Critical Race Theory & The Bible: Reversing the Hermeneutical Lens

Imagine for a moment you are a scholar with a deep interest in the early Church Fathers and the Scholastic theologians. More specifically you are deeply engaged with the thought of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the two most influential thinkers in the Church’s history (with Martin Luther a close third), and perhaps the two most influential, non-Greek philosophers in history period (with Hume, Kant and Marx a close third, fourth, and fifth). Miraculously you receive the opportunity to travel back in time, or perhaps to meet in some timeless dimension, and speak to both Augustine and Thomas personally. Obviously, you have one burning question on your mind for both men: “what is it like to wear robes your whole life?”

You flub that first question, obviously due to the anxiety of being in the midst of such giants, or maybe because you are still freaked out about being in a timeless dimension, but your follow-up question is one that has troubled scholars and laymen, pastors and their congregations for centuries: how should we interpret the Bible? Or, perhaps you ask it this way: how do we know that the Bible is divinely inspired and the infallible Word of God? What answer do you think these two geniuses might give?

I am no scholar of the early Church Fathers, nor expert in the medieval theologians, however, I think I can assert with some confidence what both Auggie and Tom would not say. They would not say this: [for Augustine] “Well, first I have to know everything that Plato said, and really understand Plato and his disciples, and then I can go read the sacred Scriptures and figure out what they mean.” Or, for Aquinas, this: “You know, first I have to read everything Aristotle ever wrote; and understand everything that great man said; and agonize over his theories; and then, and only then, can I go read the Bible and decide what is true and what is not, or what is inspired and what is merely the product of human hands.”

Not for a moment would either have said such a thing. Of course, I also do not believe either would have answered in English, but whatever the Latin equivalent of each statement is, the propositional content would still be roughly the same: “we do not study Plato or Aristotle to know that the Bible is true.” Rather, “We know the Bible is true, and then we see what Plato or Aristotle have to say about the world that might also be true, and how it might comport with the Bible.”

In other words, neither Augustine or Aquinas, these “Doctors” as the Catholic church would call them (and Calvin too!), would have ever suggested that in order to properly understand the Special Revelation that is the divinely inspired canon of scripture, one had to first understand the best reflections of a pagan philosopher from general revelation. And most certainly one does not need Plato or Aristotle to know what in the Bible is true, or to know whether the Bible in its entirety is inspired and infallible. Such nonsense and outright blasphemy would never have entered the mind of these great saints. What was clear and indubitable to both was that the Bible was the very content of divine Truth, the Word of God to man, and that the pagan philosopher was but a medium through which that Truth might be expressed in a somewhat more relevant way to a particular culture, in a particular place, in a particular time. Plato and Aristotle were servants to Solomon and Paul, not masters.

However, as depressing as it might be to actual experts in the Church Fathers or the Medieval Scholastics, we no longer live in the culture or time of Augustine or Aquinas. Unlike them, we are all children of Modernity, and Modernity has drastically changed the way we look not only at the Bible, but at philosophy, and human culture itself. Modernity, and its prolonged extension, Post-Modernity, have rearranged our approach not just to the Bible, but to the interpretation of any book or text (even scientific ones).

Philosophical Shifts and Their Hermeneutical Effects

Since the 18th century, and especially due to those three other aforementioned thinkers: Hume, Kant and Marx, ideas about Special Revelation among many in the Church, and in many churches, has been exactly the opposite from those of the Church Fathers or the Scholastics. Instead of supposing biblical Truth as prior to purely rational reflection on man and God, modern theologians have chosen to take the best (or perhaps in Marx’s case just the most influential) philosophical thinking of the day and use it as the interpretive tool by which to gauge the true or false, the inspired or merely human, parts of the Bible. Unlike Anselm’s fides quaerens intellectum, this is instead intelligence seeking faith, a methodological approach that does a great bit of picking and choosing along the way.

The prodigious Roman Catholic theologian, Bernard Lonergan, explains this modern approach in light of the modern, or empirical view, of culture:

“The classicist notion of culture was normative: at least de jure there was but one culture that was both universal and permanent; to its norms and ideals might aspire the uncultured, whether they were the young or the people or the natives or the barbarians. Besides the classicist, there also is the empirical notion of culture. It is the set of meanings and values that informs a way of life. It may remain unchanged for ages. It may be in process of slow development or rapid dissolution.”

