CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

In a previous blog post John Loftus has been prognosticating about an imminent resurgence in scholarly unbelief, and says that he feels pity for those who have taken on themselves to defend evangelical Christianity. Triumphalist rhetoric aside, any intellectually honest apologist (whether religious or secular) will face up to the evolving nature of challenges to a particular belief system. Ever since Kuhn it has been widely recognized that the most difficult choice which any adherent of a particular intellectual paradigm has to face is whether the theoretical and evidential difficulties of that paradigm warrant abandoning it altogether, or these difficulties are merely apparent and the advantages of that paradigm outweigh the disadvantages. There is no hard and fast rule for deciding this. Obviously some people, like Loftus, have reached the former conclusion, while others like myself and the rest of CADRE still think that the evangelical Christian paradigm is worthy of adherence. That does not preclude identifying particularly cogent challenges, however. Here I want to just briefly list some of the issues which I feel are the most pressing, and which I will be devoting my future career to investigating (P.S. I think the best concise summary of the challenges to belief in the 21st Century is Philip Kitcher, "The Many-Sided Conflict Between Science and Religion" in The Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Religion):

1) The fragmentation (and some would say dissolution) of biblical studies. On the one hand there is a widespread postmodern suspicion of any claims to a 'rational' or 'objective' method of biblical inquiry. On the other there is a secular suspicion that much scholarship on the historical Jesus or the historicity of the Bible, for example, is driven by a covert theological agenda. In Old Testament studies minimalists such as Niels P. Lemche, Thomas L. Thompson and Philip R. Davies are proclaiming the demise of biblical history and heap scorn on the sophisticated efforts of evangelical scholars like James K. Hoffmeier, Kenneth Kitchen or V. Phillips Long to respond to the varied critiques of the OT's historical accuracy. On the New Testament front things are slightly more congenial to evangelicals as many of the universally acknowledged top historical Jesus and NT scholars are practicing believers who have produced substantial work defending the orthodox interpretation of Christian origins (i.e. James Dunn, John P. Meier, N.T. Wright, Raymond Brown, etc.) But this in itself leads to the suspicion, noted above, that there is a 'guild' of theological interests which promotes the orthodox view and tries to suppress dissenting voices. A recent articulation and defense of this many-faceted challenge is Hector Avalos's The End of Biblical Studies.

2) Philosophical theologians have not come to any sort of consensus on the best way to deal with the problem of evil. Philip Kitcher goes so far as to describe recent work on this problem by Plantinga, Van Inwagen or Adams as "the last gasp of a desperate scholasticism".

3) The rise of a so-called 'third culture' in which philosophically and culturally literate scientists constitute the new intelligentsia with little concern for or interest in traditional theological questions. Fundamental advances in cosmology, computer science, neuroscience and artificial intelligence promise to radically transform our vision of reality in ways which theologians may not be prepared for.

4) Increasingly detailed knowledge of the workings of belief systems around the world make functional explanations of religion seem more plausible. A fundamental assumption of the rapidly advancing field of the cognitive science of religion is that religious ideas are by-products of mental tools evolved for social living among other human beings. In the view of many skeptics the best way to explain the immense, bewildering variety of belief systems is that they reflect changing social circumstances and needs, without postulating a transcendent referent.

5) While the 20th Century saw an astonishing resurgence of Christian philosophical theology, the philosophy of unbelief and naturalism has become increasingly sophisticated as well. New and powerful ways of articulating basic naturalistic intuitions make it an increasingly serious contender in the marketplace of ideas.

So much for the bad news. The good news is that evangelical scholarship is experiencing a renaissance, with ever more evangelicals having taking up Mark Noll's challenge in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and being accepted at top universities around the world as researchers and professors, and scholarly work is becoming ever more sophisticated. To give some examples in the relevant fields, Michael F. Bird, a rising star in NT studies, self-consciously works to integrate historical and theological concerns in the study of early Christianity, and has taken full account of the various competing paradigms (a forthcoming book will be a collaboration with James Crossley presenting a believing and a secular perspective on the rise of Christianity). One of the pioneers of the cognitive science of religion, Justin Barrett, is an evangelical Christian and is working to integrate the results of the new science with a Christian worldview via Reformed epistemology, as are Michael J. Murray and Kelly James Clark. Scholars such as Noreen Herzfeld have begun to investigate the relevance of advances in artificial intelligence for theology. And then of course there's me and CADRE:) Seriously, though, there are challenges to be faced but I am more than confident that increasingly sophisticated Christian scholarship will give the Church the resources to meet them, so that Christian theism can continue to give the world a vision of hope and redemption in this troubled world.

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I offer this peice as a second part of my answer to John, but it is not directed at his piece specifically. In fact it was put on my blog before I wrote the other piece and without any reference to John at all. But I think it does speak to part of the issue.

There is something greatly incongruous about making historical statements concerning an event that is based upon the “supernatural.” The whole of modernity is based upon denying the supernatural, and upon creating an entire symbolic universe devoid of that concept. To interject the Resurrection into the modern truth régime is to violate the basic canons of what it means to be modern. Thus, we should never expect to find historians hawking Josh McDowell books. If we find scientists supporting the doctrine, they will only do so by distinguishing between their private matters of taste in personal belief and scientific fact. Is this really an acceptable state of affairs? Fifty years ago it was a fact of life. It was just something that had to be accepted like the weather. But in this age, after the advent f postmodern thought, we need not be so dogmatic. It is not that I expect historians to ever speak of the Resurrection as “historical fact.” I would speak so myself. But I think it is fair to say that the exclusion of such events from scientific parlance is misleading. To doubt an event “unhistorical” is misleading. The unwary are given the impression that such events cannot happen. All I really means to speak of the Resurrection as “unhistorical” is to say “we don’t dare speak of this in that way because it’s not ideologically acceptable.”

While it is true that postmodernism has taken some harsh blows, is no longer the big shocking new academic fashion, and has been relegated to the archaeological strata of the course catalogue, along with “existentialism in Europe 3202” and “John Dewey and the American School of pragmatism, 2710,” it is by no means true that postmodernism is finished. Like most academic trends when they become established, when they reach the phase where Freshman intro courses are developed, postmodernism has seen its heyday, but we can still state certain of its premises seriously. Two of the major premises of postmodernism are: (1) No met narratives; (2) our understanding of reality is merely a construct and not a direct meditation of truth. What this means is we don’t have a clear undeniable proof of the nature of the world, what we get is our understanding of the world. No “Meta narrative” means no more overarching grand explanations of all reality, no more ideology, no more great story that explains it all. While this premise rules out Christian theology (for the most part) it also rules out the scientifically based empiricist who reduces everything to numbers and what cannot be reduced to numbers just isn’t worth knowing. Both of these are “meta narratives.” What postmodernism clearly establishes is that there is no world of facts that can be arranged like little building blocks in such a way as to stack up to a total and undeniable demonstration of all reality. “Our understanding of reality is merely a construct” means we are not engaging the world of “things” directly, what we see is not what we get. What we get is our understanding of what we see, and that is filtered through a perceptual filter that is made up of prior symbolic understanding. Its’ all filtered through glasses tended with the colors of our hopes and dreams. The scientifically minded skeptic is more than ready to admit that this is the case for the religious believer. The scientifically based skeptic is ready to tag the believer as irrational and living out a fantasy with an imaginary friend. But what his septic doesn’t see is that his scientifically based skepticism is no less a fantasy and a simulacra of what is real. To construe reality of devoid of anything beyond the numbers is to merely reduce reality to the sets of building blocks of we stack them.

The Postmodern critique of scientific understanding was shattered in the mid 90’s. This is not the great disaster for postmodernism that a lot of people thought it was at the time. The postmodern critique of science in the 90’s had run wild; it needed to be brought down a peg. The so-called “hard project” was basically on the verge of denying that factual understanding of reality was possible. The knockout blow was delivered in the form of an article by a leading physicists, Sokal, published in a literary journal Lingua Frnaca. In the article, Sokal made statements that were so extreme as to be almost idiotic. Statements such as “we scientists no longer consider the concept of an ‘outside world.’” The postmodernists were just beginning to revel in their victory of common sense when Sokal came back with a follow up article mocking the hell of them and saying, “you really believe this crap?” After that point the postmodern project declined and number crunchers everywhere rejoiced. This blow came only a couple of years after the first major blow to Derridianism. Derridianism was the heavy artillery of the postmodern crowd. When one of Derrida’s major allies, Paul DeMann, turned out to be a collaborator with the Nazis during the German occupation of Belgium, the Derrian ship took a direct torpedo blow that all but put it on the bottom of the ocean of ideas. But in the academy postmodernism retrenched into the world of “women’s studies” and “identity politics” and to this day haunts the classroom in any place where feminism is discussed. Postmodernism wields great power in the academy, at least in the liberal arts end of things, and for the rest of society they are great basket weavers. Nevertheless, this was only the “perspective adjustment” the postmodern critique of science needed to snap out of its malaise. There have been many unfortunate outcomes but basically the major concepts mentioned above are still very viable: (1) No met narratives; (2) our understanding of reality is merely a construct and not a direct meditation of truth. What this means is we don’t have a clear undeniable proof of the nature of the world, what we get is our understanding of the world.

