There Are No BAD Words: Teaching Children HOW To Say

Every community must concern itself with how its members should speak. In my experience, most families have a list of words that are considered immoral and thus, off limit. Many Christian parents try to prevent their children from hearing such words by putting heavy controls on the environment of their children. When my kids started going to school, they found their friends all had different lists. Growing up, the list of words I was allowed to use was much more restricted than that of my neighbors, but we had friends that had an even longer list of bad words.

As I grew older, I began to wonder from where our list came. Since we are Christians, I had assumed the Bible must have a list somewhere. But of course, I never found a list anywhere. I was also confused about why two different words for the same thing could be on different lists. Cleary the concept or thing they describe wasn’t problematic. For some reason, the word choice mattered.

By the time I got to college, I began to feel that all these lists were arbitrary, mere reflections of social customs or personal preferences being passed down by families and communities. This left me a bit confused as to what I should and shouldn’t say. I’d also noticed that I could be a real jerk without ever using a bad word. It seemed to me that a list wasn’t a sufficient guide to godly and wise speech.

Now I’m a father and a pastor, so I’ve had to think carefully about leading my own family and church in godly speech, and I’ve been asked many times what parents should teach their kids about bad words. So here’s what I tell people: God is not concerned about what words you use so much as how you use your words. To put it another way, I teach people that there is no such thing as a bad word, only a word badly used.

That might come as a bit of a shock to religious people who have been taught that Christians shouldn’t swear, cuss, use obscene language, or talk dirty. While it would be much easier if we just came up with a manmade list of unacceptable words, then godly speech would be fairly easy to attain. But I’m afraid it’s much more complicated than that.

What Does the Bible Say About Our Words?

The Bible teaches that our words are powerful, bringing destruction or giving life (Prov. 12:18; 18:21). We should not take what we say lightly, and we must learn to control our tongues (Jas. 3). So how should we speak? If I were to try and summarize everything the Bible has to say about speech and words (perhaps that’s a bit too bold), it’d go something like this. Our speech should:

  1. not corrupt, tear down, or denigrate people, but build up, edify, and give grace (Prov. 12:18; Eph. 4:29, 5:4; Col. 3:8)
  2. be true, measured, and proportionate (Prov. 12:19, 25:15; Mt. 5:37; Rom. 16:18; Jas. 5:12)
  3. be wise and appropriate for the moment (Prov. 15:23, 18:13, 25:11)
  4. be humble and not boastful (Ps. 94:3-4; Prov. 27:1-2; 1 Cor. 1:31, 13:4)

Our goal, then, shouldn’t be to avoid using bad words. We can destroy people without using bad words. We can mislead people and bring confusion without using bad words. We can say things that don’t fit the moment without using bad words. We can boast without using bad words. Bad words, that is, words that end up on someone’s list of immoral words that should never be used, actually aren’t bad at all. The category misses the point.

The goal of all our speech must be to love others with our words, and that means learning 1) discernment, so we can speak what’s good and true, 2) wisdom, so we know what needs to be said and when, 3) humility, so we don’t constantly draw attention to ourselves, and 4) purity, so we don’t corrupt but build up and beautify. In other words, our goal must be virtue that proceeds in godly speech.

This is why we have to get to the heart—the wellspring of our words—if we want to speak in a godly way. Unless we have heard, received, and continually return to God’s loving word, the good news of Jesus Christ, our hearts will produce wicked, impure, false words that bring death and destruction around us. Only if we are growing in godly character will we be able to speak in a way that pleases God and serves our neighbor.

Redirecting Our Words

If our approach to godly speech has mainly been about avoiding certain words, then we need a new orienting vision for our words. We could ask ourselves:

  • Do I speak in a truthful, measured, proportionate way, or do I overstate things, exaggerate, flatter, understate, and downplay the truth? Do my words lead people to trust me?
  • Do my words build others up, encourage, and contribute to conversations positively? Or does what I say often tear people down, discourage, condemn, or detract?
  • Do I say what is best in the moment, or am I regularly blabbering on without much of an idea of what I’m getting at? Do I know how to say things gently but with clarity and power? Or am I reckless, abundant, and foolish?
  • Do I draw attention to myself with my words, or does what I say reflect a self-forgetfulness oriented toward connecting with others and celebrating the greatness of God?
  • Why might my words be functioning in these ways? What do I love that might be shaping my words? Is it my reputation and the approval of others? Is it my advantage, comfort, or convenience? Is it my own ego? Is my self-absorption? Is it my ambition?

Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks (Mt. 6:45). A rightly directed heart will in time pour forth rich, lovely, and life-giving speech that gives others confidence we can be trusted as people of godly character

A Different Approach to Teaching Our Children

How might this translate to parenting our children to speak with godliness and wisdom?

Assuming we are working on our own speech by attending to our own hearts, here are a few simple lessons to teach our children:

  1. There are no bad words.
  2. There are powerful words that little children are not yet ready to use.
  3. All our words should aim to love others, promote the truth, and help the situation.

The second lesson will help your kids avoid the danger of the first. People didn’t come up with lists of bad words for no reason. There are some filthy, gross, unkind, serious words in every language, and most of the time, people don’t have any business speaking them. But the reality is, life is filled with hard, painful, disgusting, and evil things, and in order to speak the truth, we must have the words to name those experiences. Christians must not be people who are too “polite” to speak of such horrors. We must never do that lightly, but there are times when we can bring life to others by naming evil with the strongest of terms.

Words are like tools. All tools are made for certain purposes, but if we use those tools in the wrong way, they might break and they could hurt someone. Likewise, words mean specific things, and we must become people who can use words in the right ways at the right times in order to bring life. Children may not be ready to use some of the tools until they are older and have proven they are capable of using less powerful tools.

So this is what I say to my kids when they ask about bad words. “There are no bad words, but you are not allowed to say that word yet. When you are older, and when you have proven that you can use these other words wisely and with love, then you can use that word because then I know you will use it well.”

This also means, there are times when I use strong words around my kids. I am not afraid of my kids hearing these words, and you shouldn’t be worried about it either. They will hear strong words. You cannot stop it, even if you send your kids to a Christian school until they are college age. Sheltering kids, or at least trying to, won’t help them become the type of people that speak faithfully. We should only be concerned about our kids hearing us use strong words in the wrong way. So I must use strong words carefully in the few moments when I must speak with great weight.

Foul-Mouthed Christians?

This brings us full circle back to the beginning. I am not saying Christians should be dropping f-bombs every time we stub our toe or face an inconvenience. What we normally call swearing or cursing is usually flippant speech that isn’t truthful in that it uses the strongest words our language possess for every inconvenience, insult, or injury.

Many Christians I know that grew up in legalistic environments, upon learning about our “freedom in Christ,” began to swear regularly. But this is a mistake in the opposite direction. If you’ve never been allowed to use a hammer, you might be tempted to start using a hammer for every home project. But if you insist on using the hammer for everything, no one will want to hire you to help renovate the kitchen. Tools must be used in the right way, and no one tool fits every occasion. Liberation from lists of bad words doesn’t bring freedom or righteousness if we start using words foolishly or wickedly. That’s not because the words are bad, but because improper use will do damage or make us less trustworthy.

