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 Or, apologetics of yesterday are a link in a long chain of development to the present – a necessary link, but now outdated or irrelevant in light of today’s challenges.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.

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.

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Russ Moore’s Soul Freedom: An Idea as Old as Baptists Themselves

John Leland, Baptist MinisterA video of Russel Moore’s response to a question at the SBC Convention has made the rounds today. It is a video of Moore’s response to a question from John Wofford of Armorel Baptist Church, Blytheville, Arkansas. Generally questions from SBC messengers or members are not worthy of re tweeting or posting on some social video site, but Wofford’s question strikes a chord with many conservative Americans, and Moore’s answer (to which I agree) ruffles the feathers of many of the same. Watch the video below for Wofford’s question and Moore’s response:

One can understand Wofford’s question in light of the atrocities that have happened on American soil and abroad at the hands of Islamic extremists. But, denying Muslims in America the right to build mosques is to undercut the very religious liberty Baptist enjoy – the very religious liberty every religion in America enjoys. The government is to extend to every individual right of “soul freedom” – the right to choose to worship their religion without interference from the government. That is, the United States government should not dictate who is able to build a house of worship and who is not. The government should not dictate who can worship their religion and who cannot. Religious liberty is extended to every individual and guarantees that the government will not interfere.

The idea of “soul freedom” is not unique to Moore, nor is it an idea that has been birthed by the recent clash with militant Islam. Rather, it’s an idea that has been around as long as Baptists have been around.

John Leland (1754-1841) was a Baptist minister in early America, having served churches in Virginia and Massachusetts. What Leland is perhaps most known for is his fight for religious liberty. Robert G. Torbet, in his A History of the Baptists, says Leland was “leading Baptist spokesman in behalf of religious freedom.”[1]  Leland states in his An Address Delivered at Westfield, March 4, 1833, that “next to the salvation of souls, the civil and religious rights of men have summoned my attention, more than the acquisition of wealth or seats of honor.”

Leland’s view on religious liberty directly flows from how he understood the relationship between church and state. Leland believed that “government has no more to do with religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics.”[2]  So strongly did he believe in a strict separation of Church and State, that any idea of a Christian commonwealth (i.e. State) “should be exploded.”[3] 

Government, when rightly formed, embraces Pagans, Jews, Mahometans and Christians, within its fostering arms – prescribes no creed of faith for either of them – proscribes none of them for being heretics, promotes the man of talents and integrity, without inquiring after his religion – impartially protects all of them – punishes the man who works ill to his neighbor, let his faith and motives be what they may.[4] 

Note again: “Government, when rightly formed, embraces Pagans, Jews, Mahometans [i.e. Muslims] and Christians, within its fostering arms.” Baptists, for over 200 years, have championed religious freedom not just for Baptists alone, but also for Muslims, that they too may have the liberty to practice their religion (even build their own mosques) in America.   All civil laws should recognize all individuals of all religious backgrounds as citizens and should protect their rights.[6] 

Baptists, and all other faiths, in America are in debt to Leland and his tireless work (along with other Baptists like Isaac Backus) to ensure religious liberty is extended to all religions in America.  May we as Southern Baptists today continue to champion religious liberty for all – even to Muslims who are here on our soil.

Post Script: I encourage you to read Russ Moore’s post dated June 8, 2016, titled “Is Religious Freedom for Non-Christians Too?” Moore provides excellent insight into a difficult issue, but one that we must face in today’s turbulent times. Though we as Christians are rightly troubled and angered by the actions of Muslim extremists, we live in a country where one religion is not to be favored over another by the state. The federal government is not to endorse one religion over all others; in particular, our government is not a Christian government. We are not in a Christian nation. Rather, we live in a nation where religious freedom is extended to all – even though with whom we are at odds.

_____________________


                [1] Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptist (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2000), 241.

                [2] Isaac Backus, A Fish Caught In His Own Net, in Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism [Works], ed. William G. McLoughlin (Boston: Edes and Gill, 1768; reprint, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1968), 190-1.

                [3] John Leland, The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland [Works], ed. Miss L. F. Greene (New London: 1791; reprint, New York: G. W. Wood, 1845), 184.

 

                [4] Leland, The Virginia Chronicle, Works, 107.

 

                [5] Leland, Short Essays on Government, Works, 476.

                [6] Leland, Letter to the Rev. O. B. Brown, Works, 608-10.

