Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Appalling Alternative

Paul's own view of evangelism and of the Gospel is straightforward: rely on the power of God, not human gimmicks. Let's review 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5 again:

1:17--If in preaching the Gospel we rely on human wisdom (and scientific proof is a form of human wisdom), we are emptying the cross of Christ of its power. Do we really want to do that?
1:18-31--Those who reject the Gospel will consider it foolishness anyway; it is part of God's judgment on intellectual pride. If an intellectual is seeking God and asks an honest question, it is reasonable to answer it. This is one of the valid uses of apologetics. But we do not "prove" the Gospel.
2:1-5--We do not use human means and arguments to convince people; we simply display the power of God to them, so they will rely on God, not on Man.

Now, some may be frightened by the idea of evangelizing through God's power, because it sounds sensational in its own right: What do we do--heal the sick and raise the dead? Well, if that's how God uses you, yes; but for most of us, it involves living supernaturally. When we love other people no matter what they do to us, when we put others first and generally exhibit a Christlike character, this will provoke wonder and praise to God from those who watch us (Matthew 5:14-16 [good works]; John 13:35 [mutual love]; 1 Peter 3:1-2 [godly conduct], among many others). People who do these things consistently from the heart (rather than ocassionally and legalistically) are supernaturally empowered by God; they are the type of witnesses he wants.

Will we do this? Most of us will not; it is easier to memorize a few factoids than to let God radically change our hearts so that our very lives testify to his existence and power. And we can take credit for studying all these obscure topics! Sometimes, instead of emphasizing the treasure of God placed in our clay jars (2 Corinthians 4:7), we polish up the jars. Jesus said we should clean up the inside rather than just polish the outside (Luke 11:39-41).

Unfortunately the trend is toward spectacular teachings and away from the ones Jesus considered useful or even vital. We spend more time on eschatology and sensational proofs of scripture than on actually reading the Bible and letting the Holy Spirit apply it to our lives. I would suggest that we need to shelve the weird stuff for a while and concentrate on the basics, especially since the people we have reached with a version of the Gospel seem so poorly grounded.

You might think that all this means that we should never stir from basic issues. It does not. The problem is not that we have doctrinal differences and our own interpretations of scripture; it is that we take these things too seriously, as though they were themselves basic. Denominational distinctives should be taught in a church--though it would be a good idea to let people know that other views exist in areas that are not essential. And if people want to debate Creation Science versus theistic evolution, or even talk about prophecy, fine--though I'd be leery of doing such a thing during church. When there are new Christians and potential converts around, stick to the basics. More experienced Christians should discuss fringe areas among themselves. In this way, we can continue to explore whatever topics strike our fancy without endangering or warping new believers.

Will we learn to live out Romans 14, and put God and his family ahead of our own speculations and prejudices (even keeping our bright ideas to ourselves--Romans 14:22)? Or will we continue to do things our way--and wonder why the Spirit of God goes elsewhere?

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Purpose of Apologetics

1 Peter 3:15 mentions being ready to give a defense of one's faith--it also mentions doing it respectfully, an attitude I don't see much of these days. But is a defense a proof? In context, I'm not sure it is. Peter's talking about dealing with abusive people, and the point is that when you respond to bullying with God's love, the bullies (and perhaps others) will ask how you can exhibit such superhuman love. That's when you give your defense, which will probably have less to do with Creation vs. Evolution than with simply giving your testimony.

Thus Paul's "defense" in Acts 26 did not involve proofs in the modern sense. He simply gave his testimony, which bore witness to the life-changing power of God. The closest he came to apologetics in the modern sense was in Athens (Acts 17:15ff), where he mostly confronted the Athenians with instances where their own culture (especially their literature) had points of agreement with the Gospel. But he doesn't bother proving very much; he mostly asserts certain truths and appeals to shared experience.

So is apologetics wrong? No. I think it's greatly misused, however. While it is reasonable to answer critics' arguments against the Bible, for example, the goal is not so much to win converts as to defuse error. Sometimes it provides an occasion to present the truth, as when Christians had an opportunity to contrast the historical truth of the Bible with the pseudohistorical nonsense of the da Vinci Code. But notice what happens: it isn't the argumentation that wins people so much as God's Word!

