Review: Beginning with God: A Basic Introduction to the Christian Faith by James W. Sire

 

(Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy of this book!)

Sire, James W. Beginning with God: A Basic Introduction to the Christian Faith. Downersgrove, IL: Intervarsity, 2017. 189 pp. $8.57.

“In explaining the Christian faith, we can begin almost anywhere, for Christianity relates to the whole of life – the outer world of natural science, the inner world of the human psyche, society at large, and individuals in particular. In short, we could begin with God, with people, or with the universe.” (15)

James W. Sire holds a PhD from University of Missouri and is the author of many books including The Universe Next Door and Naming the Elephant. My first exposure to the concept of worldviews came through a recommendation of Sire’s work. Hence I went into this book expecting it to pertain to worldviews or philosophy with a strong apologetic bent. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find something a bit different.

The first chapter begins with a focus on us, and in particular, our names (15-26). We are not our own, but stem from the past, from family, and from society, with no control over our birthplace, parents, social background, genetics, biology, or nurture (26). We are apparently trapped by nature and nurture. Sire concludes, “This indeed is our status if nothing of us transcends our physical-cultural existence. If our lives are ever to have value and meaning, if we are to have dignity as human beings, we must find a way out of this box.” (28) Sire argues Christianity provides just that.

Chapter two distinguishes between Creator and creation before explaining that human beings are created in the image of God and hence distinct from the rest of creation (30-41). Thus, “the first factor preventing us from feeling boxed in is the notion that human beings are created in God’s image, the second factor is to realize the magnificence of the God in whose image we are created” (40). Chapter three contains a description of God as he revealed himself by name to Moses as recorded for us in the book of Exodus (43-53). Chapter four is a more systematic treatment of the attributes of God such as his self-existence, oneness, three-ness, omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence (54-62). God is also spirit, and personal, righteous, just, compassionate, merciful, and loving (63).

Chapter five focuses on what it means to be created in the image of God; not self-existent but derivative, not a Trinity but in need of community, not purely spirit but spiritual, and not Creator but created (67-70). Although we are not like God in virtue of our limitations, we do possess some power, some knowledge, and some presence, and we do reflect God in other ways as well (70-76). In the next chapter Sire draws attention to the fact that although God is good and created all things good, the world is bad (77-88). He outlines the (true) story of Adam and Eve’s temptation, sin, and fall, but notes there is still a presence of hope in the midst of darkness. The subsequent chapter goes into depth about how the fall affects every one of us in terms of our sin (88-99).

Chapter eight picks up on the theme of God’s concern for his people beginning in the garden and going on through such notable biblical figures as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Saul, David, Solomon, and the prophets (100-114). Chapter nine finishes this story by positing the cross as the main event of history since “it was there that God once and for all solved the human dilemma, the problem of sin and its consequence, death”  (115). The remainder of this chapter is a clear description of the gospel (115-123). The next chapter follows with a personal testimony and invitation to the reader to receive Christ (124-138). Going back to the image of God, chapter eleven explains that when we are born again, God begins to restore that image in us (140). This chapter is really a discussion of sanctification (139-151). Christianity, “while it involves a system of beliefs, is primarily about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God himself. For each of us to grow as Christians day by day, we must get to know and love him as a Person” (152). Thus chapter twelve is all about Jesus, an appropriate topic of discussion in relation to sanctification as addressed in the previous chapter (152-165).

Chapter thirteen further expands upon one’s identity in Christ, for “We now can see ourselves as Christians – men and women not only made in the image of God and fallen (as all people are) but also as redeemed and now in the process of restoration” (167). God has not redeemed us merely for ourselves, but places us in his family forever as one, a chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, God’s own, with many different gifts (166-178).

“The truth of the corporate nature of the church is balanced by the truth of its variegated character. The church is not like a bowl of mush with every scoop the same. It is more like a Persian rug, which, though almost infinite in variety, is yet one single whole.” (170)

Sire ends his book with the description John provides of the New Jerusalem in Revelation, writing, “If God brought the universe into existence by his word of power some vague and distant time in the past, it is also true that this universe will one day pass out of existence. The people he has made in his image, then redeemed and restored to his image, will live forever with him” (176).

