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Against Religion? :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

What about arguments for the existence of God?  Are they sound? Is the faith of religious believers actually based on such rational arguments?  In our summary of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism, we have already covered how to better define atheism, explored his summary of the case for atheism, examined how both ethics on the one hand, and meaning and purpose on the other, can be integrated into an atheist worldview, and looked at how Baggini uses history to advance his case for atheism.  In this post, we will see how he critiques traditional arguments for the existence of God in untraditional fashion, placing emphasis on how one should keep the role of all such philosophical arguments in proper perspective.  Religious beliefs, he argues, come more from personal conviction, not from rational argument.

Atheism__A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini__image

Chapter 6: Against Religion?

Although this chapter is devoted to a suggestive critique of arguments for God’s existence, Baggini tactfully prefaces his critique by arguing that mere disagreement with religion does not make atheism “anti-religious.”  Unfortunately, argues Baggini, atheism has a negative brand as “anti-religious,” and religion is treated with more respect than atheism.

For example, he laments how a radio program in the UK called “Thought of the Day” allows religious figures a platform to speak to the culture where this same platform is denied to the prominent atheist associations and societies in the UK who have campaigned to allow non-religious viewpoints to also be given a slot (e.g. the British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society and the Rationalist Press Association).  Atheists are justified in feeling wronged and perceiving a prejudice in policy when such public forums exclude atheism from being given a platform to speak to matters of ethics and life-guidance.  But perhaps even more irritating is the fact that when these atheist-friendly organizations protested, it was sadly seen as an attack against religion, confirming and perpetuating the general prejudice against atheism.

Atheists are necessarily anti-religious in one sense only: they believe that religions are false.  But in this sense of the word ‘anti’ most Muslims are anti-Christian, most Christians anti-Jewish, most Protestants anti-Roman Catholic, and so on. … To set any group up as ‘anti’ another suggests more than disagreement, it suggests hostility, and atheists are no more required to be hostile to the religious than Jews are required to be hostile to Hindus. (92). 

With this warning in place, Baggini is now prepared to suggestively critique some of the traditional arguments for the existence of God.

Providing Perspective to the Role of Arguments

I mentioned that Baggini only offers a suggestive critique, but he also deliberately downplays the importance of such critiques, arguing that “evidence and arguments are neither here nor there – it is personal conviction that really counts” (93).  In the end, people do not become religious because arguments provide the grounds for their faith.  People become religious for personal reasons, but afterwards want to argue that such beliefs are rational—to show that being religious doesn’t entail throwing reason out the window.  Religious arguments are not so much to “prove” God exists as they are to merely show that religious belief isn’t nonsense.  So Baggini thinks religious arguments for God’s existence are designed to show that religious belief, although not required strictly by the “evidence” and reason, are at least consistent with them.

The Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument goes something like this: everything must have a cause, especially the universe with all its complexity, and God is the best hypothesis to explain its existence.  It fails because it ends up hypothesizing an entity that undermines the reasons for the argument in the first place.  God is considered to be uncaused and even more complex than the universe.  If God can exist without a cause greater than himself, why can’t something less complex exist without a cause greater than itself?  “Either the principles that inform the argument stand or they don’t.  If they stand, then God requires a cause and the causal chain goes back ad infinitum.  If they don’t, then there is no need to hypothesize God” (95).

Furthermore, even if such an argument were allowed to work without God having a cause, we still don’t arrive at anything like any of the particular personal God’s of religions, but merely with an uncaused cause.  Typical religiously heavy notions of God therefore could be seen as rational possibilities, but by no means necessary from the evidence.  But that’s only if we are generously entertain the otherwise flawed reasoning that really shouldn’t be allowed to stand.

This type of argument is also problematic inasmuch as it fits the “God of the gaps” method of arguing for God—a method whereby something that we can’t explain yet with science allows a place for God to fill in the gap in our understanding.  But Baggini argues that “such a God is fast running out of place for believers to hide him” (95).

