Am I A Christian, Alex?

Here’s a Christmas homework assignment I did for fun at the suggestion of Tim McGrew with some rules (4&5 will be done in a forthcoming post). It’s based on an article “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?” by Nick Kristof1.

Rules:

  1. Copy and paste the italicized questions from this article into a fresh document, but without reading the article.
  2. Write your own answers. Be faithful to the format; you can’t take the conversation in a fundamentally different direction. The questions are what they are.
  3. Compare them with Tim Keller’s answers.
  4. Explain the differences between your answers and Tim Keller’s answers — not just in substance but in approach and in rhetoric.
  5. Bonus points: explain what you learned from the comparison.

Questions:

Kristof: Alex, I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity — the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and so on. Since this is the Christmas season, let’s start with the virgin birth. Is that an essential belief, or can I mix and match?

Alex: First I’d like to say, thanks Nick for giving me this opportunity to interact with you on the life and death of Jesus; Jesus is someone who I adore and therefore admire, a person whose message I spread out of that adoration as well.

Given what I said about Jesus and his message it follows that I’m a theist and a supernaturalist. I begin with these four ideas for a reason. One doesn’t have to adore Jesus and his message when investigating the truth of the virgin birth, the resurrection or miracles. One will also notice that this perspective of adoration also isn’t necessary for someone being a theist or supernaturalist. But normative Christianity has its adoration based on the person Christ as described in the bible and testifies that the Christian will love their Lord. In your own time I’d invite you Nick to assess where you fit in the schema I provided.

So after that preamble and given your comment on miracles, I take it that when a virgin birth is denied you are not saying Jesus’ human nature was an illusion or that he was only divine. So to answer the question, I do believe the texts do teach that the virgin birth occurred. And given that it occurred there’s no reason for the Christian to deny it.

 

Kristoff: But the earliest accounts of Jesus’ life, like the Gospel of Mark and Paul’s letter to the Galatians, don’t even mention the virgin birth. And the reference in Luke to the virgin birth was written in a different kind of Greek and was probably added later. So isn’t there room for skepticism?

 

Alex: Let’s have a look at your argument:

For any saying or event S about Jesus,

  1. If S is not in the earliest sources and S is written in a different kind of Greek compared to the rest of Luke and S was probably added later (than the rest of Luke), then scepticism about S is warranted.
  2. The virgin birth is neither in Mark nor Galatians.
  3. The virgin birth S is written in a different kind of Greek compared to the rest of Luke.
  4. The virgin birth was probably added later (than the rest of Luke)
  5. Scepticism about the virgin birth is warranted. (Modus Ponens or MP 1-4)

But to think that (1) is true is wrongheaded. Earliness is one way of authenticating the virgin birth. But if an event or saying lacks earliness it doesn’t mean that that event or saying is inauthentic, one would be misusing the tools historians use. Earliness and lack of linguistic issues may be a sufficient condition but it’s not a necessary condition for authenticity2.

Not only this but other factors exist that can indicate authenticity for the event or saying in question.  Here’s a list3:

  • Historical congruence: S fits with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.
  • Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor upon a common source.
  • Embarrassment: S is awkward or counterproductive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.
  • Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.
  • Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebraic linguistic forms.
  • Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.

Even if we lacked all six points, we still couldn’t say that the virgin birth did not happen. The Christian still has the Holy Spirit testifying to his spirit the great truths of the gospel, so agnosticism isn’t even necessary here.

Apart from this there are reasons to think that the virgin birth happened. Take your point (3) for example Nick. What you didn’t mention was that Hebraic Greek was used4. This means it’s a Semitism, one of our criteria that would indicate authenticity. So here’s my argument:

  1. If S has traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebraic linguistic forms, then S bears an indication of authenticity.
  2. Luke’s account of the virgin birth has traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebraic linguistic forms.
  3. Luke’s account of the virgin birth bears an indication of authenticity. (MP 6,7)
  4. Whatever bears an indication of authenticity, ought not to attract skepticism.
  5. Luke’s account of the virgin birth ought not to attract skepticism. (MP 8,9)

So based on your own point the Christian may continue to happily hold the virgin birth near his heart.