Douglas Groothuis and the Value of Old Books

Shelves of Old Books

Old is often better. New is often bad. Why think the newer is truer, especially on philosophy and theology? Old books have withstood the test of time. That doesn’t mean they are true, but they are venerable. Most books are printed once or twice, go out of print, and are forgotten. And we spend so much of our time reading ephemera, this listless dust. When reading about physics, we need the latest discoveries and theories, but not so about the first principles and ultimate issues of life. As C.S. Lewis said, inspired by his friend Owen Barfield, moderns practice chronological snobbery, deeming the newest as the truest. There is no reason for it.

This the opening paragraph in Doug Groothuis’ latest post at DouglasGroothuis.com. I must confess that what first caught my eye was the phrase “old books” in the title and the banner image. (I can just image in the treasures buried in that aisle alone!) My wife can attest that I love books and any chance I get I buy books from our local used book stores. She’ll say that I have too many books, but I tend to think that I’m just getting started. 😉 There’s something to buying used books in general; it’s as if buying a used book gives it new life and purpose. More specifically, it’s as if I have the opportunity to learn from someone else who has gone before me. As such, I have an affinity toward older books (as is evidenced by my personal library) and used books stores.

Groothuis, I can imagine, is like-minded when it comes to used books. However, what he claims is something that goes deeper than one’s love of old books. Rather, what he conveys is that it behooves us to read books by theologians, philosophers, and other thinkers who have gone before us. Too often we can be caught up in the most recent and “cutting-edge” books that claim to uncover some secret to life. This approach reflects the attitude that what happened in the past is archaic, out dated, and irrelevant. Our age is identified with progress and discovery; hence, we need to be reading the most current work.

Such an attitude, however, does not fit when it comes to books that discuss life’s perennial questions. Questions of purpose, origin, meaning, etc. are questions that have occupied the minds of thinkers throughout the ages. Books written by thinkers who have reflected deeply on  life’s ultimate questions do not wither with age – rather, they stand the test of time and give us a glimpse into the wisdom that has been handed down to us. Much of what we see today is just a repackaging of what others have said in the past. Just as The Preacher states in Ecclesiastes, there really is nothing new under the sun.

It behooves us to reach into the past by reading old book – those books that have stood the test of time – to see what we can learn, what we can avoid, and what we need reminded of. God often pointed the Israelites to their own history to remind them of their faithlessness and his faithfulness. The writers of the gospels appealed to the Old Testament in order to demonstrate to their audience that the life and work of Jesus Christ has been a part of God’s plan from the beginning. And Paul in Hebrews 11 reminds believers of the faith of those who have gone before us as an encouragement to remain steadfast in their walk with the Lord.

Though old books are not inspired, they do stand as a record of other believers’ struggles and victories, doubts and insight, and mistakes and principles – things that remind us that we are not alone this side of heaven. Someone has been where you are right now. Someone has been where I am right now in my own life. We have, therefore, much to learn from those who have made it through the fires of life. Neglect not the old books, but read them!

Post Script: I think a note should be added that in addition to reading old books by Christian thinkers of the past, it is beneficial to read old books by non-Christian authors as well. They struggle with many of the same questions believers struggle with. Though many non-believers do not arrive at conclusions with which we may not agree, they can touch on ideas that are in alignment with Scripture.  We can learn from those who do not know the Lord. Further, any ideas that are not alignment with Scripture can serve  as an encouragement to the believer to remain steadfast in God’s truth, and they can inform us on how we can reply to questions and objections to Christianity.

Thus, read widely!

Finally, take the time to read this wonderful article from BBC News titled: “A Point of View: Is There Still Any Point Collecting Books?”  The author Howard Jacobson pens a wonderful piece on the allure of old books and the special place they have in his life. I felt I met a dear friend when I read this piece – he puts into words what I can’t express when it comes to old books. It would be so much fun to see his personal library…

In Light of our Chaotic Summer, Don’t Grow Weary…Pray

It’s been a rather tumultuous summer so far this year. We’ve seen race riots flare up because of police-related shootings, raising calls for more accountability for cops. Three theater shootings have occurred in about a month’s time, bringing to the forefront again gun control versus gun rights. The Supreme Court passed a landmark decision legalizing homosexual marriage. And, Planned Parenthood has been exposed by released videos for negotiating and selling the parts of aborted babies.  Anyone who spends even only a small amount of time on social media or on the television has been inundated with opinions and arguments from various sides of the issues.

