Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World

Down at the bedrock of modern, western values remains a Christian foundation.

Galleries under the central arena of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

I read Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion, about a year ago, and I have written about it a few times. Many Christians would not think to read a history about Western Civilization by a self-described secular humanist (once atheist, perhaps now agnostic) historian.

Most non-Christians are likely to be uncomfortable with the chronicle Holland describes of the radically influential role that Christianity played in the development of Western Civilization, providing the foundation, in fact, for secular humanist ideals. When Holland dug down to the bedrock of modern, western values, he was surprised himself to find them anchored on a Christian foundation.

Holland did not set out to write a Christian apologetic, and he seems to remain somewhat uncertain how to process what he “discovered”. What he found, though, changed his mind about Christianity. He gives a brief explanation in the following clip:

Though Holland has had a turnabout on his view of Christianity, he finds himself caught in an odd position wrought by the unexpected discovery that his lifelong, secular humanist values flow from the radical catalyst of Christian influence and remain embedded ubiquitously in its very fabric. The awkwardness of his current position is evident in his interviews and discussions about the book.

Christians and secular thinkers, alike, wrestle with his book. Holland doesn’t hide any warts, and he doesn’t pull any punches. Neither does he obfuscate the thoroughly paradigmatic shift in Western thinking that Christianity worked into a society that once proudly and unashamedly championed strength and privilege over the poor, the weak, and the lowly.

Holland exposes the metanarrative developed during the Enlightenment and thereafter that belies the foundation on which the Enlightenment structure was built. Far from advancing the progression of human values, the Enlightenment threatened to undo the distinctly Christian concern for the poor, weak, and lowly while attempting to wrest western civilization from the hold of the Divine. Humanism saved the Christian ethic, albeit divorced from Christ.

Consider the full title of Darwin’s great tome which staked out the ground of a scientific (and social) revolution free from God’s interference:

“The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”

The title of Darwin’s book championing the evolutionary paradigm, harkens back to the Greco-Roman value system that despised the poor, the weak and the lowly. That value system did not just turn a callous eye at wanton and discriminate cruelty, it cheered on the strong while they snuffed out the weak. It was national sport!

The very reason the full title never “stuck” (I now believe) is due to a fundamental, pervasive, and thoroughly entrenched counter-value of the intrinsic worth of human life that is uniquely Christian in its source.

The intrinsic value of all human life, from the greatest to the least, from the wisest and strongest to the weakest and most imbecilic, from the fittest to the most infirm, is traceable to the Christian belief that all human beings are made in the image of God. That the survival of the fittest did not take hold as a western social or ethical value is attributable to the deeply ingrained Christian ethic that survived yet, despite the efforts to eradicate its God from modern equations.

Modern humanists may attempt to recast Darwin into a humanistic mold, but the idea of “social Darwinism” bears his name through no model of random, unguided selection. According to John G. West, Charles Darwin, himself, set in motion the inertia for eugenics, among other things, that were associated with social Darwinism:

Darwin himself in The Descent of Man provided the rationale for what became the eugenics movement, and how the vast majority of evolutionary biologists early in the twentieth century were right to see negative eugenics as a logical application of Darwin’s theory.

While the defense of Darwin against the charge of social Darwinism has largely succeeded in popular and polite company, the very title of the Origin of Species (by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) belies the success of that effort. The fact that the full title is merely a parenthetical today is evidence only of a concerted rescue campaign.

Christian values survived despite the Enlightenment coupe, not because of it. Humanism today assumes the evolutionary paradigm for its science alongside the uniquely Christian paradigm of intrinsic human value. That the two assumptions do not fit well together seems to be lost on modern minds.

Continue reading “Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World”

How Does a Living God Relate to a Pagan World?

We have our gods, though we don’t give them names or ascribe human personalities to them.

My thoughts today are based on the story of Paul and Barnabas while they were in Lystra, a city in central Anatolia, part of present-day Turkey. While Paul was speaking, his gaze came to rest on a man listening to him speak who was “crippled at birth”.

Paul saw the man had faith, so he loudly told the man to stand up. (Acts 14:8-10) The man sprang up, and the crowd was awed, saying, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11)

The people in Lystra were pagans. They worshiped Roman gods and, perhaps, other gods as well. They started calling Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes and began making preparations to worship them.

