I’ve been having a variety of discussions with friends lately on the topics of orthodox dogma, the creeds, and related concepts. Regular readers of this blog are well aware of my objection to creeds generally, and to the Nicene Creed in particular. I have recently realized that part of the problem with credal and dogma
Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Apologetics, Open theology, Sovereignty of God | Posted on 09-09-2013
Along with a study group in my local church, I just recently read the book Four Views on Divine Providence. Edited by Stanly N. Gundry and Dennis W. Jowers, it’s one of Zondervan’s “Counterpoint” series on theology.
In his introduction, Jowers then points out that “Scripture … supplies grounds for a range of answers to significant questions about God’s providence. Does God ever foreordain evil acts? Does God always get what he wants? How can one reconcile human beings’ moral responsibility with God’s sovereignty over their acts? More broadly, how does God influence the affairs of the world at all?”
Jowers presents a helpful–and quite dispassionate–accounting of the history of the church’s positions on providence. If for nothing else, this introduction is worthwhile because it illustrates that the issues Christians wrestle with have changed quite considerably over time. Today’s controversy may not even have been on yesterday’s top ten list, and when people get themselves hot and bothered over one or another point of theology, this is a helpful reminder.
The core content of the book addresses the question of divine providence from the perspective of four authors, each of whom writes an essay summarizing his own view, and then responds to the other three essays in turn:
- Paul Kjoss Helseth presents the classical Calvinist position of divine omnicausality (“God causes all things”)
- William Lane Craig advocates Molinism (“God directs all things” by way of a concept known as “middle knowledge”)
- Ron Highfield presents a modified form of omnicausality he describes as “God controls by liberating” (while Highfield’s tone of worship to God is undeniable, his argument is the least coherent in the book)
- Greg Boyd presents the Open Theist perspective (“God limits his control”)
“Four Views” is a worthwhile study for what it really means for God to providentially rule creation, and the implications of that for the problem of evil and sin. It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading this blog to know that I find the open view most compelling. But that’s not why I am recommending this book. The most important contents of this volume, to me, come in the introduction and conclusion by editor Dennis Jowers.
But the take-home message of the whole book, for me anyhow, comes in the concluding essay where Jowers summarizes areas of agreement and disagreement between the contributing authors. It is an essay that exudes respect for the positions, and the Christian commitment, of all four authors. While recognizing the significant areas of disagreement between them, Jowers observes “… the commitment to Scripture’s authority and inerrancy that this volume’s authors share is rare in the upper echelons of contemporary academic theology and, to this extent, worthy of notice and celebration.” The overall tenor of Jowers’ analysis of all four positions … pointing out strengths and weaknesses in each … demonstrates a generous attitude I don’t often encounter in theological debates. We could do with more like Dennis Jowers in the world.
Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Apologetics | Posted on 25-08-2013
There is no question in my mind that one of the most compelling reasons to believe specifically the accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings is the testimony of those who were there. This is, I’m quite sure, a problematic claim for those who object to faith; I’ve encountered many rants on the unreliability of the gospel accounts, though I find that the same people who protest about the unreliability of the gospels tend to be far more credulous when looking at any other ancient written histories. But there are two particular things about the Apostles and other first-century Christians that I find highly compelling.
The first is specific to the Evangelists who wrote the four canonical gospels (and I really do mean the canonical ones; I’ve read a number of the others and they differ so much in character that the judgment of the councils in rejecting them seems to me quite sound). C.S. Lewis probably said it best in his 1959 lecture “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism:”
“I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one [of the stories in the Gospel of John, for example] is like this… Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.” (see the full essay here; quote on p. 155)
Put perhaps a little more simply, the gospels just don’t look like anybody else’s idea of what mythical or divine characters ought to be, do, or say. Weird and off-center as they might seem now, they were even weirder and less-probable in the time they were written. Things only turn out that oddly if they’re either real (truth really is stranger than fiction) or very creatively written.
But even more compelling to me is the fact that the authors and their other compatriots were willing to die for the truth of what they had written or said. And die they did, in some pretty horrible ways. According to tradition and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563):
- Philip was crucified
- Matthew was “slain with a halberd”
- James the brother of Jesus was beaten, stoned, and clubbed to death
- Matthias (elected to replace Judas) was stoned and beheaded
- Andrew was crucified
- Mark was “dragged to pieces”
- Peter was crucified upside-down
- Paul was beheaded
- Jude was crucified
- Bartholomew was beaten and then crucified
- Thomas was speared
- Simon the Zealot was crucified
- John was “cast into a cauldron of boiling oil,” survived, and was later exiled to the island of Patmos; “He was the only apostle who escaped a violent death.”