So let us learn to use words properly by becoming attentive to the aim and effect of our words.

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Book Review: Enduring Divine Absence

Over the last few years, I’ve been encountering more and more people who, even though they find the case for God’s existence and Christ’s resurrection compelling, can’t seem to shake the sense that it’s all a lie. It all feels implausible to them even though they can’t exactly put their finger on why. Lingering doubts despite being intellectually and aesthetically persuaded or at least compelled pose a different problem than the rational challenges I studied to combat in my theological education.

Joseph Minich, Reformed Theological Seminary graduate and Ph.D. candidate in humanities at the University of North Texas, addresses this newer challenge to Christian faith in his little book Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism. As he puts it, the book “attempts to address the problem of the temptation to atheism.” It’s not meant to refute atheism but to explore “why those who are not atheists can still nevertheless understand why it is that atheism might be plausible to someone.” In other words, Minich seeks to explain why those of us who are intellectually convinced of God’s existence still struggle with doubts rooted in a sense that God is not real.

Because God’s being and activity isn’t immediately obvious to us moderns, faith takes great effort to maintain and often seems to be slipping away. Many of us have wondered, “If we’re supposed to believe in God, then why doesn’t he just show up and prove he exists?” Minich aims to address why we experience faith in Christ this way and to offer a way forward. The book is short but dense, complex but simple in it’s basic but important insight. Hopefully that my readers can benefit from Minich’s work without having to wade through the book, I’ll offer a brief overview and then summarize the diagnosis and counsel offered. That said, I highly recommend it to those willing and able to follow his engagement with thinkers such as Aristotle, Dawkins, and Cartwright.

A Brief Outline

The book has 5 brief chapters. The introduction describes the nature of modern belief, suggesting that the plausibility of theism is contested resulting in a faith that is merely one option among many, several of which pull on us.

In chapter 2, Minich dives deeper into the main problem the book seeks to address: God’s absence is felt to be a problem and atheism appeals to us because it feels noble to accept the meaningless of the cosmos while affirming life and wondering in awe at the vastness, beauty, and complexity of nature. He outlines a few common but, in his estimation, wrong explanations for this phenomenon—that atheism is true or that this experience is due to a distorted will or bad thinking—in order to set up the next chapter in which he provides his own.

In chapter 3, we get another explanation for why a person can find atheism philosophically and intellectually incoherent while still feeling it to be compelling. In what is clearly the most challenging chapter intellectually, Minich gives a brief argument for the existence of God and then proceeds to explain why this doesn’t solve the problem of divine absence. He then outlines how people have shifted in the last 400 years in our understanding of causality, comparing Aristotle’s classic fourfold notion to modern science’s outlook featuring sequence, observation, predictability, and verifiability. These perspectives are not actually at odds with one another, but over the course of the Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and the material boom of the 1960’s, our control over nature has increased so rapidly that Aristotle’s notion of causality has been reduced if not ignored. That may seem technical and abstract, but it sets up his conclusion which sits is at the very heart of his diagnosis of the original question of the book, which I’ll outline below.

What then can we do? He answers in chapter 4, proposing doctrines and practices to which we must cling to live faithfully and with confidence.

The conclusion of this short book provides a second answer to the question of God’s absence which doesn’t solve the problem but helps us understand it better: dependent creatures made to grow into wise and mature bearers of God’s image are structured to experience absence and presence in order to develop. Just as children develop through the presence and absence of their parents, with both reinforcing the way the other affects us, God’s absence and presence play the same role. We were made to grow into maturity in the Garden of Eden where God would walk with humanity and then leave for a time. In other words, humanity was created in history to grow into the people he created us to be. So while divine absence feels like a problem, it shouldn’t surprise us and it makes sense considering who God is and how he made us.

The Main Insights

The strength of this book rests in its diagnosis of our feeling of doubt and its counsel regarding how to address this feeling.

So why do we who think Christianity is true still feel like it might not be?

Minich argues that the technology that shapes our experience in the modern world forms us in a posture of control over nature and an orientation of pragmatism regarding what is real.

The modern technological order tacitly communicates to us, day in and day out, that reality,(the sort that actually concerns us), belongs to the order of the manipulable, that it is subject, in principle, to human agency…we have been shaped to relate to the cosmos practically and therefore to imagine and be concerned with the cosmos only in its visible dimensions, or with that dimension with which human agency can, in principle, interfere. As such, any aspect of reality which does not manifest itself as “visible,” as part of the realm of the manipulable, is perceived to be non-existent…To put it bluntly, the world is a “world for me.” I do not find myself in a big, mysterious world suffused with agencies to which I am subject and around which I must learn to navigate. I find myself in a world almost entirely tool-i-fied, a world of my own subjective agency before an increasingly silent cosmos. And a silent cosmos echoes no ultimate Speaker. (57-59)

That’s the heart of his explanation. We experience the world in a fundamentally different way than pre-modern people. Our sensibilities have been trained to feel that only that which we can attempt to shape and control by applying scientific and technological knowledge is real.

So what can we do about this technological formation?

Returning to the question raised in the introduction, “Why doesn’t God make Himself obvious and erase all atheism?,” Minich answers: “Because God is only interested in His revelation being clear enough for the purposes He has in revealing Himself. That is to say, God’s revelation is about God’s rather than man’s goals.” Because our modern experience is suffused with the illusion of control that causes us to forget our dependence on the God who is there, this answer doesn’t feel right to us. So Minich argues we must train, exercise, and discipline ourselves in a willful remembering. He offers three practices and three doctrines to do just that.

Practices:

  1. We must go over our reasoning for why Christianity is true again and again so we do not remain vulnerable to the modern experience which makes atheism such a draw.
  2. We must embed our lives in the community of the local church.
  3. We must take up the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, worship, fasting, etc.

Doctrines:

  1. The Doctrine of God: God is pure act.
  2. The Doctrine of Christ: God is for me, in Christ.
  3. The Doctrine of Sin: Human beings, made in God’s image, are guilty of sin before God.

Minich has helpful things to say about the practices he recommends, but you really have to read chapter 4 to get the full weight of significance to the doctrine he calls us to willfully remember.

Recommendation

Despite the challenge of this material, I highly recommend this book. While reading it won’t remove our feelings of doubt, it can provide resources for a more grounded faith by making sense of our experience and directing us toward needed practices and doctrines.

Embracing Infant Baptism: An Uncommon Path

Many have asked me how I became a Presbyterian, or more specifically, how I came to embrace infant baptism after years of arguing against it. So I’d like to finally present to everyone the trail of arguments that led me to baptize babies.

