Out with the Old

A few recent encounters, and the coming of a new year, has me reflective on the state of American Christianity vis a vi apologetics. Paul warned the Galatians of infighting, we are told to mark those that cause divisions among us, and the heretic (at this time, the term meant a divisive person) after the second admonition was to be rejected. There are of course admonitions that are equally important about the need to “earnestly contend for the faith,” but this will be an issue for the next piece.

One of the big problems the church has today is that we are often fighting the wrong battles; there are discussions of Calvinism and Arminianism, or issues involving textual criticism; battles over millennial positions and many others that are not the primary matters of the faith. I am not suggesting that these theological topics are unimportant, far from it. A pastor, in his training must, if he has any intellectual credibility at all, come to conclusions on these issues. Churches will ultimately settle on positions as they are a part of the regular teaching and preaching from the pulpit, and from the needs to come to organizational positions. My concern, then, is not for the interior of an Evangelical church, but for how our churches interact with each other. We live in a world where the new atheists have declared renewed hostilities against His church, ministering in an increasingly anti-Christian culture trying to reach men for Christ; my problem is not that we have secondary discussions, but that they have become the main points of discussions in our dialogs with each other; I like my wife’s green beans, but I would not use them as a substitute for Turkey on thanksgiving or Ham on Easter. And yet, this is precisely what we have done in our intellectual life as a Church in many quarters.

There are issues that are clear, and to depart from them is an issue of Biblical fidelity, but in many other issues, there is perhaps a spiritual problem interfering with the intellectual discussion. I am not an expert in Textual Criticism, I do find the eclectic position to be persuasive after a significant period of study in my younger years, most notably because of FA Hort’s 8 conflate readings, an analysis of the methodological errors employed on certain issues by majority text advocates, some statements in Jerome about the ending of Mark, and some of Gordon Fee’s work. And yet, I find I am far less aggressive and far less absolute than in younger years when I was a majority text advocate; I’ve since learned a bit about the issue and grown a little wise, in part by being wrong at the top of my lungs. In fact, some of the most extreme “experts” on Greek Texts cannot read Koine Greek, or have never had the pleasure of collating a transcript of a manuscript. In other cases, conspiracy theories have replaced thought. In all cases, these inexperienced experts are precisely the sort we should marked as dividers of the church.


Nor do I mean to pick on majority text activists with undo haste, they are simply an obvious example, those who are constantly quarreling about the superiority or heresy of Calvinism (or Arminianism), or a particular eschatological opinion is equally unbalanced, and likely to be, in my experience a trouble maker. Ironically, these thinkers often lead to the very heresies real believers should be concerned about. Majority text advocates morph into King James Only advocates, hyper-calvinism birthed the primitive Baptists and Methodists and the new light Presbyterians, and Arminianism has led to work based salvation and universalism. Emphasis of one controversy can lead to a dark path.


In other areas, the various social issues are huge. Whether it be issues that were big decades ago (such as movie attendance, playing cards – whether one was gambling or not, and the question of women wearing trousers) and still have a following today or issues that still are contended (such as the consumption of alcohol). In many cases there are issues of conscience involved, in which case both the weak and the strong should remember Paul’s admonish to them about their relationships with each other. In such cases, care should be taken before labeling someone a “legalist” or “worldly,” both statements are usually made in a manner that is disobedient to the reminder that we stand or fall before our master, Christ, and not each other.

I am suggesting then an out with the old – focusing less on secondary and tertiary issues and more on “earnestly contending for the faith; for saving our ammunition for the real issues and more civil discussions on secondary points; less on the mash potatoes and more on the main course.

Is Christmas just a Pagan Holiday?

One of the constant themes among unbelievers, that is particularly pronounced during this time of year, is the claim that the birth narratives in the gospels are simply adaptations of pagan myths. This is not a new assertion, it goes back at least as far as a work entitled The Golden Bough in 1890, but most modern’s beliefs are tied to Joseph Campbell works, most famously The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

To begin, we need to note that Campbell’s theories are popular among non-experts in fields related to mythology,[1] but those theories are accepted by few scholars. The study of myth is actually far more complex[2] than what Campbell or other writers who hold to universalist theories of mythology[3] put forward. All schools of thought, which argue for universal interpretations are asserted to be true, often on the basis of similarities[4] in various stories without taking serious consideration of differences, and then assuming a common source. There are some cases where this might be the best explanation,[5] but this does not mean it is the best explanation in all cases, and only when discussions of the differences as well as the similarities have been carefully factored into the discussion.