- Barnabas is said to be martyred, though the means of his death is not reported.
These guys, unlike later generations of Christians killed by the thousands under various rulers, knew exactly what they were dying for. They claimed to have seen and heard it themselves. If they were faking it, they sure were willing to take their deception to a really crazy, extreme end.
I’m not saying that death alone testifies to truth. Many hundreds and thousands have died for falsehoods throughout history … I think of the infamous Jonestown mass suicide in the 70s … but the difference, at least as I see it, is that these people were deluded by a charismatic leader who ordered them to their deaths. Jesus did no such thing, and in fact he was already dead and gone (if we presume fakery) or dead and raised (if we accept the Gospels) before any of the apostles faced their deaths. These men went willingly to gruesome deaths because they couldn’t recant the truth of what they’d spent their lives teaching.
There are, of course, many more martyrs since the first century. While I have no desire to diminish their testimony, it seems to me that it’s of a different category. Except for however they may have experienced the Holy Spirit in their own lives, the thing for which they died was removed from them in that they no longer could testify to having seen Jesus with their eyes, heard his teachings from his very lips with their own ears, and even sat and broken bread with him. No one, however intense their experience, has had the same level of personal, experiential linkage to Jesus Christ that those first-century apostles had. And when they were invited to either confess to their lie or die in pain, they insisted it was no lie and accepted the consequences. Two millenia later, that testimony remains, to me, difficult to refute.
Oklahoma City, New York City, Riyadh, Aden, Sandy Hook, Boston. Timothy McVeigh, Khalid Sheik Mohammad, Osama Bin Laden, Adam Lanza, the Tzarnaev brothers. While parts of the world have experienced random violence against civilians for years, it seems that agenda-driven mass violence — terrorism—has touched the United States in this generation, more than ever in our history. Some even say we’ve entered an “age of terrorism.”
There’s no doubt that our nation is afraid. We mask it in bluster, anger, and threats, but underneath our most bellicose language lies the frightened notion that we can either fight them “over there,” or we’ll have to fight them “here.” And when the “they” turn out to be “us,” or at least living among us, the fear multiplies as we scramble to arm ourselves, to strengthen our surveillance and weaken legal restraints that might compromise our security. Whether or not this is an age of terrorism, we certainly are a generation terrorized.
Into this atmosphere of terror, Jesus’ command to love our enemies is baffling. How, Lord, are we to love those who hate our nation so much they want us dead, or even worse, want to harm or kill those we hold dear? Half a world away in geography, we (most of us, anyway) can’t reach out to touch them. A universe away in philosophy, we can only satisfy them by dying. What, Jesus, are we to do?
There’s a bumper sticker I have seen from time to time that says “when Jesus said to love our enemies, he probably meant ‘don’t kill them.’” That’s a start. But not-killing is by itself a passive non-action, and hardly rises to the level of love. Perfect love, the Apostle John says in 1 John 4:18, casts out fear. While none of us loves perfectly, it seems logical that even imperfect love reduces or controls fear. We might even say the two are inversely proportional—the more love, the less fear, and vice versa. John goes on in verse 20 to say that if we don’t love those we can see, we’re lying if we claim to love the God we can’t see. Clearly, this stuff matters.
But maybe in John’s explanation we can find a way to do this thing. Maybe the way out of our fearful hole is to start loving those we do see, who get caught up in our broad definitions of “enemy.” When we Americans focus on radical Islamist terror, all too frequently our Muslim neighbors become part of the hated enemy by association. When the focus shifts to government-hating American militiamen, our hatred spills over onto isolationist conservatives. All too easily, fear of the few metastasizes into fear and even hatred of the many. At its extreme, our fear walls us off from anyone we perceive as not like us.
The call of Jesus is to smash those walls we’ve built, to reach through the breach, to touch and meet and serve those we thought were enemies. Not just the ones halfway around the world, but the ones in our neighborhoods and towns who may be hiding in fear themselves. We may never understand and connect with the radicals of al Qaeda in the Middle East, but that might not matter quite so much if we just learn to love and respect the ordinary people worshiping at the mosque just down the street. Just maybe, we might discover that people others told us were our enemies, are just as scared as we are. Perhaps love can drive out not only our fear of them, but theirs of us too.