Back to the title: what is the purpose of apologetics? As we've just seen, it answers accusations. But it also satisfies our human desire for rationality. We can't live without understanding, and apologetics, like systematic theology, gives us a coherent picture of our beliefs. As in Paul's case, we can seek a bridge to pagan culture, though again as in his case, it will usually break down when we get to important points such as the resurrection. Apologetics of this sort is most effective with those who are actively seeking--who want to believe but find their reason getting in the way.

The problem, then, occurs when we try to use apologetics for evangelism--especially when we use it instead of scripture. Then it becomes the very appeal from human wisdom Paul spoke against in 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5. But what's the alternative? We'll find out next time.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Limits of Argument

Wise adage #1: Heinlein said that man is not a rational animal but a rationalizing animal. That's often true. So when we try to address a spiritual matter from an intellectual standpoint, we're likely to run into rationalizations. Argument assumes that the other person is roughly neutral, willing to change views if shown he's in error.

It doesn't work.

Most people are where they are by choice--even a negative choice like being too lazy to check their childhood beliefs carefully. So when you inform someone that's he's wrong, you're telling him to change. Hardly anyone welcomes that.

Wise adage #2: A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still. Even if you win the argument, you won't necessarily win the soul. Francis Schaeffer sought to avoid this problem by finding the "point of tension" in the other's beliefs: any time you disagree with God, you're out of synch with Reality. So there will always be a point where your stated beliefs and your actions conflict. And it won't be a case like the Christian who sins and admits it: it will be a fundamental disharmony.

It can get someone thinking when you topple his worldview like a house of cards. By God's grace he may even repent. But he's at least as likely to change to some other falsehood--less effort.

Wise adage #3: What you win someone with is what you win him to. If you win them with glitz, you win them over to a show-biz version of your view. If you win them with fear, dangling them over Hell, you'll win them to fear--and as soon as it's gone, they'll follow.

So with argument. All kidding aside, it's about proving that you're smarter than the other guy--even if you're only parroting someone else's argument.

Paul dealt with this in 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5. It opens, "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel--not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power." And it concludes (2:1-5), "When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power."

So what's the purpose of apologetics? We'll look at that next time.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Fake ID?

Intelligent Design gets a lot of strawman treatment, and no wonder: even its supporters don't always understand it. It isn't opposed to evolution as such, for example (some Christian evolutionists believe in intelligent design); it actually opposes methodological naturalism, the idea that anything can be dealt with scientifically as part of nature. So if angels exist, it should be possible to get hard data on them and determine the physical laws by which they work. What's amusing about this is that at this level neither ID nor methodological naturalism is "scientific": they are really metascience: metaphysical approaches to or assumptions about science.

(There is a scientific basis for ID, however: that some things cannot be reasonably explained except as products of design, and that there is a verifiable protocol for detecting such things. But back to the metascience of naturalism.)

The argument for naturalism is that it's impossible to have a theory that accounts for powers beyond nature: if miracles can occur, then the predictability of science is in jeopardy. This is true as far as it goes, but it should be clear that the result is biased, and biased in a way that can't really be justified. If the resulting theories were tagged as "accurate so far as naturalistic methods can discover," that wouldn't be bad. But it takes precious little effort to move from the theoretical acknowledgement that science has its limits to the effective pronouncement that the miraculous cannot occur. (And we may also observe that not all sciences are predictive anyway; some are more descriptive.)

Now, ID does not actually require miracles, just a Designer, and that Designer (if omniscient and omnipotent) could have simply planned for some things to happen that could not happen by chance. But what if science did allow for miracles? Would all vanish in primordial choas? No. Essentially, life and science would continue. The main difference would be in outlook: instead of claiming that appearances are truth, we would always place a limit ("so far as we can tell"). Perhaps we would even realize that our desire for knowledge doesn't justify all means of obtaining it. Similarly, "I'll do it because I can" is a terrifying statement. I found it morbidly amusing that at the same time the scientific community authoritatively dismissed Mengele's research on ethical and moral grounds, it clamored for experimentation on embryos.

So acknowledging that purely naturalistic science has its limits is a good thing. But does it help with apologetics? Not really. We'll see why next time.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Did We Bomb Hitler With Antimatter?

