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On “Poverty”

I started thinking seriously about poverty ten years ago when I was in graduate school.  Not for the reason that I was in school, but because of many things I was reading there and the fact that I had a wife and two children to support.  I was, like probably most people in graduate school, paying for both school and living expenses with government loans.  I had a half scholarship for tuition and fees, but even so, school was very expensive.  A few times I had to work a part time job to make up the difference.

My academic program involved a great deal of reading and reflection on the works of classical antiquity and the Middle Ages.  Particularly in the former, I repeatedly ran into the theme that the accumulation of money and material goods almost necessarily led to a severe decline in personal and civic virtue and morality.  Sparta and Athens experienced it.  The Roman Republic experienced it.  The Roman Empire experienced it.  Jesus said a great deal in the Gospels about the corrupting influence of a high emphasis on material things, and the Epistles tended to be pretty hard on it as well.  Even the Church catholic in the Middle Ages experienced the same ethical downspiral as its pagan precursors the more it focused on money and material gain.

It wasn’t exactly revolutionary to read all these accounts and come to a generally negative conclusion about the relationship of money and possessions to what truly matters.

The next step in my thinking about “poverty” came when, fresh out of graduate school, I took a teaching job at a small Christian school.  We always hear of the public schools bitterly complaining, despite their access to the State’s coffers, about their severe lack of money.  The complaint is nearly ludicrous given the near destitution-level of financial struggle that small Christian schools face.  Public school teachers aren’t paid well?  Don’t make me laugh.

At any rate, there I was with a wife and two children – shortly thereafter three children – making a wage extremely far below the U.S. poverty line.  I was, in fact, so far below the poverty line that the Federal government declined to tax me at all, and instead decided I needed a fairly large amount of money (almost a third of my salary at that time!) given to me as a “refund” on my IRS return.

It was in this context that I started to wonder about the rhetoric of “poverty” in our country.  For the interesting fact was that although I and my family were classified as merely subsisting and in need of significant government assistance, I was never unable to pay my rent, my children always had plenty of food and clothes, my car was paid for, I had very little credit card debt, and I had a few standard electronic luxury items in my house (including a desktop PC and a laptop).  This was “poverty”?

Now it is true that given my extremely small salary, I was unable to make payments on my school loans, my family did not have health or dental insurance, and even with the annual tax-time infusion of Federal money, we pretty much just barely scraped by.  But we had the things the Apostle lists as leading to contenment, food and clothing, and on top of that we also had shelter and a number of items (chiefly books) that, from a mere material sufficiency standpoint, were superfluous.  Given all this, my mind kept turning over and over again the question, “This is poverty?”  Clearly not.

However…[ref]There’s always a however… or a but… or an on the other hand… in human things, which, under an absolute God, are always subject to great relativity.[/ref]

Despite the apparent simplicity my account of my own life over the last decade may give it, the question about “poverty” is pretty complicated.  A huge part of the complexity is that as Christians in America, we are a rather spoiled lot.

How many of us reflect on, say, our standards for what “good” food is – let alone what “enough” food is?[ref]How many of us eat out more than, say, once a month, and reflect on how vastly much more it costs to do that than to plan weeks of menus, shop in accord with them, and eat at home?  My children have recently begun to see this larger point about food in particular because we’ve gotten involved with volunteering for Feed My Starving Children, which exposes kids who never go to bed hungry to what real poverty looks like.[/ref]

How many of us consider that when we, living in the lap what most of the human race would have considered god-like luxury, speak of the “poverty” of others, we might just be answering the wrong question – and in fact, simply begging the question?

