How Can We Study Theology for a Lifetime? Dr. Wayne Grudem

Guest: Dr. Wayne Grudem | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Grudem as they discuss lifelong theological study. Topics of conversation include:

Dr. Grudem’s personal journey into theological study

Dr. Wayne Grudem serves as distinguished professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary. He received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge and served as General Editor of the ESV Study Bible (Crossway, 2008). Dr. Grudem is the author of several books, including Systematic Theology (Zondervan Academic, 2020), and What the Bible Says About How to Know God’s Will (Crossway, 2020).

As we close this season of our Faith Seeking Understanding podcast, we want to first thank you for being a faithful listener. We sincerely hope you have been encouraged and helped in your understanding of the faith!

Stay connected with us! Keep your ears open on this channel for future projects from Phoenix Seminary and connect with us by subscribing to

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Brian Arnold (00:00):

I just want to say, as we close this season of Faith Seeking Understanding Podcast, we want to first thank you for being a faithful listener. We sincerely hope you've been encouraged and helped in your understanding of the Christian faith. Second, we hope you'll stay connected with us. Keep your ears open for future projects, and you can connect with us by subscribing at Again, that link is Thanks for listening.

Intro (00:29):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:44):

Well, today we want to bring you a special episode of Faith Seeking Understanding. This is our 100th episode. Our heart for this podcast was to help Christians grow in your faith. That's why we've tackled doctrinal topics, ethics, biblical studies. We long to see Christians continue to deepen in their understanding of God and the Bible, and how we ought to live as followers of Christ. And all this comes from a fundamental conviction that theology matters. I first came to take theology seriously as a senior in high school. But it was in college during my first semester that our Campus Crusade was working through John Piper's book, Desiring God. And from there, the theological hook was set in my soul. And not long after that, a mentor of mine knew that I was very interested in studying theology, and told me that I just had to read this book called Systematic Theology by a guy named Wayne Grudem.

Brian Arnold (01:34):

And that summer, I was completing a 500 hour internship for my paramedic degree, and I went to Barnes and Noble, and I remember buying that systematic theology book, and just devoured it that summer. And I can remember walking to the ambulance and turning it around and seeing that he was a graduate of Harvard for his undergrad, and seminary training at Westminster, PhD in New Testament from Cambridge. And that he worked at this place called Phoenix Seminary, which I had never heard of before. But I think it's fitting in this 100th episode to talk to my friend and colleague, Dr. Wayne Grudem, who's the author of that systematic theology, just to talk today about how we can study theology for a lifetime. Dr. Grudem, welcome back to our podcast.

Wayne Grudem (02:18):

Thank you, Brian. Good to be here.

Brian Arnold (02:20):

So that's just what I want to do today. I want to just talk to you as you reflect and think on your lifetime of studying theology, how our listeners can take some cues from that and study theology for their life as well. So I would love to just hear more about your story. How did you come to love the study of theology?

Wayne Grudem (02:41):

Well, I think it started back when I was 13 or 14. I don't quite remember. My pastor at a Baptist church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin taught a Thursday afternoon class after school on Baptist beliefs. And I read this little book, chapter by chapter, and found out you could find out how we got the Bible, find out what the Trinity is. You could find out that God is omnipresent and omniscient and omnipotent and eternal, and it explained what those meant. And the author was doing that by putting together verses on those topics from all different parts of the Bible. And all of a sudden, I was amazed to think that you can put together teachings from different parts of the Bible and come to a conclusion about what you should believe. I didn't know that at the time, but that junior high school after school religious studies experience set the pattern for my life.

Brian Arnold (03:44):

And then from there...which I think is really great, I think it's a good reminder for people even listening that you never know what's going to be said to a kid in your children's ministry, or youth ministry, or high school, early college, that's going to hit them in such a profound way. I remember for me it was sitting there in church, probably same age, junior high, and hearing the pastor string together a bunch of Bible verses in his sermon, and just thinking—how does he know all those? Like this is a pretty big book. How is he doing that? And it just struck me. But that really was a flash until my senior year of high school. So what was it from there, then, that really kind of helped set that hook for you?

Wayne Grudem (04:28):

Well, I picked up from my parents a habit of daily Bible reading and prayer time. So when I went off to college, I already had established a habit of spending some time in God's word, the Bible, and some time in prayer every day. And I continued in that through the rest of my life.

Brian Arnold (04:48):

What age were you when you started that?

Wayne Grudem (04:52):

Brian, I don't remember.

Wayne Grudem (04:56):

Wow, that's a good question. It was early, probably sometime in junior high high school, but I don't remember. In college I majored in economics, and thought I was going to go to law school and then into politics. But I became a leader and eventually president of the Christian Fellowship Group at Harvard, and found that I was actually a sort of pastor to other students. And I loved it. Then I heard the president of Westminster Seminary, Edmund Clowney, he would talk, he said—if you think you're called into Bible teaching or preaching or being a pastor, try out teaching and see how it goes. So I went to the Sunday school superintendent at Park Street Church in Boston and said—you have any classes that I could teach? And he said—yes, fourth grade boys. So I taught 12 fourth grade boys, who were noisy and unruly and just a lot of fun. And I enjoyed doing that. Later, Margaret and I got married and we taught seventh grade boys and girls Sunday school class. But I loved explaining God's Word and applying it to people's lives. So I shifted my economics major, I was almost done, I completed the requirements and graduated, but went to seminary instead of to law school. I went to Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Got a tremendous education there.

Brian Arnold (06:25):

All right. Before we even go further into that, I've heard the story of the fourth grade boys before. Would you tell the last part of that? What happened 30 years later?

Wayne Grudem (06:34):

Yes. I was speaking in Clearwater, Florida at a church, series of meetings. After one of the evening talks, a navy chaplain came up to me and said—you maybe don't remember me, but I was in your fourth grade boys Sunday school class, and you prayed with me to receive Christ. There he was, a Navy chaplain. And I was just...I was deeply thankful to the Lord for that. And it was an indication of—we don't know the results of our ministry.

Brian Arnold (07:06):

That's right. Who knows how many other people would say that about your ministry, that you'll just not know this side of heaven. But just staying faithful to what you've been called to do. So you're at Westminster then, and which professors had the most profound impact on you? What were you starting to read, both theologically, that really started to spark your interest to become a theologian, but also even devotionally at that time? Were there things or people you were reading or listening to and preaching that were helping that even devotional aspect of your life?

Wayne Grudem (07:38):

Westminster gave out to prospective students a little book called The Hidden Life of Prayer by David McIntyre. And I have read through that book numerous times since then. It's just the story of the lives of people who had significant prayer ministries at various times in church history. I also...I've been brought up a Baptist in a sort of a dispensational background—Scofield Reference Bible teaching was good. But I was being challenged to think about reformed theology. And I remember thinking—these people who are espousing a reformed view of the sovereignty of God are also the people who are doing study on the way the Bible applies to mathematics and science and medicine and education and the study of history and business and all of life. And that was a strong argument in favor of a reformed view of the sovereignty of God over all things. You asked at the beginning, Brian, about what books have influenced me. I have a list on my website, I think there are 12 of them. The Bible more than any other book, far beyond any other book. Should I read the list?

Brian Arnold (09:05):

Yeah, I would love that.

Wayne Grudem (09:06):

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Louis Berkof, Systematic Theology. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism. I read that in college and thought—I wish I could write that clearly and argue that precisely.

Brian Arnold (09:23):

It's a book that you still require your students to read today.

Wayne Grudem (09:26):

I do, Christianity and Liberalism.

Brian Arnold (09:28):

Which was written what, 1923?

Wayne Grudem (09:31):

1923, approximately.

Brian Arnold (09:32):

Okay. A hundred years ago this year. And when you read it, it feels like he was writing it yesterday. It's an amazing word.

Wayne Grudem (09:37):

Right. And students who read it all of a sudden realize why their liberal protestant church that they went to growing up didn't preach the gospel. Because it was just—Christianity is a manmade religion, rather than the Bible being the very words of God to us. So that was fourth, Machen—Christianity and Liberalism. Number five, Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith. My senior year at Harvard, I took a class in philosophy from the Department Chairman, Rogers Albridge. And it was about 20 students with a discussion on...a lot of time on Descartes, much of the time on whether there was a God and whether we could know that he existed. And I read Cornelius Van Til's Defense of the Faith while participating actively, eagerly, vigorously in the discussions with my fellow students. And I found Van Til extremely helpful, saying that the Christian faith comes as a whole system, not just one individual fact at a time, but it all works together. I mentioned already McIntyre, The Hidden Life of Prayer. John Murray, Principles of Conduct. Murray was a Westminster professor, and that's an ethics book. Which again, was an eyeopener to me that you can discover what the Bible says about all aspects of life and Christian ethics. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied. B.B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation <laugh>. That's a different book.

Brian Arnold (11:13):

How so?

Wayne Grudem (11:15):

There are no Bible verses in it.