Sire sets forth a basic explanation of Christian teaching in this book. He notes in the Preface that the book is not intended to function as an apologetic, is not the only explanation of the Christian faith, and “only scratches the surface of a very complex subject” (12). However, the book does provide a positive statement of the Christian worldview, reads like a lengthy (yet well written) gospel tract, and includes personal testimony. Sire’s approach is equal parts systematic, biblical, and practical theology with just the right amount of Scripture proof and quotation. There is also a heavy presence of Francis Schaeffer and Blaise Pascal in these pages, not only in the form of quotations opening many of the chapters, but in the form of apparent influence leading to the convicting, concise, yet compassionate presentation of the whole gospel for the whole person (if I might steal a line from Will Metzger). There are also reflection questions at the end of each chapter, making this a fantastic book to toss into the hands of an unbeliever, a new Christian, or to teach through in a discipleship setting in a church. I intend to use it in all of the aforementioned ways, and hope you will consider doing so as well.

How Dave Miller Saved the Southern Baptist Convention

Pastor Dave Miller is to be commended for his excellent work as president of the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference (hereafter PC). I’m too lazy to write out all the specific reasons why he should be commended, so I went all the way in the title. Too far, I’m sure.

Maybe.

Just hold that thought.

– – –

Dave Miller (hereafter DM) strikes me as a humble, experienced pastor. He edits SBCVoices, which I have found very helpful with respect to thinking through many of the rather unique ‘issues’ that arise in pastoral ministry.

I don’t know DM all that well, and he doesn’t really know me, so consider this a fairly objective (or at any rate unbiased) piece written from the perspective of someone who witnessed the fruits of his labor. Also, this was my first SBCPC, so I may be missing a lot. Please forgive my ignorance in advance. Here’s what I appreciated about the PC:

1. Expositional Preachers

Each pastor preached through a portion of the book of Philippians – verse by verse –
drawing out the point of the text, illustrating, and applying it. DM briefly commented upon the role of the Conservative Resurgence in producing such preaching, and he is spot on. Glory to God. Some of the preachers were more expositional in their approach than others. That’s not intended to be an insult, and I will leave it to the readers to decide who they were. But I will say that the future of the SBC is bright. That was obvious from the quality and conviction in the sermons of the younger preachers in particular.

2. Younger and Older Preachers

Of course, I don’t really know how old the pastors were. A few were older. Some looked much younger. And that’s all very good. The continuity of the message of Christ across generations is beautiful. (That sounds sappy, I know, but it gets me out of bed in the morning and motivates me to joyfully shepherd the sheep, many of whom are much older than I am, but share in the hope of Christ.)

3. Diverse Preachers

Diversity in the body of Christ is a beautiful thing, whether that’s in terms of age as above, or in terms of race/ethnicity. Let’s be honest, the SBC doesn’t have the best track record here. (That’s a serious understatement, to say the least.) But there’s hope, and the pastor’s conference this year illustrated that.

4. Female Preachers

Just kidding. There were no female pastors there. I’m just seeing how many “discernment ministries” still follow my blog.

4. “Small” Church Preachers

Small churches in the SBC aren’t small. Let’s say your church has one hundred members. That’s an average-sized SBC church. This realization brings death and life. It brings death to those who hope in numbers or fame regarding their churches or pastors, and it brings life to those who falter through discouragement due to lack of growth or numerical decline and loss of influence. While we are certainly thankful for larger churches and well-known pastors who faithfully preach the gospel, they are not the normal means God has chosen to use “for such a time as this.” The Caskey Center for Church Excellence not only sponsored the conference, but further stressed this normalcy of what are typically considered small Southern Baptist churches, causing the theme to bleed over into the activities of the rest of the week. This sentiment is a ‘solution’ for the obsession with numbers that was once even more prevalent in our churches, and for the fascination younger folks in particular have with ‘celebrity’ pastors who are by definition well-known and often at the helms of extremely large churches.

5. The Gettys

Need I explain this one?

– – –

We can paint a picture where the SBC is in decline, its members old and white, and society increasingly hostile to it. Whether that narrative is true or not,  this year’s PC highlighted the health of the SBC that stems, no doubt, from its firm commitment to inerrancy and missions in particular. The SBC is perhaps healthier now than ever before. Certainly the title of this piece is tongue-in-cheek, but the example set by Dave Miller and his team in this year’s pastors’ conference could serve as a major course correction for the Southern Baptist Convention, taking advantage of and furthering the aforementioned health.

 

By the way, you can have my ESV when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

A Conservative Evangelical Response to Molly Worthen’s “The Evangelical Roots of our Post-Truth Society”

Introduction

Molly Worthen (Ph.D., Yale) serves at University of North Carolina (Go Heels!) as assistant professor in history. She recently penned a piece on “post-truth” politics for the New York Times. In “The Evangelical Roots of our Post-Truth Society,” Worthen attempts to ground the current phenomenon of “post-truth” politics in conservative evangelicalism. Worthen’s definition of “conservative evangelical” is less than clear, and she lumps some very different Christian (and a few non-Christian) individuals and institutions together in her piece. Other difficulties with Whorthen’s piece could be highlighted, and other theories as to the origins of ‘post-truth’ politics posited. However, this article argues that Molly Worthen fails to support her thesis that evangelicalism is uniquely to blame for ‘post-truth’ politics and/or society, as is especially evident in numerous instances of special pleading, and that Worthen even sometimes provides evidence against her own thesis.

