Category Archives: theology

Responding to Non-Christian, Monotheist Critiques of Christianity

Many of us live on streets where nearly all the world’s major religions and different types of secularism and atheism are represented. We personally encounter religious viewpoints today that fifty years ago we had only read about in books. We are encouraged by the exponents of pluralism and relativism to ignore the differences and just get along. And from a personal and political vantage point this may be a good strategy. But what is true for individuals and politicians is not true for religions and philosophies. They make conflicting truth claims. From a logical point of view they may all be wrong, but they cannot all be right. I am comfortable and experienced in arguing for the truth of Christianity against atheism or for the truth of an important theological truth against a Christian thinker who denies it. But like many of you I am not all that experienced at defending the faith in discussions with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others. And as I hinted above, our culture discourages us from anything but affirming encounters with representatives of other religions. I think, however, that Christians need to go beyond tolerance and politeness, and learn how to explain and defend our faith to our non-Christian neighbors. Let’s think today about how to respond to one particular non-Christian critique of Christianity.

Critics of Christianity attack at different points. Where they attack depends on what they assert as the alternative truth. Atheists object to the very idea of God, and offer nature or matter as a god-substitute. Non-Christian monotheist religions object to the status and role Jesus Christ occupies in the Christian faith and assert some other revelation or mediator or law as a Christ-substitute. Non-Christian polytheist religions find it easy to assimilate Christ as one appearance of god among many. Today I want to address certain objections to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. I am not concerned in this essay with those Christians who object on biblical grounds to the specific doctrine asserted in the Nicene Creed. I am thinking of rational critiques by Jewish, Islamic, Theist or Deist thinkers.

These critics assume that defeating the doctrine of the Trinity defeats Christianity as a whole. And to accomplish this goal they make use of a common (and mistaken) notion that gives their objections underserved force, that is, that the simple unity of the divine being is a clear, rational truth whereas the triunity of the divine being is irrational or mysteriously beyond reason. But as a matter of historical fact, biblical Israel’s belief in the unity of the divine being was based on historical revelation and divine action, not on reasoning from nature. The best reasoning from nature at that time concluded that the divine nature was plural, that there were many gods, some more, some less divine. There are many forces and spheres within nature, and for the ancients these different forces possessed no obvious connection. And even if you examine the writings of the Greek philosophers from Plato to Plotinus, you never find a rationally plausible system that gets beyond dualism, that is, the assertion of at least two ultimate principles; and the divine realm always includes multiple levels. The history of philosophy proves that we cannot reason conclusively from the many things of our experience to a single, simple explanation for everything, much less to a single personal God. To think at all is to relate one thing to another. If there is only one thing, we are beyond thought. Hence simple monotheism is not a clear, rational truth self-evidently superior to belief in a differentiated divine unity. That there is only one, personal God is a truth that can be known only by revelation. I think it can be rationally held once believed, but just because it can be rationally held doesn’t mean it can be rationally proved. And I’ve not even addressed the question of the identity of that one God, which, of course, can be known only through the self-revelation of God, who alone, knows who he is.

If we remove the presupposition of the rational superiority of simple monotheism, the rationalist critique of the doctrine of the Trinity collapses. The question of whether God’s inner nature is absolutely without distinction or contains internal relations is beyond rational discovery. Now we can see clearly that the more basic question at issue is, has God revealed himself in such a way that calls for thinking of God as triune? Just as Jews assert that the God who called, guided, punished and saved Israel proved himself to be the one Creator of all things, Christians assert that this same God showed himself by what he did in and through Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to be eternally Father, Son and Spirit. The real question is not whether or not this assertion is as clear to reason as is the assertion of simple monotheism. Neither one is a truth discovered by or transparent to reason. The real question is whether or not God really has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit in the way the New Testament declares. Judaism, Islam and Deism deny this; and this denial is the root of their objection to the Trinity and to Christianity as such. The rationalist objection is a distraction.

