Detecting False Dichotomies that Hinder the Mission of the Church

Jesus excelled in reasoning and never committed a logical fallacy. Nor did he give his followers the option of intellectual slackness. The Holy Spirit would lead them into truth and give them the wisdom they needed. Studying with Jesus for three years meant learning to think on their feet.  But today, many Christians accept a logical fallacy that saps the church’s witness. It is called a false dichotomy.

Some affirm that the church should not engage in apologetics, but, rather, preach the gospel. They set up the relationship as “ether apologetics or gospel preaching” and affirm gospel preaching at the expense of apologetics. But this is a false dichotomy, since both preaching and apologetics have been staples of Christian practice in the early church and through the centuries. The relationship of these two ideas is both/and, not either/or. To hold this false dichotomy hobbles the mission of the church.

Consider another either/or mistake. Some write off apologetics by saying, “Rational arguments do no good in convincing an unbeliever of the gospel. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.” Thus, it comes down to the disjunction of rational arguments or the Holy Spirit. Since they want the Spirit’s work to prevail (and not the flesh), we deny apologetics. Yet what if the Holy Spirit works through rational arguments? If so, there is no disjunction. In the teachings of Jesus, the early church, and throughout the history of Christianity, we find sinners convinced of the truth of the Gospel through the use of apologetics of one kind or another. The best-selling author Lee Strobel was convinced to become a Christian by a careful investigation of the evidence. The fine film, “The Case for Christ” recounts this intellectual adventure. According to Jesus, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth (John 15:26. Thus, it is not surprising that he often employs sound arguments to convince people of the truth of Christianity—although the hard-hearted can turn away from the best evidence for the Christian faith.

Finally, consider the nature of Christ. Heretics claim that Jesus is either God or human, not both God and human. Docetists say that Jesus was divine, but only appeared human. Muslims say that Jesus was human and not divine. On the contrary, the Bible affirms, and the creeds concur, that Jesus is both God and human. He is the God-man.

The divine Word became flesh in human history without ceasing to be divine (John 1:1-3, 14; Philippians 2:5-11). Orthodox Christian faith affirms that Jesus is one person with two natures; he is both divine and human. There is no either/or.

One of the most common errors in thinking is false dichotomy. Sadly, Christians are not immune to them. We must take seriously the commandment Jesus said was first and greatest—to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37-38). We love God by consecrating our minds to him. We take his commandment seriously by avoiding false dichotomies and all errors in logic. We must scrupulously avoid all sloppy, lazy thinking. The stakes are high indeed. Affirming a false dichotomy regarding apologetics, social action, the Holy Spirit, or the nature of Christ has dire consequences.

 

 

 

 

 

Advice to Christian Apologists: Being Wise as Serpents and Innocent as Doves

Jesus exhorted us to love God with all our minds (Matthew 22:37-39). Explaining, commending, and defending the Christian worldview is not limited to experts; it is the call of every Christian (1 Peter 3:15-16). Arguing that Christianity is objectively true, compellingly rational, and existentially engaging over the whole of life is essential to Christian witness. Our salt and light must not be hidden, Jesus teaches. Since all Christians should be witnesses to the reality of the Gospel, every Christian is an apologist. Some excel at this task and others do not. All Christ-followers are called to worship God. We do not single out a group called “worshippers,” as a subset of all Christians. However, some are much more genuine, clear-eyed, and whole-hearted in their worship than others.

“Since all Christians should be witnesses to the reality of the Gospel, every Christian is an apologist.”

We are sent out as sheep among wolves (Matthew 10:16). Because of this danger, Jesus instructed his followers to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Jesus also instructed his followers to be witnesses who are wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Wise words matter for our mission. We do not want to mislead or muddle the Gospel. The word apologist aptly describes one who makes a case for Christianity. However, this word often connotes a biased presentation given for vested interests. The apologist is taken as a huckster, a propagandist, a shady salesman. Woe to the Christian who fits this description.

Since the word apologistis redundant for the Christian and because it carries unneeded opprobrium, I suggest we use it sparingly, if at all. Once a week, I am introduced as a “Christian philosopher,” on a secular radio program. I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy and teach the subject full-time. I am also a Christian. Yes, I have written much on apologetics, and this term designates a particular field of study. But none of my degrees are in apologetics. All them of are in philosophy. Thus, I do not advertise myself as an apologistper se.

Whether or not one has degrees in philosophy, it is wiser to explain and defend the Christian worldview without using the word apologeticsor apologist—if possible. Of course, some have received graduate degrees in apologetics. Good for them! My school offers one, and I direct the program. There is no reason to hide this. The church does not recoil from this term, by and large. But the non-Christian world is suspicious of it. Argue for Christian truth, by all means, but avoid being stereotyped. Be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove. What does this mean, besides not stereotyping yourself as an apologist?

Apologists should be wise as serpentsby being cunning and clever, but without sin. You can wisely insinuate Christian truth into unlikely places if you are enterprising and ethical. This was Paul’s aim: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20;NIV).

Deception, however, must be avoided. Just as Christ-followers must avoid being deceived, so must they shun deceiving others. As Paul writes;

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ (Colossians 2:8; see also 1 John 4:1-6).

When writing to the Thessalonians, Paul assures them that “our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive” (1 Thessalonians 2:3, ESV). For example, public lectures on apologetic themes should not use the bait and switchmethod found in advertising. A customer is lured in by one product only to find that selling another product was the real purpose of the advertisement. If this is morally questionable in business, how much more should apologist shun this technique which borders on lying?

I was once guilty of this myself, if only indirectly. In 2009, I gave a talk at a local college called, “The Deniable Darwin,” in which I challenged the sufficiency of natural selection to explain the bacterial flagellum, a molecular machine. The ministry that sponsored the event told me they wanted a woman in their group to give a short testimony after my talk about her Christian conversion. I did not suggest the idea, but agreed to it. Not long after the event, I realized that her testimony had little to do with my talk, which was limited to an apologetic against Darwinism and an argument for a Designer. In other words, it was a piece of natural theology, not a defense of the gospel per se. After all, not every apologetic event needs to be evangelistic; it can be pre-evangelistic, as the masterful apologist, Francis Schaeffer, put it. Some in the packed room may have felt that my talk was simply a set up for the testimony. This was untrue, but it may have seemed that way. But if being “wise as a serpent” precludes deception, what does in it include?

“Not every apologetic event needs to be evangelistic; it can be pre-evangelistic, as the masterful apologist, Francis Schaeffer, put it.”

In the early 1980’s, a friend and I taught a class at the University of Oregon in a program that allowed non-faculty to teach for-credit courses if they were approved by a professor. We knew the head of the sociology department, who signed on for us. Our subject was comparative worldviews. We used James W. Sire’s classic, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue(originally published in 1976 and now its fifth, and last, edition.) Each term, I would create a flyer advertising the course and put it up all over campus, staple gun at the ready. My copy said that “evangelical and orthodox Christianity” would be compared with other worldviews, such as naturalism, deism, pantheism, and more. My elder brother in teaching said, “Take out evangelical and orthodox” and just put ‘Christian.’ It will attract more people.” He was “wise as a serpent.” I was not as wise at that point. Today, I have grown in that grace.