How many of us accept, without much thought, the popular narrative that Protestantism[ref]Whatever that is – another gigantic historical and sociological issue![/ref] has this amazing thing called a “work ethic”[ref]Do we do much reflection on what work is?  Dorothy Sayers’ Why Work? is a provocative place to start.[/ref] that is connected to the Gospel[ref]Another term on which, when it comes to economics and politics, there is surprisingly little self-critical reflection among American Christians.[/ref] and which, supposedly by the progressive[ref]Term used deliberately to provoke thought![/ref] operations of God’s providence since the Reformation[ref]History alert!  How well do we grasp the Reformation’s relationship to previous Church history, and to what extent might we, as all humans tend to do, be using a caricature of it to justify our present ideologies?[/ref] has created an amazing world of temporal and material prosperity in principle available to everyone equally if only they will make proper, rational, self-interested choices that The Market’s “invisible hand” will mesh with everyone else’s for the greater advancement of all?[ref]Do I need to even spell out the gigantic questions lying behind that whole phraseology?[/ref]

Other questions arise.  In my years as a teacher, I’ve had occasions to teach humanities courses based on curricula that explicitly-state their commitment to “the Christian worldview.”  I have noticed often than when it comes to economics (and also politics, which used to be the same subject as economics, as in the old the term “political economy”), American Christians nearly universally gravitate to using every text they study, whether the Bible or the classics, as support for our own present concept of capitalism, with all its assumptions and consequences.  Yet for all the talk of “worldview,” there is little to no reflection in such treatments of fundamental issues such as the teleological finitude of man made in God’s image and his correspondingly limited relationship with the world as his habitat, the origins of money and economics, and, as noted earlier, the nearly universal theme in the sources of the ethical corruptions (particularly the subtle ones) that easily enter when a mind sets itself on earthly gain.

Questions are a fascinating thing.  Sometimes they are good, sometimes not, but determining which status a particular question has is not always easy.  Moreover, any disagreements seem to turn on the simple fact that different people ask different questions about the same phenomena, and so come to different answers.  It is clear to me that my own life experiences (especially as refracted through the type of education I received – which many do not) more than justify the sorts of questions about the fact of and rhetoric of “poverty” I have asked in this post.

A decade later, I am still pondering the classical texts I studied in graduate school that got me started thinking about “poverty.”  I am still grappling with how to apply the New Testament’s largely negative words about wealth and material possessions to my own life.   I still have more questions than answers.

I am still a teacher, and, though I have risen almost double in salary over several moves to different schools, I still make well below the poverty line as established by Those Who Say They Know the Objective Truth About Such Important Matters.[ref]Part of that is, of course, because I now have six children rather than two.[/ref]  But every member of my family has more clothes than any of us can wear in a month, we have at any given time a month or more of food stored in our pantry, we now own two cars,[ref]Both are 16+ years old, and the second was bought reluctantly, and only because I commute 40 miles a day to work and we did not want to run our only family vehicle into the ground.[/ref], my children are all in above average health, we pay our monthly bills on time, and we only take on debt when it is absolutely unavoidable otherwise.

We are, as a general rule, pretty darn happy with our lives, and recently have begun to run thought experiments about how we might actually get rid of much of the simply superfluous stuff we have – not just to simplify our lives but to take a stand against the extreme materialism that so deeply infects the Faith in our fair land.  We’re not talking wearing hair-shirts and becoming pitiful mendicants, mind you.   We’re just trying to engage more faithfully the perennial issues surrounding the role of money and possessions to virtue.

But at the end of the day, I have to say firmly and resoundingly, no, no matter what the charts and graphs and Learned Articles and one-sided apologetics for God’s Own Economic System, American Capitalism, all say, I am not “poor.”  One may be able to show me a line on a spreadsheet marked “Poverty Line” and put an X below it where my family is, and one may be able thus to condescendingly speak of my regrettable state of “subsistence living,” but I don’t believe a word of it.  Go pack some meals for Feed My Starving Children and try to say that I am “poor.”[ref]What this sort of thing does is reveal that all standards of “rich” and “poor” are relative to some other standard – and it is that almost always unstated (and likely unexamined) standard that we need to be discussing, not the amount of money one makes.[/ref]

I can’t help but ask: does not such rhetoric grossly trivialize “poverty?”  And when it is tied to the Constitution-thumping, flag-waving theology of “American exceptionalism” that wrongly ties itself to the Gospel as cause-effect, presuming on God’s inscrutable providence, does it not also trivialize the Bible and the Christian witness?  And lastly, doesn’t it bury beneath confused and simplistic propaganda very deep questions with which our race has always struggled, and to which we are still trying to find answers?

