Course Review: Apologetics 101 – Scott Oliphint, Westminster Theological Seminary

Scott Oliphint Apologetics 101.png


Apologetics comes from the reality of Scripture. It is not an invention of theologians and philosophers.


Letter II‘ve decided to try something new, to start a new type of series. I love to read, and I’ve been writing book reviews for years. I also love to listen to lectures, and often fill the time during my daily commute with courses from the online libraries of schools such as Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster, Gordon-Conwell, Covenant, and others.

So I’ve decided start providing summaries, analysis, and critiques of these courses and lecture series, partially to help me process what I’ve encountered and partially because it’s not something I’ve seen done before and I think it’ll be fun.

The first series of lectures I will be reviewing is Dr. Scott Oliphint’s course Apologetics 101 at Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS).

Scott is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster. He is one of the foremost experts on Cornelius Van Til and the sphere of presuppositional apologetics (along with John Frame and the late Greg Bahnsen), and is perhaps best known for his re-framing of presuppositionalism in the form of Covenantal Apologetics.

Scott is on Twitter, has written for Ligonier and DesiringGod, and has many resources available on SermonAudio.

This course is available for free on iTunesU.

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Book Review: The Truth War – By John MacArthur

 

John MacArthur Truth War.pngLetter TThe Truth War is John MacArthur’s account and call-to-arms against what he claims to be the most pressing pitfalls in contemporary theology, specifically, postmodernism and the arrival of the emergent church. Most pointedly it addresses the issue of truth and what we can know concerning scripture, as well as delving into just what it is that is causing so much trouble in today’s churches.

MacArthur begins his book with an expounding of just what it is that ‘truth’ means, how it relates to Christianity, and how it relates to the context of culture. Naturally MacArthur takes a very strong stance on truth, as opposed to the “rejection of every expression of certainty” that he identifies with the postmodern movement. This done he then goes on to explain just how it is that contemporary theology got to the place that it is, giving a brief overview of the progression of philosophers and finally arriving at a critique of those present ‘theologians’ who align themselves with the emergent church, especially Brian McLaren (who is seen as one of the chief leaders of the movement).

The overall theme of the book is one of the need to contend for the faith, to defend the truth, and to assert the truth of Christian doctrine rather than abandoning the hard truths in favor of appealing to the culture and society at large.

It is about exercising Biblical discernment and refusing to give into those who sacrifice truth in order to gain acceptance. The postmodern calls the Christian arrogant for asserting the ability to know any truth with any certainty, instead raising up an idol of uncertainty and ambiguity, removing from Christianity anything that defines it as being separate from the world or even as a religion distinct in itself – preferring to acclimate wherever possible. Since no doctrinal truth can be asserted in these contexts the ‘believer’ (if they can still be called that) is simply encouraged to live the Christian life. A call to salvation and repentance of sins is out the window and yet another works-righteousness heresy is lifted up in its place.

MacArthur presents a call to truth in contemporary churches, especially those who would call themselves evangelical and yet show no discernment in “rightly dividing the word of truth,” but simply roll with the fads. In being just over 200 pages it’s a moderately short, easy read, and gives a good view of the way those in the church see the emergent church movement and why they feel so strongly the need to struggle against it. The goal is not only to enlighten the reader as to the struggle, but to engage them in it, not in arrogance or harshness, but in order to defend the truth of Christ, lest his gospel be stripped of it’s message in favor of yet another form of works-righteousness (at least theoretically, more on that below).

Memorable Quotes:

“Truth never changes with the time, but heresy always does.”

“The belief that no one can really know anything for certain is emerging as virtually the one dogma postmodernists will tolerate. Uncertainty is the new truth. Doubt and skepticism have been canonized as a form of humility. Right and wrong have been redefined in terms of subjective feelings and personal perspectives.”

“The most compelling question in the minds and on the lips of many pastors today is not “What’s true?” but rather “What works?” Evangelicals these days care less about theology than they do about methodology. Truth has taken a backseat to more pragmatic concerns”

“Christians ought to have learned by now that we cannot avoid being an offense to the world and still remain faithful to the gospel. The gospel is inherently offensive. Christ Himself is offensive to all who reject the truth.”

Specific Criticisms

My first few criticisms have less to do with MacArthur’s message and more to do with his presentation. For example while the book is moderately short there are various chapters which could quite simply be removed without the book actually losing anything. At one point MacArthur spends numerous pages discussing the book of Jude, who Jude was, the significance of his name and how it’s translated, and the in’s and out’s of what it is that is going on with Jude that prompted his book. Now, while all this is a good and well and is nice to know, it really doesn’t do much in advancing the theme of the book.

MacArthur’s goal here seems to be to explain why Jude knows what he’s talking about due to the things he’s been through and his relationship to Christ. For somebody who simply accepts that Jude knows what he’s talking about on merit of it being in the Bible, all this isn’t really necessary – still I guess it is useful for those who might need some more convincing.

A similar area which I feel doesn’t do much to advance the books theme is a near chapter-long summary of various early heresies and their histories in the church, specifically Sabellianism and Arianism. While this is all good information in understanding the history of the church and the history of heresy, and why we should fight it, it seems that the same effect could have been accomplished in just a few paragraphs, rather than repeating oneself for pages on end.

The last criticism in this vein is that while there are these two areas which seem side-tangents from the main theme stuck in the middle of the book, the ‘Appendix’ is one of the best chapters in the book and is regulated to being jumbled in after the conclusion. Personally, I’d have much rather had the sections found in the appendix dispersed relevantly throughout the rest of the text.

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Moving on from that, another area which MacArthur may hurt his message is in his harshness; despite his repetitions that the Christian should act gentleness he has a tendency to blast his opposition. This goes along with another criticism, which is his focus on only a few of the emergent church thinkers such as Brian McLaren (with brief mentions of Rob Bell and a few others). I’ve seen this particular facet of the text criticized as bifurcation between orthodoxy and the most radical of the postmoderns (given that there are not only lesser degrees but also diverse types). MacArthur would do better to focus less on individuals and more on the movement as a whole; it’s easy to find a few cringe-worthy individuals in any movement.

My last, and probably biggest complaint with the book is that I don’t think MacArthur has much of an understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of postmodern thought.

One might argue that he is immune to this criticism because of the fact that he is primarily addressing postmodern theology itself and the things which go along with it, rather than the philosophical root of the matter – ie, he’s addressing the problems that it creates in the church, not necessarily the worldview as a whole. This is similar to treating the symptoms rather than illness.

