Showing posts with label Christian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christian. Show all posts

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Can Everything be Translated out of Christianese?

One of the things that developed in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council was a move to modernise the language used to describe matters of the Christian faith in a way that was more accessible to the world. This is, I think, an important element of the New Evangelisation, and I heartily agree with Scotty McDonald when he calls for Christians to talk “like real people,” and I support him when he describes himself as someone whose goal it is “to tell the greatest story ever told in a language that speaks to the hearts of young people.” Quite simply, the proclamation of the Gospel in the language of the other is what St Paul would call “becoming all things for all people.” (1 Corinthians 9).

We cannot remain static in our language and still be evangelical, so we must translate the essential content of the Gospel out of Christianese, that niche language of Christians, and into the language of today. This is not necessarily “average English”, it may still use copious jargon if one is appealing to, for instance, a philosophical crowd, or a scientific one, as I noted in “Theology in the Language of Today.” In any case, one must adapt to the requirements of the one being ministered to.

There are two reasons why we must show some restraint. One is fairly obvious, and that is that translation almost invariably produces imprecision, and this can certainly be a problem with some of the areas of theology more prone to paradoxical statements, like Christology, theology of the Trinity, and perhaps areas like soteriology (study of salvation) when engaging in ecumenical endeavours between Catholics and Protestants. With due care, however, and noting that the Gospel is a fairly simple and “well-understood” message, I do not think that this issue is insurmountable.

The second reason is, in my opinion, a thornier matter. I do not think that everything can be translated out of Christianese because it may be impossible to translate the Gospel accounts out of their historical context. Jesus said that he is the Good Shepherd, but that might mean close to nothing if one has never set foot on a farm. Peter writes that Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed, but nobody I have ever met has seen a Passover sacrifice with a lamb. These statements, as well as countless others in the Scriptures, are foreign to us, and yet it is unclear that we can actually translate them.

The central issue here is this: that whilst the Word is eternal, it was made flesh in a particular man, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived, preached, died and was resurrected in a particular time, and all the accounts we have of him are of that time. Whilst we know that the temporally-bound, the particular, and the eternal can in principle be separated, we attempt to do so at our own peril. Hence, we still have our Archbishop with his crosier, which is shepherding instrument, at least symbolically. At least we use the language of “pastor” commonly in English now, there are other symbols which now are fairly arcane.

Therefore, we cannot simply translate Christianese into English with all matters, we are going to have to put in the effort of teaching the People of God the conceptual-linguistic framework of New Testament times, and earlier Israelite history. The Passover Lamb cannot be understood without the story of the Exodus, and we can find no translation for such a unique and particular practice. I cite this just as one example – in truth, I would go so far as to say that we must have an almost Pharisaic understanding of the Law of Moses to understand not only Leviticus, Deuteronomy and parts of Exodus, but also the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, and even the one to the Philippians. Christianity is not a religion “of the book”, but it is a religion with a book. That book is old, but if we are right in saying it is inspired, we cannot change it.

This is not to say that analogues to things like the paschal lamb do not exist. It means that we must always be weary that any analogy we use, any translation we make of the language and of the culture, must be thought of as an imperfect copy. Anybody who has heard a biblical scholars speak will have heard lines like “most translations say … but the Greek/Hebrew says ...” It is part and parcel of translation that we get an imperfect copy, something that hopefully conveys the basics, but it is not the whole thing. Those same biblical scholars will tell us: we need the originals. They really make a difference.

Let me give an instance of where attempts at “dynamical equivalence” have failed. One is in replacing the Trinitarian formula (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) with something else, famously “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.” This is a pretty extreme case because there is little sense in which the two are actually equivalent, but it is a good example case because it showcases something I think is important: some complain that “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is patriarchal because Father and Son are masculine nouns, and God is not really a man. Jesus is, so they might grant “Son”, but not “Father.” That was just their patriarchal culture's way of expressing lordship.

