Tag Archives: scholarship

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. 


Why Two Christmas Stories Are Better Than One

As a citizen of America, I’m almost done with Christmas. We’re living in a century where the cultural defense and political exploitation of Christmas as an institution have become more obscene than the holiday’s ongoing commercialization. On the other hand, as a Christian and a big fan of Jesus and hope, I still admire and embrace the season of Advent and the holy day (that’s right, just a day!) of Christmas. There is much to love, from ancient traditions to recent memories.

Meanwhile, my falling out with Christian culture and my journey through biblical scholarship over the last several years has really complicated and ultimately transformed my relationship with Christmas, particularly with the nativity traditions found in the Bible. Our notion of a singular, harmonious, “biblical” Christmas story runs into all sorts of trouble when we read the texts attentively. Continue reading


Five Books That Changed Everything

One nice thing that my unexpected midlife spiral into biblical study has done for me is to teach me to read. In my younger days, I was always more of a “worn out VHS tape of The Simpsons or Mystery Science Theater” kinda guy than a “book” guy. When I first started asking big questions about faith and tradition, now almost a decade ago, the only resources I had handy were my ESV Study Bible and sermon podcasts from the likes of John Piper, Tim Keller, and Mark Driscoll.  (I had no idea back then that my biblical education had been entrusted almost exclusively to neo-Calvinists. I barely knew what a Calvinist was.)

Seminary taught me to read, and to read wide. It taught me to eagerly seek diverse points of view and to expose myself to scholarship from many disciplines and traditions (not just Christian, not just American, not just western). I still regularly consult books I bought in seminary: reference books, theologies, histories, and books on biblical languages. And my library shelves (and Kindle and Audible accounts) continue to expand.

Looking back on the journey that has taken me from familiar and safe surroundings to new and uncharted frontiers, there are some books which represent distinct moments of discovery, correction, and transformation; what I might call “intellectual repentance.” These are not necessarily my “favorites” or my “desert island” reads, but they mark the major moments of progress in my ever evolving relationship with the Bible. If I remain diligent, this list will never be a “closed canon.” Here’s how it looks today:

1. The First Testament In Historical and Cultural Context, R. Bryan Widbin

first testamentThis one has more to do with a man than a book. The First Testament is a published presentation of notes and curriculum from Dr. R. Bryan Widbin, Professor of Old Testament at Alliance Theological Seminary. As the title of his book suggests, Dr. Widbin does not prefer the moniker “Old Testament,” which too often reflects unhelpful Christian notions about the Hebrew Scriptures.

I had the honor of studying under Dr. Widbin in several courses and the great honor of assisting him in the teaching of Hebrew for a couple of terms. Few experiences have been more profoundly transformational than my time in classrooms with Dr. Widbin. He taught us about the world, culture, language, and people which created the Hebrew Bible, emphasized the prophetic call for justice, and exemplified a peaceful, hopeful reading of difficult ancient material. In short, his courses set me on the critical and theological trajectory that has defined my faith ever since.

Thank you, Dr. Widbin!

2. How to Read the Bible, James Kugel

how to read bibleI bought this book on the recommendation of Dr. Widbin. In fact, I seem to recall that it was listed on the syllabus for one course or another. It wasn’t until some time later that I actually picked it up and started reading it, and it proved to be immensely helpful. Kugel is a distinguished professor of Bible (retired from Harvard, now at Bar Ilan in Israel) and an Orthodox Jew. In How to Read the Bible he pursues two objectives: he provides a comprehensive and invaluable survey of current Hebrew Bible scholarship, and at the same time wrestles with his own conclusions in light of both his scholarly accomplishment and his personal Jewish faith. For a Christian just beginning to study and ask unsettling questions, it was disarmingly instructive and comforting to observe such vulnerable teachability in someone from a very different perspective and station. This book gave me mountains of data to consider, but more importantly it modeled sensitive and responsible scholarship.

The Bible As It Was is another essential book from Kugel, a reference volume in which he compares interpretations of Hebrew Bible texts from various rabbis and church fathers. His In Potiphar’s House is also highly regarded, though I have not read it myself yet.

3. The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann

prophetic imaginationThe third and final “Old Testament” title on the list, and one of the most stunning intellectual experiences a Christian can have reading about the Bible. Brueggemann’s very short book reframes and clarifies the role of the biblical prophets, clearing up unhelpful assumptions and giving the original prophetic voices a fresh broadcast. Dr. Brueggemann portrays prophets not as unfeeling, mechanical vessels for divine announcement and prediction, but as poets artfully inviting their hearers (and especially the powers-that-be) into an alternative world of imagination. These prophets don’t merely wag their fingers at sinners, they challenge us all to consider that “it doesn’t have to be like this.” I cannot do this powerful book justice in such a brief description.