Consider the basic driving metaphor of the “hard project.” The “hard project” was the extreme end of the postmodern critique. This is the perspective that Sokal was aiming to hit. The hard project came close to denying that there is any meaningful concept of “reality” and that all perceptions are hopelessly subjective. Their major metaphor is the night sky; the night sky is an illusion. This is scientifically the case. There is a gravitational sense that warps our visual image, so that stars are not actually where they appear to be. While there is some truth to this, to try and put it into a dictum such that “there is no night sky” is to make another sweeping construct based upon half-truths. We only know about the gravitational lens because we have the instruments, developed by scientific thinking, to demonstrate that this is the case. We only know that the appearance of the stars is an illusion because we can demonstrate where they really are in relation to our visual perceptions. The night sky is a good metaphor for the way appearances fool us about the nature of reality. It is not absolute proof of any sweeping ideology or theory because to construct such a concept is to commit the same fallacious maneuver the metaphor is designed to negate. The upshot of all of this is that we need to critically aware of ideologies that try to claim too much in the way they organize the world for us. But this works as much for scientifically based ideologies, and those that try to hitchhike on the coattails of science, such as modern skepticism. We need to be aware that when we try to limit our understanding of what is possible in life, we will lose the phenomena. When we make grand rules such that “there is nothing beyond material realm” we are making a metaphysical statement, one that we cannot back up. The attempt to back up such a statement often leads to a philosophical reductionism that is merely narrow-minded and all attempts to verify the construct are merely begging the question. Of course rule no one, (no Meta narrative) might be construed as a problem for Christianity. If ever there was a Meta Narrative, Christianity is it. Science is not so much a Meta Narrative as it is a method, but the skeptical monopolization of science is a Mata Narrative. Science is neutral. The function of science is the gathering of data toward the purpose of explaining the workings of the natural world. What we conclude about the purpose and ultimate origin of the natural world is a Meta Narrative and is beyond the scope of science. Science is not the only form of knowledge. To use science in that way is to forge a Mata Narrative of it. Christianity is a Mata Narrative, but that’s fine because we cannot live without them. The slogan “no Meta Narratives” is just that, a slogan. What it should be taken to mean is “be aware of the baggage you take on if you buy into this story.” It should not be taken to mean, “don’t ever construct a story” because to say that is to construct a story. We can’t live without constructs and symbolic universes; this is the method through which we think. We construct our view of reality by stacking up the little bits of data and imposing a meaning upon the patters we see in the whole. We can no more avoid doing this than we can avoid sleep. We need to be aware and we need to be critical. So Christianity as a private metaphor shared by a community of believers, is one thing, Christianity as a “fact” interpreting the world is another. Science as a method for determining facts about the workings of the physical world is one thing, science as the engine of a driving skeptical movement aimed as crushing religious belief is something else.
What I’m advocating is keeping the secular market place secular. But “secular” means neutral not “anti-religion.” This is quite a chore because all forces tend to seek the crowding out of all other forces. Nevertheless this is the only real solution. Secularization was invented in the first place as a means of overcoming the strife of the religious wars of Europe. We need not “demonstrate” that the resurrection is a “historical fact.” This is impossible because it is a tenet of faith. What we can do is to demonstrate that the claim is a viable possibility. Ten we can try to understand the claim as a viable tenet of faith not as a fact to impose upon the world. In short we need to understand the resurrection as a truth claim, not an historical fact. Registering a doctrine as a “truth claim” is not a demotion from the status of “fact.” It is a recognition that the truth claim a guiding principle for the faith community, but not something we impose upon the world, neither is it a fantasy. To do this we have to come to terms with the notion “fact” and the meaning of scientific data in the overall project of construct building. Essentially the materialists have relinquished the possibility of limiting possibilities to “the natural realm.” Now this has been something they did not know they were doing, but they have taken positions that make a strict materialism logically impossible. Modern materialism evolved out of the enlightenment. It bore the baggage of the skeptical crisis of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, it was formed as a reaction to Newton and Boyle who basically made argument form design (the argument for the existence of God) into a necessary part scientific method. Many forces arrayed themselves in such a way as to produce a reaction against Newton’s Christianity, which had once been lauded as the direction of modern science. These forces included the left over issues of the skeptical crisis (which pitted faith against reason) the battle of the books, which pitted scholasticism and classical learning against modern scientific empiricism, and the political struggle against the heavy hand of Richelieu’s church. The hatred of modern scientifically minded philosophes for scholasticism was unbounded. The feeling developed that only that which is empirically proven can be trusted. This was viewed by post Revolution thinkers as the only tonic for the dogmatic authority of the church. When LaPlace presented his scientific theory of the universe to Napoleon, the emperor is said to have asked how it was that the system lacked any reference to God. LaPlace is reputed to have remarked, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” That remark has long been seen as the sounding death knell of the inclusion of God or religious idea in the factual understanding of “reality.” Science became the modern umpire of what can be taken as real, and matters of faith had no place in science.

LaPlace’s statement was based upon the assumption of naturalistic cause and effect. He had no need of the God hypothesis because naturalistic cause and effect explained everything; all we really needed to know was the workings of the physical world. There was no reason to accept any truth beyond the physical world. Thus modern science developed with the understanding that it’s true domain was the physical world; scientists just ignored the fact that making dictums about what the world included and excluded was a metaphysical ordering beyond the domain of science. Modern skepticism grew up feeding itself upon the delusion that science is its ace card against religion, that it alone is scientific and that science is there to reinforce skepticism.

1) The notion of something from nothing voilates basic assumptions of materialism

a. Materailism based upon cause and effect
Dictonary of Philosphy Anthony Flew, article on "Materialism"

"...the belief that everything that exists is either matter or entirely dependent upon matter for its existence."

Center For Theology and the Natural Sciences Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate: God, Humanity and the Cosmos (T&T Clark, 1999) Is the Big Bang a Moment of Creation?(this source is already linked above)

"...Beyond the Christian community there was even greater unease. One of the fundamental assumptions of modern science is that every physical event can be sufficiently explained solely in terms of preceding physical causes. Quite apart from its possible status as the moment of creation, the Big Bang singularity is an offence to this basic assumption. Thus some philosophers of science have opposed the very idea of the Big Bang as irrational and untestable."

b) Something from nothing contraidicts materialism
Science and The Modern World, Alfred North Whitehead.
NY: free Press, 1925, (1953) p.76

"We are content with superficial orderings form diverse arbitrary starting points. ... sciene which is employed in their deveopment [modern thought] is based upon a philosophy which asserts that physical casation is supreme, and which disjoins the physical cause from the final end. It is not popular to dwell upon the absolute contradiction here involved."[Whitehead was an atheist]

c) Causality was the basis upon which God was expelled from Modern Science

It was La Plase's famous line "I have no need of that Hypothosis" [meaning God] Which turned the scientific world form beliving (along with Newton and assuming that order in nature proved design) to unbelief on the principle that we dont' need God to explain the univrese because we have independent naturalistic cause and effet. [Numbers, God and Nature]
2) Materilism Undermines Itself
a) Big Bang contradicts causality (see quotation above)
b) QM theory seems to contradict cause/effect relationship.
c) Rejection of final cause
3) Probabalistic Justification for assumption of Cause

We still have a huge justification for assuming causes inductively, since nothing in our experince is ever uncaused. The mere fact that we can't see or find a cause isn't a proof that there isn't one.

4) Therefore, we have probabilistic justification for assuming Final cause

Thus, the basis upon which God was dismissed from scientific thought has been abandoned;the door to consideration of God is open again. The reliance upon naturalistic cause and effect in consideration of ultimate origins is shattered, but this does not make it rational to just assume that the universe popped into existence with no cause. Since we have vast precedent for assuming cause and effect, we should continue to do so. But since naturalistic cause and effect seems unnecessary at the cosmic level, we should consider the probability of an ultimate necessary final cause.

I will not publish the third part of this (on blog it will be part 2) for a few days or even more than a week, as this blog is shared by others. But the second or third part deals with Motlmann's concept of resurrection as history making. I think given the fact that John opened up such an interesting area, God and history, it it behooves us to think about it a lot.

I find one thign that is sadly lacking in the New Atheists, while they are bright and engaged and eager to take on the world, they seem a bit myopic.An illustration of what I mean is seen in the works of John Loftus, atheist author and commenter on our blog, is fond of making the statement:
God Chose A Very Poor Medium To Reveal Himself!

By this he means History as the medium. As a would be historian, and history of ideas man at that, I feel moved to comment. Loftus, a former student of Willian Lane Craig, certainly has a good deal of knowledge in the world letters. Loftus is anythhing but an ignorant man. yet he seems to have left out an understanding of the liberal revisionary tradition of Christian theology, which is what I mean by "myopic."

In a previous blog entry, here, I asked why so many professed Christians disagree with each other when interpreting the Bible.