Bernard Lonergan. “Method in Theology.”

According to Lonergan, then, since the birth of the Modern, culture has been viewed in the empiricist mode, which means, even if a given culture might sustain its values and meanings over extended time, it is nevertheless devoid of anything universal or enduring. Moreover, there is no Culture, there are only cultures. As such, on this view of culture, methodology itself becomes primary for the theologian, “When culture is conceived empirically, theology is known to be an ongoing process, and then one writes on its method.”1Lonergan, Method in Theology. He further explains what this modern method might look like, “A contemporary method would conceive those tasks in the context of modern science, modern scholarship, modern philosophy, of historicity, collective practicality and coresponsibility.” However, this is very different from how theology is done on the classicist view of culture, “When the classicist notion of culture prevails, theology is conceived as a permanent achievement, and then one discourses on its nature.”

Augustine and Aquinas, unlike theologians today, were working under the classicist understanding of culture. Thus, while Augustine clearly used Platonic and neo-Platonic modes of thought and metaphysical categories to better articulate the truths already found in the inspired Scriptures, and where Aquinas, after the rediscovery of the Philosopher in the 12th century, appropriated Aristotle in order to expound Gospel truths in a more robust and synthetic manner, the trend in the last two hundred years of the Church’s history2 actually one can find this trend much earlier in the sense of intellectual history, perhaps as far back as Spinoza in the mid 17th century. However, it was in the 19th century that Enlightenment critiques really began to sink into the life of the Church, especially in the German and English speaking worlds, has been to turn this methodology on its head— to reverse the heremeneutical lens. On the empiricist view of culture, the one ushered in by the ruminations of thinkers like Hume, Kant3 This is not to say that Kant was an empiricist, but that his views served to facilitate this empiricist understanding of culture, and Marx, it is now the engagement with “modern science, modern scholarship, modern philosophy…” that sets the stage for biblical interpretation.

For several generations now this reversal of the hermeneutical lens has deeply impacted the Protestant churches especially, although Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have not been left unscathed. The practice of taking some current and influential, yet purely immanent theory, about the world as the paradigm through which we understand the Bible, as opposed to taking the Bible and seeing how we might press into service the philosophical theory, has been vogue for quite some time. In fact, so vogue that it is, as Lonergan hints, the default methodology for knowing what is true or false, what is right or wrong within the Christian tradition. We might call this en vogue approach something like “General Revelation Prioritism,” since it makes the Bible just one part of a larger revelatory schema, a schema that itself is in the process of constant change.

Practitioners of “GRP” might appropriately be called “General Revelationists” in that they assume one must adopt extra-biblical thought patterns or paradigms by which to adjudicate the contents of the Bible, rather than the other way round, analyzing the thought patterns and paradigms of the Bible to adjudicate over extra-biblical ones. Again, this approach is not for the purpose of contextualization or elaboration of the scriptural data, an unavoidable act for any pastor or theologian, but for the purpose of actually determining the truth value of biblical propositions4 Any act of interpretation would obviously include things like historical context, grammatical analysis, and, of course, literary genre. However, it is not my purpose here to discuss the analytical tools needed for a proper, original-intent hermeneutical approach. For more on proper contextual interpretation see Michael S. Heiser’s excellent podcast, The Naked Bible at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0Ud2F59K45tT5dujVD0Qzw., or for distinguishing especially inspired and divine parts of the Bible from its less inspired and historically contingent human parts.

There is also no real sense that this trend of hermeneutical reversal will revert back to a previous paradigm, like the one of the Middle Ages, barring some massive global crisis, or maybe some very public manifestations of supernatural (metaphysical) realities. Manifestations of such entities which might shock us out of our empirical malaise, reconfirming the validity of the metaphysics that so belabored the ancient and medieval mind, and reaffirming the classicist view of culture. Thus, it becomes incumbent upon the historically and metaphysically minded Christian to know when certain philosophical or social theories5all social theories are philosophical, even if not all philosophical theories are social have not only been adopted by churches in their approach to Scripture, but also when they have been elevated above the scriptures in such a way as to make them, the theories, the norm by which the data of Scripture must be evaluated. Further, each generation of Christians must be in the position to show why a particular philosophical theory falls short, and in doing so, show why it should not be utilized as an interpretive lens for the special revelation of the sacred texts.

