By Steven B. Cowan –
Times change. And because times change the challenges or objections that arise against the Christian faith change. In the first century, the biggest challenge that the early church faced was that posed by unbelieving Jews both within and without the church. The Jewish authorities outside the church persecuted the new Christians as blasphemers and heretics because they dared to teach that Jesus was “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). Inside the church, the Judaizers promoted the false idea that Gentile believers had to be circumcised and submit to the Law of Moses in order to be saved (cf. Acts 15:1). These particular challenges called for particular responses. The early church argued in the synagogues that Jesus was indeed the Christ, and they carefully articulated the doctrine of justification by faith alone at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and in the Letter to the Galatians another apologetic issue that arose in the New Testament church and carried over into the second century had to do with Gnosticism, a cultic religion that denied the full humanity of Jesus and several other fundamental Christian doctrines. This early cult was addressed in several New Testament books (e.g., Colossians, 1 John, and Jude). Moreover, as the church expanded ever further into the Roman world, it had to defend itself against misunderstandings. For instance, many non-Christian had the mistaken impression that Christians were cannibals because they “ate” the body and blood of Jesus. And others accused Christians of being haters of mankind because they refused to worship the emperor whose well-being and favor at that time was thought to parallel the well-being of the empire and its citizens. The classic Apologists such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian devoted themselves to defending the faith against these false charges.
Over the centuries since, Christianity has faced many other intellectual challenges. Some have cropped up in almost every generation. Perennial objections have included attacks on the deity of Christ and the problem of evil. But, in most generations there have been certain challenges posed that are considered most prominent and most serious at that particular place and time. That is, some objections or challenges to Christian faith come to be more urgent than others because they become the biggest obstacles to people coming to faith in Christ. In the first century, the problem of evil was not nearly so urgent as answering the challenges of the unbelieving Jews to the deity of Christ. Giving arguments for God’s existence was not high on the list for Justin Martyr, but refuting pagan polytheism was.
Our day is no different. Today there are challenges to the Christian faith that are more urgent than others. What I will do in this article is outline what I consider to be some of the most pressing apologetic issues facing the Christian faith at the beginning of the 21st century. The five issues I will discuss are not the only apologetic challenges we face, but they are among those that we most urgently need to address if we are going to make a difference for Christ in our culture. If we fail to address these issues, then, in my opinion, we will fail to provide an adequate defense of the faith to our generation. Well, what are the five urgent apologetic issues that we need to address? They are: (1) religious pluralism, (2) postmodern relativism, (3) open theism, (4) historical Jesus research, and (5) the integration of faith and life. Let’s look at these in more detail.
Jesus said that he is “the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The Apostle Peter echoed this theme, proclaiming that “there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). These biblical texts and others underscore the uniqueness of Christ. They tell us that Christ is the one and only, exclusive means by which God can be known by sinful men. Other religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism are incapable of leading a person into the truth about God or into a relationship with God.
However, nothing is more repugnant to modern thinking than this claim to the exclusivity of Jesus Christ. A prominent ideology in contemporary culture is religious pluralism (RP). This is the view that all (religious) roads lead to God; that each religion is equally valid; that no one religion can or should claim to be the only legitimate way to God. As John Hick, a pluralist, puts it, “There is not merely one way but a plurality of ways of salvation . . . taking place in different ways within the contexts of all the great religious traditions.” Proponents of RP think that it is arrogant and mean for a person to claim that his religion is the only way to God. Religious exclusivism is seen as a form of narrow-minded bigotry.
Now, the Christian response to RP is fairly simple. When the pluralist says that all religions are equally valid and that no religion can make an exclusive claim to truth, what he means is that no religion can in any way claim to be true; that, in fact, all religious perspectives (other than RP, of course) are false! And that implies that RP is itself making an exclusive claim to truth. So, RP is actually a form of religious exclusivism! Nevertheless, even though it is easy to show the absurdity of RP, this way of looking at religion grips the hearts and minds of many people in our society. It dominates the thinking of the media and the cultural elite. It is taken for granted by many if not most college students. I remember once giving a lecture on religious pluralism at a state university. When I gave a detailed critique of this view, several of the students seemed astonished that anyone would question it. One student dropped the course. Others refused to give up the view despite having no response to the many objections I raised. This episode just goes to show how deeply ingrained RP is in the thinking of people in our society. They have become convinced, for whatever reason, that the existence of a multitude of world religions has undermined any particular religion’s claim to absolute, exclusive truth. So, even though RP is easily refuted from a philosophical point-of-view, its degree of acceptance by the popular culture demands that Christians take it seriously. None of our other apologetic arguments for the truth of Christianity will carry much weight unless we have established first that it is intellectually feasible for any given religion to actually claim that it is true. That is, you cannot argue that Christianity is true until you have argued that Christianity is something that can be true to the exclusion of other religions.