 

Thoughts on Culture and Culture-Warring

I wrote this more than a year ago but just sat on it due to some misgivings about its clarity and value.  But whether any particular statement below is right or wrong, the fact is that Internet discussions are mostly driven by extremes, so I don’t think it’s improper (though it may be the conservative version of politically incorrect) to try to encourage slower, more careful thought about such important matters.

I. “Culture”

Like “society” and “civilization,” this is a general term that refers to a complex interplay of ideas, beliefs, and behaviors shared by many people who by the fact of the sharing exhibit a significant degree of outward (political) unity.

Modifiers attached to the word preserve its general nature while at the same time highlighting particular aspects of it: “Modern culture,” “American culture,” “consumer culture,” “Christian culture,” and the like.

The general nature of the term obviously facilitates easier communication by avoiding the need for complex, time-consuming sub-discussions about the numerous local variations on the theme that exist.  But a question I have is whether and to what extent the general term “culture,” even with various modifiers, permits us to get at deep fundamentals more than at surface appearances.

For instance:

II. “Christian Culture”

This term functions popularly as a catch-all label for Our Side as opposed to Their Side (see III, below).  Christian culture is something that once dominated the world, and, depending on who you talk to, there seem to be three broad possibilities.  Namely, Christian culture

(1) has just gotten a bit occluded with grime that proper political incrementalism pro Rege can wipe away,

(2) has just about fallen to nothingness and needs to be rebuilt from sola Scriptura scratch, or

(3) has changed form from the papal ecclesiocentricism of the late Middle Ages to a “Two Kingdoms of Christ” model – BUT

(3a) There is presently much dispute over what precisely “Two Kingdoms” means and entails, since much of what goes by that name now does not match what the Protestant Reformers themselves taught.

The question of end dominates here.  American Christians are divided on eschatology, and each view contains within it a whole different take on the biblical theme of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation.  A variety of takes on “Christian culture” are thus possible, and none are dismissible without substantial argumentation from Scripture, the history of interpretation, and careful enumeration and analysis of many contingent factors that can produce only the relative certainty of prudential judgment rather than the absolutely certainty of geometrical demonstrations.

And so a serious problem presents itself for culture-warring rhetoric: we Christians do not agree among ourselves about what Christian culture even is.  How then, do we act as if there is a single agreed-upon set of cultural goals that the culture-war is aiming at?  As far as I can tell, the idea that we are all aiming at a single, agreed-upon thing called “Christian culture” stems from the fact that among conservatives, there is consensus on a handful of high profile, high-emotion issues such as abortion, evolution, and the biblical-creational pattern of marriage.  But we are all over the map on other important matters of strategic tactics (in ethics, biblicism or natural law; in politics, careful distinguishing of the Two Kingdoms or “American exceptionalism”; in public witness, aggressive pugilism / stigmatization of “Them” or contemplation-based efforts at civil persuasion).

Given these considerations, it seems that much of the ongoing advocacy of “Christian culture” as a clearly discernible side in a great culture war may be more on the level of connotative reasoning (virtue-signaling / emotive prescription) than denotative (an “objective” dictionary description).

 

III.
“Secular Culture”

This term looms large in apologetics interactions between Christians and the world outside our Faith.  Frequently it succeeds in reaching a strictly denotative aim that, as said above, facilitates easier communication.

For instance, if “secular” gets defined as “broadly unconcerned with objective truth” and there is a large group of people who share ideas, beliefs, and practices flowing from that definition, then there really is such a thing as “secular culture.”  When everyone, or most everyone, in a given conversation agrees on the denotative meaning of a term, communication is indeed much easier and more productive.

