Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Reasonable, because real

On Sunday I preached from the opening part of Acts 17, and amongst other things noted that Luke reports that the apostle Paul "reasoned", "explained", and "proved" the content of the Christian message in the synagogue.  A noble response to the message, according to Luke, was not so much to just take Paul's word for it, but to "examine the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so".  Because he was in the synagogue, Paul was able to make use of the Scriptures as an acknowledged authority, in a way that we mostly won't be able to do in our context, but the broader point I was making was this: the gospel is the sort of thing that can be discussed, argued over, reasoned.

To put it another way, the gospel is reasonable, because it is real.  Contemporary Western culture wants to put a hard border around a world of 'facts' which can be debated, and to put religious claims outside that border, in the world of 'opinions' and 'beliefs'.  Some people think they're doing religion a favour here - putting it outside the grubby world of argument and within a transcendent realm where you can hold your beliefs in a mystical way without being bothered.  Others think, more accurately, that they're defending the secular order against dangerous religion - it neuters religious opinion by making it the sort of thing which one can't really discuss.  Either way, the point is that religion may be a nice interpretive story that people tell themselves to find meaning in the world, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with truth (not, at least, the everyday sort of truth which concerns the way things are), and therefore can't be argued over, except in ways unrelated to truth: we can argue, for example, about whether religion is helpful or harmful, but not about whether it is real.

The whole Bible stands against this point of view.  Everything in the Christian faith stands or falls with the reality of Christ's resurrection, in history, at a particular place, in reality.  If Christ didn't rise, Christians are pitiable fools.  The book of Acts stresses again and again that the message proclaimed by the apostles has to do with public, accessible events: these things were not done in a corner.

If this is true, it is possible to argue, to reasonably engage in a demonstration of the truth of Christianity.  (I don't mean here the sort of Enlightenment reasoning, as if a person sat down with nothing but their intellect and the world around them ought to be able to arrive at Christian conclusions; I mean that given God's revelation in Christ in history, it is in principle possible to discuss the reality or otherwise of the Christian faith).

I argued on Sunday that there is one thing in particular that it is incumbent on Christians to know about: why do they believe that Jesus rose from the dead?  There are some good resources out there on this question.  N.T. Wright's big book on The Resurrection of the Son of God is the very best, in my opinion, setting the question in its historical context and showing that there really is no other plausible explanation.  Some of the arguments are summarised in the first part of his more popular level Surprised by Hope, which might be more manageable.  It doesn't seem to have got the attention it deserves, but Daniel Clark's little book Dead or Alive? is a helpful introductory presentation of the evidence for the resurrection set in the context of a gospel presentation, and would be a good one to have on hand to give away.  And of course there is still the classic Who Moved the Stone.

On the broader question of the rationality of faith, a good introductory run through many of the questions that people ask about Christianity can be found in But is it Real? and Why Trust the Bible? by Amy Orr-Ewing.  I continue to find the argument of C.S. Lewis in Miracles to be deeply convincing, though I'm aware it has its detractors.  The Reason for God by Tim Keller is excellent.  I would warn against many more philosophical works, for example those by William Lane Craig, not because there is nothing useful in them but because in my view they ultimately depend too little on God's revelation in Christ.

Have others found particular books (or other media; I'm aware that I don't really engage much with audio or video presentations, just because I like books better...) helpful in thinking through the rationality of faith?


  1. I appreciate the concerns expressed here. But I'm not sure it's the right approach to take. Even if, by some standard of historical argument (whose theoretical principles must be extra-Biblical in large part), the resurrection could be established as the most plausible explanation for the testimonies, there's still a big gap between that and trusting/believing that the apostles interpreted that event correctly, or understood the ethical implications of that event correctly. It seems to go against 1 Cor 1-3 a bit too much... i.e. to show how Christianity is the most sensible thing to believe after all.

    Which is not to say that I have any more convincing apologetic alternative. At this point all I could say as to why I believe is that I wouldn't know what to believe or do if I stopped - 'where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.'

    What I've found most powerful in conversation with non-Christians of late is to present a vision of Christianity provides a completely different way of seeing and living in the world, even politically, as part of a new community. So maybe something like Ellul's Presence of the Kingdom could provide a sort of apologetic in that sense, for those burnt out by the weariness of life under the sun.

    1. Hi Ben. Yeah, I've been back and forth on the apologetics question - as you'll see if you click the 'apologetics' label! My thinking for the last little while has been much affected by realising that God seems to basically 'expose himself' to those extra-Biblical standards of judgement: he is regularly recorded in Scripture as saying that he is going to do something 'and then you will know that I am the Lord', or something similar. I'm also struck by how much emphasis the evangelistic preaching in Acts places on the public, verifiable nature of the resurrection of Christ. As for 1 Cor 1-3, Paul himself in ch 15 goes on to make a case for the reliability of the witness to the resurrection...

