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.

Moral Decision Making and the Fear of the Lord

In his book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, Roman Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says this about making moral decisions, “Participants in deliberation [about means to attaining goods] must make their decision because of how their practical reasoning went and not from fear or as a result of fraud or because they were bribed or seduced.”1MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, Apple Books, 230. MacIntyre’s point here is that the morally responsible human being, when seeking to pursue an individual or common good, must make their moral decisions not based on fear, or fraud (deception), or because they “sold out,” or because they fell into temptation to pursue a merely perceived good. Rather, any decision to pursue any good (e.g. a marital relationship, children, an occupation, a skill), or make any moral decision (disciplining a child as opposed to letting her off the hook), must be born out of a careful application of prudential thinking. Prudence, of course, being the classical virtue which, according to Karen Swallow Prior, “measures the other virtues and determines ‘what makes an action good.’”2 Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well, 34-35.

Biblically speaking, prudence is what the Jewish or Christian man or woman might call proverbial wisdom— that wisdom about human affairs which we find in those books often referred to as “the Wisdom literature”: Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and, yes, even Song of Songs. This special revelation of Scripture affirms the use of practical reasoning in the process of making good, moral decisions. While the Holy Spirit can directly transmit knowledge to us regarding particular moral decisions or judgments, most of the time God allows us to learn to make good decisions through a process of indirect, spiritual formation— meaning that He is not telling us at every moment, in entirely certain terms, everything we should do and how to do it. Instead he is allowing us, like Jesus in His human nature, to grow in wisdom and stature (Lk 2:52). Growing requires learning however, and learning requires us to make mistakes. Learning from our mistakes helps us become more prudent thinkers.

However, this kind of practical or prudential reasoning, according to the Bible, also has a fundamental starting point, one we dare not neglect. That starting point is this: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). Thus, the act of rational thinking about what concrete goods to pursue in life, how to evaluate the process of attaining those goods, and why they should even be considered “good,” are all things that must be informed first and foremost by our understanding of, and relationship to, God. For any moral decision that is made apart from the “fear of the Lord” will indelibly contain an error. To not begin our practical decision making about a moral action with this fear of God is to inevitably wind up “missing the mark,” which is, in some real sense, just what sin is—morally irresponsible actions.

In this same passage, MacIntyre also alludes to four common, initial conditions from which we often do start our practical decision making; four conditions that are antithetical to the biblical starting point of “fear of the Lord.” They are: fear (human fear), fraud, bribery and seduction. If we do not start our moral deliberations with a consideration of the nature and will of God, then it is likely we will start from one of these four places. However, if we start from one of these places, our decisions will probably result in more human damage, even if that damage may be mitigated by other factors (e.g. the seriousness of the action taken, the simple grace of God, or maybe even the grace of an offended party). Nevertheless, it is worth considering each of these false starting points in order to train ourselves to think more prudentially, and more theologically, before taking any particular, moral action.

Acting From Fear

Possibly the most damaging starting point for any moral decision, especially a decision made by someone who claims faith in Christ, is that of fear. Fear is not a neutral starting point, even if a natural one. Biblically speaking fear is starting from a place of doubt, which is equivalent to a place of unfaithfulness. Doubt too may be natural to us, but for the Christian man or woman it entails a questioning of God’s Providence or of His Power (or possibly His existence). This is not to say that one, even the most mature and stalwart among us, will not have fears or experience doubt. After all, one cannot be rightly called “courageous” if there are no instances of fear to overcome. It is however to say that those fears cannot be what ultimately determines our moral decisions, and certainly it is to say that we should not start our process of decision making from a place of fearfulness, even if it is sometimes difficult not to start there.

There will be all kinds of practical concerns one has to weigh in life, many of them frightening to us: fears about death or injury, fears about loss of relationship, fears about loss of financial stability, etc. However, the final decision we make about a moral action cannot be based on the fear itself. One should not say simplistically then: “I am not going to do action X, because I am afraid I will die,” for example. For it very well could be the case that the moral action under consideration may warrant the risk to one’s physical existence, or, in special cases, the risk to the physical safety of another (that would be to say simplistically, “I am not going to do action X, because it may cause him or her to die.”).

For an example of the former think of a mother who is hemorrhaging during labor. She refrains from receiving medical treatment that might be necessary for her survival because it puts the life of her baby at risk. She may be afraid to die, but at the same time know that that fear cannot be what determines her decision about receiving the medical aid she needs. Hopefully, long prior to the labor and delivery, she has already contemplated deeply the intrinsic value of human life, and come to understand that if her starting point is “the fear of the Lord,” she may indeed be called to sacrifice her own life for the sake of another at some point. She may have come to understand, at the deepest level of her spiritual formation, that “greater love has no one than this: to lay down his [or her] life for his [or her] friends” is not simply a sentiment to be parroted on Sunday mornings, but an actual way of existing; an expression of ultimate reality, a divine command of God. If the mother’s prior starting point in her moral decision making, even before becoming pregnant, was “the fear of the Lord” then her action in the middle of trauma, i.e. her sacrificing medical treatment for the sake of the child, is one not born out of human fear, but one born out of moral goodness and Christ-like faithfulness. It becomes therefore an act of unconditional love, which is itself the greatest of the theological virtues (1 Cor 13:13).

For an example of the latter, however, now think of the mother who has natural fears for her older child. The mother fears intuitively for the safety of the child, and is often hovering to ensure that the child is not in any kind of immediate danger, danger either to their physical, or emotional, well-being. She stays close while the child does monkey bars on the playground; she teaches the child to look both ways, several times, before crossing the road; she makes sure the child always has their safety helmet on, perhaps even when on his tricycle. These are all fears that are in many ways justified. However, if the mother’s care for the child, and the daily moral decisions that go into that care, have as their starting point mere human fear, and not fear of the Lord, then the following kinds of sins can begin to emerge: the hovering over the child like a mother hen slowly transforms into a controlling act, one more suited to a Communist dictator than a caring mother. The child is stifled in their personal development, both in their physical development– never being allowed to challenge themselves by climbing the big tree at the park, the child’s muscles stay soft; and in their emotional and moral development– never being permitted to date, the child fails to grasp relational complexity and remains emotionally naive.