 

Kristoff: And the Resurrection? Must it really be taken literally?

 

Alex: Yes I do believe so.

 

Kristoff: But let me push back. As you know better than I, the Scriptures themselves indicate that the Resurrection wasn’t so clear cut. Mary Magdalene didn’t initially recognize the risen Jesus, nor did some disciples, and the gospels are fuzzy about Jesus’ literal presence — especially Mark, the first gospel to be written. So if you take these passages as meaning that Jesus literally rose from the dead, why the fuzziness?

 

Alex: Even if the Resurrection wasn’t so clear cut and it was fuzzy, so what? The literary genre of the gospels is not a police report or even a newspaper investigators report. The gospels fall under the literary genre of ancient biography5. To expect razor sharp precisionary testimony or recording would be anachronistic.

The claim of the early church was that Jesus’ body did not see decay6. This is not what we would expect if they thought it wasn’t a literal resurrection.

 

Kristoff: So where does that leave people like me? Am I a Christian? A Jesus follower? A secular Christian? Can I be a Christian while doubting the Resurrection?

 

Alex: The early church did not follow a mere rabbi or philosopher that lived and died. Rather they take hold of Gods promise of eternal life and the person, Jesus, who was resurrected is the paradigm. So if you deny the resurrection, I think your scepticism should be directed as to you being a Christian in the first place.

 

Kristoff: Alex, people sometimes say that the answer is faith. But, as a journalist, I’ve found skepticism useful. If I hear something that sounds superstitious, I want eyewitnesses and evidence. That’s the attitude we take toward Islam and Hinduism and Taoism, so why suspend skepticism in our own faith tradition?

 

Alex: The biblical view of faith is trusting in what you know to be true, not believing in some superstition. There were eyewitnesses and there is evidence. For instance, there are three facts that all point to a literal resurrection7:

  1. Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers
  2. There were post-mortem appearances of Jesus
  3. The origin of the Christian faith depends on belief of the earliest disciples that God had raised Jesus of Nazareth from among the dead.

Given these facts and an allowance of miracles being possible, the conclusion that God raised Jesus from the dead is more probably true than not.

The reason scepticism is not aimed at Christianity but is towards other religions is because they’re false. On Christianity God is monotheistic. I think there are good arguments for theism that would rule out Hinduism and Taoism. Islam can be ruled out when we examine the quality of their documents regarding Jesus.

Also if superstition controls civilization, as you seem to suggest, how are your beliefs about morality and human rights any different?

 

Kristoff: I’ll grudgingly concede your point: My belief in human rights and morality may be more about faith than logic. But is it really analogous to believe in things that seem consistent with science and modernity, like human rights, and those that seem inconsistent, like a virgin birth or resurrection?

Alex: It all depends on your worldview. If theism is true, miracles are possible. There are arguments for theism that actually use the conclusions of science as their premises. So trying to pit science against Christianity doesn’t work. It’s consistent with the findings of science.

Kristoff: Can I ask: Do you ever have doubts? Do most people of faith struggle at times over these kinds of questions?

Alex: Sure I have doubts sometimes as a lot of people do I guess. Before I became an informed Christian about these matters, I still had knowledge as do all Christians, since I relied on the Holy Spirit testifying to me the truths of the gospel. And now with arguments for Gods existence and the resurrection I’m doubly warranted.

Kristoff: What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world. But I’m troubled by the evangelical notion that people go to heaven only if they have a direct relationship with Jesus. Doesn’t that imply that billions of people — Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian families around the world? That Gandhi is in hell?

Alex: Actually Ghandi knew about Jesus. He flatly denied the truth of Christianity 8. It’s true that not everyone has the Holy Spirit and therefore lacks a direct relationship with Christ. So tragically yes, heaps of people love their sin rather than love Jesus, earning for themselves hell. And the bible states that God is not far from us, the forgiveness found in Christ is available for all. But many resist his forgiveness, to their destruction.

