Satan’s Strategy: Social Justice, Sin and The Devil

In Chapter 25 of The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes a subtle, yet vulnerable, human dynamic the devil longs to exploit in order to trap his patient (i.e. the Christian man) into sin, and by doing so to cause division— division between the man and God, as well as division between man and his neighbor:

The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.1Excerpt From: C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-screwtape-letters/id360640935

In every generation, so it goes, the devil attempts to draw men’s attention away from those sinful dispositions that are real threats to their current culture. Satan does this first by focusing the cultural mood against a real vice— a vice, however, which is either not significantly present in the culture, or minimally presents no imminent danger to it. At the same time the devil works to tempt the culture to embrace a virtue that is very near to that vice which really does pose an imminent danger. In other words, the “shadow side” of a particular virtue being actively embraced by a society or nation in a particular cultural moment is what the devil wants to make “endemic” to that culture.

In Screwtape, written during WWII, Lewis does not have Screwtape specify which virtue of the day is in view for wartime Britain, and subsequently which vice (although Lewis provides a sustained attack against “Unselfishness” as a form of spiritual pride). It doesn’t really matter though, so long as whatever virtue is in view at any given cultural moment can be ultimately twisted into a widespread, societal vice. A vice that succeeds in tearing the culture apart, moving it from a higher form of human existence to a lower one. Screwtape suggests, therefore, that when a culture is really going in one direction, say giving itself over to Emotionalism, then this becomes the occasion for repeated warnings about being too rationalistic. On the flip side, when a culture has succumbed to a cold rationalism, it will be the emotions that are stigmatized, as if they might throw the nation into chaos. Either way, the real danger is never addressed, and a nation is left attempting to stem floodwaters with fire extinguishers:

The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding’.2Excerpt From: C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-screwtape-letters/id360640935

But, how might this dynamic be playing out today in light of our own societal upheaval? Was Lewis’ theory correct, and, if so, is the devil still up to his same, old tricks?

A Word on Virtue Theory

In classical virtue theory, which Lewis is clearly referencing in this chapter, there is always an extreme side to any virtue, as well as a deficit side. For example, the classical virtue of courage, or the habits and dispositions that engender it, taken to an extreme would transform courage into a vice—too much courage morphs into something like brazenness or lack of restraint. It becomes an attitude and a behavior marked by recklessness and audacity, not by true fortitude in the face of unwelcome danger. A soldier who constantly rushes off into battle out of pure lust, never reflecting to count the costs associated with the fight, is disposed quite differently from the one who counts the costs of war, recognizes the horror associated with those costs, yet still goes off to do his duty. The first is impetuous, the second is brave.

On the flip side, too little courage would be simple cowardice, or spinelessness. Cowardice is a deficiency of courage, just as wantonness its excess. The goal is to find the right balance, the middle ground that is the virtue itself.

Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics calls this the “golden mean,” suggesting there are vices that can appear virtuous, in that they shadow or mirror a particular virtue, but, in the end, they are neither righteous nor good, but unjust and cruel. The mean is always the goal for the man seeking to be good, and to be genuinely happy (eudaimonia). Further, this finding of the “mean” is itself a virtue— the virtue of prudence. For it is the prudential soul that carefully weighs, assesses, and evaluates all other moral virtues, taking into account the nature of those virtues, and the moral context in which they need to be realized. The one who exercises prudence, will exemplify the golden mean in his life.

Evaluating Today’s Cultural Virtue

Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Courage and Justice. Justice, according to Karen Swallow Prior (paraphrasing Aristotle) is “the morality of the community”.3 Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well. 70 For justice inherently has to do with the proper balancing and harmonization of social interactions. When well-adjusted souls operate in harmony together, there is justice in society. When malformed souls act discordantly toward one another, there is injustice in the community. Fairness is also a form of justice, one that alludes to the aesthetic quality that accompanies a right ordering of things. When things are rightly ordered there exists a symmetry, a beauty in the world that can be experienced, even sensibly. The image of a mother lovingly coddling her newborn is a classic image of a just relationship, one that has the right proportionality between the subjects involved. The image of a mother throwing her child into an alley dumpster does not. One is beautiful, the other grotesque. The justice or injustice of the act is what makes it appear either fair (aesthetically so), or ugly.

