Archive for the ‘Apologetics’ Category

Pushing Preferences

August 5, 2020

What you believe matters. And the basis for what you believe matters as well. While evangelical Christianity has done a lot of damage to Biblical Christian faith in divorcing faith and belief from the strong anchors of Biblical accuracy as borne out through historical and archaeological discoveries, certainly those critical of the Bible or the Church have launched their own attacks.

Consider the Harvard professor claiming to have proof that Jesus was married, in the form of a small piece of Coptic writing. While the story made a splash in 2012, very little attention has been paid to how the story ultimately played out. This Wall Street Journal review rectifies this somewhat, reviewing Veritas, a book that chronicles how the professor was fooled – or was complicit in fooling others – with the sketchy claims of an even sketchier source for the apparently ancient writing. It appears her commitment to certain ideological ideas might have caused her to be remiss in her scholastic research rigor, ultimately damaging or destroying her career.

What you believe matters, as does the basis of your belief. What do you believe in? And based on what?

ANF: Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus

May 20, 2020

The ongoing saga of my life-long effort to read through all the Ante-Nicene Fathers’ writings….

The first volume of the ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) set concludes with a collections of quotes and paraphrases of Irenaeus from fragmentary documents as well as other authors.  These 55 snippets are various in nature, some conveying complete thoughts and others without much meaning in and of themselves but clearly part of larger works which have either been lost to history or remain to be discovered or translated.

Some notable inclusions:

Section III – contains a remembrance of Polycarp’s visit to Rome during the papacy of Anicetus.  They disagreed on the proper day to observe Easter, yet refused to let their different traditions cause a rift between them.  So firm was their commitment to unity rather than division that St. Anicetus allowed St. Polycarp to preside over the Eucharist celebration in the Church in Rome.  The translator references the Council of Arles in 314 AD as commemorating this by decreeing formally that the holy Eucharist should be consecrated by any foreign bishop present at its celebration, but I can’t find corroboration for this assertion.

Section XIThe business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death.  (as quoted by John of Damascus, likely from a work of Irenaeus entitled Miscellaneous Dissertations, which is referred to by Eusebius).

Section XVI – There may be some uncertainty as to  whether this is really from Irenaeus or not, but in treating the topic of the Fall in Genesis 3, Irenaeus lauds Eve not as the weaker of the the humans but the stronger.  She resisted Satan’s temptations for some period of time, even arguing with him, while Adam ate immediately when she offered him the forbidden fruit without any objection or apparent misgivings.

Section XXIV – He asserts that Matthew’s Gospel was intended for Jewish readers.

Section XXXII – Quotes a tradition from Josephus, that Moses was not just brought up on the Egyptian Pharaoh’s palace, he served as a general in a military effort against the Ethiopians.  Because of his victory he married the daughter of the Ethiopian king.  The translator offers this tradition as perhaps an explanation of St. Stephen’s words  in Acts 7:22, emphasizing Moses’ esteem and wisdom before being selected by God to confront the Pharaoh.

Section LV – A fascinating commentary on the mother of James and John asking Jesus to grant her sons special favor  in glory (Matthew 20:17-28).  Usually, commentators look poorly upon her request, coming as it does so immediately upon Jesus’ prediction of his upcoming suffering and death.  It seems to be the height of not  just pride or grasping for  honor or glory, but terribly poor  timing!  But Irenaeus looks at it differently.  He instead praises their mother.  While we often focus on the first part of Jesus’ prophesy, that he will be tried and condemned to death and be flogged and crucified, the mother hears only the last words.  So firm is her faith – according to Irenaeus – that she considers the tribulations and sufferings of Jesus truly as inconsequential compared to the glory they will bring to him and his followers.  Precisely because she makes the request at this particular point, rather than after the resurrection is a praiseworthy demonstration of faith on her part!  The Saviour was speaking of the cross, while she had in view the glory which admits no suffering.  This woman, therefore, as I have already said, is worthy of our admiration, not merely for what she sought, but also for the occasion of her making the request.  

With this, I’ve completed the first volume of the  Ante-Nicene Fathers.  Thank you again too Lois for her generous gift.  At this rate, I may indeed finish them before I die – just barely!

