Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, November 21, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing by daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Why thanksgiving, rightly understood, is a deeply theological act
Day by day it is our business on the briefing to look at the headlines of the day and to try to think them through in Christian worldview Analysis. But today, this day before Thanksgiving 2018, I want us to take a step back and consider the most basic theological theme behind Thanksgiving. Understanding why Thanksgiving is most importantly not just a secular holiday where Americans gather together to eat turkey, it is more importantly a reflection of the very purpose in which we were made, and here's what's most fundamental it is the rightful disposition of the creature related to the Creator.
Now as we think about this for just a moment we're going to understand that all Christian theology is rightly understood, a theology of Thanksgiving, a Thanksgiving theology. But we're also going to consider this, one of the most powerful apologetics in this increasing post Christian secularized age, is an apologetics of Thanksgiving. So this means that on this day when so many Americans are traveling, and most Americans are thinking about Thanksgiving, a good many of them working for the Thanksgiving celebration, we need to understand that Thanksgiving is itself a deeply theological act. Rightly understood it is most importantly, most centrally a theological act. And as we think about this we understand that thankfulness is a theology and microcosm. It's a key to understanding what we really believe about God, ourselves, and the world we experience.
Now there are some interesting questions that come immediately to mind. We are talking about living in a post Christian increasingly secularized age. But you'll notice most Americans and most Europeans, but Americans given this particular American celebration, most Americans are going to be talking about Thanksgiving. The question is, how do they actually understand thankfulness, and even more importantly to whom are they thankful?
Now let's just think for a moment about the secular worldview. Let's just try sympathetically to understand the predicament of a secularist at Thanksgiving. The predicament is this; Thanksgiving actually requires personhood, it requires personality, it requires an object. What are we saying? We're saying that it's not possible actually in any coherent way just to be thankful. We have to be thankful to someone. That thankfulness is rooted in the existence and the reality of someone who by benevolence has given us something, provided us something, has made it possible for us to know or to experience something. And of course when we're thinking about a Biblical understanding of the creature, we are talking about the fact that every single creature owes the Creator our very existence.
We only exist because the Creator out of His benevolence has created us. We only live, we only draw breath even in this moment, because the Creator has made it possible by His creation of the entire cosmos, by His creation of every single one of us. And thus Thanksgiving becomes a real intellectual and moral problem, not just a cultural conundrum for those who do not believe in God. This is really important, because we understand that around us are many people who want to be thankful. There is within them an impulse towards thankfulness, but how in the world does someone who does not believe in God direct that thankfulness? Well this is where as theologians we would make a distinction between a proximate thankfulness and an ultimate thankfulness.
We are approximately thankful to many people. We're thankful to our parents, we're thankful to our family, we're thankful to our spouses, we are thankful to employers, we're thankful to partners in business, we are thankful for consumers and customers, we're thankful for neighbors, we're thankful for teachers. In proximate thankfulness there's a lot of thankfulness to spread around, but that proximate thankfulness doesn't answer the need within us to be thankful. Because even as we're thankful for our parents, they didn't bring themselves into existence and only by human agency did they bring us into existence. Our existence is unexplainable entirely by our parents. Furthermore, all of the goods that we experience, all the good experiences, the very existence of a breathable atmosphere, and drinkable water, the very fact that we are given life and vitality, all of this has to be explained by something that is beyond proximate explanation, beyond proximate agency, beyond proximate thankfulness.
This points to the need for ultimate thankfulness. Behind the existence of everything requires the Creator who has created everything. So Christian thankfulness is deeply rooted in the doctrine of creation, in the very opening words of scripture. In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth. And that means that everything that follows is appropriately thankfulness on the part of all creatures, human creatures in particular. The creatures alone made in God's image, the creatures who alone have a genuine capacity even urgency for thankfulness.