Even intellectual development can be stifled out of fear when challenges to the truth of the Christian worldview are barred entry into the life of the Christian family. This phenomena has been well documented recently: adults who have been Christians their entire life, even leaders in the Church, yet been kept in intellectual ignorance. The result is finding themselves intellectually shook to the core when first presented with even the mildest critiques of biblical truth or the Christian worldview. This has been a disturbing trend among so-called “celebrity Christians.

Further, and deeper still, is the hindering of spiritual development. If the now controlling mother, who operates out of human fear, keeps the child in a therapeutically sealed, existential bubble, then how, if not through real trials and struggles, can the child learn to become reliant on the Lord— on His goodness, His providence, and His strength? What, after all, would it have looked like if Rachel had prevented Jacob from allowing Joseph to go out and tend the sheep with his brothers? Joseph may have been spared much personal pain and sorrow, but at what cost to himself, his family, the nation of Egypt, and the people and plan of God? It seems incalculable.

In sum, life is full of problems, many of which cannot be avoided. As Christian psychiatrist M. Scott Peck once pointed out, it is the fear of problems, and the emotional pain they might cause, that preclude people from not only from becoming wise, but that facilitates mental illness:

“It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn….It is for this reason that wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and actually to welcome the pain of problems. [However] Most of us are not wise. Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems….This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness.”

M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, 16-17.

Acting from Fraud

Fraud is deceit. To act from fraud may not be as egregious as acting from fear, because it assumes a more passive role by the moral decision maker. They are not acting intentionally out of a place of deception, rather they have been deceived and therefore are basing their moral decisions on false premises. However, while persons acting from fraud as their starting point for a moral decision may be somewhat less liable for their actions, this is not to say they are entirely without responsibility. After all, we have the prior, moral responsibility to do what we can to ensure we are not taken hold of by false beliefs, or given over to bad information. We are called to be watchful, careful, and discerning. Jesus said “Behold I am sending out as sheep among wolves, so be wise as serpents and gentle as doves” (Matt 10:16), knowing full well what kind of sin-fallen world He was sending His apostles into, and the kind of resistance that would meet the bearer of “Good News.”

Thus, it becomes incumbent on the Christian, especially in a day and age where dis- and misinformation abound, to be diligent in their collection of data, in their interpretation of that data, and in their decision making based off of relevant information. This information could be testimony about any kind of cultural issue: political, economic, educational, and yes, even scientific. Therefore, the Christian must avoid simplistic or reductionist thinking that simply grants authority to any “talking head” on TV, radio, or the internet, regardless of that person’s popularity, or the popular narrative that has been spun around them. It also means that as Christians we must have a healthy, but not exaggerated, skepticism about so-called “experts.” We must understand that human reason is flawed and that there is no such thing as “the science” that tells us anything, rather, there are “scientists” who interpret data and then tell us some things.

The Devil’s Role in Fraud

Behind any of these false starting points it is also worth realizing that there are other forces at work than simply our own sinful nature; there are spiritual forces seeking to deceive and destroy us through that deception. Yes, Virginia, there is a Devil!, and he is no simple metaphor, he is metaphysical. He is also said to be “like a roaring lion” looking to devour believers. Jesus makes it crystal clear that the Devil is a murderer, and has been from the beginning. But, how can a conscious, yet immaterial entity murder a physical being like us? The answer since Genesis 3 has always been the same: through deceit, “He [Satan] was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44). Since the Devil only in very rare occasions touches our physical nature (our bodies), his main weapon of choice is the lie, and lies come through words, and words are grasped cognitively. The battlefield of the mind, where truth is either recognized or repressed, is where the Christian must take “every thought captive to Christ” lest we be led down a path of making moral choices destructive both to our own person, and to others. Adam and Eve’s originating sin may have included an aspect of creaturely pride, as Augustine pointed out, but that pride was awakened by Satan’s deception. As Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms, Satan is, in his very nature, fraudulent. He is the great fraud, and his lies know no boundaries.

The counter to Satan’s lies has always been, and will be until Christ’s return, the Word of God, delivered to us both in the Person and work of Christ and in the words of the Holy Scriptures. For it is the Word of God that is sharper than any two-edged sword and that cuts between bone and marrow, soul and spirit, and discerns the thoughts and intentions of human hearts. To avoid fraud as our moral starting point, this is where we must turn. For it is the Word of God that judges the truth of statements that may appear morally correct, statements like “love is love,” but which ultimately are false. After all, it is God who is love, not human love that is god (1 John 4:8).

Ultimately, however, the devil’s best strategy is to stay away from questions of truth or falsehood entirely, and to misguide the moral decision maker by making all claims relative to something other than reason (something like human emotion or experience). C.S. Lewis alludes to this in his magnum opus on spiritual warfare, The Screwtape Letters:

“The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy’s [God] own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He [God] has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below [Satan]. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s [the Christian man] reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences.”

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter 1

In our current social climate, human emotions or personal experience have become the default starting point for most of our moral decision making. This places many of our moral actions on very unstable and shifting ground, a ground that the devil loves to play on. It should be no surprise then when we see dedications to him in books like Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, a manuscript very popular with many political and social elitists.

Acting from Personal Gain (Bribery)

You cannot love both God and mammon, or so it has been said by, well, by God. One of Jesus’ earliest followers was inspired to write it this way, “love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10). The historical record is replete with man’s greediness for material wealth and voracious appetite for monetary gain. Nations have literally risen and fallen over the decadence of their rulers, just as local communities have suffered from corruption in their county and state governments. Households fall apart as well, as the thirst for money and luxury drive families to extremes which enslave them to the act of ‘money making.’

