Our New Redemption: Critical Theory as Theology Without “Theos”

There is one, almost singular, theological and philosophical problem that has haunted Western civilization since the rise of modern skepticism in the mid-17th century, i.e. since Descarte. It is a theoretical problem that has launched a thousand ships of philosophical speculation, all floundering on the open seas of human inquiry, and subject to the acidity of the rational mind reasoning about itself.1 Kristen Irwin expounds on the view of the early, modern philosopher Pierre Bayle, who questioned the reliability of reason, “The sense in which Bayle is a skeptic is not entirely straightforward, but what is clear is that Bayle exhibits a profound suspicion of reason’s ability to deliver certain knowledge. In Bayle’s view, reason seems to be useful in enabling us to draw conclusions about the world, but it runs into so many contradictions and yields so many paradoxes that it ultimately undermines itself, and thus cannot be trusted. Thus, Bayle’s skepticism is, minimally, skepticism about the reliability of reason.” in https://iep.utm.edu/bayle/#:~:text=The%20sense%20in%20which%20Bayle%20is%20a%20skeptic,ultimately%20undermines%20itself%2C%20and%20thus%20cannot%20be%20trusted. But, it is a theoretical problem that plays out in the everyday life of every man, woman and child; a theoretical problem that cannot be easily ignored (as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems perhaps can be). That problem is how to think, speak, and act morally apart from any metaphysical grounds for moral values or moral duties. This problem, at first considered soluble if baptized in the waters of pure reason, a reason unadulterated by claims of divine revelation and church authority, quickly became an unassailable fortress against which no weapon formed by human heads seemed able to prevail. The Enlightenment, many now claim, failed to illuminate the issue of human morality, making it only more obscure to us than it was under the transcendent light of its predecessor, the Queen of the Sciences: Theology.

The existential void the Enlightenment left behind in western culture, in virtue of seeking after a universally applicable moral system grounded in reason alone, provided the seedbed for the emergence of a new kind of philosophy: Critical Theory. Early Critical Theory2 I am thinking here of Marx and The Frankfurt School in particular, along with all of its subsequent, social scientific subsets, e.g. Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, etc., sought, and still seeks, to construct morality apart from anything ontological other than the human subject herself, and apart from any phenomena other than that of human experience. Critical theory as such is a purely empirical theory, but one where the human reasoner is himself part of the empirical data subject to social and historical analysis.

Where the enlightened modernists failed to successfully replace religious morality with Reason (capital “R”), the post-modern critical theorist now took up the mantel of moral progress. This new, critical philosophy consisted of Marx and his successors on the one hand, e.g. the cultural Marxists: Gramsci, Adorno, Marcuse, et al., and Nietzsche on the other (few have been willing to embrace Nietzsche as an ethicist worth emulating, but perhaps someone like Ayn Rand might fit the bill). Abandoning the first principles of metaphysics, and the classical theories of knowledge, the question of ethics was now placed squarely in the realm of the human will by both parties; either with the emphasis on its communal (Marx), or its individual (Nietzsche) forms.

However, while the moral axiom: “How now shall we live?” remains the question that motivates us all, at least as a culture, if not as individuals, the answer remains an elusive target. Further, it is a question that motivates us even apart from, and independent of, any religious commitments. For we cannot help but live in a society of peers, and we cannot help but have moral intuitions about our relations to each other, and to the environment in which we live, and move, and have our being. And, even if one were banished and isolated to the proverbial deserted island, moral questions about how to treat oneself would still be with us even there.

“How now shall we live?” seems, therefore, to be a question that cannot be answered with any kind of unifying consensus if there is no agreement about our religious commitments, and even if there is agreement in our total rejection of any religious commitments whatsoever. With our without acknowledgment of God, we seem lost to a never-ending series of speculation about what is “the good” and what is “the good life.” To have unity on moral values and duties we would seem to require a real, extant, and clear moral principle, or Person, to either guide us into the Good, or tell us about it, or even model it for us.

Otherwise, what do we really have to say about morality?

Critical Theory as The New Theology

In his chapter, “To Seek to Salvage an Unconditional Meaning Without God is a Futile Undertaking: Reflections on a Remark of Max Horkheimer” the prodigious, second-wave philosopher of Critical Theory Jürgen Habermas says this about a comment made by his predecessor and founder of the Frankfurt School of Social Research, Max Horkheimer:

“Horkheimer’s interest in the doctrines of Judaism and Christianity was spurred less by a concern with God as such than with the redemptive power of God’s will. The injustice that comes to pass in a suffering creature should not be permitted to have the last word. At times it seems as if Horkheimer wanted to put the religious promise of redemption directly at the service of morality.”3 in Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, 95

This passage, upon first reading, may seem obscure. However, once understood it can be shown that the idea contained herein, this notion of trying to realize the “redemptive power of God’s will” apart from any interest in God “as such,” is what lies at the heart of much, if not all, of the social justice movements that engulf and inflame our society today. It is the sentiment at the center of organizations like Black Lives Matter, and the fulcrum of initiatives that seek justice and the healing of division, yet attempt to do so without resort to a Divine Nature that grounds the apparently divine will found in traditional, religious texts. This, as we shall see, leads to a dangerous conflation: the confusion of the will of God with that of man; or the elevation of man to God rather than the descent of God to man.

First, however, what is Habermas saying about Horkheimer’s interest in “the doctrines of Judaism and Christianity?” Clearly, the critical philosopher, meaning Horkheimer, is presupposing “the death of God” as pronounced by Nietzsche, and assumed by Marx, as the inevitable consequence of the Enlightenment project of rationalization about religious belief. Thus, for all critical theorists, like Horkheimer or Habermas after him, that God is dead, meaning He never existed, is the starting point for any social theorizing, and any attempt to answer our question “How now shall we live?” Atheism is true, and we must simply get on with it.

Second, however, is the realization that we cannot seem to simply “get on with it!” The idea that the injustice that accompanies the suffering of sentient creatures, i.e. ourselves, animals, can be treated in a sterile, scientistic manner as mere “natural fact,” is simply unpalatable to the socially conscious, existentially sensitive human agent. How can we look at the long history of human and animal suffering, in all it horror, and say “well, that is just what molecules in motion do, and there is nothing more to say.” Certainly, there must be not only more to say, but also more to do! There must be a morality that gives us some meaningful context for that suffering, and that spurs us to some kind of ethical action. Stoic resignation is not an option for the critical theorist who seeks liberation from the oppression of such a woeful existence. In this sense, moral action becomes imperative for the critical theorist. For all critical theories, liberation from existential oppression is the focal point of all human thought and action.4 James Bohman writes in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosohpy entry on Critical Theory, “In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.

However, as we have alluded to above, morality according to the post-modern critical theorists cannot really be considered an object of the intellect, i.e. as something capable of being grasped or discovered by the natural light of reason. After all, if God is dead, then there is no ultimate truth about morality to grasp, nor universal standard to be discovered. No abstract reasoning about abstract “truths,” no further scientific investigations of natural processes, and no theological commentary about supposed special revelations from above, e.g. the Bible, will give us any real moral content. For, where there is no moral law Giver, there really is no moral law.

In light of this “reality,” the novel proposal to the problem of dealing with moral sensibilities about perceived injustices, arises out of being pressed in between a modern rock, which says there are only natural facts about the world, no moral ones, and a post-modern hard place, which cries out that we need morality to live and to thrive as sentient and feeling creatures. The proposal of Horkheimer then, and several others, was to assume the moral content of Christianity, and his native Judaism, as descriptively true, yet without assuming its God as real. Horkheimer does not consider the moral content to be true in the sense of referring to an ultimate, non-physical reality (which would make it an object of the intellect to be grasped), rather he asserts it, morality, as being useful to us for the sake of functioning well (imposing function being an object of the will).

