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“The Heart Has its Reasons of Which Reason Knows Nothing”

Blaise Pascal is one of the few apologists who uses both existential and evidential arguments to persuade people to become Christians. In Chapter 3 of  Existential Reasons for Belief in God; A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith, Clifford Williams pauses to analyze Pascal more in more detail.

After using the standard evidences of Christianity (miracles, fulfilled prophecy, etc.) to persuade people to become Christians, Pascal goes on to make the existential argument that Christian faith is justified because it satisfies certain deep human needs. Williams quotes Pascal’s classic “infinite abyss” passage:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

The existential interpretation of this passage is:

1. Humans have an indefinite and intense craving for true happiness.
2. Only faith in God satisfies this craving.
3. If only faith in God satisfies this craving, then we are justified in having it.

Williams is convinced that the existential interpretation of this passage is correct because of a few other related passages. For example, Pascal also argues for the Christian faith not because it is true but because it satisfies heart-need:

Without any doubt after this, considering the nature of life and of this religion, we ought not to resist the inclination to follow it if our hearts are so inclined.

Then there’s this passage in which Pascal distinguishes between knowing God through the reason of the mind and knowing God through the reasons or perceptions of the heart:

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing: we know this in countless ways. It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.

Two other quotations from Pascal make similar points:

No one is so happy as a true Christian, or so reasonable, virtuous, and lovable.

The Christian religion alone has been able to cure these twin vices ["pride or sloth, the twin sources of all vice"], not by using one to expel the other according to worldly wisdom, but by expelling both through the simplicity of the Gospel.

Again, note Pascal is not saying we ought to believe because the truth has been proven, but rather because it satisfies our needs.

Logical-Rationality and Need-Rationality

Williams wants us to be clear that this is not just a faith based on feelings. Rather, when we believe in order to satisfy our needs, to experience so much good and remove too much bad, we are doing something that is perfectly reasonable. Williams calls this kind of reasonableness “need-rationality” or “need-reasonableness” because “those who satisfy their needs by believing certain things are being sensible and wise. They are taking care of themselves. Need rationality consists of successfully satisfying needs.”

In contrast “logical rationality” (a phrase coined by American philosopher William James) relies purely on logic and reason; it even sees needs and feelings as a hindrance to objectivity, impartiality, and rationality.

However, as we are not only creatures of reason, but also creatures of feeling, Williams wants us to base our faith on both need and reason. Indeed, he says, “We would be irrational not to let both features of our nature generate faith.”

Biblical Examples of Existential Argument

Williams appeals to the Bible in support of using the existential (needs-based) argument for faith. For example, in Matt. 11:28-30, Jesus calls the burdened and the tired to come to him for rest. In Matthew 7:24-26, Jesus assumes that people feel the need for security and solidity, and promises that building a life upon his teaching will provide that. In addition to these and many other explicit examples, there are innumerable others that are more implicit than explicit (e.g. Romans 8:1; Psalm 51:2).

Finally, Williams calls us to notice how different this is to the despairing existentialism associated with the French atheistic existentialists, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Williams’s, Pascal’s and Christ’s existentialism is full of hope. Yes, there are great human needs, but the Christian God can satisfy them all and has done so on many occasions. Whereas Camus and Sartre used the dark holes in humanity to run away from God, this existential argument uses them to drive us to God and, as such, is much closer to nineteenth century theistic Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s existentialism.


The Needs-Based Argument for Faith

In chapter 3 of  Existential Reasons for Belief in God; A Defense of Desires and Emotions for FaithClifford Williams makes a critical distinction between two related but different apologetic arguments based on need:

1. The existential argument based upon needs (the one his book is focused on).

2. The evidential argument based upon needs.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

The Existential Argument

This says that faith in God is justified because it satisfies specific needs. It doesn’t say anything about whether God exists; it simply says that as faith in God satisfies basic human needs, that’s sufficient justification for believing in God. The three-step argument is:

1. We feel these basic human needs.
2. Faith in God satisfies these needs.
3. Therefore, we are justified in having faith in God.

The Evidential Argument

This says that having these needs that only God can satisfy is evidence of God’s existence (because all natural explanations of the presence of needs fail). It is an argument about the existence of God, but it doesn’t say anything about whether faith in this God is justified. Again this argument has three steps:

1. We feel these basic human needs.
2. Only God can satisfy these needs.
3. Therefore, God exists.

Williams turns to food to illustrate these two different arguments.

Existential Argument to Justify Eating

1. I am hungry.
2. Eating satisfies hunger.
3. I am justified in eating.

But notice, this argument is not saying anything about the existence of food, at least about food nearby that will satisfy the hunger.