Before I leave this topic, I should also mention that there exists within evangelical circles a movement that purports to uphold the uniqueness of Christ while implicitly embracing the pluralist spirit. This movement is called inclusivism. Advocates of inclusivism believe, along with traditional exclusivists, that Christ is the unique incarnation of God and that salvation from sin comes only through his Person and Work. However, they deny that one has to have explicit faith in Christ in order to be saved. In other words, the inclusivist asserts that Christ is the only Savior, but that one does not have to know or believe anything about him in order to be saved by him. Thus, a person who actually follows another religion, say Buddhism, can be saved even if he has never heard of Christ, as long as he lives an ethical life.
Inclusivism undermines the impetus for evangelism and missions. If one can be saved without becoming a Christian—that is, without faith in Christ—then why do Christians need to waste their time and money doing mission work? More seriously, inclusivism suggests salvation by works rather than by grace alone. For inclusivists advocate that fallen sinners are capable of responding positively to God’s general revelation in nature and being saved by God on the basis of an ethical life! Indeed, one prominent inclusivist say that God may save “even the atheist who, though rejecting God (as he understands God), responds positively to him implicitly by acts of love shown to the neighbor.” This goes to show that inclusivism, along with pluralism, is another area needing more rigorous apologetic response from the Christian community.
The same can be said of the second most urgent apologetic issue, postmodern relativism. This is another current philosophy that is logically absurd and patently false, and yet demands the adherence of a large segment of popular (and non-popular) culture. Let me define some terms. By “relativism” here I mean the thesis that truth is relative; that whether a particular statement is true or not is a matter of personal preference. So, a relativist is one who would say, for example, that the statement “God exists” may be true for one person but not true for another person.
Now relativism is a very old philosophical idea. And, what’s more, it was refuted millennia ago by Plato and Aristotle. But, it has raised it’s ugly head again in a new movement called postmodernism, which is really nothing more than a sophisticated version of the same old thing. To understand postmodernism, one must first understand modernism. This latter was a movement characterized by several principles:
- Naturalism—the idea that all that exists is the natural, physical world.
- Humanism—human beings are the highest and most valuable reality.
- Scientism—the scientific method is the only legitimate source of knowledge.
- Materialistic Reductionism—everything that exists, including humans, is just a physical entity.
- Progress—humanity is making progress in solving all of its problems.
- Evolution—living things have evolved naturally without the need of a creator.
- Certainty—humans can attain objective certainty in knowledge.
- Determinism—every event that happens is the result of fixed, natural laws.
- Individualism—individual persons can objectively discover truth unhindered by the conditions of their own time and culture.
- Anti-authoritarianism—man is the measure of all things; all authorities must be subjected to scrutiny.
In contrast, postmodernism denies all of the above and substitutes the following:
- Subjectivity of knowledge—all knowledge claims are conditioned by one’s time and culture.
- Uncertainty of knowledge—nothing can be known with certainty.
- Anti-Systems—no all-inclusive systems of explanation are possible.
- The evil of knowledge—objective knowledge-claims have led to evils (e.g., warfare).
- Rejection of progress—man has not made progress toward solving his problems.
- Community-based knowledge—knowledge is defined by and for the community, not the individual.
- Anti-scientism—the scientific method is not the only or best means of knowledge.
In essence, postmodernists assert that our cultural perspective so colors our interpretation of reality, that no one can claim to have “the truth” about reality. Every interpretation of a book, every scientific theory, every religion, every statement that one might make, is simply one of many relative, subjective, socially constructed perspectives on the world. In fact, that is stating it too mildly. For many postmodernists will say that each culture actually creates its own reality. There simply is no transcendent, absolute reality beyond our limited cultural perspectives. “The truth,” declares John Caputo, “is that there is no truth.” Doug Groothuis elaborates:
The idea of truth as objective, we are told, must be abandoned with the demise of modernism. . . . For these postmodern thinkers, the very idea of truth has decayed and disintegrated. . . .Truth is not over and above us, something that can be conveyed across cultures and time. It is inseparable from our cultural conditioning, our psychology, our race and gender. At the end of the day, truth is simply what we, as individuals and as communities, make it to be—and nothing more.