Brian Arnold (11:17):

Oh, interesting.

Wayne Grudem (11:18):

But it's mixed in biblical content. And he distinguishes belief from non-belief in God, and then among belief in God, Trinitarian versus non-Trinitarian belief. And then Roman Catholic versus Protestant, Protestant liberal versus Protestant conservative, Protestant conservative versus reformed Protestant. And it's a well-reasoned book, The Plan of Salvation. It impacted me. In Warfield, the inspiration and authority of the Bible—that was my grounding in biblical inerrancy. And it was huge. I did go one year to Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, but left after the first year, because they had abandoned their commitment to inerrancy of Scripture. And Warfield was a big help to me in thinking through that question.

Brian Arnold (12:10):

Which if I could, if I can jump in again, just real fast. I don't think you mentioned this when you said you were at Park Street in Boston during your time at Harvard, but Harold Ockenga was the pastor there, and people like him and Carl F. H. Henry were influential in the founding of Fuller Seminary. And then George Marsden even has a book about how quickly Fuller kind of turned away from some of those founding principles and convictions like the inerrancy of Scripture. So yeah, you went there in the 1970s and already found that they were teaching things that were not in accord with the founding of the school. And then, yeah, transferred to Westminster. I think that's a fascinating part of the story in American Evangelicalism in the last 50 years. I think that's an important part of the story. So, sorry. And then the last two books?

Wayne Grudem (13:00):

Yeah. I could mention that Carl Henry, who was one of the original founding faculty members at Fuller, Carl and Helga Henry sat in our living room in Illinois after Sunday dinner, and they said—we still don't know how Fuller Seminary went wrong in the way it did.

Brian Arnold (13:18):


Wayne Grudem (13:19):

It's quite amazing. But it was a commitment to try to please the liberal, secular—I think secular—liberal academic institutions and denominations that led them to move away from inerrancy...well, anyway, that's another story. Last two books: Geerhardus Vos, V as in Victor, O-S, Biblical Theology. This was a introduction to biblical theology to me that was...every page was so packed with wonderful insights into Scripture. And then the last one I put on the list was John Wimber, Power Evangelism, because Margaret and I spent five years in the vineyard movement and had was ministering to us in our personal spiritual lives, but enabled us to minister to others as well. And we saw numerous, numerous immediate answers to prayer for various physical and emotional and situational needs in people's lives. So that's a list of 12. There are probably more.

Brian Arnold (14:21):

Well, and I think we all have those lists of books that have impacted us. And it really is even where you're at in your life, in your Christian walk, how much time you've been with the Lord, what you've read already, that I think in many ways sets those books of great importance in our life. Like I mentioned, John Piper's Desiring God was so impactful for me as a college student, and really set me on this trajectory. Your book, Systematic Theology. I always mention James Sire's Universe Next Door, which really helped me understand how to understand Christian worldview, and the questions that are asked, and to dismantle other worldviews like philosophical naturalism. And then I always put on J. I. Packer's Quest for Godliness, because I love how he did history, but it also is such an impactful book through the Puritans, who were just deeply devotional. So maybe I should fill mine out till 12, but there's four of them on my end. So then you went from Westminster, felt called by God to go to the next level, if you will, to pursue PhD work. You decided to go to Cambridge. What made you want to study New Testament, and what were some of those impactful things that God was doing in your life there?

Wayne Grudem (15:38):

Well, I ended up...I had some life experience in people connected with the charismatic movement, but I was also a graduate—or a student—at Westminster Seminary, which was strongly suspicious of miraculous gifts today. And so I ended up writing a PhD dissertation on one hot issue in that controversy, and that is the gift of prophecy. And when I got to Cambridge, you might imagine, I was wondering—would my faith be strong, or would I succumb to the more liberal tendencies in the university? First thing I ended up doing on the gift of prophecy in the New Testament was the background study on the nature and function of prophecy in the Old Testament. And lo and behold, what did I find? It claimed to be God's very words, again and again. And claimed to be absolutely truthful. And I documented that on a survey of the Old Testament teachings on prophecy. And my supervisor, professor, C. F. D. Moule, very famous—pronounced it Moule—New Testament professor, read what I wrote and said, "Well, I guess that is what it says, isn't it?" <laugh> And he asked me to present it to a group of PhD students. So my confidence in the truthfulness of Scripture, and the absolute authority of Scripture, deepened and was strengthened during my PhD study.

Wayne Grudem (17:09):

What else? Our oldest son was born there. We had wonderful friends and a great church in Cambridge. And then partway through my three years in Cambridge, I had an opportunity to teach for an Intervarsity group in Austria at Schloss Mittersill to teach a class on Christian ethics. And I found I liked the classroom, I liked teaching, I liked interacting with students. And so, when time came to finish my PhD work and get a job, I went to Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota for four years. And then Trinity Divinity School in Illinois for 20 years. And now here 22 years at Phoenix Seminary, which has been great.

Brian Arnold (18:00):

And I can imagine some people listening and thinking—well, you guys are professional theologians. And I use that word a lot lighter about me than you. And of course we study and we read these great books of theology, and that's kind of what God has called us into. But I'd love for you to take a few minutes, just talk to a listener who says—you know, I want to whet the appetite for theology. I want to start studying these things. I have no idea where to begin. I don't know what that path looks like. What encouragement would you give to them, and how can they start taking some steps to grow in this area?

Wayne Grudem (18:37):

Oh, boy. Enroll at Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (18:41):

There you go! <laugh>.

Wayne Grudem (18:45):

Well, that's one thing. And I have in my class that I teach on Tuesday afternoons here, I have one retired businessman in his early seventies, and another retired funeral director, actually, in his fifties or sixties. It's not too late. And they're just interacting with students, and they're providing additional wisdom and insight. I've also had a number of people, Brian, say that they're—just in reading my systematic theology, though it's 1600 pages—they're surprised by two things. One, it's easy to understand. And two, it helps their spiritual life. So I hope it would increase, encourage people's appetite for theological study.

Brian Arnold (19:41):

And I can testify to that. I know it's hard for you to speak of your own work in those ways, but that's the story of my life—is reading that, understanding theology in a way that took me deeper but was accessible. And it can be intimidating, looking at a 1600 page book. But for those listening, really, these self-contained chapters that you can just read a week at a time if you wanted to, and in a year or two years you've really studied the totality of theology from the Word of God all the way through end times, through eschatology. So it's a very readable resource. Yeah. What else would you point them to?

Wayne Grudem (20:19):

Just spending time in the Lord's presence. Every day I read...most days, some days I really rush, but most days I read sections from the Old Testament—usually a chapter—and then a chapter from the New Testament. And I have a notebook of things I pray for myself, my family, my relatives, my friends, my church activities, seminary, et cetera. But then the most joyful time is just time when I spend, not reading another verse, not saying another prayer, but just resting in the Lord's presence and enjoying his presence with me. It's during those times that a lot of problems in life, the answer appears clear all of a sudden, or the Lord puts on my mind something new that I hadn't been thinking about that I could undertake as a project, or many other things. But just resting in the Lord's presence and knowing God personally is what the Christian life is all about. And if we neglect that, everything else goes awry eventually.

Brian Arnold (21:40):

You, I believe, have your students read...I can't remember, is it Helmut Thielicke?

Wayne Grudem (21:50):

A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.

Brian Arnold (21:51):

That's right. That's right. Which is a helpful place to start—but a lot of these same kinds of ideas, if I recall—that we can't let our desire to study theology outpace our desire to be with the Lord. And I think a lot of people get concerned about that. That one of the reasons why they don't want to study theology is they feel like they'll lose that devotional aspect. But what I've seen in your life, even, is the complete opposite, is theology really serves to fuel that devotional aspects of your life and your desire to be in the Lord's presence. And you're doing it with a fuller understanding of who he is, which can only help in those moments.

Wayne Grudem (22:31):

I think so, as long as we're believing in the Bible and believing things that are true about God. And that's what the Bible teaches us, of course.

Brian Arnold (22:39):

Of course. And for those listening, I'll follow up on your plug. If you want to go deeper into the things of God, and you're here in Phoenix—or you're somewhere else—whether through coming to Phoenix Seminary or joining us online, it's a great place to study with an incredible faculty who love the Lord, believe his Word, totally truthful, inherent, inspired, infallible, and love the disciplines of history and languages and theology to really help give that foundation of biblical truth for a lifetime. We talk about studying for a lifetime of faithful ministry, and that doesn't just mean people who are in vocational ministry. It means all those who are called to serve the Lord in whatever capacity that they're in. And I appreciate your faithfulness of theological education for 40 plus years, seeing as God's called you there in your writing ministry that has really impacted this generation.