 

ANF: Against Heresies

May 19, 2020

The ongoing saga of my life-long effort to read through all the Ante-Nicene Fathers’ writings….

While it ends abruptly enough for scholars to suspect there was originally a more formal ending.  what we have in extant of Irenaeus’ major work is impressive enough.  Five volumes devoted to explaining the heretical teachings of several prominent schools of early Gnostic Christians and then demonstrating the falsity of  these heresies in the light of Scripture and apostolic tradition.  I’ve been fascinated with this work for years, and while I’m glad to have finished it, there is also an element of disappointment.  Against Heresies is not a generic work but very focused on dealing with the major heretical movements of Irenaeus’ day (and rightly so).  As such, much of it is not terribly helpful in dealing with more modern heresies.

Specifically Irenaeus is most concerned with the heresies of the Valentinians.  These are the followers of Valentinius, who premised a secret  knowledge of an extended cosmology well beyond  what Scripture lays out.  The entire first volume of Against Heresies is dedicated to describing in detail what Valentinius taught and his followers believed and then expanded upon.  These followers included Cerdon but more importantly Marcion and then the Montanists.

Along the way are fascinating insights to the life of the early Church and the fervency with which the Church was concerned with the Word of God as the only reliable source of knowledge.  These and other heretical groups attempted to draw from select portions of Scripture as proof of their false teachings, and Irenaeus destroys their attempts with an early example of a basic exegetical principle  – let Scripture interpret Scripture.  His list of the popes in Rome from St. Peter to Irenaeus’ day  is the most reliable source for this information.

I can’t advise anyone who isn’t a scholar of the early Church or a student of Greek or Latin or a doctoral student looking for thesis material to read this work.  It  doesn’t apply well today, when Scripture is held in such low esteem not only by non-Christians but many Christians as well.  Using Scripture and logic Irenaeus is convinced he has aptly destroyed the positions of his opponents, another concept difficult to translate into our day of subjective truth and very little understanding of logic and argumentation.

 

ANF: Fragments of the Lost Work of Justin on the Resurrection

April 29, 2020

The ongoing saga of  my life-long effort to read through all of the Ante-Nicene Fathers’ writings….

The title is pretty self-explanatory.  These are some writings attributed to Justin Martyr as part of a longer treatise regarding the resurrection and the implications of bodily resurrection for believers.  He addresses several confusions, questions, or arguments regarding the doctrine of bodily resurrection from the dead, including whether our bodily members will discharge the same functions after our resurrection as they do now, and whether those who deal with malformations of body parts will be resurrected with the same.  In case you’re curious, Justin doesn’t think our bodily members will necessary perform the same duties after the resurrection as before, and he believes any physical disabilities or limitations in this life will be corrected in the next, based on Jesus’ healing of blindness, deafness, lameness, etc.

He then moves on to argue that the doctrine of bodily resurrection is consistent with the teachings of Greek philosophy, and addresses the relationship of the body and soul regarding sin.

Although this is incomplete, it is valuable for what an early Church Father thought regarding the bodily resurrection, and is good evidence this doctrine was firmly in place and being taught in the early Church.

 

Reading Ramblings – April 19, 2020

April 12, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday of Easter – COVID-19 – April 19, 2020

Texts: Acts 5:29-42; Psalm 148; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Context: He is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah! This is the ancient Easter greeting of God’s people. One tradition traces this back to Mary Magdalene, who journeyed to Rome after Jesus’ ascension to evangelize. Eventually she found herself called to the presence of the Emperor Tiberias, to whom she stated “Christ is risen!”, and then gifted him with a red egg. Eggs were a common gift among the poor on special holidays, and this began the Christian association of eggs with the resurrection. The egg is rumored to have been red because of another unverifiable legend, that of two Jews meeting in Jerusalem on that first Easter Sunday. One asked the other if he had heard the miraculous news of Jesus’ resurrection. The other, carrying a basket of eggs, said he could not believe such a preposterous assertion – it sounded as impossible as white eggs turning red. At which point the eggs in his basket turned red, prompting his conversion to the faith. Whether these stories and the traditions they generate are true or not, the truth of our Lord’s resurrection remains something that deserves a special exclamatory and celebratory phrase! The Lord has risen! He has risen indeed! Hallelujah!

