Tag Archives: deism

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.

“Liberal Christianity”—Neither Liberal Nor Christian!

We are nearing the end of our year-long series on the question “Is Christianity True?” One more topic remains to be covered. So far in the series I have attempted to show that we can make a reasonable judgment to believe the Christian gospel and a responsible decision to take up the Christian way of life. Early in the study, in the third essay, I made it clear that by “Christianity” I meant the original faith attested in the New Testament. It is that faith I contend is true. And I responded to outsider critics in defense of this faith. But now I want to deal with those who “defend” Christianity by revising it to make it fit within modern thought and culture.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries many western intellectuals came to believe that Galileo’s and Newton’s scientific discoveries made it impossible to believe in divine revelation and miracles. God made the world and gave it its laws, and there is now no reason for God to interfere. God gave human beings the power of reason as a light to guide their way, and reason is as sufficient for religion and ethics as it is for science and practical life. The first thinkers to adopt these ideas had little use for Christianity; they saw no value in tradition, church and worship. Religion could be reduced to living a moral life outside the church. These are the so-called Deists.

But early in the 19th Century something new came on the scene, liberal Christianity. Liberal Christianity accepts most aspects of the deist critique of orthodoxy. Along with Deism, Liberalism rejects miracles understood as supernatural events in which God reverses, interrupts or sidesteps natural law. Hence it rejects or reinterprets in a non-miraculous way the Old and New Testament miracle stories, including Jesus’ nature miracles (resurrections, healings of leprosy, walking on water) and most significantly Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Liberalism rejects the apocalyptic elements in Jesus’ teaching and in the rest of the New Testament. And it rejects the substitutionary doctrine of the atonement. But unlike Deism, Liberal Christianity gives Jesus a central role as a religious and moral example and it retains a place for the church, clergy and worship in individual and social life.

During the 19th Century two major forms of Liberal Christianity developed. The first form emphasizes Jesus’ religious experience and was pioneered by German theologian and preacher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who is universally acknowledged as “the father of modern theology.” According Schleiermacher, Jesus experienced a deep God-consciousness so intense that it overcame all resistance from the flesh. Jesus’ God-consciousness differs from other people’s experience in that he was able to inspire that consciousness in others. Only in this way is Jesus our redeemer and savior. The church is the community that cultivates this consciousness and passes it on to others. Christian doctrines derive, not from inspired words revealed by God and recorded in the Bible but from the feeling of absolute dependence on God that Jesus inspires. In Schleiermacher’s now classic work on theology The Christian Faith, the Berlin theologian reinterprets every Christian dogma and doctrine in Liberal way, that is, as reducible to the religious feeling of absolute dependence. For Schleiermacher, Christianity is not the religion about Jesus but the religion of Jesus.

In the late 19th and the early 20th Centuries, another Liberal tradition became dominant. This tradition was begun by Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) and continued by Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) and Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922). It focuses not on Jesus’ religious experience but on his moral example. For Ritschl and his followers, Christianity is based on Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God, which calls on people to embody perfect righteousness on earth in a community. Jesus inspires us to believe that the cause of the kingdom will prevail over all resistance. Like Schleiermacher, Ritschl rejects miracles, the resurrection of Jesus, substitutionary atonement, the incarnation and other orthodox doctrines. Jesus is a human being who so identified himself with the purposes of God that he functions as the revelation of God in human form. He is not God in his being, but he reflects God in his character and actions. He “saves” by inspiring us to live according to the higher standard of love of God and neighbor.

The moralism that Liberal Christianity emphasizes is not personal holiness, that is, sexual purity, personal honesty and the absence of individual vices. It leaves this to the holiness churches and fundamentalist movements. The Liberal churches of the late 19th and early 20th centuries focused on bringing Jesus’ message of the kingdom to bear on modern social problems: poverty, capitalism’s exploitation of the working class, alcoholism, war and women’s suffrage. Later Liberal churches continued this tradition, adding the campaign for civil rights for African Americans, women’s liberation, environmental justice, gay rights and “marriage equality” for same-sex couples. In other words, Liberal Christianity follows and reflects the trajectory of what the consensus of the progressive element in culture takes for moral progress.

Now let’s address the assertion contained in my title. Is liberal “Christianity” Christian? Of course, it claims to be Christian, and it seems judgmental and rude to deny that claim. But surely it is not judgmental and rude to ask liberal Christians what they mean by the noun “Christianity” and the adjective “Christian”? What are the faith affirmations of liberal Christianity and what are its denials? The liberal Christianity I described above affirms Jesus as a paradigmatic religious man or a profound moral teacher and an extraordinary moral example. And orthodox Christianity also affirms these beliefs. But liberal Christianity denies that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, that he was the eternal Son of God incarnate, that he the performed miracles recorded in the Four Gospels, that he died as an atoning sacrifice for our sins and that he was raised bodily from the dead. Liberal Christianity rejects much of the moral teaching of the New Testament because it conflicts with modern progressive culture.

But these rejected doctrines and moral teachings were part of the original, apostolic Christianity. Many of them are confessed and taught in the New Testament as absolutely essential. It’s obvious that in the New Testament era such “liberal” Christianity would have been rejected as unbelief or heresy and moral laxity. Does anyone doubt that had the Paul, John, Peter, James or any of the Apostles encountered someone teaching the liberal view of Jesus and morality that they would have denied it the name “Christian” and rejected it as “a different gospel–which is really no gospel at all” (Gal 1:6-7)? Call it what you will, “ecclesiastical deism” or “progressive religion” or something else. But if the original, apostolic faith is the norm for what qualifies as Christian and what does not, liberal Christianity is not Christianity at all but something else. But is apostolic Christianity really the norm for Christian teaching for all time? This is a decisive question. I affirm that it is, and I suppose liberal Christianity denies it.