Media

Worthen points to a supposed general distrust of media among conservative evangelicals. She attempts to illustrate an instance of this distrust through the anecdotal experience of Rachel Held Evans, who attended an evangelical school, but no longer accepts its views. The reason, we are told, that conservative evangelicals distrust the media elite, is that the media elite do not hold a biblical worldview. Of course, this is true of many media elite, and so we can hardly fault evangelicals for incorporating that fact into where they get their news. For example, Worthen, who writes this piece for the New York Times, does not appear to hold to a biblical worldview.

Not only does Worthen apparently reject a biblical worldview, she questions the propriety of the very concept of a worldview. Of course, Weltanschauung is not particular to evangelicalism, so Worthen’s hesitancy on this count is rather odd. Questioning various sources of media as to general reliability and truthfulness is not specific to evangelicalism either. One might even suggest such questioning and mistrust is a crucial aspect of a healthy epistemological skepticism.

The real problem occurs when news is dismissed out of hand merely because of its source. For example, Worthen quotes from Dean Nelson, who does not understand the concept of ‘Christian journalism’ or ‘Christian mathematics’ (we should be careful here not to conflate ignorance and implausibility, or to believe the former necessarily entails the latter!), “But he acknowledged that ‘many of the students’ parents were raised on Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and distrust the mainstream news media. So it’s a little bit of a dance with parents who are expecting us to perpetuate that distrust and raise up this tribe of ‘Christian journalists.’ ’” Thus Worthen reveals she is dismissive of news from both Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Granted, as a conservative evangelical, I may have major qualms with many of the claims made by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck (personally, I do not listen to either one), but not because they are Methodist or Mormon, and not because the “mainstream media,” or even Dr. Worthen, dismiss them out of hand. Worthen is inconsistent insofar as she dismisses some sources of news while warning against the supposed tendency of evangelicals to do the same.

In my experience, the mistrust Worthen describes is much more readily associated with those on the political ‘left’ or ‘right’ than it is with evangelicals and others.

Science

Worthen quotes Evans, who claims that a biblical worldview was presented to her as a cohesive worldview. That part is not the objection. What Worthen and Evans do presumably object to are the other claims Evans associates with the aforementioned, supposedly cohesive, worldview. According to Evans, this worldview claims that climate change and evolution are not real, evolution was made up by God-hating scientists, and capitalism is a societal ideal.

Each of these is entirely too broad a topic to comment upon in this article, other than to ask how any of them leads to the denial of truth. A major flaw in Worthen’s piece is that what she actually observes in evangelicalism is not evangelicals relativizing or dismissing the concept of truth, but rather disagreeing with Worthen and others about what constitutes the truth. Worthen writes, “Ever since the scientific revolution, two compulsions have guided conservative Protestant intellectual life: the impulse to defend the Bible as a reliable scientific authority and the impulse to place the Bible beyond the claims of science entirely.” But surely Worthen does not object to an impulse to defend the scientific reliability of the Bible? She is, after all, a scientifically-minded individual, so it is unclear why she would object to an impulse to find the Bible consistent with scientific reasoning insofar as a person holds to the Bible and science.

Worthen claims the impulse to defend Scripture as a scientific authority, “blossomed into the doctrine of biblical inerrancy,” but this assumes the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is new, which it is not. Nor did Scripture become “the irrefutable guide,” whether historically or metaphysically speaking. When evangelicals affirm what they believe from the Bible over against what others believe about fossils or archaeology, they do not undermine truth, but rather establish their firm belief in such a concept. Indeed, evangelicals who utilize their reasoning concerning the application of Scripture to fossils or archaeology, whether right or wrong, are seeking justification for their beliefs in Scriptural or scientific claims. Evangelicals do not undermine the view that positions should be based upon truth when they engage in the aforementioned activities, but rather establish it.

Worthen has, however, began to undermine her own thesis through this bit of anecdote. Unfortunately, Worthen’s comments about the supposed evangelical impulse to get the Bible outside of science do not fare much better.

Non-Neutrality

Throughout her article, Worthen apparently assumes she possesses no worldview, or is neutral, or objective, rather than admitting her frank acceptance of a worldview that is held in opposition to conservative evangelicalism. She does note, “Conservative evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying.” So why is Worthen picking on evangelicals? She explains, “they believe that their own authority — the inerrant Bible — is both supernatural and scientifically sound, and this conviction gives that natural human aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right.”

