The Theological Significance of the Platypus


No, I am not talking about where the duck-billed platypus fits on the evolutionary tree. I am talking about something even more basic: the platypus defies taxonomy itself. In other words, the fun of the platypus is that it does not easily fit into any attempt to categorize its species scientifically.


It is considered to be a mammal, but it has many characteristics that are highly unusual for mammals. It lays eggs. It has webbed feet. It has a bill that is different from the beaks of birds and the mouths of animals. It is venomous. It uses electrolocation. Its eyes are more similar to fish eyes than to the eyes of most other mammals. It is warm-blooded, but its average body temperature is lower than that of most other mammals. It has ten sex chromosomes instead of the usual two.


To be honest, I care little whether it is best to classify the platypus as a mammal or not. The point is that the platypus reveals the difficulty of imposing overly simplistic organizational systems upon the world. The animal world does not easily fall into clearly differentiable categories.


Another example of complex organization is the shape of a tree (the plant, not the evolutionary diagram). If a tree of a particular species is left to grow by itself in an open field, it will almost always conform to the same general shape as every other tree in that species. However, if you stand beneath the tree and look up, you will quickly realize that the placement of each branch and leaf within that tree, although following certain general patterns, is completely unique and unpredictable.


As humans, we tend to squeeze everything we observe into simplistic categories and patterns. Of course, the world exhibits a high degree of order, but it is the order of a tree, not the order of the Dewey decimal or Library of Congress book classification system.


As a result, we need to come to the world, reality, truth, people, God, etc. more as observers seeking to understand things as they are. When you do, you realize that everything is a platypus. Enjoy the oddities of life.


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Is John Calvin guilty of murder? (And should we even care?)

An old schoolmate of mine recently published a blog post accusing John Calvin of having heretics tortured and killed. I have no desire to defend or condemn Calvin. Like every single Protestant Christian in the world (including those that despise Calvin), I am indebted to Calvin for a lot of what I believe theologically, but also like every single Protestant Christian in the world (including those that love Calvin), I disagree with Calvin on a lot of things. I am taking up this matter not because it is Calvin, but rather because it is a good test case scenario of how to talk about the errors of Christians of the past.

So the question is are we able centuries later to speak ill of Calvin as a murderer or torturer of innocent people? I am not going to provide many answers. Instead what I want to do is provide a bunch of questions to help you see the tremendous difficulties inherent in passing judgment on someone who lived 500 years ago.

First, there are the larger religious and political ethical issues. For instance, is capital punishment ethical? This is a thorny question that still has not been fully resolved today. For the sake of the discussion before us, I think it is best to assume that capital punishment is an ethically allowable punishment. Is it ethical to kill and/or torture people deemed as heretics? It is pretty much universally agreed among Christians today that executing heretics is ethically wrong. Is it ethical for the power of the state to be combined with the power of the state? Again, it is pretty much universally agreed among Christians today that the separation of church and state is the only ethically correct option. That foundation being established, we can proceed.

Second, there are historical-factual issues. A lot of important and relevant historical facts are disputed, confused, or unclear. What was the general practice for handling heretics in that place and time? How many executions was Calvin involved in? What was his role in those executions? Did he give orders to execute? Did he just give testimony at trials? Did he do nothing? How did the church and city government and courts operate? Calvin did not run the city of Geneva as sole totalitarian dictator. There was a complex socio-political scene in Geneva. Many other people would have been involved in any capital case. What were the beliefs that caused the victims to be labeled as heretics? How unorthodox were those beliefs? Were the heretics good people, or were they perhaps causing trouble in other ways? All of these questions are rendered more difficult to answer by the fact that writing practice of the time did not include much of an emphasis on objectivity and unbiased reporting.

Third, there are legal issues. Essentially, the blog post accuses Calvin of murder and crimes against humanity. These are serious legal charges. If Calvin were living, making such a charge without proper evidence would be cause for a defamation/libel lawsuit. So the question is, if we were to put Calvin on trial for murder and/or crimes against humanity, would we have enough evidence to convict him? We have no eyewitnesses left alive and no physical evidence. We have only written records. Is that enough to declare that a man is guilty of a crime?

Fourth, there are the personal-moral issues. By this I mean something a little different than the broader ethical issues. Although it is ethically wrong to execute heretics, did Calvin as an individual do anything wrong? Whatever Calvin’s exact involvement was, was it wrong for Calvin to have been involved? Did Calvin think he was doing something wrong, or was he sincerely convinced he was doing the right thing? Was he sincerely convinced that God’s Word said it was acceptable to execute heretics? In fact, was he sincerely convinced that God said that we ought to execute heretics? If he was sincerely convinced it was the right thing to do, would it be wrong, or would it be as wrong? And did Calvin jump right to execution, or did he try other methods of discipline first? Did Calvin try to persuade heretics first? Did he give them plenty of time to recant? Was he truly concerned for their eternal souls? Did he believe that their false teaching could corrupt and endanger the eternal souls of others? Did he believe that heresy would lead to the disintegration of the society? Was he motivated by pettiness, power-mongering, hypocritical judgmentalism, etc.? Or was he motivated by a desire to see souls saved, to defend the truth, to honor and glorify the name of God, etc.? The point of all of these questions is whether or not Calvin participated in executing heretics because of some evil in his heart or because of a misguided desire to do what was right. And even if it was from evil in his heart, how evil was he? How much good was mixed in with the evil? There is so much that is good in his life and writings, it is hard to believe that Calvin is a man of total evil, but it is impossible for us to know the heart of a man who lived 500 years ago.

Fifth, there is the issue of other mitigating factors. What about the fact that executing heretics was a widely accepted practice of Calvin’s day? Was he just deceived by the generally accepted teaching of the church of his day? Was Calvin more or less fair and merciful than his contemporaries? Was Calvin just falling into line with everyone else, or was he trying to be better? We must remember that part of the reason that we no longer execute heretics and part of the reason that we separate church from state is the example of Calvin and the people of Geneva. We are gifted with hindsight. Another factor is that since Calvin was pulling away from the Catholic church, perhaps he was worried about the chaos that might result from a power vacuum. Was the marriage of church and state in Geneva an attempt to avoid chaos? In other words, although Geneva was not perfect, does it represent the next step forward? Does Calvin generally represent an improvement over the surrounding culture? Was he trying to do things better?

Sixth, there is the issue of judgment rights. Do we who live 500 years later have the right to judge Calvin? Do we have the right to condemn him? Do we have the right to call him an evil murderer? Do we have the right to declare that we know for certain what was in his heart?

Seventh, there is the issue of proper speech. Even if Calvin was evil, even if we can prove it, even if we do have the right to judge him, should we be writing less than complimentary blogs and creating insulting memes about him? Is it posthumous gossip? Is it an edifying discussion? Does it tempt us to brush aside the good in his writings and life? Does it cause us to think ill of Reformed churches? Is it unhelpfully inflammatory? Does it just make people angry for no good reason? Are there other examples that can be used to make the same points? Or can we just talk about Geneva in general rather than single out any individual for particular rebuke?

Eighth, there is the issue of proper emotional response. What should be our emotional response to the events in Geneva? Certainly the execution of heretics is disgusting and outrageous, but do we have a right to actually feel outrage? Do we have a right to be angry at Calvin? Do we have a right to hate Calvin? Did Calvin do anything to you or to me personally? On the other hand, should we be personally offended by people who insult him? In other words, should we in any way be wasting our emotional energies on a man long dead?

My point is not to try to justify Calvin in any way. My point is that it is a waste of time and energy to argue about it at all. We all agree that it is best to separate church and state. We all agree it is wrong to execute heretics. Why waste time trying to castigate or excuse Calvin? We have learned the lessons we need to learn. Let’s move on.

A great parallel in Scripture is King David. While he was king, David used the power of his office to seduce a married woman, to order her husband killed, and then to take the woman as one of his multiple wives. We know that David is guilty of these crimes because God declared him to be guilty. Yet, we also know that God forgave David in response to David’s repentant heart of faith. In Romans 4, Paul puts forward David as a prime example of a sinner forgiven by God in his grace on the basis of faith. In Hebrews 11, David is given as an example of faith.

If David did something evil out of completely evil and selfish motives, how is he able to be an example for us to follow? It is because David is primarily an example of God’s grace – of salvation by grace through faith. As with all of us, John Calvin was a mixed bag of good and ill, but you would be hard-pressed to find many people who have done more to revive the message of salvation by grace through faith. So the darkness in Calvin’s past may mean that he himself serves as an illustration of the grace of God. Because of this for Calvin, just as with David, we have no need to demonize or idolize him. We are able to redeem the good from his life while still learning from the bad.

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Is the law of non-contradiction the foundational and inviolable law of reality?