How might apologists be “innocent as doves”? The contrast between serpents and doves seems unbridgeable. The cunning are not innocent, are they? Jesus thinks otherwise. The Messageparaphrase renders it, “Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove.” Defenders of the faith should never be con men or operators. We should seek no advantage for our cause outside of what is virtuous. Paul knows that even those with bad motives may still proclaim the true gospel, but he does not commend that.

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice (Philippians 1:15-18).

Being innocent also pertains to what should not be known. Paul tells the Romans that, “I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil” (Romans 16:19). There are some things that apologists should not know, in some cases even about the worldviews and practices they attempt to refute. Jesus says to the church, “Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, I will not impose any other burden on you” (Revelation 2:24).

Earlier in my career, I wrote much about the New Age movement. My research was extensive over several years, and I read some unsavory stuff. However, I tried to never read anything not necessary to my apologetic against the New Age worldview (pantheism, monism, reincarnation) and for Christianity. When I studied particularly dark subjects, I prayed for protection and read the bare minimum necessary. Further, I have studied very little about Satanism, since I had my hands full with my other research and discerned no call to minister in that area. I take seriously Paul’s admonition: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:11).

Having been an apologist for the last forty years, I could give much more advice. I have only highlighted the need for defenders of the faith to be wise, but innocent, witnesses to Jesus Christ and the Gospel. Without these values, apologetic arguments, no matter how powerful, will sit unused and be ineffective. But when we pay heed to Jesus, our arguments will find their home in the hearts and minds of those who need his saving grace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Christian Apologetics Manifesto (19 Ways to Ignite Apologetic Passion)

On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it—Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:9).

This is a manifesto to ignite the holy fire of apologetic passion and action. As did Jeremiah, we should have “fire in our bones” to communicate and commend Christian truth today (Jeremiah 20:9). This manifesto is not a sustained argument or a detailed development of themes. Rather, as a manifesto, it proclaims a short series of interrelated propositions crying out for both immediate and protracted reflection, prayer, and action. These challenges issue from convictions formed through my nearly thirty years of apologetic teaching, preaching, debating, writing, and Christian witness.

Because of (1) the waning influence of the Christian worldview in public and private life in America today, (2) the pandemic of anti-intellectualism in the contemporary church, and (3) the very command of God himself to declare, explain, and defend divine truth, I strongly advise that the following statements be wrestled with and responded to by all followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.

