Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Doubter's Guide to Faith (4): Evidence and Apology

Audio file for listening or download.

Mark 9:14-27
John 20:19-31
“I believe. Help my unbelief.”
“Do not doubt, but believe.”
We are in the final week of our Doubter’s Guide to Faith. Our first week, we asked the question, “How can I KNOW?”. The second week, we explored the experience of pain and the absence of God. Last week, science versus faith, and whether or not evolution can co-exist with Christian faith. This week, we examine evidence for faith and the defense of the faith.

As Christianity was growing up in the Roman Empire, the empire, the culture, the powers fought back – and fought back hard. One of the early ministries in the church was the ministry of the Apologist, someone who made a defense for the faith, who explained what made Christians unique, who did so with two purposes in mind: (1) to win people to Jesus and (2) to reduce persecution.

Justin, born in Samaria, converted as an adult in the city of Ephesus, was the most famous Apologist. He is known as Justin Martyr because he was martyred under emperor Marcus Aurelius about the year 165 (ECF, 9). Perhaps his apology was not adequately effective!

His writing demonstrates some of the accusations leveled against Christians in that early era, as well as some creative, open-minded ideas towards people who do not follow Jesus. Early Christians were called “atheists” because they did not believe in the many gods of the ancient world.
Thus we are called atheists. And we admit that in respect of such supposed gods as those we are atheists; but not in regard to the most true God (Apologia I, vi; in ECF 58).
From his perspective, Socrates was just such an atheist, and, therefore, just such a Christian – without being one in name:
When Socrates tried to bring these matters to light and to rescue mankind from those demons [false gods] by the critical application of sound reasoning, then those very demons [had him executed]. ... Christ ... is the Word [reason] of whom all mankind have a share, and those who lived according to reason are Christians, even though they were classed as atheists (Apologia I, v and xlvi; in ECF 58-60).
Justin was writing his Apology for a different time, but he addresses obliquely one of the big questions today: What about good people in other religions? Aren’t Christians judgmental and narrow-minded? Justin is a resource, just one fine example of Christian people handling the question of diversity with integrity and openness.

Tertullian was a firebrand. This lawyer was converted as an adult, in the year 193, because he witnessed the death of Christian martyrs (ECF, 14). In his Apologeticus he refers to the testimony of martyrs as a demonstration of the truth of what we believe. He writes to the powers of Rome,
Your cruelty profits you nothing, though it grows ever more ingenious; it is one of the attractions of our [faith]. As often you mow us down, the more numerous do we become; the blood of the Christians is the seed [of the church]. ... when we are condemned by you we are absolved by God (Apologeticus, 50, in ECF 167).
Tertullian took the time to address some of the anti-Christian propaganda circulating in his time, among them the ideas that Christians were a secretive band of law breakers who practiced cannibalism. “This is my body broken for you.” It required some explanation:
At this point I shall reveal the real activities of the Christian ‘faction’. ... We are a body united by a common religious profession, by a godly discipline, by a bond of hope. We meet together as an assembly ... that as an organized force we may assail God with our prayers. Such violence is acceptable to God. We pray also for emperors, ... for the peace of the world .... [We] pay for the nourishment and burial of the poor, ... support boys and girls who are orphan and destitute; and old people who are confined to the house; and those who have been shipwrecked ... (Apologeticus, 39; in ECF 141-142).
Like Justin, Tertullian was writing in a different time, for a different audience. Yet, he touches on another one of the big objections people bring to the faith: Christian people, and religion in general, are responsible for so much evil. Yes, we are; the evidence is too plain and too painful. But look at history, look at Tertullian’s witness: before the church became powerful, before church and state made their unholy alliance, the church was a blessing to those who were most in need.

In our own time, the same thing happens, though it doesn’t always receive press. Yesterday, a group of our young folks and adults were at the Youth Development Center serving breakfast to the kids. And we’ve got folks doing relief and development work in Haiti and Ghana, feeding the hungry in our own community, educating children, helping people move. And throughout history, it has been Christian people who have pushed for women’s rights, built hospitals, ended child labor, abolished slavery – in ways that no other great world religion other than Judaism has done. Jesus quoted Isaiah the prophet and declared that he came to bring “good news to the poor”. In as much as we are doing that, in as much as this has been a reliable theme in the history of the church, we are doing the work of Jesus in the world.
“I believe. Help my unbelief.”
“Do not doubt, but believe.”
We’ve heard from two of the ancient Apologists of the church. I want to take some additional time to discuss some of the common questions of our time more directly.

First, many people question the reliability of the Bible and the biblical text itself. It is ancient – hasn’t it been changed or altered in transmission if not before? Our Mormon and Muslim friends, and a great many non-religious people, allege that is exactly what has been done.

The opposite is true. The Biblical text is the most reliable and accurate ancient text in existence. Yes, it was copied by hand. Yes, there are textual variants, some of which our Bibles include in footnotes. However, it is not possible to overemphasize: the Biblical text is the most reliable and accurate ancient text in existence.

Some examples, collected by Josh McDowell: Caesar’s Gallic Wars, written around 50 B.C., has only 10 early copies in existence, and the earliest is still 1000 years after the text was first written. Aristotle’s writings are preserved in 49 early texts, 1400 years after they were written. Herodotus is preserved in 8 early copies, 1300 years after they were written. The New Testament? Over 5,300 manuscripts in the original language of Greek alone, plus many other early translations. And the earliest fragments of the New Testament date to the first century, less than 100 years from when they were written.

