“The Bible was WRONG”… or Not; Religious Illiteracy in West Reaches New Low

Drouais Caananite Woman

Letter IImagine for a moment being told that your history book is wrong because archaeologists digging in Georgia have discovered evidence that the United States previously allowed slavery. You would rightly scratch your head, because anybody who knows anything about U.S. history knows that slavery has always been one of its defining features. A similar scenario recently played out in headlines across the web.

As background, the above painting is an oil on canvas by the eighteenth century French painter Jean-Germain Drouais. It currently hangs at the Louvre in Paris and is entitled ‘The Woman of Canaan at the Feet of Christ.’

For anyone who’s been paying attention to the recent headlines this painting should come as quite a shock. Sources from USA Today to The Telegraph and Science and Daily Mail all rushed to the presses in recent weeks to report that “The Bible was WRONG,” “DNA vs the Bible,“The Bible got in wrong,” “New DNA study casts doubt on Bible claim,” “Was The Bible Wrong?,” amongst others.

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The Christian and Submission to Civil Government

govt

letter-aAGeorge Weigel reported in First Things, the past one-hundred years have been “the greatest era of persecution in Christian history,” so much so that “more Christians died for the faith in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history combined.

More and more often in the world there is an slowly increasing antagonism between the secular governments and the people of God. This antagonism has manifested itself even in the United States: Christian bakers and photographers being sued and driven out of business for refusing homosexual weddings; Christians-run businesses being forced to support programs that fund abortion; an overall increasing belief nationwide that person’s belief should be kept private.

As this antagonism continues and strengthens Christians are forced to ask the question: how are Christians to relate to government? Should they submit? Obey? Resist? Rebel? To what degree can Christians engage in civil disobedience while still being faithful to Peter’s command to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” and Paul’s command to “let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”

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Book Review: The Message of Revelation – By Michael Wilcock

wilcock revelation
Letter MMichael Wilcock’s book The Message of Revelation is – as might be expected – a commentary on the book of Revelation. However, as the editors say in the preface ‘commentary’ is perhaps not the best word to describe the book. While it does offer a section-by-section analysis of the given book of the bible, the goal of this book is more to apply the text in a pastoral manner than to merely explain what it means. It’s goal is therefore to expound the text, relate it to contemporary life, and to do so in a readable, down-to-earth manner; to land somewhere between a commentary and a series of sermons.

It seeks above all to accessible to the average Christian and to apply the message of Revelation to the reader’s present needs. In this, I will say, it is successful.

As with most commentaries Wilcock begins with an introduction to the book of Revelation, discussing the style, context, interpretation, and use of the book. For Wilcock, Revelation is movement away from the more systematic theology of Paul into a the realm of what might for lack of a better word be called an educational picture-book designed to both refresh our spirit and educate our minds.

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Book Review: Galatians For You – Tim Keller

timkeller galatians for you.png
letter-gGalatians For You, as might be suspected, is a commentary on the book of Galatians. Timothy Keller’s aim with the book is to offer a bible centered, Christ glorifying, relevantly applicable, and easily readable look at the book in question.

The key point of Galatians for Keller is the fact that “the gospel is the A to Z of the Christian life. It is not only the way to enter the kingdom; it is the way to live as part of the kingdom. It is the way Christ transforms people, churches and communities” (p9). Paul is in essence calling his readers to live out the implications of the gospel, and Keller’s utmost goal is to point out to his readers how “It is not simply non-Christians but also believers who need continually to learn the gospel and apply it to their lives” (p11).

The commentary acts as a passage-by-passage (and to a degree verse-by-verse) breakdown of the book of Galatians. The chapters for each passage are then broken into two parts, with each part ending with a few “Questions for reflection.”

Throughout his commentary Keller lays out the uniqueness of the gospel and challenges the idolatrous habits in the lives of believers and nonbelievers alike. Keller brings out the fact that the gospel leads to both spiritual freedom, to cultural freedom, and to emotional freedom. The gospel offers freedom, and in a sense even freedom from the moral law, but – as Keller is keen to point out – “though not free from the moral law as a way to live, Christians are free from it as a system of salvation” (p42).

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FATQ: Is there any biblical justification for exploring space?

space shuttle.png

Letter IIn recent news, Congress has passed a bill (S.3346) which is being hailed as “a solid commitment” towards the goal of having a manned mission to mars within the next 25 years. The bipartisan bill authorized a budget increase for NASA, taking their total budget up to “$19.5 billion.”

This raises the question in many minds: Is there any biblical justification in exploring space and more importantly, spending such large amounts of money to do so? It seems to be an important question, after-all, we don’t want to support something if it amounts to a violation of God’s law.

Our religion seems as if it should play a role in our decision on whether or not to support space travel. It has been observed by many social commentators that Christians seem to have less interest in space exploration than the general population. In 2014 there was a study addressing this very issue entitled “Separation of Church and Space: Religious Influences on Support for Space Exploration Policy.”

The study found that religion did indeed play a part in people’s view of space travel. Naturally, those who believed that the return of Christ was imminent saw little value in such long term endeavors (a standard position for premillennialists). Others are worried that a major impetus for such ventures is the discovery of alien life in hopes of proving evolution. Ken Ham was criticized a few years ago for seemingly being opposed to space exploration on these grounds (along with an assertion that aliens [if they exist] would go to hell (Ken denied that he ever said this, but he did)). Ken doesn’t seem to actually be against space travel, but his criticism does raise a valid point that the motivations for space travel should influence our view of it.

Oh to be a child at space-camp again, oblivious to such considerations!

At the outset, however, we have to point out that there is a problem with the question, which we can counter with another question:

Is there any biblical justification for needing a biblical justification for exploring space?

That is, the original question assumes that something not having a ‘biblical justification’ means that it shouldn’t be done, and so first we have to answer the questions: What counts as Biblical justification? And more importantly, does the Bible tell us that all of our actions need to have a justification from somewhere in itself? 

So what counts as a biblical justification? Is our answer that the bible has to explicitly endorse something  – as we do with the regulative principle of worship? Afterall as Van Til famously stated “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything.” So if the Bible speaks of everything, what does the Bible say about space exploration? Not much at all, unfortunately.wendell_berry1

If we’re wanting a direct justification from the Bible on the question of space travel we’re out of luck. Then again, if we’re under the impression that we need an explicit justification for anything and everything we do in our lives then we’d best follow Wendell Berry’s advice and go agrarian (Wendell Berry is full of much wisdom, even if he probably doesn’t support space travel).

Perhaps a better approach to the question of what counts as a biblical justification is asking what principles we can infer from Scripture that can guide our decision-making. Van Til went on to say “We do not mean that [the Bible] speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or by implication. It tells us not only of the Christ and his work, but it also tells us who God is and where the universe about us has come from…”

So perhaps the question is one of implication. Along those lines the only thing we can really mine from Scripture is that The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” While it would be wildly anachronistic to claim Psalm 19 is referencing space travel, the fact that the heavens declare the glory of God could theoretically provide some basis for exploration – afterall , the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, so perhaps exploring the realm that declares that glory would be an inherently good thing.