My title also questioned Liberal Christianity’s liberalism. How so? The word “liberal” is related to the words, liberty and liberate. Hence liberal Christianity claims to be free and freeing. But from what is liberal Christianity free and from what does it promise liberation? From doctrinal orthodoxy, tradition and a strict and ridged moral code! How does it get free from those authorities? Does it assert anarchy or a latter day revelation? No. Liberal Christianity gets free from orthodoxy by selling itself to de-Christianized progressive culture. To stay relevant and on message it must jump on board with whatever progressive culture designates as the next area ripe for moral progress. Liberal Christianity has no place to stand to critique progressivism. It cannot appeal to tradition or the Bible or the divine authority of Jesus; it cannot even appeal to reason. It is always running to catch up with the next bold effort to liberate somebody from tradition and oppressive social institutions. And its vestigial Christian baggage, as light as it is when compared to orthodoxy, slows it down so that it always behind the curve.

Liberal Christianity “defends” Christianity by giving up its most powerful and liberating teachings. It’s an army that defends its homeland by surrendering the capitol, the best farmland and the most defensible heights. And in doing so it becomes powerless to challenge the world at the place where it most needs to be confronted, where it is most in rebellion to God. Like the ventriloquist’s dummy, it has nothing of its own to say. It looks to its master for what to say next. And so I conclude that liberal Christianity is neither Christian nor liberal. It’s not even interesting.

Presenting the Case for the Resurrection: Some Cautionary Advice for Would-be Apologists

Today we begin to address the question of the historical facticity of the resurrection of Jesus, which, as I have emphasized, is the crucial event at the origin of Christianity. All subsequent Christian history and teaching is premised on the reality of the resurrection. And as Paul readily admits, “if Christ is not risen” (1 Cor 15:14-19), the Christian message is false, the Christian way of life is useless, and the Christian hope is groundless. It has taken us four essays on the resurrection to get to this point. We had to get a feel for how the first believers understood the event of the resurrection. How else could we know what is at stake in our decision to accept or reject their witness? Now we know that to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead is to accept a radical reorientation in our worldview and a revolution in our way of life. Likewise, to reject the resurrection of Jesus is to reject all that flows from it, the forgiveness of sins, hope of the resurrection, the identity of God, the meaningfulness of suffering, and the love of God.

Allow me to remind readers that this is the twenty-fourth essay in this series on the truth of Christianity. We are now dealing with the fourth decision point on the journey from atheistic materialism to full Christian faith. In my opinion, only those who have gone through the first three decision points are ready to face the question of the historical facticity of the resurrection of Jesus. What sense does it make to present a case for the resurrection of Jesus to a materialist? Nor is a polytheist or pantheist or committed deist ready to make a rational judgment or a responsible decision about it. Perhaps, if the atheist or deist could have seen the crucifixion and burial of Jesus on Good Friday and accompanied the women to the tomb on Sunday morning to see the empty tomb and meet Jesus alive…or, if they had been struck down like Paul on the Damascus Road and heard Jesus speak directly to them, they would have come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection and the existence of God at the same time. Perhaps they would not deny the evidence gathered by their own eyes and ears. But we cannot reproduce these events for them or for ourselves. We have only the testimony of those who say they experienced them and the testimony of those who believed them.

And for those who do not want to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, there are plenty of ways to evade that conclusion. If you are an atheist materialist, you think you know apart from any historical evidence that the resurrection did not happen, because, since there is no God, God could not have raised Jesus. No evidence will move you. Deists respond much the same way. God set up the world to run on its own and does not interfere. Since God never interferes with course of natural events, God did not reverse the course of nature in Jesus’ case either. If atheists or deists bother with history at all, they see their job as finding plausible naturalistic explanations for historical reports of miracles: the supposed eye and ear witnesses were mistaken or they lied. The reports do not come from eye witnesses but from hearsay, and, whatever really happened, the story has become overlain with legend or myth.

For those who believe in the one God who made the world and sustains it in existence every moment, for those who are open to divine revelation in nature and history, and for those who have no rational or theological objections to miracles, objections that are based on presupposed atheism or deism don’t carry much weight. They are either irrelevant because they presuppose atheism when we are convinced of God’s existence or they are disingenuous because they make metaphysical objections in the guise of historical arguments.

My reading of Christian apologetic literature has led me to conclude that many of these well-intentioned works do not take the preceding cautions into account; and they make other serious mistakes that limit their value in helping people come to faith: (1) they do not take care to follow the most rational decision cascade from atheism to full Christian faith; (2) they fall into the evidentialist trap of accepting the burden of proof; (3) they give the impression of anxiety, of being over-eager to convince; or (4) they overstate their case, providing easy targets for rebuttal. Each of these mistakes in its own way deflects nonbelievers’ attention away from the seriousness of their situation and from the necessity of making a decision in the moment.

Perhaps these considerations will help you understand why I am somewhat impatient with objections to the resurrection faith that are based on atheism, deism, or any other philosophy that denies the possibility of miracles. Responding to such objections is fruitless endeavor. I am also impatient with equivocations, demands for more evidence, and alternative ways of explaining the resurrection faith that seem to be designed to evade the real issue. The division between faith and unbelief is not merely a matter of dispassionately weighing evidence in some neutral scales. It is also a matter of friendship or hostility, love or hate; this decision has an unmistakable moral dimension. Paul and the others claim they know that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and they staked the meaning of their entire existence on this fact. Either they are correct or they are lying or they are mistaken. You have to look them in the eyes and say, “I believe you” or “I don’t believe you.” You have to make a decision and live with it. And you have to do it now. This is a vital component of any apologetic situation. Any apologetic that does not make this clear risks failure.