The Briefing 10-14-14

The Briefing 10-14-14

The Briefing


October 14, 2014

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


It’s Tuesday, October 14, 2014.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Vatican synod on family a major transformation of Roman Catholicism

The meeting known as the Extraordinary Synod, now taking place in Rome as a meeting of the Roman Catholic Church, is gaining headlines all over the world today and for good reason. Because we can now look at yesterday as a major turning point in the history of that church and in its transformation on major issues, including major moral questions. The Roman Catholic Church clearly finds itself now on the defensive; it’s describing itself in just those terms, in terms of the language coming out of this Extraordinary Synod. It feels itself on the disadvantage and it feels itself on the defensive simply because of the massive changes involved in the moral revolution that have so reshaped Western societies – especially Western Europe and North America. In those lands the Roman Catholic Church has been losing moral credibility because it has been holding to very traditional stances on the definition of marriage and the rightful ordering human sexuality. But there’s a lot more to it than that, and even as evangelicals look at the developments that have taken place and are now taking place in the Roman Catholic Church, there are very real warnings about how we must consider these issues and how we must maintain the faith once for all delivered to the saints even in the midst of the same changing moral and cultural environment.

Yesterday was a turning point because the synod released a preliminary paper known as a relatio on the question of the context and challenges to the family. And in this particular paper, which is not yet final, it is nonetheless pointing to the eventual direction this synod is likely to take under the direction of Pope Francis the first. Of course the current Pope has already signaled in many and various ways, his intention to change the posture of the Roman Catholic Church on these issues. But this points to a major distinction which becomes more and more clear as one looks at this document: the major distinction between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant Christianity; evangelical Christianity. The differences come down to at least these:

In the first place, the Roman Catholic Church officially recognizes a distinction between doctrine and pastoral practice. Some of the language coming out of the synod yesterday called for courageous pastoral practice; what’s really being called for there is the individual deviation from official church teaching. What the Roman Catholic Church here is poised to do is to say that it is not changing its doctrine, to say that it is standing by its centuries long affirmation of a biblical understanding of the family and of sexuality, while at the same time allowing for individual deviations – at least as acknowledged by priests of the church in their pastoral application. But there’s something else that becomes immediately clear as one looks at this document.

One is the issue of gradualism. This current working paper of the synod points to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church here affirms ‘gradualism’ in terms of persons moving in to greater faithfulness in terms of Roman Catholic teaching. In terms of the document itself, it says that persons should be received where they are and encouraged to move into greater faithfulness. Now how is that different from the evangelical understanding of sanctification? It’s because what’s missing from the entire Roman Catholic understanding here is the notion of conversion. What’s missing here is the understanding that there is a before and after in terms of commitment to Christ. What’s missing here is the understanding made clear in the New Testament when the apostle Paul says, “Behold old things have passed away, all things have become new.” This is a very important distinction and it becomes essential to understanding what’s going on in the Roman Catholic Church from an evangelical perspective. Because even as evangelicals also understand that there is a progressive understanding of sanctification – that is to say the Holy Spirit works within the believer to bring about a sanctification, a holiness, that is progressive – the longer we follow Christ, the more we obey Christ, the more we hear the preaching of the word of God, the more we’re involved in the Fellowship of the saints, the more the Holy Spirit applies that word to our hearts conforming us to Christ, the more that sanctification becomes visible in us. That is a biblical and evangelical affirmation. But the gradualism that’s being talked about in the Roman Catholic context at this synod is quite different; it talks about a gradualism in terms of obedience in which persons are received just as they are and received into the fellowship of the church and encouraged to stay in the church and to move into more gradual faithfulness. But of course the problem with that, lacking a doctrine of conversion, lacking any understanding of before and after, is that gradualism completely blurs the distinction between the church and the world – between the believer and the unbeliever. And that is a crucial gospel issue that evangelicals have to keep in mind when looking at the current Roman Catholic proposals.

The other major distinction that becomes immediately clear in the background of this conversation, the distinction between the Roman Catholic theological system and the evangelical theological understanding is sacramentalism. Because the Roman Catholic Church, through its sacramental ministry, actually believes in this gradualism as being an infusion of grace that is granted to the participant in the Roman Catholic Church by means of participating in the mass and in the larger sacramental system and thus as being moved into a state of greater grace by means of that sacramental system. Again, evangelicals do not find that in Scripture – profoundly do not find that in Scripture – and do not understand any such priestly ministry or any such sacramental infusion of grace. And looking at that, we can understand why the Roman Catholic theological system is well poised to come up with this gradualism; why the distinction between doctrine pastoral practices is something that fits within the Roman Catholic system but not within evangelical church life or evangelical theology. We can make no distinction between the teaching of the church and its pastoral practice, and the reason that we cannot is because we are not sacramentalists. If we were sacramentalists, we could believe that the sacrament itself will be efficacious in terms of the life of the person to whom were speaking, rather than the disposition of that person and obedience to Christ. Those are fundamentally separated issues. And the sacramental system thus does not only confuses what we would understand as true worship but also the true gospel and the doctrine of justification and, of course following on the heels of the doctrine of justification, also confuses sanctification.