The Teleological Argument

The teleological argument utilizes the analogy of a watch.  The evidence of a watch naturally leads one to suppose there is a watchmaker because it’s an intricate mechanism that appears to be designed for a particular purpose.  But, Baggini argues, the analogy fails because the universe is not like a watch.  We know from experience watches are created by humans, we have no similar knowledge of the origins of the universe.  Furthermore, we know from science that the appearance of design in the world can be sufficiently explained by evolution.

In any case, it’s “anthropocentric” to think the creator of the universe is an ethically perfect omnideluxe version of ourselves (omnipresent, omnibenevolent, omniscient, etc.).  “Why shouldn’t it be something more abstract, not recognizable as the traditional God of religion at all?” (96).  As with the cosmological argument, Baggini concludes “it is not contrary to reason and evidence to believe that there is an intelligent mind behind all this.  But that is not to say there are positive reasons to believe that there is.  Those reasons are still elusive” (97).

What Then Justifies Belief?

Baggini gives these arguments “short shrift” because he’s sure that religious believers did not adopt their faith on the basis of them, but on the basis of inner conviction.

As Russell Stannard said, for the believer, it is as though they know God exists and no further arguments are required.  The leading Christian philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga calls this faith, understood as ‘a special source of knowledge, knowledge that can’t be arrived at by way of reason alone’.  … If this is indeed the ground of religious belief, then it is disingenuous for believers to put forward arguments to support their beliefs.  Similarly, it is futile for atheists to attack the religious with arguments undermining these reasons for belief if they are not genuine reasons for belief at all. … I personally have little interest in trying to destroy these convictions, except when the holding of them leads to unpleasant and bigoted actions and proclamations, as can be the case with fundamentalist believers of all religions.  (98-99).

We have to recognize, however, that reliance on inner conviction rather than rational argument is a “risky” strategy.  This is because we must acknowledge that reliance on personal inner conviction leads to a multiplicity of religious faiths, not one in particular.  Trusting one’s inner conviction has led to Muslim beliefs, Christian beliefs, Buddhist beliefs, etc.  The fact that the same grounds of faith can be used to justify different and incompatible religions is a sufficient reason to discredit such grounds as a proper method for arriving at religious belief.

Militant Atheism

Not only does Baggini argue that atheism is not “anti-religious” and has carefully downlpayed his critiques of theistic arguments for the existence of God, he also wants to critique what he calls militant atheism, which he defines as “atheism which is actively hostile to religion” in general (not just fundamentalist religions).  Such atheism is characterized by its position that all religion is nonsense and by its desire to “wipe out all forms of religious belief” (101).

The problem in making this charge stick, however, is that the disagreement between believers and atheists if often precisely about the proper limits of rationality and evidence in belief.  The believer sees the atheists’ refusal to believe in anything that is not established by the ordinary standards of argument and evidence as too narrow.  …  The upshot of this line of argument is that religion may be irrational by certain standards, but then so much for those standards. (101-02)

The Problem of Evil

In addition to positive arguments for the existence of God, there are also classical defenses for the so-called “problem of evil.”  This problem is easy enough to understand: God is all powerful and all loving, so why should evil and suffering exist?  Either God’s not powerful enough to stop it, or else he is not good enough to want to stop it.  But, as Baggini points out, the classical defense is this: “God can stop it and wants to stop it but doesn’t because it is better for us in the long run that such suffering exists.”  The author emphasizes again, however, as with all apologetics, “the argument only serve[s] the needs of the believer” already committed to their faith in a good and all powerful God (103).

But crucially, many religious believers would be prepared to live with the inexplicability of evil if they could not find a decent theodicy.  For many believers, the existence of God is like the existence of time – they believe it exists even if its existence seems to generate logical paradoxes.  For the atheist, the problem of evil demands an answer, and an inability to provide a good one adds to the case against God’s existence.  For the believer, a solution would be nice, but is not necessary.  For militant atheists, this is evidence that religious believers have effectively opted out of the usual standards of truth or falsity.  Their refusal to be bothered by seeming contradictions shows that they are essentially irrational in their beliefs. (104). 

Dogmatism vs. The Quiet Voice of Reason

Baggini sympathizes with the militant atheist position but refrains from joining its ranks as a matter his principle to always avoid dogmatism.  “Because there are no standards for judging these questions shared by atheists and believers, I think that simply asserting that one’s own standards must be right is dogmatic” (104).