Today, the paradigm through which many are attempting to read the pages of Scripture in order to see which parts remain valid, and which can be relegated to a trash bin of historically situated religious aphorisms, is Critical Race Theory– a theory that itself is born out of another all-encompassing system, namely, Marxism.

What Makes A Universal Hermeneutic Universal?

What is a universal hermeneutic? A universal hermeneutic is basically a worldview, an explanatory framework of the world that acts as a totalizing system of thought, a filter through which all human phenomena are interpreted, and into which we are meant to try and fit not just public history, but also our own personal narratives, each of which is itself one member of the total set of historical, human phenomena. Traditional religions like Christianity or Islam, for example, are totalizing systems in that they seek to explain the most fundamental aspects of human existence through a single, interpretive lens (or narrative). Those fundamental aspects are: origins, meaning or purpose, morality, authority, and eschatology or final destination.

For Christians, passages like Genesis 1 & 3; Romans 1:18-32, or John 1 and Rev 21 make such totalizing claims with regard to origins, meaning, purpose, etc., and all in reference to God and Christ. The Apostle Paul sums up the Christian way of looking at reality when he writes, “He is before all things, and in Him [Christ] all things hold together” (Gal 1:17), or when he proclaims “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor 5:9). However, it is not just traditional religions that perform this role of universal interpretive lens. Philosopher C. Stephan Evans talks about a “global” hermeneutic when referencing the work of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud:

“I call these perspectives global because they are applied to human persons as a whole and they are used to understand huge swathes of human action. I call them hermeneutical because I think their epistemic force is not captured by standard models of empirical science which emphasize prediction and verification or falsification. Such global perspectives differ from scientific hypotheses in that they rarely, if ever, can be confirmed or refuted by specific events.”

“The Revolt Against Accountability to God: A Global Hermeneutic Perspective on Contemporary Moral Philosophy” in Philosophia Christi Vol. 21, No. 2 2019.

Evans argues here that certain systems of thought act as global hermeneutics when they sidestep any critique of the natural sciences regarding their validity, i.e. their correspondence with reality, yet all the while making enormous claims about global humanity and the human condition. In fact, on these systems, the scientific project itself is under the microscope, and therefore cannot make any claims against the hermeneutic.

Agreeing with Evans, I choose however to use the term “universal” instead of global only because universal better encompasses the full sweep of history, i.e. to all trans-historical phenomena that either appear to occur in a stage-like process, or that explain why all people and cultures, regardless of their place in history, acted in certain ways. Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud all constructed systems that attempted to provide this kind of trans-temporal, universal explanation. Darwin would be a fourth to add to that list. However, for the purposes of this article, we need to focus on Karl Marx.6 Of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution was very compatible with Marx’s economic theories and his dialetic of materialism.

Focusing on Marx then, whose theory will be more relevant to our understanding of contemporary Critical Race Theory, Alasdair MacIntyre makes the following point about Marxist claims:

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.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity

Here we must pause. For how can Marx claim the kind of explanatory scope and power for his system that he seems to want to claim? On Christianity or Islam, there is at least a transcendental claim, namely, that God has revealed things to man about man that go beyond man’s own speculation. But, this is clearly not the case for Marx (nor for his counterparts Freud and Nietzsche), whose entire theory is grounded in materialism. How does the atheistic Marxist justify the self-referential claim that Marxism acts as a universal, explanatory system for all of human history? After all, isn’t the Marxist system itself, like all other philosophical systems, embedded in that same history? Isn’t Marxism also a product of human minds operating in a particular place in time, and, therefore, open to eventual irrelevancy and falsification like the other philosophical systems that came before it? How can Marxism claim to be the overarching interpretation of its own history, where other theories were not?