A Few Qualifications

Before diving in, I need to make a few things clear. First, I didn’t make this journey alone, and you shouldn’t either. The final straw that broke my Baptist back dropped after a couple of Presbyterian pastor friends left me with some challenging questions to take back to my fellow elders. Months of wrestling together as a council, after years of wrestling with the traditional arguments for and against covenantal baptism, finally resulted in us agreeing together that we had been wrong. Theological shifts like this shouldn’t be made alone for a number of reasons. For one, it’s easy to have blind spots and to be driven to new theological convictions for the wrong reasons. Friends can help us see our hidden-to-ourselves motivations and our blind spots. For another, if you’re a pastor or church member, your theology needs to be worked out with your ecclesial community and officers. These people have a responsibility to watch over you and protect you from false and dangerous doctrine. Working out our theological convictions must not be a private affair.

Second, I know this presentation will probably not convince skeptics. It’s not meant to. I’m taking a lot for granted here and not attempting to defend every piece of the argument. I’m merely seeking to show the logic of what I began to see in Scripture. I don’t have time to make an extensive and tight argument filled with exegetical arguments on every debated passage. Rather, I’m inviting you to look at the question from a different angle in the hopes that the biblical texts will begin to make new sense in a different light.

Third, the following presentation tells the story of my shift from a “Reformed” credobaptist position. For many years I held to a more Reformed understanding of salvation, of the sacraments (i.e. signs and seal of the covenant, a real means of grace rather than a simple memorial view), and of church governance/polity (plural elder rule, connected rather than autonomous churches, the regulative principle, church membership and discipline, etc.). So the insights that led to my shift may not be helpful for many credobaptists not already on board with a Reformed understanding of salvation and the church.

The Starting Point

For many credobaptists, the case that baptism should only be applied to those who are Christians and have given a credible profession of faith seems commonsensical, straightforward, and simple. There are a few simple arguments:

  1. The word baptism (baptízō) means ‘immerse,’ which should not be done to infants.
  2. The clear examples of baptism in the New Testament follow conversion, so it’s the only biblical conclusion to draw from the pattern.
  3. Jesus commands us to be baptized, and so it is the responsibility of each person to decide to obey by publicly identifying with Jesus through baptism.
  4. Baptism pictures spiritual realities brought by the Holy Spirit, so it shouldn’t be applied to those who do not possess the reality.

For my part, these arguments, although they fit with it, never grounded my credobaptism conviction. They’ve always struck me as falling prey to Biblicism, which Michael Horton defines as “the tendency to free oneself from the theology of Scripture by limiting its normativity to explicit proof-texts.” For me, credobaptism was grounded in my understanding of the nature of the New Covenant community.

  1. The New Covenant is the climactic fulfillment of the redemptive covenants of the Old Testament, making it both continuous with the older covenants while also discontinuous and distinct. [This is a relatively new but increasingly common position between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology espoused by D.A. Carson, John Piper, Russell Moore, Peter Gentry, Stephen Wellum, and others.]
  2. The New Covenant is a promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit in all covenant members who, subsequently, all know the Lord personally.
  3. The church consists of the regenerate, of Christians, and should not include anyone who is not a Christian. This differs from the older covenants which include believers and their unbelieving children. This difference exists because Israel was a nation that received earthly blessings, but the New Covenant promises spiritual blessings in Christ which can only be received by faith.
  4. Baptism, like circumcision, is the sign of entrance into the covenant community, and therefore, it should only be applied to believers.
  5. We can only consider a person a believer if he or she provides a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and we should be rigorous in examining a person before accepting their profession because the New Covenant is only for believers.

When you compare the two lists, you’ll notice that I was a credobaptist because of how I understood the covenants of the Bible to fit together and not because of some notion that a collection of verses made the case. In other words, I never thought this question was as simple as citing a few verses related to baptism and suggesting the proper practice was quite plain. I’ve long believed that a proper understanding of baptism must arise out of the sweep of the biblical story regarding the covenantal nature of redemption and the people of God.

The traditional Covenant Theology case runs along these lines:

  1. There is one covenant of grace running through the entire story of redemption, beginning with the proto evangelium in Genesis 3:15 and culminating in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.
  2. Salvation comes through God’s covenant of grace confirmed and made explicit in God’s promises to Abraham. To be a child of God one must become one of Abraham’s children.
  3. Circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, marking those who were recipients of his promise and sealing his pledge to provide for those who had faith in him.
  4. The sign of the covenant was applied to believers and their children as a pledge of God’s faithfulness to bless all who believe in him.
  5. The New Testament makes clear that the Abrahamic covenant is still in effect in the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ. (See Romans 4 & Galatians 3)
  6. The New Covenant bloodless sign of baptism replaces bloody circumcision because Jesus has accomplished what the Abrahamic covenant promised.
  7. The New Testament does not revoke the idea that the covenant sign should be applied to the children of believers, so we should assume the principle continues in the New Covenant.
  8. The New Testament gives examples of baptisms of whole households in which there were almost certainly infants.

While I largely agreed with this line of arguments (and now definitely still do), here was the crux of the issue for me: the New Covenant community is different from the Old Covenant community in that the Spirit of God was poured out on all its members, so while there is continuity between Old and New in that the New fulfills all the promises of the Old, the New Covenant community is not a mixed community. I rejected infant baptism because Paedobaptists talked about admitting non-Christians (infants) to the covenant community through baptism, which seemed completely out of step with the nature of the New Covenant community as I understood it.

Covenant theology wasn’t fully convincing to me on baptism because it didn’t adequately address the idea that non-Christians were being welcomed into the church.

Here’s how that all changed.

An Outline of the Shift In My Thinking

My journey to infant baptism was part of a broader paradigm shift taking place in my theology from an individual salvation paradigm to a more global understanding of the work of God in Christ by the Spirit. The following is a trail of arguments I hadn’t encountered before which I will outline under various topics with related questions.

1. Rethinking the Idea of a “Credible Profession of Faith”

“What constitutes a valid or credible profession of faith?”

As I wrestled with this question, it became clear that I had stricter requirements and higher expectations that raised the bar for entrance into the visible church higher than what we see in the New Testament. There seems to be an eagerness to receive people into the church in the New Testament due to a trust that discipleship and church discipline would expose false converts.

Consider the apostles’ readiness to baptize at Pentecost in Acts 2 or Simon the Magician in Acts 8. The Apostles didn’t always get it exactly right by baptizing only genuine believers. Even fellow workers of Paul fell away (1 Tim.1:18-20 and 2 Tim. 4:10, 16). I came to believe I was too afraid to get it wrong, to baptize an unbeliever. I should be more concerned about discouraging new/young/immature believers by not admitting them to the church because they are incapable of providing an adult explanation of the gospel.

This article by Vern Poythress was helpful in distinguishing between rigorism and indifferentism (the problem at the opposite end of the spectrum).

John Starke (a Baptist) argues we should be eager to affirm evidence of faith rather than skeptically cautious, allowing the process of discipleship and church discipline to address potentially false faith.

“How do we determine whether or not a person has faith if they are incapable of providing a mature profession of faith (i.e. the mentally handicapped, the infirm, those with memory loss, infants)?”

Not all Baptists are bothered by this question because they (rightly) argue baptism is not necessary for salvation. So they see no harm in excluding people in this category from the visible church.

I wasn’t and am not comfortable with this idea because it excludes from the community of faith, the community which serves as a kingdom outpost on earth pointing people to the kingdom, those who are vital to that witness. Jesus himself points to little children to teach about the kingdom and commands us to become like them.

