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The Apologetics of Hebrews – Can You Defend a Dead Church?

The Apologetics of Hebrews – Can You Defend a Dead Church?

In Hebrews 2:1-4 I believe the author of Hebrews provides a basic apologetic outline, and I think it’s a very useful one to follow. After the first two verses, which start from a platform that was already accepted by the audience, the author emphasizes the importance of the decision. If he is right in what he says, the decision is critical in an eternal sense. The elements are these: 1) It was delivered by the Lord, 2) Affirmed by the testimony of those who witnessed, 3) Given divine witness through (a) signs and wonders and (b) the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Looking first from the viewpoint of process, this argument, and indeed the general argument of Hebrews, is based on ground that will be accepted by his audience. They believed that the Torah was firmly established, and many, at least, believed that it was delivered by angels. Throughout the book, we have this focus on sourcing material from the Hebrew scriptures. Those who argue a simple supersession should pay attention to the form of the argument. At the same time as the author argues that Jesus is greater than, he also argues that the revelation in existing scripture is great and should be honored. Too often we fail to found what we have to say on what we already hold in common, when that can be supported.

The first element of his argument has two parts, the words spoken by Jesus, and the affirmation of those words by witnesses. For someone who tends fideistic like myself, this is a bit of a rebuke. It’s not that I don’t believe that Jesus spoke, or that there were those who heard. I’m even optimistic that we can get a picture of Jesus from the gospel record. But I tend to ignore that part of the argument and go straight to the experiential second part. This argument says that the faith is founded on historical realities, and that this is worthy of our attention.

The second element of his argument again consists of two parts, the signs and wonders that follow the gospel, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, delivered as God wills. I’m of course more comfortable here, as my experience (in particular) has much to do with experience (in general).

I was reading this from The Learning Bible (CEV) this morning, and saw that their note refers these signs and wonders (semeiois kai terasin) refer to past events (from the viewpoint of the readers), such as the exodus from Egypt. I would disagree. That is an element either of the first part, or more properly of the commonly accepted foundation of the Hebrew scriptures. Rather, this is the miraculous events/signs that followed the apostles as we read in the book of Acts, for example. It was by acting on behalf of his apostles that God affirmed their witness of Jesus, both in terms of the truth of the stories they told, and in terms of its continued relevance to those who heard.

The second part is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is, I believe, the life of the church. We can see how critical this is in 1 Corinthians 12-14, for example, and I see this as a loose, but nonetheless real point of connection with Pauline theology.

It’s this last point that I think is the most important in the church today. I believe all these elements should be part of our apologetic, yet having a faith that truly takes hold of hope and makes it possible for one to live differently is, I think, the most important element, and is also the key point of Hebrews. If the church does not show evidence of the gift of the Holy Spirit I think that all the other elements will tend to fail. It is sort of like one builds a machine to accomplish a particular task, explains the science behind it, then the technology that goes into producing the device, and then finally applies the power. But the machine doesn’t accomplish the task.

By “evidence of the Holy Spirit” I don’t mean speaking in tongues, as many in the pentecostal movement believe, but rather in terms of bringing people together and empowering new life in the one God has anointed forever. As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 14, we can do without speaking in tongues; it doesn’t build the church. But we can’t do without building.

Evangelicals and Evolution

Evangelicals and Evolution

One response I get to my teaching and writing on creation and evolution goes something like this: “You’re just a liberal who’s trying to do away with the Bible, so it’s natural that you go along with the secularist society around you on evolution as well.” But that isn’t the case. For example my company (Energion Publications) publishes Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. who would best be described as an Old Earth Creationist. You can imagine that as I edited his books for publication, not to mention in our personal friendship and dialog that has gone on for a number of years longer, we have engaged in a few debates on this. But the fact that by almost any measure you choose, Elgin is more conservative than I am, in the area of creation and evolution, there is no difference in the way we would handle the Biblical materials.

That’s my long way around to get at the point that creation vs evolution need not be a conservative/liberal issue in Christianity. I may be a liberal (though I prefer “passionate moderate”) but you can’t determine that by my stance on evolution.

Steve Martin, an evangelical Christian, has a blog titled An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution. He left a comment on my previous post linking to a post on his blog Evangelicalism and Evolution: Why the Discussion Matters. I agree with the additional points that he makes there, and would like to call this to everyone’s attention.