However, language is meant to reflect reality, to properly describe the extra-mental world, to connect the human mind with the external world in a way that points toward wisdom.  If the received denotation of a term, and so, all that is based upon it, does not properly reflect the world, it is not good that communication occurs more easily and productively.  (The production of falsehood, especially when easily achieved, is surely undesirable.)

Thus, I wonder if at times, perhaps even frequently, such generalizations function as deficiently rigorous boundary markers, or rather, to use the term that is in vogue, just simplistic ways of virtue-signaling.  That is, while generalizations do often succeed in strictly denotative aims, do they sometimes achieve little more than shoring up connotative (more subjectively emotive and less rigorously intellectual) aims, and so preserving an unexamined, unhealthy sense of deeper unity and correspondingly unhelpful polemics against others?

Thus, lastly, for now:

IV.
“Culture-War”

Probably few Christians have not heard this term, and there are probably even fewer who do not engage in the activity of culture-warring in some form.  For some decades now, it has seemed obligatory, and that sense has only intensified in the few years since the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision.

Indeed, on the cluster of complicated issues regarding sexuality that seem to be consuming the lion’s share of our national ethical-political conversation, it is doubtful that anything seems more blazingly clear than the daily spiritual, ideological, legal, and often personally-relational, war between “Christian culture” and “secular culture.”

As the cannons continuously fire up and down each side’s line, threatening shell-shock for all but the most battle-hardened, there seems little time, and even less interest, in closely examining terminology, implications, and practices.  Few seem to want to try to untangle denotations from connotations, to refine public understanding of the relationship of the terms to the realities they are trying to describe, to more clearly identify the shape, scope, and even the location of the battle lines.  Memes and tweets and YouTube clips of Extreme Horror Stories frantically carpet-bomb each side, and for many on both sides, any wavering from the posture of Constant, Total War is tantamount to treason.

To me, however, “culture war” is an intriguing term if one stops to think about its component parts and ask a few unconventional questions.  Thus:

  • Have we defined “secular” correctly when we treat it as unequivocally antithetical to “Christian”? Etymologically, “secular” just means “of this age,” or “of this world.”  But isn’t every age and isn’t this world Christ’s?  Over the course of Christian history through the Middle Ages, “secular” came to mean “not church-y,” and though prior to the Reformation this was treated as a deficient thing, the Reformation recognized the goodness of created norms in the “not church-y,” and so dispensed with mere cynicism about “the world.”  So I want to ask, shouldn’t we take care in our view of “secularism” to distinguish what is good in it, and not merely engage in a Constant, Total War against it?

 

  • If a culture is a complex interplay of ideas, beliefs, and behaviors shared by many people who by the fact of the sharing exhibit a significant degree of outward (political) unity, BUT if there is also a war focusing on culture, we need to ask how many cultures exist in America – that is, how many combatants are there in the war?

 

  • If there is in America only one culture, what is the place of Christians in it? If there is only one culture at stake in the culture war, we have to ask at what points do we, as a part of that one culture, agree with those whom we otherwise portray as slavering, anti-God, despicably immoral idolators?  Are there deeper structures of thought, ethics, politics, and economics on which we share the same assumptions as “Them,” and if there are, what are we talking about when we say we are at war with them?  It is an uncomfortable question, but one necessitated by asserting that there is only one culture involved in the culture war.

 

  • As some, such as Alastair Roberts, argue, what if we Christians are complicit in all the deeper matters of culture that have led to our present sexuality crisis. If so, whom are we fighting in the “culture war,” what are we fighting over, and to what end?

 

  • Moreover, if there is only one culture at work, then we are fighting a civil war over competing definitions of that culture. And as with the word “secular,” it seems unlikely that a simplistic Black Hat / White Hat view of what the culture ought to look like properly describes the real situation.  Perhaps it is no accident, in this light, that many conservative Christians readily identify with the “Great Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War proper, in which little bad can rightly be said of the South and little good of the North.  A kind of political Manichaenism, maybe?