In terms of the cultural context we can certainly understand the ambition on the part of the Roman Catholic Church to get out of an excruciating pastoral and cultural dilemma; that is holding to doctrine and to official teachings, including the definition of sexuality and family that is wildly now at odds with a radically secularizing Western society. But evangelical Christians have nowhere to run on this issue. If indeed we operate by sola scriptura and if indeed God has spoken in his word on these issues, than we are bound to his word. We profoundly do not believe in the evangelical churches right to develop doctrine beyond the Scripture. We profoundly do not believe in a sacramental system that allows us to shift away from obedience to Christ to the performance of a sacramental act. We do not believe in a priestly ministry that allows for distinction between the doctrine of the church and pastoral practice. And we may be, as these elements in Rome seem to indicate, perhaps the last people on earth who can’t go along with the flow. The Roman Catholic Church here wants to be in the position of saying that it is maintaining its doctrine and merely being more responsive to homosexuals in its midst. But of course this kind of responsiveness amounts to a theological abdication; and yet it is one in line with Catholic theology – it’s just not in line with the gospel and not in line with our understanding of the church and not in line with Scripture, and therein lies the problem.

2) Atheist Crispin Sartwell declares irrationality of atheistic belief

Meanwhile in the pages of The Atlantic monthly comes an amazingly candid article on the irrationality of atheism and it’s written by an atheist. Crispin Sartwell writes,

“Religious beliefs are remarkably various. But sometimes it can seem that there is only one way to be an atheist: asserting, on the basis of reasoned argument, that belief in God is irrational. The aging ‘new atheists’—Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, for example—pit reason against faith, science against superstition, and declare for reason and science.”

He goes on to say that he, on the other hand, is taking what he calls “a leap of atheist faith.” He then writes these amazing sentences,

“Religious people sometimes try to give proofs of the truth of their faith—Saint Thomas Aquinas famously gave five in his Summa Theologica. But for many people, belief comes before arguments, originating in family, social and institutional context, in desire and need. The arguments are post-hoc rationalizations. This can be true of atheism as well. For me, it’s what I grew up with. It gets by in my social world, where professions of religious faith would be considered out of place. My non-faith is fundamentally part of how I connect with others and the world.”

He continues,

“The idea that the atheist comes to her view of the world through rationality and argumentation, while the believer relies on arbitrary emotional commitments, is false. This accounts for the sense that atheists such as Christopher Hitchens or Dawkins are arrogant: Their line of thinking often takes the form of disqualifying others on the grounds that they are irrational. But the atheist too, is deciding to believe in conditions of irremediable uncertainty, not merely following out a proof.”

The importance of Crispin Sartwell’s article becomes even more clear in this sentence:

“Religious people have often offloaded the burden of their choices on institutions and relied on the Church’s authorities and dogmas. But some atheists are equally willing to offload their beliefs on ‘reason’ or ‘science’ without acknowledging that they are making a bold intellectual commitment about the nature of the universe, and making it with utterly insufficient data. Religion at its best [he writes] treats belief as a resolution in the face of doubt. I want an atheism that does the same, that displays epistemological courage.”

Now why is this article important? It’s important because it’s an amazingly frank and honest admission on the part of an atheist; that atheism requires faith, that it too requires a certain amount of epistemological courage, that there is no slam dunk, absolutely certain scientific or rational argument that sustains a theistic belief. Atheistic belief, Crispin Sartwell says, depends upon what he defines as epistemological courage. Now why is this argument important? It’s important because just as he said, there so many among the so-called “new atheists” who are arguing that any dispassionate fair-minded person looking at the scientific evidence would simply be compelled by force of reason and rationality to become an atheist. Crispin Sartwell says, ‘I’m an atheist and that’s not true.’ As a matter fact, Crispin Sartwell underlines the importance, indeed the inevitability, of worldview thinking. Because he acknowledges ‘I’m an atheist because it fits my worldview. My worldview is actually consistent with atheism; it allows me to get by in the world in which I live.’ He says professions of religious faith would be ‘out of place in my cultural and social context’, he says ‘it worked for me that I am an atheist, but I’m an atheist basically because I find the world to be random and meaningless, not because I find in any scientific evidence or rational argument an absolute clincher of the fact that there isn’t a God.’