It is often said of Marx that he “flipped Hegel on his [Hegel’s] head.” What that means is that Marx claimed that in his own thinking philosophy itself had become conscious or aware of its own foundations. In other words the history of philosophy is not the history of rational human agents thinking great abstract thoughts, thoughts that then bear down on and shape concrete material and social realities; rather, the history of philosophy is the history of concrete realities shaping human thinkers who, for reasons intimately connected to their material and social conditions, then generate great, or apparently great, abstract thoughts. Progress (or teleology), according to Marx, is not in the great synthesizing of abstract ideas, rather, pace Hegel, it occurs in the dialectic of materialism, the transformation of previously conflicting states of material conditions into new states of material conditions. Since man just is an amalgam of material, a new set of material conditions means a new man. Thus, if material conditions are understood, and then altered, so can man be liberated from that which has alienated him from himself. First he can be liberated from toilsome labor, itself a curse of both Capitalist and of Canon (Genesis 3:17-19), and second he can finally be freed from an abstract, yet non-existent view of his own self, from a human “essence” or nature, as defined by religion or abstract philosophy (i.e. Plato). For Marx and his followers there are not “fixed natures” that endure over time, there is only the perpetual dialectic.

It is in this sense that Marx believes he has truly discovered, or created, something new. MacIntyre puts it this way,

“It is this conception of truth that enables Marx both to affirm a historical relativism concerning all philosophies and also to deny that his own philosophy is merely a product of the time, since it is in Marx’s own thought that philosophy has for the first time become conscious of its historical basis in seeking to transform that basis and has therefore passed beyond the limitations of earlier philosophy. ”

Alasdair MacIntyre. “Marxism and Christianity.”

For Marx then, there can be no changing of “the human heart” until there is a changing of the material conditions surrounding the human body (and mind, whatever that might be). Change the material and social conditions, change the man who lives in them. This is the crux of Marxist thought, and the key to Marxism acting not only as a universal hermeneutic, but also as a direct competitor with classical Christianity, which clearly asserts the very opposite notion: change the human heart, change the material and social conditions in which men live. But, if we have two worldviews competing for the role of universal hermeneutic, then the inevitable question emerges: which one, if any, does the work of interpreting the other?

While classical Marxism has by and large been rejected by contemporary, Western culture, that does not mean that versions of it, i.e. the intellectual great-grandchildren of Marx, have been rejected. One version of Marxist thought that blossomed in the mid 20th-century is Critical Theory, and one version of Critical Theory that is taking on the properties of a universal hermeneutic in the English-speaking world today is Critical Race Theory.

Does Critical Race Theory Operate As A Universal Hermeneutic?

That Critical Race Theory has the potential to act as a universal heremeneutic or totalizing, explanatory system seems at face value plausible. First, recall the four or five domains of human existence any universal hermeneutical system must try and answer: human origins, meaning and purpose, morality, authority, and end state or eschatology.

With the exception of a clear origins story (although there is some evidence for emerging popular-level versions), CRT seems to offer an overarching meaning and purpose for human existence: the human story is one fundamentally about oppression and liberation, of oppressive groups, or hegemonic powers, and their victims. On CRT race becomes the central property determining where one stands, or has historically stood, within the oppressor-oppressed dynamic. All human existence, all meaning, relates to this very Marxist, and even very Darwinian, understanding of life. The dynamic itself is also one that is not foreign to the biblical worldview, a dynamic that C.S. Lewis creatively portrays in The Screwtape Letters, when he has Screwtape explain Hell’s philosophy:

“The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. ‘To be’ means ‘to be in competition’.”

C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.”

The goal on CRT then is the liberation from these oppressive, racist (or sexist) societal structures. Liberation is the key concept in any Critical Theory, and the psychology of always being in the place of having to be liberated from some structure of oppression, or oppressor group, can provide the individual, or community, with an enduring, sacred struggle worth fighting. This struggle, or the being actively involved in it, can also create the framework for certain moral values and obligations to emerge.

With regard to morality, CRT also addresses the age-old question of “How now shall we live?” Moral goodness on a CRT view can have two aspects: first, an intellectual aspect of awakening, i.e. “wokeness,” to one’s own role in the oppressor class–to one’s identity as oppressor. This personal, or corporate, enlightenment can then engender acts of piety, especially of propitiation and satisfaction, in the form of publicly declaring one’s newfound sense of guilt and shame, followed by various symbolic acts of repentance and sacrifice. Whether or not those acts of repentance or sacrifice will actually be accepted, however, is questionable at best. This is something the mayor of Minneapolis appeared to learn first-hand quite recently. Thus, it is yet to be seen whether or not there is room for atonement on CRT, or just propitiation without real satisfaction and ultimate reconciliation.