  1. Christian apologetics involves the presentation and defense of Christianity as an integrated worldview that is objectively, universally, and absolutely true, reasonable, knowable, and existentially pertinent to both individuals and entire cultures. Apologetics involves rebutting unbelieving accusations against Christianity (2 Corinthian 10:3-5; Jude 3) as well as giving a constructive and persuasive case for Christian theism (Philippians 1:7; 1 Peter 3:15).
  2. Any intellectual discipline, church practice, or teaching that minimizes or denigrates the importance of apologetics is unbiblical and must be repented of (Matthew 4:17; Acts 17:16-34; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5; 1 Peter 3:15; Jude 3). The degradation of apologetics can only lead to the further vitiation of the life of the church. “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).
  3. The fundamental issue for apologetics is not how many apologists one has read, or what apologetic method one embraces (although that must be worked out carefully). Rather, the essential issue is whether or not one has a passion for God’s transforming truth—reasonably pursued and courageously communicated—and a passion for the lost because of the love of God resident and active in one’s life (Romans 9:1-3; 10:1). Like the Apostle Paul at Athens, we should both be “greatly disturbed” because of the rampant unbelief in our day. We, like that great apologist, should also be intellectually equipped and spiritually prepared to enter the marketplace of ideas for the cause of Christ (Acts 17:16-34).
  4. The apologist must be convinced of the truth, rationality, pertinence, and knowability of the Christian worldview, which is derived from Holy Scripture as it is logically systematized and rightly harmonized with general revelation (truth knowable outside of Scripture). This is an intellectual goal for a lifetime as the disciple of Christ seeks to love God with one’s mind and take more and more thoughts captive to obey Christ (Matthew 22:37-40; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5). The apologist should never rest content with an ad hoc or piecemeal worldview, as is so typical of those afflicted with postmodernist pastiche sensibilities.
  5. In light of (1), (2), (3), and (4), fideism—the claim that Christian faith finds no positive warrant from reason or evidence—should be rejected as unbiblical and harmful to the great cause of biblical truth (Isaiah 1:18; Matthew 22:37-39; Romans 12:1-2). Fideistic confessions such as “I just know that I know in my knower,” do little to challenge unbelief or induce unbelievers to consider the saving truth of the gospel. Moreover, members of other religions can use the same technique to attempt to support their false beliefs. This is especially true for Mormons, who rely so heavily on subjective feelings to verify objective claims. Fideism strips Christianity of its rational witness to the reality of God’s holy revelation to humanity.
  6. Any theology, apologetics, ethics, evangelism or church practice that minimizes or denigrates the concept of objective, absolute, universal and knowable truth is both irrational and unbiblical. As such it must be rejected and repented of. Thus, the postmodernist view of truth as socially constructed, contingent, and relative must be rejected by Christian apologists. Anything that might be true in postmodernism can be found elsewhere in better philosophical systems. What is false in postmodernism (the vast majority of it) is fatal to Christian witness. Without a strong, biblical view of truth apologetics is impossible.
  7. The work of the Holy Spirit in bringing people to saving faith should not be artificially separated from faithful apologetic engagement. Many Christians wrongly think that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is exclusively non-rational or even irrational. The Spirit is free to win and woe unbelievers in a host of ways—including dreams, angelic visitations, healings, visions, meaningful coincidences, and so on—but we must remember that He is “the Spirit of truth,” as Jesus said (John 16:13). There is no reason to separate the work of the Holy Spirit from rigorous and skillful argumentation for Christian truth. The Holy Spirit can set the redeemed mind free to argue logically and winsomely; he also reaches into the unbeliever’s soul through the force of arguments. Apologists should earnestly pray that the Holy Spirit will make them as intelligent and knowledgeable as possible.
  8. All apologetic endeavors should manifest the virtues of both humility and courage through the empowering of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8; Galatians 5:16-26). If we have been bestowed by Almighty God with truth to defend rationally, this is because of God’s grace, not our own goodness (Ephesians 2:1-8; Titus 3:5-6). There is no room for pride, which goes before a fall. If Almighty God has bestowed us with saving truth to defend rationally, we should take it to the streets and not shrink back from appropriate encounters with unbelief. There is no room for cowardice. As Paul counseled Timothy, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).
    Humility should not be confused with uncertainty or timidity. One may be confident in one’s worldview and defend it publicly without being arrogant. The grand apologist, G.K. Chesterton explains this perfectly and memorably.
    But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason.
  9. Apologetics must be carried out with the utmost intellectual integrity (Titus 2:7-8; James 3:1-2). All propaganda, cheap answers, caricatures of non-Christian views, hectoring, and fallacious reasoning must be avoided. Sadly, some apologetic materials are too cavalier for serious use. One should develop competent answers to searching questions about the truth and rationality of Christian faith. This demands excellence in scholarship at all intellectual levels, even the most popular. This cognitive orientation takes time, money, and sustained effort. It will not happen by watching television or by otherwise wasting our limited time. Christians must thus cultivate the virtue of studiousness in order to grow deep in their knowledge of God, the Christian worldview, and how to bring the Christian message to bear on unbelief.
  10. The artificial separation of evangelism from apologetics must end. Many evangelistic methods die when those evangelized ask questions related to apologetics. Therefore, all evangelistic training should include basic apologetic training as well. The Apostle Paul serves as a model for us in that he both proclaimed and defended the Gospel in the Book of Acts (Acts 17:16-34; 19:8-10). Jesus also rationally defended his views as well as propounding them.
  11. Apologetics is meant just as much for believers with doubts and questions as it is directed toward unbelievers. Therefore, Christians with doubts should not be shunned or shamed, but given good apologetic arguments (as well as pastoral care) in dealing with their intellectual struggles. When follows of John the Baptist came to Jesus with John’s questions about Jesus’ messianic identity, Jesus did not rebuke them, but provided evidence for why John should believe that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 11:1-11). Jude also counsels us to “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22). One way to show mercy to the doubter is to build him or her by giving reasons for Christian faith. The apologetic witness of the church is strengthened tremendously when Christians gain rational assurance that their faith is indeed true and cogent.
  12. Since all Christians are called and commanded to have a reason for the hope within them (1 Peter 3:15), Christian teachers, pastors, mentors and educators of all kinds are remiss if they avoid, denigrate, or minimize the importance of apologetics to biblical living and Christian witness. The commonly heard canard, “No one comes to Christ through arguments” is patently false. Many people, such as the apologists C.S. Lewis and John Warwick Montgomery, were drawn to the gospel through apologetic arguments. By God’s grace, I have been able to help unbelievers see the truth and rationality of Christianity through apologetic arguments. Well-respected Christian philosophers and apologists, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland concur. Not all Christian teachers are equally gifted in apologetics, and some will emphasize this discipline more than others; but none should minimize the necessity of apologetics or preach around it when the biblical text requires otherwise.
  13. Those outside of the leadership positions mentioned in (12) should humbly but boldly request that apologetics be made a constitutive part of these institutions if this is not already the case and pray to that end. We must stimulate each other to love and good deed in his area (Hebrews 10:24).
  14. In light of (12) and (13), Christian colleges, seminaries, and churches should incorporate apologetics into their institutional/educational life, mission, and vision. Specifically, every Christian high school, college, university, and seminary should require at least one class in apologetics for every degree in their curriculum. Sadly, this is not now the case for most institutions of Christian learning. Moreover, every discipline should be taught from a Christian worldview, since all truth is God’s truth. This has significant apologetic value in and of itself. Duane Litfin, President of Wheaton College, has written very insightfully on this practice with respect to the Christian college.
    Christian education within the church, especially the junior high level and above, should become more intellectually serious and thus more apologetically oriented. Classes should be taught by thoughtful teachers who engage students to outthink the world for Christ. These settings should become more like prayerful classrooms and less like chattering religious coffee and donut centers. Along these lines, churches should invest significantly in church library that is well stocked with books on apologetics and other topics.
  15. Mission agencies should insure that their missionaries are adequately trained in the apologetic issues and strategies required for their place of service. The Great Commission requires that Christ’s followers disciple the nations by teaching them everything Jesus taught his original disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Since Jesus prized the life of the mind and defended this theology and ethics rationally, Christians should bring the best arguments for Christianity and against non-Christian religions to bear on the mission field. The nations cannot be discipled apart from the full orbed teaching and defense of the Christian worldview as it relates to all of life.
  16. Because apologetics is meant to be the presentation and defense of Christianity as true, reasonable, pertinent, and knowable, competent apologists should attempt to offer their arguments in as many public venues as possible. Therefore, qualified Christian apologists should learn to become public intellectuals: thinkers who have mastered their material and are willing and able to enter public discourse and debate in a way that challenges and engages the non-Christian mind as well as galvanizes other Christians to hone their apologetic skills. Areas of apologetic engagement include the following:
  • Writing letters to the editors of newspapers and magazines.
  • Writing op-ed pieces for newspapers.
  • Calling talk radio programs.
  • Engaging in public debates and dialogues on religious and ethical issues, particularly in university campuses, where young minds are being forged for a lifetime.
  • Making apologetic contributions to interactive web pages.
  • Writing books oriented to those outside the typical evangelical market, published by secular publishers if possible.
  • Creating apologetics tracts for specific events.
  • Any other creative outreach—drama, poetry, cinema, and more.
  1. Christians should also labor to present reasons for faith in as many private settings as possible. Many who are not gifted as public speakers or writers can shine in their interpersonal Christian witness. This can include apologetic encounters such as:
  • Inviting people into one’s home for apologetic messages and discussions.
  • Giving apologetic literature to friends, family, and coworkers.
  • Writing letters to friends, family, and coworkers explaining and defending Christianity.
  1. Young Christians with an aptitude in philosophy and academic pursuits in general should be encouraged that these disciplines are just as spiritual as anything directly church-related. For example, being a Christian philosopher at a secular college or university is just as godly and spiritual than being a pastor, missionary, or professor at a Christian institution (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). As the Dutch statesman, theologian, and journalist, Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine!'” One may prudently apply one’s apologetic skills in these settings and extend the Christian witness.
  2. All apologetics ventures—whether in writing, speaking, or dialogue—should be backed by personal prayer by the apologist and supporting prayer of the church (Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Certain apologetic ventures—especially those that deal with the occult and false religions—may require fasting in addition to prayer (Matthew 6:18-20; Acts 13:1-3).

May we who are redeemed through the blood of the lamb and who yearn to proclaim, explain, and defend the gospel of Jesus Christ take as our charge the Apostle Paul’s rousing conclusion to his glorious exposition of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

 

Easter Life and the Facts of History

Easter commemorates and celebrates a historical event unlike any other: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But what is the significance of the resurrection? And how can we know it really happened?

The four Gospels report that Jesus predicted his death, burial, and resurrection. He was born to die. All of his wondrous teachings, healings, exorcisms, and transforming relationships with all manner of people—from fishermen to tax collectors to prostitutes to revolutionaries—would be incomplete without his crucifixion and resurrection. Shortly before his death, “Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priest and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21). Peter resisted this grim fact, but Jesus rebuked him. There was no other way (vs. 22-23). For, as Jesus had taught, he “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

And give his life he did, on an unspeakably cruel Roman cross—impaled for all to see before two common criminals. We call this day Good Friday because it was good for us; but it was dreadful for Jesus. Before I became a follower of Christ, I always associated this day with the Alaskan earthquake on Good Friday, 1964, one of the largest ever in North America. I was there in Anchorage. After the death of Jesus, the earth quaked on the first Good Friday as well, heaving with a significance that far exceeds any geological upsurge in world history. As Jesus’ disciple Matthew recounts: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split” (Matthew 27:50-51). When the guards at the crucifixion experienced the earthquake and the other extraordinary phenomena, “they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’” (v. 54). Yet another miracle was waiting, waiting—as the dead Messiah was pried off his bloody cross, embalmed, and laid in a cold, dark tomb, guarded to the hilt.

We call this day Good Friday because it was good for us; but it was dreadful for Jesus.

All seemed to be lost. The one who had boldly claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), the prophet who had announced that “God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)—this man now had died. The man who had raised the dead was dead.

