World Religions: The Sage and the Savior

Among the world’s great religious leaders, two became far-reaching moral instructors of humanity. Confucius (the sage) laid down the ethical foundation for much of Asian civilization. Jesus of Nazareth (the Savior) taught moral lessons that distinctly shaped the ethical nature of Western civilization. Yet while both became great moral teachers, the identity, mission, and message of these two influential men stand in powerful contrast.

The Chinese Sage

GettyImages_153829355Born in China as K’ung Fu-tzu (551–479 BC), this philosopher became known in the West by his Latinized name “Confucius.” While the lives of other famous Chinese teachers are mixed with legend (such as Taoism’s Lao-tzu), historians have reliably documented Confucius’ life. This historical imprint is due to his significant influence on Chinese history and culture.

Though disadvantaged, Confucius received a robust liberal education that prepared him well for the civil service he entered at an early age. He eventually rose to the powerful position of minister of justice in the Chinese government. Later in life he left government and became an itinerant teacher with a significant following. Described as a “one-man university,” Master K’ung (as he was called) is said to have provided instruction in such fields as history, poetry, government, propriety, music, philosophy, and divination. Confucius’ collection of influential teachings was later compiled into a book called the Analects.

Confucius’ central teaching focused upon developing a system of ethics that would produce a morally superior human being (the “magnanimous man”). In light of China’s troubling cycle of anarchy and warfare, he strove for an efficient and benevolent form of government that would lead to a morally ideal state. He attempted to define a system of conduct that could be applied to all aspects of society:

  • Jen: Human-heartedness, benevolence, concern for humanity
  • Chun Tzu: “Magnanimous man,” superior person, humanity-at-its-best
  • Li: Good form, propriety, ceremony, decorum, correct order
  • Te: Integrity, moral influence, power of the good example
  • Wen: “The art of peace,” aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual influences

While his efforts failed to create a Chinese utopia, Confucius’ ideas became so influential that a couple of centuries after his death Confucianism had become the official imperial philosophy of China.1 World religions scholar Huston Smith has called Confucius “the most important figure in China’s history.”2

Confucianism is often viewed as more of a moral philosophy of life than as a traditional religion. For example, Confucius didn’t explicitly advocate the worship of God or gods, nor did he speculate about death and the afterlife. Confucianism has no priesthood, no divine revelation, and does not advocate such common Eastern practices as asceticism and monasticism. While some have suggested that Confucius was an atheist or agnostic, it is more likely that he did believe in the supernatural but simply viewed religious beliefs and rituals as secondary in importance to the need for social reform and order.3

The Sage and the Savior

GettyImages_162245121The title “sage” is granted to those who are revered for their wisdom and good judgment. Confucius stands as China’s greatest philosopher and religious teacher. The title “Savior” is a New Testament designation given to Jesus Christ (Luke 2:11) because his atoning death on the cross saved sinners from God’s just wrath (1 John 4:10). The sage and the Savior differ in five ways:

  • Nature: Though the sage was a great teacher and master communicator, he was merely a human being who lived and died. The Savior, on the other hand, revealed himself to be God in human flesh and conquered death by his historical bodily resurrection.
  • Character: While the sage believed in the basic moral goodness of human beings and in the perfectibility of human nature, he failed to achieve those lofty goals in his own life as he wrestled with moral weaknesses and a failed marriage. Conversely, the Savior lived a sinless life and was thus qualified to offer his life as a perfect sacrifice for sin.
  • Mission: The sage’s mission was to forge a universal system of ethics and to help build an ideal Chinese state. The Savior’s mission was to rescue sinners by providing a substitutionary sacrifice for sin.
  • Role: The sage himself isn’t essential to the essence of Confucian philosophy or religion except for providing the original ethical instruction. On the other hand, historic Christianity is all about Jesus Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection.
  • Focus: The sage was reserved in introducing people to God and to a spiritual life. In stark contrast, the Savior revealed himself as Immanuel (“God with us”) whose self-sacrificing love initiated salvation.

Confucianism offers a noble ethical system that shares much in common with that of historic Christianity. However, this reputable Chinese moral philosophy offers no ultimate solution to humankind’s grave problem of moral depravity. That hope is uniquely found in Christianity, which offers its own Sage who is, more importantly, a divine-human Savior.

Comparison of Religions

Chinese Popular Religion Historic Christianity
Moral philosophies (Confucianism, Taoism): Ethical focus, way of life, atheological Theistic, redemptive: Focus on God as Creator and Savior
Non-revelatory: No supernatural unveiling Revelatory: Divine unveiling, propositional disclosure (Scripture)
Syncretistic: Sharing and assimilating different religious beliefs Traditional: Distinct truths
Tolerant: Allowance of different beliefs and practices Uncompromising: Truth is narrow, discriminating
Pluralistic: Acceptance of many religious perspectives Exclusivistic: One ultimate religious perspective

Endnotes

  1. Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 292–93.
  2. Huston Smith, The Illustrated World’s Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 119.
  3. Lewis M. Hopfe and Mark R. Woodward, Religions of the World, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: 1998), 198.

 

How We Got the Bible, Part 3

This week we’ll be finishing up a series on the biblical canon, a topic that has been a source of discussion, debate, and controversy since the beginning of Christianity. We’ve covered the doctrine of divine inspiration and standards for recognizing canon, as well as apocryphal literature. To conclude, RTB editor Maureen Moser and I will tackle some challenges skeptics pose to the canon and how the relationship between Scripture and church tradition can help defend Christianity from these challenges.

****

133830103Some of the most sensational challenges to biblical canon have come from Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code books and movies. These stories posit that the church (specifically the Catholics) decided the canon Christians have today. How would you respond to that?

