“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone…. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:2, 6 ESV)
These words that are repeated often at Christmas time were spoken originally by Isaiah, the prophet, hundreds of years before Jesus. “For unto us a child is born….” These words are so ubiquitous in our western culture today that we may miss the significance of them.
At one time, people doubted the dating of Isaiah because it so accurately describes Jesus who was born around 4 BC. Isaiah lived purportedly in the 8th Century BC. Because Isaiah predates Jesus and the span of time from Isaiah to Jesus, an increasingly skeptical world that seriously doubted the predictive nature of those words begin to think that the Isaiah text was written after Jesus, perhaps in the 1st Century after his death.
People no longer doubt when Isaiah wrote those words, however, not since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One of the most significant discoveries among the Dead Scrolls was the Isaiah Scroll. It has been dated hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, and it is nearly word for word the same as the more recent manuscripts of Isaiah that we had until that time.
Isaiah contains, perhaps, the clearest and most amazing prophecies in the whole OT of the coming of Jesus. For this reason, Isaiah is quoted every Christmas. Particularly the statements stating that the Messiah would come as a child.
At least one aspect of what Isaiah wrote gets lost in wonder of the predictions he spoke. We look back on them now with wonder and amazement that God inspired Isaiah to speak those words so long ago, but when Isaiah spoke them, no one listened. No one believed him.
illiI have a friend who likes to assert that the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) is not unique to Christianity or to religion. He believes that the Golden Rule is a result of the evolutionary process and can be seen in nature. His conclusion is that the Golden doesn’t come from God or religion, but from the evolutionary process.
I don’t subscribe to that (obviously), but I haven’t really set out to test the hypothesis. I have done much thinking on the Golden Rule as the “second greatest commandment”, as Jesus called it. I have compared the Golden Rule that was invoked, encouraged and demonstrated by Jesus in his own life to the expressions of a golden-like rule in other religious traditions.
I am not shocked or surprised to find expressions of an ethic like the Golden Rule in all (or nearly all) world religions. Truth is truth, right? Shouldn’t we expect to find it or expressions of it wherever we look? We wouldn’t we expect to find some expression of the Golden Rule in nature too? If the world was created by God, shouldn’t the world exhibit the character of God that is expressed in the Golden Rule?
Ok, does anyone really think that the world expresses God’s love as summarized in the Golden Rule? I have heard many atheists say they don’t believe in God precisely because the world doesn’t exhibit God’s love. Christians, of course, find reasons for this reality expressed in the Scripture. I don’t intend to address them here, but I think the point is a good one: that the demonstration of the Golden Rule is difficult to find in nature.
In the end, we can see something of the Golden Rule in nature, but the demonstration of it leaves something to be desired. It doesn’t explain why the Golden Rule exists. It doesn’t prove the evolutionary paradigm, and it doesn’t negate the existence of a creator God in whose nature and character the Golden Rule finds its source.
In Dr. William Lane Craig’s book, Reasonable Faith, he addresses the role of reason, or the lack thereof, in faith. At one point, he responds to a somewhat common position – that we don’t need reason; we just need to preach the Gospel – this way:
“Now, there is a danger…. Some persons might say, ‘We should never seek to defend the faith. Just preach the Gospel and let the Holy Spirit work.’ But this attitude is unbalanced and unscriptural, as we shall see in a moment. For now, let us just note in passing that as long as reason is a minister of the Christian faith, Christians should employ it.”
While just preaching the Gospel isn’t necessarily wrong, we shouldn’t abdicate the use of philosophy, logic or reason in support of the Gospel. Of course, there is another, danger: that the unwarranted confidence in human reason.
An atheist, scientist recently took Dr. Craig the statement quoted above. He astutely noted that Craig is suggesting that reason should be employed, but only if reason “ministers” to (supports) Christian faith.
The statement implies that Dr. Craig believes reason should not be used if it doesn’t support the Christian faith. In a recent podcast, Dr. Craig confirmed that is exactly what he meant.
For the atheist, scientist, the suggestion that reason should take a backseat to faith is anathema. Reason is the highest standard, the “magisterial” standard of arbitrating truth for the materialist who doesn’t ascribe to the Person of God, the supernatural or metaphysical reality. No surprise there of course.