Third, then, is assuming the particular Judeo-Christian content of morality, in spite of rejecting the metaphysics of biblical and theological claims. What then for Horkheimer (the ethnic Jew) is central to biblical morality?— it is the “religious promise of redemption.” Redemption, even a redemption without a Redeemer, is still the only hope for modern man to get on with modern life. Habermas details this aspect of Horkheimer’s thinking,

“Once the rationality of the remorse experienced by a religiously tutored conscience is rejected by a secularizing world, its place is taken by the moral sentiment of compassion. When Horkheimer expressly defines the good tautologically as the attempt to abolish evil, he has in view a solidarity with the suffering of vulnerable and forsaken creatures provoked by outrage against concrete injustices.” (Habermas, 96)

In other words: even when we realize that religion is metaphysically false (and feel remorse because of it), we nevertheless recognize that our moral intuitions have been “tutored” by thousands of years of religious practice. And, even more, we still sense that those religious sentiments (even if they be only that, sentiments) are somehow correct, and worth defending. So, we feel compassionate in spite of the stark reality of a brute, naturalistic universe, a universe that is indifferent to us, and therefore are still moved to fight “evil” when we “see” it in the form of concrete injustices (knowing full well that there is no such thing as justice against which we can actually measure our feelings about the perceived injustice). Our outrage is stoked when we perceive these apparent imbalances in society, and our compassion demands we respond accordingly. Habermas goes on to tell us more about Horkheimer’s plundering of this particularly Christian moral content:

“The reconciling power of compassion does not stand in opposition to the galvanizing power of rebellion against a world devoid of atonement and reparation for injustice. Solidarity and justice are two sides of the same coin; hence, the ethics of compassion does not dispute the legitimacy of the morality of justice but merely frees it form the rigidity of the ethics of conscience.” (Habermas, 96)

But, now we come to the heart of the moral matter, if indeed God is not that heart. Having jettisoned religious belief as true but still finding that we have a conscience that has been trained in and molded by religious content, in particular that of Judeo-Christianity and the Bible, we are now told by the critical theorist that in a world where there is no “real” atonement and reparation for injustice, because there is no real God to do the atoning and repairing, our own “reconciling power of compassion” must be the vehicle by which “concrete injustices” are rectified. After all, if we are not going to be the ones to do the redeeming, then the redemption will not, cannot, come. Moreover, this immanent, and human-centered power of compassion, is not opposed to the “galvanizing power of rebellion,” but rather embraces it.5 one might think here of Saul Alinsky’s dedication in his classic work Rules for Radicals, where the author commends Lucifer for his rebellion, a rebellion that won him his own kingdom. In other words, if there is no God to atone for us, yet atonement is still necessary for us to live morally and to have an “unconditional” meaning that contextualizes our suffering, then in a world where there are concrete instances of things we perceive as unjust, and that “must” be made right for us to experience atonement, rebellion becomes a morally acceptable vehicle of redemption.

Compassion and rebellion are the new moral dynamo generating the new, moral society. This begins to look very familiar to what we see currently on our television screens and YouTube videos, where cries for justice and compassion are inevitably accompanied by acts of rebellion and revolutionary fervor. This is the politicizing of religiosity, the messianism of our times.6 Few journalist have done a better job of identifying and explaining the new religion of Social Justice than Andrew Sullivan, see here https://andrewsullivan.substack.com/p/the-roots-of-wokeness


But here is where those who identify themselves with “Christ” face the stark choice: We must decide whether the critical theorist is right in saying that religious belief itself is a mere product of man’s own making, and that its truth claims (like all others) are historically situated and thus unfixed from anything transhistorical, transfinite, or culturally transcendent. For if this is the case, then the redemption we need may tell us something about ourselves, our current “society,” but tells us nothing about anything beyond ourselves, or this latest version of ourselves. If Horkheimer is right, then Critical [social] theory is the new theology, in that it calls us to a form of moral life, even one replete with corporate atonement and communal redemption; however, it is a theology without a theos, or, at least, without a divine theos. It is religion “from below,” an earth without a heaven:

[Social theory] has superseded theology but has no new heaven to which it can point, not even a mundane one. Of course, social theory cannot completely efface [heaven’s] traces and hence is repeatedly questioned about how it is to be attained–as though it were not precisely the discovery of social [critical] theory that the heaven to which one can point the way is no heaven.” (Habermas, 98)

For in a world that is itself the sum of all reality, the new religion of social theory, with its hope for an immanent, social justice, the new heaven just is that culture which will result (perhaps for us, most likely for our children or grandchildren) if we were only to act now! What that new culture will be like, of course, is not something we can really say much about. You have to arrive in the “undiscovered country” before you can know what it will be like.

Alternatively to this New Theology, we can choose to believe that there is a something beyond ourselves, even a Someone, whose eternal life and transcendent nature is reflected in that which He has created. Further we can come to believe that our need for redemption tells us as much about the eternal Creator as it does of His temporal creatures. Instead of listening to the words of the critical theorist, we listen instead to the words of the critical realist, who says:

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20)

Either those things that are called moral evils are, as the critical theorist says, the product of human construction, and, consequently, the redemption that they demand also the product of human construction; or, they are, as the Apostle Paul says, the product of human rebellion against ultimate reality, and, consequently, redeemable only through the reconstructive action of the author of that reality. In ontological terms, redemption is either a bottom-up struggle performed by purely accidental creatures, and which has included in it the creation of culturally relative theological concepts and religious practices that aid us in our survival; or it is a top-down event, one enacted by a necessary Creator who has given us reason that allows us to form ideas, concepts, and language to describe that which is ultimately and actually real.

Whichever we decide will make a world of difference in what happens “down here” and in our daily lives. For on the former view the only authority against which we rise up is that of men and women just like ourselves, yet who merely constructed morality in a different fashion than we do today, a dynamic which implies an endless process of doing the same deconstruction and reconstruction with every generation of human society. On the latter view, however, the authority we are rebelling against is not like us, because He is not us, and we are not Him. Moreover, in virtue of not being like us, He (or It) may have an actual answer to our moral problem, so long as we can have access to Him (or It). And, if we have access to Him, we may be able to change who we are, and if we can be changed, then so can our moral behavior. And, if our moral behavior can change, so to the society in which we live.

Conflating the Divine Will With Human Will: Black Lives Matter And the Doctrine of “Heal Thyself”

In paragraph four of their statement about “What We Believe,” the most powerful and dominant social justice movement of our time: Black Lives Matter, claims the following: “Every day, we recommit to healing ourselves and each other, and to co-creating alongside comrades, allies, and family a culture where each person feels seen, heard, and supported.”7 (https://blacklivesmatter.com/what-we-believe/) This doctrine of “self-healing” or “heal thyself” is fundamentally related to the above exposition of the early critical theorist, Max Horkheimer’s, notion of a theology without God. Upon further reading of the Black Lives Matter doctrinal statement, one will quickly discern that the moral and religious impulse is still there: human dignity is presupposed, redemption is what matters, and liberation is the key. The only problem is that we are the only agents of atonement (and, oh is there a process for how to atone!), as well as the only standard by which we name what is good “good”, and distinguish it from what is “evil.” Again, the determining factor of moral judgments no longer being the intellect seeking knowledge, but the will exercising power. Human power becomes the sole vehicle for societal change, because the human will is the sole determiner of moral “truth.”

In his short work Marxism and Christianity, former Marxist now Roman Catholic philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre says this about the role of religion in the life of the individual agent:

“But religion is only able to have this latter transforming function because and insofar as it enables individuals to identify and to understand themselves independently of their position in the existing social structure. It is in the contrast between what society tells a man he is and what religion tells him he is that he is able to find grounds both for criticizing the status quo and for believing that it is possible for him to act with others in changing it.”

MacIntyre. Marxism and Christianity. Apple Books, 13.

MacIntyre wrote this in 1968, many years before his conversion to Catholicism. This is why the astute observer will take note of MacIntyre’s fundamental metaphysical flaw when he says “it is in the contrast between what society tells a man he is and what religion tells him he is.” At that time, MacIntyre, like so many social justice theorists and social justice activists of today, confused the dictates of religion with the reality of God. Still a metaphysical naturalist, religion for MacIntrye was, as it remained for Horkheimer, merely a set of descriptive, yet non-referring claims—a set of sociological constructs, not universal moral truths revealed by a divine will. At some point for MacIntyre that understanding of religion ended, and his attention, unlike Horkheimer, turned to God “as such.”

To turn to God “as such” is to recognize the reality of the Divine Nature, and come to understand the words of the Bible and the content of the Christian faith no longer as just highly compelling products of human sentiment, but as divinely revealed fixtures of an intricately designed cosmos. A cosmos replete with essences and natural kinds, with ontological realities that can be examined by reason, be experienced with the affections, and by which we can gauge our moral attitudes, harness the best of our moral intuitions, and help guide our moral actions.

To not see this objective, mind-independent, fabric of the universe; a fabric not woven by human brains, but by a divine Mind, is ultimately to conflate God’s will with our own. For to look at the Bible and think of it as merely a human book, as Horkheimer did, even if a book worthy of plundering for the cause of moral action and the execution of justice, is to conflate the human will with the divine. It is to grant divinity to ourselves, and to elevate our own goodness as we conveniently ignore all the evil that we have done, and will continue to do. It is to try and do Christianity without Christ. It is to “heal ourselves.”