Maybe we can infer from this that space exploration can serve as an act of worship, that “God would allow and approve of humans developing space-travel as a means of studying the earth, moon, and other celestial bodies from a large-scale perspective,” or that “our motivation to study the creation is that we understand that the world is not the result of random chance, but that God purposefully designed it.” Along these lines we might ask ourselves how space travel differs from ocean or jungle exploration, or microbiology or atomic research?

But then the critic can retort, can we not understand that without space exploration? Can we not glorify God in this way without spending all this money? Many Christians believe we are spending too much on our space programs, and I’ve had discussions with others who say that we should be using the money for other more humanitarian needs.

At this point the debate becomes more historical or pragmatic rather than theological or exegetical. There is arguably no dichotomy between exploration for discovering the glories of God’s universe along with the practical benefits/scientific advances made along the way on the one hand, and causes like world hunger and education on the other.

This is because economics is not a zero sum game. The money spent on NASA is not money robbed from feeding people or providing clean water. Those $19.5 billion aren’t sent into space. The money spent on building a rocket is money that is poured back into the economy. It goes to the people who make the glass for the shuttle windows, it goes to all the different places where the raw materials for building a space shuttle come from, it goes to the farmers and food manufacturers who produce and process the food the astronauts eat, it goes to pay the employees and contractors at NASA, who use their paychecks by buying normal things just like the rest of us. The money is not sent into space, it is funneled back into the economy.*

explorationThe distinction between space (or terrestrial or microscopic) exploration and solving world problems is a false dichotomy. Exploration, even for its own sake, often results in both scientific discoveries and the development of technologies that make lives better around the world; we tend to make great progress towards our humanitarian goals in the midst of pursuing our scientific ones. The work at NASA has led to developments in an entire array of areas, to include water and air purification, trash compactors, freeze-dry technology, fire resistant materials, solar energy, pollution control and measuring devices, sewage treatment technologies, breast cancer detectors, ultrasounds scanners, microlasers, radiation detectors, improved aircraft engines, doppler radar, wireless communications, and others.

Many of these are problems that we would have not been trying to solve were they not needed to make space exploration more feasible. Society as a whole has benefited greatly, if indirectly, from the advances made in the course of exploring the final frontier, going where no man has gone before.

But we still haven’t addressed the basic question, the presupposition on which this entire discussion rests: Is there any biblical justification for needing a biblical justification for exploring space?

I think a good lens for answering this question is provided by Kevin DeYoung in his book Just Do Something. The book is about discovering God’s will for our lives, and Kevin breaks down the God’s will into two different biblical categories. The first is God’s will of decree, that is, everything he ordains to happen in his sovereignty. The second is God’s will of desire, that is, his moral will for our lives – love God and love our neighbor.

A third category that we like to make up on our own is what we might call God’s will of direction.  It is this will we refer to when we ask where we should live and work, who we should marry, whether we should use Xbox or PlayStation, Android or iPhone. As DeYoung states: “Trusting in God’s will of decree is good. Following His will of desire is obedient. Waiting for God’s will of direction is a mess.”mars1.png

The thing that the Bible is concerned with us following is God’s will of desire, his moral will, as expressed in his Law. The Bible doesn’t tell us whether or not we should become a farmer or a businessman, it doesn’t tell us whether we should go to university or go to tech school, and it doesn’t tell us whether we should go to the moon or to mars.

The Bible does speak of everything, but it speaks of everything in terms of providing a worldview through which to look at everything and a basic morality through which to approach everything.

It doesn’t tell us whether or not to go to space, but it tells God created the heavens and that they declare his glory. It doesn’t tell us whether or not to go to space, but it tells us to not to commit theft or murder in the process. It doesn’t necessarily tell us what to do, but merely how to conduct ourselves morally in the midst of our endeavors.

The Bible does not ask us to seek a justification for everything we do within, but it does tell to do whatever we do for the glory of God, it tells us to love our neighbor in the midst of whatever path we choose.

So let us continue to explore all of God’s creation, throughout all the earth and all the heavens, and resting assured that when the time comes God will “send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

 

 


*One caveat in this discussion is that much of the money spent on NASA is money that is created/printed for that purpose alone, money that in turn increase the national deficit and results in inflation (something true of most all large-scale government projects). The discussion resulting from factoring in these elements, however, is not directly relevant to the topic at hand. The topic at hand is not whether the government should fund such projects or whether NASA is the best means for carrying out these goals; that would be a purely political/economic discussion (and while we could discuss whether Christians should support that sort of taxation, that is not our topic here). The topic at hand is simply whether the goal of space exploration is justifiable in the first place.

 

 

Exploring The Uniqueness of the Bible [In Its Ancient Near Eastern Context]

bible-and-coffeeLetter TThe ancient world was one filled with myths and stories of all types, stories about gods and about prophets and oracles who spoke with those gods. In secular society the Bible is often seen as just another one of these ancient myths.

The Bible is not just another myth, but it is in the context of these myths that the Bible was written. They provide the background against which we are to interpret the text; it was often these sorts of myths which the Biblical narrative was responding to. Thus, it is important for Christians to analyze the Scriptures in light of their ancient Near Eastern literary and cultural contexts.

So just what are the similarities and differences were between the Scriptures and those other myths which seem to bear some resemblance to it? It is by answering this question that we may determine whether or not the Bible is indeed unique in its content.

Some areas in which the Christian might compare the Scriptures to similar texts in the Near East include (1) how they present their creation accounts, (2) their understandings of morality, and (3) their understandings of prophecy and revelation.

Creation

Given that creation myths begin in the beginning, comparing the creation myths is one of the better places to start. One such text that the Scriptures might be compared to is the Enuma Elish, and one of the most immediately striking differences is the manner in which the myths are told.

One of the disti
nctiveness about ancient Near Eastern creation accounts is that they are told in a distinctly mythic manner. In contrast, the creation account in Genesis gives its account in a highly historical, concise and matter-of-fact manner.

Thus we can see the Enuma Elish begin with:

When in the height heaven was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being,
And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained;
Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven,
Lahmu and Lahamu were called into being…
Ages increased,…
Then Ansar and Kisar were created, and over them….
Long were the days, then there came forth…..
Anu, their son,…
Ansar and Anu…
And the god Anu…
Nudimmud, whom his fathers, his begetters…..
Abounding in all wisdom,…’
He was exceeding strong…
He had no rival –
Thus were established and were… the great gods.enuma-elish

These primeval gods eventually start fighting one another, monsters, dragons, scorpion-men, fish-men, and all sorts join the mix. All sorts of shenanigans ensue, Marduk eventually arises and Tiamut is killed. Marduk then fashions the heavens and the earth out of her body:

Then [Marduk] rested, gazing upon [Tiamut’s] dead body,
While he divided the flesh of the … , and devised a cunning plan.
He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
One half of her he stablished as a covering for heaven.
He fixed a bolt, he stationed a watchman,
And bade them not to let her waters come forth.
He passed through the heavens, he surveyed the regions thereof,
And over against the Deep he set the dwelling of Nudimmud.
And the lord measured the structure of the Deep,
And he founded E-sara, a mansion like unto it.
The mansion E-sara which he created as heaven,
He caused Anu, Bel, and Ea in their districts to inhabit.

In all this it takes about six chapters just to get to the creation of the world.

In contrast to this we have the creation of the world in Genesis: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

That’s it. God simply does it. No great battles, no wrangling of primordial forces, no monsters. God simply makes it happen. Along the same lines, there is nothing before God in Genesis. He doesn’t use pre-existing material, he does his work ex nihilo.