Furthermore, the militant atheist position usually ends up arguing that religion should be wiped off the map because it’s harmful for one of the following reasons:  1) believing what is false is always harmful, 2) it’s life-denying rather than life-affirming by the way it encourages people to deny their this-worldly desires for a future world or afterlife, 3) religion’s benign effects cannot be separated neatly from its harmful ones.  To this the author responds: 1) if we are hostile to every belief we considered false “the world would be a terrible place” full of dogmatism, 2) not all religious belief fit’s the “life-denying” characterization and many religious people seem to lead quite full and happy lives in this world, and 3) this argument could apply to all beliefs that have both moderate and extreme forms, delegitimizing beliefs that even atheists like Baggini value (104-106).

Being open-minded in one’s rational inquiry includes not being dogmatic the way militant atheism requires.  We cannot see reason and argument as weapons to bash religion or else we become, ourselves, fundamentalists in our own right, argues Baggini.

The best we can do therefore is to show believers who may think that they have rational grounds for their belief that they are wrong.  We can force them to choose, in other words, between taking the risk of faith and restricting their use of reason to apologetics, or giving up their religious belief altogether.  I think that relatively few will take the second path.  But as more do so, and religious convictions become less and less likely to be passed on by parents, educators , and the Church, so the force of reason may generally hold more sway.  Religion will recede not by atheists shouting condemnation, but by the quiet voice of reason slowly making itself heard. (107).

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In the next post, I will summarize his concluding thoughts about different lines of further inquiry into atheism and why he prefers the words “positive atheism” rather than Humanism.

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Exegesis and Theology: A Case Study of Philippians 2:5-11

Philippians 2:5-11 is used by Christian historians, philosophers, and theologians alike. By surveying the writings of three Christian thinkers, I hope to underscore the different ways each author uses the same text but for different reasons.  In my conclusion, I will offer several distinctions toward understand the relationships between exegesis and theology.  Our inquiry will expose (among other things) the value and limitations of historical inquiry for authentic Christian theology, the relationship between Christian faith and historical-critical inquiry, the influence of social location on a Christian’s exegesis, and different Christian approaches toward reviving authentic theology in the postmodern period.

Sergius Bulgakov’s Treatment: Kenosis as a Model for Divine-Creaturely Relations

References in this section come from: Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008). 472. pp.

Sergius Bulgakov was an Eastern Orthodox Russian Priest (1871-1944) writing systematic theology in Paris as a dean at Saint Sergius Theological Institute, occupying the chair of dogmatic theology from 1925 until his death in 1944. Thus, his social location created a open environment for doing distinctively Christian theology.  Bulgakov’s Lamb of God ambitiously attempts to explain what few have thought explainable: How could divine nature be united to human nature? While the Chalcedonian creed affirms such a union, Bulgakov argues that this creed unnaturally juxtaposes these two natures in one hypostasis in a way that seems like dogmatic “abracadabra” (63). How can the infinite be finite and the immutable become mutable? Taking Chalcedonian Christology as the starting point for constructive Christology, he hopes to address this Christological problematic. His work presumes a need to “clarify precisely what occurred in the Incarnation” (221) rather than simply affirming the Incarnation as an inexplicable mystery, for the latter would be an “inappropriate” way of proceeding “for a theologian who [makes] this the main subject of his investigation” (30).

The usefulness of Philippians 2 to Bulgakov’s proposal in this context can be viewed from several angles. It allows him to force upon his readers the weight of the problem to which his book is addressed: “the Creator became a creature” (213).  He admits that Philippians 2 is the subject of a number of disputes among interpreters, but insists that at least “one thing is indisputable”: that God became a creature “must be understood and received with all responsible realism, that is, without any docetic interpretations” (214).  This plays an important role in Bulgakov’s attempt to persuade his readers that his controversial ideas are necessary to make sense of the incarnation.  Emphasizing the humanity of Christ so forcibly functions to give a subsequent attractiveness to his claims of 1) the dual modality of God: that God’s divine being exists in two modes—God’s being “in himself” (infinite, uncreated, immutable) and God’s being “for Himself” or “outside Himself” (finite, created, mutable) and 2) the theo-anthropology of man: part of man is “eternal” (93) and has “God’s essence” (94).

