First, perhaps you are wondering: “What is a ‘confrontable’?” I thought of the word, wondered if it was in use, and then, via Google, found out it had indeed been used, albeit as an adjective (which makes sense) – it simply means “able to be confronted, approachable”. I’m just using it as a noun here. It seems to me a word that invites active engagement. That is our God, come in human flesh.
So, to review: yesterday I ran off an impressive bunch of David Bentley Hart quotes Father Aiden Kimel had culled from Hart’s new book, The Experience of God.
The question I now want to deal with is this: are such thoughts compatible with Lutheran theology, which emphasizes Paul’s insistence in Romans 3 that “no one seeks God” – and that before knowing Him we show ourselves to be enemies and haters of God? On the one hand, I definitely think so – on one level, the last quotes I mentioned yesterday challenging persons to “contemplative prayer” strike me as a kind of philosophically-informed preaching of the law – challenging man’s notions of his being a good and noble objective observer in the universe – who may be willing, generously, to explore the “God hypothesis”. It calls modern man’s bluff out: if you say the evidence whether God exists is important to you, are you even trying to seek Him?
After all, even if one does not believe in the Trinity, all men intuitively know that there must be some kind of divine Mind that is at bottom responsible for the cosmos that he inhabits and experiences as a part of it. Paul also asserts in Acts 17 that men do seek God – but the key here, I think, is related to the lower case “god” that Hart uses in one of those aforementioned quotes. This knowledge of God man has and continues to gather is of course suppressed (Romans 1) – sometimes more or less so (Psalm 14, “the fool in his heart says ‘there is no God’” deals with this). Nevertheless, even sinful man has a tendency to ask questions and seek answers about the god he cannot totally put out of his mind. The point, of course, is that the one seeking god is not seeking the true God, but they are seeking to experience god as they can imagine him, fathom him, and yes, use and control him.
There are many however – perhaps even more in these days – of whom such words cannot be said. They are far too distracted by other desires and interests – other attractive and shiny things – perhaps even more sophisticated shiny (and “divine”) things, worthy of the elites (see here – I think this is my best post from this past year). For them, Hart’s earnest exhortations to seek god that they might find him are words that can condemn them, pointing out how they fall short of the glory of God – whether or not Hart intends writes the words with this intention (note he says “God”, not “god” in this quote). The Holy Spirit brings man to an end of himself by showing man himself in the mirror (S.O.S. – the law “shows our sins”) so that He also might reveal to him the Savior (S.O.S. – the Gospel “shows our Savior”). So all this all can and should be seen in an evangelistic context, leading to Jesus Christ.
And let’s get to the Savior. There is no doubt that what Hart says above could be true for those who have not explicitly heard of Jesus Christ’s first advent in the flesh but yet tacitly trust in Trinity – here one thinks about Melchizedek, Cornelius, and other saints who longed to have the mystery of their faith fleshed out (which it literally was when the Son of God “tabernacled” among us and never stopped being man).
On the other hand, what Hart says above also seems to be compatible with what Jews and Muslims believe about God. But many – most – in these religions reject Jesus Christ as he is portrayed in the Scriptures, perhaps even after they have learned more about him. As regards their belief in the God that can be known to humans, one might even sometimes suspect they are saying God can be known in terms of what God is not in this particular sense: anyone except that all-inclusive and all-exclusive Jesus Christ! And here we must continue to speak hard words accompanied with the greatest love and concern, for we know from the book of John that those who reject Jesus reject the Father.
This is the message that Christians must not back down from (see the recent post I did about one of the weaknesses of Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical) – for we must keep in mind that he has freely chosen to “prove Himself” sufficiently – and finally in Christ – already.*
And here is where our proclamation, in countering Christological apophasis (denial), must be both apophatic** and cataphatic. When we look at the teachings of religions as they relate to Jesus, we must get apophatic, saying something like: “God is not like that. This view of God is false, and this is serious – you do not have the true god if you really hold to these teachings. The words you cling to are not, like Jesus’, ‘Spirit and life’. We do not – cannot – live from these words.”
Alongside of this would be cataphatic evangelism, or proclamation (God can be known affirmatively!) Let’s flesh this out – first here in print, and then, in our very lives. First, for the Christian, it is Gospel, or good news, that “every knee shall bow” before the risen Christ. This message is the ultimate culmination of Christ’s work at the cross and means absolute freedom from sin, death, and the devil and all who do his will (the “world”)! Not so for the unbeliever. Apart from the Holy Spirit revealing to them that Christ is truly their Savior from sin and judgment as well, such preaching of the resurrected Christ can be severe and condemning law (see John 16:8-11). Second, such proclamation simultaneously asserts that the Gospel (see I Cor. 15 for a definition!) is foolishness to the world and that the Gospel is “true and reasonable.” Like Hart above, it calls out the unbeliever’s bluffs.
