Is Christianity Rational? A Look at Athenagoras of Athens

Greek for “[those who are] without God.

One worldview that challenges Christianity in the West is that of metaphysical naturalism. According to this worldview, there is only the material world. There is no creator God – the world came about by chance. There is no God sovereign over the past, present, and future – the universe is but a cause and effect system. Beauty and morality are not rooted in the nature of God – they are rooted in physical causes and explainable only through physical means. Christians follow an ancient, outdated religion that presents a faulty view of the world. For some, Christians are unreasonable for not only believing that God exists, but also for believing that the Bible is God’s word that informs their knowing.

While this challenge speaks to the time in which we live, it is not unique to 21st century Christians. Even as early as the second century Christians faced challenges from the Romans for irrationality. In his Embassy for the Christians, Athenagoras addresses this charges in his answer to the Roman claim that Christians are atheists.

If the fifth-century historian Philip of Side is correct, Athenagoras was a Platonist philosopher who headed the Academic School in Alexandria. Then around 176 AD, Athenagoras became a Christian through reading Scripture (which he initially sought to refute). After his salvation, he wrote two works (that we know of) in defense of Christianity (Embassy for the Christians) and on the nature of man (On the Resurrection of the Dead). Unfortunately, little is known of Athenagoras, yet he stands among the great early Christian apologists.

In Embassy, Athenagoras writes to Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius on behalf of Christianity calling for a fair hearing. Appealing to their status as philosophers of high standing, Athenagoras argues that Christians should – at the very least – be placed on equal footing with the philosophers. That is, he does not seek to equate Christianity with pagan philosophy; rather, by pointing out the beliefs espoused by the Romans’ revered philosophers, it should be clear that Christianity is more reasonable and good in its doctrine. Thus, Christians should not be persecuted for such charges as atheism.

Religion in ancient Rome was not a private or personal matter – a matter of choice or merely personal piety. Rather, religion was intricately and intimately intertwined in the political and societal life of the Roman Empire. Though even a summary discussion of Roman religion is beyond the scope of this post (see John Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire: Aspects of Greek and Roman Life [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985]), let it suffice here that the worship of Roman gods lent to (in part) the protection of and blessing of the State. Thus, the Christians’ refusal to worship the pagan gods was seen as a seditious act. Further, the Romans were skeptical toward anything that was new. By worshipping one God (monotheism), the Christians were considered atheists in the Romans’ eyes. Christians, then, essentially denied the divine, hence their atheism. Seditious and atheistic, the Christians were a threat to the very stability of the Roman Empire. What person in their right mind would walk in such a manner?

The primary mode of attack in Athenagoras’ Embassyis to address the charge of atheism. If he could eliminate the charge of atheism, then the validity of the other charges would dissipate. Athenagoras’ takes a two-pronged approach by addressing the philosophers’ own monotheism and ‘irrationality.’ 

In Chapter 5, Athenagoras quotes two well-known playwrights – Euripides and Sophocles – who posit that there can only be one true God and that the so-called gods of Rome have no real existence. Though these playwrights (and other philosophers) affirmed monotheism, they did not believe in God as revealed in Christ. Nevertheless, by quoting from the Romans’ own revered poets, he sheds light on their inconsistencies. If Roman poets and philosophers reject polytheism yet are lauded, why are Christians – who likewise reject polytheism – persecuted?

In Chapters 15 and 16 of The Embassy, argues that it is the Romans, not the Christians, who are irrational in their beliefs. Following Isaiah (see Isaiah 44:9-20), Athenagoras exposes the folly of idol worship. Christians worship the one true God, who is not of this world. The one true God is not of, nor is like, his creation; he is the cause of all things and sits in majesty over creation. The Roman gods, however, are like humans in that they are made of material things. The so-called gods of Rome are but created things – they are blind and impotent. Though Athenagoras’ point was the impiety of the Romans (and not the Christians), we see implied as well the irrationality of worshipping Roman gods. For, according to Plato (whom the Romans claimed), “that which is called heaven and earth has received many blessing from the Father, but yet partakes of the body; hence it cannot possibly be free from change” (quoted by Athenagoras). Romans, then, worshipped imperfect, creature-like gods, unworthy of one’s worship. Christians, on the other hand, worship the one true God who made all things and is above all things. Perfect and holy, God alone is worthy of one’s worship. Who, then, is lacking reason? The Romans for their worship of corruptible things.