Genesis is simply concerned with the fact that creation came into being and that God is the one who did it.

Just as noteworthy as differences in the way creation comes into being is the difference in the way mankind comes into being. In the Enuma Elish we find Marduk create mankind:enumaelish

“My blood will I take and bone will I fashion
I will make man, that man may
I will create man who shall inhabit the earth,
That the service of the gods may be established, and that their shrines may be built.
But I will alter the ways of the gods, and I will change their paths;
Together shall they be oppressed and unto evil shall they….

Mankind is made – according to the Enuma Elish – in order to be slaves. They are made in order to build shrines and to be oppressed. They are made out of the substance of a god and yet they have no dignity.

Contrast this with Genesis:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

 And God blessed them. And God said to them,“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

In ancient Near Eastern myth, man is created out of the substance of a god as a slave to be oppressed. In contrast, Genesis has man made in the image of God, and he is made with dignity. He is made to have dominion, to multiply and subdue the earth.

Thus the second contrast with see is that in Scripture, man is made with dignity for noble ends.

While the Bible may bare similarities to other texts these similarities prove to be mostly superficial due to being attempts at answering the same questions about the universe. While the religious literature of other groups in the region revolve around elaborate mythologies and religious sayings – or aphorisms – the literature of the bible is primarily revelational and historical, and indeed it is revelational through its history, for God has communicated himself in the history of a nation, namely that of the Hebrew peoples.

The historical aspect of Scripture reveals the way that God interacts with humanity in history.

Morality

Along with having differing creation accounts and differing views of revelation and prophecy, the Bible also differs in its morality. One of the premier examples of this can be seen in the relation between the Proverbs and the writings of Amenemope, whose ethical teachings closely parallel one another.

On the one hand one might be able to see this as an example of natural law working its way out in two unrelated individuals, on another one might be able to see it as a Biblical writer source-texting a non-Biblical writer.

Either way the Biblical text is not put in jeopardy, especially when one realizes that the underlying nature of Scripture is time and again vastly different than that of its counterparts. The chief reason for this is that Scripture presupposes the Christian God, which is something that no other myth or system of ethics can boast.

That is, the motives for writing these instructions are radically different.

Thus when we read the writings of Amenemope we find that he simply offers good guidance, his goal is for his reader to prosper, and so he begins:

Give your years and hear what is said,mask_of_amenemope
Give your mind over to their interpretation:
It is profitable to put them in your heart,
But woe to him that neglects them!
Let them rest in the shrine of your insides
That they may act as a lock in your heart;
Now when there comes a storm of words,
They will be a mooring post on your tongue.
If you spend a lifetime with these things in your heart,
You will find it good fortune;
You will discover my words to be a treasure house of life,
And your body will flourish upon earth.

You should listen to him because it is profitable and you will find good fortune. The goal is simply to give good advice that will help you along your way.

In contrast to this we have the Proverbs:

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their griddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Or as he says later in chapter 22:

That your trust may be in the Lord,
    I have made them known to you today, even to you.

The goal of the Proverbs is not simply to provide good advice, its advice has a goal. This goal is not merely that you would prosper, but “That your trust may be in the Lord.”

The Lord under-girds the wisdom given in the Proverbs. The boundary stone is not moved because “their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you.”

It is not simply that you shouldn’t, but you shouldn’t do it because there is a transcendent God who is your standard and will hold you accountable.

Again one observes a vastly different foundation between the Bible and its contemporaries.

Prophecy and Revelation

With this in mind, another area in which one might compare the Bible to its contemporaries is in the realm of prophecy and revelation. While the Bible is not alone in putting forth prophecy, it is clear that the other sorts of prophecy which abounded in the ancient world are in no way like those of Scripture.

One of the chief differences is that the prophecy of Scripture alone has a moral imperative with a direct relation to God. In contrast to this, pagan prophecy is more akin to guessing an effect from a causal relationship, and is therefore much more mechanical than Biblical prophecy.

Furthermore, while most pagan prophets directed their prophecy to royal households, the Biblical prophets directed theirs towards the people as a whole, for it was the moral action of the people as a whole which determined how God would act towards them.

Finally, pagan ‘prophecy’ seems to have been written after the fact, which would seem to disqualify it from being any sort of real prophecy.

Just as the Biblical creation accounts differed from the pagan mythology through its centeredness on God, and just as the Proverbs and moral imperatives of the Bible also differed from their pagan counterparts through their centeredness on God, so the prophecy of the Bible differs in its centeredness on God – particularly how he interacts with his covenant people.

It is the prophecy of Scripture alone with confronts the idolatry, immorality, and injustice of the people of God, presenting them with a moral imperative and a road either to or away from God.

This is in contrast to pagan prophecy trying to guess causal relationship and necessary relations. Yet the greatest division between Biblical prophecy and that of the pagan nations comes in its reality, in its actual ability to foresee and foreshadow the future.

Whereas pagan ‘prophecy’ seems written after the fact, the Biblical prophecy foreshadows real events, whether this be Jeremiah speaking of Babylon devastating Judah, Haggai foretelling the return of the Davidic line or Zechariah foretelling that the Messiah will be killed, the Bible prophecy and the revelation of God rings true.

The Bible Unique

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the cultural and literary contexts is the God is unique in the way he does things, and that the Word of God is unique from anything else that man might develop, for doesn’t act in a way that might be anticipated.

He doesn’t tell the story of the creation like men would, hence the vast difference between Genesis and all other creation accounts; nor does he give a morality just for the sake of horizontal relations between people; nor does he give the gift of prophecy and the light of revelation purely for the good of pedigree of mankind.

Everything he presents is centered around himself, not around man, and yet man is dignified – all men, for they are made in his image.

The Bible is unique.

 

 

Book Review: Symphonic Theology – By Vern S. Poythress

Vern Poythress Symphonic Theology.pngLetter TThis book begins with a simple undeniable statement: “People are not all alike. They do not always notice the same thing even when they are looking at the same object. This commonplace observation has some profound implications for the way in which we do theology.”

It is the implications of this fact for the interpretation of Scripture with which this book deals. When you to look at Scripture there are a variety of different perspectives you can take, a number of different themes you can choose to center yourself around, along with the unique experiences and assumptions that you bring as a reader. All of these different factors influence the way you read the Scriptures.

Symphonic Theology is Vern Poythress‘ assessment of how we as Christians can harmonize those varying approaches. More specifically, by “trying to see the same material from several perspectives” we can “use what we have gained from one perspective to reinforce, correct, or improve what we understood through another.” It is this process of using different perspectives to balance others that Poythress refers to with the term ‘symphonic theology’ “because it is analogous to the blending of various musical instruments to express the variations of a symphonic theme.”

Content:

According to Poythress there are a number of different perspectives for approaching the Scriptures, but people with a single dominant perspective may see only what that perspective has trained them to see. In the first section of his book Poythress gives three primary examples of such approaches: the ethical, the devotional, and the theological (each of which is incomplete on its own). Thus an individual might read the Bible with a primarily devotional lens, and this lens is going to affect what truths they garner from the text.