The standard requirement of a credible confession of faith for baptism and entrance into the visible church ends up excluding everyone who is not an adult of good health, mental ability, and rational development.

2. The Family as a Covenant Community

As I pastor, I’ve done a bit of teaching on marriage and family. For years, I sought to show congregants that the family is a covenant community, that is, a community formed through promises with specific responsibilities and blessings. Children enter this community, not by making promises, but by birth. They are responsible to live into their covenant responsibilities even though they had no choice in the matter. Furthermore, they receive the blessings of the covenant never having made a decision to join the family.

I also began to see that the New Testament had little to no teaching on parenting. That seemed odd until I realized that the apostles assume the wealth of Old Testament teachings are sufficient under the New Covenant. The picture of the family and of parenting in the Old Testament rests on the assumption that the children are part of the covenant community of God, are already on the path of the fear of the Lord, are to be instructed throughout life to continue on that path, and are warned not to depart from that path. In other words, in the Old Testament, the children of believers are considered little believers who must be encouraged, taught, and disciplined in the faith, not pagans who must be converted. Nothing in the New Testament suggests this assumption should be abandoned; in fact, the New Testament refers and alludes to the Old Testament with regard to parenting.

“So, is there, then, apart from a credible confession of faith, other evidence that can serve as a credible reason to consider a person a Christian?”

Yes, if a person is born into a believing household, it is right to assume they are already believers and should be nurtured in the faith rather than evangelized.

“Doesn’t this deny that children are born sinners, hostile to God, absent of faith?”

No. This affirms that children are born in sin, but it recognizes faith as trust that grows in understanding. As soon as a child begins to receive the love and care of his parents, he is exercising trust. And when a child trusts in his Christian parents who have been placed by God over him in the covenant of the family (or, sent to him by God, we might say), he is trusting in God himself (cf. Mt. 10:40).

This shouldn’t surprise us because the same God who redeems is the God who has created and providentially sustains. God has created the family to work this way where children come to love what parents love, believe what parents believe, and hope for what parents hope for. Notice how children usually become fans of the same sports teams as their parents, adopt many of the same hobbies, enjoy the same music and foods, and come to share the same religious beliefs. God made the world to work this way, and redemption usually runs along this same course.

Now, of course, this doesn’t always last, and there can be all sorts of sin and pain in a family that leads to hatred, fragmentation, or a low-grade distrust. In other words, not all children continue in the way of their parents. That’s good for those who are born in non-Christian families. They can believe the gospel and join God’s family. And of course, sadly, Christians don’t always see their children remain in the faith.

So there is no guarantee that a child of believers will remain in the faith, and thus, we never know for sure that a child born to Christians has faith. But that is also true of those who give a credible profession of faith as adults. They also can turn away at a later time. We cannot ever be sure, but we can try to look at credible evidence that a person is a believer.

“Doesn’t Scripture teach that faith comes from hearing the Word of God? How can a person become a believer without hearing the gospel?”

Certainly, the ordinary way people outside the covenant community develop faith is through the proclamation of the gospel, which is what I think Scripture speaks to in places like Romans 10:17. But this is not a restrictive statement about the only way faith in Jesus is brought about by the Holy Spirit.

“Does Scripture teach that Jesus will divide families and warn that being born into a God-fearing family shouldn’t create the assumption that we’re saved?”

Yes. But the very reason why Jesus teaches that his disciples must love him and hate their family is because our loyalties to our families are naturally so strong that they can jeopardize faithfulness to Jesus. He is speaking to the danger inherent in this deep sociological reality that children tend to grow into the faith (whatever it might be in) of their parents.

And yes, it’s true that we shouldn’t merely assume we are Christians just because our parents are Christians while we don’t personally trust in Jesus and while we go about doing whatever we want. But notice the person who gives a credible profession as an adult and is baptized should also not assume they are born again if they continue in unrepentance. In other words, the Bible regularly warns against presumption when a person assumes they know God because they belong to the visible covenant community but remain far from God in heart and disobedient in action. The Bible doesn’t reject the assumption that the children of believers are Christians. It does warn everyone not to presume upon God when their hearts are far from him.

3. Reconciling Covenant Theology with New Covenant Theology

My problem with Covenant Theology and Presbyterians was always the idea that they would let unbelievers into the covenant community. But I learned this isn’t the only way Presbyterians have understood how it works. There is a long history of the view I have laid out (See Lewis Bevens Schenck’s The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant) that existed before American Revivalism which altered the way Evangelicals thought about conversion. In the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, Evangelicals adopted the idea that a person is not a Christian until he or she has a conscious moment when he or she experiences a radical conversion.

As I have talked with Presbyterians, I have come to see that most of them do regard their kids as little Christians. They teach them to pray, “Our Father, in heaven…,,” to repent of their sin, and to trust in God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ. However, most Presbyterians today encourage and still look for a time where the child seems to come to a clearer understanding of grace and personally appropriate the promises of the gospel as an important marker in their spiritual journey (a sort of confirmation that usually involves starting to take communion). But even before this, Presbyterians consider their children unconfirmed Christians.

I tend to think this is overly scrupulous. As I’ve said, the kids who are baptized are not really in a different position than every other baptized adult. We’re all unconfirmed until we persevere. We’re all growing in our understanding of God and grace. I’ve personally had several “breakthrough” seasons in my life where it was as if I learned the faith anew or saw a huge breakthrough in a struggle against a particular sin. Each one would probably be considered a conversion by many Baptists, but I understand these to be dramatic moments of growth in understanding and in grace. I don’t know when this process began for me because I can’t remember a time I didn’t believe in God and in his Son.

Baptism doesn’t guarantee the baptized is born again. Nor does it mean the baptized no longer needs to be called to repentance and faith in the gospel.

“Are Covenant and New Covenant Theology different?”

Yes and no. Covenant Theology emphasizes the continuity of the biblical covenants, in particular, noting that the New Covenant is the fruition of the Abrahamic Covenant. In other words, those who are in Christ have become Abraham’s children, children of the promise that was given to him. Additionally, it emphasizes the mixed nature of the covenant community. There are both believers and unbelievers in the visible community until Christ returns.

New Covenant Theology emphasizes the way this fulfillment goes beyond the covenants of the Old Testament. For example, it emphasizes the presence of the Holy Spirit in the whole community rather than special anointed figures, and it emphasizes the global makeup of this community through the inclusion of the Gentiles. All who have faith are included in the covenant community, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, but only because of faith in Christ.

These differences seem huge, but I believe they’re really only a matter of emphasis. Covenant Theology is right to note that the visible church is a mixed community. Certainly, there are people in it that do not know God personally. New Covenant Theology is right to point to the assumption throughout the New Testament that those who have been baptized have the Spirit and are in Christ. This is, of course, speaking of the connection between the two but not guaranteeing that both are true of each person, for even Baptists acknowledge there are false converts in the visible church. The question then becomes, “But should we admit people we know aren’t Christians to the community?” Both agree the answer is no. The difference is how we regard our children. If we presume they are little Christians by God’s grace through the covenant community of the family, which is the means by which they receive the covenant of grace, then the differences between the two disappear.

