Saturday, August 17, 2013

Zealot: A Brief Presuppositional Response

So the Christian community is observing yet one more hypothesis about Jesus Christ written from a patently non-Christian vantage point. How is the Christian supposed to respond to these allegations? Literally, there could be as many claims about Jesus Christ as there are unbelievers! Are we supposed to trouble ourselves with countering each and every new hypothesis the unbelieving mind can invent? I don’t think Scripture places the Christian under such a weighty encumbrance. However, that does not mean that we have no duty at all to give these hypotheses their just due. Balance is crucial to remaining engaged in these disputes without having them exhaust your every waking minute. With this opinion in mind, I have prepared a very brief presuppositional response to Reza Aslan’s “Zealot.”

The central thesis of Aslan seems to be that

“Jesus, like other messianic figures of his day, called for the violent expulsion of Rome from Israel. Driven by religious zeal, Jesus believed that God would empower him to become the king of Israel and overturn the hierarchical social order. Jesus believed that God would honor the zeal of his lightly armed disciples and give them victory. Instead, Jesus was crucified as a revolutionary.” [Manning, Jr. A Response to Zealot]

Notice the preliminary allegation is that Jesus summoned the violent expulsion of Rome from Israel. Of course there is nothing in the gospels to indicate that this was actually the case. Moreover, the gospels after all, are our primary historical source for the life and times of Jesus the Messiah. In fact, when Jesus was arrested, Peter attempted a violent defense only to be rebuked by Jesus, informing him that He would drink of the cup that God had prepared for Him. Of course Aslan’s conspiracy theory allows him to turn the text into putty by theorizing that the Church changed this incident from the original in order to rescue Jesus from His unfortunate end. Using this technique, Aslan is completely free to mangle whatever he pleases under the guide that his conspiracy theory is credible.

Jesus did believe that God would empower Him to become King over Israel, not only Israel, but over all the earth. He also believed that He would overturn the hierarchical social order. “They will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Lu. 21:27). Aslan is right. But let us not think that our timing and God’s timing is exactly the same. “These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings” (Rev. 17:14). Aslan is right again. Jesus did believe that God would honor the zeal of his disciples and given them victory. The problem is that Aslan misunderstands the two-fold nature and timing of this victory. And this is for good reason. God has hid these things from the might, the wise, the debater, and has revealed them unto His elect. Essentially we have spiritual blind and biblically ignorant man attempting to tell us who Jesus really was. Only disaster can result from such an endeavor and the Christian should expect nothing less. Moreover, the Christian should not shrink back from calling ignorance out for the ignorance that it is.

Early Christians changed the story of Jesus to make him into a peaceful shepherd. They did this for two reasons: because Jesus’ actual prediction had failed, and because the Roman destruction of rebellious Jerusalem in AD 70 made Jesus’ real teachings both dangerous and unpopular. Paul radically changed the identity of Jesus from human rebel to divine Son of God, against the wishes of other leaders like Peter and James.

Aslan charges the ancient Christians with engaging in a great cover-up. Here we go again. Another unbeliever has concocted another conspiracy theory. Why do they do this? Is it because the historical evidence is so delicate, so slight, that Christianity stands impeached before the court of human reason? Of course not! Rather, it is because men are natural born enemies of God and of Christ. Consequently, they will resort to whatever strategy best defends they’re unbelief in order to reject the truth of Christian theism. The cost of such behavior seems almost out of sight for some unbelievers.

Now, Aslan’s approach is less than noble. You see, if you begin with the view that the NT documents were the product of a conspiracy theory, then no amount of counter evidence can be offered in defense of the biblical Jesus. For example, when Jesus says that His kingdom is not of this world, Aslan can say, Ah-ha, you see, they changed this in order to rescue Jesus from His embarrassing defeat and crucifixion. Does this mean there is nothing left to critique of Aslan’s theory? No it does not. Rather than point out the numerous historical facts he has wrong, I prefer to follow the psychology of his theory in order to point out just how preposterous his claim really is.