Though Athenagoras’ apologetic may sound foreign to modern ears, the heart of his message rings true in the 21st century. Christians may no longer be labelled atheists, and modern atheists may claim the crown of rationality, but his appeal to what is rational speaks to our challenges today. How is it that Christians are irrational for their worship of the Creator God? The appeal to science for truth – ultimate truth – is a leap of faith. Metaphysical naturalists essentially have faith that science and reason will always lead us to untarnished truth. But an appeal to finite and contingent human reason as the arbiter of truth is a recipe for uncertainty and confusion. Creatures relying upon creation alone for universal truth is akin to the Romans praying to material idols for protection and blessings. Christianity, on the other hand, accords with reason for all of creation points to the reality of and existence of God (Romans 1:20).

Athenagoras provides other helpful arguments in the defense of the Christian faith. To read more, see: Athenagoras, Embassy for the Christians: The Resurrection of the Dead, trans. Joseph Hugh Crehan, Ancient Christian Writers, No. 23. (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1956).

Why Even Do Apologetics? A Helpful Word From Chris Bolt, PhD

If we cannot change the heart of the unbeliever through arguments, then why even do apologetics? Packed in this question is the correct presumption that it is the Holy Spirit alone, through the proclamation of God’s Word, that changes the heart of the unbeliever. However, as Chris Bolt tells us, it is a question based upon a faulty view of what “argument” means. Check out his helpful podcast.

Lightening Apologetics, by Chris Bolt (Twitter: @cbolt)

Chris is a friend from my PhD days in Louisville. He is a pastor and bright philosopher. This podcast is his first of what I’m sure is going to be an excellent resource.

Connecting Today’s Apologetics to the Past

The discipline of apologetics continues to be a popular area of study among Christians, particularly as Christians face increasing challenges to beliefs once widely accepted. Modern believers have an embarrassment of riches in regard to apologetic resources, such as print and electronic books, websites, podcasts, blogs, and social media. Geared to the specialist as well as to the layperson, Christians are not at a loss for resources on how to defend the faith.

Despite Christian apologetics’ rich history and today’splethora of resources, it seems to me that current works (particularly popular works) tend to emphasize the present to the neglect of the past. That is, books, articles, and other resources on apologetics tend to focus primarily on current topics, questions, and challenges to Christianity with little attention to how apologists in ancient and medieval Christianity addressed similar matters. Granted, Christians are generally concerned about immediate challenges to our faith. Yet, with this emphasis on currentarguments and answers, there’s little attention as to how the past informs today’s challenges.

Now, current works don’t completely ignore apologetics of the past, but by and large, any mention of the past is made in the context of the present. That is, Christianity’s past consists of historical facts – the way Christians of old answered their own challenges. Or, apologetics of yesterday are a link in a long chain of development to the present – a necessary link, but now outdated or irrelevant in light of today’s challenges.

Further, popular apologetic works tend to emphasize method over context. Take a look at the various titles of current books in apologetics: Conversational Apologetics; Covenantal Apologetics; Expository Apologetics; The Apologetics of Jesus; Cold Case Christianity; Apologetics by the Book; Relational Apologetics…and the list goes on. Implied in the titles provided is that methodology is the key to effective apologetics. By “methodology”, I mean howone does apologetics. For instance: What is the starting point with an unbeliever? Does one first begin by demonstrating God’s existence? Ought one to use natural theology (i.e. argument from design, etc.) in their apologetics, and if so, at what point? The idea seems to be that there is a “better way” or “right way” to do apologetics compared to recent attempts.