By claiming that creation is a mode of God’s existence (God for Himself) and that man is part God (so to speak), Bulgakov hopes to make the union between God and man less like opposite poles of existence coming together in an ontologically awkward train wreck.  If part of God is Sophia (creaturely existence) and part of man is God (Sprit), their union can be conceived more naturally. In short, Philippians 2 is a convenient text for giving credibility to Bulgakov’s paradigm for understanding God’s relation to the world (his doctrine of Sophia) because “the kenosis [described in Philippians] expresses the general relation of God to the world” (223).  All of creation is but “a kenotic act of God” (223).

Larry Hurtado’s Treatment: Christological Ode as Evidence of Early Devotion

References in this section come from: Hurtado, W. Larry.  How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005. pp. vii + 234.

Larry Hurtado’s social location is the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.  His research grants depend on the approval of a community that values “history” according to modern standards (i.e. as excluding supernatural explanations for historical phenomenon).  Hurtado’s aim in How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God? is to dignify Christian origins from the stigma of having been corrupted over time by later pagan religious influence and to locate a shocking explosion of Jesus devotion that, as far as the evidence shows, must be dated long before our first Christian sources from Paul and Pliny the Younger (in fact, as far as we can tell, it may have begun soon after Jesus’ execution—about the time Christians think Jesus Resurrected!).

For this kind of agenda, Hurtado finds Philippians useful in at least two ways.  First, since Philippians is regarded by scholarly consensus to be genuinely Pauline and dated around 60 C.E., it is of vital importance as evidence of early Christian thought.  Thus, by making a case against the Adamic interpretation of Jesus’ being in the “form of God” before his self-emptying, Hurtado finds within the text a “high Christology,” for he argues that the syntax of the Greek “practically requires” that Jesus’ being “equal with God” as the parallel to being “in the form of God” (100).  Second, since such “high Christology” is located in a Christological ode and therefore does not originate with Paul, “well before this epistle the idea of Jesus’ ‘pre-existence’ had become a part of Christian belief” (101).  Third, this text works for Hutrado as evidence against the “evolutionary proposal” that sees Christianity’s belief in the deity of Jesus as the inevitable influence of pagan religion rather than an outgrowth (or “mutation”) of Jewish monotheism (15).  Since “Philippians 2:9-11 is adapted from, and makes deliberate allusion to, biblical and Jewish tradition” (being something like a Christological midrash with ubiquitous allusions to OT passages), the readers are expected to “bring to the passage” a “biblical/Jewish” framework “not some putatively pre-Christian Gnostic redeemer-myth, or some other scheme such as Roman emperor-enthronement or the apotheosis of heroes” (95).

Tilley’s Treatment: Kenosis as “Not the Point”

References in this section come from: Terrence Tilley. The Disciples’ Jesus: Christology as Reconciling Practice. Maryknoll, New York, 2008. 302 pp.

Terrence W. Tilley is a Professor of Catholic Theology and Chair of the theology department at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in New York.  His agenda in The Disciples’ Jesus is to completely redefine Christology in the hopes of making it more “practical.” His book is thoroughly colored with linguistic dualisms: practice vs. theory (1), practical vs. theoretical (2), doctrine vs. practical theology (3), spectators vs. disciples (15). Tilley’s book is an “essay” but not a “system” (xii).  His project displaces the sacred scriptures as “a theological locus” in favor of the scriptures as a “theological form” for traversing practices (xi). He attempts to redefine all the terms in order to relativize theory, doctrine, and “systems” (i.e. classical Christology). For example, he redefines Christology as “reconciling practices” so that even if one of the practices might be considered believing, it is seen as one practice among many in a complex nexus of “patterns of actions” (13).  He also redefines the foundational language of theology in general by distinguishing between beliefs and doctrines.  Beliefs have truth-value and qualify as one of the practices; doctrines govern the practice of beliefs but surprisingly have zero truth-value (203-205)!  With these two amazing moves of redefinition, Tilley manages to create an entirely new discipline: the discipline of Christology! (If we follow Tilley’s definition, we will have to find a new word for referring to what everybody else calls Christology: the study of the person and work of Christ).  Also important for his exegesis is this: doctrines are “shorthand guides derived from good practice” (208, italics mine).