On the first day of the week, two women, both named Mary, came to visit the tomb of their master. They had stayed with him as he died; now they visited his tomb in grief. Yet instead of mourning a death, they celebrated a resurrection announced by an angel, who rolled back the stone sealing the tomb and charged them to look at its empty contents. He then told them to tell Jesus’ disciples of the resurrection and to go to Galilee where they would see him. As they scurried away, Jesus himself met them, greeted them, and received their surprised worship (Matthew 27:8-9). He directed them, “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (v. 10).

The rest is history, and it changed history forever. The fact that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection puts the lie to the notion that the idea of Jesus’ resurrection was concocted at a later point to add drama to his life. Women were not taken to be trustworthy witnesses in courts of law at that time (although Jesus always respected them). If someone had wanted to create a pious fraud, they never would have included the two Marys in their story. Moreover, all four Gospels testify to the factual reality of the resurrection. They were written by eyewitnesses (Matthew and John) or those who consulted eyewitnesses (Luke and Mark); they were people in the know, not writers of myths and legends (see Luke 1:1-4; 1 Peter 1:16).

After the resurrection, the gospel of the risen Jesus was quickly proclaimed in the very area where he was crucified. This upstart “cult” would have been easily refuted by someone producing the corpse of Christ, which both the Jewish establishment and the Roman government had a vested interest in doing, since this new movement threatened the religious and political status quo. But we have no historical record of any such thing having occurred. On the contrary, the Jesus movement grew and rapidly spread. Christian Jews changed the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, in honor of Jesus’ resurrection. Pious Jews would never do such a thing on their own initiative, because it would set them against their own tradition and their countrymen. Nor would they have ceased offering the prescribed sacrifices their Scriptures required had not Jesus proven himself to be the final sacrifice for sin, the lamb of God (see John 1:29 and the Book of Hebrews). The resurrection best accounts for this change in their day of worship, their manner of worship, and the transformation at the core of their lives. Moreover, the two key rituals of the earliest church—communion and the baptism—both presuppose the historicity of the resurrection and are very difficult to explain without it.

The two key rituals of the earliest church—communion and the baptism—both presuppose the historicity of the resurrection and are very difficult to explain without it.

The Apostle Paul, a man revolutionized through an encounter with the risen Christ (Acts 9), taught that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Paul listed many witnesses of the risen Christ, some of whom were still living when he wrote (1 Corinthians 15:3-8), and confidently affirmed that “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (v. 20). He also proclaimed that Jesus “through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).

Easter is the core of Christian faith and life. Without the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is no gospel message, no future hope, and no new life in Christ. With the resurrection, Christianity stands unique in all the world: no other spiritual movement is based on the resurrection of its divine founder. When Jesus announced, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 10:25), he meant it and he demonstrated it. Let us, then, leave our dead ways and follow him today and into eternity.

Obituary for James Sire (1933-2018)

When I took the course, “In the Twilight of Western Thought: A Christian Response,” at the University of Oregon in 1978, we read a book called The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue (InterVarsity Press, 1976), by James W.  Sire, editor of InterVarsity Press. I was a young Christian, who had been reading Francis Schaeffer and wanted to get more grounded in Christianity as true, rational, and pertinent to life. I did not want to fear investigating any other religion or worldview. After all, why be a Christian unless you know it is true and will stand up to criticism?

Winsome and accurate, The Universe Next Door taught me the meaning of worldview and the world views of Christian theism, Deism, Naturalism, Nihilism, Existentialism, Eastern Pantheistic Monism, and the New Consciousness (later called New Age). (Later editions contained a chapter on postmodernism.) After reading this book, I feared no other worldview and wanted to learn more about all of them. I have done so for the last forty years. Universe was immensely readable and helpful.  Unlike many books on worldviews and apologetics, Jim’s love for literature shined through. He was, after all, a professor of English before coming to InterVarsity Press as head editor.

I would later go on to read and teach from all five editions of this path-breaking book and come to know Jim Sire as my editor and friend. Dr. Sire and others at InterVarsity Press took a chance on a young and relatively unpublished writer and campus minister. They offered me a contract for my first book, Unmasking the New Age, which was published in early 1986. He likewise edited my second book, Confronting the New Age (1988), and I interacted with him in his capacity as editor until he left to lecture full time around the world.

I read nearly all of Jim’s subsequent books, and used several as textbooks, such as Habits of the Mind (2000) and Scripture Twisting (InterVarsity, 1980). Universe has never gone out of print; it has been used as a textbook in many colleges, universities, and seminaries; and it has been translated into a number of other languages. I’m sure he found much delight in this, as did his readers.

Jim was kind enough to give me an endorsement for Truth Decay (InterVarsity Press, 2000): “Written with brilliance and clarity that is highly unusual among both defenders and critics of postmodernism.” I was also honored when Jim asked me to look over several of his manuscripts. I endorsed his recent book, Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Is Really Believing (although I wasn’t smitten with the title). But enough about how James Sire helped me. You can tell how much he meant to me.

Jim was the father of the Christian worldview movement. Loosely defined, this movement is made of writers, speakers, and educators who advocated that Christianity be understood and promoted philosophically. C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer were key as well, but Sire consolidated the Christian view in a clear and captivating way. Christians should be able to explain what the Bible teaches and what the church has always affirmed according the rudiments of Christian theology and confession. However, worldview isn’t an in-group way of explaining Christianity. It is not a catechism. Rather, it specifies broad and neutral conceptual categories that can be applied to any belief system, not simply Christianity. Although he refined it in subsequent editions of The Universe Next Door, I still appreciate Sire’s first definition of a worldview.

Christians should be able to explain what the Bible teaches and what the church has always affirmed according the rudiments of Christian theology and confession.

A set of assumptions (or presuppositions) held (either consciously or unconsciously) about the basic makeup of the world.

A worldview answers such questions as these:

  1. What is the nature of ultimate reality? Is it matter, God, or ideas?
  2. How does the universe work? Is it a closed system or open to divine reordering through revelation and miracle?
  3. What is the meaning of history? Is it haphazard, linear, or cyclical?
  4. What is the basis of morality? Is it God, the self, or society?
  5. What is the human condition and is salvation possible?
  6. Is there an afterlife, and, if so, what it is like?

Before Jim wrote The Universe Next Door, he was instrumental in the writing careers of Francis Schaeffer and Os Guinness, two giants of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism. Both applied the Christian worldview skillfully to apologetics and social criticism. He edited Guinness’s first book—his unmatched critique of the counterculture, The Dust of Death (1973). In the case of Schaeffer’s Death in the City (InterVarsity Press, 1969), Sire shaped a manuscript from a series of explosive lectures Schaeffer gave at Wheaton College. Sire also wrote an incisive introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of Schaeffer’s modern classic, The God Who is There (original publication, 1968). The 2006 of Schaeffer’s gem, The Mark of the Christian, is introduced by Sire as well.

In recent years, some critics, such as James K. A. Smith, have disparaged the idea of presenting Christianity as a worldview. They charge that it is too conceptual, reductionist, and lacks a confessional element. But the idea of a worldview was never meant to replace systematic theology, liturgy, or the corporate confession of the church. The principal strength of worldview is for apologetics and cultural criticism. Yes, some of the recent books on worldview are superfluous, but that is not the fault of James Sire.

