Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Historical Apologetics

Philosophy and The Need for A Revelation

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

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

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

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

Evans goes on:

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

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

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

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

Historical Apologetics and Biblical Theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Lines of Defense: Higher and Lower Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

The Old Testament

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

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

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

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

The New Testament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church History

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

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

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

Conclusion: Christianity Is Historical

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

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

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

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

Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus- God and Man

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

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Theology

While there are a number of areas of knowledge one can study that may be helpful to learning more about God and His creation, broadly speaking there are four major domains of knowledge we can identify, and that Christians must engage with, should they desire a deeper knowledge and love of God. Moreover, knowledge, both propositional and personal, increases our capacity to fulfill our mission of spreading the Gospel to every tribe, tongue, and nation. Without knowledge zeal alone is, as Paul says, catastrophic to saving grace:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Romans 10:1-4

Thus, as we pursue becoming more well-rounded, deeper thinkers about God’s Word, God’s work, and God’s world, it is helpful to have some method of organizing this spiritual endeavor. The four primary knowledge domains we must entertain in order to achieve our goal of becoming disciplined followers of Christ are: Theology (Systematic and Biblical), Apologetics (Philosophical & Historical), Church History (pre-Reformation & Reformational), and Spiritual Formation (Spiritual Theology and Personal Formation).

Since these are very broad categories, it is right to point out that within each there is an abundance of knowledge subsets one could study. This part of discipleship is akin to wissenschaft in the German sense, knowledge that can become increasingly microcosmic and particular.

For example, one does not just study Biblical Theology by reading the Bible in English over and over. Rather one studies Pauline theology specifically, or Ancient Near Eastern languages like Ugaritic, or Greco-Roman history and philosophy, etc. All of these sub-disciplines become extremely relevant to becoming an expert in the larger domain of Biblical Theology. All of these subsets of knowledge lend to us knowing the Bible better, and knowing the Bible better clearly helps us know its Author better. But this kind of particular knowledge is good insofar as we continually submit our studies to the bigger whole, namely, the person and program of Jesus Christ.

For now however, let’s consider just these four broader domains in order to start focusing our efforts, in particular our personal reading, as we train our minds and hearts for the sake of the Gospel call. In this first of four blog posts we look at the first knowledge area, our primary discipline of Theology.

Augustine: The First Systematic Theologian

Systematic & Biblical Theology

Theology is our primary pursuit. The study of God is what we are essentially about as Christ followers. However, domain one encompasses two kinds of theology, both with their own distinctive approaches to the ultimate goal of knowledge of God. These are Systematic and Biblical theology.

Systematic Theology

Systematic Theology really takes off in the early Middle Ages, with the publication of Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences, written sometime prior to 1160, and which dominated systematic theology until the Protestant Reformation. Before Lombard’s Sentences, St. Augustine was the most influential systematic theologian of the Western Church for its first 900 years, and his theology still impacts us today, and for good reason. After Augustine and Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas was the greatest pre-Reformation systematic theologian in Church History, writing his Summa Theologica in mid-13th century. The earliest systematic theological writings that were particularly Lutheran/Reformational were composed by Philip Melanchton, Luther’s close associate. So before the Reformation, the main systematic theologies that influenced the Church’s doctrine and practice were developed by Augustine, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas. Melanchton was the first Lutheran systematic theologian after Martin Luther’s “break” with the Roman version of the church.

John Calvin, however, was the first real, complete reformational systematic theologian (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559), and set the stage for some of the best theological writing in the church’s history by 17th century Puritan thinkers such as Francis Turretin, John Owen, Richard Baxter, and Stephen Charnock. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Protestant tradition of systematic theology was carried forward in the Americas by men like John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, W.T.G Shedd, Charles Hodge, and B.B. Warfield.

Finally in the 20th century, there are three German thinkers whose work dominates academic theology, greatly shaping contemporary, western, Protestant religion (for better or worse). These are Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann. Other very influential, systematic theologians of the 20th century include:

Reformed Theology: Herman Bavinck, G.C. Berkouwer, Millard Erickson, Louis Berkhof, Abraham Kuyper

Lutheran Theology: Robert Jenson, George Lindbeck

Weslyean/Methodist Theology: Thomas Oden, William Abraham

Anglo-Theology (various denominations): T.F. Torrance, John Webster, Colin Gunton, Sarah Coakley

Roman Catholic: Hans Urs von Balthasaar, Henri du Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), and Bernard Lonergan.

