Apologetics

What Hath Apologetics to do With Christian Dogmatics? van der Kooi and van den Brink Speak

I have often decried the apologetics culture, particularly in North American evangelicalism (which I inhabit). My concern has always been the conflation of apologetics with the doing of Christian Dogmatics and/or what some term as Systematic Theology. Indeed, this conflation has happened, and when it does it needs to be well “decried.” Karl Barth was someone who saw this problem, and so intentionally, and early, avoided apologetics, even, as some would say, to a fault. Barth believed that the best apologetic for the Christian faith was a good Christian Dogmatic.

Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink provide a wonderful sketch of how apologetics have often fallen prey to the temptation of substituting its means for the means of actual Christian Dogmatic development; in their sketch they touch upon Barth, and I would suggest build upon Barth’s reaction to the apologetic culture. They build on it by uppointing the value of allowing good Christian Dogmatics to in and of themselves function as an intentional apologetic; potentially by the sheer force of the compelling vision of God in Christ that they offer to the world as witness. They write:

We want to give a final indication of the lines between various disciplines. Dogmatics is closely linked to apologetics, by which we traditionally mean the defense of the Christian faith against all sorts of criticisms to which it is subjected. This definition has given apologetics a rather defensive connotation—as if the Christian faith is characterized by defensiveness, because it supposedly presents a less-than-solid worldview. In addition, apologists may, at times, be subconsciously inclined to adopt the patterns of thought of those they want to combat. As a result, they may in fact jeopardize the uniqueness of the Christian faith they want to defend.

For this reason, Karl Barth, for example, long held back from any significant involvement with apologetics. He felt there was a major risk that the Christian faith would become caricatured if one were to adopt the models of thought of one’s critics. (He saw how it happened, for instance, to Rudolf Bultmann, whom he considered a kindred spirit.) Barth maintained that it is impossible to reason slowly but surely toward Jesus Christ by using a foreign model of thought, that one who does not begin with Christ will never find him in the end. For this reason, we must, when we want to give an account of our Christian faith to a broad public, simply be very direct and put our cards on the table. In his on dogmatics Barth faithfully followed this procedure by constructing his theology in a totally Christocentric way. We must add, however, that Barth eventually became more appreciative of the apologetic project, more aware of how dogmatics and apologetics do not necessarily exclude each other.

There is ample evidence that the Christian community continues to need a voice with an apologetic orientation. As society becomes increasingly secular, and as the Christian faith is increasingly subjected to a wide range of criticisms, there is a heightened sense that Christians need to know how they can best respond with good arguments when they receive all kinds of reproaches. Rather than elevating apologetics into a separate discipline, however, we think it better to integrate it into dogmatics. This gives it a place in a positive, comprehensive elucidation of the content of the Christian faith, rather than in a discourse with inevitably defensive undertones. Moreover, because of a constant orientation toward the sources of the faith, apologetics will shift less easily to very dissimilar philosophical models. And finally, in its turn, dogmatics will be protected against fuzziness when it has to seriously assume its responsibility of giving an account of the Christian faith to secular and religious forms of criticism. In short, good dogmatics will, certainly in our culture, have an apologetic nature.

When dogmatics fails in performing this task, it will, to its shame, see how non-theologians or “ordinary” pastors and their publications assume greater significance with regard to the apologetic orientation of the church than professional theologians. In this connection, we may be grateful for the work of apologists like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, as well as, more recently, Tim Keller, the leader of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York.[1]

Much to consider here. When they say that “…good dogmatics will, certainly in our culture, have an apologetic nature” it makes me squirm a bit. We will have to wait and see how van der Kooi and van den Brink develop this further; if they do. I do agree that good dogmatics will always have the incidental force of providing a power of God like witness (cf. Rom. 1.16) to the world of the beauty, grandeur, and reality of the Gospel; and I do believe that there indeed is a place for combating for the faith at an intellectual level. But I still turn more the way of Barth, even the early Barth, against doing outright apologetics. We would have to ask what purpose apologetics are serving. Are they for the body of Christ herself; for witness to the world; to make the world look foolish through the foolishness of the Gospel; or a combination of all this and more?

I’m going to have to ponder this further. I was raised and weaned on the evangelical apologetics sub-culture and its attendant material. I have used it over and over again in evangelistic situations, and it has helped in some instances. Usually, though, all it helps me to do is win arguments and jousts. Some of the apologetics material sustained me intellectually at a time when I needed it, but that was before I was aware of historical theology and the riches just waiting to be laid bare in the history of the church of Jesus Christ; i.e. including Christian Dogmatics etc. I am not totally sure what van der Kooi and van den Brink mean by “good dogmatics will … have an apologetic nature.” I can see that in a incidental maybe de facto way, but not in a formal de jure or objective way. What hath apologetics to do with Christian Dogmatics indeed?

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 21-2.

Everyone is a Theologian–says Barth–Christian and non-Christian Alike

When philosophers talk about ‘god’ are they referring to the God, or instead a human projection of a no-God? When atheists talk about ‘god’ are they referring to the God, or instead a socio-phenomenal construct of god that they have inherited tacitly from the cultures (largely Western per the assumption of this post) they have grown up in? I would contend that philosophers and coexistatheists who claim to have “discovered” a concept or notion of God, and then utilize that discovery to talk about God in universal and totalizing ways are not in the end talking about, at least, the Christian God. The Christian God is known only through His Self-revelation, there is no other way to come to know the Christian God who is Triune; the Christian God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — this is the stuff of revelation.