The orthodox Christian understanding is very clear; that faith is not an active irrationality. That was the supposition of the philosopher Kierkegaard who argued that faith was a simple leap into the dark – it is anything but that. In Scripture we read such things as, ‘these things are written that you might believe                                                                                                                                                                                                                   and know’ furthermore yet Peter writing, ‘we are not writing about these things as those who are speaking of clever myths but as those who were eyewitnesses to these very historical events.’ The Bible goes back again and again to make a rational argument, a revealed argument, based in very rationally understandable terms of the evidence for faith. But at the end of the day there is still the necessity of faith, there is still a necessity of belief. After all, mere intellectual assent to the facts of Christianity will not save. That’s why the apostle Paul writing in Romans chapter 10 says that the one who had saved is the one who confesses with the lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believes in the heart that God has raised him from the dead.

One of the things that evangelical Christians must always keep in mind is that belief in God can never be separable from other beliefs. Theology always matters and it bleeds through every major issue of our intellectual concern and every thinking person has major issues of intellectual concern. But in this case Crispin Sartwell writes about his non-belief in God writing,

“By not believing in God, I keep faith with the world’s indifference. I love its beauty. I hate its suffering. I think both are perfectly real, because I experience them both, all the time. I do not see any reason to suspend judgment: I’m here, and I commit. I’m perfectly sincere and definite in my belief that there is no God. I can see that there could be comfort in believing otherwise, believing that all the suffering and death makes sense, that everyone gets what they deserve, and that existence works out in the end. But to believe that would be to betray my actual experiences, and even without the aid of reasoned arguments, that’s reason enough not to believe.”

Again, an amazingly candid admission. Because what he states here is that his experience of a world indicates a world that is indifferent to us. And he says on the basis of that experience, non-belief in God simply makes sense. But if you were listen closely to his argument, you heard him say not only ‘I keep faith with the world’s indifference’ he said next, ‘I love its beauty.’ Now there’s the problem. Because as it turns out, he’s not quite the atheist he thinks he is, because to affirm the reality of beauty is to affirm a standard by which beauty can be measured; what makes something beautiful. The statement that the world is beautiful, that he loves its beauty, a statement he clearly intends to resonate to be understandable by others, it implies there is a beauty that is an objective reality. That’s an aesthetic judgment, but an aesthetic judgment is inherently a theological judgment. So even as he wants to state, as he certainly means to sincerely state, that he is perfectly sincere and definite in his belief that there is no God, the very fact that he wrote this article the way he wrote it, the very fact that he makes very clear that there is no clincher argument – rationally or scientifically that would compel one to be an atheist – the more he bases it on his experience and then goes on to say that not only does he experience the world as indifferent, he also affirms in it a beauty, he undermines the assurance of his own atheism. So when I read Crispin Sartwell say that he wants an atheism that displays epistemological courage I think in this article he’s trying to display just that – epistemological courage. But when he tries to match that within an epistemological certainty about atheism, he clearly fall short of his own argument and perhaps of his own ambition and maybe from a Christian perspective, from a gospel perspective, that’s a good start.

3) Debate over Islam reveals clash of worldviews within ideological left

An absolutely stunning argument has appeared on the cultural left and it has appeared on the issue of Islam and it deeply reveals the reality of worldview and all of a sudden the fact that even people on the cultural left now understand that worldview matters. The incident that was the catalyst for this discussion was HBO’s “Real Time” program were Bill Maher and Ben Affleck got into a very heated debate (they weren’t alone of course, but they were the center of that debate) over whether or not Islam is inherently evil. You may recall the fact the Bill Maher argues that it is; that theologically, culturally, ideologically, speaking Islam is evil. And then you had Ben Affleck suggesting that was a form of racism, of an ideological discrimination that’s absolutely out of bounds. Now notice that both of these men, and all the participants in that discussion on the HBO “Real Time” program, are on the left; indeed you might say on the far left. And now you see a major cleavage on an issue this clear on the cultural left. Well what could explain that?

Writing at Josh Appelbaum says the problem is that both Bill Maher and Ben Affleck are reductionist when it comes to talking about Islam. He comes back to say, any fair-minded position would say ‘yes, there are very negative elements in Islam that ever right minded person should very clearly condemn.’ But he goes on to say it’s not fair to say that all Muslims are terrorists, it’s not fair to even say that all Muslims hold to the consistency and wholeness of Muslim thought. And yet that’s not the argument that is most interesting in terms of all this.

At there was another article written by Andrew O’Hehir. And he’s writing that when it comes to atheism and Islam and to liberalism, you’re talking about a clash of worldviews not between the right and the left but on the left – and this is really interesting. He writes,

“Here’s a news flash: None of these heated public debates about atheism and religion, or about how Western ‘liberals’ should think about Islam, ever reach a satisfactory conclusion. There are many reasons …[but the biggest] reason may be that religion in general, and fundamentalist religion in particular, is a major sore spot in Western culture, a source of tremendous vulnerability and anxiety.”