Systematic Theology in principle tries to answer broad, categorical questions related to all aspects of God, His creation, and His revelation. These aspects are often called theological loci, and the traditional loci of a given theological system are usually as follows (and often found in this order):

1) Prolegomena

2) Doctrine of Revelation (General, i.e. Natural Theology, and Special Revelation, i.e. Bibliology)

3) Doctrine of God (Trinity, God’s Attributes, also called Theology Proper)

4) Doctrine of Creation (Nature & Anthropology, Angelology & Demonology)

5) Doctrine of Sin (Hamartiology)

6) Doctrine of Christ (Christology)

7) Doctrine of Salvation (Soteriology)

8) Doctrine of the Church (Ecclesiology)

9) Doctrine of Angels & Demons (Angelology)

10) Doctrine of Last Things (Eschatology)

Obviously the order of these categories can shift according to the intention and logic of the theologian. Karl Barth, for example, famously began his 12-volume Church Dogmatics with the Doctrine of “The Word of God.” That itself should raise an important question in the reader’s mind, namely, why?

In sum, however, systematic theology is the attempt to give an orderly account about God and His creation using Scripture, Reason (philosophy and science) and human experience to answer the greatest number of fundamental questions about the Christian faith. This is a very different endeavor however from its theological counterpart: Biblical Theology.

Biblical Theology: What Does The Text Actually Say?

Biblical Theology

Unlike Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology focuses all its efforts on the study of the Bible, or what systematic theologians call Special Revelation. It looks at the Bible, how it was formed (e.g. the canon of Scripture and the composition of individual books or corpuses); how its parts work together (Old and New testaments); how individual books should be studied, scrutinized, and analyzed for their own sake; and how this all should be done without necessarily regarding how a passage, part of a book, or book of the Bible might fit into some broader system or paradigm.

Biblical Theology tries to understand any given part of the Bible, especially particular books, passages of books, or even phrases and individual words in their own immediate context. Thus, biblical theologians focus on very specific things like “Paul’s theology of ministry in the pastoral epistles” or even “the authorship of the pastoral epistles.” Typical biblical theological pursuits are:

  • Lexicography (the study of semantics, grammar, and syntax of the biblical languages)
  • Form criticism & Redaction criticism (controversial areas of Higher Biblical Criticism that are concerned with the origins of biblical books and passages)
  • Textual criticism (i.e. manuscript studies, also called “Lower Criticism”)
  • Critical and expository work of particular books or authors (e.g. commentaries, Pauline studies, Johannine theology, etc.)
  • Comparative historical/literary studies (e.g. Ancient Near Eastern culture, Greco-Roman biography)
  • Hermeneutics (the art and science of interpretation, which is a foundational philosophical undertaking that relates to all other biblical studies)

Biblical Theology is often said to have begun with J.P Gabler’s 1787 inaugural address at the German university of Altdorf (see Andreas Köstenberger’s article), where biblical theology was delineated from systematic theology, to include its evolution into Old Testament and New Testament studies.

As Biblical Theology grew into its own discipline, it tended to become increasingly separated from the more abstract work of at least some systematic theologians. To the point that today there is often a call in the Evangelical and Roman Catholic worlds to reconnect the two disciplines. The proper balance of Systematic (also known as Dogmatic) and Biblical Theology safeguards against Christian thought that is too atomistic or fragmented (too biblical), or theology that is too broad and not grounded in the very words of the Bible (too systematic).

John Webster lays out this dilemma:

We may be led to say something like this: Scripture is not simply one of a set of immanently-conceived communicative practices, a “historical” or “natural” entity of which a sufficient description can be given by identifying the natural properties of texts and their agents (whether authorial or interpretative). Nor is Scripture a historical or natural entity upon which we superimpose “religious” evaluations that encourage “spiritual use” or “theological interpretation.” Rather, without in any way denying the natural properties of scriptural texts, we may say that Scripture’s place in the divine economy of redemption and revelation is determinative of its nature. This nature, in turn, directs its reception.

“Biblical Reasoning”, ATR/90:4, pp. 739-740

In spite of this dilemma of balancing these two modes of theological approach, both however are necessary. And, because of advances in linguistic and historical studies (e.g. the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.) Biblical Theology has become incredibly specialized, and the difficulty of one individual being both an expert exegete, and a top-notch systematician, with all the necessary philosophical training, makes it rare to find a scholar today who can do both equally well.

Historically though Biblical Theology has been dominated by German-language scholarship. Names like Bauer (F.C., Bruno, and Walter), Strauss, Wrede, Schweitzer, Wellhausen, Bultmann, von Rad, Noth, and many, many more are synonymous with the biblical interpretive paradigms they helped to create. Paradigms that often go under the title “Higher Biblical Crticism” or HBC. However, many of these great thinkers also tended to bring unwarranted philosophical presuppositions to their discipline, presuppositions that degraded the Bible from a divinely inspired revelation of a transcendent God, to a bible that is merely a production of human intellect and culture (see Webster’s pithy response to this above).

