Thursday, December 25, 2008

Response on Atonement

Thanks to NewWord and Jonathan for their responses to the blog on cruciform apologetics. I remember how positively I responded when I first read Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor and his defense of what had been known as “the ransom theory” of the atonement which Aulen dubbed “the classic theory.” I believe there are real strengths in this theory and that there is New Testament grounding for the assertion of ransom, victory and liberation being results of the cross.

However, to see the ransom theory as the key to understanding the cross leaves several questions/issues unanswered. First, Anselm’s question “Why the God-Man” in my opinion is not adequately answered. The original iteration of the ransom theory perhaps answers this better than later modifications. Adam’s sin gave Satan ownership of the human race. Out of love Christ appeared as a man and was offered to the Devil as a ransom. However, the Devil did not realize that this was the eternal Son who would overcome death. So, the ransom was paid by Christ dying, but the victory was won as Christ rose from the dead. Those who have read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe immediately recognize this scenario. In this form we can see that it took the God-Man to win the victory. Only he could be perfect and it is his perfection that allows him to rise from the dead.

But, the idea of “tricking” the Devil has not found a lot of acceptance in the past few hundred years. And if the deception is eliminated the encompassing power of the ransom motif is weakened, for why would the Devil accept a payment that would have such catastrophic results for his nefarious kingdom?

If “paying the Devil” is left behind, then the second question is simply this. What is it about the cross that brings about victory or liberation? It is simply not enough to say that liberation happened, there has to be some kind of grounding in cause and effect. If a ransom was not paid to the Devil, and if the wrath of God was not satisfied (as in substitutionary atonement), then what happened? What, precisely was it that occurred at the cross that set us free?

The third question builds on the previous two. What are we set free from? Does the cross set us free from sin? From guilt? From feeling crummy about ourselves? From capitalism? From … what? Can this question be answered without a really solid answer to the first two questions?

This brings us back to substitutionary atonement. I agree with Jonathan, that each theory of the atonement provides a window through which the atonement may be viewed. Thus, the New Testament does speak of the defeat of the Devil and the destruction of his works. Very powerfully we are told that we are ransomed and set free. And this kind of affirmation can be said of all the other theories. However, the work of theology is to find the central truths which bring all else together in haromony. This harmony of the other viewpoints of the atonement is the truth captured in the Greek word uper – “for, on behalf of." The concept of substitution rests on this word. So Paul simply states in Romans 5:8 "Christ died for us."

Finally, I would like to comment on the thought that talking about the cross creates the impression that Christ is absent to the unchurched. To me this is not true at all. It is the cross alone that enables me to understand that God is neither silent nor absent. How can we talk of a God who is “present” but who is not present in the horrors of the twentieth century and of the opening decade of this century? Of what relevance is a God who is not present to the private pain that each individual feels?

This is the good news of the cross. Christ is the Man of Sorrows. In Christ God has come and taken all our suffering on himself at Calvary and overcome it at the empty grave. How much more present to the people of the world could he possibly be? This is why Paul said: "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:2. Truly there is nothing else to know or proclaim.

Friday, December 12, 2008


A large section of A.B.Simpson's vision was "Christ for the body," which means that Jesus Christ brings healing to his people. At our General Assembly we close with a Lord's Supper/healing service. Recently I received this testimony about healing at our July 2008 General Assembly. As part of "rebirthing Simpson's Vision I share it here.

To Dr. Pyles:
I need to tell you something amazing that happened to me at General Assembly during the communion healing service. I have been a migraine sufferer for 10 years. As you were asking people to stand who had on going or long term physical problems I was to timid to stand. I knew deep down inside that this was my moment to be totally healed from this ailment. As people were praying all over the room God touched me. I have been headache and migraine free since GA. No more medication. No more trips to emergency for IV treatment. No more long, extended isolation in bed. I have been totally free! Praise God.