It is not money itself, however, that is evil. Rather, it is the disordered love of wealth that, if taken as one’s moral starting point, will inevitably lead to all kinds of evils. This love of money corrupts all aspirations to moral goodness, regardless of whether it be couched in a religious context, e.g. the Papacy of the Borgias or the Prosperity Gospel of today, or in a secular one, e.g. political cronyism or marketplace corruption. Christians should have no fear of earning money, even a lot of money, so long as the desire for it is rightly ordered and that, in their moral deliberations, the making of it or the keeping of it, is not the primary concern or ultimate goal. Money in the hands of the wise man can produce all kinds of social and even spiritual goods, and wealth in the possession of the righteous steward can serve many of God’s purposes on earth.

The love of money in the church however is a special kind of atrocity. Throughout its history money has bankrupted many a congregation. In Luther’s day doctrine was abused for the sake of sending riches to Rome for the building of St. Peter’s. While God ultimately used this abuse of indulgences to motivate a young Luther to nail his reformational theses to the Wittenberg door, the damage to human souls was nevertheless real, and the manipulation of doctrine tragic to the life and reputation of God’s Church. In recent times what was once a covert sin of Protestant churches (the pastoral love for money), has been made shamelessly explicit as “prosperity” and “health and wealth” preaching of a false christ, a christ who enters into the world not to suffer and die for the sins of mankind, but who pays sinners’ debt so they might become materially rich, now permeates the culture.

While there are practical concerns about money, and while any good steward of the material wealth God affords us will take those into consideration, to start with money, or comfort, as the impetus for moral decision making is to start from a place of inherent sinfulness. Fear of the Lord and the love of money (or fear of not having money) are, as Jesus warned us, mutually incompatible orientations of the soul. If the latter takes precedent over the former, only evil can ensue.

Acting from Seduction

No good moral choices can start from the desire to satisfy our flesh, especially in the form of our sexual appetites. That is not to say that sexual appetites are the only kind of bodily seduction: food and other substances (drugs, alcohol) can often be as destructive to ourselves, our families, and our community as the unfettered drive to satisfy sexual longings. However, that sexual lust assumes a fundamental role in the striving of human beings has been rather obvious, even long before Freud. What Freud would later describe anthropologically, Paul had already explained theologically:

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Romans 1:24-27

Making choices motivated by the desire to satisfy sexual longings has never gone well for God’s people, as the stories of men like Judah and King David clearly attest. The scene of Absalom raping David’s concubines from the very spot where his father fell into lust for Bathsheeba (2 Sam 16:20-22), should also serve as a warning that the sexual sins of the father, like so many other sins, are often passed down to the sons (and perhaps even daughters). Pursuing sensual pleasure leads to decisions that not only harm the body and soul of the decision maker, but also those closest to him or her—their progeny. For the male of the species especially, to start the process of moral reasoning at the point of libidinal urges is a very dangerous proposal. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most common starting points. One could plausibly argue that many who seem to have money as their starting point for making moral decisions, actually have sexual pleasure as their starting point; money being merely the instrument by which they can attain more of the latter.

That said, if the starting point for a moral decision is grounded in the Fear of the Lord first, then subsequent desires to fulfill sexual longings could very well lead to one of life’s most profound gestures of moral goodness, namely, the mutual self-giving of sexual pleasure within a loving and exclusive marital relationship. The act of fulfilling sexual desire in the appropriate, God-ordained context of marriage is commended to us by Scripture, both for the sake of the pleasure it brings our bodies (see Song of Songs), and for the Christ-like self-giving that it occasions (Ephesians 5:25-28). The moment of “transcendence” that comes when two lovers unite in sexual experience is something that God has clearly designed for the sake of His glory and our good. To spend those moments with anyone other than an exclusive confidant, friend, and spouse is to do an injustice to that design, an injustice that can engender a radical kind of evil to occur. Again, Peck points out how powerful the role of sex is to the human person:

“In itself, making love is not an act of love. Nonetheless the experience of sexual intercourse, and particularly of orgasm…is an experience also associated with a greater or lesser degree of collapse of ego boundaries and attendant ecstasy. It is because of this collapse of ego boundaries that we may shout at the moment of climax “I love you” or “Oh, God” to a prostitute for whom moments later, after the ego boundaries have snapped back into place, the may feel no shred of affection, liking, or investment.”

Peck, 96.

To make seduction our starting point for moral decisions is to put ourselves in the position of using others for the sake of experiencing something which is deeply relational and spiritual: the act of sex. It is perhaps the most powerful drive we have in this life outside of the longing of our heart for God Himself. It is also the one that is most abused in the course of human events, and that quickly devolves into the most wicked and vile forms of human behavior: rape, incest, polygamy, abortion, and child abuse.

Conclusion: The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom

Our prudential thinking, i.e. our moral decision making process, mirrors the pursuit of wisdom as found especially in the Wisdom books of the Bible. If we begin our moral decision making anywhere other than with “the Fear of the Lord” then we are bound to neglect God’s design for us and consequently, to some degree, fall into immoral activity. Beginning our moral decision making from other initial conditions, conditions like fear, fraud, love of money, or sexual seduction, breaks fellowship with God, and ultimately causes great damage to our selves, our relations, and our communities. To be prudent and to act wisely, we must be grounded in the Word and the will of God.

