Put not your trust in men? Overcoming the Cretan’s paradox in Christ

28 May
Epimenides was a Cretan who made one immortal statement: "All Cretans are liars." -- Wikipedia

Epimenides was a Cretan who made one immortal statement: “All Cretans are liars.” — Wikipedia

“[It is] better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man” (Psalm 118:8) indeed.  And remember “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Psalm 146:3).  And did the Psalmist also not admit “I said in my alarm, ‘All mankind are liars.'” (116:11)?

Yes, i
t’s not just the Cretans who have a problem!  “Let God be true and every man a liar!” (Romans 3)

Yes.  But. 

In a post the other day, I spoke about how it is unavoidable that we must trust men (this is also a theme I have talked about frequently, particularly here, here, here and here)

Specifically, I said this:

*unavoidably*, we really do trust the men *who urge us not to trust in men* (for example, Exodus 15:31 says, “And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant”), but to stay with the divinely revealed faith once delivered to all the saints – which means perpetually fleeing back to the Scriptures to test all things, particularly those things that seem wrong or unfamiliar (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11)!

In other words, talking about “trusting God and not men” is, once again, “useful shorthand”.  Again, in truth, more nuance is possible – and necessary – for many Christians.

Years ago, I had this thought as well (original post):

…because “ecclesiology is Christology” (Kurt Marquart) those in the Church have faith in God through the Church (if not directly, then indirectly).  For cradle Lutherans, faithful saints gave them the life-creating Promise from their childhood.  And yet, in “Cretan’s paradox” fashion, as we grow, we ultimately become more and more aware that “all men are liars” (those passing on the Promise to us may have even emphasized this point to us: that they, as lying sinners, must depend on Christ!), but that God’s grace still breaks through in the midst of all of this.  Christ is in our midst!  In fact, He comes precisely because of this work of Satan: namely, the problem of original sin that infects us all!  So indeed, here we have a great paradox: as we grow in our faith, we become more certain regarding the Promise itself – the Promise Himself – than the love and integrity of any man – and of anything else in the whole creation.

holding-handsAnd yet, we as Christians also may trust in men more than any other man. (even as there is much distrust among Christians – so much so that we may insist it is necessarily true that unity assumed is unity denied). This is what I will explore in-depth in the rest of this post.

According to Lutheran historian Martin Noland*, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – whose “organic inner unity” and “organic powers” (Herder) idea of “development” would compete with the one of Darwin’s which confined itself to ‘mechanics’ as a mode of explanation – contended that that “scientific theories create the reality which they describe” and that “truth” is “already decided when the scientific community determines which experiences are normative” (pp. 170-180, italics mine). Noland notes that when it comes to the ultimate issue of authority, the influential argument of Ernst Troeltsch must actually be reduced to ad hominem argumentation, where the competent scholars that he lists are the ones to trust (p. 85).

My argument would be that we all are ultimately reduced to trust, as we must at all times choose between competing wise men / scholars who appear to know their topic well and, from our less educated perspective, seem to be highly competent. In other words, we may want to say about all this that it is not really about persons, but this is actually unavoidable. And this necessity goes for the educated among us as well as the uneducated. The idea of the historicist that we need to focus on the “cultural whole” is indeed worthy of serious reflection (for example: are points of Christian doctrine better taught in story form, and not just particular “Bible stories” but the whole narrative of creation, redemption and consummation? ), but we still must ask which account – which worldview and corresponding method of world-inquiry – and which person in whom we hear and see these things – we must trust.

Kant, who may today be considered a conservative Enlightenment figure, is well known for defining the Enlightenment in the following way:

[Enlightenment is] “ the emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy. Infancy is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another. It is self-imposed, when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it without external guidance. Thus the watchword of enlightenment is: Sapere aude! Have the courage to use one’s own reason!’” (Immanuel Kant, 1784).

As I said about this quote a few years ago:

“If I question my spiritual inheritance in Christ – and even turn away – it is not because I used my own understanding apart from other influences.  It is because I choose to turn away from one Person and to trust another.  If I don’t realize that this is happening I only reveal that I shun adulthood, embrace childishness, and dwell in darkness.

It is important to learn to “think for one’s self”.  At the same time, if “[man’s infancy] is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another”, we never become adults who can become like little children.” (see full context here ; also see part II here)

“…you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.”

“…you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.”

Let me try to explain more fully what I insisted on there. It seems to me that what some persons – mostly on the Enlightenment’s left – have always noticed is that in spite of “ad hominem” concerns, answers to life’s questions often must come down to arguments from personal authorities – even if they will never simply come out and say this (hence the importance of the “science” of “higher criticism” – this is really a facade). For them, one must trust in the right men – who, incidently it seems, may be said to know the “mind of God” (as we see first expressed by men like Humboldt and Hegel, implicitly and explicitly respectively – it seems to me that the “Muses” have seized men like these with their Christ-denying “insights”!).