Or perhaps not. One of the great fallacies of our modern life is the assumption that we have the right to live in peace and security. Though I tremble to say it, the plain truth is that Jesus never promised us safety in this world; quite the contrary. We need to get serious about the fact that—practically speaking—the way of peace does not always “work.” Those who love sometimes die in the process. Jesus did. So did many who’ve come after him, and so, frankly, may some of us. Jesus did not say “love your enemies, for in so doing you will find they love you back.” Instead, he said “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” (Matt. 5:44-45). While love can and often does bring healing, sometimes it will simply give us the strength to face the threats of our enemy, without fear, and without threat in return.
It may well be that we cannot stop terrorism. But in the perfect love of Jesus Christ, we can stop being terrorized. May all of us learn that love.
I suppose I should make some numerological significance about the fact that Part 7 of my series just happens to be about the one who is the central focus of my faith, but a good pithy observation eludes me at the moment. Instead I’ll just come out and say it … a strong influence on my faith is the character of Jesus himself as we see him portrayed in the canonical gospels. There are a number of things about Jesus’ character and teachings that I simply find attractive, and I want to focus on a few of those in this post. My purpose here is not to say that other teachers, philosophers, or leaders of other faiths may not also have said or done attractive things, nor is it to compare and contrast. That can wait for other installments (if ever). For today I want merely to focus on the good I see in Jesus.
I must start with love. So many who encountered Jesus–in fact, nearly everyone but the self-righteous jerks who tried to run the religious show–found in him a guy who welcomed them as they were. In fact part of what irritated those religious leaders was the way the (to their minds) unsavory folks not only came to Jesus, but seemed to congregate around him (Matt 9:10-13). The working classes, the low-level bureaucrats for the occupying empire, the drunks and whores and insane and even those with incurable diseases … these found in Jesus not a dismissive stare or a turned back, but rather a welcoming hand and even a raised glass. Even those in religious power who actually came to Jesus asking honest questions (think Nicodemus – John 3:1-21) got what they came for and more. Really, the only people who didn’t find Jesus particularly loving were those who, if they actually bought into what he said, stood to lose their power and position. To the rest, Jesus’ message was a simple “come!”
The love Jesus displayed was no syrupy artifice or blind acceptance. The gospel writers record a number of encounters where just as Jesus demonstrated his warmest welcome, he called people to very different lives than they had been living. To the guy who was all wrapped up in his money and his good deeds, Jesus commanded him to divest his wealth (Mark 10:21). To a man he healed in the temple (John 5:14) and to a woman he rescued from stoning for adultery (John 8:11), Jesus’ command was to “sin no more.” Part of what I find so desirable about Jesus’ brand of love is that while it had no barrier to entry, no one who entered could avoid being changed.
Jesus had a powerful drive for justice. He started out his ministry announcing Jubilee (Luke 4:18-19), a revolutionary concept in divine economics that I wonder if ancient Israel had ever practiced. Repeatedly he expressed his indignation over people treating others unjustly, particularly if they were doing so in God’s name (Matt. 23:4, Matt. 21:12-13). The famous parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46) is all about how we treat “the least of these.”
But perhaps the part of Jesus’ character that I find most compelling is the way he promotes altruism — particularly if it goes unrecognized — as a good in its own right. Jesus made a big deal that giving his way was giving done without condition, even to enemies (Luke 6:35) or maybe more accurately, especially to enemies (Matt 5:43-48). Perhaps nowhere in all of the gospels is Jesus’ standard as clear as it is in Matt. 6:1-4 (here quoted from NRSV):
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Of course another thing that the above passage illustrates is that Jesus had a gleeful sense of humor. He was not above skewering the self-absorbed. I’m also pretty sure he had the crowds roaring with his metaphor of trying to get a speck of sawdust out of some guy’s eye while a 2 x 4 is sticking out of your own (Matt 7:3-5). And his bit about the teachers of the law being white-painted graves (Matt. 23:27) had to garner more than a few snickers, I’m guessing.