But this is where we also have to understand that interestingly enough, the Bible grounds all human sinfulness in ingratitude, in a refusal to give thanks. This is made explicitly clear by the Apostle Paul in Romans chapter one versus 20 through 22 where he writes, "For since the creation of the world His", that means God's, "invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made so that they", meaning all humanity, "are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise they became fools."
Now let's step back for a moment and understand what we're being told here. We are being told here that in gratitude, the refusal to give thanks is the very primal reality behind human sinfulness. That means that every other human sin, lying, deceit, disobedience, adultery, lust, thievery, all of this, and the catalog is seemingly almost endless, all of this is actually rooted in ingratitude. A refusal to give thanks. Where did this start? Well it's starts all the way back in Genesis three with Adam and Eve. What did they do? Well they ate of the fruit of the tree that was forbidden. They disobeyed God. But what is Paul telling us? He's telling us that behind that disobedience was actually a prior unfaithfulness that was ingratitude. They refused to give thanks to God.
A proper thankfulness was at the very core of their sin. God gave them unspeakable riches and abundance, but he forbade them the fruit of only one tree. A proper thankfulness would have led our first parents to avoid that fruit at all costs, and thankfully to obey the Lord's command. Taken further this first sin was also a lack of faithfulness in that the decision to eat the forbidden fruit indicated a lack of thankfulness that took the form of an assertion that we creatures, or the serpent, not the Creator know what is best for us and intend the best for us. As Christians of course, we are most thankful not just for our creation, but for our redemption in Christ for the Salvation that is by faith alone, in Christ alone, it's by grace alone and that should lead to obedience and faithfulness grounded in Thanksgiving in Christ, in God alone.
The Apostle Paul writes in first Thessalonians chapter five versus 16 and following, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." That's an amazing statement. It's an economy of words. Listen to that last phrase, that's verse 18 again. "Give thanks in all circumstances", notice the words that follow, "for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." This thankfulness in all things is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Meaning for all of us as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now rounding out a Biblical theology of thankfulness we come to understand that Christian discipleship is thus just Thanksgiving translated into a joyful obedience. But then we round out the story of the Bible in Eschatology, the end of all things, when as we read the book of Revelation and other Biblical text that point us to the Eschaton, to the end of all things, to the coming Kingdom of God we come to understand that what will establish the foundation for the joy of the Saints is thankfulness to God, an unbroken, undiluted, undiminished, unreflected thankfulness that will be the attitude of the believers in Heaven in the Kingdom of God with glory with the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit forever.
New Testament's scholar David W. Powell in his book Thanksgiving: An Examination of a Pauline Theme, makes the point that the central theme, one of the most important themes appalls theology throughout all of his writings is thankfulness. The Apostle Paul had learned to give thanks under every conceivable circumstance, and for Paul this included even his experience of depravation, of physical beatings, of hardship, of judgment, of imprisonment, of enemies, of rejection and subversion, and eventually of martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For all of this the Apostle Paul was thankful. This is that very Apostle Paul that in that first letter to the Thessalonians said, "Be thankful, give thanks in all things, under all circumstances". That was not an empty abstract, theoretical command from the Apostle Paul, it was the very life testimony he was giving. His preaching translated into faithfulness, a faithfulness that took him all the way to martyrdom.
An apologetics of thanksgiving: Examining the intellectual and moral problem of giving thanks for those who don’t believe in God
But I want to go back to that idea of an apologetic of thankfulness. Certainly we should have a worship marked by thankfulness, certainly our Evangelism should be marked by thankfulness, a thankful Christian wanting others to know the same joy of the gift of Salvation in order that they by Christ being made right with God, could be properly thankful themselves. We want a discipleship of thankfulness, a preaching of thankfulness, we're looking to a life of thankfulness, but we also need to lean into an apologetic of thankfulness, especially in this age. It would be true throughout all of human history, certainly all the history of the Church, but especially important now. Why? Because we perhaps for the first time in modern human history, are surrounded by so many people who have within themselves because they are made in God's image, a desire, an impulse to be thankful, but they do not know how to thankful. More importantly, they don't know to whom to be thankful.