Evidential Argument for the Existence of Food

1. I am hungry.
2. Only food satisfies hunger.
3. Therefore, food exists.

The evidential argument tries to prove the existence of food by showing that food’s existence is needed to explain how people get hungry for food. It’s a claim that food exists but not that we should eat.

Before returning to the existential argument that justifies having faith in God, Williams looks more closely at the evidential argument, the argument that attempts to prove God’s existence or Christianity’s veracity based upon the evidence of needs we find in people.

A Closer Look at the Evidential Argument

First, the evidential argument says that the only explanation for the needs that we feel is that God created us with them. Attempted natural explanations of many of these needs fail. For example, neither evolution, Freud, psychology, or biology can explain the need to experience awe.

Second, Christianity correctly describes human needs. As the needs that Christianity says exist and claims to supply match the needs people do actually possess, we can conclude that Christianity is true or at least partly true. Blaise Pascal, for example, argued that Christianity alone accounts for both the greatness and wretchedness of man. He exclaimed:

“How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe!”

Christianity’s perfect description of this dueling dual nature in humanity supports the truthfulness of Christianity.

Third, Christianity does not just describe our needs but claims to meet them, and actually does meet them, as we often see. Christianity, therefore, gives an accurate account of reality.

Same Needs, Different Argument

As you can see, both the existential and evidential arguments claim that Christian faith satisfies many basic needs. The evidential argument uses this to make a case for believing the Christian faith is true. The existential argument is not making a claim about truth or theism. It’s simply saying that if such a faith satisfies need, you are justified in having that faith.

The person convinced by the existential argument says, “I believe because it satisfies my needs.” The person convinced by the evidential argument says “I believe because the Christian faith is true.” To further highlight the essential difference between these arguments, Williams points to British philosopher Richard Swinburne who illustrated how people believe certain non-religious things based upon need:

  • The mother who has to believe that her missing son is alive or else she will to go to pieces psychologically.
  • The husband who has to believe that his wife is faithful if he is to avoid mistreating her.
  • The lawyer who has to believe that his client is innocent if he is to make a good speech in his defense.

None of these people rely on evidence for their “faith”; they believe to avoid certain painful feelings or to enjoy certain positive feelings.

After giving three examples of writers who have used evidential arguments based upon need, Ernest Becker (Denial of Death), N. T. Wright (Simply Christian), and C. S Lewis (Mere Christianity), Williams points out that, in each of these cases, the evidential argument points to the presence of needs as a fact that needs explaining, whereas the existential argument doesn’t try to explain why there are needs but simply uses them to move one to faith.

Blaise Pascal

Despite the common focus on needs in both the existential and evidential argument, Williams claims Blaise Pascal is one of the few apologists who has used existential and evidential arguments to persuade people to become Christians. We’ll take a closer look at him in the next post.


13 Needs That Christianity Meets

Why did you become a Christian?

Perhaps you answered, “I was convinced by evidence and argument that it was true.”

For most people, though, the answer is closer to “because it met my needs.” But what needs does Christianity meet?

That’s the question Williams answers in chapter 2 of Existential Reasons for Belief in God; A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith, a book that argues for Christian faith on the basis of the number of basic human needs that it meets.

Before listing thirteen of them, he makes two qualifications. First, he is not claiming that everyone feels all thirteen of the needs (feeling only one of the needs is all that’s required to make the needs-based argument relevant). Second, he demonstrates that not all these needs are purely self-centered by dividing the thirteen needs into two categories.

  • Self-directed needs: Aimed at getting something for ourselves.
  • Other-directed needs: aimed at the good of others or is what is good (which incidentally and unintentionally gives us something too).

Williams’s description of these needs can be summarized as follows:

Self-directed Needs

  • Cosmic security: We want to feel protected from difficulties and suffering; but if these do come, we want to be sure that all will still be well with us.
  • Hope of life beyond the grave: That we will keep on being conscious even after we die.
  • Heaven: This goes beyond just existing after death, and describes the kind of blessed existence we crave.
  • Goodness: Despite the imperfection of this life, we still crave a good and virtuous life, and not just for ourselves, but for others too.
  • A larger life: We want new experiences of things, people, and places, that we may experience amazement, exhilaration, and moral awe (i.e. the admiration of others’ goodness).
  • To be loved: For emotional security, we want to be known, loved, trusted, and enjoyed by our parents, by friends, by a spouse, by our children, and by others.
  • Meaning: A sense of significance, purpose, and destiny.
  • Forgiveness: For going astray, and especially for transgressing in our pursuit of love and meaning.