There is a certain shock value to Tilley’s approach in his treatment of the famous Philippians hymn traditionally believed to contain a high Christology.  Philippians 2 is the classic proof text for Jesus’ pre-existence before his kenosis into manhood.  One might think this would be a poor choice of text on Tilley’s part after having claimed that Christian practice (Christology) is not dependent upon doctrine but vice versa, for Paul seems to base his injunction to the Philippians on a notion of kenosis that presupposes Jesus’ pre-existence.  First, Tilley claims that we cannot “be sure that the hymns [in Scripture] were preserved because they expressed the people’s faith” (109). Then, he asserts that “Paul’s point was not to assert preexistence”; rather, Paul is simply using rhetoric to make a point about having the right phroneõ (a term that means “mind” or “attitude” but Tilley translates as “ways,” 110-111).  Ironically, although Tilley affirms that Paul is reminding the Philippians to act the way Jesus did, he tries his best to explain this imperative in a way that excludes the description of what Jesus did (relinquish the mode of being he had in his pre-existence) from qualifying as part of Paul’s “point,” since he cannot allow doctrine (in this case pre-existence) to be the grounds for practice (in this case the way of humble servitude).

Conclusions: Theology & Exegesis

Theology is related to biblical exegesis in many ways.  First, the texts that are the focus of exegesis presume all sorts of theological realities.  Second, the social location of the Christian exegete often determines the way they exegete and therefore whether they are card-carrying theologians or undercover theologians.  For example, some Christian commentators presume or focus on the divine realities (the res) to which the texts refer (Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis, 65).  Here Bulgakov is our only good example.  When Christian commentators focus on such realities, their posture toward the historical documents of Scripture is one of faith and trust.  Their exegesis is thematically theological.  Other Christians, however, thematically suspend such realities in the interest of focusing on the human dynamics of the text and making contributions to a broader discussions taking place in a broader discourse largely outside the Christian community.  Here Hurtado is our example.  When Christian commentators aim their work at such broader secular discussions, they must present their work in ways that are persuasive to the presumptions that govern such discourse.  In the case of secular history, this requires excluding appeals to divine realities (the res).  Thus, such exegetes are considered historians and their commentaries on biblical texts are categorized as historical.  Often, as in the case of Hurtado, their agenda is apologetic.  Here we have two spheres of discourse: theological exegesis (Bulgakov) and historical exegesis (Hurtado).

Third, the object of biblical exegesis (the texts) appears to play a major role in the justification of one’s theology.  Both Bulgakov and Tilley feel the need to ground their arguments using Scripture.  Alas! Scripture still carries weight in the church (even if there is a wide ranging continuum on which we might place each theologian).  Bulgakov, in his treatment of Philippians 2, brings in a number of other dogmatic sources—the gospel of John, the “divinely inspired” Chalcedonian creed, other Pauline letters (e.g. 2 Corinthians 8:9), patristic exegesis, contemporary exegetical consensus, etc. (213-17).  He accepts traditional Christian dogma as represented in the Creed of Chalcedon as his starting point.  The intention of his historical survey of patristic theology and his own exegetical endeavors is not to suspend his creedal convictions to “prove” them from Scripture. He wants rather to develop the Chalcedonian dogma or explain it more precisely, not prove it. Unlike Bulgakov, some Christians who believe the Bible to be inspired (particularly Protestants) thematically suspend the dogmas of Creeds (dogmatic tradition) under the conviction that Scripture itself should be the norm of all norms, and thus (at least in principle) be capable of reforming Creedal dogmatics.  Yet even the Creeds themselves were formulated as resolutions to competing ways of interpreting Scripture, demonstrating that even those who rely on the Creeds are (consciously or unconsciously) indirectly allowing the biblical witness to “norm” their theology.  The ethos of patristic theologians (who wrote the Creeds) was to stay faithful to Scripture (which involves exegesis) in their theology.