The difference maker for us as theological apologists, especially as we relate to the issue of the reliability and authority of scripture, will often be in discerning what parts of HBC we can accept and put into use for a proper defense of the Gospel, and which ones we must reject based on our necessary metaphysical commitments to a historical, and proclamatory Gospel message.

To know the difference between useful HBC and corrosive HBC, and to accept one side over the other, can result in being either in the scholarly camp of someone like a Bart Ehrman, who has popularized much of the older German HBC in his own works, or someone like a Craig Keener, who knows the same scholarship as Ehrman, but rejects the philosophical conclusions of corrosive HBC that degrades the transcendent nature of the Word of God.

While we should always engage with liberal or skeptical views, some excellent contemporary biblical scholars that we should definitely read are:

Old Testament: John Walton, Daniel I. Block, Tremper Longmann III, Gordon Wenham, Bruce Waltke, Derrick Kindner, Edwin Yamauchi, Nahum Sarna (Jewish), Jacob Milgrom (Jewish), Jeffrey Tigay (Jewish), Brevard Childs, Gerhard von Rad (a bit liberal, but a huge name in 20th century OT studies), Umberto Cassuto, John Goldingay, and, more recently, Michael Heiser.

New Testament: N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Richard Bauckham, Craig Keener, Karl Rahner (Catholic), Michael Kruger, Andreas Köstenberger, Michael Bird, Peter O’Brien, D.A. Carson, Michael Licona, I. Howard Marshall, Darrell Bock, Ben Witherington III, Jocahim Jeremias, E.P. Sander, James Dunn, Moises Silva, Robert Jewett, and Ramsey Michaels.

Because OT and NT studies are so specialized there are simply too many people in the field to give an adequate list. But the above names are all highly regarded 20-21st century Evangelical scholars (unless otherwise indicated in parentheses). For additional Biblical Theological resources these surveys edited by Tremper Longman III, and D.A. Carson are indispensable for anyone looking to go deeper into the Biblical texts: Old Testament Commentary Survey, and New Testament Commentary Survey. These surveys will also save pastors a great amount of time when looking for commentaries to prepare for their sermons.

Conclusion: In conclusion, the goal of any born-again Christian will be to think theologically about the Bible, understanding it always as God’s Divine Word to man, while also thinking biblically about Theology, making sure that when we teach church doctrines they can be grounded in the text of Scripture. Without thinking theologically, we can get a academic study of the Bible that leaves no room for its divine Author, and without the other we can get a view of god that is very far removed from the God of the Bible, Who was, and Who is, and Who is to come.

I hope this breakdown of theological studies helps in guiding us forward as we look to guide others.

Did Jesus Make Historical Errors?

A recent Facebook post asked the intriguing question of whether or not believers in Jesus (i.e. in Jesus’ full deity) would be comfortable if it were the case that Jesus referenced Old Testament events that themselves were not factually historically, but as if they were factually true. That is, could Jesus as God incarnate genuinely reference Old Testament narratives as historical events that contemporary commentators take to be allegorical, mythical, or just plain false? In short, did Jesus make historical errors?

This is a really good question, especially for all those who hold to a high Christology, whereby Jesus, possessing all of the properties of the Godhead, would be incapable of error. After all, could it really be the case that God might flunk a simple exam on Ancient Near Eastern history? Likely not, if He is indeed the greatest conceivable Being.

I see two possible solutions to this problem: one, that Jesus concealed knowledge from His audience for some greater good, or two, that Jesus, like his contemporaries, didn’t actually know the facts of the matter. Neither of these conclusions, however, should diminish our faith in the God-man, nor the reliability of the Scriptures.

Christology & Communication of Attributes

First, it is necessary to do some Christological work. For clearly what we are discussing here is the nature of the divine attributes, in particular the attribute of omniscience, and how those attributes are shared, or communicated, between Jesus’ divine nature and His human nature. Historically, scholastic theologians distinguished between the communication of divine attributes in the abstract (communicatio idiomatum in abstracto) and the communication of attributes in the concrete (communicatio idiomatum in concreto). The former meant that the divine attributes were shared with Jesus’ human nature at the level of essences, while the later held that the divine and human attributes were shared concretely in the particular person of Jesus of Nazareth (contra Nestorius, who thought that God could not suffer, or thirst, and most certainly not die).

If the sharing of divine attributes (let’s stick with omniscience as an example) were shared at the level of essences, that is between the divine essence and human essence, then, for example, it would be the case that baby Jesus, had he so desired, was entirely capable of formulating Einstein’s theory of relativity without any normal process of human learning, right there in the manager. Since God knows all truths about the universe (to include Einstein’s theory), then the Christ child not only knew this theory, but could articulate it as well since he would also possess divine omnipotence at the level of His human nature and, therefore, would not be limited by underdeveloped vocal cords, or cognition.