This wealth of textual evidence makes a couple things very clear. One, the New Testament textual tradition is continuous. There is no evidence that the gospel texts were altered to support one theological view or another. Two, the textual tradition is both so early and so extensive as to make deviation from the original document extremely unlikely. There is simply not enough time for that to happen.

Second, isn’t the worship of Jesus as God a later addition, not historically supported? Scholars and skeptics have pointed to the Gnostic gospels and concluded that early Christian faith and practice was not uniform in its belief in Jesus Christ. Folks read The Da Vinci Code, which was a really fun novel and an okay movie, and believe Dan Brown’s version of history – that the gnostic position was prominent but later suppressed through the political moves of a shrewd bishop who got the Emperor Constantine on his side. Of course, the shrewd bishop (Athanasius) was sent into exile several times, so I’m not sure how effective he was at the political process! Anne Rice, author of Interview with the Vampire and now Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, describes some of the skeptical scholarship:
Some books were no more than assumptions piled on assumptions .... I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I’d ever read (cited in Timothy Keller, 99).
But what of the evidence in the development of the New Testament itself? Again, the New Testament was not written by second- or third- or fourth-generation believers to support and idealize the church leadership. It was written in the first generation – Paul’s letters within 25 years of the death of Jesus, Mark’s gospel in the mid 60's and John – the last to be written – before the end of the first century. This means that eyewitnesses were available – both Christian eyewitnesses and opponents of Jesus – all of whom could debunk any significant fabrication. The gospels include the first century version of footnotes, referring to eyewitnesses like “Alexander and Rufus” by name (Mark 15:21). By contrast, the earliest and most famous Gnostic gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, was not written until 175 or later, well after the four New Testament gospels were widely circulated and accepted. And, it certainly was not written by the Apostle Thomas. (See Keller, 100-103.)

Aside from the date of composition, the literary form of the gospels is clearly not fiction. Ancient fiction was not realistic; it did not include mundane details such as “153 fish” or “asleep on a cushion”. Realistic fiction has only existed for the past 300 years (Keller, 106-109). The gospels are the reports of witnesses, consistent with the literary conventions of the time, not our conventions. Luke’s gospel opens with this writing plan:
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,1 to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed (Luke 1:1-4).
“I believe. Help my unbelief.”
“Do not doubt, but believe.”
We’ve talked about the open mind of Justin, the witness of the martyrs, Tertullian’s church serving the poor. We have investigated the reliability of the Biblical text itself, particularly the New Testament and its teaching that Jesus is God. In prior weeks, we’ve addressed the relation of reason and doubt to faith, the experience of pain, and questions raised by evolution and science. There are plenty of other questions that we have not been able to touch, or that we have only briefly mentioned. But this is the end of the series, at least for now. Where do we go from here?

I hope you have seen that there are productive ways to address our doubts, ways that open new doors to faith, ways that deepen our confidence in God. I hope that, if you are struggling with some particular questions, you will find here at Bethany a community where you can raise your questions, express your doubts, and be accepted for where you are on your journey. Doubt can be a productive part of our spiritual journey.

I hope you have seen that there is more than one way to be Christian, to believe in Jesus. It is possible to embrace evolutionary theory and embrace Jesus. It is possible to believe in Jesus as the unique Son of God and Savior of the world and still hold the door open for Socrates. Speaking personally, I am less concerned about where you and I stand on these things than I am about the direction in which you and I are moving. For me, I always want to be moving toward Jesus and his cross, because, as far as I’ve come, I’ve got a long way to go.
“I believe. Help my unbelief.”
“Do not doubt, but believe.”
I love the two Scripture passages we have before us today. “I believe. Help my unbelief.” I was once asked to pray over a woman paralyzed in a horrible accident. So, I prayed for healing and – at the same time – in my mind I prayed, “God, why am I doing this? She will never get better.” Faith and doubt co-exist in all of us. The question for us is how we will choose to live. Like objecting to our partner or spouse, and yet not questioning that we are a pair, we can object to God, object to something in Scripture as we currently understand it, and still be God’s (see Keller, 113f). Perhaps we’ll discover that it is all a misunderstanding, perhaps we’ll discover that we’re wrong, perhaps we’ll live and love in tension, but we are still God’s. “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Then, we have the Thomas story. Have you ever been stubborn in refusing something, something good? I love Thomas. He wants evidence, he wants to see and touch the wounds of Jesus. And, Jesus offers that to him. “Do not doubt, but believe.” The closest we come to touching the wounds of Jesus today is in Holy Communion and caring for the oppressed. But Thomas was face to face with the risen Lord Jesus. And he never touched the wounds. Because, at the end of the matter, it is not all about the evidence, it is all about Jesus. It’s not ultimately about the process of doubt or the work of reason. It’s the gift of faith. Will we join Thomas and proclaim, “My Lord and my God”?

Today, I invite you to come to the altar and proclaim your faith in the Lord Jesus. Don’t let your doubts deter you. Decide to follow Jesus.

Henry Bettenson, editor and translator. 1956. The Early Christian Fathers (ECF). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Justin (in ECF)
Tertullian (in ECF)
Timothy Keller. 2008. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Penguin/Dutton.
Josh McDowell. Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Available in extracts online. See http://www.josh.org/ and http://www.angelfire.com/sc3/myredeemer/Evidence.html

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