It may strike a reader of this article that I’ve left some very important stuff out here. I’ve said nothing about Jesus’ sacrifice, nothing about death and resurrection, nothing about divine incarnation, and frankly very little about theology at all — at least in the classic sense of the word. This is not because none of those things are important to me; in fact, there’s plenty of evidence all over this blog that (some of) these things matter to me a great deal. But they aren’t what draws me to Jesus in the first place. I don’t come to Christian faith because I’m looking for a cure for my sins, or life after death, or some sort of divine encounter. Though many find it hard to believe, if I really became convinced that these latter things were not even in the picture I still don’t think I’d change most of my life choices. There is a purpose, a beauty, an other-directedness about the life Jesus modeled, that I find powerfully compelling. Not that I’m remotely close to achieving anything of the sort. But to me, it seems worth the attempt.
The recent bombing attacks in Boston have once again raised the cry across the internet, rehearsing the perceived violence of Islam. In several recent discussions, Christians have repeated the mantra that the Qur’an is filled with commands to commit violence against non-Muslims. Islam, they say, is an inherently bloodthirsty faith. Commonly cited as empirical fact are screeds such as this one: “The Quran contains at least 109 verses that call Muslims to war with nonbelievers for the sake of Islamic rule.”
It is important to note that these statements are made by people and on websites whose express purpose is to “expose” or “correct” the claim that Islam is a peaceful religion. Frequently, such sites manifest considerable antipathy toward Islam and Muslims … for example the home page banner of the above-linked site describes Islam as “one really messed up religion.” To put it kindly, the source of this purportedly-objective information is not remotely unbiased.
I propose an experiment for anyone interested:
- Find an atheist. Not just an unbeliever, but someone who really hates Jesus.
- Have that person start with the assumption that Christianity is a violent religion.
- Now have him go through the Bible looking for proof of his preconception about our violence. Be sure he doesn’t overlook the places where “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13.14) celebrates the orphaning and widowing of his enemies’ families (Psalm 109:8-10). Be sure he lingers over the various causes of stoning people to death, and the genocides of the Pentateuch and Judges.
- Check how many violent verses, from Genesis (or at least Exodus) to Revelation, your anti-theist finds. Now convince him you worship a God of love and peace.
I hope you would object “but you have to understand the historical and literary context for those verses … progressive revelation, the nature of God revealed in Jesus Christ, old and new covenants, etc. No one can fully understand those things who has not studied them in a perspective of submission to the God who inspired them.” I agree. This is a perfectly reasonable objection, whether you’re talking about the Bible or the Qur’an. The fundamental truth is that it takes a person of faith to accurately interpret the texts of that faith. If I want to know what the Bible means, I’ll ask a Christian, not a Muslim. If I want to know what the Vedas mean, I’ll ask a Hindu. If I want to know what the Qur’an means, I’ll ask a Muslim.
Furthermore, sola scriptura biblicist that I am, it is still true that to understand a faith or a “religion” (I really hate that word) requires more than merely dispassionate study of its texts (or even passionate study, for that matter). Whatever one thinks of the thing called “Christianity,” one cannot really know it without interacting with a Christian–or many different Christians. The community, the rituals, even some of the language, and yes–the sacred texts–are unintelligible without a knowledgeable insider to function as an interpreter. If you don’t know any Christians, you don’t know Christianity. If you don’t know any Muslims, you don’t know Islam (you may not, anyway, but I digress).
I am not suggesting there isn’t a whole lot of horrible violence committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. There is. One doesn’t have to be a Fox News devotee or a Limbaugh dittohead to see the headlines. But when other Muslims I know and trust tell me that those violent, radical Muslims are abusing and even violating the Qur’an, I believe them. Why do I believe them? Because I have seen plenty of violent, radical Christians abusing and violating my own holy scriptures as a pretext to commit terrible acts … why should I expect it to be any different to other religions? Satan corrupts everything.
We must oppose the bearing of false witness against our neighbors, and against those we style as our enemies. But even that isn’t enough. It grieves me deeply that when arguments such as the “109 violent verses” are used, they are usually in the context of opposing Muslims who are trying to make peace with us, or opposing Christians who are trying to make peace with Muslims. This is not only tragic, it’s monumentally stupid. If we have an ounce of self-preservation instinct at all, we should welcome anybody who extends an olive branch to anybody else. To whatever extent any Muslim is a threat to me, it’s not the one who is preaching peace from the Qur’an who poses that threat. We would also do well to remember that our Lord said “blessed are the peacemakers.” He did not qualify that phrase with the adjective “Christian.” Neither, I believe, should we.
Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in atonement, Kingdom of God, Salvation | Posted on 30-03-2013
This Holy Saturday, between Good Friday and Easter, I was reflecting on the idea of Jesus as the slain Passover lamb. The association is certainly Biblical, not only in the obvious context of Jesus’ death taking place on Passover, but also in the testimony of the Apostle Paul in 1:Cor. 5:7. Paul doesn’t go into detail what he means about Jesus being the Passover lamb, but if we look carefully I think there are some helpful hints to be gleaned … hints that suggest Jesus’ shed blood means a great deal besides forgiveness of sins.
The Passover sacrifice is, of course, introduced in Exodus 12. In this account, God instructs Moses to tell the people of Israel to slaughter a lamb and do two specific things with it: mark their doorposts with its blood, and eat the flesh for dinner. In stark contrast to the usual Christian narrative of sacrifices being for sin, I find it notable that the concept of sin does not appear in the entire tale from Exodus 11-13. Both actions–the blood and the flesh–have a very specific purpose, and neither is related to sin at all.
First, the Israelites were to mark their door frames with the lamb’s blood “as a sign.” Those whose houses were so marked would not suffer the death of their firstborn, as happened to the rest of the households of Egypt. It’s important to recognize that God didn’t “need” the label; some (though not all) previous plagues specifically spared the Israelites in Exodus 8:22 (flies), Exodus 9:24 (livestock died), Exodus 9:26 (hail), and Exodus 10:23 (darkness). So the sign of the blood clearly was intended for the Israelites themselves, not so much for God and the angel of death. Nevertheless, the sign was clearly one of identification. The blood on the door marked a household not only as of the people of God, but people who had deliberately obeyed God’s command. It was not the shedding of that blood–the sacrifice itself–that spared the Israelites from the death plague, but rather the application of that blood according to God’s instructions. Might this be consistent with a God who prefers obedience to sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22, Hosea 6:6)?
Second, the Israelites were to eat the roast flesh of the lamb. No symbolism is given for this in the Exodus text, and in fact the only instructions are that it should be roasted not boiled, that it be eaten in haste and with unleavened bread, and that any leftovers be burned. Without trying to extrapolate too much, I honestly wonder if this may not have been a highly pragmatic command for the simple reason that the people were about to travel on foot out into the desert, and they simply needed a good protein-and-carbohydrate meal to fortify them for the journey. God’s commands can get downright practical at times.
We Christians pay too little attention to the Passover links to Jesus, I think. Passover is the time when God called his people out of a foreign place, saving them from slavery, and in a very real way making them into “his people” in a way they had not previously been. On the eve of their salvation, on the threshold of a new life as a newly-created nation, God’s people were labeled by blood and strengthened by flesh of a sacrificed lamb. Paul says something quite similar in Ephesians 2:13-14, where even we Gentiles have been “brought near by the blood of Christ,” and separate peoples have been made into one “in his flesh.” Jesus told his disciples to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood at the Passover meal. Just as God initiated a feast of remembrance on the eve of delivering the people of Israel, Jesus instituted a new meal of remembrance as he set in motion the new kingdom of his Body. The body of Christ as well as the blood; the bread as well as the cup, is given to humans to unite and seal us as the people of God. In his broken body and shed blood, we are marked as different, set apart from the death that rages around us, and ushered into a new kingdom.
There is much more in the Bible about the blood of Christ, and I don’t suggest for a moment that the Passover narrative is the whole story. Still, it is one we should remember. This “day of remembrance,” this “festival to the LORD,” is to remind us of our deliverance, our calling, our unification as the people of God. Let us not forget.
Not all my reasons for belief are evidence based. I say this without shame and without apology. I am at least in part a product of my own upbringing, both from the standpoint of what I was taught, and the societies in which I have passed much of my life. So, I would suggest, are we all, and no less so if we reject our past, than if we accept it. I would explain this in part by saying that there are a variety of forces that lead to one’s position on the Belief Matrix I’ve discussed before. Differing bits of evidence may have vectors that impel one toward theism or atheism, or may affect the certainty level of the other axis on the matrix. My own history pushes me in the direction of theism.