As a former Christian I had difficulty with why there were so many different ways that professed Christians interpreted the Bible. I could never answer that question. I just put it on the backburner of things I didn't know, and I proceeded to try to come up with what I considered the correct interpretations, because that's all I could do.

It will always puzzle me how these guys can be so anti-diverse. One would think an atheist would understand about diversity and why it's a strength and not a weakness. But these guys seen truly threatened by the fact that there are many views in the church. It would seem part of the definition of "free thinking" is that everyone must think the same thing. He goes on:

What I now believe is that history is not a reliable "point of contact" for God to speak with man, assuming God exists.

My first reaction here is what choice do we have? If God declared himself fin central park on world wide television tomorrow he wold being it in history. Anything God does in the temporal realm is done in history if humans exist at the time. God did not create history, people did. History is a cultural construct. It is not history its time we call it history because we segment it into periods, the time before us the time after us, and us! Whenever God choses to deal with us, he's dealing in history and it needs must be. Ah but there's a method to Loftus' madness. He's going to try and juxtaposed modern understanding of historicism to ancient world understanding of the divine. This is yet another version of the age old strategy "ancient people are stupid and modern progress is anti-God." It is not surprising to me that he would take this tact because the whole of the new atheist movement, so far as I can see, is rooted firmly in the nineteenth century. they try to pass themselves off as cutting edge, but their way of thinking about religion, life, truth, progress, science, the world belongs with the 1939 world's fair. He's going to make is sound more sophisticated but in a sense he's just saying "God should reveal himself now so he can use computers and ware a white lab coat, then I would respect him."

Anyone who studies the philosophy of history knows that history (and historical writings) should be interpreted in light of the historian's present perspective.

Do we know that indeed? I would like to know where John got his idea? All the historians I ever worked with were trying to, or saw themselves as trying to understand the way people who lived in their formers times thought. To do that they had to put themselves in their perspectives. One of the fundamental lessons I learned as a historian is not to expert ancient people to hold the same values that I hold. It's an absurd mistake to assume that people in 700BC should have learned better at Woodstock. I am telling you from experince, that sort of concern is far more in the minds of historians than any abstract notion about understand our perspective.

When it comes time to make the point he waxes obtuse:

Why? Because that's all we can do...we cannot do otherwise. So women gain rights in Christian countries and Biblical historians (theologians?) interpret the Bible to say what they have come to believe on other grounds, and so forth, hell being another doctrine.

hu? Why is he jumping from women's rights to the doctrine of hell? We have to use our own perspective because that's all we can do, so we give women rights (I guess he means in spite of the Bible) and who cares what the bible says? then suddenly, bam! here's hell! So? what's it doing there? Why can we only think about history form our perspective? Why can't we seek to understand the perspectives of the past? It seems to me that's job of a cultural historian at least.

Besides, practically any event in history can be rationally denied, even if that event actually occurred! And this goes for non-miraculous history, so how much more does it apply to purported miraculous claims in history? If God chose to reveal himself in history, then he chose a very poor medium to do so.

So what he seems to be arguing. if I get him, is that we should ditch the bible because it's old fashioned, we are modern and we don't dig old fashioned? But there is no period in which he could manifest himself without this problem. Because anything in time is in history. But the real problem with this argument is its chronocentrism. He's just assuming that our time must be special because it's modern. Modern is good and ancient is bad. Any historian worth his salt would laugh himself silly with this stuff. Shades of Hegel! Forget Hegel, shades of Fukuyama! I remember back in the 80's when capitalism was the end of history, now it's the New Atheism. This is the kind of historical romanticism that most historians have worked since Namier to forget. Serioulsy, this guy is falying in the face of the whole historical acadmey since the advent of the 20th century.

This is not new atheism, this is the sort of old nineteenth century stuff we outgrew with the whigs. I am not surprised Loftus resorts to this, most new atheists I've seen are stuck firmly in the nineteenth century. This is jut another reason why atheism is outmoded. This is really the cherished myth of the whole atheist truth regime: the evil clerics with their cruel tyrannical regimes kept poor defenseless scientists burning because they weighed the same as a duck. Along came the noble liberators, D'Holbach! They freed humanity from evil superstition. Everything modern is good and old is bad. It's pretty clear Loftus is not aware of the flow modern historicism or historiography.

Another major problem I find with this view point is the lack of knowledge he displays concern modern theologians. How can anyone talk about God's relationship to history without discussing books like C.T. McIntire's God, History and Historians? (Oxford, 77). The theology of Wolfheart Pannenberg Revelation as History. (1968. coauthored with Rolf Rendtorff, Trutz Rendtorff, and Ulrich Wilkens. New York: Macmillan. Trans. David Granskow of Offenbarung als Geschichte. G` ttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1963).Or, let us think of Jurgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope? So much as been done on theological historicism, the big meaning of history in relation to theology and we don't seem to get a clue that Loftus has even heard of it even though history is the major theme of an argument he makes constantly. Surely in trying to understand history as a medium of revelation it would behoove us to think about God's revelation in history in relation to a theory of the meaning of history?

That leads to the major problem, the New atheist understanding of revelation, as exemplified by Loftus. OF course the major argument is going to be that we can't trust anything historical which comes from the age before science and historiography.On this misunderstands just about everything that pertains to it.since atheism is to Christianity as anti-communism is to communism, the Dawkinsians can't think of anything but the fundies, the flip side of them, the heads to their tails.

(1) His argument applies to views such as verbal plenary inspiration and completely misses all the ferment of views like Models of Revelation by Avery Dulles.

(2) they assume that revelation is static. It's given one historical period adn that's it. This forces the concept of chronocentrism because it lures them into the argument that surely if God was real he would favor our time.

(3) they see revelation in the memo from the boss model.

All of this forms the underpinning and ground of assumptions for teh major upshot of the argument, if God was going to reveal himself why would he do it back then int he time of superstition when we today (since we are the truly important people) can't trust the historicity of the revelation because its formed in the old bad superstition time. OF course this assumes all of the bad assumptions above, the most important of which is the antiquated model of verbal plenary which even the likes of Carl Henry did not support.

Revelation is not a static thing that was given once from on high and goes int the pages of a book. Like time itself, history is fluid and moving, revelation cannot help but be in history since we are in history. Its' not as though God had a choice to have time bound corporeal creatures and not reveal to them in history. Moreover, revelation is not so much the word from on high as it is the encounter between human and divine. The bible is a collection of wittings that were made without knowledge that they would someday be in the bible. These are of many different kinds, different genres and they speak to us in different ways. What they tell is not the memo from the boss, or the "owner's manual" but they speak of how people encountered God and what happened. God uses narrative because it speaks to people. WE need to know about these encounters so that when we have our own we can have some idea of what to expect. The idea that we are going to prove that some literal event really happened in history because the document in which it is recorded can be trusted as actual history is purely secondary.

Like most of the NA's that I find Loftus is doing battle with the fundies, while ignoring the direction of Christian theology over the last 500 years. For example what he says about historicity and miracles, quoting Lessing:

Miracles, which I see with my own eyes, and which I have opportunity to verify for myself, are one thing; miracles, of which I know only from history that others say they have seen them and verified them, are another.” “But…I live in the 18th century, in which miracles no longer happen. The problem is that reports of miracles are not miracles…[they] have to work through a medium which takes away all their force.” “Or is it invariably the case, that what I read in reputable historians is just as certain for me as what I myself experience?”
But Moltmann in Theology of deals with the problem of the supernatural and the historiographical. He argues that the unique nature of the revelation (resurrection) argues for a rules change. The resurrection is not historical, but history making. By the same token Lessing is wrong. Miracles are not static. They are not merely in the past. We can experince the divine today, now. I have done so. If miracles happen now they could happen then. The argument, while I sympathize with and the admire the philosohpical attempts that went into it, is based upon a too limited understanding of both history and theology.

I recently ran across this post at debunkingchristianity (DC) which credits Martin Luther with a quote attacking reason:

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but - more frequently than not - struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.

The gist of the post is that a young Christian had not really questioned his faith as he was growing up, but that once he did he saw all sorts of problems with it and abandoned it. There are no detailed substantive arguments, though the author alludes to atrocities in the Old Testament as conflicting with the kind God of the New and the creationist/evolutionist controversy.

I am not sure how this atheist autobiography approach to de-evangelism pans out among most readers, but it usually strikes me as ineffective and a poor substitute for discussion over the ideas that may have lead to a loss of faith. Yet this tactic is a mainstay of DC as its contributors often seem to think that the rest of us just have not gone through these struggles or squarely faced our doubts or reason, evidence, etc. Though I do not necessarily deny their sincerity, I have good reason to believe that this is untrue in the case for many if not all of my fellow CADRE members and know it is not the case with me.

When I was younger, I went through an extended period of questioning, tackling issues similar to those raised by the DC post and plenty more. Yes, I truly entertained and explored the idea that my faith was wrong. We all have different areas of doubt that are more personally relevant than others. Of particular concern to me were questions over the transmission and accuracy of the Bible and the ultimate issue of whether God even existed. I studied philosophy, history, and science, and really struggled. For an extended period of time, I felt completely cut off from God. For a young charismatic Christian whose movement emphasized enjoying the presence of God, this was yet another reason for doubt. My whole life I could turn to God and feel his presence, his guidance, his love. Where had that gone? This was also a heavy blow.