[This is a post for the more philosophically-minded.]

Is the law of non-contradiction the foundational and inviolable law of reality? The law of non-contradiction states that something cannot be both Y and non-Y at the same time and in the same sense. Many Christian thinkers believe this to be the foundational law of reality. But this law of logic is never directly stated in Scripture. It cannot be elevated to the same level as the direct statements of the inspired Word of God.


Many would say that the law of non-contradiction is a basic assumption underlying all of the other statements of Scripture. Any truth-claim of Scripture – especially the exclusivist truth-claims – must assume the law of non-contradiction.


But even if we grant that there are no stated contradictions in Scripture, the most we can say is that the Bible assumes the law of non-contradiction in the areas in which it makes direct statements. Because the Bible never comes out and says that the law of non-contradiction is true in all places, at all times, in all circumstances, all we can do is observe whether or not the Bible assumes the law of non-contradiction in the statements it does make.


Many Christian thinkers would say that God himself does not violate the law of non-contradiction. I have often heard or read this stated in such a way that makes God subordinate to the law of non-contradiction. It is said that even God cannot do or be the logically impossible. I am not entirely comfortable with this, since it seems to me that if God must bow to the law of non-contradiction, then the law of non-contradiction is God. By this understanding, there is something more fundamental to reality than God himself.


Many Christian thinkers would be a little more moderate by embedding the law of non-contradiction within the nature of God. God cannot violate the law of non-contradiction in the same way that God cannot sin. It is not that God is incapable of sin. It is that God will not sin. It would go against God’s very nature to sin. In the same way, God is non-contradictory, and since it is an essential part of his character, it radiates out into the rest of reality.


This way of thinking makes a lot more sense, but is it correct? Is the law of non-contradiction an essential part of God’s character? Many find support for this understanding in the biblical statements to the effect that God cannot lie. The thought is that if God were to speak a contradiction, or be a contradiction, or act in a contradictory way, then God would be guilty of lying or being untruthful.


I find this argument to be less than compelling. If there existed a contradiction in the universe, how would God be lying by telling us about it? If God were contradictory in his nature and if he were entirely open and honest about it, how would that be deceitful? If God were to act in contradictory ways but if he were not seeking to fool anyone by doing so, how would that be untruthful? As long as God is faithful to his promises, as long as he has been truthful in the statements he has made, does it really matter if there is a contradiction somewhere in the hidden, mysterious recesses of his being?


By this point, any proponent of the law of non-contradiction who has read this far has long since popped a blood vessel. To them the law of non-contradiction matters a great deal. The universe cannot make sense without it. There would be no way for us to understand or live in the universe if the law of non-contradiction were false. There would be no way to carry on rational discourse without it. In fact, many people would be quick to point out that my own discussion of the law of non-contradiction has assumed the truth of the law of non-contradiction.


And that raises what is to me the basic question: is it that the law of non-contradiction is the fundamental law of reality, or is it that the law of non-contradiction is the fundamental law of technical rational discourse? This strikes at one of the basic conundrums of philosophy. Can philosophy actual discover truth about reality, or can philosophy only express and explain truth?


For instance, what does it mean for something to be logically impossible? Are we saying that the laws of logic dictate reality? Are we saying that logic is some all-powerful force that prevents things from becoming contradictory?


Personally, I find that way of expressing it hard to swallow. It is more palatable to say that the law of non-contradiction is a formulation of a principle that we have observed to be true throughout the entirety of our experience. (We find it to be self-evident, and it appears to hold true throughout our normal experience.) I take the view that philosophy and logic are a reflection of reality, not a determiner of reality.


Really, when you boil it all down, the real reason that Christian philosophers are so insistent that we accept the law of non-contradiction is actually not because they have observed it to be true in reality, but rather that they have a hard time conceiving of reality without it. In order for a philosopher to be able to comprehend, communicate, and discuss a truth, it has to conform to the law of non-contradiction. Without the law of non-contradiction, all technical rational discussion breaks down and dissolves into nonsense. If something can be both X and non-X, then how can it be fit into any rational system of thought?


Christian philosophers will also point out that the universe would be unlivable without the law of non-contradiction. The only way we can live our lives is on the basis of the assumption that the law of non-contradiction holds true in all circumstances.


But this is an overstatement of the case. I can imagine a point X which is the point in the universe that is furthest from me. I can imagine that point X is at the very center of a black hole. I can also imagine at that point that there is a thing Y. Thing Y is so miniscule and insignificant that at such a great distance within that black hole there is nothing about thing Y that could possibly impact my life in any way. If thing Y were both Y and non-Y, would it matter? If thing Y was the only thing in all of reality that violated the law of non-contradiction, would it matter?


I am sure that most Christian philosophers would say that it does matter. If the law of non-contradiction can be violated by thing Y, then all of rationality dissolves into nonsense. I, however, would say that it is no harm, no foul. If thing Y is an exception that does not impact my life, then I am free to live by the law of non-contradiction as if it were an inviolable law. It will have no impact even on my rational discourse, since all that I will need to discuss still falls in line with the law of non-contradiction.


This illustration demonstrates an even deeper issue: an intellectual egocentrism. Could it be that the reason thing Y might get a philosopher’s dander up is that they cannot bear to think that there might be something in reality beyond their ability to comprehend it? Could it be that the philosopher demands that reality must fit into their neat logical boxes?


This becomes a very serious problem when a philosopher turns his attention to ponder the deep mysteries of God. A philosopher who believes the words of God in Scripture must agree that God is by his very nature incomprehensible. We can know him truly, but we cannot know him fully. Yet, a philosopher boldly asserts that God does not violate the law of non-contradiction.


The revealing question for the philosopher is whether or not he could believe in God if thing Y was a part of God’s nature. If there was known to be a contradiction within the deep recesses of the mystery of God’s being such that thing Y was also non-Y, would the philosopher be able to continue to believe in God? Probably most Christian philosophers would say that they would not be able to believe in such a God, since, they would say, such a God would be logically impossible.


This is odd, since a biblical view of God affords many opportunities for seeing contradictions in God. Any time you try to introduce the idea of the infinite into a finite system of thought, you run into problems. Hence the old question, “If God is omnipotent, then can he make a rock that is too heavy for him to lift?” Christian philosophers would say that of course God cannot make such a rock because such a rock is logically impossible. They would also say that the problem is not with God but rather with the question.


I would contend that the question merely exposes the issues encountered when you try to speak of the infinite in logical ways. The problem is not with the question. The problem is with trying to understand the idea of limitless power within a finite reasoning system. If you play with the idea of the infinite long enough, eventually you run into many such conundrums. (For more on the contradictions of infinity, research how mathematical set theory proposes numbers greater than infinity, or the paradoxes noted by Zeno.)


For other contradictions within the nature of God, a lot of non-philosopher Christians turn to both the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the incarnation. How is it that God can be both 1 and 3? How is it that Christ can be both God and man?


But Christian philosophers would be quick to explain that the Trinity and the incarnation are not inherently contradictory. God is 1 in a different way than God is 3. Christ is 1 in a different way than Christ is 2. And then they work at carefully defining the oneness and threeness of God and the oneness and twoness of Christ. For instance they might say that God is one being in three persons, and Christ is one person with two natures. And they carefully define what they mean by “being,” “person,” and “nature.”


Even still, many times the average Christian will read such explanations and be able to make little sense of them. Even if average Christians understand such explanations, they still might see such explanations as self-contradictory. Not only are they not able to reconcile these concepts in their minds, but they have a gut feeling that these concepts are just not quite right.


At this point the philosopher has to either admit that these rank-and-file Christians could be seeing something intuitively that the philosopher has missed, or the philosopher has to say that these rank-and-file Christians are stupid, deceived, and/or ignorant. Most Christian philosophers opt for the latter – writing off the uneducated masses as being too unenlightened to plumb the depths of theology proper, whereas the philosophers are of a higher echelon of intellectual knowledge and ability.


The formulations of the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation reveal at least three great limitations of the use of the law of non-contradiction in theological/philosophical thought. Even if you accept the law of non-contradiction as the self-evident foundational principle of rational reality, you still have to admit that the law of non-contradiction has at least three crippling limitations.


First, making use of the law of non-contradiction usually requires a very strict and technical definition of terms. This is clearly illustrated by the discussions surrounding the Trinity and the incarnation. The problem here is multifaceted. Often it is extremely difficult (impossible?) to define the terms in a satisfactory way. Even when a satisfactory solution is achieved, often it is by defining terms so technically that the resulting philosophical picture bears little resemblance to the idea it is trying to represent. This is how a lot of people feel with the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation. The philosophical formulations of these doctrines lack the beauty and luster of the God and God-Man described in Scripture. And finally, the process of defining one’s terms can feel relatively arbitrary. The philosopher denies the possibility of a contradiction, and then he proceeds to define his terms in whatever way he deems necessary to avoid the contradiction.