Kristoff: Alex, thanks for a great conversation. And, whatever my doubts, this I believe in: Merry Christmas!

Notes:

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/opinion/sunday/pastor-am-i-a-christian.html?_r=1
  2. “…scholars involved in the quest of the historical Jesus have enunciated a number of so-called criteria for detecting historically authentic features of Jesus. It is absolutely crucial to the study of the historical Jesus that these criteria be correctly stated and applied. As already mentioned, it is somewhat misleading to call these “criteria,” for they aim at stating sufficient, not necessary, conditions of historicity. This is easy to see: suppose a saying is multiply attested and dissimilar but not embarrassing. If embarrassment were a necessary condition of authenticity, then the saying would have to be deemed inauthentic, which is wrong-headed, since its multiple attestation and dissimilarity are sufficient for authenticity. Of course, the criteria are defeasible, meaning that they are not infallible guides to authenticity. They might be better called “Indications of Authenticity.” Had the expression not already been appropriated, the medieval “Signs of Credibility” would have been the perfect cognomen for the criteria. In point of fact, what the criteria really amount to are statements about the effect of certain types of evidence upon the probability of various sayings or events. For some saying or event S, evidence of a certain type E, and our background information B, the criteria would state that, all things being equal, Pr (S|E&B) [greater than] Pr (S|B). In other words, all else being equal, the probability of some event or saying is greater given, for example, its multiple attestation than it would have been without it…” W L Craig (2008-07-23). Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (p. 298). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. 3rd
  3. p. 298
  4. “…After his literary preface (Luke 1:1-4), Luke’s style in the next section (Luke 1:5-2:52) drops into what W. L. Knox calls ‘an orgy of Hebraic Greek with occasional improvements’…” Donald Guthrie (1990). New Testament Introduction, Revised Edition (p.194)
  5. “…the genre of literature that they closely resemble in the ancient world is ancient biography – the “lives” of famous Greeks and Romans, for example. So they really belonged to the type of ancient biography. They are not mythology in the way that, say, stories of Hercules and Zeus and Osiris and so forth are…” Read more:http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/transcript/s6-17#ixzz4V9lZoIVW
  6. See Acts 2:24-36 “…And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. “For David says of Him, ‘I WAS ALWAYS BEHOLDING THE LORD IN MY PRESENCE; FOR HE IS AT MY RIGHT HAND, THAT I MAY NOT BE SHAKEN. ‘THEREFORE MY HEART WAS GLAD AND MY TONGUE EXULTED; MOREOVER MY FLESH ALSO WILL ABIDE IN HOPE; BECAUSE THOU WILT NOT ABANDON MY SOUL TO HADES, NOR ALLOW THY HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY. ‘THOU HAST MADE KNOWN TO ME THE WAYS OF LIFE; THOU WILT MAKE ME FULL OF GLADNESS WITH THY PRESENCE.’ “Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. “And so, because he was a prophet, and knew that GOD HAD SWORN TO HIM WITH AN OATH TO SEAT one OF HIS DESCENDANTS UPON HIS THRONE, he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that HE WAS NEITHER ABANDONED TO HADES, NOR DID His flesh SUFFER DECAY. “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. “Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear. “For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: ‘THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, UNTIL I MAKE THINE ENEMIES A FOOTSTOOL FOR THY FEET.”’ “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ — this Jesus whom you crucified.”…”
  7. See “Reasonable Faith” by W L Craig. Pg 360-395.
  8. “…I regard Jesus as a great teacher of humanity, but I do not regard him as the only begotten son of God. That epithet in its material interpretation is quite unacceptable. Metaphorically we are all sons of God, but for each of us there may [*] in-line. WMF be different sons of God in a special sense. Thus for me Chaitanya may be the only begotten son of God. God cannot be the exclusive Father and I cannot ascribe exclusive divinity to Jesus. (Harijan: June 3, 1937)…” See “Hinduism: The Dawn of Civilization” by Dinesh Chandra.
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