Brian Arnold (23:36):

I like to say that...kind of what John Piper preached into existence, even through Passion: One Day Live, and what he's been able to do in awakening in many ways. But you've been the theologian of this generation, and I've benefited from that. And just want to thank you for the impact that you've had in my life. And I know a lot of the other guys I know who came to study theology with me during my time in seminary were there in large measure because of reading your systematic theology. So thank you for giving your life to studying theology so that we could study theology as well.

Wayne Grudem (24:11):

Well, thank you, Brian. I'm thankful that the Lord has allowed me to have some positive impact on the Church, so I'm thankful for that. And I'm now at 75 just concerned that I don't make any mistake and adopt some wrongful teaching.

Brian Arnold (24:32):

Yeah, well...

Wayne Grudem (24:33):

In the last years of my life. I've seen people not quite finish well, and I want to finish well.

Brian Arnold (24:40):

Well, we can pray to that end. And I have every confidence that you will. Well, thank you Dr. Grudem, for being with us today. And I just want to say, as we close this season of Faith Seeking Understanding Podcast, we want to first thank you for being a faithful listener. We sincerely hope you've been encouraged and helped in your understanding of the Christian faith! Second, we hope you'll stay connected with us. Keep your ears open for future projects, and you can connect with us by subscribing at Again, that link is Thanks for listening.

Outro (25:17):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at

What Do Christians Need to Know About Contraceptives? Dr. Ken Magnuson

Guest: Dr. Ken Magnuson | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Magnuson about the ethics of contraception. Topics of conversation include:

Dr. Ken Magnuson serves as the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society. He is professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as at Phoenix Seminary. He is the author of Invitation to Christian Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues (Kregel Academic, 2020).

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Intro (00:02):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:20):

Recently I had Dr. Ken Magnuson on Faith Seeking Understanding to talk about reproductive technology. Well, today I want to talk about the other side of reproductive technology, and that is contraception. And on this issue, there's a lot of assumptions that are made, but very little reflection as it comes to it. And I want us to frame this conversation around all reproductive technology—whether it's in vitro fertilization, or it's contraception in terms of birth control—from a biblical worldview standpoint. We need to think through—how does God want us to procreate in a way that honors him and honors our commitment to be fruitful and multiply? And there's no easy answers to these questions. And so I'm thankful that Dr. Magnuson is joining us again to talk about them. Dr. Ken Magnuson is professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Seminary, and also teaches Christian Ethics at Phoenix Seminary, in addition to his full-time gig as executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society. He is the author of the recent book, Invitation to Christian Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues. And I have always found Dr. Magnuson to be a well thought through person on these issues. Dr. Magnuson, welcome back to the podcast.

Ken Magnuson (01:33):

Thank you, Brian. It's good to be with you. And please—do call me Ken.

Brian Arnold (01:37):

<laugh>. You got it, Dr. Magnuson! All right. So we always ask our guests one big question, and that today is—what do Christians need to know about contraceptives? Or if we wanted to get a little bit more spicy, should Christians use contraception? Now, that is obviously a very big broad kind of question, as there are many different kinds of technologies, that go into contraception. But maybe we could set the stage by thinking through the difference between birth control and contraception. How do you differentiate those?

Ken Magnuson (02:05):

Yeah, so these terms are often not defined, but it is helpful to distinguish them. And they're sometimes used interchangeably. But I use contraception to refer to methods that prevent fertilization. And by the way, even there, some people will define contraception as anything that prevents implantation or earlier. So I'll use contraception to refer to methods that prevent fertilization, while birth control may be used to refer to anything that prevents birth, including methods that prevent fertilization—and those that act after fertilization occurs, either by preventing implantation, or even preventing birth later. So birth control may refer to contraception, as well as various forms of abortion. And, of course, this is really important, because whatever other issues we may talk about with respect to contraception—this is a great divide. You know, whether we prevent the beginning of life, or end life after it's begun.

Brian Arnold (03:13):

Well, and I'm always stunned by the animus that even Christians have on this issue. I mean, people really care about this topic—whether or not they've thought about it much, they still care about it a lot. One of the things, even just to set the stage in a different way, when I'm teaching my students through church history, one of the most important inventions, I think, in the history of the world, is the printing press. I think the printing press gives us the Reformation, the Reformation gives us even—and this is very...a hundred thousand foot, right—leads us into even places like the Enlightenment, because you have an explosion of information and things. But when I ask them about the 20th century, what is the single most important invention of the 20th century? Think about planes, and cars, and computers. I mean, lots of different things. I always press them that birth control is likely the most significant. And by that, I mean like oral contraception, the pill, is the most significant technology created in the 20th century. Because it fundamentally changes humanity and what global population looks like. And has almost endless ripple effects to it. Would you agree that that is the significance of the topic we're talking about?

Ken Magnuson (04:21):

Yeah, I think that's huge. And it has had that kind of impact, by separating in a much more profound way, procreation from marriage. And so it has an impact on sex outside of marriage, as well as the way that people think about procreation—married couples think about procreation.

Brian Arnold (04:45):

Well, let's talk about that, maybe before and after something like the pill is introduced in the 20th century. How were people thinking through the issue of contraception before, and then maybe even after, the sexual revolution? What have you seen in...I know you're a modern ethicist, but you've done some work in the history of ethics as well. How has that shift occurred in the last hundred years?

Ken Magnuson (05:10):

Yeah. It's interesting, and a lot of students I've had haven't really thought about this. So I know a lot of other people haven't thought about this a lot. But prior to the 20th century, every Christian denomination—the Catholic church and every Protestant denomination—opposed the use of contraception, including for married couples. And the first denomination to open the door a crack to the use of contraception in marriage came in 1930, with the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church. And even there, while allowing for contraception within marriage, they condemn, and I quote here, they condemn the "use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience." And just think about how things are different today. But at any rate, in the following decades after that, every major Protestant denomination followed the Anglican church, and contraception was deemed permissible by the majority of Protestant leaders.

Ken Magnuson (06:14):

Not all, by any means, but by the majority. And there was even some talk that the Roman Catholic Church would reverse its position on contraception at Vatican II in the 1960s. And they were encouraged by a good number of Roman Catholic scholars to do so. At the end of the day, they didn't, and so the Catholic position has remained opposed to the use of artificial methods of contraception. But that's how profound an impact that we have seen in the 20th century. And then, you know, as you say, in the sixties, things changed dramatically with the advent of the birth control pill, and it shaped cultural values—especially with regard to sex outside of marriage, and sex apart from procreation. That produces a radical change. And this is one of the reasons why I think this is an important issue—it didn't take long for Christians to follow our culture into an embrace of contraception.

Brian Arnold (07:15):

Yeah, I was going to ask you the why question. Why is it that in the 1930s, even, you have this statement from the Anglican Church saying—not even for reasons of luxury or lifestyle—whatever it is—that if we're honest today, that's what happens. People get married, you know, especially if they're in their younger twenties, and they are saying—hey, let's put off kids for five years. They don't really think much about going onto a pill, and then in their own timing want to have children. I mean, that was very prevalent, even when I was a student in Southern Seminary. I mean, that almost just went untalked about.

Ken Magnuson (07:53):

I think it's the assumption and expectation, isn't it?

Brian Arnold (07:56):

It is.

Ken Magnuson (07:57):

When a couple gets married.

Brian Arnold (07:59):

Absolutely. Okay. So let's get into some specifics about this, because we might say—I'm not sure if you'd say this or not—but something like Natural Family Planning. Is that an okay approach to having, you know, some sort of—I don't want to call that contraception—but you're trying to avoid having children, right? By using that. Or do we need to really think through—every sexual act needs to be open to procreation?

Ken Magnuson (08:31):

Yeah. So you're raising, largely, the difference between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant thinkers on this, in some ways.

Brian Arnold (08:42):

Yes, I am. That's exactly what I'm doing.

Ken Magnuson (08:43):

So...and as you indicate, the Roman Catholic perspective is that each and every act of sex within marriage must be open to procreation. You can't block off that possibility. And so they have turned to Natural Family Planning as an acceptable approach to limiting the number of children. And by that—most people probably have an idea of that—but by that, is you do the best that you can to identify the woman's fertile period, and avoid coming together during that time. And then you wouldn't use any form of contraception when coming together. And what's interesting to me on that, Brian, and as a historian, you might appreciate this—is that I think most Catholics would see this as the most consistent view, as consistent with Augustine's understanding. It's kind of an Augustinian perspective. Because Augustine was opposed to sex outside of an openness for procreation. But in fact, Augustine would roundly reject the Roman Catholic view, because the entire marital life can be organized around having sex without an openness...without wanting to procreate. And Augustine's view was that your intention ought to be...not just that you're not blocking the opportunity, but your will should be that you come together to procreate. So the Roman Catholic Church has come far from that.

Brian Arnold (10:20):

Right. And I'm sure some people might already be doing the math, and although he had a—in essence, like a concubine, right? Earlier on in his life. If you know the story of Augustine—I know you do—for our listeners who know that story, he did have a son named Adeodatus, but then he was single the rest of his life. And so I think that always comes into play, especially as you're talking about the Roman Catholic position. How often single men, and men without children, are making determinative statements. Do you run into that? Is that something that you see as part of the argument?

