Thursday, December 12, 2013

Response to William Lane Craig: Are Christians Utterly Unprepared to Defend Their Faith?

According to a recent article in the Christian Post (CP), Dr. William Lane Craig “believes there is an urgent need for the church to equip its members to give good responses to tough questions about their faith, especially in light of a cultural climate that has made it easier for atheists to be more outspoken, sometimes aggressively so, in their attacks on religious beliefs.”

Craig blames this bleak state of affairs in the Church on movements like the New Atheism. Seemingly, outspoken proponents of atheism have, over time, made good progress removing the stigma that is associated with atheism hence freeing more atheists to come out of their skeptical closets. According to Craig, “Christians should be concerned — and prepared to sway the irreligious.” CP captures Craig’s proposal succinctly: "I think that we need to present a sound case for why we believe that God exists and why as Christians that we believe that He has revealed Himself decisively in Jesus of Nazareth," said Craig. "I believe that if we can do that, we will win over many of these people who are now self-identifying as agnostic or atheist."

Craig goes on to say, "I think that many Christians are intimidated because atheists are often very aggressive," said Craig. "They will attack you personally, and they will do so in the name of reason and intellectual arguments. And many Christians feel utterly unprepared to give a defense of what they believe, and feel unprepared to answer the tough questions that their unbelieving friends will put to them."

I am in complete agreement with Craig’s view that there is an urgent need for Christian leaders to equip their members with the necessary tools to be able to submit to Scripture’s demand in 1 Peter 3:15, “but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” After all, there is a biblical mandate for Christians to defend the truth, to refute those who contradict the gospel, and to provide a reply to anyone that asks for an account of the hope that is in them. Additionally, I think that answer should be in the form of persuasive rhetoric. I do mean rhetoric in a good sense of course. Nowadays rhetoric has a superfluous and erroneous deleterious association. We must work diligently to change that sad truth. The Christian is not interested in winning arguments and proving they, or their worldview are superior to the unbeliever in any way. The Christian that obeys 1 Peter 3:15 does so for two reasons: first, they seek to obey Christ above all else. Second, they hope to persuade unbelievers to forsake their unbelief! However, there is far more to the latter than this post can cover.

I think you might benefit from a glimpse of 1 Peter 3 before I summarize my remarks. Locating our text we cannot help but notice that verse 15 employs the post-positive conjunction δὲ, which the NAS translates, but. This clause actually begins up at v. 13, which reads, “Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good?” According to Runge, “δὲ is a coordinating conjunction like καὶ but it includes the added constraint of signaling a new development. The use of δὲ represents the writer’s choice to explicitly signal that what follows is a new, distinct development in the story or argument, based on how the writer conceived of it.” [Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 31] The use of this small conjunction does not only mark contrast (although it can), as many mistakenly believe. What the writer is doing with the use of this particle is breaking the discourse into smaller chunks. This makes it easier for the audience to follow the line of thought or the story, whatever the case may be. Since δὲ functions in this way, sound exegesis dictates that we recognize the marker, and interact with it. The exegete should follow the development the author is creating by the choices he makes.

The process is to go back to the next marker in order to analyze the development the writer is creating. When we do that, we read, “And do not be troubled,” and then we move back again, to the next marker, which reads, “and do not fear their intimidation,” and then we come to what is known in discourse analysis as a point-counterpoint marker. The beginning of v. 14 says, “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed.” ἀλλά, according to Lunge, “provides a corrective to whatever it stands in contrast with in the preceding context, even if it is positive rather than negative. [Ibid, 56]

Bear with me just a little longer and hopefully the haze will lift. The fact that verse 14 begins with a point is reason for the exegete to identify the counterpoint. In this case it is easy. The counterpoint is v. 13, “Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good?” What English readers do not realize is that v. 13 also has a marker at the beginning, Καὶ. This particle joins v 13 with vv. 8-9. Here we have two paragraphs (8-12 & 13-22) essentially dealing with the issue of Christian apologetics.

Peter sums up his instructions in this section, beginning at v. 8 with the phrase, Τὸ δὲ τέλος̣. Literally it translates, “now the end.” It is the summary of what Peter wants to his audience to hear so far. The use of the phrase is a choice on the part of Peter to grab the attention of the audience. The phrase stands out! The longer discourse unit runs through the end of Chapter 4. The one with which we are concerned takes us to the end of chapter 3. Peter glides effortlessly from his exhortation around Christian virtue, to his desired responses from Christians to external ridicule, to his prompting to good works and not worrying about being harmed if they are doing good works. After quoting a portion of Ps. 34, he advances his discourse to a counterpoint, which takes the form of an interrogative. “Who is there to harm you?” The “point” he is getting at with his point/counter-point discourse is this: “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed.” The counterpoint is, “One part of a paired set of statements that is usually replaced by a more-important point.” [Runge] The more important point being that the one that suffers for righteousness sake is blessed! The point, counter-point set is used to explicitly link two things together and to draw attention to the “point” in the set. Added to the “point,” Peter uses another marker as he continues to development his argument.