Some of them might actually be hardened seculars who simply say, "There is no Creator, thus there is no-one to whom I should be thankful." The late Stephen J. Gould for example, an Atheist and one of the foremost paleontologist and evolutionist of his day, described human life as, "But a tiny late arising twig on life's enormously arborescent bush." Now if that's all humanity is, then there is no reason to be thankful, we are just an accident, we are just a late arising twig on life's enormously arborescent bush. We're not going to be thankful to a bush even an incredibly arborescent bush. The reality is that explanation isn't plausible, and the human heart knows it. The human mind might rebel especially in a secular age, given a secular worldview against the impulse to be thankful to a someone, but I think it's fair to say that we know that in every human heart, not because we are experts at the human heart, but because we understand by scripture the very nature of the human being, we understand that there is a desire to worship someone, to thank someone.
This gives us the opportunity to come alongside even an increasingly secular society and say joyfully as a friend, "Do you know why that impulse for Thanksgiving is so deep within you? Do you know why you're so unsatisfied with giving thanks to even a very arborescent bush of life? Do you understand why there is a sterility to your thanksgiving? Do you understand why you know, even as you want to be thankful, you want to be thankful in a far more satisfying way?" That gives us an opportunity to point to the truthfulness of the Christian faith. It gives us an opportunity to point to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It gives us an opportunity to give a reason for the thankfulness that is within us, to explain our thankfulness even as a form of testimony to the world around us.
The theological story of Thanksgiving: How the history of this holiday explains our celebration today
But why this date, why this tradition in the United States? That history is also really instructive. We understand that those we call the Pilgrims arrived in the New World as they knew it, on November the 11th in the year 1620. Here's where Christians need to understand there's a really important theological story behind their arrival. In order to understand that story we need to go back to the 16th century, the century of the great protestant reformation. We need to understand Luther, and Calvin, and the reformers, and the recovery of the Gospel and the reform of the Church. We need to understand that there were Great Britain, even as there was in English reformation, there was an attempted reform of the Church of England as it became known.
Under Henry the 8th, the most famous of the Tudor Monarch's, the Church of England became divided from the Catholic Church, and even as under the Tudor's, under most importantly Henry the 8th and his daughter Elizabeth the 1st, that British reformation began to take a decided form. There were those within the Church of England who became convinced that the Church of England was not and would never be reformed enough. In the late 16th century, and especially in the 17th century, there were those who were trying to purify the Church of England, they became known as the Puritans. The Puritans first sought to reform the Church of England to draw the Church of England to the very words of scripture, and to the full impact of the reformation and see the Church of England fully reformed.
But then the Puritans came to two different views. Some Puritans decided to stay within the Church of England even as it seemed to resist so much of their influence, and to continue to work for reform within the Church of England. Others became known as Separatists, they decided that the Church of England would never be fully reformed and thus they divided. But the Separatists found themselves not only on the wrong side of the Church of England, but by definition on the wrong side of the throne. Under that kind of political pressure, sometimes even with the threat to their lives and livelihood, those who became know as the Separatists, the Puritans who decided the Church of England would never be fully reformed, they went elsewhere. They had to go abroad.
They went for protection to the Netherlands, many of them arrived in the Netherlands city of Leiden. But Leiden even though it offered religious liberty, also meant something else. Those Puritan Separatists who arrived in Leiden came to the conclusion that if they stayed there two things would happen. Number one, they feared that they would cease to be English, even as they had moved to the Netherlands, they felt that inevitably they would become Dutch. That is not what they wanted for themselves, that is not what they wanted for their children. But the second big concern of these Puritans who were then in Leiden, the Separatists, they came to the conclusion that if they stayed there their children would succumb to the moral and sexual liberty ism that is the moral progressivism and liberalism of the Netherlands. They also did not want that.