Is the Bible authoritative, inerrant, supernatural, and scientifically “sound”? The answer is largely irrelevant to Worthen’s thesis, because she wants to show how post-truth society stems from evangelicalism. Adherence to the Bible as authoritative, inerrant, supernatural, and scientifically “sound” (whatever that means) does not deny the concept of truth, but rather assumes it, just as before. Indeed, if others claim the Bible is not authoritative, or inerrant, or supernatural, or scientifically sound, then they too make truth claims which assume some concept of truth rather than promote some post-truth paradigm. Moreover, such assumptions and arguments are not unique to evangelicalism, so Worthen’s thesis again finds little or no support from her observations here.

Worthen says this adherence to the Bible as supernatural and scientifically sound “gives that natural human aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right.” Does it? Well, with respect to the belief in scientific soundness, the answer is clearly no, as just explained above. Those who are not evangelicals also lay hold to the claim of scientific “sound”-ness, and there is no reason to see this claim functioning any differently in their approach to unwelcome facts.

What about the supposed supernatural character of the Bible? Worthen does not make her argument explicit, if she has one, as to why belief in the supernatural strengthens evangelical aversion to seemingly problematic facts. One imagines she might mean that those who believe God is on their side are deluded into thinking some powerful entity approves of their rejection of various facts. But even if this is what Worthen means to imply, it is an extremely weak argument, for those who are not evangelicals do something very similar when they reject various unwelcome facts in the name of ‘Science’ or ‘Reason’ or claim that ‘History’ is “on their side.”

What is most troubling here is that Worthen’s use of “unwelcome facts” merely assumes, without argument, that there are facts out there which contradict a biblical worldview. Worthen strengthens this implicit claim when she writes, “This religious tradition of fact denial long predates the rise of the culture wars, social media or President Trump, but it has provoked deep conflict among evangelicals themselves.” Worthen’s article, it seems, is not so much an article about a post-truth society or the role that evangelicals have supposedly played in the creation of that society as it is a swipe at evangelicals as the sort of folks who deny the facts. But Worthen is merely begging the question, assuming the very thing she needs to prove. If Worthen’s entire article depends upon her disproving what evangelicals refer to as a biblical worldview, then she never attempts to support her thesis through argumentation. Instead, Worthen feigns a type of objectivity in this article that she does not believe evangelicals have access to.

Worthen continues, “The second impulse, the one that rejects scientists’ standing to challenge the Bible, evolved by the early 20th century into a school of thought called presuppositionalism.” Unlike in the previous example, here evangelicals have supposedly outright rejected science in favor of the Bible. Worthen is factually incorrect. Presuppositionalism did not develop from a fixation on science, does not reject science, and Worthren does not provide any examples of what, or who, she is talking about.

Next, Worthen provides her definition of presuppositionalism, writing, “The term is a mouthful, but the idea is simple: We all have presuppositions that frame our understanding of the world.” This reductionist understanding of presuppositionalism is so broad that Worthen herself qualifies as a presuppositionalist when she writes, “We all cling to our own unquestioned assumptions.” Much more can be said about presuppositionalism, including the fact that presuppositionalism draws upon a Christian worldview in particular. Presuppositionalism is not reducible to the obvious statement that everybody has assumptions.

Worthen continues, “Cornelius Van Til, a theologian who promoted this idea, rejected the premise that all humans have access to objective reality.” Worthen is in error here as well. Van Til (who was not only a theologian, but a dissertated philosopher) did not reject the premise that all humans have access to objective reality. Worthen pulls the following quote out of context from Van Til to substantiate her claim, “We really do not grant that you see any fact in any dimension of life truly.” But she neglects Van Til’s clarifying statements throughout his work, such as, “The first objection that suggests itself may be expressed in the rhetorical questions ‘Do you mean to assert that non-Christians do not discover truth by the methods they employ?’ The reply is that we mean nothing so absurd as that. The implication of the method here advocated is simply that non-Christians are never able and therefore never do employ their own methods consistently” on page 103 of his The Defense of the Faith. And, “We are well aware of the fact that non-Christians have a great deal of knowledge about this world which is true as far as it goes” on page 26 of his Introduction to Systematic Theology. In Van Til’s philosophy of truth, all humans, whether believers or not, absolutely do have access to objective reality as he explains in section 15 of his 1972 pamphlet, Toward A Reformed Apologetic.