These factors are important in looking at the discussion of virgin births outside of Christianity. In many cases, one must begin by ascertaining when the accounts we have of a myth were written; much of the content of the arguments that Christianity borrowed from the mystery religions is based in question-begging.[6] Additionally, in most cases, the comparisons contain more differences than similarities. For example, many of the classical references to heroes being born of the gods are not examples of virgin births; they are examples of the classical deities seducing or raping human women (or in a few cases, goddesses seducing human men). In a sense, the heroes then, were less men born with a purpose (as say, being born to redeem mankind), instead their heroism is an accidental byproduct of lust.

There is also a common element of myth that is absent in the New Testament documents: myths, legends and folktales are of the “a long time ago” variety; in fact, this is an important part of identifying a myth or a legend, the only exceptions I’m really aware of are modern myths and legends, such as misinformation about those in Columbus’s day believing the world was flat. Yet, Luke discusses the birth of Jesus as being during the time of the census before Quirinius was governor of Syria, and the birth narrative reference persons in recent memory, such as Herod the Great. Pilate was not an unknown figure and Luke’s portrayal of the man is consistent with what we know of the man from Flavius Josephus’s writings.


[1]Among other charges noted, Campbell has been accused of being sloppy, he makes no attempt to differentiate between myth, legend and folk tales. Additionally, his mono-myth is not found complete in any one place, he simply weaves in various strands of material where he believes it would fit in a manner that appears to be completely arbitrary, without demonstrating why this material can be placed in such a manner. He also does not reckon with the serious deviations within mythical materials themselves; some of which indicates conscious borrowing and adaptation. In a few cases, such as the marriage of Psyche and Eros, the myths we have exist in multiple forms, and there are indications that other myths may have forms not extant. In other cases, depictions of the gods are inconsistent. For example, Theogeny lists Eros as being older than the Olympians, but most sources imply that Eros is the son of Aphrodite. Similarly, Aphrodite in Theogeny is the aunt of Zeus, in other works she is portrayed as his daughter.

[2]Myths, Legends and Folktales have a multiple options in interpretations. They might be misremembered history, as has been a common interpretation of the legend of Thesus and the Minotaur after archeological digs at the ancient Minoan city of Knosis. They might be etiological tales, explaining the origin of something, they might be connected to ritual, or they might be political propaganda, such as the adaptations of certain myths by Athenian playwrights, or they might fill multiple roles as the story is passed down through time.

[3]These would include Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Campbell, and Psychologist Karl Jung along with a few other writers.


                  [4]Sometimes, the importance of the twenty-fifth of December (or the Winter Solstice) is specifically noted as a connection between Christian discussions of the birth of Christ and various mythical figures. But this simply shows the ignorance of the source material with which many making this argument are operating under, the text of the Bible no where specifies the date or month on which Christ was born. This, in fact, was a later adaptation of the Church after it was legalized by Constantine the Great, and is not really germane to the discussion at all.

[5]For example, there are a large number of cultures that have stories of a flood wiping out most of humanity, and I believe this is evidence that supports, but does not itself prove, the Genesis account.

[6]Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986. 2nd edition. Oxford University Press, 1988, reprint 2003, 182-195.


Besides begging the question, Paul’s admonition to not change the gospel because it was of divine origin (Galatians 1:1-10) compared to the common pagan tendencies towards borrowing indicates, but does not prove, this is more likely.

Christianity and Social Justice

One of the major buzzwords in recent years (particularly with Millenials) is social justice. Social justice is a difficult to define, and there is no agreement on what consitutes social justice; in fact, like most elements of political philosophy social justice is dependent on elements that are more central to a worldview.[1] For example, as a Christian, I consider God’s statement that a man is not to be punished for the sins of his father to be central a central concept in any discussion of justice. A full discussion of this debate is larger than a blog post, and I would rather not devote this entire blog to that discussion. Instead, I will set my sights lower, at least for the moment, and seek, not to prove a Christian view of social justice, but a brief thumbnail sketch of a Christian approach.