I do not think that this critique is, at bottom, valid. But let me suppose for a moment that it is – so what? If we are to understand what the Trinitarian formula means, we are simply going to have to immerse ourselves in the culture from which we got those words from. We must learn to think like a first century Palestinian Jew to grasp what they mean. If we try and translate it to make it politically correct, trying something like “Parent, Child and Holy Spirit”, we will be losing something. If we try and go for a functional translation, such as “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier”, then we lose something – probably not the same thing, but something nonetheless.

My point is simple: we are trying to do a noble thing when we take the Gospel, take the fullness of the Christian message and take our theology, into modern language. We have to, really, because mission is what the Church is about. Yet we must be weary about imprecisions that come about, because translations are usually imperfect. Still more weary must we be that we always go back to the original, and ultimately, are capable of relating the original to those we minister to – because it is the original Jesus that we are seeking to bring them, and we are not the ones who get to decide what parts of Jesus Christ of Nazareth belong to him because he is from Nazareth, or which are his because he is the Christ. So we give them the fullness of him, and try and explain as we go along.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

I am not a Roman Catholic

I am not a Roman Catholic. I was not born in Rome, I have not lived in Rome, heck – I have never even been to Rome. I was, in fact, born in England, and hence, since Irish Catholics are Catholics from Ireland, Mexican Catholics are Catholics from Mexico, I propose that I should be called an English Catholic.

Why is “English Catholic” misleading, and why am I referred to as a Roman Catholic, anyway, even by other Catholics who know I am not Roman? In a very limited sense, the name is not wrong: the Catholic Church’s leader is Bishop of Rome, and what is sometimes referred to as the Holy See is, in fact, the Roman See. Somewhat deeper, the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Dei Filius, referred to the Church as “Sancta Catholica Apostolica Romana Ecclesia,” (Holy Catholic Apostolic Roman Church). Perhaps that solves the mystery, then, the reason people call me Roman is that Vatican I said so.

Not so fast. The first draft of the document did not actually have the term “Apostolica” in it, and it was added in response to the English speaking bishop’s complaint that the word “Romana” might be deemed to support the Anglican Branch theory, which basically says that the Catholic Church is in fact divided between Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The Council did not wish to support such an odd claim. The East, the West and the English together formed the full Catholic Church, according to this theory. Whilst these churches are indeed in schism with respect to each other, they each conserve apostolic succession, and so are true churches. It is not surprising that only Anglicans believe this, and not all of them, at that.1 And yet, if it is the case that I can be called a Roman Catholic just because the First Vatican Council said so, then I can equally be called an Apostolic Catholic or a Holy Catholic. If only the latter were true!

The absurdity of these other adjectives, equally proclaimed by Vatican I, make it clear that it was probably the Anglicans’ doing that I be called a “Roman Catholic.” This does not make it true, for even if one accepts the Vatican I argument, “Roman”, “Apostolic”, “Holy” and even “Catholic” are attributes not of the person, but of the Church. Were I to be ordained a bishop, then I might in some sense be apostolic, were I to become fully sanctified, then I would be holy – there is very little sense in which I will ever become Roman, however.

So I am not a Roman Catholic. I probably should not even be referred to as Catholic, just as Christian, for a Catholic is simply a Christian in the true sense of the term. To think otherwise is to implicitly accept that there is such a thing as, for instance, an English Catholic, distinct from a Roman Catholic. As John Henry Newman pointed out, however, when the Church of England decided to install a bishop in Jerusalem, even the Anglican Branch theory broke down, as when one wishes to install bishoprics where another of the so-called branches of the Church of Christ exists, one denies ipso facto the legitimacy of the others.2 The fact that the Catholic Church exists worldwide, and counts among it English Catholics such as myself testifies that, even if the Church of Christ does not “subsist in” the Catholic Church as she claims it does in Lumen Gentium (the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), it is not Roman other than the limited sense given above, which stands behind the First Vatican Council's statement. 

1 For a Catholic treatment of the issue, the CDF’s “Dominus Iesus” is probably the best place to start, and a link to the declaration can be found here:
2 Well, Newman did not quite say that it broke down, but it was at the very least strained.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Time in the Evangelical Church

This is part II of a four part series. The others are (in order): Road from Unbelief, The Road to Rome, The Road Ahead.

