Tag Archives: apologetics

Kierkegaard versus the Christian apologists: faith and reason in genuine tension


“Religious apologists today might mumble about the power of faith and the limits of reason, yet they are the first to protest when it is suggested that faith and reason might be in tension. Far from seeing religious faith as a special, bold kind of trust, religious apologists are now more likely to see atheism as requiring as much faith as religion. Kierkegaard saw clearly that that faith is not a kind of epistemic Polyfilla that closes the small cracks left by reason, but a mad leap across a chasm devoid of all reason.

“That is not because Kierkegaard was guilty of an anarchic irrationalism or relativistic subjectivism. It is only because he was so rigorous with his application of reason that he was able to push it to its limits. He went beyond reason only when reason could go no further, leaving logic behind only when logic refused to go on.”

– Julian Baggini, in “I Still Love Kierkegaard

Persuasion cannot happen without a supporting culture


This is a little dense, but read closely. The underlying point should intrigue anyone who tries to persuade others of unseen realities.

“Metaphysical questions and beliefs are technologically barren and are therefore neither part of the analytical effort nor an element of science. As an organ of culture they are an extension of the mythical core….

“Metaphyiscal questions and beliefs reveal an aspect of human existence not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs… The idea of proof, introduced into metaphysics, arises from a confusion of two different sources of energy active in man’s conscious relation to the world: the technological and the mythical….

“Myth cannot be reached by persuasion; persuasion belongs to a different area of interpersonal communication, that is, to an area in which the criteria of technological resilience of judgments have their force….

“The sense of continuity in relation to tradition may, but need not, help mythical consciousness. There is always a reason which needs to be revealed in the permanence of myths and the inertia of conservatism. Values are transmitted only through social inheritance, that is, thanks to a radiation of authoritative tradition. The inheritance of myths is the inheritance of values which myths impose….”

– Leszek Kolakowski, in The Presence of Myth

The limits of knowledge


A healthy understanding of the limits of knowledge should not be a license to ignore or degrade knowledge.

When Blaise Pascal said, “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it,” he said so with strong, well-demonstrated successes in his appropriation of reason. In other words, he successfully used and synthesized knowledge.

Bait and switch: The New Testament in the semi-public square


I appreciate Tim Keller’s exhortation (in his blog comments) to read Bruce Metzger. I’ll also point out the availability of Ben Witherington’s critique of Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman and the Evangelical Textual Criticism forum so I won’t be accused of an unqualified endorsement of Ehrman.

I know I’m not trained in exegesis, theology, or textual criticism, but I am a guy who has been in a variety of churches and Christian schools during my 42 years, and I know Christianity goes wrong in numerous ways. When something I love is going wrong, I want to say something about it. Historically, few of the people who implimented real change were the scholars and experts, but rather those who stood up and screamed.

I understand some personal pleas to leave the past behind, but I don’t understand the naive beliefs that institutions — and indeed books — cause each mistake only once. A great way to avoid making a mistake a second or third or tenth or hundredth time is to analyze what went wrong. You remember the quotation: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it (Santayana).

Meanwhile, as a brief follow up to my last post, I dislike this contrast between evangelical apologetics and evangelical teaching:

Evangelical apologetics tends to say textual criticism, history, and reason are adequate to endorse the central message of the New Testament. As historical documents, the New Testament books testify, reliably, about Jesus. This is not an endorsement of historical-grammatical exegesis, nor is it a statement about the inspiration of each word in the family Bible. In apologetics, the historical reliability of the New Testament manuscripts is put forward, not the doctrine of inerrancy.

Evangelical teaching, however, doesn’t stop there. It takes the further step of claiming “inerrancy,” a word with too many operating definitions amongst U.S. believers, and a word that suggests a kind of accuracy that close scrutiny of some biblical texts renders impossible.

I understand why some people will say that apologetics must offer broader brushstrokes than exegetical teaching, but I don’t necessarily agree with their perspective. The problems conceded in apologetics ought to be part of the believer’s sober-minded approach to the texts. On these matters, we have an enormous number of irresponsible pastors and ministers in the U.S. Not many of them are as smart — or wise — as someone like Keller! And that’s an ongoing problem — to be a good Christian, it seems like you must not only be redeemed, but you also must be smart enough.

Why factual discrepencies in the Bible are a barrier to faith: lower-order and higher-order concerns


The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United St...

The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United States Library of Congress, demonstrating printed pages as a storage medium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As this Ex-Fundamentalist-now-Reformed-Anglican-Anglo-Catholic-Episcopalian Mutt struggles with factual discrepencies in Scripture, I think I finally realized why evangelical and Reformed claims about the Bible have fallen on hard times.

And in part, this is a different thought to add to Ross Douthat’s analysis of why American became a nation of heretics, as described by Tim Keller.

The factual discrepencies within Scripture are nothing new, but what they mean, and why they mean what they mean, should be the puzzles addressed by Douthat, Keller, and many others who occupy influential positions in Christianity.

Otherwise, any Christian is on unstable intellectual ground: Making rational arguments based on a self-contradictory book is non-rational. If your starting point is non-rational, then ultimately, your rational arguments are unsupported.