Now one might counter by saying that of course people are a part of the equation here – and specific authoritative persons in particular – but that these people generally don’t point to themselves (and their own education and character) as the reason to trust what they say. This is true not only because we know it is considered bad form (do note how the Apostle Paul argues though), but also because when they attempt to assert or persuade by giving reasons they indeed point to things outside themselves, and not just any things but specific evidence they are willing to recognize as relevant in this or that way that is embedded in and explained by authoritative narratives (even though in this process they must certainly use their own senses, well-informed opinions, inferences, and guesswork, things the 19th historicist Humboldt emphasized).

And yet, some may feel that these stories – even if there is nothing which speaks against them – may not be able to be verified by a preponderance of evidence that points to a specific account being true beyond a shadow of a doubt – or even a reasonable one. But is each man supposed to make this determination himself – perhaps by forming his own “science of history” and trying to overturn all the important rocks himself – or must there always necessarily be some level of a personal element – i.e. trust – involved? So what again is the key element, even as all of the factors are undoubtedly important?  Logically, the “argument from authority” cannot be avoided.   Therefore, we insist that the key element is the One True God – the divine Persons of the Trinity and their authority – even as in general the Godhead chooses to work in harmony with human beings and their authority, based not only on their competence but their actual character.  This is a character that can be dependable in spite of its imperfections and can be discerned by men – albeit imperfectly. Not only this, but this character will always clearly deny that man is the measure of all things and will rather affirm that the world and all that is in it ought to be governed on the basis of trust – and in fact necessarily is (whether to merely survive or thrive – that is, be like the plant in Psalm 2 that grows by the river – as they say)!   This can’t be denied! One might even say that this trust derives from the Trinity itself, as the Godhead holds all things together by the power of its word, whereby man might live and move and have his being in God in the world.

Martin Luther would not have liked me saying this, but when I am tempted to doubt my faith, it is not only his words – words he always tried to speak in line with God’s Word – but his very person that gives me comfort – in spite of the fact that I have only “known him” through his writings. And I believe that is by God’s design.

My main concern about trying to fit Christianity with modern thought-forms is that we can see how actual historical events passed on by persons whom we trust will always take a back seat – and it seems to me, become altogether irrelevant.   And this is why we needy sheep need – no matter how great our education in languages, philosophy and the sciences – to depend on the Holy Spirit Jesus speaks of, who has given us Scriptures for our security (Luke 2) and comfort (see Rom. 15) and also interprets them with, in, and for us. The Spirit’s character is flawless, even as ours is perpetually flawed, confused, and at odds with one another. Luther rightly wanted to trust in both God and the Roman Catholic Church who was to speak for him. And he believed that God would provide for His people through a church that would be willingly corrected – until he simply could no longer believe this. Simply put, Luther’s skepticism was earned, and did not come willingly.** Of course, the same cannot be said for all the “Protestants” who have come after him (see Noland’s comments about the necessity of skepticism and criticism as regards post-apostolic traditions on p. 251, also see his comments on pp. 314-316). For some of them, skepticism has been raised in prominence to a methodological principle. But, as Luther reminded Erasmus, the Holy Spirit it no skeptic, but rather is an Authoritative Person who can bring us the reliable knowledge we need.

Indeed. Again, to say that we are to trust in no man but God does not mean that we are not required to trust in God through His faithful servants. It is not only that we have no choice to do this – especially in these last days – but rather that one aspect of Christians is that they are those who can trust one another better than most, for they ultimately know that their Lord has their back and guides history in His Providence. Now it is indeed the case that God may convert any man through the word alone in spite of the spiritual knowledge and character of the one who preaches. This however, does not mean that having a sanctified clergy and church is unimportant or not to be the regular means of the means of grace.   It is one thing to come to faith and another to keep it when doubt comes, as it certainly will – men of the greatest knowledge, sensitivity, and integrity have always been needed in the church.

Some might think that I am trying to “naturalize” what is “supernatural”. Do not get me wrong: I think that it can be very helpful for us in the Lutheran church to indeed talk about faith as a “supernatural” thing. That however, is because many Christians understand this term to mean something that comes from above, not because it is something understood to be at odds with things as they must ordinarily (i.e. “natural” in this sense) transpire in our lives. In other words, in talking about faith in the way we do – that is being a gift from God that we cannot achieve by our own powers – we do not thereby abandon what we know about the trust that exists in normal, everyday life.   Christian faith is not opposed to this, but goes hand in hand with this! It is not merely analogous to the ordinary trust we experience among human beings, but rather cannot be separated from this. Therefore, for example, when we talk about the faith the Holy Spirit creates through the content of the Scriptures, we speak about how that happens through the very normal reception of those words, which we simply assume – trust! – that we are able to understand (what some have called, in a move that seems overly rationalistic to me, the “historical-grammatical” method – see here for more about how God uses our regular reading to create and nurture faith – “Scripture interpreting scripture” only makes sense in this context). Likewise, when we talk about being receptive to the message of the Gospel that we received, this generally happens through the normal human event of one person trusting another, where there is no good reason for skepticism, as it simply has not been earned.