It does much more than that. I grew up learning of Jesus in the context of a family that did not have tight denominational ties, but was strongly influenced by the Anabaptist movement, and the Mennonite Church and Church of the Brethren denominations. While I do not fellowship with either group today, and while my positions are quite distinct from those of my parents in a number of ways, it is an incontrovertible reality that my basic Christian focus, my aversion to ecclesiastical authority, and my particular form of Sola Scriptura exegesis owe a great deal to my Mom and Dad (if you want proof of that, just spend a little time browsing my Mom’s blog). I believe I’m my own man, but there’s no question I’m my parents’ son too (thanks Dad & Mom!).
There’s plenty of what I’ve come to believe that I did not learn from childhood. Peruse the topical index on this blog and you’ll come across topics such as Open Theism, my questioning of the doctrine of the Trinity, or the nuances of my perspective on nonviolence, all of which came well after I left home, though I would argue they remain grounded in the same approach to biblical authority. I’m a product of my upbringing, but I’m no clone.
Likewise, though I ground many positions (particularly ecclesiology and nonviolence) in the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and though I have literal as well as figurative ancestry among the Anabaptists, I do not follow their lead without question. I am no more in full agreement with every article of the Schleitheim Confession of the Anabaptists, than I am with the Nicene Creed to which I’ve previously objected. I have taken the raw material I was served, including my parents’ faith and the teachings of my church(es), combined it with my own independent reading of the Bible, seasoned it with the thoughts of many others both published and not, and come up with a faith that is mine today. This is a faith that is in some ways distinct from all my prior influences, but to deny their influence would be downright silly.
An important caution is in order, though. I acknowledge the influence of my upbringing on my beliefs, but I know many who seem to believe that the way to be free of such influence is to reject whatever they were taught. Nowhere have I seen this attitude in sharper relief than among those who, decrying the legalism or “narrow-mindedness” of their parents’ faith, profess atheism (or more honestly, anti-theism). It takes but little reflection to realize that one who rejects his upbringing out of hand is influenced by that upbringing just as surely as one who accepts it. “X” and ”Not X” are indistinguishable in one vital respect–both are equally and inextricably referential to “X.” One can–and I believe ought to–attempt to step back and evaluate one’s heritage. Such an exercise, if done honestly, likely will result in keeping some elements, refining others, and discarding still others. But one cannot reasonably deny that one’s heritage has an influence. Mine certainly has.
One parenthetical note: it is the reality of the influence my culture and upbringing has had on my own philosophy, that as much as anything informs my reluctance to accept the exclusivist claims many Christians (and maybe others) make about faith. The vast majority of humanity see the world as they do, in large measure due to an accident of birth. The world’s religions are geographically distributed, and while there is certainly overlap, it’s a reality that a person born in China is likely as not to be Buddhist; one born in India, Hindu; one in Latin America, Roman Catholic; and one in the Middle East or North Africa, Muslim. I have written before that while I am not strictly universalist, I do not believe the Bible supports the common Christian claim that anyone who hasn’t appropriated Jesus’ salvation as they define it, is damned. I rather lean toward the principle of “Available Light” (expounded at length by Moxey and Garrett, as well as the older Quaker concept of Inner Light) … that God evaluates each person’s response to that truth which has been revealed to him/her.
Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Apologetics, Challenging conventional doctrine, Creeds, evangelism | Posted on 26-02-2013
One of the greatest comedy movies of all time, I am convinced, is The Princess Bride. And one of my many favorite lines, when Inigo has heard Vizzini describe one too many things as “inconceivable,” is “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Well, that can certainly be said about apologetics, as I realized when a friend described his study of the subject a few days ago. Since I’m in the middle of an apologetics series myself, and since I really don’t intend what many apologists do, it occurs to me that I ought to explain myself…to do an apologia of my apologia, as it were.
Take a look at any of several online etymologic dictionaries, and you’ll see that the term “apologetics” and the related word “apology” come originally from the Greek ἀπολογία (apologia), which was the term for the defense in a court of law. It’s actually the term used in the New Testament when, for example, Paul made his defense before the crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 22:1), and by Festus when he’s describing Paul’s secular right of defense (Acts 25:16). Perhaps more to the point of Christian apologetics, it’s the word used for the answer that Peter says we should be ready to give, when someone questions the reason for our hope (1 Pet. 3:15). I find these uses interesting in that in each case, the defense is offered, not proactively, but rather in response to the questions or charges of another. This alone may be a relevant object lesson.