But this reality in and of itself does not mitigate the fact that all of humanity in one way or another engages in theological reflection; it is just that Christians are the only ones to do so with reference to the true and living God. It is good to know this though, isn’t it? That all of humanity does theology; that all of humanity because they are created in the image of God, and recreated as images of the image of God in Christ have the propensity to want to live into the reality for which they were created. It is just that without the Spirit people are left to their own devices, which means they are trapped within themselves to only think from themselves, and thus project out of themselves a conception of god that sounds and looks exceedingly like humanity (just elevated). Karl Barth says it this way:

Theology is one among those human undertakings traditionally described as “sciences.” Not only the natural sciences are “sciences.” Humanistic sciences also seek to apprehend a specific object and its environment in the manner directed by the phenomenon itself; they seek to understand it on its own terms and to speak of it along with all the implications of its existence. The word “theology” seems to signify a special science, a very special science, whose task is to apprehend, understand, and speak of “God.”

But many things can be meant by the word “God.” For this reason, there are many kinds of theologies. There is no man who does not have his own god or gods as the object of his highest desire and trust, or as the basis of his deepest loyalty and commitment. There is no one who is not to this extent also a theologian. There is, moreover, no religion, no philosophy, no world view that is not dedicated to some such divinity. Every world view, even that disclosed in the Swiss and American national anthems, presupposes a divinity interpreted in one way or another and worshiped to some degree, whether wholeheartedly or superficially. There is no philosophy that is not to some extent also theology. Not only does this fact apply to philosophers who desire to affirm — or who, at least, are ready to admit— that divinity, in a positive sense, is the essence of truth and power of some kind of highest principle; but the same truth is valid even for thinkers denying such a divinity, for such a denial would in practice merely consist in transferring an identical dignity and function to another object. Such an alternative object might be “nature,” creativity, or an unconscious and amorphous will to life. It might also be “reason,” progress, or even a redeeming nothingness into which man would be destined to disappear. Even such apparently “godless” theologies are theologies.[1]

I like to remember this when I am conversing with people who claim to be atheists, agnostics, or just plain ole’ garden variety pagans. Because we were created to worship it is a fundamental aspect of human nature to want to worship. Of course given the reality of what Luther and others called homo in se incurvatus, or humanity incurved upon itself, again humans left to themselves will theologize about themselves. Sure they will call their god something or someone else other than themselves, they might even call their god, God, but unless they have the Spirit of God they have no hope or possibility for speaking or referring to the true and the living Triune God.

Next time you are talking to a person who claims to not be religious, or who claims to be an atheist or agnostic just remind them that one way or the other they do theology every day. It might not be the best theology, but it is indeed theology; there is no escaping this reality, it is a fact of human being.

 

[1] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 3-4.

 

An Open Letter to my Friend, An Atheist

Dear Jeff,                                                                                                                                      05-24-2015

You have written this in regard to your view of Christianity, Atheism, Agnosticism, and in your view their respective capacities to Bertrand_Russellrespond to human suffering and existential day-to-day reality:

This facile Christianity leads to oppression, intolerance, and hate. At its best, of course, Christianity leads to humility. At their best, so, too, do agnosticism and atheism. If you don’t believe in God, you don’t have to worry about any mistaken belief that God is on your side in all your dealings with other people. If you don’t believe in an afterlife, it can become that much easier to focus on the here and now and become concerned for others’ suffering.[1]

Your reference to ‘facile Christianity’ goes back to an earlier reference that I made in regard to the style of evangelical Christianity that both you and myself grew up with in our shared experience at a private Christian junior high and high school. As we both matured and went our separate ways into the big world we both have similarly seen the problems with this ‘facile Christianity’ you reference and yet our responses to that have been fundamentally different; you an atheist and me an ever more committed and devout Christian and follower of the historical Jesus Christ and Way.

Let me now respond to your claims in turn. And my responses will be necessarily brief in order to cope with the constraints of the (online) medium we are working with, and the reality that if we were going to deal with each of the issues you have brought up in a critical way that we would have to at least write essay length responses in order to do justice to the depth associated with them (the issues).

Let me state right up front that what seems to be the underlying premise of your evaluation of Christianity’s, Atheism’s, and Agnosticism’s respective value has to do with a purely ethical, utilitarian, and consequentialist, if not existentialist outlook. In other words, you have apparently come to the conclusion that what matters is only the here and now; the immediate and observable reality of things and that moral/ethical value can be purely generated from within a closed system of human compassion and generosity toward their fellow man and woman (without appeal to someone ‘outside’ of this closed system typically known as God). But it is at this point that I believe your premise begins to break down; that a purely naturalist based ethic grounded upon natural law of cause and effect cannot furnish you with the kind of ethics and view of human dignity that you seem to believe it can. And so it is for this reason (among others) that I see your position as incoherent and inconsistent. Let me explain.

