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Of Kings and The King

A sermon entitled, “Of Kings and The King,” delivered by Tyler Helfers on Sunday, November 25, at Trinity Christian Reformed Church. This message, drawn from 1 Samuel 8, asks the question: Who is your King?

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Reading the Gospels Wisely (Book Review)

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Introduction 

In Reading the Gospels Wisely, Jonathan Pennington aims to make readers wise hearers and followers [of Christ] through rightly engaging with the fourfold Gospels. Using the analogy of building a house, Pennington views his book as a blueprint “for building a Gospel-reading house and thereby life” (xii). The reader is invited, through his approach, into the joy of studying the Gospels more deeply and more often, and—relying heavily on a repeated quotation from Augustine—led to respond in a greater love for God and neighbor. 

Analysis and Critique 

Pennington seems driven by two equally important principles: Hearing and understanding the Gospels rightly. Part One, which focuses on definitions, purpose, and philosophy, is heavily shaped by the former, while Parts Two and Three (which turn their attention to methodology for reading and teaching) are influenced more by the latter. Writing as an academic to preachers and teachers, Pennington is most concerned with presenting them a method for reading and teaching the Gospels in order to not merely communicate information, but rather to build up others in love for God and neighbor. To this end, Reading the Gospels Wisely, comes off as both academically and theologically rigorous, but also very pastoral and warm in tone. 

In Part One, Pennington presents a robust definition for the message and meaning of the Gospels: “theological, historical, and aretological (virtue-forming) biographical narratives that retell the story and proclaim the significance of Jesus Christ, who through the power of the Spirit is the Restorer of God’s reign” (35). I found this to be a cumbersome, but very good definition, especially when “the gospel” can so easily be narrowly understood as the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ death and resurrection. It also proves helpful that the subsequent chapters unfold parts of this definition as it relates to reading the Gospels wisely: theological (chaps. 1-3), historical and literary (chaps. 4-6), and aretological (chaps. 7-8). 

Picking up on contemporary debates in biblical studies, Pennington highlights the significant (and often negative) influence of Historicism in our study of Scripture broadly, and the Gospels in particular. He charitably criticizes the work of such people as N.T. Wright, acknowledging the value of historical reconstruction for interpreting the text while cautioning against being too driven by the historical-critical method. Drawing on the work of Richard Bauckham and others, he helpfully suggests approaching the Gospels as testimonies. This section is easily the densest part of the book, could have been shortened and combined with the following chapter, which further elaborates on ideas like authorial intent vs divine intent, meaning (and application), and one’s posture to the text (as standing under the Word). Yet, this section is also the most fruitful in terms of academic engagement with the Gospels by revealing the presuppositions that are often assumed in biblical studies, and in providing a way for the pastor and teacher to balance both the historical and theological nature of the text as he or she sets about the task of reading and teaching. 

Part Two is where Pennington shines, applying the foundational work to a particular Gospel passage (Luke 7:1-10) and laying out his methodological approach for reading wisely. Chapters 9 and 10 read like the thoughts of a pastor-theologian in the sermon writing process and will be helpful to anyone who studies and teaches the Bible. Pennington helpfully points out the dangers of a “Whatever Strikes Me” hermeneutic and proposes a narrative analysis approach that reads the text as story with rising tension, a climax, resolution, and subsequent action or interpretation. Not only does this approach take the text seriously as a testimony, but it also enables the reader to more easily find the main point (which usually occurs in the climax/resolution). 

However, Pennington wisely recognizes that pericopes are not isolated stories, but are recorded in the midst of the larger story of a given Gospel account, and that within the larger story of canonical history (the restoration of God’s reign). These stories must likewise be considered so that we do not miss the way a passage fits into the wider work of God. One of the most important comments Pennington makes here, though, is the interpretive weight that must be given to Jesus’ death and resurrection. He argues—and based on their pervasive influence on the rest of the New Testament, I agree—that these events were central the authors’ accounts and one of the keys to understanding any given text within the Gospels. Some may disagree with this emphasis, but I think it is crucial for being rightly oriented to many of the teaching texts in the Gospels, as well as the full significance of texts regarding discipleship, sacrifice, and the nature of the kingdom of God. 