For many reasons, including reason, I came out of this time period with an adjusted but stronger faith. My exploration did convince me that parts of what had been my faith were simply wrong and had to be abandoned. The earth was much, much older than many Christians I knew believed. The concept of rigid inerrancy I had held was at odds with my reason and history. But my exploration also convinced me that core parts of my faith were true. The resurrection of Jesus did happen. The best explanation for that resurrection was a God involved in the creation and design of the material world. Christianity made more sense out of history, science, philosophy, my experiences, and reason than any of its competitors.

Not coincidentally, I think, during this time I was maturing as a young man in other areas of my life. That time period was not the end of my inquiry or the adjusting of my faith, but no evidence or argument since has provoked the kind of doubt and questioning I had then. I remain a convinced Christian. And, as a charismatic, I enjoy the presence of God as well as other aspects of my faith that needed development and maturing that would likely not have come but for my period of deep doubt.

So am I at cross purposes with Luther? Perhaps. But then again perhaps not. Luther was open to correction not only from the proof of scripture, but from reason. Indeed, it was at least in part his trust in reason that led him to defy his received faith and radically challenge the institutions in which he had been raised and taught to submit. As he famously declared, "I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the Councils, because it is clear as day they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore, I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture and plain reason ... I cannot and will not recant ..." Martin Luther, April 16, 1521.

But Luther – however significant – is not the only Christian thinker to have commented on reason. More than a thousand years before Luther, the Church Father Tertullian wrote:

Reason is a thing of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by reason—nothing which He has not willed should be handled and understood by reason.

Around the same time, another Church Father, Clement of Alexandria, wrote:

Do not think that we say that these things are only to be received by faith, but also that they are to be asserted by reason. For indeed it is not safe to commit these things to bare faith without reason, since assuredly truth cannot be without reason.

More recently, Augustine – himself a substantial influence on Luther – wrote:

Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals! Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.

And even more recently, Christian philosopher and historian William L. Craig thinks enough of reason to title one of his most popular apologetic works and his website, Reasonable Faith.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that Christianity does believe that human reason has been affected, even clouded, by the separation of God from Mankind. This is not a denial of reason, but a recognition that man’s ability to engage in it can be corrupted, mistaken, or misguided. Whether stated as a theological concept such as original sin or a postmodern theory concerned about the impossibility of objectivity, this cautionary approach to reason, I believe, strengthens mankind’s rational endeavors. The difference being that whereas the postmodernist may deny that there is a truth destination that can be arrived at, the Christian will admit its existence and work all the harder to reason and verify. As stated by Rodney Stark, “scholastic theologians placed far greater faith in reason than most philosophers are willing to do today.” The Victory of Reason, page 8.

I do not assume my journey has been normative for all Christians. I hope that most Christians have a solid faith that was not challenged as mine was. But for those who face the kinds of questions the DC poster did, or that I did, please know that the outcome can be an increase, rather than a loss, of faith. Also know that the notion that Christianity is the enemy of reason would surprise a lot of top Christian thinkers.

(The Tertullian quote is from On Repentence, Ch. 1, Clement from Recognitions of Clement, 2:69, and Augustine from Summa Theologica 14:28, working from quotes cited in Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason, page 7).

Update: Coming from a very different background and arriving at a somewhat different destination, my friend Meta recounts his journey through atheism into faith in Christ. I especially appreciate how his story illustrates the potential danger of prematurely giving up the intellectual search.

In his interview with CADRE David Marshall stressed the overriding importance of evangelizing by example through a life of integrity and faithfulness to the Gospel. A fascinating survey published in Christianity Today lends credence to his views. The authors sent out a questionaire to about 750 Muslim converts over the past 15 years asking about the reasons the converted to Christianity. The main reason given was the lifestyle of Christians whom they encountered: "A North African former Sufi mystic noted with approval that there was no gap between the moral profession and the practice of Christians he saw." This is something which the New Atheists so conveniently overlook in their tirades against the inhumanity performed in the name of religion. Many Christians (gasp, surprise) actually do obey their Master's command to love enemies and minister to the poor. And they are not limited to 'exceptional' Christians like Mother Teresa. In fact, it is probably safe to say that most of the truly shining examples of living an authentically Christian life go unnoticed, except by those whose lives are changed as a result.

Equally interesting is that the next major factor listed was the power of God in healing, exorcism, and in dreams of guidance. Elsewhere on Vic Reppert's blog I have noted the fallacy of some skeptics who ask why miracles seem only to have happened in the distant past (the lively exchanges me and Jason had with Ed Babinski and others also make good reading:). The truth is that many missionaries continue to report miraculous healings and exorcisms around the world (A missionary couple even showed a DVD recording of an exorcism which involved their own ministry in Africa, during their visit to Princeton University). It goes without saying that these reports need to be carefully scrutinized, but the mass of evidence which should be taken into account is considerable, as other scholars have also noted. Moreover, the fact that many Muslims experience dreams about Jesus before they convert seems to refute the idea that all religious experience is culturally conditioned (one would expect a Muslim to hear Jesus denying that he ever claimed to be equal to the Father, as he does in the Qur'an!).

This is the second of two parts of an interview for the Cadre Journal, with Christian apologist David Marshall, who has released two books this year (through Harvest Home publishers); one on the topic of the promotion of alternate Gospel texts, and one on the topic of the New Atheism. (Please see Part One for more biographical information, and for the portion about “The Lost Gospels”.)

Most recently this year, David published The Truth Behind the New Atheism: Responding to the Emerging Chellenges to God and Christianity. David had left for Oxford on a speaking tour and research project by the time we did this portion of the interview.

JP: Where did the term "New Atheism" come from anyway? Do the usual suspects gladly make use of it themselves? And if so, what do they see this as positively meaning in their favor?

DM: Most "New Atheists" seem to think the term is somehow derogatory, and foisted on them by a cabal at Wheaton College or somewhere. Such is the way of things: Christians were named by some of our first enemies, "Mohammedans" had no say over that title, the Chinese are still referred to by the name of their most ruthless emperor, and the Makah Indians (as I recall) are called "those guys over there" or something like that, which was the answer a member of the next tribe gave when the first white man asked who they were.

I invented the term "New Atheism", then found everyone already using it before my book came to press. Someone bugged my office, I guess.

JP: So, why would they be called the "New Atheists"? What are they doing new? Or does the term even make any sense applied to them?

DM: This new cohort of atheist writers tends to have several things in common. They are trying generally to apply the theory of evolution in new ways to social science, including religion and morality. (Drawing on people like Pascal Boyer and some other new theorists, even Dawkins' meme theory, along with earlier writers.) Secondly, they draw on new "Jesus spin" -- what I call neo-Gnosticism, along with the Jesus Seminar stuff and some even more hoary "Jesus was a mirage" theories. Third, the New Atheism arises in a new context -- after 9/11, when many skeptics want to see a symmetry between radical Islam and home-grown "Christian fundamentalism." Some people did this during the Cold War, too, trying to make out that Christianity was "just as dangerous" as communism.

JP: People, even among other atheists, have been criticizing the NA group for overstating claims about the American political system and American society being ready to topple into a Talibanesque oppressive theocracy or even being already in such a state already. How accurate are those critiques? Are the NAs really saying such things, or are they just speculating cautiously, or do they not even care about the topic?

DM: Richard Dawkins calls American Christians "the American Taliban." Other critics have written books with titles like "American Theocracy" and "Kingdom Coming," painting American Christianity in equally apocalyptic tones. It is certainly a major part of Dawkins' argument, and of many who agree with him, to make American Christians appear fools, lunatics, proto-terrorists (the serious ones, anyway) and an imminent threat to the republic.

I argue to the contrary. While we Christians often criticize ourselves, and no one denies that the Church is less than it ought to be, the Gospel does, I show, do a great deal of good for America, and through America for the world. The New Atheist case against Christianity is like a snap shot from a satellite. But serious, systematic, long-term, and ground-level study of what Christians are doing for others in America, shows that it's quite a bit. And far from despising democracy, conservative Christians tend to be quite zealous and proprietary about it. Rightfully so -- as serious historians understand, Western freedom was a child of two parents, Greek and Hebrew traditions, nurtured and taught by the Gospel over centuries of slow maturation.

JP: On Richard Dawkins' official website ( the subtitle or motto is "A Clear-Thinking Oasis", and a prominent link will bring the reader to "The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science". At the popular long-running Secular Web (, which frequently markets and promotes NA work, the subtitle or motto is "A Drop of Reason in a Pool of Confusion". This sort of thing can be commonly found among all atheistic promoters. And not unreasonably so!--everyone wants reason to be on their side.

The question here is, how consistent are they about this? I mean in principle--do they always affirm the importance and reality of human reason in reaching conclusions? Or do you find them ever denying the reality and importance of human reasoning in principle when explaining what they believe?

DM: I don't recall them doing that. Perhaps they do, and I missed it.