Jeff, bluntly, you seem to be assuming that there is some sort of universal normative value that should be globally present in just the same ways for the Atheist as is for the Christian; but I wonder why? As an Atheist (or Agnostic, but functional atheist) you believe that you can appeal to something beyond your own subjective and psychological experience? Why do you presume that there is something (of ethical import) that is not just true for you and your experience of the world, but that what you believe constitutes a human capacity to engage with the suffering’s of others should be true in the same way for everyone else (whether they be in the ‘best’ of Christianity, Atheism, or Agnosticism)? If you believe that we live in a closed system (universe), and that reality is determined to be what it is by a clockwork determinism of natural law of cause and effect, then how can you claim with any global force that things aren’t the way they are simply because that is how the universe has decided things should be? Friedrich Nietzsche bit the bullet when he wrote:

The modern scientific counterpart to belief in God is the belief in the universe as an organism: this disgusts me. This is to make what is quite rare and extremely derivative, the organic, which we perceive only on the surface of the earth, into something essential, universal, and eternal! This is still an anthropomorphizing of nature![2]

Why don’t you bite the bullet too? In other words, why do you pretend that you can identify moral values from within a closed system of reality? As a naturalist (which I assume you are given your comments on ‘real science’ in an earlier comment of yours) you cannot escape the way things are, you are captive to natural law, and thus you must conclude that the way things are are the way things ought to be; this is your only alternative for ‘oughtness’ in regard to ethics and human dignity in a world that can be reduced to materialism, chemical reactions in the human brain, and governed by a deterministic mechanical process of cause and effect. Émile Bréhier gets to the conclusion of your premise about things quite well when he writes:

Order in nature is but one rigorously necessary arrangement of its parts, founded on the essence of things; for example, the beautiful regularity of the seasons is not the effect of a divine plan but the result of gravitation.[3]

But if you believe this, if you believe that there is nothing external to us or the universe from whence personal value and human dignity can be derived, then how can you with any consistency make the assertion that Atheism and/or Agnosticism (functional atheism) has the ability to appeal to something that is external to all of humanity and outside of the closed system within which we live and move and have our being as human beings? I would submit that you cannot! It seems as if you want to function as if there is indeed someone external to the universe, in order to get your ethics, but then with your other hand you want to throw God away. This is petitio principi though, Jeff, or to think in a circle. You cannot claim a universal normative ethic for all of humanity and at the same time repudiate belief in a personal God who transcends the contingent universe (it is as if you want to have my cake, and eat it too).

Let me close this part of my response to you Jeff by referring to a theologian, and historian of ideas David Bentley Hart; he brings all that I have sketched above home, especially in regard to your claim that based upon your metaphysical materialism and/or naturalism that you can hold with any consistency that you as an Atheist (or Agnostic) have the resources that you think you do based upon the premises that you operate from (as a non-theist, and more pointedly, functional Atheist). He writes (at length):

What, however, we should never forget is where those larger notions of the moral good, to which even atheists can feel a devotion, come from, and this is no small matter. Compassion, pity, and charity, as we understand and cherish them, are not objects found in nature, like trees or butterflies or academic philosophers, but are historically contingent conventions of belief and practice, formed by cultural convictions that need never risen at all. Many societies have endured and indeed flourished quite well without them. It is laudable that Dennett is disposed (as I assume he is) to hate economic, civil, or judicial injustice, and that he believes we should not abandon our fellow human beings to poverty, tyranny, exploitation, or despair. Good manners, however, should oblige him and others like him to acknowledge that they are inheritors of a social conscience whose ethical grammar would have been very different had it not been shaped by Christianity’s moral premises: the ideals of justice for the oppressed the church took from Judaism, Christianity’s own special language of charity, its doctrine of God’s universal love, its exaltation of forgiveness over condemnation, and so on. And good sense should prompt them to acknowledge that absolutely nothing ensures that, once Christian beliefs have been finally and fully renounced, those values will not slowly dissolve, to be replaced by others that are coarser, colder, more pragmatic, and more “inhuman.” On this score, it would be foolish to feel especially sanguine; and there are good causes, as I shall discuss in the final part of this book, for apprehension. This one reason why the historical insight and intellectual honesty of Nietzsche were such precious things, and why their absence from so much contemporary antireligious polemic renders it so depressingly vapid.[4]

To the point then, Jeff. You want to claim something you cannot, at least not with consistency. You want to claim that you as an Atheist not only have the moral resources to respond to human suffering, but that you have a better intellectual platform from which to do that; better than the Christian theist does, who makes appeal to God. But as we have already glanced, you really cannot given the type of closed universe you live in; and you really cannot, least not with consistency, because the moral conventions you want to appeal to (not just linguistically or grammatically, but also metaphysically and conceptually at a material level) are inherited by you through the history of ideas most pointedly from the Christians (and the robust intellectual history I have pointed you to, and to which Hart refers and is representative of himself).

Jeff, this will only be part one, of at least two more parts in response to your claims about the equality of Atheism/Agnosticism with Christianity. Interestingly (at least from my perspective) I have taken a tact with you that I normally wouldn’t; I have appealed to some classical type of argumentation against your assertions. In my next responses to you I will shift gears a bit and offer a Christian alternative to things, especially in response to your claims about being able to respond to suffering in the ‘here-and-now’, and how you claim that the non-Christian atheist can respond better than the Christian. I will hopefully demonstrate why that simply cannot be the case; Hart’s quote should help you to understand one reason why that is. And the reductio ad absurdum that I tried to present in this response hopefully has also started to highlight why you cannot with any consistency make the claim that a naturalistic-Atheism has the capacity to respond to things ‘ethical’ in the same way, and in a better way than Christianity can; but I will develop this further in my next response.