“Is there a connection between circumcision and baptism and if so, does baptism replace circumcision?”

Yes. Just as circumcision served as a sign and seal of the Abrahamic Covenant which visibly marked out the covenant community, so also is baptism the sign and seal of the New Covenant which marks out those who belong to God as recipients of his promises. Circumcision signified God’s promise to bless Abraham’s seed, to remove spiritual uncleanness from God’s people, and to cut off of all those who break covenant with God. Baptism signifies our ingrafting into Christ, regeneration, the washing and forgiveness of sin, consecration for God, sonship, and new resurrection life.

Both circumcision and baptism signify the promises of God given to Abraham but finally fulfilled in Jesus. Circumcision was a shadow sign. Baptism is a sign of the reality. Both circumcision and baptism seal God’s pledge to give the blessings to all who believe. Both mark out God’s people in the world. Both signified realities that had to be appropriated by faith by the covenant community. Circumcision called for circumcised hearts; baptism calls for hearts made new by the Holy Spirit. So baptism replaces circumcision because it signifies the fulfillment of what circumcision anticipated.

Both should be applied to the children of believers, considered members of the covenant already on the path of the fear of the Lord, and both call the person to live into the reality by faith.

4. Faith and Identity Formation: Western Individualism & the Bible

Another key aspect of my shift flows from what I’d been learning from Charles Taylor, Robert Putnam, James K.A. Smith, Alastair Roberts, and Tim Keller about the Modern Western formation of personal identity. In short, I’d been raised to think of my identity as something I personally had to discover, choose, form, and authentically express. These thinkers, in various ways, have shown that this is a unique approach to identity formation differing from almost every other culture in the history of the world. Everywhere else, identity is largely determined by those that come before you (family, community, and culture). It is assigned, received, and embraced as a calling to embody. Rather than looking inward and constantly fighting to throw off the expectations of culture which threaten to prevent me from being me, most people throughout history have looked outside of themselves and sought to conform to their given roles. This makes sense at face value. People tend to believe what their family believes, love what their culture loves, and imitate the morality of their community.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the Bible shares the latter perspective. Western Individualism cannot comprehend the way individuals are treated according to the group of which they are a part. This corporate responsibility is not absolute, for people can reject their received identity. Fortunately, those outside God’s covenant community can reject their former ways and embrace the God of Israel. Sadly, those raised in the covenant community can apostatize. But the assumption of the Bible is that children receive and live into the identity of their parents.

With regard to baptism, consider how Modern Western identity formation has impacted our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. The Evangelical church has largely embraced an unbiblical understanding of identity formation by insisting that a person raised by a Christian family does not share in that Christian identity and must have a conversion experience in order to be credibly considered a Christian. While I appreciate the danger of nominalism and sinful presumption, this concern shouldn’t lead us to overturn the Biblical pattern that God works redemption through families. Salvation comes to households (Acts 16:31).

In this light, the question of household baptisms becomes clear. Credobaptists often downplay the household baptisms or remark that in a few cases, it says the whole household believed. The assumption they carry is that the household must have only included people old enough to “hear and receive the word” so that they could give a credible profession of faith. Paedobaptists often counter by arguing that this is highly unlikely and that some of the household baptisms make no mention of each person receiving the word. Therefore, there must have been infants in some of these households that were baptized. This debate faces an impasse as long as both sides assume infants cannot have faith.

But once we see that our Western Individualism has blinded us to the reality that identity formation has a huge corporate component, household baptisms make sense. Salvation comes to households because the identity of every member of the household will be linked to the head of the community. Not absolutely in every case with every individual always. But the reigning assumption of Scripture is that when Jesus comes to a household, he transforms everyone there.

The practice of naming children gives us some insight here. A father (and mother) names his son or daughter, giving the family name and assigning the identity. Then he nurtures and admonishes the child to grow up into that identity. The father doesn’t wait until the child grows up and chooses to belong to the family before giving the family name. So it is with baptism. The children of believers are washed in the Triune name, assigning the child a Christian identity into which they grow as they are nurtured and admonished along the way.

5. Other Pieces Related to the Question of Baptism

“Doesn’t the word baptism (baptízō) mean ‘to immerse’?

Yes, generally it does. But there are examples in the New Testament of the word being used for other sorts of modes of washing with water. In 1 Corinthians 10:2, Paul uses it to describe Israel’s journey through the waters during the Exodus. In Hebrews 9:10, the word is used to describe various ritual washings. The baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5 & 2:17) was a pouring out of the Spirit. So it doesn’t only mean to immerse.

“Isn’t it true that the clear examples of baptism in the New Testament follow conversion? And doesn’t that suggest it’s the only biblical conclusion to draw from the pattern?”

Yes, it’s true the clear examples of baptism in the New Testament follow conversion, but this shouldn’t surprise us for two reasons. First of all, the New Testament (especially books like Acts) tells the story of the growth of the church as it extends to people outside the covenant of faith. We don’t hear stories of the next generation, but it makes sense that these new Christians would treat their children just as the Old Testament saints treated theirs. Second, the New Testament records a time of transition from Old to New Covenant. So circumcised Jews that came to believe Jesus is the Messiah had to receive the New Covenant sign of baptism. This means there was an unusually large amount of baptisms in response to the preached word.

The examples in the New Testament are not prescribing the timing of all baptisms. They record the transition from Old to New and show us how those outside the covenant community come to join it. But this in no way replaces the Old Testament assumption that the children of believers are part of the covenant community and should receive the covenant sign of baptism.

“Isn’t Baptism supposed to be the way a person individually identifies with Jesus, proclaiming to the world that he believes in Jesus?”

No, that is not primarily what is communicated in baptism. This is a common but misguided way of thinking of baptism which emphasizes the action of the one baptized over the communication and act of God through the sign. In baptism (as in the Lord’s Table), it is primarily, first and foremost, God who speaks. He signifies and promises. The subject of baptism is passive and it is only in a derivative way that baptism identifies the person as a member of God’s family.

To return to the example above, a father names his child. The child is identified with the father’s family, but it is not the child that makes this identification. A name is given by another.

So it’s a mistake when credobaptists talk about baptism as a person’s opportunity to proclaim their faith publicly or a symbol of a person’s faith. God is the one who proclaims in baptism. He signifies and promises, which is to be met with faith by the subject of baptism and the church community as a whole.

“Since Jesus commands us to be baptized, isn’t it the responsibility of each person to decide to obey by publicly identifying with Jesus through baptism.”

Usually, when credobaptists claim that baptism is commanded by Jesus, they are referring to the Great Commission in Matthew 28. But notice, Jesus is commanding his apostles (and consequently, the elders of his church) to baptize as the means of making disciples. Strictly speaking, he didn’t command all Christians to be baptized. He commands his officers to baptize. In other words, baptism is a sign and seal given to the church to administer faithfully. To receive the church’s proclamation of the gospel is to submit to baptism, but it’s not quite right that baptism is a command that each individual must choose to undergo.