For the atheist/materialist, there is no higher standard of proof for determining reality than human thought.
As important as I think sound thinking is, I agree with Dr. Craig. I have long held that the human capacity to reason should not be given such a magisterial place in a material world. By that, I mean that a materialist’s confidence in his own capacity to reason is utterly misplaced if he is right about materialism.
It’s an interesting conundrum. It seems they have no choice but to rely on their own capacity to reason on a materialist worldview, They have no other tools in the toolbox, but this tool they must rely on is not adequate for the job they require of it. Let me explain.
It seems that many people have this idea that God and spiritual things should be simple. They react skeptically to “complicated” responses to hard questions. When I look at the universe, though, I wonder why people think like that.
Some truths about the universe are simple. We don’t have to be rocket scientists to understand gravity. We know it when we feel it and see it. On the other hand, the computations and deeper understanding of gravity and its interrelationship with other cosmological constants is anything but simple.
Some truths about God are simple too. For instance, that God is love seems simple enough. That God created the universe is pretty simple to grasp also. Now ask, “Why is there evil in the world?”
If we take the universe as an example, however, it should be evident to us that a God who might have created the universe would be far from simple. We should not expect (or demand), therefore, that the resolution of hard questions to be simple. God must be, at least, more robust than the world created by such a God.
Peter said, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense [apologia; apologetics] to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)
I encourage you to read it. I put it here that people would read it, and that I would be reminded of it and read it again myself.
It’s far too easy to say things on social media that we wouldn’t think of saying face to face with someone in conversation. If we are not responding to people with gentleness and respect, as Peter urges us, we are not responding in love. We might as well not respond at all.
I think that stopping to consider whether we would say something face to face that we are about to say on social media is a good litmus test. We live in a reactionary world, and social media exasperates the problem by giving us the instant gratification of an immediate response for every thought the crosses our minds.
We need to be more self controlled than that. We need to be more self-sacrificial, sacrificing that desire for the immediate gratification for the good of the Gospel. We can pick up our crosses and follow Jesus in this social media age by dying to that desire for the instant response.
We need to be salt and light. Salt accentuates the taste of food, but it does that subtly. Too much salt overwhelms and destroys the flavor of the food. Just the right amount accents and brings out the flavor. People are much more apt to take notice of what we say and take it to heart if we say it with gentleness and respect, as Peter admonishes us.
Light illuminates. Too often we demonstrate a great deal of heat without a great deal of light. It isn’t our job to convict people of their sin or even to convince them of the rightness of our positions. The Holy Spirit is well-equipped to do the convicting in peoples’ hearts. We just need to be faithful to speak the truth, but do it in love – always in love.
God’s word does not go out and come back void, but our idea of how people should respond and what it means that God’s word does not come back void may not be accurate.
When Isaiah was given the commission to speak God’s word to the people in the Temple, he was told that he would speak, but people wouldn’t listen. It wasn’t Isaiah’s responsibility to make sure they listened. It was his responsibility simply to speak and to let God do His work. If nobody listened, still Isaiah was being faithful in what God called him to do.
Are we always speaking God’s word? We are finite beings. We might not always have it right. We should have the humility to realize that.
Our love for other people, on the other hand, is always “true”. How we treat people will always shine through and have an impact. Our greatest apologetic is the love of God. Love covers a multitude of sins.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Most people who have entertained ultimate questions seriously abut whether God exists are familiar with the “God of the Gaps argument” that is made against the existence of God. It goes something like this: In the past, people couldn’t explain the rain, so they concluded that God must be crying. People couldn’t explain an earthquake, so they thought God must be mad at something they did. People invoked a divine perspective to fill gaps in our knowledge and understanding of how the world works.
From that observation (which is factually true as a simplistic statement), they add in the equally true observation that the progression of science over the centuries has been filling in the gaps and providing knowledge and understanding of natural processes that explain the things we didn’t know without having to resort to the conclusion that “God does it”. Thus, the argument goes, we should stop invoking divine explanations… and stop believing in God.
Scientists realized they didn’t need to invoke divine explanations at all to be able to study the natural world, and so the scientific consensus has concluded over recent centuries that divine explanations are not only not necessary, but not appropriate. Divine explanations are viewed today as anti-scientific. Many who are concerned with the purity of science would deem divine explanations as heretical.