I make the case that their definition of "reason" is too narrow, and that they deny their own definition in practice. A lot of their statements veer towards positivism. But positivism is a couple strong steps -- or perhaps a giant leap -- on the path to solipsism and an inability to say with epistemological integrity, "I ate eggs for breakfast this morning," or "this is my wife." Most talk about "science" in a reified sense tends to pull us in that direction. My argument is that the Gospel, by contrast, liberates us to find knowledge and truth in a more fully human mode, making use of all our faculties -- including rational dependence on human testimony, as scientists do anyway -- to understand the world around us. Christian "faith," then, is not only a rational act, it is an exercise that sets reason free to really take in the world.

JP: Does it seem a usual procedure of the NAs to make ethical appeals about what people ought and ought not to do? If not, is this consistent behavior on their part (and what do they substitute instead)? If so, how consistent are they in principle about affirming the importance and reality of human moral judgment?

DM: It's natural for all human beings to make ethical appeals. The more loudly we denounce them, the more we tend to assume them implicitly. Marx was a moralist who denied morality. Even the loudest proponents of egoism and the Superman, like Nietzche and Ayn Rand, show in their own lives they don't consistently believe their own arguments. Dawkins is very confused on this topic. Hitchens and Harris are smart (perhaps) enough not even to try to justify their moral opinions theoretically, as far as I recall.

The New Atheism in general does tend to be badly conflicted about morality. On the one hand, they want to say it derives from evolution and you can't derive an ought from an evolutionary is, "except with a negative sign," as Dawkins puts it. Then they turn around and try to do just that -- find evolutionary rationale for their own pet moral projects, to the sounds of pots clanging and glass breaking.

JP: You've spent some time studying, traveling in, and dealing with mainland China, over the years. It can said with some safety, I think, that China is currently the world's largest example of an overtly atheistic government. How does China as a government compare, in its own approaches to the subject, with the NAs?

DM: The more interesting question is how the Chinese compare.

Someone recently got mad at my off-hand comment in this book that most modern atheists have been Marxist. In the broad sense of "Marxist," though, this is clearly true: a huge percent of Chinese (as well as Soviets and so on) have seen themselves as atheists, denying the existence of God. If America has twenty million atheists, China probably has three to four hundred million, maybe more. Only a minority are members of the communist party, true, but their atheism at least derives from Marxist teachings.

The difference is, many Chinese (and Eastern Europeans) were brought up as "cultural atheists," educated in the non-existence God in school. Now many are questioning those assumptions. If you say, "I believe in God," and they respond (as they often do) "why?" or "how do you know?" you get the curious impression that they're really listening to the reply. This is why the number of atheists in China seems to be steadily decreasing, and intellectual Chinese -- even here in Oxford, where I'm answering these questions from -- are coming to God in significant numbers.

But Marx himself was, in his time, very much a "new atheist." He went off to school a pious young Hebrew Lutheran, and lost his faith under the influence of what Daniel Dennett called "godless professors" and a "scientific" view of the origin of human society.

JP: When the NAs are busy excoriating the socio-political threat of the "American Taliban" and President Bush's "theocracy", how does this compare to the reality of China and other known definite atheist states in the past hundred years or so?

DM: Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris want us to think atheism has nothing to do with that reality. As a scholar of Marxism who has lived in both Soviet and Chinese societies, I say "poppycock." One can hardly blame them for wishing, though; what Christian wouldn't want to wish the Inquisition away?

JP: Thank you for your answers so far, David. JD Walters, one of our contributors here on the Cadre Journal, asks: “One often hears that apologetics only 'preaches to the choir' and that it is very ineffective in actually changing someone's mind or bringing them closer to the gospel. What has your experience been in this area? Do you believe that your apologetics books have changed people's minds concerning the issues you deal with?”

DM: The best answer is, perhaps, that apologetics truly does no good at all -- if it is divorced from the life of integrity that the Gospel calls us to. "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels... If I have all knowledge... but have not love, it profits me nothing." [Quoting from St. Paul’s hymn of love in 1 Corinthians chp 13.]

This is why apologetics must be a part of a whole-istic outreach. Paul said "Speak the truth in love." Sometimes I am disappointed by the rude and presumptuous way we Christians respond to our skeptical neighbors. Sometimes I have also let the temptation to be witty trump the call to love, and respond without really caring about the other person.

What effect do my books have in the hands of skeptics? It would be presumptuous of me to generalize. But they are written from my own passionate love of truth, a love of the best in human thought, and a touch of humor. The first step to win a soul is to win a friend; and I do think my books can be a step in establishing a friendly and cheerful conversation about important issues.

JP: As a group of apologists, we're naturally interested in hearing of practical applications of these studies in the lives and witnesses of Christians; for instance, such as the Chinese responses you mentioned encountering in your travels. Can you build a bit on your advice from your previous answer, and discuss the integration of apologetics in a holistic outreach? Also, you seem to indicate that there are important parallels between this holistic outreach and a Christian's own self-discipline of faith. Can you comment on this a little more?

DM: Yesterday I prayed with an Asian woman who goes into the streets and helps drug addicts here in Oxford, and helps homeless people in Africa. She's winning people to Jesus; she's reading my book, and asking me questions, because she feels a need to understand what she believes more deeply. I meet people like that almost every day; and you probably know quite a few in your own church. My standard offer to Richard Dawkins is that he guide me around this town, and introduce me to Oxford's pubs; in return, I'll take him on a tour of the city's churches, and see what the Gospel is accomplishing under his (upturned) nose. My estimate is that he knows about as much about Christianity as I do about English beer.

Chesterton used to say that he could start his argument from anything; from a taxi meter, for example. Jesus was even more flexible and inventive: he could change lives beginning with anything, with mud in the eye, with a tax collector in a tree, with a madman on the beach, with a wild woman at a watering hole on the other side of the railroad tracks. "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," he said (according to his best friend John). We apologists (at least I know I do) tend to concentrate on one aspect of that, "the Truth;" the fraction is even smaller if we look at Jesus' "Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength." There's nothing wrong with specializing; but it is the whole person who wins souls, and becomes a complete one herself.

I've just been reading the biographies of two "evangelists" I admire: Matteo Ricci, and James Legge, the two smartest missionaries to China ever. They won souls by their thoughtful apologetics, but even more by kindness and courage. They were very bookish, but also lived crazy lives: jumping into rivers to save women in a flood, punching an imperial soldier to save a little girl, winning respect for the Gospel in all kinds of ways. They had enemies, and opponents, and they responded robustly. But what ultimately won them respect was their character.

My life has been mild by comparison, so far. But Jesus said, "Whoever gives a cup of water in my name will not lose his reward." I firmly believe that the strongest argument for the Christian faith will always be the integrity of what we say and do.

In the end, we follow a person--not a theory.

Flavius Claudius Julianus was the last pagan Emperor of Rome. His reign followed those of Constaintine, the first Christian emperor, and several other self-professed Christian emperors. Rejecting the Christianity of his family, Julian sought to use his power as Emperor to restore Rome as a pagan society.

Julian has become something of a hero to skeptics and atheists. According to the anti-Christian historian Edward Gibbons in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “[Julian] extended to all the inhabitants of the Roman world the benefits of a free and equal toleration; and the only hardship which he inflicted on the Christians was to deprive them of the power of tormenting their fellow-subjects….”

Such a portrayal, however, overstates the intolerance of the early Christian emperors as well as the tolerance of the pagan Julian. As noted by Rodney Stark in his new book, Cities of God:

For Constantine neither outlawed paganism nor condoned persecution of non-Christians. In fact, although Constantine subsidized and gave official standing to the Christian church, he continued some funding of pagan temples…. More significant even than his tolerance of pagan temples, Constantine continued to appoint pagans to the very highest positions, including those of consul and prefect, especially if we may assume that most whose religious affiliation is unknown were, in fact, pagans.

Stark, Cities of God, page 190.

Stark is a big believer in metrics. History, in his opinion, suffers from the lack of the use of numeric evaluation to test theories. As the last part of the above quote alludes to, in order to test the notion that Julian was the emperor of tolerance whereas his Christian predecessors and followers were intolerant, Stark evaluated the religious identity of the high ranking appointments.

• Constantine: 50% Christians, 18% pagans, and 26% unknown.

• Constantinus/Constans: 26% Christians, 46% pagans, and 28% unknown.

• Constantius: 63% Christian, 22% pagan, and 15% unknown.

• Julian: 18% Christian and 82% pagan.

• Valentinian: 31% Christian, 38% pagan, and 31% unknown.

• Gratian: 39% Christian, 25% pagan, and 36% unknown.

When it comes to tolerance of placing officials with the other religion into high office, the Christian emperors before and after Julian have him beat hands down. Moreover, none of the following five Christian emperors came close to so lopsided a ratio of appointments as Julian.

In addition to attempting to shut Christians out of government, Julian’s reign saw more direct reaction to Christians.