However, this seems highly unlikely, especially in light of verses like Luke 2:52, a verse almost all biblical scholars take at face value. But, if Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, then he likely also learned things, like any other 1st century Palestinian boy. That would mean that Jesus’ attributes, both divine and human, were shared in the concrete, in His very person, the individual being who just is both the second person of the Trinity and the man Jesus (the theanthropos). That means that the God-man can have divine attributes correctly applied to Him (see 1 Cor 2:8) and also human attributes correctly predicated of Him (Rom 1:3), even though He is only one man. But is also means that Jesus would have had to grow and develop as a human before certain capacities could be exercised.

However, if this communication of attributes in the concrete is assumed, it seems clear that there are times when Jesus’ divine attributes are non-operative (Matt 24:36-37). Now, if one believes that the communication of attributes does occur at the level of essences, or natures, then one might be able to say that in passages like these Jesus simply hides the fact that He knows such truths. He knows them, but conceals them from His followers, the same way He conceals the fact He can do S5 modal logic from Mary during their flight to Egypt.

But, if Jesus is not concealing His divine omniscience at times like this, then the only other option is that Jesus, being human, is actually unaware of certain truths; e.g. like the timing of the end times. We will look at this shortly. Another option would be to say that within the Trinity itself there are things the Father knows, which the Son does not. But, while this might be true in one sense (e.g. the Father knows the proposition “I am the Father” to be true, while the Son does not), in other areas of knowledge, like the timing of the end times, this is highly problematic.

One possibility that might answer the question of legitimate ignorance of historical facts by Jesus is sometimes referred to as kenotic Christology. Kenosis Christology suggests that Jesus empties Himself of some of His divine attributes (see Phil 2:5-11), but in doing so did not necessarily lose His divinity. Loss of divine attributes, or their fullness, does not mean lack of or deficiency in divine status. Here, Jesus relinquishes the “omni” of His divine attributes, but maintains the “supra” of those same attributes. So, while Jesus may be ignorant of the timing of the end times, He still can still exercise super-knowledge, or super-power, for example, in His knowledge of the thoughts of human person (Matt 12:25) and in His power to cast out demons, or walk on water.

So, how does this all play out with regard to the original question? How do these two, perhaps three, models of the communication of attributes apply to the idea that Jesus might have referenced OT narratives as genuinely historical events, when, in fact, they were either mythical constructs, or mistaken reports, or perhaps something in between, like mythicized history.

Let’s take the last two models first. On the kenotic model, Jesus simply does not know whether these events were factual, and that is because He has emptied himself of some of his divine attributes. He probably takes them as literal, because that is the way the contemporaries of his day took them. Thus, it would not be in any way wrong, again considering His setting aside of omni-science, for Him to assume what the scribes, pharisees, and laypeople of His time also assumed about these stories; they were, after all, Israel’s history. In this sense Jesus has accommodated His whole self to the human context, and, therefore, there is no inconsistency or problem with us understanding Jesus as still fully divine, yet without this kind of knowledge.

Alternatively, on the communication of attributes in the concrete model, we can only make basic remarks that accord with Orthodox, Chalcedonian Christology, yet which leave us a bit unsatisfied as to an actual explanation of how Jesus can be called both fully divine and fully human. At certain times Jesus displays only divine properties, and at other times, seemingly, only human properties. Thus, we say simply that when Jesus enacts a miracle, he acts miraculously according to his divine nature, and when he fails to know a bit about the future, his failure to know is according to his human nature. Beyond that, we cannot say much more. The “how” of this unity of contradictory attributes is simply not for us to understand. Again here there is no problem or inconsistency with saying that if Jesus did not know some truth about history, He did not know it according to His human nature. This should be unproblematic, unless we think that not knowing a fact about history is a sin; which I doubt anyone does.

Applying One Model to Understand Jesus’ OT References

On the first model, however, the communication of attributes in the abstract, we might say that Jesus knows the facticity of all historical events, to include those narrated in the OT (and knows them exhaustively), but chooses to conceal that knowledge from his original audience, and consequently from us. Why might He do this though? Why not tell them all of the facts of the story?

Well, on this view, that of Jesus as having attributes communicated at the level of natures, one solution to the problem of OT references presents itself.

With regard to OT narratives that Jesus seemingly references as historical, let’s say the story of Jonah, it is possible that on this model of Jesus’ attributes, a) Jesus was incapable of making factual mistakes due to the sharing of divine attributes in the abstract, and b) that not every story in the Old Testament, to include those Jesus referenced, was a one-to-one accurate account of a historical event that occurred in the same spacetime universe we inhabit right now. 

