Category Archives: Skepticism

PODCAST: Make Christianity Weak Again – Toward a Biblical Worldview of Political Involvement

I examine biblical data on the origin and purpose of government and contrast it with the traditional right and left wing outlooks as classically formulated by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine and carried on to this day, arguing that there is some validity in both approaches, but that the biblical worldview differs in some significant respects. I ultimately seize on the idea that Christians should prefer to live in something more akin to a libertarian society.

The histories of the Christian left and right are also briefly discussed.

Audio:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20170307MakeChristianityWeakAgain.mp3

Essay:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/eBooks/MakeChristianityWeakAgain.pdf

PODCAST: Daniel Was a Man – the Historicity of the Prophet Daniel

A brief look at the Old Testament book of Daniel, its late date by critical scholars, and arguments for the early date which it claims of itself.

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20161223-DanielWasaMan.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: For Three Redactions, Even for Four — Amos and the Documentary Hypothesis

As an addendum to the previous podcast discussing the Documentary Hypothesis and the Pentateuch,  I recorded this brief excursus on the book of Amos to see how the Documentary Hypothesis shapes how critical scholars read it and imagine how it might have evolved over time through various redactions. Included is some discussion on the circularity of such proposals.

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20161123-DocumentaryHypothesisandAmos.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: A Priest and a Deuteronomist Walk Into a Bar – the Documentary Hypothesis

documentary hypothesis

We examine the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch–the idea that the first five books of the Bible did not originate with Moses but were originally at least four distinct written sources edited together by a later redactor. We also highlight the problems with this view. My co-host was Jackson Ferrell who can be found (among other places) at https://chocolatebook.wordpress.com/ and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCApG0JBkT6PzJEWLMZ0IZOw

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20161017-DocumentaryHypothesis.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: The Transcendence Argument – The Self-Disclosure of the God of Israel

Piggybacking on the ideas of Yehezkel Kaufmann and John Oswalt, this argument builds on the uniqueness of the ancient Israelite claims about the divine to show that such a perspective could only have come about through divine revelation. My co-host was Jackson Ferrell who can be found (among other places) at https://chocolatebook.wordpress.com/ and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCApG0JBkT6PzJEWLMZ0IZOw

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20160919-TranscendenceArgument.mp3

Resources mentioned:
Yehezkel Kaufmann’s The Religion of Israel:
https://www.amazon.com/Religion-Israel-Beginnings-Babylonian-Exile/dp/0805203648/

John Oswalt’s The Bible Among the Myths:
https://www.amazon.com/Bible-among-Myths-Revelation-Literature/dp/0310285097/

John D. Currid’s Against the Gods:
https://www.amazon.com/Against-Gods-Polemical-Theology-Testament/dp/1433531836/

Tom Gilson’s counter-argument to the Jesus legend theory:
https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2014/05/the-story-of-jesus-is-unimaginably-great-therefore-its-true/

The Gospel According to Batman V Superman

Fresh from the theater after having seen Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, I have been reflecting upon one particularly fascinating theme within it. In a far more thoughtful and sophisticated manner than the vast majority of overtly “Christian” movies, this film promotes a theology–even a gospel.

Warning: some spoilers ahead.

From the outset, I want to point out that this isn’t a theologian finding theology where it wasn’t intended. Indeed, Lex Luthor (of all people) reiterates explicitly and repeatedly that what transpires in this film points to something greater–the problem of evil and man’s relationship to God.

Luthor provides the viewpoint of the unrepentant cynic. Superman is odious because he resembles God and God cannot be trusted. If God couldn’t prevent the suffering of a young, abused Lex, better for God to die (or at least his proxy). Luthor therefore attempts to orchestrate deicide against Superman, first by the hands of man (Batman) and then by the hands of the devil (Doomsday).

The answer to Lex’s supposedly unsolvable problem of evil comes out of left field. How does a seemingly omnipotent and omnibenevolent God respond to evil, particularly when it results in free human beings who want to kill him despite His desire to save them? He identifies with their humanity and gives his life in order to defeat him who has the power of death (in this case, Doomsday). In doing so, he inspires conversion in men (represented here by Batman) who for the first time see God as loving–and pure love means being willing to suffer for the good of the beloved even though the lover doesn’t have to.

If God is willing to suffer with us, maybe our suffering isn’t as meaningless as we think it is. This seems to be the catharsis of Bruce Wayne. When Wayne sees Superman as powerful and alien, Superman (like God) seems quite dangerous. But when Wayne realizes that Superman has taken on humanity and even feels a love for his human mother as great as Wayne did, this changes him. Suddenly Wayne is overwhelmed with compassion–with empathy even–and helps Superman to rescue his mother from the clutches of Luthor. One can hear echoes of Jesus’ words to John on the cross to take care of Mary: “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:27).