Sincerely,

Bobby Grow

[1] Jeff, Facebook Thread accessed 05-24-2015.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Wikiquote http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche accessed 05-24-2015.

[3] Émile Bréhier, The History of Philosophy, trans. Wade Baskin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 5:129.

[4] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 16.

Deus dixit ‘God has Spoken’. The Antidote to Evangelical and ‘Liberal’ Apologetics Alike

Is there a place for Christian apologetics? I grew up (and still largely culturewarsinhabit) in the North American evangelical sub-culture where J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, along with the fellows of the Discovery Institute and Intelligent Design are common fare. I grew up where a whole hermeneutic developed out of an apologetic against the perceived threat of ‘Liberal’ higher criticism; a hermeneutic based upon positivism and empiricism (where biblical prophecy and its fulfillment become somewhat determinative towards proving the veracity of Scripture, etc.) – and of course there are more sophisticated developments, but still, along positivist lines, at least in response to the perceived threat of Enlightenment, rationalist higher criticism. So because of this I grew up in a Christian sub-culture that is always on the defense; always on the defense for God, as if God needs to be defended. But is this what God needs? And is this the best way to approach these types of macro-concerns, as if God needs us to be him (of our choosing, not his), to be who he is for us?

Swiss theologian Karl Barth doesn’t think so, and I have come to heartily agree with Barth on this issue. It isn’t a matter of being anti-intellectual; just the opposite! It is a matter of thinking ‘after God has spoken’ and as if he has before we start trying to speak for or about him. Barth grew up right in the heart of the development of so called ‘Liberal’ theology in World War I German theology; and his response (when he repented!) to ‘Liberal’ theology wasn’t to try and deconstruct it based upon its terms, but instead to turn to God and allow him to set his terms as the means and categories through which Barth was going to attempt to do his theological thinking and preaching. Barth writes:

In detail, of course, dogmatic thinking will everywhere be made up of partly historical, partly psychological, and partly philosophical elements. But if things are to be done aright we must never for a moment let these elements, the stocheia tou kosmou [Col. 2:8], become independent or a presupposition. In dogmatics we cannot for a moment think seriously in historical, psychological, or philosophical terms. We cannot fail to make Deus dixit the presupposition, or do so only questioningly or partially, trying to think our way up to God had not spoken, as though God were a problem and not the ground of all problems and also, whether we have eyes to see it or not, the solution to all problems. From the roots up dogmatic thinking is either kata ton Christon [Col. 2:8] or it is not dogmatic, theological thinking. Let us be on guard not against criticism or doubt or skepticism — these are not the enemies — but instead against apologetics, against trying to get at the matter by detours, as though God could be known without God, as though he could be the second thing, as though he were not already quite unambiguously the first.[1]

I would seriously submit that evangelical Christianity in North America is dying right before our very eyes for the reason that Barth identifies; even if Barth is talking about his attempt to do Christian Dogmatics (Systematic Theology) in a German theologically liberal context. Indeed; exactly. North American Evangelicalism continues on in the Fundamentalist heritage of its recent past; which means that it does theology and lives Christianly from the same pietistic inward turned individualistic premises that so called German theological liberalism lived from (or close enough).

The antidote to this is to REPENT! We need to turn to God, and think from Deus dixit (i.e. ‘God has spoken’) as the premise of our Christian lives. We don’t need to be apologetic about being ‘in Christ’. God is God. He works from what is perceived as weakness and foolishness (in the world); we don’t need to assert ourselves in order to think Christianly. It is okay to be laughed at when the one you are talking about, talking to, and proclaiming holds all of reality together by the Word of his power; remember Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’)!

 

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion. Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 289.

Emptiness, Nihilism. The Battles an evangelical Christian thinker might face

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I fight feelings of emptiness and nihilism when it comes to doing theology; and yet at the same rickwarrentime it has become the love of my life, because it is where intimacy with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ reposes most! But there are a million distractions, and things of life that would like to squeeze out any possibility of spending thoughtful, intentional, and dare I say, heart-shaped intellectual time with God in Christ.

There are many reasons why this sense of futility or emptiness might set in, and in particularly acute ways for evangelical Protestant Christian thinkers. Here are a few reasons that come to mind:

1) There is no value placed upon deep theological thought within the environs of modern day Protestant evangelicalism.

2) Theology, at points, just seems all too academic with no apparent touch points with “real” life, and “real” people.

3) If you think too deeply you almost become outcast, and are accused of focusing on things that don’t really matter; what really matters, in contrast, and ostensibly, is that we have some sort of warm hearted felt experience with God, and this somehow abstracted from any deep and rigorous thought about what that looks like.

4) Related to the above: There is often a false dilemma created by evangelicals; either, as it goes, the thinker must be involved in real life daily stuff that matters, or be relegated to the dead halls of the Christian thinkers where everything remains abstract and aloof from the apparently concrete lived experiences (which are the standard for determining genuine spirituality, apparently) of what it means to truly live a simple, heart warmed Christian experience.

5) Thinking theologically and deeply that way, apparently, takes too much time to develop; what counts towards being a real life evangelical Christian is that we make more immediate real life connections with real people; and as a result we mystically connect and grow in fellowship with God and others, albeit devoid of any intention or rigorous theological thought.

