The Christian and Submission to Civil Government

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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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Tertullian and Philosophy – Rationalist, Fideist, Apologist?

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letter-fFrom antiquity through the postmodern age Christian thinkers have been faced with the confrontation between Christianity and culture, and even more specifically the confrontation between Christianity and secular (or pagan) philosophy, which is one of the chief areas in which Christianity fights against the thought patterns of any given generation.

One of the earliest Christian thinkers to wrestle with the question of how Christianity is to relate to philosophy is the Second to Third Century writer by the name of Tertullian, a North African thinker perhaps best known introducing a number of the key terms for discussing Trinitarian and Christological dogma, as well as for the question “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” and the misquotation “I believe because it is absurd.”

Tertullian is acknowledged as one of the first Christian apologists and is often credited as the forerunner of both fideism and of the Reformed approach to apologetics, the former being a designation which writers use not only to put Tertullian in opposition to philosophy and the secular world – such as is done by H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture – but also to place Tertullian in opposition to the use of reason altogether and designate him an irrationalist.

The question thus arises as to what all Tertullian’s criticism of philosophy entails.

While Tertullian demonstrated a large amount of hostility towards the philosophies and the worldviews of his day, he was not an irrationalist; rather, he maintains an approach which places philosophy and Christianity in their proper spheres.

This approach is just as relevant today as it was eight-hundred years ago.

In order to discern Tertullian’s approach it is necessary to analyze various aspects of his thought, to include his general apologetic, his approach to philosophy, and his approach to the relation of faith and reason directly.

Tertullian, along with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, is seen as one of the founders of Christian apologetics. Tertullian’s main apologetical writing is the aptly named Apology, and this first text offers great insight into the way in which he interacted with the world outside Christianity.

One of Tertullian’s chief assertions made in this text is the notion that most of the hostility towards Christianity is derived from an ignorance of it and that those who become acquainted with it soon find themselves converting, thus he asserts: “By simply getting acquainted with it, they begin now to hate what they had formerly been, and to profess what they had formerly hated.” Much of Tertullian’s Apology is directed at arguing against the more moral – as opposed to intellectual – criticisms that were being railed against Christianity. Thus he defends Christianity against accusations of such things as treason and child sacrifice, and points out the inconsistencies which surround the trials and persecutions of Christians.

After defending the morality of Christianity and addressing unjust persecutions, Tertullian goes on to a more rational defense of Christianity and does so in some creative ways (though many of these are no longer forceful in the modern context). One of these ways is through a proof from the pagan gods.

Tertullian argues that since the pagan gods were once men, they must have been made gods by somebody higher than themselves, thus: “you must concede the existence of one higher God – a certain wholesale dealer in divinity” because “if they could have deified themselves, with a higher state at their command, they would have never been men.”

He argues again from pagan gods to a true God by arguing that since the ‘gods’ show favor to both those that worship them and those that do not, there must be some higher “dispenser of kingdoms, who is Lord at once of the world which is ruled.” Another set of arguments employed by Tertullian are arguments from the antiquity and the majesty of Scripture, that antiquity claims authority and the majesty of Scripture proves that it is divine. Tied in with this is an argument from the demonstration and truth of prophecy presented in Scripture which “is the demonstration of its being from above.” 

It can be observed from the arguments presented by Tertullian here that he is willing to offer counterarguments to criticisms of Christianity as well as a certain sort of argument for Christianity. This is perhaps at least one reason why Tertullian’s approach is seen as a forerunner of the Reformed approach to apologetics, in which “the focus will tend to be on the negative or defensive” side.

Another of Tertullian’s apologetical writings is The Soul’s Testimony. The argument here differs from that presented in the Apology, although it is alluded to in the Apology with the question “Would you have the proof from the works of His hands, so numerous and so great, which both contain you and sustain you… or the testimony of the soul itself?”

Rather than argue from pagan philosophy he aims to “prove the existence of God from the testimony that any man’s soul, whether Christian or not Christian, will give.”  Thus Tertullian asserts that “There is no a soul of man that does not, from the light that is in itself, proclaim the very things we are not permitted to speak above our breath” and “Thou proclaimedst God, O soul, but thou didst not seek to know Him.”

This sort of approach is much different from Tertullian’s other arguments. Rather than defending against attacks or offering an argument from the culture of the pagan, Tertullian here gives a somewhat more existential or psychological argument, appealing to the soul’s desire to worship and render service to something above itself and to “name the name of God” as proof of there being something above itself. While this form of argumentation may take Tertullian closer to the accusation of fideism than does that presented in the Apology, his argument is not based on nothing more than the indwelling of the Spirit and thus he is still arguing from experience rather than asserting the need for a leap of faith.