I had an experience with my pamphlet God the Creator that supports his point. A college student told me that he was talking to a fellow-student who was interested in Christianity, but whose scientific training convinced him that evolutionary theory was the best explanation for the diversification of life on earth. The Christians he talked to were telling him that he had to give up that belief in order to be a Christian. This young man had attended my seminar “God, Dinosaurs, and You” (I’m not responsible for that title), and told him otherwise. At the time he shared this with me, several more people were attending church simply because that barrier to faith had been removed.

I would add also that as I believe the primary Christian witness is the individual Christian (and Christian congregation or community) through whom Christ is shown to others, a lack of individual integrity is critical to the gospel.

OK, enough rambling. I’ve gotten in my commercial plugs. I don’t do that much all that often on this blog. Really! I’ll be adding Steve’s blog to the blogroll.

Are Atheists Autistic?

Are Atheists Autistic?

Joe Carter has a post at the evangelical outpost [Note: Evangelical Outpost is showing a warning about browser exploit from McAfee Site Advisor. As I was admonished in the comments, I need to give warning. I’ve used the site for years, but that doesn’t mean I’m safe in doing so. Use the link at your own risk.] in which he proposes, with some caveats, that atheists may tend to be less socially aware, particularly aware of other minds, and may tend more toward Aspberger’s Syndrome. He invited readers of his blog to take a test here, which I did, scoring a 30. Since I’m a theist, that puts me close to a counter-example for his thesis.

I commented there that I thought this approach is more polarizing than helpful, though I would admit is is no more polarizing than the suggestion some atheists have made to me that I hallucinate any experience of God. I don’t mind them doing that.

In a reply to my own comment there, Joe states [see warning above]:

About 95% of the atheists I have met seem to be “quarrelsome, socially challenged men.”

His experience is different from mine. I’ve found Christian apologists to be much like this. I have also found atheist apologists to be like this. In fact, apologists in general tend to be in your face and somewhat quarrelsome. I think that goes with the territory, though I do know some counter-examples in each and every group. Personally, while Dawkins gets on my nerves, I don’t think it’s because he’s socially challenged. I’ve only read his work, and seen him on TV, but he seems reasonably personable for an advocate of a controversial position.

If there is a correlation, and the problem is a type of “mind-blindness” then it should not be surprising to find that reason-based arguments are ineffective when trying to change their opinion of God. We Christians tend to treat atheism as if it was some form of Enlightenment-era rationalism and provide arguments that appeal to their reason.

I’m afraid I have seen atheists as much more interested in discussing the arguments for the existence of God than most Christians. I would suggest that, rather than the intellectual arguments being ineffective because of a psychological failing on the part of atheists, they are ineffective because, as proofs of God’s existence, they are, in fact, flawed.

In my experience, practically all of the arguments for God’s existence make more sense from the position of faith, i.e., I believe I can learn something about God through them, but they are not water-tight. Belief in God involves faith, which does not mean it is totally immune from intellectual examination, but I believe it does mean it’s not totally subject to it.

I’ve always thought atheism was mostly psychological rather than epistemological. This potential correlation only strengthens that opinion, which is why I think it is worth exploring.

Again, I would have to disagree. On a purely intellectual level, atheists do quite well. There’s no need to seek psychological reasons. They simply don’t find the arguments convincing. I wonder why that’s so hard to accept?

For me, while there are pieces of the puzzle provided by arguments for God’s existence, at the core there is a serious leap of faith. That leap was not easy to take, and so I’m not at all surprised that some don’t take it, and some others don’t even believe there is a leap to take, and that I imagined both chasm and leap. Those are all things on which different people can have different views.

From the Land of the Deluded

From the Land of the Deluded

A couple of weeks ago I made the mistake of trying to reply to a point in Plantinga’s review of The God Delusion, and got caught. The first commenter on that post suggested I should read the actual book “if only to be able to evaluate reviews of a different book going by the same title.”

Well, I have now read the book, and it was less irritating than I expected, though my expectations were fulfilled. In general, I was not surprised by anything Dawkins had to say. This should not be shocking considering that I have studied Christian theology fairly extensively for a non-theologian (I remind readers that my field is Biblical studies, not theology, and thus at theology I am an amateur), and I have also read a good bit of Dawkins’s writing, and I am very fond of it, even though I recognize that I am precisely the type of Christian theist for which he has the greatest contempt. This latter point is repeatedly emphasized in the text of The God Delusion.

There is, however, one way in which the book is worse than I expected. I linked earlier to a post by Bruce Alderman, in which he performed a humorous source analysis on this text. I got a good laugh out of it, but at the time I was assuming it was pure humor. Having read the book, I think I can build on his analysis.