This leads to the final section, focused on teaching. Application, according to Pennington, begins with God and then, only after discovering how he reveals himself and his redemptive work, turns to identification. This is a helpful dichotomy, as it is easy to solely focus on one or the other, depriving hearers of any good news or, on the other hand, any call to responsive action. While not a book on preaching, Pennington provides some helpful preaching cues from Daniel Doriani and Bryan Chapell, including frameworks for asking good homiletical questions and the sermon itself. My only wish is that he would have left himself more space to elaborate, defend against objections, and caution against poor frameworks. 

Having already wrapped up his methodological approach, the final chapter seeks to persuade the reader to view the Gospels as a “canon within a canon.” Or to put it another way: “the texts that guide and direct our overall reading of Scripture” (230). Pennington argues from history, citing the formative role of the Jesus traditions in the life of the early church, the purpose of biographies in ancient times, and the centrality of Gospel materials in early church writings and worship. When coupled with the canonical/theological arguments, I found his argument compelling. The sections on the Gospels as consummation of the Biblical story, and the pervasive use of the Jesus traditions in the rest of the New Testament prove to be powerful points (masking the weaker points of placing the Gospels at the front of the New Testament and the comprehensive theology argument). If accepted, he argues, it should reorient and reshape our reading of the Bible, our worship, and discipleship. While a good chapter, it seems that it could have been included earlier in the foundation section or excluded altogether as it doesn’t necessarily fit with the previous summary chapter. 

Recommendation 

Overall, I found myself strongly agreeing with Pennington throughout and strongly recommend this book. His definitions are helpful, his philosophical work, while somewhat over-articulated, is challenging, and the balanced tone—academic and pastoral—enjoyable. More time could have been dedicated to the methodology, and some of the supporting points for his concluding argument were rather weak (i.e. his assumptions about the oral tradition and public reading of the Gospels; two things challenged by more recent work by Dr. Michael Kruger in Christianity at the Crossroads) However, this book is a great introduction to the study of the Gospels, and an aid to reading and teaching them in ways that are faithful, wise, and that lead to transformation. 

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Recognizing and Combatting the Religious Nature of Ideologies

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“The Christian church must learn to detect the presence of ideologies in their various states and societies…[we] live among semi-fascist, liberal-capitalist, and neo-socialist and communist ideologies of every sort…”
-Johannes Verkuyl, The Message of Liberation in our Age

Serving on a university campus, I cannot help but notice the ways in which such ideologies tear at the fabric of our community, ripping it into ragged blocks with unrealized hopes and dreams for the future of our state, nation, and world. Ideologies clothe human wisdom with absolute authority, and exalt their progenitors with savior-like fervor.

Perhaps, even more worryingly, like the leaven of the Pharisees, these ideologies all too easily infect and spread throughout the church, tearing her apart as well. And as I look around the university campus, as well as the rural communities, and urban centers, I cannot help but see the ways in which these ideologies are seeking to choke out the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So what are we to do? How does the church respond? Verkuyl gives basic, but crucial, advice for anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear:

  1. Recognize ideologies for the pseudo-religions that they are

    Verkuyl lays out six traits of ideologies that are all-too-evident in our world today:

    1. Their totalitarian claims that formulate some sort of eschatological expectations—blue prints for the future—that seek to reshape the whole of life and society.

    2. They are full of half-truths masquerading as the whole truth, catching the eye with clever slogans and, in our day, retweetable lines.

    3. Pseudo-religious ideologies merely serve as means to maintain or establish a position of power and the ability to strike down “the enemy.”

    4. They feed on hate towards any and all who disagree—lacking in love, tolerance, or understanding—utilizing this hate to keep the wheels of progress turning.

    5. Every pseudo-religious ideology is at odds with faith, “demanding of people and societies a loyalty which only the living God deserves. (91)”

    6. They are inclined to denigrate one another with labels and lies, and make an effort to snuff out ideas at odds with their given position.