Second, the conclusions that the philosopher makes based on the law of non-contradiction can be false due to the philosopher’s own staggering ignorance. Since the mind of the philosopher is very finite, the amount that the philosopher does not know and understand far exceeds the amount that the philosopher does know and understand. The danger here is that conclusions made based on the law of non-contradiction can appear so black and white, but can still be terribly wrong.


One of my favorite examples of this is a basketball. If I were to convert a basketball into a philosophical/logical/mathematical description, I am certain I could demonstrate that it is impossible to turn a basketball inside out without cutting or ripping it. But a physicist will tell you that the feat is easily accomplished in four spatial dimensions. The physicist will also tell you that he is pretty certain that such a fourth spatial dimension does exist, so it is completely logically possible to turn a basketball inside out without cutting or ripping it. So my original seemingly-certain (slam-dunk?) conclusion turned out to be wrong due to my ignorance.


Probably the most well-known examples of the problem of ignorance are non-Euclidian geometries. In Euclidian geometry parallel lines do not cross – a concept that would seem either self-evident or true by definition. However, some mathematicians have proposed alternative geometries in which parallel lines do cross. To most people this would immediately appear to be nonsensical and even self-contradictory. However, when applying the rules of geometry to the surface of a sphere (such as the earth), one quickly discovers that parallel lines do cross. In fact, probably there are more curved surfaces than flat surfaces in nature. The seemingly self-contradictory idea of crossing parallel lines is probably the more commonly applicable idea and therefore more commonly representative of reality.


Third, the law of non-contradiction is always trembling in the looming shadow of the apparent contradiction. Philosophers like to make a distinction between an apparent contradiction and an actual contradiction. They would deny the possibility of actual contradictions, but they will admit that some things appear to us to be contradictions. Apparent contradictions are just unresolved problems. They are non-contradictions that are not yet fully understood. Once all the facts are known, once all of the terms are properly defined, the apparent contradiction will be clearly seen to not be a contradiction at all.


The problem here is the theoretical (or not-so-theoretical) existence of apparent contradiction Z. Let us imagine the existence of apparent contradiction Z. Apparent contradiction Z is a problem that is so immense and so complex and so detailed that no human being will ever be able to resolve it. In fact, no matter how far computer technology and genetic engineering advance, no matter how many human beings work on the problem, no matter how long the lifespan of those humans is extended, the apparent contradiction Z will never be resolved.


Perhaps the more arrogant philosophers would deny the possibility of apparent contradiction Z, but probably the majority of the more realistic philosophers would acknowledge the possibility of such a conundrum. Some philosophers may feel they have already discovered apparent contradiction Z. Others may feel that apparent contradiction Z is out there just waiting to be found.


Now, there is certainly a theoretical difference between my apparent contradiction Z and my thing Y. Y is in reality a contradiction, whereas Z is in reality not a contradiction. However, in practical terms there is no difference whatsoever. How would a philosopher be able to prove that apparent contradiction Z is not a thing Y? If the philosopher cannot resolve the apparent contradiction of Z, then for all intents and purposes Z looks and acts exactly like Y.


When the philosopher encounters Z he will just have to live with the real existence of something that looks to him and will always look to him as if it is a contradiction. He can console himself with the thought that Z is only an apparent contradiction, but he will never be able to prove it. He can only take it on blind faith that Z is not a thing Y.


Many Christian philosophers are aware of the problem of apparent contradiction Z, and this is why they find it so important to embed logic within the nature of God. A human philosopher may never be able to resolve apparent contradiction Z, but the all-knowing, all-wise God is able to fully understand Z. He is able to see it as non-contradictory. So when faced with apparent contradiction Z, the humble Christian philosopher is able to say with relief, “I may not understand this, but God does.”


Strangely enough this sounds exactly like the folk wisdom of the many rank-and-file Christians who deny the applicability of the law of non-contradiction to the infinite God. The rank-and-file Christian says, “This is a contradiction, but it makes sense to God.” The philosopher says, “This is an apparent contradiction, but it makes sense to God.” In practice there is basically no difference between the two.


The major practical difference between the philosopher and the rank-and-file Christian is one of extremes. The rank-and-file Christian is probably too quick to give up trying to understand what appears to be a contradiction, whereas the philosopher is too quick to resolve it at the cost of losing much of the richness of true reality.


Much can be learned from the example of the book of Job. Job and his friends spend the majority of the book struggling with what appears to be a contradiction: the problem of pain. How can a good God allow/cause a good man to suffer? To many Christians and non-Christians this is the greatest contradiction or apparent contradiction of them all. After chapters of debate, God finally appears to Job and his friends. However, God’s speeches to Job do not actually provide an answer. Instead God says he as God does not need to provide an answer to mere humans whom he has created. In fact, the wisdom of God is far beyond the understanding of man.


One of the implications of the book of Job is that trusting, worshiping, relating to, and coming to know God involves grappling with actions God takes and aspects of his nature that do not fully make sense to us. Many rank-and-file Christians give up grappling and avoid thinking about such matters. Many Christian philosophers accomplish the same by taking philosophical shortcuts to resolve apparent contradictions to their own satisfaction.


However, I think the appropriate posture is to live a life grappling with deep spiritual matters, fully aware that many of the details are ultimately beyond our understanding. As we open our eyes to the richness of God’s truth, we are moved to our knees in humble worship. If we are too quick to avoid these issues, or if we are too quick to jump to a neat and tidy solution, God may command us to sacrifice our sons, or he may take away all that we own. Then we will be forced to admit that we cannot fully make sense of reality, and we will have to choose to trust God in spite of apparent contradiction Z (or thing Y).

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Apologetics Part 3: Why I Do Not Believe In Apologetics

[Please note that this is part 3 of a series on apologetics. Although it would be tempting to start with this post, please read the other two posts first.]

I would like to turn my attention to my reasoning behind rejecting apologetics itself. I have a lot of thoughts on this, and I will probably not think of them all as I type. But I will try to be content with providing my main reasons.


First, I reject apologetics because Scripture is against it. I already demonstrated in my last post that the passages of Scripture often used to support apologetics fail to do so. I will not revisit those arguments here. However, I would like to add there are multiple passages of Scripture that not only do not support apologetics, but actually teach against it. The most significant of these passages is 1 Corinthians 1-2. In this text Paul teaches that the gospel runs counter to the wisdom of the Greeks. God intentionally designed the gospel to be foolish in order that no one would be able to boast that they came to God out of their own great intelligence and wisdom. Therefore Paul in his own evangelism did not use brilliance or eloquence or persuasive words of wisdom. Instead, Paul simply proclaimed the gospel in a straightforward, clear manner. There has been some pushback from apologists against this plain understanding of this text. They try to say that the “wisdom” employed by the Corinthians at this time was a very vapid form of rhetoric. However, Paul does not take issue with their style or method of argumentation. Paul takes issue with the idea that a man could be properly converted by human reasoning of any kind. The issue is not the kind of reasoning, but rather the source of the reasoning. Human-generated reasoning is unacceptable.


Second, I reject apologetics because I reject one of the central tenets of apologetics. In order for apologetics to work, the believer and the unbeliever must agree upon some common standard by which to judge the truth or reasonableness of the claims of Christianity. I think it is impossible for such a common standard to exist.


On the one hand, there is the group of intellectual unbelievers. These are skeptics who know something about science or history or philosophy, etc. In real-life encounters with such people, more and more I find that apologetic-type conversations degenerate into epistemological questions. Intellectuals will often deny the existence of objective truth, deny the ability of humans to construct logically coherent belief systems, etc. In other words the intellectual unbeliever has an entirely different set of standards by which they govern the argument. It is like the believer and unbeliever are on the same playing field, but they are playing two different games with two different rulebooks policed by two different referees. In the end, the apologist is required to defend his own epistemology before a productive conversation can continue, and when an apologist attempts to prove his epistemology, he discovers that he has to appeal to many different assumptions and presuppositions – assumptions and presuppositions that the unbeliever violently disagrees with. In other words, there is no way the apologist can have a productive conversation with an intellectual unbeliever.


On the other hand, the majority of unbelievers are not intellectual. They do not even know what the word epistemology means (nor do they have to). Most unbelievers are too uninitiated in debate to recognize when a point has been proven. They will spout non sequiturs and ad hominem arguments, etc. They will shift ground and erect straw men. A carefully reasoned argument bears little fruit with the average man on the street. They are on the playing field, but they are playing their own game, and they keep changing the rules to make sure that they come out the winner. An apologist will not find a common standard of rational argumentation in a conversation with the average unbeliever.