Not wanting to create new martyrs, Julian did not initiate the bloody persecution of Christians a la Nero or Diocletian, but he did condone the torture of several bishops, exiled others, and ignored the ‘summary executions that seem to have taken place in large numbers in central and southern Syria during his reign.’ Thus, there was no imperial response when the ‘holy virgins in Heliopolis were rent limb from limb and their remains thrown to the pigs.’ When knowledge that a pagan emperor now ruled prompted pagans in Alexandria to torture the city’s Christian bishop, to tear him limb from limb, and then to crucify ‘many Christians,’ Julian’s main concern was to obtain the dead bishop’s library.

Stark, op. cit., page 195.

We should also remember that Julian was just getting started; his reign lasting less than two years. His obvious intolerance towards Christians could very well have lead to much greater persecution and even civil war. He appears to have been less tolerant of Christians than his preceding and even many of his following Christian emperors were towards paganism.

The Christian Cadre is pleased to present, in two parts, an interview with Christian apologist David Marshall, who has released two books this year (through Harvest Home publishers); one on the topic of the promotion of alternate Gospel texts, and one on the topic of the New Atheism.

David was a missionary, a teacher, and a student of comparative religion in East Asia for 13 years, during which time he also did what he could to help prostitutes sold into slavery in Taiwan. After teaching at Siebold University in Japan, he moved to the United States to start Kuai Mu Institute.

He now lives in Seattle with his wife and children; but travels around the United States, the Pacific Rim and (during this October) the United Kingdom on research trips and speaking engagements.

His first three books were:

True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture (1996, revised 2002)

Jesus and the Religions of Man (2000)


Why the Jesus Seminar Can’t Find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could: A Populist Defense of the Gospels (2005)

An excellent introductory interview can be found here at Harvest House Publishers. We recommend readers begin with this.

JP: Readers who check the HH interview will see that you met your wife overseas. Would it be all right to ask a little more about the story of this?

DM: I actually met my wife at Odegaard Library at the University of Washington here in Seattle.

JP: Were you studying something there? Teaching? How about her?

DM: I was doing research for Jesus and the Religions of Man. She was taking a summer English course, and leafing through a tour guide to Europe. That was my excuse to start talking; I'd just been on the European solo youth hostel tour a few years before myself, and offered some advice, "out of the kindness of my heart." I think I mentioned the beautiful hostel in Interlaken, and probably Mittenwald, Bavaria. We ended up outside, in "The Quad," a grassy area surrounded by neo-Gothic buildings, and covered with (of course) Japanese cherry trees, talking about who knows what. I didn't get her phone number, but ran into her again "by accident" on a return trip.

The first of David's two books published this year was The Truth About Jesus and the “Lost Gospels”.

JP: Not all the alternative-Gospels which we know about are Gnostic, though many of them are. But your work in this book seems to focus on the Gnostic Gospels. Is that because the people you're responding to tend to focus on the Gnostic Gospels? If so, is there some indication, from what they themselves talk about, as to why they focus there and not with other alt-Gospels?

DM: As I argue, the Gnostics are used to undermine Christianity in two ways. First, some people actually take them seriously for what they say about Jesus -- people like Dan Brown, or at least a few of his fans, or people who have been watching The Matrix too long. The ultimate act of rebellion may be to buy into the basic Gnostic myth -- God as an evil creator, the material world as essentially deceptive and second-rate, Jesus as an enlightened spirit-being who didn't die on the cross. It's a kind of neo-Promethianism for a post-Marxist general culture.

But more common is the Elaine Pagels / Bart Ehrman / Jesus Seminar school of deconstructionism. These folks don't think the Gnostics are telling the truth about history, but use them as an ally to undermine Christianity. They say, "orthodox" early Christians, or "proto-orthodox" Christians, were just one school out of many, and no more legitimate than all the rest. This feeds into the modern democratic feeling, the idea of relativism and equality and the post-modern love of "plural narratives." Hard-nosed Christians were to blame for trying to force one version of Christianity down everyone's throat.

I call this story line "neo-Gnosticism," and it's a primary goal of my book to describe and disprove it.

Other, non-Gnostic "alternative Gospels" may be less useful for this form of attack. Too innocuous, I guess, or too orthodox.

JP: Of the known non-canonical works connected to Christianity (both orthodox and otherwise), only a minority (though a sizeable minority) are called Gospels at all. Do the scholars you're responding to, even when they focus on Gnostic work, try to make use of any alternative not-Gospels? (Alternative Acts, Epistles, Apocalypses, etc.)

DM: The term "Gospel" here is problematic. I argue that no real Gospels, in any real sense of the term, aside from the four that begin the New Testament, have ever been found. [JPNote: David spends much of Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus... analyzing the four canonical texts and a wide selection of other ancient texts, using an innovative genre classification method.] Thomas is not a "Gospel." It is a collection of 114 metaphysical sayings, less than half of which were borrowed loosely from the New Testament.

Most of the Nag Hammadi library consists of Gnostic works that aren't even called Gospels. So in that sense, the answer would be "yes." But Pagels and her fellows also try to read Gnostic views into the other parts of the New Testament. I've seen it attempted with Paul. And of course lots of people see shadows or echoes of the Gnostics in John, and he wrote more than a Gospel. There's lots about "light" and "darkness" in his letters and in The Revelation, which also resonates in these circles.

JP: Readers of press-releases, articles and books from these alternate-Gospel proponents, frequently receive the impression that by appealing to these texts we're more likely to find a human Jesus whom we can better relate to, instead of the highly mythologized divine-man of the canonical four. (Not even counting things like the canonical RevJohn!) How much substance is there to this appeal?

DM: There is such a thing as a negative infinite, isn't there? Sorry if that sounds like childish hyperbole, but this popular caricature is the exact opposite of the truth. What's grossly obvious about the Gnostic texts -- and I assume that's what you're referring to -- is that they not only didn't care about the "historical Jesus," the humanity of Jesus, but that they despised the whole concept of flesh and blood -- even for us humans, let alone for anyone divine. This is why, in the "Gospel" of Judas, Jesus laughs at the "stunt double" who dies on the cross in his place. Mortal existence is "dead creation," the "bond of flesh," the "lowest region of all matter."

By sharp contrast (and contrasts don't get much sharper), the Jesus of the real Gospels -- and that's the only word for them -- is indeed "flesh and blood." The divine puts on humanity in a way that makes it only that much more human. Jesus is frustrated, tired, angry, delighted, amazed, sad. He hurts when you kick him. He bleeds when you cut him. He eats fish, even after he's risen from the dead. Jesus is infinitely more human than the phony action figures, pompous windbags, and vague legends that scholars sometimes compare to Jesus, in a desperate attempt to plug gaps in the universe.

Jesus is presented as divine in the Gospels, for sure. But his divinity shines through his humanity, somehow. Reading skeptics' attempts to find parallels, only makes me feel the extraordinary uniqueness of this accomplishment more intensely. There is no one like Jesus in world literature.

JP: So, the Jesus of the Gnostic Gospels actually tends to be more 'divine' than 'human'.

DM: Yes, absolutely.

JP: 'Divine' in what way?

DM: Certainly not in the sense of "sweet" (as with "divinity," the candy). I point out that the Jesus of the Gnostics seemed to have a positive aversion to niceness, like a muddy boy to hot showers. So there is nothing in this "Jesus" that reminds one of the character of God -- nothing "divine" in that sense.

Spooky, ephemeral, ghostly -- those might be better adjectives.

JP: So, if the Jesus of these Gnostic Gospels is actually more 'divine' than 'human' in some way, is there any indication among the proponents of those texts for why they'd even want to be focusing on them?! One might have supposed that such radical sceptics would be staying even further clear of such texts than of the canonical texts!

DM: I think part of the answer is that the texts are considered less positively useful in themselves, than useful in trying to undermine 'orthodox' Christian faith! Of course, I'm not saying there are no admirable or praise-worthy qualities in the Gnostic Jesus. He gets in some good lines. There are a few Zen-like aphorisms that titillate certain Starbucks-related regions of the brain... The best for that might be Gospel of Thomas, Thunder, Perfect Mind and (off the top of my head) Mary.

JP: Now that I think of it, would you consider giving a comparison of the Gnostic Gospels to RevJohn? The style of the two sets is often much closer to one another than the style of the Gnostic documents to any of the canonical Gospels. If we decide to compare Jesus-es even then, though, what similarities/differences will we find?

DM: That's more of a project than I should take on right now -- but an interesting question. Pagels wrote a book comparing the Gospel of John to Thomas, and while her idea that Thomas came first is absurd, there are some stylistic or rhetorical similarities. And the Gnostics were fond of apocalypse and psychedelic imagery.

Were the Gnostics inspired by John? Was John inspired by some neo-Gnostic writer that he got hold of? Did the editor who put John together -- his disciple, apparently -- want to send a message to an unorthodox alternative school? The Gnostics did seem to like John a lot -- I don't know if that's a fault on his part or not. He's quoted and parodied extensively, and not just by the Gnostics, of course.

But there is no trace of the Jesus we find in the narrative parts of the Gospel of John in any of the Nag Hammadi literature. Here is a Savior of flesh and blood: he shows emotion, eats, sweats, bleeds. In some ways, the Jesus of John is even further removed from Gnostic thinking than the Jesus of the other Gospels. And Revelations seems to me a continuation of that. Very earthy, within his mysticism. That's the remarkable combination.

