Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Limitations of Apologetics

This past week, many have been talking about the debate between the popular evolutionist Bill Nye and the Australian creationist, Ken Ham. As his opponent used Ham's faith in the Bible against him repeatedly, words from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 2 came to mind, My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, SO THAT YOUR FAITH MIGHT NOT REST ON MEN'S WISDOM, BUT ON GOD'S POWER'.   

With those words, St. Paul expresses something that Christian apologists should share with him, namely his embrace of the paradox that however mighty the word of God is, its use carries with it much that 'human wisdom' will consider weak and unpersuasive.

St Paul's contention is that Christian faith is not a human achievement produced by wise human reasoning, but instead a gift from God to each individual believer.  And, furthermore, to have faith is not to have been convinced by human arguments.  To have faith is to have been convinced by the mysterious power of God’s Holy Spirit, working through either his sacraments or his word.  As he put it, `This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in WORDS TAUGHT BY THE SPIRIT, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words'(vv13-14).
If people are tempted to wait for convincing  human arguments or convincing salesmanship to succeed with their minds before they believe, they may never believe.  And even if  convinced by a good sales pitch to become a Christian, what kind of faith would that be if it were merely another human argument?
The difficulty in accepting this is that, in ordinary life, we make decisions based on clever reasoning or sales pitches all the time.  Yet, St Paul did not want that kind of thing to be used to explain Christian faith.  Nor, did he want people to believe in Christ only because they bought a human argument.  He wanted them to believe because God Himself had convinced them through the power of His Word.  Only that way could God get the credit for changing people's lives.  Only that way would people credit conversion to the `power of God'.  This was St Paul's announcement to the Corinthians: That Christ had sent him to: [1Cor. 1.17] `...preach the gospel - not with words of human wisdom, LEST THE CROSS OF CHRIST BE EMPTIED OF ITS POWER'.

What St.Paul wanted his hearers to realise was that the word of God is a positive, though mysterious, force – powerful enough to work the miracle of creating and nourishing faith in the hearts of many who hear it – but not overwhelmingly convincing to every human being.

The Good News about Jesus of Nazareth, that He has made atonement for human sin by His death on a cross, and that through faith in His redeeming work, we can be forgiven and have eternal life is based on real historical events and not myth, but even writing to the generation in which the eye-witnesses were still living,  St. Paul recognised that it was - even back then - not easy for many to believe.  As he described it.  ‘Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’  ( 1 Cor. 1.22-24).

No wonder many today find that even the most skilled debaters, such as debated last week, fail to convince everyone to believe.  It is sadly inescapable that many sinful, resistant, proud, rebellious, human hearts will not be moved by God's word and judge much of what is in the Bible to be foolish.  As Jesus Himself was described as the ‘stone the builders rejected’, so the holy scriptures are vulnerable to a similar fate.  God’s eternal and almighty Son, took on such a humble form during His earthly ministry, that He was easy to despise, so is the Bible.  

And this was not a failure on  God’s part.  It was deliberate.   Please let that statement sink in for a moment.  The aspects of biblical revelation that seem foolish are not mistakes on God’s part.  He intentionally made some Bible stories hard to believe.  As. St. Paul argues in this epistle.  ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are…’ (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).  

Jesus once explained why He told difficult parables by quoting Isaiah 6.9-10, saying, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."  9 And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant,
 10 he said, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that 'seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand'  (Mark 4.9-10).

It is significant that, as one observer noted, Jesus Christ, after His resurrection, could have gone back to Pontius Pilate and made it unmistakable that He was the victor over all, even the power of Rome, but Jesus chose not to.  Instead, the risen Christ appeared so subtly that even among His own disciples, 'some doubted' (Matthew 28.17).   

God desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, but that does not mean He desires it to be easy.  It’s like a teacher in school who desires all her students to get ‘A’s and graduate with honours.  But that does not mean that that same teacher is going to make every test so easy that everyone get’s ‘A’s, nor is she going to make it impossible to fail.

In a similar way there is no contradiction between God’s desire that everyone be saved and His use of difficult things such as we find in Scripture and His love for us.

God both loves us and challenges us.  He both provides salvation for free (at His expense) and stretches us through tests of our loyalty toward Him and faith in Him.  If people fail in meeting those challenges, it is not God’s fault, but the sinner’s fault.

God does not send any test of faith that is impossible to endure.  With every temptation there is a way of escape that we might be able to be saved and to bear with things that make others abandon  God and perish.  

Sometimes we are required to honestly admit our own weaknesses before we can benefit from the strength of others.  A person faced with a great physical weakness may have a very difficult time unless he admits his weakness and looks to others who are physically stronger to help him. 

A person who is swimming in deep water with 1000 miles to go to get to land would
be foolish to refuse the help offered by a passing boat.  He would have to admit his limitations, and let himself be rescued or death by drowning would be the only outcome.

The trouble in realm of faith is that people often don't understand that their sins have placed them a 1000 miles from God.  Their guilt has spiritually bankrupt them before God.  Just being an ordinary human being places one in a most extraordinary position of weakness before God.

It is God's word, the Bible, that lights up the balance sheet and shows us the overwhelming
overdraft in our accounts.  It is God's word which lights up the waves and shows us the impossible swim that faces us without His help.

Indeed the Bible itself is the lifeline extended by God. Its message about Christ, strengthened and empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, is all we need to which to cling and we are lifted from the waves, redeemed forever and all our debts paid.
As S.Paul taught: `...the message of the cross is foolishness to those WHO ARE PERISHING, but TO US WHO ARE BEING SAVED IT IS THE POWER OF GOD'.  To the Romans he wrote: `I am not ashamed of the Good News about Christ, for IT IS THE POWER OF GOD TO SAVE THOSE WHO BELIEVE'  (Rom. 1.17).

St Paul's commitment to this message with Christ's work on the cross as its centre is what he meant when he said: `...I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified'.  

When we recognise this, then we too, with St Paul, will be determined to `...know nothing...except Jesus Christ and him crucified' -- not our own pride, not our feeble strength, not our sincerity, nor the overrated goodness of our hearts, not our salesmanship, debating skills or wise human arguments, not even our scientific evidence  -- BUT ONLY JESUS CHRIST!   `the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom' the Bible says.  May that reverent respect for God and His ways, be ours through faith in Christ's Jesus unto life everlasting.