Fourth, the theology of Christian historians often appears to set their agenda for historical research.  Hurtado, for example, does his best to clean up the mess historians have made with the Bible.  He points the evidence in a direction that fits comfortably with what the texts themselves say (devotion to Jesus happened very early—maybe even right after the execution, it was not started by the influence of pagan religion, etc.).  Yet Hurtado’s work is a great example of what is called “the impasse between exegesis and theology.”  It should be obvious that any theological claims about the res are hermetically sealed off from his work.  His agenda requires it, for he wishes to force the secular discourse to face the historical evidence, but to keep his case from easy dismissal by larger secular discourse he must forgo theology.  It appears to me that Christians need people like Hurtado to bring sobriety to the secular discourse and not let historians so easily get away with distorting the evidence to undermine Christian faith.

But is there a necessary, insurmountable chasm between exegesis and theology?  Not necessarily.  For as we have seen, both Bulgakov and Tilley need exegesis to do theology persuasively.  Therefore, they can often fit like hand-in-glove. If Christians are concerned with doing theology within the ecclesial context, they need not worry about suspending their attempts to explore the possible realities to which the biblical texts refer (realities that disclose revelation from God).  The insurmountable impasse is between anti-supernaturalism and theological exegesis.  Inasmuch as one methodologically rules out their theological convictions from a secular discourse in order to draw attention to one’s arguments and evidence, such methodology can never finally result in authentic theology—even if it can make that “leap” more historically credible for those willing to go beyond secular (read: anti-supernatural) historical-critical methodology.

Here we have stumbled upon another distinction: historical critical methodology and anti-supernatural presuppositions.  So long as the historical-critical method is in the hands of mostly secular anti-supernaturalists, historical inquiry will seem almost inseparably wed to anti-supernatural presuppositions.  But the question we must ask over and over again when considering whether historical-critical methodology is at an impasse with theology is this: In whose hands? If complemented by Christian presuppositions, historical inquiry might not only make Christian faith historically credible, but reveal the Word made flesh in real history (e.g. taking the biblical narratives seriously with an attitude of trust, looking to the lives of the apostles and the continuity of their teaching, looking more carefully at linguistic norms of ancient Greek to illumine New Testament Greek, etc.).  In secular hands, historical inquiry “shows” all sorts of embarrassing things about Christianity that discredit Christian faith (Jesus never existed; belief in his divinity was the inevitable influence of pagan religion; the New Testament is unrealiable, etc.)  In Levering’s hands, history becomes participatory and original historical meanings of the biblical text reveal realities beyond the text.  So the question we must ask is: In whose hands?

The question of what qualifies as “fair play” in exegesis, however, is a much more complicated question.  The question is so complex that it stands as a good candidate for qualifying as one of the great “mysteries” of the faith.  What complicates the issue is this: limiting the message of God to the best discernable human intensions in the words would contradict the way the Apostles appear to use the Old Testament, but opening the possibilities of meaning beyond the original human intensions in the words makes Scripture vulnerable to abuse, semantic abracadabra, and eisegesis.  A middle ground is hard to tread.

Positioning the Historical-critical Method

References in this section come from: 1) Robert Barron, The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2007. 2) Joseph Ratzinger. Jesus of Nazareth: From The Baptism In the Jordan To the Transfiguration. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007.

Barron does not have a developed paradigm for the role of the historical critical method in the work of Christian theology.  His book virtually equates the historical critical method with the historical-critical science of Classical Liberalism (35-47).  Thus, his alternative is “not to look under, around, or over [the text] in order to get the point.  Rather, the story itself, the narrative of Jesus as the Christ, in all of its peculiarity, surprise, and novelty is the point” (49).  He wants to be drawn into the narrative of the gospels so as to take on “its assumptions, characters, perspectives, typical questions, modes of behavior, theology” and thereby come to a new way of “thinking, moving, and deciding” (50).  He positions biblical interpretation (he does not describe such interpretation as historical-critical) as subordinate to doctrine. Doctrines rule out certain possibilities from biblical interpretation and “resolve certain puzzlements” (52-53).