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What Has FAITH Got to Do With Salvation?

In recent essays we considered how God deals with three aspects of the sinful human condition through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Jesus enacts God’s forgiveness in his dying on the cross, and in the resurrection of Jesus by the power of the Spirit, God heals the damage and death sin causes. The power by which God raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us to a new life free from the power of sin. But how does God’s work in Jesus Christ affect us here and now?

In addressing these questions we must keep two things in mind. (1) The New Testament sees Jesus Christ not only as the Savior but as the first truly saved human being. His action is not only divine but also human. His acts of obedience were not only righteous as divine but also as human. Jesus Christ was one of us as well as one of the Trinity. Hence we can say that one of us, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, lived a righteous life completely pleasing to God. With God all things are possible! What God did for Jesus he can do for us through Jesus! (2) The New Testament sees the salvation that God enacted in and through Jesus as the realization of God’s eternal plan for creation. Jesus’ human salvation, that is, his deliverance from the deadly consequences of sin (other people’s sin) and his glorification, happened to him alone. And it happened to Jesus before the end, before it happens to the rest of creation. Jesus is the first of a future, new humanity.

How, then, does what God did in Jesus affect us? How do I begin to experience the salvation that Jesus experienced? First, consider that the salvation described in the New Testament involves objective and subjective elements. Salvation involves the whole person, and our existence is comprised of conscious and unconscious dimensions. God could forgive (that is, not take revenge for sin’s insult) and prevent the worst consequences of sin from running their course even if you were unaware of it. But you cannot stop sinning and come to love God and your neighbor without consciously willing to do so. Salvation involves liberation of the will, so that we truly will God’s will above our own private interests. Or, let me put it another way: no one can be saved apart from their own knowledge and will, without their own active participation. You cannot unwillingly or unconsciously love God or become holy or experience glorification.

The New Testament message proclaims that we can enjoy the salvation that has appeared in Jesus Christ. It is not meant for him alone. God unites us to Christ and we join ourselves to Christ so that his qualities become ours and we enjoy the salvation he experienced. (Note: God’s grace always precedes and empowers our action, but our act is really ours.) God has demonstrated in Christ that he does not want to take revenge on us. Instead he wants to heal and liberate us. And the power for this healing and liberation is at work in the sphere of Christ and the Holy Spirit. And we need access to that power and presence.

The most basic act by which we join ourselves to Christ is faith. It’s not love or obedience or repentance or any other subjective act of our wills. Of course, faith implies all of these virtues, but the New Testament places the priority on faith. Faith is such a rich concept that I can only begin the plumb its depths. There is a mysterious side to the act of faith because, apart from the preaching of the gospel and work of the Spirit, faith in Christ as Savior and Lord would be impossible. But I want to concentrate in this essay on the visible, human side of faith.

For many reasons, faith is a fitting human response to God’s work in Jesus Christ. (1) Faith is an act of knowing. It embraces the apostolic testimony to Jesus Christ as the truth. By believing the apostolic witnesses, it gains access to the knowledge that God raised Jesus from the dead and to other aspects of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This knowledge enables us to think of God, pray to God, obey God, and direct our love to God as we see him in the face of Jesus Christ. The act of believing is already the beginning of our transformation. It changes what we think of God and allows us to direct all our energies toward the true God. God is always near, the risen Jesus Christ fills the universe, and the Spirit is closer to us than our own spirit whether we know it or not. But in faith we come to know his true identity and the true depth of his love for us.

(2) The act of faith is acknowledgment. Faith acknowledges its poverty, its total dependence on God for everything good. Faith is not an adventurous act of human discovery, a brilliant insight into the nature of things, or an exceptional act of righteousness. It is a humble admission that God is God and we are not and that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord; we cannot save or rule ourselves. (3) Faith is affirmation. The act of faith not only admits that God is God, it joyously affirms this and celebrates it. Faith affirms that the distinction between the Creator and the creature is good and right. The believer finds his/her joy in being a creature given existence by the Creator and a sinner saved by the Savior.