But the real issue is not the lack of intellectual agreement on the standards of rational argumentation. The real issue is one of spiritual blindness. According to 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, the natural man is not able in himself to receive the truth of Scripture. He cannot believe without being enlightened by the Spirit of God. According to 2 Corinthians 4:1-6, the gospel is to be proclaimed simply and clearly. Those whose minds have been opened are able to respond. Those who do not respond have had their minds veiled by the spiritual forces of darkness.


Third, I reject apologetics because it is unnecessary. According to Romans 1:18-32 every human being already believes in good theology. From the evidence they see in creation and from the internal evidence of their own sense of the divine, all humans believe in the existence of God – a God that is a close approximation of the biblical God (verses 19-20). Furthermore, they believe in biblical morality and that death is God’s judgment upon sin (verse 32). In other words, all humans have an innate understanding of the negative side of the gospel: their own sin before the judgment of a righteous God. What they need is not rational argumentation, but rather the solution to the problem that they already recognize. They need the gospel. And this is what Paul expresses just previously in Romans 1:16 – that the gospel is itself powerful enough to save. The reason that Paul gives for unbelief is not intellectual doubts or skepticism. According to Paul, the reason people live by worldviews other than the Christian worldview is the sin in their hearts blinding them and turning them from God to other things. Again, the solution to the problem of sin is not rational argumentation, but rather the proclamation of the gospel followed by the call to repentance and belief. If apologetics ever appears to be successful it is because it is accompanied by the proclamation of the gospel.


Fourth, I reject apologetics because the circumstances always call for something other than apologetics. For this I return to my previous posts. In my first post on apologetics I listed out many techniques that are not strictly apologetics. In my personal experience, encounters with unbelievers call for one of those techniques (and many others that I am sure that I left off of my list). As I mentioned in my post, I spend most of my apologetic encounters actually engaging in what I call “differentiation.” In this way, I avoid picking apart someone’s point of view. Instead, by comparing and contrasting the teaching of Scripture with their worldview, I am able to share a lot more than I am able to when I make it a debate. They will listen much more attentively. A good example is a common discussion I find myself in with coworkers about the biblical perspective of marriage as a committed lifetime relationship of sacrificial love. I contrast the biblical view of love with their jaded, cynical, worldly concept of marriage. In the process, I am able to talk about loving one’s wife as Christ loved the church. This is a great opportunity to share the gospel. I sincerely believe that what keeps people listening in these conversations is two things: the non-confrontational nature of the approach and the fact that as the biblical worldview is contrasted with their own, their hearts resonate with the truthfulness and beauty of the biblical worldview. More on that in a moment. For a great biblical example of how a seeming perfect opportunity for apologetics was handled far better by other means, look back at the discussion of Acts 17 in my previous post. When Paul is before a group of philosophers, he avoids engaging in rational argumentation. Instead, he speaks the gospel directly to the needs of their hearts.


Fifth, I reject apologetics because I reject the epistemological assumptions inherent to apologetics. I do not believe that people truly come to believe things through rational argumentation. In the end people just know what they know. The actual epistemology that governs people’s deepest held beliefs is much more intuitive than rational. A great example is Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” (or Augustine’s much earlier version: “I doubt, therefore I am.”) On the surface, it appears to be a very rational defense for one’s own existence. Because I find myself to be thinking, there must be an “I” in existence to do the thinking. However, this defense only works if I accept a couple of basic assumptions. I must accept that I am really thinking, and that my thoughts are not merely illusions. Also, I must accept that existence is a prerequisite to thought. These are purely assumptions. I have nothing to offer as proof of these assumptions. So at its essence, Descartes’ statement is not a rational defense of his own existence. It is merely a recognition that I am self-conscious. It is a statement of intuitive belief. The starting point for Descartes’ understanding of the world is his fideistic belief in his own existence and his own self-conscious perception of the world.


Whether or not Descartes’ statement is the best starting point for philosophy (something I would contest), it is certainly true that most people accept their own existence as a matter of course. They also intuitively accept a lot of other things. They accept a lot of their sense perceptions in spite of what some philosophers might say to cast aspersions on sense perception. Also, people live their lives by things that fall outside of the realm of rational proof. They live much of their lives in service of those they love for the sake of love itself. They live by an internal moral compass that they have never rationally defended. Contrary to what the philosophers believe, this is not proof that people are irrational and in need of guidance by those more intelligent than the masses. This is actually proof that the average person has the common sense to recognize truth when it presents itself.


This is because truth is bigger and more complex than our feeble attempts to represent it in systems of philosophical thought. Pick the person you know and love the most, and then try to represent them as a series of philosophical propositions or scientific hypotheses. You may make some true statements, but your attempts will fall far short of reality.


This problem is even more magnified when you switch to speaking about God. Is the Unmoved Mover or the God of the ontological argument really the God of the Bible? Is any depiction of God within philosophy an accurate depiction of the God of the Bible? Does philosophy make you tremble in awe of the wrath of God? Does science comfort you with the loving care of God for his creatures? God is an awful and terrible and frightening and comforting and transcendent and immanent and inescapable reality. He is the ultimate reality – the ultimate truth. He is not an idea, but a Person. He is not a set of propositions, but a great and infinite Someone. Such a God cannot be known by the Babel towers erected by human reason. He must reveal himself to us. He has revealed himself to us most clearly in his Son Jesus – who declared himself to be the Truth. This kind of Truth does not contradict reason, but it most certainly transcends it.


Finally, I reject apologetics because I do not need apologetics to be a rational human being. Anyone who knows me knows that I am very rational and cerebral. I like to think through things with care. I like to make careful decisions based on sound reasoning. I am intellectually bent by nature. However, I am not driven by a need to prove my set of beliefs to the satisfaction of the rational side of my brain. I stand within the boundaries of the Christian worldview. I have encountered no argument or piece of evidence that has brought my faith crumbling down. From my perspective looking out at the world around me, all that I see lines up with the teachings of Scripture. I have no need to remove myself from that worldview and then to try to argue myself back into it in some kind of twisted, sadistic, mind-bending intellectual exercise. Furthermore, I have lived enough to recognize that there is more to life than what I can prove with my brain. I would rather live by the Old Testament category of wisdom than by modern-day philosophy. I am very rational, but I am comfortable believing the truth of Scripture without absolute rational proof. The reason for this is that the reality of God and Christ as revealed in Scripture and more specifically in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ resonates so deeply within my soul, I cannot shake the conviction that it is absolutely true.

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Apologetics Part 2: The Non-Apologetics Passages of Scripture

[This is the second entry on apologetics. It would be wise to read the first entry before this one.]

In light of my discussion in the previous post of what apologetics ISN’T, I want to look over some of the passages of Scripture most central to the support of apologetics. My contention is that such passages do not actually support apologetics, but rather support one of the other items I delineated as being related to apologetics.

First, I would like to look at Paul’s speech before the Areopagus in Athens as recorded in Acts 17. This is often cited as the prime example of apologetics in Scripture. Paul stands up before a group of self-proclaimed intellectuals and supposedly defends his faith. I would say that Paul’s speech definitely is a great example of how to share the gospel with pagan intellectuals, but I see nothing in Paul’s speech that falls into the category of apologetics.

Paul opens his remarks by doing what I call “bridging.” He finds some area of similar belief between himself and his listeners. He commends them as being religious (v. 22). After all, they worship many gods. They are firm believers in the category of deity, and that this category of deity should be actively worshiped.

Then Paul bridges again by latching onto their altar to an unknown god. He seems to see this as an example of their superior religiosity, but he also says it demonstrates their ignorance (v. 23). In other words he shows how they themselves have some sense of the divine, but they themselves admit to being uncertain that they fully understand the divine. This altar to an unknown god is an admission that there is more to the divine/spiritual/numinous than they have direct knowledge of.

Paul then engages in differentiation and proclamation. In verses 24-26, Paul describes the biblical God. Paul even uses clear allusions to Old Testament passages. Paul is demonstrating how the monotheistic, biblical God is very different from the Greeks’ polytheism as practiced in Athens. Paul offers no proof that the biblical God is more true than the Greeks’ polytheism. He simply declares the biblical God to be the true God, and he shows that the biblical God is different from their view.

Next, Paul returns to bridging in verses 26-27. He connects with the audience’s own worldview by referencing an idea ingrained in their cultural consciousness. He quotes a Greek poet who says that all human beings are the offspring of the divine. Again Paul is appealing to their deep-rooted sense of the divine – the idea that the divine is within reach, and that the divine has somehow touched each and every one of us. In other words, the biblical omnipotent, omnipresent Creator-God fits with their own perception of the world.