I tell my students that discerning a non-Christian’s worldview is crucial to knowing how to bring the gospel to them, since it allows us to find points of common ground as well as areas of disagreement. Further, as Sire himself demonstrated in his public lectures and interactions with unbelievers, we must be sensitive to the particular human beings before us, by asking the Holy Spirit to give us intellectual and emotional insight that is fruitful for Christian witness.

Discerning a non-Christian’s worldview is crucial to knowing how to bring the gospel to them, since it allows us to find points of common ground as well as areas of disagreement.

James Sire, especially later in life, became something of a mystic. He was hardly a stilted worldview-brandishing rationalist (in Schaeffer’s use of the term) with no room for personal communion with the living God! He wrote two books on meditating on the Psalms: Learning to Pray through the Psalms (2006) and The Psalms of Jesus (2007). His later writings spoke more of spiritual experience.

Jim and I were not close personal friends, but we fondly communicated over many years and appreciated each other’s work. He always signed his letters or emails with, “Cheers, Jim Sire.” We enjoyed being together the few times we were. I met him for the first time in 1983 at a Christian’s writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon. While teaching a seminar, Jim said, “We have one of our InterVarsity Press author’s with us.” He meant me, even though I had only signed the contract for Unmasking the Age. That was kind. We exchanged a few emails in recent years and I’m happy that I thanked him for his work in a hand-written card some years ago. (Hint: I suggest you write cards or send emails to authors who have meant much to you. See 10 Ways to Write a Meaningful Card.)

I knew Jim to be a warm and genial man, both quick witted and ready to laugh. He was a prolific author, an expert editor, a smart Christian statesman, and an ardent follower of Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior. Thank you, Jim, for your life and work. Thank you, Jesus, for giving this man a long, full, and productive life in your service. Cheers!

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Muslims and Christians: How to Get Along?

They both believe in one personal and transcendent God who has sent his prophets into the world. They both believe in sacred writings that record the prophetic revelations. They both believe that Jesus was a prophet who was sinless and born of a virgin. And they both worship with these beliefs firmly in place. We are speaking of Muslims and Christians, whose members comprise the two largest monotheistic religions in the world.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have become fascinated with the beliefs and practices of Islam, which is thefastest growing religion in the world, with approximately 1.3 billion adherents. Increasingly, Muslims are immigrating to the West. In various American cities, it is not uncommon to find mosques — many of them newlybuilt — and to see women in the traditional Muslim dress mingling with American women dressed quite differently.

In light of this, many Westerners wonder what do Muslims believe and why. They also question the relationship between Islam and Christianity. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but merely in different ways? Should Christians seek to present their beliefs to Muslims in the hope that the Muslim might forsake Islam and embrace Christianity? Or is this simply a waste of time at best or rude at worst?

Many instruct us to be “tolerant” and to refrain from “proselytizing” anyone. In the name of tolerance, some people say that Christians and Muslims should coexist without trying to convert (or otherwise challenge) each other because “Christians and Muslims worship the same God.” This, many believe, should be good enough for Muslims and Christians. Many also believe this arrangement is good enough for the God they both worship as well. If both religions worship the same God, why should they worry about each other’s spiritual state?

Religion, God and Truth

If indeed Muslims and Christians worship the same God, there would be little need for disagreement, dialogue, and debate between them. If I am satisfied to shop at one grocery store and you are satisfied to shop at another store, why should I try to convince you to shop at my store or vice versa? Do not both stores provide the food we need, even if each sells different brands? The analogy is tidy, but does it really fit? Deeper questions need to be raised if we are to settle the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. First, what are the essential teachings of Christianity and Islam? Second,what does each religion teach about worshipping its God? Third, what does each religion teach about the other religion? That is, do the core teachings of Islam and Christianity assure their adherents that members of the other religion are fine as they are because both religions “worship the same God”?

In When Religion Becomes Evil (Harper. San Francisco, 2002), Charles Kimball argues that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God. Kimball rightly observes that truth claims are foundational for religion. But he claims that believers err when they hold their religious beliefs in a “rigid” or “absolute” manner. So, he argues, when some Christians criticize the Islamic view of God (Allah) as deficient, they reveal their ignorance and bigotry. Kimball asserts that “there is simply no ambiguity here. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are talking about the same deity” (p. 50). This is because the Qur’an affirms that Allah inspired the Hebrew prophets and Jesus. Moreover, the Arabic word “Allah” means “God.” Are Professor Kimball and so many others who echo similar themes correct? In search of a reasonable answer, we will briefly consider the three questions from the last paragraph.

Christianity and Islam: The Claims, the Logic, and the Differences

First, what are the teachings that each religion takes to be absolutely true? Although Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, their views of God differ considerably. Islam denies that God is a Trinity — that one God eternally exists as three co-eternal and equal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).[1] Islam also rejects that God became a man in Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18).[2] These doctrines are cornerstones of Christianity. But God cannot be both a Trinity (Christian) and not a Trinity (Islam). This is matter of simple logic; it has nothing to do with religious intolerance or being “rigid.”

 Although Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, their views of God differ considerably. Islam denies that God is a Trinity — that one God eternally exists as three co-eternal and equal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).

For Christianity, humans are corrupted by an inherited sinful nature that cannot be overcome by any human means (Ephesians 2:1-10). But Islam denies that human have a deeply sinful human nature, claiming that we sin because we are merely weak and ignorant.[3] Christianity teaches that salvation is secured only through faith in the achievements of Jesus Christ — his life, death, and resurrection (John 3:16-18). Islam, however, implores its followers to obey the laws of the Qur’an in the hopes that they will be found worthy of paradise.[4] Since these two views contradict each other, both views cannot be true.

Different views on worship

Second, how does each religion say worship should be offered to God? Muslims deem worship of the Trinity to be polytheistic and, thus, blasphemous. Worship of Jesus—whom they deem only human—is anathema. Yet these beliefs are essential for Christian worship. One must worship God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Worship requires assent to the truth of God (the Trinity), belief in the gospel, trust in Jesus Christ, and submission to God’s will. While Muslims emphasize submission to Allah (“Islam” means submission), they do not submit to the God revealed in the Bible. This exposes another irreconcilable difference between Islam and Christianity.

How Islam views Christianity and vice versa

Third, what does each religion make of the other one? Muslims and Christians have historically tried to convert each other, since they both view adherents of other religions to be misguided. Islam seeks converts worldwide because it believes Allah is supreme over all and must be so recognized. Christians are commanded to take the gospel into all the nations and to baptize converts into the name of the triune God of the Bible (Matthew 28:18-20).

Neither Christianity nor Islam can logically endorse the other religion’s distinctive claims and practices without denying its own.

Much more needs to be discussed concerning Muslim and Christian relations in a religiously pluralistic world. However, we must conclude that despite their common monotheism, Islam and Christianity have very different views of God, worship, and mission. Therefore, it is unreasonable to claim that they worship the same God. Although Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, their views of God differ considerably.

