Verse of the Day

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Pastor's Book Review - "The Universe Next Door"

Book Review:
James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1976).

The 2nd edition of this work was published in 1988, the 3rd ed. in 1997, and the 4th ed. in 2004. University students in classes dealing with worldviews and philosophy sometimes are assigned this work as required reading. The fact that it has gone through four editions with over a quarter million copies in print in the first three may be an indication that its claim to be "the premier textbook on worldviews" (back cover, 4th ed.) is found to be plausible by some. The author is a former editor of InterVarsity Press, and campus lecturer for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The obvious popularity of the book, and the prominence of the author, makes the following critique that much more difficult, but also that much more necessary.

The following are problems I found with this work. These are all very serious errors, or at best, very poor theological writing. I have arranged them as they occur in the book, and not in order of importance.

1. Teaching the complexity of God - Denial of the simplicity of God (pg. 24; 4th ed. pg. 27) -"He is a unity, yes, but a unity of complexity."

He does not mention God's simplicity, and then refute the doctrine from Scripture. He simply ignores it, and teaches the opposite. Reference some of the better Reformed systematics like Herman Bavinck's The Doctrine of God (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), pp. 113-172 (cp. esp. pp. 168-172) for the expose of the error in Sire's statement.

Compare John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God: A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), pp. 225-230, s.v. “Simplicity” - Is Frame saying the same thing as Sire regarding the essential complexity within unity of God, and the primacy of God’s attribute of goodness (pp. 229-230), or is he saying something quite different?

2. Elevation of God's goodness over His other attributes without Scriptural basis (pg. 26; 4th ed. pg. 28) -"This is the prime statement about God's character. From it flow all others."

I don't see any Scriptural basis for this prejudicial statement, any more than the one usually encountered regarding His holiness. He may need to do this to shore up his sublapsarianism, but he does it by way of opinion, and not sound Biblical doctrine. This error flows naturally from a denial, or ignoring of the doctrine of God's simplicity (for which see Bavinck, op. cit.).

3. Teaching non-determinism, sublapsarianism - Denial of the decree, predestination, and God's absolute sovereignty (pg. 28; 4th ed. pg. 31, cp. also pg. 30!) -"If the course of events were determined, our decisions would have no significance. So theism declares that the universe is orderly but not determined."

I don't know what "theism" he is referring to. It is not the "theism" of the Bible, or either Testament, or of the God who reveals Himself there. This is blatant anti-decreetalism, and extreme sublapsarianism.

4. Theologically confusing language regarding God's "environment" involving an implicit denial of God's omnipresence and immanence (pp. 29-30; 4th ed. pg. 32) -"God is totally unconstrained by his environment....nothing external to God can possibly constrain him."

God's "environment" and "externals"? Environment external to God? What in the "world" is he talking about. God's "environment"? What, pray tell, is that?!?! "External to God"??? What is "external to God"? If he is even considering this hypothetically, it bears with it an implicit denial of God's omnipresence and immanence.

5. Teaching man's transcendance of his environment (pg. 30; 4th ed. pg. 32) -"So man participates in part in a transcendence over his environment. Except at the very extremities of existence - in sickness or physical deprivation (utter starvation, cooped up in darkness for days on end, for example) - a person is not forced to any necessary reaction."
"In short, man has personality and is capable of transcending the cosmos in which he is placed in the sense that he can know something of that cosmos and can act significantly to change the course of both human and cosmic events."

My, he certainly has a very high view of man! That should not be surprising to find in such an extreme sublapsarian. However, I fail to see the relevance of this "partial transcendence" he refers to. We are still subject to the absolute necessities of eating, drinking, sleeping, and obeying gravity. How, pray tell, does man transcend his enviroment? If you consider the actual examples he cites between the two statements above, they just do not get him where he wants to go. They show that man is a responsible and personal being, but not transcendent. And what about man's environment called "God", in whom we live and move and have our being? I think Sire has not factored God into this pseudo-theological equation!

His issue seems to be that man is an "actor", and not just a "reactor" (" a bell ringing when a button is pushed.". What he insists on referring to as "self-transcendence" (pp. 29), renders the usage of that terminology useless regarding the Creator. This would seem to be the ultimate theological error of those whose objection to the sovereignty of God issues forth in protestations that they are not robots or puppets.

If he is correct that "partially self-transcendent" men are capable of changing "the course of both human and cosmic events", then man is sovereign, not God, and the wrong ruler is seated on the throne of the universe.

6. Teaching of partial or relative depravity - Denial of total depravity and utter inability (pp. 35-36; 4th ed. pg. 38-39) -" has lost his capacity to know himself accurately and to determine his own course of action freely..."
"...he became more a servant to nature than to God."
"Man's intelligence also became became less able to discern good and evil."

The language Sire uses here falls short of the expressions one would expect if the author affirmed the total depravity and utter inability of fallen and unregenerate man. He qualifies man's fallenness with language like: "accurately...freely....more...than....impaired...less able...". Such relativizing of man's fallen condition does not square with what one finds in Scripture, especially in Romans, and specifically in the first three chapters of that book. It would appear to me that there is an inherent semi-Pelagianism driving such qualifiers.

7. Teaching the non-contingency of man - Denial of man's dependence or creatureliness (pg. 83; omitted in 4th ed.) -"...if man is contingent, he is inherently meaningless."

I would object that, if man is not contingent, i.e., non-contingent, then he is God! There is only one non-contingent being, and that is the Sovereign Creator and Ruler of the universe. Man, by virtue of his very creatureliness, is contingent. If Romans 9 teaches anything, it teaches this very fact! Here is Sire's semi-Pelagian sublapsarianism at its essence, and this theological error is inherently naturalistic. Here he loses his first objection to naturalism. He has cast off supernaturalism, and thus has nowhere to stand as a basis for objecting to naturalism.

He objects that "...naturalism does not supply a basis on which man can act significantly." Sire, on the other hand, does not supply a basis on which God can act significantly, because he presents us with a transcendent creature, and a God who is not the sovereign determiner of events in His creation. He may attempt to qualify this error with the word "partial" as he has before, but this cake cannot both be had and eaten. That dog don't hunt!

He has yielded the high ground, and it is open season for the naturalist. I would like the opportunity to take the naturalist's side in a debate against Sire! He needs to come prepared to chew his sublapsarianism thoroughly, and swallow his anti-decreetalism without the water of the Word to wash it down!

'Nuff said?

Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria,

John T. "Jack" Jeffery
Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
Greentown, PA

July 4, 2007

Book Review:
James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1976)
by John T. Jeffery

Copyright 2007 by John T. Jeffery.
All rights reserved.
The use of excerpts or reproduction of this material is prohibited
without written permission from the author.

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Scranton, PA 18504
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