The Invisible Things

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Archive for August 2006

Scriptural Skepticism

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It is fairly likely that much of the criticism put forth by skeptics in regard to the scriptures is due not to some evidence which exists that proves the scripture to be false, but actually a misunderstanding of the nature of the scripture itself. Indeed, the Bible is a throroughly unique book, both in subject and authorship, yet if both attributes are not properly understood, skepticism is likely to follow.

In one sense, the Bible is a quite human book. It was written by many authors and recalls many accounts that underscore the humanity of its characters. Nowhere does it claim to have been written by anyone other than a human being. Yet, the combined narrative of the many authors is a remarkably singular and cohesive account. On the other hand, it is also a quite spiritual work. It contains the law delivered to Moses from God. It contains prayers and prophesy; sometimes the very words of God. Its writers also claim such spiritual power on behalf of scripture. Consider the author of Hebrews 4:12, who writes, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” However, it has always been and always will be considered a testament of God. In other words, scripture is an account by many witnesses of the work of God in history. It is not an account written by God’s physical hand and dropped on Earth from Heaven, nor should anyone expect such an account to exist.

This distinction is important to make given much of the nature of skepticism toward scripture. It is often said by skeptics that the Bible is untrustworthy because it was written by men and used to promote their worldly agendas. Or, that God, if He really existed, would make Himself known in some other fashion, preferably one which all people at all times could interact with and would be beyond dispute. Often, I wonder if what skeptics really want is for God to dictate scripture to them personally- only then could they trust its contents! However, one of the key points of scripture is that God acts in history. Unfortunately for us living in the twenty-first century, time progresses and leaves history in the unreachable past and accessible only by that which remains. The Bible, then, is precisely what we would expect to find: a collection of accounts of God working in history intentionally preserved by those who believe in Him for posterity.

Yet, skepticism persists. Incidentally, as I was considering this topic I ran across a quote from Mortimer Adler, in his book “How to Read a Book,” which provide good examples of how skeptics receive the scriptures. He writes:

“Dogmatic theology differs from Philosophy in that its first principles are articles of faith adhered to by the communicants of some religion. A work of dogmatic theology always depends upon dogmas and the authority of a church that proclaims them. If you are not of the faith, if you do not belong to the church, you can nevertheless read such a theological book well by treating its dogmas with the same respect you treat the assumptions of a mathematician. But you must always keep in mind that an article of faith is not something that the faithful ‘assume.’ Faith, for those who have it, is the most certain form of knowledge, not a tentative opinion. Understanding this seems to be difficult for many readers today. Typically, they make either or both of two mistakes in dealing with dogmatic theology. The first mistake is to refuse to accept, even temporarily, the articles of faith that are the first principles of the author. As a result, the reader continues to struggle with these first principles, never really paying attention to the book itself. The second mistake is to assume that because the first principles are dogmatic, the arguments based upon them, the reasoning they support, and the conclusions to which they lead are all dogmatic in the same way. (Adler, Mortimer: How to Read a Book, pg. 292)”

At first glance, Adler seems to offer a sound and logically consistent defense of theology. In fact, he suggests, in a way, that the core theological tenets of a certain religion be thought of much like premises in a logical or mathematic syllogism. Therefore, as he writes, modern readers (or perhaps better said secular readers) err in rejecting such tenets as they read theology. Indeed, theology would be quite useless and irrelevant without at some point acknowledging some core premises or doctrines. In other words, Adler encourages even skeptical readers to patiently allow the theological point to be developed, rather than prematurely rejecting it before it has been fully articulated. While I heartily agree, it should be pointed out that Adler’s advice seems to assume that a theologian can do such a thing with clarity and intellectual honesty. Again, I would concur. However, Adler proceeds to write what can only be received as a blunt contradiction of this point:

“Consider any institution- a church, a political party, a society- that among other things (1) is a teaching institution, (2) has a body of doctrine to teach, and (3) has a faithful and obedient membership. The members of any such organization read reverentially. They do not- even cannot- question the authorized or right reading of the books that to them are canonical. The faithful are debarred by their faith from finding error in the ‘sacred’ text, to say nothing of finding nonsense there. (Adler, Mortimer: How to Read a Book, pg. 293)”

If the faithful are, as Adler argues, intellectually impotent in regard to the study of theology, one must conclude at least two staggering possibilities. The first, though logically tied to both of Adler’s statements, is hardly likely: That the theologians who teach the faithful through preaching, teaching and writing are themselves not among the faithful. In other words, Adler’s first statement assumes that theology is worth studying. Yet, in his second statement, he claims that the faithful are so intellectually “debarred” that they cannot discern truth from “nonsense.” If both ideas are true, then the theologians must themselves not be believers. Frankly, theologians who do not believe what they teach are no more than liars, or at best, concoctors of fairy tales. Perhaps, then, Adler is confused. The second, and possibly more troubling conclusion one could make from Adler’s statements, is that only religious skeptics, or unbelievers, are in the position to accurately develop theology. Clearly, this is absurd. Theology is the study of God. Without an interactive belief in God, theology could not be received by Him and taught. That is, of course, unless the theology amounted to a belief that God does not exist.