Ken Magnuson (11:00):

Yeah, I mean, I...

Brian Arnold (11:02):

It may be irrelevant, but I'm just saying like—it seems to be part of it.

Ken Magnuson (11:05):

Right. I mean, it's not that we can't speak to things that are outside of our own experience, or something. But that is definitely a criticism and a concern. And I think we have to put it in a perspective of a theology of marriage and procreation, and, you know, all of these things. And not just, you know, our own experience, or the leadership of the church's experience, or something like that.

Brian Arnold (11:40):

So, okay. Now let's kind of move down the line a little bit. What are some from Natural Family Planning, and then kind of moving into contraceptions of like condoms or the pill, things like this—how do you think through those things biblically?

Ken Magnuson (11:57):

Yeah. I mean, I think I'd want to back up just a little bit to think in general terms—what kind of an issue is this? Is it a moral issue? Is it merely a pragmatic issue? And I say this because I think it's treated like a pragmatic issue by many—maybe most—people. And by that, I mean that we have forgotten that there are moral questions related to contraception. And secondly, that it's assumed or expected, as we've already talked about. But then third, that the primary questions about contraception are pragmatic, such as—which method is most effective? Or even, you know—do you want to have children now? If not, then you ought to use contraception. It's that kind of pragmatism. But I would argue that it is a moral issue, because it involves significant questions that are central to a robust Christian view of morality.

Ken Magnuson (12:52):

So teleological questions like—what is marriage for? And what is the place of procreation within marriage? That's very much a moral question. So questions related to virtue, such as what is our motive for having or not having children? And then questions related to moral actions, like, you know, then considering different forms of birth control and whether some are acceptable to use and some are not. And when we get to those specific questions, which you're asking, then I think we might be able to...we can distinguish barrier methods that prevent fertilization, such as the use of condoms, diaphragms, things like that, and methods that act after fertilization. And this would be things like—an IUD may prevent fertilization, or it may prevent the implantation of an embryo. And avoid...definitively avoid those methods that may act after fertilization.

Brian Arnold (13:58):

And I think, yeah, beginning with even—what is the heart motive behind it? It know, how do I say it? There is, I think, an intention for a lot of people for wisdom, right? They're...let's say they're 22 years old, fresh out of college, saying—hey, let's establish the career, and get some money set aside, and really prepare for a family. Now the reality is, I think most people who have had kids would probably say—there is no such thing as getting ready for children, right? <laugh> They're always going to be a little bit more disruptive than anyone can prepare for, which is okay. Like, we all have to go through that experience. And so there's never the full preparation of that. And I think even challenging that, these days—and I'm in a different place at almost 40 than I was at 24 when I got married—of thinking through what does it mean to be ready to have children?

Brian Arnold (14:51):

And what does it mean to just kind of jump right in, as, you know, God leads you to be married, you're open for family. Anyway, yeah. I think...yeah, setting it there with heart motives, but I think there could be...I guess what I'm trying to establish is there could be a sense in which the heart motive isn't necessarily, I don't think, wrong. But maybe not as helpful as it could be. And then that even raises the question that I want to be sure we get to in this segment is—can this just be open to Christian conscience on these matters?

Ken Magnuson (15:24):

Yeah. So a lot of good points there. And I might just follow up briefly with what you're saying, and agree that I don't think that even the assumption and expectation that a couple goes into marriage, that they'll use contraception, you know, perhaps so that they can strengthen their marriage in the beginning and things like that. I don't think that comes from a bad motive. I would simply say that our cultural, and our...there's been such a reset in the 20th century, that we might want to challenge some of those expectations. I think you're spot on thinking about like—are we ever really prepared for children? Well, in some ways, waiting and waiting makes us less prepared, because we develop certain patterns and things in our marriage that children interrupt more than if they come early in our marriage. So it's not always, you know...we need...I think we need to at least question some of those assumptions and begin to raise children who are ready for marriage and procreation. Whether those things occur or not, they are ready for them. Right? And then we can kind of move forward with some of the other questions.

Brian Arnold (16:47):

And that is totally reframing everything, isn't it? To say—this is what cultural expectations are today, but could we even raise our children...I mean, that's a convicting word for me. My kids are 11 and nine, thinking through—yeah, if they're going to be married in 10 to even 15 years, how do we start preparing them for the recognition that God's design for family is good? So okay. So go from kind of where we've been, now maybe into some specifics of contraception.

Ken Magnuson (17:20):

Yeah. So, in terms of how we might approach thinking about them? Is that...?

Brian ARnold (17:26):

Yeah, I think so. Because it's been my experience that, as we talk about these things, a little bit in the air, people kind of want the on-the-ground, is this in, is this out, what are the general principles that we're applying to these things? So if we go to the...maybe the other extremes. So if natural family planning is on one side, I would think anything that's abortifacient—so it causes an abortion, so there is a fertilized egg that cannot implant, or destroys it, like a Plan B kind of pill—would be outside the bounds on that side.

Ken Magnuson (17:55):

Yeah. Anything that acts after fertilization has taken place, I think we should clearly reject. And then there's other questions that are questions of wisdom. And so some things might be a matter of...well, you know, here's getting at thinking about the place of procreation within marriage, right? So developing a biblical view of marriage and procreation, seeing children as a gift that we ought to welcome, not a burden and an obstacle to our plans. We've kind of touched on that, you know, but that's really important. And once we do that, then asking questions such as why we may want or not want to have children, whether our motivation or attitude is in line with understanding children as a gift from God, how we may glorify God in our marriage, and those kinds of things.

Ken Magnuson (18:52):

Are we willing, you know, going back to the Lambeth Statement—are we willing to sacrifice some of our pleasures and conveniences and welcome children? And so know, I think here, Brian, we ought to shift from something like a presumptive question, that there's an expectation that we would use contraception, and press the question of—why do you want to have children? Instead to ask—why do you want to use contraception? And, you know, I don't think I can answer the those questions for each couple, but it's the kind of thing that couples need to think about, pray about, be thoughtful about.

Brian Arnold (19:30):

Do you feel like they're even asking those?

Ken Magnuson (19:32):

I don't think they preclude the use of contraception, but they get us to think about it a little bit more.

Brian Arnold (19:38):

And that would be, I think, a welcomed hope for this even episode of the podcast—is just to get people thinking about it. Because I think there's so much assumption of this is just what you do. You get...if you get married a little bit younger, you wait to have kids, so you're going to go on the pill, and it's just a part of the process. And I don't even feel like, as a young man, when I was...I started seminary at 21, but I got married at 24, so I was thinking about these things somewhat, but to be honest with you, not in depth nearly at all. And so it's something that I think it would be interesting to even have the conversation with my wife about—if we could rewind the clock, would things be different?

Brian Arnold (20:19):

Because we were married four years before we had our first child. And it wasn't until, you know, probably 10 years after that, that I really started thinking through these questions. And so my guess is a lot of the people in the church aren't. And as soon as it does come up, it does seem to create a lot of strife with people that maybe haven't thought about it, that are assuming it, and saying basically—this is a matter of private Christian conscience. It shouldn't even be on the topic for discussion.

Ken Magnuson (20:48):

Well, and I'm glad you said that kind of thing, because I think there are couples who become very, you know, kind of upset that you raised this question and things, and that's not my intent. My intent is like—let's think more deeply about this. Let's think carefully about this. And part of my motivation, Brian, is that I've talked to numerous couples over the years who had these kinds of questions, who looked to resources to answer them, and couldn't find them among Protestant pastors and theologians. And so they turned to the Roman Catholic Church writing on these things, and feel like—well, there's some thoughtful, you know, approach. And they adopt more of a Roman Catholic perspective on this. And—which, by the way, has much to contribute to our conversation, right? I don't think it's quite right, but it has much to contribute. And lacking a lot of thoughtfulness from Protestants on those, couples have turned that direction.

Brian Arnold (21:50):

So maybe if you could summarize...because I do want to go into resources. I mean, there's so much we could say about this topic, and you segued it really well. But before we get to what resources are helpful for people, could you just maybe in a paragraph or so, summarize how you would encourage somebody to think about the topic of Christianity and contraception?

Ken Magnuson (22:12):

Yeah. And so, going back to—first of all, I would praise somebody for thinking about it, right? That this is an issue we ought to be thoughtful about. Secondly, I would...we've talked a little bit about Roman Catholic perspective. I do think that kind of a general Protestant perspective is something that we might call the principle of totality, which is to say that marriage, in general, should be open to procreation, but not necessarily each and every act of intercourse within marriage. So it's not required of each act, but our marriages...we should be thoughtful, and make sure that we are open to procreation, if God would bless us in such a way. And then just think through the kinds of questions that I raised earlier, you know—why do we want or not want to have children? Are we willing to sacrifice our pleasures and conveniences, and things like that?