The God of the gaps argument (an argument to prove the nonexistence of God), however, is pretty weak. The fact that we can do science (which is the study of the natural world) without appealing to a supernatural being or explanation isn’t surprising. There is an order to the natural world that we can study and know, but that order doesn’t preclude the existence of a super (other than natural) Being behind it all.
If we resign ourselves to nothing but the study of the natural world, how do we expect to know anything about the possibility of reality beyond it? If we limit ourselves to naturalistic explanations, we have foreclosed any other possibility.
Frankly, there is a big gap between the fact that the natural world has order that we can study and the question whether anything beyond the natural world exists. I can turn the argument around and accuse the atheist of filling the gap with the conclusion that no God exists.
But all of this really misses the important point. Hugh Ross addresses the God of the gaps argument in a recent interview with Kahldoun Sweis. He says, “In science, there are always gaps. We will never learn everything. We are limited human beings.” However, when we “push back the frontiers of science”, we have to ask ourselves whether the gaps in our knowledge are getting bigger and more problematic? Or are they getting smaller and less problematic?”
I first learned that some of the “Pauline epistles” were not written by Paul in my religion courses in college. That was the scholarly consensus then, as it is now, among the elite New Testament scholars in colleges and universities around the world. This consensus grows out of the “school of higher criticism” that began in the 19th Century in Tubingen, Germany.
The so-called “school of higher criticism” is textual criticism with a heavy emphasis on the text. (I will explain that comment below.) Not that textual criticism, itself, should be suspect. Textual criticism is “a branch of textual scholarship, philology, and of literary criticism that is concerned with the identification of textual variants, or different versions, of either manuscripts or of printed books…. The objective of the textual critic’s work is to provide a better understanding of the creation and historical transmission of the text and its variants.” (Wikipedia)
And by the way, there are differences among the New Testament manuscripts. Many differences. That fact shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone in this information rich age. If you aren’t aware of that fact, you would do well to consider the work of Daniel Wallace on the subject. I have addressed this issue before (Can We Trust the Bible?). But, I digress….
I have no issue with textual criticism applied to the Scriptures. We have learned much about the Bible from the method of study called textual criticism. “Criticism” here doesn’t mean, necessarily, rejection or doubt, but is more of a method of study that recognizes textual differences between manuscripts and attempts to identify the text that is most true to the original text, among other things.
Because we have so many manuscripts, well over 25,000 of them in various languages, there are variants that need to be addressed and understood. Textual criticism helps us with this understanding. (I should add that we have such a high degree of certainty about what the original text says precisely because we have so many manuscripts. If you want to dig in to the topic of textual criticism as applied to the Bible, I recommend The Basics of New Testament Textual Criticism.)
Some people take the fact that there are many differences among the manuscripts as a reason to reject the New Testament as Scripture, believing it to be inherently unreliable, questing whether we even know what the original authors wrote. This is an extreme view, in my opinion, though one that skeptical intellectuals seem to like. Perhaps, their fondness of this view is that it eliminates the need to take Scripture seriously or to apply it to their lives (to apply a little skepticism to the skeptics).
The fact is that we have such a wealth of New Testament manuscripts (5800 Greek, 10,000 Latin and 9800 Syriac, Coptic, etc.) that we can know with a very high degree of accuracy precisely what the original text was (like 98.5% per Dr. Wallace). Even if we didn’t have a single manuscript left, there are some 36,000 quotations of New Testament text by the early church leaders. Wallace observes that we could assemble the entire New Testament from those quotations alone, without the need for a single manuscript of the text.
But, I digress. Only a little. The point is that we should be as skeptical of the skeptics as they are skeptical of the text. In fact, Skepticism is the hallmark of the higher school of criticism. Skepticism is their starting place. They assume a skeptical approach. They don’t just wipe the slate clean, and start from neutral; they assume that the plain meaning of the text, the authenticity of the text and the reliability of the text has the burden of proof. And for this reason, we have good reason to be skeptical.
This form of skepticism is the flip side of what some might call blind faith. There is a danger in being skeptical that will not admit a positive result. There is a commitment to skepticism that is counterfactual. We can be as “committed” to skepticism as we are to belief to the exclusion of the facts and reality. I believe this is the case with the Pauline epistles that scholars reject.