Thus, Jesus knows the facticity of any given historical event, yet also knows that some of these OT narratives that His audience takes as factual are indeed, to some degree, non-factual. But, Jesus conceals this knowledge from them, accommodating his communication to His audience for the sake of getting them to understand something more significant than just historical facts, something like a necessary theological truth; on this example of Jonah and the fish, it might be the analogy of “the sign of Jonah” with Jesus’ immanent resurrection from the grave. He conceals His omniscience from His listeners, resisting telling them every detail of the Jonah event, so that some greater good might obtain; some greater good for them.

Therefore, Jesus may have referenced stories in the OT that used hyperbole, metaphor, or other literary devices, subsequently refraining from correcting them for facticity, and that for the sake of making sure that the same theological content taught through those OT narratives, and that was understood as such by his contemporary audience, is the same content that He is commenting on, and adapting, for his hearers.

Moreover, Jesus might further refrain from giving this one-to-one, detailed account of a historical event because to do so could have some detrimental or opposite affect on human agents already depraved by sin. Or, if not a detrimental affect, an insufficient affect (i.e. something that does not effect in the agent that which they would need in order to come to know God). From a secular standpoint it is often thought that more propositional knowledge is always a good for us as human beings; however, if the chief end of man is to come into an eternal loving relationship with God, it is not obvious that merely more factual data will actually aid in that goal. In fact, it could hinder it.

Finally, this concealment of knowledge is already implied in the NT when Jesus tells parables so that some who hear them may, in fact, not understand their meaning. Thus, we should conclude that if God does hide certain facts from us, He does so for our benefit, and not to our detriment.

Of course, there is one other option that I am more than willing to entertain, namely, that these OT stories are presented as history, because they actually were historical. That said, Jesus refers to events in the OT as historical true simply because they were so.

Epiphanic Redemption And The Problem of Pain

15 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
    I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
    your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood;
    they have completely engulfed me.
18 You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
    darkness is my closest friend.

Psalm 88, a song of Heman the Ezrahite

The Problem of Pain

If there is one almost irreconcilable problem for Christianity it is the problem of pain and suffering. This tragic mystery, of how an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God could allow suffering, pain, and extraordinary human cruelty, in a world where human beings seem either woefully helpless (against things like tsunamis, or bone cancer), or profoundly depraved (as in the rape of Nanking or the Armenian Genocide), presents itself as more than just an intellectual dilemma for Christian apologists. It is the thing which ultimately drives many away from faith in God and the promises found in Jesus Christ.

That said, I am not presenting a specific, theistic argument here, or a theodicy trying to reconcile particular instances of pain and suffering with God’s providential purposes, at least not directly. Rather I am making an appeal– an appeal to something we have reason to believe does occur, and, if it does, may be the kind of thing, perhaps the only kind of thing that would ultimately rectify the human experience of horrible suffering and extraordinary evil. And, if this rectifying kind of thing were actualized, then we might have very good reason to believe that Christianity is indeed true, and maybe believe that with certainty.

Kinds of Pain

But, what could rectify the kinds and degrees of suffering human persons experience in this world? First, let’s define what kinds of suffering there might be. It seems to me there are roughly four kinds of evils in the world that can befall the human person:

  1. Physical pain caused by natural evils
  2. Emotional pain that results from the same physical pain caused by natural evils
  3. Emotional pain caused by either:
    • a) Things other human agents do to other human agents or
    • b) Strong desires or longings left unfulfilled in one’s life
  4. Extraordinary evil, which is a special kind of 3a, in that it manifests itself in some act of unconscionable malice or malevolence at the individual level of human moral interaction (e.g. child sexual abuse), or at the macro-level of societal interaction (genocide).

Some examples of (1) would range from a toothache to bone cancer. The emotional suffering that emerges, and lingers, due to the c-fibers that fire during the instances of physical pain these biological deficiencies cause, would be an example of (2). Examples of this kind of emotional pain might be the kind of self-reflective questions that accompany the persistent enduring of physical pain: e.g. “Why is this happening to me? Why now? Why cancer, when I am so young and have children to raise?” Alternatively, someone punching me without warning is also an instance of physical pain caused by a natural evil, in that it is the force and the mass of the fist striking my nose that causes the pain. But, in the case of the punch, what distinguishes it from the toothache, or the cancer, is the additional emotional pain that arises on account of it being an intentional act by another moral agent (3a).

Hence, regarding type (3a), immoral human action, this would be the emotional pain that someone must endure when another moral agent either physically or emotionally damages them. Although, as I pointed out above, it is hard to see how physical damage, especially physical damage that is known to be intentionally carried out by one agent against another, would fail to cause subsequent emotional damage (barring exceptional circumstances, like the lack of capacity to have emotions). Therefore, someone getting mugged on the street, or a wife being raped by her husband would be examples of (3a). The latter however causing greater degrees of emotional trauma than the former, since other kinds of moral goods: promises, trust, and prior intimacy, have been broken in the case of the rapist husband, but not necessarily in the case of the anonymous mugger.