Of course, Christianity gets attacked from the outside. The DaVinci Code, with the controversy surrounding that book and movie and their sequels, contends that the Catholic Church operated in a bad way, manipulating the canon and holding back certain books. A lot of people see the history of Christianity as just a power struggle. It just happens that the Catholics won the political war and the Gnostics lost it. So we get “these books” because the Catholics won, instead of “those books” because the Gnostics lost. This is similar to the perspective Hermann Göring espoused at the Nuremburg Trials, saying that the Allies were judging the Nazis only because they’d won the war, not because they were right.

I think the reality is that the Scriptures do go back to the apostles and prophets. Historic Christianity is rooted deeply in the apostolic issue.

What other challenges does the biblical canon face from skeptics today?

When you decide to include certain books in the canon, you want to know who wrote them. But, while Paul had a habit of signing his letters, other New Testament authors did not. Originally, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were anonymous; there were no names attached to them. Some skeptics make a big deal out of this. They say, “You mean you are trusting this testimony and you don’t even know who wrote it?”

This is where church tradition becomes important. Many of the early church fathers, such as Papias and Irenaeus, confirmed the gospel authorship. The church was never in doubt.

It sounds like there was an oral history passed down along with the books.

Yes, exactly. Church tradition or history can help a great deal in defending the positions we take.

The three branches of Christendom each view the relationship between Scripture and tradition differently. The Catholic Church places tradition above Scripture because, ultimately, it is the pope and the magisterium that have to interpret the Bible. Protestants reverse it, while the Orthodox put them side by side.

I’m a Protestant, so I believe in sola Scriptura (Latin: “Scripture alone”). This means that Scripture is the supreme authority; it’s the final court of appeals, to put it in American terms. However, I would caution my fellow Protestants who say, “I just go by Scripture. I don’t need any church tradition. I don’t need any church fathers.”

You don’t want to dismiss church tradition when you do apologetics. When the skeptics come along and they want to challenge our interpretation of historic Christianity, including the biblical canon, church tradition and history are essential to defending our positions. For example, I would say that Augustine is as important to Protestants as he is to Catholics. He’s a central figure; he is the last of the fathers; he’s by far the most sophisticated; he’s the one who brings the strongest defense of Christianity. He’s the one who says that salvation is by grace, not by works.

It seems Christian apologetics would be even more robust if we include both Scripture and church history. After all, the church fathers lived much closer to the apostolic era than we do.

Yes, Polycarp knew John personally. There are connections from John to Polycarp to Irenaeus and so on down the line as important traditions (such as our understanding of gospel authorship) are passed along. When the Bart Erhmans come along and say the four gospels have no names attached to them, that’s only true if we don’t listen to Papias and Irenaeus. The church fathers were there to guard and guide the recognition of inspired Scripture.

So, even though Protestants say Scripture is the supreme authority, we’ll be in a bad position if we disrespect how church history has unfolded. Perhaps our Catholic and Orthodox friends give the church too much credit, but Protestants need to avoid giving too little credit.

Any concluding thoughts to wrap up our discussion of biblical canon?

I think many people have questions about the Bible. Where’d we get this book? Who says that the books in there are superior to those that were left out? On whose authority did this all come about? Where do we find the authority of the Holy Spirit?

The advantage of the Catholic position is in the assertion that we can’t interpret the Bible just any old way. They insist on the necessity of teaching authority and tradition. I think that’s a strength. Still, I think the strength of the Protestant position is Jesus. The best evidence that Scripture trumps all other authority is that when Jesus appealed to the final standard, He always quoted Scripture.

So, Protestants would say if you want to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, you go to Scripture. Catholics would absolutely agree that Scripture contains the voice of the Spirit, but to understand it you need the teaching authority of the church. In the end, however, no believer would say either Scripture or tradition is unimportant. All of it is important.

****

Resource: For more on the history and importance of Scripture, see my book A World of Difference.

How We Got the Bible, Part 2

Last week RTB editor Maureen Moser and I began a discussion of the biblical canon, including the doctrine of inspiration and the criteria for recognizing canon, particularly for the New Testament. But as we noted, the branches of Christendom view aspects of Scripture in different ways. This week we’ll look at the Old Testament and apocryphal literature.

****

So, while the New Testament received challenges from the Gnostics, it seems the Old Testament faces a lot of debate within the church. Why do Catholics and Eastern Orthodox accept the Apocrypha, but Protestants don’t?

32232Yes, the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have a handful of Old Testament books that are not in the Protestant Old Testament. These apocryphal works include books like 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Esdras, and some additions to other canonical books.

However, the Protestants reject the Apocrypha. They point out that Jesus doesn’t quote from them and some of them teach doctrine that seems inconsistent with the broad scope of biblical teaching. For example, 2 Maccabees says it’s a helpful and wholesome thing to pray for the dead. Teachings like that trouble Protestants. What’s interesting is that, to my knowledge, the Catholic Church itself has said that the Apocrypha constitute a secondary canon (deuterocanonical).

What criteria do Protestants use for determining the Old Testament canon?

It would be something similar to what we outlined for the New Testament last week. We want to connect these books to authentic biblical authors, which for the Old Testament would be the prophets. We want to know if these books support overall biblical teaching. And we want to know if these are books that the Jews recognized early on.

Obviously, Jewish people wrote the Old Testament. How did they shape the canon?

Orthodox Jews believe that God gave the Torah to the Jewish people. These books are inspired and they reflect a historical narrative. Orthodox Jews usually consider the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) the most important part of the Old Testament.

