Skeptics


Recently the website PrudentialPublishing.info (why not .com, the domain is available?) was mentioned in the comments on one of P2C’s articles, “True or False: Doubters Welcome“. The site contains various articles and sample chapters from the author Andrew D Benson’s book, The Origins of Christianity & the Bible.

I was asked by the commenter for my thoughts on the site, however there is far too much there to respond to in the comments section of another article. So I’ve decided to respond here instead with a series of short commentaries instead. I’ll start with the numerous short articles on the site’s front page, but I may jump around since certain parts may not be worth commenting on (or I may even agree with them, we’ll see!) For brevity’s sake I will refer to Andrew D Benson as Mr Benson.

(One other quick note. I cannot be entirely exhaustive in my commentary, so out of necessity I will be selective, because I don’t have the time to write a 400 page book in response! If I have not directly addressed an issue, it may be because I feel it is a similar to an issue already addressed, or is inconsequential, or even that I’m tired and need to sleep! ;))

The first section on the site deals with Jesus’ omnipotence and is titled “Read the Bible and see for yourself that Jesus did not know everything!” In a sense, I do agree with Mr Benson here, but in a more important sense I do not.

I want to explain that the classic conception of Jesus’ identity (and the one that I think coheres best with the full witness of the New Testament teaching) is not that Jesus was God merely playing a role, acting like (pretending to be) a human. Rather, in the incarnation Jesus is simultaneously fully God and fully man. This was necessary to achieve the aims of the atonement. (Although not necessary in the sense that God was obligated to do it.)

What this means (besides the fact that in some respects we may never completely comprehend every last detail about how that works) is that in order to take on a fully human identity, Jesus willingly chose to self-limit certain of His attributes. This is what Paul mentions in Philippians 2:6-7: “[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. The Greek phrase translated “made himself nothing” above literally means “he emptied himself” … the NLT translates it as “gave up his divine privileges”. Because of this, Jesus’ omnis (omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc) were all muted as he voluntarily chose to limit his abilities while on Earth. Most of the time Jesus acted in accordance with his human abilities, exercising his divine power/knowledge/presence/etc whenever he chose. It is not that he “lost” his divine nature, but rather that he veiled it as he chose for his purposes.

Again, this is not a modern day hypothesis, but has been the traditional interpretation of the church. Keeping this in mind, many of the objections in this first section/article are not worth addressing. However some of them deserve further comment.

The first section, regarding Jesus and the seeds, unfortunately contains what I assume is a typo. Mr Benson says:

Jesus was not omniscient because he did not know which seed is the smallest. He said, “… a grain of mustard seed … is the smallest of all seeds …” (Matthew 13:31-32 KJV)

However, this is not how the text of the KJV reads. It does not say “is the smallest of all seeds”. It reads “is the least of all seeds.” He probably meant the NRSV, which reads as he has quoted it. However, the KJV translation of the word as “least” could still be appropriate, because the Greek word mikros can have that meaning (according to Strong’s dictionary). Elsewhere in the same NRSV translation quoted above as “smallest”, the same word mikros is translated “least” (Luke 9:48).

So Jesus is not necessarily referring to the size of the seed here. Even if he is, I don’t see a problem with him referring to the mustard seed as being the smallest of all seeds his listeners would be familiar with. It seems entirely reasonable to take Jesus’ words that way, which is why (I assume) the NIV adds the word “your”, not to cover up a blunder as suggested in the article.

Following the seeds section, Mr Benson says “He who knows all things does not ask questions.” But on what basis does he make that assumption? Jesus often used questions in order to communicate with his listeners. A college professor may ask dozens of questions to his class during every lecture, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know the answers! Jesus was interested in having conversations with people, and so naturally he would ask questions. Several of the passages cited in the remainder of this section follow this tact, so I won’t reply to each of them individually. In fact, Mr Benson later quotes John 11:42 where Jesus explains that he has said things “for the benefit of the people standing here” … which is exactly the point I am making.

However, we are given the example of Mark 13:32: “No one knows about that day or hour [of the endtimes], not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” This is not a question, it’s a statement, so Jesus is not merely encouraging audience participation here. Instead we have an example of the voluntary “emptying” of knowledge I referred to earlier; Jesus chose not to know because he did not want to reveal this info to his listeners. Note this carefully: The author of this gospel and the other gospels were quite aware that Jesus did not always openly profess omniscient knowledge. So the gospel authors themselves saw no problem with this; neither do I.