It seems the case to me that even the most rationally inclined people have some reasons for their religious or irreligious position which goes beyond the purely logical or rational. Individuals simply do not exist independent of emotional, cultural, existential or other extra-rational factors. As an atheist, my position was intellectual but also useful, simple and easy, in addition to a certain feeling of rational snobbery that underlies believing that I had freed myself from humankind's religious yoke. This post will hopefully give an overview of my experience after sixteen months in the Evangelical tradition and what meta-rational reasons I encountered for being a Christian.

I had finished the previous part with new-found belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and how that led me to think I could aptly be called a Christian. However being a Christian, as anyone well knows, is rarely defined by "belief in the resurrection" - it is a position that has far more labels than that, and indeed by some people, even belief in the resurrection is not crucial to Christianity. Yet I would find it very difficult to believe in the resurrection without calling myself a Christian of sorts. I set about finding an explanation of why God would perform this miracle that made me Christian.

I made two mistakes which I recognize in hindsight: the shock of this belief made me throw all my rationality into the air for a moment, and I became a young Earth creationist.I also became a believer in biblical inerrancy without any other reason than that Jesus (who I now believed to have been resurrected) seemed to be revealed in the Bible.

The first rash belief I left within a week - the week of Easter 2012 when I visited Beulah for a rock climbing festival. I dropped it not so much because I came to the conclusion that the relevant texts did not prescribe young Earth creationism - after reading some more of the Bible I will quickly come to hold the view that science is perfectly legitimate, in line with most Christian denominations (see here) - but because I went about my day and found too many facts that contradicted that belief. Though I had rashly come to this belief, the burst of "maybe everything I know is wrong!" was quickly put down by reality. I hope readers will be understanding with my blunder: revolutions in world-view tend to have the effect of producing bizarre beliefs, and I am grateful that my error was short lived in light of the mind-boggling senselessness of young Earth creationism when it comes to reality. For my Christian brethren who disagree with me on this point, it is important to note that when somebody like myself comes to believe a proposition - in this case, "Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead" - by empirical means, one would be denying the very foundation of one's belief in that proposition if one then went on to deny empirical means. So any believer who believes because of historical evidence must in turn believe the truths discovered through scientific evidence, lest an incoherence be brought about.

The second belief is one I still hold, in some form, but the problematic bit is the phrase "without any other reason." I believed in what I would find out to be called sola scriptura without any epistemological warrant other than the view that since the scriptura talked about Christ, it must be right; a clear fallacy. About eight months later I would write about what I had come to think the real foundation for knowledge in Christianity is in the blog posts here and here (a position which I kind of retain, but with much more sophistication and without certain elements).

Nonetheless, those two issues aside, I thought that the central idea of Christianity was the forgiveness of sins because of the penal substitution of Jesus on our behalf. I got this idea in primitive form from a Pentecostal-Charismatic church (called "Hope Church") that I attended for a few weeks, and in a more elaborate form from Unichurch, which I almost accidentally walked into, in a sermon on Romans 3. I raised a question to the pastor there which would become a prominent issue on my mind a few months later, but I let it rest with "wait for Romans 6" at the time.

A philosophical note before I continue: as an atheist, I had been convinced that the only basis for morality in a secular framework (I wouldn't have dreamed of trying to think of what a non-secular framework might bring) was utilitarianism, and I still think this is the case. So I was a utilitarian, and as a relatively reflective utilitarian, I had noticed a problem: if the morally right action, and hence the obligatory action, was that one which maximized the greatest happiness for the greatest number, then the biggest problem I had was not that some of the outcomes were against my moral sensibilities, but that I did not do those actions which I believed.

It is a classical "problem" in utilitarianism that the obligations placed upon the utilitarian to act morally are enormous and go beyond what most think to be reasonable demands. Consider this: if I like ice-cream, and the ice-cream costs two dollars, may I buy it? No, because two dollars could save a life, and if not a life, then contribute towards much more happiness elsewhere. It is immoral to do anything that would not maximize happiness, and it usually turned out that what I wanted to do did no such thing. Yet I bought the ice-cream anyway. As an atheist, this is an incongruence, but as someone who now believed in the existence of God who cares about each person, who cares what I do...well suddenly I am in a bit of a pickle. For I have done wrong, and that has consequences.

