Thursday, 31 January 2013

Does the Old Testament provide an argument against Christian belief?

Let me take a moment to explain the title - most people do not speak Latin, and even fewer (although I admit, I have not checked the statistics) have taken a class in formal logic. The modus ponens is a form of logical argument which is so good (or old) that it was given a Latin name. It has a brother, the modus tollens, which is basically the reverse.

Modus ponens means "way that affirms by affirming" and it has a formal statement in terms of P and Q (which you can find on the wikipedia page), but it basically says that if some proposition definitely entails another proposition, but that second proposition is false, then the original one is false also. For example:

If I always have a cold during winter, and I do not have a cold, it follows that it is not winter, by modus tollens.

How does this apply to Christianity? A few days ago I wrote a post entitled "Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away", and although I tried to simultaneously point out why it cannot be ignored and why it cannot be taken at face value...some things just seem obvious. I can imagine that with some form of Old Testament authority in mind, one can construct at least three types of modus ponens or modus tollens arguments: 

1) Moral
2) Scientific
3) Historical

Now, all three will need to be examined individually by each Christian (when actually formulated, of course). Anyone who is going to consider the Bible as a source of information about God will have to wonder about the arguments against it at some point if they are to be rational beings. I shan't formulate them now because I want you to think for yourself whether there is anything in the Bible that could disprove its validity. I can think of at least a few contenders.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away

Two days ago I wrote some "fairly unorthodox" (among Christians) views on the Bible - I used it as it can undeniably be taken; a historical document. Unfortunately, although some early Christians (sometimes called Marcionites, after Marcion, who had this goal) tried to get rid of the Old Testament as distinctly human, if we are to grant Jesus authority, then we must grapple with how he uses the Old Testament. It cannot be ignored easily.

The most common argument however, is not from Jesus' use, but from St Paul's letter to Timothy. In it is the famous verse (2 Timothy 3:16-17): "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." It would perhaps be nice to say this includes the New Testament, but given the context of the preceding verses, it is clear Paul speaks of the Old Testament (the only sacred texts he would have been able to study in his childhood). We see that Paul and Jesus, as well as many others, have a high regard for the Hebrew Bible - but what use do they make of it? This is the crux of the matter. How should Christians today understand and apply these Jewish texts?

Although Jesus' regard for Scripture is often cited as evidence by literalists and inerrantists, Jesus does not seem to take the Hebrew Bible literally in the sense that it is used today. The people that are meant to be inspired by God to write the Biblical documents use it in an odd way. I shall cite some uses from the gospel according to St Matthew, because it is the most Jewish. They are not exhaustive, and I recognize that often the Old Testament is used as we would expect it to be.
  • Matthew 1:23. This is a quotation from Isaiah 7:14, and unless one looks up the source, it may seem convincing. But upon opening the book of Isaiah at chapter 7, we see that this does not appear, in context, to be about the coming of the Messiah. The Messianic prophecy does not come until later in that book. The writer of this gospel has taken clear poetic license to quote this verse.
  • Matthew 2:15. This is from Hosea 11:1, but in context, this again is a reference to something different. In Hosea, God personifies Ephraim (Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel) as his son. It does not seem to be the case that Hosea spoke of Jesus. The author has taken a liberty here.
  • Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here Jesus takes it upon himself to deepen the severity of the Law, and in one section (5:38-48), he even overrides and changes it! The first case is with the so-called law of talion: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" - Jesus then says no! Do not resist an evil person (which is the same as saying, do not take his eye for yours, or his tooth for yours). If he strikes you on the cheek, do not strike back, but instead, offer the other! This change of the law may seem to be more moral or noble, but there is (almost) no denying it is a change.

    However, the next bit of law he changes is even more startling, because it appears far more clearly to be a contradiction: "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Now, the spirit of the idea of staying well away and uninvolved with enemies is clear from the surrounding passages of Leviticus 19, but "hate your enemy" is not stated verbatim there, whereas "love your neighbour" is.
  • Matthew 19. This passage on divorce uses Genesis, where the supposed "first couple" appear. It is used at times to prove Jesus took Genesis 1 as a literal account of history and science, as well as to verify the historicity of the figure of Adam. But Jesus does not, in fact, do any such thing. Jesus gives as the reason for not divorcing that "in the beginning they were made male and female" (which is a fact, as far as anyone can tell, since Homo Sapiens have always been divided by sex) and then continues "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh" (which is the quotation). Here note that this cannot be about Adam and Eve as a literalistic reading of the passage would give us. Adam and Eve had no parents, and they were one flesh quite literally, in that one was made from the other - they cannot, therefore, "become" one flesh. They already are.
I hope it is clear now that very often the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is used in ways we do not expect. Yes, Jesus has the authority to add his own - but see how this is understood best as the finality of revelation in Jesus. The authors of the New Testament use the Old in ways that are unexpected - so above all, we must take humility in how we interpret it.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Why assume the Bible?

In the last entry, I just took the Christian tradition of thinking that the Bible is authoritative for granted. Most people raised Christian probably have a fairly easy time assuming Biblical authority, but I do not. So how do I understand the Bible?