 

  • Finally, if it is a civil war, then we are not fighting Orcs, but errant neighbors and fellow citizens – and shouldn’t that crucial fact help determine how we fight, what strategic goals we pursue and by what means, and what our long term understanding of victory is?

 

  • On the other hand, if we are dealing in America with more than one culture, we must ask to which one Christians belong, and what it is that unifies “our” culture as over against “theirs.”

 

  • This is an extremely complicated question that flows straight into weighty matters of external political organization and integrity. For if there are actually different cultures at work in the culture war, on the definition of “culture” noted earlier, there are different political orders manifesting themselves.  If our culture is, to borrow a slogan from the abortion debate, a “culture of life,” and theirs is a “culture of death,” two different governments are required to express the very different lifestyles inherent in those terms.  Yet few Christian culture warriors are calling for, say, the overthrow of the United States government or, less extremely, secession from it.  Rather, even the most devoted culture warriors continue to canvass for Approved Politicians and to vote in elections, as if the goal is really only to capture common external political machinery for the next cycle or three, and as if victory is really only just getting to gloat for a while because the opponents have been legally forced to submit.  But on the principle “What fellowship has light with darkness, the kingdom of God with the kingdom of Belial,” it seems fairly un-Christian to try to maintain the cyclical, politically external mash-up of two entirely different cultures, the culture of life and the culture of death.  There seems a serious inconsistency in this take on the culture war.

 

  • But this raises the further problem that in many Evangelical and Reformed circles, the institutional church is held to be a “parallel culture,” a “counter-polis,” which is often described as if it were a self-contained locus of “true civilization” outside of which is mere darkness and barbarism. This view makes it very clear whom we are fighting and to what end, but it also puts us in a very problematic position relative to those we call our adversaries.  For very obviously, the institutional church doesn’t provide electricity, groceries, running water, trash disposal, safe and usable roads, postal service, or any of a dozen or score other services that seem quite indispensable to civic life as we know it.  Very obviously, the institutional church concerns itself with nothing more than aspects of life held to be “spiritual,” that is, not civic-political.  And so, very obviously, the institutional church is not able to provide us with everything we need for “true civilization.”  We must still in hundreds of of ways continuously rub shoulders with “Them” – and that has rather pronounced effect on how exactly we can characterize the culture war we say we are fighting.  Specifically, it takes us back to the possibility that really, there is only one culture involved in the war, and to all the questions listed above under that point.

“Lead Quiet and Peaceable Lives”

I’ve found myself wondering of late how 1 Thess. 4:11-12 and 1 Tim. 2:2 pertain to our popular conservative Christian activity of “culture warring,” especially when election fever gets hold of us and we start pining after that old Puritan “shining city on a hill.” Both of these passages enjoin Christians to live in a way that seems opposed to the frenetic, gun-slinging ways of “culture warring.” To wit:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thess. 4:11-12)

Pray for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Tim. 2:2)

As I’ve tried to think these passages through to determine what application they might have to our present cultural circumstances, it’s occurred to me that there may be a parallel between ourselves and the early Christians to whom these epistles were directly written.  That parallel subsists in the fact that in both societies Christians were a minority voice in an overwhelmingly ungodly cultural stream.  For the first 300 years of the Faith, Christians were not only a cultural minority, but were frequently subjected to terrific persecutions.  “Christian culture” (to use today’s terminology) advanced by (to use that day’s terminology) the seed of “the blood of the martyrs,” not by the exercise of freedom in the voting booth.  It was in the context of a governmental system in which most people had no voice that the early Christians were exhorted to seek to live “quiet and peaceable lives” so that they might win the respect of outsiders to the Faith.

