Sunday, December 26, 2010

Matt 24 watch, 113: On the core warrant for the Gospel as a call to repentance, reformation and transformation of civilisations

It is not common that this blog sees multiple posts on any given day.

However, the issue now before us, as of the heads-up in the last post is of such magnitude that a further foundational post is needed for some very painful things that need to be said.

Not, least, so that what is being said will in the end break through the now routine, fallacious, and poisonous but too often effective rebuttal attempts by the trifecta fallacy of distraction through red herrings, led out to caricatured distortions through strawman caricatures, soaked in slanderous demonisations and ignited through snide or incendiary rhetoric to cloud, confuse, poison and polarise the atmosphere. For, in a Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals world, it is now sadly routine to motive monger, slander and dismiss as "hateful," "intolerant," "narrow-minded" and "bigoted" -- or worse -- those who object to the conflation of liberty and license driven by the amorality and radical relativism of evolutionary materialism. All, in service to to "might and manipulation make 'right' . . . " approaches to public policy and foundational institutions in our civilisation.

But in fact, truth is truth: that which says of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. [Aristotle, Metaphysics 1011b.]  Liberty, in turn is utterly distinct from law-unto-oneself license regardless of consequences to others or the community, and right is right.

But to ground this, and to justify speaking from a specifically Christian view and a scripturally informed conscience, to call to repentance and reformation, we must first contend for and ground the truth of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. For, once that faith is grounded, then we can confidently trust the teachings of Christ, his Apostles and the Prophets who prepared the way for Messiah. And, on the strength of that confidence, we can set about building a bulwark against what is now upon us, so that we may brace for and stand the storms ahead, then help to rescue, preserve, recover and eventually rebuild amidst the wreckage.

A storm is already looming over the horizon, and time is now very limited.

So, now, let us pause to summarise why we may be confident that he faith once for all delivered to the saints will be a reliable bulwark in the hard and stormy days ahead, and in the harder yet days beyond when we will have to rescue, recover, preserve and rebuild. As was already done before when the classical form of our civilisation collapsed.

An excerpt from an in preparation course will be helpful:


>> Generic theism is plainly a credible worldview, but does this extend to the historical foundations of the Christian Faith itself? 

In short, what are the pivotal facts?

This must be our focus, for, it will always be possible to tease out strands of text and point to real or imagined difficulties, provoking doubts and maybe dismissals without sober consideration of the key warrant for the Christian Faith. Indeed, there is a major wave of current skepticism that does just that. But, to try to reject a cumulative case by pointing to the slenderness or weakness of the individual fibre may well fail to see the cumulative effect of the core warranting case; i.e. it commits the fallacy of composition.

For instance, sometimes it is objected that the Christian faith is like a set of buckets with holes in them, so one cannot carry water. But, if we stack the buckets so one stops the hole in the next, the resulting composite bucket will often be serviceable to carry water. The key lesson: a whole is often stronger than the individual part, as it takes advantage of how partly strong, partly weak parts can work together to build on strengths, compensate for weaknesses and counter threats.

So, we must turn instead to assessing the cumulative strength of the core warrant for the Christian faith.

Namely, the record and reality of Jesus of Nazareth as the scripturally prophesied, crucified, risen Messiah, Saviour and Lord. Once this is firmly established, it puts all difficulties -- and, by the very nature of the case, there will inevitably be many such -- in proper perspective.

Australian scholar Paul Barnett, in his Is the New Testament History?, provides an excellent place to start building our answer. He does so by giving us a summing up of the composite, consensus view of early non-Christian sources from late C1 to early C2, on the roots of the Christian faith and its characteristics:
On the basis of . . . non-Christian sources [i.e. Tacitus (Annals, on the fire in Rome, AD 64; written ~ AD 115), Rabbi Eliezer (~ 90's AD; cited J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1929), p. 34), Pliny (Letters to Trajan from Bithynia, ~ AD 112), Josephus (Antiquities, ~ 90's)] it is possible to draw the following conclusions:

1: Jesus Christ was executed (by crucifixion?) in Judaea during the period where Tiberius was Emperor (AD 14 - 37) and Pontius Pilate was Governor (AD 26 - 36). [Tacitus]

2: The movement spread from Judaea to Rome. [Tacitus]

3: Jesus claimed to be God and that he would depart and return. [Eliezer]

4: His followers worshipped him as (a) god. [Pliny]

5: He was called "the Christ." [Josephus]

6: His followers were called "Christians." [Tacitus, Pliny]

7: They were numerous in Bithynia and Rome [Tacitus, Pliny]

8: It was a world-wide movement. [Eliezer]

9: His brother was James. [Josephus]
[Is the New Testament History? (London, Hodder, 1987), pp. 30 - 31.]

The pattern in these sources is instantly familiar. That is, the NT accounts plainly fit into a recognisable historical pattern of facts we may credibly establish through a range of quite early non-Christian sources on the C1 origins, claims and spreading of the Christian movement.  Though, of course, the primary Christian sources give far more details than one would expect from sources that mention such facts in passing as they go on to make their own points. 

That external support should not be surprising, given that (as Barnett goes on to observe, pp. 37 - 41) in the very first cluster of writing sub-apostolic church fathers -- Clement of Rome [c. AD 96], Ignatius [c. 108] and Polycarp [c. 110], 25 of the 27 books in the New Testament are cited or alluded to, as authentic and authoritative scripture. [Only the two rather brief works, 2 Jn and Jude, are not cited or alluded to.]  In short, the onward textual history of the NT documents begins in the 90's, i.e. within living memory of the Apostles, and it continues in an unbroken chain of custody to the origin of printing. 

Similarly, from the days of Sir William Ramsey on, the NT documents have received considerable (and sometimes, unexpected) archaeological confirmation.

Also, while the original documents -- as is usual for classical works -- have long since perished, there are altogether over 24,000 NT manuscript copies, nearly forty times the next best, Homer's Iliad with 643 copies; 10 - 20 copies dating to a thousand years after the event being far more typical. A significant number of these NT manuscript copies date to the first three hundred years after composition (again, exceptional) and the earliest generally accepted fragment (the Rylands Papyrus, P52,  c. 125 AD with John 18:31 - 33 and 37 - 38) dates to the edge of the first century:
This chain of custody and independent external support decisively undercuts the arguments of the remaining fringe of radical scholars and skeptical popular writers who would date these works to ~ 100 - 160 AD.  The overwhelming evidence is that the NT documents come from the First Century. 

In particular, when we look at the historical backbone of the NT, the Luke-Acts two-volume work, we can easily see that Acts cuts off at 62, and does not record the deaths of James [62], Peter [c. 65], and Paul [c. 67 - 68].  Nor does it mention the Jewish revolt of 66 or the destruction of the Temple in 70. All of these would have been highly material to its line of discussion, so we can credibly date it -- at least as a "first edition" -- to 62- 63 AD. The "prequel" Luke, probably dates to c. 60 AD, and Luke was in Palestine with Paul in 57 - 59, so he had opportunity to interview eyewitnesses (especially the women who play such a key role in that work) and consult the eyewitness documents he speaks of in his preface, Lk 1:1 - 4.  Since Mark is generally seen as one of these sources, that dates Mark to c. 50 AD, Also, the passion narrative in Mark casually speaks of "the high priest" as though he were still in office, which would suggest a date for this part: c. 37 AD.

So, if we lay hyper- skepticism driven by anti- supernatural prejudices aside, there is no good reason to doubt that the NT documents, considered as a body, are primary and highly trustworthy sources, datable to the lifetime of eyewitnesses to the events and teachings recounted. Thus, it is a fair conclusion to hold that they are authentically rooted in and accurately reflect the core testimony, message, teachings and general history of the C1 church.

But, such anti-supernaturalism is indeed a material issue.  