LeeAnne Lloyd
Immanuel Alliance Church
Peterborough, Ontario

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cruciform Apologetics

I believe that, along with a powerful understanding and presentation of the resurrection, we must have a firm grip on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Some current evangelical writers find this teaching to be out of sync with post-modern times. The concept of God needing sacrifice is abhorrent to them as it was to the fathers of liberalism in the 19th century. However, for the apologist, substitutionary atonement speaks to the following objections to the Christian message.

First, substitutionary atonement speaks to the objection that it is a logical contradiction that a loving God who is infinite would create a world in which there is suffering.

The doctrine of substitutionary atonement teaches us that evil is not an inherent trait in creation. God did create a world that is good. Evil arises within creation by free choice.

The presence of evil is abhorrent to God. However,the elimination of evil requires a very deep response from God. Here the depth and complexity of Christianity must be grasped, for it is so easy to retreat into what Lewis, in his drinking analogy, called “Christianity and water”. No, Lewis is saying, you must take your Christianity straight.

Evil produces actions that violate God’s holiness, righteousness and justice, that is, God’s core nature. Evil actions harm people, the creation and the evil person himself. To overcome evil God himself had to become involved in the fullness of his Trinitarian life. This involvement went to the length of joining with humanity in the Incarnation, and satisfying the justice of God in death.

Second, substitutionary atonement speaks to the objection that we suffer and God could help but doesn’t. Substitutionary atonement removes the god who somehow is distant from our suffering, unable or unwilling to intervene to stop it. I believe God is grieved, that when Jesus wept he showed the sorrow and suffering of God for all our suffering. But God the Father did not stand by somewhere out there and watch disease and famine spread and wars be waged.

The LORD said, I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them…” Exodus 3:7, 8

Christ came to rescue us. Christ took on himself our grief and our sin so that it might in the end be swallowed up in his victory. I would propose that the concept of Christus Victor is totally empty, simply a metaphor (for what?) without substitutionary atonement. But,Christus Victor is a powerful reality as we see Jesus our Pascal Lamb, who was on the cross in my place, who overcame the grave so that I also might participate in his life, and be given everlasting life. Truly, Christ meets me in my suffering and overcomes it.

Finally, substitutionary atonement speaks to the re-definition of evil and guilt. The sacrifice of Christ Jesus is the reason our guilt is removed. This culture has listened to Freud and believed him when he taught that there is no real guilt. If there is no God, then it does follow that there is no guilt. And, if there is no guilt there is also no evil. But people know better. The category of evil inserts itself into every morning newspaper, and sociopaths are the only ones who do not groan under the weight of wrongs done to others. The forgiveness of God does not come simply because “that is his job.” No,to overcome evil sin must be dealt with, and sin can only be dealt with by God himself taking sin on himself, which he has done in the sacrificial death of Christ at the cross. Because this sacrifice is final and complete we can truly come to the throne of grace for help in time of need.

This is why many, and I think rightly so, consider John 3:16 to be the key verse of the Bible: for God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whosoever believes on him might not perish but have everlasting life.

God responded to our plight because he loves us, and he did not respond with a metaphor. He responded by entering our pain, taking the guilt of our sin upon himself, and by washing our guilt away with his blood in a sea of mercy, forever. Because of the cross we can understand and experience, as Malcome Muggeridge somewhere said, that the universe is awash in love.

Ultimately then, we must not think for one moment that an effective 21st century apology to Canada will hide the cross, or come to the cross later, after many warm things are said. Rather, we must understand that a 21st century apology to Canada must be cruciform, shaped by the cross and cross centered.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Resurrection as Theodicy and Plausibility Structure

As mentioned before, Karl Barth famously attacked the natural theology project by saying that it came up with a god, but not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What he meant by that was that one can propose an argument that nothing comes from nothing, and therefore if there is something – i.e., the universe -- the universe must have been brought forth by something other than itself, and that we would call God. Barth agrees that this argument could lead a person to affirm a creator.

However, there is no way to continue the argument in order to demonstrate that this creator holds us morally responsible, sees our misery, makes promises and covenants. Barth robustly asserts that the god of natural theology, or, if you will, the god of the philosophers, is not the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob.