Bruce’s H source writes much like the Richard Dawkins of books like The Blind Watchmaker. He does surgery on ideas with a laser scalpel, coming to specific points, and then rebuilding the structure with care and precision. You may disagree with his conclusions, but you normally do so by debating his premises, not by criticizing his logic. Such a person presumably wrote most of chapter 5. There, even though I disagree with some conclusions about religion in general, we find an excellent presentation of Darwinian explanations for the evolution of religion, or a propensity to religion in humanity.

I originally intended to say that Bruce’s A source, contrary to H, uses a shotgun approach, but on further reading and reflection I don’t think that is an adequate description. The approach would better be compared to the use of a blunderbuss, a weapon to which I was introduced by Tolkien in “Farmer Giles of Ham.” There the question of what a blunderbuss is received this response:

Indeed this very question, it is said, was put to the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford, and after thought they replied, “A blunderbuss is a short gun with a large bore firing many balls or slugs, and capable of doing execution within a limited range without exact aim. (Now superseded in civilized countries by other firearms.)

However, Farmer Giles’s blunderbuss had a wide mouth that opened like a horn, and it did not fire balls or slugs, but anything he could spare to stuff in.

The aforementioned farmer Giles of Ham used a blunderbuss on a giant with the result that:

. . . By luck it was pointed more or less at the giant’s large ugly face. Out flew the rubbish, and the stones and the bones, and the bits of crock and wire, and half a dozen nails. And since the range was indeed limited, by chance and no choice of the farmer’s many of these things struck the giant; a piece of pot went in his eye, and a large nail stuck in his nose.

“Blast!” said the giant in his vulgar fashion. “I’m stung!” . . .

So DawkinsA has loaded his blunderbuss with whatever was available, pointed it in my general direction (or perhaps I stuck my face in front of it), and fired. And thus, in the words of the giant, “Blast! I’m stung.” Well, actually, not so much, and unlike Tolkien’s giant I have no inclination to turn aside.

Those who haven’t dealt with the vagaries of source and redaction criticism will perhaps get less amusement from Bruce’s analysis or from my aside, but those who have will recognize the stylistic differences that can make one wonder what happened between one passage and the next. I think this is also the problem that resulted in the exchange in the comments to my previous post. Basically you can get two completely different impressions from reading this book. The first is of a proposed dialog which invites a broad range of people who are opposed to placing religious dogma above science, of indoctrination, of forcing religious beliefs on people, and of limiting the freedom of scientific inquiry. The second is of a desire to suppress religion if it is possible to do so by any means short of violence, and describes all people of any variety of religious faith in disparaging terms.

There is one basic element that I fully expected, and did in fact find. For Dawkins science is all there is. There is no supernatural of any kind, and his use of the term “supernatural” is not so nuanced as that of some theologians. For him, “supernatural” is anything that cannot in theory at least be fully investigated by scientific means.

Thus he occasionally indicates that he is not arguing against the guy in the sky with a beard concept of God, yet in practice he is arguing against the philosophical equivalent. His God must be measurable and explainable in natural terms, thus any attributes one supposes God might possess that do not fall within that scope are automatically dismissed.

Dawkins operates with a thoroughgoing ontological naturalism. This is it. If I were to allow him that assumption, generally implicit, we could simply say, “That’s the ball game.” And in fact most of the book is superfluous for the simple reason that Dawkins never allows a supernatural definition of God to come into play at all. Despite what he says, God is not a hypothesis. He would be a rather bad hypothesis if he were one.

While Dawkins does not believe in God, he appears to believe he has god-like powers. Repeatedly he suggests that the religious faith of scientists or other thinkers whose work he appreciates were not really sincere, but rather went along with their time. Such is the case with Kant (footnote to p. 231, quoting A. C. Grayling favorably), Mendel (p. 99 becoming a monk was ” . . . equivalent of a research grant.”), the American founding fathers (p. 39 – “. . . the greatest of them might have been atheists. Certainly their writings on religion in their own time leave me in no doubt that most of them would have been atheists in ours.”).

It’s astonishing how easy it is to know what someone would have been years after the fact!

In my view, more even than an attack on belief, this book is an attack on moderation. By moderation I mean any system that does not automatically push for the extremes, but recognizes that there are a range of positions between. I do not mean that one has to accept that those other positions have an equal claim to truth; I simply suggest recognizing that they exist. Dawkins wants the conflict to be between fundamentalists of any religion and atheism. He objects to being called a fundamentalist atheist, but this very attitude suggests that in some ways the title fits. My experience with Christian fundamentalists indicates to me that if you disagree with them in any little thing, you are the enemy. I’m often called an atheist by such people because I accept the theory of evolution. Dawkins has problems with all of the folks in the middle, with moderates being a frequent target. (For notes on my view of moderation, see Moderate Thinking.)