To cogently address it, the key question is the central miracle reported in the NT, the resurrection of Jesus, which we have already seen was credibly prophesied c. 700 BC in Isa 53.  This miracle has been the focus of considerable and quite harsh scrutiny over the past several centuries, but today the following twelve "minimal facts"  are considered firmly established by the majority or in some cases even nearly all NT scholars:
1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. He was buried.
3. His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
4. The tomb was empty (the most contested).
5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus (the most important proof).
6. The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers.
7. The resurrection was the central message.
8. They preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.
9. The Church was born and grew.
10. Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.
11. James was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus (James was a family skeptic).
12. Paul was converted to the faith (Paul was an outsider skeptic). [Cf. Habermas' paper here and a broader more popular discussion here.]
The classic "alternative" skeptical explanations have deservedly fallen by the wayside, and as we saw in the previous unit, the now favoured "spiritual body" visions fares but little better against the credible facts of the text.  Once the tomb was empty that first Easter morning, something has to reasonably explain -- 
  • the missing corpse and the empty tomb, 
  • the convincing appearances to the disciples [altogether over 500], 
  • those to the circle of women,
  • that to his family [who were previously skeptical to the point of fearing their eldest brother insane], and 
  • that to Paul in his earlier career of arch-persecutor, as well as 
  • the inability of the Jewish and Roman authorities to produce convincing evidence to scotch reports of a risen messiah,
. . . and it has to do so without undue strain or obvious anti-supernaturalist bias that leads to accepting what would otherwise be preposterous.  In this, we should recall that as ordinary men and women of typical common sense rationality, the fishermen, farmers, house-wives and tax collectors in Jesus' circle of followers would be able to tell a live man from a violently dead one, and they could also tell which of two events came first.  

It took no miracle to see, converse and even eat supper with Jesus. Nor did it take a miracle to see him crucified, speared to ensure death, taken down and buried in the famed borrowed rich Sanhedrinist's tomb -- unlikely to be recounted unless true! -- then sealed therein and guarded. 

The miracle lay, rather in the implications of the timeline sequence: Jesus was crucified and buried first, then after that, he reportedly met, spoke to and ate supper with his disciples on the following Sunday evening and on the Sunday evening after that too. In this last event, he reportedly invited Thomas the doubter to insert his hands into the fearsome, but now evidently powerless wounds.

So, on the credible minimal facts, either the core witnesses were utterly misled by an inexplicable delusion, or they were just what they understood themselves to be -- witnesses of the truth. 

As Peter preached in the very first Christian sermon:
Acts 2:22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know – 23 this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles.  But God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power . . . .

"32 This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it.  33 So then, exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he has poured out what you both see and hear . . . . 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.” [NET]
And, if the apostles and those with them in the core circle of 500 witnesses were indeed witnesses of the truth, the millions ever since who testify to having met God in the face of the risen Christ are also witnesses of the truth.

A truth that potentially has revolutionary, transforming impact for us, our lives, communities and world. 

A truth that demands our sincere response of repentance and trust in God through the crucified, but now risen Christ, and guided by the scriptures that authentically record that truth, starting with the Old Testament that he so highly regarded, which sets the context for Messiah, and prophesies his coming. Then also, continuing through the New Testament that reliably reports his life, teachings, passion, death as Saviour, and triumphant resurrection as Living Lord who shall return as Judge, but even now intercedes for us before the Throne of Grace. 

Indeed, let us hear and heed the final counsel of the Apostle Paul to his son in the faith, Timothy, even as he faced imminent death at the hands of Nero for his bold witness to Christ:
 2 Tim 3:12 . . . all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom  you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God  may be competent, equipped for every good work.  
2 Tim 4: 1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound1  teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.  6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith . . .  [ESV] >>

We have been warned.

And, with the key warranting case for the faith once for all delivered to the saints in hand, we may confidently lay out the principle for personal, familial, and comunity reform under the gospel:
  Eph 4:17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 

18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 

20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!- 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self,  which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. [ESV]

  And to that, we must next turn.  END

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