Acts 5:29-42 – The first witnesses of our Lord’s resurrection were commanded to quit talking about it. The religious authorities thought with the death of Jesus, his popularity would fall and his followers would disperse. Wasn’t this what happened naturally to most groups when a leader died – especially if that leader died in disgrace and the threat of similar disgrace was extended to the followers? But Peter and the apostles, who had been so frightened the night of Jesus’ arrest and the day of his execution and burial are no longer afraid. They have seen their risen Lord! How could they ever stop talking about it? Others might take violent action against them but they could never betray the truth the carried. Wiser minds among the religious leadership understood that while they might not believe what the disciples claimed, either the falsity of it would be exposed in due time and without further pressure from the Sanhedrin, or it might actually be true, in which case all the power and threats of the Sanhedrin and Rome itself would be incapable of stopping the spread of such amazing news. History stands as a witness to the truth of Gamaliel’s words.

Psalm 148 – What a beautifully unabashed hymn of praise! The Lord is to be praised, and there are no exceptions as to who or what should be praising him, since He is the creator of everything. The heavenly bodies are called to praise him (vs.1-4), and vs. 5-6 are an interesting clarification – these heavenly beings praise God as their creator. They are heavenly, but they are not divine. They are not to be worshiped but rather to be revered as a mirror of the power and majesty of God who created them. Nature is next called to praise God (vs.7-10) and this includes both natural features as well as the creatures associated with them. Verses 11-12 summon all of humanity from the highest stations to the lowest to praise of their creator. The reason for this praise is finally alluded to in the final verse, as God has raised up a horn for his people. Horns were often symbols of strength, drawn from the animals who possessed them. A horned beast could scatter and defeat enemies. Horns from these animals were taken as musical instruments and also copied into architecture and art – the altar on which sacrifices were burned in the Old Testament had horns on the four corners. So this wording here means strength, deliverance from enemies, security, and all good things for which God truly should be praised!

1 Peter 1:3-9 – This passage is a fantastic summary not only of the source of our faith but also our hope. Peter gives praise to God the Father because it was according to his plan that Jesus the Christ would enter into creation on our behalf. This is motivated by divine mercy, rather than any merit on our part, and that mercy makes possible to us new life grounded in the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. This new life in us is more than life as we think of it in terms of mortality. Rather, it’s an inheritance, something yet to be received in full but guaranteed to us, protected for us and from our enemy, Satan, by God in heaven. This salvation is a reality that will be seen eventually, and anticipated in hope now. As such, even when things here and now are hard, we don’t lose hope or peace or joy. This present moment passes, but what we look forward to does not and will not. Our faith in the midst of struggle and trial is not simply a testimony to our faith, but ultimately to the glory of God who has worked things in this fashion. We give testimony to the goodness and greatness of our God that not even the worst threats of this world can diminish.

John 20:19-31 – Hands and sides. Jesus offers his disciples evidence of who and what He is. Why would this be necessary? Wouldn’t his disciples know him for who He was? The simple answer seems to be no, not necessarily. Mary didn’t recognize him initially outside the tomb. The two men on the road to Emmaus are clearly familiar with Jesus and his work and more than sympathetic to him, yet they don’t recognize him on their walk or even as they sit down to eat with him. When they saw Jesus walking on the water earlier in their time with him (Matthew 14) they presumed him to be a ghost, so there’s some understanding or belief in them that spiritual entities exist and might be the explanation behind things physical beings shouldn’t be able to do.

Against uncertainties and confusions and misunderstandings, against fears of the spectral Jesus offers his physicality. Just as He could walk on water yet remain a physical man, so now Jesus appears before them, alive though slain, standing though buried. Though the marks of his scourging are apparently gone he retains the key signs of his death – the nail holes in his hands and feet as well as the wound from the spear thrust in his side. These wounds remain fresh, unhealed, since He can offer to Thomas even a week later to place his hand in Jesus’ side. These wounds are definitive, and they bring faith and comfort to the ten and then to Thomas as well, and so to you and I.