The Jews affirmed their present canon in the first century around AD 90 at the Council of Jamnia. They divide their canon (what we call the Old Testament) into three sections: the Torah (first five books), the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.), and the wisdom literature (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.).

What category would history books, such as 1 and 2 Kings or 1 and 2 Chronicles, fall under?

I think those books would fall under the prophets. In Hebrew the Old Testament has 24 books; in the Protestant canon it has 39. It’s the same content divided out differently. For example, the Jews consider 1 and 2 Chronicles one book and they collect the minor prophets, which constitute 12 books for Protestants, into one book as well.

So, even if the history books aren’t “prophetic” a prophet likely authored them?

Exactly. It’s important to remember that while prophets can be people who make predictions, they can also be every bit as much, if not more so, people who make proclamations. I think it’s in that secondary sense that a lot of what Christians call history books would fall under the prophet category.

How do the Jews view the Apocrypha?

The Jews agree with the Protestants and say the apocryphal books are not a part of their canon. At times Jews will agree more with Protestants than they will with Catholics and vice versa.

What’s the difficulty with the apocryphal books associated with the New Testament?

Those books include the Gnostic gospels. They were written a few centuries after the apostolic era and teach that Jesus did not have a physical body. So, these books fail the criteria laid down for recognizing inspired scripture.

Again, it’s helpful to think of canonicity as an implication of the basic view of inspiration. Martin Luther liked to say that when you hear Scripture, you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is the Holy Spirit’s book even while it preserves the voices, vocabularies, and writing styles of its various authors.

****

Next week we’ll conclude with a look at challenges to the canon from outside the church and ponder how the relationship between Scripture and church tradition impacts Christian apologetics.

How We Got the Bible, Part 1

Earlier this year, scholars announced the discovery of what might be the oldest known copy of the Gospel of Mark (see here and here). A fragment of Mark’s book was found on ancient papyrus used to create a mummy mask. While more research is needed to date the fragment conclusively, the find is an exciting one. It also provides a good opportunity to talk about the book we call the Holy Bible. RTB editor Maureen Moser sat down with me to talk about the canonicity of Scripture. In this series of interviews, we’ll talk about divine inspiration, how the major branches of Christendom view Scripture, and what challenges the Bible faces from skeptics.

 

****

The discovery of the Gospel of Mark fragment is thrilling, but it got me wondering about the canonicity of Scripture. How did the biblical canon that we use today come about?

Older Man Holding BibleIt’s a great question and, of course, it’s also a controversial one. The branches of Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Catholicism, and Protestantism) debate this topic. And there are also challenges from the outside. For example, the Gnostics wanted to include four alternative gospels—the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Peter—in the canon. So the question is what rule or mark of authenticity includes some books and excludes others?

I think at the heart of these questions about Scripture—whether about the canonicity or biblical inerrancy—is our view of biblical inspiration. Within Christianity the basic idea is that the Holy Spirit inspired Scripture. Now we have to present this idea in measured tones. We should not picture the apostles or the prophets (for the Old Testament) going into a trance and writing out things like zombies. The Scriptures still reflect the humanness of the authors, their education level, their vocabulary, their knowledge. Rather, the Holy Spirit superintended the writing. He inspired the authors, caused them to write, and kept them within measure.

This is not unlike how I might write a piece and you might edit it. You might say, “Ken, you have to cut this part out or how about if we include this here?” That’s a rough analogy.

So that’s something we editors have in common with the Holy Spirit?

I knew the RTB editorial team would like that one, but it’s not a bad analogy. Inspiration is not dictation; the Spirit supervises the individual, but it’s that person’s vocabulary and writing style. Obviously, Paul’s vocabulary is much more advanced than Peter’s. So out of this view of inspiration come implications for canonicity.

What are some of the differences amongst the branches of Christendom regarding canonicity?

In the classical Roman Catholic view the Bible is essentially the church’s book. The church (meaning the apostles) wrote it and canonized it. The church put a stamp of approval on some books, but rejected others. Then Protestants, in Catholic thinking, came along and rejected the Catholic Church but wanted the canon.

But in the classical Protestant view the apostles wrote the Bible under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The church didn’t canonize it as though the text were uninspired until the church put its thumbprint on it. Rather, the church played a much more modest role of recognizing the canon. Inspiration is inherent in the books themselves; it’s not something the church adds to the books.

How did the church fathers recognize the canon?

New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce identified four major criteria for determining canonicity. I refer to them in chapter 7 of A World of Difference. The first one is apostolic authority. Did an apostle, or a close associate of the apostles, write the book? Second is antiquity—does it emerge from the apostolic era? All of the Gnostic gospels came out of the third or fourth century, long after the apostolic era. Third is orthodoxy—does the book have fidelity to apostolic doctrine? Does it teach what the apostles taught?

And then, fourth, is catholicity—did the book enjoy a universal acceptance by the church or, in the case of the Old Testament, by the Jewish people? However, with regard to catholicity, Protestants would insist that the church isn’t giving the Bible anything that it doesn’t already have. Rather, the church simply applied these principles and recognized the inspiration. So, again, inspiration stands behind canonicity and canonicity is an implication of inspiration. The books written by the apostles were assumed to be inspired.

Sometimes Catholics will assert that the councils affirmed this assumption. And it is true that the councils, particularly the Council of Hippo and the Council of Carthage near the end of the fourth century, were helpful in settling questions about certain New Testament books. For example, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation were all initially questioned (Greek: antilegomena, meaning “spoken against”) and had to undergo investigation before being recognized at these councils as canon.

I recently re-read 2 and 3 John and I did wonder at them being included. They’re just these short personal letters. What made the church decide to accept things like that?