“Since baptism pictures spiritual realities brought by the Holy Spirit, it shouldn’t be applied to those who do not possess the reality.”

I’ve already addressed this argument in several ways above. First, we cannot ever be certain a person is a true believer until he or she perseveres. So the question becomes, how sure must we be? What counts as credible evidence the person is a believer? As I have explained above, membership in a household of believers gives us credible evidence the person is a believer. But this confidence cannot ever be absolute, just as in the case of an adult who gives a credible profession.

Second, circumcision also pictured spiritual realities brought about by the Holy Spirit, namely, a circumcised heart. Yet, circumcision was applied to children even though it was possible the child was not and would not be a believer as he grew up.

Summing It All Up

The authors of the New Testament regard the children of believers as recipients of God’s promises (Acts 2:39), “holy” (1 Cor. 7:14), “in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1), and “little ones who believe in [Jesus]” (Mt. 18:5-6). In short, the operating assumption of the New Testament is that the children of believers, like other members of the visible church, are Christians.

The credobaptist argument that baptism should follow faith rests, in large part, on the premise that infants cannot be considered believers. Once I began to reconsider what I had assumed about children, identity formation, households, and the covenantal nature of redemption, infant baptism began to make sense. The examples of baptism and calls to be baptized that we find in the New Testament should not be surprising since they are directed at those outside the covenant community. But these examples do not prescribe the way all people should approach baptism. Just like the saints of the Old Testament, our children should be recognized and raised as covenant members.

In the end, I think “Reformed” Baptists who hold to New Covenant Theology differ from Covenant Theology far less than it appears at first glance. Both traditions emphasize different considerations and settle at an impasse because they both tend to assume the children of believers cannot presumably be Christians. However, a more consistent reading of the Old Covenant and a closer look at the Reformed tradition shows that covenant children should be treated like little baby Christians.

Interestingly, this solves another long debated theological conundrum. What happens to the children of believers who die in infancy? Almost all Christians want to say they are with the Lord, but few have a defensible reason why they can say that. Now we can see it’s appropriate to assume they are with the Lord like other believers who die (See the Westminister Confession of Faith, 10-3). That’s not a reason to adopt paedobaptism, but it’s a wonderful consequence of the position.

As I said above, I haven’t sought to make a thorough argument here, so I welcome pushback, challenge, questions, and comments.

Additional Related Reading:

Alastair Robert’s excellent post about his journey to adopting infant baptism.

The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism edited by Gregg Strawbridge

 

 

On the Question of Baptists Rejecting Paedobaptism but Accepting Paedobaptists to Membership – Part 2

The Twitter discussion started in December 2018 regarding catholicity and the practice of Baptists rejecting those baptized as infants from membership has gone several rounds. Gavin Ortlund (1 & 2), Jonathan Leeman (1 & 2), and Joe Rigney have all made important contributions. Andrew Wilson added his thoughts this morning, making a distinction between rejecting someone from membership and refusing to admit someone to the Table. My last post and brief interaction with Leeman in the comments pressed into the inconsistency of ecclesial judgments by a Baptist church allowing a person to preach but not to eat at the Table.

Here’s a survey of the issues involved as I see it.

What is baptism?

I’ve argued, along with Joe Rigney and Gavin Ortlund, that baptism, in its essence, is the washing with water in the Triune name by a lawfully ordained minister.

Leeman argues that baptism includes, in its essence, subjective faith on the part of the baptized. In other words, unless a person has faith before being washed with water in the Triune name, it isn’t baptism at all.

If Baptists make a distinction between the essence of baptism and what they consider to be the proper timing (and possibly mode) of baptism, then they can admit those baptized as infants to membership on the grounds that their baptism is valid though improper.

What is church membership?

I’ve argued that church membership publicly recognizes Christians to the world, and so all Christians should be admitted to membership in any church. In other words, churches must not construct obstacles to membership based on their theological distinctives, vision, or values. A church may carry out a ministry in theologically and practically distinct ways, but any Christian should be accepted into membership since excluding them from membership would be declaring them outside the kingdom.

Leeman, along with Wilson, has argued that excluding a person from membership who cannot accept the theological convictions of the church is necessary for local cohesion and theological integrity. In other words, Leeman’s church recognizes there are other Christians out there, but not all of them would be able to join his church because they don’t share his theology, vision, and values. Joining a church should, in his opinion, involve adopting the theology and submitting to the authority of the local church.

Is rebaptism ever acceptable?

I’ve argued that rebaptism is never acceptable. To rebaptize is to delegitimize the church that previously baptized the person which is inherently destructive to catholicity. In rebaptizing a person, a church declares that the individual never entered the visible church and was not publicly identified as a Christian up until the point of the rebaptism.

Rigney has argued for accepting those baptized as infants into membership without needing to be rebaptized (since the paedobaptism is valid though improper), but he added that he would perform a baptism that would serve as a  “proper fulfillment of the previous improper baptism.”

Leeman would rebaptize someone who was previously washed as an infant (considered an invalid baptism) and also the person who was baptized upon a profession of faith but later came to think he wasn’t really a believer at the time.

Is there a difference between receiving a person to the Table and receiving a person into church membership?

I’ve argued that the two are inseparable. To admit a person to the Table is to recognize the person as a Christian. To admit a person to membership is to recognize the person as a Christian, which means that excluding them from membership or the Table declares the judgment that the person is not a Christian.

Wilson argues Baptists should admit someone “baptized” as an infant to the Table (since the person is truly a Christian) but not to membership (since the person doesn’t agree with the theology, vision, and values of the local church).

Leeman argues Baptists should not admit someone “baptized” as an infant to the Table (because he isn’t validly baptized at all), nor should they admit the person to membership (again, because he isn’t validly baptized at all).

Conclusion: What’s the significance of these disagreements, and why do we have these divisions?

Leeman made his take clear:

In response to your word “discordant,” yes, I acknowledge the tension. And that tension exists as a result of my trying to accommodate the theological and moral error of infant baptism.

In other words, from Leeman’s perspective, this whole mess rests solely on the shoulders of those of us who baptize babies. If we’d get baptism right, then there’d be no problems surrounding membership, Table fellowship, and catholicity among churches.

But that gets to the heart of the issue. Catholicity is something we have in Christ and then must seek to live out amidst our inevitable disagreements. We can’t fall back on theological unity as the solution to catholicity. We must ask, how do we live unified as Christians recognizing different branches of the church even though we have real differences. The sacrament/ordinance of baptism is an enormous symbol of Christian unity, and it strikes me as highly problematic that Baptists like Leeman are unwilling to recognize a distinction between a valid baptism and an improper baptism.

The significance of the disagreement is huge. Baptists that rebaptize undercut the very meaning of baptism and the validity of other churches. Baptists that exclude from membership everyone who does not line up with the theology, values, and vision of the local church erect barriers to Christian fellowship, the assurance of salvation church membership offers, and ongoing access to the means of grace. This may not seem like a big deal in the US where there are plenty of churches to join, but imagine a church that excluded a paedobaptized Christian in a place where there was only one church. Consider the implications of that. Leeman’s position (and Wilson’s too) only “works” in contexts where there is an abundance of churches. But it would be downright cruel to hold that position in other parts of the world.