Starting with the Old Testament, we see the ancient Israelites struggling to understand God. From Genesis, where ancient near Eastern myths were altered in light of the theological truths to be explored (monotheistic theology, a perfectly moral God, with omnipotence) it is clear that the Jews (not yet with this name) were having a very hard time coming to grips with how a perfect God could do any of the things that appear so readily, so abundant, but also quite decidedly bad. The beginning (well, Genesis 2-3, since Genesis 1 is about there being only one God, one Creator and all other things being simply created) shifts the blame from divine shoulders to human ones, and at the end, in Genesis 50, Joseph explains how the evils of being almost killed, then sold in to slavery, ultimately resulted in God's plan being fulfilled - "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."

On and on we see Israel gaining understanding of the divine. Yes, God does seem to play a large role in this, and a lot of the Old Testament, though not a majority, contains alleged quotations. Mixed in with all the divine revelation, however, is a very human tone, and very human passages. God's word? In part, but not the whole.

"Well, you can say that, but it just means you are becoming judge over Holy Scripture, keeping what you want and disregarding what you do not!", I hear some people exclaiming. This is a mostly baseless claim. If I were a Jew, then it would surely be a very pointed comment, but the Bible is about revealing God, and Christians understand the God was ultimately and with finality revealed in person, in the flesh. We now have the complete revelation without the noise of human revisionism.

The other side of the spectrum might then exclaim "Ah, but who knows whether Jesus actually said these things?", and the answer is simple. We do. Not because of some pragmatic "God would not leave us alone in the dark" argument, but because of the study of history, and how that shows beyond reasonable doubt that the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are quite reliable as historical documents at the very least. We can have great assurance that, for the most part, Jesus of Nazareth did say the things that are collected there, and if you are a Christian, then most likely you can join me in also believing that many of the miracles (though perhaps not all) were, indeed, done by Jesus, God the Son, whilst he walked the Earth.

 I may, at some time, address some popular arguments for Biblical inerrancy, but this at least is clear: as critical historians, we can figure out a lot of what Jesus said. And from there, if one is (or decides to become) a Christian, we can live our lives in light of that.

Pillars of Christian Belief - a critical examination

Disclaimer: In a sense, critical examination is overly sensationalist. For the purposes of this entry, I am going to assume that Christians hold the Biblical texts commonly, and from there, see if we can further extend Christian understanding using the other pillars mentioned last entry. That is the sceptical question: "can we generalize to other pillars?"

Following on from the previous entry, I think it is clear that the door is wide open to other teachings. Yes, false teaching is condemned. But not all teaching is condemned. Where do we draw the line then? In terms of pragmatism, Sola Scriptura certainly has this going for it:

  1. As our earliest Christian writings, including the gospels, which have the words of God the Son, the Bible is clearly an invaluable and clearly very crucial document. Everyone will agree that Christianity and the Bible go together - even if how exactly is debated. From this, we can have a large degree of assurance of that their guidance is going to be pretty decent.
  2.  On the flip-side, we have no such assurance of other teachings, as far as we have explored so far. It seems clear to me that the most important thing in Christianity (grace) can be transmitted and learnt about with only this core of teaching - so Sola Scriptura has the added benefit that it can boast sufficiency. This word comes up a lot in discussions of this kind, and of the Catholic-Protestant dialogues, so to be clear, it just means this: that the Bible has all that is needed to attain salvation.
Now, if you are convinced by my two reasons for this doctrine, reliability and sufficiency, why would we even want to have other founts of knowledge? The reason I have is very simple: we cannot help it.

The other pillars mentioned were the Church, ("sacred") tradition and reason. Here is why I think they cannot be avoided:
  • The Church: If you go somewhere long enough, if you are in that kind of atmosphere, you will begin to be convinced of some of the understandings that place has. This is no difference with the Church. Indeed, the Church first came up with the foundational creeds (Nicene, etc). Which brings me to the next pillar...
  • Tradition: We cannot get rid of it. We are, to no small extent, bound by the way our culture thinks, and this is manifest in traditions. The Church becomes like any other body, taken up into its traditions, and with them, able to stand firm in their teachings. A Protestant might quote Jesus in telling the Pharisees that they sacrificed God for human teachings and traditions, but remember that the way to avoid human traditions is to have Godly ones. Also, it is worthy of note that enormous chunks of the Bible would have been oral traditions (particularly Genesis) before they were ever written down. It is inescapable. We do not think purely rationally, but are bound by culture and tradition - we better make sure we have the right ones.
  • Reason: To use a bit of circular irony, I think using reason as a pillar for belief is the only reasonable thing to do. Jokes aside, however, I cannot actually give an argument for the use of reason - self-authentication has never been something I thought of as valid, but instead, purely circular - in short, I do not subscribe to coherentism.
What do I conclude? Sola Scriptura, other than un-Biblical, and although it may be useful,  is not actually really possible. Submit everything you learn to the authority of the Bible - but for goodness' sake, do not think that you are separate from these other influences. Be smart and get the right usage from them.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

On the Foundations of Judeo-Christian Thought

It would be very arrogant indeed if I, a student of a discipline far from studies of religion or ancient and classical era history, wrote a small entry on a blog that I thought should be regarded as the correct understandings of the foundations of this system of beliefs in all its diversity. I do want to write, however, a short piece detailing what the foundation isn't - the Bible. Most Christian are actually not Protestants, and some of the pillars of Christian thought in the 21st century are the Sacred Scriptures (meaning the Old and New Testaments collected in either the Protestant or Catholic Bibles), Sacred Tradition, Reason and the Church (or Magisterium).