This second aspect of CRT morality, public moral action, could also be seen as having two facets: first, the willingness to abdicate any advantage (usually material, but not always) in life one may have attained to those in the historically oppressed class or classes, and second, becoming politically active so as to advance, or enforce, the abdication of advantage by those who resist the voluntary handing over of goods to those perceived as historically disadvantaged. This can provide many people who are otherwise immoral (according to any transcendent standard) with a public means to be moral, a means through which to demonstrate their newfound moral superiority over others who can now be labelled as immoral, i.e. the “non-woke.”

As such, there is both an element of intellectual enlightenment here akin to Gnosticism, as ignorant oppressors, for now White people, become aware of themselves as indelibly corrupt vìs-a-vìs their darker skinned counterparts, and an element of concrete, social action in light of this pseudo-spiritual illumination. This illumination, of course, is provided to them by those of the oppressed class (at least in theory), who preside over secret knowledge in virtue of their being oppressed.7 For more on this idea of “Ethnic Gnosticism” see Voddie Bauckham: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ip3nV6S_fYU.

Here again we see the Marxist ideology that underlies CRT, as CRT is able to both claim a status that places it beyond the ken of accepted, epistemic standards of justification, while also making concrete, political action its fundamental moral activity. MacIntyre sums up this dual Marxist impulse of the interconnectedness of special knowledge and political activism, “It is only those who are engaged in changing the world who can hope to see the world rightly.”8 Marxism and Christianity, Applebooks, 63. Indeed on CRT, only CRT activists have the proper standpoint from which to gauge reality.

That also opens up another domain of CRT as it potentially acts as a totalizing system: the role of authority. For the philosophical critical theorists, the goal of social theory was, of course, the perfection of democracy. A “real democracy”9 see James Bohman article “Critical Theory” in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Section 2: https://nypost.com/2020/06/07/oh-grow-up-mayor-frey-devine/ would entail human beings being in control of the social factors that affect and shape them. Again, as per Marx, if human agents are nothing more than the product of matter and social constructs, then to be able to properly understand and control material and social conditions just is the means by which we can become new kinds of creatures. Ultimately, the “real democracy” the early critical theorists were arguing for was one where the human community itself could effectively play the role of God. Authority is no longer reified and objectified into a metaphysical deity, a benevolent “sky-daddy” who will fulfill our deepest desires. Rather, we must, through the rational analysis of those things that we as human beings produce, figure out what the perfect set of conditions will be, so that we can live in a new creation of our own making.

If this is the case though, then what appears as an inescapable feature of this immanently human attempt to recreate ourselves, is the need for something like a priestly caste, or at least a teaching magisterium that guides the ignorant among us into this undiscovered territory, and that mediates the untapped potential in us all to usher in the new society. Consequently, we see evidence of an emerging authoritative group in CRT, namely, a sort of “star chamber” of gurus who have coined the various terms that impregnate the view with its symbolic content (“white fragility,” “white guilt,” “intersectionality”), and whose work has lead to pragmatic initiatives like diversity training in major corporations, the construction of diversity task forces at universities, or movements like Black Lives Matter. Priests and priestesses like Robin DiAngelo, Peggy MacIntosh, or Ibrahim Kendi come quickly to mind as leaders of the new movement.

Several thinkers like Andrew Sullivan, themselves far from being fundamentalist Christians, have pointed out how CRT, or here core tenets of it, operate as a religion, especially on university campuses where the aforementioned authorial figures are most impactful. Moreover, that other fervent non-Theists like James Lindsay or Peter Boghossian, have become prophetic voices against the threat of CRT, and have even allied with conservative Christians to fight CRT, provides additional evidence that CRT has moved into the realm of operating as a religious worldview, something that would make any classical atheist from Russell to Dawkins rightly shake in their scientistic boots. Even the realm of mathematics does not seem off limits to the interpretive power of CRT, as evidenced by a recent statement of the Mathematical Association of America.