Because of the non-stop nature of our news cycle, it is easy to become weary of listening to the news about police-related shootings, gay marriage, and Planned Parenthood. The feeling of being overwhelmed with the news sets in, which can lead to a general sense of apathy toward today’s hot issues regardless of which side the news comes from. Though this tendency is natural, it behooves us as Christians to avoid such apathy and to remain aware of what is going on in our culture.

While feeling overwhelmed is a natural reaction to the ongoing news cycle and discussion over shootings, gay marriage, and Planned Parenthood (and any other topic that floods our news media and social media), we must be careful that apathy not take root in our hearts. Once apathy sets in, we are lulled into inactivity, choosing to ignore atrocities that must be met with prayer and the truth of the Gospel. There is perhaps no greater weapon Satan uses than the apathy expressed by the children of God toward the lies and injustices propagated by our culture.

I am reminded of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus Christ spent the early morning hours agonizing in prayer, knowing he would soon be bearing the sin of the world on the cross. The disciples followed Jesus to the Garden, but they did not join him in prayer; instead, they were overcome by weariness (it was late into the night) and fell asleep. Twice Jesus woke them up, but each time the disciples succumbed to sleep. After waking the disciples the second time, Jesus says to Peter, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41, ESV).

Peter would soon deny the Lord Jesus, fulfilling Jesus’ words given just recently of Peter’s denial.The temptation Peter would face was that of denying Jesus in the face of opposition and tribulation. Jesus exhorted Peter to pray that he may not give in to this temptation. Instead, Peter, like Jame and John, slept as Jesus agonized over what would soon transpire.

Jesus’ words to the disciples in the Garden can, I believe, apply to Christians today. However, instead of literally falling asleep in the face of upcoming tribulation, we are lulled into a sleep-like state of apathy. The seemingly unending news and debate wearies our minds and hearts; however, we need to remain alert and in prayer for what lies ahead in the coming days. Weariness and apathy causes us to turn a deaf ear to the lies and injustices of our culture; being alert in prayer helps us to be ready for action and to respond with the truth of our Lord God.

I write this not as one who is in the thick of battle, calling out those who are lulled into inactivity. Rather, I am writing as one who struggles with the temptation to tune out the news and debate. I grow weary of the Facebook posts and the talking heads that seem to belabor points as they and their opponents talk past one another. I can then quickly become apathetic and, some times, cynical. Thus, instead of praying for our government or about the hot button issues of our day, I gloss over them by focusing only on those issues that impact me immediately – my family, my church, my work, etc.

However, such an approach does not make the pressing issues of today go away or that less important. Nor does it lessen the responsibility I have as a believer to pray that the truth of God would prevail in such dark times. So, may we – may I – “watch and pray that [we] may not enter into temptation.”

Is There Any Value in Historical Novels?

Books and PenWhen I have the opportunity to read outside of my field of study (which is not often these days), I gravitate toward my favorite author, Kenneth Lewis Roberts (shameless plug: see my website devoted to his works here). Roberts’ heyday was between the early-1930s to early-1950s when he published several best-selling historical novels centered around the time of the American Revolution.

Roberts did not write historical novels to satisfy his craving to write. Rather, in his autobiography I Wanted to Write, Roberts recounts his literary journey. He began his writing career as a correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post. However, he wanted to do more and eventually came to the realization that his passion was found the history of his people in Maine. Roberts states:

I had tried to get some of these things straightened out in my mind by reading histories that purported to explain them; but in every case–not in most cases, but in every case–I found that the books explained nothing fully or satisfactorily.  They were drab, dull, unconvincing, rich in omissions, and crowded with statements that couldn’t possibly be true (Roberts,167).

I had tried to get some of these things straightened out in my mind by reading histories that purported to explain them; but in every case–not in most cases, but in every case–I found that the books explained nothing fully or satisfactorily.  They were drab, dull, unconvincing, rich in omissions, and crowded with statements that couldn’t possibly be true (Roberts, 167)

That, it dawned on me, was what I must do.  Even though nobody read what I wrote, it ought to be done, because nobody had every done it before–and there ought to be at least one book that would give the good people of Maine an honest, detailed and easily understood account of how their forebears got along.  I hadn’t the slightest desire then to write what is known as an historical novel, not have I ever had any intention of doing so.  In fact, I have always had a profound aversion to most historical novels, because the people in them aren’t real people, and neither act nor talk like anyone I’ve ever known (Roberts, 168).