This theology addresses what bothered so many fanboys about this movie–Batman’s willingness to kill. In this reading, it makes sense for Batman to kill for most of the movie–life is ultimately meaningless to him, so he creates his own purpose. It is Superman’s love and sacrifice that changes Batman, not a cold, deontological ethic grounded in passionless conviction. Despite what the enlightenment deists affirmed, it is not philosophy which makes us good but love. After seeing Superman’s self-identification and self-sacrifice to save humanity from death, Batman is determined to be a better man. This is the reason why he decides not to brand Luthor in prison, a brand which we are told sets inmates apart for death by the hands of fellow prisoners.

Though it has to be teased out, there is a rich theology in this film which is frankly unparalleled by what the Christian film industry is producing. It presents a gospel which is somehow more moving and more compelling despite not having to be spelled out.

Christian Involvement in Politics Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

When Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 (after being granted the status of an approved religion by Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D), believers found themselves responding in one of two ways. Some basked in their new found power and luxury, holding it over the now disenfranchised class of pagans. We’ll call them the Constantinians. Others, the monastics, sought to check out of this new institutionally supported Christianity which they saw as sensual and double-minded. These extremes ignored a third option–to simply participate in society as one group among many and allow evangelization to happen through freely established relationships instead of coercion which mitigates against sincerity on the part of the coerced. This model was at least implicitly affirmed by the New Testament writers who demanded no revolution but only asked for toleration and freedom to worship and evangelize.

This false dilemma was recapitulated at the time of the Protestant Reformation, during which time the Roman Catholics and Magisterial Protestants sought to crush religious dissent via the power of the state while the Anabaptists went into hiding and designated Christian participation within the larger society, and particularly in politics, as sinful.

Fast forward to the summer of 2015 in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that same sex marriage is a civil right. Prior to (and precipitating) this ruling, the majority of confessing evangelicals and Roman Catholics had demanded that their government maintain in the law a Christian value judgment on marriage which they were not willing to replace with a more pluralistic non-religious entitlement such as civil unions. After the ruling, with one new view of marriage backed by the force of the state, Christians are increasingly anxious that this new entitlement will lead to government discrimination against Christians.

For these Constantinian Christians, politics is a zero-sum game. If a non-Christian group gains something, this means Christians have lost something. The debate over gay marriage was set up intentionally to be this kind of arrangement, but the risk of becoming a displaced special class was considered worth it if it meant that their side might prevail.

That the debate over gay marriage was nothing more than a power play can be demonstrated by comparing how conservative Christians compare this ruling with other, more egregious ones. For instance, the Dred Scott Decision which came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, declaring that slaves did not have the same rights as free persons and thus undermining the Christian belief in human equality before God, is not generally considered to be a loss for Christianity because Christians as a group lost no political power. But as power has now been wrested from the hands of Constantinian Christianity, American Christians are saying, as one evangelical writer did, “I am horribly grieved that a lifestyle that is so contrary to Christian morality is being celebrated in a country that once honored Christian values.”

It is, of course, not Christian values which America has honored, but Christian hegemony, even if it comes at the risk of sacrificing Christian values. As such, American Christians generally believe that there are two options open to them in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision–fight for the return of their political power or remove themselves from society.

May I humbly suggest that we still have a third option?

The Defeat of American Constantianism and the Resurrection of Grace

I once heard Phil Burress, head of the religiously and politically conservative organization Citizens for Community Values, talk about the political work that his group had done. While most of it was pretty standard religious right stuff like campaigning against pornography and gambling, one issue stuck out. He spoke of legislation they supported which protected exotic dancers from being groped by customers.

What made this cause unique was that instead of simply working to shut down strip clubs (which CCV would no doubt be in favor of), they were seeking to protect women who found themselves working in jobs which were morally objectionable. They were essentially saying to these women, “what makes you valuable isn’t whether or not you refrain from engaging in behavior I find to be morally wrong, but that you are made in the image of God. As such, I want to show honor to you as a child of God that He loves.”

While Christians who have the freedom to participate in the political process need to take this responsibility seriously, we often imbue it with too much importance. We forget that the world and its people are fallen, and we are shocked and dismayed when it behaves accordingly. If American Christianity has lost the battle against legally recognized gay marriage, what does this loss teach us that we didn’t already know? We live in a country where people who are willing to live and let live can do more or less anything else they choose to. The benefit of such an arrangement is that as Christians we have the freedom to explore our faith without fear of reprisal. The corollary to this is that others are also free to reject Christian belief and behavior.