The Puritan movement as it began in the Church of England and then separated from the Church of England, was committed to the purity of the Gospel and the purity of a Gospel life. That meant avoiding the very kind of moral liberalism that they saw in the Netherlands, and thus they looked for another alternative. That explains why at least some of those Puritans, then known as Separatists left the Netherland and eventually came to what was known as The New World in order to establish a community that would be ruled by their reformation doctrine that would be established upon the scripture, and that would give them an opportunity for an English culture of protestant puritan religion that would allow them to raise their children within the very same faith.
But these English Puritans who understood themselves to be Pilgrims for the Gospel and for the Christian faith, discovered in the New World an incredible and haunting adversity. And adversity of illness, an adversity of winter, an adversity of scarcity, an adversity of famine. In 1621, the year after they had arrived in the New World and established the Plymouth Plantation, they celebrated the goodness of God and they invited local Indians, Native Americans to gather with them. They had experienced much greater adversity in the New World than they had expected, that's largely explained by a geographical issue. They were aiming actually for deeper South along the American Coastline, but they didn't get that far. Instead they were in New England and it was a very cold and harsh environment in the winter, one for which they had not been prepared
The death toll in that first year was absolutely frightening, but those who survived understood the imperative for thanksgiving. God had kept them alive thus far. He had brought them safely across the Atlantic, he had seen them and their families to this point where they could still look to a future and not only to the past. In their words in 1621 they, "Fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over this vast and furious ocean." That according to the words of the Pilgrim Governor William Bradford.
But how does that explain Thanksgiving today in 2018? Well a crucial historical person responsible for that was the first president of the United States, George Washington, who in the year 1789 declared the first American National Day of Thanksgiving. He invited Americans by presidential proclamation to, "Unite in most humbly offering our prayer and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations". Later presidents followed Washington's example. Abraham Lincoln issued moving Thanksgiving proclamations even during the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt who regularized the holiday on the National Calendar as we know it today, called the Nation to thankfulness in the middle of World War Two with these words, "The Almighty God has blessed our nation in many ways. He has given our people stout hearts and strong arms with which to strike mighty blows for freedom and truth. So we pray to Him now for a vision to see our way clearly. To see the way that leads to a better life for ourselves and for our fellow men to the achievement of His will, capital H, His will to peace on Earth."
Now is this just a demonstration of what some call Civil Religion? Well it is that. This is a Civic Authority speaking in Religious terms as a way of trying to achieve a national mood, a national attitude, even national unity. But we as Christians understand there is more to it than that. There is always Civil Religion behind the American Thanksgiving. Anytime you bring in politicians and elected officials to speak to this kind of theological issue, Civic Religion is going to result. The Christians also understand this is a reflection of something far deeper. This is an impulse that is absolutely right. The language used by these presidents of the United States is, and let's just note this, decidedly theistic, it is not secular.
Now just think of it this way, many Americans might not be thinking deeply theological thoughts on Thanksgiving. Some of them might not be thinking anything self-consciously theological at all, but that doesn't mean that even their Thanksgiving is meaningless. It points to something within them that is an impulse. We want them to know more, we certainly don't want them to know less. We want them to be unspeakably infinitely more thankful, we certainly don't want them to be less thankful. We should cease the opportunity to want to help our neighbors understand an even deeper, eternal thankfulness and be even more thankful than they know themselves, or know themselves capable of being.
Christians understand that the call to Thanksgiving is far more urgent than a holiday. Far more important then the calendar. True Thanksgiving cannot be limited to a day or a season. We recognize that God has given us everything that we have, and everything that we need. We acknowledge our unconditional dependence upon Him for every second of our lives, every morsel that we will eat, every joy that we will ever experience, and the Salvation that is His work, by His grace alone.
And so to you, and your family, and your friends, a Happy Thanksgiving. For those who are traveling we pray safe travel. And the last words must be the words of the scripture by the Apostle Paul once again, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again next Monday for The Briefing.