Again, Tertullian’s apologetic doesn’t seem to be in sharp contrast to reason as such. lewis-1

Another sort of apologetic which is often attributed to Tertullian is argument from absurdity, or to put it another way, the argument that the foolishness of the Christian position proves that it could not have been created by human beings and that therefore it must have been divinely constructed and inspired. This is an apologetical method which is not dead in contemporary apologetics; C.S. Lewis makes the same argument in his classic text Mere Christianity, arguing that “It is a religion you could not have guessed… it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up.”

While this is an argument that is still alive today it is less certain whether Tertullian actually meant this by the statement “it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.” Tertullian does not seem to use this argument to argue directly that it could not have been created by man and is therefore divine, but is rather arguing that the ways of God are beyond man, and therefore the things he does may seem foolish to man.

The former may be inferred from the latter, but it does not seem to be directly entailed in it – nor does Tertullian state the former outright – and even when he is discussing the foolishness of the incarnation he does so by explaining how Christianity wouldn’t make sense if not for the foolishness, which is in itself a paradoxical acknowledgement of Christianity’s reasonableness.

If Christ was not flesh he could not have died (and must also therefore have been born), yet he is also God: “Thus the nature of the two substances displayed Him as man and God.” His proof also seems primarily set in the authority of Scripture which asserts that “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise,” arguing that it is therefore believable for God to act in ways that seem foolish to man.

While this argument comes in the context of a dispute against Marcion over the incarnation of Christ, and while it seems to rely highly on Scripture as a proof (unless the modern revamping of the argument is seen as being intended), the argument still gives some insight into Tertullian’s view of philosophy via his apologetic. As is noted by Timothy Barnes, one of Tertullian’s main issues with Marcion was that he was rejecting the incarnation in order to satisfy the conventional standards of his day; thus, Tertullian is in actuality “contrasting the assumptions of Christianity with those of pagan society.”

In a discussion of Tertullian’s apologetic it is also of note that he alludes in various places to a sort of potential natural theology, but argues that such knowledge is taken by philosophy and “inflated with straining after that facility of language which is practiced in the building up and pulling down of everything.”

This contrasting of the assumptions of Christianity with those of pagan society and Tertullian’s critique of what philosophy does with what might be called ‘common grace’ leads well into the discussion of Tertullian’s overall attitude towards philosophy.

There is no shortage of criticism for philosophy in the writings of Tertullian. One of Tertullian’s divisions between Christianity and philosophy comes in his Apology where he points out that when Christians depart from the faith morally, they are no longer considered Christians, whereas “philosophers who do such things retain still the name and honour of wisdom” which leads him to ask “So, then, where is there any likeness between the Christian and the philosopher?”

This division isn’t one between reason and faith, but between a system which is built upon a morality and one that is not.

In this same text Tertullian attacks the philosophers for having perverted both the old Scriptures and the newer revelation, corrupting them “into a system of philosophic doctrines.” Tertullian makes this same sort of attack again in Ad Nationes, making the point that the philosophers take the truth of Scripture and “degenerated [it] into uncertainty.” Here he adds that “For after they had simply found God, they did not expound Him as they found Him, but rather disputed about His quality, and His nature, and even about His abode”

A final repetition of this outcry can be found following the oft-quoted “What indeed hath Athens to do with Jerusalem” in Tertullian’s On Prescription Against Heresies. Here he calls philosophy that which “pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it” and cries “Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!”

In this Tertullian is not so much railing against reason as such, but against philosophers who combine their philosophies with Christianity, against individuals who attempt to force Christianity to adhere to some preconceived system, and who distract themselves from the truth of God by quarrelling about various aspects of God apart from what is presented in Scripture and who debate the same questions over and over such as “why is evil permitted” in the course of tearing down the doctrines.

It may thus be said that Tertullian’s arguments against philosophy were not against rationality per se or of considering philosophic issues “but of the pagan philosophies that took their point of departure in human speculations.”

If Tertullian’s apologetic employed various sorts of proofs and defenses and if his critique of philosophy was chiefly built around keeping philosophers from modifying Christianity to suite their systems, it must still be inquired as to Tertullian’s direct view of the relationship between faith and reason.

From his apologetic it can already be seen that he posits various arguments which aim to make Christianity reasonable, and from his treatment of philosophy it can be observed that he did not critique them simply for their use of reason.

Still, Tertullian does distinguish the knowledge of revelation and faith from that of reason and human wisdom.

In looking back at Tertullian’s apologetic it can be seen that after he defends Christianity against the accusations of the pagans he goes on to spell out just what Christianity is. This in itself is part of his apologetic, as can be inferred by his earlier statements that the main barrier between pagans and Christianity is ignorance of it.