Part of it, particularly at Carthage (AD 397), was that the church was still trying to make sure they could tie 2 and 3 John to the apostle John, same thing with 2 Peter and even James and Hebrews at one point. I think it’s pretty easy to see why Hebrews came under scrutiny. It certainly seems to bear all of the marks of an inspired work yet we don’t know who wrote it. Was it Barnabas or Apollos? Was it somebody else?

Again, the church didn’t grant inspiration to these books, rather it did investigative work and finally recognized that they were indeed inspired and, therefore, meant to be in the canon. I think in one sense we can say that the church played a role not in granting inspiration but in negating. It was really more of a negative role.

****

Next week we’ll continue this series with a look at the Old Testament apocryphal literature (also called deuterocanonical books). The Catholics accept them as canon and the Orthodox expand on the Catholic canon, but Protestants reject additional books—how does that all play out?

World Religions: The Prince and the Lord

480506365Among the world’s great religious leaders, two came to be viewed as representing almighty God in human form. In traditional Hinduism, the god Vishnu appeared or descended into human form as Krishna. In historic Christianity, Jesus Christ entered human history as God Incarnate (the God-man: a single person with both a divine and human nature). Yet while both are recognized (in some sense) as the divine in human form, the identity, mission, and message––ultimately, the hope––of these two figures is quite dissimilar.

The Hindu Prince

Scholars debate whether Prince Krishna was an actual historical figure whose life is covered in deep Hindu mythology or whether his existence was totally mythological. Those Hindu scholars who argue for a historical Krishna say that he lived about 5,000 years ago.1 Yet modern-day Hindus show little interest in the “historical” Krishna, the way contemporary Christians inquire about the historicity of Jesus.2

Krishna’s life and identity in sacred Hindu literature passes through three basic stages. First, the writings of the Bhagavata Purana describe Krishna as a dancing infant and as a young boy who plays a flute. Thus, images of Krishna portray him in his youth with black or dark blue skin and holding or playing a flute. In the second stage, this same text presents him as an adolescent playboy associated with the cow maidens, where Krishna is seen as a divine herdsman (images often depict Krishna with cows, which are considered sacred in India). Third, in the Bhagavad-Gita (“Song of God”), Krishna appears as a prince who offers moral and spiritual guidance and reveals himself as the ultimate King Krishna. In summary, the Hindu sacred writings thus “portray him in various perspectives: a god-child, a prankster, a model lover, a divine hero, and the Supreme Being.”3

Bhakti Hinduism

The religion of Hinduism is tolerant, inclusivistic, and eclectic. Hinduism offers a philosophical pantheism (all is god and god is all) along with an almost limitless (330 million) pantheon of popular gods (polytheism). But Hinduism also proposes the “path of devotion” or attachment to a single deity. Christian scholar of world religions Winfried Corduan explains,

This school of thought became known as Bhakti, which means “loving attachment.” The essence of its teaching is that the love of a god or goddess provides salvation to these who love him or her alone. The roots of Bhakti Hinduism go back at least as far as the Bhagavad-Gita, a poem that forms a part of the Mahabharata, a lengthy epic composed around 200 B.C.4

Krishna is arguably the most popular of the Bhakti gods. And in this form of Hinduism adherents believe that a person can have a relationship with Krishna that is characteristically similar to theism (an eternal relationship with a personal deity). The Hare Krishna movement (ISKCON: International Society for Krishna Consciousness), which became popular in America in the 1960s, is an expression of Bhakti Hinduism.5 Thus in ISKCON devotion to Krishna alone is necessary for Moksha (salvation, which entails breaking the cycle of rebirths or reincarnation).

Hinduism’s Three Ways to Moksha

  1. The Way of Works (Vedas, observing laws and rituals, priests)
  2. The Way of Knowledge (Upanishads, meditation, withdrawal)
  3. The Way of Devotion (Bhagavad-Gita, worship of a god)

ISKCON Essential Teachings6

  1. Krishna is the supreme form of a personal god (untraditional monotheism). Vishnu is considered an avatar of Krishna.
  2. Salvation is achieved by continually chanting the Krishna mantra “Hare Krishna” (1,000 times a day).
  3. The Bhagavad-Gita is sacred scripture.
  4. Devotees must observe a life of pure devotion to Krishna, which includes abstaining from meat, caffeine, sweets, and sex for pleasure.
  5. Devotees are expected to disseminate the literature of ISKCON.

Five Ways Krishna and Jesus Differ

jesus-hands-piercedKrishna holds the title “Prince” for his regal representation of a divine figure. Bhakti Hinduism now stands at the center of contemporary Hinduism, with Krishna as its most represented deity. Meanwhile, the New Testament title “Lord” (kyrios) is the Greek term used to translate the Hebrew name for YHWH (Israel’s personal God). Thus the historic Christian claim “Jesus is Lord” conveys the meaning “Jesus is God.”

  • History: While the actual existence of Krishna relies mostly or exclusively upon speculative Hindu mythology, Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death, and resurrection is attested to both in the historical documents of the New Testament and in certain secular works of history.
  • Nature: While Prince Krishna is considered an appearance or the descent of a deity (an avatar), Jesus Christ declared himself God in human flesh.
  • Character: Prince Krishna is said to be loving and compassionate, nonetheless the stories about him exhibit human-like flaws, thus showing he lack of moral perfection. The Lord Jesus Christ, on the other hand, was declared even by some of his enemies to be morally blameless.
  • Mission: Hindu literature describes Prince Krishna’s mission as one of an inspiring divine hero. The Lord Jesus Christ’s mission was to rescue sinners by providing a final atonement for sin through his death on the cross.
  • Role: While Krishna is said to be gracious and merciful in nature, he provides no means of redemption. In stark contrast, the Lord Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection all focus on redeeming lost sinners.
  • State: Prince Krishna either survives in legend only or is dead. Unlike all other religious leaders, the Lord Jesus Christ has been resurrected from the dead and reigns as eternal King.