To say that the virtue being pursued in our current, American culture is Justice seems almost too easy and too obvious to state. But, sometimes things really do lie right before our eyes, or under our noses. For clearly if there is one virtue that is mentioned more often than any other in our culture today, it is not the virtues of Chastity or Temperance, but that of Justice. The fashionable outcry for social justice places the quest for the virtue Justice at the center of our cultural conversation. This point requires no further elucidation, as we are figuratively and literally inflamed, or “in flames,” over the need, want, and desire for Justice.

But, if Justice is the virtue that is in view, and if Lewis’ theory holds water, then what is the vice nearest to Justice that is the real threat to our nation? Where are we particularly vulnerable to the Devil’s plot to engender a particular vice, a sin, in society that will further lead us down the road of separation from God and each other?

The Shadow Side of Justice: Vengeance

While the Bible may warn mankind that “vengeance is [the Lords]” (Deut 32:35, 41; Isa 35:4) and that His day of vengeance is a sealed promise (Isa 34:8; Psalm 58:10), it is not always the case that human beings display the patience required to wait on divine rectification. As broken and sinful men work toward justice, the temptation for that pursuit to spill over into vengeance is always present, and vengeance just is justice in extremis. It is the excess that runs over.

Vengeance, furthermore, is at bottom fueled by anger, but an anger that rejects the reality of divine providence, and that seeks retribution on its own terms. It goes against the warning of the Apostle Paul to “be angry and do not sin.” Sinful anger, unrestrained by the Spirit of God in man, eventually degrades into bloodlust and violence of various forms and types. What starts out, for example, as a noble, gallic revolution against real human injustice (like gross economic disparity and starvation), turns into “The Terror,” an ecstatic frenzy of political violence— symbolized by the awful image of the guillotine and scores of disembodied heads. Dickens describes it this way:

The men were terrible, in the bloody-minded anger with which they looked from windows, caught up what arms they had, and came pouring down into the streets; but, the women were a sight to chill the boldest. From such household occupations as their bare poverty yielded, from their children, from their aged and their sick crouching on the bare ground famished and naked, they ran out with streaming hair, urging one another, and themselves, to madness with the wildest cries and actions.4 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 206 quoted in Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well, 77.

As we begin to see more concrete examples of actual blood lust in our cultural pursuit of justice, we must pause and consider whether we have lost our way in the pursuit of the Good and the Beautiful. For if we are lost, and it seems like we are as blood lust targets even the innocent, then the Devil has achieved, or is achieving, his ultimate goal. As we see attacks on authority mount, and protests turn into para-military style operations, it cannot hurt to step back and recall those disembodied heads, or the millions of ‘cracked eggs” that went into making the Marxist-Leninist omelette.

However, the examples of physical violence in the name of social justice still seem fairly limited in intensity and scope, thank God. While we can extend acts of physical violence to include things like the tearing down of statues and damaging of property (for certainly they are that), there are still other kinds of violence that are not physical. Acts that, although not attacking the person bodily, nevertheless target her soul. These non-physical attacks are just as detrimental, sometimes more so, than the dull blows that land on heads, or hands, or feet. Thus, vengeance has many ways in which it can be carried out, and as such, so too has Satan many paths to carry out his plan of dividing and conquering the human man, and of robbing his cultural storehouse.

Forgotten Sins: Calumny and Detraction As Means of Vengeance

Calumny is an older word for what we might today call slander. At the heart of of any act of calumny is always a lie— a lie not meant to keep concealed a surprise birthday party, or to hide a family of Jews from a Nazi search party, but rather a lie told purely for the sake of ruining someone’s good name. Any lie told to destroy a reputation, usually the reputation of someone seen as a social rival, a political threat, or perhaps a former oppressor, is a calumnious one. To commit calumny is to sin against God and man (Exodus 20:16; 23:1 & 23:7), for to attack a man’s name is no less harmful to an image bearer of God than an attack on his body. The ruining of a life can occur just as effectively through a well-placed and infectious lie, as through a gunshot to the belly. In fact, a ruined name can endure long past the physical death of the one whose name was ruined, prolonging suffering for those family and friends left behind with a tainted legacy.

While we do see calumny on display in our culture, especially on our social media sites, and most egregiously in our political sphere and the major news media, there is yet another sin of vengeance even worse than calumny. For it is at least possible that a false accusation against a person can be publicly retracted, or shown to be false by a court of law, or otherwise undone in a forensic and visible manner. Much damage will already have occurred, but if a lie is exposed, there is at least hope that through much time and effort the falsely accused can restore their good name. Detraction, on the other hand, does not allow for this possibility. For unlike calumny, the sin of detraction does not involve a lie, it entails a truth.

