Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Retreat for University and College Students

Canadian Reformed students will likely have seen notices about the “Deroche College Retreat”. In case you haven’t, here is some information from the webpage. Please note that the word “College” here is meant in the general sense: any post-secondary educational institution. Also, I’ve been told by one of the organizers that, while the retreat specifically targets students of secular campuses, those attending Christian universities are welcome as well. I also understand that the registration deadline is August 8. I would highly recommend attending this event!

Here's the invitation, copied from

Dear Prospective Student:

The Reformed Bible College and the “Deroche Retreat” Reformed Conference Society of the Fraser Valley are pleased you have expressed an interest in attending the retreat: Heart, Soul and Mind: A Retreat for College and University Students. This stimulating event begins on Monday, Aug. 31st, and ends on Friday, Sept. 4th, 2009.

As Reformed Christian students attending secular colleges and universities, your faith will come under serious attack. This attack comes not only from the strong anti-Christian opinions held by professors and students and their non-Christian assumptions of the prevailing worldview, but also from the lifestyle exemplified and promoted on campus. As one person put it, “If you don’t consciously prepare for College/University, you should probably avoid it.”

We love to see Reformed youth not merely surviving, but genuinely thriving in the sometime hostile and/or challenging environment you may find yourself in at college/university. This retreat is deliberately designed to help you develop the tools and skills you need to be an effective Christian witness as a post-secondary student.

Our primary guest speaker, Dr. Ben Faber, comes highly recommended. He teaches at Redeemer University College, and is intimately familiar with the challenges young people face in our post-modern culture. He introduces his work at our retreat this way:

Confessionally-grounded, academically-sound, apologetically-oriented. This retreat invites students at secular colleges and universities to come together for three and a half days on the beautiful Deroche Retreat, to reflect on their higher education as an opportunity to engage the world with heart, soul and mind. The Bible studies, instructional sessions, recreational activities, evening devotions, and campfire fellowship will focus our collective attention on all aspects of life in college and university, from the philosophical to the practical. Thinking critically and creatively about our vocation as students, we will see what it means to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” This is your heyday, these are your glory years, and this is your retreat.

We also are pleased Rev. R. Schouten, minister of the Aldergrove Canadian Reformed Church will be leading the Bible Study lessons each morning and Mark and Jaclyn Penninga from ARPA Canada will do a session on being actively involved on campus.

We look forward to you joining us for a week of growth and fellowship; may this event help you in your desire to live your life to God’s glory.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Readers of Reformed Academic may be interested to know that I also contribute to another blog, by faculty at Trinity Western University. Below is a piece I wrote there a year ago, which is also relevant here, and so I am re-posting it here; I welcome your interaction.

One problem with blogging is that sometimes you have so much to say on a topic that you can’t reduce it to a few paragraphs… Which leads me to think about the very topic of reductionism, which I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. I’m not exactly sure where the following quote originates, but I’m told that one of our chemistry professors shows what reductionism is by saying, “Psychology is just biology, biology is just chemistry, chemistry is just physics, physics is just math, and math is just…hard.” Actually, I think the last part of this quote is due to one of our math profs. Another apt description is due to Donald MacKay, author of A Clock Work Image (InterVarsity, 1974), who calls such notions “nothing-buttery”. We encounter, nearly every day, the idea that “X” is nothing but “Y”:

  • A person is nothing but a collection of protoplasm.
  • A person is nothing but a pile of atoms.
  • Beethoven’s 5th is nothing but vibrations in the air.
  • Love is nothing but chemistry.
  • A photograph is nothing but pixels on a screen.

Sometimes the words “nothing but” are left out, but the problem remains: it is supposed that “X” doesn’t really exist since science has shown that it’s actually just “Y”. Two of my main goals in teaching are to expose the problems with reductionism and to open students’ minds to the much broader perspective offered by a Christian worldview.

A few years ago, one of my students mentioned that TWU’s English Department has as its polemic motto, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” This quote due to Muriel Rukeyser unfortunately remains reductionistic, because it’s not either/or: both are true. The universe is made of atoms, and it is made of stories. Both — and more — are needed to provide anything approaching a full description and explanation. It’s important for scientists to know that there is more to any phenomenon or event than the physical compositional story.

University education can often lead students into thinking that their particular area alone holds the true key to final knowledge; this was true in my case, until I discovered the “liberal arts and sciences” as taught at Trinity Western. I keep reminding my students that, unlike Ernest Rutherford’s quote that “In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting” (which remains hanging outside our lab as a conversation piece), each discipline considers just one aspect of the multi-faceted universe crafted by an amazing Creator as an integral whole. These aspects relate to one another in various ways, but no single discipline can claim to be the most fundamental or basic. It is both humiliating and empowering to know both that our work matters and that we need one another. Perhaps you recognize similarities with Romans 12:3-5 and I Corinthians 12!

For further reading, see my piece “A Physicist’s Reformed Critique of Nonreductive Physicalism and Emergence”, Pro Rege v. 33, n. 4 (June 2005) pp. 20-32 (available online here).

Friday, July 24, 2009

Book Review: The Shack

As our introductory post indicates, this blog was set up to discuss and try to resolve difficulties that Christians may experience in their academic studies and projects. One way of meeting this goal is to draw attention to works by Christian scientists, apologists, and theologians who have addressed this kind of issue. We hope occasionally to review such books; we also intend to deal with publications that we believe Christians should be warned against. A case in point is Jitse van der Meer’s recent review of the Bible-critical work Meeting Jesus For the First Time, by Marcus Borg, a member of the notorious Jesus Seminar. The book with which we are introducing this thread, namely the recent bestseller The Shack, is on a rather different level. It is popularly written and offers no academic challenges, although it does offer theological ones. In any case, its popularity and often uncritical acceptance among believers suggests that a brief analysis may be called for. Comments on the initiative are invited.