Once Tertullian begins explaining what Christianity is he notes that God is incomprehensible “though in grace He is manifested” and again that “He is beyond our utmost thought, though our human faculties conceive of Him. He is therefore equally real and great.”

tertullianIt seems from such statements as this that Tertullian at the very least sees Christianity as being a reasonable faith.

Despite this, it may also be observed that Tertullian does not view it as a faith which can be reached by reason alone. As has already been observed he had very little confidence in what philosophy did with the things of natural revelation. Tertullian perhaps best surmises his view in A Treatise on the Soul, where he states that:

“For by whom has truth ever been discovered without God? By whom has God ever been found without Christ? By whom has Christ ever been explored without the Holy Spirit? By whom has the Holy Spirit ever been attained without the mysterious gift of faith? From God you may learn about that which you hold of God; but from none else will you get this knowledge, if you get it not from God.”

Thus faith is an absolutely integral factor for in regards to knowledge for Tertullian, for without it God cannot be discovered, much less by the common man.

Indeed, God can be discovered and known without the strain of philosophy or the acrobatics of reason, thus “there is not a Christian workman but finds out God, and manifests Him, and hence assigns to Him all those attributes which go to constitute a divine being” even though God is difficult to find out and difficult to make known.

Rather than viewing Christianity as something opposed to reason or “a faith that is as isolated from reason as possible” as Boa and Bowman suggest, Tertullian seems to view Christianity as something that is reasonable but must be initiated by faith.

It is important to note here, however, that when Tertullian speaks of faith he does not simply mean to put faith in the Scriptures. Rather, he appeals to a rule of faith, which is the successive teachings passed down from the apostles. While this ‘rule of faith’ is derived from Scripture, it does put tradition on a very high pedestal, so much that he recommends using tradition to argue against heretics rather than Scripture or philosophy.

In the contemporary context the question of how to approach secular philosophies and worldviews is just as critical as it was in Tertullian’s day.

If taken outright Tertullian’s position may be seen as a countercultural movement of Christianity against the culture around it, as is pronounced by Neibhur or Alister McGrath when he asserts that Tertullian’s position is one which “refused to allow itself to be contaminated in any way by the mental or moral environment in which it took root.”

Yet Tertullian himself writes with much knowledge of the Platonic and Socratic philosophies, asserts that the truth which the pagans have is derived from Christian writings, and was “deeply imbued with traditional rhetoric.”

At the very least Tertullian gives a sharp warning against syncretism, although it may be going to far to set him distinctly in a Christ against culture camp.

While some of Tertullian’s specific arguments – such as arguing from pagan gods to the true God – may no longer bear any force, his general method is still quite pertinent. Many who reject Christianity still do so while having little idea of what Christianity actually teaches, and Tertullian also offers various arguments which are still around today (even if in modified form). The question of the relationships between Christianity and philosophy or between faith and reason are also just as alive today as they were in Tertullian’s, perhaps even more-so.

Tertullian does well to point out the ways in which Christianity may be perverted by modifying it to fit some preconceived philosophic system, a problem which was present first with classic liberalism and is present still with postmodernism, which seek to cut off the bits of Christianity which do not adhere to their system or what they believe to have truth value.

The current theological and philosophic climate also presents much hostility to the relationship between faith and reason, different groups seeking to place them at different levels of authority. As Etienne Gilson puts it in a more contemporary context, the reason why the universe seems confounded to scientists is that they mistake existential and metaphysical questions for scientific ones, “then they are puzzled, and they say that the universe is mysterious.”

Tertullian does well to point out that it is only through faith that God can be reached, rather than through some rationalistic striving of mankind.

Once that faith is reached, it  may be asserted that the faith is reasonable within its own system, for even when Tertullian calls the doctrines of Christianity foolish he does so in order to paradoxically point out their reasonableness and the way in which both must be accepted in order for the Christian faith and its doctrines to have congruity.

Through analysis of his apologetical method, his thoughts on the relationship between pagan philosophy and Christianity, and his thoughts on the relationship between faith and reason, one may conclude that the one of the key elements of Tertullian’s thought was that “Men are not to determine in advance of meeting Christ what his nature must be” and that knowledge of truth and of God may only ultimately come through the faith which is given by God himself.

The knowledge of God is further augmented by the revelation given to mankind in Scripture; yet Protestants must be wary of the baggage that Tertullian adds onto Scripture, namely, the force of interpretation based on apostolic succession.

He is not merely a fideist, but offers both rebuttals and arguments for the Christian faith – arguments based on the context of the people he is speaking to, based upon experience, and based upon psychology.

Despite writing some eight-hundred years ago, Tertullian’s thoughts still have just as much weight now as they did during his own time, even if the specific arguments and worldviews which are to be defended against have changed.

The essential conflict is still the same, secular philosophies still attempt to pervert the truths of Christianity, though perhaps with Tertullian it might be said “With our faith, we desire no further belief.”

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.