While there may be indeed more effective means of doing apologetics, the emphasis on method is a recent development. Since the Enlightenment – when scientific thinking and methodology became the bar of truth – Christians were faced with challenges not encountered before. As Christian apologists answered these new affronts to the faith, the matter of methodology came to the forefront – an issue somewhat foreign to pre-Enlightenment apologetics (especially from ancient Christianity).

Allow me to clearly state that I am not against the current apologetic works available today. They are a valuable source for Christians and the church today. Nor am I against the ongoing dialogue on apologetic method; we need to ensure that we effectively communicate and defend the Gospel. What I am saying is that we need to revisit the apologetics of the past to see how they can inform today’s challenges. That is, we need to study Origen’s Contra Celsum, Anthenagoras’ Plea for the Christians, and John Damascene’s apologetics against Islam (among others), for they’re not merely of historical interest. Rather, ancient Christian apologists can (and do) speak to the very challenges Christians face today.

This semester I am teaching Apologetics II where we study the various apologetic methods (such as presuppositionalism, classical apologetics, evidential apologetics, etc.). In the first two week of class, we spent time going through four chapters of Five Views on Apologetics (ed. Stanley Gundry, Zondervan, 2000). The remainder of the semester, however, is devoted to studying the works of apologists from ancient Christianity up to the eighteenth century. Each week a student is responsible for taking a small passage from that week’s assigned text where they are to provide:

  1. The place of that passage within the work as a whole.
  2. Identify relevant points, such as tone, word usage, characterizations, etc.
  3. Identify proper names and places, dates, etc.

The purpose of this assignment is to get students to understand (to the best of their ability) the context in which the apologist operated. What questions did Christians face? What challenges did unbelievers bring before Christians, and what informed these challenges? Why did the apologist argue as they did? Such questions do bring up matters of method, but what I want my students to see is that the apologists were less concerned (relative to some today) about method, and more about addressing the questions and challenges against Christianity. Likewise, as we seek to give an answer for our faith, we too ought to consider the questions and context that inform the unbeliever’s beliefs. Our response, shaped by and informed by the Gospel, begins with these questions.

More so, we have much to learn from apologetics from the past. While the details may differ, the questions and challenges Christians face do not. There are only a finite number of ways one can oppose Christianity. (I believe Solomon’s “there is nothing new under the sun” applies here.) We can benefit from the energy and thought other Christians have invested in their defense of the Gospel.

Christianity today faces challenges that deserve our attention and careful study. Christianity has always, though, faced challenges. fWe stand on the shoulders of Christians who have gone before us. Let us enrich our apologetic work by reading and studying our brothers and sisters of past who have been faithful to give an answer for the Gospel.

‘Place’ and Apologetics: Christopher Brooks and “Urban Apologetics”

Recently I wrote on the fundamental role “being known” plays in one’s act of knowing. That is, my coming to know something is not reduced to the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am.” Just as important is the reality that each individual is confronted by reality – by others, by the physical world, etc. We are not able to completely abstract ourselves out of culture and tradition (as Descartes tried to do). Rather, we are shaped by the culture and tradition in which we live.

This culture and tradition makes up what I’m calling place, which also includes one’s geographic location and social setting. Where one is and was (i.e. if one lives in a different location from where they were born) plays a significant role in what issues they face on a regular basis. Place also determines what worldviews and religions one encounters through their neighbors, co-workers, and fellow citizens. These issues and questions force the individual (either reactively or through reflection) to come to terms (at some level) with what they believe or know about them.

Apologetics is not immune to the impact place has on the act of knowing and what one believes. Continue reading

Quote: David Brooks on the Need for the Philosophy of Personalism

[O]ur culture does a pretty good job of ignoring the uniqueness and depth of each person. Pollsters see in terms of broad demographic groups. Big data counts people as if it were counting apples. At the extreme, evolutionary psychology reduces people to biological drives, capitalism reduces people to economic self-interest, modern Marxism to their class position and multiculturalism to their racial one. Consumerism treats people as mere selves — as shallow creatures concerned merely with the experience of pleasure and the acquisition of stuff…

[T]oday’s social fragmentation didn’t spring from shallow roots. It sprang from worldviews that amputated people from their own depths and divided them into simplistic, flattened identities. That has to change

David Brooks

The quote above is from David Brooks’ article (see here) where he suggests a return to the philosophy of Personalism – a philosophy that had a brief life in the late 19th century and early 20th century. I’d initially dismissed this philosophy as “too subjective”, but as I read more about it, the more I come to see the potential value this philosophy has, particularly when one does not divorce it from God’s revealed Word.