NOTES

[1] See The Qur’an, Surah 112:1-4, which denies that God “begat” a son. Surah 4:171 commands Muslims to not say “three” with respect to God; see also Surah 5:73. However, the Qur’an claims that the Christian doctrine of Trinity affirms that it is comprised of the Father, the Son, and Mary (Surah 5:116). The Bible, however, never attributes deity to Mary. For more on how the Qur’an understands Jesus and the Trinity, see Chawkat Moucarry, The Prophet and the Messiah: An Arab Christian’s Perspective on Islam and Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 184-195.

 

[2] See The Qur’an, Surah 5:115-18 where Jesus is reported to have denied his own deity; see also Surah 9:30-31.

 

[3] See Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (Vancouver, BC: Regent University Press, 1997), 89-90. 

 

[4] See the Qur’an, Surah 36:54; see also Surah 82:19. 

Two Views of Suffering: Atheist Existentialism and Christianity

By nature, we all avoid suffering, and suffering comes in so many varieties. We attend funerals and sob. We visit a loved one in a psychiatric unit and wonder how live ever got this bad. We consider animal cruelty and are appalled and saddened. A military dog dies of sorrow immediately after his soldier is killed in battle. A mother laments over her son’s heroin addiction. A son agonizes over this father’s imprisonment. A seventeen-year-old commits suicide, leaving a hole no one can ever fill.

But what of it all? By nature, we seek to avoid suffering in ourselves and in those we care about. Much suffering is unavoidable (such as many illnesses); but much of it is avoidable, but still afflicts many who become haunted by guilt, as in alcoholism. What can the sighs, groans, headaches, tears, and sleepless nights tell us about the meaning of life? Can philosophy find clues in these myriad maladies on how to live a truer and better life?

Trying to answer these questions is the quest of a lifetime, and, one hopes, an examined lifetime. I offer only prods to this end. Prompted my own and my wife’s suffering, due to her dementia, I have much pondered on the meaning of suffering philosophically and, of course, existentially (many of which can be found in my book Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness–A Philosopher’s Lament). I will briefly compare two views of suffering, that of atheistic existentialism and of historic Christianity.

Atheistic Existentialism and Suffering

I thought that atheistic existentialism had passed from the intellectual scene by the mid-1980s, having been eclipsed by New Age thought and postmodernism. But its demise was, like Mark Twain’s death, greatly exaggerated. Gary Cox has labored to rehabilitate existentialism (particularly Jean-Paul Sartre) through a number of short, snappy books such as How to be an Existentialist and Existentialism and Excess, a longer biography of Sartre. We even find The Dummies Guide to Existentialism.

"Atheistic existentialists, such as Sartre and his life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir, argue that life in itself has no meaning because the universe is uncreated and undesigned." - Jean-Paul Sarte

Atheistic existentialists, such as Sartre and his life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir, argue that life in itself has no meaning because the universe is uncreated and undesigned. Humans turn up and must define themselves, living without a “heaven of ideas” or the divine Amen. As Sartre famously wrote in Existentialism and Human Emotions, “Existence precedes essence.” Sartre emphasized the necessity of free choice to make an authentic life. De Beauvoir stressed the “ethics of ambiguity,” the right and the meaningful is not spelled out anywhere. We interpret life as we will—with no Hermes at our side. Heidegger claims that we are “thrown” into existence, suffering the anxiety of intrinsic alienation, and must experience “being unto death.”

For these thinkers (despite their differences), suffering is intrinsic to human being. For Sartre, we are “condemned to be free” and, as he says in No Exit, “Hell is other people.” There is no objective meaning to suffering, but only our subjective meaning in suffering. While Camus denied being an existentialist (as did the later Heidegger), he, like Sartre, et al, found meaning only in the absurd revolt against meaninglessness. Hence his book, The Rebel. The hero of Camus’s The Plague fights against the mysterious plague that ravages his town, knowing his task is futile. Somehow, amidst the ruins, a kind of absurd meaning is found. But that meaning does not extend beyond the individual. No one can align herself with a broader meaning of suffering in relation to a greater good or a hidden purpose that transcends the merely human and terrestrial. To use Kierkegaard’s term, “the audit of eternity” is lacking.

To endure such suffering, according to Existentialism, is simply our lot. We should not resign ourselves to it passively, but create meaning in the midst of it. As Sartre emphasizes, we have “no excuse” for leaving our post by blaming our biology or upbringing. That would be “bad faith,” not authentic freedom. Suffering, for Sartre, is part of the human condition of being who are always in process, but without an objective end or objective meaning to our becoming. All the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and there is no Atlas to help us.

Going further, Sartre says that man is “the desire to be God.” We yearn to be what we are without the instability that freedom brings, but we also yearn to be totally unconstrained and free to do as we will. But, says Sartre, this is impossible for a finite being qua finite being, and there is no infinite being (God) to synthesize this freedom and stability. Because of all this, man is “forlorn.”

Christianity and Suffering

Suffering is not the starting point for the Christian worldview, but, nevertheless, it throbs in its philosophical marrow. Blood is shed everywhere, but that blood is not without a voice. Humans did not just appear without forethought or purpose, but are integral to a divine plan. But this plan is fully made known—and often largely obscured—to erring mortals.

For the ancient Hebrews and Christians, death and suffering are rooted in our responsibility to God and others. The world and its finite stewards were created good, but that original felicity did not last. A rift occurred between Creator and created such that those who bear God’s image also bear God’s displeasure. In Christian terminology, this is called the fall.

As Pascal wrote in Pensées, man “could not bear so great a glory without falling into pride.” In The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Oriented Deliberation in View of the Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin, Soren Kierkegaard considers the suffering of anxiety in explicitly Christian terms.

Things go wrong; blood is shed; tears are many. Cain slays his brother Abel out of his jealousy. His blood cries out from the ground for justice. There are wars and rumors of wars. Women and men waste their lives. Perhaps no other passage in the Hebrew Bible sums up our sorry condition better than the words of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, which I quote in the King James Version:

I returned, and saw under the sun,

that the race is not to the swift,

nor the battle to the strong,

neither yet bread to the wise,

nor yet riches to men of understanding,

nor yet favour to men of skill;

but time and chance happeneth to them all (chapter 9, verse 11).

The practice and skill of lament is how the biblical authors and the Jewish and Christian traditions come to terms with suffering. This world is broken and that cannot be hidden. Humans ought to recognize the losses and injustices of life, and make that know to heaven. This includes inexplicable suffering, lamenting over one’s moral failings, and paying the heavy prices of suffering for one’s religious convictions. Perhaps sixty of the one hundred and fifty Psalms fit in the genre of lament. The writers cry out to God and unburden themselves in their sorrows. But these are prayers, not the voicings of unheeded anguish. The reader finds anger, impatience, and even despair in these poems. They cover the gamut of sorrow, all brought before God. Man is not a useless passion. His passionate suffering and grief may be brought before God who is there and who hears him.

Psalm twenty-two was on the lips of Jesus as he was crucified before the audience of his fellow Jews and his Roman executioners: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This wail of dejection was also a prayer. Christians affirm that somehow this suffering heals the rift between God and man. Suffering was never more real than here, but suffering is not the final word, since these were not Christ’s final words.

A short essay cannot adjudicate between the Existentialism and Christian account of the meaning of suffering. I offer it simply to illuminate the landscape of possibilities under the sun.

 

 

 

Is Religion Dangerous?