(4) Faith is an act of trust. It takes the promise of the gospel as certain. In faith, we embrace the word of Jesus Christ as completely reliable. We believe he will forgive us, heal us, and purify us. He will deliver us from death. (5) Faith is an act of certainty. Faith embraces Jesus Christ wholeheartedly and confidently as the truth about God and human destiny. Hence it inspires bold action. It gives rise to courageous acts of love, forgiveness, repentance, obedience, grace, and holiness.

(6) Faith is an act of uniting ourselves to Jesus Christ. In saying this I am returning to the theme of the first half of this essay. If we are to benefit from Christ’s salvation, we must be united to him and receive the divine power at work in him. Jesus Christ is not merely a historical figure about whom we have some information. He is alive. In the power of the Spirit, he is present and active everywhere. But Jesus speaks to us today through his words and deeds that are remembered and preached by his apostles. By believing, we know he is alive and available to us. We know who he is, what he is like, how much he loves us, and what he has promised us. When faith listens to the words of the gospel, it hears the voice of One alive and present.

By the time you read these words of mine, my act of saying them will be past. Nevertheless by reading them you will be joining your mind to my mind, your heart to my heart. Even when we read the words of someone long dead we have a feeling of understanding and knowing them. But Jesus is not dead; he is alive. His words remain his living voice. They are not echoes from the past but trumpet blasts in the present. And through his living voice we have fellowship with him, mind to mind and heart to heart. In this conversation and find ourselves united to him through faith. In view of these thoughts perhaps the words of John may take on a meaning we had not perceived before:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).

Is Christianity Morally Offensive?

I find it so interesting that many of the most strident opponents of Christianity attack it for its moral teachings. If you didn’t know better, you’d expect these opponents to oppose the Christian moral vision with a coherent and profound moral philosophy based on an altogether different and better foundation. After all, to oppose and replace the religious and moral tradition that created the western world and shaped its moral intuition for over a thousand years is a pretty ambitious agenda. And since the objections I have in mine come from contemporary western people, you would think they would have given serious consideration to how they could escape the influence of the system they now criticize. Do you return to pre-Christian sources? Do you draw on non-western traditions? Do you attempt to derive a new morality from modern natural science? Only Friedrich Nietzsche and a few other adventuresome thinkers attempted to return to pre-Christian paganism. And most modern objections to Christian morality would apply doubly to pagan morality. Nietzsche criticized Christianity for its compassion for the weak, hardly politically correct today. Most non-western moral traditions are as conservative as or more so than the Christian tradition. And science can only describe the way things are. It cannot tell you how they should be. No, there is no alternative for modern progressives who think they have advanced beyond Christianity.

Self-conscious secularists and progressives and throngs of thoughtless people who echo them decry Christianity’s prohibition of sexual activity outside of a marriage between one man and one woman, divorce, suicide, abortion, and homosexual activity. There have always been people who practice these things and who justify them in various ways. But lately we see a new hostility toward Christian moral teachings that views them, not just as backward, but as evil.  What accounts for this new hostility toward Christianity for its teaching on these subjects? The most obvious reason for the new aggression is political. The Christian moral vision dominated western society for many centuries.  In the United States it has only recently become feasible for de-Christianized progressivism to turn the tables and become the dominant philosophy of culture. Christian churches and the Christian moral vision are what stand in the way of this transfer of power. Hence much contemporary criticism of Christianity can be explained by its political aims. But a deeper issue concerns me more than the struggle for political domination.