Other-directed Needs

Surely “other-directed needs” is an oxymoron. How can needs be other-directed? Don’t needs spring from self-concern? Williams admits the seeming contradiction, but insists that these desires are both other-directed and self-satisfying.

  • To love: We want to love others.
  • Awe: Experienced through encounters with a magnificent landscape, powerful people, or moral heroism, and especially when we encounter God.
  • Delighting in goodness: We rejoice in the moral qualities of others.
  • Being present: Enjoying being with those we love.
  • Justice and fairness: Pursuing justice for others.

At this point Clifford briefly explores how other apologists have described existential needs. For example, in Simply Christian, N. T. Wright listed four basic human needs:

  • The longing for justice.
  • The quest for spirituality.
  • The hunger for relationships.
  • The delight in beauty.

Regardless of how we categorize these basic existential needs, Williams’s basic point is that the more needs that are recognized, and the more deeply they are felt, the more powerful and persuasive needs-based reasoning becomes.

He admits that if these feelings never progress much beyond mere “I’d like that,” then they will be much less compelling as arguments to believe in God than if the feeling rises to a level of “I desperately need that and I must have it.” However, he also argues that what’s most relevant is not the number or the intensity of the desires but the essential nature of the desires and the immensity of the object of the desire – God.

Isn’t it truly amazing how Christianity meets every basic human need so well!


Reasons of the Heart

“What role should reason play in coming to faith or in sustaining faith?” That’s been a much-debated question throughout church history. A much less-debated question has been, “What role should the satisfaction of needs play in coming to faith or sustaining faith?”


Enter Clifford Williams with Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith, and his charge that apologetics has been too philosophical or evidential, too exclusively reason-based, and that it should be supplemented with “the reasons of the heart,” meaning apologetics that don’t just satisfy the mind but also the needs of the heart.

Williams points to how the satisfaction of needs has played such a large and vital part in the faith journeys of most Christians with many finding need and reason so intermixed that they could not be separated.  Thus, Williams concludes, most people “want a faith that fits both need and reason. They want to have certain needs satisfied, and they want faith to be true to reality.” That’s why in this book, Williams argues that:

  • The ideal way to acquire and sustain faith in God is through both need and reason.
  • That need without reason is blind, but reason without need is sterile.
  • That emotion and need can be trusted for faith in God as much as reason.
  • The remedy for being led astray by emotions is not to distrust emotions, but to develop the right emotions.
  • Christians should cultivate emotions as much as they do commitment and right action.
  • Having the right emotions is necessary for discovering certain truths.

To be clear, Williams is not arguing for a faith devoid of reason, but for a faith that is “at least as much need-based as reason-based.” He’s demanding a bigger role for feeling and for the satisfying of need both at the beginning of faith and in supplementing faith.

At the core of Williams’ book is what’s known as the existential argument for believing in God, which, put simply, is “that we are justified in believing in God solely because doing so satisfies certain basic emotional and spiritual needs.” It’s a three-step argument with two premises and a conclusion:

1. We feel certain needs.
2. Faith in God satisfies these needs.
3. Therefore, we are justified in having faith in God.

In future posts, following the structure of Williams’s book, we’ll identify the needs that Christian faith meets and then look more closely at the existential argument for believing in God. Following that, we’ll trace Williams’s response to four objections that are often made against the existential argument before concluding with a look at the role of emotions in creating and sustaining faith.


Preaching Bibliography Organized By Topic

Following this bibliography of the best available books on preaching, you’ll find a topical bibliography which groups the content of these books into topics, together with relevant page numbers. Thank you to my assistants, Esther Engelsma and Sarah Perez for all their work on this.

Here’s a PDF of the bibliographies together with a list of 500+ online resources on preaching.

FULL BIBLIOGRAPHY

Adams, J. E. Preaching with Purpose: The Urgent Task of HomileticsGrand Rapids: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1986.

Adams, J. E. Truth Applied: Application in PreachingGrand Rapids: Ministry Resources Library, 1990.

Akin, D. L., D. L. Allen and N. L. Mathews. Text-Driven Preaching: God’s Word at the Heart of Every SermonNashville: B&H Academic, 2010.

Anyabwile, T. M. The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American PastorsWheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006.

Azurdia, A. G. Spirit Empowered Preaching: The Vitality of the Holy Spirit in Preaching. Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Mentor, 2006.

Beeke, J. R. How to Evaluate SermonsDarlington, UK: Evangelical Press, 2012.

Bridges, C. The Christian MinistryEdinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1958.

Broadus, J. A. A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (4th ed.). San Francisco: Harper, 1979.

Carrick, J. The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred RhetoricEdinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002.