JP: When these scholars are trying to make a case for these alternate Gospels (and similar texts) being appealed to instead of the canon, do they proceed by arguing about how much more reliable these other texts are than the canon?

DM: No, never. Almost always when the subject is forced on them, they admit that the Gnostic texts are NOT reliable. I give several examples. The trick -- and it is a trick, a shell game -- is to make their readers transfer this skepticism to the real Gospels. So in a book of 200 pages, someone like Karen King will admit once, in one phrase, that the Gospel of Mary is not historical. But you'll find dark insinuations about the real Gospels all over the place.

The worst in this regard may be Marvin Meyer, whose books on the Gnostics fill secular book stores. He will be quite naïve and welcoming to the ridiculous idea that the Islamic "Jesus sayings" contain useful new historical material from Jesus himself -- these are texts most of a millennia after the time of Christ -- then turn around and try to undermine the historicity of the Gospels themselves.

Real scholars, apart from a few very nutty ones -- and I think even Meyer may be faking it -- all know the Gnostics have little or probably nothing to tell us about the historical Jesus. The game is to trick our eyes off that question. Prod one text up, push the other one down, throw up a bunch of rhetoric about "narratives" and "oppressive authority structures" out into the gabosphere, and hope people will forget about such silly little questions as historical truth and moral value. That's how I see it when I'm feeling cynical, anyway.

JP: Thanks David! Part 2 of 2 coming up next...

The CADRE is launching a new page: Answering the New Atheists

Page description: Do the “New Atheists” offer anything new? Other than their level of vitriol, it is questionable. Nevertheless, they are at least posing the old questions and making the old arguments with renewed vigor and evangelistic zeal. This page meets the challenge and offers responses.

At present, the sections included are:

*The New Atheism
*Richard Dawkins
*Christopher Hitchens
*Sam Harris
*Daniel Dennett
*Resources About the New Atheism

The resources includes articles, book reviews, debates, and books, all devoted to their respective subject. Please let us know if you have any other candidates for special treatment on the page or resources that we missed.

That is the conclusion of a Canadian study performed by the University of Lethbridge. Here is a description of the methodology:

The survey of 1,600 Canadian adults, led by University of Lethbridge professor Reginald Bibby, gave a list of 12 values - from honesty to family life to politeness to generosity - and asked the participants if they found each "very important." In each case, theists ranked the values as more important than atheists.

Professor Bibby concludes that religion plays an important role in the transmission and reinforcement of these values. As religious influence diminishes in Canada, no apparent alternative source has come forward.

He said people who are believers are encouraged ­- whether by a desire to please God, or because of a fear of God - to adopt these values. "If you don't have that as a major source in the culture then what will be the source? I think that's where we've been really superficial ... we've really been underestimating the contribution religious groups can make."

Although Professor Bibby admits theists do not always translate their values into actions, "at least they are inclined to hold the values" and that atheists "do not have as many explicit support groups that are committed to intentionally promoting [a] positive interpersonal life."

Too true.

And, I believe, more support for the idea that atheist morality is borrowing capital from the Christian bank they seek to undermine.

For four years, Peter Kirby hosted a number of my articles at his Christian Origins site. The site has been down for a while now, so I have started reformatting and revising those articles and hosting them at the Christian CADRE site. The first article now available is Marcion, the Canon, the Law, and the Historical Jesus. Moderately revised, it is an overview of Marcion's background, teachings, and effect on the development of early Christianity.

You have probably heard about the school shooting in Cleveland. A student at a magnet school showed up on campus yesterday and shot two fellow students and two of his teachers. He then killed himself with his own gun. Fortunately, his victims will recover.

What has gotten less play is what prompted the shooting spree. The student, Asa Koon, was an atheist. The previous day he had gotten into an argument about the existence of God that was broken up by a teacher. During the argument, he said things like "F--- God!" It appears that after class, he got in a physical altercation with a theist student over their previous argument about God's existence. This too was broken up by a teacher and both students were suspended.

Two days later, Koon showed up with two handguns and proceeded to hunt down specific teachers, shooting one of them and two students and another teacher who got in his way.

In other news, atheist dogmatist Christopher Hitchens assaulted a 62-year old priest following a reportedly rambling, inebriated rant full of vulgarity and anti-semitic comments. Fortunately, a bodyguard interposed himself between the two and the priest was unharmed.

Are these examples of the more aggressive, proudly intolerant New Atheism?

Sometimes newspapers publish stories that are so unsurprising that they hardly pass for news. One such story was published by the USA Today on their religion page entitled Study: Youth see Christians as judgmental, anti-gay. The article begins:

Majorities of young people in America describe modern-day Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical and anti-gay. What's more, many Christians don't even want to call themselves "Christian" because of the baggage that accompanies the label.

Yeah? And this is news because . . . ?

The idea that Christianity is "judgmental, hypocritical and anti-gay" is not news. These allegations are really rather old. The idea that Christians are judgmental goes with the territory: most Christians accept the orthodox view that there is such a thing as truth -- "true truth" as Francis Schaeffer labelled it -- and that people can be wrong about issues of spirituality. Christians take a position that the only path to God is through the forgiveness that has been offered as a free gift from God through the death of his beloved Son (and second person of the Trinity), Jesus Christ. We don't believe that other religions offer alternative paths to God, and therefore people who follow these other religions are heading towards just condemnation for their own sins. That's been spun as "judgmental" and that's simply part-and-parcel of Christian belief.

The idea that Christians are hypocritical is also old news: Christians have been called hypocritical almost from the start because we believe that God calls on us to become better people. He calls on us to try to be a morally pure. As such, we speak out against such things as drunkenness, sexual immorality and other sins which many people want to indulge in. In fact, many Christians who honestly try to live pure lives are also tempted to indulge in these things, too. Christians don't always successfully practice what they preach -- in fact, one might say that we rarely successfully practice what we preach and there would be a good argument that such a claim would be right -- and due to our natural human desire not to be shamed we cover up our own failings making the failings even worse when they come to light. But that doesn't make the goal wrong; it simply means that we don't always (some might say, rarely) practice what we preach. Technically, if we are arguing that "while we have failed to live according to our own moral standards, but that doesn't mean that others shouldn't try to live by those standards", such a position doesn't make Christians hypocrites. However, because of the way the world sees hypocrisy today, in the world's view Christians are seen as hypocrites.

The idea that Christians are anti-gay is also old news. While there is debate within Christianity on this issue and my viewpoint is certainly not the viewpoint of everyone who would identify themselves as Christian, I think that the Bible takes a clear stand that acting out homosexual behavior is a sin. Unfortunately, some people who also take the name of Christian have taken this teaching as a license to abuse or otherwise mistreat gays. Such actions are wrong and should rightfully be condemned both inside and outside the church. However, taking the words of Paul and the book of Leviticus (as well as other mentions in the Bible) at their face value, many Christians believe they must take a stand that gay behavior is sinful. That is, of course, seen as "anti-gay" by today's if-it-feels-good-do-it society. To the Christian, telling someone else that they are sinning when they think that what they are doing is "beautiful and natural" is the most loving thing one can do.

All this article tells me is that Christians are losing the public relations war among the youth. The Christian positions aren't wrong, but the world is twisting the meanings, emphasizing the church's failings and otherwise convincing people (mostly through rhetorical devices) that darkness really is light. But then, that's the church's fault. The church as a whole has not done an effective job of telling the people the truth because we are afraid to engage culture on the truth. We haven't been as effective in reducing our message down to bumper-sticker-sized sound bites that people can relate to or paste on the back of their cars (after all, that seems to be where most people get their theology today). We haven't educated our youth on the reasons to believe that the Bible is truthful and relevant; preferring instead to tell kids "just have faith" when that's no reason to believe one thing is true over another.

Christians simply need to do better, and we should be praying that God uses each one of us to reach others because, without the power of the Holy Spirit, all of our efforts will be for naught.

Here is a very interesting news brief on some recent biological research on the appendix. A team of researchers has proposed that the appendix may not be a useless organ after all. It may have an important part to play in synthesizing and protecting 'good' bacteria that line the intestinal track. What's interesting about this research is that the appendix has long been a favorite example of an evolutionary 'fluke' that a good Designer would not equip our bodies with, according to skeptics. What if more such flukes turn out to be useful after all? Would that provide supporting evidence for the design hypothesis? I'm not sure either way, because of the massive complexity of the biological process. But it does provide some food for thought.

Knowing full well that some atheist will accuse me of justifying genocide, I wanted to look another time at the account of the destruction of the Canaanites upon the entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land as recorded in the Book of Joshua. Naturally, these verses cause a great deal of problems for most people, and they should. To accept blindly the complete and utter destruction of "all of the inhabitants" of various cities (such as Jericho [Jos. 6:21] and Ai [Jos. 8:26]) without being concerned about the extent of the destruction would show a lack of compassion that would be disturbing. However, saying that one should examine the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the peoples is not the equivalent of saying that one should immediately assume that such destruction was definitely wrongful. This is where many knee-jerk atheists make their mistake. While they accuse Christians of being the ones who are unable to see nuances in positions, a total disregard of the reasoning that the destruction of entire groupings of people may be morally acceptable when taking all factors into account shows a lack of careful thought that it is appalling.

