The God of the Hebrew Scriptures can be as capricious in his way as any of the gods of the ancient world; later, the God of the New Testament, in offering a means of salvation, does so only through the brutally violent execution of his own son. To engage with the biblical, then, is to engage with texts that are not historical in the ordinary sense of the term. Largely written to convince and convert, the Bible is a special kind of literary country. As the author of the Gospel of John said of his own work, “These things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” Understanding the stories of Scripture requires what British poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge once called a “willing suspension of disbelief” — a suspension that in turn creates what Coleridge thought of as “poetic faith.” (bold mine)
That, I submit, is some very wishful thinking (see Matthew 24:37, II Peter 3:4-7). Recently, I explained my view of Christian apologetics – that is, the defense of the Christian faith – to someone this way:
“I don’t say that we can reasonably argue someone into the Christian faith, but I do say that apologetics can serve like the law – perhaps as its handmaid (removing objections to the word), and that the fact that God has given all men proof of Jesus’ right to judge by raising Him from the dead would seem to serve both a Law and Gospel purpose.”
In other words, theology and real history go hand in hand. And I would assert that this all happens by the hand of the Holy Spirit, who would guide such right proclamation. This said, I recently noticed the following note from Eastern Orthodox blogger Father Kimel, over at Eclectic Orthodoxy, where he seems to go in yet another direction (splitting the middle?):
And here is the answer to the question so often put to us by those outside the Christian faith: “Prove to me that Jesus is divine.” We can’t. Such “proof,” such as it is, is only available to those who have heard the summons of the risen Christ, been baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection, and now indwell the eucharistic life of the Church.
I can’t agree with Father Kimel here: I do not think that it is responsible for Christians to speak in this fashion, and I will explain why.
Again, I note that in Acts 17:30-31 Paul seems pretty clear about the fact that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead that the world may know He is going to judge it. But perhaps Paul was really just saying that he personally had experienced the risen Christ (and not just as a spiritual resurrection!), and, confident of this, simply was inviting others to test and judge for themselves the truth of the risen Christ?
No – it is true that Paul did talk about his own experience with the risen Christ on three occasions in the book of Acts, but he also, in his Acts 26 comments to Festus noted that his comments about Christ’s resurrection were “true and reasonable” and that this event “had not been done in a corner”. This is very fact-oriented, empirical, data-driven kind of talk. But perhaps Paul was holding only men like Festus and Agrippa accountable, given their local and temporal proximity to this event?
Again, no – for as we are told in Acts 17:31, “He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (NASB). This is the only passage in the New Testament where the word pistis, usually translated as “faith,” means “proof” in the sense of “a token offered as a guarantee of something promised.”* Lenski says it means “to furnish trustworthy assurance or evidence” (p. 138, The Interpretation of the Acts…). As Matthew Henry put it several centuries ago, “the matter is not left doubtful, but is of unquestionable certainty. Let all his enemies be assured of it, and tremble before him; let all his friends be assured of it, and triumph in him”. But perhaps Paul was only holding persons like the Athenians accountable here, given their temporal proximity to this event?
Again no – “all men” would mean all men. The resurrection is a pivotal event in which Jesus Christ is “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1, ESV). Here, the world, is held to account, not through human reason and argumentation but through the assertion of the Holy Ghost convicting the world of unbelief (see John 16:8-11). As Lenski says, Paul “is preaching God to these pagans in mighty terms. As far as Christ is concerned, they will accept him only as the one who was ordained by God” (p. 738, The Interpretation of the Acts…). An unbeliever might insist that this does not establish the man Jesus as Lord and Judge of all (Lessing in the 18th c.: “the accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason”….), but it is quite clear that this is the case for the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
According to the 20th c. philosopher of science Michael Polanyi, “knowing is a form of activity…which…. involves the whole person in a passionate commitment to make contact with reality. Knowing is not something that happens to us; it is something we seek to achieve” (according to Newbigin, Proper Confidence, p. 50). Michael Polanyi is an extremely valuable thinker for the 20th c., but here I think he goes too far, because when we talk about knowing other persons, they definitely make take the initiative and inculcate knowledge – of themselves and other things they bring – in us. Sometimes whether we like it or not! Certainly, there are more passive and active aspects of how we “come to know”…
What does this look like when it comes to God’s work in us? At this point I will simply quote from an extended section from Lesslie Newbigin’s 1995 book Proper Confidence (for a lecture that sums up the book, go to this link – also provided by Father Kimel on his blog). While I have certainly not agreed with everything in this book (I think the title is great, the overall execution not so much), I very much share his passion when it comes to what he says below:
“For Plato, the ultimate realities were ideas, which are more or less fully realized in the various entities which are the objects of our experience. It is by grasping these eternal ideas and participating in them that the soul attains its true being and its salvation. These ideas constitute a hierarchy which the Idea of the Good is the apex. The other major strand of classical thought, that strand which originates in Plato’s great disciple Aristotle, is more concerned with the causal relations among things in the world of becoming…. this Aristotelian tradition was to play a major role in the development of Europe at a later stage.