  2. Detect which one(s) are present in your community, as well as in the church

    However, it’s not enough to simply recognize the traits of ideologies in general. In much the same way as we contextualize the biblical text to resonate with our congregations, we must also detect the contextualized ideological forms at work in our midsts. We will fail in our efforts to expose these divisive ideologies in the light of the gospel for the “weak, fallible, human attempts at solving our structural problems, (93)” that they are if we are blind to the specific forms effecting our communities and influencing our neighbors, friends, and fellow believers.

  3. Critically test and evaluate ideologies in the light of God’s law and gospel?

    Bringing ideologies into the light of God’s law and gospel helps to clear away all that obscures the reality and truth claims they make. In the light of God’s Word, Verkuyl instructs the church this way: “The Christian church is to ask questions such as:

    What are ideologies?
    How do they arise?
    Who sent them?
    Where to they come from?
    Whom do they serve?
    What do they aim at with respect to God and man?
    On what kind of future do they set their sights?
    (93)

  4. Openly combat these ideologies by professing and enacting the powerful freedom found in the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.

    Far from the coercive, restrictive, and silencing nature of ideologies, the Christian church has the liberating, freeing message of the Gospel. Whereas ideologies pressure people to either align with them, or identify with the “enemy,” the church freely offers the message of Christ and the Kingdom, lovingly presenting it in word and deed to a weary, hurting, and hope-starved world. Rather than following in the footsteps of ideologies that divide and pit people against one another, the church can witness to the unifying power of the gospel bringing men and women of all colors, nations, social classes, education levels, and backgrounds together in worship of the true God. Rather than utilizing persecution, job deprivation, social ostracism, political discrimination, or imprisonment to effect our vision, Christians can present to the world a tolerance unlike anything any ideology professes to offer because of our confidence in the sure working of God to effect his redemptive plan in his timing through his instruments in his ways.

All text citations from Johannes Verkuyl, The Message of Liberation in our Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970).

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Dooyeweerd, Thessalonica, and Turning From Idols To The Living God

 Mosaic in Berea: Paul Preaching to the Macedonians 

Mosaic in Berea: Paul Preaching to the Macedonians 

"God does not speak to theologians, philosophers and scientists, but to sinners, lost in themselves, and made into his children through the operation of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. In this central and radical sense, God's Word, penetrating to the root of our being, has to become the central motive-power of all of Christian life within the temporal order with its rich diversity of aspects, occupational spheres and tasks. As such, the central theme of creation, fall into sin and redemption, should also be the central starting point and motive power of our theological and philosophical thought."
-Herman Dooyeweerd, In The Twilight of Western Thought

The heart directs all of human life and action. Often we think it is the mind that directs us in how we live, and move, and have our being. Yet, Jesus declared that out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks, and I would argue, the hands act and the mind thinks. Created to love the Lord our God with all our being in every sphere of life and our neighbor as ourselves, the fall fundamentally corrupted the religious root of our being (the heart). As a result, humanity deluded itself, and (mis)directed this religious root towards the relative and dependent aspects of this temporal world. The Apostle Paul puts it this way: They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25).

This was the case in Thessalonica. Egyptian gods like Isis and Greek gods like Dionysus, as well as the cult of Cabirus, flourished in this influential city. The Roman Empire, with its Caesar, was honored, praised, and held absolute sway over the city and its people, promising comfort, assurance, and hope. And many found the philosophies and ideas of the teachers and orators to be utterly compelling ways of orienting themselves to the world. Having rejected the true and living Creator God, the people of Thessalonica had made relative, dependent aspects of the creation to be gods: sexuality, politics, and human knowledge. 

Not much has changed in two-thousand plus years. Sex and sexuality continue to give rise to new movements that seek to absolutize this aspect and misdirect numerous spheres of life: family, education, government, etc. Political ideologies take people captive with their promises of utopia through totalizing influence (a la communism, socialism, nationalism, etc.). And there is no end to the philosophies and world-views that exalt the self (human reason and sufficiency as de facto gods) over against silly notions of the divine. Sexuality, politics, and knowledge. 