      I find N.T. Wright's argument quite convincing, that basically history can get you to the gap but then more is needed to see the divine in the gap.

      I think that you can then go on to talk about a different vision for life etc. - but all of that could just be romantic wishful thinking without the straightforward reality of the resurrection in history.

      That's where I am at the moment, anyway!

    2. Yes, I was thinking that Barth probably wouldn't have gone with much of what you've written!

      Some thoughts off the back of your reply:

      It's what that 'more' is, in order to see the divine in the gap, that's the difficulty and mystery. So, to take things further, someone could agree that the resurrection happened in a phenomenal sense exactly as recorded... yet decide that it was all a demonic counterfeit. That's how I'd see miraculous events (at least some of which I have no reason not to take seriously), in the context of other religions, the more dangerous charismatic groups, or even with UFO/ET encounters. But I only see them in that light because of my prior commitment to a particular spiritual perspective that has its foundation in the truth of the resurrection.

      So I think Dostoevsky was right that to believe you have to want to believe. But I don't know where that desire comes from, or how you'd work it up... or even what it feels like to want to believe. I just find myself believing, as I did when I was a child and knew nothing of NT Wright.

      Which is not to say I disagree about the necessity of a real resurrection in history. But there are complex layers bound up with believing where historical investigation can never be the 'first stage'. On another tangent, there have been many who fervently believed in the facts of the resurrection, but lived out their faith in a horrific way that was a disgrace to that event - for example, some of the Serbian Orthodox Church hierarchy in the war of the 90s, Luther and Calvin ordering the death of peaceful Anabaptists, or John Owen accompanying Cromwell on his military exploits in Ireland and elsewhere. Did they 'believe' in the resurrection... as in, they believed the facts, but did they truly believe what it meant in terms of the nature of the Body it was bringing into being and so on.

      No conclusions here, just the questions I'm pondering these days.

    3. Yes, knowledge of the historicity of the resurrection is insufficient, but it is (implicitly or explicitly) necessary. At the end of the day, I agree with Barth (and Irenaeus, and Athanasius, etc. etc.) that the knowledge of faith is grounded in the reality of the risen Christ - i.e., it is not just knowledge that he is risen, but knowledge of him AS risen, knowledge that comes from encounter. And that knowledge can come only by the Holy Spirit.

      So nothing I'm saying should take away from that. I am just saying that because the resurrection really happened, and the Christian faith is really true in the real world, to deny it is irrational, and to affirm it is rational. That's all.

      The problem with reducing it purely to a matter of will is that one can clearly will to believe untrue things.

      I would strongly dispute your claim that historical investigation can never be the first stage in a movement toward faith; in fact it has been for many people, at least in so far as they report their story. It need not be, but it certainly can be.

      On your final tangent, as I think I've said before, I detect the tang of an unhelpful perfectionism. In a sense, I defy you to point to anyone who has lived in a way which didn't to an extent deny the reality of the resurrection. That, I think, is why it is so important that we be clear that what is on offer is the objective reality of the risen Christ, not merely the community or its story or its vision for life. All of the latter come mixed with a lot of our sin and shortcoming.

    4. I think I agree with much of this, although we might be talking past each other on some points by now.

      I wouldn't reduce it purely to a matter of will, as at the very least we need some consistent reasons why we accept the NT rather than the gnostic gospels or some other interpretation of the resurrection. But it does seem unavoidable at some point, even because of the extreme possibility I outlined. It's hard to say what's 'rational' when we're talking about extraordinary/miraculous events that require an interpretation (look up Wittgenstein's example of a student's head turning into a lion's).

      My point with historical investigation not being the first stage is that I think there's a number of interwoven motives involved - I don't think anyone would investigate just because they want to disinterestedly prove or disprove a fact, but would have certain desires or interests that would tilt what evidence they accept or not. Which doesn't relativise everything fully, but does have an effect.

      My concern ethically is more where a Christian's behaviour is in line with what we're told excludes men from the Kingdom - sexual immorality, murder, theft, etc. Obviously we all battle against these things in thought at least, but the question is whether there's ongoing repentance and struggle or not. When it gets to the level of condoning or being involved in the killing of a lot of people, we just need to ask whether that fits with the church's mission or falls under murder and theft rather than excuse it in some way as some do. Which is not to judge the figures I mentioned - maybe they repented on their deathbeds. But, given my own view of such matters, I can't be too hopeful purely on the basis of what they did. You're not doing this at all (and have in fact written something similar to the following), but there is a sense in which a focus on believing certain facts can get disconnected from the transformational demands of the gospel which the NT so clearly speaks of.