Back to the quote from above from one of the brightest Enlightenment lights. Kant was brilliant. Kant was foolish.   These statements are both true, and they apply to the Enlightenment – a highly intellectual species of Christian heresy – more than any one person.   Noland points out that Troeltsch, like most all Western intellectuals, adopted a form of the fact/value split (formally put forth by David Hume in the late 18th c.), where naturalism (rationalism and empiricism come along here) views the world through the lens of “regularity” and “quantity” and historicism (romanticism comes along here) views the world on the basis of “quality” and “subjective experience” (p. 46) Noland himself says that the historicist Dilthey’s “method of historical knowledge is proper and objective, but only if there actually are organic powers that unite cultures and epochs through an inner genetic principle and direct a culture’s growth” (italics his, p. 220, 221). Of course for some Christians they would probably say that it is faith in Christ – as it was for Harnack – that makes this knowledge proper. It is probably a null issue, seeing as how such an “inner genetic principle” could never be proven by scientific means, but I still wonder about the concession Noland makes here – and I wonder this because of the way it seems to concede the role of modern critical history (is the only good historian the one who is the constant critic and skeptic, or is there something to be said about studying the past out of love simply without necessarily needing to have a critical attitude?) and its roll over human trust – whether that be in oral tradition, family histories and local histories.*** Do we as Christians not think – more than anyone else – that some people – people we know to be great examples of learning, holiness, and discernment – have yet to earn our distrust – even as we know them to be sinners? (where perhaps their self-awareness of this fact only helps us to trust them as we trust God?)

Indeed we do. Life is about trust, history is about trust, and in Christ, the Cretan’s paradox is overcome.

More on what this means in coming posts where I will talk about how we should go about proclaiming the world-saving – and world-shaping – deeds of Jesus Christ for the salvation of all.


* Over last Christmas break, I tacked the PhD. Dissertation of the respected confessional Lutheran apologist and historian Dr. Martin Noland, Harnack’s historicism: the genesis, development, and institutionalization of historicism and its expression in the thought of Adolf Von Harnack (1996). Noland had suggested persons read a number of works, including this dissertation, so as to help them have more historical context for understanding one of Concordia seminary professor Jeffrey Kloha’s recent papers. The dissertation is available through ProQuest dissertations and so can be readily obtained from most academic library databases. Right away I was hooked and intrigued with Dr. Noland’s ambitious work, because he seemed to “fill in” many of the gaps that have existed in my own knowledge of intriguing topics such as these(see my own rather ambitious series “What Athens needs from Jerusalem”).

** For Luther, it would seem that the book of James (and some others) “earned his distrust”.  That said, I think that we really do need to take into consideration the context in which Luther was operating, where his theological opponents were really misusing those books.  Later Lutherans were able to see these as also being Christ-centered and Spirit-inspired.  In any case, Lutherans like Martin Chemnitz were right to highlight the reality of “Antilegomena” in the church – and to insist that these books should not be able to help determine doctrine without the help of other books (at the very least out of sensitivity towards believers who while holding orthodox beliefs were nevertheless unable to fully embrace such books as being Scriptural). 

*** At one point Noland also writes that “Harnack demonstrated his awareness of the difference between historical evidence and religious experience” (around pp. 250-260). I am not comfortable talking about this as being something that persons can be aware of because that seems to imply to me that these things, while they are clearly able to be distinguished, do not belong together and in fact go hand in hand.   It seems to me that for Adolf Von Harnak and his house, they will uphold their community’s experience of the historical man Jesus Christ, who they certainly feel exemplifies the pinnacle of morality and goodness and is the greatest and most compelling religious figure whoever lived! As for me and my house, we will continue to assert that the Word of God – and those who put forth its account of history – which goes hand in hand with its particular teachings – demands our unwavering trust. All men listen to teachers who shape and form them, and the doctrine is always in the drama, or history, whether we are speaking of the true narrative or one of the myriad false narratives.

Versus Harnack – whose whole theological framework seems to me to resemble some kind of an elite Hindu approach [with a focus on philosophy and the oneness the gods share rather than popular piety focused on polytheism and rituals] – I do not deny that the “personality” of Jesus Christ will often have a role in a person’s personal conversion, but I cannot simply see Jesus as a great religious figure – the greatest and apex of religious figures – of whom the actual history is not clear and not able to be trusted in (again, Harnack does not really provide a defense of Christian faith as the truth, but rather a defense of the influence of the man Jesus and its ongoing significance for good. I believe that the Scriptures are indeed a reliable history, even as they might not be majority history that most everyone readily accepted without difficulty (and that may have much corroborating physical evidence), but rather a “minority report”, or what is today being called a “microhistory”. More on that in the near future


Wikipedia: Epimenides ; holding hands: ; nursing:

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Posted by on May 28, 2014 in Uncategorized


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