These are some reasons that might contribute to the seeming futility of doing theology as an evangelical. Underneath the resistance to this there seems to be a kind of nihilistic attitude towards Christian thinkers who are wired to think deeply; and in place of such modes, the “Christian experience” becomes the standard of what it means to be truly Christian and thriving. In other words, feeling good and happy about oneself seems to be the King. Desiring to live as a Christian thinker in such an environment contributes to this kind of battle and sense of emptiness that often can hit an evangelical thinker. There is no value placed upon such platitudes, and in fact such platitudes get relegated to the realm of “hobbyhorse” with no real meaning for what it means to be a healthy vibrant thriving Christian person. Beyond that, unless an evangelical thinker gets a PhD in theology or something, and is able to secure employment in a seminary or bible college (the only sanctioned places among evangelicals where rigorous intellectual activity is sanctioned and acceptable), there really is no value (like towards employment) for such people in the evangelical church–they are usually lauded as novelties in the church, and known for being a very smart person who traffics in things too elevated for what really counts toward being a vibrant thriving evangelical Christian person. What a shame.

________________

*The picture of Rick Warren is somewhat ad hoc; I just found it when searching google image, and it seemed fitting as typifying a kind of evangelical posture I was bemoaning in this post (especially the banner behind Warren).

Something John Shore needs to Consider about ‘Reason’, the Image of God, and how it applies to God and Hell

John Shore, apparently uber-Progressive Christian blogger (never heard of him before, until just now), just wrote a post over at his Patheos blog (on the Progressive Christian channel) about God and hell. After lacing some suggestions together about why Shore believes that belief in the Christian God of love and hell (as eternal conscious torment) are incompatible he summarizes (and somewhat concludes) this:

To which I call bullshit.

You don’t get to claim that humans are made in the very image of God, and at the same time claim that God’s morality is completely different from human morality.

You see John needs this premise (above) in order to make the suggestions/assertions (instead of arguments) that he does about God and hell. He needs a way to set Scripture aside, this way he is able to simply appeal to human rationality and ‘reason’ (as he defines it). But all I can say in response to John’s “call” is so what? Who cares what John Shore or anyone else thinks about hell and God.

Just because there “might” be an internal coherence to someone’s logic, does not make that logic universally binding and absolute; not in the way John thinks it does! John smuggles things into his syllogism, into the premises that fund his conclusions about God, humans and morality. He smuggles in the idea that the image of God and how that gets cashed out is more straightforward than it is; and I think just focusing on this one smuggle by John undercuts everything else he has been suggesting about God, hell, morality and humans. John needs to flesh out what he means by image of God; where he gets what he means by image of God; and why he thinks that what he thinks about the image of God justifies his conclusions about God, hell, humans, and morality. John needs to deal with the concept of the image of God, itself a REVEALED category (something we find in the Bible, and in the Bible’s reality in Jesus Christ), and explain how the Bible itself supports his apparent belief that the image of God allows him to conclude what he does about God, humans, hell, and morality. John needs to talk about the noetic effects of sin upon people created in the image of God, and what impact that has upon our capacities to ‘reason’ about the things of God; i.e. as if there is a univocal relationship between our ‘fallen reasoning’ and how God then must apparently act in correlation with our ‘fallen unaided naked reason’.

John’s suggestions about God, hell, morality, and humans lives on a procrustean bed; and so it is only fair to say back to John: who cares what you think about God, hell, humans, and morality? Really all that matters is what God in Jesus Christ thinks about it. If you can’t make your argument from there, then, John, you have no argument to make. If you can’t get past basic anthropological problems (as I have alluded to above), John, then all you really have is an appeal to the people; which you know is no argument at all.

PS. It is possible to have a reasonable, theological, biblical discussion about Christian universalism, etc., but John has not come close to providing that. He needs to overcome much before he is able to do that.

The Inclusive Exclusivity of Christianity over against the Inclusivity of Pluarlism

I just posted the following to my group blog for a program I am a part of through Princeton Theological Seminary. One of our assignments was to listen to the following podcast by Eboo Patel, and the following is what I wrote in response to what he had to say. Patel is a Muslim, and yet he promotes an inter-faith approach to things. As you will be able to infer from what I wrote in response, I don’t agree with him, even if I think his desires are noble (which I do think they are). Click here to listen to the podcast if you want (it is approx 18 minutes). Here is my response:

ghandiI just finished listening to the assigned podcast for pre-session #4 class work which was a short lecture given by Eboo Patel on interfaith interaction and ecumenical and inclusive engagement between various faith traditions; in particular, for him, between Christians, and his faith tradition, Islam. And yet as I listened to Patel’s very articulate and winsome talk, what stood out to me was that he seemed to be ameliorating the substantial differences and distinctives inherent between Islam, Christianity, and other ‘faith’ traditions. And that he places a higher premium on our shared human and earthly situation, and in the process diminishes the ‘eternal’ realities that give each of our faith traditions there actual distinctiveness; that is, I see Patel diminishing the significance and thus importance of what we think about God. It appears that Patel holds to the an idea that the concept ‘God’ is actually an ‘eternal’ reality, who in the end ends up being the same reality, and thus in the present what is important in the ‘earthly’ experience of ‘God’ is to focus on our shared experiences and various, but shared expressions of ‘faith.’