Finally, there is the question of whether or not CRT provides any answer to the question of eschatology, or end state. That it can, like on Marxism, and perhaps even Christianity to a lesser degree, seems obscure. On CRT we are told what the societal problem is, we are told that there is means to solving it, and we are introduced to a group of authoritative figures who can guide us through it, but there is little to no sense of what that solution will look like once we arrive. Like Marxism, the undiscovered country remains shrouded in perpetual mystery until you actually get there to tread the supposedly new ground. MacIntyre states it this way, “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.”10Excerpt From: Alasdair MacIntyre. “Marxism and Christianity.” It is worth noting that MacIntyre wrote this prior to his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Pace MacIntyre, Christianity does give us some vision of the end, even if a highly symbolic one as found in the book of Revelation. However, per MacIntyre, Marxism, and by inference Critical Race Theory, clearly lack anything like an ultimate telos, a serious description of what “liberated man” is supposed to look like once his or her earthly liberation has occurred. Of course, for any true Christian the idea of final liberation, and the final happiness that accompanies final liberation, apart from a real unity with our Creator is already at the core empty. For the Christian man, any notion of a freedom devoid of a real Christ, and a real relationship with a personal God, is just the foundational sin all over again– it is the originating original sin.

In sum, there is good reason to think that CRT does attempt to fill the role of a totalizing system or worldview that acts as a religion in its answering, regardless of how poorly, the questions of, to a lesser degree, human origins and end state; and, to a higher degree, questions of existential meaning and purpose, and moral values and duties. If this is the case, then CRT may indeed become for some, or perhaps for many, a universal hermeneutic by which all other things are evaluated and put into their right place, to include the biblical revelation.

However, the question now emerges of whether or not there is evidence of this being done within the confines of the Church itself? Has there been a capitulation to CRT in the domain of Christian education, or within the walls (or Zoom services) of evangelical churches?

Evidence that CRT is Acting As A New Heremeneutic in the Church

The natural sciences may be the last domain of culture holding out against the new hermeneutic of Critical Race Theory, although as alluded to above, that fortification also shows signs of crumbling. With regard to the Church however, CRT already seems to be for many Protestant churches and seminaries, to include some areas of Catholicism, the go-to paradigm for biblical interpretation, theological construction, and pastoral application. A quick look at something like the missions statement of a Wake Forest School of Divinity, or this recent post by Union Theological Seminary should suffice to justify this claim. However, the orientation of institutes like these should not surprise us, since they have long since accepted the Enlightenment critique of metaphysical knowledge, and the post-modern critique of epistemology.

Not only does the Bible become a merely human book for primarily critical analysis at institutes like these, but also in their embrace of current social theories and post-modern epistemology11 Post-modernism cannot rightly be called an epistemology, since it rejects any and all notions of the entire epistemic endeavor to gain or have knowledge. Post-modernism is essentially an anti-epistemological school of thought in that it rejects any need for beliefs or truth claims to be rationally justified. As such it works on an entirely different Theory of Truth than classical Correspondence Theory., the Bible can become a means to various worldly ends. Thus, the Scriptures no longer present us with a means for “how to go to heaven” but become a user’s manual for how to create heaven on earth. But, even then, the Bible is at best only a marginally useful tool, one that can be readily supplemented, or must be supplemented, by other “sacred” texts like the Koran, the Upanishads, or again, by Marxist doctrines.

What may be new however for these classically liberal institutions is not their already long-standing methodology of deconstructing a historical Gospel proclamation in order to reconstruct a social gospel correlated to the philosophical theories of the day and the existential needs of culture, but the raw material from which they can draw in order to engage in biblical interpretation and theological reconstruction. The Social Gospel of the 1920’s and 30’s was one thing, one theory located in its own time and it its own culture. The Social Justice Gospel is a new thing. After all, institutes that have divested themselves of the ontology of Scripture, i.e. its inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy, and sufficiency, to include any robust version of natural law, will always have a new gospel to preach as speculation on general revelation shifts and moves with the flow of time. Again, for the General Revelationist, the Bible will tell us the truth only when we have first discerned from current social theory what in the Bible is even worthy of consideration. Only then can its wisdom shine, and that only as long as the current social theory maintains its influence.

But, there is even more evidence that CRT is now taking over in places that once would have been considered bastions of historical, orthodox Evangelicalism. Seminaries that have adamantly held on to the classicist view of culture, and the fixity of human nature, now seem susceptible to the influence of CRT. For example, a recent petition signed by over 4000 former students of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) located in La Mirada, CA provides additional support for the claim that even more traditional Protestant schools are drifting from their original, missionary intent, and potentially moving toward a new, universal hermeneutic. Recent chapels held at the same institution seem to suggest that it is through the lens of CRT that we must learn to re-read the text of Scripture, even the Beatitudes themselves.