Then Mr Benson mentions the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” quote which Jesus speaks on the cross (Mark 15:34). I use the word “quote” because Jesus is quoting Psalm 22:1. This should lead our inquisitive minds to ask: Why did Jesus choose to quote this particular Psalm? The reason is that it contains prophecies (or at very least parallels) with his own torment on the cross: a Psalm which opens with cries of anguish, but ends in confidence and triumph. Strangely, the Psalmist ended his Psalm with the words: “They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn – for he has done it.” (Psalm 22:31) Done what? The Psalmist is strangely vague here; but Jesus fulfills the Psalm through his suffering and completes our understanding of its meaning.

Mr Benson further accuses Jesus of lying in John 7, when Jesus says he will not yet go to the festival, but the disciples should go. He says this because the townspeople are telling him to go to the festival and “show yourself to the world” (v4) However, Jesus is not interested in doing so. He does not immediately go with his disciples, but at some unknown time later, he does go (as he said, it was not yet time for him to go right that moment (v6)) but in secret, not in the way that the townspeople wanted him to. This is not lying for both these reasons: Jesus did not immediately go to the festival, and he did not go in the manner in which the crowd wanted him to.

Briefly addressing the other objections, Jesus prayed both for the sake of the crowds (to show them how to pray) and because as a fully human being it was in his nature to pray. (Mr Benson here is taking a docetic view of Jesus, ie that he is God only and not human, which is not the biblical position and was renounced as heresy by the early church.) Mr Benson says “Had Jesus been omniscient, God would not have talked to him.” This seems to me to be a non-sequitur, and in any case the same rationale as applied to Jesus’ questions applies here.

Mr Benson ends his critique with what may be the most terrible two sentences of the entire section/article:

Furthermore, omniscient beings don’t think because they know every thought that can be thought. (The concept of omniscience is beyond human understanding.)

Apparently the concept is beyond the understanding of every human being … except Mr Benson, who according to the above seems (or at least claims) to understand it quite well. If it is beyond human understanding, how does Mr Benson know what omniscient beings do or do not do? Perhaps he means that fully understanding omniscience is beyond human comprehension; in that sense I would agree with him. But as stated, this argument is self-refuting.

What I think this first section demonstrates is how important it is to grasp that Jesus was both fully God and fully human. When one is emphasized above the other (either docetism or ebionism) it leads to not only an inaccurate apprehension of the New Testament view, but also a less than fully formed view of Jesus, which will lead to some of the problems noted above.

Whew. That took far longer than I anticipated … but I suppose it’s much easier to ask the hard questions than it is to answer them. I’m not sure when the next installment will be, but I will work on it when I have time.

Further reading:
How is Jesus God and man at the same time?
Much longer: Are Jesus’ Natures Compatible? (PDF) – From STR.org, generally a very good site.

I’ve seen it claimed, in discussions regarding differing worldviews, that atheism itself is a worldview, or even that strong (or “militant”) atheism is a religion. (For the record, I would not consider atheism a religion, though I would consider it a worldview.)

A response that I’ve seen is that atheism is not a worldview because it is not a belief, rather it is merely a “default position”. The rationale given sometimes compares belief in God to unicorns or some other such mythical animal, in the sense that unbelief in such things (or anything, really) is the default until convinced (or proven) otherwise.

While I can certainly see the reasonableness of this line of thinking and its general applicability, I wonder if it applies equally well to the question of God. There’s at least two reasons to think in this specific case things might be different. First, the vast majority of people throughout history have believed God (or gods) exist(s), a phenomenon which remains the case today. Should a belief be regarded as a default position when the majority believe the opposite?

And secondly, related to the above, if Richard Dawkins and those who agree with him are correct that human beings have evolved a natural proclivity towards belief in God(s) as some sort of survival/social assistance mechanism, should not belief in God be considered the default position, since we are supposedly “hard-wired” for such belief? Shouldn’t such naturally impelled belief be considered the default? Although I would agree with Dawkins that human beings seem to have an innate proclivity towards belief in God, I would suggest that there is different reason why so many people seem to have an innate awareness of God.

ehrmancolbertSee Stephen Colbert dialogue with Bart Ehrman about Ehrman’s “new” book, Jesus Interrupted. (Click here instead if you’re in Canada.) It’s a pretty funny interview, as is usual for Mr Colbert. Although Colbert plays a character on his show, in real life he is a practicing Catholic and Sunday School teacher, so it’s not too surprising that he would want to invite Ehrman on his show to give him an intellectual leg-drop. He actually does make some valid points against Mr Ehrman, who clearly isn’t prepared for such a sarcastic assault.

