In my previous post “Educating the local church (Pt. V): introducing critical scholarship” (written almost two weeks ago!) I asked whether or not there is an ideal approach for introducing people in our local churches to critical scholarship. For some this is a stupid question: Why use teaching in this context to introduce ideas that might shipwreck someone’s faith? For others this remains a question that needs to be asked. As we have seen all it takes is a silly book like The DaVinci Code and suddenly we find people believing that Constantine formed the canon of Scripture at the Council of Nicaea. Shouldn’t the local church be proactive about educating people so that they are not easily deceived by erroneous claims?
The flip side of this coin is the danger of what I call “quick-and-easy apologetics”. I am fine with apologetics. Apologists have strengthened my faith in many areas over the years, even when I come to disagree with a wide variety of their arguments. I don’t know how useful apologetics function as a means of converting people, but I have found that writers ranging from C.S. Lewis to Michael Licona have caused me to think afresh about my beliefs in ways that encouraged me to be a “thinking Christian”. But “quick-and-easy apologetics” can be the dangerous side of apologetical works. Sometimes apologists are desperate to provide an “answer” and often the answer is overly simplistic, or even worse, wrong in such a way that it is obvious that the apologist wanted to provide an answer more than the apologist wanted to provide a careful, thoughtful response.
Let me provide an example: When I was in college I read a lot of apologetics. One of my favorite books was Josh McDowell’s The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. It seemed to have answers to all the objections. At first, I found the arguments convincing. Then I began to read critical scholarship on a variety of subjects and it became evident that the “evidence” was not as water-tight as I had suspected. Fortunately, I realized that it remained my responsibility to continue to ask hard questions about my faith and to be diligent to seek honest answers. But I have known people who were shaken when the “answers” proved to be weak and insufficient. Rather than continuing their intellectual journey they either (a) resorted to a blind fundamentalism that stopped asking questions or (b) lost their faith to various degrees. I don’t blame McDowell for creating a large book full of answers that he finds sufficient (if this is so), books like McDowell’s can be flawed at this point.
I think it was within the pages of McDowell’s book that I came across C.S. Lewis’ “trilemma”, which states that you cannot say Jesus was a “great moral teacher” if you deny his claims to be God because:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
(Mere Christianity, 52)
This made a lot of sense to me at the time. It may have been while reading something written by Bart D. Ehrman that an objection was presented to me that was obvious in retrospect: “What if Jesus did not say anything about being God? What if this is something his later followers attributed to him?” (Excursion: Ken Brown’s 2009 post on this topic titled, “What’s Wrong with C.S. Lewis’ Trilemma? Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?”)
Suddenly the simplicity of this argument became its weakest point. If Jesus did not claim to be a god then we can reconsider the possibility that Jesus was a good Jewish teacher who was eventually executed for some reason. Lewis’ answer presupposes something that we can’t presuppose: that the words in the Gospels are the exact words of the historical Jesus. If we are to use Lewis’ trilemma we must provide good reasons for believing that Jesus spoke of himself as divine. This is not an easy task.
I chose this example because it is easy to understand. My desire to teach the church about thinks like critical scholarship has nothing to do with wanting to weaken their faith. It has to do with respecting them and knowing that if I don’t talk to them about challenges to their faith, and if I settle with giving them easy answers, there is a strong chance that someday, somewhere they will hear something unsettling and I will not have prepared them to reason through the claims they face.
I understand why some may not want to address matters related to critical scholarship in the context of the local church, but (1) I am sure that challenges to their faith will arise whether from family, co-workers, of The History Channel and (2) if these challenges wound the faith of our brothers and sisters, and we think the small bandage of “quick-and-easy apologetics” does the job, we may find that our desire to provide an answer–any answer–exposes them to great wounds in the future.
I understand that many Christians live in a world of bliss where they avoid challenges to their faith, but let me remind pastors and other leaders in the church: there are many people–especially youth and college age–who are members of your church who are asking difficult questions. These people are not fools. They know when their questions are being brushed aside. They may know when the answer being given is being given for the mere sake of providing an answer, any answer. If they don’t know immediately, it will come to light later. To fully care for a church means shepherding both those who live in bliss and those who are wrestling with the deep questions of our faith.
Will you give them answers that feed them for the moment or will you teach them how to think for themselves so that when they go to college, or watch The Discovery Channel, or read a book that levels criticism at Christianity they will know how to assess and filter arguments? This is an important question to consider.