While he does make a few good points against the emergent church and does give a good [albeit extremely superficial] understanding of postmodern theology, I think if he were wanting to write an actual apologetic against it he would do better to attack the root, demonstrating how emergent church theology is ultimately drawn from these faulty premises. If he attacks only the manifestations in theology his opponents can simply disagree with him, for he hasn’t done anything to shake their worldview – if he cuts their root, even if he doesn’t defeat them he’ll at least force them to enter the discussion.

Granted, this entire criticism could be set aside on the argument that that isn’t the audience MacArthur is addressing, that he just wants to give the general populace sufficient reason to reject emergent theology. Personally, I think he could have done both.

Regardless, one gets the impression in reading MacArthur that the only information he has about postmodernism is what he has read from its critics. That may be enough information if your only interest is preaching to the choir, but it fails in the sphere of offering any substantial engagement.

Book Review: The Savior Sensitive Church – By Paul Chappell & John Goetsch

chappell savior sensitive church.png

letter-aAnybody who’s paid attention to the happenings in the Christian church throughout the past few decades cannot help but notice the advent the megachurch, what are often popularly termed “seeker-sensitive” churches. As one might guess by the title, The Savior Sensitive Church is an attempt at rebuffing what its authors see as a detrimental mindset within the contemporary church.

The seeker-sensitive movement in this context can be seen as those churches which attempt to cater to the desires of contemporary congregants. On a light level these may simply be churches which modify their music to embrace contemporary styles or who do away with a pulpit and suit for a stool and casual wear (or at least the author would likely posit these churches as such).

On a heavier level these are churches which make pop psychology and entertainment the central aspect of the service, as opposed to the expounding of scripture and the presenting of the means of grace (ie, the sacraments, though the author wouldn’t focus on the ‘means of grace’ aspect); they are those churches which desire to fit in with the culture by creating and environment in which the natural man is not confronted with their nature.

At the root of this issue the author places the emergence of post-modernism, which he defines as that which “asserts that external absolute truth – that is a truth that is true for all people in all places at all times – cannot be known through reason or science because truth is non-existent or unattainable.” According to the authors “this relativity has led to a tolerance of any and all ways of thinking, except any thinking that declares or believes in absolute Truth. You see, the only thing that post-modern culture intolerant of is absolute Truth.” Thus, the churches attempt to create an environment tolerant of the world’s culture.

After positing post-modernism as the issue the authors then go on to designate the two types of truth which have arisen as a result: designer truth (that of the relativists) and discovered truth (that of the Christian). This is followed by an analysis of the ways in which a seeker sensitive church operates, and offers the solution of a savior sensitive church (that is, a church which focuses on catering to Christ rather than the culture). His goal is to bring back the authority of Christ in the church and to make the Gospel the center of the message, as opposed to psychology or entertainment.

At just under 100 pages this is a very easily read and easily digestible book, though chances are nobody who isn’t already in agreement with the author is going to care to read it or gain anything by the arguments presented. The book doesn’t really say anything new, though taking a few minutes to read it may help to give the reader a cursory understanding of one way in which post-modernism and the emergent movement are seen as plagues to the church, though only through the strong conservative Baptist lens which the author wears.

Memorable Quotes:

[I’m fairly certain many of these are not original to the author, simply because I recall hearing them. For instance I’ve seen the fourth quote attributed to John C. Maxwell, and I believe I’ve heard the first two from C.S. Lewis at some point…]

-“God does not believe in atheists. Man does not scoff at the Bible because he does not think there is a God or because he does not think it is true… Man scoffs at the Bible because he is walking after his own lusts.”

-“You cannot improve on ‘Thus saith the Lord.'”

-“It is not the business of the church to adapt Christ to men, but men to Christ. We must never forget our calling to bring men and women to the Savior.”

-“People do not care how much we known until they know how much we care.”

-“We must come back to the conviction that it is the Gospel, alone, that will draw men to the Savior and bring true spiritual results in the church.”

Specific Criticisms

There were a few things which came at me like a curve ball in this text, some of which I’m simply not sure how to interpret. One such statement is that “Though Baptists are not Protestant, it is interesting to note, the author of the article gave explanations for the decline of Protestantism.” This is a bit of a fuzzy assertion. While many try and trace a shaky line back to older style Anabaptists, and there may be an argument for a few baptist groups falling outside a strict definition of ‘protestant’, for all intents and purpose they’re the same thing.

Another possible criticism is of the author’s division of truth into the categories of ‘designer truth’ and ‘discovered truth’. Designer truth for the author is that truth which is formulated to fit the individual, it’s tailored to their relativistic needs. Discovered truth on the other hand is that truth which is present and eternal, simply in need of being ‘discovered’ by man. One might present a better category for the second classing, that is ‘revealed’ or ‘revelational’ truth, simply because it makes these truths not only eternal, but it makes them God’s truths (as opposed to truths which have simply been discovered by man).

Still further in offering a critique of this book is strong conservative Baptist bias which the author bring forth. This can be seen in such quotes as “Worse yet, we now want a new King James Bible, or a new International Version or a new American Standard.” As if updating our translations of the Bible (due to whatever reasons, whether because updates in scholarship or to better express the thoughts such as with the New King James) were somehow detracting from our dedication to truth. By this sort of logic the King James Bible itself should be suspect, ridiculed for being some ‘new’ version which further removes us from the original texts.

In a similar vein comes the authors critiques of music, stating that “In an effort to attract people with ungodly music, we distance them from God and defile His church with carnality. Spirit-led, Spirit-filled music will always be greatly different from the world and will in no way mimic or reproduce a secular style or feel.” Somehow the author feels that traditional hymns are somehow more Biblical than contemporary Christian music, as if the hymns weren’t simply the contemporary music of a bygone era. The author argues against the amorality of music, stating that certain types of music (even without words) create a carnal mood. He fails to actually elaborate or defend this notion.

My last criticism comes in the author’s critique of people who go about studying their Bibles. In this the author singles out “seminary cloisters” (whatever that refers to) and other such people working to interpret the Bible. The author’s position is that instead one should let the Bible interpret/examine them; as he quotes “Quit studying your Bible; let your Bible study you!” The author is quick to note that he doesn’t want the reader to literally stop studying their Bibles, but rather to “give ourselves to God’s word in a spirit of humility and submission – truly allowing the living oracles of the eternal God to search our deepest hearts and pierce the innermost recesses of our beings.”

He states that we need to read the Scripture with an attitude of submission instead of one where we try and discover and interpret what it means, however he never actually says what this looks like. In the end the result is a vague pietistic anti-intellectualism.