Recently, I have been having a conversation about an earnest young disciple of Christ about the Christian message and epistemology. Here is a clip of our conversation (see the bold in particular):
[student:] if we believe Christianity is true, shouldn’t we believe that a good pursuit of truth will arrive at Christianity?
[My response:] Yes, we should – even as our difficulty here is that the Christian can never cease to proclaim Christ. The whole point is that how do we get a “good pursuit of truth”? Is any starting point on this journey as good as any other? Or will some make us go down “bunny paths” that end up being roads to hell? How can we even know where to start? A few points here – I do not think we can start being “neutral” about whether or not there is a divine being – something, however we define it, that is responsible for everything that exists, that has great power, and that has influence in our lives over what we should do and what our future holds (see my series on Lutheran anthropology for non-Lutherans where I go into more detail on all this). That said, even if the person says they are “agnostic” about “God” there may still be hope if they show interest in this next claim I make, which is…
Second, I do not think that we can start being “neutral” towards Christian claims upon hearing them. They demand to be taken seriously and demand our full attention and engagement. Why these claims over the claims of any other world religion? Why should Christianity and the truths it purports to preach get our attention? Well, does any other religion claim to vindicate its founder – who incidently, claimed to be God, via a resurrection from the dead? (not to mention all the miracles leading up to that final, crowning miracle – ponder, for example, Mark 2:9-11 here). Does any other world religion claim to offer proof, assurance, “faith” – that we can know who it is who will in the future judge the world? (see Acts 17). None. Therefore, anyone who does not take these things seriously – is, by definition, not being rational. Would most philosophers agree with me? I don’t think so. And even if some found it to be an intriguing argument, perhaps they may say, after looking at things, that there is “insufficient evidence” for what Christianity claims. Then what? Well, do they get to decide what sufficient evidence is? Might they be under any obligation to reconsider and look again? Who charges them to do so? How deeply did they look into it? Did they do so prayerfully? At this point however, they might say “it sounds to me like you are saying I need to ‘let go’ and become a believer in order to do this process correctly!”
At the time, I went on to write to him “And to that I would say, ‘I think you are right’ – because the Scriptures would seem to imply that persons both seek God (Acts 17) and do not seek Him (Rom 3). What can this mean?” That said, upon further reflection, I do not think that is the case – at least not always. We are in the realm of the preaching of the law here (which can provoke examination over fear alone), and not only this, but just like a person might say “I know that is wrong and against God’s command but I am going to do it anyway”, they might also say “I know that this is true but I am not going to concern myself with it anyway”. Here, of course, we must urge them otherwise – to avoid so great a danger.
Now, I am willing to grant that this kind of word may not be “the law”, strictly speaking (though I think of Luther’s admonition that the commandment about the Sabbath day finds its fulfillment in the willing hearing of the word [which converts us!] – something that even sinful man can decide to do). Nevertheless, at the very least, I submit that such words are meant to go hand in hand with the preaching of God’s law as its “handmaid”. I think that words analogous to these are those that Christians around the world should be using as we confront a world that has not truly begun to see the beauty – the saving beauty – of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And let these words be accompanied by acts of love and a gentle spirit (I Peter 3:15, and II Tim 2:24-26).
* Gary Habermas on the apologetic methodology found in the Scriptures:
“Over and over again, with the help of several checks and balances, we are told to test God’s revelation to us. To be reminded of just a few of these, potential prophets are to be tested according to their own predictions (Deut. 18:21-22). More than once, God gives a similar test to other gods – let them predict the future and bring it to pass so that we may see and know that they are gods (Isa. 41:21-24; 44:7). God passed his own test (Isa. 41:25-29, 42:9, 44:24-28; 46:10; 48:5, 14). Perhaps most interesting for our purposes is that Israel was called to be his witness of these mighty historical acts of confirmation (Isa. 44:6-8, 52:6). God could have simply sent his listeners his Word, but he apparently did not think that these challenges to look at history were improper references to an authority about his written revelation.
Miracles also served such a test. While seeking an incredible heavenly sign, Elijah announced, ‘The god who answers by fire – he is God.’ The people were challenged to view an awesome miracle as God’s vindication of his prophet and message (I Kings 18:20-45). Centuries later, Jesus performed miracles on the spot to show John the Baptist that he was the Messiah (Luke 7:18-23). Both Peter (Acts 2:22-24) and Paul (Acts 17:30-31) proclaimed that Jesus’ resurrection was the validation of Jesus’ teachings.
These are just a few texts where both believers and unbelievers were told to examine history to ascertain God’s truth. Audiences were regularly encouraged to use their minds and their eyes. They were witnesses. But there is no hint that these evidential challenges displeased God by suggesting ultimate standards being applied to his revelation. Indeed, God often made the challenge himself.’ Quoted in Steven B. Cowan, ed., Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MN: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000) 245, 246.
** According to Wikipedia, the word apophatic, while typically used in conjunction with a theology that only speaks in terms of “what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God” (instead of cataphatic theology) simply means “to deny” (Ancient Greek: ἀπόφασις, from ἀπόφημι – apophēmi).