To be fair, I think that these thoughts are somewhat misplaced in “How to Read a Book,” if not definitely undeveloped for publication. Indeed, Adler redeemed himself intellectually, specifically in regard to philosophy of religion, since in his book “Truth in Religion,” which he demonstrates that the three religions “of the book” (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are the only world religions which do not dismantle themselves through logical contradictions. However, this type of faulty thinking is quite prevalent among intellectual skeptics, many of whom take the position that the Bible was not simply written by men, but its contents were completely invented by men as well. It is almost as if they believed that if God truly existed, he would appear before them individually, on their terms, explain Himself (and everything else, for that matter) leaving them compelled to belief. Yet, this would mean that God would have to do such a thing to every single person in history, probably simultaneously, however impossible, to satisfy those who do not believe in Him. Otherwise, at some point, one would have to rely upon the testimony of another who was present to witness what God did, which is precisely what we have in the testimony of the Bible.

I don’t expect that my brief treatment here will dismantle every type of skepticism that exists toward the scriptures, so perhaps my title is a bit broad. However, the misunderstandings and illogical claims that I have mentioned are often at the root of most skeptical criticism that I have encountered in my study of the scriptures. When the character of the Bible is properly understood, in terms of its content and also its historical context, it seems to be exactly what one might expect to have at the root of a religion which affirms the existence of God and His activity in history.

Written by Christopher Butler

August 28, 2006 at 5:38 am

Relevant to Whom?

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As often as I hear talk of the need for the Gospel, I also hear of the need for “relevance.” While it is true that the word can mean a variety of things depending upon the context in which it is used, there is one particular meaning (which I dare say is most frequent in my hearing) that I believe runs contrary to the very Gospel message itself.

(As a disclaimer, I would like to set aside an immediate issue that is likely to already be on the minds of many readers. I am not certain at this point if the meaning in which Relevant Media Group uses the word “relevant” is of the same concern, though I would venture to say that it is not. In fact, in stating the obvious, Relevant Media Group’s mission statement can hardly be disputed at face value: “Relevant Media Group is a multimedia company whose purpose is to impact culture and show that a relationship with God is relevant and essential to a fulfilled life.” Clearly, Relevant’s declared purpose is not to make the Gospel relevant, but to show the relevance of the Christian life by modeling an appropriately Godly perspective amidst current culture. I can’t really argue with that. However, I must admit at this point that I am not necessarily a fan of Relevant Magazine or the seemingly commoditized Christianity that it portrays. Truly, it is the “rebranding” and “packaging” of the church, and even of the Christian, that I fear is an already accepted result of the new concept of being relevant.)

Some may be asking, as I have also often asked, “What does relevant mean, anyway?” According to Webster, to be relevant is defined as “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.” Therefore, Relevant Media is right in declaring its mission to “show that a relationship with God” has significant and demonstrable bearing “to a fulfilled life.” So in this regard, there is nothing wrong with relevance.

Yet, this is not the context in which I often hear the word being used. I would argue that the word relevant is becoming a term descriptive of a movement, or a genre, or a flavor, within Christianity. Yet, as I discussed above, the word intends to relate the value of an idea to a particular context, not to convey a particular descriptive idea of its own. In other words, relevance means nothing if it does not objectively link an idea to the context in which it exists.

So, then, what is meant by such common phrases as, “looking for a church that’s relevant,” or “the church must become relevant,” or “we are a relevant church?” I hope, for our sake, that it does not mean a certain style of music in worship, or a certain casualness with which a service is delivered, or a lack of structure, or a focus on youth, or even an emphasis on certain doctrines. If a church affirms that which is true about God and the Gospel, worships God in Spirit and in truth, and seeks to fulfill the Great Commission, how could it possibly be irrelevant? What exactly is an irrelevant church or an irrelevant Christian? Can we really suggest that churches or individuals that do not operate or appear comfortably within the status quo of contemporary culture are “resisting relevance (another phrase I have heard often)?” Without knowing the mind of God through and through, any suggestion as to the relevance of a church or individual, especially on the basis of the fleeting and fickle trends of popular culture, would be a presumptuous and woeful error.

Frankly, the idea that we could possibly make Christianity relevant to culture through our own doing is shortsighted. How dare we assume that we have any power or influence to actually make God’s plan and work relevant to humankind? It is humankind that should seek to be conformed to the will of God, revealed by God through His Word and His Spirit, and not conformed to the world.

On a purely philosophical level, I am not very comfortable with even putting the words God and relevant in the same sentence; not even to say what seems to be harmless and obvious, that God is relevant. If God exists, and for the purposes of this argument I am assuming that He does, then created, contingent, mortal beings have no place to assign relevance to the eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent deity from who’s being the creation of the entire universe resulted. Rather, the simple but utterly profound statement, “God is,” is a more appropriate affirmation.

If God is, than what is relevant is relevant in relation to Him, not to that which He has created.

Written by Christopher Butler

August 10, 2006 at 8:12 am

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