Bhakti Hinduism offers a convoluted, uncertain hope of life after death but with the mythological Prince Krishna. Historic Christianity, on the other hand, offers real hope of salvation from sin through the historical person of Jesus Christ who demonstrated his Lordship by rising from the dead.

Comparison of Religions

Historic Christianity Bhakti Hinduism
Problem: Sin (rebellion) Problem: Karma
Need: Redemption Need: Moksha
Solution: Faith Solution: Devotion
Ultimate: Personal Redemption Ultimate: Attachment to god
Assurance: Yes Assurance: No
Deity: Trinitarian Monotheism Deity: Untraditional Monotheism

Endnotes

  1. S. Rajaram, “Search for the Historical Krishna,” Vedic Knowledge Online, last modified September 4, 1999, http://veda.harekrsna.cz/encyclopedia/historical-krsna.htm.
  2. Theodore M. Ludwig, The Sacred Paths: Understanding the Religions of the World, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), 82.
  3. Wikipedia, s.v. “Krishna,” last modified January 27, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krishna.
  4. Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 200.
  5. Ibid., 204.
  6. Ibid., 204–5.

 

From the Archives: Understanding Islam in the Twenty-First Century

453218359It’s one of the fastest growing religions in the world, it’s been around since the seventh century, and it is regularly in the news—often associated with atrocities committed by its most militant members (the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the Boko Haram kidnapping of 300 girls come to mind). How can we understand Islam in the twenty-first century?

I appreciate that people would like to know about Islam, but the common approach is to make it simple, to boil Islam down. But we’re talking about 1.6 billion people; we’re talking about many different countries; we’re talking about many different stripes and divisions within the religion (there are extremists, liberal moderates, and middle-of-road traditionalists). So, being able to sort it all out easily is difficult.

That being said, the articles and podcasts here are intended as jumping off points for coming to grips with Islam in the world today, particularly as it relates to America in these post-9/11 years.

****

Understanding Muslims

World Religions: The Prophet and the Son of God” (article)

Islam and the Middle East Crisis” (article)

Muslims, Hindus, and Christians: An Interview with Christian Apologist Prashanth Daniel” (podcast)

From Muslim Apologist to Christian Scholar: An Interview with Abdu Murray, Part 1” (podcast)

From Muslim Apologist to Christian Scholar: An Interview with Abdu Murray, Part 2” (podcast)

America and Islam

Is America Really the ‘Great Satan’?” (article)

Reflective Thinking: The War on Terror” (podcast)

America and Islam: Is America Islamophobic?” (podcast)

America and Islam: Coming to Grips with Islam” (podcast)

America and Islam: The Ground Zero Mosque Controversy” (podcast)

Islamic Extremists

Jihadists and The Narrative: The Importance of Worldview Thinking” (podcast)

9/11 Truthers Steal Al Qaeda’s Thunder” (podcast)

Special Edition: Reflections on Obama’s Statement, ‘Today Is a Good Day for America’” (podcast)

An Elephant in the Resurrection Skeptic’s Room

Today, Reflections offers a guest article by Milt Chamberlain

****

DSC_0250Skeptic Richard Carrier writes, “Many things could be said which cast doubt on the story of the Resurrection of Jesus by God…since I cannot rationally bring myself to believe this story, I cannot rationally bring myself to be a Christian.” His collection of essays, entitled “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection,” elaborates on the reasons for his rejection of Christianity’s central tenant.1 As a volunteer apologist for RTB, I recently responded to an email requesting a rebuttal of Carrier’s arguments. His arguments aren’t new, but as I read his essays and drafted a response I felt uneasy. Was I overlooking something important?

This feeling persisted until halfway through my first draft when it hit me. Resurrection skeptics like Carrier eagerly characterize New Testament (NT) authors as “unknown,” under-educated, and biased—what I’ll call “ugly-duckling” historians or witnesses—but these skeptics overlook an elephant in the room, namely the scriptural declaration that God intentionally chose ugly-duckling witnesses. Carrier, in his essay “The Rubicon Analogy,” presents seven points in the ugly-duckling strain against the NT writers.2

  1. Jesus never wrote anything: True, Jesus lived what He preached. His followers preached what He lived and then wrote it down. Jesus was not a publishing academic, but Truth alive, humanity’s ultimate object lesson, and so much more.
  2. New Testament writers were not reputable historians: True, all were common men and—excepting Paul, Luke, and possibly Matthew—under educated. But does education or high position guarantee honesty or accuracy? Surely, only elitists would propose this idea.
  3. New Testament writers wrote to persuade to belief in the risen Christ: True, they wrote as eyewitnesses for whom objectivity was unnatural and impossible. The Gospels and Acts are recalled accounts of passionate eyewitnesses (or reports from such), not dispassionate writings of uninvolved scholars. We should feel neither surprise nor disquiet about their persuasive bias. Instead, shouldn’t we expect it?
  4. Jesus’ first-century enemies published nothing to deny the resurrection: True, why would they? Their harshest critic was gone. Yes, His body was missing and there were disturbing resurrection rumors, but why would His enemies publish written accounts denying an event they claimed never happened? Surely, they followed an age-old strategy: do not “give legs” to a rumor by permitting, much less fostering, public discussion.
  5. There is no physical evidence for the resurrection: True, but what physical evidence should we expect? Religious and Roman authorities never produced Jesus’ body to quell growing resurrection rumors even though they had every motivation (and the manpower) to find Jesus’ body and put an end to these “messianic pretensions.” But they didn’t.
  6. Belief explains Christianity’s growth, but belief doesn’t have to be true: Not exactly; this idea fails to explain the eyewitness’ behavior. Yes, people willingly die for unsubstantiated beliefs they think true. But the ugly-duckling eyewitnesses had lived with Jesus and saw Him die and then live again. They suffered martyrdom or exile because they had seen and knew the living Truth. They alone had irrefutable, objective evidence of the resurrection. We don’t, but we have reasonable evidence provided in what they wrote.
  7. If the resurrection occurred everyone would have known it: By God’s design relatively few people (more than 500) saw the risen Savior. The resurrected Christ chose to reveal Himself through a handful of ugly-duckling witnesses.