It is sometimes said that modernity and post-modernity had done away with the idea of universal sinfulness in humankind, but I was convinced, since I seemed to able to indulge in my own pleasure and not able enough to live out the weighty demands of doing everything for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people (some include animals and other sentient beings), that I at least was sinful. Which means that one of the core tenets of the Christian faith, which is that Jesus Christ came to address that very issue of sin in me, was not only sensible but also my only hope. If I was to have any hope of being in good standing with this God I had discovered, then he was going to need to forgive me.

Within this utilitarian framework, I therefore understood grace: I cannot be good enough to deserve favour with God,  I cannot claim that I have rights before God - I cannot even say I satisfied the minimum requirements of the moral law! Now, God's moral precepts are not explicitly utilitarian, but the notion that the demands of the moral law are the very maximum one can give meant that I was necessarily incapable, had I sinned even once, of being in good favour with God. Had I done everything correctly, were it even possible to never err in my deeds, I could merely claim that God should not punish me.

Throughout the almost one and a half years in the Evangelical church that I have spent, there is one thing that I hold to be both self-evident, undeniable and irreplaceable: sola Gratia. The Evangelical church has taught me much theology, many Reformed doctrines, pointed me often to the Scriptures, and yet that phrase, "by Grace alone," necessarily remains at the core of my Christianity, the condition without which none may plead for the mercy of God. What may we say before the throne of God when he asks "why should I let you into my Kingdom"? Kyrie Eleison! Any other answer is futile.

To finish, having read enough of the Bible to figure out conclusively that baptism was highly important, I pushed to be baptized, which happened on October 28th, 2012, at the UQ swimming pool. By that time, I could approve of the bolded parts of the Nicene-Constantinople creed (which is an expanded version of the Apostle's creed - both have a distinctly high Christology in light of the battle against heretical Christology):

I believe in one God, the Father almighty,

    maker of heaven and earth,

    of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,

        the Only Begotten Son of God,

        born of the Father before all ages.

    God from God, Light from Light,

        true God from true God,

    begotten, not made, consubstantial
       with the Father;

        Through him all things were made.

    For us men and for our salvation

        he came down from heaven,

        and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate

        of the Virgin Mary,
        and became man.

    For our sake he was crucified
      under Pontius Pilate,

        he suffered death and was buried,

        and rose again on the third day

        in accordance with the Scriptures.

    He ascended into heaven

        and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

    He will come again in glory

        to judge the living and the dead

        and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

        the Lord, the giver of life,

    who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

    who with the Father and the Son

        is adored and glorified,

        who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic,
     and apostolic Church.
    I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins
        and I look forward to the resurrection

        of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Friday, 28 June 2013

The Road From Unbelief

In the British TV show Blackadder Goes Forth, Baldrick asks:

"The way I see it, these days there is a war on, and ages ago there wasn't a war on, right? So, there must have been a moment where there not being a war on went away, right? And there being a war on came along. So what I want to know is, how did we get from one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?"

 That is a very long way of asking how the war started, but in some ways, it's making a more accurate question: because "how did we change states of affairs?" sounds like a process. And a question about the process is exactly the right question for how WWI began.

Similarly, I cannot conceive of my becoming a Christian as anything other than a process. "When and how did you become a Christian?" is a misleading question, since no precise time or methodology can be named, whereas "what process led to your conversion?" is much more answerable.

I was raised atheist in England and Spain, mainly, in a lower middle class household to a Chilean dad and English-Australian mother. The only times religious things that were brought up in my family were a couple of comments made by my dad about some Jehovah Witnesses
[1] that he coached tennis for, some other comments made by him around Christmas time about how Christmas should not be about presents, bringing up how Jesus was humble and not materialistic (which led to going to a midnight church service a couple of times, but I do not remember anything from there), a storybook of David and Goliath[2], and probably a few other times that have slipped my memory. The point is, it was not a religious, or anti-religious, upbringing. It was a caring, secular environment.