As a freshman in college, I imbibed a heady brew of modern atheism, served up by Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Freud claimed that religion was a projection, a figment of wish fulfillment. We desire a Heavenly Father to make life tolerable, while the vault of the lies empty. Marx thundered that religion pacified and placated the desire for social justice, since lasting goodness could only be found in a heaven that did not exist. Nietzsche insisted that Christianity was the attempt by the weak to get revenge on the strong and that the truly free can live “beyond good and evil” by creating their own values in the godless, gladiatorial theater of nature.

Having little understanding of Christianity and no awareness of apologetics (the rational case for Christian truth), I viewed traditional Western religion as dangerous to the intellect, while I became attracted to Eastern religions in a vague sense. I stopped praying, tried to meditate, and fancied myself an aspiring intellectual who needed to oppose Christianity.

But something strange happened that first year in college: Christianity began to speak to my condition, despite my antipathy toward it. A philosophy professor assigned some readings by Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian philosopher. After having dismissed Kierkegaard in a paper, I decided to actually read the primary text, The Sickness Unto Death. I found a profound assessment of the human condition before God. Much to my surprise and dismay, the book began reading me—exposing both my rebellion against God and God’s offer of grace through Christ. Added to this was the loving and courageous witness of two Christian women, who were involved in the Navigators, a campus group focused on discipleship and evangelism. Through various providential events, many conservations, and Bible reading, I confessed Christ as Lord in the summer of 1976.

After a difficult summer of vainly trying to believe Christianity without evidence, I discovered the works of Francis Schaeffer, James Sire, C.S. Lewis, Os Guinness, St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and many more high-caliber thinkers, who demonstrated that the Christian worldview has nothing to fear in the world of ideas. I eventually switched my major to philosophy and began a grand intellectual adventure that continues to this day. Now, as a professional philosopher, I find some of the best philosopher alive defending Christianity.

"The Christian worldview has nothing to fear in the world of ideas."

In a sense, I have spent the last thirty plus years trying to disprove Christianity—not as an atheist, but as a philosopher who has investigated all the major religions and philosophies on offer. I found that the anti-Christian arguments of Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, and others missed the mark. I have tackled the toughest challenges to the Christianity and investigated case for other worldviews. My years of study, teaching, and writing have convinced me that Christianity is objectively true, rational, wise, and pertinent to all of life. But I still believe it is dangerous—not to the intellect, but to any other worldview that attempts to refute it.

How Jazz Can Shape Apologetics

Jazz is a national treasure, but is no longer a common pastime. First rock and then hip hop eclipsed its popularity long ago. Historian Gerald Early claims that three things uniquely define America: the Constitution, baseball, and jazz. Yet the sale of jazz records accounts for only a small fraction the music market. The last time I checked, it was 4%. Many of my students at Denver Seminary and at other institutions where I teach know very little about it, and are a bit puzzled if not flummoxed by my references to it. Others claim they “do not understand jazz,” perhaps with a twinge of guilt that they should. Last summer, a very intelligent and godly campus minister and long-time friend attended a jazz concert with me. Afterward he said, “The music has a center, but I cannot find it.” I humbly told him that I had found it and that I loved it. I love it for many reasons. One outstanding reason is that it can help inform and reform our apologetics engagements through its distinctive genius. All that is needed is a bit of transposition from the sensibilities of jazz to the skills of apologetics.

My point here is not to evangelize for jazz, or at least not directly. (I do that elsewhere.) Whether or not one likes or understands jazz, the nature of the music is rich in virtues that can be transferred to the art of defending and commending the Christian worldview. By this, I am not arguing that Christians should be jazz musicians or write about jazz. That is true enough, but I am after something else: the essence of jazz itself as an art form and what it tells us about excellence in general and in particular for Christian witness to the truth.

What is Jazz?

The roots of jazz are complex and contested, but all grant that jazz sprung from African American slave songs. These songs of lament and hope were tied to rhythms that aided exhausted workers to rally their strength and cheer each other on. This “call-and-response” is intrinsic to jazz–this musical collaboration and cooperation performed without tightly scripted parts.

In this tradition, a jazz band performs according to a song structure (or a chart) and solos are taken at the proper places. This requires a deep knowledge of the standards of jazz (the musical canon) and how to play them. (See Ted Gioia, Jazz Standards.) Learning these canonical tunes and mastering one’s instrument means spending “time in the woodshed.” This is a jazz term for practicing, refining one’s skills—also known as “chops,” a term coined by Louis Armstrong, one of the seminal jazz pioneers.

However, a true jazz group will never play the same tune the same way twice. (That leaves out Kenny G and most “smooth jazz.”) My colossal John Coltrane collection sports about twenty versions of his interpretation of “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music.” Each is stand unique and very different from every other performance. Improvisation—the marrow of jazz—is what explains this. Jazz players improvise in two main ways.

First, in a jazz performance, one or more musicians take solos which are created on the spot. No two jazz solos by the same player in the same song sound the same, although they are usually similar. This kind of solo is akin to composing on the spot. Jazz writer Ted Gioia calls jazz “the imperfect art” for this reason. The freedom to fail makes way for the freedom to shine. Jazz musicians, such as guitarist Pat Martino, often refer to this as “being in the moment.” We can also think of it as performing without a net (but not without skill).

Second, jazz musicians improvise together, not only during solos. This is known as “group improvisation.” Even as the drummer, pianist, and bass player—the rhythm section—back up a soloist, they adapt their accompaniment by what they hear the soloist playing, whether it be trumpet, saxophone, vibes, or another instrument. Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock is, perhaps, the greatest living master of this skill. Group improvisation is rare and probably unique to jazz or at least to jazz-inflected and jazz-infected music.

Jazz Speaks to Apologetics

What, then, could this emphasis on mastering material and improvising (in both senses above) have to do with apologetics? Just as jazz musicians, apologists need to “know their charts” by having spent much “time in the woodshed.” That is, they need to master the standard apologetic arguments on the nature of truth and faith, the arguments for God’s existence (natural theology), the reliability of the Bible, the deity and resurrection of Christ, the case against rival worldviews (atheism, pantheism, polytheism, Buddhism, Islam) and much more. However, knowing the arguments (the charts) is not the same as offering the arguments in various interpersonal settings. These include one-on-one, in a small group, in a larger group, in a lecture, in a sermon, on line, in a postal card, and more. This demands inventiveness, being prepared “in the moment” to size up the scene, seize the moment, and jam accordingly. Apologetic witness should never be stilted or clichéd, just as jazz is never hidebound to one way of playing a tune. As Phillip Brooks said of preaching long ago, apologetics is “truth through personality.” No one else has your personality and every situation is unique. So make music—in your solos and through group dynamics.