It is this anti-intellectualism that likely results in the author settling for the most general and stereotypical definition of ‘postmodernism’. It is unlikely that the author has any real understanding of the movement beyond what he has read from those who critique it.

Book Review: The Universe Next Door – By James W. Sire

 

Universe Next Door Sire.pngLetter IIn the wake of the Enlightenment it became more and more clear as people began to try and doubt everything that there was to doubt, that eventually one runs into a dilemma, either to doubt their-self away or to posit some first principles, some axiom, some presupposition. We have become more and more self-aware from that point forward – and indeed it is one of the hallmarks of the postmodern philosophy – that we are all operating upon and within certain presuppositions or worldviews.

In The Universe Next Door James W. Sire sets out to explore these worldviews, these other universes which we neighbor. As is stated in the preface: “I am convinced that for any of us to be fully conscious intellectually we should not only be able to detect the worldviews of others but be aware of our own – why it is ours and why, in light of so many options, we think it is true.” In good fashion, Sire doesn’t claim or attempt to be exempt from this standard, and claims up front to be coming from the worldview of Christian Theism. His goal is to take a look at nine different worldviews – Christian Theism, Deism, Naturalism, Nihilism, Existentialism, Eastern Pantheistic Monism, The New Age Spirituality, Postmodernism, and Islamic Theism – and to examine the answers that these varying worldviews give to seven basic questions revolving around reality, the human condition, epistemology, morality and ultimate meaning.

Throughout the course of his text Sire provides insight into the foundations and weaknesses of all the worldviews presented, and so while the text is an introductory survey of the worldviews held, it is also an apologetic for the Christian worldview based upon the philosophic and logical consistency found in the various worldviews.

On that note, Sire’s text is a great introduction for the Christian into the other worldviews which they might run up against and also provides a fairly solid basis on which to critique those other worldviews. It is accessible and coherent, with a clear flow and analysis, and I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to get an idea of the presuppositions underlying their views regarding the world (and if you’re not a Christian, then it may serve as an excellent case study into the way that Christians view opposing worldviews, as well as their own).

Memorable Quotes:

-“Few people have anything approaching an articulate philosophy – at least as epitomized by the great philosophers. Even fewer, I suspect, have a carefully constructed theology. But everyone has a worldview.”(p19)

-“We thus end in an ironic paradox. Naturalism, born in the Age of Enlightenment, was launched on a firm acceptance of the human ability to know. Now naturalists find that they can place no confidence in their knowing.”(p106)

-“The problem [with the morality of our day] is not that moral values are not recognized but that they have no basis.”(p108)

-“Art is nothing if not formal, that is, endowed with structure by the artist. But structure itself implies meaning. So to the extent that an artwork has structure, it has meaning and thus is not nihilistic.”(p115)

-“The weakness of resting on a paradox is the difficulty of knowing where to stop.”(p137)

-“In postmodernism the essence of modernism has not been left behind. Both rest on two key notions: (1) that the cosmos is all there is – no God of any kind exists – and (2) the autonomy of human reason.”(p242)

-“If we expect to know anything, we must assume we can know something.”(p281)

-“Christian theism as I have defined it was culturally abandoned not because of its inner inconsistency or its failure to explain the facts, but because it was inadequately understood, forgotten completely or not applied to the issues at hand.”(p284)

Specific Criticisms

While I have said that this is a great text for getting to know what worldviews are out there it is not without its flaws. Minor flaws include such things as mistaking metanarratives for meganarratives, which results in a skewed critique of postmodernism. I also think Sire would have done better to be slightly more objective in his analysis, and to weigh the power that the questions being asked have over the conclusions that are reached. Finally, I think Sire could have been somewhat more self-aware as regards his judgments of the opposing worldviews, recognizing that his judgments are based upon the standard set by Christianity. While the opposing views are judged by their inconsistency (which is excellent), they are also judged by their failure to conform to the authors own presuppositions (which is less excellent, but still worthwhile for a certain audience).

Book Review: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? – By James K. A. Smith

Smith WAOP.pngLetter PPostmodernism is an idea that is [intentionally] ill-defined and poorly understood, both by those who call themselves postmoderns and by those who attack them.

One of the groups which has set its sights on postmodernism in recent years is the Christian church, which has had no shortage of condemnations for it. Granted, we may also witness many within the Christian church embracing the movement (ie, the Emergent Church), only to be thrown into the fire by the rest of the Christian populace.

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? is James K. A. Smith’s contribution to shedding light on the situation by clarifying just what it is that postmodern thinkers mean and what their effect (for good or ill) on the church should be. On one level, the goal is to tackle the thought of postmodernism head on both to show how Christian critics and Christian adherents have misunderstood it in both their attacks and implementation of what they think to be postmodernism. On another level the goal is analyze the key ideas of three major postmodern philosophers – Derrida, Lyotard, and Focault – and to discuss how we may properly view and incorporate these ideas into the church, what our reactions to them should be.

Two main themes giving form to Smiths text are a discussion of postmodern ideas as they are seen in recent film and an explanation of the various bumper-sticker phrases which are often thrown out as embodying post-modern thought along with analysis of what they actually mean, whether they are really at odds with Christianity or whether they may be employed to further the interests of the church. After a short historical and philosophical introduction to the topics being discussed, Smith then analyzes these phrases chapter by chapter: Derrida’s “There is nothing outside the text,” Lyotard’s “Incredulity toward metanarratives,” and Foucault’s “power is knowledge.”After giving his analysis and removing false understandings of these ideas, Smith offers his view of how these ideas can and should be incorporated into the church. Granted, he acknowledges that the ideas are not necessarily in complete agreement with the ideas of Christianity, but they are not diametrically opposed either. Thus we can see that:

  • “when Derrida claims that there is nothing outside the text, he means there is no reality that is not always already interpreted through the mediating lens of language… Texts that require interpretation are not things that are inserted between me and the world; rather, the world is a kind of text requiring interpretation (p39)… To say that there is nothing outside the Text is to say that there is no aspect of creation to which God’s revelation does not speak.”(p55)
  • “For Lyotard, metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories that not only tell a grand story (since even premodern and tribal societies do this) but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason… It is the supposed rationality of modern scientistic stories about the world that makes them a metanarrative (p65)…the problem with metanarratives is that they do not own up to their own mythic ground.”(p69)
  • “Christians should eschew the very notion of an autonomous agent who resists any form of control. By rejecting Foucault’s liberal Enlightenment commitments, but appropriating his analyses of the role of discipline in formation, we can almost turn Foucault’s project on its head.”(p99)

Thus we can create a church which removes the modern isolationism and realize the presuppositional nature of our ideas; we can recognize the story-telling nature (in a non-pejorative sense) of the church and the fault in the materialistic worldview; we can do away with modernistic view of autonomy and allow for the disciplinary and authoritative role of the church; we can refuse the Cartesian model of thought and realize that we can have knowledge without absolute knowledge, that we are finite; that we can incorporate a rich liturgy, social concerns, tradition, and a working creedal theology.