By intentionally looking at the Scripture through a theological or ethical lens, the reader will thereby gain a more complete picture of what the text is saying and pick up on some aspects of the text that they would have otherwise overlooked. Because the Bible is one it is expected that these different lenses will not produce contradictory results, but will instead be in harmony with one another, serving to reinforce and enhance the reader’s overall understanding of Scripture. These perspectives thereby ‘facets of a jewel’ such that “the whole jewel–the whole of ethics–can be seen through any one of the facets, if we look carefully enough” and there is the need to look through multiple because “not everything can be seen equally easily through only one facet.”

This notion of harmonizing varying perspectives is the primary thesis of the book, the rest of which is primarily “an attempt to show just how much positive value we can obtain from such stretching operations.”

The remainder of the book is spent discussing various topics as they relate to the author’s notion of symphonic theology, offering different lenses, giving examples of how the symphonic approach plays out in practice, and answering potential objections to such an approach. In these discussion Poythress briefly examines how worldviews play into how the Bible is read, offers the different attributes of God as yet another set of lenses through which to examine Scripture (such as the roles of prophet, priest, and king), and a case study around the concept of miracle in Scripture to display how his method works.

In the midst of offering these different lenses Poythress interweaves a more philosophical discussion regarding the impact of trying to approach truth through different perspectives, as well as a look at the nature of language and communication in and of itself.

For this reason after presenting his symphonic method, the first question that Poythress turns to discuss is the question of relativism, because the question if raised that “If all perspectives are valid in principle, isn’t truth relative to one’s perspective? By putting everything in flux, do we undermine any idea of absolute truth?”

From this question Poythress enters into a discussion of the nature of truth, noting that the use multiple perspectives does not constitute a denial of absolute truth but instead “constitutes a recognition of the richness of truth” which “builds on the fact that human beings are limited.” Because we as humans are limited and our knowledge of the truth is only partial, we may know truth, but not all of the truth, while others may know truths that we do not. One way to gain insight into these other truths is by examining the issue from their perspective. What keeps the truths from being relative is that they are all perspectives on the same truth, facets of the same jewel.

This lack of relativism is further strengthened – as Poythress argues – because even though we as humans only have a partial and flawed knowledge, God knows all things exhaustively, such that “he is able to isolate each bit of truth and know it precisely.” God has this sort of knowledge, but as Poythress argues, Christians should not presume to be themselves capable of that sort of knowledge. Furthermore, Poythress argues that God’s knowledge does not merely “consists in an infinite collection of bits” with “each bit being a truth from God’s single perspective.”

Flowing from this Poythress continues his discussion of the nature of language. This discussion includes comments on the relationship between technical terms and ordinary language, noting that how when theologians use technical categories and terms they “are inevitably selective.” The Bible contains “a complexity of interlocking and multifaceted themes” and “defining technical terms and categories cannot reduce this complexity into a pristine simplicity. It will not furnish us with ‘ultimate’ categories.” 

The Bible is not written in technical language, but ordinary. The words have meaning “but the meaning has fuzzy boundaries that are usually not as sharp as the boundaries of technical terms.” All of this plays into the way in which we must approach and interpret Scripture, and ties back into the symphonic ideal: because no single category or concept can provide an infinitely deep analysis – and “no category gives an analysis that is innately more penetrating than any other could be” – there is a need to look through multiple.

As argued by Poythress this multiplicity does not allow any and all perspectives, for some are ‘outright error’ and thereby not harmonizable. When this is the case – argues Poythress – “it is often worthwhile trying to figure out what other people fear and what are the strongest points in their arguments” such that “we should try to find some grain of truth in their fears, in their strong points, and in the things that they care for most intensely” because “even if there is only a distant similarity between what they assert and what is actually true, we can find the primary points of similarity. Starting with the actual truth closest to their viewpoint, we can develop a perspective from which to expand to the truth that we want them to learn. We can, in other words, ‘steal their thunder,’ or preempt their strong points.”

Following the presentation of his method, Poythress ends his book with a case study designed to show how his method may be applied, using a variety of perspectives to assess the Biblical account of miracles.

Analysis:

Poythress writes in a straightforward and easily accessible manner, which makes his book fairly easy to read on the whole. He discusses a variety of topics at a survey level, giving the reader a wide range of insight into the topic at hand. There are, however, two downsides to this. The first is that he often writes in a simplistic or reductionistic manner. The other is that although Poythress writes clearly on each given topic, his overall discourse is rather jumbled and disconnected, often moving between points which do not connect directly to the topic being discussed.

This dynamic is perhaps best seen when Poythress transitions from his initial discussion of Symphonic Theology to his discussion of truth, especially his defense of truth as not being relative. As was described above, Poythress’ thesis revolves around a desire to approach Scripture through a variety of lenses (devotional, theological, ethical, etc). Thus, one can read a given passage for its devotional value or for its ethical value; one can read a passage as it relates to the redemptive narrative or as it relates to its immediate context. This is no doubt a helpful point for exegesis and lower level hermeneutics, for it is too often the case that someone will try to merely read the Scriptures in a theological or devotional or Christ-centered lens.

Poythress reminds us that the Scriptures can be approached in a variety of ways. This is good.

The disconnect comes in that he overestimates the impact of this on higher level hermeneutics and philosophy. Poythress’ Symphonic Theology is a very simple and helpful method for analyzing Scripture from within the Christian framework, and as such it has absolutely nothing to say about the ultimate nature of truth or relativity. Poythress begins his section on truth with the assumption that his method could somehow imply relativism, and uses this as a springboard for attempting to discuss the general nature of truth.

The problem is that Poythress’ method does not in the least imply a relativity to truth, and therefore his entire discussion becomes forced. He effectively says “Now you may think all this talk of perspectives implies that truth is relative” and the simple answer is “no, why would we?” The fact that I can analyze a text for its theological insights or its devotional insights makes absolutely no impact on the ultimate nature of truth and says nothing philosophically significant – the problem is that Poythress pretends that it does, and uses this pretense as reason to engage in a discussion wholly irrelevant to the main thesis of the book.

With that said, while Poythress’ specific formulation of Symphonic Theology is not philosophically significant, it could be expanded such that it would be. This is due to the fact that Poythress has a habit of seemingly inadvertently making philosophically significant statements that he never fully follows through with. If Poythress’ ideas were actually followed through, and if the ramifications of this method were applied on a grander scale, then perhaps he would be on to something – or at least, if he followed through with his ideas he would be much closer to Kevin Vanhoozer in his thought.

Now, this doesn’t impinge on the helpfulness of Poythress’ method for doing Bible study – in that regard he is very helpful, in broadening our lenses. But he overestimates how broad he is going. The goal is thus merely to “use of a multiplicity of perspectives” as “one protection against our tendency to read the Bible only in terms of a preestablished single perspective,” but all from within the Christian worldview.

That he is sure to stay within the Christian worldview is no doubt a good thing, but it does make his thesis philosophically irrelevant. This irrelevance is not a bad thing, but simply an acknowledgement that philosophy is not the thing being done here. For the purposes of learning how to do Bible study, Poythress is excellent, the issue arises when he presents his thesis as going beyond that.

Thus, on the whole, Poythress method is in and of itself very helpful, and any student of the Bible should employ it in order to ensure that they are not being overly narrow in their categories. Too often we only focus on one Christian lens, and by doing so fail to get the full picture of Scripture.

