Dawkins and Denial pt 1



Christmas and Easter time typically brings with it a renewed interested in the issues surrounding the historical Jesus and the historicity of the infancy narratives or passion accounts depending on their respective seasons. Over the past couple of years, there has even been a bit of noise from those who think that it likely that Jesus never existed at all. Noted atheist apologists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have stated they believed that there was plausibility to the idea that such a figure at Jesus never actually walked the earth. Most recently, Richard Carrier has published his defense the theory that Jesus Christ began as a mythic figure in the writings of Paul and evolved to become the concrete prophet wandering around Palestine with his followers in the middle of the first century that we find int he Gospels.

Carrier and other proponents of the “myth theory” seem well read and reasoned to the non-specialist observer. Carrier’s arguments make sense and he seems to know the writings of the 1st century well.  The Christ myth theory, however, is not held by any reputable historical New Testament scholar – believer or not. In fact, the possibility that Jesus never existed receives little attention in books on the subject. In the guild, the question of whether or not Jesus actually existed is a bit of a dead issue. The fact that most of the New Testament writings (including at least some of the gospels) appeared within living memory of the events that they report, and that sources outside the Christian community confirm that a Jewish teacher was crucified in Jerusalem is enough to convince scholars that enquiry into a historical investigation of the life of Jesus must begin with a historical bedrock that a figure such as Jesus actually existed.

It is always possible that Jesus never existed, but our resources for defending such a notion are few if any. All ancient writings we have that refer to Jesus appear to assume that he actually existed as historical person. Any attempt to suggest otherwise, requires a denial of the validity of some of the ancient sources while offering radical re-readings of others. The issue that I am interested in, however, is the not the issue of whether or not Jesus existed, but rather why people like Richard Dawkins believe that it is possible that there was never a historical Jesus despite the broad consensus among historians of Christian origins. In fact, despite Richard Dawkins’ rigorous defense of belief based on evidence, his statement that “a case could be made that such a figure never existed” is in some way similar to those of conservative politicians when asked if they believe that evolution should be taught in schools and responds with statements like “evolution is one theory among many.”

In both cases: the denial of fact of a certain understood truth by specialists, on the one hand evolutionary biology and on the other the historicity of the figure of Jesus, by non specialists. Dawkins may be a learned biologist, but he is certainly not a historian of Christian origins. And, from what I hear from those who have read the God Delusion he isn’t much of a philosopher either. Of course, all of our opinions are informed by our biases, but I am more interested in the reality that a lot of our beliefs about matters of science or history are informed on who we are willing to trust.  In my next post I want to explore two observations. The first, is that many subjects which are up for discussion in the public sphere depend often on knowledge that is not easily attainable outside of the academy (topics such as global climate change or a particular fiscal policies effect on the economy). The second is that we often fail to recognize the reason that we have beliefs is based on our trust of the judgments and knowledge of other people.


The Collision of Early Christianity and Judaism in Revelation 11

Logos Bible Software has published my ThM thesis, which I wrote as a student at Duke Divinity School, as an electronic book. I am happy to say that you can pre-order The Collision of Early Christianity and Judaism in Revelation Chapter 11 now on the Logos website! 

The book started from my interest in the Book of Revelation’s purpose as a pastoral letter in the first century. I was intrigued by this topic when I came across the work on Revelation by Richard Bauckham, David A DeSilva, and the lectures of Sean McDonough while I was at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. In the thesis, I explored the possible situation facing the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia. I argued that the Christians in those churches experienced opposition in one form or another from the local synagogues. You may remember that its was those churches that received unrestricted praise from Jesus in the messages addressed to them at the beginning of the letter. 

With the thought in mind that Revelation is a pastoral letter in the form of Jewish apocalyptic literature, I argue that the cryptic narrative of the two witnesses in chapter 11 actually actually a depiction of churches’ plight and future hope. 

I hope that the e-book version of my thesis can be a nice and concise (only 70 pages) resource for seminary libraries to have available for master students. Pastors and Christians who are interested in figuring out what to do with Revelation 11 also might find it helpful. Although some of the commentators suggest a connection between Revelation 11 and the messages, my thesis went a little more in depth in exploring that question. 




Why read “A Secular Age”?

I am currently trying to get a group together to read Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age.” I thought it might be a helpful exercise to sort of the write out some of my reasons for wanting to explore and generate some conversation about this book. I have to admit that I am  drawn to this book partially because Kavin Rowe recommends it.  One rule that I have is that I will read anything Kavin Rowe recommends. In fact, I first encountered Charles Taylor’s work a class on Jesus and the Gospels that was taught by Rowe. We read some chapters from Modern Social Imaginaries and the introduction to A Secular Age in order to discuss the ways in which people view world that informs how they approach the question of Jesus’ identity. The introduction was fascinating to me because it illuminate habits of my own thinking and actions that made things like prayer difficult in my own life.