What is obvious an important at this stage is that the acceptance of the biblical tradition as a starting point for thought constituted a radical break with the classical tradition, whether in its Platonic or Aristotelian form. To put it crudely, in the latter form we begin by asking questions, and we formulate these questions on the basis of our experience of the world. In this enterprise we are in control of operations. We decide which questions to ask, and these questions necessarily condition the nature of the answers. This is the procedure with which we are familiar in the work of the natural sciences. The things we desire to understand are not active players in the game of learning; they are inert and must submit to our questioning. The resulting ‘knowledge’ is our achievement and our possession.**
There is another kind of knowing which, in many languages, is designated by a different word. It is the kind of knowing that we seek in our relations with other people. In this kind of knowing we are not in full control. We may ask questions, but we must also answer the questions put by the other. We can only come to know others in the measure in which they are willing to share. The resulting knowledge is not simply our own achievement; it is also a gift of others. And even in the mutual relations of ordinary human beings, it is never complete. There are always further depths of knowledge that only long friendship and mutual trust can reach, if indeed they can be reached at all.
There is a radical break between these two kinds of knowing: the knowing often associated with the natural sciences and the knowing involved in personal relations. We experience this radical break, for example, when someone about whom we have been talking unexpectedly comes into the room. We can discuss an absent person in a manner that leaves us in full control of the discussion. But if the person comes into the room, we must either break off the discussion or change into a different mode of talking.
This is a proper analogy of the break involved in the move from the classical to the Christian way of understanding the world. If, so to say, the Idea of Good has actually entered the room and spoken, we have to stop our former discussion and listen. Instead of asking all the questions, we must answer the questions put by the Other… (pp. 9-11, bold mine, Proper Confidence)
I would add that for the Christian, this kind of personal knowledge of God in general comes to us through other Christians – from generation to generation – and that this personal knowledge is something that both humbles us and inspires us to boldness when it comes to sharing the joy. The joy of knowing Him who is eternal life. II Tim 1:12: “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me”.
Newbigin says that “the certainty that Descartes sought and claimed to have achieved is… available only within a mental world that is not in contact with a reality beyond itself…” and therefore “only statements which can be doubted make contact with reality” (p. 52, see 75 as well). Even if there is something to what Newbigin says here – about only particular dubitable statements being capable of making contact with reality – the Christian knows that we should not (ideally) – and in fact need not! – say this about the solid persons… and especially Persons, who have led us to the truth and into the incarnate Truth, who Himself is the “Indubitable and Demonstrable Certainty” and speaks thusly (p. 95)*** More on this in future posts (hopefully in a few weeks).
As Newbigin deftly points out in his book, doubt is indeed always a part of our knowing, but that said, speaking of historic biblical Christianity, doubt in God is never something to be encouraged in Christian faith (for more on this see here) – or something that we build into our “systematic theologies” – even as yes, we will not truly grasp the Mystery until the Last Day. We always can – and by His grace will – know better the one that we have begun to know with surety.
* BDAG, s.v. pistis 1c., quoted in Schnabel, Acts Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Zondervan, 2012. I also note that F.F. Bruce says the phrase pisten parexo means “having provided proof” and that “Vettius Valens 277. 29 f. provides an example of pistin parexo in the same sense”, p. 340, The Acts of the Apostles, 1951.
** Elsewhere he writes: “What is clear is that the Cartesian confidence in mathematics as the locus of certainty Is part of the same dualism that dominated classical thought, the dualism that separated a world of pure forms known by the mind from the world of material things known through our senses. Certainty belongs to the former, not to the latter….” (p. 52) I would also challenge Newbigin’s assertion that the modern world insists that facts are only things that are tangible and measurable…. (p. 55) – while this may be true for the majority of elites, I think there are many who persist in believing that there are certainly facts that have more to do with the “qualitative” than the quantitative.
*** Disappointingly, it seems to me that Newbigin begins to stumble in his book when he rather sharply distinguishes between faith and knowledge on page 55: “there is no way of being indubitably certain that [the claims and promises that the Bible makes are]… what history is really all about and that this gives us the direction of our lives. It must be, as the church has always said, a matter of divine revelation accepted in faith (John 1:18)”. This, it seems to me, is a fatal statement that undercuts the rest of his work, where he also tries to valiantly assert that the Christian pilgrim “knows the Way” (p. 92) Yes, in life “we are continually required to act on beliefs that are not demonstrably certain and to commit our lives to propositions that can be doubted” (p. 102), but there is more to be said here – there is also certain knowledge to be had, a “proper confidence” that does not have all things in common with the one spoken of by Newbigin.
I do think there are some aspects of Newbigin’s analysis that might indeed open doors with some folks, as might these words from Father Kimel (found here) – a simple apologetical argument to remove roadblocks to really hearing the Gospel: “Why would an intelligent, rational person believe in God? Put aside Aquinas’s Five Ways or the popular arguments from design (which I rarely invoke). Why believe? Because LIFE is bigger than all of our rationalistic constructions. Life does not permit us to only commit ourselves to matters about which we can rationally prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Life doesn’t permit us to live only on probabilities….My belief in God has very little to do with metaphysical arguments. It never has. My belief in God—not just any God but the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead on Eastern morning – has everything to do with LIFE, SUFFERING, DEATH, HOPE, MEANING, LOVE.” (bold mine, caps his)
Pic credits: Wikipedia