C. S. Lewis and others recognize this issue and shifted their apologetics from creation to those attacks which specifically sought to deny the historicity of Jesus, his divinity, and his resurrection. It is somewhere in the middle between the proofs for the existence of God and the defense of the historicity of Jesus that I sense a weakness. And the spot is, as Lewis puts it, in the problem of pain.

To bring this out let us turn our attention to a recent review by Douglas Groothuis of William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong's "God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist" in the summer issue of Books and Culture. Groothuis, in his review, points out that Craig’s theodicy fails to convince the atheist, but does convince him, the Christian reviewer.

"The nub of the argument over evil seems to boil down to Craig's argument: (1) If God exists, gratuitous suffering does not exist. (2) God exists. (3) Therefore, gratuitous suffering does not exist.11 Craig's strategies for God's possible justification of evils are merely speculative unless one has previously made a strong argument for a metaphysically and morally thick theism through natural theology. That is, background knowledge weighs crucially here. Since Sinnott-Armstrong denies the success of Craig's arguments for God, Craig's explanation for evil rings hollow and desperate to him. But if one takes Craig's overall, fivefold case for God to be strong (as I do), this defangs Sinnott-Armstrong's objections."
Douglas Groothuis “The Great Debate” Books and Culture July August 2008.

One is forced to ask, what good is an apologetic that only convinces Christians? Groothuis adds:

"Since Craig argues forcefully—if briefly—for the resurrection of Jesus as part of the cumulative case for God's existence, it might have served him well to invoke Jesus' resurrection as part of the solution to the problem of evil as well. If Jesus has been raised victorious over death and sin, the world is not without hope. Evil does not have the last word."

Indeed! I would go so far as to say that there is absolutely no theodicy without the resurrection. In fact, I would disagree with Craig and say that suffering that arises from evil is gratuitous, that it is without cause, for if it had a cause it could be justified, and it is not justified if it is evil. However, there is pain that is not in itself evil. But let us stay focused on suffering that arises from evil. This is what the cross and resurrection are all about. Christ came to destroy the works of the devil, and that is how he did it. I truly believe that this needs to be tirelessly presented as our apology in the 21st century. We need to be aggressive in proclaiming and defending the truth that God has seen our misery and taken it upon himself at the cross and overcome it at the empty tomb. And further, that he intends to restructure the world itself and the world order, and that preparing for that is the duty of the Christian community, the church.

In so presenting this core teaching we establish the Christian plausibility structure that Newbigin points us to. True, we cannot, in an enlightenment way, prove that Jesus rose from the dead with logic, and even less, prove the meaning of the resurrection as the overcoming of evil. But, the resurrection as a fact can be defended, and its meaning taught as a structure by which the world may be understood.

C. S. Lewis clearly understood this. In his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed” he speaks of being in a tool shed where light streams in from a crack in the roof. One does not sit and seek to see the light, rather, one should stand in the light and by it see everything else. I would propose that this is Lewis’ way of speaking of Newbigin’s “plausibility structure” built by the knowledge of God and the Christian teaching about God.

Thus, for Lewis the resurrection is not something one proves. One can defend the historical existence of an historical person, namely Jesus. But, one accepts the resurrection (the act of faith) and in so accepting it all other parts of life are understood.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

My Apologies (not my apologetic!)

Sorry dear readers, but I am out of country. I will continue next week. Thank you for your patience.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

C.S. Lewis and Changing the Plausibility Structure

Two areas of apologetic activity by C.S. Lewis are little known any more, yet they occupied a great deal of his time. The first is live debating. Every week, he met with what was called the Socratic Club at Oxford and debated atheists. He writes of exhausting the phonebooks looking for atheists to debate because after awhile they did not wish to come. Well, to be honest, who would? With his baritone voice, quick wit and mastery of literature and philosophy, Lewis was a formidable opponent by any measure. But, like Francis Schaeffer who engaged in thousands of evangelistic conversations with students, Lewis demonstrated in the debates that Christianity was not to be simply blown off, but had to be seriously engaged by anyone who styled themselves as an honest thinker.