It’s not the theological error of paedobaptism that causes all these problems but foregrounding a narrow definition of baptism above all other theological concerns. The inconsistencies (like a church inviting a Presbyterian to preach but who cannot take communion or join that church) and sectarian implications (the vast majority of Christians throughout history have not, on their view, entered the visible church) should press on Baptists like Leeman to conclude that there must be a mistake in their priorities, pressing for consistency in the wrong area while accepting the wrong tensions.

 

On the Question of Baptists Rejecting Paedobaptism but Accepting Paedobaptists to Membership

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been in a debate on Twitter with Jonathan Leeman of 9Marks (and many others) that arose out of a discussion about Baptists and catholicity. The debate centered on the question of whether or not Baptists should require those baptized (washed) as infants to be (re)baptized in order to join Baptist churches.

I’ve been arguing that, even though Baptists believe credobaptism is correct, they should consider infant baptisms valid. This would make Baptists churches more fully catholic in that 1) they’d recognize the vast majority of Christians throughout history have, in fact, entered the visible church through baptism, and 2) they’d recognize in their practice that churches who baptize infants are proper churches.

Two Baptists, Joe Rigney and Gavin Ortlund, have both chimed in and argued this same way: infant baptism is valid yet improper. A Twitter conversation moved to the blogosphere at Mere Orthodoxy: Ortlund, Round 1, Leeman’s Response, and Ortlund, Round 2.

I am late to responding to Leeman’s response and Ortlund already posted his latest (Round 2) this morning, with which I largely agree. Leeman is wrong to suggest he represents the true and single Baptist position (faith is of the essence of baptism), and his argument opens the door to multiple rebaptisms and to Donatism.

I am a Presbyterian who baptizes babies, but being a former Baptist, this question has long held my attention because I have, for a long time, tried to work out a consistent view and practice of ecclesiology, church membership, sacraments, and catholicity (I was strongly influenced by 9Marks before finally becoming a convinced paedobaptist), and because I am surrounded by Baptists in my city and in my friendships.

I think there is a lot more to be said about the line of argument examining the “essence/accident” or “valid by not proper” distinction. Leeman himself thinks this should be the focus of the debate. I don’t think the verses Leeman cited prove his case. At best, they show baptism should follow faith, but they certainly don’t prove faith is of the essence of baptism. That argument is for another post.

However, I want to make one observation I think Ortlund only touched on in his post this morning. It won’t settle the issue, but I think playing out the implications of Leeman’s argument in this direction may cause him to look back further upstream at how he is piecing together his convictions.

The Unity Objection

Leeman admits he may not be taking church membership seriously enough. I don’t think he is because he excludes from church membership people he considers to be Christians. Excluding Christians from church membership is a serious problem because doing so is how a church communicates publicly that a person is not a Christian.

In short, he is saying in practice (by excluding them from membership), “This person is not a Christian” while saying verbally, “This person is a Christian.”

For example, Leeman says, “I am absolutely happy to affirm that many of my friends who were baptized as babies are Christians. Frankly, I might have more confidence in some of their conversions than my own!” This is good and right and perhaps even a picture of humble charity. However, he goes on to say that baptism is a command of Jesus and that the person who refuses to be baptized upon a profession of faith is refusing to obey Jesus. If it’s true that the person is “disobeying Jesus,” then to be consistent, he must conclude that the person should not be considered a Christian. Yet Leeman does not want to say this. He’ll deny that they can join his church (which communicates the person isn’t a Christian) but still claim they are Christians.

Leeman values consistency very highly, but this appears to be a blind spot.

If we were discussing any other sin, Leeman would consider ongoing refusal to obey as evidence that a person is not a Christian (read his book on Church discipline). For instance, a person who continues in adultery would not just be prohibited from joining Leeman’s church but would also not be considered a Christian.

Now Leeman tried to give himself an out here by raising the category of unintentional sin. But as Ortlund pointed out this morning, it is hard to see how a person can be refusing to do something they are unintentionally failing to do. Additionally, many paedobaptists are not refusing credobaptism unintentionally or ignorantly. They are intentionally, cognizantly, and willfully refusing to be (re)baptized.

If Leeman is correct that faith is of the essence of baptism, then the Christian identity of the person who refuses to be baptized as a professed believer should be up for grabs.

Leeman has suggested we Presbyterians also refuse to let Christians join our churches if they are unbaptized. But now we can see that isn’t true and that the Baptist is in a unique position. A person who refuses baptism would not be considered a Christian by a Presbyterian. However, Leeman wants to say a Christian can go on being unbaptized but cannot join his church.

Is Leeman willing to be consistent on this point both in practice and in what he says? I don’t think so. Thankfully, he wants to stop short of saying that all profession Christians baptized as infants are not really Christians.

The only option for him then is to accept what many other Baptists have acknowledged. Faith is not of the essence of baptism. Christians baptized as infants have been validly baptized, and they should, therefore, be welcomed as members in Baptist churches.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Character Gap

Turn on the news, survey social media, or glance at the comments section of any major Internet article and you’ll probably notice we live in an extremely polarized time. It’d be easy to conclude that the world can neatly be divided into good and bad people. If we stop to think about it, we’ll probably realize we tend to think this way, grouping ourselves and our friends and family in the good people category.

Dr. Christian Miller’s The Character Gap: How Good Are We? complicates this simplistic character gapdivision of the world, arguing very few of us possess good or bad character. Most of us are more or less in the middle: not as good as we’d like to think but not morally wretched either. Miller is a philosophy professor at Wake Forest University and Project Leader of the Character Project, an interdisciplinary academic exploration of character by scholars in the fields of philosophy, psychology, and theology.

Despite the academic context from which this book developed, it’s clearly written and easy to follow. You don’t have to have training in the disciplines above in order to appreciate the book. The simple structure and conversational writing style make the arguments easy to follow. Miller is warm, inviting, and self-effacing, and though he makes a clear case in the book, he’s charitable to opposing viewpoints or potential arguments and ideas against him. It’s an interesting book filled with great stories and examples that will keep your attention.

Purpose and Survey

The reason for the book, and indeed the Character Project as a whole, seems to be to encourage readers to pursue growth in good character. The Character Gap has three parts aimed at answering several questions to that end.

Part 1 has two chapters. The first explains what Miller means by good character. He argues that a person has good character when possessing virtue, which “when acquired becomes a relatively stable feature of our character and leads to relevant motivation and behavior over an extended period of time” (p. 13-14). In other words, a virtuous person performs good action in a variety of situations for the right reasons as a pattern of behavior over a sustained period of time.

The second chapter highlights the gap between good character and our actual character and then gives reasons why we should try to develop virtue: 1) it’s inspiring, 2) it makes the world a better place, 3) there seems to be wide agreement among different religions that God wants you to, and 4) good character can be rewarding.