When Paul and Barnabas realized what was happening, they were appalled! They rushed into crowd, saying, “Don’t do that! We are just men like you!” (Acts 14:14-15 (paraphrasing)). Then, Paul addressed his pagan audience like this:

“[W]e bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things[i] to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

Acts 14:15-18

This is, perhaps, the first sermon preached in the early church to people who are not Jews. The pagans did not believe one God. They didn’t understand Mosaic Law, the concept of sin or the prohibition against worshiping idols considered to be false gods.

Thus, Paul didn’t address them as he did his Jewish audiences. He didn’t appeal to Mosaic Law, or accuse them of sin, or call them to repent.

Just as the Gospel is good news to the Jews, it is good news to the pagan Gentiles. The message, however, is different. Paul urged them merely to “turn from vain things to a living God”!

By “vain things” Paul meant their gods, the idols that the pagans worshiped. Instead of calling them idols, as he would have done to a Jewish audience, he referred to them descriptively by their character – their worthlessness, emptiness and utter inability to accomplish anything.

We have a hard time relating to idol worship in the 21st Century. Idol worship is so Bronze Age! Our ancestors long ago stopped believing in gods and sacrificing to them, right?

Tim Keller, in his sermon, The Gospel for the Pagan, paints a different story. These pagans were not so different from us.

In a polytheistic society, of course, people worshiped and sacrificed to a variety of gods. There was no supreme god. People had to decide what gods to worship. Thus, people chose gods to worship based on how those gods could help them.


A a merchant might sacrifice to the god of commerce. A farmer might sacrifice to the god of agriculture. Other people might sacrifice to the god of art and music, or love and beauty, or a combination of gods, depending on what was most important to them.

Keller says that sacrificing to the god(s) of choice was, in effect, worshiping the things people valued most. By sacrificing to the gods of commerce, agriculture, art and music, love and beauty, etc., they were worshiping whatever it was the god represented.  Whatever a person sought help for was the thing from which they sought meaning in life, hope and fulfillment.

Thus, says Keller, “vain things” (idols) are things that “promise fulfillment, but leave you empty”.

We may think of ancient pagans as a brutish and unsophisticated lot, but we are no different than they in the sense that we sacrifice for the things we think will fulfill and satisfy us. The only difference is that we have dispensed with the representative gods.

The person who values career, or accomplishment or being respected by peers as a matter of first priority will sacrifice for those things. The person who thinks that love, romance and family are the highest forms of meaning will devout primary attention to those things. The person who loves art and music will sacrifice for those things and from them seek meaning and fulfillment.

We aren’t that different, really from our pagan ancestors, though we might scoff at the idea of gods, as in idols. We have our gods, though. We just don’t call them names or ascribe human personalities to them.

Paul’s message to the pagans in Lystra was, “These are worthless things!” They can’t fulfill you. Only the Living God can do that. His message has more application to us in the 21st Century than we might think at first glance.

Continue reading “How Does a Living God Relate to a Pagan World?”

The Story that Matters

The critical truth of most stories is contained within the story itself.


I was reflecting before God this morning and praying when the following question arose in my head: whether it is more important to believe the historical fact of the biblical stories or to believe the stories themselves.

For whatever reason, the story that occurred to me as I was thinking about this is the story of Lot’s wife. After they left Sodom, a place that was known for its wickedness and sin, a place in which God could not identify even 10 good men, she turned back (against the orders of God’s angels that led them (delivered) them out of Sodom), and she turned into a pillar of salt.

Is there really a pillar of salt somewhere in the vicinity of Sodom where lot’s wife turned back? Does it matter?

As I was thinking about the question, it occurred to me that the story is what matters. Sodom is representative of depravity, wickedness and sin, the nature of the world around us in which we live, the state of a person who has not given himself or herself over in loving submission to the God who made us. God calls us out of that sinful state to follow Him. this is true whether Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt or not.