I really believe that debate and engagement is an area that has not been adequately explored in Canada, especially on university campuses. While there has been some, usually sponsored by Inter Varsity, there is room for much more aggressive action here. The results might not be immediately apparent, but in the long run, it would enable Christians to engage the pretensions of atheism in a direct way once again.

The other area not fully appreciated is his professional writing as a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature. Works such as his magisterial study of allegory (The Allegory of Love) and his study of Paradise Lost are consciously written as a Christian, but marvelously meet all the criteria to be taken with absolute seriousness by the scholarly community. Two things come to mind in how he used his scholarly writings as an apologetic tool.

First, he sought, as always, to build the Christian worldview. As an example, in his book The Discarded Image he portrays the worldview of the medieval times and how that affected its literature. As he discusses this, the contrasts with the worldview of the twentieth century become painfully obvious.

At the same time, he loves to debunk cultural lies in these writings. I might add that in common use one might say “debunk myths,” only that use of the term “myth” would probably be offensive to him. For example, in several places he refutes the concept that people in the first century and afterwards considered the world to be flat. And on it went. He truly believed that Satan had embedded many lies into cultural discourse to make it difficult for the truth of Christianity to be perceived. In truth, what Lewis was doing in this part of his project was trying to re-do the plausibility structure of which Newbigin speaks. He was not content to simply work within the twentieth century plausibility structure, he wanted to change it. Thus, in a number of places, he calls for Christians in every profession to remember that they are Christians when they write, whether they are scientists or professors in the humanities. He earnestly felt this would do more in the long run than any other effort.

This, of course, leaves us to ask if his challenge has been taken up. There is now a flowering of evangelicals in academia. I myself have not, and am not able, to peruse their writings, or even to sample them. But in my own small way, I would echo Lewis’ call to write consciously as Christians, for in this way, slowly, you contribute to a paradigm shift in the cultural understanding of plausibility.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Imagination -- Opening a Door to The Holy

The power of the imagination as a pathway for God was something C. S. Lewis would testify to from first- hand experience. Before he was a Christian he purchased a paperback copy of George MacDonald’s Phantastes and, in his words, experienced holiness. What he meant was not sanctity in the sense of moral goodness, but holiness as spoken of by Otto in The Idea of the Holy. Otto spoke of holiness as that sense that we have of something absolutely OTHER. The awareness that there is something, or Someone, behind the world as we ordinarily experience it. From that moment when Lewis had this experience he began to travel a road that led him finally to Christ.

Soon after his conversion Lewis forayed into imaginative writing with the allegory The Pilgrim’s Regress. Personally I love this book, partly because it is a veiled autobiography of Lewis’ spiritual-intellectual journey up to that point, and partly because it contains so many barbed critiques of the English intellectual landscape of the 1930’s, barbs that still have not lost their edge.

Regress was imaginative, but the best was yet to come. From 1938 on through the mid-fifties Lewis blew the doors off beginning with Out of the Silent Planet and moving on in rapid succession to both Perelandra and The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape put Lewis on the cover of Time Magazine and brought him international readership and fame. And yet The Chronicles of Narnia still lay ahead.

What needs to be considered is that all of this was part of his intentional work as an apologist. He believed that there are certain archetypes in the universe and that these form the foundation of our thinking. These archetypes find their expressions in myths. (It should be noted that Lewis claimed to be an expert in myth, and he did not believe that the Gospels were myth.) Thus, myth could carry truth about God to a person who might even be hostile to the truth on another intellectual level. And one of the results might be that the reader will have an experience of The Holy as he himself had had when he read Phantastes. It is worthwhile to mention here that his fellow member of The Inklings, J. R. R. Tolkien, agreed with this approach.

It is hard to measure the impact of these imaginative works on the minds and hearts of millions of readers. Certainly they have reached a mass audience through film that either Lewis or Tolkien would have found hard to believe. But, do they point people to Christ?

To answer that question we have to go back to the train platform where Lewis first picked up Phantastes. He never claimed that it pointed him to Christ. What he claimed was that it unexpectedly opened up his mind to a new dimension of reality, and that once his mind was thus opened he could not resist the gradual intrusion of a presence who brought to him the greatest surprise of his life – joy.