Interestingly, what Eboo Patel is doing, and the way he is emphasizing a ‘pluralistic’ approach to inter-faith cooperation sounds very similar to the way that theologian John Hick approached his expression and understanding of Christianity through his ‘pluralist universalist’ approach. Christian theologian Christian Kettler describes Hick’s approach (and quotes Hick in the process); notice, as you read this, how well Hick’s approach (as described by Kettler) dovetails with Patel’s approach. I think there is more than coincidence going on between Patel’s informing approach, and how Hick approaches things; here is Kettler on Hick:

Hick responds to this challenge by stressing 1) the structural continuity of religious experience with other spheres of reality, and 2) an openness to experimental confirmation. “Meaning” is the key concept which links religious and mundane experience. “Meaning” for Hick is seen in the difference which a particular conscious act makes for an individual. This, of course, is relative to any particular individual. Verification of this experience is eschatological because of the universal belief in all religions that the universe is in a process leading towards a state of perfection.

The epistemological basis for such an approach is found in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Hick’s soteriology is based on “Kant’s broad theme, recognizing the mind’s own positive contribution to the character of its perceived environment,” which “has been massively confirmed as an empirical thesis by modern work in cognition and social psychology and in the sociology of knowledge.” The Kantian phenomena in this case are the varied experiences of religion. All have their obvious limitations in finite humanity, so none are absolutely true.

In contrast to Kant, however, Hick believes that the “noumenal” world is reached by the “phenomenal” world of religious experience. “The Eternal One” is “the divine noumenon” experienced in many different “phenomena.” So the divine can be experienced, but only under certain limitations faced by the phenomenal world. Many appropriate responses can be made to “the divine noumenon.” But these responses are as many as the different cultures and personalities which represent the world in which we live. Similar to Wittgenstein’s epistemology of “seeing-as,” Hick sees continuity between ordinary experience and religious experience which he calls “experiencing-as”.

The goal of all these religious experiences is the same, Hick contends: “the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness.” This transformation cannot be restated to any one tradition.

When I meet a devout Jew, or Muslim, or Sikh, or Hindu, or Buddhist in whom the fruits of openness to the divine Reality are gloriously evident, I cannot realistically regard the Christian experience of the divine as authentic and their non-Christian experiences as inauthentic. [Kettler quoting: Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism, 91.][1]

Even if Patel is not directly drawing from Hick’s pluralism (which I doubt that he is not), it becomes quite apparent how Patel’s ‘earthly’ vis-á-vis ‘eternal’ correlates with Hick’s appropriation of Kant’s ‘noumenal’ (which would be Patel’s ‘eternal’), and ‘phenomenal’ (which would be Patel’s ‘earthly’). What happens is that the actual reality of God is reduced to our shared human experience of what then becomes a kind of ‘mystical’ religious experience of God determined to be what it is by our disparate and various cultural, national, and ‘nurtural’ experiences. In other words, God and the ‘eternal’ becomes a captive of the human experience, and our phenomenal ‘earthly’ experiences becomes the absolutized end for what human flourishing and prosperity (peace) is all about.

Beyond this, Patel, towards the end of his talk uses a concept of ‘love’ that again becomes circumscribed by and abstracted to the ‘earthly’ human experience of that; as if the human experience of love has the capacity to define what love is apart from God’s life. But as Karl Barth has written in this regard:

God is He who in His Son Jesus Christ loves all His children, in His children all men, and in men His whole creation. God’s being is His loving. He is all that He is as the One who loves. All His perfections are the perfections of His love. Since our knowledge of God is grounded in His revelation in Jesus Christ and remains bound up with it, we cannot begin elsewhere—if we are now to consider and state in detail and in order who and what God is—than with the consideration of His love.[2]

In other words, for the Christian, our approach and understanding of ‘love’ cannot be reduced to a shared and pluralistic experience of that in the ‘earthly’ phenomenal realm. Genuine love for the Christian starts in our very conception of God which is not something deduced from our shared universal experience, but is something that is grounded in and given to us in God’s own particular Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

In conclusion, I would argue that Eboo Patel’s ‘earthly’ pluralist approach is noble, but his approach is flawed because 1) ‘God’ cannot be adumbrated by our human experience (because for the Christian that our understanding of God is revealed from outside of us); and 2) ‘love’ is not simply an human experience that transcends all else, but instead is the fundamental reality of God’s Triune life. If love is the fundamental reality of who the Christian God is, then the object of our ‘faith’ as Christians, by definition, starts in a different place than all other religions and their various conceptions of God. If this is the case, then Christianity offers a particular (not universal) understanding and starting point to knowing God, and thus to understanding how love relates to truth (and vice versa). And yet, Christianity remains the most inclusive ‘religion’ in the world, because God loves all, and died for all of humanity; but this can only be appreciated as we start with the particular reality of God’s life in Jesus Christ.

None of what I just wrote means that we cannot work alongside or with other ‘faith’ traditions; it is just important, I think, to remember that who God is remains very important, and in fact distinguishes us one from the other. And that while we can and should befriend and conversate with other faith traditions, in the midst of this, we should not forget that there still is only one ‘way, truth, and life’ to the Father, and that way comes from God’s life himself, in his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ. If we don’t want to affirm what I just suggested, then what we will be left with is something like John Hick’s ‘anonymous Christians’ with the notion that all ways are ‘valid’ expressions towards the one God ‘out there’ somewhere.

 

 


[1] Christian D. Kettler, The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publications, 1991), 65-6.

[2] Barth, CD II/1, 351.