It is this “Radical Orthodoxy” that Smith promotes, a move away from the fundamentalism that sees postmodernism in a purely negative light, away from the emergent movement which misinterprets it as a reason to do away with truth claims and any sort of discipline, toward a revival of the church that isn’t caught under the presuppositions of modernism.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Whenever science attempts to legitimate itself, it is no longer scientific but narrative, appealing to an orienting myth that is not susceptible to scientific legitimation.”(p68)

-“We confess knowledge without certainty, truth without objectivity.”(p121)

-“We were created for stories, no propositions; for drama, not bullet points.”(p140)

Specific Criticisms

I don’t have any criticisms of this text. This isn’t to say that it is a perfect text or that the ideas presented have no flaws, but only that I’m not informed enough to be able to pick them out.

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.

 

 

 

Book Review: Velvet Elvis – By Rob Bell

RobBellVelvetElvis.pngLetter Velvet Elvis is author Rob Bell‘s attempt at bringing Christianity into the modern world. He begins by talking about a painting and noting how if, after this painting had been finished, it would have been a tragedy for the painter to announce that “there was no more need for anyone to paint, because he had just painted the ultimate painting.” He goes on to make the point that we need to be in a constant state of reforming, a constant state of “repainting the Christian faith.” This is because, he says, “the word Christian conjures up all sorts of images that have nothing to do with who Jesus is,” and because while past Christianity might have worked for their parents “or provided meaning when they were growing, but it is no longer relevant. It doesn’t fit. It’s outdated. It doesn’t have anything to say to the world they live in every day. Its not that there isn’t any truth in it… its just that every generation has to ask the difficult questions of what it means to be a Christian here and now…” And so Bell begins his journey into asking questions.

Rather than simply showing the people the correct image of Jesus or educating them on the relevance and applicability of traditional Christianity, Bell suggests that we remold it to suite the present time.

I went into reading this book without a clue who Rob Bell was or what the book might be about, though that the line “You rarely defend things you love” (p27) is in the book was a blatant indication that things were not quite right – after-all, what do you defend if not the things you love?

From reading other reviews it seems that the book is often praised for its fresh approach to Christianity. It is liked because he issues the challenge that one needs to keep digging into the Word, that one needs to continue questioning what is presented to you – on these premises alone one can understand how one can enjoy it on a surface level. Bell wants his readers to question doctrine because while there is truth in the Bible, no dogma can be the full truth, nobody has the be-all end-all absolute truth interpretation of the Word and so he challenges his readers to question those dogmas – the problem here is that that’s almost all he does, challenge the reader to ask questions.

A dichotomy is thus created, for though it is important to ask questions and learn for oneself why the doctrines you follow are as they are, it is equally important to actually arrive at doctrines which you can stand behind. Its important to come to conclusions in your beliefs – you question and look into the Word as Bell suggests to see why you believe what you believe, but this is inane unless you actually come to a conclusion (ie, Bell’s process of questioning provides you with the reasons why you will in turn stand behind your doctrine).

Bell attempts to be tolerant to all peoples and in turn denies this aspect of the purpose in his own statements – you don’t question doctrines in order to be tolerant, you question doctrines in order to see why it is that you defend them (ie, why, when it comes to your belief concerning the truth you are intolerant/inflexible in those beliefs).

One cannot only question, one must arrive at conclusions. Doctrine is not in place as a harsh issuer of intolerance and inquisition, its in place to show where previous individuals have gone through the same process and to show the [educated] conclusions they arrived at – they’re there to give you an informed outline to follow (thus why texts such as The Westminster Standards offers in-text citation of scripture, so you’ll know why they concluded what they did). One cannot be wholly tolerant, as G.K. Chesterton notes “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions” (for elaboration, check out his book Orthodoxy). One cannot perpetually question and seek truth, as Mark Twain notes “there are none but temporary Truth-Seekers; that a permanent one is a human impossibility; that as soon as the Seeker finds what he is thoroughly convinced is the Truth, he seeks no further” (for elaboration, check out What is Man?).

This where Bell fails, he questions but then proceeds to forget the purpose of questioning… he criticizes the idea of standing behind and defending a set of convictions and in doing so fails to realize that the people defending ideas are the ones who used to stand in his place, questioning the dogmas – however unlike Bell this was not just for the sake of questioning them, but for the sake of learning why they should defend them.

Specific Criticisms

Bell’s theology is at its foremost man-centered and denies really any sovereignty or legitimacy on God’s part, mentioning at one point that “Jesus is God’s way of refusing to give up on his dream for the world” (p157). This makes the fundamental flaw of assuming he ever considered giving up, of assuming he even had a reason to consider giving up. That he’s “refusing to give” up implies that something is not going according to plan, it implies that something is not in his control, essentially denying many of the essential qualities of God (namely his omnipotence and omniscience).

It should be a requirement that anybody wanting to make an argument or prove a point should first be forced to pass a class in basic logic. The entire first half of Bell’s book thrives on false logic, on implementing equivocation (first with ‘faith'(p19) and then with ‘believers'(p20)), creating straw men and taking versus out of context (p42) and with false analogies (ie, that Christianity is like a painting) in order to basically trick the reader into thinking what he’s saying has some validity.

There is little actual meat in Bell’s book. He has few real conclusions apart from that the Christian faith needs to be “repainted”, that doctrine and theology are “servants” (p25) to men and that men need to mold doctrine and theology to suit their current needs – basically, Christ needs to conform to the current world, even to the point of denying the authority of scripture and question the trinity if need-be (p22).

Of course, its only natural that there is little actual substance to the book. After-all, if there was substance to it then Bell might have to defend his ideas, but that would make him too ‘bricky’, as he puts it (even though Paul compares us to bricks (Eph 2:22) being used to build something).

You don’t have to really believe any certain doctrine according to Bell, you just have to be willing to live like Jesus and play on the trampoline – for him the church is the trampoline and the springs are the doctrines. Of course nobody defends a trampoline as Bell would assert, but people will defend their home, they will defend a Temple – and it is a house and a Temple that God calls the church, not a trampoline. We are compared to bricks being used to build a Temple, set on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ as the cornerstone (again, Eph 2:22) – the Bible describes the church just as the brickworld that Bell rallies against. Bell would place the Bible upon a chopping block and cut off anything that anybody might disagree with or that might cause argument, that might cause somebody to have to defend their views.