I plan on reading more on Personalism, but some initial thoughts come to mind:

  1. Personalism is not saying that the individual is the ground of reality. The essence of humanity (at least in part) is that we are personal beings. And, as created in God’s image, our personhood reflects the nature of the Triune God. [Obviously, more needs to be said about what is meant by “personal”, but that’ll come later.]
  2. Personalism does not have to reject universal truth; in fact, I believe that one can consistently hold to a form of Personalism and universal truth.
  3. In a day where we experience the Cartesian divorce of humanity from “culture and tradition” on one end of the spectrum, and the Postmodern complete encapsulation of humanity within culture and tradition on the other – Personalism may be a helpful way to bridge the gap.

So, it seems that my personal (no pun intended) research is beginning to take shape once again as I near the end of my one-year hiatus from writing. With my previous post on “knowing and being known” and now this renewed interest in Personalism, I believe I have my work cut out for me.

Knowing and Being Known: Introductory Thoughts

I did not begin studying philosophy until I was 4 years into my Masters degree (which took me 8 years and 11 months to complete). For the longest time I viewed philosophy as a discipline for really smart people. However, as I look back on my life, I believe I didn’t give philosophy the time of day because I thought it was boring — a musty relic of academic disciplines. I was spontaneous (or so I thought)—I didn’t want to be “stuck” in one place; rather, I wanted to travel, to see the world, and to be invested in something bigger than myself. Philosophy did not fit the bill.

Little did I know at this time, though, that the questions and longings I had were (in part) philosophical in nature. The last two years of my college career was a period of deep anxiety and, at times, depression.[1] I recall a prayer that I repeated rather often during this time of my life—that I would know God. I longed to know God beyond the mere intellect; however, I didn’t know how else to say what I longed for other than stressing the word ‘know’ to entail a fuller, substantive, and deeper sense of knowing God. Continue reading

Straw Man Introductions

How often do we as academic writers set up straw men scenarios in our introductions in order to establish the relevance of our thesis? The introduction is just as important as the body of the work; set your opening scenario in its proper context. The more you force the relevance of your thesis, the less likely it connects with reality.

Does God Exist? Some Thoughts on an Important Question

I recently had the opportunity to be a part of my church’s (Ninth and O Baptist Church) Sunday night series titled “Can I Ask That?” where we address tough questions about Christianity. For example, past sermons include “Can I Trust the Bible?”, “Why is Hell Forever?”, and “Did God Call the Israelites to Commit Genocide with the Invasion of the Land?” I addressed the question “Does God Exist?”.

This question is quite complex, such that a 40-minute Q&A session only touches the tip of the iceberg. However, the way the moderator (Drew Smith) structured the forum, I believe we were able to touch on some important issues that many face when addressing the question of God’s existence. Continue reading

Is Philosophy Work? Josef Piper vs. Donald Trump on Education and Work

Amidst the fury over the US government’s handling of immigrant families, news came out of Washington this week that President Trump is considering merging the Department of Education with the Department of Labor. Erin Dooley with ABC News quotes Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney:

They’re doing the same thing…Trying to get people ready for the workforce, sometimes it’s education, sometimes it’s vocational training – but all doing the same thing, so why not put them in the same place?

While there are many kicking back at Trump’s suggestion, if educators were honest with themselves, there has been a growing trend in higher education to tie higher education to the nation’s workforce – analogous to the way the minor leagues feed into MLB teams. In short, education has been relegated to preparing citizens entering, or those seeking to enhance or relocate, in the workforce.