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Talking About God on Facebook from ‘The Faith of God’ instead of ‘The Faith of Man and Woman’

Recently I’ve been having some encounters with a former classmate of facebook-iconmine from my last two years of high school, apparently he no longer believes in the existence of God, and for that matter the existence of Jesus Christ. We’ve been having these encounters on Facebook (where else?!), and it has involved a bit of rough-and-tumble exchange about the points I just mentioned above (God’s existence in general, and Jesus’ in particular). What these encounters have illustrated for me personally is that my knee-jerk responses, in default mode are to refer back to evidentiary arguments (historical as well as philosophical) for the existence of God. It is this mode of engagement, and this style of apologetics and evangelism I  became very used to from my past, which involved training in philosophical apologetics as well as doing so from the analytical, even classical tradition (at least classical in one prominent stream of things). Indeed, many of my responses to my former classmate might even fit into the kind of ‘faith’ that B.B. Warfield helped to shape back in early 20th century North America Christian Fundamentalism; note what he communicates about the faith he was so committed to:

It is the distinction of Christianity that it has come into the world clothed with the mission to reason its way to its dominion. Other religions may appeal to the sword, or seek some other way to propagate themselves. Christianity makes its appeal to right reason, and stands out among all religions, therefore, as distinctively “the Apologetic religion.” It is solely by reasoning that it has come thus far on its way to its kingship. And it is solely by reasoning that it will put all its enemies under its feet.[1]

But you know what? In reality I am really not an advocate of such an approach. I do still believe there is value to historical work in Jesus studies, and even value in employing philosophical tools for helping to provide precision in articulation of the Christian faith. And yet, what I have become an advocate for is more of a fideistic approach, an approach where Christ is the key, and his reality as the second person of the Trinity is presumed upon (without the burden to prove it to unbelievers) without argument; presumed upon to fund the categories, the ‘revealed’ categories by which we know the Christian God. Here is Thomas F. Torrance commenting on what I see as the boundary for how we approach talk about God, in general; in this quote Torrance is summarizing how Karl Barth understood the boundaries and order of theological engagement and talk:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

The Impact

So how should the above, and my approval of what Torrance and Barth are talking impact the way I approach apologetical, theological, and evangelistic talk in general? I think that, one way evangelistic talk is impacted by my commitment to a ‘revelational’ approach requires explanation, and definition about what I mean by ‘faith’, and ‘revelation’ in contrast to what most people mean by faith and revelation. I think my engagement with my friend should have involved less posturing in regard to the power that historical evidence has, and more emphasis upon who God has revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ; and then allow the force and power of that within the narrative of God’s own revealed life to shape my responses.

Sometimes it is better to reframe questions instead of attempting to answer questions on their terms, especially when those questions are not being informed by the categories provided for by the Self revelation of God in Jesus Christ. So I am still learning, eh! Aren’t we all?

 

 

[1] George Marsden citing B.B. Warfield, Fundamentalism And American Culture, 115.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

Knowing God in an Evangelistic Context: “Getting Beyond Barth”

Ha, tricked you! Actually this post is directly dealing with the ‘material Barth,’ he is not anything like the ‘material girl’. The ‘material Barth’ goes beyond the politicking that has unfortunately marginalized Barth for many; the material Barth (and what I mean by this frame) engages directly with what Barth has communicated materially and theologically. So I am asking you, dear reader, to lay aside the caricatures and pretensions you might have with Karl Barth’s theory of revelation, theory of knowledge of God, and consider him more critically in light of your own material theological commitments on this important locus; the locus being: how do we have a genuine knowledge of God?

philosophers

The reason I am so concerned about the issue I am going to highlight here in this post has to do with a very practical issue, an existential issue, even. I was in a unique and almost unbelievable evangelistic situation yesterday as I was being seen by a doctor. In the process of my exam somehow the fact that I was a Christian came up, and the fact that she was a former Christian but not one now (since she was 32), and that she sees Christ as in-credible came up. We had an interesting discussion, in a strange context (really). But what this prompted, once again, in my thinking, is how do we have knowledge of God? Is it something that we, out of our own analytical powers construct by our free choice to do so? And out of these intellectual powers that we purportedly have do we have the capacity to conceive of the categories that God must fit into? This doctor I was being examined by used her ‘powers’ to snuff the Christian God out of her life. But I got the distinct impression that she wasn’t reading the Christian God through the right categories; categories that come from ‘faith’. In other words, it seemed that she was putting herself, her experiences, and her rationalizations prior to meeting with God instead of allowing God to shape and reshape all of her preconceived images of him–and so based upon her machinations about God, through her natural categories about God, she rejected this God.

What makes what she is doing, other than predisposition and asserted posture, different than what natural theologians do? Natural theologians start with analytical categories about God derived from reflection upon nature, and use the grammar created by said reflection and active intellects to conceive of how God is and acts; some of these Natural Theologians sound very very orthodox. In fact, much of what passes as the Orthodox understanding of God is driven by natural theology categories. Am I suggesting that divine impassibility and immutability, for example, are heretical concepts, or Hellenized concepts, to the point that these two examples of what is included in the Orthodox understanding of God should be rejected out of hand? No, not necessarily. What I am suggesting is that if knowledge of God is not slavishly driven by God’s own Self revelation in Jesus Christ, if we go to a general revelation of God in creation, and try to conceive of God prior to conceiving of him in his own Self-conception in Christ, then these categories (like immutability and impassibility) end up morphing God into something that he is not, or at least not in the way these categories (as examples) are deployed in articulating God.