Paul goes back to differentiation in verse 29. The Greeks had surmised that if human beings were touched by the divine, then it was reasonable to depict the gods in human form. Paul states that he comes to a different conclusion based on biblical truth. Again alluding to Old Testament passages, Paul explains that since we are God’s offspring, then God must be greater than we are. Therefore, he should not be depicted as an idol. In fact, God is greater than anything that can be depicted by the art and thought of man. This is not really a rational argument. Paul is explaining a very biblical idea of God and showing how it differs from the Greeks’ polytheism. He states that the biblical concept of God is correct, but he offers no actual proof of it.

Paul then moves into direct proclamation. In verses 30-31 Paul simply declares the gospel, highlighting the mercy of God, the future judgment by God, the sin of the audience, and their need for repentance. There is very little here that the Athenians could relate to from their own way of thinking. Paul is left to just state it as fact.

At last, in the closing phrase of Paul’s speech he provides the proof of all of the statements he has made before, especially of the statements regarding final judgment. The only proof that Paul gives in the entire passage is the proof of the resurrection. Apparently he does not try to prove that Jesus actually rose from the dead. He merely states that Jesus rose, and then he uses that fact to support everything else he has said previously. This is proclamation, perhaps combined with eyewitness testimony.

So Paul’s speech is not apologetics. The techniques he employs are outside of apologetics when apologetics is strictly defined. But Paul’s speech is not an example of apologetics for some additional reasons. Instead of treating his audience as equally rational human beings with some shared intellectual common ground, Paul twice declares his audience to be ignorant (verses 23,30). He declares their idolatry to be wrong and deserving of repentance (verses 29-30), and he declares that if they do not repent they will fall under the judgment of God (verse 31). This is more akin to fire and brimstone preaching than civil debate. Paul makes many statements without offering proof, and many of these statements are directly contradictory to the beliefs of his audience (verses 24-26,30-31). The only proof that Paul does offer in the passage is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But today the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the end goal of much of apologetics. Apologists spend more time trying to prove the resurrection of Jesus Christ, rather than using it as proof of Christianity.

What Paul is actually doing here is a wise evangelistic technique. He is speaking to intellectuals, so instead of speaking to their heads, he speaks to their hearts. He exposes that they themselves feel unsettled about their own beliefs. They themselves feel that there is more to divinity than what they currently understand. Then he talks directly to that deep-rooted unease. Instead of waffling around with argument and debate, he confidently declares the truth to the spiritually confused. Without shame he grounds his entire speech on the one fact that they found most ridiculous: the resurrection of the dead (verses 31-32). So he identifies to the philosophers that they themselves know that they are theologically and spiritually confused, and as a cure to their confusion, he speaks with uncompromising clarity and directness. This is not apologetics of the mind. This is evangelism of the heart.

The second place that is turned to for support for apologetics is the group of Scriptures that make use of the Greek word group apologia from which we get the word apologetics. The verses cited as most clearly referring to apologetics are Philippians 1:7,16 and 1 Peter 3:15. The word group surrounding apologia was originally referring to a legal defense given in a courtroom setting. Already we see that we are on shaky ground here. The type of arguments given in a legal defense would actually have little in common with the types of arguments utilized in apologetics. For one thing in court there is a heavy reliance upon eyewitness testimony. I would think that would have been even more true in the Roman and Jewish courts before the days of high-tech crime scene investigation techniques. In a court room, one is required to call actual live eyewitnesses to give testimony under strict rules of conduct. This is impossible to replicate in an apologetic setting.

The question of legal argumentation aside, the idea that these passages support apologetics breaks down even further when the passages are examined in context. 1 Peter 3:15 is the most important biblical passage for apologetics. In context the verse is written to people suffering from severe persecution. Apparently this persecution was sanctioned or even perpetrated by the local government and/or justice system. Throughout the book of 1 Peter, the apostle Peter pleads with his readers to live an exemplary life so that no true charges can be brought against them. Peter wants them to be like Christ, who in order to be executed had to be falsely accused. So within this context Peter commands them to always be “ready to make a defense [apologia] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you.”

Now what is Peter asking his readers to do? Is he asking them to give a set of rational arguments proving the truth of the claims of Christianity? This hardly seems to fit the tenor or the context of the letter. Instead, Peter is probably using a play on words here. To a group of believers who are facing the very real danger of courtroom prosecution, he says to prepare a “defense.” He tells them to defend the hope within them. He is not asking them to give rational arguments to defend an objective hope. He is telling them to give their personal reasons for the hope that is within their hearts. They are to give reasons for something subjective. In other words, here are Christians facing persecution, but instead of giving up hope, they continue to cling to that hope. Peter wants them to be ready for when people ask them why they still have hope in the face of hopelessness. In that context, do you think Peter is expecting them to come out with the ontological argument? No, I think he is probably just expecting them to give the gospel. Perhaps he is expecting them to give their personal testimony. I think it is pretty hard to see Peter as expecting more from his readers than what Peter did himself in the face of persecution in Acts 4:5-22; 5:21-42. Peter, when questioned, simply declared the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ from Scripture and boldly called his listeners to repentance. That was Peter’s apologia when brought before the highest Jewish court.

The passages in Philippians 1:7,16 are equally difficult to construe as supporting the modern concept of apologetics. Paul uses the word family of apologia in references to his own imprisonment. So Paul is literally in prison, and he will literally go before a court in which he will literally have to present an apologia. There is a chance that Paul is literally referring to his actual legal defense. However, it is more likely that we again have a play on words. After all he says that he is in jail for the “defense [apologia] of the gospel.” What does this mean? Does Paul think that he is being called upon to rationally defend the truth claims of the gospel against intellectual assault? Clearly this is highly unlikely. There is no record of Paul ever being imprisoned due to intellectual problems with his message. Instead, we see Paul arrested due to jealousy, theological/exegetical differences with the Jews, Jewish racism against Gentiles, etc. The case brought against him at the end of Acts is not based on intellectual argumentation, but rather the factually incorrect testimony of false witnesses.

How does Paul see himself called upon to defend the gospel? Perhaps Paul wants to defend the reputation of the faith from the scurrilously false accusations of the Jews (this was a debate over whether or not Paul defiled the temple, or whether or not the gospel was contradictory to the Jewish belief system – matters not within the boundaries of apologetics). Perhaps Paul sees himself as a representative of the gospel, so any legal case brought against him is tantamount to a legal case brought against the gospel itself. Perhaps Paul is not referring to any actual defense. Perhaps his play on words is merely a reference to his efforts to proclaim the gospel throughout the world.

The only times we see Paul giving an apologia are in the book of Acts after he is arrested in the temple. In Paul’s first apologia in Acts 22:6-21, Paul only gets as far as giving his personal testimony before he is cut off by the rioting crowd. In his second apologia before the Sanhedrin Paul is again quickly cut off. He only has time to declare himself to be a Pharisee and to assert his belief in the resurrection of the dead. In his third apologia before the Roman governor Felix, Paul does contradict the accusations made against himself personally. This is not apologetics. This is an actual legal defense made against legal accusations. In this apologia Paul also makes some statements concerning the gospel itself. He says that the gospel is in line with the teachings of the Law and the Prophets, and that the hope of the resurrection of the dead is an essential teaching of the gospel. Again, this is not apologetics. This is exegesis and theology. It is also differentiation. He is not trying to prove the truth of the gospel. He is just saying that the teachings of the gospel are different from the statements made by the Jews concerning the Way. In his fourth apologia before King Herod Agrippa, Bernice, and Festus, Paul again gives his personal testimony. He defends his personal reputation as a good Jew, probably in response to the accusations made against him by the Jews. He declares again his belief in the resurrection of the dead, offering no proof for it beyond an appeal to the omnipotence of God. Paul finishes by proclaiming the basic tenets of the gospel and by inviting King Herod to believe.

So at no point in Paul’s recorded imprisonment at the end of Acts or in all of the related courtroom drama, do we ever see Paul engaging in apologetics as understood today. So when Paul says he has been imprisoned for the defense of the gospel, it is hard to see how he could possibly be referring to apologetic argumentation. When Paul was on trial, he openly gave his testimony, he declared the truth of the gospel from Scripture, and he called his audience to faith and repentance. This idea of “defense” is not apologetics. It is evangelism – pure and simple.

And I could go on through the other more minor passages given in support of apologetics. They all boil down to practices and techniques that are other than apologetics. In the end we see that Scripture neither commands nor gives examples of apologetics strictly defined.

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Apologetics Part 1: What Apologetics Cannot Be (So What Is Left?)

[I apologize for this series of entries on apologetics. They are overly long, and they are a subject I wanted to get into on my blog. However, I needed these entries for a course I am taking.]