For many Social Justice theorists and activists today, society is all there is, and it does “tell a man what he is,” or perhaps “what it is.” For them to change society is for them to change man. But for the Christian this is not so, nor is it, as the younger MacIntyre erroneously claimed, religion that tells a man what he is. It is God who tells us who we are, and that divine speech act of identity, that communication from above, can be found both in the careful observation of His creation, and in the direct revelation of His Word.

That is the Old Theology. Theology with theos.

Bridging Lessing’s “Ugly Ditch”: The Historical Testimony to Miracles

One of the great skeptical minds of the 18th century, Gotthold Lessing, coined a phrase to describe what for him was an unbridgeable gap between the 18th-century enlightened mind and the purported supernatural events of the Bible. Lessing called this gap the “ugly broad ditch,” a chasm in knowledge that made it unreasonable for someone in the 18th century to believe in miracles and consequently many of the New Testament claims. For Lessing, since miracles did not occur in his time, the likelihood of them having never occurred at all was high. As such, the historical claims made by the Apostles and recorded by the writers of Scripture were too unreliable to put one’s faith in.

In Lessing’s thought, the contingent, or “accidental,” events of history could not be the basis for a rational belief in what had to be universal and necessary truths of religion. Whether or not historical claims were true, was leaving far too much to chance and fluctuations in the kinds and degree of evidence for those claims. This inherent susceptibility of historical testimony to skepticism made belief in any supernatural features of that testimony, especially the miracle stories of the Gospels and resurrection of Jesus, unjustified. If one was to accept only what was rational for an 18th century person to believe, one would have to forgo belief in the miracles related in the Scriptures, and consequently the idea of their being any historical basis for Christianity’s grand, theological claims.

Still, why think that Lessing’s “ugly ditch” is really there? Why believe either that religious claims must be grounded in necessary truths, like those of mathematics, or that the historical evidence for miracles was in the 18th century no longer valid, while it seems that in the 12th century it was?

First, the claim that religious truths cannot be left to the evidence of history is itself question-begging, since there is no reason to think that all truths must be self-evident or necessary in the same way that “2+3 = 5” or “there are no married bachelors” are necessary and self-evident. Moreover, if the actual content of a specific religious revelation (e.g. the Bible) gives good theological reasons for why religious claims are not grounded in necessary truths like math or logic– for example because human freedom is valuable, and interpersonal love must be freely chosen as opposed to coerced–then there is also an explanation for why religious truths are fundamentally different from others, and consequently need not be grounded in the same way. As to Lessing’s second contention, that the historical evidence is too shaky to believe in the miracles of the Bible, or that there was too much temporal distance between himself and those events to justify belief, this also seems tendentious at best.

Miracles and Historical Testimony

One obvious reason to reject Lessing’s claim is his assumption that miracles did not occur in the 18th century. Much of his argument seems to ride on the fact that because one has not experienced miracles personally, it is then unreasonable to assume that figures in the past experienced miracles. Seeing for Lessing would indeed be necessary for believing, albeit one is left to wonder if it would have been sufficient.

Lessing therefore begs the question whether or not there were credible miracle claims circulating in his own time. This is a logical fallacy that also appeared to not bother the Scottish philosopher David Hume enough to rethink his own position on contemporary miracle claims. It was assumed that there simply were none, and that they were mainly to be found among the more “barbaric and ignorant” peoples– peoples that must be intellectually naive, or predisposed to perverting the truth for the sake of more mundane goals. Either way Lessing, like Hume, argues circularly, simply asserting that contemporary miracles claims are not reliable.1 It is worth noting here that Humean skepticism goes far beyond just claims of supernatural activity, but to cause and effect relationships themselves. As such, Hume’s skepticism cut across a much broader range of knowledge than just the religious.

There is another problem though with Lessing’s understanding of miracle claims as it relates to the generational thread of historical testimony. For, it is not simply that the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ apparent miracles, or to the apparent Resurrection, claimed to have experienced miracles, it is that all of the early church–all subsequent Christian communities that persisted past the original eyewitnesses– also believed in those same miracles. Those historically and culturally closest to the original testifiers of Jesus’ miracles had no problem believing them, unlike Lessing who, being further removed in time, apparently could not. But, temporal distance alone seems hardly sufficient to dismiss the validity of a historical claim!

While it could be the case that the earliest, non-eyewitnesses were simply duped by the so-called eyewitnesses (e.g. Peter, Paul, the Marys), this would entail that all, or many, of the early Christians (young, old, rich, poor, peasant, aristocracy) were equally susceptible to the lies of these original Apostles. They (the early Church members) basically believed the testimony of the Apostles without any independent, corroborating evidence to support the idea that things like miraculous healings, or the multiplying of food, could really happen. This means that none of these early Christians, many of them eventual martyrs, had ever seen or heard of a credible miraculous event in their own time, yet regardless still believed the Apostles’ testimony to the same or similar kinds of events in their time.

If not duped, however, then the other option is that early followers knew for themselves the stories were false, yet propagated them in spite of knowledge to the contrary. If this were the case, then the earliest Christian communities, to include their leaders, would be implicated in the greatest conspiracy of all time– propagating known falsehoods about miraculous events, events that never occurred, over a vast geographical space and an extended, continuous period of time. For what purpose they would have done this, we have no idea. That they were able to maintain that known falsehood for so long, and across so many cultures, might itself be considered more miraculous than the Resurrection they claimed to believe occurred.

Further, it is hard to believe that these earliest Christian communities would continue to propagate known falsehoods only to enjoy the social ostracism, imprisonment, and even the torture and death that ultimately befell many of them. This was hardly a win-win situation. In fact it was clearly a lose-lose: lose if you are persecuted for telling the known falsehood, lose even if you are not, since ultimately you know there is no real, redeeming content to the faith you claim to hold– something made explicit by the Apostle Paul himself (see 1 Cor 15:12-19).

On the other hand, one reason why the early Christians might have believed in the purported miracles of the Gospels is that they had independent evidence that miracles occurred in their own times, a fact that would begin to undermine Lessing’s critique, as belief in contemporary miracles, say in the 2nd century, would bridge the epistemic gap about supernatural claims between 2nd century Christians and the generation of the 1st century Apostles. Thus, if this belief in contemporary miracles by post-Apostolic, early Christians was part of the reason why they believed the miracle stories passed on by the Apostles– orally or in Scripture– then the question must be asked: “When, or at what point in time, or even in what place in time, did this epistemic bridge from one generation to the next regarding belief in miracles collapse? When did the “ugly ditch” actually get dug?

The question can also be formulated this way: at what point in history did testimony about specific miracles, either the ones mentioned in Scripture, or in ones ongoing, cease to be a valid source of evidence for justified belief in miracles?

The Seamless Testimony from The Apostles to Today

It seems that for the vast majority, historical testimony to miracles was still a valid source of evidence in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, as well as in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th and all the way through to the 14th and 15th centuries. There is not an abundance of skeptical literature about either ancient claims to miracles, or contemporary ones, in the 16th century either (although skepticism about Natural Theology begins with the likes of Michel de Montaigne around this time). That is not to say that there are not any critiques of miracle claims prior to the 16th century, but just that the abundance of evidence is to the contrary: most people accepted the reality of miracles up to Lessing’s day.

So, when does Lessingische skepticism toward human testimony about miracles first emerge in history? When does the “ugly ditch” get dug, especially if the majority of people up until the 18th century did hold that testimony about miracles was reliable? Who or what ultimately digs this ditch? After all, the ditch cannot simply be assigned to some arbitrary date; as if in 1748, on a Thursday at 5:45pm GMT, all miracle claims, both ancient and contemporary, became subject to the skepticism of 18th century man.

The reason for Lessing to reject justified belief in miracles is not that the historical testimonies were ever demonstrated to be false, something that is nearly impossible to do, or that the temporal gap between the New Testament miracle claims and Lessing’s belief about them is too long, especially if there was continuous, persistent belief in miracles. Clearly it would be one thing to pick up some ancient text no one had read in several hundred years, comprised with fantastic stories in it and say: “Eh, these are ancient stories filled with claims of things we have never seen before. Why believe these things really happened?” But, when you have a historical lineage, a succession of real, human communities called “the Church” that has passed on these beliefs, and passed them on often under very harsh conditions, then you have some additional reasons to believe that what was being passed on was not just mythological. It was something real enough that people were willing to stake their physical lives and their cultural identity on its being true. Very few philosophies have garnered that kind of dedication in both belief and practice!

It seems therefore that the reason Lessing felt belief in miracles was unjustified was the simple fact that he never experienced one personally. So, there really is no argument about whether older, or contemporary, testimonies about miracles are false other than to say: “I never saw one, therefore all testimonies to miracles are false, or at least unreliable.”