The disciples of Jesus followed Him everywhere He went. They believed He was the Messiah. According to Aslan, they were convinced He was going to violently overthrow Rome and they were going to be given a significant role in the new kingdom. They forsook everything they knew and devoted themselves entirely to this project. In the end, when it came time to act, to engage, to overthrow Rome, the defeat of Jesus came easily, without hardly any effort at all. It would have been about as demoralizing a defeat as any defeat could be. The disciples should have been devastated if Aslan’s conjecture were true.

Yet, despite this embarrassment, and despite the devastation of such a public defeat, the disciples, rather than return to their occupations, instead, knowingly place themselves in harms-way by revising Jesus’ mission and identity, and continued with what they knew was a delusion. Moreover, they placed themselves at great pearl for this false Messiah, even to the point of death. I must confess that from a psychological standpoint, this scenario is far more difficult to believe than the biblical story itself. If nothing else, this kind of sheer nonsense serves as a perfect demonstration of the measures to which unbelieving men will go in their efforts to deny the truth claims of Christian theism and the identity of Jesus Christ.

What is interesting about Aslan’s approach is that he accepts texts of Scripture that may be interpreted as supporting his view, such as when Jesus said He did not come to bring peace but a sword. But then he is very selective about those texts that serve to contradict his position. Those texts, according to Aslan, must have been revised by the conspirators. Yes, in case you were wondering, Aslan gets to have it both ways. He has his cake and eats it too.

How does the Christian respond to such flimsy conjecture? The Christian begins with the presupposition that the Bible is the word of God, and that this Word is self-authenticating, sufficient, and the Christians final authority for all truth. As such, Scripture is completely trustworthy in all that it says. This leaves no room whatever for testing the historicity of God’s word. God’s word needs no extra biblical support. Its own evidence is superior to any external evidence that could be offered in support of its truth claims. There are only two starting points in terms of one’s presupposition concerning Scripture. Either Scripture is the ultimate authority for knowledge or autonomous human reason is the ultimate authority for knowledge.

“At some point, the message claiming to be from God would have to be its own authority, and there is no reason, then, why that should not be at the first point. Thus, only God is adequate to bear witness to Himself or to authorize His own words.” [Bahnsen, Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 199] This is the dilemma for traditional defenses of Christian theism. Such methods begin by extending to Aslan the generous notion of neutrality, as if Aslan is a sincere man searching only for the real truth of the matter. Secondly, they yank the Word of Christ down from it’s lofty place and where it once was, human reason now resides. From these two basic presuppositions, the neutrality of Aslan and the reason of Aslan, they attempt to defend Christianity against his ungodly conjectures. What they do not realize is that they have lost the argument before their defense can even begin. They have pretended that Aslan is something he is not: neutral when it comes to Christ. Jesus said he that is not with me is against me. There is no third category of neutrality. There is no middle ground. In addition, they have bought into the lie that defending the Bible with the Bible is begging the question and hence, guilty of vicious circular reasoning. What they fail to consider is that using human reason to argue for the supremacy of human reason is really the culprit that is begging the question. It is an appeal to the finite to defend the finite. That is vicious circularity in its finest expression. Defending the transcendent, on the other hand, will always begin and end with the transcendent because there is no other way to defend it. The finite is inadequate to defend that which transcends it. And since there is nothing above God, and since God is the source of all that is, how could we ever defend the idea of God without beginning and ending with God? If there is such a way to legitimately pull this off, no one has yet discovered it.

Our duty to respond to projects like “Zealot” is clearly spelled out in Scripture. However, how we carry out that duty is vitally important to the Christian witness. We are to do so with passion, and with excellence, but also with gentleness and respect. There is no place for crude name-calling in this discussions. We are not trying to win an argument. We are doing our best to defend the Christian worldview and to proclaim the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ. Our goal is more than the dismantling of intellectual speculation set over against Christ. In the process of destroying such speculations, we hope to be the light God has called us to be so that some might believe.

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