One final note is his statement of “Hell is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for” (p146) – yet if Christ died for them then they are forgiven and their debt is paid. If they are forgiven and their debt paid then they will not be punished as if they weren’t forgiven or held to the debt as if it weren’t paid, that defeats the whole point. A person cannot say “no, you have not forgiven me”, a person cannot say “no, my debt is not paid”. If you erase a person from a debt to you, even if they don’t accept that you forgave it, you’re not going to make them pay anyway – neither is God. If you forgave a person a trespass against you, even if they don’t accept it, you still forgave them and aren’t going to exact vengeance and justice upon them – neither is God (granted, this is abit of a false analogy in assuming that rejection is even possible). God created everything, God is in control of everything.

I could go on for quite some time giving quotes and rebuttals but I see little point. Suffice to say that it is a sharp departure from any form of orthodox Christianity.

Bell’s error is in his basic premise – Christianity is not comparable to a painting. A painting is meant as a service to its audience, we are meant as servants to God.

 

Book Review: The Fall of Interpretation – By James K. A. Smith

james k a smithWhile there has been much scholarship written in the realm of hermeneutics, these discussions on the whole tend to limit themselves on how to go about hermeneutics; they generally confine themselves to discussing how to apply interpretational models, rather than looking at interpretation itself. Furthermore, those scholars who have taken up the task of addressing the more meta aspects of hermeneutics and interpretation have historically gone about this in one of two ways, two traditions which James K.A. Smith here refers to as ‘The Fall of Hermeneutics’ and ‘A Hermeneutics of Fallenness’.

Respectively, these traditions view hermeneutics as either “a postlapsarian phenomenon, coming upon the scene after Eden… [and thus] an evil to be overcome” or else “an inescapable, violent state of affairs.” In his book The Fall of Interpretation, Smith seeks to analyze these two leading traditions, and then to offer an alternative, a so-called ‘Creational Hermeneutic’. In this Smith disagrees with the first tradition, in that he does not view hermeneutics as a result of the fall, but an aspect of the original creation; he therefore both agrees and disagrees with the second tradition, agreeing that interpretation is inescapable, but arguing that it is good rather than necessarily violent. Thus: “Interpretation, as I will argue, is creational; it is an inescapable state of affairs that accompanies the finitude of creaturehood and, since it is an aspect of creation, is ‘good'” (p.24).

The book is divided into three primary sections, each focusing on one of these approaches to hermeneutics. In discussing the view that hermeneutics is a result of the Fall, Smith engages with scholars Richard Lints and Rex Koivisto. This discussion is almost wholly negative; in refuting the views of Lints & co., Smith seeks to demonstrate not only that interpretation is original and not postlapsarian (and in turn, good), but he also seeks to demonstrate that the view presented by Lints (the view that interpretation can be overcome either in this life or the next) ultimately falls into the Platonic trap of seeking to raise mankind to the level of gods. It is thus argued that “if interpretation is a constitutive aspect of human experience and be-ing, then it is impossible to overcome (without our becoming gods); and further, the desire to escape the finitude of human existence itself marks the essence of the Fall, the quest to ‘be like God.’ The grasping of the forbidden fruit, rather than initiating the history of hermenuetics, was an attempt to overcome such mediation and to ‘know’ as God does, sans courier”(p.90). One of the more interesting ways Smith goes about arguing this is through his re-reading of the tower of Babel narrative, arguing that “The hermeneutical structure of creation is good; it produces goods: a plurality of interpretations and a diversity of readings. The sin of Babel was its quest for unity – one interpretation, one reading, one people – which was an abandonment of creational diversity and plurality in favor of exclusion and violence; and ‘the ravages of hatred have an ominous sameness'” (p.32).

While Smith is primarily antagonistic to the view exemplified by Lints, he is much more sympathetic towards that of Heidegger and Derrida. From these two thinkers – and his own reading of Genesis – Smith fortifies his argument as regards the inescapability of hermeneutics from a more epistemological perspective, and then argues for the fundamental goodness of interpretation (as opposed to the inherent violence posited by Heidegger and Derrida).

Finally Smith moves on toward his Creational Hermeneutic. Here Smith develops his argument through discussion of Augustine, through the human place in time & space (and thus our situationality and human be-ing), and the inherent risk of communication. The heart of this discussion may perhaps be best summarized in the Smith’s argument that: “[I]f interpretation is part of being human, then its analogue is a creational diversity: a multitude of ways to ‘read’ the world. This is not to give up the notion of truth, but it does abandon a certain understanding of truth; further, to say that everything is a matter of interpretation is not to abandon criteria, but it does require a reconsideration and reformulation of what those criteria will be”(p.168).

With this Smith proceeds into a discussion of this understanding of truth, and how it relates to the hermeneutical endeavor. Thus, Smith argues that “While the ubiquity of interpretation does require a rethinking of truth, it by no means signals the abandonment of truth; that is, to say that everything is interpretation is not to say that all is arbitrary. Or in other words, to emphasize that understanding is relative to one’s situationality is not to espouse a relativism… This doesn’t preclude identifying, and even privileging, certain interpretations as normative; it just means that any normative interpretation remains an interpretation not a pristine, objective delivery of ‘the way things are'” (p.175); and to continue: “…interpretation is not merely a subjective appropriation: it is a subjective construal of an objective reality… Interpretation is indeed the only game in town, but there are rules to the game – not rules concocted by a council and printed in a rule book but a rule as simple as this: you have to play on the field, staying within the boundaries. And it is the same field for all of us”(p.187).

A final summation may be given that “Given the phenomenological constraint of the world (what is interpreted) and the pneumatological criterion in the fundamental guidance of the Spirit as rooted in a primordial trust, a hermenteutical space is opened that invites our creation, that beckons us to heed the call and accept the gift and risk of human be-ing in its creatureliness, refusing both the metaphysical dream of immediacy and the differential narrative of violence”(p.197).

All in all, Smith argues well for the incapability of interpretation, and for the goodness of that fact; that it is not something that we should hope to escape from. In doing so he urges the reader on toward a somewhat different understanding of truth than what was triumphed by the Enlightenment, yet at the same time pushes back against the notion that this different understanding necessarily leads to relativism; rather, there are constraints on interpretation – it may not be possible to posit one authoritative interpretation, but it is possible to rule out bad interpretations.