Further, if the writings of the New Testament were mere fabrications, at least in regard to reports about its miraculous events, then the entirety of the early church, starting with men like Polycarp and Ignatius, moving forward to Irenaeus and Origen, up on through Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas, to Luther and the Reformers, through the great puritan thinkers of the 17th and 18th-century, to today’s analytical philosophers of religion, are all in some way implicated in the continued fabrication of said miracle stories– for each generation going back to the first would have known that the miracles reported by the Apostles were false and thus irrational to believe, and yet passed them off as being true. Or, if not liars, there has been a persistent, almost seamless strain of men and women being “fooled” into thinking something incredible happened that did not happen, and that based solely on the fact that someone told them so.

After all, if miracles do not happen then literally no one, not Clement of Rome, not Ignatius, not Polycarp, not Jerome, not Augustine, not Aquinas or Edwards, nor Lewis or Ratzinger, Swinburne or Polkinghorne, has ever experienced anything themselves, or heard any credible account in their own time that would give them additional warrant that the claims made by the Apostles, or found in the Scriptures, are reasonable to believe. Talk about a leap of faith by men who could hardly be called “barbaric or ignorant.”

What is more likely then– that thousands, if not millions, of Christians throughout the Church’s history have experienced miracles that make it justified for them to believe the miracles reported in the Scriptures actually occurred;2 One contemporary compendium of miracle claims is Craig S. Keener’s book, Miracles. Keener documents personal testimonies from every continent, most of which are healing miracles. That said, some miracles in the Bible might be harder to accept than others, e.g. the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as opposed to the healing of the paralytic, in virtue of seeing more kinds of one miracle attested to today than other kinds. Still, a miracle is a miracle.or that Christians from the very beginning have been fooled into thinking that incredible events for which they have no independent reason to believe happened, except it was told to them, really happened?

In the end Lessing dug his own ditch, and did so because he was seeking absolute certainty. But, absolute certainty is not forthcoming about anything in this life outside of a very limited set of claims. Lessing’s concern about the shifting sands of time may have been warranted, but his ultimate conclusion on where to place his faith was not. What Lessing perhaps should have done is believed in the preponderance of evidence– a preponderance that points to the reality of miracles, both in 1st-century, in the 18th, and today.

Ravi Zacharias – The Guy Who Loved Waffle House

I spent roughly 4.5 years at Fort Bragg, NC serving in the Army, mostly with the XVIII ABN Corps and the 82D ABN Division. One of the local dives scattered throughout Fayetteville, NC where Bragg is located is Waffle House. Although founded in Georgia, Waffle Houses were everywhere in neighboring North Carolina. In fact, on Skibo road just outside Bragg there was one 4-way intersection with two Waffle Houses kitty-corner from each other, just to ensure that if you were headed North-South or East-West you couldn’t miss the opportunity to grab a cheap waffle and some greasy breakfast sausages. Waffle Houses were known for two things in Fayetteville: a place where you could get really cheap food, and that was open 24-7. Both these qualities made Waffle House a spot where local “Joes” (lower-enlisted) could gather early in the morning, either after a long CQ shift, or perhaps a night of alcohol-related, stress- reliving festivities, to quickly load up on all the kind of junk food they knew wasn’t going to help them max their PT test. I for one rarely went there, and that for one main reason. Having grown up in a restaurant family in Chicago, I just found the food, how should I say, underwhelming. It didn’t even measure up to IHOP as far as I was concerned, and that ain’t sayin’ much.

(I realize I may be putting myself in the cross-hairs of a lot of Southerners here, but I stand my ground. I just never understood the appeal of WH.)

In the next few weeks many around the world who were close to Ravi Zacharias, and many who only met him on a single occasion, will pay tribute to a life well lived. It was a life of faithful commitment to one goal, the demonstration of the love and grace of God to the world. Ravi Zacharias was a vehicle of the Gospel, a messenger rescued from near self-inflicted death at a young age to do the work of a harvester. He was one called to fish for men and women for the sake of Christ.

And fish he did.

I will not pretend, as many may be tempted to do in lieu of his passing into glory, that I knew Ravi personally. I met him only on two occasions, once at the RZIM headquarters where he addressed a small group of us who were learning to be good apologists, and again at a hotel in Tucson during a larger RZIM event. That latter meeting being in the men’s bathroom, and taking place in the way most meetings in men’s lavatories take place, standing shoulder to shoulder, looking straight ahead. But, even these brushes with the great one (and he was great), gave me a little insight into a man that many of us knew only from listening to the radio, or seeing on video.

When Ravi came to address our class in Alpharetta, GA, I had already had the benefit of getting to know many of the speakers and staff at RZIM. Folks like Shawn, Vince, Jo, Carson, Michelle, Michael, Krin, and Alycia had already made their impression on me. They were not only good teachers, they were incredibly kind, and personable. They clearly had embodied something that had been given them. Something they inherited from the institute’s founder. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it, but after Ravi came into the classroom and spoke to us, I knew what it was. They were the same people behind the scenes as they were on stage, or in front of the camera, or on the radio. They were just like me, and just like you, and so was Ravi.

Of course we are different, each in his or her own way. But when Ravi Zacharias, the world traveler, the ambassador to the nations, the confidant of CEO’s, politicians, entertainment moguls, and religious figureheads, the author of 30+ books, the man who shared the stage with other heroes in the hall of faith, the great communicator of the Gospel to the poor and needy across the globe, when this man came to talk to us, what was the first thing he told us about? His love of Waffle House! “Waffle House!” I thought. Imagine my shock. Waffle House?, that dive where “Joes” ate plates full of grease and grits at 3am? It seemed all too common for a man possessed of such great talents, and of such high standing in my eyes.

And when I reminded Ravi 6 months later in the bathroom of that Tucson hotel about how amazed I was that someone of his refinement could find Waffle House so appealing, what did he say to me, “Yes, but where else can you get so much food for under $5.00!” But that was Ravi Zacharias: he was a lover of Waffle House, a man of the people, a man whose identity was not caught up in his public persona, but was grounded in Jesus Christ. That is when I knew Ravi was a very simple man, a normal Joe so to speak.

And it was this character that clearly has shaped the entire team at RZIM, and that helps them to continue to stay grounded today. That team has since been a blessing to me in ways I cannot detail in a mere blog post. But, I can affirm with confidence that Ravi’s legacy rests not just in the treasure trove of content he leaves behind to posterity, but is also on display in the character of those who knew him best, and who have carried on his mission. His legacy stands on solid ground, because he stood solidly upon the Rock of Ages.

In honor of Ravi and this legacy he left behind, I offer up this small narrative. In the coming weeks and months there will be both praises and attacks on this young man from India. But I know that this was a man who ran the good race of faith, and succeeded in honoring His Lord in spite of the normal human stumbling along the way, including his bad taste in food.

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Historical Apologetics

Philosophy and The Need for A Revelation

In the previous section of this series, I discussed the first category of Christian Apologetics: Philosophical Apologetics, or Philosophy as applied to religious beliefs. Philosophical Apologetics can also be referred to as Natural Theology, and overlaps significantly with Philosophical Theology, which is more restricted in scope. While there are nuances to each of these terms, the essential thrust of any kind of Philosophical Apologetic is to give a theoretical account of how Christianity as a worldview is rationally coherent, intellectually cogent, and existentially relevant. More particularly, Philosophical Theology deals with direct claims of the Christian faith, seeking to clarify how we might think about specific Christian doctrines, e.g. the Incarnation, or Biblical Inspiration. Philosophical Theology, unlike Natural Theology, addresses issues internal to the Christian faith, issues that emerge from its exclusive sources: the Bible, the Creeds, and maybe in some cases, the traditions of the Church. Natural Theology, alternatively, only draws from the natural world, i.e. the creation, as its source of theological speculation.

However, one thing is clear to anyone who has wrestled with Philosophy more broadly, or with any depth, and that is that there is no consensus about any philosophical view, or even any consensus about what philosophy is. As one Christian philosopher points out:

“Why is it the case that philosophical disagreements are never finally resolved? Why is it that the history of philosophy reads like a never-ending argument between enduring worldviews? From the ancient world to the contemporary world we find disputes between materialists and idealists, empiricists and rationalists, theists and atheists. I think that at least part of the answer lies in the fact that the answers provided to the questions of philosophy ultimately lead, as the Greeks saw so clearly, to different ways life must be lived. One reason people disagree about philosophical questions is that they want to live their lives in different ways. A commitment to a philosophical view (at least on the deepest questions) is not merely assenting to a set of propositions, but a decision as to who I am and who I want to become.”