Detraction is the intentional, yet unjustified exposure of another’s sins or moral failures for the sake of ruining that person’s good name. The detractor destroys his victim by exposing their “dark secret,” a secret, however, which is true. Because this sin inherently involves a truth, it is something that once committed is almost impossible to recover from. As one Catholic theologian put it, detraction is like throwing a bag of feathers into the wind— good luck trying to collect them back up again.

That is not to say that there are not warranted exposures of sinful acts or intentions. Detraction may not relate, for example, to the parish priest who upon hearing a confession of a serial rapist, goes off and tells the police about the confessor’s future intentions. While those special cases can still be tricky for the Catholic priest, a more common example of a warranted exposure of another person’s sins might be telling a trusted friend or pastor that one’s spouse is a heavy alcoholic who desperately is in need of intervention. Such examples are justified exposures of another’s moral failures.

However, there is a good reason why in grade school the nuns chastised us for being a “tattle tale,” even though we really were reporting the actual breaking of the rules by our 3rd-grade classmate. For, to expose the sins of someone unjustly, and for the purpose of ruining their name, is what is entailed by detraction. That children are susceptible to such wicked intentions is obvious, as we all desire to look better than our classmate, or our workmate, or perhaps even our spouse.

Consider then, for example, a husband who has once cheated on his wife many years ago. He has duly repented, his wife has forgiven him, and they have lived happily in that place of forgiveness for many years. However, now that same husband decides to run for a local public office, and his political rival gets wind of his sexual past. You get the picture. This case should illustrate the clear difference between a justified and an unjustified exposure of sin, which is not to say that every case has such clarity.

Detraction is the sin that our culture swims in today. We are up to our necks in the unwarranted and unjustified exposure of other people’s sins. We play off of it. We feed off it. We get our social media kicks off of it. We call it “shaming,” and its effect on our otherwise noble pursuit for justice is exactly what the Devil has had planned for us all along: for in shaming and detracting our neighbor, we commit a whole new kind of injustice. And in our pursuit to rectify old injustices, like racial injustice, we create a new kind of unjust society, a new kind of injustice that itself needs correction.

Finally, as we see detraction carried out even against figures no longer with us: presidents, pioneers, and even actual saints, figures who left a historical mark significant enough so as to be memorialized with statues or inscriptions, we must again pause and realize the self-destructive nature of this sin of detraction. For one thing we all know is this: once the statue of one sinner has been torn down and tossed into the dustbin of history, there is no end to the exposure of new sins, and thus no end to the tearing down, and the throwing away. But, that is not even the worst of it. For the one who tears down today, is also the one who will be torn down tomorrow. Today’s saint is tomorrow’s sinner, and apart from a genuine appeal to Him who was without sin, every sinner will indeed be torn down.

Calumny and detraction are both violations against justice. Ultimately, both reject the reality of that which is most fundamental, most central, to the Christian message: grace. As such they are representative of that vice closest to justice: vengeance. They are the most common means by which we take part in vengeance, and they are the means through which we become eternally separated from God, and from our neighbor.

Conclusion: Satan’s Vengeance

In an earlier part of The Screwtape Letters, Lewis imagines what Satan’s ultimate goal is, putting that desired goal in the mouth of Screwtape, “To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens Our Father’s heart.” The “Father” for Screwtape is of course the devil himself. For Satan to destroy the human man is to take his own vengeance on his Creator.

The kind of vengeance culture we are seeing in America today is part of the devil’s plan for humanity— to take from man everything, and give nothing in return. Satan would rejoice to see us doing this to each other– becoming his pawns, in his infernal game. The tools he is using are the sins of calumny and detraction; sins now so commonplace we fail to think about them, and can hardly name them. Yet, all the while we go about spending precious resources on more futile attempts to rectify what is ultimately a problem of the heart, not one of the color of the skin (which really is only so deep).

If we ask ourselves the honest question of whether or not the attempt at Justice we are seeing in our country today is bearing good fruit, is actually moving us to a more just society, we dare not be unaware of the vices that accompany this naturally good desire. It may be good to hope for the “better angels of our nature” to win out, but it would be foolish to deny that the “vicious devils of our hearts” are not always at work.

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

The Power of Tearful Prayers – Remembering St. Monica on Mother’s Day

“There are many things which I do not set down in this book…But I will omit not a word that my mind can bring to birth concerning your servant, my mother. In the flesh she brought me to birth in this world: in her heart she brought me to birth in your eternal light.”