(see my post on Roberts and his historical novels here)

For Roberts, historical novels served as a medium through which history is brought to life. While there have been others who share Roberts’ view about historical novels, the genre is still widely misunderstood.  At the website for the Historical Novel Society, an adaption of a speech given by Sarah Johnson of Eastern Illinois University in 2002 titled Defining the Genre: What are the rules for historical fiction? provides her assessment of where the genre of historical novels stands today. In short, there is little consensus over how to define the genre and over the value of such literature. Yet, as the genre of historical fiction grows, attention is required as to how one defines it; hence one of the reasons the Historical Novel Society exists.

In a web article titled “What is Historical Fiction” (2006), H. Scott Dalton attempts to provide a definition of historical fiction. While his definition is somewhat helpful, his foray into the value of historical fiction captures Kenneth Roberts’ vision for his historical novels and the potential for well-written and well-researched historical novels. Dalton contrasts the historian with the historical fiction writer. While the historian writes to lay out the events as they occurred, analyzes the facts, and provides for the reader how the puzzle pieces of the past fit together. In short, “A good historian helps us imagine the roar of battle, the spectacle of ruined earth littered with dead, giving us a safe vantage point between and above the lines of battle” (Dalton). The historical fiction writer, however,

puts us in the battle. We do not watch the young Marine slog his way up Mount Suribachi; we feel his heavy pack digging into our shoulders, curse as our feet slip in sand and mud, hear the snap of passing rounds and feel his fear as we hit the dirt with him and scramble for whatever cover we can find. We pray with him in the moments before he raises his head from the sand and looks around. We care about the things he cares about: not expansionism or oil embargoes or national strategy, but his brother who lost a leg at Pearl Harbor, his girl back home, the buddy who was right next to him, but now lies in the dirt not moving. We’re not just watching the fight; that’s our buddy, our girl back home, our brother. The writer of historical fiction is first a writer not of history, but of fiction, and fiction is about characters, not events.

So historical fiction is a close relative of history, but not simply a retelling of the lectures we learned to dread in high school. We write historical fiction, and read it, not to learn about history so much as to live it. It is the closest we can get to experiencing the past without having been there. We finish a history and think “So that’s what happened!” We finish a work of historical fiction, catch our breath, and think “So that’s what it was like!”

Dalton does not seek to discount historical works (neither do I); rather, he highlights how historical fiction can enhance what we learn in the works of historians. The historical novel helps one to experience in some way the events of the past. Such an approach appeals to one’s various senses and one’s emotions, bringing in the whole person into the work.

Take for example Leon Uris’ Trinity, an historical novel about the struggle between the Irish and Britain in the late-1800s to the early 1900s. By placing historical events in the context of a narrative, history unfolds through the lives of the characters. The reader connects with the various characters of the novel, experiencing their trials and successes, their inner turmoils and interaction with the world at large. Such an approach takes the reader from their perch as an uninvolved observer and places them in the thick of the action. By experiencing history in this way, one can then better understand the why and how of history as told in more technical works. (One problem with historical novels is the use of real people of the past and fictional characters; this is another topic for another time. For now, I am assuming that the historical novel writer is attempting to portray historical events as they occurred though employing dialogue that is of the author’s invention but based on solid research).

The idea of experience building upon knowledge is not unfamiliar to us. Most colleges today require students to do some sort of internship work to go along with their classroom work. One can learn as much as they want from books and lectures; however, that knowledge is of little use until it is put into practice. The experience the student gains in their internship ties together all that they’ve learned and turns their “book learning” into something that is lived and is real.

Historical fiction, if done well, can enhance one’s learning and knowledge in a particular area of study. Further, historical fiction can reach a wider audience than that of more technical works. One only has to visit a book store to know that fiction is, by far, the best-selling genre. Frankly, fiction is more appealing to the majority of readers. As such, the potential is great for the use of historical fiction to present significant idea and to teach a wider audience vital lessons.  In particular to the circles I run in, there is great potential to use historical fiction in teaching solid biblical theology. Deep questions and ideas can be explored in such a way that the reader is drawn into life’s ultimate questions without feeling like they are trudging through a text book.

Much has been said already, but there are many unanswered questions I leave before you. What this post does not serve as is the “end all, be all” declaration on the value of historical fiction; rather, it serves as the fruits of my ruminations on my favorite genre and it’s potential in theology and philosophy. I hope to write more on this in the near future.

[It should be noted that historical fiction is not the only genre that can be used to teach theological and philosophical ideas in narrative format. See my recent post on Dan Dewitt‘s “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella.”  I will also be posting an old review I did on a sci-fi book that discusses the use of sci-fi in discussing theological and philosophical ideas.]