 So what are we to do? 

Look to the Thessalonians. In his first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, Paul writes: You turned to God from idols to serve the true and living God (1:9).

They turned to God from the dualistic Greek philosophies and hedonism. They turned to God from emperor cult worship and the exaltation of the Empire. They turned to God from fertility gods and sexual religious practices. 

But it was not simply a matter of the will. A changing of the mind. No, it was a radical transformation of the being through the power of the gospel proclaimed to them by Paul. As Dooyeweerd so eloquently puts it, God in Christ penetrates to the root of the sinners' being, unmasking their idolatries and reorienting their hearts to the religious root for which they were created: to love and serve God in all aspects of life. This is the good news!

This redemption, renewal and reorientation through Christ laid full claim on not only the hearts of the Thessalonian Christians, but also their minds and lives. The working of the Word by the power of the Holy Spirit laid bare the antithesis facing the Thessalonians: serve the gods of the age as slaves in the kingdom of darkness, or serve the true God as members of his household in the kingdom of light and life. There was no middle ground for them to stake out, no compromise, because these two ways arose from two wholly different religious roots. God chose them in Christ to be a holy people witnessing in their words and deeds to the reality and power of the gospel of Christ and the Kingdom. So, Paul writes them to remind them of this calling, to give instructions on what it looks like to live as the church, and to both warn and encourage them to persevere in the face of rejection and harassment from the wider culture. 

In the same way, in Christ, our hearts have been fundamentally renewed and reoriented to the biblical root motive of creation, fall, and redemption. Once again, by the working of the Word in us, we are enabled to rightly view the world around us and see how each aspect of life finds its proper place in service to the true and living Triune God. 

But, much like Paul, Dooyeweerd leaves us with a warning. As our Christ-centric, kingdom-witnessing community (the church) grows, engages, and shapes the world around us, it will face opposition from other religious root-motives: dualistic neo-paganism and secular humanism among others. And how we respond to them and their ideas is key. Hold fast to the gospel and the divine Word (both Christ and Scripture), and do not succumb to the sinful inclinations of the human heart to weaken the integral and radical meaning of the divine Word. 

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. 
-1 Thessalonians 5:19-23

 

Join us on Tuesdays at 6PM as we begin a series exploring 1 Thessalonians. We meet in the Memorial Union in Room 3534. 

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Don't Miss Our Kickoff Party!

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Join us for our annual Areopagus kickoff party to be held at Trinity Christian Reformed Church (3626 Ontario St.) this coming Sunday, August 26 from 6-9PM. 

The Areopagus kickoff will include a cookout (burgers, hotdogs, chips, and salad), bacon-related treats, yard games (including bags, aka cornhole) and board games inside. This is a great opportunity to enjoy some good food, have fun, and meet other students. Areopagus is a ministry that greatly values strong community, and you'll get a feel for that at our kickoff party. 

Make it a plan to join us this Sunday. You won't regret it. If you would like any more information or have any other questions, contact Tyler Helfers (director@isu-areopagus.org or 515.518.6072). Trinity Christian Reformed Church is accessible on the #2 Cyride route (and rides are also available upon request). 

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A Parable on Pursuing Holiness

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A man began to mow his yard.  

The reels of the mower were sharp and spun effortlessly. At first, it was easy and the grass cut without difficulty. The man breezed along, finding enjoyment in the work he had been given.  But soon, the work became difficult.  Though much of the grass was still being cut down by the blades, the man began to notice some spots that needed extra work.  And as he continued, he became aware of some stubborn weeds that seemed to remain no matter how many times he went over them.  The man became frustrated, and began to tire.  

At that moment, the man was interrupted by his wife, who gave him a glass of water.  He took a few minutes to rest, and to think about why he was putting in such hard work.  Then, he started again, going more slowly over the weeds.  To his delight, he noticed that when he went more slowly over them, the weeds would be cut down.  As he finished, the man rejoiced, knowing he had done well, but not without the help of the mower, his wife, the water, rest and reflection. 