A Dialog Between Lunatics:

Looney 1: We ended World War Two by dropping an antimatter bomb on Hitler.
Looney 2: We did not! That's not how the war ended at all.
Looney 1: So, you're saying that antimatter doesn't exist! But it's a proven fact that it does.
Looney 2: No, it doesn't.

Take a look at that for a moment. Why are they both nuts? Well, Bachelor #2 could have gotten off the Looney Express as follows:

Looney: So, you're saying that antimatter doesn't exist! But it's a proven fact that it does.
Non-Looney: It doesn't matter whether antimatter exists. Historically, we did not end the war by bombing Hitler.

Now at this point the first guy would probably continue to rant, but at least the second one would have established his sanity.

What does this have to do with the Creation/Evolution debate?

Looney 1: We got here through purposeless biological evolution.
Looney 2: We did not! That's not how we got here at all.
Looney 1: So, you're saying that evolution doesn't occur! But it's a proven fact that it does.
Looney 2: No, it doesn't.

Now, with sanity:

Looney: So, you're saying that evolution doesn't occur! But it's a proven fact that it does.
Non-Looney: It doesn't matter whether evolution occurs. Historically, we did not get here by evolution.

The problem is that people on the Creation side let themselves get bogged down about whether evolution is possible. But that doesn't matter. Consider: if someone proved that a new species (not a subspecies) had evolved, would that really prove anything about how we got here? No. (If one could prove that evolution can't happen, that would settle the matter, but it's notoriously difficult to prove a negative.)

Yet I have actually known of people who claim that the Bible somewhere says that evolution is impossible. (It doesn't. Seriously.) Focusing on biological evolution is largely a red herring. While I personally take Gen 1 as literal history, some Christians don't. That should at least move us to caution.

In the next post, I'll look at what does matter--the point we should be arguing. (Some are arguing it already, in fact.) And then we'll consider why even that is only of secondary importance.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The World's Worst Definition?

As an example of how our view of apologetics has drifted, I'm going to look at evolution.

Evolution is defined as "Change over time." The first time I ran into that, a young Christian and reflexive theistic evolutionist was explaining to me why evolution doesn't conflict with the Bible. Leaving that point aside for the moment, I'm still amazed I didn't laugh in his face.

You see, all change is change over time. In fact, the way you know something has changed is by comparing Time 1 with Time 2 and spotting a difference. Arguably, if nothing changes, no time has elapsed.

More amusingly, by this definition, an embryo evolves into a baby and eventually an old person, and a bunch of raw materials evolves into a car and later a junk heap.

Even if you say that a longer time is meant, you aren't really talking about evolution in the typical sense unless you say that you mean change in a species arising over the course of several successive generations.

So why use such a lousy definition?

Right off hand, I can only think of one reason: to obscure rather than explain. Technically, there are a number of things called "evolution": stellar evolution, planetary evolution, and biological evolution. The only things these have in common are the word "evolution" and the concept of "change over time."

They are very different ideas, however. Non-biological evolution involves the development of an entity over time; biological evolution involves change in different entities over several successive generations. I don't think non-biological evolution is particularly controversial, either: given time, it would happen. Stellar and planetary evolution is simply applied physics.

But what about biological evolution? We'll look at that next time.

Friday, November 2, 2007

God first! People second! Period.

To continue yesterday's thought, people are more important than systems. No matter how clever your theology is, it's only a flawed model. It is not more important than the person you club with it. A million years from now, that person will be an overwhelming glory or horror. Your theology will be a gladly forgotten embarrassment by then, crushed to oblivion by the sight of the One it so feebly and inaccurately describes.

That doesn't mean theology is unimportant. It just means that even the most detailed and accurate map is not the area mapped. The best photo is no substitute for the beloved. Surely we should insist on the best until faith becomes sight, but we must also remember that the goal is not to introduce someone to your sketch or photo, but to the One pictured.

God is personal, and he created us as personal beings. One of the most common blasphemies is reverse idolatry: to treat one made in God's image as a thing, a case, an abstract entity. If your approach to witnessing is system-oriented, you are treating a person as a thing, and you must stop!

Instead, commit yourself to God and ask him to show you what to say and do. Then obey him. No clever arguments or gimmicks--just the power of God. "But what if he asks about Science and Scripture, or the da Vinci Code, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?"

We'll look at that tomorrow. But for now, God first! People second!
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