Peter is most surely concerned with threatening behavior from outside the community. Craig uses the same word “intimidate” that Peter uses. τὸν δὲ φόβον αὐτῶν μὴ φοβηθῆτε is the phrase and it literally means do not fear their fear. Do not be frightened by their fear, if you will. The subjunctive with the negative forms a prohibition. As we move to v. 15, we see that Peter employs the use of the particle δὲ once again as he continues to development his argument. Concerning the use of the word apologia, here, Elliot comments, “Occasionally, in the NY the noun apologia (reply) us used in reference to a personal “defense” before juridical officials (Acts 22:1; 25:16; 2 Tim. 2:4). Elsewhere, however, it denotes a reply to accusations of a general rather than legal nature (1 Cor. 9:3; 2 Cor. 7:11; Phil. 1:7, 16). The term apologia is used here in this latter sense, as the context demonstrates. [Elliot, 1 Peter, 627] Consequently, it is not in keeping with sound exegesis to force the meaning of a legal defense on apologia in this context. Such a notion does not come into view given Peter’s context. The proposal that apologia has a formal or legal defense always attached to it is the fallacy of semantic obsolescence. This fallacy presupposes, in this case, that the way Plato used the word in 400 BC has not changed at all. [McManis, Biblical Apologetics] Clearly, the exegetical evidence does not support this conclusion. Words change their meaning over time.

The Christian is to continuously be prepared to provide a reply (apologia) to anyone and everyone that asks. That begs the question, asks for what? The Christian must always be ready to provide a reply to everyone that asks for an account of the Christian hope that resides within. The Greek word “λόγον” is often understood to be related to reason, as in rational justification. This is a bias attached to apologia by the philosopher. Peter uses this word just a few verses later (4.5) where we know such a use could not have been his intention. “But they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” It is an exegetical howler to conclude that Peter was thinking about rational justification as if he were speaking to a class of philosophy majors.

Christians are commanded to be ready to reply with an answer to anyone that asks them to give an account for the reason of the hope that is within them. Notice that the object isn’t even Christian truth. Christian truth comes into play, but only as the ground of the hope that Peter mentions. How does the context of 1 Peter 3 relate to the concerns of William Lane Craig?

First, Craig is correct that Christians must give some thought to being fully prepared at all times to reply to unbelievers when they ask us to give an account of the hope that is within. I could not agree more. I think that such preparation involves sound critical thinking skills. In other words, we must exercise our skills at discerning and testing the spirits. Intellectual indolence does not honor God or anyone else as far as that goes. It is the pastime of purely hedonistic fools to allow the mind to become dull. America has become a nation of dim-witted hedonists. Surely, in time, unless something changes, she will be dominated by another whose people have busied themselves with equipping the mind while dispensing with morality. Sin has the odd tendency to work that way. Not only do more Christians than ever before refuse to think critically, thanks for foolish leaders and rock-star pastors, many of them believe that critical thinking is immoral. This has to change. From that perspective, I agree with Craig’s basic assessment: we must improve apologetic awareness and skill in our communities.

Craig and I disagree in several areas. I want to focus on two fronts. First, Craig thinks that if we present a sound case for why we believe in God, we can stem the rising tide of atheism. The inference is that if we learn just how to reason in a way that the unbeliever agrees with and understands, we can persuade them of the truth of Christian theism. In other words, the reason so many people are self-identifying as atheists and agnostics is because Christians have really bad arguments. However, according to Scripture, that is not the reason for atheism. In fact, there are no true atheists if Scripture is true. According to Scripture the unbeliever holds the truth about God in utter contempt (Rom. 1). The Christian message, that God came in the flesh in order to redeem sinners from eternal damnation is just plain foolish to the unbeliever (1 Cor. 1). Finally, Paul did not follow Craig’s prescription either. “And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” (1 Cor. 2:4-5)

What Craig and many classical apologists fail to recognize is that Christians are not called to be philosophers and logicians. Moreover, the Christian’s ability to construct compelling arguments is not what changes hearts and minds. Indeed, it is not even what opens hearts and minds. The atheist and agnostic criteria for justification of beliefs, though they vary greatly, will always clash head-on with the Christian’s ultimate authority of justification, namely, Scripture. Only the power of God, which is revealed through the gospel of Jesus Christ by the word of the Holy Spirit on the human heart, can change that!

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