Why do secular progressives hate Christianity for its views of marriage, divorce, suicide, abortion, and homosexual activity? I do not believe that it is simply because of what Christianity permits or forbids. In truth, it is Christianity’s denial that individual human beings have the right to decide for themselves what is good and right. Christianity teaches that we do not own ourselves and we must give an account to our Creator for what we do and how we use our lives as well as how we treat others. For de-Christianized progressives, Christianity’s denial of their autonomy is deeply offensive. But instead of challenging the Christian moral vision with a coherent and profound moral philosophy, progressives appeal to the flattering but obviously false notion that individual human beings can be their own gods, determining good and evil for themselves. Perhaps Christianity’s exposure of this fiction explains the intensity of progressives’ hatred.

An Impersonal God?

Last week we pursued the question of whether it makes sense to think of the mind that gives the world its intelligible order as impersonal. Can we reasonably think of that mind as a primitive urge, a logical necessity, or the goal of evolution? We ended that post by observing the counterintuitive nature of belief in an impersonal god. How can we believe that the universal mind that gives the world its intelligible order and that produced human beings does not itself possess the qualities that make human beings personal: self-consciousness, reason, freedom, and the ability to relate to other persons?

Today I want to make a bit more explicit our intuitive belief that the mind that produced the world is much greater and better than we are. Let’s remember our earlier argument for the irreducibility of the intelligible aspect of nature and for a universal mind that is the explanation for that intelligibility. We argued from our own experience of ourselves as free causes and originators of information that mind is a better explanation for the intelligible order in nature than chance is. The decision for a universal mind was prompted by our intuition that information always originates from the free act of an intelligent agent. And free acts always involve self-awareness and are always enacted to achieve ends. Hence the assertion that the universal mind is impersonal contradicts the original reason for rejecting materialism and accepting the irreducible reality of mind. To deny that the power that forms the world into an intelligible order is free, reasonable, self-aware, and able to relate to others is to retreat from our first decision point and to fall back into materialism and chance.

To think of the universal mind as impersonal is to confuse mind with ideas or concepts. Indeed, ideas and concepts are not intelligent and free. They are objects the mind creates and thinks. My previous argument for the irreducible nature of the intelligibility in the world did not contend that the intelligible order is itself personal. It contended, rather, that the universal, intelligible order is the product an active, universal mind. And the mind responsible for creating the intelligible order of the universe must be free, reasonable, and self-aware to a degree far beyond human beings. If that “mind” were impersonal, it could not produce anything; instead, it would itself need to be produced. And we would simply be mistaken in using the word “mind” to designate the impersonal order that evolved by chance.

To think of god as impersonal sees God as in some way embedded in or limited by matter, perhaps, in analogy to the way we are embodied. Our bodies carry on many of their organic functions independent of our will or even our awareness. Many of our feelings and urges arise in us involuntarily. But again, refer to my original argument for the universal mind. The universal mind must be responsible for the entire intelligible order or the argument fails. But asserting that the universal mind is embodied in matter denies that that mind is responsible for all the intelligible order; for it could not be responsible for itself, its own embodiment, or the laws that govern that relationship. We would have to face again the prospect of materialism and chance as the explanation for everything, that is, underneath the intelligible aspects of nature rests a non-intelligible cause working by blind processes to produce all natural phenomena.

The intuitive assumption that drives our argument is an ancient one clearly articulated by Aristotle and used in theology by Thomas Aquinas: actuality is prior in being to potentiality. It is intuitive because we experience it in ourselves and in our observations of the world: Only actual, living minds produce information. A cause imposes its (actual) likeness on the effect to make it actual. Order produces order. True chaos never changes. The intuition that actuality is prior to potentiality makes it impossible to believe that the amazing intelligible order in the universe arose from absolute disorder by chance. The mind that orders the world must itself be purely actual, possessing maximum order.

The most reasonable conclusion available to us at this point—given our assumption that a universal mind is the cause of the totality of the intelligible order of nature—is that God is pure, active mind completely independent of matter. But if God is pure, active mind, God must be maximally free, self-aware, rational, and able to relate; that is, personal to the highest degree.