Poythress’ text may be philosphically irrelevant, it is hermeneutically/exegetically quite relevant, which is the more important thing in this context.

Memorable Quotes:

-“What God says is not exhaustive, but it is sufficient to save us and to provide a sure guide for our life.”

-“The introduction of sin did not create diversity but rather made it contentious… Our true unity and diversity is restored in principle in our union with Christ. Being united to Christ and conformed to his image destroys only the bad forms of diversity.”

-“God is not mainly concerned in the Bible to furnish grist for the mill of theological experts or speculators. He intends mainly to bring us to know him personally, to save us, to enable us to serve him from our hearts. Hence, very few if any individual words occurring in the Bible have technically precise meanings.”

-“By deliberately looking at a subject in terms of a given analogy, we notice things that we would not otherwise notice.”

-“Any statement of fact implies an obligation to believe that fact. Our ethical obligations include not only obligations to do overt actions but intellectual and emotional obligations.  We ought to think certain types of thought, to believe certain truths, and to have emotions and attitudes befitting godliness. The whole of systematic theology can be viewed as a description of what we ought to believe on the basis of the Bible. Thus all of systematic theology–all of doctrine–is simultaneously ethics!”

-“Knowledge of the truth is not exhaustive knowledge of all truth.”

-“As long as we are using a natural language rather than a formalized language of mathematics, fuzzy boundaries are going to interfere with the ideal of infinite precision.”

-“Ideally, we may think, theological knowledge should resemble the certainty and rigor of Euclid’s system. We may dream of such an ideal goal, even though we are realistic enough to know that theology will never perfectly attain this ideal in this life. But Euclidean mathematics is very selective in what it notices about the human element in mathematical knowledge and the human contributions to the growth of mathematics. And even if it were not, why should we use one field of knowledge as the ideal for the whole? It is only one possible analogy.”

-“In virtue of our metaphysical status as creatures and as fallen and in need of salvation, biblical revelation gives us an appropriate metaphysical orientation.”

-“To be at all plausible, errors and lies must somehow look like the truth. They cannot sustain themselves long, and they will not be believed long, unless to some degree they disguise themselves as angels of light.”

 

Specific Criticisms

There are a few other areas of this text which can be subjected to criticism, even though they don’t directly affect the main thesis of the text.

Thus one can contest Poythress’ point that “In the nature of the case, people can have only one world view. With effort, they may be able to see to a certain extent how things look from an alternate world view. But they themselves believe in only one world view, because world views, by their very nature, are ultimate frameworks for human knowledge. To begin to adopt a second world view, in the sense of believing it and treating it as an ultimate framework, is to leave behind (or at least subtly alter) one’s former world view.”

This seems like a very rational position to take, and if humans were perfectly rational beings – if we were mere computers operating off of a unified logic – then Poythress would be correct. The problem is that we are not.

People are not fully rational, they do not always – indeed, if ever – operate off of any one unified system, and we often engage in a fair amount of cognitive dissonance. Thus in the world today any given individual will simultaneously hold to a modernistic, postmodernistic, and even premodernistic worldview, usually with the application of each worldview depending on the context or area of the individual’s life being assessed. Thus they may be modernistic in their understanding of science and at the same time postmodernistic in their understanding of ethics.

Contemporary society, indeed, is a giant stew of conflicting worldviews, and not just between separate persons, but within every individual. And this is possible for the chief reason that none of us are perfectly logical or consistently operating according to a unified field of understanding, which is perhaps augmented by the fact that no worldview is actually ultimate or all-encompassing.

A minor criticism that might be offered to the text is that while Poythress warns against using multiple perspectives becoming “an excuse for overlooking, dismissing, or reinterpreting the obvious” it seems that to an extent this must be necessary, unless one accepts that perhaps the chosen lens will be invalid. In this case it would have been helpful for Poythress to have had a discussion on how to know when a lens just doesn’t apply.

A final minor criticism that might be offered is that Poythress simply accepts that the Trinity is the answer to the question of the one and the many. This is perhaps best seen in the comment that “There is a single ultimate perspective on truth, God’s perspective, because there is only one God. But also there are three ultimate perspectives on truth–the perspectives of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit–and these three are not identical with one another in every respect.” This solution to the problem is seen by many as a sort of cop-out answer to one of the more significant questions in philosophy.

[This book is available for reading free online.]

 

Book Review: Misquoting Truth – By Timothy Paul Jones

 

Timothy Paul Jones Misquoting Truth.pngLetter IIn 2007 atheist/agnostic professor Bart Ehrman published his book Misquoting Jesus, which attempted to discredit the reliability of the texts of the Christian New Testament. Misquoting Truth is pastor Timothy Paul Jones‘ response to that book, in which he attempts to point out the errors in Ehrman’s scholarship.

As Jones goes about addressing the various errors of Ehrman’s text, three of his primary points are that most of the changes which Ehrman plays up are minor grammatical changes which disappear when the text is translated, that where there are discrepancies “it’s possible to look at the manuscripts and recover the original wording”, and that contrary to Ehrman’s claims, “the copyists were more concerned with preserving the words of Scripture than with promoting their own theological agendas.”

While going about this Jones also focuses on attacking the philosophical presuppositions which skew Ehrman’s perspective, primarily his dedication to an Enlightenment era devotion to absolute [rational] certainty as the only avenue to truth – that is, rationalism. Jones’ counterargument is to point out the way in which God works through human beings in order to convey is message, that God doesn’t “work around humanity to preserve his words” as Ehrman expects Him to.

Perhaps the most insightful point made by Jones is his note that: “A recent Washington Post article described Ehrman as having ‘peered so hard into the origins of Christianity that he lost his faith altogether’… And yet, it appears to me that the problem was not that he peered too deeply into the origins of Christian faith; it was that he inherited a theological system from well-meaning evangelical Christians that allowed little – if any – space for questions, variations or rough edges.”

All in all, Jones book is a very well written critique of Ehrman’s text.

Memorable Quotes:

“From my perspective, a significant alteration would be one that requires Christians either to rethink a vital belief about Jesus Christ – a belief that we might find in the Apostle’s Creed, for exmaple – or to doubt the historical accuracy of the New Testament documents.”-p.54

“Here’s my point: You cannot absolutely prove that any past event actually occurred.”-p.108

“Many years did pass before Christians agreed concerning which books should compose their sacred Scriptures. And, yet, a definite standard directed this process – a conviction that these writings must be rooted in reliable, eyewitness testimony about Jesus Christ.”-p.136

“… despite the sensational title of Misquoting Jesus, I find only a half-dozen times when Jesus might have been misquoted, and most of these supposed changes simply echo ideas that are found elsewhere in Scripture.”-p.71

Specific Criticisms

As a personal bias, I would have preferred if Jones had gone into greater depth concerning the philosophical presuppositions which undergird Ehrman’s position, however I think he did sufficiently cover the issue for a lay audience. I also think that there are various places where Jones uses words such as “may” or “most” which may be indicative a larger anomaly than he is willing to account for, however I cannot substantiate that, it is merely a suspicion I have when authors use such words without explicitly enunciating the exceptions they are taking.

Book Review: Homosexuality ~ Contemporary Claims Examined in Light of the Bible and Other Ancient Literature And Law – By James B. DeYoung

De Young Homosexuality.pngletter-aAuthor James B. De Young’s preface opens with the line “Western civilization has been undergoing as dramatic a shift in its ways of thinking and living as at any point in history.” This book is his analysis of that shift.

