Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Epistemology and the Apostasy

The role of divine action in the discovery of truth is one that cannot be overstated in my estimation. Yet, most Christians fail to take this fact into consideration when they interact with unbelievers and even when they study particular sections of Scripture that seem to make it impossible to miss. For instance, in the second book that the apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonian Christians, chapter two, he refers to an event that must precede the second coming of Christ. Paul tells us that the return of Christ cannot take place until the apostasy comes first. To be sure, the intent of Paul’s language is meant to reassure the Christians that false teachings to the contrary should be rejected.

The use of the term apostosia is interesting. Surely it is a term that the Thessalonian Christians would have understood since it was used in such a context, that is, as a sign that will precede the return of Christ. The only other place that it is used in the NT is in Acts 21:21 where Paul is accused of instructing the Jews that live among the Gentiles to forsake the Law of Moses. In common parlance, the word has taken on the meaning of “the great falling away.” Louw-Nida defines it as “to rise up in open defiance of authority, with the presumed intention to overthrow it or to act in complete opposition to its demands—‘to rebel against, to revolt, to engage in insurrection, rebellion.’”[1] BDAG defines it as defiance of established system or authority, rebellion, abandonment, breach of faith.[2] Based on the word group, aphistemi carries with it the idea of departing, withdrawing, and even defecting. But this is not quite the target at which I am aiming today. My target is at least a layer or more in back of the apostasy. You see the apostasy is the result of something very peculiar. According to Paul, the apostasy is the result of God’s wrath. Because unbelievers love wickedness rather than the truth, they are open to deluding influences that it make impossible for them to distinguish truth from error.

Light is required if knowledge of truth is to exist. However, the unenlightened mind resides in darkness making it impossible for it to discern genuine truth, especially divinely revealed truth. The curse left men epistemologically cut off from divine truth. Unless man is willing to submit his entire being to the Creator who made him, knowledge will surely evade him. His only curse is that he cannot eradicate the knowledge that God has placed within him by way of the imago dei. This theme is repeated over and over throughout Scripture.

Man’s love for wickedness and his outright rebellion against truth coupled with his insistence on relying on his own autonomous reason has left him epistemologically bankrupt. Paul tells us that God rewards such arrogance with a deluding influence, resulting in the impossibility of true knowledge. This scenario is also borne out in Romans 1 where Paul says that because men rejected true knowledge of God, God gave them over to a depraved mind so that they would pervert something as basic as human sexuality. 2 Cor. 4:4 informs us that the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving. They cannot see the light of the gospel of Christ. Eph. 4:17 commands Christians not to conduct their lives like the Gentiles do, in the futility of their own minds.

Fallen, sinful men are epistemologically hopeless. Yet, we often forget this in our dealings with the unbeliever. So many times I hear atheists and agnostics talk about the complete lack of evidence for Christian theism. I just smile. Christian theism is not at any lack for evidence. There are piles of superior historical evidence and even existential evidence for the truth of Christian theism. Christians do not believe despite the lack of evidence and we do not believe against the lack the evidence. Rather, we believe because of the irrefutable nature of the sort of evidence we do possess. What sort is that you might ask? It is the sort that the empiricist and the rationalist reject. It does not qualify as evidence according to their standard. But in the grand scheme of things, their standard lacks the kind of evidence they seek as well. This they will never admit. Instead, they accuse us presuppositionalists of playing mind games or word games with them. The reason they resort to such rhetoric is because they are entirely out of argumentation at this point. So they resort to name-calling and juvenile tactics in many cases. The point is that unbelievers will by nature always reject the sort of evidence for Christ, for God, for truth because they are lost in every way, and that includes epistemologically as well as spiritually and rationally.

Concerning the apostasy then, is it a great falling away from the Christian faith or is it something else? Paul had discussed this with the Thessalonians on previous occasions while present. The underlying assumption of modern interpretations is that there will be large majority of Christians (by appearance at least) who will defect from the faith. In some instances, western churches and especially American churches read their current situation into the text. I am not convinced that these views rightly understand Paul. His concern was not the apostasy itself, but the confidence of the Thessalonian Christians who had apparently been led to believe that Christ had already returned. And this was simply not the case. The point of this post has been to focus on the fact that God’s wrath takes the willing blindness of men who love wickedness and increases that blindness so that he can bring them under judgment. What is the application? It is simple: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” 2 Thess. 2:15

[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 495.
[2] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 120.

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