C. Stephen Evans, A History of Western Philosophy (579-580)

Evans goes on:

“From my perspective, the lesson to draw from this is that we must give up the quest for an absolute, objective certainty that would eliminate philosophical disagreement.” (580)

In short, if Philosophy, understood as the use of human reason to draw conclusions about existence, still leaves us, after more than 2500 years of philosophizing, clueless about questions like “What is real?” and “How do I know anything?”; and if we are driven by underlying instincts that themselves are arational or subrational, then it is not wrong, and perhaps even necessary, to look elsewhere to make sense of things.

If humankind really is in a cycle of endless speculation, then the only other kind of thing that might make sense of our reality is something like Revelation; or the belief that something, or Someone has broken into our sphere of existence to disclose some truth to us about the way things really are. This is where Historical Studies and Historical Apologetics becomes vital to the life of the Church and the claims of Christian Faith. For without a historical revelation, Christianity is not really a religious faith, but yet another philosophical speculation about reality.

When it comes to the need for a Revelation from “outside,” i.e. knowledge that originates external to the human mind and that is not caused solely by the physical constituents of the universe, there is one primary source of Revelation that the Christian will be required to defend: the Bible. It has, after all, been the claim from the Church’s origins that the Bible is not just a set of abstract theological reflections, but a series of historical narratives, many of which refer to real events in time and space. An additional meta-claim about the Bible that can be made, especially if one already holds to God’s existence, is that the Bible is divinely inspired by God. Thus, it could be argued that if one believes that God exists, and the Bible is inspired by God, then not only does the Bible reference actual historical events, but it references them reliably.

Historical Apologetics and Biblical Theology

That Christian belief is bound to historical claims is, however, itself controversial. Since the emergence of Higher Biblical Criticism in the late 17th century, and the Enlightenment critiques of the supernatural that shortly followed (e.g. David Hume), there have been attempts by scholars and churchmen to separate Christian faith from its historical claims. Existentialists like the 20th century New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann were skeptical about grounding Christian faith in historical events that included supernatural elements. While the Christian faith was about the testimony of real people, in real places, and in real times; those testimonies were about less than real events.

Bultmann, and many who followed him, sought instead to seek out the existential core of the Christian Revelation as it applied to the individual’s experience (in itself not an unimportant task). However, on this kind of existentialist view, it was the historical proclamation, or kerygma, of the Apostles that “Jesus is Risen” which itself just is the resurrection. In other words, “resurrection” does not refer to an actual dead man coming out of a tomb in or around 33AD, but to an inspired faith in the message of “the Lord Jesus.” The resurrection is not more than a myth, even if a universal one with profound application to the life of the person who appropriates it to him or herself.

Much of this ahistorical, skeptical Christianity however led to the slow demise of seeing the Bible as a revelatory, and supra-mundane Word from God. The consequences of these views, whether direct or indirect, was a Christianity that, again, was more like mere philosophical speculation about God by historically and culturally situated authors than a revealed religion. Christianity was true, in a metaphorical or mystical sense, but not true in a way that it would be if its fundamental claims were grounded in real history. This resulted in what is commonly referred to as Liberal Protestantism,1Actually Liberal Protestantism had its roots far earlier than the late 19th century and Bultmann, but the existentialism of Bultmann and his successors is usually considered a kind of Liberal Protestantism. or the Social Gospel (see Walter Rauschenbusch)2Rauschenbusch was the grandfather of Richard Rorty, the prominent 20th century post-modern philosopher..

Other 20th century theologians like Karl Barth resisted this anti-realist trend however, suggesting that even if there could not be certainty about the historical facts of Christianity, this did not mean there was not a real, supernatural Revelation from God that is contained in the Bible. The knowledge of the resurrected Christ could only come through personal revelation however, and therefore it was not important to demonstrate the historicity of its key events (even if Barth did believe in an actual resurrection, of some sort)3I admit I am no Barth scholar, and to me his view on the historicity of the Resurrection is very hard to understand, sometimes appearing incoherent.. As such, Christian theologians should presuppose the Bible as true, and then just do the more focused work of doctrinal deduction through careful exegesis. Again, in itself not an unimportant task.

However, views like this often came under the harsh lens of the emerging scientism in the West, and were often found wanting in the cold light of the overly stringent verificationism and empiricism of the mid- 20th century. As such, liberal Protestantism in the West withered away under the scrutiny of analytical philosophy, and scientific triumphalism, not to mention the catastrophes of WWI and WWII.4This older Liberal Protestantism that was highly rationalistic has been replaced by a highly emotion-driven Progressive Evangelicalism that takes its philosophical cues from post-modernism and critical theory. This battle however, between contemporary neo-modernists who place total faith in science (e.g. Dawkins, Dennett) and conservative Evangelical apologists still rages today, although the contours of this debate have also morphed, primarily due to the dominance of post-modern epistemologies and movements like critical theory.

However, as existentialist views of the Bible were reaching their apex, a new thrust of academic, historical apologetics led by the “Fundamentalists” (e.g. B.B. Warfield, J Gresham Machen, and later E.J. Carnell) emerged to answer questions surrounding both the general reliability of the Bible as historical documents, and, more specifically, questions about the historical Jesus. These Fundamentalists, not to be confused or conflated with the term often applied to some flavor of religious fanatics, saw the importance of recapturing the historicity of the Christian proclamation, and, as such, the essential role of supernatural acts of God in that history. This particularly American movement, and to some degree British, provided a bulwark against more corrosive forms of historical criticism, and has sought to put the Bible firmly back on its historical foundations.

Today, Historical Apologetics is a vibrant field, and New Testament scholars like N.T. Wright, Craig Evans, Gary Habermas, Richard Bauckham, James Dunn, Craig Keener, and Old Testament scholars like John Walton, Tremper Longmann, Gordon Wenham, Daniel Block, and Michael Heiser have provided historical frameworks to defend many of the core claims of historical Christianity, especially the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In fact the New Testament scholarship of the last 30 years, in particular the so-called “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus, has exploded in comparison to what was being done in the mid-20th century. As such, there has been a serious revival of Historical Apologetics at the popular level as well.

Two Lines of Defense: Higher and Lower Criticism

There are two subareas of biblical history, both of which require careful study and argumentation to show the Bible as reliable, and, if God exists and Jesus is God, authoritative. These two subareas often go under the terms Higher and Lower criticism.

Higher Biblical Criticism (or HBC) primarily deals with the background of the biblical content: When were the books of the Bible, or their parts, actually written? By whom? Under what historical and cultural circumstances were they composed? In what literary style or genre were they written? And, especially in regard to the Old Testament books, was there a series of redactions to older texts that produced the texts we have now? These are the questions that most historical apologists try to answer as they look at authorship, sources, and context of the books of the Bible. To do HBC well, one really needs to know the original languages of the Bible, and also the historical circumstances surrounding its production. Most OT scholars will not only know Hebrew therefore, but also other ancient Near Eastern languages (like Akkadian, Ugaritic, etc). New Testament scholars, on the other hand, will know Greek and Aramaic, and have to be very familiar with Greco-Roman history and culture.

Lower criticism alternatively, has to do with the recovery and study of the biblical manuscripts themselves. This is often referred to, in clearer terms, as textual criticism, since it has to do with physical texts (i.e. the extant, hand written copies of biblical books), and whether or not we can reconstitute the original words of the Old and New Testaments (if there are “original” words to reconstruct). Bart Ehrman is the most popular contemporary non-theistic textual critic, although his mentor, Bruce Metzger, was a devout Christian. For more on textual criticism, one can check out Dan Wallace’s Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts here. Textual Criticism is a fascinating area of study, and it does matter in the defense of certain Christian doctrines about the Bible, in particular its inspiration, and inerrancy. While there is good evidence from textual criticism to support the authenticity of our contemporary New Testament, difficulties surrounding the Old Testament texts are manifold. However, I will discuss this in a later post about more general problems with the Old Testament manuscripts.

Three Objects of Defense: Old Testament, New Testament, and Church History

When it comes to defending historical claims, there are three historical objects in view that require defense: the Old and New Testaments, and the broader history of the catholic (small “c”) Church. Some might argue that it is not necessary to defend the Church’s history, but I think it actually quite important to give a defense, not an excuse mind you, of the Church’s emergence and spread throughout the world. To be fair, that history is not one that should be whitewashed, but must be presented fairly and accurately, warts and all. However, that the Church has been foundational to the development of Western Civilization, to include all of its major cultural forms and institutions, is undeniable. To neglect so great a history, again ugly parts included, would be a disservice to humanity. However, this is exactly what some anti-theists are keen on doing, and the Religion-Science conflict myth has been part of American academic culture since at least Andrew Dickson White in 19th century.