Having never been taught or told anything religious, I nonetheless developed into quite the atheist. Particularly in Spain, my friends were all atheists with two exceptions (perhaps three, but the third was an atheist in terms of daily life and attitudes), even though many of them had been through confirmation and first communion, and all except for one had been baptized. I knew there were religious people around, I just didn't have any contact with them. I thought religion was a childish thing that humankind had inherited from its history. In my diary from when I was fifteen I wrote (this is dated 13-XI-2009 (Friday) at 8:52 AM in my Lengua or Language and Literature class):

"God. The idea of god is as old as mankind. Since the beginning, God or Gods have been used to explain things without explanation.

For example, the Ancient Greek and Roman Gods. Zeus was the god of lightening and thunder. Storms of this kind were chalked up to divine intervention.

Monotheism is far newer. Most religions practiced in modern times have only one God, although by different names:
In Islam, it's Allah.

In Christianity, it's just "God."
In Judaism, it's God, or Yahweh, the Hebrew word.

All these religions have a lot more in common than commonly thought.

The Holy book of the Jews, the Torah, and other scriptures (they have 5 books) makes up the old Testament of the Bible, which is the Christian Holy Book. What does that mean? It means that Jews abide by the same rules as Christians do.

In fact, Christianity proceeds from Judaism. It was formed by a break-away from Jewish beleifs, and Christ himself, prophet of Christianity, was a Jew.

So how did Christianity develop to almost "rival" Judaism, when All The Bible comes from the Jews.

Well, I think it's for the same reason the Church of England, and the Protestant ways, broke from the Roman-Catholic Church.

It brings power and individuality to a religion. If you follow a certain idea, you are bound by it. However, if you create your own ideals, based on another, you are free to develop it, and that means power.


I went on in that entry in my diary to articulate some of the differences in ideology between Christianity and Islam, and how it reflects in the judicial practice of the culture. There are factual errors (the Torah has 5 books, but the Old Testament has more), theologically dubious claims (that Jews and Christians have the same rules) and errors in spelling, but this was my understanding of religion: that God was originally an explanation for phenomena and the newer monotheism was more sophisticated (though still nonsense) where people believed some particular book was holy. I also thought it was weird that people fought so much when they mostly believed the same thing. In general, by the time I turned sixteen, I was decidedly anti-religion.

So how I became a theist, and then a Christian, seems like a very important question to me. What led to my conversion?

The reasons why I suddenly became more critical of my beliefs - which I assumed to be the rational ones, as so many still believe unquestioningly (see here for more on that) - and think about reality, as well as my place in it, is unclear. The usual story I tell has to do with how I enjoyed physics so much that I couldn't explain it, and found my love for it unreasonable, leading me to question whether there was any value in studying physics, but I think that's just an illustration of various things that were bubbling under the surface. The reality is, I'm not quite sure why I decided to think more. But I did.

To avoid being accused of falling into the cultural religion, I explored Islam first. Though some of the ideas seemed reasonable, I did not find the system of belief compelling, the manner in which it arose to be endearing or the treatment of aspects of reality as illuminating, that is, that it seemed more like man-made theological philosophy with a holy book than the divine revelation to man. At some point during this time, however, I began to find it reasonably tenable that God should exist. A prime-mover God, but God nonetheless. I still find the first-cause argument compelling, and the ontological (modal) argument to be a very interesting one for agnostics, though I am unsure whether I should believe in modality or not, and the first premise has the potential for a fallacy of equivocation between two ideas of possibility (known sometimes as epistemic possibility and broadly logical possibility).

It may never cease to amuse me how I got on to the Christian faith. I was told that to completely disprove the biggest religion in the world, and be able to ridicule all the adherents I had ever known and would meet, I just had to look into history and show that the resurrection never happened. Christianity hinges on this one fact, so my first thought was "brilliant, that will be quick, people do not come back from the dead." Which is mostly true, but as I trawled scholarship and the evidence, I became convinced that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead.

