Apologetics and theology

Medieval image of the Resurrection of Christ, seen in Vatican Museums

Over at Read the Fathers, we just finished Athenagoras the Athenian (c. 133 – c. 190; I do wonder about that name…), On the Resurrection of the Dead. Twice, at the outset of the work and at the ‘recapitulation’ in chapter 11, Athenagoras makes the point that defending the truth — in this case, that the dead shall rise — is less important than explaining it, that apologetics is of less value than doctrine. However, he notes that there is a place for defending the truth, since otherwise how can people come to grasp the doctrines?

This is an important thought, and one sometimes missed in certain circles. I am not making apologists themselves my targets here. From what I can tell, people like Ravi Zacharias and William Lane Craig do actually believe Christian doctrines, even if I take issue with Craig’s neo-apollinarianism. Nonetheless, based upon recollections from life as a teenager and undergraduate, many young people in the church never get beyond apologetics — proving that there is a God; arguing against evolution; arguing for the reliability of the Bible; etc., etc.

This is good as far as it goes — I agree with Little, you should Know Why You Believe. I also agree with, however, that you should Know What You Believe.

If apologetics passed for doctrine for some young people of my generation, perhaps it is no surprise that by the time we were thirty or thirty-five, many of my peers were no longer churchgoers or professing Christians or even basic theists. If your vision of who God is is supplied only by the cosmologial argument and not “fleshed out” (if you will) by the doctrines of the Incarnation and Most Holy Trinity, then how will mere apologetics stand up to the fierce polemic of some in this world, let alone the soft war waged upon us by comfort?

Athenagoras, for example, goes from arguing that there will be a general resurrection to why there will be, looking at the nature of humans, of God, and of justice. I have to admit that it is not the best treatment of the resurrection of the dead out there — so far, my favourite is Bishop Ramsey, The Resurrection of Christ. Be that as it may, whether one prefers Michael Ramsey or Athenagoras, appreciating the resurrection of the dead and truly affirming it as a Christian doctrine (something we do in both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds) requires more than just a defense that such a resurrection will take place.

To my mind, there are two main reasons for thinking about doctrine and theology. First, because it informs how we worship God. The second is like unto it, because it can inform how we live. Essentially, as Athenagoras says towards the end of On the Resurrection of the Dead (note that ‘Him who is’ is the Greek translation from Exodus of that I AM’, the second part of ‘I AM that I AM.’)

‘And we shall make no mistake in saying, that the final cause of an intelligent life and rational judgment, is to be occupied uninterruptedly with those objects to which the natural reason is chiefly and primarily adapted, and to delight unceasingly in the contemplation of Him who is, and of His decrees. -Translated by B.P. Pratten. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight

Apologetics and the impossibility of certainty

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

My wife was recently talking with someone who said that she had been a Christian, but she lost her faith when she went to Bible college. It was because of an apologetics presentation. Her rational mind was activated, and she realised that unless she could find a perfect argument, she couldn’t believe.

No such argument exists or ever will exist.

For pretty much everything.

Even if my beloved St Anselm thought he could prove the Holy Trinity using logic alone.

But apologetics — which is the defence of the Christian faith — frequently presents itself as giving airtight arguments for the existence of God. If only those poor, benighted agnostics and atheists knew, they would become theists. And then they present arguments for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and expect that the Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims will join our faith as well, because Christianity is a perfectly rational faith and perfectly defensible.

And, of course, if you can’t prove something beyond the shadow of a doubt, can you trust it? (At which point, can you trust your existence? What about that of other minds?)

I have met other people who, having been to Bible college, abandon the faith or at least orthodoxy when they realise the world is not dominated by the narrow, simplistic, pat answers of their particular Bible college. This is not a tirade against Bible colleges in general, just those that seem to have had this effect.

That Christians seem to think that our faith is entirely defensible in an airtight, scientific way is evidence that we have allowed ourselves to get sucked into Enlightenment rationalism to far too great a degree. There is no airtight argument for God. Nor is there one for the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This doesn’t mean Christianity is irrational (all the time). One of the ideas that stuck with me from one of the few apologetics books I’ve read, Little’s Know Why You Believe was that, while our faith may go beyond reason, it does not go against reason.

Hence apologetics.

I have two directions I want to go. One is mystery. The other is the unproveability of most stuff. I’ll stick with the second for now, and get back to the first another day.

The ability to definitively prove anything is actually very slippery, especially in the humanities — and not just philosophy and theology, which is where some of the basic apologetics stuff resides. The slipperiness of proving stuff is evident in history, for example. For example, there are people who deny the existence of Napoleon — they say he was just a propaganda tool of the French government and the man arrested was just an actor/figurehead.

The Phantom Time Hypothesis exploits the holes in our knowledge and the difficulty of matching material and textual evidence for the years 614–911 to argue that they never actually happened and that it’s all a conspiracy by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II.

Pretty much all Roman history before the Punic Wars was made up.

Now, I would never subscribe to the Phantom Time Hypothesis. But the fragmentary evidence it exploits is very important to consider, because it reminds us that there is much we do not know for certain. We might have textual evidence for an event — but can we trust that evidence? Sometimes it turns out we can’t. Sometimes we can.

100% certainty is an impossibility.

I go on faith that plausible historical accounts of events are to be trusted unless the contrary evidence from material culture or other historical accounts is too much to ignore.

Christian faith is not about being able to provide airtight arguments for the existence of God, or about proving 100% that Jesus rose from the dead.

It is about an encounter with the living God — and, whatever logic may figure into relationships, they are different creatures from philosophy textbooks.

I’m not jettisoning apologetics. Just relativizing its importance.

We all live in and with mystery. Let’s see where we can find God in that, in the uncertain. For He is there as much as He is in our rational arguments for his existence.