The disciples knew Jesus. They were expected to differentiate him from some other spiritual presence. His physicality was as real after the resurrection as it had been before, including the fact that his physicality could do things (walk on water, enter locked rooms) other physical human bodies could not. If there is suspicion about the solidity of things as we understand them to be, perhaps it should be suspicion regarding the things around us rather than our bodies themselves!

The disciples are not asked to believe blindly, and neither are we. We are asked to trust testimony, testimony subject to the same evaluation and testing as the other testimony we build our lives around.

Apocrypha – 4 Maccabees

March 25, 2020

This is the last of the apocryphal writings, at least so far as they are put together in The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition with Notes.

This final entry seems one of the most easiest to dismiss as non-canonical.  The primary theme in this writing is the supremacy of reason over emotions, a thought prevalent in Greek philosophy.  It may have been authored as late as the first century AD but it is difficult to determine.  The author utilizes both Biblical stories as well as extra-biblical historical events to demonstrate how reason rules over the emotions rather than the reverse.

He draws on King David as well as inter-testamental events, most particularly the martyrdom of Eleazar and seven brothers who were martyred under Antiochus Epiphanes as part of his effort to force the Jews first into apostasy and eventually into full Hellenization.  4 Maccabees expands upon the account in 2 Maccabees 7 about these seven brothers, providing quite gory details about each one of the seven, and providing them with lengthy admonitions as they were brought forward for torture and execution, proclaiming eloquently how it was better to die faithfully than to live a lie.  4 Maccabees ends with the final words of the mother to her children.  The author seems to lose his original focus, so caught up is he in the graphic depictions of torture and death he has provided.

Reason as an attribute or quality in and of itself is not a dominant theme in Scripture, unlike wisdom.   I see reason as such subsumed into the larger and far more Biblical category of Wisdom.  For wisdom recognizes and sets the boundaries on what we can reasonably deduce or ascertain, recognizing first and foremost that even our reason is no longer trustworthy since the Fall.

I’m glad I took the time to finally read these works.  They aren’t writings I’m going to spend further time and effort except as necessary for clarification or to answer specific questions.  But it’s good to have a general idea of what they say and to recognize how they differ rather markedly, usually, from canonical Biblical writings.

 

Apocrypha – 3 Maccabees (Ptolemaika)

March 25, 2020

Likely authored towards the  end of the third century BC or early second century BC by an Egyptian Jew, 3 Maccabees deals primarily with the efforts of Ptolemy IV to overthrow the Jewish people and God’s defense of his people.  Thus the traditional title is confusing because it deals with events which occurred well  before the rise of the Maccabees. The more ancient title of Ptolemaika makes more sense since the main character described is Ptolemy IV Philopator.  Because it does not appear to have been authored in Hebrew or by a recognized prophet it has remained outside the Biblical canon despite the Roman Catholic decision to include it based on the Apostolic Canons.  These  were believed to have apostolic authority although that is no longer believed to be the case by many scholars.

The book begins in mid-thought, as though it were originally part of a larger work or the introduction to this work has been lost.  The historical events in the broad sense are true and accurate though this writing attributes divine and angelic elements to those events which sound as though they are exaggeration or embellishment, though of course it is possible they are true as well.

Again, this seems an unreliable text even as it deals with actual events.

Apocrypha – 2 Esdras

March 24, 2020

Another apocryphal writing claiming authorship by the Old Testament figure Ezra.  This, like 1 Esdras, contains historical errors which make this almost impossible, such as claiming (in 1:40) the advent of the Biblical prophet Malachi (who dates to roughly 430 BC) even though the book claims to be written by Ezra in the neighborhood of 574 BC.  The Jewish people did not view this book as canonical, and I think we are right to treat it similarly.  Many scholars argue this book was likely written in the late first century AD, after the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans.  If this is the case, the author is projecting back to the first destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in light of the second destruction by the Romans.