– Aurelius Augustine

Aurelius Augustine was a pagan and sinful young man: addicted to sex, ambitious and full of pride, an idolater of pagan gods and believer of false religions. His mother, however, was nothing of the sort. She was a faithful daughter of Jesus Christ, a loving mother of a disobedient son, and a prayer warrior unlike any other. In his autobiography, The Confessions (397 AD), this same Augustine, the once pagan man who, having been converted at the age of 33, would go on to impact the Christian church more than any other thinker in the first 1,000 years of its history, would dedicate his book to two people: the living God Jesus Christ, and his mother, Monica.

Of his mother Augustine writes:

But you [God] sent down your help from above and rescued my soul from the depths of this darkness because my mother, your faithful servant, wept to you for me, shedding more tears for my spiritual death than other mothers shed for the bodily death of a son.

Confessions, Book III, Chap. 10

Night and day my mother poured out her tears to you and offered her heart-blood in sacrifice for me, and in the most wonderful way you guided me.

Confessions, Book V, Chap. 7

We cannot underestimate the power of either parent in the life of a child, and the importance of fathers in the lives of children has been well documented by psychologists and social scientists over the last several decades. Parents are fundamental to the psychological, emotional, and physical development and well-being of their children. This well-being often translates into all kinds of successes: successes in career, in education, and in social relations. However, even the best of parents, the most wise and most learned, the most virtuous, will fail from time to time. But, the wisest parents also know that when it comes to the faith of their children, they are ultimately not in control. Faith is not something that can be engineered through good parenting, faith is a gift from God.

As Augustine’s own testimony reveals, it was the concern of his mother over the status of his soul that mattered most to her. In fact, he tells us that at one point in his childhood when he took deathly ill due to a “disorder of the stomach” (a virus, perhaps?), it was not his physical health that grieved his beloved mother most, but the state of her son’s salvation that distressed her spirit:

My earthly mother was deeply anxious, because in the pure faith of her heart, she was in greater labour to ensure my eternal salvation than she had been at my birth. Had I not quickly recovered, she would have hastened to see that I was admitted to the sacraments of salvation and washed clean by acknowledging you, Lord Jesus, for the pardon of my sins.

Confessions, Book I, Chap. 11

In other words, while it remains the place of any good mother to make sure their children have well-balanced meals on the table, wear safety helmets while bike riding, look 5 times before crossing the street, and yes, maybe even ensure the use of hand sanitizer in times of global pandemics; the truly wise mother will take note of the concerns of this great mother and saint of the Church, Monica, whose distress over the state of her child’s soul was of far greater importance than the stomach virus that ravaged his body. For the true mark of love is not the safety of the child in this life, but his security in the life to come. And it was this reason, and this reason alone, that she turned her face to God in tearful prayer.

This Sunday we remember the faithful tears of all the mothers of the Church, and all those faithful mothers who have gone before them; mothers who have shed endless tears on behalf of their children, children young, and children grown, obedient daughters, and prodigal sons. But we think not only of motherly tears shed for mere bodily health, or for worldly successes, or even for temporal happiness. We commemorate instead the deeper tears of those mothers’ hearts that plead for the everlasting soul of their children. The tears that move the very heart of God, and that help to change the course of human history.

These are the tears of St. Monica, the mother of Aurelius Augustine, the pagan boy who gave his whole life over to Christ, who became the most influential voice of the Church in his time, whose works have inspired billions of people, and whose greatest book, The Confessions, was dedicated to his mom.

Happy Mother’s Day to all our mothers- You, Faithful Daughters of the King. You, Tearful Warriors of Christ!

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.

Oh Death Where is Your Victory?: Death and Dying in a Time of Crises

Like so many other social institutions in lieu of the outbreak of COVID-19, churches have decided to suspend their services indefinitely. However, churches are part of something that itself is more than just a social institution, for most members of most churches are also members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church.

As the Church then, a transtemporal, transcultural and transcendent community, this global pandemic presents each of us with a serious question: to what extent do we allow the fear of the reality of death shape our decisions in life? The apostle James had something to say about man’s plans in light of death, and that in a time when the experience of death, and death from disease, was much more commonplace, and much more difficult to prevent:


13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (Jas 4:13-17)

Clearly, life and death can seem at times very ephemeral, even arbitrary. After all, what decides who dies, at what time, and under what circumstances? If God is not providentially in control over the course of human affairs, then there are perhaps two options for what determines life or death: either chance, or the human will. But, in a time of viral pandemic, clearly the human will plays a limited role in such a decision. For, as James points out, while we may intend this or that, or plan for “x” or “y,” there seems to be forces at work that are simply beyond man’s control; we can neither facilitate a positive outcome, nor avoid a negative one, despite all our best efforts. When it comes to natural forces, we are struck by our own frailty. When it comes to viruses, or tsunamis, we are out of control.