There is another kind of emotional suffering, however, (3b) is the kind of suffering that would come via a deep sense of unfulfilled longing. Not the kind that arises when we don’t get to have our favorite flavor of ice cream, because Baskin Robbins just ran out of Rocky Road, but the kind of ongoing pain that haunts someone when they realize they will never find someone to marry who really loves them, or when someone learns that the years of hard work and sacrifice they put in to prepare themselves to qualify for a special job or occupation was simply not enough, and they must now let go of that dream in order to move on with life.

I use one of my own examples for (3b), which would be the emotional pain of disappointment I experienced after spending over two years preparing myself physically and mentally for US Army Special Forces; first getting selected, then spending 17 months in the Q-course, but only to realize, perhaps too late, that I simply wasn’t going to make it all the way through. I had two berets at the end of my Army career, neither was green, and I had spent nearly three years killing myself to attain something I didn’t get, and still wonder whether I should have pursued at all (although I do credit the training I experienced in the “Q” with potentially saving my life a year later in Afghanistan).

While character development can certainly take place in many instances of unfulfilled dreams or lost opportunities, and valuable life-lessons are learned in failure, the disappointment of ultimately not making it through to some final consummation or clearly defined end state of a sought after goal is often a bitter pill to swallow. Soldiers who have left a theater of operations before seeing any real success on the ground know this feeling all too well. The sacrifices are deep and manifold, yet the gains seem meager and obscure.

Finally, there is also the kind of suffering that some, like military men, often wind up fighting against, namely type (4) pain and suffering. This suffering takes the form of what one genocide researcher, James Waller, calls “extraordinary evil.” Extraordinary evil is the kind of evil that breaks through the veil of normalcy in human history, causing us to collectively gasp and corporately weep. This is the stuff of genocide, be it Germany in the 1940’s or Rwanda in a few short months in 1994. But, within those seemingly macro-level events, are the actual grotesque, micro-events that make us question both God, and our own humanity. These are the hacking of bodies, the dismembering, the raping, the violating in every way, shape, and form of that which the Bible tells us is sacred and holy, and made in God’s image. It is image bearers torturing other image bearers.

Then, even outside of the context of war, there is the gruesome reality of things like child rape, mutilation, torture, and other things that real human beings somehow find themselves capable of doing: more image bearers desecrating other image bearers. This is the type of suffering that can make belief difficult. Surprisingly though, even this kind of evil does not stop many who have experienced it from believing in Christ, often in a far more profound way than those who have not had such experiences. Which leads us to ask how this might occur?

Is There an Answer?: The Hope of Epiphanic Redemptive Experience

In detailing these kinds of pain, and giving concrete examples, I hopefully have avoided whitewashing or marginalizing the serious challenge they present to the truth and goodness of the Christian message. With all that, and there is quite a lot of that there, what kind of thing could not just counterbalance such horror, but actually transform each instance of extraordinary evil into something one could justifiable call redeemed?

First, there are two distinctions to make if we are going to get a grip on how something like the sadistic torture of an innocent could become redeemed. One, the only kind of thing that can be understood to be redeemed from any person’s privileged, first-person perspective, is their own privileged, first-person experience. I cannot really experience my neighbor’s toothache, even if I can have compassion for her in the midst of it. Thus, a redeemed pain or injury suffered must be my own pain or injury, not of someone else’s, so too theirs cannot be of mine.

Thus we reject the notion that anyone, even Bill Clinton (or counselor Troi), can actually “feel” the pain of another person. First-person experiences are just that– first-person. As such the kinds of experiences that could make horrible, atrocious pains or sufferings redeemed experiences are themselves first-person experiences particular to the individual. They, the redeeming experiences, would be “custom-made” to the individual’s psychology, physiology, and personal history. There are no collective pains. Nor is it the case that individual experiences of pain add to some theoretical tally of overall suffering. Pains endured individually are redeemed individually, even if they may involve others in the process of redemption.

Second, no other person can know what would be the exact experience that would make some other person’s first-person experience of pain and suffering justifiably redeemed. So, if Bob has experienced extraordinary evil X, then only Bob can know what would redeem X. Even Bob’s best and closest friend of 70 years (perhaps his life-long spouse, Sally) cannot know what particular redemptive experience, E, would be the one that would in fact redeem Bob’s experience of X. E is reserved for Bob, and Bob alone. Just as Sally will have some other E, E*, that will redeem her X*.

So, redeemed pains will be redemptive, experiential instances whereby 1) the first-person experience of an individual, S, is the only thing that is in view, and 2) only S will know what can do the redeeming of the pains he or she has suffered, since only he or she has experienced those pains. Again, this safeguards against thinking that their are such things as collective pains, which there clearly are not, and also that I could know what your experience of your own pain is, and, subsequently, what it would take to fix it– something Job’s friends thought they could do, but failed at miserably.