At first glance this doesn’t seem all that parallel to our situation.  For, as we all know, it’s quite popular for politically-active Christian leaders today to up-play America’s “Judaeo-Christian heritage” and to claim that we are a “Christian nation” in order to rev up the voting bloc to pull that lever for The Favored Candidate Who Will Best Move Us Toward Godliness.  This seems to me to be mostly just the self-insulating rhetoric of a sub-culture rather than a reflection of the actual mainstream culture.  We are a nation with many millions of self-professing Christians in it, but to take this fact, combine it with the historical situation of our having been founded largely by Christians, and deduce from these facts that we are a “Christian nation” in the sense of a culture permeated with Christian assumptions seems unwarranted.

As I look at the historical record, it seems clear to me that a real “Christian nation” will certainly have many sins, but it will, despite those sins, look far different than a non-Christian (or at least post-Christian) nation that just happens to have many Christians in it.  And I believe we are the latter, not the former.  The Roman Empire for the first 300 years of Christianity had many sins in it, but no one thought it was a “Christian nation” just because it had many Christians in it.  After the conversion of the Empire with Constantine, Christians started treating the Empire like a “Christian nation,” and though it still had many sins in it, its fundamental course as a “Christian nation” was demonstrably different from when it had been just a pagan nation with many Christians in it.  Christians gained real cultural power, and put it to good effect for the next millennium.

Contrary to the Roman Empire prior to Constantine, America started out as a real “Christian nation” and continued that way for a while.  But history seems clear enough that step-by-step American Christians gave the store away to unbelievers, until at last we live in a so-called “Christian nation” that aborts millions of babies every year, demands that Christians keep their religion out of education, and the voting booth, pursues unjust wars all over the globe in the name of the god Demos, continually courts naked avarice in its domestic and foreign economic policies, and teeters on the brink of redefining marriage as including “LGBTs” (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgendered people).  I don’t see how it’s intelligible to claim that this sort of country is a genuine “Christian nation.”  At best it’s a nation with many Christians in it, but that doesn’t make it a “Christian nation.”

But regardless of how that debate (for it will surely be one!) might turn out, the question about seeking to live a quiet and peaceable life remains on the table.  Christians who are gung-ho for “culture warring” seem often to pursue their war on the basis that this is, in fact, a “Christian nation” and that, therefore, we Christians ought to fight for it.  We ought to use every weapon at our disposal, especially political ones, to war against the forces of darkness trying to corrupt our “Judaeo-Christian heritage” and replace it with “secular humanism.”  They don’t believe the replacement has fully happened yet, and they think that culture-warring is the way to keep it from fully happening.  The problem is that if one is spending one’s days conducting the cultural equivalent of World War I trench warfare, one is not aspiring to live a quiet and peaceable life that wins the respect of outsiders, as the Scriptures cited above say.

Is there a way to reconcile this seeming contradiction?  I should make clear that I am not a political quietist.  I do not believe we Christians should accept the demands of Modernity that we keep our faith private, locked up inside our hearts and the walls of our churches, never daring to bring it into engagement with the larger culture.  Since I am Reformed and some of my readers are as well, I should also say that I am no fan of the so-called “R2K” theology of Westminster West.  This inquiry I am making has nothing to do with the notion that we should be happy with what one professor at that seminary calls “A Secular Faith.”  I am a firm believer in Christians being active in our culture and seeking to transform it for Christ.  Many readers know well that I spend a great deal of time trying to apply classical Christian ideas about politics to our present political circumstances, so the last thing in the world I can be justly accused of is writing a post like this because I am some sort of quasi-gnostic who thinks only “spiritual” things matter.  What I am asking in this post concerns the manner in which we work for cultural transformation.  I am asking a how question, not a whether question.

So, this said, how do the above-cited verses pertain to our political activity as culture-transforming Christians?  The early Christians, to whom those epistles were directly addressed, changed the culture over several centuries by living quiet and peaceable lives that more often than not culminated in martyrdom.  There might be something to an argument that there is a parallel between us and them, and that the way forward for us, in this seemingly post-Christian culture, is also martyrdom – if not physical martyrdom, perhaps another form.  But again, they lived under a governmental system on the operations of which they had little to no say.  Although Scripture’s truths themselves never change, most thinking Christians realize that the applications of those truths might from time to time change.  We don’t live in the same governmental situation as those who first read Paul’s epistles.  Does (or should) that fact change how we apply Paul’s words to our own lives?