Continue reading

A Response to Bryan Fischer regarding J.D. Greear

Earlier this month the Southern Baptist Convention—amidst recent controversies regarding several of its leaders—elected a new president in J.D. Greear. Though the messengers of the SBC overwhelmingly voted for Greear, there is a vocal minority voicing their concern about what Greear’s leadership means for the future of the SBC.

One such voice is that of Bryan Fischer, host of Focal Point on American Family Radio. Fischer—in an article published yesterday (6/21) titled “Southern Baptists May Be in Trouble with J.D. Greear”—seeks to warn Southern Baptists that Greear’s “softer” stance toward homosexuality may eventually lead to SBC churches allowing homosexuals to serve in volunteer or paid ministry positions.

Several leaders and key figures within the SBC have called out Fischer on Twitter, claiming that he is slandering and misrepresenting Greear. Fischer, on the other hand, claims that he is warning SBC members of the possible implications of Greear’s stance on homosexuality. Further, he claims that no one is challenging his “assessment of the logical implications of the ‘more than’ statements JD made about homosexuality.”

Up to this point, individuals have asserted that Fischer’s work is slanderous, malicious, and divisive, allowing Fischer the higher ground to claim that no one has challenged his argument (and thus he remains unscathed). In what follows, I want to address Fischer’s argument regarding the implications of Greear’s statements. I hope to show that what Fischer believes is a sound argument is nothing more than a fallacious forecast of what can possibly happen.

Fischer uses Greear’s sermon delivered at the 2014 annual meeting of the ERLC as his jumping point. In this sermon, Greear seeks to emphasize the need for Southern Baptists to stand firm in their biblical belief on homosexuality while loving the homosexual. In doing so, though, the believer ought not to push away their gay neighbor, but instead to love them more than they love their position on sexual morality.[1]

We have to love our gay neighbor more than we love our position on sexual morality, which means that our relationship with them must not be contingent upon their agreeing with us about sexuality. It means that when they don’t agree with us we still don’t push them away.

The posture of many Christians in our churches is more characterized by anger than by compassion, by judgment rather than by friendship. I am NOT saying that we would ever compromise our position or fail to state it, just that even when they disagree with it, we do not cut them off – we draw them close. We say yes, this issue is important. I cannot compromise, but I love you more than I love being right. And so even if you don’t see things my way, I’m going to keep bringing you close, and I’m going to remain committed to you.

In the cross of Jesus Christ, he shows us the right way to relate to the gay and the lesbian community – clarity about God’s righteousness, compassion that would give up its own life to draw them close.[2]

The first problematic assertion Fischer makes is: “But Greear is saying, it appears to me, that if it comes down to a choice between loving my neighbor or loving my position on homosexuality, I’m going to have to ditch my position on homosexuality. If my position on sexuality comes between me and my neighbor, then I’ve got to jettison the thing that’s in the way, my position on sexuality.” Fischer claims that the only option for the believer is to stand firm in one’s position on homosexuality or love one’s homosexual neighbor.

What Fischer does here is set up a false dichotomy: it’s choice A or choice B. This is a false dichotomy because Fischer leaves out other options available. For instance, Greear states (in the quote Fischer provides) “We say yes, this issue is important. I cannot compromise, but I love you more than I love being right.” The idea here is that the believer does not make the issue one of winning an argument, but one of loving a homosexual individual as a person created in the image of God. It is in the context of relationship that the believer shares the truth of the Gospel and how it speaks to one’s sexuality. In short, the other option neglected by Fischer is that the believer can respect their homosexual neighbor while at the same time standing firm in what Scripture teaches on sexuality.

Fischer illustrates his point with the following analogy:

If we tell our husbands, for example, to love their wives more than they love their golf, there are going to be times when they are going to have to give up a round of golf in order to love their wives. Choosing Option A means that, when the chips are down, you dump Option B.

The problem with this analogy is that it is an irrelevant analogy: the idea of a husband choosing between golf or their wife is not the same (or relevantly similar) to an individual choosing between their belief(s) or an individual (particularly one who holds an opposing belief). Golf is an activity one participates in—an activity that has very little (if any) bearing on one’s belief structure. Granted, it can become an idol in one’s life, but golf is not a belief or part of one’s belief structure.