It is not without irony that the character of Job is here invoked. For in Job we have what seems like the kind of irreconcilable suffering we’ve mentioned, i.e. the kind of suffering for which there seems no good counterbalancing reason, and where each of the four categories of suffering mentioned above are present. Since the book of Job maintains Job’s moral innocence throughout, the injustice of all four experiences of human suffering is thereby exacerbated. Job is not being punished, nor getting his just desserts. He suffers physical and emotional pain (boils and the loss of children to a natural disaster) and extraordinary evil (slaughter of faithful servants at the hands of the Sabeans and Chaldeans) without apparent purpose (from his perspective).

With the Book of Job in sight, what I am ultimately suggesting then as a sufficient answer to the apparent irreconcilability of human suffering with the Christian faith, must include one more countervailing experience: the direct manifestation of God to the human agent. This direct manifestation we can call “epiphanic,” for it would be a religious experience of the quality of Job’s direct encounter with God, or of the kinds of direct encounters so many Christian men and women have had throughout the centuries, regardless of time, culture, age or personal context. So, an epiphany of God and a countervailing experience of redemption are what the author of Job seems to tell us is the only answer to the irreconcilable problem. Let’s call this the “epiphanic redemptive experience.”

The Epiphanic Redemptive Experience (R) has two aspects then: 1) a new and deeper knowledge of God’s personal nature, and 2) a countervailing experience of a set of conditions or circumstances that doesn’t just “balance out” S’s experience of X, but that makes the experience of X, the extraordinary evil suffered, fully and completely justified. In short, S would know that X happened for this reason and that that reason was a good enough one to make X entirely acceptable to the sufferer. The Epiphanic Redemptive Experience is an experience of such power and beauty, both in the pleasure it gives, and the explanation it offers, that it truly is a fully justifying experience of any evil, X.

The Book of Job demonstrates this kind of countervailing experience, in that Job receives both a personal epiphany of God, Job sees God face-to-face, and Job, at the end of his life, receives a greater portion of that which he enjoyed at the beginning of his life. Both conditions of R seem satisfied in Job’s case. However, serious criticisms have been offered by skeptics and theologians about whether or not goods like children, i.e. real persons, can so be replaced so easily in what looks to be a rather crude swap. If so, perhaps the second condition is not satisfied, since Job has lost unique children that obviously cannot be so simply replaced.

Leaving aside whether or not the author of Job is recounting an actual historical event, or just making a theological point (on my view, both), we must remember that the idea we have in mind is that God can provide the individual, here Job, with that R which for the individual countervails the suffering he or she has endured. So, for Job, as an ancient patriarch, winding up with more children and grandchildren, a thriving family business, more livestock, and the opportunity to see his children and their inheritance prosper to the fourth generation, very well may be the specific Job-tailored answer that fulfills the second condition of R. HeJob, needed to see, regardless of our modern skepticism, these kinds of rewards in order for him to feel that his prior suffering had indeed been redeemed. For Job, this likely satisfies the second condition of R, even if we moderns find it distasteful.

To reiterate: each R for every S’s X will be specific to S. The R itself has an objective component to it, i.e. the direct revelation of God’s personal nature, and a subjective component, i.e. the particular set of countervailing experiences that God tailors to the individual. Let’s go back to Bob. On this account Bob, subsequent to his suffering, will experience some aspect of God’s personal nature that he did not previously perceive or grasp, and Bob will also experience some reward, which, being tailored specifically to Bob’s prior suffering, makes that prior suffering fully understandable and fully justified. Bob, through the Epiphanic Redemptive Experience is made not only into a wholly renewed person, but is now a person whose experiences of God and the Good outweigh his experience of suffering and evil.

So, while I cannot, being consistent with my own claims, work out this kind of redemptive formula for any particular instance of X for some other subject, S (e.g. I cannot work out concretely what would be the exact R for a woman who was raped by her husband), I can argue for two conditions that would suffice to countervail and redeem my own X and the X* of the woman: a direct revelation of God in all His glory, power, beauty and love, and a first-person experience of those conditions that only God knows perfectly, and that are specifically tailored to the particular set of emotions of the sufferer, and that further grant peace and fulfillment to the individual who has experienced the suffering in question.