I have been told that on my view the Christian can say nothing more to the non-Christian than: ‘You work on one set of presuppositions and I work on another set of presuppositions, and that is the end of the matter. There simply is no common ground of any sort between us.’ I would now make as plain as possible that only because reality is what the self-attesting Christ of Scripture has told us it is do we, as believers and as unbelievers, have common ground at all. If the triune God of Scripture did not exist and if He did not do what He says in Scripture He does, i.e. create and direct the whole course of history, the unbeliever would have no standing place in order to engage in his effort by his false systems to deny the existence and work of God.

Lest the readers think I am some brilliant Van Til scholar, or that there is no way anyone could expect Worthen to know the work of Van Til this well, allow me to point out that I just used Google to land at this helpful site.

Worthen persists in her error, “If this sounds like a forerunner of modern cultural relativism, in a way it is — with the caveat that one worldview, the one based on faith in an inerrant Bible, does have a claim on universal truth, and everyone else is a myopic relativist.” Multiple problems plague this statement from Worthen. As already demonstrated, Van Til is neither a relativist nor in denial that all humans have access to objective reality. The concession that one worldview is universally true is a fairly major “caveat.” More importantly, the claim to universal truth does not serve Worthen’s thesis well, but works against it, since the recognition of universal truth on the part of evangelicals is not consistent with a ‘post-truth’ anything. And more than that, how do those who are not evangelicals differ from this understanding that there is only one universally true worldview? If they differ at all, they differ in virtue of a post-truth understanding of things, which again, works against Worthen’s thesis, and not for it. Van Til undoubtedly believes Worthen’s view is false, and vice versa, but that’s a far cry from pinning the emergence of post-truth politics onto evangelicals. Indeed, even if Worthen’s thoughts on Van Til were correct, Van Til is a negligible part of evangelicalism, if he is a part of evangelicalism at all. Worthen continues, “in the quest to advance knowledge and broker peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic world, the worldview based on biblical inerrancy gets tangled up in the contradiction between its claims on universalist science and insistence on an exclusive faith.” Which is to say, a worldview that posits the inerrancy of the Bible, universalist science, and exclusivity is inherently contradictory. Ipse dixit. Yet again, this claim does not support, but rather goes against, Worthen’s whole argument.

She continues, “By contrast, the worldview that has propelled mainstream Western intellectual life and made modern civilization possible is a kind of pragmatism.” Pragmatism, however, is a fairly late development in the history of philosophy that rejected traditional correspondence and coherentist theories of truth. By definition, pragmatic ‘justification’ is not epistemic justification at all, which seemingly fits much better in the context of truth and science. Indeed, Worthen writes, “It is an empirical outlook that continually — if imperfectly — revises its conclusions based on evidence available to everyone, regardless of their beliefs about the supernatural.” Of course, pragmatism as a philosophical assumption, and all of the other assumptions Worthen alluded to herself holding, are not empirically verifiable, so Worthen has not helped her own case here. But even the admission that pragmatic “conclusions” are continually and imperfectly revised works against Worthen, for this would seem very consistent with what many evangelicals probably do think about scientific conclusions. Scientific conclusions are tentative and so should not be given the same weight as what an all-knowing being has to say about his creation. More than that, scientific evidence is evaluated from within the context of a worldview. For example, pragmatism is a particular way of approaching epistemological subjects like science. Pragmatism is not mere acceptance of plain evidences and brute facts, but rather a means to try and make sense of evidences and facts. When Worthen uses phrases like “conservative evangelical war on facts” and “pseudoscientific view of the Bible” she betrays her actual position which is not a position of objective, scientific neutrality, but of hostile opposition toward a biblical worldview, the doctrine of inerrancy, and the evangelicalism wherein they are found.

Conclusion

Toward the end of her article, Worthen quotes Nelson, who negatively comments that “cynicism and tribalism are very closely related. You protect your tribe, your way of life and thinking, and you try to annihilate anything that might call that into question.” Interestingly, this is an accurate summary of the nature of Worthen’s article. Worthen concludes, “Cynicism and tribalism are among the gravest human temptations. They are all the more dangerous when they pose as wisdom and righteousness.” I would add that they are even more dangerous when they appear in the New York Times and involve a great deal of special pleading.

The Experience of Laura D. Harrell

On his most recent visit, my dad brought me some documents his grandmother had saved.

One of the documents was a Primitive Baptist publication called The Messenger of Truth, which was edited and published at Laurel Fork in Carroll County, Virginia by F. P. Branscome. This particular issue of The Messenger of Truth is Volume 2, Number 5, and it is dated March 1, 1898.