After laying down certain doctrinal guides, Barron just jumps right into exegesis without tiptoeing around the sensitivities of modern historical-critical methods or even Christian hermeneutic textbooks.  A quick glance at the sources used in his first chapter of exegesis, “The Gatherer,” will reveal that he borrows only sparsely from historical critical sources.  He takes a common sense approach combined with his doctrinal guidelines and peppered with interesting tidbits (e.g. Aristotle insights on friendship, 76). He comes close to allowing for historical-critical insight when he analyzes certain Greek words or phrases (e.g. the “Greek formula” ego eimi, 88; the Greek term ousia that “undergirds” the word “property,” 77), but he does not belabor any of his interpretations as though he were up to the challenges of tedious scholarship.

Ratzinger, on the other hand, has an explicitly developed method that incorporates the historical critical method.  If we are to take history seriously, we must take methods that examine history seriously (Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, xv).  But the historical-critical method cannot speak to us in the present and excludes the possibility of supernatural phenomenon.  We must, therefore, go beyond this method to a “Christological hermeneutic” (Ratzinger, xix).  Once he has laid bare his twofold method, he allows for the “Christological hermeneutic” to so dominate that he goes into all sorts of spiritual meditations that seem completely unrelated to the authors historical intension (the authors who were inspired by God to write what they wrote).  His historical work and spiritual insights often seem to be joined by duck tape rather than flowing from an organic union (see last sentence of previous section).

Without a doubt, Ratzinger has a better approach than Barron when it comes to salvaging the insights of the historical-critical method.  He has a clearly defined twofold method, and although I have seen other writers work with a similar method in a more satisfying way, his method (as explained in the beginning of his book) is more promising than Barron’s more polemic approach.  It proves most fruitful in his hands when he grounds his main point in The God of Jesus Christ in themes widely attested as themes in the text he exegetes.  Personally, however, among those who have attempted to contribute to overcoming the pitfalls between historical-critical methods and theology, Levering has helped me the most.

It is better to think of the methodologies of Hurtado and Bauckham as complementary to the more theological/philosophical approaches of Ratzinger and Barron than as “the” alternative.  (Here I am thinking of their methods as excluding recourse to the supernatural, i.e. thematically secular-historical-critical.)  As a means for apologetics, such an approach may be an alternative vocation for a particular Christian, but it can never be an alternative theology for that Christian because it rules out theological conclusions.

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Matthew Levering. Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2008.

The God Debates: An Alternative to Doug Wilson’s Debate with Christopher Hitchens

If you’re an atheist and you thought Doug Wilson’s arguments for Christianity were weak, or found yourself disappointed with degree of substance portrayed in the Collision Documentary, or you’re a Christian and likewise were disappointed, I suggest that you will find much more satisfaction listening to a more sophisticated/academic debate between atheist Gordon Stein and Christian scholar Greg Bahnsen.  It’s not as flashy and entertaining as The Collision, but if you are a true intellectual and can carefully follow arguments, you will find it much more satisfying of a debate.  In fact, this debate has since been often referred to simply as “The Great Debate,” without any further qualification.      

For a more recent alternative, try listening Daniel Dennett (renowned militant atheist) argue with Alvin Plantinga (retired head of the philosophy department at Notre Dame).

Shortcut to Converting Atheists to Theism

Vjack at Atheist Revolution gives theists a way to convert atheists to belief in God in his post, How to Make Atheists Believe in God.  Amusing piece worthy of our attention.  Here is an excerpt.  

Let me say at the outset that this is not a challenge, a demand for evidence, a call for miracles, or anything of the sort. I pose no grand test for believers to meet, nor do I intend this as a trap for the dimwitted. There is a very simple way that atheists can be persuaded to believe in god, and I will reveal it in this post. If those who call themselves religious ever want to defeat the big bad atheism once and for all, this is how to do it. Just realize that it will come at a bit of a price.

To persuade an atheist to believe in god, all one has to do is define “god” so broadly that it cannot possibly be doubted. …

The religious could claim every prominent scientist as one of their own if they would merely expand their definition of god and jettison that little matter of the supernatural.

_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_—–____——-__–__-_-_ HT: The Atheist Revolution

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