Brian Arnold (23:09):

Okay. So now—what are some helpful resources that you'd point people to, who are really wanting to think through this question?

Ken Magnuson (23:16):

Yeah, good question. So there's a book that''s now going on 20 years old, but by William Cutrer and Sandra Glahn, called The Contraception Guidebook. And it's a helpful one, published by Zondervan in 2005. It goes through a number of issues, and I think it's just a basically helpful...provides some helpful perspective. And then there's two kind of discussions in journals or magazines. One is in First Things that a lot of your listeners would probably be familiar with. If they're not, they should be—from December of 1998. But there's's a symposium on contraception. And I would have readers check that out, because you get people with different perspectives talking about this. Christianity Today has also done some things, interestingly, in November of 1991, and then in November of 2001. So if readers want to find that, there's some people discussing that. And I do want to serve the nerds that are listening to your program, and a historical survey—there's a massive treatment by John Noonan, who's a Catholic theologian, just called Contraception. It's a history of its treatment by Catholic theologians, and it is a very helpful read to try to understand how the Roman Catholic Church thinking on this has developed through the centuries.

Brian Arnold (24:46):

Those are excellent resources, I think, for people to look at. Well, this is obviously an incredibly important topic. On the very first page of your Bible, we're reading about God's hope for procreation, as he wants us to be fruitful and multiply. And it's something that Christians have thought about for 2000 years. And we need thinking Christians in this generation to continue to discuss how God's plan for the family is a beautiful plan. Dr. Magnuson, thanks for spending so much time on your own personal research of these things, and for taking the time to be with us today.

Ken Magnuson (25:16):

Thank you. It's great to be with you.

Outro (25:18):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at

What Do Christians Need to Know About Reproductive Technologies? Dr. Ken Magnuson

Guest: Dr. Ken Magnuson | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Magnuson about the ethics of current reproductive technologies.

Topics of conversation include:

Dr. Ken Magnuson serves as the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society. He is professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as at Phoenix Seminary. He is the author of Invitation to Christian Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues (Kregel Academic, 2020).

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:19):

We often say we live in unprecedented times, and sometimes it's true. Technology has revolutionized the world in ways that cannot compare to previous times. It's impressive that we can hop on a plane and be halfway around the world in a day. News travels around the globe immediately. We have satellites in outer space that can read the license plate on your car. But most significant of all, we can manipulate the way that life comes to be. Reproductive technologies have had a greater consequence in the world than any other technological advance. Contraception has changed the amount and timing of many pregnancies, as people put off having children until later in life. In vitro fertilization, or IVF, has allowed infertile couples to have children. Men can donate sperm and never even know if they have sons and daughters. Anytime we are talking about the creation of life, we have an ethical duty as Christians to pause and reflect on Scripture.

Brian Arnold (01:11):

We should not just adopt practices because we can. But we should also excitedly inhabit a world in which innovation exists, because that's a gift from God as well. But how are we to think Christianly about reproductive technology? Well, to help us understand that question today, we have with us Dr. Ken Magnuson. Dr. Magnuson is the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society, and he is professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Seminary. And he also teaches Christian Ethics with us at Phoenix Seminary. Dr. Magnuson has published numerous articles and essays in the field of ethics, writing on topics like teleology, virtue ethics, divine commands, and he's the author of Invitation to Christian Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues as part of the Invitation to Theological Study series. Dr. Magnuson, welcome to the podcast.

Ken Magnuson (01:59):

Thank you, Brian. It's good to be with you.

Brian Arnold (02:01):

So, as you know, we ask our guests one big question, today that question is—what do Christians need to know about reproductive technologies? And we could ask that in a number of ways. We could say, are some of these reproductive technologies Christian? Or, how do we put on our spectacles of Scripture in order to understand these things from the biblical worldview kind of perspective? But before we do a lot of that, let's just get a lay of the land, and sketch out some of the reproductive technologies that are available today.

Ken Magnuson (02:31):

Yeah, sure. There's a lot of things out there. Assisted reproductive technologies, by the way, refer to treatments involving human eggs, sperm, and embryos, in order to assist an infertile couple to have a child. So these will include artificial insemination, which can be used with a husband or a donor's sperm. It includes in vitro fertilization, which has a number of variations, as well as very specific things like intracytoplasmic sperm injection, or ICSI. The most common form of reproductive technology is in vitro fertilization or IVF. And with IVF, a woman's eggs are surgically extracted, placed with sperm in the laboratory in a petri dish to facilitate fertilization, and then, if there are any resulting embryos, one or two of those will be transferred to the woman's uterus with the hope that implantation will occur. Now, what's fascinating—your introduction was great here—I mean, the first human being born as a result of IVF was Louise Brown in England in 1978, and it has taken off. And, so the CDC reports close to somewhere between one and a half to 2% of all births in the United States. So that's around 75 to 80,000 of the 4 million births in the US.

Brian Arnold (04:03):

So as we will get into this even a little bit more, out of that one to 2%, how many of those are unsuccessful, I wonder? Do we have any idea?

Ken Magnuson (04:16):

So, yeah. So that's one and a half to 2% success. IVF...the success rates range greatly, and it depends on how you count them. So if you take a healthy 35 year old woman or under, using their own eggs, they'll advertise that the success rate is 55%, or somewhere between 50 and 55%. But that's for each cycle of egg retrieval, which means embryos are frozen, and if the first time around is unsuccessful, they'll go back to that. So if you were to rate the first embryo attempt at implantation, that's about 41%, and that drops as you go, with older women using their own eggs. So by the time you're working with a woman over 40, that rate drops to about 7%.

Brian Arnold (05:14):

That's stunning. To think if 1% to 2% of births are produced through IVF in the United States. And of those, you know, the successful ones, those are only 7% of the total number. You know, you mentioned, you can get to that math a couple different ways. But the point I think stands, that it is likely that it's not going to work in many circumstances.

Ken Magnuson (05:39):

I think it's safe to say that if you're dealing with a healthy woman under 35, you're talking about each time you try about 40%. And overall numbers probably in the low to mid thirties average across the board. So, yeah. And that's each time you try, you know—you try again, and you have the same percentage chance, but you're talking about three or four attempts...well, let's say two or three attempts at least, before you're successful.

Brian Arnold (06:13):

So let's even just say this pretty close to the front side of this episode—this is a live issue for a lot of people. I think most of us know somebody who's done IVF. I've got a family member who had triplets from using IVF, many maybe listening who have tried it unsuccessfully, and haven't really thought about all the ethical components related to it. So I know you have a pastor's heart, and you want to be sensitive around this topic, but it's important. And I think a lot of people just haven't thought through some of those ramifications of something like IVF. So how do you, as a Christian ethicist, sit down with people and start to explain what reproductive technologies mean for a marriage? Which ones can be pursued in terms of the Christian ethic? Which ones should maybe be avoided? I know these are a lot of questions, and a lot of big ones, but where do you even start on a topic like this?

Ken Magnuson (07:12):

Yeah, I mean, I think it's important, Brian...I appreciate you mentioning, you know, I think we need to approach this both from an ethics standpoint, but also pastorally. And those two things are very comfortable with each other, I think. But there are some distinctions. And so, if we're going to counsel a couple well, we're not going to just start by, you know, sort of an ethics lecture with them. Like, you know—do this, don't do this, avoid this at all costs. But we're going to hear just what they're going through, and recognize that infertility is a very painful reality, and this is reflected in Scripture. So much so, like, you see this picture in Genesis 30 when Rachel, Jacob's wife, is experiencing infertility, and she comes to Jacob and says—give me children, or I'll die.

Ken Magnuson (08:10):

And that captures something of the distress felt. And we see that elsewhere in Scripture. So I think it's important to recognize that. To hear them. To listen to them And at the right moment, share, you know, what might be...hopefully they're inquisitive and interested in hearing what might be appropriate in pursuing, if anything. And I would just say, you know, even to begin with, to say—you really need to weigh the cost, because the percentage chance that you'll be successful isn't a hundred percent, right? It's well below that. So you can pursue all of this, which takes a lot of energy, and it can be burdensome and things, and still not be successful. So part of pastoral counsel is going to be using wisdom to prepare a couple to—how will they finish on the end of this attempt if they still don't have children?

Ken Magnuson (09:10):

Now, if we get to the ethical questions, I think we ought to be very cautious. And where they violate the sanctity of human life, or the one-flesh covenant of marriage, or where they employ sex selection or eugenics—that's often not going to be the case for the kind of couples that we might counsel, but it is out there—they're very morally problematic. And then in some cases, where it assists a couple in having a child without these serious problems, it may be acceptable, but remembering that it's expensive, it can be very burdensome, and it has a rather modest success rate.