Defending Christian Hope against Its Historical Contenders

In the preface to his 1968 book Marxism and Christianity, then atheist philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre1 MacIntyre eventual went on to convert to Roman Catholicism. opens with an incisive statement about the nature of Christian and Marxist beliefs:

“The second point worth remark is the extent to which Christians and Marxists both wish to exempt their own doctrines from the historical relativity which they are all too willing to ascribe to the doctrines of others. They thus fail to formulate adequately the task of discriminating between the truths of which their tradition is a bearer from what are merely defensive or aggressive responses to their social situation. But if they will not do this, then their critics have a duty to try to do it for them.”2MacIntyre. Marxism and Christianity, Apple Books. 8

In this part of the preface MacIntyre points out that both Christianity and Marxism share a fundamental commonality, they both make claims about their own systemic beliefs, their own “doctrines” that place the truth value of those beliefs outside the reach of the relative and contingent nature of historical and cultural conditions. They assert that their beliefs sit on a firm metaphysical (Christianity) or epistemic (Marxism) foundation, while the truth values of beliefs of other world views shift and move as historical currents ebb and flow. Christianity and Marxism make claims that seem to be untouchable by these shifting sands of social history, and act therefore as universal hermeneutical lenses by which all of human history can be properly interpreted, both at the cultural and individual level.

If this is the case, then for every generation of the Church it will be a fundamental task of the Christian apologist to answer the singular question that MacIntrye raises in this descriptive statement, namely, to what extent is Christianity, or more particularly Christian beliefs, the byproduct of cognitive reactions to particular historical and cultural conditions, and to what extent are Christian beliefs separate from or transcendent to those same historical or cultural conditions. In other words, if there are Christian truths, are they merely contingent ones that are valid perhaps only for a moment in time or for a particular culture in a certain place in time, or are they necessary truths that are valid regardless of any given historical or cultural situation. And, if there are such transhistorical truths, how does one discern or “discriminate” which ones are born by the actual Christian tradition, from those that are just beliefs conditioned by historical circumstances, and that can eventually be altered, amended, or even eliminated from the overall deposit of faith as the circumstances themselves change?3 one example of this might be the role of women in ministry vìs-a-vìs the doctrine of the Trinity.

This is a fundamental task for the Christian apologist trying to answer the skeptical voices of her day, whether that skeptical voice come in a rationalistic, modernistic tone, or in a post-modernistic, existential one. But, how we answer the rationalist and how we answer the existentialist will differ, and must differ, if we are going to successfully challenge the current Zeitgeist that seeks to undermine those transhistorical truths of the Christian tradition, as well as adapt our theology to meet its legitimate historical contentions. To answer the first type we must defend the truthfulness of Christian propositional claims, but to answer the latter type we will be required to defend the beauty of its vision.

Responding to Modernist Positivism & The Challenge from Science

For almost two and a half centuries, since perhaps the dawn of the Enlightenment with Rene Descarte, and through the advent of Darwinian Evolution in the late 19th century, Christianity has had to contend with one broad, yet very dominant philosophical view of reality: rationalism. Although other non-Christian intellectual movements were always afoot, e.g. 18th-19th century German Pantheism, rationalism has broadly shaped the course of Western culture, especially in Europe, the UK and the US for some time. More accurately though, it was not just the hegemony of human reason as the sole source of knowledge, but really the theories of empiricism that won the day, beating out its historical competitors, such as pure rationalism and philosophical idealism, to become the guiding light of modern social and political reality. While pure rationalism held that human reason alone, entirely apart from observation, could gain access to universal or necessary truths, and Idealism claimed that human consciousness was more fundamental than the matter it perceived; pure empiricism suggested instead that all knowledge arises out of experience, which means it arises through the senses.

This empiricism then, with the natural sciences operating as its functional arm, eventually culminated in what many philosophers know as “Logical Positivism” a philosophical view that asserted that any truth claim that could not be verified by scientific methods was essentially a meaningless claim. On the historical heals of David Hume’s skepticism and Immanuel Kant’s subsequent epistemic dismantling of metaphysical knowledge, logical positivism was the ultimate outworking of a rationalistic and hyper-empirical framework of knowing. Logical Positivists like A.J. Ayer sought for certainty about truth claims, and determined that only the methods of natural science and mathematical reasoning could deliver that certainty. This view effectively transformed most religious claims, and all kinds of other claims, into ones of a merely private and utterly mystical sort. Ultimately Logical Positivism fell apart as internal critiques mounted and as external critiques about the truth conditions of science itself were levied against it.4 see Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

With regard to the challenges that more modest forms of scientific empiricism have made to religious metaphysical and epistemic truth claims, these have been responded to for well over 50 years now. They have been met with robust philosophical and theological answers, and it is these interactions that most Christian apologists today are familiar with.5 A prime example would be debates such as William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll, or Craig vs. the late Christopher Hitchens, or John Lennox vs. Richard Dawkins. As the rise of analytic philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th century provided post-WWII Christian scholars with tools to redevelop in a fresh way many of the classical arguments for Christian theism, so now one can find Christian philosophical resources answering the challenges of scientific empiricism with relative ease. The big names in this field are easily recognized by Christians who dabble in theology, philosophy or even biblical studies: Swinburne, Plantinga, Craig, Pruss, Adams, Alston, Stump, Van Inwagen et al., are well known analytical philosophers of religion who have specifically engaged in the defense of either theistic belief broadly, or Christian doctrine more precisely.

This movement has even spawned a more focused inquiry in the area of Christian doctrine called Analytic Theology, where the tools of analytic philosophy of religion are pressed into service to more carefully articulate core Christian doctrines such as the Trinity or the Incarnation.

This scientific empiricism that has challenged and continues to challenge the historical deposit of the Christian faith one could label as Modernistic Positivism. It is modern in that it reflects the core tenets of the early modern period, which emphasized the use of human reason as the main tool for accessing truth about the world. It is positivist in that it seeks through verification principles a positive understanding and description of reality, one that human beings could hopefully take in, grasp, and build off of. Today, there are still well known modernists who despite their atheism or agnosticism on religious or metaphysical claims maintain their belief that there is objective truth that can be accessed by the means of science, and that there are law-like structures that can be discovered by human investigation. Some who have a modernist bent will even suggest that religious systems like Christianity make true claims when it comes to morality, even if its metaphysics is false. They are moral realists in the fullest sense, even if moral values find their grounding in some object other than the divine nature or will.