Is our key responsibility to these people to consolidate political power and treat them as our opponents in order to remind them who’s in charge; or is it to treat them as human beings made in God’s image? June 26, 2015 may stand as American Constantinianism’s Waterloo, but it need not be Christianity’s. God’s grace has and will conquer. If we respond with love and humility toward those whom Christ died for, it can be our Milvian Bridge.

The Biblical God is Both Personal and Transcendent

     There is a strong tendency in man to think of personhood as emerging from non-personality. For pagans and atheists, for example, matter is primary. For many monotheists, God is thought of as too transcendent to really be personal. Even Aristotle, who provided us with an example of what highly trained reason can discern about God apart from revelation, fell very short when he postulated an unmoved mover whose existence precedes all actions but who can be acted upon by none. Such a god may think, but He is not relational. He is personal in only the most anemic sense imaginable. Western Christianity has unfortunately been so influenced by Aristotle that our view of God is at times not much better. We have tended to think of God as apathetic and passionless. As Roger Olson has suggested, this cuts right through to our christology, so that we have often been de facto Nestorians.1

     Contrast this with the biblical view of God, however, and you will find a Being who exists beyond everything else (“everything else” being equivalent to the category of things which He created) and yet who condescends to interact with His creation and is personally invested in it.

     We see this dichotomy throughout scripture, but perhaps most strongly in the first chapters of Genesis. Genesis 1 gives an account of a nameless God who uses His great power to create the heavens, the earth, and everything that is in them. The primary quality emphasized here is of His transcendence. This God is the one who alone made the heavens and the earth (Nehemiah 9:6) and because of this lives forever, unlike the pagan gods who did not create them and will therefore perish from them (Jeremiah 10:11).

     And yet, when we turn to Genesis chapter 2, we find a God who doesn’t just create and dictate, but one who “forms” man by “breath[ing] into his nostrils,” suggesting closeness. This God is given a name to emphasize His personal, intimate interaction with the ones He made in His image. Genesis 2 answers the question of how anything can be known of the God we read about in chapter 1, who is far too transcendent to be understood from human experience and reason alone. To bridge this gap, self-disclosure and condescension is required. God is not simply reasoned to from creation, but must reveal Himself.

     The Old Testament, therefore, is about a God who is above creation but who makes Himself known. This God is intensely personal and this quality is demonstrated throughout the Old Testament, not least of all in those places where He talks about His passionate feelings toward His covenant people. For instance, the Hebrew scriptures tell us that God has compassion on Jacob (Isaiah 14:1) and is deeply troubled over humanity’s sin to the point of feeling regret for creating them (Genesis 6:6). Ezekiel chapter 16 provides an account of God’s love for His covenant people in the most emotionally moving language imaginable: God looked upon the lowly and abandoned Israel with compassion and love and felt great affection for her. He married her (representing the covenant He made with her), but she committed adultery. And if that weren’t enough, she sacrificed the children He gave her to foreign gods. One cannot read this chapter without feeling the tenderest empathy for the sadness that God must feel in this scenario.

     The transcendent God of the Bible, therefore, is not the transcendent God of Aristotle. He is intimately involved in His creation and draws His people to Him in covenant love. Per Moltmann:
If God were incapable of suffering in every respect, then he would also be incapable of love… But if he is capable of loving something else, then he lays himself open to the suffering which love for another brings him; and yet, by virtue of his love, he remains master of the pain that love causes him to suffer. God does not suffer out of deficiency of being, like created beings. To this extent he is `apathetic’. But he suffers from the love which is the superabundance and overflowing of his being. In so far he is `pathetic’.”2

     If the God of the Hebrews is so different from the god of Aristotle, how much more is He different from the gods of the pagans!3 The primary concept undergirding paganism is that of continuity; everything that exists is of the same kind and is related to everything else. Polytheistic gods are not comparable to the God of the Bible for the same reason human beings aren’t—they are not transcendent over creation but are merely a part of it. For the same reason, personhood is not a quality that defines the gods in the way that westerners, benefiting from 2,000 years of Christian tradition, think about personhood. For the pagan, a person (in Latin “persona”) is merely a mask that a bit of existence wears which appears to distinguish him/her from everything else but is only superficial.4

     This leads us to a question, framed by John Oswalt, which must be given a plausible answer:
The unique combination of transcendent personhood that now provides the sole foundation of biblical thought never emerged anywhere else in the mind of a scribe or a philosopher. Why did it emerge in a thoroughly pagan Israel?”5

     Why indeed, to quote Brueggemann, in the Old Testament narrative is YHWH described as “underived and capable of direct intrusion into the narrative life of Israel without preparation or antecedent”?6 The answer which the Old Testament itself gives is the most plausible:

Because God revealed Himself to Israel.