Brian Arnold (09:53):

So let's begin with some of those principles you laid out about the sanctity of human life, and the one covenant kind of bond between a husband and a wife, and how that is implicated in that. Because, you know, thinking about something like Psalm 139, where David says, "you knit me together in my mother's womb." Like, there's this active process that God has in the creation of a human life, and this is why things like abortion is wrong in the Christian worldview, right? Because we believe that God is...from the moment that there is conception, that there's a human life there. So how do you work through it from that vantage point, of just saying why this matters so much? And what is IVF, maybe in does that cross over into the discussion of the sanctity of human life?

Ken Magnuson (10:48):

Yeah. So Christians are very familiar with these conversations when it comes to abortion, less so, I think, when it comes to reproductive technology. And sometimes, out of desperation for a child, the couple will perhaps ignore some of those issues. But where it comes into play—and it's rather frequent—is with in vitro fertilization. The laboratory, or the clinic, is interested in success, right? So...and they may not have—well, normally don't have—qualms about the treatment of an embryo. And so excess embryos are created. And that's, again, in order to have greater chance of success. But what happens with those excess embryos is some are destroyed, and often they are frozen. In both cases—certainly with the destruction of embryos, but I would argue also with the freezing of embryos—we are not respecting the sanctity human life.

Brian Arnold (11:55):

So what would you even say...I knew a couple when I was back in Kentucky, that did an embryo adoption. So they actually secured an IVF created child, and she actually bore the child. How do we think through those kind of issues?

Ken Magnuson (12:15):

Yeah, I get that question a lot. And my short answer would be that I think this is a worthy thing to do. There are...the exact number is not known, but there's somewhere around a million embryos in frozen storage in the United States, and many of those will never be given a chance at life. Because what happens is a couple may in the process early on, think—well, we'll have two or three children by this means, and freeze, you know, six or eight embryos, or something like that, and try again. But then they decide, you know, one was enough, or two was enough, and those embryos remain frozen. So a couple coming along and taking one of those embryos and giving it a chance at life, I think is a worthy thing to do. There's a lot of other considerations, you know, adopting children that have been born already, things like that. But I think this is rescuing a child that already exists, in such a strange world, is existing frozen.

Brian Arnold (13:23):

So I want to go back to even the counseling kind of question. And I know when I was pastoring, this feels a lot like the discussion of suffering. And people are suffering—if they're using any kind of reproductive technology, there is embedded in that this idea of suffering, that they were not able to have a child through normal means. Right? And so, I know when I was pastoring, I recognize how important it is to get people to have a theology of suffering before they were suffering. But the problem with that is every time you preach about suffering, there's somebody who's suffering. And then that can sound unkind in that moment to them, when you're trying to give that base. I feel like the same thing is here, right? The ideal is—how do you get people who are not in this situation to think through this? But oftentimes we get the questions when somebody is in this situation, and it's harder to have the conversation, I feel like. So what would you say if a couple wants to move forward with IVF? What advice do you give them?

Ken Magnuson (14:21):

Yeah. Again, you know, I would want to caution them in the sense that this may not be successful. It may be successful, but may not be. But also, if they are serious about moving forward, I would encourage them very much to proceed with caution, and not to create excess embryos. The problem with this is some clinics won't serve a couple if they are unwilling to create excess embryos, so you have to find those clinics that would do so. It also lowers the success rate in any given cycle of egg retrieval. And so that's a downside. But if a couple is wanting to do this in a morally unproblematic—some would argue just less problematic—way, then I think that we need to honor the sanctity of human life and not create excess embryos. And then proceed again. One other thing I'd want to say, Brian, is that the stress of doing this is so great that it really puts a lot of stress on the marriage. And so I'd want to counsel a couple, and pray for them, that they would attend carefully to their marriage during this time.

Brian Arnold (15:43):

And one of the things that bridges this—I've heard you say this before, and I thought it was so helpful—is that there's not such thing as an infertile wife or an infertile husband. There's an infertile couple. How have you been able to see that kind of turn some lights on for people? I think when they hear that...when I heard that, I thought—what a helpful way to communicate that.

Ken Magnuson (16:04):

Yeah. Yeah. Because, you know, what happens a lot is we refer to the infertile spouse. And, you know, I've looked at this issue for a long time, and I see the impact of that is that if you have, for instance, an infertile wife, she may feel like—I'm holding something back from my husband, and therefore if we need to use a donor for eggs, or a surrogate, I don't want to deprive my husband of the opportunity to have a child, or for us to be able to have a child. And I can understand that way of thinking. But, you know, when we enter into a marriage covenant, we become one flesh and we make vows that our relationship is exclusive and lifelong—for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. And so that's why, just as you say, I think we shouldn't speak of an infertile husband or wife, but an infertile couple. And one spouse should not circumvent their marriage to have a child of their own, even if it seems that the spouse who is unable to have a child wants that. And I've read some studies. I know that this can be something a couple enters into, but then there's a feeling of regret. There's challenges, and I think rightly so, because it's going outside of the one-flesh nature of marriage.

Brian Arnold (17:33):

Well, and let's talk about a couple of these more specifically. Things like sperm or egg donation. Or even like surrogacy. So those seem like other common types of reproductive technology. So how do we think through those? I like the lens of thinking through the one-flesh union as a guiding principle.

Ken Magnuson (17:54):

Yeah. Yeah. Which is why I think that the use of donor sperm, or egg, or surrogacy is problematic and should be avoided. Even the use of "donor" is a bit deceptive, because we're really talking about the sale of eggs and sperm, and the hiring of a surrogate, if you will. But yeah, it's unknown, even, how many children are born from sperm donors. A number that I see often is 30 to 60,000 in the US. That might be underestimated. But this happens sometimes in the marriage where either the husband or the wife is unable to provide the necessary gamete, or sperm or egg. And so a donor is brought in. Or a surrogate is brought in, because a woman is unable to carry a child. Often though, with sperm donation, it happens outside of the marriage relationship entirely, where a single woman who wants to have a child, but either doesn't want or is not ready for marriage, pursues this in order to have a child of her own.

Brian Arnold (19:13):

And on that one we can say, I think pretty authoritatively—you should not as a believer pursue that. Right? The gift of children really seems to belong inside the marital union, right? The command to be fruitful and multiply. And I can think of some scenarios where maybe we would say—okay, that's a little bit of a different situation. And maybe it wouldn't be. I'm curious to get your thoughts, actually. If you've got a missionary, single woman out on the field, there's a child who has no parents, and she adopts the child—that seems like a different type of question that we'd be talking about than this.

Ken Magnuson (19:51):

I think it is a different question. Again, it's rescuing a child. And I think it' know, most of us, I think, would recognize that it's not ideal to bring a child into a one-parent household, even in that situation. But it may well be better for the child than any other existing alternatives. But when we're talking...yeah, so I agree with you on, you know, that's a clear problem with pursuing a sperm donation or something for a single woman. But I think, to me, it's a pretty clear problem to use sperm or egg donation as well. I think it's circumventing the one-flesh nature of marriage to do that.

Brian Arnold (20:39):

And you said something before that I think is really pertinent for this conversation, and that is—some of these approaches that people take to reproduction have an immediacy of "we want to have the child." But really, those decisions then last for 30 years. And the way that that can enter into some marital questions down the road. I'm thinking in the case of a couple who says—he's infertile, she's not, they get a sperm donor—he may not ever fully feel like the child's father. How does that drive a wedge in that one-flesh union, in marital strife that could happen in decades to come?

Ken Magnuson (21:21):

Yeah, it's interesting to hear. Some people seem to manage those minefields okay. But there's a lot of, you know, people who will testify know, that they always feel like there's a third parent there, even though the donor was anonymous. That their child represents the union of their spouse and somebody else. Right? And that doesn't go away.

Brian Arnold (21:51):

Well, yeah. Exactly. And I think even...again, maybe in terms of analogy, like abortion. Like how often we hear the stories—and not every woman, some of them are shouting their abortion we see, and I still wonder what the conscience is really like underneath—but, you know, they have these lingering just anxieties and depression and concern of the decision that they made, no matter how long ago it was, to seek an abortion. So these reproductive technology questions have some serious, lifelong, and eternal considerations as we think through these. And I appreciate you spending your career thinking through these carefully. biggest concern is when people just say, "well, hey, it's available, so we should be able to avail ourselves of it." And that is not the best approach. I love how you even think back through Genesis and creation, and what is God doing in creating men and women and putting them together in a bond of marriage? And then what is being fruitful and multiplying look like? But also your willingness to have the conversations, and recognize that some of these are better options than others. So it's not a complete no. But there are just some things to think through before a couple would pursue these. Well, you've done a lot of reading on these topics, obviously. You've written on them some. What are some of the best resources that we could point our listeners to if they're thinking through these issues?