Yet De Young does not merely wish to analyze that shift on its own, but rather as the relatively long subtitle suggests, to examine contemporary claims regarding homosexuality through the lens of the Bible and other ancient literature and law. The latter part of that description makes this book seem especially compelling, as it implies that the book will work to truly examine the context in which the Scriptures were written and to get a handle on the ancient understanding of homosexuality.

In this task the book both fails and succeeds in various ways.

Content:

The format of the book is fairly straightforward. It is divided into three main parts, each analyzing ancient views of homosexuality through a different lens. Thus the author first discusses homosexuality as it is presented in the Old Testament (to include the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Septuagint), moves on to discuss homosexuality as it is presented in the New Testament (first in Romans, then 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, and then in the teachings of Jesus), and finally moves on to discuss homosexuality in the ancient world.

Throughout the text the author’s goal is to dispel three different ways that contemporary re-interpreters have mishandled the text: by arguing that references to homosexuality in the Bible don’t really refer to homosexuality as such (partly due to the word homosexual having no corresponding term in Hebrew, Greek, etc); by arguing that prohibitions against homosexuality were only meant for Israel; and by arguing that the Scriptures are outdated and irrelevant, either by casting doubt on the meaning and extent of the canon or by re-interpreting Scripture such that it renders references to homosexuality as either contextually irrelevant or contemporarily anachronistic.

In his discussion of the Old Testament, De Young focuses on the creational narrative and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Thus he argues that the creation narrative creates relationships as necessarily male and female, and then spends much time addressing modern interpretations that argue the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not related to homosexuality (but instead a lack of hospitality or rape). This discussion moves into an analysis of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, working to further point out that these texts associated Sodom’s sin with homosexuality, and that this is not therefore a modern innovation. Finally in this section he addresses the Septuagint, which critics seek to discredit since it uses terminology referring to homosexuality. In each case the author finds through exegesis that each text supports the traditional view.

Moving on to an analysis of the New Testament understanding of homosexuality, DeYoung first addresses Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality as ‘against nature’ in Romans 1, followed by discussions of his use of the term in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy. These discussions are largely aimed at proving that Paul was not merely referring to pederasty or cultic prostitution, but was indeed referring to homosexuality as we understand the term today, especially where it is held that Paul and the ancient Christians had no conception of a consensual adult-adult relationship based on love.

In closing this section the author moves on to a discussion of homosexuality as it is seen in the teachings of Christ. While the author notes that while “Christ did not explicitly address the practice of same-gender-behavior or orientation” he did affirm the OT understanding and condemned the practice through implicit or indirect references.

The final primary section of the text is a discussion of homosexuality in extra-Biblical literature. This is especially aimed at addressing how the ancients understood the concept, and looking at legislative precedent in ancient world. In this the author cites Philo and Josephus as furthering the traditional understanding, points out that through a discussion of Plato that ancient Greece was aware of homosexuality as we understand it today, and that they were ok with the practice. This is relevant to the discussion due to the assertion of critics that “the Greco-Roman culture is responsible for the early writers condemnation of homosexuality” ; because “the ethical stance of Jews and Christians toward homosexuality is unique”, it could not have been a mere holdover from Greco-Roman society.

In each of these sections the author painstakingly goes through the ancient languages and contexts to make his argument that the traditional interpretation of each area is correct. The author then concludes his work with a chapter of questions and answers, each answer citing a page in his book for easy reference such that the reader can go directly to the section that answers their specific question, rather than wading through the entire text. This is an interesting feature that I haven’t seen in any other texts.

Analysis:

On the whole, the author presents plenty of support for his case. That said, writing is not the author’s strongpoint. The book is largely tedious, unengaging, and jumbled. The train of thought does not flow smoothly, largely because the author is attempting to do too much at once. The book reads more like a dissertation rather than anything meant for popular consumption.

So far as his arguments go, the author does support his case well, but in each instance is forced to point out that one cannot bypass all ambiguity. Thus after all his argument he does concede, for instance, that “there is no single Greek or Hebrew word meaning ‘homosexuality'” and “a lack of explicit references” due to the use of euphemisms and in another instance settles for arguing that “in light of the linguistic and cultural contexts, one cannot eliminate homosexual practice from the range of meaning.”

In this the author is at least honest that the positions of the critics are not entirely without basis – even if they overestimate that basis – though he does still feel confident in asserting that the thing being condemned is homosexuality as traditionally understood. In this he does a relatively good job.

Apart from his primary argument, however, the author does not present his case in a very charitable fashion (although he is still no Martin Luther or John MacArthur). Thus he begins with the assertion that “Until recently, homosexuality referred to disgusting practices that brought shame and were confined behind closed doors.” The reader gets the impression that the author desires this to still be the case; this is problematic for a variety of reasons that are too long to go into here.

In other places the author puts words in the mouths of Biblical authors in a question-begging manner; thus in one of his dramatization that serve as introductions to each chapter writes “To have sex with men was against his religion, Lot had often confessed.” This assertion comes before the analysis of Sodom and Gomorrah has been done, thereby short-circuiting the actual analysis.

Finally, while the author aptly notes that “Every person comes to the matter of homosexuality from an established opinion, which has been shaped by a worldview” , he doesn’t spend any time unpacking his own worldview and his own [extra-Biblical] biases. A similar shortsightedness can be seen when the author asserts that “One’s worldview determines whether homosexuality is perceived as right or wrong.” Yet this simply isn’t true, and there is no better evidence than this very book.

The very fact that a book needed to be written going through a systematically dismantling the ways in which contemporary scholarship has re-interpreted the Scriptures goes to show that those who have bought the argument that homosexuality isn’t condemned in Scripture aren’t necessarily operating off of a different worldview. As this book could be used to show, these individuals very well may hold the infallibility of Scripture and believe every other tenant of the Christian faith, but have simply been convinced by shoddy exegesis that the traditional view of homosexuality is mistaken and Biblically inaccurate – where this is the case the individual is not operating outside the Christian worldview.

On the whole, this book could make a decent reference work for exegesis of passages dealing with homosexuality, but even for this purpose the text is fairly jumbled and not the easiest to follow, simply because De Young tries to pack too many different rebuttals into one book.

TL:DR – Not the best book on the topic, albeit well-researched.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Homosexuality must affirm that the male gender by itself, or the female gender by itself, is an adequate representation of the divine image. It claims that the sexual differences arising from Creation are not foundational and essential and can be bypassed and overlooked.”-p15

Specific Criticisms

There are a few nit-picky problems with this text.

The first of these is the seemingly arbitrary connection of homosexuality with pride towards the beginning of the book. The argument in that section doesn’t really tie into the overall flow of the book, and merely serves to further muddle the text.

The second of these is that the author introduces each chapter with a dramatized version of some story; these are largely annoying, further muddle the flow of the text, and merely serve as an attempt to subtly insert the author’s views through narrative form.

The third of these is that even though the author clearly has a high degree of familiarity with the original language and textual criticism, he still chooses to base one of his introductory dramatizations around the woman caught in adultery, which as any first year student of the canon knows is not original to the text but a later addition.