One of the main difficulties in conversations about apologetics is the issue of disagreement about the definition of and scope of apologetics itself. It is my contention that the field of apologetics gains much of its support by claiming for itself areas of evangelism and theology that do not belong to it. I would like to list out some things that are not rightly included in apologetics proper. They may be related to apologetics, but they are not apologetics.


First, apologetics is not systematic theology. Systematic theology is the attempt to lay out biblical truth in an internally coherent system. A lot of apologetics centers around whether or not worldviews are internally coherent, but when Christians attempt to construct an internally coherent system, this is not apologetics. It is systematic theology.


Second, apologetics is not biblical exegesis. Exegesis is the careful study of Scripture following solid hermeneutical principles (principles of common sense interpretation and reading comprehension). The ability to read the Bible and to accurately understand and communicate what it says is not apologetics. It is exegesis and exposition.


Third, apologetics is not proclamation. Apologetics is not the declaration of biblical truth to believers. That is preaching. Apologetics is not the declaration of biblical truth to unbelievers. That is evangelism. Any time someone is simply proclaiming the truth, they are not engaging in apologetics.


Fourth, apologetics is not the refutation of heresy. When false teachers arise claiming to be Christians but misrepresenting the truth, we do not use apologetics to refute them. We use exegesis, systematic theology, and proclamation. We refute heresy by pointing out how the false teachers have misunderstood Scripture. We refute heresy by showing how the false teachers violate universally accepted Christian orthodoxy (as it solidly rests upon Scripture). And then we boldly proclaim the accurate truth.


Fifth, apologetics is not the presentation of personal testimony or witness. When you share your personal testimony, you are not engaging in apologetics, you are using one of the earliest methods of evangelism on record. Paul shared his personal testimony on multiple occasions. And it is not just personal conversion experiences. Much of the New Testament is based on the eyewitness accounts of those who met Jesus. The reason your personal testimony does not qualify as apologetics is that your personal experience is hardly rationally convincing to another person. You could be lying or mistaken or deceived. The reason the eyewitness testimonies in the New Testament do not qualify as apologetics is that now they are only recorded in the New Testament. An unbeliever will hardly accept the New Testament accounts as authoritative in any kind of intellectual discussion. Presenting your testimony or the eyewitness accounts of Scripture directly and without any additional defense is just one form of proclamation.


Sixth, apologetics is not appealing to miraculous signs. If you appeal to a miraculous sign that the other person has not seen, then you are again providing eyewitness testimony. For instance, if you tell about an answer to prayer in your life, this is personal testimony. If you talk about Christ’s resurrection, this is the eyewitness testimony of the New Testament. If the unbeliever witnesses a miraculous sign themselves, then they become the eyewitness testifying to themselves. Miraculous signs cannot be treated as absolute proof. The Bible in both the Old and New Testaments speaks of how people can be deceived by miraculous signs. For these and other reasons, miraculous signs do not properly fall into the arena of apologetics.


Seventh, along with these last two points, apologetics is not proving to the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. In any discussion of apologetics, proponents of apologetics will support their ideas of apologetics by referencing the multiple occasions in which Paul reasoned with the Jews in the synagogue proving that Jesus was the Messiah. However, this does not qualify as apologetics. Paul is combining the last three points. He is using Scripture (Old Testament prophecies, etc.), theology, and proclamation combined with eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ life. He looks at the Old Testament and interprets it in light of the coming of Christ, and then he tells the facts of Jesus’ life to show how those facts match with the Old Testament rightly interpreted. This is not apologetics. This is a combination of exegesis and testimony.


Eighth, apologetics is not differentiation. This is the big one. I spend most of my “apologetic” discussions with unbelievers doing what I call differentiation. What I mean by differentiation is any attempt to distinguish between biblical truth and some other worldview. I find myself engaging in three main types of differentiation. Of course I will sometimes be called upon to explain how what I believe is different from some other worldview out there (or even some other major form of Christianity). More frequently I find myself explaining how what I believe is different from what the person I am speaking with believes. But most often, I find that I have to explain how what I believe is different from what the person thinks I believe. Usually I find that most unbelievers present all kinds of intellectual arguments and doubts that prevent them from believing in Christianity, but I find that those arguments and doubts are against a straw man. They are arguing against something that I do not believe. I spend a lot of time saying, “That’s not what the Bible teaches. Let me explain to you what the Bible teaches…” This is not apologetics. This is exegesis, systematic theology, and proclamation conducted in a way in which the unbeliever can clearly see the differences between biblical truth and some other view.


Ninth, apologetics is not bridging or contextualization. What I mean is that there are a host of evangelistic techniques whereby you connect with the unbeliever’s perspective on the world. You can do this by finding some kind of limited common ground. For instance, Paul in his famous speech before the Areopagus in Acts 17 does a lot of bridging. He references the altar of the unknown god. He references quotes from Greek poets. He makes these references in ways that clearly show what he means by those ideas is very different from what the Athenians might have understood by them. However, he is using those ideas in hopes that they will provide an entrance point for the truth. He starts with something the Athenians might understand to lead them to ideas that might be more foreign to them. Along with this technique of bridging is the technique of contextualization. This is “translating” the truth of Scripture into language and terms that the audience will understand. Of course this means speaking in the actual language of the audience, but it also might be using examples from the audience’s own culture. The most oft-cited example of contextualization is Don Richardson’s Peace Child. This is not apologetics, this is merely proclamation in terms that the audience will understand.


Tenth, apologetics is not adorning the gospel. Sometimes Christians will talk about the apologetic of a consistent Christian lifestyle. By Christians consistently living according to the teachings of Scripture, they provide evidence of the truth and beauty of those teachings. However, the Bible nowhere speaks of Christian example in those terms. In Titus 2:10 Paul says that a consistent Christian lifestyle will “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.” However, from the context of Titus 2:7, it seems that Paul is less focusing on the positive impact of a consistent Christian lifestyle and more on avoiding the negative impact of an inconsistent Christian lifestyle. Being a “good” Christian will not necessarily convince anyone of the truth of the gospel, but if you are a “bad” Christian, you will certainly damage Christianity’s credibility. So really by living a consistent Christian lifestyle, the best that can be said is that you are avoiding doing damage to the credibility of Christianity. This is not apologetics. This is obedience. This is bringing glory to God in every area of your life.


Eleventh, apologetics is not passionate appeal. When presenting the truth of Scripture to unbelievers, it is a good evangelistic practice to be allow your passion and love for the truth to come to the surface. When you share the gospel, you may give reasons why someone should trust in Christ. These are not intellectual reasons. You may speak of the love of God in glowing terms. You may speak of the marvels of heaven and the horrors of hell. You may speak of the glories of Christ and the cross. This is not apologetics. This is proclamation. The truth is reality. It carries with it emotion and wonder. When you express those things, you are merely declaring the truth as it is.


Twelfth, apologetics is not wisdom. Wisdom is a category of thinking well-represented in Scripture. One way of understanding wisdom is that it is an attempt to reconcile the truth of Scripture with reality and in so doing to better understand both reality and Scripture. The biggest question in wisdom literature is the problem of pain and suffering. The entirety of the book of Job and much of Psalms and Ecclesiastes are devoted to the question of how God can allow someone to suffer. This is oddly enough one of the biggest issues tackled by apologetics, so how is wisdom not apologetics? There are multiple reasons why wisdom is not apologetics. For example, wisdom is not as much interested in the general intellectual question as to why a generically good God could allow suffering in general. Wisdom is interested in why I myself am suffering, why the God of the Bible (YHWH) might allow that suffering, why the God who makes specific promises does not appear to be fulfilling those promises, etc. Wisdom assumes that evil people (as defined by Scripture) should suffer, so it deals only with the question of the suffering of the righteous (as defined by Scripture). Most of the time the wisdom literature is not dealing with doubts as to God’s existence or goodness, but rather it is just seeking to understand the reasons why a good God would allow this particular circumstance to occur and then to continue. Wisdom’s methods of reasoning are not the methods one would expect from apologetics. Wisdom sometimes just accepts the goodness of God on faith. Wisdom uses more of a common sense approach to the world, rather than a rational-intellectual approach. Wisdom observes the world as is, but makes those observations through the lens of a biblical worldview. And many or even all of the conclusions of wisdom would be unpalatable to the intellectual unbeliever. For instance, on the question of pain and suffering, wisdom would simply tell the unbeliever that they are suffering because they are an unbeliever. People who do not fear God deserve to suffer. Furthermore, God’s response to Job at the end of the book can in many ways be boiled down to a declaration that God does not have to answer to us. He created us, so he can do what he wants with us. If he wants to make us suffer, he has every right to do so, and we have no right to question his goodness based on our suffering. This would make for horrible apologetics!