Of course, this entails that no one can claim to have the absolute truth about anything, much less religion. It is this kind of relativism that lies behind the current drive for political correctness and multiculturalism. Since no one has the truth, everyone’s view is equally valid and equally valuable, and ought therefore to be tolerated and celebrated. So, every view and every group deserves a place in the university curriculum and at the government trough.
The problem, though, is that postmodern relativism, like its ancient predecessor, prevents us from judging any view wrong. It would forbid us, for example, from saying that genocide, or slavery, or child abuse are wrong. Of course, the postmodernists would balk at such a notion. They hate genocide and slavery as they should. But is such hatred actually consistent with their virtue of absolute tolerance? And are they not actually intolerant of views (like Christianity) which claim to have the real truth?Postmodernism is a philosophical and cultural fad that is doomed to failure. In the words of William Lane Craig,
The problem with the postmodernist quick fix is. . .that it is so obviously self-referentially incoherent. That is to say, if it is true, then it is false. Thus one need not say a word or raise an objection to refute it; it is quite literally self-refuting. . . . If postmodernists claims are objectively true, then those claims are themselves the mere products of social forces and so are not objectively true.
These remarks lead Craig to lament the fact that some Christian apologists believe that we must design a new way of doing apologetics for the so-called “postmodern world.” They think that traditional apologetic arguments and methods will not work in contemporary culture. Instead, we must embrace postmodernism and defend the faith from within the postmodern relativistic paradigm. Craig thinks that such an approach is wrong-headed, and I agree. We do not need a new postmodern apologetic method. However, this does not mean that we don’t need to respond to postmodernism. Even though the postmodern fad is logically absurd and doomed to failure, it captures the attention of too many people and too many of our institutions for us to ignore it. Postmodernism will not fade away over night and every day that it exists it erodes the foundations of civilization. So, Christians must be ready and willing to point out that the postmodern emperor has no clothes.
Christians have traditionally believed that God is sovereign such that he is in providential control of everything that happens. Nothing escapes his attention or his power. This entails that God is omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing). Moreover, in order to exercise this divine providence over his creation, God’s omniscience has been understood to include not only an infallible knowledge of the past and present, but also of the future. In addition, Christians have believed that God is immutable (unchanging), and therefore impassible (incapable of suffering). Today, however, all of this is under severe attack. The attack comes not from liberal theologians outside the evangelical church, but from within; from self-avowed, Bible-believing evangelical scholars.
This attack on the traditional view of God is called Open Theism (or sometimes Free Will Theism). According to this view, if God comprehensively knows all future events, including the future actions of human beings, then the actions of human beings cannot be free and responsible actions. In other words, God’s foreknowledge of the future determines the future and thereby undermines human freedom. So, in order to preserve human freedom, Open Theists deny that God knows the future infallibly. But this is not all. Because some biblical texts describe God as “repenting,” and changing his mind, and answering prayers, the Open Theist claims that the traditional view of God’s immutability is false as well.
In place of the traditional view of God, Open Theism (OT) offers us a God who is supposed to be more responsive and sympathetic to human beings; a God who changes and grows and suffers right along with us. Critics of OT, however, point out that this view not only revises God’s omniscience and immutability (which is serious enough), but also severely limits God’s sovereignty over his creation, and his ability to guarantee the fulfillment of his promises. I think that the critics of OT are absolutely right. And this means that the “god” OT proposes is not the God of the Bible. He is a false god—an idol.
Thankfully, some Christian groups have recognized OT’s clear deviations from biblical truth. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, recently revised its confessional statement to explicitly affirm the biblical view of God in opposition to OT. Nevertheless, OT is gaining wider acceptance within the evangelical community. Not only have there been several well-promoted books published in its defense (with very few books published in response), but some Christian denominations are failing to recognize OT for what it is. A case in point are the recent decisions of the Baptist General Conference, headquartered in Illinois. At their 1999 meeting, the BGC rejected a proposed amendment to their Affirmation of Faith which would have effectively banned OT from the denomination’s institutions. At this year’s meeting, after much heated debate, the BGC did overwhelmingly adopt the following resolution:
Be it resolved that we, the delegates of the Baptist General Conference (who are also the delegates of Bethel College and Seminary)* affirm that God’s knowledge of all past, present and future events is exhaustive; and, we also believe that the “openness” view of God’s foreknowledge is contrary to our fellowship’s historic understanding of God’s omniscience.