Now, may I point out something important: it is not proven historically that Jesus rose from the dead. Ancient historical studies do not work in terms of proof - only mathematics and logic do that. Newly found belief in God meant that I did not think such an occurrence was impossible, though indeed, to assume it is impossible for someone to be raised from the dead would be to beg the question on the matter of the historicity of the resurrection. I find the resurrection to be the most rationally compelling explanation for the facts, and I have not got philosophical barriers to considering it an option.

To end, there are notable but rare examples of people who believe in the resurrection but are not Christians, but for the most part, to believe in the resurrection is to be Christian of some sort. Essentially, this was the beginning of my being Christian: believing in the resurrection from the dead, heeding therefore what I thought Jesus would have said (which meant applying historical criticism to the gospel accounts), and finally ending up believing that the Scriptures were a reasonably solid thing, at least the New Testament, which I had then read. It can be said that I at least believed the first part of the Apostle's creed (the part in bold):

"I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell and on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty. He shall come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting."

The second part of this four part series can be found here.

[1] Perhaps because of this, my dad does not quite believe me when I say that virtually all Christians believe Jesus is fully God.
[2] In my memory of this book, it was a completely secular story about how underdogs can win - but since we still own it, I checked and it does in fact reflect the faith of David coming against the Philistine Goliath.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Preliminaries to the Study of the Pentateuch

There are about a thousand different issues that need to be thought through in the texts of the first five books of the Bible, and they start popping up from the very first verse. Christians in particular can have a really difficult time going through the Old Testament because we are exceedingly unaccustomed to the kind of literature it has - narrative, not didactic material.We try to get the text to answer the question "how does this apply to me?" and can get into some knots, jumping over flaming hoops backwards to try and get an "application." That's not to say there is no application question to be asked - it is simply going to be found in a manner quite different to how one would find "what St Paul is telling us," were we to read a Pauline epistle.

The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible are traditionally ascribed to Moses, although scholars mostly agree now that this idea of authorship is somewhat outdated [1], and other theories have taken its place. The most prominent of these is a four-source theory, that says that the Pentateuch is made up of four sources labelled J, E, P, and D. I do not speak ancient Hebrew (in any of its forms), I am not a Hebrew Bible scholar, and so I cannot truly comment on the merits of this theory. Nonetheless, I wish to point out that the final editors of these texts (according to one version of the theory, the writers of the priestly source were the ultimate redactors) had a theological point to make, and that these texts do not read as a poorly made collage of different sources. Instead of trying to pick apart which source is which, it is of far more benefit to Christians to understand the richly textured world of the final product - all the while understanding that there is not one author. This point is readily understood, since we are accustomed to saying things like "John and Paul use that word differently" or "James means something different by 'justified'" - we know that words can be built up to have different meanings in materials from different authors, and it is this point I wish to emphasize from the JEPD theory. We will understand the text differently -ultimately, more fully - if we grasp that passages where the Hebrew word "YHWH" denotes God, and others where it is "Elohim" that is used for him, really do have a subtly different focus. Yet although we distinguish between Paul and John, Matthew and Luke, and all the rest of them, we Christians ought not fall into the trap of saying "I am a Pauline Christian", or others "I am a Johannine Christian", or even "I am a Jesus Christian" (meaning they adhere strongly to one or more of the gospel accounts, or epistles). To do so would be to have picked apart the Bible too much for any spiritual use. Such a fragmented Bible may be of interest to the scholars, but to the Christian, it profits little.

So those two vital points must be made before considering the Old Testament, but the Pentateuch in particular - that it is of a genre largely unused in the New Testament, and that, for the Pentateuch, one person's pen did not write the whole. One last point which seems at times forgotten is that these books are written in a historical and cultural context which is entirely different to ours. Some of the ideas which to them appeared self-evident will be exceedingly difficult for us to grasp, their questions will be totally distinct to those we might ask. So the last point is this: we must ask the text what information it wishes to convey, and not demand it tell us what it does not contain. To do so, we ought to consider the audience, the culture, the time and the place of its writing. Armed with these preliminaries, we may now go on to Genesis.