Further, I believe the analogy between the husband’s wife and one’s homosexual neighbor fails to be relevant. Typically spouses have some level of shared beliefs, but—more importantly—they have a relationship that is unlike any other. Greear’s appeal to love one’s homosexual neighbor is not the same as the love between a married couple. Further, Greear’s appeal implies that there is a fundamental difference in beliefs between the believer and homosexual neighbor—a difference that tends to drive people apart. (Greear’s sermon seeks to exhort believers to go against this tendency.) As such, what Fischer as used is a false analogy.

I believe a proper analogy for Greear’s appeal is how Jesus interacted with sinners. When Jesus spoke with the woman at the well, he did not make it an issue of winning an argument but one of speaking to her as a person—one whom he created and loved. We see that Jesus did not sacrifice truth for loving this adulterous woman; rather, he spoke directly to her sin and offered her his living water! We also see Jesus dining with sinners and tax collectors such that the Pharisees charged Jesus with being a sinner himself. Yet, we know that Jesus is perfect and never sinned; his dining with sinners and tax collectors was to love them as who they are—people created in the image of God. Yet, in no way did Jesus ever compromise his beliefs nor the proclamation of his Gospel. I believe Fischer’s argument would have been better served by addressing Jesus’ interactions with sinners, particularly if he believes Greear’s sermon goes against what we are taught in Scripture.

Finally, I want to point out his use of “logical implications” in the Tweet quoted above. The idea behind the use of this phrase is that Fischer’s assertions logically follow from Greear’s claims. Further, “logical implications” carries with it the idea that Fischer’s assertions either necessarily follow, or are at least highly probable. The problem here is that Fischer’s use of “logical” is more in the idea of forecasting—if A is true, then B is a possible outcome.  But, C, D, E,… are also possible outcomes as well. As such, what Fischer provides is not a logical argument, but a forecasting of possible implications.

Granted, the implications Fischer points out are possible—the are relevant to the point and we have seen examples of conventions, churches, and individuals slide down the slippery slope of compromised beliefs. However, what I believe Fischer ignores (which is fatal to his argument) is the body of Greear’s work. We do have available to us what Greear has taught as well as how his beliefs manifest themselves in action. Though people do change, one’s body of work is a strong indicator of how they will act in the future. If what Fischer claims is likely (that is, Greear is leading us toward a softening stance on homosexuality), then do we see signs in the body of work available to us? Up to this point, we don’t. In fact in one Twitter comment to Fischer, an individual notes how Greear’s ministry helped him when he struggled with sexuality.

The concept of using one’s body of work to identify future outcomes is not novel. Meteorologists, financial brokers, doctors, etc. all use past precedents upon which to base their forecasts, possibilities, and implications. The same should be true of us when we seek to identify possible implications of one’s assertions. The same should have been done by Fischer regarding Greear.

As such, Fischer’s argument is riddled with fallacies and fails to take into account Greear’s body of work. This is why, I believe, that the likes of Jimmy Scroggins and Bruce Ashford have called out Fischer for misrepresenting J.D. Greear.

With this said, it is only fair to note that Fischer couches his assertions in the hope that he is wrong and that people are right about Greear’s fidelity to Scripture. But, this does not reduce the serious error of his argument. I believe, along with Scroggins and Ashford, that Greear’s body of work gives us confidence that Greear will be faithful to the teachings of Scripture as he leads the SBC to be a light of the Gospel in a dark world.

In closing, I want to make it clear that I do not seek to attack Bryan Fischer, nor do I seek to belittle him. Rather, I am seeking to address his argument made in his public article. It is my hope that we can address what he states. Any comments made in a derogatory manner toward Bryan will be deleted.

[1] Fischer quotes Greear’s sermon in his article. I have paraphrased Greear’s wording.

[2] Quoted by Fischer. He links the YouTube recording of Greear’s sermon here.