Tag Archives: church fathers

Sorry Not Sorry: We Can Do Better Than Apologetics

“Apologetics” are not “apologies” in the sense of regret or contrition, they are reasoned defenses of beliefs or philosophies. Christian apologetics seek to defend the inherent integrity of either the Bible or Christian doctrine or theology. In my opinion, too many Christians rely on recycled apologetic talking points to avoid the hard and risky work of actually wrestling with issues and problems. And while the pretense of apologetic work has been to “win others to Christ,” the reality is that it exists primarily to reassure believers and inoculate them against questions and doubts. 

The Origins of Christian Apologetics

In the early centuries of the common era, church fathers educated in Greek philosophy and reason took up the cause of defending Christianity against popular schools of thought or rival Christian thinkers. Their work took the form of books, lectures, and tractates, many of which survive to this day. Eventually orthodoxies (plural) emerged as a result of these apologetic battles, the arguments of the losers being labeled “heresy,” literally “choice” or “opinion” (not “satanic deception from the bowels of the abyss”).

Of course, no one ever thought they were defending a heresy. All the early Christian thinkers understood themselves to be writing solid apologetics, even the likes of Marcion, the gnostics, the docetists, etc. Our view of that era is somewhat skewed by the fact that most of the surviving works were written by the winners, the forgers of orthodoxy, and in many cases our only access to the “heretics” is through orthodox criticisms of them. We are listening in on one half of an ancient argument and trusting that they are being fair to their opponents.

Modern Christian Apologetics

Apologetics remain popular in conservative Christian and evangelical circles today, though perhaps not as much as in the late twentieth century. The seventies, eighties, and nineties saw a glut of apologetic books by authors like Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, Ravi Zacharias and many others, with titles like “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” and “The Case For Christ.” While some of these authors engage in philosophical argumentation somewhat akin to that of the ancient apologists, by far most of modern apologetics is concerned with answering specific criticisms of scripture or of Christian doctrines from skeptics and nonbelievers. These books function as reference manuals for Christians eager to defuse troubling claims and to explain away apparent discrepancies.

I confess that for a season in my life I was obsessed with apologetics and the notion that I could simply look up any topic or scripture reference and find definitive explanations to refute or dismiss any “attack” from any critic. But very quickly I lost my faith in the apologists and their answers for a variety of reasons. For one thing, any critically thinking person ought to be suspicious of an author who has a quick and tidy answer to every objection. The very premise that the biblical texts and thousands of years of interpretive tradition could be reduced to a catalog of pithy and “correct” answers belies the obvious complexity and subjectivity of the material being defended. Meanwhile, the more I learned to study and consider this material for myself, the less satisfying the apologetics seemed to be.

The Sorry State of Apologetics

I’m not saying that apologetics are never appropriate or have no value. There are indeed specious and unwarranted claims about Christianity and the Bible that can be answered by reason and scholarship. Some of my own posts read like apologetics. But the premise and posture of modern Christian apologetics has been that every criticism is inherently wrong and motivated by evil, and every apologetic response inherently correct and authoritative. What’s missing is space for introspection, learning, and the simple possibility that (gasp!) we might be wrong about something. Ultimately, apologetics has become another firewall on the closed authoritarian network of American Christianity.

I see at least two distinct problems with the apologetic posture of modern christendom. On the one hand, apologetics are a poor substitute for real scholarship, and rely too much on charismatic “experts.” Christians who rely on apologetics are really relying on apologists, expecting them to have done all the heavy lifting of studying and translating and interpreting and arguing behind the scenes before delivering distilled “truth” in the form of their books and lectures. In that kind of culture, credentials and credibility are everything, and even the suggestion of misrepresentation can bring the whole house of cards crashing down (see the recent flap over Ravi Zacharias and his honorary doctorates). We all expect authors and speakers to be experts in their field, but the burden placed on Christian apologists to speak definitively on behalf of God AND scholarship is more than anyone could bear.

At the same time, the facade of certainty and expertise required by Christian apologetics also lends itself to intellectual dishonesty. Most of the eager consumers of apologetic books and workshops aren’t looking to learn or grow, they are looking for proof and vindication. Would those same readers and listeners be interested in material that challenged or upset their presuppositions? It is fallacious to play at scholarship when it suits your cause only to reject and ignore it the rest of the time. Speaking personally, it wasn’t until I allowed critical thinking and scholarship to shatter my assumptions and expectations that my faith began to come alive.  No one likes having the rug pulled out from beneath them, but that is often how we learn the most profound and liberating lessons. Many Christian apologists work overtime to deny their devotees this invaluable experience.

When it comes to scholarship and reason, Christians would do well to expand their horizons beyond pre-packaged theological answer books. Learning to critically interact with language, history, and diverse perspectives within Christianity and beyond is a way of expressing devotion and faith without closing our ears and minds. Intellectual honesty is one of the tastiest flavors of honesty. 