The Old Testament

The most significant problem with any attempt at a comprehensive defense of the Old Testament is the sheer lack of evidence. But, that means evidence either way, and a logical fallacy that should not be made in relation to the historical narratives of the Old Testament is lack of evidence being treated as evidence of absence. For many of the Old Testament events narrated in books like Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, etc., natural processes, war, and the sands of time have simply eroded what might have been evidence for their historicity. That said, certain philosophical presuppositions will obviously come into play with any investigation of biblical historicity.

Thus, while some evidence may still be forthcoming as archaeologists continue to dig, the simple fact remains: we do not know with certainty. Nevertheless, there have been discoveries in the last century, most prominently the Dead Sea Scrolls, that have given some additional hope that more can be found, even more documentary evidence. Also, recent archaeological digs have turned up some concrete remnants that point to at least some fundamental OT history being true, like David being an actual king of Israel, or Hezekiah’s water tunnel in Jerusalem. These are not insignificant, and the trend is definitely in the direction of greater confirmation of the OT historical books.

However, in the last few years apologists have been forced to turn their attention from the defense of the historicity of the Old Testament, to the defense of the moral character of the Old Testament. This more aggressive and visceral anti-theistic attack (as an attack on the Old Testament God would entail an attack on orthodox Judaism as well), directly targets the moral character of Yahweh in the Old Testament. This attack has even influenced many Christians to abandon the idea of trying to “rescue” the God of the Old Testament, in what could be called a kind of neo-Marcionite turn in Christian theology. In either case the kind of violence that not only seems to be allowed by Yahweh, but actively endorsed by Him in the pages of the Old Testament, is a topic of apologetical debate that cannot be easily resolved.

As such, there are two main lines to defend regarding the Old Testament: the facticity of the historical narratives, and the moral character of God as presented in the Old Testament. A third line, alluded to above, is the reconstitution of the original texts, a problem which seems effectively unsolvable.

The New Testament

For several years, roughly 1,800 of them, the Church has had to wrestle with two big questions about the New Testament: “why four, distinct stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection?” and “why so many discrepancies between them, especially between John and the other three (the Synopotics)?” Perhaps a third question might be “Why were the Gospels written so much later after the purported events?”

Early Church Fathers, like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Origen were not overly concerned about the fact of their being four Gospels, or their apparent lateness, although they were concerned about the existence of other writings about Jesus that seemed to be unorthodox, and wildly contradictory to the accepted Four. Thus, one of the first apologetical issues addressed by the ante-Nicene fathers especially, was the nature and scope of the biblical Canon.

However, even having four “official” accounts of the life of Jesus inevitably led to fundamental questions about each account’s independent historicity, the historicity of the larger story they all point to, and whether or not the accounts can be properly harmonized, if they even need to be. How reliably each Gospel attests to the events they purport, how well their independent data cohere, and even to what degree they affirm the same moral and theological views, is axiomatic to the Church’s witness to and exclusive claims about the truth.

The Reliability of the Gospels has therefore been, and continues to be the main line of defense for Christian New Testament scholars doing apologetical work. From the time of Origen (184-253 AD), it was clear that only these four: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were widely accepted by the Church as divinely inspired. Other, later works like the Didache may have been seen as useful or helpful to the Church, while still others, like the Gospel of Thomas, less so. Nevertheless only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John from the earliest moments of the Church’s life were considered uniquely inspired texts:

1. Now, in the New Testament also, ‘many have tried’ to write gospels, but not all have found acceptance. You should know that not only four Gospels but ver many were composed. The Gospels we have were chosen from these gospels and passed on to the churches. We can know this from Luke’s own prologue, which begins this way: ‘Because many have tried to compose an account.’ The words ‘have tried’ imply an accusation against those who rushed into writing gospels without the grace of the Holy Spirit. Matthew, Mark, John and Luke did not ‘try’ to write; they wrote their Gospels when they were filled with the Holy Spirit….

2. The Church has four Gospels. Heretics have many. One of them is entitled According to the Egyptians, another According to the Twelve Apostles. Basilides, too, dared to write a gospel and give it his own name. ‘Many have tried’ to write, but only four Gospels have been approved. Our doctrines about the Person of our Lord and Savior should be drawn from these approved Gospels….We have read many others, too, lest we appear ignorant of anything, because of those people who think they know something if they have examined these gospels. But in all these questions we approve of nothing but what the Church approves of, namely only four canonical Gospels.

Origen, Homily on Luke (trans. Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., 1996)

Of course the most pressing reason to defend the reliability of the New Testament is to place the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth on firm historical ground. For without a bodily resurrection, the Apostle Paul himself makes it clear we are in serious trouble:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope[b] in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

That said, it seems almost a moot issue in the early church that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, with the notable exception that around the mid 2nd-century Gnostic Christians, heavily influenced by Platonic dualism, began to reject the bodily resurrection of Jesus, in favor of a more spiritualized account. However, this account by no means rejected Jesus’ divinity, but rather sought to undermine a bodily resurrection because the escape from the body was the summum bonum of their platonized Christianity. As such the idea that Jesus would rise bodily from the grave was utterly distasteful. This hyper-spiritualized view occasioned early apologetical work by Church fathers like Athenagoras (133-190), Justin Martyr (100-165), and Ignatius (35-108) defending a bodily resurrection.

That Jesus rose from death in the early church is however simply taken for granted. It is only after the advent of HBC and the Enlightenment take on miracles however, the historicity of the Resurrection event became the central issue of Historical Apologetics, and still is today.

Church History

It might seem that once a reasoned defense of the Bible itself has been provided that the task of historical apologetics is largely complete. And, in fact, this is probably true. A robust defense of the Bible’s historical reliability and textual authenticity should at least suffice to compel the skeptic to consider the Bible’s claims. However, the Church that emerges out of the Jesus movement of the 1st century AD is also important to defend, as it is not irrelevant to learn how the purported revelation knowledge of the Bible motivated and shaped the communities that considered it to be true . For how the lives of those who accepted that knowledge as true played out in history also has some bearing on the truthfulness of that knowledge.5However, this is not to make the genetic fallacy, whereby we would judge the truth of Christian claims based on the behavior of those who purport to believe them. The claims themselves would still have to be adjudicated on other grounds.

Therefore, it is of enduring value to the Church to have historians capable of recapitulating not only the Church’s history for its own sake (as any historical recapitulation is), but also for the sake of correcting the historical record when false charges are made or accusations levied against the people of God. One prominent scholar who has done much to correct the historical record of the Church’s historical activity is Rodney Stark, who has written much on several eras of the Church’s history, as well as the influences the Church has had on Western culture, for good, and for ill.

Some apologetical issues related to the Church’s history that continually arise in popular debate are: the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the Galileo incident, the early debates on Darwinian Evolution and Creationism, and of course the Church’s role during WWII. A good understanding of these apparently ignominious chapters in the Church’s history can help to dispel many myths about the Church’s role in the world, while also validating legitimate critiques by skeptics.

Conclusion: Christianity Is Historical

Unlike philosophical apologetics, historical apologetics must, in virtue of the Christian claim that God has revealed Himself concretely in history, deal with historical evidence and argument. Most of this evidence comes either from documents or other kinds of archaeological evidence, e.g. coins, monuments, engravings. As such, historians have a more focused data set to work with than philosophers, and a degree of uncertainty about what can be proven to be historically accurate is unavoidable due to that limited data. However, this applies to all of human history, especially ancient history. It will matter therefore with what underlying metaphysical and theological commitments one approaches such historical evidence. Historians firmly entrenched in naturalism, or even theists who desire to hold to methodological naturalism, will inevitably have to find non-supernatural conclusions about at least many of the claims of both the Old and New Testaments and maybe even Church History, e.g. post-Biblical miracle reports.

Nevertheless, there is also good reason to believe that testimonial evidence, which is what most historical evidence is, is actually quite a reliable source of knowledge. Moreover, it has been shown that most of our beliefs are developed through the acceptance of some kind of personal or public testimony. Even the scientist must rely on the testimony of several others who have gone before him, lest he grope in the dark about where, and how, to begin his experiments. Further, recent work in fields like Social Epistemology has shown how significant testimony really is to the justification of our beliefs, especially when observers as sources of information are multiplied, and a communal effort made to get at truth; something many NT historians have also pointed out with regard to the Gospel events.