The little pink publication is gently folded and curled over so that a note written sideways across the back cover is visible. The note is written in pencil, presumably by my great-grandmother, and reads:

Laura D Harrell

Joined the Church at

Bellspur the first saturday in

August 1899

On the front cover above the title she also wrote:

Laura D Harrell’s

Experience

Presumably my great-grandmother saved this particular issue of the publication because it contains a written account of her mother’s experience. That experience is recorded on pages 110-114. I have reproduced it here, keeping variant/mis-spellings, hyphenation where a word dropped down to the next line, and grammar, although I have not perfectly reproduced formatting:

[110]

 

EXPERIENCE.

 

By the request of my grandfather, Anderson Webb, I will try to write and tell what great pleasure the Lord has given me in the pardon of my sins. I am the daughter of Elisha P. Barnard, and was born in Patrick County, Va., June 18th, 1875, and was married to Mr. Chas. W. Harrell, April 16, 1893.

The first of my troubles about a future state or condition began when I was thirteen years of age. I became impressed about dying and what would become of me after death. I knew that I was a sinner and not prepared for death. I thought, what an awful thing it would be to be separated from God’s children and from my folks, never to see their faces any more, and what a blessing if all could go at the same time and not be separated. I thought of Pa and Ma. They had a hope and as I believed were prepared to go; but their children were not prepared. I prayed often that the Lord might give to us faith to see and feel as they did. Often, I heard people talk of the scriptures and on their experiences; and I would think, Oh! If I could ever have such a great change to take place with me, a poor little sinner.

 

[111]

 

I often heard uncle Mat. Blancett preach and tell the little children to obey their parents. I would say, to myself, “When I get home I’ll do just as they tell me and see if I can’t be a better child;” but would soon find myself out of the way again, and often thought there would never be any relief for poor me. My troubles somewhat wore off till after I was married, when my mind was arrested again, and my troubles returned with greater force than ever. I would think, “Now I am away from my folks never to be back to live and die with them.” No one can imagine how lonely and how serious I felt. I would often, on retiring at night, feel that I was forsaken by God and would not live to see another day, and wished that I had never been born or had died when not accountable unto God. I would often awake, frightened, and thinking the end of time was at hand and I not prepared to go, and would almost cry out aloud, “Lord have mercy on me a poor sinner!” The very depths of my heart could make this expression. My daily cry was, “Lord have mercy on me a poor sinner,” and feeling surely I was the most wretched person on earth. There was but little sleep for me. I feared to go to sleep, fearing I might be snatched away in my sins and be forever lost.

I would often get up softly, so as not to awake my hus-band, and go to the door or window to see if I could see any sign of the end of time or the dissolution of all things, and enquiring, what will become of poor me, my husband and two little children? And feeling like something strange was going to happen, and probably some of us would be instantly snatched away instantly by death.

 

[112]

 

Ever day there was such a dreadful burden on my mind that there was no pleasure for me. I often strove to wear it off by saying, “This is all imaginary and of myself, and is only the wicked one trying to cheat me out of a few days of pleasure.” But my efforts failed and I was brought to mourning again. I desired to be one of God’s dear children, but felt too small and unworthy to receive God’s blessings.

I would go to my father-in-law’s, or to Pa’s, to see if my troubles would not wear off, and strove to keep my troub-les entirely concealed. As soon as I would leave, my heart seemed to be more heavy than ever. I would say, within my heart, “What an awful sinner am I!” and, “Lord have mercy!”

I often thought I would talk to ma about seeing so much trouble, but my heart would fail. I was taken sick and thought I would die. This one thought entered my mind, I love every body, and with the very same love I was ask-ing the Lord to forgive me and to prepare me for death. So time passed on until ma joined the chnrch and was baptized. That event was a great stroke to me. I thought, if I only was worthy to go with her how happy I would be. On going to Bell Spur and seeing the church seated, I looked upon them as being the most beautiful and pleasant looking people I ever saw. O, how I desired to be one a-mong them! Often on leaving them, I never expected to see them any more, and felt that it was a final separation.

One night I dreamed of seeing a dark streak ocross the firmament from East to West. In this streak were little spots of fire. I was greatly distressed thinking it was the end of time.

 

[113]

 

I again dreamed of seeing the stars falling, and that it was the darkest time I ever saw. Not one thing except the little bright lights could be seen, which I thought was a true token that I surely was forover lost. This added much to my distress. I again dreamed that I was at my father-in-law’s, Mr. David Harrell’s. I was sitting near the window in the room with the family, and looked out and it was raining fire. I thought the end of time, which I had so often looked for, was at hand, and I was bound to die right then – no chance for my escape. Something almost like thunder, seemed to come against me and crushed me down. I cried aloud for mercy. I looked around and saw that I was the only one suffering from this calamity and the wrath of God. I awoke and looked around in the room. I felt glad the Lord had not let me die.