Brueggemann also published a full and excellent Introduction to the Old Testament, and his recent Sabbath As Resistance is another watershed.

4. Jesus and the Victory of God, N.T. Wright

jesus and the victory of godI usually treat lengthy theologies like reference books, consulting them topically as-needed. But when the 700 page Jesus and the Victory of God arrived at my doorstep from Amazon, I opened it up and read it straight through over the course of a few evenings. Then I immediately went back and re-read a couple of key sections. When it comes to the New Testament and the historical person and ministry of Jesus, no work has been more influential and definitive to me than Wright’s. After providing an alarmingly thorough history of Jesus scholarship, JVG offers a meticulous and multidimensional examination of the (ancient, prophetic, and Second Temple) Jewish contexts of Jesus’ life and message. No aspect of the historical Jesus is left unexplored or unclarified: his self-concept as a prophet, the political background to his public campaign, the meaning of his miraculous “signs,” the exile as the interpretive key to his parables, the historical roots of his eschatology, and the reasons for his arrest and execution. If you care about who Jesus was and what he said, JVG provides invaluable guidance. The follow-up volume The Resurrection of the Son of God deals with Easter from a similar perspective and with the same rigor.

Also highly recommended are Wright’s books on Paul (his major scholarly work Paul and the Faithfulness of God and his more reader friendly Paul: In Fresh Perspective), Surprised By Hope, and The Kingdom New Testament, his own fresh and eye-popping translation.

5. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, Bradley Jersak

her gatesFor a brain like mine, Jersak’s book is what Rob Bell’s Love Wins should have been. That’s probably not fair to Bell, who surely wrote the book he intended to. But Her Gates Will Never Be Shut examines the questions of hell and judgment with an evangelical attention to the contents and contexts of scripture, even as it gives voice to perspectives that go far beyond the traditional Protestant configurations. Jersak exhaustively catalogs those biblical terms and scenarios which deal with judgment and ultimate human destiny and demonstrates their rich diversity, their obscured and unexpected origins, and some surprisingly beautiful pastoral implications. This book doesn’t call the debate for the universalist side, it simply constructs a holistic – and ultimately hopeful – biblical view to a future in which God’s mercy conquers, redeems, and rescues all. If you are a serious and conscientious reader of the Bible who finds traditional formulations of judgment and hell untenable, this book is a gift.

Brad Jersak appears in the fascinating documentary Hellbound?, now streaming on Netflix, and his upcoming book is titled A More Christlike God.

Other Game-changers:

Understanding Genesis and Exploring Exodus, Nahum Sarna
Sinai and Zion, Jon Levenson
A Farewell to Mars, Brian Zahnd
Disarming Scripture, Derek Flood
The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle
The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard
A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren
A People’s History of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass
For the Bible Tells Me So, Peter Enns
The Jesus Driven Life, Michael Hardin
And for old times’ sake: The Reason for God, Timothy Keller


When Scholarship Reveals Jesus

fall of jerusalemPopular Christianity taught me to be dubious and careful in regard to scholarship. Liberals and atheists are crouching everywhere, I was told, waiting to undermine my faith with science and reason. Some evangelicals welcome a modicum of safe, authorized scholarship to provide “background” for Bible reading, but as a rule modern scientific criticism is to be avoided and even combatted when necessary. And by far the greatest scholarly boogeymen are the “Jesus scholars,” those professors and researchers who have made their careers exploring the historical imprint left by Jesus of Nazareth. They present the greatest danger, we are told, because they want to deny Jesus’ miracles and divinity, and convince us that he was “just a man,” a guru not a savior.

For my part I’ve learned that scholarship – balanced, diverse, and collaborative – can actually help to correct and deepen faith. When we push past the false dichotomy of “faith vs. scholarship,” we enter into an ongoing and fruitful conversation between smart and helpful people across all kinds of disciplines and perspectives. If we filter out the voices of scholars because we’re afraid of what they might say, it says more about us than it does about the scholars. And when it comes to Jesus scholarship, I think Christians put themselves at a serious disadvantage by shutting it out. In the context of their discipline, most Jesus scholars are not on a mission to deny or debunk anything about Jesus, they are simply committed to exploring the historically explorable aspects of Jesus and his life. I want to briefly demonstrate how their work can add startling dimension to our understanding of who Jesus was and is.