[1] Not to say all old things are wrong, which seems to be the implication of this expression. I mean simply that uniquely Mosaic authorship is the traditionally held dogma which is now viewed with as having a certain naïveté these days, now that we know significantly more. This still does not rule out Mosaic authorship, particularly as it is sometimes seen as heroic to doubt religious things which rest on much stronger evidence than more secular beliefs.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Historical Argument Against the Bible

Before I commence this post, I think it prudent to make clear two crucial things. First, I am a follower of Christ Jesus because I looked into history to try and show that he did not rise from the dead, and found that I was wrong. Secondly, I want to affirm the role that Biblical documents have played in history - from discovering monuments in Siloam, the pool of Bethesda or any other number of matters in history, many of these documents have helped historians better understand the ancient world.

So, having said that, I now want to try and formulate a historical argument against it. There are, I think, at least two ways of doing this: first, pointing out that historically, two things that are described in the Bible could not both have happened, and secondly, that what the Bible says disagrees with what happened in reality.

Both of these are possible, but the latter is more difficult to do in a blog post, and I would say that it is far less convincing, since it is difficult to know things with certainty when they happened so long ago. Without further ado, I want to mention two bits of evidence of the former sort:

  • The differing accounts of the conversation with Pilate.
  • The differing accounts of the apostle Paul's journeys after conversion.
The first one I believe is quite simple, because in three of the four canonical gospels, the synoptic gospels, there is not very much talking, yet in bet. See Mark 15:1-6, for instance, where the only words Jesus says are "You say so." Matthew 27:11-14 records a similar encounter.  Luke 23:1-7 seems to suggest that there is a bit more conversation, since the previous two said quite clearly that Jesus gave no more replies, but when Pilate asks Jesus if he was a Galilean, it appears Jesus may have responded. Perhaps - the text does not say Jesus speaks, but only that Pilate "learned that he was under Herod's jurisdiction."

John's gospel has a bit more of a to-and-fro between Pilate and Jesus, captured in John 18:28-38. Here, Jesus is much more talkative, saying such memorable lines as "my kingdom is not from here," and here he admits more clearly who he is: "You say that I am king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." to which Pilate responds, equally memorably: "What is truth?".

So which one is it? Now, what is interesting is that these are actually two independent sources (because the synoptic gospels are related in some way, but John is distinct) that there really was a sort of sentencing by Pilate, and indeed, there exists at least one extra-biblical document that corroborates this. Historically speaking, this means that this encounter probably occurred in some form - but which? This is not a question with an easy answer, at least not from a historian's point of view.

Next, and for me more crucially, is the missionary movements of Paul and the discrepancies between Acts of the Apostles and Galatians. Here, I struggle to find some story that could magically tie them together, and even if I could, it would probably have to be more complicated than accepting one account or the other. I shall let you, the reader, attempt to figure this out. The relevant passages are Galatians 1:15-22 and Acts 9 (and onwards, but the point can be made just from Acts 9) - check for yourself.

Very simple, the modus ponens into which I have been putting the arguments is this:

1.If the Bible contradicts itself (or contradicts with reality), then it is errant.
2. The Bible does contradict itself.
3. Therefore, it is errant.

I feel pretty unorthodox writing that, but I think the premises are true and the argument is valid, so I cannot do otherwise.

Finally, then I have come to an argument which I think is quite solid. If the Bible contradicts itself, by the way, it follows that at most one of the events could have occurred, so it is also in dis-accord with reality. What can I say to that? One thing to do could be say that one ought not to believe a word of it. Another thing one might do is limit the scope of the Bible to some smaller range of topics, such as "matters relevant to salvation". However, I would want to say something else, improving on the latter option:

The Sacred Scriptures are not quite the same as a history book, or a scientific manual, and it is crucial to the study of the Bible to realize that. So when one author makes a point in one way and another makes a similar point that seems to contradict (such as "where did Paul really go?, "what did Jesus really say?" or any number of other ones). What difference does it make where Paul went, really? The divine truths are equally accessible to us either way, and if Acts gets some of the journey details chronologically out of order, then so be it! [It could be the case that Galatians gets it wrong, but since that is a Pauline epistle, one would then have to infer Paul had gone senile, or was lying.]