Notes:

1 Notes Olson, “For Luther it is no scandal to say ‘God was born’ and ‘God suffered and died’ and ‘God was crucified’ and really mean it as more than mere figures of speech. Luther carried the communicatio idiomatum to its logical conclusion—something apparently neither Leo nor Cyril nor their orthodox and catholic interpreters did. They were still prisoners of the old Greek notion of the divine impassibility. This kept them from fully fleshing out the great mystery of the incarnation and caused the Chalcedonian doctrine of Christ to be interpreted more and more in a Nestorian sense after the council adjourned” (Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Kindle edition).

2 Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, Kindle edition.

3 Note how Kaufmann distinguishes the biblical theology from nearly every other: “The mark of monotheism is not the concept of a god who is creator, eternal, benign, or even all-powerful; these notions are found everywhere in the pagan world. It is, rather, the idea of a god who is the source of all being, not subject to a cosmic order, and not emergent from a pre-existent realm; a god free of the limitations of magic and mythology. The high gods of primitive tribes do not embody this idea” (Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, New York: Schocken Books, 1960).

4 See John D. Zizioulas’ discussion of the development of personhood as an ontological category in his book Being As Communion.

5 John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, Kindle edition.

6 Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology: An Introduction, Kindle edition.

Are the Old Testament Accounts Historical?

     In 1 Corinthians 15:14, the apostle Paul wrote, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (ESV). His claim was that if the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and fulfillment of Old Testament scripture didn’t refer to real events within history, then there was no gospel at all. The Christian message, after all, was not about God taking our souls into heaven while His physical creation went to hell, but about the redemption of all creation, including our bodies, from death and corruption. As a result, Paul provides a clear witness against any form of Christianity which would seek to allegorize Jesus’ resurrection from the dead—such a view is emphatically not Christian. But what of the Old Testament revelation of God’s intervening acts in history? If, for instance, God did not deliver the Israelites from Egypt, is our faith in the God of both Testaments likewise in vain? Is the historicity of Old Testament events really all that important to their meaning?

     To begin, we must wipe away the idea that in order to be a people who are reasonable we cannot seriously consider supernatural claims. In their discussion of the criteria that can be used to come to conclusions about the historical Jesus, Boyd and Eddy diagnosed the critical consensus against the miraculous as a metaphysical and not an empirical one. The critic begins where David Hume did—with a definition of the miraculous as that which violates a law of nature. According to Hume, “There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise it would not merit this appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the experience of any miracle.”1 In other words, since a miracle is a one-time event, the number of times when a miracle did not happen in a given circumstance is drastically higher, making the possibility that a miracle happened incredibly low. But this is not a meaningful standard. If a paleontologist comes across a cave with illustrations painted on the wall, he does not consider how many caves do not have illustrations and conclude that this one must not either. He notes the evidence for intervention on behalf of free agents and concludes to where this evidence leads.

     The critic might respond, however, that a human causal agent is still a natural cause. A supernatural cause is outside of the unbroken continuum of natural cause and effect, which he presumes exists in unbroken perpetuity. Boyd and Eddy note that for “modern critical historians, the assumption that all things are governed by natural law is what makes a critical and scientific approach to history possible. This assumption… does not have to be proven: it is presupposed.”2 In opposition to this presupposition, Boyd and Eddy argue:
“the claim that nature tends to operate, and thus history tends to unfold, according to natural patterns of cause and effect is an empirical observation. The claim that the natural world and its history constitute a ‘closed continuum’ of natural causes and effects is a metaphysical claim. We experience the regularity of the world. We do not experience a closed continuum…’ The empirical claim does not rule out exceptions. The metaphysical claim does. The empirical claim is a factual report. The metaphysical claim is a statement of faith.”3