Wm. Paul Young, The Shack: When Tragedy Confronts Eternity, first appeared in 2007. The copy I have in front of me states that the book is now “The #1 New York Times Bestseller,” with over 5 million copies in print. Although widely acclaimed by many Christians, it is a controversial book among orthodox believers. Some church members I have discussed it with recommend it highly, but others reject it as unbiblical and spiritually dangerous. The description “blasphemous” has even been used. Who is right? What is the book’s message?

First something about the story. The back cover gives the following summary of the book’s contents: “Mackenzie Allen Philip’s youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later…Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever.”

What he does find is a pleasant cottage situated in a beautiful natural landscape (symbolizing heaven? the new earth?). The cottage is inhabited by what are presented to us as human manifestations of the three Persons of the Trinity. They are a kind, motherly, beaming African-American woman (who is, paradoxically, referred to as “Papa”), a middle-aged carpenter, and a small breezy woman of Asian descent. There is some crude symbolism in this portrayal of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. One of the author’s aims is to challenge the reader’s “religious stereotypes,” and he obviously counts among these the idea that God is male and white and western (true, we are told later that He is not female either, and toward the end He is portrayed as male). Other apparent “stereotypes” are God’s holiness and transcendence. Young portrays the persons of the Trinity as ordinary human beings. In fact, we are told that with Christ’s incarnation the Father and the Spirit also “became fully human,” and even that the Father shared in the Son’s suffering and still bears the physical scars of the crucifixion. God’s humanity and humility are paramount throughout. Mack can converse with the Persons of the Trinity as their equal. He is even told that just as man must submit to God, so God submits to man, in order to draw him into the divine “circle of relationship.” And so Mack feels free to blame God for human suffering, to snap at Him, and to demand explanations. He does all this with impunity. God’s friendliness and willingness to explain Himself and to mollify His inquisitor never cease.

Much of the book’s appeal no doubt results from its political correctness, its emphasis on relationship, and its portrayal of God as non-judgmental, ever-kind, very human, non-transcendent. It is true that not all the book’s contents are of the same caliber. Good things are said about the cause of evil and of human suffering, about man’s error in insisting upon his autonomy, about human freedom and responsibility, divine grace, and forgiveness. Also biblical is the stress on the future restoration of all things – the fact that the believer’s ultimate destiny is not heaven but a renewed earth.

But these positive aspects do not make up for the negative ones. Much of the biblical message is ignored and God is portrayed as humans might like Him to be, not as He has revealed Himself. This is, I believe, a transgression of the second commandment. There are, as we have seen, additional theological errors – the portrayal of the Godhead in visible form (again a transgression of the second commandment), the teaching that the Father and the Spirit have assumed a human nature, and the ancient heresies of modalism and patripassionism (the Father’s sharing in the Son’s suffering and death). There are hints of universalism and also of Pelagianism – for example when Mack is told that God is fully reconciled to the world but that this is as much as He can do; it is up to mankind to accept the “new relationship” He offers.

More could be said, but this review is not meant to be exhaustive. I merely want to draw attention to the questionable message of a book that is widely read among Christians. For additional critical reviews I refer to one by Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, Seattle, and especially to that of Tim Challies, who wrote a lengthy, balanced, and thoroughly biblical analysis of The Shack. I further mention a recent article by the Rev. Wes Bredenhof [“Emergent: A Brief Introduction”, Clarion v. 58, n. 13 (19 June 2009) pp. 301-3], wherein, like Tim Challies, he relates the message of The Shack to that of the emergent church movement.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


One of the goals of Reformed Academic is to discuss matters of Scripture interpretation in relation to other areas of scholarship. In the polarized climate of today this is very difficult if not impossible. Nevertheless, we cannot escape the call to give an account of what we believe and why we believe it in the context of contemporary culture. Specifically, we want to show that it is possible to combine a rigorous critique of various forms of Bible criticism with a thoughtful and open-minded consideration of Scripture interpretation in relation to various scholarly disciplines that aims to stay true to Scripture. I am offering a review of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg as a contribution to this goal of Reformed Academic. For the review, see “Marcus Borg: the Tragedy of Reaction” in our “collected papers” (in the sidebar) - direct link here.

Marcus Borg (1942- ) is an influential American biblical scholar and a widely read author. He is a member of the Bible critical Jesus Seminar, and is Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University. His works have been translated into nine languages. Borg is among the most influential voices in progressive Christianity. The review of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg is not offered because it is timely. The book appeared in 1994. Rather it is offered to make the following points.

First, the review is intended as a contribution to the goal of Reformed Academic mentioned above. It starts with what is intended as a fair and non-evaluative description of the content of the book followed by an assessment.

Second, the assessment also contains a critique of Rudolph Bultmann. This is not only an indispensable context for the work of Marcus Borg, but also because Rudolph Bultmann may be considered as representative for the final phase in the development of higher biblical criticism. Thus Bultmann offers an opportunity to show the weaknesses of his work and of higher biblical criticism in general.

Third, the assessment describes how the development of higher biblical criticism was influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant seen as a response to a deterministic interpretation of Newtonian physics. This offers an example of the complexity of the interaction between the interpretation of nature in science and the interpretation of Scripture.

Fourth, I hope it contributes to avoiding what I refer to in the title of the review as ‘the tragedy of reaction.’ The tragic nature of reaction is that it takes on precisely those features of its intended opponent that it was intended to reject.

Finally, this particular book was chosen because the writings of Marcus Borg are widely influential.