These dreams were constantly in my mind, and I felt to be a poor lost and ruined sinner, and felt sure the door of mercy had been shut against me forever. This distress continued ’til Nov., 1896. While alone at home with my two little children, feeling awfully distressed, my troubles all gave way and love sprang up in my soul to such an extent I never witnessed before. I felt in my heart that Christ had pardoned my sins and my distress and troubles were all gone, which was so recently crushing me down.

I desired the opportunity of talking with some member of the church; but soon decided I would never tell any one. A short while afterward I went with grandpa Webb over to pa’s, feeling that he would ask me about my hope, and I did not know what to do. It was not long ’till he said to me, “Laura, haven’t you got a hope?”

 

[114]

 

Hesitating a moment, I burst into tears and ventured to tell him what had taken place with me, and of the great relief I had felt. He remarked, “You will never be satisfied ’till you tell it to the church.” I felt entirely too small to go before all the church with what little I had to tell. But, as time passed on, I felt more constrained to tell it to the church and be baptized, and to proclaim abroad what I hoped the Lord in his tender mercies had done for me. So, at the August meeting, 1897, I ventured to go to the church. I can never express the joy I felt. The brethren and sisters seemed to join in with me in praising the Lord for his tender mercies. I was baptized the next October meeting by Eld. Eligah M. Barnard. No one, only those who have met with similar joy, can know what a blessing this was to me. I felt calm and serene, and willing to trust God for all future blessings. Though, after all this, I have many doubts, and am dependent on the Lord for grace.

 

Yours in hope,

LAURA D. HARRELL.

 

MABERRY, VA., FEB. 10, 1898.

 

In the future, I hope to reproduce more of this booklet and provide theological, historical, and genealogical commentary.

 

Friendly Discussion with a Former Atheist

Me: So…wait, are you just examining Christianity?

Former Atheist: Yes, very much so.

Me: Ah.

Former Atheist: I’m examining a lot of stuff actually.

Me: So, not a Christian?

Former Atheist: I have departed from atheism and am finding my way.

Me: Now that is interesting. What did you find lacking in atheism?

Former Atheist: Abstraction. Science can only offer what can be observed. Yet, it cannot provide any reason to believe something unobservable doesn’t exist. But philosophy and theology engage in the realm of abstraction. And I find much of it just as convincing as I do using a telescope to see the stars.

Me: Yeah the verificationist principle itself can’t be empirically verified. Not to mention the self-referential difficulty of that statement itself relies on abstraction. My problem with positing a two-worlds doctrine from there is that it’s still very irrational. Which is to say, there’s nothing to bring the two-worlds – abstraction and empirical – together. Nothing to impose the abstract upon the empirical in any normative fashion.

Former Atheist: You’re going to have to help me out with the Plato reference lol, I am still on a fairly superficial level in philosophy……my departure from atheism is not all that distant in the past.

Me: Well I already see you’re Googling. Which is a good sign. lol If we pack abstraction into that “other” world… Then what does abstraction have to do with the physical realm we find ourselves in?

Former Atheist: Ahhh… Good question….I have no answer.

Me: Me either. Or Plato or Aristotle for that matter.

Former Atheist: Only that it’s not verifiable.

Me: No I think you’re right to think there are abstract objects. And that empirical science cannot account for them. That’s no shot at science, of course. You don’t wear shoes as gloves.

Former Atheist: So our intellect can be used to verify?

Me: Abstract objects are assumed in our intellectual activities (even those pertaining to verification in science). But we need a worldview that accommodates those assumptions.

Former Atheist: Would you consider an abstract concept “evidence” for a deity?

Me: Sort of, and sort of not. lol I go a little deeper than that to say that abstract concepts presuppose the existence of God, yes.

Former Atheist: I see. So something like a “first cause” arguement?

Me: Not…really. Unless you’re thinking of infinite regresses and what not. At which point there may be some similarities.

Former Atheist: No real “evidence” in the traditional sense, but the abstraction of God can be inferred from the science?

Me: Well let’s take the inductive principle of science as an example. The inductive principle appears to operate with respect to laws of nature. Those laws, I would argue, work with respect to a worldview with a deity that sets them down. And not so much in other worldviews.

Former Atheist: So are you a Christian?

Me: I am. Which I take to mean something like this (at minimum):

  1. I believe God exists eternally as three persons, Father Son and Holy Spirit, that these three are each fully God, and yet there is one God.
  2. I believe the one person of Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human.
  3. I believe in salvation from our sins by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Former Atheist: With how you described it, why not deism? What takes you to the step to believing in a personal God?