Is culture-warring an acceptable activity since our system of government allows us to mobilize and try to change the laws we live under?  Or do those simple words from so long ago mean precisely the same thing for us as they did for Paul’s original readers?  Or, perhaps a third way: is there a way actually to combine culture-warring with seeking a quiet and peaceable life?  I have some ideas on the third possibility, but I’d like first to hear from others.

On the Relevance of Thomas Aquinas to Protestant Thought

A few years ago, I was asked to write a short piece on the relevance of Thomas Aquinas to Protestant thought.   Such a broad topic deserves a much longer exposition, which in a number of ways I am not qualified to give,  so in the spirit not of scholarly analysis but of lay exhortation, I would suggest three basic themes that should interest us as Protestants in Aquinas.

First, Aquinas helped theology to recover the importance of this world as the sphere of God’s redemptive actions.  Prior to his day, most theologians focused on the next world so intensively that this world was drastically de-emphasized.  Although he is often criticized for making serious use of Aristotle’s philosophy, it was by the constructive, biblically-oriented use of Aristotle’s concern for this world that Aquinas was able to point Christian theology back in the direction of embracing the created world as a good thing.  Though he was by no means a proto-Protestant, this theme of Aquinas’ would find eventual fulfillment in the Reformation, which freed the ordinary Christian to serve God in a way that, while not being of the world nevertheless remained firmly in it.

Second, Aquinas shows us a constructive way to relate the teachings of the Bible to a robust use of the intellectual side of our human nature.  Aquinas defined faith as simple trust in the things that God tells us, that is, simple trust in the authority of God, just because it is God who speaks.  Belief in God’s Word does not require rational proof, for faith as a way of knowing truth transcends the best that our finite reason can accomplish on its own.  Nevertheless, Aquinas also insists that reason can play a significant role in the Christian life by providing a way to systematically and intelligently articulate to the world the things that we believe just because God says they are true.  Reason does not provide faith itself, but is the perambula fidei, the “preambles to faith.”  As such, it is always the servant of faith – a most useful servant, indeed.

Third, Aquinas shows us a constructive way to engage contrary worldviews.  Much of his work, which rationally articulated the content of what Christians hold to be true by faith, came about because of the need to answer false worldviews – in his day, Judaism and Islam.  But far from getting frustrated with falsehood and those who militantly defend it, and far from adopting a merely negative, polemical posture against falsehood, Aquinas held that faith and reason never do truly conflict, but always mutually support each other.  Consequently, he was able to engage contrary worldviews with respect for the rational nature of their adherents as men made in God’s image, and yet at the same time, argue against them with confidence that at the end of the day, Christian theology would always stand vindicated against the claims of other religions.

Notes on Apologetics

Introduction

The word “apologetics” comes from the Greek apologia.  This is the word that was used in the ancient Greek and later the Roman court systems to describe giving a defense against a prosecution.

The basic word apologia appears in Acts 22:1 and 25:16 in the context of the Apostle Paul giving a verbal defense of his faith before the authorities.  So, apologetics is essentially “giving a defense of the Christian Faith when people raise objections to it or ask questions about it.

Why should we be interested in apologetics?  The most basic reason is that there are many examples in the Bible itself of God’s people “giving a defense” against objections to their faith.

The locus classicus, or classical place in the Bible, that talks about apologetics is I Peter 3:15, which says – “Sanctify the Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you…”

That is the Scripture that is most often quoted as a reason for doing apologetics.  It is important to understand, however, that that is not all that verse says.  Most who quote the verse to show why apologetics should be done do not quote the last part of it, which says, “…with gentleness and reverence.”  