The final criticism of this text is that the author seems to arbitrarily argue against a distinction being made between homosexual condition and homosexual practices. For some reason that isn’t ever really established, the author feels the need to argue that the Bible does more than just condemn homosexual practices, but condemns homosexuality itself (though he does seem to waffle on this point). This is one of those areas that serves well to demonstrate the way in which the author fails to get beyond his own biases.

Rereading the Faith for Today – Gnostic Tendencies and Defending Against Them

 

Princeton.pngLetter IIn his book The Everlasting Man G.K. Chesterton asserts that “the whole world once very nearly died of broadmindedness and the brotherhood of all religions.”

Chesterton is here referencing the way the early church had to deal with their contemporary culture attempting to bring all religions into one accord; the solution as Chesterton presents it was to formulate a creed, to define the Christian faith against those who pushed for mere assimilation.

One of the groups which Chesterton has in mind here are the early Gnostics. Although early Christianity was able to overcome the threat of Gnosticism in its day there is a perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith, a perpetual tendency for sinful man to read the faith in a way congenial to his own culture. The failure of one attempt, such as the rationalistic Christianity of the Enlightenment, is followed by another, the Gnosticizing relativism of our present day.

When the the stars of cultural tendencies in which people re-read the faith align -as they have done today – the result in something akin to ancient Gnosticism.

This perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith thus gives the appearance of an ongoing gnostic tendency plaguing the church throughout its history. As Nicholas Perrin puts it “The battle between orthodoxy and Gnosticism isn’t over yet and probably won’t be any time soon.”

Gnosticism in its Origins

In his systematic theology The Christian Faith Michael Horton provides a definition of Gnosticism in which he states that the primary underpinning was dualism, such as a contrast between the God of the Old Testament and that New Testament or the contrast between matter as evil and spirit as good.

They sought salvation from the evil material world, and believed this could be accomplished by gaining a secret knowledge. The cause of this as laid out by Horton is that this group of Jews and Christians “tried to reinterpret the biblical narrative in a basically Greek philosophical framework.”

When we read Tertullian’s writing against the Gnostic heretic Valentinus one realizes that Horton’s definition is only a rough generalization of the Gnostic position. Gnosticism as it expressed itself during the period of the early church had a very elaborate metaphysic consisting of varied and convoluted emanations from the central deity which comprise the various spirits of the world, a complex creation account which places the god of the Old Testament at fault, and has the creation of mankind (and the material world as a whole) being an error.

Although the original expression of Gnosticism is quite complex it is not necessary to go into the exact details of the system. Part of the reason for this is because Gnosticism was expressed in a wide variety of ways during the period of the early church, and because it had such a strong focus on subjective experience and interpretation it is difficult – if not impossible – to give any explicit statement of exactly what Gnosticism entailed.

Another reason for this is because Gnosticism is to a large degree merely a borrowing of philosophic trends popular of any given period; in the instance of the early church this borrowing was done primarily from Platonism.

The result was a group which focused on “a subjective, immediate experience” and “concerned themselves above all with the internal significance of events.” It regarded “all doctrines, speculations, and myths – their own as well as others’ – only as approaches to truth.”

Because the focus here is on the subjective “knowledge of the self as divine is the essential pillar of Gnosticism.” It is with these attributes in mind that one may analyze how Gnosticism is affecting contemporary Christianity.

General Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Ideas reminiscent of Gnosticism entered the contemporary era in a variety of ways, and it might be said that it was these tendencies which brought about the revival of interest in Gnosticism proper present in contemporary academia.

While one of the more recent expressions of gnostic-esque ideals was the New Age movement of the 1980’s and 90’s, the principle characteristic responsible for the gnostic presence in contemporary Christianity is the aforementioned way in which the Gnostics attempted to reinterpret the faith in the light of their culture’s philosophy.

In H. Richard Niebuhr’s analysis of the different ways in which Christianity interacts with the world around it – Christ and Culture he labels this sort of approach towards society as ‘The Christ of Culture’. As described by Niebuhr this is the approach which interprets Christ “wholly in cultural terms and tends to eliminate all sense of tension between him and social belief or custom” and seeks to “reconcile the gospel with the science and philosophy of their time.”

In not-to-distant history this can be seen in the way Enlightenment and modernist worldviews attempted – in step with their gnostic forebears – to interpret Christianity in light of the science and philosophy of that time period.

The result of this attempt was a rationalistic Christianity which put forth the idea “that truth must be a risk-free venture, leaving us with only two options: absolute certainty or thoroughgoing skepticism.” One of the results of this was an adherence to “the notion that we believe the Bible to be God’s Word on certain proofs” and a standard which required an “interpretation-free history.”

It is rather ironic then that in an attempt to find an interpretation-free history, the liberals of the day merely managed to “reinterpret the faith by the pagan philosophy of the day.”

When this ideal of absolute certainty inevitably failed and skepticism took center stage the door was opened for writers such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels – and prior to them Walter Bauer – to try and legitimate the original writings of Gnosticism.

Through the perpetual tendency to re-interpret Christianity via the lens of the popular philosophy, ancient Gnosticism itself was once again able to gain a hearing in the public square.

Yet the rise of Gnosticism is not merely a result of the Enlightenment and modernist thinkers attempting to rationalize Christianity. Other philosophic developments have occurred since then – some of them good and some of them bad – which have also served in one way or another to promote this revival of Gnosticism. Perhaps one of the most relevant philosophic developments in this regard are those of Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault.

The first of these philosophic influences which has opened the door for Gnosticism – while at the same time itself owing its existence to the influx of gnostic tendencies –  is that of Derrida’s idea that there is ‘nothing outside the text.’ The idea presented is that reality is always being interpreted through the lens of language, so much so that reality itself is a sort of text requiring interpretation.

When interpreted through a more liberal schema, this is seen as showing that since everything is merely interpretation that the truth cannot be truly arrived at objectively, and therefore all interpretations are valid.

It is with cognitive dissonance that writers such as Ehrman and Pagels on the one hand insist on the modernist standards of an interpretation-free history, and on the other push the idea that all interpretations are valid.

Another of the primary philosophic influences forging the way for the Gnostic revival is the idea of Lyotard that has a disdain for meganarratives and an ‘incredulity toward metanarratives.’

The meganarratives are those which attempt to tell a grand story arching over human history, while metanarratives are those which attempt to legitimate themselves through appeal to some sort of universal reason.

The major result of this view was that the overarching narrative of the triumph of orthodoxy over the innumerable heresies began to be questioned, with a secondary result being an attack on the legitimacy of that orthodoxy’s appeal to something outside itself.

The last of these philosophic influences which was both brought about by gnostic tendencies in the faith and in turn enabled a newfound focus on ancient Gnosticism is Foucault’s idea that ‘power is knowledge’.

The idea behind this notion is that those in power have the ability to influence what is considered true ‘knowledge’, they are able to define what is the ‘correct’ interpretation of a given set of data.

For the resurgence of Gnostic thought-patterns, this meant that contemporary interpreters focused their attacks to a large degree on the way in which – according  to their view – the success of orthodoxy was merely the result of the dominant party powering their way to the front and rewriting the narrative surrounding their history.

Specific Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Even before there was an explicit focus on Gnosticism as a system, gnostic-esque ideas were working their way into the overall worldviews surrounding the church.