I am really interested in how Taylor describes the ways in which we see the world and act in the world that we take for granted. That is – the ways of life that we have that are not a result of conscious reflection, but are simply “givens” of our current historical and cultural situation. Taylor argues that secularism is somewhat of a “given” in North America. By this he means that belief in God is one of many possible ways of view in the world. He goes further to say that in the modern condition is one in which, “unbelieving construals seem at first blush the only plausible ones.”  He contrasts this with the western European context about 500 years ago in which atheism was almost unimaginable. Taylor  asks the question: How did we get here?

In the popular imagination the answer is simply the progress of knowledge of natural world like Darwinian evolution. Taylor finds this answer superficial. He wants to go deeper into the way that human beings view the good, themselves, their dependence or autonomy to the world around them. So the definition of secularism that Taylor is concerned with in his book is not decline in church attendance or lack of religious influence in the public square. Rather it is almost a sensibility of being in the modern world that is shared by both believers and unbelievers. My hope is that Taylor will help us understand better our own “situatedness”that affects how we (the we is to be taken in the broadest sense) talk about Religion, transcendence,  and ethics and how Christians think about things like prayer, church authority, and the sacraments.

Man Before God Dogmatics 2.1-25.1

When I read Barth, I sometimes feel like his writing is like that preacher’s sermon that is powerful and inspiring, but says so much and is all over the place that one will have a really hard time figuring out what the unifying theme is or how he got to his points. For Barth the unifying theme is always Jesus, but when I read the Dogmatics I never know what to expect.

In 2.1 Barth continues his extended essay on how we can know God because God reveals himself in Jesus. In the first thirty pages of this volume, he discusses man’s situation before God with respect to how man can know God. Those looking for some sort of approach to Christian apologetics would be disappointed because Barth does not believe that their is some sort of neutral position that people can stand from in order to have an objective discussion about who God is. Therefore, (as has been noted) Barth’s discussion is circular. As Barth sets this up, I could not help but think of Alisdair MacIntyre.  Barth states that knowledge of God cannot be discussed in the abstract. That is, knowledge of God cannot be found from some standpoint outside of the particular way that God has revealed himself in his word. Barth’s point is a Christian affirmation of MacIntyre’s critique of the “Encyclopedist” version of Moral Inquiry. There is no clean slate sort of background that is not itself informed by a particular narrative of the world. The God in the abstract that Barth was concerned about was the god who was “the world soul” or the “Supreme Value.” Barth knew that these were conceptions of God that were supposedly informed by  some universal natural knowledge or pure rational thought. Rather these conceptions of God fit within particular ways of viewing the world. The technical name Barth gives these conception of God is “idol.” Barth is confirmed on this point because god developed from the abstract very well could be a god that upholds National Socialism.

But, Barth is quick to point out that knowledge of God, in that it is indirect, is not necessarily always guaranteed to be reality with God’s people at all times. I thought his discussion on the continual need for renewal during the history of Israel was interesting. The scriptural narrative bears witness to both God’s continual patience with his people and God’s people’s propensity to get God wrong. That continual need for renewal is now fulfilled with the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. For Barth, God has provided access to Himself by revealing Himself to man. The need for renewal is transformed because God is continually reconciling himself to his people. Barth closes this section with the phrase, “God Never Ceases to make continual new beginnings with man.” (25)

So, what does this mean in the section titled “Man Before God.” It means that because Christ is our knowledge of God, it is not something we can arrive at ourselves. Confidence in knowing God is something that can be arrived at only by seeing the truth in our dependence on God’s self revelation. This dependence on God is made concrete in the act of Prayer. It is necessary for the Christian to pray for the fulfillment of the knowledge of God, “that God will give himself to be known.”

Videos on Everybook of the Bible

The University of Nottingham’s theology department has made a website of introductory videos for every book of the Bible. The videos give a brief introduction to the critical issues and themes of the Biblical book. It also includes some theological reflections  from scholars such as: Anthony Thistleton, Conor Cunningham, and John and Alison Milbank.

Its a nice resource especially for people like me who never attend a New or Old Testament  intro class in seminary. Check it out here.

Joel Green to edit the NICNT

I sometimes get asked what I think is the best bible commentary series. I really don’t have an answer because it depends on what you are looking for and the quality of the author of a particular volume. Some great series like Anchor Bible and ICC have some of the best commentaries you can get on a particular book of the New Testament (Marcus’ Mark in the AB or I. Howard Marshall’s Pastoral Epistles in the ICC), but have volumes that really need to be updated.  One of the best series though is Eerdmans’ New International Commentary on the New Testament. Its New Testament volumes include some important works: Fee’s First Corinthians, Moo’s Romans (even though I think chaps 2-3 are a nightmare), and France’s Matthew. I think the NICNT  does a great job of combining scholarly rigor that takes a balanced critical approach, and it is actually useful for the general reader.

According the Scot McKnight’s blog, Eerdmans has announced that Joel Green is taking Gordon Fee’s place as the editor of the series. Green teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary and wrote the series’ commentary on the Gospel of Luke which I used in seminary.  With Green as the new editor the NICNT series should continue to be one of the best commentary series for studying the New Testament.