Two Big Mistakes of Early Christianity From Which We Haven’t Fully Recovered

One of the strange assumptions religious believers make is that the human forerunners who formed and curated our traditions operated under some kind of spiritual protection that kept them from veering off course or making errors. “God wouldn’t let us be wrong about something so important!” Sure, there’s a basic level of faith we must have that we are following something good and true, and that all of it points back to an authentic revelation of God in Jesus. But the sheer multiplicity of Christian streams and convictions is enough to challenge the notion of divinely guaranteed consistency or theological purity. This shouldn’t plunge us into suspicion or despair, but it should pique our interest in the history and evolution of our own religion. It should also dispel the notion that our ancestors couldn’t make mistakes, or that those mistakes cannot affect us today. (It should also keep us humble in regard to our own ability to err and learn.) Very briefly, here are two examples of dramatic transformations from the early centuries of Christianity that are still causing trouble today.

1. Greek Philosophy Hijacks Bible Interpretation

If you told American Evangelicals today that Christianity had been co-opted by new agers or astrologers or dualists who were rewriting our traditions to conform to their own beliefs and selling them back as orthodoxy, there would be panic in the streets (and probably some kind of boycott or hashtag). Yet this is the very sort of thing that happened to Christianity in its early centuries. The thinkers, authors, and apologists we call “church fathers” were a collection of non-Jewish Christian men who defined the doctrines and canons which still define Christianity many centuries later. Some of the most influential church fathers (most notably Origen) were deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, a connection which had inevitable ramifications in the way they synthesized and described their theology. To be sure, many church fathers (like Tertullian) took a strong rhetorical stance against Greek philosophy as inferior to Christianity. But even these thinkers were indelibly locked into the categories and assumptions of Greek scholarship. When they defended the Bible against Greek ideas, they often did so on Greek terms. And when they interpreted the Bible, they did so within that same framework.

I’m not saying the church fathers as a group constitute a “mistake,” or that they did nothing good to benefit or enrich the faith. But their frequent disregard for the fundamental Jewishness of the scriptures and the categorical assumptions they injected into Bible reading and theology set Christianity on a very rocky path. If you believe in humanity’s “fall from perfection” or the “immortality of the soul” or a “spiritual afterlife,” your faith may have been influenced more by these writers (and thus by Plato and Aristotle) than by the actual texts of the Bible. In a few extreme cases, the efforts of the church fathers actually fueled and codified anti-semitic sentiment in the church. That is a path that takes us as far from the heart of scripture and of Jesus as we can get. Modern Christians should learn about the church fathers and read their work critically.

2. Constantine Imperializes and Militarizes Christianity

The legend is well known: In 312 CE at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, military leader Flavius Constantine I looked up and saw a cross in the sky emblazoned with the command, “By this sign, conquer!” He went on to become Caesar Constantine the Great, and to lead armies into war under the banner of the cross of Christ. It is often said that he made Christianity the “official religion” of the Roman Empire, but it is more appropriate to say that he favored it. Roman pagan practices continued, but those wanting to please and impress the emperor would undergo an expedient conversion to Christianity. Constantine reformed Roman imperialism based on “Christian” principles, if that makes any kind of sense. For example, he outlawed crucifixion to honor the death of Jesus and made hanging the new official mode of execution. The empire could still dominate and victimize and terrorize, but it would do so in a way that “honored” Jesus. Christianity had a king on earth, and that king had bloody hands.

Of course, many thoughtful Christians today would cringe at the idea of a “Christian” army or a weapon emblazoned with a cross. At the same time, how many American Christians claim that they live in a Christian empire? How many connect God’s will and blessing with the power and success of that empire? And it is not uncommon in conservative Christian circles to justify the Roman expansion of Christianity as God’s undercover plan to disseminate the religion around the globe. But how can a machine built on death and domination deliver a gospel about peace and reconciliation? The spirit and legacy of Jesus cannot be managed or defended by an empire. Constantinian Christianity represents an abject failure to realize the gospel of God’s kingdom. It should be a byword for us, and we should strive to define ourselves against it in belief and practice.


Errant Notions Part Five: A Perfect Tradition

The latest in a series of posts dissecting common arguments for “biblical inerrancy,” the assertion that the Bible is without error in everything it teaches.

“Inerrancy is nothing more than what the church has always believed.” That’s the battle cry of the inerrantist defender, and it is the fifth argument that we will be exploring in this boring series. It is also the first of our arguments that might actually pertain to the canonized Bible as we know it, for what it’s worth. While previous arguments have been focused on figures or sources that originate before the texts of the Bible were collected and canonized, this one regards the writings and opinions of the early Christian fathers (who were themselves the forgers of the canon) and the reformers (who inherited the canon). The question is this: did the church fathers and Protestant founders teach biblical inerrancy as the singular and unanimous view of mainstream Christianity?  Continue reading