In the Midrash, Lot’s wife is identified as a Sodomite. Sodom was her hometown. We read in Genesis that Lot was slow in leaving when the angels warned him to get out. The Midrash suggests that Lot’s wife didn’t want to leave, and she left only reluctantly. The Hebrew word translated “looked back” implies a “wistful regard”. (See the Pulpit Commentary on Genesis 19:26 in BibleHub)

It seems that Lot’s wife really didn’t want to leave Sodom and looking back was as much an act of the heart (desiring to be back in Sodom) as a physical one. The application to us is that we should not be tempted to look back wistfully on the sinful lives we once lived. It’s like a dog returning to its own vomit. (Proverbs 26:11 and 2 Peter 2:22) Why would we turn back to the sin from which we escaped? And yet we tend to do that.

Returning to the point of the question that arose in my mind this morning, I am reminded that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness….” (2 Timothy 3:16) The Scripture is what is useful, not necessarily that the stories are true. The critical truth of most stories is contained within the story itself.

Continue reading “The Story that Matters”

Bias is Revealed in What we Consider and Fail to Consider

Siloam Tunnel inscription records
Siloam Tunnel inscription records when workers from the 8th Cent. B.C. met when digging from opposite directions. The inscription is now located in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum

When skeptics claim that Bible believers are biased, they are right. The truth is we all are biased, skeptics included. Some may be more aware of their own bias than others, but we all have our biases.

I am fascinated with stories of people who had one “bias” at one time and changed to the opposite “bias”. It happens both ways: atheist to believer/believer to atheist. Someday I will explore the similarities and the differences in those stories. There are some common threads, but that is a topic for another day. Continue reading “Bias is Revealed in What we Consider and Fail to Consider”

The Bible and the Historical Provenance of Christianity

The Dead Sea Scrolls on display at the caves of Qumran that located on the edge of the Dead Sea in Israel.

Many people say they “do not believe” the Bible. But, what does that mean? The Bible is an ancient document that has been around in the same form for centuries. The Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient manuscripts verify that and reveal that very little (maybe less than 1%) of the substance of the Bible has changed over the centuries.

Some argue over which writings should be included or not included in the canon which we call the Bible, but no one argues that it does not exist and has existed in virtually the same form for over a couple thousand years.

It is an historical record of people and places. Many of those people and places have been cross referenced by other sources. Archaeological finds have also verified many of the people and places in the Bible. People may argue whether every person and place referenced in the text is actual, accurate and factual, but few people seriously argue that it has no historical value.

It is also a collection of stories, poems, songs and sayings. As literature, it is full of imagery, compelling stories and words of wisdom. It has great literary value. The Bible is a collection of writings covering a span of about 1600 years by various authors focusing on particular people in a particular geographical area of the Middle East.

Some of the writings purport to be relatively contemporaneous accounts, and others seem more like historical accounts. Scribes were trained and devoted their lives to the careful transcription of the text from generation to generation. The writings have been collected and preserved by the people who have been passed them down from generation to generation as sacred text.

What is most likely meant when people say they “do not believe the Bible” is that they do not believe the Bible is the “Word of God”. People do not believe it is divinely inspired. Perhaps, the thing that people stumble over the most is the fact that it purports to be just that: a collection of God’s communications with people in history. When people say the do not believe the Bible, they most likely mean they do not believe the Bible can be taken at face value.

Various people have various theories about the Bible. I have even recently heard people say that the Bible was put together by Roman dictators to “control the people” by giving them something to believe in. Really?! There is no scholarly support for that position by the way, but there are other pet theories.

Most scholars agree that there is some “truth” to the Bible. What I mean by that is that there seems little doubt that the collection of writings have been preserved from antiquity in roughly the same form as they are today, through various translations that are pretty amazingly similar, and that the Bible has some historical value, as any ancient text does.

The evidence suggests that all of the Old Testament writings pre-date the first Century. The Dead Sea Scrolls, which pre-date the First Century, include manuscripts from every book in the Old Testament except for Esther. Among the manuscripts found in the Qumran caves that we call the Dead Sea Scrolls, was a complete scroll of the Book of Isaiah dating to at least 200 BC.

In fact, the Bible is the most well-preserved and well-attested of any ancient text. We have more ancient manuscripts of the Bible, by a huge volume, than any other ancient text. It gets even more compelling with the New Testament.

Continue reading “The Bible and the Historical Provenance of Christianity”