One of Ehrman’s main points goes unchallenged on the show, however. That being that the earliest Christians didn’t think Jesus was divine. Ehrman’s argument seems to be that even though Jesus is clearly portrayed as being divine in the Gospel of John (which he admits), in the (ostensibly earlier) synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke) he is not portrayed as being God. So, Ehrman is saying, since the synoptics are earlier and don’t portray Jesus as God, John can be dismissed as a later invention (or evolution) of the Jesus story.

At the outset, this black-and-white distinction is false, since reading the synoptics should not result in anyone thinking that the authors intended to portray Jesus as “just a guy”. Even if someone wants to claim Jesus is not divine in the synoptics, it would be ridiculous to say that Jesus is not seen as being utterly unique and far above and beyond all other people who have ever lived.

But when Ehrman’s claim that Jesus’ divinity is absent from the synoptic gospels is studied more carefully, there are at least two huge problems. First, I think it’s false that Jesus’ divinity is not found in the synoptics. There are in fact many ways the authors speak of Jesus’ divinity in the synoptics. I’ve explained one of these ways in depth in my post “Jesus Never Claimed to be God?“. I think we can see in the early synoptic gospel writings how the authors are struggling to comprehend this god-man, this real human being who lived and ate and walked with them, but who at the same time was nevertheless “God in the flesh”. (See also Glenn Miller on the subject of Jesus’ self-understanding in the synoptics.)

The second problem is that the synoptic gospels are not the earliest documents in the New Testament. The earliest documents are generally agreed to be Paul’s letters, which contain some of the strongest statements of Jesus’ divinity, such as Colossians 2:9: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” and Philippians 2:5-7: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Therefore, going by Ehrman’s method, since Paul’s writings are earlier than the synoptics, the should be trusted instead, and these statements regarding Jesus’ divinity should be believed ahead of the later synoptic gospels’ descriptions.

A featured article series currently on TheLife.com, written by Canadian philosopher Michael Horner, investigates Jesus’ resurrection as final proof of Jesus’ divinity; ie, that not only did Jesus claim to be divine, but that the resurrection validated His claim. Please take a moment today to read “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Oh, and happy Easter! Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, it is truly the greatest and happiest of all holidays.

FaithAfter my recent post re Peter Kreeft’s thoughts on “Who made God?” I’ve seen that same question come up in several places during my random web wanderings. As I was thinking about this question today in the shower (where all great philosophical thought occurs) I imagined a conversation like the following … hopefully this isn’t too contrived and doesn’t caricature the two imagined persons involved too much:

Christian:  The cosmological argument is strong evidence that God exists. If the universe was made, it needs a maker; if it was created, it needs a creator. That creator is God.

Skeptic:  Ah, but this merely raises the question “Who made God?” which Richard Dawkins himself asks in The God Delusion.* It just pushes the question back one step further.

Christian:  This seems to me to be a category error; it confuses the uncreated creator with His created creation. God doesn’t need a maker because God was never made; He was and is eternally existing.

Skeptic:  That’s special pleading at best, hypocritical at worst. Why is it okay for God to be “eternal, uncreated” but not the universe?

Christian:  Because we have good reasons, both philosophical and scientific, that the universe is not eternal, whereas no such reasons exist to believe that God is so. God is not subject to the same limitations of the material world He created. The cosmological argument proposes not that everything requires a cause, but whatever begins to exist requires a cause; if God did not begin to exist (since there is no reason to believe He did, unlike the universe) He requires no cause.

Skeptic:  Even if we agree that the universe is not eternal, why must its cause be God? Why not some other explanation?

Christian:  Whatever created both time and space must transcend both time and space. Also, there are numerous other attributes which can be discerned about whatever created the universe that imply a personal entity (that is, it possesses volition among other things). So the creator of the universe is an entity which is beyond time and space yet still possesses certain attributes and is personal. This sounds to me a lot like God.

* In The God Delusion Dawkins is attempting to apply the question as a defeater to the design argument (p.109), not the cosmological argument (which Dawkins shockingly dismisses in less than a page). I’ve personally heard it applied more often to the cosmological argument, at least in the realm of Internet banter.

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