The book itself is primarily a recounting of a series of visions and angelic visitations attributed to Ezra.  As such, the genre of the book is most accurately apocalyptic, having to do with end times and seeking in large measure to answer the question of why so many people apparently will not be saved.  It affirms the bodily resurrection of the dead (1:23, 31) and also seems to refer to the Messiah (2:41).

An angel by the name of Uriel is the primary messenger to Ezra, providing him with a series of seven visions designed to grant Ezra comfort and a modicum of understanding as to how and why God does things they way he does.  Those who reject God are condemned and those who suffer as God’s people are encouraged to maintain strength and hope as their trust will be vindicated.

Apocrypha – 1 Esdras

March 23, 2020

With this entry in my Apocrypha posting series, we move from those books associated with Western Christianity to apocryphal writings more prevalent in other Christian  traditions and Judaism.  Again, these are generally not accepted as canonical – on the same level as the books of the Old and New Testaments, but various groups at various times have either included them alongside the canonical Scriptures or even included them with them.

1 Esdras purports to be written either by the Old Testament prophet Ezra or a near-contemporary of his, providing specific details about Ezra’s work in rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple in the late 6th and early 5th centuries.  It draws heavily on Old Testament passages from 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah.  However it also has several direct contradictions of Biblical passages in Haggai and Esther.  The author undoubtedly did not intend harm in their retelling and reworking of the Biblical accounts, but we should treat it as such, rather than a work inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The book details the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple.  It begins briefly with the timeframe directly before the fall of Jerusalem and then leaps to the time of Cyrus the Persian and the decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild.  As with other apocryphal writings it expands greatly on the Biblical material, purporting to record specific prayers and exchanges between Biblical and extra-biblical figures.  One such example is an extended section detailing a competition between three bodyguards of King Darius of the Persians, with each describing what they think the strongest thing in the world is.  One claims wine, another the king, and the third women.  The latter position, voiced by Zerubbabel (who cheats and also includes truth as the alternate, strongest thing) is judged the winner.

The work concludes with Ezra’s reading of the Law to God’s people.  Again, an interesting book to some degree but certainly not as reliable as the Old Testament canon.

ANF – Justin’s Hortatory Address to the Greeks

March 18, 2020

This brief apologetic was authored by Justin Martyr in the second century.  It is – along with The Discourse to the Greeks – disputed by some scholars as to whether Justin actually is the author or not.  But barring any conclusive evidence I’ll treat it as likely his.

This is a much more thorough treatment of whether or not the Greeks should continue to believe in their deities or the Christian God.  He does this by dealing directly with not just the Greek myths in general but their particular proponents and adherents – well respected poets and philosophers.  Homer and Hesiod are dealt with as Greek poets claiming to describe divine truths.  The picture they paint of the Greek gods is one less of divine power and authority and more of very human frailties and divisions.

Thales of Miletus is referenced as the start of the great Greek philosophical traditions.  Justin demonstrates the disagreements between great Greek philosophers over the fundamentals of existence and nature, proceeding eventually to Plato and Aristotle whom Justin deals with at more length, demonstrating the lack of agreement between them over the most elemental of issues.  Justin’s major point is there is no unanimity and therefore no authority in the Greek traditions to which the Greeks can reliably adhere.  The Greek deities are hardly gods of any proper or helpful sort, and natural philosophers can’t agree on the nature of reality either in the realm of ideals or the realm of matter.

Justin then goes on to elaborate on the antiquity of the Bible compared to the relatively new ideas of Greek poets and philosophers.  He refers to various Greek ancient Greek writers already familiar to some degree with the writings of the Old Testament and specifically Moses.

One of the most fascinating sections of this writing is in Chapter XIII, where Justin relates the history of the Septuagint – the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.

Justin moves on to quote Greek oracles and prophets and eventually philosophers (including Plato and Aristotle) that side with the monotheistic principles of Scripture as opposed to the polytheistic stage of Greek deities.

It’s an impressive treatise, utilizing the respected writers of the Greeks themselves to show the religious ideas and assumptions of the Greeks are fundamentally flawed and baseless, and then offering the much older testimony of Scripture, many of the concepts of which were later reinforced by the Greeks’ own writers.