Karl Barth, more succinctly makes what I have been struggling to communicate more clear:

True knowledge of God is not and cannot be attacked; it is without anxiety and without doubt. But only that which is fulfilled under the constraint of God’s Word is such a true knowledge of God. Any escape out of the constraint of the Word of God means crossing over to the false gods and no-gods. And this will show itself by leading inevitably to uncertainty in the knowledge of God, and therefore to doubt. A knowledge of God which is the knowledge of false gods can be attacked, and, indeed, is attacked. Under the constraint of the Word, however, only the question as to the mode of knowledge and of the knowability of God can be put–in the freedom and therefore in the certainty which reigns when the choice is arbitrary. The battle against uncertainty and doubt is not foreign to man even here. But here it will always be a victorious battle. For it goes to the very root of uncertainty and doubt, and it will be simply the one good fight of faith–the fight for a renewal of the confirmation and acknowledgement of our constraint by God’s Word as the point of departure from which uncertainty and doubt become impossible possibilities.[1]

We, of course, here Anselm’s fides quarens intellectum (‘faith seeking understanding’) mantra in Barth, and we also see Anselm’s type of ontological argument funding what Barth is communicating. But beyond these formalities, getting into the material subject, if what Barth is communicating about the ‘Word’s’ power to guide and direct inquiry into who God is was at the forefront of this doctor’s mind, or in the forefront of the natural theologian’s heart, I think the outcome would be much different for both. I think this doctor who was a professing Christian for 32 years of her life may have well not rejected Christ; and I think natural theologians in general would not attempt to rest upon their analytical laurels when type-setting God, and instead would find their address reposing from within God’s own Self-address driven and given life by the Son, by Jesus Christ.

To close, if what Barth communicated above isn’t clear enough, let me share something from Barth’s best English speaking student, Thomas Torrance to the same effect:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

 

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics §II.1 The Doctrine of God (London/New York: T&T Clark A Continuum Imprint, 2009), 5.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

How The Christian Doctrine of creatio ex nihilo or ‘Creation Out of Nothing’ Makes Bill Nye a Saint, and Ken Ham a Heretic

In light of the forthcoming debate between Bill Nye – The Science Guy and Ken Ham – The Creation Science Guy – which will take place at Ham’s Creation Science Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio on February 4th; I thought it would be interesting to consider how the Christian orthodox teaching of creatio ex nihilo (‘creation out of nothing’), which serves prominent for T. F. Torrance’s approach to things, might impact how we as Christians might think about the relationship of Christian theology and the empirical or so called ‘hard’ sciences that engage in observational science. It might in fact be surprising to some, how  ‘creation out of nothing’ might in fact favor the methodology advocated by Bill Nye, more so than it does Ken Ham.

nye

Creation out of nothing (CON) was a teaching of the Christian church that developed quite early on in the 2nd century in particular. In fact it was a doctrine that was utilized as an apologetic, actually, against the dualistic heresies making there way into the church early on; primarily the blossoming Gnosticism. And yet in affirming CON, what ends up happening is that God and creation come to have an independence of their own; albeit God’s is a non-contingent independence, while creation’s is contingent independence – but an integrity and independence for both entities, nontheless. Thus, it might be contended, that if God and the creation are not given enough distinction, and we begin to tie God’s existence into the creation too closely, or too transcendentally, that we end up losing a God-world distinction, and He becomes one and mixed with His creation (pantheism), instead of its sustainer, and Lord; or he becomes aloof, and so distant from creation, that creation itself is no longer understood to be a good given by God, but a bad and something to escape from (Gnositicism).

Scottish theologian, David Fergusson, makes my brief points above more compelling and crisp; so let’s read what he has to communicate:

In their polemics against gnosticism, both Irenaeus and Tertullian reinforce and extend the doctrine of creation out of nothing. It is required not only to contest the assumption about the eternity of matter, but also to maintain the strict ontological distinction between the one God and all created reality. The cosmos does not represent a series of ontological gradations emanating from the divine outwards. There is one God, and everything else exists through the power of the Word of God. Since the Word of God is to be regarded as of the divine essence, it cannot be an intermediate deity that links the one true God with lower levels of reality. On both sides, therefore, the God–world distinction requires the doctrine of creation out of nothing. Neither is the world divine, nor is God divisible and composite like creaturely beings. So we must think of the world as the good creation of the one God from out of nothing. In this respect, ‘nothing’ simply denotes ‘not something’. ‘Nothing’ is not some shadowy substance suspended between being and non-being. Instead, it refers to what does not exist. In other words, the cosmos is not formed from eternal matter, nor does it emanate from the divine being. One implication of this sharp ontological distinction between creator and creation is that it belongs not to theology but to natural science to discover how the world works. This is a corollary of the Christian refusal to divinize the world, albeit one that has not always been recognized. [David Fergusson, “Creation,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (UK: Oxford University Press, 2010), edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance, 80.]

If the implication that Fergusson teases out from the doctrine of creation out of nothing is viable; this debate between Dye and Ham would appear to place Dye (who I think is an atheist) on the Christian side of things, ironically, and Ham on the heretical side of things, since he would be guilty of collapsing God’s life into his creation, and as such tying God into creation in a way that His life becomes contingent upon creation’s existence. And this, Ham’s approach, would be exactly backwards from what he actually hopes to argue for; i.e. the necessity of God’s existence as attested to by creation.