To this historically conditioned modernist positivist view, it seems now that not only is there a robust and fairly charitable, ongoing dialogue, but that Christianity now even has allied itself with some of modernism’s more rigorous defenders. The reason for this is the unity found in the use of reason as a means to access truth. Reason, for many modernists, is not historically situated, at least not entirely, and while there may not be a “viewpoint from nowhere” in the words of one atheist philosopher,6 This phrase is attributed to NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel there are views of reality that can be shown to be more legitimate than others, more accurate than not, and more true than false. While Christianity may have been reeling in the mid- 20th century to meet the challenge levied against it by modernist positivism, it seems now to have held its own with regard to defending the universal truths that are born by its Great Tradition: e.g. that God exists, that God is Triune, that Jesus is God, that He rose from the dead, etc.

Outstanding areas of debate of course still exist in many realms of inquiry, e.g. the historical Adam and Eve, the reliability of the Gospels, the transmission of the Old Testament manuscripts, and modernist positivists will always raise objections to objective claims about metaphysical and historical truths, especially in their demand for more concrete forms of evidence for those claims. For the modernist positivist, dialogue will still be primarily a matter of discussing evidence and using reason to adjudicate truth values of propositions. But, these demands and this method can at least be met with some measure of force today, even if they are never fully satisfied by the tools of reason alone.

The larger problem that now looms before many Christian apologists however is no longer how to respond to a subsection of Western culture that embraces these increasingly irrelevant 19th and early 20th century philosophical views, but how to respond to what is quickly becoming the dominant philosophical view of our times, a view I will call postmodern existentialism.

Responding to Postmodern Existentialism & The Marxist Challenge

“But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.”

Karl Marx

Christian apologists may feel they have been by and large battling men in white lab coats and grizzled logicians in the Russellian tradition the last several decades. Men in this rationalist tradition, and only infrequently women, have pressed Christian defenders, always looking for more evidence and more verification for their claims. Today, however, the tide has shifted yet again, and apologists find themselves confronted with a different face of atheism, one that is far more subtle in its manifestations and far more willing to operate as a replacement for religion than its modernist predecessor.

While the modernist positivist often still believes in progress based on a persistent and rigorous investigation of nature and its laws, the postmodern existentialist differs drastically from the Enlightenment hanger-on in her rejection of the idea that objective truth is attainable. All claims to truth are tainted by human innovation and thought, and therefore the only area of inquiry worth putting to the test is human thought itself. The postmodern existentialist therefore places far less emphasis on putting microbes under microscopic scrutiny and instead puts the social conditions of the biologist herself under scrutiny, in the hopes of finding out why the biologist will make certain conclusions about said microbe and not other ones. On this view, society itself is the lab rat, and everything else, to include philosophy, theology and even the natural sciences, is downstream from culture. On such a view it will matter who examines the nature and effects of the Coronavirus, regardless of whether they have identical academic credentials. But, it will not be their reason that leads them to varying conclusions, it will be other sociological properties that differentiate them.

For the postmodern existentialist then it is the human agent herself that constructs the systems in which she lives and externalizes and reifies (makes real) her own identity and essence. Man is animal for the postmodern existentialist to be sure, but he is an animal of his own making. To engage with this kind of philosophical worldview puts the Christian apologist in a very different epistemic and social arena than when dealing with the aforementioned modernist, since the modernist positivist still has an outward looking view of truth, while the postmodern existentialist finds all truth, even those outside herself, as products of her own thinking. This marks the inward turn from truth as verifiable fact subject to reason, to truth as “lived experience” subject to social and cultural conditions.

At the outset of this essay I suggested that it would be the task of every generation of the Church to have to show how Christian truth claims (at least some of them) are not subject to the shifting sands of cultural development, or mere byproducts of social conditions, but rather are transcendent, universal, timeless, and perhaps even necessary, e.g. the belief that God exists. However, there is a second task that each new generation of the Church will face if MacIntyre’s opening statement is true, namely, Christianity will have to persistently counter the arguments of the other worldview that claims to provide a universal interpretive lens to human history: Marxism.

My goal here is not to retell the history of Marxism, which must be understood in light of Hegel’s phenomenology and his view of the history of philosophy. A history that Marx thought needed to move from the realm of the abstract to the concrete realities of life. Marxist philosophy is philosophy actualized. That is why Marx’s focus was to present history as not a history of abstract ideas like Hegel, but one of economic stages. For Marx, it is the lower rung of material conditions that shapes and molds the human animal, and in shaping and molding the human animal, the very thoughts that that animal has, to include her religious thoughts, are also shaped. Thus, to change the lower rung of material conditions, is to change the constitution of the thinking animal. And, to change the thinking animal is to change the abstract thoughts the animal has, i.e. to change philosophy itself. Change the abstract thoughts and you change the very possibility of thinking about God. And, if as Feuerbach argued, God just is a replacement for the wants and needs left unmet in the individual human animal, and if those wants and needs can be met by the reshaping of the lower rung of material conditions, then you have a means by which thinking about God can itself vanish into oblivion. This is why, “in the course of building a communist society, the Marxist must fight religion because it will inevitably stand in its path.” (MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity, Apple Books 102).

As such, Postmodern existentialism is postmodern in that it claims (circularly) that human reason itself is shaped by the same lower level material and social conditions that Marx pointed out. And, because human reason is shaped by things like social location (e.g. poor or wealthy), or material composition (e.g. male or female, black or white) there are therefore multiple competing reasonings. And, if there is no transcendent Principle or Person by which to adjudicate these various human reasonings, then there is no way to really adjudicate which systems developed by different human groups or cultures are superior or inferior. Postmoderism essentially does away with normative claims in this regard. There just are systems of belief, grounded in different cultural ways of reasoning, and that is about all there is to say. This view accepts that history is fundamental, while philosophy and theology are contingent.

