Thursday, October 27, 2011

On Loving God with Your Mind

Perhaps some of you have wondered why the tagline of this blog is “loving God with your mind.” Well, here’s why. 1

In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (ESV)

Part of the greatest commandment, then, is to love God with “all our mind.” But what does this mean? To love is to sacrifice and to serve. It is to make a commitment to the beloved that is covenantal, not contractual (i.e. not circumstantial). It involves honesty and transparency. And it always leads to action on behalf of the beloved. Therefore, we should expect that loving God with our minds, whatever else it might be, will be an act of service and sacrifice, that it will be honest and transparent, and that it will lead to action of some kind. This means that we should expect it to be difficult. But like most difficult things, also meaningful.

When Jesus elucidated this command, it would have hit very close to home with His Jewish audience. This aspect of loving God was central to their cultural and national identity. A few posts ago, I pointed out that the word “Israel” means literally “to wrestle with God.” I even went so far as to suggest that it was this about the Jewish people that God so valued. I now suggest that, as He has not changed, He values it just as highly in us.

The writer of Hebrews says, “...though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. 2

Loving God with our minds, then, will include seeking “solid food.” It will mean moving beyond the basics of salvation and repentance to a deeper understanding of our faith and an ability to discern good from evil in all contexts, “by constant use” of the resources God has provided for us to learn. The writer was here appealing not to the hearts or souls of his readers, but to their thoroughly Jewish minds.

Similarly, in 1 Cor. 14:20, Paul says, “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” (ESV) The context of this verse is the necessity of letting even the gifts of the Holy Spirit be guided by mature thinking.

What, then, are the actions (mentioned above) that this sort of love leads to? Presumably, they would be methods of training the mind to perform the functions for which God designed it, as well as it possibly can. And since the principle function of that part of our being is to think, the action to which we ought to be motivated (if we really love God) is nothing more exalted than study.

I know it doesn’t sound very "spiritual," but alas, we are more than just spiritual beings, and God wants all of us.

For more on this, see my post on childlike faith.
2 Hebrews 5:12-14 (NIV)

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Argument from Special Revelation: Jesus Christ (Part 5)

Note: see parts one, two, three, and four.

So how do the hypotheses used to explain the facts of Jesus’ life stack up against one another? Last time, we looked briefly at the five most prominent of these. Here, we’ll look a little more closely at the first two, using the criteria for testing historical hypotheses from part 2 of this series (linked above). I encourage you to take another look at those so that what follows will make more sense. In fact, it might not be a bad idea to keep both posts open for easy reference.

Again, the facts that are being explained are 1. the empty tomb, 2. the appearances of Jesus after His death, and 3. the belief of Jesus’ disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

The Apparent Death Hypothesis

Criteria (1) and (2) are easily met. But that’s about all that can be said for this explanation. In terms of explanatory power (3) and plausibility (4), this hypothesis has trouble with all three facts: Empty tomb—Given what we now know about flogging and crucifixion in 1st century Rome, how could a man who recently endured these horrors and miraculously survived have had the strength left to remove the large stone from His own tomb and then escape a band of guards posted to ensure that this very thing (the removal of His body) did not happen? Appearances—Similarly, how did this very nearly dead man then visit His disciples and convince them that He was the long-anticipated Messiah, the Defeater of death, hell, and the grave? Resurrection claims—Related to this, from whence come the disciples’ early and consistent claims of resurrection, a novel concept within Judaism and one not at all disposed to be taken seriously? Surely the more likely conclusion is that Jesus just hadn’t died—not the much more complicated claim that He had been raised by God from the dead. Yet, this is precisely what they did claim.

This hypothesis is also pretty ad hoc (5), since any explanation given in response to the above problems will necessarily be an argument from silence. It’s also disconfirmed (6), as we saw, by modern medicine, since we know that no one could plausibly have survived what Jesus went through. Finally, it is even less likely than its naturalistic rivals (7), and so fails 5 of our 7 criteria.

The Conspiracy Hypothesis

This oldest of the naturalistic explanations (see Matthew 28:11-15) fares little better. It, too, satisfies criteria (1) and (2) but struggles with the rest, beginning with explanatory power (3): Empty tomb—If the disciples fabricated the story of Jesus’ resurrection, then why say that the tomb was found empty by women? Indeed, this is one of the worst things the disciples could have done if they wanted to be believed, since the testimony of women carried virtually no weight at the time. Appearances—The appearances of Jesus after the resurrection don’t fit with what one would expect a 1st century Jew to make up. It bears very little resemblance to the theophanies one finds in the Old Testament. More on this below. Resurrection claims—Here is the first nail in the proverbial coffin. If the disciples simply made up the story of Jesus’ resurrection, then why did they willingly and unanimously suffer torture and death, proclaiming to the end that it was true? People do not die for lies that they made up.