To me, the challenge of defending the Bible in our time is understanding that people automatically, intuitively, common-sensically organize information according to “lower-order concerns” and “higher-order concerns.”

What do I mean by those phrases? Well, sometimes, when talking about how to grade an academic paper, my colleagues and I refer to “lower-order concerns” and “higher-order concerns.”

Lower-order concerns might be (in some cases) correct use of commas, while high-order concerns might be (in some cases) having a real argument and supporting it. Missing a couple of commas isn’t as bad as a thesis statement that argues nothing or an unsupported argument.

Considering claims about the Bible, people will be more likely to believe higher-order claims when lower-order claims are correct.

Basic factual information could be considered a lower-order concern. As a former newspaper section editor, I can assure you that, all kidding and warranted insults about journalists aside, a cub reporter can get the time and date and basic facts of a city council meeting — and get them right most of the time.

What that cub reporter (usually) cannot do is understand the political philosophies at work. The political philosophy, the ideas, behind a city-council decision might be a higher-order concern. (Granted, city councils don’t always appear to be populated by philosopher kings, but stick with me a few more seconds.)

Indeed, those journalists who leave newspapers and broadcast journalism to work for National Review or The New Republic are those journalists who, early on, excelled at getting the facts right — and then progressively moved into higher-order thinking. You worked hard at the lower-order concerns to earn the right to write about the higher-order concerns.

Now, in the Bible, what we see are numerous discrepencies in lower-order arenas. For whatever reasons, the Biblical texts we have today do not always give a consistent picture of the facts of important events — events important enough, evangelicals and Reformed folks assume, to be part of God’s revelation.

I think many, many people are not willing to believe the higher-order, theological and doctrinal, claims of the Bible because the lower-order issues are problematic.

Again, many people will say, “If you can’t get your facts right, why should I listen to you about anything else?”

Wouldn’t you think a similar thought if a salesperson or a politician couldn’t get his or her facts straight?

Isn’t that a normal, shrewd reaction backed by the Proverbs?

God hates dishonest scales, right? Let your yes be yes and your no be no, right? Truthfulness, right?

Of course, it’s not that simple — but simplistic thinking is exactly what evangelical and Reformed churches have offered on this topic. Sure, you can say there are non-simplistic answers by pointing to the big guns at the seminaries and all the Gospel Coalition folks, fine, but they’re not leading the vast majority of churches.

Here’s my current, tentative, in-progress solution.

I think believing in the Nicene Creed, based on the testimony of Scripture, makes sense. As ancient testimony, the Scriptures reasonably could support the Creed. I’m not sure the Scriptures reasonably can support the Bible-study industry that keeps Christian bookstores open.

I think believing in the atonement, based on the general thematic trajectory of the Scriptures, makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense are the Bible studies that try to unpack every little verse and turn each one into grand statements about humanity or morality or whatever.

The available text criticism simply does not render a Bible that reliable.  Furthermore, I don’t think the common use of the terms “inerrant” and “infallible” can possibly be relevant when glaring factual discrepencies exist. Maybe the problem is our post-Enlightenment, rationalistic way of considering something “inerrant” — without error — but more about that later.

Of course, text criticism is a very high-order matter. Someone might counter my arguments by elevating a side issue and saying that not many people know about the Bible anymore, at all, never mind text criticism. Not that many go to church anymore. Not that many people read anything anymore, so reading in and of itself, and the Bible, actually aren’t even the issues. The culture is the issue. Social change is the issue. Et cetera.

Maybe, but maybe not. Ex-evangelical and popular author Bart Ehrman teaches classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill each semester. I don’t know how large his classes are, but you can bet he’s taught hundreds by this point in his career.

And Ehrman is not the only one at a univeristy with his point of view. College for the middle class has almost become a political right, and kids have to take classes outside their fields to fulfill curriculum requirements. I imagine Ehrman’s perspective, and indeed his books, are presented positively in numerous universities to tens of thousands of students each academic year. (Although, as Ehrman himself has said, many people in New Testament text criticism remain believers.)

So consider the likelihood that many college-educated people have been forced to assess the higher-order claims of the Bible — its theology, its doctrine, its history, its claims about Jesus Christ — in light of the lower-order problems.

A significant portion of the college-educated middle class dismissed higher-order claims due to problems with lower-order claims.

When the lower-order claims fall apart, the higher-order claims do not seem legitimate.

Now, I also want briefly to note that we have to ask hard questions about why, if the Holy Spirit guided this canon down through history, God allowed us to wind up with a text that doesn’t offer the kind of testimony a cub reporter could get right.

And, if those discrepencies can be explained away legitimately and truthfully, then how can this Book truly be a book for all people, when it requires a specialist’s academic knowledge and historical and liguistic understanding to keep straight?

Could it be, simply, that certain understandings about “inerrant” and “infallible” render the Bible’s testimony unreliable at best, ridiculous at worst?