But because Marx also offered a practical theory of economics, Marxism becomes analogous to the natural sciences of the modernist. It provides the mechanism through which the postmodern utopian vision can be attained. That vision is conceptually however a Christian one. It is a vision of a Christian eschatology realized apart from the divine person of Christ:

“This belief [that communism is inevitable given the possibilities and resources of human nature] without which Marxism as a political movement would be unintelligible, is a secularized version of a Christian virtue.”

MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity, 92

Where the hardcore modernist failed in offering a replacement to religious faith, the postmodern existentialist steps in. After all, the scientific empiricist simply gives an account of material facts, leaving the human person and the human society at a loss to relieve the existential angst that weighs him down. What postmodern existentialism with cultural Marxism as its operational arm does is try to fill the God-shaped hole caused by scientific rationalism (i.e. the Enlightenment project). It is in this sense that postmodernist existentialism is existential. As such the task of the Christian apologist now must be altered to meet this different challenge, for it is not as much about offering evidence for truth claims about Christian doctrines, as offering a vision of the Christian hope behind those claims. Or, as MacIntyre puts it:

“Only one secular doctrine retains the scope of traditional religion in offering an interpretation of human existence by means of which men may situate themselves in the world and direct their actions to ends that transcend those offered by their immediate situation: Marxism.” (12)

Reimarus, Lessing, Strauss, Bauer, Renan and their 20th-century analytical successors like Russell, Ayer, Mackie et. al., may have generated the rational critiques of Christianity and theism respectively, but they did not provide much of an alternative to fill the gap. Deism or a contentless atheism never finds much foothold in the throes of humanity’s masses. For that a religious replacement is always needed, and Marx knew this.

Conclusion

In sum, there are two different paradigms of thought that the Christian must contend with: something like modernist positivism with the natural sciences as its operative arm, and something like postmodern existentialism with social or cultural Marxism as its operative mechanism. To combat the former, Christians have drawn, and quite successfully so, from the reservoir of analytic Philosophy to defend classical Christian truth claims against their scientific despisers. This project has been successful enough that one well-known Christian philosopher has been able to call it a “renaissance of philosophy of religion”7 I attribute this to William Lane Craig who mentions it often in his public debates over the past several decades in the academy. However, to defend Christian truth claims against skeptics who tend to make no attempt at a constructive vision to replace the Christian worldview is qualitatively different from defending it against skeptics who do make an attempt to construct a replacement vision. After all, “both Marxism and Christianity rescue individual lives from the insignificance of finitude…by showing the individual that he has or can have some role in a world-historical drama.”(MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity, 110)

What the Christian apologist must do therefore is not just defend its transhistorical propositional claims, but also be in the position to offer the postmodern existentialist, the one who sees cultural Marxism as the best (or only) medium for realizing an essentially Christian vision, a better eschatological view, both of society and of the individual. Again, however, MacIntyre points out a common problem in both of these systems that offer such “transcendent” claims about the human condition, namely, there inability to articulate what the solution to man’s condition ultimately looks like:

“But just as Christianity has been much better at describing the state of fallen men than the glories of redeemed men, so Marxism is better at explaining what alienation consists of than in describing the future nature of unalienated men.” (92)

The Christian and Marxist narratives both give an account of the fundamental problem of human existence: alienation. But for the Christian it is alienation from an actual Creator. For Marx it is alienation from one’s own nature (whatever that may be) and from one’s neighbor. For the Christian alienation from one’s self and from one’s fellow man ends when the alienation from God ends. For Marx, alienation from one’s self and from one’s fellow man ends when labor is eliminated and all people have the same material conditions. On Marxism the “transcendent” historical assertion is made: change the material conditions change the humanity, change the humanity change the human relations, change the human relations instantiate an abstracted heaven on a concrete earth. On Christianity the metaphysically transcendent truth claim is made: change the relation to God change the human person, change the human person change the human relations, change the human relations do the will of God on earth.

To this end, apologists must offer a better articulation of what the end goal of the Christian life is. We must give a better account of what it means to be united in and to Christ, to have a true communion of the saints, and to relish for eternity in the power and glory of the Creator. We must remind and bring to mind that justice will be done, and that all things made right, and good, and harmonious, but only if we subject our own desires for justice to the providence and Lordship of Christ. To do this we must draw from a different arsenal than that of analytic philosophy of religion, we must do imaginative apologetics. We must create a vision of the life that can in part be fulfilled here through the love of Christ working in people, but that will also be ultimately realized apart from our own efforts when Christ Himself does return. Moreover, we must understand the desires of men to have justice and beauty, and respond with examples of each.

Finally, to challenge this new wave of Marxist thought we must fight fire with fire: we must be active in our theologizing, the way Marx argued philosophy must become active. We must step out from the realm of the abstract and demonstrate concretely what the Kingdom of God on earth will look like. Our biblical call to justice must counter in concrete and visible forms those voices who would call for a justice apart from Him Who is just.

Without a positive, imaginative vision of what comes after the Fall and even our own individual salvation, we may well find ourselves overwhelmed once again by the swelling tides of history, and facing yet another dystopian collapse.

“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgements are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants….

Hallelujah, for the Lord our God, the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”

Revelation 19:1-2; 6-8

Lockdown & The Church’s Role in Government

Everyone must submit to the government authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves.