While it is not clear whether the hermeneutical lens will be reversed at places like Biola, or other evangelical schools, some of which have been explicit in their rejection of CRT, that CRT has the potential to become the accepted mode of biblical interpretation is, I think, quite plausible. Unfortunately, this would not the first time the church has fallen for the speculations of men over the Word of God.

St. Augustine and St. Thomas, indeed, pray for us!

*For more detailed information on Critical Race Theory, see Neil Shenvi-Apologetics here. For an atheist perspective on the dangers of Critical Race Theory, see James Lindsay’s excellent interview with Al Mohler here.

Christian Moralism and The Presidency of Donald Trump

“21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Matthew 7:21-23

One of the most subtle and, therefore, most dangerous temptations in the Christian life is to judge for oneself who God has chosen to be a vehicle for His truth, His goodness, or His purposes. More egregious is to judge who God has chosen not just as a vehicle for His truth or goodness, but who God has chosen to be one of His own. For the two are not always the same. Various scriptures, known to all, present us with a paradox that does not allow for an easy answer to these questions. For example, in Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus announces with great force that there are many who we think are God’s servants in this life based either on their good works, or their religiosity, but who God knows are not true servants, and, being false believers, will consequently be cast from His eternal presence. Further along in Matthew’s gospel we find the parable of the weeds, where Jesus explains to His disciples that only at the end of days will it be revealed who was of God, and who of the evil one (see Matt 13:24-30). In this parable the implication is clear, neither the disciples, nor by extension their successors, are in a position to know who is a true follower of Christ, and who is not. That knowledge is reserved for the divine Mind only. It may very well turn out we find ourselves quite surprised (pleasantly I imagine) about who we bump into in the Almighty’s new creation.

However, on the other side of this attempt to discern spiritual good from evil, Christ does tell us there are some things we can know about people and their relationship to God. In Mark 9:38-41 Jesus tells the disciples that anyone who is not against Jesus is for Him, and that anyone who does mighty works in His name cannot afterward “speak evil of [Him].” So people who are not against Him, but maybe are not yet fully on board with Him, could yet be His in some way (a few very thoughtful atheist who often defend Christianity come to my mind rather quickly).

Also, in a passage highly favored by Christians skeptical of our current president, Jesus tells us straightforwardly that a tree is known by its fruit, Matthew 7:15-20. Passages like these appear to give us some criteria by which we can judge the moral and spiritual character of others. If people cast out demons in Jesus name, then maybe they are or soon will come to be His. If there is the fruit of good works in the life of a professed believer, then maybe they are also truly His. If the moral character of someone seems rotten however, then maybe we can rightly criticize them, or at least distance ourselves from these bad apples, even if we can not with certainty know the final status of their salvation.

However, that this task of spiritual discernment will be an easy one is never said to be the case. After all, what is “good” fruit and what is “bad” fruit may not always be clear to us. And, as is often the case, our own sin will inevitably prevent us from discerning correctly this moral and spiritual fruit of which Jesus speaks. This is why Jesus also gives us another command, one often taken too literally by the Christian antinomian: “Judge not, lest you be judged yourself.” So, the hard question of “can we know who belongs to Jesus?” is only partially answered for us. Ultimately we cannot know, but in the meantime we seem to be called to try and discern the best we can, and that based on the fruit of someone’s actions, which will potentially show their moral character, and maybe give us a glimpse of their spiritual estate, something not unimportant, since it also would function as an indicator to who is safe and trustworthy, and who is not.

Unfortunately, as we will see below, ultimate safety and trust can only be found in Christ alone.

Spiritual & Moral Judgment in Our Popular Culture

Today it is fashionable to judge people based solely on their public persona. Well, perhaps this has always been the case, but today it is easier to know a persona as opposed to an actual person. These personas we encounter through the various and manifold filters of social media. Very few of us have in fact any personal connection to the people whose moral and spiritual status we claim to know, and in knowing, claim to be able to properly judge. We receive minuscule amounts of data about all kinds of people: athletes, movie stars, epidemiologists, scholars, and yes, presidents who we claim to know. Further, we are quick to ascertain not just their beliefs about God, but also their moral and spiritual standing before Him. We fool ourselves in thinking we know them, perhaps even know them better than they themselves, or their close companions, or their family.