Usually our thoughts on social justice are rooted in the past,[2] such discussions often involve issues involving individuals who are long dead, for example, slavery in the American South, Colonialism,[3] and the treatment of indigenous peoples by settlers. There are problems even getting out through the doors because in many cases, historical ignorance, or a propagandistic approach to history is involved; in many cases we discuss the Andersonville’s of our history but not the Camp Douglas’s. Most cultures have bloody hands in their past. But to over simplify to make my point, for the purposes of this discussion only, let’s assume every atrocity charged against Europeans is true, without question, and that all of these atrocities were unquestionably unprovoked, and no groups have committed any atrocities other than Europeans. In most cases, the actual participants in the atrocities are dead, their estates settled long ago. It is not possible to punish a guilty person who is dead, and to punish someone for a crime committed by his ancestors is unjust, and could lead to a cycle of reprisals that are common in war and generational struggles.[4] One might limit measures to institutions (at least those still in existence) instead of descendants, but this has odd consequences. For example, a government might pay reparations for past offenses, but it is the modern tax payer, not the actual perpetrators who will be taxed.


To put this more succinctly, the question is not whether social justice is desirable, it is. The question is whether it is possible, and the answer to my way of thinking is, if the guilty are dead, they cannot be punished by human courts. Unfortunately, the Perps got off. Punishing their descendants is unjust, and merely multiplies the problems. So do we assume that social justice is a nice dream that cannot be realized? For the Christian, the answer is the same as in other cases of justice, it cannot be done by human courts within the rule of law, but our understanding and longing for justice points not to the events of this world but to the world to come. In this sense, social justice is like justice in other respects.


Most people assume that the Zodiac killer will never be identified, and in all probabilities he is already dead. Jack the Ripper will never stand trial for his (or her) crimes. Many Americans, myself included, believe Lizzy Borden was guilty of the crimes she was accused of, but the jury favoring the American tradition had difficulties convicting her because she was a woman; if she was innocent, then once again the guilty went unpunished. After the O J Simpson trial, many Americans believed that justice had been denied, I was myself somewhat disenchanted with the distinctions between the theories of the justice system and the realities of it. A friend reminded me OJ will stand trial again, in front of Heaven’s bar unless he repents. We all have a natural desire and longing for a just society, a longing that, as we age, we begin to realize will never actually exist in this world. Yet, this desire like all desires, points towards an ultimate fulfillment at the time of the judgment.


Social Justice is much the same way, we do the best we can down here with the materials we have, realizing that our work will not be adequate. And yet, we recognize that there will come the “judgment of the nations,” when the sheep are divided from the goats. From this, we neither give up on the ideal of justice nor misappropriate the concept. Perhaps, as in all things, Christianity is the real means of solving this longing of the heart.

                  [1]Many activists (particularly after the writings of a post-modern philosopher named Michael Foucault) will argue that these discussions, debates and points of view are merely a means of maintaining power. Of course, we cannot argue that people might make a case for something out of impure motives, but the real problem with this analysis is that analyzing motives is that this argument is a knife that cuts both ways—after all, someone can argue that activists interested in “social justice” view their activism as a means of gaining power, tenure, getting donations, or building a name to sell books. Without specific evidence of bias, it seems most prudent to avoid this line of thought on the grounds that it is Argumentium Ad Hominem.

                  [2] Many times, social justice is discussed in recent allegations of police brutality, often showing up in recent discussions of police shootings. But these are not cases of social justice, they are arguments about individual alleged crimes; often the hype fails to capture the actual state of the evidence in the cases involved. Someone might argue that these shootings are the result of a bias by the police, but once again, one can make the same claim that protestors have an anti-police bias on the same grounds. Either way, discussions of social justice seem deeper than an individual case involving law enforcement.

[3]Discussions of Colonialism are more difficult than I can address here, in part because once again, “Colonialism” is not easy to define. Activists, for example, who discuss Neo-Colonialism are often operating from a Neo-Marxist perspective and will define colonialism to include any corporate interests that are involved with local governments or aid to governments that were not Marxist in orientation.