The primary of these aspects is the aforementioned tendency to re-interpret the faith through the lens of the popular philosophy.

During the early church period this played itself out in such a way that a variety of Platonism was brought into the church; during the modern period it played itself out in such a way that rationalism was brought into the church; in the contemporary period it is playing itself out in such a way that subjectivism and relativism have become major aspects of many churches.

The most aspect most reminiscent of Gnosticism in the contemporary church is the present focus upon individual experience, where truth is ultimately personal.

As has been already stated, the gnostics concerned themselves primarily with the internal significance of events, which in turn causes them to focus on the internal significance of whatever is perceived as conveying truth.

One way in which this presents itself in the church is a tendency in many Bible studies to focus on ‘what the passage means to me.’

Often, rather than attempting to try and discover what the intended meaning of a certain Biblical passage is, such groups focus on whatever personal feeling or message the reader thinks the passage is trying to tell them, and each person’s interpretation is just as valid as the next person’s. This individual interpretation and experience is elevated above adherence to any particular doctrine.

Indeed, the doctrines of the church are seen as things to be stretched and molded to suite one’s own personal understanding of truth.

A common phrase on the lips of those who take this line of thought is that ‘I have a relationship, not a religion.’ Here a false dichotomy is set up, for what they have is both a relationship and a religion, with the proper term for this being the church.

One chief effect of this focus on individual experience and interpretation is that it produces a class of Christians who are generally ignorant regarding what they believe or why they ultimately believe anything.

When faced with skeptics these individuals often find their faith shaken; when faced with those such as Bart Ehrman who tell them that there are other legitimate versions of their faith or that their faith is founded upon a lie, they have no idea how to respond (and may thus even end up embracing Gnosticism itself as a system, as opposed to merely being influenced by some of its aspects).

Those such as Rob Bell call them to question the doctrines of the faith, but fail to give any advise on actually arriving at an answer to those questions or on what standard these doctrines are supposed to be held to.

This is because the standard being looked to is not external, but internal.

The Christian faith turns to focus on “contemporary ideals of self-discovery, self-awareness, self-actualization, and self-salvation” coupled with a “dislike of any kind of authority” such as that represented in many doctrinal statements.

When the goal becomes this sort of self-discovery not only is the result a group of poorly informed individuals, but also a group that has little real cause for evangelism; since personal experience cannot be conveyed from one person to the next an attitude of ‘if it works for you, do it, if not then try something else’ is adopted.

Not only is simply difficult to be evangelical with a message of subjectivism, but such individuals must also worry about whether they are forcing their own beliefs on others – this fear of being imposing is perhaps the thing that kills evangelism the fastest.

Responding to Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Figuring out how best to respond to these trends is one of the challenges of thoughtful Christians.

tertullian (1)One good way to figure out how to respond is to look back to those who responded to these issues the first time they came about, such as Tertullian. In Tertullian’s writings at least three approaches may be found, to include: making others aware of what is influencing them, pointing out the shortcomings in their belief system along with the strength of the orthodox position, and appealing to the truth of Scripture.

The first way of response which can be picked up by Tertullian is simply to point out what it is that the other side is doing. That is, to bring it to their attention the way in which popular philosophy is influencing their beliefs.

This sort of approach is seen in Tertullian when he asks “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?” and goes on to exclaim “Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition.”

His goal here is to bring it to the attention of his opponents – and more importantly to those who might be influenced by his opponents – where the true origins of their beliefs lie. The previous sections detailing the general and specific aspects of Gnosticism present in the contemporary world (including how they came to be there) are themselves an attempt at this approach, and thus while they served to be primarily informational, that information is an apologetic in and of itself.

Tertullian’s approach may be emulated in the contemporary world by pointing out the way that the church was originally influenced by modernistic values, which then led to its influence by postmodern values. Before the problem can be properly addressed those who fall prey to it must be made aware of it.

Another way of response which can be found in Tertullian is the need to point out the failings of the opposing position.

This sort of tactic can be seen throughout Tertullian’s writings, such as in his writings against Marcion, where he systematically goes through the different implications of Marcion’s views to show how they are inconsistent with themselves. One example of this is where he shows that Marcion’s god is weak and unjust, for “how is it possible that he should issue commands, if he does not mean to execute them; or forbid sin, if he intends not to punish them” because “it would have been far more right, if he had not forbidden what he meant not to punish.”

In the contemporary world this may be accomplished by pointing out the ways in which subjectivism and relativism really keep the individual from saying anything meaningful, and that merely adhering to the popular philosophy is simply to trade one master for another – except whereas one master is constant and able to speak to people consistently over thousands of years, the other is fickle and ever changing with every new fad of thought.

Yet not only does Tertullian demonstrate the shortcomings of the opposing view, he also demonstrates the consistency of the orthodox view.

An example of this is Tertullian’s classic line that “the Son of God died, it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.”

His point is not that the Christian faith doesn’t make sense, but that for it to make sense one must accept it as a whole.

In this case that entails accepting that Christ was a man of flesh, and that in turn “Christ could not be described as being man without flesh… just as He is not God without the Spirit of God.”

In the contemporary world this may be accomplished by pointing out the ways in which Christianity, or the world at large, only makes sense when taken from an orthodox point of view. Furthermore, because the Gospel message is true, it is the only thing that will be able to fully account for their feelings and experiences, and to then offer hope.

A final way that Tertullian gives a good example of how to approach contemporary Gnostic influences in the world is through appeal to the Scriptures.

As he states, “We want no curious disputation after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.” Thus Tertullian can be seen appealing again and again to truth as presented in the Scriptures, such as detailing the authority of Christ from Luke, or proving the nativity through Matthew.

In the contemporary world Christians must appeal to the truth of Scripture, because ultimately it is the only avenue to any sort of salvific truth. If individuals are convinced to follow Christianity because of something other than the truth of Scripture, then more than likely they are merely adhering a different philosophy than they were before, but have found no true conversion.

Today

The perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith has resulted in the resurgence of gnostic-style influences being alive and well in the world today, and through these influences a newfound focus on Gnosticism itself has arisen.

The primary of these influences is the tendency to interpret the faith in the light of the popular philosophy of the day, which in turn leads to a relativising and a watering-down of the truth.

The danger that this presents to the church is not something seen only by those defenders of the faith such as Chesterton. Quite the contrary, those promoting such gnostic views realize exactly what the danger is; as Elaine Pagels puts it, “Had Christianity remained multiform, it might well have disappeared from history, along with dozens of rival religious cults of antiquity.”

The difference lies in the fact that those such as Pagels view having dozens of rival religious cults as a better thing than having only one, because in the opinion of herself and those like her all of the rivaling cults are merely diverse approaches to truth and God. Because such individuals places no real truth-value on orthodox Christianity it is not a true problem for them if it fades into obscurity beneath a newfound diversity – indeed, that would be a good thing from their perspective.

Yet with a proper understanding of Scripture and of the theological and philosophic issues surrounding it, the Christian is aware of just how dangerous these trends can be.

Gnosticism is far from dead; as put by Alister McGrath, “Its echo is heard today in those who interpret Christianity as a religion of self-discovery, not redemption.” 

The Christian knows that grace and redemption is what is needed by the world, and it is with this in mind that they are called to fight against the influences which would try and make the faith palatable by making it relative.