Thirteenth, apologetics is not responding to the doubts of believers. Certainly we cannot think that apologetics is something to be conducted with believers. Even if you use similar arguments with a believer as what you use with an unbeliever, you are not doing apologetics when you speak with a believer. A believer is already a believer. Apologetics is by definition something external to the faith. Furthermore, what you would say to a doubting believer would hopefully be far different from an apologetic argument used with an unbeliever. With a doubting believer you might use exegesis, or systematic theology, or even personal testimony. Probably the best tactic is to use wisdom. If someone has already accepted Christ as Lord, why go backwards to some kind of rational argumentation? Just continue to demonstrate how the truth of the Bible (exegesis) is internally coherent (systematic theology) and makes sense of reality as experienced by the believer (wisdom). And keep affirming that truth without reservation (proclamation) and demonstrating how you have seen that truth in your own life (personal testimony). There is no need for anything else.


Finally, apologetics is not answering biblical questions. Some so-called apologetic questions are merely glorified Bible trivia. One of the most common “apologetic” questions I have received is “Where did Cain and Seth get their wives?” This is not a matter of rational argumentation. This is merely consulting a few Bible passages to give the most likely answer. “Cain and Seth married their sisters” is the correct response. The reply then is “Isn’t that incest? And doesn’t the Bible say that incest is wrong?” Then the response is a more detailed explanation of the progress of divine revelation – making the point that something that was declared to be wrong in Exodus and Deuteronomy might not have been wrong before. This is not apologetics. This is exegesis.


So then, if all of this is not apologetics, what is apologetics? Apologetics is the presentation of some kind of rational argument to an unbeliever using some agreed upon rules of epistemology, logical argumentation, and/or evidence to convince the unbeliever of the truth of the biblical worldview in whole or in part.


At its core apologetics is an argument or a debate. This is not to say that apologetics is argumentative, but rather that in apologetics ideas are set in conflict. The apologist is defending Christianity against arguments levied against its truthfulness, or the apologist is attacking other points of view, or the apologist is attempting to prove that Christianity is superior to other points of view.


These arguments must be rational. Irrational or subjective arguments cannot properly be called apologetics. There is no way irrational or subjective arguments can be refereed in the marketplace of ideas. In a debate how can you declare one subjective argument to be the winner over against another subjective argument? Apologetics must be limited to rational arguments only.


This means that the two sides of the debate must agree upon some standard of judging the truthfulness or reasonableness of the claims being debated. Just as a courtroom has rules of evidence, a debate must have an agreed upon common ground of epistemology, logical argumentation, and/or evidence. If there is no such common ground, the debate is fruitless, worthless, and pointless. The two sides talk past each other.


Finally, in apologetics the goal is to convince the unbeliever of the truth of the biblical worldview in whole or in part. Most if not all apologists agree that apologetics cannot get a believer to actually believe the truth, but the idea is that apologetics should at least bring the unbeliever to the point of acknowledging the essential reasonableness of the claims of the Christian worldview or even the absolute truthfulness of those claims. Apologetics may be a debate on a single issue, or it could tackle the entirety of the Christian worldview as a whole. Apologetics has to be pointed at a particular audience. Apologists do not debate for the sake of debate. They are trying to win people over.


There is one area of discussion with unbelievers that I find difficult to discern whether it rightfully belongs to apologetics or not. More and more I find myself being confronted by unbelievers with completely falsified facts. This has become more prevalent since Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Brown makes statements of so-called “facts” in his books and interviews that are wildly untrue. Even scholars who think that the claims of Christianity are false find much within Brown’s books that is non-factual. I have to confess that I am uncertain as to how to deal with this. Normally one thinks of apologetics as arguing about the interpretation of mutually accepted facts. For instance, no one argues what the New Testament says, but people will argue as to whether or not the New Testament is trustworthy. No one argues against the fact that there are thousands of manuscript copies of the New Testament, but people will argue as to whether or not the existence of those copies means that we can trust the current text of the New Testament. The problem is now that skeptics are putting forward as evidence things that are just blatantly not true. For example, Brown’s description of the teachings of the gnostic gospels does not at all jive with what you actually would find if you read the gnostic gospels. It is hard to know how to deal with that. That level of poor argument and spiritual blindness may indicate the total fruitlessness of arguing with such a person.

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What Qualifies As An Issue of Conscience?

I finished the last post by commenting that Paul’s real concern in 1 Cor. 8-10 and Rom. 14-15 is not the particular issues being discussed, but rather how those issues are being handled in the church. This opens us up to applying the principles from these passages to controversies concerning debatable issues of conscience today.


Of course, in most of these issues, one of the biggest points of contention is whether or not the issue itself qualifies as an issue of conscience. One party in the controversy will claim they have the freedom in Christ to act a certain way, and the other party will claim they do not. So how do you determine if it qualifies as an issue of conscience?


First, we must be clear that these are not issues of minor theological disagreement. Certainly the principles of these passages will apply in great measure to theological controversies, but the issues being discussed in Romans and 1 Corinthians are primarily issues of Christian behavior, not Christian theology. They are issues of morality, ethics, and conduct.


Similarly, these are issues concerning actions that appear to have the possibility of moral value. In other words, the Christians in Paul’s day were not arguing over whether it was OK to wear a green toga versus a blue toga. That is not a moral question.


These issues become moral questions because at least one side of the controversy has solid biblical and/or theological and/or ethical reasons for believing the way they believe. For instance, the Jews of Romans 14 almost certainly based their views on eating certain foods and celebrating certain days on the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament). The Gentiles in Romans 14 almost certainly based their views on the teachings of the New Testament gospel of grace. In 1 Cor. 8:4-6 Paul makes a strong case that it is OK to eat food sacrificed to idols. In 1 Cor. 10:14-22, Paul appears to make a strong case AGAINST eating foods sacrificed to idols. There is good biblical/theological/ethical reasons for both sides of each of these controversies.


Along with good reasons supporting each side, Paul assumes that the people on each side of the controversy are motivated by a desire to do what is right in order to honor God (Rom. 14:4-12). In a true issue of conscience, you will see that the different parties involved are people sincerely trying to understand the Word of God and to apply it in their daily living. What you should not see is people trying to use their “freedom in Christ” as an excuse to do whatever they want.


Finally, in order for an issue to be an issue of conscience, it has to be an issue in which there is the possibility of disagreement within the bounds of a reasonable understanding of Scripture. For example, murder is not an issue of conscience. Scripture is very clear that murder is sinful and wrong. There is an emphasis on the “reasonable understanding” of Scripture. Basic hermeneutics and common sense apply.


The last two points above are where the church seems to be getting hung up today. Without tackling any specific issues, in my next post I will dig a little deeper into why Paul’s teaching in Rom. 14-15 and 1 Cor. 8-10 cannot be as widely applied as some people might hope.

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Issues of Conscience: Introduction and Background

Recently I have been realizing how differently Christians (myself included) act and speak on the internet as opposed to in a personal church setting. One of the most frequent examples of this is how Christians handle debated issues, or issues of Christian liberty or conscience.


There is a lot in Scripture on these issues, mostly centered on Romans 14-15 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. Rather than cover this in a quick blog post, I would like to cover it in a series. For now I would just like to cover the background of the two main passages.


1 Corinthians 8-10 deals primarily with the question of whether or not it is all right for a believer to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8:1). Apparently, some of the Christians in Corinth, recognizing that idols are false gods represented by lifeless statues, felt that eating food sacrificed to idols could not really mean anything (1 Cor. 8:4-6). However, other Christians in Corinth, probably some of the Gentiles who formerly worshipped idols, have a harder time distinguishing between idolatry and eating food sacrificed to idols.


Romans 14-15 deals with related but different issues. Per Romans 14:2 one issue was whether to eat meat or only just vegetables – bringing to mind the story of Daniel in Daniel 1:8-21. One possibility is that the meat was sacrificed to idols, but the vegetables were not. At the very least, it is likely that meat would have been more commonly in violation of Jewish kosher regulations, such as they were in the first century AD. Another issue is that some people celebrated certain special days, and others do not (Rom. 14:8). The two issues together are probably best read as differences between Jews and Gentiles, especially when considering the context of Rom. 15:8-13. At least some of the Jews were trying to keep to their old practices, and this was causing friction between Jews and Gentiles in the church of Rome.


Really, to Paul the specific issues in question are not the real issue. To Paul the real issue is not the controversy itself, but rather how the controversy is handled. There are two separate situations with different parties, and this allows us to see that Paul’s advice in both situations is very similar. In other words, the principles that Paul communicates seem to be widely applicable to all kinds of controversial issues.


Next post I will discuss what fits the bill as an issue of conscience.

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Where Did Evil Come From? And Is God To Blame?