Romans 13:1-2

As some churches move to reopen Sunday services, while others choose to remain fully adherent to continued local and state COVID-19 restrictions, hardly one biblical verse has received greater attention in the last 8 weeks of Coronavirus lockdown than Paul’s opening salvo in Romans 13 about the relationship between the State and the Christian church. Pastors have wavered however, and understandably so in light of the sheer complexity of the current crisis, about whether or not the breadth of local and federal restrictions has been warranted, and how, if at all, churches should submit. While most Evangelical churches have taken Paul’s exhortation seriously and complied with local guidelines, again others have worried about the moral and spiritual implications of the Church being too “subservient” to secular governors, mayors, and other local authorities. After all, what if those authorities are not trustworthy, or not competent?

At the same time those churches that have indeed been compliant (again, the vast majority), have looked to verses like Romans 13:1-2, and 1 Peter 2:13-17 to ground their position vis-à-vis federal and local restrictions. Both passages seem to be straightforward about how the Christian, and the Body of Christ that is the church, should relate to secular authorities in the land. 1 Peter 2:13-17 seems entirely unambiguous about how Jesus people should view the reigning authorities.

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase makes it vivid for contemporary contexts:

Make the Master proud of you by being good citizens. Respect the authorities, whatever their level; they are God’s emissaries for keeping order. It is God’s will that by doing good, you might cure the ignorance of the fools who think you’re a danger to society. Exercise your freedom by serving God, not by breaking the rules. Treat everyone you meet with dignity. Love your spiritual family. Revere God. Respect the government.

The Message

The simple interpretation has tended to go something like this: “The federal and local governments are our secular authorities, the Bible says we are to submit to secular authorities because they are ‘God-ordained’, therefore whatever policies the federal and local governments enact, we must obey them, unless of course they go directly against the Word of God, which current restrictions seem not to do.” This is overall a very reasonable view, and one that should keep us humble.

However, while this may very well be a generally correct attitude, can this reading of those passages be as straightforwardly applied to today’s context? Or, are there some aspects of both the Biblical context, and the present conditions that must be taken into account to better understand how the general principles of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 are to be made concrete now? First, let’s consider some aspects about the relevant historical background of those Epistles. Then we can take a more careful look at our current political situation, and see if we can better understand Paul and Peter in lieu of where we are today.

The Church in Romans 13 & 1 Peter 2: Obedience in the Face of Imperial Power

From Romans 13 some general principles can be drawn. This is put succinctly by the great Princetonian Theologian Charles Hodge in his commentary:

“The duty of obedience to those in authority, is enforced, 1. By the consideration that civil government is a divine institution, and, therefore, resistance to magistrates in the exercise of their lawful authority is disobedience to God, vs. 1, 2. 2. From the end or design of their appointment, which is to promote the good of society, to be a terror to evil doers, and a praise to them that do well, vs. 3, 4. 3. Because such subjection is a moral, as well as civil duty, v. 5. On these grounds the payment of tributes or taxes, and general deference, are to be cheerfully rendered, vs. 6, 7.”1Charles Hodge. “Commentary on Romans.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/commentary-on-romans/id984478214

Hodge goes on to say that even when rulers themselves become “a terror of the good”, or supporters of “them that do evil,” that they “may still be obeyed.” Not as a sign of agreement or approval, but merely because “the remedy may be worse than the disease.”2Hodge, Commentary on Romans, Apple Books, 1165. We will see this principle again later in another part of the letter to the Romans, for it is implied that the”remedy” itself may be morally suspect.

At face value, it sounds like Hodge is leaving today’s pastors and Christian leaders with little recourse than to fully adhere to any and all restrictions initiated by local government officials on account of the Coronavirus. Some well known, contemporary pastors have voiced a similar position. After all, staying at home for the purpose of protecting the health of vulnerable members of the community, or closing places of business to slow the spread are clearly not attacks on Christians in particular, or on religious faith and practice more broadly (even if there has been instances of “tough-guy” rhetoric by some local “magistrates,” and some evidence of biases).

However, what Hodge does not go into in his commentary is the great difference in political and social structures that exists between the time of the Apostles and our own times (or for Hodge, in his 19th century American context).

Alternatively, in his commentary theologian Robert Gundry, does make it clear that the reader should take into account Paul’s use of the word “existing” in Romans 13:1:

“But Paul’s description of the authorities as “existing” suggests he’s referring to contemporary governmental authorities because at the time and on the whole they were maintaining peace and justice (as indicated in sources outside the New Testament).”3Excerpt From: Robert H. Gundry. “Commentary on Romans (Commentary on the New Testament Book #6).” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/commentary-on-romans-commentary-on-the-new-testament-book-6/id479597723

Gundry argues that Paul is talking about the particular authority in the place and at the time of the writing of the book of Romans. What makes this statement an incredible sign of Paul’s faith in God’s providence however, is that the likely authority at the time of Paul’s letter was the Emperor Nero! Certainly not the most just of earthly kings to live under. So how could it be that Paul is commending the early church to be subservient to such tyranny? And, if the early Church could submit to the whims of a madman like Nero, clearly we can submit to the demands of someone like Newsome?

Of course, the fundamental and relevant difference between Paul’s circumstances and our own is the very nature of the governmental structures in question. For Paul and Peter are living not only under a monarchy, but an imperial monarchy nonetheless, the last vestiges of the earlier senatorial Republic having since been expunged by the “divine” Augustus. Not that the Republic would have made much a difference to the majority of the early Jewish followers of Jesus.

The fact being however that this simply is not the same type of political world as the constitutional republic set up by America’s founding fathers. There is no political participation or representation to speak of for most of the early church, at least not for its first roughly 300 years. While Paul’s citizenship may have had some benefits, neither kings like Nero, nor prelates like Pontius Pilate were going to simply be “voted out” if they were found wanting. To remove authorities like Nero from office would require far more drastic measures, in his particular case, assassination. Later Emperors would tend to meet similar ends.