Even if one disagrees with Smith’s conclusions, he does offer a lucid explanation of many terms which are often used but generally misunderstood by those who discuss postmodernism (to include ‘postmodernism’ itself) and also offers a clear explanation of the thought of Heidegger and Derrida. Finally, Smith offers much insight into the current epistemological and hermeneutical that presently exists within philosophy, and so this book is an excellent resource if for nothing else than becoming aware of the present philosophical climate from somebody who understands both sides of the issues.

Memorable Quotes:

“The secret life of the soul can never be fully present in language.”-146

“To be human is to interpret – to negotiate understanding between two or more finite entities.”-159

“Every act of reading or listening is an act of translation: a negotiation between two (or more) universes of discourse, two (or more) traditionalities, two (or more) ways of understanding the world.”-160

“Rather than indicating a historical epoch, postmodernism refers to a gestalt: grounded in a recognition of the historical and contextual determination of thought, postmodernity signals the collapse of any myth of either reason or religion as a universal guarantor of truth.”-177

“[N]ot every interpretation is a good interpretation.”-37

“Questioning – the heart and soul of suspicion – does not have the last word, precisely because it does not have the first word, because it is itself grounded in trusting a promise.”-193

“Only a hermeneutic that recognizes the creational nature of faith can truly recognize the all-the-way-downness of undecidability. Thus instead of undecitability’s making it impossible to choose between the two, it is precisely undecidabiliy that requires that we choose, in spite of the fact that our decision of faith is haunted by undecidability. Undecidability means we can’t put all of the data and options into a computer ad let it generate a decision; we do not have time to wait for the machine to tabulate all the data, nor could the machine ever be supplied with ‘all’ the data. But we must decide.”-173

Some other, more in-depth quotes:
“What I am suggesting is that we give up certain criterion for interpretation: namely that inasmuch as it is finite, it is a violation. Instead, and following Derrida, we might understand the ‘as-structure’ of interpretation as a structure of respect, as a way of doing justice to the other by recognizing that it exceeds our finite comprehension… Following from such a construal, interpretation is not a violation of purity but rather a way of connection, a way of being-with that is essential to be(com)ing human. Rather than being the first violence, to be named is to be loved, is to be part of a community.”-p.133

“[T]o deny that there is one normative interpretation is not to deny that there are interpretive norms. Every assertion or articulation of truth functions within very specific conditions of human finitude; that is, every truth claim is an interpretation, and it is conditioned by the situationality and traditionality of the interpreter, meaning that the interpreter cannot transcend space and time. Therefore, an interpretation cannot be ‘objective’ and legitimated in a universal or all-encompassing sense – the one, true interpretation. However, what is interpreted remains a norm for every interpretation; there is something or someone who stands before all of our interpretations and is binding upon every construal. This interpretive norm, which stands before (or even ‘outside of’) interpretation, constitutes the phenomenological criterion of every construal; there are universals that are binding upon interpretation. But these universals are better understood as empirical transcendantals than a priori transcendent criteria. By ’empirical transcendentals’ I simply mean worldly states of affairs – the world as given and experienced… As ‘outside’ of me, or transcendent, the tree is not ‘mine’ to be manipulated. As such it imposes upon me limits for its interpretations; bad interpretations will be precisely those construals that transgress those limits.”-p.181

“But the limits placed upon interpretation do not prescribe a single ‘correct’ interpretation but only preclude an infinite number of interpretations… Truth, then, is not something uncovered; it is instead the process of uncovering. Truth happens; it is itself the uncovering that discloses something to us, something of a world that is given. But it must also be recognized that it is the interpreter (Dasein) that does the uncovering; thus, in a radical sense, truth is ‘subjective.’ That is, it is dependent on the uncovering role of Dasein.”-182

“[In Derrida] At root, what is at stake are the conditions of possibility of communication, not the possibility of communication… but in fact Derrida’s claim is that language is posse non commincare, able not to communicate, but also able to communicate.”-206

Chesterton’s Apologetic & The World Today

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G.K. Chesterton – despite his great girth – is somehow often overlooked in contemporary discussion. Yet if you should take up most any book of his and read you will find that he is still a wonderful treasure trove of insight into the world.

Chesterton was a massive influence on Christianity during the early 20th century, at least within the context of England. He was his generation’s version of C.S. Lewis, with an extra serving of wit. This made him the chief candidate for being the popular defender of Christianity during his day, and his method of defending the faith is one that we would do well to learn from today. But before we can learn from Chesterton’s methods, we must first determine what those methods were.

In undertaking this task it is helpful to first look at what types of strategies are out there, there are at least five different approaches:

  1. the Classical Method, which includes using natural theology and pure reason to establish theism, that is, a belief in God or gods
  2. the Evidential Method, which uses miracles, the historicity of Jesus, etc. to argue its case
  3. the Cumulative Case Method, which says Christianity makes the best sense of the data
  4. the Presuppositional Method, which argues that only through God can one make sense of the world and have a basis for reason and ethics, and also that the opponent’s views all end in absurdity
  5. the Reformed Epistemology Method, which tends towards fideism (that is, a stance which “refuses to offer any arguments or evidence for Christian claims”) and is mostly defensive rather than offering any real argument.

With this cursory survey given we can look at where Chesterton’s arguments fall in this schema.

Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy is perhaps his most iconic work in defense of the faith, and it is therefore ideal for discerning his method. As one reads Orthodoxy the feeling is given that Chesterton’s apologetic is one of common sense, with his chief enemy being skepticism. First Chesterton argues positively for certain evidences which may be found within Christianity, including what he calls guessing ‘illogical truths’ – truths that would be thought illogical if not for their being true – or that the division between man and animal is in need of an explanation. The view that evolution fails to account for the vast differences between man and animal can also be seen in his book The Everlasting Man, where he argues that:

A monkey does not draw clumsily and a man cleverly; a monkey does not begin the art of representation and a man carry it to perfection. A monkey does not do it at all; he does not begin to do it at all; he does not begin to begin to do it at all. A line of some kind is crossed before the first faint line can begin.

Both of these show signs of a sort of evidentialist method, where the argument is made by looking at the outside world and asking for explanations of what is seen.

But more than just presenting arguments for Christianity, Chesterton also offers many arguments against the opponents of Christianity. The opponents he primarily tackles include skepticism, materialism, and pantheism; skepticism being the view that human knowledge is impossible in some field or another, materialism the view that the material world is all that there is, and pantheism the view that everything that exists is part of God. His primary argument against these opposing views is that they result in a ‘suicide of thought’, which is  the name of the chapter in which he states “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

Through this method – similar to reductio ad absurdum – Chesterton greatly imitates the method of presuppositionalism, yet in this he has a similarity to the cumulative case method as well; on the one hand arguing that the opposing views end in absurdity, and on the other that it is only Christianity that makes sufficient sense of the data.