Ken Magnuson (23:16):

Yeah. It's a good question. One of the most influential books written in this area, for me, is Oliver O'Donovan's book, Begotten or Made? It's just a little book, although it's pretty dense reading. First published in 1984, and it still has much to teach us. There's another one, actually, interestingly, one of O'Donovan's students, Brent Waters, who is an ethicist, wrote a book called Reproductive Technology, subtitle is Toward a Theology of Procreative Stewardship. And I love that. And it's a helpful book. I would also say, Ben Mitchell is an ethicist and together with Joy Riley, they wrote a book called Christian Bioethics. And in there you see a discussion of reproductive technology, among other things. I have a chapter in my text where I just try to, you know, address the most, you know, relevant issues. I don't have time to go into great depth, but I try to highlight the important issues in there.

Brian Arnold (24:22):

And I want to commend your book on many levels to our listeners. You were my Ethics professor, actually, back in spring of 2005. And I found you to be a very clear communicator, and when your book came out, that was true of the book as well, of just really helping people see the issues, and clearly get that information. So appreciate your labor on that, both in the classroom and in your writing ministry. And again, just for taking the time over the last few decades to really consider these issues. I think it's touching more and more families and homes and churches, and we want to be thinking Christians who do things in a way that pleases and honors the Lord and gives a witness and testimony to the watching world, like you said, as, as we are stewards of procreation in this day and age. Dr. Magnuson, thanks so much for joining me today.

Outro (25:17):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at

What is the Foundation for Christian Ethics? Dr. Kenneth Magnuson

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Magnuson on the foundation for Christian ethics.

Topics of conversation include: 

Dr. Kenneth Magnuson serves as professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society, and is the author of several books, including Invitation to Christian Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues (Kregel Academic, 2020).


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.


Brian Arnold (00:18):

We're a couple months into 2022, and we're already facing several major ethical questions. The Supreme court is ruling on the Dobbs v. Jackson case, which could overturn the important practice of abortion. Russia has invaded Ukraine, provoking the entire world to consider war. Men are competing as women swimmers, and winning. Within the last year, Arizona has legalized recreational marijuana. These are just four different ethical issues we're facing that require a lot of reflection. It feels like the ethical boundaries are stretching in every direction, and many Christians are asking hard questions—what's right? What's wrong? And how do we know the difference? Well, to help us understand foundation of Christian ethics, we have with us today Dr. Ken Magnuson, who is professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Seminary, and also serves as the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society, which is housed at Phoenix Seminary. Dr. Magnuson has published numerous articles and essays in the field of ethics, writing on topics like teleology, virtue ethics, divine commands, and various contemporary ethical topics. Most recently, Dr. Magnuson has published Invitation to Christian Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues as part of the Invitation to Theological Studies series. Most notably, Dr. Magnuson is the only professor in my seminary education that gave me a B. And I'm not bitter about it, either. All right, Dr. Magnuson, welcome to the show.


Ken Magnuson (01:37):

Thank you very much.


Brian Arnold (01:39):

So we always ask our guests one big question, today the question is—what is the foundation for Christian ethics? So let's just kind of set the table with how we hear people talking about morality and ethics today. Things like "love is love," "you've got to be true to yourself," are some of these things that we hear repeated often. So how do you, as you look out, see kind of the landscape of ethics in the Western world today?


Ken Magnuson (02:05):

Yeah. Well, there's certainly been a move away from the Judeo-Christian framework and foundation for ethics. And in its place, ethics is very much subjective and privatized, turned towards the autonomous individual. So "love is love is love is love" is one example, and it sounds nice, but it's very subjective and, frankly, not true, right? We properly distinguish various kinds of love, whether that's brotherly love, or romantic love, or love for my Boston Terriers, right? And some things that may be called love, we know are not—such as a high school teacher running on off with a student, saying they love each other. But the more general point is that we have a moral relativism, where individuals think they decide what is right and wrong for them. And, you know, I was thinking, Brian, I read just this week in a post on social media, someone inserted a comment into the debate saying, "Nobody is right or wrong—it is just preference and opinion." Now that might be true about some things, but it has been applied broadly to most any issue, and tragically this shows up in a bumper sticker like—"if you don't like abortions, don't have one." And so that's kind of where we are.


Brian Arnold (03:23):

It's kind of a moral soup out there right now, isn't it? Where things are, just like you said—we've gone from a place where yeah, there are places where we can have differing opinions, and there are places where there is objective truth and facts. I mean, we could not even have imagined—so I took your ethics class in 2005—I could not have imagined a world in which you have things like transgenderism. And as prevalent as it is now. And if you're not in full-throated support of it, you're a bigot.


Ken Magnuson (03:50):



Brian Arnold (03:51):

And we see, as this is even playing out, there's some common sense things that are happening that I just think everyone 50-100 years ago would have been scratching their heads—just couldn't even believe that we'd get to this kind of a place. So let's set the foundation then. How...or let's start with why. Why is it important for Christians to really develop a strong ethical foundation? I know for me, when I took your ethics class, I was thinking about all the applied ethics. What we call applied ethics, right? So—what is just war theory? And talking about things like abortion. What I found most fascinating was the first half of the semester where you just said—we've got to build out a foundation for how we even think, because we're going to be hit with all kinds of issues we don't even know yet. And if we have the right foundation built, that will be what we draw from, right? Or build upon, rather.


Ken Magnuson (04:41):

Yeah. Exactly. So if we were just to go from issue to issue, we may kind of settle on what we think we should think about a particular issue, but we don't really have a way of navigating new things that come to us. And as you said, we are facing all kinds of new things all the time. And so, without some solid foundation, we're just going to be driven by opinions and trends. I mean—so looking at broader cultural trends again, you know, we're just driven by opinions, trends, individual desires, or, you know, the common, you know, "being on the right side of history," as though we're supposed to know what that is, so often. And so it's a morality just built on shifting sand.


Brian Arnold (05:28):

Yeah. The right side of history thing has become the driving factor, I think, for a lot of people—is I don't want my statues, my plaques taken down in 50 years, because I wasn't on these issues in the right place. I think that's going to burn a lot of people in the end, who think that they're on the right side of history, and might not be. And the reality is, we need to be on the right side of God, more than concerned about worldly history. So what are some schools of thought that have been used over time to kind of build a foundation of ethics?


Ken Magnuson (06:00):

Yeah. Well, briefly, I'll give a few that are main categories or perspectives that are used to frame ethics and moral reasoning. And one of the things I would encourage listeners to do, even as I mention these things, is to think—are these consistent with what Scripture teaches us? So first, one of the dominant perspectives in ethics is deontology. And this comes from the Greek term deon, for duty. So deontology focuses on our moral duties, and these are derived from objective moral norms or principles to which our actions should conform. And the classic statement of this view is found in the philosopher Immanuel Kant—"Only on that maxim—or we might say moral principle—which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." Now what that means, is...his point is to identify universal moral principles or laws that apply to all people at all times.


Ken Magnuson (06:59):

So that's deontology. A second view, which is a direct challenge to deontology, is consequentialism. And this is a view in which right and wrong are determined solely by the consequences of our acts. And the most well-known and broad version of this perspective is utilitarianism, and its basic principle is to base our actions on what will bring the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And typically the greatest good focuses on human happiness. Now I should mention a very narrow view of consequentialism is called ethical egoism, which bases the consequences on what is in the individual's interest or, you know, what is the greatest good for me? And so, deontology and consequentialism, as much as they are antithetical to one another, I should say, have this in common—they focus primarily on what makes an act morally right or wrong.


Ken Magnuson (07:58):

So a focus on the action. And they also tend to think of ethics in terms of moral dilemmas or difficult situations, which take a good amount of intellectual work to figure out. I mention that, because a third perspective challenges both of these views. It's virtue ethics. And with virtue ethics, the focus is not as much on the moral act as it is on the moral actor, or the moral agent, the person doing something. And related issues, such as character and virtue, how virtues are formed, where they're formed in community, and that kind of thing. And so here the challenge and focus of ethics is not on moral dilemmas so much, or ethics as an intellectual problem, but rather the problem of ethics is centered, you would say, more on the will. So we know what is right and wrong. We know what we ought to do, but what does it take to do what we ought to do?


Ken Magnuson (08:55):

So those are three of the main categories. I should mention one other perspective, and that is teleology, which is important to distinguish from consequentialism. Some consider them to be the same, but I would say that's not necessarily the case. And in its robust form, teleology is not the same as consequentialism at all. Teleology comes from the term telos, for end, or ends, in the sense of purpose or goal. It can mean some other things, but for our purposes, think of goal or purpose. So rather than thinking that acts should be determined solely in due of the consequences that result, teleology is critical for Christian ethics, considering things like design and order and purpose in creation, how our actions fit with purposes given by God. And also how God's commands fit with his purposes, so that we can make the connections that God reveals to us. So those are the major sort of categories that we can think of in ethics. There's some others, but those are the major ones.


Brian Arnold (10:06):

Yeah. And it shows how long people have been reflecting on this. If you think about virtue ethics, the name that we often associate that with is Aristotle. Right? So the Greeks are concerned about what is ethical? And what is a virtuous person? And how does that lead to human flourishing? Right? But it struck me, even as you were talking, how fundamentally challenging this is in our day, because even if we're driving at something like happiness or what is the best for the most people, what is the standard by which we even judge that?