With regard to spiritual discernment, while in some cases it is clear that a person simply is not a believer in Jesus (or not yet), and therefore needs to receive the Gospel, in other cases it remains somewhat obscure. These cases, which would apply to men and women who profess Christ publicly and perhaps even lead some part of His Church, demand, therefore, that much more discernment, that much more prayer, and that much more careful and reflective thought before an adjudication is made about whether or not to trust them. However, in the era of the internet, to actually take the time for this kind of discernment has become an increasingly rare practice (myself included!). We move quickly in our judgments of others spiritual estate, before hardly enough evidence has been collected or prayers offered. As such, we have devolved into a church of satan, here understanding satan as what his Hebrew name actually means, the accuser. We are a church of spiritual accusers.

But then there is also the broader cultural problem of moral discernment. This, on the one hand is categorically easier than spiritual discernment, since it relates only to the moral fruit of a person’s life, and has nothing necessarily to do with one’s spiritual status before God. However, confusion can arise when Christians, who are interested in both the spiritual and the moral, begin to conflate the two, expecting that for any given Christian, there you will find a very moral person. A common error to all of us, and one rooted in a deep theological enigma: the fact of salvation vs. the reality of sanctification. However, it is not just that Christians can have expectations too high when it comes to the process of moral cleansing and perfection in this life. Rather, it is also the case that we have seen too many examples of Christians who on the outside have appeared to be quite moral indeed, only later to be revealed as something entirely different. It is in this sense that Christians must exercise caution and wisdom when trying to discern “fruit.” For moral rottenness does not necessarily translate into spiritual rottenness, as moral excellence, or the appearance of it, does not necessarily translate into spiritual purity.

Who God Chooses is Not Who You or I Would Choose

It simply is not the case that every good person will look or act like a Mother Theresa. This would be simplistic and reductionist discernment. It would also be foolish and naive. In the end there will be many who display all forms of moral failure, yet whose heart and will is more aligned with God’s heart and will than those whose outward personality seems pure and untainted. For every Mother Theresa there may be an Oskar Schindler, just as for every Mary there is a David, or a Samson.

Appearances, and even good works of a tremendous kind and variety, simply will not be sufficient for us to know with any certainty the true heart of another human being. This tragic reality became very real for many followers of the late Catholic missionary, Jean Vanier, whose life looked about as close to that of Mother Theresa, or John Paul II, or Jesus, as one could imagine. Yet this founder of L’arche, a ministry dedicated to the most vulnerable among us, was simply not what he seemed to be. Now many have had to backtrack and distance themselves from someone whose inner life was deeply disturbing and whose covert actions may have been more damaging to the witness of the Gospel than even all of his good works combined. While it is difficult to come to a final conclusion about such things, what is not difficult is to know that the entire legacy of Vanier and his ministry is now tainted, and that with a very dark tint indeed.

This lesson should hopefully act as a catalyst therefore to those who are perhaps too eager to criticize the outward character that is Donald Trump. A man who we know has been a great womanizer, a foul-mouthed and lavish philanderer, a crude jokester, and, although evidence is quite scant, even potentially a racial bigot. This is not to say that one cannot reasonably distance himself from such a person, and certainly it is not to say that one cannot criticize what is rightly worthy of critique. But, it is to say that one should tread very lightly, especially as a follower of Christ, about judging too precisely who God might decide to select to be His vehicle for truth, or His providence. We must beware of acting the Christian moralist, like those many Pharisees whose superiority was known only to themselves but not to the Lord of Glory, who is also the Lord of Mercy, and the God of Redemption. In the end God will choose Who He chooses, and it is not always the most palatable character to our sensibilities. In fact, it is often those who are most difficult to accept that God will have act on His behalf. The converse of course is to be careful of those whose character does seem quite palatable to us, but who God does not know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Theory as The New Theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MacIntyre. Marxism and Christianity. Apple Books, 13.

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

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

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

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

That is the Old Theology. Theology with theos.

Moral Decision Making and the Fear of the Lord

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

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

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

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

Acting From Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acting from Fraud

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

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

The Devil’s Role in Fraud

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acting from Personal Gain (Bribery)

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

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

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

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

Acting from Seduction

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

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

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

Romans 1:24-27

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

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

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

Peck, 96.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miracles and Historical Testimony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Seamless Testimony from The Apostles to Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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