There is, however, a different stream in Christian apologetics that we must acknowledge. For want of a better term to characterize it, I’ll call it “pre-emptive apologetics,” or perhaps even better, “offensive apologetics” (and here I refer primarily to “offense” as the antonym of “defense,” not as the causing of emotional grief, though that is certainly a frequent secondary effect). It’s what I see happening all over the Evangelical blogosphere, and it’s the attitude I often hear from some who style themselves apologists today. There are many who seem convinced that sufficiently-compelling constructive arguments (often combined with the destruction of an opponent’s objections) will compel a person to adopt faith in Jesus, rather as CS Lewis testified was the case for him (“the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England,” he said of himself).
I’m actually dubious that pure conversion-by-argument is even possible, but whether it is or not, that is most emphatically not my purpose with this series. Philosophically speaking, it seems to me rather counterproductive to attempt to win someone to grace by defeating them with reason. Furthermore, confrontational apologetics maintains the focus on faith as propositional rather than practical … on winning a contest of belief rather than inviting the thirsty to drink. I’ve maintained for years that credalism puts the focus on the wrong things; popular apologetics puts the focus on credalism. Guess I’m at least consistent.
So what am I trying to accomplish? Actually, I’m sorting through my own challenge to myself. My life of faith, while (I hope) firm in conviction, has been essentially devoid of the experiential or the transcendent … the “relationship with God” so many Christians talk about. As I’ve repeatedly expressed on this blog, I’m also deeply disturbed by the behavior of many who call themselves “Christians,” particularly when, as Gandhi observed, “your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I still struggle with why God seems to let such blatant misrepresentation of himself go unchecked, and often as nearly as I can tell, unanswered. Yet I remain stubbornly chasing after some halting, imperfect attempt to follow Jesus. I’m trying to explain why … to myself, and to anyone else who cares to listen.
I don’t know if what I’m writing will “convince” anyone else. If it does, that’s God working in them, it’s for sure not the dazzling cogency of my thoughts and writing. If I’m trying to convince anybody else of anything at all, it’s that it is possible to validate a lot of objections atheists and antitheists throw at the church (and I do think many of those objections are valid), and still come finally to a point of faith. Well, and maybe one more thing … if I can convince a few Christians to let up, to show a little more grace and a little less self-assuredness, I’d consider that progress.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world. (Ps. 19:1-4)
Part of the reason I believe there must be a Creator is because I look around me. I was raised in the home of an astronomer, so I’ve been enjoying the beauty and grandeur of the cosmos since childhood. There is a sense that comes in observing in the beauty of the universe, that it got that way because somebody cared to make it that way. From awe-inspiring views of nebulae and galaxies, the grand solitude of the mountains, the raw power of the ocean, to the incredible intricacies of life small to large, humanity has been inspired for millenia to conclude that all this was made for a reason.
This is not an argument for “Intelligent Design” and the people at “Answers in Genesis,” whose pseudo-science disgusts me to such a degree I refuse to link to it (Google it if you must). There is, in my view, far too much solid evidence for the age and size of the universe, and for evolutionary processes in the development of life, to go down the various “Creationism” rabbit holes (for those who want to explore a thoughtful Christian approach to evolution, check out Biologos.org). And since I don’t subscribe to a so-called “literalist” interpretation of the whole Bible, I have no particular reason to fear that science might challenge the basis of my faith.
But neither does my grounding in at least the basics of both cosmic and biological evolution challenge my conviction that there’s some sort of creator behind it all. I think the so-called “Big Bang” theory does a pretty good job of describing much of what we observe on a cosmic scale–heck, I often joke that part of why guys like me enjoy explosions, fireworks, etc. is because we’re created in the image of a God who started it all off with the ultimate in fireworks. Frankly, the idea that a singularity would cut loose with the necessary energy and matter to form the entire observable universe, almost demands someone or something to pre-exist that singularity and fire it off … and the notion that it would just appear out of nothing seems to me a much greater stretch than considering a creator.