In this last point we find the elephant unseen by skeptics. First Corinthians 1:20 (ESV) asks, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” In painting Jesus’ ugly-duckling eyewitnesses as unqualified historians, skeptics merely confirm God’s declared strategy for the Gospel. They describe the elephant but cannot see it. First Corinthians 1:28–29 (ESV) goes on:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

The elephant is in Scripture’s call to love God through faith in Jesus Christ; this faith first believes in the proposition that Jesus is the resurrected Son of God and then trusts Him as Lord of one’s life. Skeptics can’t trust Jesus because they demand irrefutable historical evidence to prove the resurrection; without it they refuse to believe.

The apostle Thomas also refused to believe, demanding irrefutable proof of the resurrection—but when he stood face-to-face with that proof, he professed belief and trust. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We might interpret this as blessed are those who believe on the basis of reasonable evidence (not blind faith), even though we lack irrefutable proof. That’s you and me (and the majority of post-resurrection history), for God provided irrefutable evidence only to Thomas and the other ugly-duckling eyewitnesses.

By ignoring the elephant, skeptics align themselves with the scribes and Pharisees who demanded an immediate sign in their time—an irrefutable proof—that Jesus was Messiah, but only one sign would be given—His death, burial, and resurrection (Matthew 12:38–42). Similarly, today’s skeptics demand irrefutable historical proof of the resurrection. By design, it doesn’t exist because, also by design, Christ’s entire ministry turned what was upside down “downside up.” Therefore, none should be surprised that God made worldly wisdom foolish by choosing ugly-duckling witnesses (instead of the “wise men” of His day) to communicate the Gospel of the Risen Christ (1 Corinthians 1:20).

Let’s not allow resurrection skeptics to restrict our apologetics to standards of “worldly wisdom” that make unreasonable demands for non-existent, irrefutable evidence. We must stand firm on the reasonable evidence for the resurrection that God has provided. Remember God’s expressed purpose to “shame the wisethrough the Gospel by communicating the Gospel through ugly-duckling witnesses.

Endnotes

  1. Richard Carrier, “Why I Don’t But the Resurrection,” 6th ed. (2006), Secular Web, http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/resurrection/introduction.html.
  2. Carrier, “The Rubicon Analogy,” in “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection,” http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/resurrection/rubicon.html.

****

By Milt Chamberlain

Mr. Milton Chamberlain received his MBA from Samford University in 1974, and currently serves part-time as IT and accounting manager at Birmingham Rheumatology in Birmingham, Alabama.

Understanding the Middle Ages

GettyImages_168734309Lasting from about the fifth century AD into the fifteenth, the Middle Ages, sometimes called the age of the church, may be one of the most interesting periods of history and, at the same time, one of the most mysterious. It also faces much prejudice—people may not know a lot about the Middle Ages, but they tend to have negative opinions about it, especially as regards the Christian church’s role.

I came away from a public school education thinking that the Middle Ages were a dark time, brought on by religion, with not much going in terms of science and technology. However, the more I investigated medieval history, the more I came to a very different point of view.

Antiquity is an exciting period to study, as are the Renaissance and Enlightenment. But in between rested the mysterious Dark Ages, called so because of an initial lack of knowledge about this era. The moniker later took on a derisive meaning and there grew the idea that nothing much can happen when the church is in control of things. But more recent study and research has shown that the opposite is the case.

Historians have found that, not only were the Middle Ages not a bleak period, but they were a time of deep insight in science, technology, philosophy, theology, art, and literature. Some of my own favorite Christian thinkers came out of the Middle Ages. There were St. Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, and William of Occam. In literature there was Dante’s Inferno. And it wasn’t just a rich time for Christians. There were also important Jewish thinkers, such as Moses Maimonides.

For education and science, the Middle Ages were a pivotal time. Alister McGrath, James Hannam, and a number of other authors have noted that Catholics founded the university system of Europe (some of them, like Cambridge and Oxford, were not Catholic). This laid the foundation educationally for the birth of science in the 1600s. And in terms of philosophy, Etienne Gilson documents in History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages the remarkable contributions made by medieval Christian philosophers.

This is not to say that the Middle Ages didn’t experience a fair share of difficulties. For example, the bubonic plague wiped out a third of the population in Europe, leading to major economic and social upheaval. In the High Middle Ages, there were the Crusades, famously upheld as a prime example of the black marks in Christianity’s history. However, when people are motivated to be unfair to Christianity they can end up painting such events, even if indeed wrong, in the worse light possible. Some historians now regard the Crusades as a defensive war, largely against Islamic invasion. Moreover, the death tolls attributed to the Crusades and other negative events involving the church don’t even come close to the numbers of people killed by Communism, a secular system of government. (See my article “More Deaths in the Name of God or in the Name of No Gods?”)