In this sense, we could wonder what real options the Apostles had under such a system and under such men other than simply to submit to those authorities and rest their hope on God’s providence. For clearly the only other route to political change was violent rebellion, and that had been precluded as an option in virtue of the Messiah Himself, the suffering servant who overthrew the king of this world via His sacrificial death. As the divine example had been set for the Church, and although ultimate victory would come at the second coming of the true King, the current mission demanded a non-violent approach to evil. For, as Paul wrote ironically to the church in Rome,

“And why not say, just as some people slanderously claim we say ‘Let us do evil so that good may come’? Their condemnation is deserved!”

Romans 3:8

In other words, let it never be the case that evil be committed, even if some greater good be in sight. For Paul to do evil for the sake of some greater good, even the greater good of removing a tyrant like Nero, was not possible for the true follower of Christ. For to excuse an evil for the sake of some “greater good” was to deny the intrinsic nature of evil itself. Peter has this same principle in mind in 1 Peter 2:18-20

18 You who are slaves must submit to your masters with all respect.[k] Do what they tell you—not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel. 19 For God is pleased when, conscious of his will, you patiently endure unjust treatment. 20 Of course, you get no credit for being patient if you are beaten for doing wrong. But if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you.

New Living Translation

To do any evil, even one that may bring about some good consequence like the end of slavery, is antithetical to the God who is Love (1 John 3). Our freedom in Christ is to be used only to do “God’s will at all times” and no instance of evil can ever be the will of an all-good God. This is why the bond-servant in the Apostle’s day is exhorted to be a good servant, for if there is to be a “change in the system” it must come from within the system, not from without. But, if the ultimate source of the corrupt system is the human heart itself, it is there the change must begin. It is the servant who through serving the cruel master in Christ-like fashion, can win him to Christ, and in doing so be the catalyst of societal change.

This principle therefore is immutable, and itself cannot change regardless of time and context. As such, even in light of the worst tyranny, so long as the practice of Christian faith is not expressly under attack, or some clear command of God being broken, then there is to be obedience to the secular powers in the land.

However, what can change, and may change in the course of time and according to context, is who or what the secular authority to whom the Church is supposed to be subservient actually is. It is here that we must ask the question in today’s context of “Who is the secular authority to which we owe obedience?”

The Church in Modern America: Balancing Our Spiritual and Civic Responsibilities

The biggest difference between Peter and Paul’s 1st-Century, Roman, imperial political context and ours today is that we live in a time where much of the Christian values that were emerging in light of the Church’s birth and eventual spread have been embodied in our own political structure. The biblical view of the human person as made in the image of God has for the most part won out in the West, a notion that most of us take for granted, as if it had always been this way. And, while we do see clear examples to the contrary of this truth (e.g. slavery in the 19th century, or abortion today), and also contend constantly with metaphysical views that would argue the claim itself to be false (e.g. atheistic materialism), nevertheless much of the ethic of imago Dei theology still persists in our times. As such, we see, as our founding fathers saw, the best of government authority as being an authority for the people, by the people, and most importantly of the people.

But if the secular authorities that govern us, to include those of us in the Church, are authorities “of the people,” then we are in a legitimate and substantive way, the same authority we are called to submit to. For we choose people just like us to make decisions on our behalf. So it is in a representative democracy.

This is not the political world of St. Peter and St. Paul by any stretch.

In fact, one of the previous President’s campaign mottoes embodied this political reality, saying “We are the ones we have waited for.” Applied to the arena of politics in America, and most Western Christianized countries, this is just a true statement. The responsibility of political decisions and the construction of societal laws is very much in our hands. This is not something Peter or Paul would have been able to say, or perhaps even think!

Of course this truth, that we possess a civic authority unlike that of the early church fathers (at least the very early church fathers), does not mean that God is not ultimately, providentially in control of all things, to include things happening at the every level and in every domain of local and national governments. For God’s governance of all reality supersedes and guides all other secondary causal sources (leaving aside for now the nature of human freedom). But, this truth does mean that we do relate differently to governmental structures today in virtue of those structure being vastly different from those of the ancient world.

We are not just citizens of the Kingdom of God, spiritual denizens of the mystical Body of Christ that is the Church. We are also embodied men and women who are citizens of a particular nation at a particular time and place, a nation that we ourselves rule through electing our officials. If God has chosen to grace us with such a great commission: to be responsible governors of our own republic, then we must see to it that we do it with excellence.

However, this kind of responsibility inevitably entails not just praying to God for His providential hand to move over the murky waters of politics and culture, but also for us to step into the role He has allowed us to play, a role that includes warning our elected officials about potential overreach, and calling out potential injustices when we see them. And not even those that primarily affect our life as believers, but those injustices that hurt or degrade human life more broadly. Watching out for the common good of all men and all women and all children who are all made in the image and likeness of the Creator is part of our role as good governors of the secular domain given to us.

Therefore, in times like these the Church must guard against two polarities: first, against becoming a mere mouthpiece or functionary of our local government; doing what it says, when it says, and how it says without offering any commentary or critique. We are not called to slavishly submit to a government that we are responsible for. We exercise our spiritual citizenship, when we respectfully challenge either the corruption or incompetency of elected officials.

Second, we must exercise our moral voice in such a way that itself does no evil, not acting as the brash rebel willing to crack a few heads, or shame a few innocents, in order to institute some greater good. Ours is not a consequentialist ethic, in which only the results of our actions matter. Every action has its own intrinsic value, and therefore our civic action must always be inherently dignified.

As we balance the very fine line then between human freedom and the value of physical health, we should therefore not be afraid to call out officials who have possibly acted from bad intentions or out of severe incompetence, and that in ways that have caused great damage to human persons, or revealed their unlawful biases. The truth is that when we ask ourselves the questions “Who is the Church?” and “Who is the Government?” we should have the same answer for both: “we are.” Therefore, in times like these we are called to be dual citizens, citizens of Heaven, and citizens of the nation.

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.