Maybe, just maybe, the task is to undo post-Enlightenment rationality. Maybe, as Stephen Toulmin tried to do late in his career, the task is to replace “rationality” with “reasonableness.” In other words, I don’t think we can advocate a self-contradictory text on the micro level, on the verse-by-verse level, unless we radically recreate everyone’s daily, default epistemology.

We could, however, understanding the Bible texts as historical testimony.

Please comment, correct, rebuke as you have time.

cheers,

Colin

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The urgent need for imaginative expressions of Christianity


“I have long had the custom of lending a copy of Mere Christianity to non-Christian friends and acquaintances who seem to have little clue about what orthodox Christianity is all about…. The book, if I can get my unbelieving friends to read it, has always provoked some interesting reactions and conversations and has functioned as serious evangelistic proclamation,” writes Gene Edward Veith in “A Vision, Within a Dream, Within the Truth,” which he contributed to the book C.S. Lewis: Lightbearer in the Shadowlands.

However, Veith reports, Mere Christianity does not always have the traction it used to.

“One young man, one of my students, liked the book very much and was greatly impressed with Lewis and his faith. And yet he seemed unable to conceive of the possibility that what Lewis was saying might have some relevance to his own life, that what Lewis found to be true would also be true for him. He stated no disagreements and had nothing to say against any of Lewis’s arguments. The gist of my student’s response was that Lewis had developed a strong belief system, but he, the student, had to develop his own. Lewis’s whole argument — that Christianity is objectively true, that Jesus is either the Son of God or He is something worse — rolled off my student’s mind like water on vinyl.”

Ouch. This is an urgent problem: rational arguments are now seen as optional points of engagement in our culture.

What’s interesting to me — as I told the adult forum at Trinity this morning, temporary technical difficulties aside (!) — is that Lewis, who led so many to consider the Christian faith through his public debates with the Oxford Socratic Club and his book Mere Christianity, said the first step to his conversion occurred through his imagination.

While his heart and his mind were still set against God, Lewis picked up a dense Victorian fantasy novel by Scottish preacher George MacDonald. The book was called Phantastes. Lewis wrote, “What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize … my imagination.”

Lewis entered the kingdom of God, imagination first.

If rational arguments are optional points of engagement in our culture at this time, maybe imaginative works will have more success in engaging the readers of books and the viewers of films.

‘Intelligent Design’ proponents accept aspects of evolution that creationists do not


Even though Intelligent Design’s moment in the public spotlight seems to have passed, what follows is a clarification of the I.D. position from the Winter 2008 edition of Salvo, a magazine that mostly retreads old-school Christian apologetics.

It’s not that I buy into so-called I.D. I have been persuaded of an evolutionary view through the work of Dr. Francis C. Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, and oddly enough, a convinced Christian who came to faith through reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Everyone, of any point of view, should read Collins’ book The Language of God.

But for basic clarity and fairness, the I.D. position needs to be understood on its own terms, not as thinly veiled creationism.

Here are three points that Salvo made, worth understanding if you care about understanding the debate:

What I.D. is Not

“I.D. Is Creationism:” You’ve no doubt heard this one numerous times. In reality, this is flat-out false. The average creationist believes in a young earth, biblical literalism, and the complete absence of evidence for evolutionary processes. The I.D. proponent, on the other hand, rejects — or at the very least suspends speculation on — all three of these convictions, maintaining only that there are reasons to conclude that life was designed; how it was designed or by whom both lie beyond the I.D. theorist’s field of inquiry.

“The Opponents of I.D. Are Evolutionists:” Wrong again. It is primarily the scientific naturalist — or Darwinist — with whom I.D. advocates take issue. The difference? Scientific naturalism is a philosophical position that assumes an entirely materialistic origin to the universe — a faith claim for which Darwinists have no proof whatsoever — while evolutionary theory is a multifaceted set of assertions that attempts to account for the present diversity of life here on Earth, some specific aspects of which most I.D. scientists accept as fact.

“I.D. Is a ‘God of the Gaps’ Theory:” The contention here is that I.D. merely offers holes in evolutionary theory as evidence for God. Once again, this is a gross mischaracterization. The science of I.D. is not simply to study gaps in evolution but to study products of design — to examine biological phenomena to see whether they exhibit the characteristics of design beyond a shadow of a doubt. I.D. scientists only appeal to an intelligent designer because that is where their research points. It is absolutely not a default position.

That second-to-last sentence sounds disengenuous. I imagine there are not many in the I.D. movement who had no inkling of a designer prior to their research. That being said, researchers and scientists frequently begin with assumptions.

The bigger point, I think, is that there is a big difference between young-earth creationists and Intelligent-Design proponents.

I bet if the I.D. proponents had made their approach through philosophy and the history of ideas, rather than science, and allowed their work to gain credibility on the university level and then trickle down, in its own way, to secondary education, they might have gotten further.

After all, as the folks at Salvo said, “Scientific naturalism is a philosophical position….”

And even Collins believes God kicked it all off; the award-winning physicist Paul Davies describes something like God behind the beginning of the universe; John Polkinghorne is an acclaimed physicist who happens to be an Anglican priest, too.

Read The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

-Colin Foote Burch

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