When we consider plausibility (4), we find the second nail in the coffin (as though another were needed). As N.T. Wright has argued in great detail, it just makes no historical sense to say that the disciples would have (or even could have) made up the sort of resurrection story we find in the New Testament, since this is not a concept that even existed before then. There would have been no reason whatsoever for a 1st century Jew to invent the idea of an individual, pre-eschatological, bodily resurrection in a story to other 1st century Jews. This is not only a project doomed to failure, but likely an impossible one, since such a thing would never have entered the mind of a Jew of this time. To assume that Christians could have invented the resurrection story is to read our 21st century context into the text of Scripture, rather than to let it speak from its own culture and time.

Like the Apparent Death Hypothesis, the Conspiracy Hypothesis is also ad hoc (5), in that it must meet objections with made-up stories regarding the disciples’ motives and methods for which we have no evidence. It is also disconfirmed (6) by our knowledge of 1st century Judaism and the highly dubious nature of elaborate conspiracy stories. It also fails criteria (7), since there are more likely options, including the Legend and Hallucination Hypotheses, which will be the subject of the next post in the series.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Letters From a Martyred Christian

My colleague and best friend in the world is about to release his latest book, Letters From a Martyred Christian. Like it sounds, it is a collection of letters from one Aulus Aurelius, martyred in Rome in AD 67. He has been tracking the progress of the church ever since, and has a few things to say.

I can personally attest to the integrity, ability, and theological soundness of the author, and to the creative, engaging, and practical nature of the book. I strongly encourage you to add it to your reading list and to encourage your friends to do the same. If you would like to contribute (even if it's just a buck or two) to the release of the book, and to pre-order your copy,  please go here and look through the many options available for you to do so. Every penny of profit goes to charity.

Also, the promo video for the book is featured under the "Featured Video" section of this blog, on the lower right side of the home page. It's only about 4 1/2 minutes and is well worth your time. It will remain there for the next 40 days or so, until the funding deadline for the project ends. Check it out.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Argument from Special Revelation: Jesus Christ (Part 4)

Note: see parts one, two, and three.

If you recall, last time we looked at the list of "minimal facts" regarding the life of Christ that nearly all critical historians accept. Now, we will turn to the most prominent explanations of these facts that have been offered.

In the interest of space, I’ll only consider those facts that are most relevant to Jesus’ resurrection, and that need the most explaining: the empty tomb, the appearances of Jesus after His death, and the belief of Jesus’ disciples (including former skeptics James and Paul) that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Also, I’ll only consider those explanations which have had the most traction with scholars over the years, and so are the most likely candidates.

They are, in ascending order of credibility (based roughly on the number of scholars willing to accept them, along with my own bias):

1. the Apparent Death Hypothesis (a.k.a. the ‘Swoon Theory’)
2. the Conspiracy Hypothesis
3. the Legend Hypothesis
4. the Hallucination Hypothesis
5. the Christian Account 1

1. The Apparent Death Hypothesis — Jesus was not dead when He was taken down from the cross, but revived some time later and escaped to make the appearances to His disciples.
2. The Conspiracy Hypothesis — Jesus’ disciples stole His body and started the rumor that He had been resurrected.
3. The Legend Hypothesis — Jesus’ disciples never claimed that Jesus had literally risen from the dead; this was a later embellishment that made it into the New Testament accounts.
4. The Hallucination Hypothesis — The disciples (and Paul) were under extraordinary psychological stress following Jesus’ crucifixion, and this somehow led to their seeing Him alive again, in much the same way a bereaved person might ‘see’ her lost loved one after death. On this view, the appearances of Jesus to His disciples after His death are interpreted as purely psychological phenomena on the part of the disciples, in the form of visions or hallucinations, or in some cases even some sort of Freudian suppressed guilt and/or complex cognitive dissonance.
5. The Christian Account — Jesus was raised bodily from the dead and appeared to His disciples.

It should be noted that there is no rule saying that only one hypothesis must be true; it is possible that several of them might be combined for a stronger case. Indeed, the ones listed above are employed differently depending on the ‘fact’ being explained. However, it is not always possible to combine them, as even the ‘naturalistic’ ones (i.e. those other than the Christian claim) sometimes conflict. For example, the Apparent Death Hypothesis and the Conspiracy Hypothesis cannot both be true. However, the Legend Hypothesis might be strengthened by considering it in conjunction with, say, the Pagan Myth Hypothesis (see footnote below). I’ll let the reader choose whatever combination seems most likely, and stack it up against the Christian claim.

Next time, we will begin testing these competing hypotheses using the criteria we listed in Part 2 of this series (linked above).

Some other fairly popular, but less plausible, ones include: 6. the Wrong Tomb Hypothesis, the claim that the disciples simply went to the wrong tomb on Easter morning; 7. the claim that the resurrection accounts in the New Testament are written in a non-historical literary style; 8. the claim that the disciples’ belief in the resurrection is explainable from Jewish influences; 9. the claim that the disciples’ belief in the resurrection is explainable from pagan or mythical influences; and 10. the claim that Jesus’ body was ‘displaced’ or stolen by someone other than His disciples. If you have questions about any of these (or if you can think of any others), leave a comment and I’ll be happy to go through them there.