I want to begin the examination by discussing termites. In California, whenever a person purchases a home, she is wise to take steps to be certain that the house is not infested with termites. The destructive force of termites, as anyone living in California already knows, is incredible and causes millions of dollars in damage to buildings every year. To buy a home without first removing the termites by fumigating the property is simply asking for trouble down the road.

To a degree, the Israelites were in much the same situation as the California landowner when they entered the promised land. The land that they sought to inhabit was already inhabited by a race of people known as the Canaanites. What is largely ignored about the Canaanites is the fact that they were very, very bad people. In an article by Robert Bowman entitled Joshua's Conquest: Was it Justified? Near the beginning of his article, Dr. Bowman reminds us that the Canaanites were among the very worst people in terms of how they lived their lives:

Critics of the Old Testament's claim that God ordered the killing of whole tribes in Canaan typically neglect the reason expressly stated in the Old Testament: those tribes were depraved beyond redemption (Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:21-30; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:29-31; etc.). According to the Old Testament, the Canaanites and other tribes in the land widely practiced child sacrifice, incest, bestiality, and other behaviors that almost everyone in history, including today, rightly regard as unspeakably, grossly immoral. If this explanation is even acknowledged, critics often claim that it is a later theological justification for Israel's displacing those peoples from the land. Even many mainstream biblical scholars make this claim.

I have already questioned the conventional wisdom that the wickedness of the peoples of Canaan was an after-the-fact rationalization. However, even if the passages were all composed after the fact, such a response really skirts the issue, which is whether that theological justification was true. If the people of Canaan were akin to the peace-loving, civilized folks of different religions living in our suburban neighborhoods and working in our colleges, hospitals, and fire departments, then the Israelite claim that God had condemned those peoples as hopelessly degenerate would be rightly questioned. On the other hand, if the Canaanites and other peoples in the land were a degenerate society widely practicing bestiality and publicly burning their children to Molech, might not the Old Testament writers have had a point?

Dr. Bowman then examines some of the evidence, scant though it is, and determines that the evidence, to the extent it exists, supports some of the accounts about the Canaanites recorded in the Bible. They were a bad people. Certainly, it is reasonable to believe that they needed to be removed from the Promised Land if the Israelites were to take their God-given place in that area. In other words, the Canaanites were like the termites that needed to be removed from the home -- to leave them there would be simply to ask for trouble in the years ahead.

(Of course, people and termites are very different creatures with it being generally accepted to destroy the latter at will while it is universally agreed that the former should be protected - although under naturalistic beliefs there is little reason to make such a distinction. Still, to the extent that the Canaanites inhabited the lands and brought with them the ability to destroy the foundation of what God was seeking to build through the Israelites, the analogy has some limited value.)

Still, the Israelites did not, in fact, destroy all of the Canaanites. The lingering presence of the Canaanite people and their false religion (which the Israelites erroneously adopted again and again throughout Old Testament history) led to many, many difficulties for the Israelites over the years. As Dr. Bowman notes in the aforementioned article:

Although the Israelites under Joshua gained a measure of dominant control over much of the land of Canaan, they did not eliminate the peoples of Canaan completely and did not cleanse the land thoroughly of the corrupt religious and social practices of the Canaanites. Throughout the periods of the judges, the united monarchy, and the divided monarchy, Baal worship in particular continued to be a problem. One can only imagine how much more difficult it would have been to maintain with integrity any religion of the worship of Yahweh had the Israelites not been as aggressive as they were under Joshua. Elijah's infamously overstated lament that all Israel had abandoned the worship of Yahweh for Baal illustrates just how close Israel came at times to doing just that.

Clearly, the Israelites would have been better off if the wicked Canaanites had been completely removed from the Promised Land. They were like a cancer in the land that needed to be cut out completely for the body to remain healthy. They were like the termites who, if left in place, could severely damage -- perhaps even destroy -- the house of Israel.

Could they be converted? To answer this, one needs to consider the overall goodness of God. God does not take the destruction of people lightly. As demonstrated early in Genesis when God personally smote (because His chosen people had yet to develop into the nation that could act on His behalf) the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he showed his desire to spare a group of people even if there are a very small number of people who can be seen as "righteous."

Abraham came near and said, "Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

So the LORD said, "If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account."

* * *

Then he said, "Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak only this once; suppose ten are found there?" And He said, "I will not destroy it on account of the ten."
Genesis 18:23-26, 32.

These verses reflect the absolute absence of righteousness in the societies of Sodom and Gomorrah. Not even ten people in those cities could be found who would be considered righteous. This leads to the conclusion that God does not punish unjustly, and refrains from meting out punishment when the righteous may be slain with the unrighteous. Bible Commentator Matthew Henry points out:

God’s general good-will appears in this, that he consented to spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous. See how swift God is to show mercy; he even seeks a reason for it. See what great blessings good people are to any place, and how little those befriend themselves that hate and persecute them.”
Matthew Henry Commentary on Genesis 18, available through The Blue Letter Bible (

Moreover, the Old Testament shows that God gave the wicked peoples of that world an opportunity to turn from their wicked ways and surrender to God’s people before any attack. As shown at many times throughout the Old Testament, and as highlighted in the account of Jonah, when God has decided to punish a culture, he sends them advance notice. He will send prophets telling them what He is about to do, and asking them to repent. Jonah went to Nineveh to tell the people of that city that God was to destroy them. They listened and repented and God did not destroy them. Thus, it is a good probability that the Canaanites had plenty of notice of what would happen if they continued in their rebellious and evil ways.

Also, under the rules of war that the Israelites operated, they gave the Canaanites every opportunity to surrender prior to the actual attack. And it is almost certain that few women or children were left behind. As noted by Norman Geisler:

“[M]ost of the women and children would have fled in advance before the actual fighting began, leaving behind the warriors to face the Israelites. The fighters who remained would have been the most hardened, the ones who stubbornly refused to leave, the carriers of the corrupt culture. So it’s really questionable how many women and children might actually have been involved anyway.

“Besides, under the rules of conduct God had given to the Israelites, whenever they went into an enemy city they were to first make the people an offer of peace. [Deut. 20:10:10-13] The people had a choice: they could accept that offer, in which case they wouldn’t be killed, or they could reject the offer at their own peril. That’s appropriate and fair.”

Thus, contrary to the assertion of skeptics, the destruction of the Caananites was not an evil. It was the Canaanites who were evil, and it was the judgment of God through the Israelites on the Caananites in those cities were led to their destruction. We can be confident that the people destroyed were irredeemably wicked and unrighteous. We can be confident that there were no righteous people among those destroyed. We can be confident that God sent them prior notice of their destruction, and that he gave them opportunity to repent and surrender even up to the date of the actual battle. The destruction that fell upon them was the result of their absolute and utter unrepentant evil, and their decision to continuously attack and attempt to annihilate the chosen people of God.

Thus, to the extent that someone suggests that the Israelites should simply have tried to share the land with these people, they fail to take into account two very important factors: (1) the Canaanites opposed their entry into the land and wouldn't co-habitate the land with the Israelites and (2) the continuing presence of the Canaanites was damaging to the Israelites.

Obviously, the Canaanites had to go for the Israelites to be at peace in their new home. If the Israelites had simply attacked the Canaanite cities, destroyed their armies and allowed the inhabitants to flee, I doubt that the removal of the Canaanites under those circumstances would have caused the same hullabaloo that the verses call because they report that the Israelites destroyed all of the inhabitants of the towns -- young and old, men and women. Was this really necessary?

I want to answer the question two ways. First, I want to note that such destruction may have been necessary because the Israelites needed to clean the land of the evil of the Canaanites. Consider: if the Israelites had destroyed only the soldiers, what would they have done with the inhabitants of the towns? Sent them on their way? Odds are that these people would have moved elsewhere for a time until they regained their strength and then returned to press the attack. Certainly, that's what appears to have happened often with the Philistines. They couldn't bring the people into their camps because God, for reasons of His plan of salvation, had decreed that the savior was to come from the Jewish people who needed to be kept separate and apart. Besides, if they brought in the Canaanites, these Canaanites would have brought their despicable practices into Israel with them and led to even greater violations of the laws of God than occurred even after they were mostly destroyed.

So, what should they have done? What was the alternative? Assuming that the people of Israel were to have this land, what else were the Israelites to do besides for completely destroy the inhabitants that would have protected themselves from further attacks and would have kept the evil influences of the Canaanites from corrupting the Israelite society (which, even in the limited form in which it survived following Joshua's conquest, remained a corrupting influence despite the killing of all of the inhabitants of a couple of towns)? I note that the people who object to the attacks have nothing to say on this point. They want to assert that the Israelis were wrong to attack.

Personally, I think that the judgment of an omniscient God that the Canaanites were more like termites than like people carries more weight than the attacks by the skeptics who simply refuse to give serious consideration to anything that would portray God as both merciful and just.

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