Since the time of Lewis and Tolkien there has been a profusion of fantasy/imaginative writing in pop culture. Some of it has been quite good. Some of it carries a Christian worldview. And, some, like the Philip Pullman trilogy, promotes atheism. In Canada, and in the world, we await the rise of more writers who will effectively carry on the groundbreaking work of Lewis and Tolkien, writers who will tell stories that open the door of the mind and heart to The Holy.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Complete Apologist

I have been invited to introduce Ravi Zacharias when he gives a lecture on apologetics at Tyndale University in Toronto in 2010. I am honored to do this. From time to time Ravi graciously recalls conversations that we have had together about C. S. Lewis. They began when we sat together once on an airplane and I commented how wherever I went, when I spoke on evangelism or apologetics, almost inevitably someone would come up to me afterwards and testify about how they had come to Christ by reading C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.
I would call C. S. Lewis the complete apologist. In his day he practiced apologetics in every way that it could be done. He not only saw it as an intellectual activity, but as spiritual warfare. Furthermore, when I say he practiced apologetics in every way it could be done, I mean that not only did he practiced the defense of the faith on a wide intellectual front, also he opened up a new area of apologetics when he ventured into addressing the foundational structures of thinking which psychologist Carl Jung was labeling as myth. And more, he also aggressively used more than one way of delivering his apologetic to the marketplace rather than to the limited academy. In this he moved beyond apologetics as pre-evangelism to evangelism itself. And, in so doing he clearly understood that he was conducting spiritual warfare.
My own debt to Lewis cannot be overstated. Simply put, my ministry career has been one of protracted reading of most of what he has written.
In previous blogs I have noted that key evangelical apologists have followed the path of logical refutation of atheistic assaults on Christianity with variations on theistic arguments. In spite of the claim that post-modern thought rejects this line of defense, I have pointed out that the current aggressive atheistic arguments that have reached a mass audience follow the classic line from Hume to the present and that the response by current apologists are well done and well deserved.
Certainly C. S. Lewis considered himself part of this company. He wrote a number of carefully thought out apologetic essays and two closely argued books, Miracles and The Problem of Pain. In a previous blog I mentioned Alvin Plantiga’s argument against naturalism published in the summer 2008 issue of Books and Culture. Of interest is that he says that he is building on the argument which C. S. Lewis put forward in Miracles.
These two show Lewis’ instinct for the issues of the day, day here meaning the entire 20th century and at least the beginning of the 21st. Why is there pain? Why do people suffer? Could not an infinite God who also loves have made it so that we all lived happily? And, attached to the last question is the denial of the possibility of God, who by definition is outside the natural system. Lewis takes these questions on directly. In Miracles and PofP Lewis aggressively asserts that the presence of pain is not something that is incompatible with the existence of God and that Hume made serious errors in asserting that God could not at once be outside the natural system but act within it.
Personally I think these are wonderful books. I have read each a number of times and each time I have been encouraged and strengthened. Further, they are works that do not allow a person to think of Christianity in an off-handed manner, as something that may be contemplated outside of oneself, but point the reader toward encounter. This is especially so in the final chapter of Pain where Lewis opens the discussion of heaven, a discussion carried forward imaginatively in both Perelandra and The Great Divorce. To be honest, I do not know of a single writer who has written about heaven with the power that Lewis has. To read all of his writings on that fair land is to be filled with longing, or, as he might put it, to recognize the longing that fills our every waking moment.
However, back to my conversation with Ravi Zacharias, I have never had anyone tell me that they came to Christ because they read either Miracles or The Problem of Pain. Instead they tell me that they came to Christ because they read Mere Christianity.
Mere Christianity is the next step in understanding Lewis as the complete apologist. It is a compellation of addresses given over the BBC during World War II. One can almost hear air raid sirens in the background as one reads thinly veiled attacks on the world view of the Nazi’s. However it is so much more than a morale booster, even though apparently that is what some at BBC originally had in mind. It is a straightforward presentation of Christianity.
Here Newbigin comes back to mind. Lewis does not feel that somehow he should get people to “accept Jesus” and then, down the road, teach them the basics of Christian doctrine. Rather, he teaches doctrine, and then from within the doctrine the listener/reader is expected to see the whole truth and how she personally is part of that truth.
Most of us are familiar with this work. It begins with what is known as the moral argument for the existence of God. I feel that this is a very powerful argument and attempts to overcome it by arguing that “we can be good without God” because morality can be explained with evolution are in fact answered by Lewis and the answers resonate with many. Lewis moves on into Christian morality, with a discussion of such things as marriage, sin, forgiveness, incarnation and the Trinity, to mention a few. One of my favorite quotes is as follows:
Very well then, atheism is too simple. And I will tell you another view that is also too simple. It is the view I call Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right—leaving out all the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil, and the redemption. Both of these are boys’ philosophies. (Mere Christianity, Chapter 2, 1st paragraph)
It is, he is saying, the very complexity of Christianity, and Christianity’s willingness to face the hard reality of life that commends it. And all of this is aimed at the cabdriver, the mother, and the young teen ready to leave for basic training, as they quietly sat by the radio in the evening. No one really knows how many thousands have turned to Christ because of this one work.
And yet, he did not stop here. He pushed out into totally uncharted territory for apologetics; he pushed out into the sea of imagination.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Defending the Factuality of the Resurrection