G.K. Chesterton employs a variety of apologetical methods in order to argue his case for Christianity. Yet apart from just looking at the arguments that he presents, we can also look at how he views the relationship between faith and reason.

This relationship forms a pivotal part of any apologetic method, for it is this relationship which determines whether the arguments presented will have any practical effect on the nonbeliever.

In looking for his view on this matter it is perhaps best to look once again back to Orthodoxy, in which he provides his arguments for Christianity and against its critics. Chesterton may be found stating here that “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith.” It might thus be concluded that Chesterton places faith above reason, for reason itself falls under the purview of faith.

The relationship between faith and reason is further expounded in Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, in which he condones Aquinas’ view where he “was willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths, precisely because he was sure there was only one truth.”

The point here is that for Chesterton faith and reason are two methods for arriving at the one truth. Chesterton therefore has no outright contention with science or reason (such as the proofs of Thomas Aquinas) because he is sure that if reason arrives at any truth that truth could not contradict the truth of Christianity.

This not only demonstrates Chesterton’s view of the relationship between faith and reason, but it also shows his endorsement of the classical method of apologetics through his approval of Aquinas, who formulated most of the classical proofs. Thus, it may be said that Chesterton pulls his argumentation from all of the apologetical methods combined – classical, evidentialist and presuppositional –  rather than simply relying upon one or the other.

Chesterton’s was of course greatly defined by his era, by the onset of modern liberalism – that is, the movement to make Christianity compatible with science – as well as the fact that presuppositionalism was just coming into play during his time period. Modern liberalism was just starting to take hold during Chesterton’s time, hence the attacks against it in texts such as Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism as well as Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies.

This period also saw the development of a new type of apologetic, that of Van Til’s presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalism is best known for its attack on the epistemology of the opponent, a strategy not seen before the dawn of the Twentieth Century, and therefore we may assume that Chesterton was also influenced by this trend.

Perhaps one of the greatest insights to be drawn from Chesterton is that one is not limited to any one view of apologetics, indeed, he drew from just about all of them.

Furthermore, many of the same heresies that Chesterton fought against are still prevalent. We can still see skepticism in the world today, as well as materialism, as well as pantheism. It is by analyzing how our ancestors battled untruth that we can better understand how to do it ourselves. The truth never changes, therefore it may still be truly said that “there is nothing new under the sun.”


 

[Originally posted on Chestertonian.com]

“All of this, of course, is rank speculation” – or, 3 Main Problems with Modern Scholarship’s Account of the Early Church

manuscript.jpgWhen the average Christian take up their Bible and reads, the assumption is generally made that what is being read is the inspired word of God. Yet in popular contemporary scholarship there is a rising tendency to re-interpret the history of the early church in such a way that the average Christian would no longer be able to have this same assurance.

The primary goals of this new scholarship are twofold: on the one hand the integrity of the Scriptures is called into question, the argument being that it is impossible to know what those texts actually taught due to intentional and unintentional changes to the original texts; on the other hand the argument is being put forward that rather than one Christianity there were actually various competing ‘Christianities’ – with the orthodox position being merely the position which won the struggle for supremacy – such that there is no true and unified Christian tradition that has been transmitted from the time of the apostles onward.

Thus, not only is the trustworthiness of the Scriptures questioned, but so also is the reliability of the canon, which then allows for a wide number of ‘Christianities’ to find credence.

This tendency is rooted in a number of errors in the way this type of scholarship approaches the early church. These errors include (1) the presuppositions of modernism and postmodernism skewing the perspective taken by the scholars, (2) failing to take into account the Biblical data (in part due to an insufficient understanding of Scripture, which flows from the aforementioned presuppositions), and (3) potentially operating off of a deliberate bias to reinterpret and/or misrepresent the standing narrative.

False Cultural Biases – Rationalism

The greatest influence upon much of contemporary scholarship’s flawed interpretations of early church history boils down to these scholars allowing the social and cultural presuppositions of the last hundred years to play too much a part in determining how they view history. Two scholars whom this is most readily visible in are Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels.

In the case of Bart Ehrman, the presupposition which most heavily impacts him is that of modernism; that is, both in his religious upbringing and in his intellectual assumptions he is dedicated to the philosophy of rationalism (even when it fails). When an individual takes up the lens of rationalism they are then forced to dismiss all those things which cannot be verified for certain via reason or scientific experimentation; accompanying this quest for scientific certainty is a desire to study only the facts of history, and thereby to try and apply a similar objectivity to history as is present to an extent in science.

The way that this plays itself out for Ehrman is that because he cannot verify with absolute certainty the authorship, the original texts, or the authority of the Scriptures, he then calls the legitimacy of all of these things into question.

This sort of approach can be seen all throughout Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus when he laments that modern scholars “have only error-ridden copies” of the New Testament due to the ways in which scribes altered the texts both intentionally and unintentionally. This brings Ehrman to the conclusion that it does little good to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God “if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired.”

If these ‘errors’ were of any significant import, Ehrman might have a point; unfortunately for him – and as he himself admits – these errors don’t actually change anything about the Biblical message. His qualm, instead, is that no uncertainty can be allowed at all (even when that uncertainty has no practical or theological import or relevance).

Rationalism of this sort ultimately finds its roots in the Enlightenment, yet Ehrman was also influenced by the traces of rationalism which had found their way into the fundamentalist background in which he was raised. In regards to this Timothy Paul Jones in his book Misquoting Truth makes the observation that “[Ehrman] inherited a theological system from well-meaning evangelical Christians that allowed little – if any – space for questions, variations or rough edges.” Ehrman describes this journey himself in the introduction to his book Misquoting Jesus, where he explains how he came to discover discrepancies in the various source texts, and in turn began to doubt the inerrancy of Scripture – that is, because he found that he could not verify such things with 100% certainty, what faith he had in them was removed.

When Ehrman’s attempts to prove the authority of Scripture failed under rationalistic standards, his system crumbled. His system crumbled not because of any fault in the integrity of Scripture, but due to the faults in the rationalistic system through which he attempted to analyze it.

As Wheaton scholar Nicholas Perrin points out in his book Lost in Transmission: “The notion that we believe the Bible to be God’s Word on certain proofs is not a biblical notion; it is a notion of fundamentalism inherited from the scientific age.”