 

[This was previously posted at Tyler Helfers' former blog, Brevity and Clarity in May 2014]

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The University as Faith Community in Conversation

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It was a Sunday afternoon. The sun was descending from its high place in the sky and frost had formed on the windows from the cold wintery air outside. Two students and I sat in my living room discussing their lives as students and followers of Christ. We talked about genetic testing, the pros and cons of commercial farms, sports, greed, the authority of Scripture, church worship practices, and homosexuality. Two hours, and a few cups of tea later, they departed and I was left to reflect on our discussion. 

I found myself both encouraged and amazed at the way in which our conversation flowed from topic to topic, academics and faith, research, Scripture and prayer woven together to form the rich fabric of our lives together. In that moment, I realized that this was what the faith community in conversation was supposed to look like; the dwelling of the message of Christ among us as we talked and taught one another in all wisdom and grace, being filled with the Spirit and with thanksgiving to our great God (Eph. 5:15-20, Col. 3:15-17).

Writing on Augustine's Confessions, Dr. David Rylaarsdam conveys the significance of this sort of faith community in conversation on the theologians conversion and Christian life:

In his early life, its theological reflection done with others that helps Augustine slowly convert more and more to God. On his own, his theology is often stuck in ruts: he thinks of God too much in bodily terms, he doesn't balance God's transcendence and immanence, he thinks Scripture is too unsophisticated to deserve his attention. It's his reflections with others that keep him moving forward. The more he is drawn into the faith community, the more he converses with this community's deep tradition of reading life and Scripture, the more he accelerates toward full conversion...It's through this community of theological reflectors that God's voice breaks through the stubborn ears of Augustine's heart. [1] 

All too often, we isolate our lives from the story of Scripture, from the grand redemptive drama unfolding on its pages and extending into human history up to the present day. We fail to see our place in, as Calvin put it, the "theater of God" and how Scripture and life are woven together. As a result, our spiritual lives can seem dry, we can grow cold in our affections towards God and obedience to His ways, and we can become detached from the world around us, failing to love and serve others; proclaiming in word and deed the beauty, truth, and hope of the gospel in our various sphere(s) of influence. 

A lot of this is born out of a failure to engage in theological reflection as a faith community. We read the Bible on our own; worship in large, darkened auditoriums as individuals; we pray only in our closets at home. This is why conversation in community is so important; a space for unity and diversity, a safe space for questions and doubt, and a space of encouragement and challenge in walking in the way of Christ. In the case of Augustine, time and again, it moved him beyond the barriers his heart and mind had set up, propelling him forward in taking hold of Christ in faith. 

The university is an incredible place for Christians to enter into theological reflection in conversation. It is a place that offers a rich diversity of believers from around the world, with different experiences and viewpoints. It is a place that, perhaps more explicitly than others, sits at the intersection between faith and everyday life, work, recreation and God, the church and the world. How are you engaging in the conversation?

I challenge you in your time at university to theologically reflect on your life. But I also challenge you to do so, not merely on your own, but in conversation with others in the faith community. This will require intentionality, it may require sacrifice (of time), and it will probably have moments of both joy and pain, but it will prove its worth as you grow closer to God, deeper in fellowship with one another, and more confident of your place in God's mission in the world. So let the lordship of Christ in all spheres of life, the rich diversity of the body of Christ, and the powerful living and active Word of God all form you into a mature citizen of the Kingdom of God. 

 

[1] David Rylaarsdam, For God So Loved The World, ed. Arie C. Leder (Belleville, ON: Essence Publishing, 2006), 206. 

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Weaving Science and Creation Together for Human Flourishing and the Glory of God

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"Belief in creation and the practice of and belief in science are often thought to be antithetical. Doubtless there are today challenges in the relationship between the two and I do not intend to try and solve all such challenges. What I do want to do is to try and show that the doctrine of creation, correctly understood and science, correctly understood, complement each other in vital and exhilarating ways."