When it comes to the objects of historical investigation Apologetics must address, those are clear: the canon of scripture, the content of those scriptures, and the public history of the catholic (universal, orthodox, historical) Church. Above all, there is one event that stands out as decisive to understanding the Christian faith either as fundamentally subjective, existential, and private, or as objective, forensic, and universal. That, of course, is the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. While Bultmann et al., thought that Christianity could be sustained in an existential mode, separate from an actual, historical Resurrection; others, like the German systematic theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, saw that project as entirely hopeless, arguing instead that not only could the Resurrection be rationally investigated, but that ultimately it had to be for Christianity to make any sense:

Whether or not a particular event happened two thousand years ago is not made certain by faith but only by historical research, to the extent that certainty can be attained at all about questions of this kind.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus- God and Man

In conclusion then, a robust program of Historical Apologetics will seek to defend the factual nature of Christian claims about God’s divine activity in this space-time reality, even if it cannot show with epistemic certainty that those events happened. But, as with any belief about any thing, even a belief about “What is real”, a certain degree of faith is required.

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Logic)

Logic

This final area of philosophical inquiry is somewhat other than the rest. Logic is not so much a part of human life to investigate, as a tool we seem capable of accessing in order to do the investigation well. Logic is similar to language in that, while we can think reflexively about both, we need both in order to think reflexively, and think well. Yet, that there is also a second-order, philosophical question about why logic works, or what are logical connections, is itself certainly true. Still logic is essentially just good reasoning, and reasoning is something we do naturally. To study logic is to study the nature of reasoning, and develop methods and strategies by which our reasoning can improve, and truth attained.

Some forms of logic, like symbolic logic, are also similar to languages, albeit non-natural ones. They are highly abstract. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, philosophers like Gottlob Frege, Georg Cantor, Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whitehead, developed symbolic logical systems designed to eliminate the ambiguity associated with classical forms of logic that deal with natural language. These systems, based on mathematical reasoning, attempt to illustrate purely structural relationships between entities, regardless of whether such entities are real or not, and they sometimes go under the umbrella term Logicism. These highly abstracted, a priori systems are very technical, and tend to be utilized by professional philosophers in specialized areas of research (like Logic itself).

Alternatively, Classical, or Aristotelian, logic is primarily a prescriptive set of rules regulating our mental operations when seeking the truth about claims about reality. Classical logic deals with natural language claims, and the relationship between words and sentences of natural languages (e.g. English, German, Mandarin, etc.), that is it deals with grammars. It is this kind of logic I will discuss here, since it is most commonly used in developing arguments related to the defense of the Christian faith, and many other areas of everyday philosophical investigation like philosophy of science, religion, aesthetics, and politics.

Formal & Informal Logic

Formal Logic is fundamentally about one thing: structural validity of arguments. This differs from informal logic, which primarily has to do with logical fallacies in premises.

Most people are familiar with some aspects of informal logic, for example fallacies like: the genetic fallacy, ad hominem fallacies, or the fallacy of composition. Most informal fallacies fall into larger categories like: Fallacies of Ambiguity, Relevance, or Sufficiency. Informal fallacies are not less damaging than formal ones, they are just not related to the “form” of an argument. They have to do with language and the meaning of words and sentences.

Informal fallacies usually apply to the sentences themselves, not to the relational structures, or grammar, of arguments. Here is an example of an informal fallacy:

Socrates is a Greek. Greek is a language. Therefore, Socrates is a language.

This is an example of a fallacy of Ambiguity, since the term “Greek” has multiple meanings in common parlance. Thus, it would have to be clarified what the term means in the context it is given. Here is another informal fallacy:

John is an evangelical Christian, so what would he know about science? Even if he has a PhD in micro-biology, he can’t do real science.

This is an example of a fallacy of Relevance, in this case a kind of ad hominem attack, or attack against the person. More specifically this particular instance is a “poisoning the well” fallacy, making an initial claim about a person (or group) that tries to undermine any future claims they may make about a given topic, here the biological sciences. The fact that John is a Christian is simply irrelevant to his being able to practice science well or make accurate pronouncements on scientific issues.

Another kind of fallacy of Relevance is the Genetic Fallacy, which attacks the source of the claim, as opposed to the claim itself:

Evolution endowed human beings with certain cognitive capacities that led to the rise of beliefs in God and gods among early, prehistoric communities. Therefore, belief in God is irrational.

Here, it is argued that because it may be the case that human beings, over a long prehistory, developed certain cognitive capacities that facilitated the belief in supernatural beings, or a supernatural Being, that therefore the belief in those beings, or Being, is irrational. However, the source of the formation of the belief is not ultimately what determines if the belief is true. That must be determined on other grounds, otherwise the Genetic fallacy has been committed.

One final kind of informal fallacy is the fallacy of Insufficiency. This usually has to do with premises that do not rely on a sufficient amount of data or factual evidence to be considered strong premises. For example:

My friend Joe has been smoking all his life, and he has never had any problems with his lungs; therefore, smoking is just fine!

Here we have the fallacy of Hasty Generalization, which bases a radical conclusion, to assume smoking is fine for your health, on a very small amount of evidence: knowledge of just one friend’s capacity to smoke and not get ill. That is called an appeal to “anecdotal” evidence and would be insufficient to warrant starting to, or continuing to, smoke.

Most informal fallacies are found in inductive arguments, not deductive ones, and there are many more informal fallacies that we could give examples for. For a good introduction to Informal Fallacies, see here.

Formal logic

Formal logic, in contrast to informal logic, is concerned with demonstrating how syntax (the order of a sentence) is related to relational validity when two or more sentences are fit together in a grammatical structure. Formal logic is a means to demonstrate how, when declarative statements are strung together through certain operative words like “if…then” “and” and “or,” or “some” and “all,” and put into a sequential order, the conjunction of those sentences compel us to accept or reject a conclusion by the sheer light of reason. Errors in the structure of an argument, however, do not say anything about the argument’s conclusion being true or false, just that the arrangement, or form, of the argument does not show the conclusion to be true or false, because it contains a structural deficiency.

For example, the following argument is logically valid, but the conclusion is false:

Premise 1: All cats are blue
Premise 2: Tabby is a cat
Conclusion: Therefore, Tabby is blue

Here, the structure of the argument is valid, for if all cats really are blue, and if Tabby is a cat, then Tabby must be blue. Of course the problem is that premise 1 is simply false.

And, conversely, here is an example of a conclusion that is true, but where the argument is invalid, and therefore does not demonstrate the conclusion’s truth:

Premise 1: Some men are bald
Premise 2: Tony is a man
Conclusion: Therefore, Tony is bald

Now, it does so happen that the “Tony” I am thinking about, namely myself, is bald, and thus the conclusion is true. But, because the argument is not valid, it bears no weight on that conclusion. It is an invalid argument because premise 1 only says that “some” particular men are bald, and while premise 2 does pick out a particular man named “Tony,” there is no logical connection between the “some” of premise 1, and the “Tony” of premise 2 that forces us to conclude Tony is bald (even if this particular Tony does happen to be bald, that is purely accidental).

If however, like in the previous example, the universal affirmative “all” was used in premise 1, then the argument would be valid, although the conclusion would now be rendered false. Thus, the following is again valid, but false:

Premise 1: All men are bald
Premise 2: Brad Pitt is a man
Conclusion: Therefore, Brad Pitt is bald

Propositional or Semantic Content

Sentences however are not really what we are interested in, rather we are interested in something far more “mysterious,” namely propositions. Sentences are just the linguistic expression of propositions, or semantic content. Therefore, propositions themselves are often, and correctly, seen as non-linguistic, immaterial, yet real objects. This can be demonstrated as follows:

  1. The snow is white
  2. Der Schnee ist weiss

Both of these sentences mean exactly the same thing. However, they are clearly not the same sentence. What is identical is the proposition behind each set of words, i.e. that “snow is white.” But the words themselves are obviously not identical. Moreover, if we were to write a third sentence in Mandarin Chinese, we could have entirely different symbols, yet the same meaning or propositional content. Thus, we can show that propositions and their sentences are not identical.

Logic is therefore the main tool we use to “see” whether two or more sentences, linguistic devices that represent propositions, if tied together in some kind of grammatical structure, force us to think something may, or must, be the case. There is yet another kind of logic, modal logic, which deals expressly with the idea of whether or not certain propositions are “necessarily” true, or only “possibly” true, etc. Simple propositional logic however helps us to determine the truth value of a sentence, which itself is the linguistic expression of propositional content. In classical propositional logic then, there are only two possible values for any declarative sentence, “true” or “false.”

The grammatical structuring of sentences for the sake of determining truth is what we often call an “argument.” Arguments in philosophy come in two main categories: deductive and inductive arguments.