When examining the past, we must avoid the assumption that prior worldviews, customs, systems, etc. are inherently inferior to ours. C. S. Lewis, himself a professor of medieval and Renaissance literature, called this “chronological snobbery.” Like any time period (including our own), the Middle Ages were a mixed bag of good and bad things. We need to understand both before labeling this fascinating time period as “dark.”

To break away from the popular misconceptions about the Middle Ages, medieval Christians in particular, find an author without a heavy bias. Don’t look for a Christian to paint the period as perfection and certainly don’t swallow the idea of the Middle Ages as just this absence, with nothing happening but bad things. Does the author or historian have philosophical or worldview acuity to recognize the difference between facts and interpretation? What knowledge do they have of medieval people? Are they aware of Christianity’s role and do they approach it with fairness?

History is one of the most fascinating fields of study; and the Middle Ages is a crucial period to understand in order to appreciate the modern world that we live in. As one scholar put it, “We don’t live in the past but the past lives in us.” Christians are deeply indebted to historical events that took place in the real world of time and space.

Recommended reading

 

World Religions: The Prophet and the Son of God

Topping my 2015 to-do list is writing my latest book, which will compare and contrast Jesus Christ with the leaders of other major world religions. I’ll be dedicating much of my time to this project—so to help keep me from being overwhelmed, Reflections will be featuring more guest author articles and editorial interviews in the coming months, all of which I hope you will find helpful and insightful.

To start each month and to give you a preview of what you can expect from my new book, I’ll be reposting a series of articles on Jesus and other spiritual sages. Most of these articles were originally published in New Reasons to Believe (NRTB), RTB’s former e-zine. I’d highly recommend checking out the NRTB archives for more science-faith content.

****

453218359Among the world’s great religious leaders, only two would found religions whose adherents now number well beyond a billion people—Muhammad and Jesus Christ. As of 2005, researchers estimated world totals of approximately 1.5 billion Muslims and 2.1 billion Christians. Therefore, combined, Muslims and Christians make up approximately 54 percent of the world’s population.

While Muhammad (AD 570–632) and Jesus Christ (c. 6–4 BC–AD 30) loom as arguably two of the most influential people in history, the identity, mission, and message of the two leaders stand in stark contrast. In this article I will introduce the life and thought of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, and then briefly compare him with Jesus Christ, who among Christians is known as the Son of God.

The Life of Muhammad

Muhammad was born into the Quraish tribe in the vicinity of Mecca (modern-day Saudi Arabia) in AD 570. Orphaned early in life, he was raised by his uncle Abu-Talib who was the chief of the tribe. Without formal education, Muhammad served as a camel driver in the Arabian Desert where he experienced cross-cultural interaction with members of the Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian religions. At 25 years of age he met and married a wealthy widow named Khadija and they had several children together. Through marriage Muhammad became a rather well-to-do merchant.

Islam’s Prophet

According to Islam, while meditating in a mountain cave on the outskirts of Mecca (Mount Hira), Muhammad fell into a trance and was greeted by the voice of the angel Gabriel. Through these extraordinary angelic encounters Muhammad is said to have received divine revelation that he would memorize and later recite. These revelatory encounters propelled Muhammad to the status of conduit of the God, Allah, and the specific messages formed the content of the Qur’an. As a result, Muhammad became the final and supreme prophet (seal of the prophets) of Allah.

The content of Muhammad’s message focused upon God’s absolute unity (radical monotheism) and the impending divine judgment facing humanity. That message is succinctly summarized in what Muslims refer to as the Shahadah (Islamic creed): “There is no god but the God (Allah), and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

Muhammad’s importance in Islam is not limited to his prophetic or revelatory role. For Muslims (which means “those who submit to Allah’s will”) he’s also the principal moral example. Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains: ‘‘The prophet is seen by Muslims as the most perfect of all God’s creatures, the perfect man par excellence…whom the Quran calls an excellent model.”1 Of course, it should be understood that Islam views Muhammad as being solely a human being. But some Muslims revere Muhammad’s moral example highly enough to call him the “living Qur’an.”

Upon his death in AD 632, Muhammad was the undisputed religious and political leader of the Arabian people. He headed a religion that would one day dominate the entire Middle East and beyond. At least one historian has ranked Muhammad as the most influential person in history.

The Prophet and the Son of God

DSC_0250Muslims view Muhammad as the supreme and final prophet in a long line of prophetic figures (some 124,000) that includes but is not limited to such biblical figures as Abraham, Noah, Moses, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, and Jesus. Historic Christianity refers to Jesus Christ as the only Son of God—meaning the person who shares God the Father’s divine nature and is therefore God in human flesh.

Five Ways Muhammad and Jesus Differ

These two respective leaders of the largest religions on Earth profoundly differ when it comes to their person, nature, and message.

  • Nature: Though viewed by Muslims as history’s greatest person, Muhammad never claimed to be anything other than a mere human being. In contrast, Jesus Christ proclaimed himself the Son of God who possessed both a divine and human nature.
  • Character: Muhammad, while highly intelligent, courageous, and persuasive, was––from an objectively historical perspective––not a morally perfect man. Whereas in Western civilization the greatest moral compliment to be paid is to say that one is Christlike in character.
  • Mission: Muhammad’s mission was to persuade people to submit their wills completely to Allah. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, came to rescue sinners by providing a permanent sacrifice for human sin on the cross.
  • Role: In Islam, while everything is based on Muhammad’s life and teaching, nevertheless he is not the center of Muslim worship and devotion. In sharp contrast, historic Christianity is all about Jesus Christ (emphasizing his person, nature, life, death, and resurrection).
  • State: Muhammad died at the height of his power as a great spiritual and political leader but remained in the grave. Unlike all others, including the great leaders of the world’s religions, Jesus Christ rose bodily from the grave at his resurrection.