Both the quest for certainty – especially in the realm of history – and the quest for absolute objectivity are inherently doomed to failure. As Perrin again notes: “To observe is to interpret… Balance is a fine ideal, but purely objective history, something else entirely, is an illusion.”

In this sense Ehrman’s journey followed the same general trajectory as all of contemporary scholarship between the age of modernism and that of postmodernism; when they found themselves unable to verify things with absolute certainty during modernism, they plunged into the relativism and subjectivism of postmodernism.

Despite the failure of rationalism, it is this assumption which lies at the foundation of the flawed worldview that plagues contemporary scholarship. Indeed, it is the failure of rationalism, coupled with a devotion to the tenants of rationalism as the only avenue to truth, which results in the aforementioned relativism; when the supposed only avenue to truth fails, it is assumed that there is either no avenue to truth or that they are all equal.

When this sort of relativism is applied to the division between orthodoxy and heresy scholars such as Ehrman and Pagels cease speaking about Christianity and instead move on to speaking of Christianities, assuming that these are all valid forms of the faith. In order to account for the prominence of orthodoxy they then rely upon their devotion to relativism – and therefore a disdain for authority – to create a narrative in which the proto-orthodox were the “victorious party” which “rewrote the history of the controversy.” Rather than being ‘correct’, the orthodox are seen as those who simply powered their way to the front and as the winners rewrote history. It is merely taken for granted that whoever ‘won’ must have rewrote the story to suite themselves, with all concerns of whether the winners were actually ‘correct’ being pushed to the side.

Ignoring Textual Testimony – Failing to Account for Biblical Data

Apart from the basic presuppositions which accompany a reliance upon (and the subsequent failure of) rationalism, another factor which plays a large part in the way contemporary scholarship misinterprets the early church is by failing to take into account the Biblical data.

Perhaps the most pointed example of this comes from Ehrman when he states that:

We need always to remember that these canonical Gospels were not seen as sacrosanct or inviolable for many long years after they were first put into circulation; no one, except possibly their own authors, considered them to be the “last word” on Jesus’ teachings and deeds.

In one swoop Ehrman is thereby able to assert the early church did not take the authority of the Gospels seriously and – knowing that the Biblical testimony contradicts this – dismiss this contradiction as merely the biased opinion of the authors.

That the early church didn’t take the texts seriously is thereby not reached as a conclusion, but is used as a starting point around which the rest of Ehrman’s narrative can be built, as it is only be ignoring the actual words of the Biblical writers that one could assert that they did take their texts as being sacrosanct.

Yet, Ehrman does not quite clear himself by simply noting the personal bias of the individual authors, for various Biblical authors cite one another as authoritative, such as in 2 Peter 3:15-16 where Paul’s letters are cited as ‘Scripture’, and Paul in 1 Timothy 5:18 quoting Luke as Scripture. Thus, it is only by ignoring the actual testimony the Scripture itself that such scholars can take the view that they do.

Rhetoric Over Evidence – Misrepresentation of the Facts

A final problem with contemporary interpretations which must be noted is the apparent deliberate misrepresentation the standing narrative; that is, in some instances, modern scholars – who are themselves not Christians – act off of an agenda to try and discredit the faith.

Such harsh accusations should no doubt not be made without warrant, but in this case it seems that such accusations are warranted, primarily through clear misrepresentations of the source material. Such clear misrepresentations of the source material can be seen perhaps most clearly in the internal discrepancies in the texts of these authors.

As an example, in his book Misquoting Jesus Ehrman plays up the thesis that we have only error-ridden copies of the New Testament, and that because of scribal errors and because of intentional changes to the text, the question of inerrancy is irrelevant; yet at the same time in his book Lost Christianities he makes the assertion that in spite of these various differences “scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the oldest form of the words of the New Testament with reasonable (though not 100 percent) accuracy.” These two assertions seem wholly at odds, that the texts can be so riddled with errors that one must ask what good it does to speak of the originals as inspired when we do not have the originals, and yet the oldest forms of the New Testament can be constructed with reasonable-if-not-100% accuracy.

Similarly in Lost Chritianities Ehrman can be found stating that “most scholars think that 1 Timothy is pseudonymous,” which is immediately followed with a firm assertion that it is no wonder the early church was “forging documents in Paul’s name condemning the practice of having women speak in church (1 Timothy).” This is a subtle move taking the reader from a state of possibility to one of certainty.

Other such tactics can be seen when Ehrman asserts that “almost all of the ‘lost’ Scriptures of the early Christians, were forgeries” and then claims that those canonical texts which are of uncertain authorship are forgeries; yet it is a long jump from ‘uncertain authorship’ to ‘forgery’. Ehrman can also be seen starting with the assertion that the church “gained” a doctrine of the Trinity, and that someone “decided” which four Gospels would be canonical, and that there were a ‘diversity’ of Christianities. All of these are subtle assertions which serve to push the bias of Ehrman before he has actually proved his thesis.

In Pagels, this bias presents itself in her book The Gnostic Gospels by assuming ulterior motivations – primarily political – for each advancement of orthodoxy. Each of these is stated as a premise rather than arrived at as a conclusion in the locations they appear, and so while it does seem nitpicky to point such things out, it does show the underlying bias which is in effect in such writings – a bias which seeks to instill the conclusion at the outset which the text is supposed to be arriving at.

So what?

In analyzing these three areas one may come to a fuller understanding of that which has had the greatest influence on contemporary interpretations of the early church.

Due to the dedication to the Enlightenment standard of certainty, contemporary scholars necessarily misinterpret the history of the early church, for the seek certainty where none may be found and strive for rationalism where it cannot be had; as Nicholas Perrin notes: “our being Christian does not also require us to be rationalists.”

When this rationalism necessarily fails, contemporary scholarship embraces the same relativism as the rest of contemporary culture, and in turn read the current struggle for tolerance and incredulity toward authority back on the early church. Due to not being able to verify the Scripture by rationalist standards they then fail to take into proper account Scripture’s testimony of itself, which causes them to leave out crucial source of data in interpreting the early church. Finally, there is a blatant bias and agenda present in the scholarship done which comes across as an attempt to undermine Christianity rather than arrive at any truth.

In order to realign itself contemporary scholarship must realize these hidden underpinnings to its endeavor. Until it gives up on its Enlightenment devotion to scientific certainty – which necessarily leads to a wall between the spiritual and the material worlds – it will be impossible for contemporary scholarship to describe itself using any other words than those of Ehrman regarding himself, that “all of this, of course, is rank speculation.”

Indeed, the rank speculation of relativism is all that is left when the rationalistic system has failed and that same failed system remains being seen as the only avenue to truth.