Since jazz music is made through profound interaction, the apologist should solicit reactions from the unbeliever through the “call-and-response.” Transposed from music to speaking, this means dialogue, not monologue. In jazz, a musician does not solo according to a chart while backed by monotonous musicians. Just as jazz musicians, apologists need to “know their charts” by having spent much “time in the woodshed.”  They need to master the standard apologetic arguments on the nature of truth and faith, the arguments for God’s existence, the reliability of the Bible, the deity and resurrection of Christ, the case against rival worldviews and much more. Rather, he improvises along with the group. Mutatis mutandus, thus the apologist does not recite a text with no interaction with the listeners. No, one speaks before one or more listeners, who, in turn, listen and speak back. This apologetic music is made mutually. One desires to be “in the moment” as one leans on God, the Spirit of Truth (John 14:26), moment-by-moment. This does not eliminate errors. Just as jazz is “the imperfect art” (Gioia), apologetics dialogue allows for mistakes, which one hopes can be resolved (or at least minimized) through on ongoing discussion. If more than one Christian is making a case with a non-Christian audience, each can support the other. Herbie Hancock tells of hitting a wrong note on piano while playing in The Miles Davis Group in the mid-1960s. He was rescued when Miles played a note that made his “mistake” the right note after all. Apologetics needs this kind of teamwork as well.

Study and Improvisation

Some wrongly think that inspiration in apologetics or Christian witness in general has little or nothing to do with previous study. This is dead wrong—for both apologetics and jazz. The best improvisers practice the most, such as John Coltrane. This saxophone virtuoso was known to practice incessantly and even right before bed, causing him to fall asleep with his saxophone. When Jesus told his disciples not to worry how they would respond when they were imprisoned for their faith, he did not say not to study, but not to worry (Mark 11:13; Luke 12:11). Moreover, the disciples had studied and lived with the Master Teacher for about three years before his statement. They were already well-equipped to produce under pressure.

Reliance on the Holy Spirit does not mean being an ignoramus, or, in jazz lingo, not “spending time in the woodshed.” Instead of reciting talking points (like talking heads), the apologist should engage conversation points through the exchange of ideas. Sparks fly and may ignite the friendly fires of truth. Truths of God that were initially only opposed or considered may become knowledge through patient persuasion inspirited by the Spirit of Truth.

Syncopation and Salvation

Let us consider one more element of jazz pertinent to apologetics: syncopation. This is a subtle concept. To syncopate means to hit the off-beat instead of the expected down-beat. There is freedom to syncopate, which means to accent the off-beat without throwing off the beat. This is rarely heard in rock-and-roll, which is usually far more flatfooted and predictable. (Progressive rock is another matter, since it is influenced by jazz.) Some wrongly think that inspiration in apologetics or Christian witness in general has little or nothing to do with previous study. This is dead wrong—for both apologetics and jazz. More generally, it means to make surprises work in the moment. Syncopation saves music from being plodding and boring. It is a particularly sublime kind of improvisation. This is why jazz musicians so often look at each other and smile with a twinkle in their eye while performing. Jesus syncopated by doing unexpected yet wonderful things throughout his ministry. (See, Robert Gelinas, Finding the Groove.) Jesus blesses us with many examples, but consider this felicitous encounter.

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him,“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” (Luke 19:1-7).

Note that Jesus did not intend a visit with Zacchaeus. He was “passing through Jericho.” Hailing little Zacchaeus, who was unceremoniously perched in a tree, was certainly off-beat, especially since these Jewish tax collectors were considered terrible “sinners” because of their collusion with Rome and their extortion of extra money for themselves. But we find in verses 8-10 that Zacchaeus repented publically, causing Jesus to exclaim:

Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (19:10).

Jesus’ syncopation resulted in salvation.

Francis Schaeffer (1912-84) was an exemplary apologist in many ways. But his greatest strength lay not in public addresses, but in private conversations. William Edgar, now a theologian at Westminster Theological Seminary, reports that Schaeffer was once in a tough conversation with an unbeliever at L’Abri, a Christian study center in the Swizz Alps. A young woman had an odd objection to becoming a Christian. She could not serve a God who required animal sacrifices during the time of the Old Testament. Schaeffer tried a number of approaches, none of which budged the woman from her objection. Then he looked at her shoes, which were made of leather. Schaeffer asked the woman if wearing these leather shoes, taken from an animal, was immoral. She said no. Then the conversation opened up to the truth and goodness of God’s ways with men. Schaeffer, like Jesus, syncopated. I have read thousands of pages on philosophy of religion and apologetics, but no book or article ever suggested a “shoe leather apologetic.” But by being prepared as well as “in the moment,” Schaeffer knew what to do. I take it that the Holy Spirit knows how to jam.

Whether you are (like me) among the “the few, the proud, the jazz aficionados” or not, this musical art has much to instruct us in the way of fruitful and faithful apologetic engagement. Its virtues may become ours. If so, the witness of the church will deepen and widen as the swinging music of eternal life breaks out all around.

Undermining Truth in God’s Name

Undermining Christian mission is a constant threat, on the horizon and already in the midst of churches, seminaries, and Christian organizations. Our call, our sacred duty and privilege, is to proclaim, explain, defend, and apply the truth of the one true and living God, and to endeavor to do this in every area of life and thought. As Francis Schaeffer so often affirmed, “The Lordship of Christ covers all of life and covers all of life equally.”

Seminaries can undermine their very reason for being—making known the truth of God. If so, they deserve a millstone around their necks, not a crown on their heads. One assured way of deconstructing the mission of God is to deny propositional truth and knowledge as belief aptly supported by reasoning and evidence.

Just today I listened to the concerns of a student at a seminary—not my own—who was told that the theories of George Lindbeck should be embraced. The truth-decaying, knowledge-undermining philosophy of postmodernism (or post-liberalism) is welcomed and dissent is not allowed. Truth Decay, my 2000 jeremiad and apologetic, takes this on, but let me reiterate.

Professor Lindbeck and his followers (such as the late Stanley Grenz) deny that the affirmations of Scripture are true in the sense of matching objective reality. Scripture gives us the rules for shaping the church. It cannot speak beyond that as to mind-independent states of affairs. This view is theologically deadly; it is funereal in tone, if popular among benighted advocates.

First, this view commits the fallacy of false dichotomy, which is, perhaps, the most commonly practiced fallacy today. Yes, the Bible tells us how to live for God: Love God and neighbor according to biblical revelation and godly character. Rules are required. But rules are only worth following if they work with the grain of the universe and cohere with the mind of God. Christ calls me to serve “the least of these” because as we do, we serve Christ himself. The rule is tied to the reality, the objective, Christological state of affairs.

Second, all sixty-six books of Holy Scripture affirm a propositional and correspondence account of truth. A proposition is what an indicative statement means. Statements can be read or affirmed in various languages because they share propositional content. I often have my students say aloud “Jesus is Lord” in as many languages as they can. Despite the differences in words and sounds, they mean the same thing (however slight the difference in nuance). A proposition stakes out the facts—either rightly or wrongly. Yahweh is the true God. Baal is not. Jesus is the way. Buddha is not. If a proposition corresponds to the reality it describes, then it is true. This is the metaphysics of truth, what truth is. Without this understanding, Christians can only talk to themselves—and not make much sense of it either.

Third, the mission of God is to reveal the truth of God so that it is known and obeyed (Matthew 28:18-20). For this, we need knowledge, not mere belief. A truth claim can only be knowledge in a person if that claim matches reality (Jesus is Lord) and if one has adequate justification for that claim (the claims and credentials of Christ).

I address all this is great detail in Truth Decay and Christian Apologetics. For now, I exhort all my readers to not be blown by every wind of doctrine, but to be firmly rooted in the truth of Scripture. Truth is nothing to play with; revelation is nothing to reject through shoddy thinking.