Newbigin’s third point is also worthy of consideration. It is the attempt, as he puts it, “to neutralize any affirmation of the truth.” It is the contention, almost accepted as a truism in our day, “that the truth is much greater than any one person or any one religious tradition can grasp.” Thus, when this is accepted the exclusive claim of Jesus Christ, and of the gospel, can be immediately discounted, for even if it is accepted as truth the gospel may only be a segment of a much larger truth.
Clearly it is this assumption of the post-modern world that creates the possibility and the plausibility of the “pluralist society.” And, every single person who is seriously seeking to communicate the gospel in Canada today is aware that this assumption is a foundation of the contemporary Canadian worldview.
Newbigin takes some time to dismantle the credibility of this assumption, and does it masterfully by showing that the claim to relativity requires a claim to actually know full reality. The question we have to face is this: how does one speak when a commitment to relativism is part of the plausibility structure of the person to whom one is speaking?
Newbigin’s answer is to stand with the unbelieving neighbor and look at events which the believer sees as communicating God’s actions and will, and to ask the unbelieving neighbor: “stand here with me and see if you don’t see the same pattern as I do.” As an example he calls our attention to the liberal theological interpretation of the resurrection as found in the last century. In an attempt to make the resurrection story “acceptable to contemporary thought” it was explained as something that was generated by the pre-existing faith of the disciples. In other words, nineteenth century liberalism said that the disciples so believed in Jesus, that after he died they interpreted their belief by means of the story of the resurrection. This, Newbigin brilliantly points out, is the exact opposite of what the Gospel writers present. They present disciples snared in unbelief who are brought to belief by the reality of the resurrection.
I would only add here that in relating the story to audiences the disciples also squarely faced the challenge that they were delusional, that they were mistaken, had only seen a vision or an apparition, that they had lied and actually moved the body, or that Jesus was not really dead and had merely recovered after swooning. In short, every objection to the veracity of the resurrection account from either a Hebrew or Greco/Roman perspective was answered. Thus they recognized that it was incumbent upon them as witnesses to establish by means of all accepted criteria that the resurrection was a fact.
So, my first conclusion is that I agree with Newbigin that “we have no reason to be frightened” by the fact that relativism is part of the plausibility structure of our day. Relativism cannot stand up logically. However, that is not enough in itself, for the concept of relativism has power in spite of the fact that it is snared in a logical fallacy.
I believe that the old apologetic practices of proofs and evidences as they arise from the biblical narrative must still be used. If they are not then we will be perceived as offering a story that only gives a perspective on a greater truth. Instead we must make it clear that the narrative of the resurrection is the core narrative that explains and gives coherence to all of history, including the personal history of my unbelieving neighbor.
Having said that I must further make it clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that giving the proofs and evidences for the resurrection constitute in any way the whole work of apologetics and/or evangelism. Instead, I am saying that before we invite our neighbor to stand and look at the narratives of God’s saving actions and to consider that the Bible brings a new way of understanding and interpreting life, we must be ready to defend the reality of that perspective by defending the factuality of the narrative, i.e., the factuality of the resurrection.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Plausibility Structures