To end, I quote the relevant bit of Dei Verbum:

"the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation."

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Immoral Argument against the Old Testament

The core question of ethics, "what ought one do?" is one of the foundational questions of philosophy. Christianity seems to get ethics from the Bible, but is it really a good source? If one looks at the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, then it may seem very plausible. Yet the earliest gentile Christians realized that it was not quite so simple - they were going to have to contend with the seemingly abhorrent actions committed by Israel, codified into Mosaic Law and commanded by God. Can an argument from the immorality of the Hebrew Bible suffice to reject the Bible as authoritative on matters of morality?

Allow me first to bring up some of this "evidence". From things Israel committed, see Numbers 31
where Moses commands the Israelites (it can be reasonably argued from verse 7 that God was the one who really commanded, but it is possible that the brutality was not God's - in this instance) to destroy the Midianites, and then Moses complains further when the Israelites have not killed every woman. These Midianite women and the men (referred to as boys in the passage) are to be put to death. The virgins, however, are kept as plunder "for themselves".

If the ownership of women seems unlawful to you, then this only complicates matters, as the law of Moses clearly speaks of women as property[1], for instance, in Exodus 22:16-17. Christians can speak of Jesus abolishing this law all they like, but the gospel according to St Matthew is insistent on the fact that Jesus' role was fulfilment, not abolishment - and if the sinless man fulfils it, then the Mosaic law must be the standard of morality to judge sin by. Furthermore, if Christians are adamant that Jesus actions mean we can ignore the law of Moses, why does St Paul refer to it as good and holy? (see: Romans 7:12)

One final piece of evidence: God's own explicit commands. Where better than the genocide of Joshua, commanded in Deuteronomy 7? I take this last instance to be common enough knowledge, and if not, then Deuteronomy is clear enough.

Now comes the logic part. It seems to be the case that these have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, about compassion on loving on another - but they do, for Jesus claims to be the son of the God of Israel and no other. The modus ponens argument I suggest is as follows:

1. To commit or command the actions listed above is immoral. (P implies Q - commanding these actions implies that the commander is immoral)
2. God commands the actions listed above. (P: God does indeed command these actions)
3. Therefore, God is immoral. (Q: therefore, by modus ponens, God is immoral)

The logic of this statement is valid, but one may also attack the truth of the premises. Some Christians reject the first premise, saying that it is not in all times, cultures and places immoral to kill others or enslave them. Some say that it may be for most, but not for God, because God can do whatever he likes. Phrased in a more sophisticated manner, God has no moral obligations, as nothing is above God to impose them.

Very well, but that neither seems biblical nor does it seem to bode well in philosophy, either. If God does not, by his very own righteous nature, impose standards on his own actions, then how does he impose standards on ours? Where does this standard come from in the Christian view, if not from God's own essence? Either we propose an authority above God from which morality emanates, thereby constraining God, or we reject this and propose that the standard is, in fact, from within God and then he must have moral obligations; to himself.

But the second premise can also be challenged. Is biblical infallibility a terribly out-dated doctrine that ought to be left aside? It would certainly be helpful to reject it at times like these! Or at least, do we really need to take things so literally, word-for-word true, leaving aside the human element inherent in it?

In fact, I would opt for something along the lines of the latter. There are however, problems with this view, and there exist tensions which I am not wise enough to solve. Succinctly, the most crucial is that the New Testament writers all valued the Old Testament very highly, if not as inerrant. For some more discussion on this topic, see Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away.

[1] It has come to my attention that the Roman Catholic Church actually (quite prudently in my opinion) has the decalogue (10 Commandments) arranged in a different way. These commandments are numbered 10, but there are in fact 13 "you shall not"s, and so it falls upon the translators to combine them to make 10. Catholics combine the "first two" and separate wives from property, avoiding this problem.

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.