What Scholarship Says About Jesus

For the purposes of this post I want to focus on one aspect of Jesus scholarship, namely what it has to say about Jesus’ teaching. Even more precisely, what it says about the “Olivet Discourse,” the apocalyptic prophecy delivered by Jesus to his followers shortly before his death (recorded with variations in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21). Dense and cryptic compared with his ethical sayings, Jesus’ words in the Olivet have been a source of debate, distraction, and confusion for Christians of many stripes. Given its intensity and the eschatological fervor it has inspired, conservative believers might expect scholars to downplay Jesus’ “little apocalypse” in favor of his more palatable teachings about peace and brotherly love.

However, this is not the case. In fact, scholarly consensus identifies the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus as the authentic kernel of his public ministry. And while Christians may not need scholars to tell them what Jesus did or didn’t really say, consider what this tells us about the scholars and their willingness to draw conclusions apart from bias or agenda. Far from reducing Jesus to a mere teacher of moral self-help, they affirm that Jesus really did declare himself to be the Son of Man, and his self-identity and message were truly and primarily prophetic.

Going Deeper

But scholarship goes further than simply affirming the authenticity of Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings. It also places them in a corrective setting that illuminates them, challenges traditional assumptions, and (I believe) reveals something glorious about Jesus. Traditional churchly readings of the Olivet Discourse have interpreted Jesus’ words as a grim and cryptic warning about the end of the world in our own near-future. A careful reading, however, in dialogue with scholarship, takes Jesus’ words and their Jewish apocalyptic context seriously and sees instead an historically located prophecy which has already been fulfilled, thus punctuating his teaching and vindicating him as a true and prescient prophet, an unexpected and peaceable messiah. Scholarship cannot make these types of religious judgments, but it can equip us to interact with our ancient sources with intelligence and clarity.

Here is a quick overview of the Olivet Discourse from this perspective:

Jesus promised his followers that the Temple and Jerusalem itself would be destroyed, an inevitable judgment for the city’s addiction to violence and her political and spiritual rebellion. They asked him, “When will these things happen?,” and the Olivet was his answer. It is filled with specific predictions (“false messiahs will appear,“ “wars and rumors of war,” “one will be taken, the other left behind”) and bold apocalyptic images borrowed from the Hebrew Scriptures (“the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky,” “you will see the son of man coming on the clouds”). Each one of Jesus’ sayings, according to a scholarly reading, pertains to the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in the Jewish War of 66-73 CE. False messiahs and failed revolutions? Check. Wars and rumors of war? Check. The Temple reduced to rubble? Check. Random murder and kidnapping by Roman forces? Check. The end of the Jewish world as they knew it? Check. Even the saying about the “son of man” in its original context in Daniel 7 is about the public vindication of God’s servant, not about rapture or second coming (the “coming” is upward, not downward, a possible analog to Jesus’ ascension?).

That is an all-too-brief breakdown of a very complex group of passages (explore more here  or here or here). There is much left to debate, to be sure. But there is one more crucial piece of evidence to consider. When Jesus finally gives an explicit answer to the disciples’ initial question (“When will these things happen?”) it is this: “I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away before these things take place.” The scholarly view, in addition to taking the Jewish and first century contexts of Jesus’ words seriously, has the distinction of making sense of this promise. I can’t tell you how many awkward explanations I’ve heard over the years of what Jesus really means here. “This generation” refers to the church. He’s talking about apostolic lineage. It’s a metaphor for the twentieth century. On and on. But when the full picture of Jesus’ vision comes together, with invaluable assistance from scholarship, it seems downright obvious. Modern Christians may not consider the fall of Jerusalem to be an epic catastrophe with cosmic significance, but Jesus the Jewish prophet clearly did.

Why Scholarship Matters

Where traditional readings of the Olivet have led to endless speculation, politicizing, gloom, doom, and fear/warmongering, a reading informed by scholarship reveals Jesus as a true prophet whose message of repentance and judgment was vindicated by historical events. This in no way means that Jesus remains a mere artifact of history, his words bereft of meaning for the present or future. Nor does it mute the salient biblical hope for parousia, for the long-awaited ultimate fruition of God’s kingdom on earth. But how does a refreshed and vibrant new understanding of this troublesome passage inform how we read the rest of the New Testament? How does our posture toward world and neighbor change when Jesus’ lordship is not bound up with a promise of inevitable war that must be fulfilled before God’s kingdom can be realized? What does the fate of Second Temple Jerusalem say about the chance for repentance and peace in our own day?

Scholarship is a partner and companion that helps to illuminate questions like these. It cannot have the final word on matters of faith, but what human voice can? Where scholarship can offer correction and illumination, we would do well to give it a voice. If we think that we have nothing to learn from history, or that God would not allow us to err because we have a special religious arrangement with Him, then we need to hear Jesus’ call to repentance more than ever.