With these words, Dr. Craig Bartholomew began this year's Areopagus spring lecture at Iowa State University, entitled, "The Doctrine of Creation and the Exhilaration of Science: A Different Approach." And while it was surely a lecture about creation and science, it proved to be far more. In this lecture, delivered to a crowd of fifty university students and faculty members, as well as members of the Ames community, Dr. Bartholomew challenged Christians and non-Christians alike to critically examine their presuppositions when coming to the biblical text, the science lab, and the marketplace of ideas (the public square of the university). 

Dr. Bartholomew began by examining Genesis 1 & 2, showing that the doctrine of creation is not a simple thing. In a very clear and succinct way, Dr. Bartholomew walked through some of the contemporary scholarship on these chapters, laying the foundation for his four main points about this crucial piece of the biblical drama that would have a bearing on the rest of his lecture: 

  • The Genesis account leaves us with a profound sense of God as the all-powerful, majestic king who speaks creation into existence.
  • Genesis 1 portrays a universe that is ordered, given its structure, by God's "let there be's"
  • The creation account gives an astonishing description of what it means to be human with our meaning and purpose wrapped in being image-bearers of God called to image him in this created world
  • Finally, the opening chapters of Genesis portray a world that is not only filled with wonder and awe, but a world that we can know!

Without dismissing the common questions about origins, it was made clear that the doctrine of creation presents us with so much more that this, including a great deal that contributes to the sciences. And this is where Dr. Bartholomew turned his attention to in the remainder of the lecture.

"So powerful have the discoveries of science been that it is easy to expect science to provide the answers to all the questions we have about life. Indeed, a tendency in modernity has been for science to ally itself with naturalism and to relegate religion to the private spheres of our lives, with no public consequences, including in education and university life."

This statement is but one of many that highlight the ways in which our world and life view frame our approach and give shape to our lives, including in the classroom, laboratory, coffee shop, and church. Rather than adopting the prevailing narrative, Dr. Bartholomew proposed that the doctrine of creation presents us with the true basis for all human understanding, including in the sciences. Though it does not provide all the answers to the sciences (and never claims to do so), the doctrine of creation "encourages contemplation and curiosity and provides us with confidence to pursue the truth about the world." And as we engage in the work of science with this framework in mind, we can be truly hopeful about our exploration and learning about the world in which we find ourselves.

"GenESIS 1 enables us not only to pursue science with appropriate confidence but also as a divine calling, an imperative from God, to think, as it were, God’s thoughts after him, to discover his ways in his world."

Turning again to his main points about the doctrine of creation, Dr. Bartholomew encouraged everyone to recognize the vocational component. He challenged those in the sciences to consider why they chose to study biology, physics, chemistry, or astronomy. Motivations born out of amazement and wonder are appropriate, but also love and respect. Love for God and his creation, as well as respect for the task entrusted to his image-bearers to unfold its potential for human flourishing and the glory of God. 

Drawing on Kuyper, he brought the lecture to a conclusion by pointing to that which follows the doctrine of creation in the redemptive narrative: the Fall. Sin has caused us to become estranged from the previously organic, natural unfolding of the scientific vocation. Just like the doctrine of creation, science is complex, and much more than merely "collecting facts into our bucket to be arranged in later in a logical order." Rather, drawing on Karl Popper, a better approach to science is that of a torch, understanding that "our identification of the facts and their interrelationship will be heavily influenced by the light we cast upon that which we are studying." Therefore, we have to critically examine ourselves, and the matrix out of which we practice science (our presuppositions) and consider how we account for them. At the end of the day, the doctrine of creation, and a world and life view rooted in the redemptive drama of the Triune God, forms a powerful, hopeful, and exhilarating basis for the practice of science. 

Below are a few of the comments from the event:

"I found this a very fascinating perspective on the relationship between religion and science."--Kyra

"I thought the discussion about the purpose of university was most interesting...this is something that needs to happen more."--Sebastian, Physics

"Dr. Batholomew's explanation of the meaning of Genesis 1 was so helpful and very encouraging to my faith."--Ben, Aerospace Engineering

"As a Christ follower, this lecture has allowed me to think more about how we think, and how to approach others with the teaching of creation and its relationship to the gospel."--Luke, Mechanical Engineering

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