Carson, D. A. The Cross & Christian Ministry: An Exposition of Passages from 1 CorinthiansGrand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2004.

Chapell, B. Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Chapell, B. The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach: Help from Trusted Preachers for Tragic TimesGrand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Charles, H. B. Jr. On Preaching: Personal & Pastoral Insights for the Preparation & Practice of PreachingChicago: Moody Publishers, 2014.

Dabney, R. L. Sacred Rhetoric or a Course of Lectures on PreachingEdinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986.

Dever, M. & S. Ferguson (Intro.). The Westminster Directory of Public WorshipRoss-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2009.

Dever, M. & G. Gilbert. Preach: Theology Meets PracticeNashville, TN: B&H Books, 2012.

Eswine, Z. Preaching to a Post-Everything World: Crafting Biblical Sermons that Connect with Our CultureGrand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008.

Gordon, T. D. Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the MessengerPhillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2009.

Greidanus, S. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical LiteratureGrand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.

Helm, D. R. Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word TodayWheaton: Crossway, 2014.

Hoeksema, H. C. HomileticsGrandville, MI: Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 1993.

Kistler, D. (Ed.). Feed My Sheep! A Passionate Plea for Preaching (2nd ed.). Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2008.

Koller, C. W. Expository Preaching Without NotesGrand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1962.

Lloyd-Jones, D. M. Preaching and Preachers (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.

Logan, S. T. Jr. (Ed.). The Preacher and PreachingPhillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2011.

MacArthur, J. Jr. and the Master’s Seminary Faculty. Preaching: How to Preach BiblicallyNashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005.

MacArthur, J. Jr. and the Master’s Seminary Faculty. Rediscovering Expository PreachingDallas: Word, 1992.

Meyer, J. C. Preaching: A Biblical TheologyWheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.

Millar, G. & P Campbell. Saving EutychusKingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 2013.

Miller, C. Preaching: The Art of Narrative ExpositionGrand Rapids: Baker, 2010.

Mohler, R. A. Jr. He is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern WorldChicago: Moody, 2008.

Montoya, A. Preaching with PassionGrand Rapids: Kregel, 2007.

Motyer, A. Preaching? Simple Teaching on Simply PreachingRoss-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2013.

Murray, D. How Sermons Work. Darlington, England: EP Books, 2011.

Perkins, W. The Art of ProphesyingEdinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996.

Piper, J. The Supremacy of God in PreachingGrand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015.

Prutow, D. J. So Pastor, What’s Your Point? Philadelphia, PA: Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc, 2010.

Robinson, H. W. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository MessagesGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014.

Smith, S. W. Dying to Preach: Embracing the Cross in the PulpitGrand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2009.

Spurgeon, C. H. An All-Round MinistryCarlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1960.

Spurgeon, C. H. Lectures to My StudentsGrand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979.

Stott, J. R. W. Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth CenturyGrand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

TOPICAL BIBLIOGRAPHY

Under each subject heading you’ll find the books and page numbers covering that topic. Taking the first entry, for example, if you want to study about how to prepare to preach, read pages 78-85 of Preaching with Purpose by J. E. Adams.

1. Preparation: Preparing to preach

Adams/Preaching, pp. 78-85
Akin/Text-Driven, pp. 101-134
Bridges/Christian, pp. 192-221
Broadus/Preparation, pp. 237-260
Chapell/Christ-Centered, pp. 344-345
Charles/On Preaching, pp. 15-48, 124-131
Dabney/On Preaching, pp. 328-344
Dever/Preach, pp. 79-84
Dever/Westminster, pp. 93
Koller/Expository Preaching, pp. 44-60
Lloyd-Jones/Preaching, pp. 165-204
MacArthur/Preaching, pp. 47-89
Millar/Saving, pp. 63-69
Miller/Preaching, pp. 101-123
Murray/How Sermons Work, pp. 11-18
Perkins/Art, pp. 23-29
Piper/Supremacy, pp. 90-92, 100-102
Spurgeon/All-Round, pp. 329-339
Stott/Art, pp. 254-261

2. Selection: Selecting a text

Adams/Preaching, pp. 21-26
Broadus/Preparation, pp. 30-35
Charles/On Preaching, pp. 50-57
Dever/Preach, pp. 63-78
Dever/Westminster, pp. 93
Greidanus/Modern, pp. 122-140
Murray/How Sermons Work, pp. 19-34
Perkins/Art, pp. 9-22
Prutow/So Pastor, pp. 53-60
Robinson/Biblical, pp. 28-31
Spurgeon/Lectures, pp. 81-96
Stott/Art, pp. 213-219

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