My own church (a rather lovely one based in a suburb of Brisbane, in Australia) is part of the Protestant tradition which holds to the doctrine of "Sola Scriptura" (Latin for "Only Scripture"). My opinion on this doctrine is implied in how I described Protestantism; it is a tradition. The Bible itself, to the best of my knowledge, does not claim to be the sole authority. There are questions it poses but does not answer. There are references to outside sources of information. There are even references to tradition in a positive way! The epistles of the apostles are often in the form of logical arguments, or at least reasoned arguments. Jesus speaks in parables which are, in his own words, to obscure the meaning of his words (why he does this can be the subject of another entry), the apostles use apostolic authority...meaning that overall, tradition has a place in the Bible, reason has its place, Magisterial authority has its place and really, "only the Bible has the truth" is profoundly unbiblical.

So what does the Bible say about authority? Well, as seen in yesterday's entry, the founding figure of Christianity claimed to be, in and of himself, the truth. This same figure's parting words according to the gospel of St Matthew are "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." There are references to authority (of Jesus), a command to make disciples and to teach. This is not quite the same as "give them a book and let them read it". Indeed, that would not have made sense for many many years - canonization was not for a few centuries, and not until the 16th century did the reformation occur that came up with this doctrine that the Bible was the only authority.

Where is the pillar of Christianity, then? It is not in a series of documents dating back millennia. At least, Jesus does not seem to think so. The foundation of Christianity is Christ. And unlike what many evangelical fundamentalists seem to hold to, when Paul writes about what would falsify Christian belief, it is clear that the final authority is not in the Bible. It is in  Christ's resurrection.

One final remark - yesterday I wrote about the peculiar and striking claim made by Jesus, as recorded by St John's gospel. In that same chapter, he says "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves."

What then can Christianity hold on to? Where can we draw the line between fact and fiction? On the basis of the evidence for the works of Jesus, most notably the resurrection.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Truth, The Way, and The Life - a striking claim

As a student of both the natural sciences and philosophy (the latter of which I hope everyone is), I had to figure out what exactly I wanted to find out with my studies. Was it the right arguments to defend my position? Did I want to justify myself? Or did I want to be cool, learn the jargon of physics and philosophy, and impress my friends?

The difficult thing with both of these, is that if done properly, all of these desires are dispelled. One cannot honestly consider issues in science, ethics, epistemology, ontology or indeed theology, and expect to quickly learn how to defend a previously held position. Philosophy, when done right, renews one's mind. Examination of philosophy is the grandest cure for naïvety that the human race has come up with - nothing is left unchallenged. Physics goes even futher. At least it is conceivable that a philosopher remain dogmatic, but the natural world does not care what we think. It simply is. Our notions cannot be left unchallenged.

So what can a truth seeker think when reading the gospel according to St John, the fourteenth chapter? Well, one thing is certain. Such a claim is quite unparalleled in history. Yet it is also rather odd. Scientists vary in exactly how they interpret their work, but one way of thinking of physics is by saying that the equations and concepts developed are our way of understanding what exists.* Here is a man, however, declaring that he himself is the truth. Not something exterior - the fullness of truth in a person. Completely unlike anything I can grasp! The big question of epistemology, "what is true, and what can we, or do we, know?", embodied in a person.

Very well then, if we believe this man (which by now, it should be clear is Jesus of Nazareth), how are we to respond? I can barely grasp what it means for this bloke to be the Truth, but to take a line from the Scottish philosopher David Hume, one cannot deduce an ought from an is. The truth, what exists and is, does not necessarily tell you how things should be, the ought. However, Jesus does not stop there. He claims also to be "the way". The big question of ethics, "how should one live?", answered again by saying that he is the manner one should live. Ridiculous...isn't it?

For some reason, Christians have a tendency to latch on to the last bit - Jesus as a life-giver. This is, of course, crucial, because without this the first two are pointless - but without the first two, the last one is pointless too. Life finds its meaning in truth and the way it ought to be. Jesus says he offers all three.

The Christian response is belief. But everyone has to try and figure out why this man says the things he does. If he is wrong, then who cares? Yet such a striking claim merits consideration. And if he is right, if he speaks the truth, then who could possibly remain unchanged?

* I am an instrumentalist, which essentially means that I think that science discovers the best way of modelling and thinking of phenomena, without necessarily being an objective portrayal of reality as is. Hence, this is not quite my view, but it certainly seems to be the lay-person view and of many of my peers.