Few writers lay out the groundwork for speaking of Christianity to a post-enlightenment epistemology than Leslie Newbigin. His book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is rightly hailed as a classic, if for no other reason than his careful explication of the epistemological issues. Here I wish to highlight these and comment on them and their relevance to communication of the Gospel in the pluralist society of Canada.
Newbigin opens with a discussion of dogma and doubt, which is part of a wider discussion of plausibility structures. In brief, one of the key moves of the enlightenment was to place everything in doubt. Everything especially included traditions, dogma, and prejudice as things to be disregarded in the quest to know reality. Thus arose various attempts to give “the assured results” of science, or scientific historical inquiry, higher criticism, and other results of inquiry that could be verified and or tested.
Without belaboring the history of epistemology, it has been shown that the attempt to find absolute certainty fails. This is sometimes misunderstood as a collapse into relativism. As we shall see below, a door may be opened to relativism in new epistemological paradigms. However, there is at the same time an attempt once again to explore the role of tradition, dogma and prejudice in knowing truth.
Newbigin brilliantly summarizes this part of the project in three main points. “1. Every kind of systematic thought has to begin from some starting point. It has to begin by taking some things for granted. In every domain of though it is always possible to question the starting point, to ask “Why this rather than another?” or “What grounds are there for starting here?”… No coherent thought is possible without presuppositions. … 2. Every society depends for its coherence upon a set of what Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures,” patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not…. 3. Finally, what may be considered to be an opening of the door to relativism in the establishment as a philosophical commonplace that “the truth is much greater than any one person or any one religious tradition can grasp.” Newbigin critiques this commonplace rather harshly.
I will make a few comments on each point in relation to speaking the gospel in a Canadian pluralist society.
First, Newbigin considers Christian dogma to be the starting point, the set of presuppositions, for the Christian’s thinking. Certainly Christian teaching functions as a framework for all the thinking of a Christian. However, from the standpoint of knowing, should we accept dogma as a starting point? There still has to be a place where believers and non-believers begin, where they agree that to do otherwise is to collapse into meaninglessness. Having said this I recognize that Newbigin assumes this and when he speaks of Christian dogma as the starting point he means that once we have agreed that knowledge is possible then Christian dogma shapes interpretation of the world and in so doing creates the plausibility structure. Newbigin is quite clear about reason:
"The faculty which we call reason, the power of the human mind to think coherently and to organize the data of experience in such a way that it can be grasped in meaningful patterns, is necessarily involved in all knowing of any kind." (TGIAPS, p.10)
Second, the social conditions of belief, the “patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to it members and which are not” is not, Newbigin says, “reason” operating in a sort of vacuum. Rather, reason must operate within the context of “the tradition of a community which cherishes and lives by the story of God’s saving acts.”
Nevertheless, I would point out that the New Testament strongly connects to the plausibility structures and standards, not only of the Hebrew world which found dreams, visions and prophecies as things that created or enhanced plausibility, but also to those things accepted by the Greeks and the Romans as creating plausibility. For example, eyewitness accounts, reference to specific dates, referents to historical people, referents to specific geographic locations and sites (such as David’s grave), as well as local customs and laws. At the same time there is a strong counter-cultural thrust in the rejection of myth. And finally, for both the Greco/Roman world and the Hebrew world, signs and wonders did not require a plausibility structure to be understood, but instead they contributed to the plausibility structure. In other words, in both the case of Jesus and the apostles, healing the sick was accepted as an affirmation of the truth of their message.
It would seem to me that this second point of Newbigin’s is pivotal for any consideration of communication in today’s Canadian society. What is it that contributes to the plausibility structure of this society? Perhaps readers might be willing to join in this discussion.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Do We Also Need To Do An Apologetic For Logic?