     Clear examples of critical bias based on metaphysical assumptions abound, even when this bias leads to unwarranted conclusions. Stephen Miller in his commentary on Daniel noted obvious double standards on behalf of critical scholars when dating the book of Daniel in such a way to avoid having to acknowledge its prophetic, and therefore supernatural, qualities. So, for instance, when various Psalms that had been proposed to have dated from the Maccabean period (160s B.C.) were found in manuscripts at Qum’ran dating to the late second century B.C.:
“W. H. Brownlee remarks that ‘it would seem that we should abandon the idea of any of the canonical psalms being of Maccabean date, for each song had to win its way in the esteem of the people before it could be included in the sacred compilation of the Psalter. Immediate entrée for any of them is highly improbable.’ Yet concerning Daniel, Brownlee states, ‘None of the Dead Sea Scroll copies of Daniel are so early as to dispute the usual critical view concerning the book’s authorship, although one Daniel manuscript from Cave Four is to be dated not more than fifty years later than its composition.’ If the discovery of the Psalter in the second century B.C. is sufficient evidence to push the date of that document back before 332 B.C., should not the same evidence indicate that Daniel was written before the second century?”4

     Such fuzzy reasoning and double standards on the part of critical scholars led Old Testament scholar Brevard S. Childs to remark:
“The often used cliche of ‘freedom from dogma’ seems now largely rhetorical. Nor can the categories of historical versus dogmatic be seen as intractable rivals. Rather, the issue turns on the quality of the dogmatic construal. It is undoubtedly true that in the history of the discipline traditional dogmatic rubrics have often stifled the close hearing of the biblical text, but it is equally true that exegesis done in conscious opposition to dogmatics can be equally stifling and superficial.”5

     Boyd and Eddy’s proposed alternative method is what they call the “open historical-critical method,” which is to say a method that treats natural causes as, generally speaking, the simplest, most likely, and therefore best explanation, but not to the extent that they are unwilling to give an open-minded hearing to supernatural explanations when they are indeed the best explanations. If we have adequately cleared away the brush by pointing out the circularity of the naturalism often appealed to in the historical-critical method, the question of whether the Old Testament is seeking to make historical claims, and how those claims relate to the normativity of its theology, still must be addressed.

     John Oswalt, in comparing the Old Testament accounts to the myths of the Ancient Near East, helps us by distinguishing the God of the Bible from the pagan gods. Whereas these gods were viewed as, “a part of this world [that could] be manipulated through this world,”6 YHWH was transcendent and outside of the natural order. It was therefore not possible for the Hebrews to reason about God analogically, or based on analogy to the natural order. This God would have to break into history if He wanted to be known and understood. As a result, truth for the Jew was fundamentally one of a historical nature. As John D. Zizioulas noted:
It is usually felt that the principal characteristic of Hebrew thinking as opposed to that of the Greeks resides in the Jews’ interest in history. The ‘signs’ which the Jews seek, says St Paul, are precisely the manifestations of God’s presence and his activity in history… The Greek mind, for its part, seeks truth in a way which transcends history.”7

     If truth for the Jew was historically situated, then this history is the ground of his/her theology. The Ten Commandments, often thought of as the centerpiece of Old Testament ethics, begin with a historical claim: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2, ESV). Likewise the centerpiece of the holiness code, which also serves as a claim to God’s nature as holy and compassionate, is a verse which grounds these ideas on God’s breaking into history: “For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:34, ESV). This historical reminder appears throughout the law (for instance, in Leviticus 22:33, 26:13, and Deuteronomy 5:6). That the nature of God and His commands was grounded upon His self-revelation in time and space placed the Jewish writer of scripture in a position that would have made them feel obligated to carefully record what God had done and communicated to them, since without God’s mighty acts in history, there would be no salvation. Oswalt writes:
“If God is not history and yet is revealed through history as divinely interpreted, it was of the greatest importance to record accurately what happened and to report as precisely as possible what God said about the meaning of what happened. To falsify the record or the interpretation was to be left with nothing that was of any value for knowing God or for making sense out of one’s life.”8

     We can therefore conclude that when the Old Testament writers are claiming to record history, it is foremost in their mind that what they are recording be an accurate reflection of that history. Since we have no good reason to hold to the metaphysical biases of modern critics we are free to read the Old Testament with an open mind to perceiving what it is the author sought to convey. When the message is a historical one, we would be wise to give the authors the benefit of the doubt instead of treating them with suspicion and seeking to recontextualize them in a way which satisfies our own cultural value assumptions. It is only by doing this that we might receive a theology which is revealed by God and not merely constructed by man.

 

Notes:
1
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in Gregory A. Boyd and Paul Rhodes Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007) Kindle edition.

2Boyd and Eddy, The Jesus Legend, Kindle Edition.

3Ibid.

4Stephen B. Miller, The New American Commentary Vol. 18 – Daniel, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1994), Kindle edition.

5Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection of the Christian Bible, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992), Kindle edition.

6John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), Kindle edition.

7John D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), p. 68.

8Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, Kindle edition.