Hope vs. Assurance

The Islamic prophet Muhammad offers a message of moral reform and submission to Allah’s will with hope of paradise in the hereafter. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, secures for those who trust in him salvation from sin and eternal life via his victory over death.

Common Ground of Christianity and Islam

  1. Middle Eastern religions
  2. Biblical tradition
  3. Monotheistic
  4. Theistic orientation


Comparison of Leaders

Jesus Muhammad
Figure: Historical, factual Figure: Historical, factual
Status: God Incarnate Status: Merely human
Role: Lord and Savior Role: Prophet and Example
Mission: Redeem sinners Mission: Promote Submission to Allah
State: Resurrected State: Dead


Comparison of Religions

Christianity Islam
Problem: Human Sin Problem: Human Weakness
Need: Reconciliation Need: Moral Guidance
Solution: Faith and Repentance Solution: Submission
Ultimate: Personal Redemption Ultimate: Paradise
Assurance: Yes Assurance: No
Deity: Trinitarian Monotheism Deity: Radical Monotheism

Endnotes

  1. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization (San Francisco: Harper, 2003), 46.

Five Movies to Make You Think in the New Year

Why do you go to the movies? For many, it’s about entertainment. Movies certainly possess a powerful ability to make us laugh and cry. Others go to the movies to escape from the pressures and challenges of daily life.

78466801I may be an oddball but I enjoy movies that make me think—especially about the deep questions of life. Some of my most stimulating theater-going experiences have resulted from films that inspired discussion with my wife and children. Earlier this year my son Michael and I saw Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary America. We ended up discussing the movie’s content for more than two hours. As a father, I have always enjoyed the opportunity to talk with my children about ideas that really matter and movies sometimes provide an ideal context for doing just that. Typically, I recommend a reading list for your New Year’s resolutions, but this year it’s movies that are guaranteed to make you think.

Some of these films contain language, violence, and sexual content that some may find objectionable. So, for the most part, these are films for adult viewers. Please use your own discretion in selecting which thinking movies you view in 2015.

5. 12 Angry Men (1957; not rated)

Twelve men serving on a jury are given the task of determining the guilt of a young man charged with murder. Henry Fonda plays the lead role of this black-and-white classic.

What I like about the movie is that it illustrates the various ways that people approach questions of truth and justice. Some jurors find their time wasted as jury members and want to avoid their civic responsibility. Other jurors make up their mind immediately apart from careful consideration of all the evidence. While still other jurors are inordinately influenced by strong peer pressure.

The most powerful scenes depict Fonda’s character asking Socratic questions to get the group to think more objectively about the evidence. In juries, as well as in all areas of life, asking the right kinds of questions about issues of truth can lead to great illumination.

4. Dead Poets Society (1989; PG)

Robin Williams stars as Mr. Keating, an unconventional teacher at a 1950s prep school for young men aspiring to reach the Ivy League. Keating challenges his students to “seize the day” (carpe diem) instead of following conventional ideas of success. I have enjoyed Williams’ dramatic movie roles and this is one of his best.

The film does a good job of raising questions about whether the purpose of education is to challenge young minds to think critically about life’s questions or about providing career-economic success. The underlying philosophical-religious question of man’s need to find genuine meaning in life, especially given life’s brevity, is a central theme in the movie.

3. Restless Heart: The Confessions of Augustine (2010)

Catholic publisher Ignatius Press produced this powerful TV-movie about Augustine of Hippo’s (AD 354–430) restless pursuit of enduring truth and eventual dramatic conversion to Christianity during the decline of the Roman Empire. The movie illustrates the central truth of Augustine’s autobiography Confessions—namely that human beings were made for God and that nothing else will truly satisfy human longing for the divine. The film, made in Italy, covers many of the major events in Augustine’s life. A 2-disc edition is available that offers extra exploration of the historical and theological issues involved in Augustine’s life and times.

Since Augustine is as important to Protestants as he is to Catholics, this is an important film for evangelicals to see in learning more about one of Christianity’s finest theologians and apologists.

2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994; R)

What would it be like to be sentenced to life in prison for a crime you didn’t commit? The Shawshank Redemption follows a falsely imprisoned man (Tim Robbins) from the 1940s through the 1970s and does a great job of raising critical questions about the issues of justice and meaning to life. The two central figures of the story (Robbins and Morgan Freeman) discover that art, education, and genuine, loving friendship can help to alleviate the pain and isolation of prison life. But what I like most about this extraordinary film is its illustration of the importance of hope in every human being’s life.

1. To End All Wars (2001; R)

Imagine the plight of World War II servicemen imprisoned by the brutal, fascist Japanese army. Daily life in this prisoner-of-war camp involves heavy labor, physical beatings, and a starvation diet. Yet in spite of it all some of the allied soldiers begin asking the big questions of life, especially questions about suffering.

To aid his men one of the Scottish officers begins a jungle university where the prisoners discuss philosophy, theology, and the arts. Through education, spiritual discipline, and a committed brotherhood these men are able to discover meaning and purpose even in the midst of evil and suffering. This amazing film illustrates such critical themes as hope, self-sacrifice, and redemption. This movie is one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.

You can also listen to our discussion of these thinking movies on episode 308 of my podcast, Straight Thinking.

What thinker’s movies would you add to this New Year’s resolution list?