Me: Deism doesn’t impose abstractions on the contingent realm. It’s just Plato’s two-worlds doctrine with a mind but nothing to really bring the two worlds together. Plus my epistemological starting point is revelatory in nature, which is a whole other discussion.

Former Atheist: The principle of deism itself?

Me: Deism, if you mean a “watchmaker” type of god, that starts things off and has nothing to do with them afterward, doesn’t fix the ‘law’ problem.

Former Atheist: OOOOHHHH. Gotcha.

Me: The abstractions “sit” out there, and not on us, as it were.

Former Atheist: Laws in the universe imply some interest from the deity?

Me: You could say that. Or at least they need be imposed.

Former Atheist: I see. How do you make the step to a personal savior of mankind?

Me: I don’t make the step. There’s a presupposition of an entire worldview. Per revelation.

Former Atheist: Ahhh divine revelation.

Me: So in other words, I say we start with the authoritative revelation by faith, and this allows us to proceed with reason, as it were. And if we reject that revelation, well then, we end up in a bad way.

Former Atheist: What makes you believe the revelation in one religion superceeds the other?

Me: Supercedes meaning…that it’s revelation and not the others?

Former Atheist: Yes.

Me: I start with the claims each sacred writing makes of itself. You don’t get the same sort of claim to revelation in the Eastern religions. The exceptions are Judaism and Islam. And then of course there’s Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witness, those sort.

Former Atheist: Ok…Continue please.

Me: So when we look at Judaism, it seems insufficient to account for its own claims…it’s got an empty end, it leads right into the Christian view. Islam, on the other hand, provides another ‘revelation.’ That’s the Quran. As I’m sure you know. But Muslims claim former revelation as well, most notably here, the Bible, which many people don’t realize. But now we run into all sorts of difficulties, because the Bible and the Quran do not fit together. Muslims often attempt to account for this by saying that the authoritative revelation of Allah has been corrupted over time. But this undermines their faith in the Quran as well, for who is to say that the same corruption has not affected the Quran which earlier affected the Bible? That leads into some three different camps, epistemologically speaking, with Muslims.

Former Atheist: True. So do you believe in biblical inerrancy?

Me: I do. I don’t believe God can lie.

Former Atheist: How do you account for the differences in the gospels? Just curiousity I am not critisizing your belief.

Me: You can criticize my belief, I understand you’re not accepting of it, and are just looking things over. But I’m not sure what you’re referring to? Unless we’re just going to start into alleged contradictions. The fact that the four Gospels don’t “match” is usually explained by the fact that they were written by four different authors. Hence we’re not really looking for some absolute “harmony.” That’s not what they were given to us for.

Former Atheist: Ok, I get you. The overall message is still there even if the specifics differ? The message is inerrant?

Me: I believe the specifics are inerrant as well. That’s the defining feature of inerrancy, really. The moderates would take the view you mentioned.

Former Atheist: Interesting.

Me: It’s a big pill to swallow, I know. 🙂 Many of those presenting the Christian faith want to reduce the number of things they must “defend,” but this removes the richness of the worldview which is necessary to not only defend, but present the faith in an honest way. The authority of God is the “glue” which holds the particulars together.

Former Atheist: They don’t “match” though……..which gospel would be “correct” in the sense of historicity for lack of better words?

Me: Where do they not match historically speaking? (This question may take us into depth I’m not willing to type out tonight!)

Former Atheist: Hahaha. Probably. A quick summary. If one gospels says Jesus is killed before Passover and the other after….how can they both be correct? I have heard thought of a very intricate explanation, but it will sound like a star trek episode ha ha.

Me: They could both be correct if we understand how Passover was celebrated.

Former Atheist: Oh that’s right……I remember studying that a little. The discrepancy is not valid. It’s not a contradiction.

Me: But see, I want to say, how do we even account for contradictions in a non-Christian view of the world? So we can’t use contradictions as an argument against Christianity…if we need Christianity to account for such abstractions. But that does get into a lot more than I’m able to discuss.

Former Atheist: Very deep. I kind of get where you’re coming from. It’s as if people are trying to use Christianity to debunk Christianity.

Me: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this.

Former Atheist: As have I my friend.

Me: I’m going to head out. Take care and hope you keep looking it all over.

Former Atheist: I will for certain. Thank you for the discussion.

Me: And of course I hope you ultimately find salvation in Christ Jesus crucified and raised for our forgiveness and righteousness. 🙂

Former Atheist: My thanks to you.