I’m going to divide this response into several posts, though I will post them all together. A directory follows, though you can find the entire series by choosing category The God Delusion.

So from the land of the deluded, let me present just a bit of a response. I’m not an apologist. I’m frequently embarrassed by what Christian apologists have to say. My apologetic is very simple, and we sang it in the Easter Sunrise service at my church: “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.” It’s subjective. I don’t expect it to convince you. But it’s what I bring to the table. Categorize me as a deluded simpleton, but a joyful one!

Consider Christianity Week

Consider Christianity Week

Consider Christianity Week is an idea conceived by Elgin Hushbeck, Jr., author of the Consider Christianity Series. Note that I don’t come to this event completely without ulterior motives as I publish Elgin’s books and related study guides (Energion Publications).

For me, Consider Christianity Week is an example of the kinds of principles presented in Philophronos Blogging, and we use a similar key text (1 Peter 3:15-16). This past year, Elgin asked Pacesetters Bible School, Inc., of which I’m president, to provide the umbrella for this event, which we gladly did. Pacesetters is sponsoring a series of events here in the Pensacola, FL area, and you can find a list of those here. In addition, Elgin will be recording some programs for the Running Toward the Goal podcast, also from Pacesetters Bible School.

If you live in the Pensacola area, or within reasonable striking distance, consider dropping by for one or another of these events. We’re going to have fun and learn a lot, I think. If you’re a Christian blogger, consider posting a blog entry sometime during the coming week (March 25-31) on the essentials of the Christian faith, on Christian unity, or on apologetics. If you will trackback to this post, or send me an e-mail, I’ll be glad to post links to any related posts from here and also from the Pacesetters Bible School newsletter blog. So besides the value of posting on an excellent topic, you get a couple of links.

We are going to have an online chat with Elgin on the 26th or 27th, sponsored by the Compuserve Religion Forum, but that date and time is not final yet. I will announce it here when it is.

Truth, Pluralism, and Absolutism

Truth, Pluralism, and Absolutism

There has been a rather interesting, if somewhat confused, discussion over on Locusts and Honey about pluralism and truth. The reason I’m not commenting there is that most points have already been made in that thread and I want to go off on a tangent.

I believe there’s a substantial problem with many discussions of Christian apologetics, and also of many subjects within religion. It is that the word “proof” is much overused. Questions such as whether one can prove the existence of God or not, whether one can prove one’s religion is true, whether one can prove a particular event took place, or even whether some specific doctrine is true.

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The Danger of Unchanging Truth

The Danger of Unchanging Truth

Recently, I’ve written a bit about the difference between science and theology. One of the key differences is that science expects to change, whereas if theology is not assuming it is founded on bedrock, it is usually looking for some bedrock. Religious people often criticize science on the basis that it changes too often. Its history is one of repeatedly overturned theories.

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A Consistent and Principled Approach

A Consistent and Principled Approach

In a poll taken before the last election respondents indicated strong disapproval of congress (31% approve/63% disapprove) as a whole, and yet by an almost equal margin (60%/33%), they indicated approval of their own congressman (Fox Poll 10/13/06). This type of result occurs repeatedly in polls. I’m just using those numbers as an example. Similarly polls (and general observation) shows that people disapprove of attorneys as a profession, but like their own attorney, or certainly want a good, hard-hitting attorney on their side if they are in trouble.

It’s very likely that these differences in perception have something to do with who each of those people are working for. My congressman has to try to serve my district, for example by trying to keep military bases here, get federal road projects here, and so forth. There are 434 other congressmen who don’t share his priorities on those district based items, and thus it is very unlikely that the people in any single district will approve of the whole of congress as much as they approve of their own.

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Avoiding Shoot-First Apologetics

Avoiding Shoot-First Apologetics

My Christianity Today Connection e-mail this morning contained a link to an excellent article, Shoot-First Apologetics. I don’t want to steal the thunder from the article itself–go read it in place, but I do want to quote from the e-mail:

And while defending the core elements of our faith is imperative, we sometimes shoot too hastily at those we’ve misidentified as enemies.

I would like to note that the folks involved in this discussion are conservative evangelicals. The issue of courtesy in what we say, and care in determining friend and foe is one that cuts across the lines of the various parties in Christianity. It’s very easy to identify “different” as “hostile.”

Of course we do need to remember that even if we identify someone as hostile, Jesus commands that we love that person, and not in the cartoon sense–“love those meeses to pieces!”