the sure hope of our redemption. God has not left sinful humanity in our sin but has made provision for our redemption atonement for our salvation through the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is why the gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news, and it also explains why if you are left with any other worldview you can’t possibly explain humanity. It really does tell us something profound that even before the new year dawned America’s most influential newspapers were running multipage articles on the fact that New Year’s resolutions were destined to fail. But of course we have to correct that by saying that the resolutions don’t fail the resolver does. Our most basic human needs can’t be met by greater resolution. It can only be met by redemption.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to @albertmohler.For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to boycecollege.com.
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