Speaking here about the left. In other words, cultural leftist don’t know what to do with the resurgence or with the continuation of religious faith among most of the people on earth.

Writing about the other major exchange on Islam that took place between Reza Aslan and Sam Harris; with Sam Harris saying that Islam is entirely evil and Reza Aslan saying that that’s a form of racism; basically that is an outrageous mischaracterization of Islam. Now Andrew O’Hehir comes back to say the reason why that will never reach a satisfactory conclusion is that those who are arguing on the one side of this argument are not even sharing a worldview with those who are on the other side of the argument. Now where’s this worldview conversation coming on the left? The left has been committed to cosmopolitanism for the better part of the last several decades; arguing that worldview isn’t important or if it is important it’s only important in order to overcome it. But cosmopolitanism is a myth and that myth is being revealed in these debates over Islam; not between the right and the left, not between the right and the right, but between the left and the further left. O’Hehir writes,

“Indeed, I would argue that people who line up on opposing sides of the Harris-Aslan feud over religion and Islam represent fundamentally different worldviews, in ways they themselves may not recognize.”

We simply have to sit back here and say there’s something deeply satisfactory about having people committed to the cosmopolitan ideal admit the persistence of worldview; even in their own ranks. Of course from a Christian perspective, we would affirm the fact that worldview can’t be overcome even if you try to overcome it because every single rational human being operates on the basis of prior intellectual commitments. That’s actually what Crispin Sartwell was affirming in his argument we just considered on atheism, and now you have Andrew O’Hehir coming back to say that’s exactly what leftists now have to understand is going on in the intro liberal debates over Islam.

So what is the worldview division that Andrew O’Hehir sees? He says,

“I’m not talking about East vs. West or Muslim vs. Christian, and still less about lily-livered p.c. ‘progressives’ vs. courageous contrarian truth-tellers, or however Bill Maher would like to phrase it. And I don’t precisely mean the difference between people of faith and the atheistic or irreligious. Those are facets of the dispute that are largely obvious. In a conversation between Richard Dawkins and Pope Francis (and I’d definitely pay to watch that [he writes]), both would politely acknowledge that they hold divergent views about the fundamental nature of reality. What I really mean is the difference between [now hold your breath] humanities majors and science majors.”

And he’s writing about the left and he’s really on to something. In this case, Andrew O’Hehir is actually onto something that many people on the left have not acknowledged. The left is itself divided between those who present reality in terms of scientific rationalism and those who hold it in terms of a kind of humanism; those are two mutually incompatible worldviews. They may at times overlap in terms of political goals, but what’s being revealed here – and Andrew O’Hehir is exactly right – is that those who believe that everything must be defined simply in terms of scientific rationality, they can’t come to terms with anything as complicated as religious belief; be it Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise.

Meanwhile those who are holding to a more humanist worldview, he explains in terms of being humanities majors, they want to believe in this cosmopolitan world of endless rationality and they believe that everything can eventually be overcome by the kind of rational conversation that humanities majors can have around a doctoral seminar table. These are both conversations on the left. Andrew O’Hehir appears to have the ambition to say to people on the left ‘We need to get on the same page’ but here again, some good worldview thinking would correct that presumption because people who do not hold to the same worldview can’t end up on the same page or even when they do, not for the same reasons and not for long. Evangelical Christians understand the responsibility not only to acknowledge worldview thinking, but to bring our worldview into conformity and consistency with God’s word – with the Bible. But what’s really revealed here is the inability of any secular worldview, be it scientific or humanistic, to come to terms with theological claims and a theological worldview; that is the big issue here and that’s what makes it even more interesting to us than to them.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at you can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to For information on Boyce College just go to I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.



Podcast Transcript

1) Vatican synod on family a major transformation of Roman Catholicism

Vatican Signals More Tolerance Toward Gays and Remarriage, New York Times (Elisabetta Povoledo)

The Vatican’s Relatio, The Vatican (Synod on the Family)

Vatican document challenges Church to change attitude to gays, Reuters (Philip Pullella)

The Vatican’s New Stance Toward Gays and Divorcees, The Atlantic (Emma Green)

2) Atheist Crispin Sartwell declares irrationality of atheistic belief

Irrational Atheism, The Atlantic (Crispin Sartwell)

3) Debate over Islam reveals clash of worldviews within ideological left

Bill Maher and the liberal conundrum: Progressives, religion and extremism, Salon (Josh Applebaum)

Atheism, Islam and liberalism: This is what we are really fighting about, Salon (Andrew O’Hehir)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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