There is also at this time a renewed interest in the work of Francis Schaeffer. I was present at Wheaton when he presented the sermons which later became the book: The God Who is There. Schaeffer had a profound and beneficial effect on my thinking and my spiritual walk. There is a core part of his methodology that needs to be thought through again.
Schaeffer was one of the first to wrestle with both apologetics and evangelism to what we now call post-modern people. He understood the central issues of post-enlightenment thinking and was able to marvelously illustrate them from the arts. He also grappled with the work of the Holy Spirit and of the Word of God and the reformed rejection of natural theology, which is the attempt to prove the existence of God apart from the revelation contained in Scripture.
However, he believed that apologetics is not only possible, but biblical. For him John 20:31 “but these are written that you may believe” is an invitation to apologetics-- the giving of reasons to believe, which is more than a defense.
Schaeffer spoke of “taking the roof off” of a person’s intellectual and spiritual house and letting existential rain come in. What he meant by that was that logic should be used to demonstrate the flaws in a non-theistic worldview, especially a worldview that we would now speak of as post-modern but which he spoke of as being “below the line of despair.” He saw the “roof” as the delusion of post-modern man that they can have modernism in science but post-modernism in ethics, art and spirituality. Once the roof was off, the rain could come in, that is, the reality of what the world really would look like if one actually lived out this worldview.
I think this approach, which he used in thousands of evangelistic conversations, has much for us to consider. The respectful approach that does not fear to engage a non-theistic or non-Christian worldview is very important. Further, when Schaeffer exposed the devastating consequences of post-modern thought and its linkage to the existential pain frequently being experienced by the people to whom he spoke, he would go beyond apologetics into soul care and soul cure.However, there also seemed to be in Schaeffer a need to convert people from a post-modern/Hegelian (below the line of despair) epistemology to a modern epistemology as part of “taking off the roof.” Schaeffer saw this from a non-acceptance of logic to an acceptance of logic, i.e., accepting that A cannot be non-A. This raises for us the issue: is it possible to do Christian apologetics without first doing an apologetic for a preferred epistemology?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Relational vs. Logical Apologetics

Once I taught apologetics in an Asian country, and there was some concern that I would bring western rational apologetics which were completely irrelevant. Through the years, I have considered this more and more to be a just concern.
Much of the apologetics that has been written in the past fifty years by evangelical protestants has been based on apologetics written to counter the enlightenment. An example would be the early E. J. Carnell, Gordon H. Clark, and later Norman Geisler who presented logical defenses for the existence of God and for the Christian faith.
However, current writers (David Fitch for example) who desire to engage our culture, decry the classical apologetic project as “modern” and therefore by definition unable to address a post-modern society. In sum, what is meant by this critique is that the defense of the Christian faith to modern or enlightenment thinking is done so using enlightenment assumptions and methods. Hence, as more and more the enlightenment project is considered to have failed, the Christian apologies written against the enlightenment are seen to have actually been co-opted by it and therefore share in its failure.
In the July 2008 issues of Christianity Today and Books and Culture carry articles on apologetics and articles that are in and of themselves defenses of the Christian faith. Consistently, the writers argue for the faith. Alvin Plantinga presents a logically thick attack on naturalism. Other apologists are featured or referred to because they are answering various atheistic attacks presented in the past year. These atheistic attacks are not framed in a post-modern motif, but are classic modernist attacks which seek to refute the core claims of Christianity on the basis of empirical evidence and logic.
Thus the rise of an aggressive, logic/empirical atheist apologetic demonstrates that there is a continued need for a hard-core logic-based Christian apologetic response. As dense as argumentation like Plantinga’s is, it is not simply an intellectual sport, it is a spiritual activity of tearing down strongholds. Some might argue that an argument such as his does little in the arena of evangelism. I would counter by saying that the opposition arguments have done much in the promotion of atheism, so we should not discount the effect of a tightly argued Christian response. However, there is more to the problem than the perfection of argumentation. More in the next blog.