Ken Magnuson (10:35):



Brian Arnold (10:35):

And so now, lead us into maybe a Scriptural way. Like how do you put this together as a Christian? Because we do have an objective source of reality and truth that we can look back on and say—well, this is coming from God, and he establishes order, right? And what is right and what is wrong. So yeah—how do you pull those all together?


Ken Magnuson (10:58):

Yeah. So I would say first, when you think of those categories, consequentialism is the one that simply doesn't fit with Scripture. Right and wrong are not established by consequences produced, even though consequences are important. So if we're looking for a biblical foundation, as you indicate, we begin with God. We begin with God and his character, his purposes, his will. And thinking even...knowing God as creator has huge implications for ethics, because we have confidence that creation and our lives have design, and purpose, and meaning, right? God created us for a purpose, and it gives life meaning. And, I would say, we also have someone to answer to—as creator, right? Also, as we think of God as creator, we can marvel at the fact that he created us and he guides that with what he commands us to do.


Ken Magnuson (12:02):

He knows us, and cares for us, and instructs us how we are to live in accordance with his design and purpose. And we are grateful. We ought be thankful for that. But then in that, we have something of the teleology that I'm talking about, right? God's purposes in design and so on. Second, a foundation for Christian ethics in biblical perspective, is instruction that we have from God and his Word. So God's will and his purposes for our lives are revealed in his command. In our day, rules and commands are often seen as oppressive, hindering how we want to live, but that's not a biblical worldview. The Psalms, for instance, delight in the law of the Lord, the instruction of the Lord, and Psalm 1 exhorts us to meditate on it day and night.


Ken Magnuson (12:57):

Psalm 119 is replete with phrases delighting in the law, in God's Word, and uses, I think it's eight Hebrew terms for God's Word. One of the better known ones, verse 105, says "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." So it's...God's Word, God's commands are not oppressive, but liberating. I was thinking about a helpful example for this. If you were lost in the jungle, and there's all these pathways you could take, but you have no idea which way to go, and there's one way back to camp, which is your safety. And you just didn't know how to get there, and somebody dropped a map down for you which showed you exactly where to go...and there's only one way to get back to camp, right?


Ken Magnuson (13:52):

Every other way is perilous for different reasons. But you wouldn't look at that map and say—"Well, this is oppressive, somebody's trying to say I have to go this way." Right? No, it'd be liberating to know—this is revealed to me. I'm told where to go. This is incredible, you know? So we reject God's commands at our own peril. And we can say a number of other things, but I'll just mention the idea of virtue, because this is so important. Christian ethics is concerned with character, as it conforms to and is grounded in the character of God, as revealed in Scripture and seen clearly in the person of Jesus. So we are to be just because God is just, we are to love because God is love and he loves, and we are to be faithful and true and compassionate and merciful because God is all of these things. And God calls us to be holy because he is holy. So you can see aspects of deontology, or things having to do with commands and principles. You see teleology—order and purpose. And you see virtue in the biblical picture. And they all fit together. I would just say last, that if these things are not grounded in God and his Word, they become subjective very easily.


Brian Arnold (15:16):

Well, I think a lot of people are looking for some profound way, besides—know your Bible. To know your Bible is to know God. And so when issues come up, and you know the heartbeat of God, you know how to respond to those in a biblical way. You know, one of the things that doesn't seem to be as popular anymore is imitation. I think about, you know, the Apostle Paul saying, "follow me as I follow Christ." I mean, if we actually look like Jesus, then we are going to be virtuous people who do ethically right things, because we're grounded in Scripture. And I see so many people in Christian ministry these days saying—"oh, don't look at me, don't look at my example, don't follow me." And that's not really the biblical model. We should be seeing people displaying biblical wisdom and virtue in a way that beckons people to follow after them. So one of the things you even say in your book is—the failure to make disciples and, yes, to teach ethics, is something of the great omission of the church. And so we we don't have a lot of pastors and churches helping people build that solid foundation, and then address the ethical issues as they arrive from a biblical standpoint. Why do you think that is? You've been in the seminary world for 20 years. Why aren't churches and pastors teaching through this more?


Ken Magnuson (16:37):

You know, I think it's hard to pin down for me. I've talked to a lot of people about it, and I think there's a lot of different reasons. And the reason I say something about it being an omission, is because right there in the Great Commission, which a lot of Christians emphasize, it's not just making converts, but making disciples. And Jesus explains what that means. And chief among know, what follows is—"teaching them to obey all things that I have commanded." And I think, you know, in some cases, it's just a fear of adding something to the gospel. Or it's a fear of being legalistic. And I've talked to people through the years who come from a background that just feels very legalistic. And, by the way, I think in some cases, I don't think it was quite that it was legalistic, so much as there were just really unpleasant people telling them what to do, you know? And not grounding that in Scripture.


Ken Magnuson (17:46):

But rather just in, you know, being bossy or, you know, that sort of thing, I don't mean to minimize the fact that there is genuine legalism out there. And that's...I think that's one of the things that turns people away. Another thing is just, as you mentioned, I think there's a...I guess I would call it something of a false humility in the issue of imitation, right? You know—"don't follow me, look to Jesus" kind of thing. Well, that may be some form of humility, but it may also be a little bit of escaping our responsibility to seek to model how we ought to live faithfully before the Lord.


Brian Arnold (18:30):

It is an unfortunate pendulum swing that we're seeing on the legalism piece, of, you know, people growing up in churches that they felt were legalistic. Didn't understand why the commands of God are good for us—I loved your illustration—and are now in this almost what we call antinomianism, right? Like against the law. It's all grace, grace, grace. And so there's no tie to the ethical pieces, because that would be to lead people to legalism. And so there's a lot of confusion in the church today about these things. I would maybe add even just one more. And that is, I think a lot of pastors are concerned about being too political. They associate a lot of the ethical issues with American politics, and then don't say anything. Or some churches, that's all they do. Right? And pastors are having a hard time, I think, wading through—what should they tell a congregation on marijuana? In fact, as big of an issue as that's been in Arizona, I've almost never heard that from a pulpit at a church. You know, we've got major Supreme court cases happening on the issue of life. I don't hear that being talked about in churches. And maybe it was just my experience, but, you know, how would you encourage pastors who might be listening how to address these issues, even from the pulpit, that they might feel like are too political, but really are just ethical issues?


Ken Magnuson (19:42):

Yeah. I think it's important to frame them, first of all, that Scripture has something to say about how we live our lives, and that the pastor isn't looking to control people, or something like that, but rather to work through what Scripture teaches us about something like marijuana. Or about gambling. You know, gambling's becoming very widespread. And, you know, I'm afraid a lot of Christians are engaging, right? And, you know, does Scripture have something to say about that? And, you know, one of the things I would add, in terms of people's fear, is that at least I've noticed in talking with people, in maybe challenging some kind of behavior, it quickly turns to—"you're judgmental." Right? And so that takes it out of working through—what does Scripture teach us about how we should live, into—you are telling me to do this, and you are not even a good example. Or, you know, that kind of thing. Every challenge to behavior is put in terms of being judgemental and hypocritical.


Brian Arnold (21:04):

Yeah. And at some point we're just going to say—this is what God has declared. And even though we fall short of these things, we still know that these are good, right, holy, and true.


Ken Magnuson (21:14):

Yeah. And let's walk together in this, right?


Brian Arnold (21:16):

That's right. That's right. Okay, Dr. Magnuson, so in addition to your book, which I found very helpful—Invitation to Christian Ethics—what is maybe one or two other resources you would point for somebody? Maybe a really introductory kind of volume, and maybe one that's a bit more advanced?


Ken Magnuson (21:38):

Yeah, sure. So kind of introductory, really quick give a couple examples—Scott Rae, his book Moral Choices is very good. John Jefferson Davis' book Evangelical Ethics. And for kind of a encyclopedic on biblical ethics, Wayne Grudem's book on Christian ethics is excellent just for having so much there. For really advanced, for doing a deep dive, I highly recommend—this is like almost doctoral kind of level—I highly recommend Oliver O Donovan's work, either Resurrection and Moral Order, or his three-volume Ethics as Theology. It's richly rewarding to dive deep into that.


Brian Arnold (22:26):

That's a great set of resources you've given. I would highly recommend those to our listeners as well. Well, it's really clear that the world is losing any foundation for ethics. And we see that in the way that things are falling apart in those illustrations I used at the beginning. But we have the foundation, and we have objective truth. We have God's word. And as you said, Dr. Magnuson, it's the map. And I hope we can find it, to use it to find the path again. So thank you so much for laying that out for us, and reminding us of the truth that we have. And the ethics that we have. And that they're good.


Ken Magnuson (22:59):

Thank you, Brian.


Outro (23:00):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at