Deductive Arguments

Deductive arguments are comprised of premises and a conclusion. The main thing to know about deductive arguments is this: if the premises are true, and the structure of the argument valid, then the conclusion MUST be true. The classic example of a deductive argument is this:

Premise 1: All men are mortal
Premise 2: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Therefore Socrates is mortal

If P1 and P2 are both true, then it has to be the case that the conclusion follows. So it goes with deductive formulations of arguments. An example of a deductive argument often used in the Apologetics is the Kalam Cosmological argument, which usually is presented as such:

Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause
Premise 2: The universe began to exist
Conclusion: Therefore the universe had a cause


If P1 and P2 are true, then the conclusion must follow. Another way of thinking about Deductive Arguments is that they tend to start with a general theory or statement and reason toward a specific conclusion. This can been clearly seen in the two aforementioned arguments that start with broad statements about “all men” and “mortality” and “whatever begins” and “causes” to “Socrates” and “this universe.”

Because Deductive arguments are meant to force one to either accept a conclusion, or reject the truthfulness of one of the argument’s premises, the structure of deductive arguments has to follow certain rules of logic. One way to try and test for the validity of an argument is through Natural Deduction.

Natural Deduction utilizes some intuitive rules of logic, or rules of inference, to create deductively valid arguments. The nine most useful rules of inference are: modus ponens, modus tollens, addition, disjunctive syllogism, simplification, conjunction, hypothetical syllogism, constructive dilemma, and absorption. The aforementioned examples both use the rule “modus ponens” as a means of demonstration. Valid, or sound, deductive arguments are the strongest kinds of arguments, since they force a conclusion upon the hearer.

However, there are very few deductive arguments for anything that cannot to some degree be questioned in the soundness of their individual premises, even if their structures are valid. Finally, the main fallacy associated with Deductive Arguments, is “begging the question” which goes something like this:

Premise 1: The Bible says that God exists
Premise 2: The Bible is true because it is God’s word
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists

Here, the conclusion may be true (I certainly think it is), but the argument is helpless to show it true, because it requires God’s existence to show that the Bible is true (premise 2), yet God’s existence is what the argument is supposed to prove. Thus, from this argument alone, we cannot know the Bible is true, and if we cannot know the Bible is true, then we cannot know that God exists. It “begs the question” or, in other terms, it is “circular reasoning.” Atheists can run into similar problems:

Premise 1: Reason tells us that God does not exist
Premise 2: Reason is the source of all truth
Conclusion: Therefore, God does not exist

Same problem here, since to claim that “Reason” is the source of all truth, requires the use of reason itself. But, how do we know that the very tool we are using to attain truth is itself reliable? Thus, it “begs the question” about whether or not reason really is the source of all truth by simply asserting it to be the case.

Inductive Arguments

Inductive arguments, in contrast with deductive ones, are meant to give strong reasons for the likelihood of a conclusion, but do not force a decision upon the hearer to either accept the conclusion, or reject one of the premises. The hearer could think the premises are strongly supported by the facts, and that the conclusion is strong based on the conjunction of those factually supported premises, yet still believe that there is room for the conclusion to be false. Induction is the primary form of scientific reasoning, and usually starts with particular or specific observations in order to work toward a general conclusion. Inductive arguments are therefore probabilistic in nature. Here is a common example:

Premise 1: Every time I have walked Susie’s dog, it has not bit me
Premise 2: Tomorrow I will walk Susie’s dog
Conclusion: Therefore, when I walk Susie’s dog tomorrow, he won’t bite me

Here, we can see that the conclusion is not certain, but it very well may be probable, especially if the dog walker has walked Susie’s dogs several times without incident. It may not be necessary for me to believe with certainty that Susie’s dog will not bite the walker, but I may wind up believing that due to the pattern that has been set. This is an example of what we might call an inductive generalization.

Another example:

Premise 1: 85% of Americans own at least one TV set
Premise 2: Tom is an American
Conclusion: Therefore, probably Tom owns a TV set.

Inductive arguments can focus on one set of data, e.g. past dog-walks, ratio of TV’s to American citizens, and try to make a strong, albeit not absolute, inference to the truth. Some, like the second example, can be statistical in nature, and thus, if done right, can be fairly compelling.

Many arguments for or against the existence of God due to the problem of Evil are probabilistic, or inductive ones:

Premise 1: If an an all-loving, all-powerful God exists, then there likely would be no gratuitous evil in the world
Premise 2: There is gratuitous evil in the world
Conclusion: Therefore, it is unlikely that an all-loving, all-powerful God exists

Here, one can see that the conclusion is not certain, it is only a probability argument, and one not based on quantifiable data, but a common sense, qualitative notion of likelihood. There are many responses to this kind of argument against God from the PoE, and both premises can be challenged.

Abductive or Inference to the Best Explanation

As Apologists we often use deductive and inductive arguments to either force a conclusion regarding a specific theistic belief (e.g. God exists), or to compel one to accept the likelihood of a specific belief (e.g. probably Jesus rose from the dead). However, when defending Christianity as an all-encompassing worldview, our apologetical project often synthesizes together many different deductive and inductive arguments to show that, on the whole, Christian theism is the best explanation for the world, and our experience of that world.

This kind of reasoning, where we take into account various scientific and historical facts, philosophical arguments, and other natural and human phenomena to provide an overarching theory, or explanation, is called abductive reasoning, or inference to the best explanation. This is perhaps the most commonly used form of reasoning today in Christian Apologetics, and is often called “cumulative case” reasoning by popular authors and speakers. This kind of reasoning tries to fulfill certain explanatory criteria, such as: explanatory power, explanatory scope, lack of ad hocness, simplicity, predictive capacity, etc., and show why Christianity is a better fit to explain certain facts about the world.

One can think of many facts, or givens, about our experience of reality that seem to be best explained by a broadly religious, or even specifically Christian, explanation of the world.

For example:

  • the almost universal belief in human souls,
  • compelling reports of near death experiences,
  • the existence of anything at all,
  • the intuition of cause and effect,
  • the hard problem of consciousness,
  • the argument from desire,
  • the phenomenon of beauty in both the natural world and in human art,
  • the sense of having free will,
  • the nature of morality,
  • the abundance of miracle reports,
  • the complexity and variety of biological life,
  • the historical witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth,
  • the rise, global spread, and longevity of the Christian faith,
  • and, of course, personal religious experiences and changed lives.

When all taken together, and weighed against various competing hypotheses, one can see how the Christian worldview is a powerful explanatory hypothesis when put up against other views like naturalism, pantheism, or polytheism. While cumulative case arguments are not arguments in the same sense as deductive ones, they get right to the heart of answering the most fundamental human question: why? Abductive reasoning of this sort is also the primary way scientific theories are developed. It is the most common, and natural, form of logical argumentation.

Conclusion to Philosophical Apologetics

This series on Apologetics has first taken into account the four main areas of Philosophical inquiry: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, and Logic. At this point the young Christian, or the Christian young in the faith, may feel overwhelmed. How, after all, can one learn “all this stuff!?” While it is clearly not necessary to be an expert in any of these fields to evangelize, since the power of the Gospel is itself sufficient to convert even the hardest heart, we should also not relinquish the battlefield of ideas to the skeptic, the materialist, or the co-religionist. The pursuit of knowledge is part and parcel of the Christian life of discipleship, and so I end this section with the words of one of the “greatest” of Christ’s disciples, John Wesley:

If we are “overseers over the Church of God, which he hath bought with his own blood,” what manner of men ought we to be, in gifts as well as in grace? …

To begin with gifts, and with those that are from nature: Ought not a Minister to have, First, a good understanding, a clear apprehension, a sound judgment, and a capacity of reasoning with some closeness? Is not this necessary in an high degree for the work of the ministry? Otherwise, how will he be able to understand the various states of those under his care; or to steer them through a thousand difficulties and dangers, to the haven where they would be? Is it not necessary, with respect to the numerous enemies whom he has to encounter? Can a fool cope with all the men that know not God, and with all the spirits of darkness? Nay, he will neither be aware of the devices of Satan, nor the craftiness of his children.

He goes on…

Some knowledge of the sciences also, is, to say the least, equally expedient. Nay, may we not say, that the knowledge of one (whether art or science), although now quite unfashionable, is even necessary next to, and in order to, the knowledge of the Scripture itself? I mean logic. For what is this, if rightly understood, but the art of good sense? of apprehending, things clearly, judging truly, and reasoning conclusively? What is it, viewed in another light, but the art of learning and teaching, whether by convincing or persuading? What is there, then, in the whole compass of science, to be desired in comparison of it?

Is not some acquaintance with what has been termed the second part of logic (metaphysics), if not so necessary as this, yet highly expedient, (1.) In order to clear our apprehension (without which it is impossible either to judge correctly, or to reason closely or conclusively) by ranging our ideas under general heads? And, (2.) In order to understand many useful writers, who can very hardly be understood without it?

John Wesley, An Address to the Clergy (1756)