[4]In fact, one of my great fears about millennial discussions of social justice is that it could backfire, and lead to new recruits for groups like the Klu Klux Klan. If people begin to tire of being blamed by the government or in the job market for the sins of their ancestors, particularly since these groups recruiting strategy often uses propaganda presenting themselves as the protectors of the downtrodden.

A quick short Word from the East

I will mention no names and no places, but I had the opportunity today to meet with a pastor of a church in the Middle East along with a group of other Baptist men. His message involved concern over the west, stating explicitly “Arabs are the most radical muslims,” and he fears that the incoming flood of Muslims into Europe will substantially change the demographics, culture and religion of the West, this seems a very odd concern for a man from the Middle East, but then it also makes a great deal of sense. As Christians in the West, we are the “big brother” to the Christians who are in more difficult places.


We asked several questions, among them, it was mentioned there are few Muslims coming to Christ, but among those who do, visions and dreams about Christ are usually responsible for the conversion; this matches something I have seen elsewhere (see the aforementioned Quebeeli Nashi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus for an example). He also mentioned that the approach to apologetics that “works” in discussions with Muslims tends to be the discussion of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.


We laid hands and prayed for this dear brother in the Lord. These are two of his three prayer requests I will relay.


  1. Pray for the Christmas season for those in the Middle East; Christians in the Middle East are more likely to be targeted at Christmas time by Muslims.
  2. Pray for wisdom for Christians in the middle east dealing with Refugees. Some merely seek connections to the west, money or food.

Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

The current crisis on the American conscience is the question of refugees coming in from Syria and Iraq. There are very serious reasons for concern.  Some people will argue that no refugees will come in that have not been vetted for security reasons. And yet, this begs the question, men released from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility have often returned to fight against Americans, and the Boston bombers were refugees in the United States. The real question is one of the efficacy of the screening process. But this also doesn’t answer the fundamental question – is Islam a religion of peace as both Presidents Bush and Obama have declared, or is it actually a religion of violence and jihad? Have the Jihadists “hijacked” Islam or are they practicing a true, Islamic worldview? Are they inconsistent monsters?

There is a sense in which I don’t feel qualified to answer this question: Islam has something called the “doctrine of abrogation” which essentially states that there are errors in the Koran – this of course is a very different proposal than what Christians believe of the Bible. Abrogation by definition in Christian thought marks one as a false prophet (Deuteronomy 18:22); and this is one of the reasons why Christians reject the authority of Mohammed. This obviously leads to differences in koranic interpretation from my approach to the Bible.

This point of abrogation is the distinction between Muslims who argue for violent Jihad and those who suggest Islam is a religion of peace. Western Muslims will often discuss passages in the Koran involving peace and love, and explain passages involving conflict in terms of defensive struggles; they view Jihad as a spiritual struggle. I can’t argue that they are an invalid interpretation of the Koran, given the doctrine of abrogation, but it is clear that this was not the position Mohammed himself took on the matter (at least not on the matter of raping the wives of the conquered; Mohammed was a butcher and warmonger), and this seems to be contrary to most of the Hadiths (For details, see Seeking Allah Finding Jesus by Nabeel Quereshi a book that all Christians interested in Islam should read). The Islam of the Jihadists are consistent at least with the Islam of history, the type of Islam that invaded and occupied Spain by force, and that attempted to invade France less successful. Eastern writers argue that what is actually abrogated are the peaceful passages; abrogation is defined by time, later passages are to be preferred to earlier ones, and the discussions of peace are earlier than those passages advocating war.

I can only answer that the more radical schools are clearly consistent in their approach to Islam, one might argue that those saying Islam is a religion of peace have hijacked the religion of war, but I am not in a position to make that case.

If government’s first duty is to protect its citizens, then it should be clear that the criteria used for screening refugees needs to be addressed before addressing the refugee problem itself. For Christians, the question comes down to a more fundamental one: are these merely enemies of Christ or are they lost souls who are enemies of Christ? After all, the Christian believes that God died to save His enemies; we were among them before our conversions.

The question for the Church either way is how do we reach the muslim for Christ. Governments cannot change hearts, only the gospel can do that. Whether refugees are brought to the US or whether they are taken back to the Middle East aid is something the church ought to do, for the goal of winning hearts. The real cure for terrorism is to convert Muslims to Christianity.