Part 2 seeks to establish the main proposal of the book—that most of us are not virtuous or wretched—by drawing conclusions from research on our character with a focus on four particular behaviors: helping, harming, lying, and cheating. Chapters 3-6 look at research on each of these behaviors. For instance, in chapter 4 on harming, Miller makes some fascinating observations about how fear of consequences restrains aggressive behavior and about the role legitimate authority plays in our decisions to harm another person. The studies he cites suggest that the more responsibility a person feels, the less willing they are to inflict pain on another. He concludes most people do not have proper restraint on their aggression, but that most people aren’t cruel either (p. 99). Each of these chapters surveys the research, examines how differing motivating factors affect behavior, and ends with the same conclusion: most of us aren’t good or bad. Miller does a great job in these chapters interacting in engaging and thought-provoking ways with studies that might otherwise be dry and unstimulating to most people. Chapter 7 concludes part 2 by collecting 7 lessons from the previous chapters to tell the story of our character (p. 143-160).

Part 3 tackles the problem of the character gap by proposing what we can do to grow in virtue. Chapter 8 charitably critiques less promising strategies of character growth, noting some of the good these approaches can make. Miller offers three strategies in chapter 9 that show better promise. He notes we need to utilize multiple strategies to be effective but admits none of them will truly work unless we are properly motivated to want to grow. This leads to the final chapter where Miller makes a gracious invitation to irreligious people to consider the role and resources of religion in character development (p. 219-220). In particular, he suggests Christianity offers at least three things that facilitate virtue: 1) Christian rituals and practices like prayer, confession, scripture reading, giving, fasting, and worship, 2) Christian community, and 3) divine assistance by the Holy Spirit. Miller doesn’t take for granted his readers will be readily open to this approach. So while he acknowledges practicing Christianity cannot be proven to cause virtuous behavior, he argues studies do suggest a correlation between them (p. 239). The book closes with a short expression of hope that more research and work will be done in the field.

Evaluation

The Character Gap has much to offer any willing reader open to challenge and change. By even writing the book, Miller encourages and even resources readers toward good character. He offers inspiration, information, and strategies to grow. He dispels false notions of our own virtue and encourages humility and compassion towards those we might assume lack virtue, which is especially important in these polarized times. The book is well researched, and as I mentioned above, Miller presents his research in engaging ways. Especially in part 2, the book contains many fascinating observations about human behavior. I was particularly interested in several of the lessons he drew in chapter 7.

  • Most people behave admirably in some situations and then deplorably in others (p. 146ff).
  • Our changing moral behavior is extremely sensitive to features of the environment, and often we do not even realize what those features are (p. 148ff).
  • Most of us act with mixed motives (p. 152).
  • Sometimes we are not aware of an unconscious motive behind action, and we might be completely wrong in our understanding of our own motives (p. 153).

Finally, it was surprising and refreshing to find an academic integrating his own faith into his work on such a subject in a humble and gracious way. Not everyone will agree with this part of his book, but objections with this part of his book shouldn’t take away from the rest of it.

Though it has much to offer, The Character Gap left me scratching my head on a few accounts.   First, there is little to no argument made as to what qualifies as good behavior and why. Early in the book, Miller explains he will focus on uncontroversial examples of virtue (p. 7). While it’s helpful to see there has been widespread historical agreement on what behavior is considered good, Miller appears to beg the question. As another reviewer pointed out, “the booked does little to highlight the need for an underlying philosophical foundation for morality.” Many have argued, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, that differing accounts of morality are the result of diverse metanarratives, yet Miller seems to assume all readers are operating out of the same grand story. Given pluralism, this seems a problematic assumption.

Second, Miller suggests that virtue is not motivated by self-interest (p. 13). However, when explaining why we should be good, several of the reasons he offers are grounded, at bottom I’d argue, in self-interest. For instance, why should we pursue being good just because God wants us to unless we are interested in pleasing God? Also, isn’t the desire to make the world a better place grounded in our desire to enjoy a better world or, at least, to have the satisfaction of knowing we made the world a better place? Or finally and most obviously, isn’t pursuing good character because it can be rewarding clearly self-interested (p. 43)? Now Miller seems to try to avoid this conclusion by distinguishing between the goal of good behavior, which should be others-oriented, and the by-product of good behavior, individual reward (p. 47). However, I’m not so sure this distinction lets him off the hook. Later on, Miller returns to the question of motives, and he asserts that egoism—the idea that we are always motivated by self-interest—is clearly false, asserting that we can also be motivated by duty, altruism, and a number of different motives all at once (p. 150-153). Miller, no doubt, did not have time in this book to dive into a huge debate in the philosophy of ethics about motivation, so I can’t fault him. But further work on character will probably require deeper treatment of this issue.

Third, I wonder if there’s a flaw in the method of obtaining support for the main proposal that most of us are not good or bad. This thesis is supported by the studies explored in part 2. However, at the very beginning when Miller explains what character is, he makes the point that “mere behavior, no matter how consistent it might be, is never enough by itself to indicate good character…It’s hard to tell whether someone is truly virtuous” (p12). As far as I can tell, he makes this claim for two reasons. First, we cannot always discern the motivation behind an act. Second, one act, by itself, does not give us enough information about a person to establish a pattern. It seems, then, the studies Miller explores throughout the book cannot reliably tell us about the character status of the persons involved. Most of the studies cited involve single acts where no motive can be certainly discerned. I’m not sure the empirical methodology can do the work Miller asks, but this concern may only reflect my own limitations in understanding research methodology.

Conclusion

My questions aside, I happily commend this book. We could all use some encouragement to pursue virtuous character, and there are some good tools in this book to help us move in that direction. Furthermore, the topic is one we sorely need to discuss more as a society preoccupied with technique, efficiency, consuming, and entertainment. I’m grateful for Miller’s work, and if you take the time to get a copy and read it, I suspect you will be too.

[Disclaimer: I should note that I majored in philosophy at Wake Forest University before the author started teaching there. However, I do know the author personally, and I received a free copy of this book by the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.]

Top Christian Podcast Recommendations

I had a meeting this morning with a congregant who asked for podcast recommendations that could help him grow in his understanding of the Bible, Christianity, and the Christian life. I realized I am being asked this more and more often. Podcasts seem to be a great medium for the age of the smart-phone commuter. That’s why we started one at Trinity.

I’d love to hear of other recommendations, but here’s a list of the podcasts I find most helpful:

  • Tim Keller’s Gospel in Life sermon feed
  • The Salem Presbyterian Church sermon feed
  • The Bible Project – A collection of in-depth conversations about the Bible, theology, and history
  • The Allender Center – Features Dr. Dan Allender and his team engaging topics on healing and restoration through the unique intersection of theology and psychology
  • Center for Faith and Work – Exploring and investigating the gospel’s unique power to renew hearts, communities, and the world, in and through our day-to-day work
  • Vocation and the Common Good – featuring a variety of Christians whose vocational pursuits have led to meaningful contributions to culture and the common good
  • Risen Motherhood – A weekly podcast for moms
  • Unbelievable – Engaging in fundamental questions on Christianity with the intention to openly discussing different opinions between Christians and non-believers

I hope you find them helpful too!