This sounds pretty good. But, they also adopted this resolution:
Be it resolved that the statement on the doctrine of God in the 1951 Affirmation of Faith is sufficiently stated; and, in regard to the subject of open theism, as delegates of the Baptist General Conference (who are also the delegates of Bethel College and Seminary) we affirm the Position paper unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees of Bethel College and Seminary on June 24, 2000.
The Board of Trustees position paper to which this second resolution refers includes the following fateful paragraph concerning one Bethel Seminary professor’s espousal of OT:
We affirm the unanimous vote of the Committee for Theological Clarification and Assessment occurring on May 13, 1998, that [Open Theist] Dr. [Greg] Boyd’s views did not warrant his termination as a member of the Bethel College faculty and by inference that his views fall within the accepted bounds of the evangelical spectrum.
What all this amounts to is that the BGC passed two mutually contradictory resolutions on the matter of OT. John Piper, one of the advocates of the first, anti-OT resolution, made these comments on what he considers the denominations “profound mistake”:
To say that Open Theism is “contrary to our fellowship’s historic understanding of God’s omniscience” and then to say that it does not warrant termination from Bethel’s faculty and is in fact evangelical, shows that Open Theism is viewed as a small doctrinal deviation on a par with charismatic expressions. For many of us would say that certain charismatic expressions are “contrary” to the historic BGC practice and conviction, yet not important enough to serve as a criterion for who can teach at Bethel or be called an evangelical.
In order for the two resolutions to cohere, open theism must be viewed as an insignificant aberration from the Biblical norm. But this is a profound mistake in theological and historical judgment. For Open Theism is a massive re-visioning of God. This is clear from Dr. Boyd’s published works and will become increasingly clear with those yet to be published. If the Baptist General Conference does not wake up to the magnitude of the distortion of God being powerfully promoted in the writings and classrooms of one of Bethel’s most popular teachers, the Conference of fifty years from now will probably not be the faithful evangelical institution it is today.
Like the SBC and the BGC, other denominations will have to choose where to stand with regard to OT. If Christian orthodoxy is to be upheld, then Christians must become informed about this issue and be willing to defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
Historical Jesus Research
Every year it seems that Time, Newsweek and other newsmagazines publish articles about Jesus with titles like “Who Was Jesus?” and “In Search of Jesus.” The TV media have joined in the fun as well as seen in the popular ABC documentary hosted by Peter Jennings with the title “In Search of Jesus.” The underlying assumption in all of these articles and documentaries is that the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history are not identical. That is, the Jesus that Christians have believed in for 2000 years and who is described in the four New Testament Gospels is not the Jesus who really walked the roads of Palestine in the first century. The picture presented to us by the gospels is said to be encrusted with traditions and myths created by the early church. The newsmagazine articles and documentaries, though, summarize the latest “research” that purports to put us in touch with the historical Jesus. They attempt to get behind the myths of the New Testament and describe the real Jesus. And, of course, in most cases, their “historical” Jesus bears little resemblance to the biblical Jesus.
There is quite a bit going on in historical Jesus research today that is good and helpful to the Christian community. Yet, it seems that the radicals, like those in the infamous Jesus Seminar, get the most attention. Scholars like John Dominic Crosson and Marcus Borg have published a plethora of books that disparage the biblical gospels and promote a demytholigized Jesus who is no more than a wise sage or a cynic philosopher. It is these scholars whose ideas find center-stage in the media today. Conspicuously absent from the newsmagazine articles and documentaries are conservative scholars whose credentials and research are every bit as impressive as that of Crosson and Borg. And because of this imbalance, the culture at large has been given the mistaken impression that the radical dichotomy between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history promoted by Crosson, Borg and others, represents the undisputed truth.
An effective apologetic requires that we be able to point unbelievers to the claims of Christ concerning his own identity and mission. But, this further requires that we point them to the New Testament witness to Christ which reveals his identity and mission. Yet the popular trend in historical Jesus research (at least as promoted by the media) is to disparage the value of the New Testament gospels as an historical record. So, an effective apologetic in our society today requires that we redress the contemporary liberal trend in historical Jesus research.
