IN OFFENCE OF (/AT?) CHRISTIANITY
This talk was originally presented to the Magdalen College School Theology Society on 30/01/2014.
Here are three areas where people sometimes get offended at Christianity and where I want to speak in defence, or rather in offence, of Christ.
1. The Bible
The Bible gets a lot of bad press. Often weird stuff in and offensive parts of the Old Testament get mentioned as discrediting it, for example, in some corners, in the book of “Leviticus”.
What can we make of the offensive parts of the Old Testament?
–The context is important: To take the example of Leviticus, this book is a law code for Jewish priests (levites) operating in the old covenant before Christ. No mainstream Christian attempts to enforce its laws, because of this different context.
-Following on from this, much of the Old Testament is not taken as applicable in the same way by Christians today as it was by Jews before Christ. Jesus said that the old law would never pass away but also that he had come to ‘fulfill’ it (Matthew 5:17). The New Testament Christians did not think that all the laws in the Old Testament needed to be observed and that all of it was still applicable in the same way.
See for e.g. Hebrews 8:6-7: “the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to [the priests of the Old Testament] as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.”
-Even with all this considered, the point can still be proposed that God can do what he wants. We may find some of the things that he is portrayed in the Old Testament as saying and doing offensive, but here is an important question:
Question: Because something is offensive, is it necessarily untrue, unauthoritative, or fabricated?
Honestly, if I came to them ‘cold’, I wouldn’t like or perhaps even accept some parts of the Old Testament.
So why then do Christians attribute authority to the Old Testament texts?
Most mainstream Christians, I think, approach the Old Testament not ‘cold’, but via the New Testament.
Christians come to trust in the Old Testament because they are convinced about what the New Testament says about Jesus. Jesus was a Jew and so implicitly validated the authority of the Old Testament, by referring to it, quoting it and affirming the tradition associated with it.
The New Testament Christians attributed authority to the Old Testament too. 2 Timothy 3:16 talks about how all scripture is ‘God-inspired’. I don’t see this as a self-validating circular justification for the authority of the whole Bible, but as evidence that the New Testament Christians trusted in the authority of the Old Testament.
In that case, the next question that follows on is why do Christians attribute authority to the New Testament texts?
The main issue at stake is the identity of Jesus and the claims about his resurrection. Christians have become convinced that the New Testament reports about Jesus, particularly his resurrection, are trustworthy, reliable and true, by reading them and considering the evidence. If Jesus did rise from the dead and he really is the Son of God, his words have authority.
Different Christians will have different reasons and explanations of how exactly they have come to trust in the authority of the New Testament and how they understand it as having authority, but one model for understanding this that I like is N.T. Wright talking about the Bible as being like a 5-act play. In Wright’s model, Christians are people who have come to be convinced that the four-act historical drama portrayed in the Bible of creation, fall, exodus and redemption is true and pertains to reality by considering it to be reliable, honest, true witness. The fifth act is still being written, and Christians try to live out that act and write it with their lives today, taking the material in the first four acts as their cue. You can read about this model in N.T. Wright’s article here: HOW CAN THE BIBLE BE AUTHORITATIVE? This is a huge question which can only be touched on briefly here but that article may provide some helpful pointers.
Another question that emerges: Have you ever read the New Testament for yourself? Or even just one of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, the books about Jesus’ life)? How can you dismiss it if you’ve never examined it? Try it, and then you can make your mind up about them for yourself. You might be surprised!
The subject of the authority of the New Testament leads to a related issue, and the next heading:
The idea that miracles could happen is ruled out outright by many biblical scholars. They simply assume that miracles don’t happen, assess the texts accordingly, and then package the findings as ‘scholarship’. This is dangerous because regular people then take them as being authoritative in saying that the Bible’s historical accuracy has been discredited.
But there’s no scientific reason why miracles shouldn’t happen, no reason to rule them out ‘a priori’.
I am not saying by any means that miracles will happen unfailingly when anyone prays for them, but I will argue that there is strong evidence for miracles because of their presence in:
-The documented witness of the Jewish and Christian community across places through time, in the biblical texts.
-The continual witness of the Christian community across places, through time, today.
If miracles not only happened in the Bible but still take place today, would that make it easier to believe in them and so also in the authority of the New Testament?
Here are some contemporary missionaries alive today who report to having witnessed amazing miracles:
–Heidi and Rolland Baker are missionaries to Mozambique who both have PhDs in Theology from King’s College London. The Bakers in their missionary experience in Africa claim to have witnessed the medically blind see, the deaf hear, even the dead raised. Their books such as Compelled by Love and There is Always Enough are available to read or they have an online blog where you can read their stories for free: http://www.irisglobal.org/news/
–Brother Yun is an underground Chinese church leader. In his book The Heavenly Man he claims to having witnessed many miracles in China. Perhaps most memorable is having two broken legs healed and then walking out of a maximum-security prison. His book is available to read, published by a Western publisher, also on e-readers.
–Robby Dawkins (the antidote to Richard Dawkins) is a pastor among the urban poor in Chicago, Illinois. He claims to have seen numerous miracles including people being medically healed of life-threatening diseases, which he writes about in his book Do What Jesus Did.
–Smith Wigglesworth was an early 20th century British preacher who claimed to have seen numerous miracles, including the dead being raised. Books by and about him are free or very cheap online.
There are many others that could be mentioned (Jackie Pullinger, Bill Johnson, John Wimber, John and Carol Arnott, Mike Pilivachi just to name a few) but these are mentioned as a small selection because they come from different countries around the globe.
If books aren’t your thing, there are some films made by a guy called Darren Wilson who heard about reports of miracles, was skeptical, went to investigate them, became convinced of them, and then decided to travel around the world making films about them. His films are called Finger of God, Furious Love, and Father of Lights.
Maybe you think all these people are nuts, or liars. But maybe it’s worth investigating at least one of them, at least once? Try it. You might be surprised!
3. Personal experience
The third and final area that I will share about in offence of Christianity is personal experience. This is important because without it the ideas are distant and less interesting.
Here is something of my personal story of coming to Christianity: I was raised in a Christian home and had a faith, but struggled with it at various times. My parents split up when I was 9. As a teenager I was often internally depressed, mixed up and struggling. I went on to study Theology at University where I am currently doing a PhD in the same subject. At undergraduate Univeristy I struggled with doubts about Christianity, but ultimately came out the other side with a stronger faith, because of reasons discussed above, but also because of repeated personal religious experiences of God’s presence, love and reality.
Those experiences for me constitute the third major reason that Christianity can be on the offensive today -God actually still encounters people and his presence and love are available to us today. They’re available to you. God loves you, so much that he didn’t just sit around thinking about it but came in the person of his Son Jesus Christ to die for you. Turn to Christ and you can know his love and saving power for yourself.
Maybe you think this is just wish-fulfillment and make-believe. But maybe it’s worth personally investigating prayer and asking God to reveal himself to you at least once? Try it. You might be surprised!