The problem of evil could be the most difficult and thorny issue in all of theology and philosophy. How can we explain the existence of evil without saying that God is to blame for evil, or that God is unable to do anything about it, or that God cannot predict the future?


I want to start by pointing out that the problem of evil is a problem for everyone, not just Christians. No matter what your worldview is, you will find it difficult or impossible to explain the existence of evil. Worldviews, like Christianity, that claim that there is an all-powerful (or even only very powerful) force of good have problems explaining why such a force would create evil or allow evil to exist. Worldviews, like some eastern worldviews, that see good and evil as equal and opposite forces have a hard time explaining why we consider one to be good and the other evil. And worldviews, like scientific materialism, that claim there are no supernatural forces at work in the universe have difficulty explaining why people even think in terms of good and evil.


I also want to point out that pretty much every quick and easy solution that is passed around in Christian circles is insufficient. What are some common Christian “pat answers”?

  1. God doesn’t cause evil; he just allows it. This idea does not really help anything. Since God is all-knowing and all-powerful, the difference between allowing and causing is a very fine line. Furthermore, it introduces another ethical quandary. How can a good God stand by and allow evil to happen when he has the power to stop it? It’s like a doctor who stands by and watches someone die.
  2. God doesn’t want there to be evil, but people (and fallen angels?) cause evil by the choices they make with their free will. Again, this idea doesn’t really help anything. Did God not know what people were going to choose before he created them? Did he not know the horrors of the Holocaust before he created the world? Is God a slave who exists only to serve the free will of his creations? Would we accept this excuse from a police man? “I could have stopped the robbery, but I did not want to interfere with the robber’s right to choose…”


It’s not just that Christian “pat answers” are unhelpful, but also that they generally do not account for all of the biblical evidence. For instance, passages like Exodus 4:21; Proverbs 21:2; Romans 9:17-18 show that God is willing to interfere with the choices of man, so God is not as anxious to preserve the freedom of man’s will as we are led to believe. Furthermore, other passages (Genesis 50:20; Acts 2:23) show that God can in some way be considered to be “behind” the evil actions of others, so saying that God only allows evil is not biblically accurate either.


The main issue is that the problem of where evil comes from is not a question that the Bible seeks to answer. Clearly the serpent in Genesis 3 is already evil, so evil begins some time before the Fall. Apparently the serpent is Satan, so Satan appears to have fallen before human beings fall. Certainly God did not create Satan evil, so how did Satan become wicked? It must have been through some choice of his own. Where did he come up with the idea? The Bible never says. Perhaps this is when we must resort to the idea (I believe it was popularized by C. S. Lewis) that evil does not exist on its own, but rather is only a perversion of the good. So Satan must have taken something good and twisted it. We don’t know why he made that choice, and we don’t know how he was able to make it.


So it still seems hard for God to avoid blame. Why would God make Satan able to be evil? Why would he make Satan knowing that Satan would turn evil? And then why would he make human beings, knowing that Satan would turn them evil as well?


I really only have two points to make as steps toward a solution to the problem of evil.

  1. According to Romans 9, God can be sovereign over the evil choices of human beings and yet not be the one to blame for their evil choices. Romans 9 uses Pharaoh as an example of how God hardened someone’s heart in order that Pharaoh would do something wrong (9:17-18). Paul raises the question of how God could blame Pharaoh for the wrong choices if God is the one who hardened his heart (9:19). Paul never really answers that question. Paul just says that we do not have the right to question God (9:20), and God has the right to do with people whatever he wishes (9:21). Romans 9 teaches that God is sovereign even in people’s bad choices; God can have an ultimate purpose in those bad choices; and human beings still make independent enough choices that they are the ones to blame, not God. Romans 9 does not try to explain how all of this could be possible.
  2. There are multiple examples of how God sovereignty over evil is compatible with God’s goodness. One of the most famous is the story of Joseph, in which Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph into slavery. Joseph says that they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. (Genesis 50:20). Somehow what was an evil action for Joseph’s brothers was a good thing for God. The greatest example of this is the crucifixion (Acts 2:23). It is the worst sin ever committed by human beings, and yet it is the most loving and good thing that God ever accomplished. What was evil for people, was good for God.


These two points can be applied to the origin and existence of evil itself. Somehow God can be sovereign over evil without being blamed for it, and somehow God can do something good through the existence of evil itself. How else would God be able to display his fearsome justice and his rich mercy (Romans 9:22-23)?


These two points do not really solve the problem of evil. They just frame the question properly. They let us see what we can and cannot understand about God and evil.

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What Was the First Sin? (And it may not be what you think…)


[Disclaimer: This post is not the result of hours of scholarly study. These are some thought I typed up in response to questions from one of the ladies’ Bible study groups at my church.]


What was the first sin? Anyone familiar with the Bible will immediately think of the account in Genesis 3 in which Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. That was the first sin, right?


However, on closer inspection the question is a little more complicated. Was the fruit itself evil? It seems unlikely that there could be anything inherently evil in fruit — even fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. After all, God and the serpent agree that the fruit makes the eater more like God (Gen. 3:5,22), and Eve acknowledges that the fruit makes one wise (Gen. 3:6).


Perhaps, then, it is the act of eating the fruit that is sinful. But it is difficult to see how, if the fruit is not evil, the act if eating it could be evil. The only thing that seems to make the act of eating sinful is that it is something God commanded Adam and Eve not to do. This leads a lot of people to say that the first sin was disobedience. Adam and Eve disobeyed a command of God. It is this direct disobedience that made eating the fruit a sin.


It may seem like the hunt for the first sin ends at disobedience, but there are many people who try to look beneath the surface. What were the underlying heart motivations that result in the outward act of disobedience? Didn’t Jesus say that the heart is the source of all evil (Mat. 15:18-19)?


Examination of the account in Gen. 3 reveals multiple options for root motivations. In Gen. 3:6 Eve sees that the fruit looks good and desirable. Is this gluttony or greed or pure selfishness? In the same verse it says that she recognizes the ability of the fruit to make one wise. Is this greed for knowledge or ambition? In Gen. 3:5 the serpent tempts Eve with the thought that this fruit will make one like God. Is this also ambition or pride or a desire to supplant God? It might be possible to go even further back in the story to Gen. 3:1,4 where the serpent questions the words of God. Does this lead Eve and Adam to doubt the goodness and truthfulness of God?


That is quite a list: disobedience, gluttony, selfishness, greed, ambition, pride, and doubt. Certainly with further time and study more sins and motivations could be unearthed. Maybe even every other sin could find its beginnings in Gen. 3. But what you will find in different authors is a tendency to home in on one sin or motivation in particular. It is often the sin that they believe to be the root of all the other sins. They will sometimes try to prove that it is the root sin by turning to Gen. 3.


Personally, I think it is difficult (probably impossible) to identify one root sin. Many of the sinful heart motivations listed above are similar and interconnected. One person will see pride as primary, and another will see selfishness/self-centeredness as primary. Probably it is best to look at all of those sins as one interconnected and multifaceted whole.


A related question is just as tricky: when exactly did the first sin happen? When would God have considered Eve to have been sinning? Was it when she touched the fruit, or picked it, or ate it? Or was it before that? Was it when she decided to eat it? Was it when she began to look at the fruit and desire it? Was it when the serpent’s questions led her to begin to doubt God?


It is important to remember that there is a distinction between temptation and sin. It is possible to resist temptation without sinning. Jesus was tempted in Mat. 4, but he was perfectly sinless. Temptation does not automatically make you guilty of sin. Furthermore some temptation actually comes from our own desire (James 1:14-15). This means that sometimes a desire to do something wrong may be a temptation, not a sin. However, if we do not immediately reject that desire and if we let it grow and strengthen, we stray from temptation to sin.


So at what point in Gen. 3 did Adam and Eve stray from temptation into sin? It is hard to say with any certainty. It is even more difficult to determine in this case because Adam and Eve had not yet been corrupted by sin. We would assume that they had no dark recesses in their hearts influencing their thoughts and actions towards evil, so it is difficult for us to imagine their internal thought processes at this stage.


We may find some help if we take the account in Gen. 3 at face value. There is no definitive indication in Gen. 3:1-5 that Eve accepts, believes, or agrees any of what the serpent is saying to her. It is not until Gen. 3:6 that Eve seems too look at the fruit, and her heart changes. I would surmise that she moves from temptation to sin at the beginning of verse 6.


It is vital not to make the mistake of separating the thoughts of the heart too far from the action. Verse 6 appears to say that as soon as Eve decided to eat the fruit, she went ahead and did it. It is a package deal. The sinful thoughts of the heart inevitable lead to sinful actions. So all of those sinful motivations we uncovered are a package together with the disobedient action of eating the fruit. It all together makes up the first sin.

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