The Integration of Faith and Life
William Lane Craig has said that the ultimate apologetic is your life. Nothing can better persuade lost sinners of the truth of Christianity than a life lived out in loving obedience and dedication to Christ. Living out the moral, social, and cultural implications of the Christian worldview shows unbelievers that we really believe what we claim we believe. And it shows them the practical value of our faith in the present world. Unfortunately, the church has fumbled the ball in this area. Current statistics show that Christians do not live much differently than the unbelievers around them, nor are their values noticeably different. For example,
41% of professing Christians believe in pluralism.
53% reject the belief in absolute truth.
27% have been divorced.
23% buy a lottery ticket in a typical week.
Only 6% define success in relation to spirituality.
In light of these and other facts, George Barna warns that Christianity is having a minimal effect on non-Christians, especially those under 40. The problem is that too many Christians are being conformed to the world rather than allowing the life-changing truth of the gospel to transform their minds and hearts. More than that, however, Christians have not been taught how to integrate their faith into the various aspects of life. Too many of us compartmentalize our lives, with our religious faith being merely one of many isolated compartments. That is, our religious faith is one area of our lives, but work, recreation, art, politics, family, etc. are different and separate spheres. Christians fail to see that the Christian worldview has something to say about each and every one of these life areas. Our failure to integrate our lives in accordance with the doctrines and values of the Christian faith is a key reason why we are failing to have a transforming effect on our culture. As Chuck Colson puts it,
The church’s singular failure in recent decades has been the failure to see Christianity as a life system, or worldview, that governs every area of existence. This failure is crippling in many ways. . . . Most of all, our failure to see Christianity as a comprehensive framework of truth has crippled our efforts to have a redemptive effect on the surrounding culture. At its most fundamental level, the so-called culture war is a clash of belief systems. . . Only when we see this can we effectively evangelize a post-Christian culture, bringing God’s righteousness to bear in the world around us.
Happily, some Christian leaders like Chuck Colson, David Wells, and Michael Horton are sounding the alarm and calling God’s people to be “worldview Christians.” But, for this to happen, churches and individual Christians will have to change. We will have to repent of our worldliness and our intellectual laziness. And we will have to diligently study to show ourselves approved. We will have to study our culture; we will have to study God’s Word; we will have to study how the Christian worldview impacts the whole of life—and we will have to live accordingly.
Steven B. Cowan (Ph.D., University of Arkansas) is Associate Director for the Apologetics Resource Center. He is the general editor of the recent book Five Views on Apologetics (Zondervan, 2000).
For a more detailed discussion of the Gnostic challenge to the early church, as well as that of Judaism and the Judaizers, see F.F. Bruce, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).
You can read some of their work in L. Rush Bush, ed., Classical Readings in Christian Apologetics: A.D. 100-1800 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983).
John Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 34.
This and other criticisms of religious pluralism can be found in Alvin Plantinga’s article, “A Defense of Religious Exclusivism” in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 3d ed., ed. Louis P. Pojman (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1998). See also, Ronald Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 29-100; and Donald Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) .
Contemporary defenses of inclusivism include John Sanders, No Other Name (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992); and Clark Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992). For a popular critique of inclusivism, see Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior?
Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy, 98.
The following brief descriptions of both modernism and postmodernism are adapted from Millard Erickson, Postmodernizing the Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 15-20.
John D. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 156.
Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2000), 20.
William Lane Craig, “A Classical Apologist’s Response to Cumulative Case Apologetics,” in Five Views on Apologetics, ed. Steven B. Cowan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 182-83.
For example, see the articles by Philip D. Kenneson, Richard Middleton, and Brian J. Walsh in Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, eds. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1995).
Four major works advocating open theism are: Clark Pinnock, et al, The Openness of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1994); David Basinger, Free Will Theism (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996); John Sanders The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998); and Gregory Boyd, The God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).
For more detailed criticisms of Open Theism see Norman Geisler, Creating God in the Image of Man? (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997); Gerald Bray, The Personal God (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1998); and Paul Helm, The Providence of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1994.
John Piper, “We Took a Good Stand and Made a Bad Mistake,” posted on the Baptist General Conference’s website at www.bethel.edu/4know/4know.htm. Both of the BGC resolutions can be found on this site as well.
See, for example, N.T. Wright’s Who Was Jesus? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992); and A.E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982).
See, for example, John Dominic Crosson’s The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Fransisco: HarperSanFransisco, 1991); and Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (San Fransisco: HarperSanFransisco, 1994).
For example, Ben Witherington’s The Christology of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990); Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1987); and Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans, Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research (Leiden: Brill, 1994).
William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994), 299-302.
These and other statistics can be found at the George Barna’s website: www.barna.org.
Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1999), xii.