Similarly with biological evolution. That organisms change and adapt over time is obvious even on timeframes we can see, and nothing is stronger evidence for this than the frightening rate at which pathogens are developing resistance to most of the antibiotics we use to treat them. I’ve only read excerpts, but Dr. Francis Collins book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief is a good place to look at how our DNA provides solid evidence for evolution. Nevertheless, I believe the incremental nature of evolution–minute changes generation by generation, reinforced or eliminated by natural selection–is insufficient to explain at least two major thresholds in the development of life:
The first, of course, is life itself. We can demonstrate that amino acids in a soup can organize into random patterns that might encode for proteins, but we’ve never observed any such soup make the leap from chemical organization to living organism, let alone living, reproducing organism. That leap is not evolutionary, it’s revolutionary. Igniting the fires of life required far more than lucky chance, a lucky mixture, and a lot of time. I suggest those fires were deliberately set.
Second, assuming single-celled organisms that reproduce, their reproduction is by mitosis, or cell division. It’s not a stretch to conceive that over time a colony of such reproducing organisms might begin to differentiate such that tissues with distinct functions begin to work together better as a multicellular organism instead of a blob all doing the same thing. But it’s a leap of epic proportions to have organisms, whether single- or multi-celled, begin the process of sexual reproduction–a process that requires a variety of structures and systems all work together to facilitate the exchange of nuclear material between them, and the incorporation of that material into a third organism not entirely like either of the two parents. So many systems need to be in place–systems that are completely useless until the reproductive process works as a complete unit–that again the development of this mechanism is revolutionary, not evolutionary.
So I see evolution as an obvious part of how life develops, but I still see a creator as the most probable explanation for the origin of that life, and the impeller of those revolutionary steps that life could not take on its own. Still further down the developmental path, I rather suspect that sentience, self-awareness, and finally the desire to seek the divine (what C.S. Lewis referred to as “Homo divinus“) are all additional points of revolutionary change. This perspective even harks back to Genesis (understood in a mythic form), when the writer tells us that God “breathed into [man's] nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7). The Septuagint provides an interesting understanding of those words, in that the “breath of life” is πνοὴν ζωῆς (pnoen zoes)–”pnoe” being the word also translated “spirit” (including Holy Spirit) or “wind,” and “zoes” referring to biological life; and then man became a “living soul” (KJV) which in the Septuagint is ψυχὴν ζῶσαν (psuchen zosan) where the “soul” or “creature” is the word from which we get “psyche” or “psychology.” In other words, God specifically gave the man life (God’s breath), but also gave him his psyche, which we might understand as cognition and self-awareness.
(It’s unfortunate that certain streams of Christianity have felt it necessary to set up their interpretation of Genesis in contradiction to observed biology, geology, and astronomy. It was not ever thus, in fact Christian opposition to evolution comes much later than Darwin himself, and in fact one of Darwin’s most ardent contemporary supporters, Asa Gray, was a confessional Christian.)
There is one more point about the universe as we experience it that, to me at least, strongly leans toward the existence of not just a creator, but a benevolent one at that: beauty and our perception of it. There is much I see around me that is just nonsensically lovely. Whether it’s the many astronomic objects I’ve seen through my Dad’s telescopes (or the Hubble website, for that matter), the cardinal chowing down on our bird feeder just outside my window, or the gratuitous color display of thousands of sunsets, I find myself often struck by beauty that both in itself, and in my enjoyment of it, is completely unnecessary to our survival, reproduction, or any other evolutionary pressure. There is evil and ugliness too, and I’ll get to those in a later post. But they don’t, to me, diminish the reality that we experience beauty that doesn’t have to exist…beauty that is more, I suspect, than the result of happy chance. I think it’s a gift.
I want to be perfectly clear: none of what I’ve just described necessitates a Christian worldview. As I said last month, “The heavens declare the glory of God…” says the Psalmist David (Psalm 19:1), but they don’t actually show us God’s name. This is one of the points where the Intelligent Design folks get it badly wrong, in that they think once they’ve “proven” creation, their version of fundamentalist Christianity must follow. In point of fact, people studying the heavens have come up with a pretty diverse set of creation myths and cosmologies down through the ages. C.S. Lewis (I think…can’t find the quote at the moment) actually suggested that this very fact — that people see the divine in creation — is evidence for the existence of God. I’m not sure I completely buy his conclusion, but it is nevertheless true that people who have been inspired by creation to envision a creator, have come to starkly different conclusions about that creator’s identity and character. To find Christ (or not) requires different evidence altogether. But on the schema of my Belief Matrix, I find the physical world to be strongly suggestive (note I did not say “conclusive”) of a creator, so this evidence, to me, tends heavily toward the Theism side of the curve.