Epilogue: Unfulfilled Desires Filled by Christ

In his short story, Araby, the turn-of-the-century Irish author James Joyce has his main character, an adolescent Dublin boy infatuated with an older Irish lass, experience the pain and conflict not only of a desire unfulfilled, but of the irony of realizing that the desires he possesses are themselves deeply flawed and illusory. At the end of the story, after attempting to buy a small love token from the exotic oriental bazaar “Araby” for the object of his affection, the narrator realizes the folly of his desires, having a sort of anti-epiphany:

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

For the narrator of the story, this experience of unfilled desires (3b), which, in one sense, is more fundamental and prior to the other forms of pain mentioned above, there is no experience of God in the moment of despair. Nor are we told, or is there any hint of, some later experience that might countervail the young boy’s feelings of foolishness, shame, and loss. But, as was recently pointed out to me in a Sunday sermon, this Joycean response to unfulfilled desire is the antithesis of the Gospel’s message. It is not that the Bible doesn’t validate the reality of real, embodied suffering, as Job and Psalm 88 attest, but rather that the biblical writers, unlike Joyce, don’t leave us “gazing into the darkness,” eyes burning “with anguish and anger.”

For, in the moments of greatest despair, in the times when our hearts feel empty, and our desires are left unmet; or worse, when all appears pointless and futile, it is in this time we are called to look up, not up into darkness, but rather to look up to see the hope and light of Christ. For it is in this moment when the Revelation of God, the true Epiphany of the God Who redeems, can meet us in the moment of despair.

For, when God appears to us, and explains to us, it is not our eyes that wind up aflame, but our hearts:

30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.  Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him,and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.”Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

Luke 24: 30-35

Where Joyce leaves our suffering mind gazing into darkness, a hopeless victim of unwanted and unfulfilled passions, St. Luke tells us of an encounter: a concrete presence of the Redeemer, who takes away our guilt and shame, overpowers death, and promises a life of desires fulfilled, and pains redeemed. When we see Him, then our eyes will be opened and filled with light, and the darkness flees.

Is Adam’s Naming of the Animals a “Social Construction?”

“So the Lord God formed out of the ground every wild animal and every bird of the sky, and brought each to the man to see what he would call it. And whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the livestock, to the birds of the sky, and to every wild animal; but for the man no helper was found as his complement.” (Gen 2:19-20)

In his book, The Historicity of Nature, Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg says:

“On the basis of the biblical view of spirit and consciousness, we could answer that the possibility of grasping reality external to ourselves with our consciousness is founded in the fact that the Spirit [i.e. Holy Spirit] in which we participate is also the origin of all life external to us, the origin of all the different forms of created reality. Something of the sort may underlie the curious statement in the Yahwist story of Creation that the ‘name’ of every living creature was to be whatever the human being called it (Gen 2:19). If we recall that, for the archaic mind, the name of a thing is not something external to it but contains the nature of the thing itself, it becomes clear that this biblical passage says nothing less then that the human being, because of his participation in the divine Spirit, is capable of grasping the nature of things.”1 Wolfhart Pannenberg, The Historicity of Nature, 2008. 113-114.

Pannenberg’s claim here, or so it seems to me, is that human beings can not only grasp the essence of objects in nature, but through the use of language, actually speak something true about the external world, and this because the Holy Spirit, through whom all natural things have their origin, to include human consciousness, allows us to participate in the rest of His created world. Our language captures the essence of natural things.

If this is true, then it is possible to avoid two errors that have plagued modernism: 1) that all naming is a mere social construct, and necessarily devoid of any inherent truth about external referents in the world, and 2) that we can know everything about the external world, apart from any work of the Spirit of God (i.e. through purely scientific or rational means). Instead, from a Christian perspective, we do construct some thing about external objects in the world, but the things we construct carry some inherent truth about their actual properties, even their essential ones. Hence, we construct partially true statements about reality, which could also mean that we know, in part, something about the world we experience.

Alternatively, due to sin, we do not know the world as it is exhaustively. As finite creatures our language, to include the language of science, is limited and, therefore, there will always be something mysterious about God’s creation because we cannot fully describe or name it. Even if we think, for example, that we have described some aspect of God’s creation exhaustively, history has shown that new, scientific paradigms, paradigms that literally overturn old ones, often lie just around the corner, even if that corner may be a hundred years down the corridor of time. However, that shift in science and its language is perhaps inevitable, and, if so, it lies dormant, waiting to upset the unmovable foundation, or “the assured consensus”, of scientific knowledge we thought we had once-and-for-all established.

In sum, because God, through His Spirit, unites us to the rest of His creation, we can know, in part, something of the world around us, and, more importantly, we can even know God in part through our experience of His world. Therefore, when Adam named the animals, not only did he construct something, i.e. the animals’ names, he also discovered something, namely, Truth. Unfortunately, as sinners, our naming of God’s creation has debilitated, and with it our access to His Truth.

“For now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.
Now I know in part,
but then I will know fully,
as I am fully known.” (1 Cor 13:12)

“The mind of the discerning acquires knowledge,
and the ear of the wise seeks it.” (Proverbs 18:15)

“As He was saying these things, many believed in Him. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, you really are My disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'” (John 30-32)