Either it is in the Lord’s hands, or in no hands at all.

So, that leaves chance. And, if chance is the ultimate arbiter of things, then the age-old philosophical question remains: is it better to exist, or not to exist? Shakespeare put it this way in his play Hamlet:


To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them.

Hamlet’s inquiry rings eternally true: Do we resign to passive suffering and inaction, or do we “wage war” against the tyranny of chance? Can we will pain and suffering out of our daily experience? Can we eliminate it through meticulous planning, positive thinking, and an endless, political process aimed at perfecting the world’s brokenness?

However, both of these options, passive resignation and defiant effort, often end in their own tragedy, and often have ended in great human atrocity, especially if the ultimate purpose of human existence has been gradually forgotten, or expressly rejected. The razor’s edge of balancing virtuous action with maniacal control, presents itself poignantly in times like these. For, if we passively resign to the evil in the world, even the natural evil of disease and disaster, then we sacrifice what we all take to be a fundamental good, namely, the value of life itself. To resign to do nothing in the face of crisis may have a certain mystical or stoic attraction, but all thing equal just seems outright inhuman to give up when there is a real chance to live, and even live well! To lie down and die, is not the answer. Virtue requires some kind of positive action, some response to pain, some alleviation of suffering.

Yet, if we overreact, and try to exert our will over all manner of brokenness and decay in this finite world, we easily fall prey to acting in ways themselves destructive, manipulative, and life-inhibiting. We can become so fearful of death itself, so anxious about crossing over into that distant land, that we engage in tyrannical behavior, enacting draconian measures to prevent death at all costs!

As C.S. Lewis put it so wisely during one of mankind’s most horrible man-made tragedies (World War II), we must see that the greatest evil is not death, but sin and human corruption:

The doctrine that war is always a greater evil seems to imply a materialist ethic, a belief that death and pain are the greatest evils. But I do not think they are. I think the suppression of a higher religion by a lower, or a higher secular culture by a lower, a much greater evil. Nor am I greatly moved by the fact that many of the individuals we strike down in war are innocent. That seems, in a way, to make war not worse but better. All men die, and most men miserably. That two soldiers on opposite sides, each believing his own country to be in the right, each at the moment when his selfishness is most in abeyance and his will to sacrifice in the ascendant, should kill [each] other in plain battle seems to me by no means one of the most terrible things in this very terrible world.

(C.S. Lewis, Why I Am Not A Pacifist)

In this time of great crises, albeit one not a man-made one like war, but due to an illness that is part of the very fabric of a fallen, natural world, Christians must give an answer that walks the fine-line between these two, despairing views of death: one that says we must simply succumb to nature “red in tooth and claw,” and the other that says “we must protect physical existence, even to the point of vicious and tyrannical behavior.” For historical crises like this one, will inevitably raise the questions in all of us: “for what reason ultimately am I here?,” and “in what, or in whom, do I put my faith and hope for the future?”

As the Church, we must then cry out in prophetic overtures that even this virus, COVID-19, is but part of God’s providential plan over all of human affairs, and that it, COVID-19, is subject to the Divine Will, and subordinate to the Goodness of that Will. That Will, the One that determines all things, neither expects us to roll over and die in the face of tragedy, nor does it expect us to solve the problem of death on our own. What that Divine Will wills for us is first repentance, then action; action in faith, and action in love.

For we should fear, but not death, rather we should fear the one who has the power over life and death!

Thus we recognize, as the authors of scripture did, that Death can have no victory, neither in its actual occurrence, nor in its psychological hold, if we are true believers in Jesus Christ. For death, as Lewis reminds us, is not the worst thing. Far worse than death is sin. Far worse indeed; for sin is eternal death, and that is a death not limited to what takes place only after our hearts fail, and our brains cease to function. That death is occurring every day, COVID-19, or no COVID-19.

In sum, let us as the Church not hesitate to do what we can to fight against this outbreak, to do everything within reason to combat illness, and save human life. However, let us also not put so much faith in our own efforts, and that out of a fear of pain and death, that we engage in sin and vice, in order to prevent that which is inevitable to all of us, us miserable men, and women, who are destined to die. The real question then remains, unto what or unto whom will we die? Unto death, or unto eternal life?


55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.