That’s very important!  We are, indeed, supposed to be always ready to “give an answer,” but we are supposed to give that answer “with gentleness and reverence.”  The next verse, verse 16, goes on to say, “Having a good conscience, that those who speak evil of you may be ashamed of their false accusations about your good faith in Christ.”

So then, the purpose of apologetics is to answer those who raise objections to or ask questions about our faith in Christ, so that we can show that we have a good conscience and make them ashamed to speak ill of us because of our faith in Christ.

Unbelief’s Questions and Objections

There are an enormous number of objections to the Faith and questions about it floating around in today’s world, and they arise from practically every area of human experience.  There are historical objections, philosophical objections, scientific objections, aesthetic objections, moral objections, and so on.

There are two basic ways that Christians approach these various objections: either we can take them seriously on their own terms and seek to give intelligent, responsible answers to them, or we can refuse to take them seriously on their own terms and so instead seek to win the battle rhetorically.  We have The Truth, They do not, and what’s more, They are stupid idolators who know the The Truth but refuse to give assent to it.

The second approach seems to be borne out by Romans 1:18 ff., in which Paul seems to mock unbelievers as fools who have deliberately exchanged the truth about God for lies because they do not like the truth and have set themselves against God.

The first approach, taking the unbelievers seriously on their own terms, seems to be borne out by Acts 17, the famous encounter between Paul and the pagan Athenians on Mars Hill.

In light of passages such as these, a pretty serious disagreement that comes up among Christians as they seek to do apologetics well.  Should we follow the model of Romans 1 or the model of Acts 17?  Romans 1 is extremely confrontational; Acts 17 is extremely personal, really, almost downright friendly.

In other words, is apologetics – the giving of defense speeches – prolegomena or just another form of witnessing?  The answer to this question can directly affect how we approach our task to answer the questions and objections of unbelievers.

Prolegomena means “things said beforehand,” before the main body of a message is given.  In this context it means that apologetics is what some have called “pre-evangelism,” or, the process of removing intellectual obstacles and excuses that people put up so that the claims of the Gospel do not seem quite so powerful to them.

Since it is “things said beforehand,” prolegomena is not a matter of confronting someone with a demand to do something.  By its very nature as a rational enterprise, it has to be more “low-key,” focused more upon setting the stage for the main message.  It is not itself the main message.

So, if apologetics is prolegomena, then the way we approach the objections and questions of unbelievers is to answer their questions and objections with gentleness and respect, treating the questions and objections as if they are good ones deserving of good answers.

If we approach apologetics as prolegomena, we will not see its goal as winning the soul of the unbeliever, but only as removing obstacles to his properly hearing the Gospel, which comes after we’ve discussed his objections.

Witnessing, by contrast, is a common word for presenting people with the Gospel and calling them to repent of their sin and come to Christ.

If we approach apologetics as just another form of witnessing, we will present our defense arguments as demands for repentance.  This is incorrect, because repentance only comes when God grants it, and He grants it in the context of the preaching of the Gospel.  “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17).

Also, the natural man cannot understand the things of the spirit because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14), and it is God who sovereignly raises spiritually dead men up from their graves and makes them alive (Col. 2:13).

In this light, I think the way to evaluate whether apologetics should proceed in Romans 1 style or Acts 17 style is to be aware of the context of each of these passages.  It is a generally accepted rule of biblical interpretation that the interpreter should observe genre and context, and allow these, and not his own preexisting theological commitment or system, to inform his interpretation of the text.

Romans is a letter written by a Christian to other Christians for the purpose of making the theological case that all men are sinners and justly deserve God’s wrath.  It is a very rhetorical passage that is striving to make a universally condemnatory point so that it can subsequently make a very particular redemptive point.

Acts 17, on the other hand, is a direct, face-to-face encounter between a Christian and unbelievers for the purpose of persuading the unbelievers that, on the basis of things that they already know to be true, they ought to go the whole way and embrace the full message about God made manifest in Christ.

The defense of the Gospel is not itself the Gospel.  Apologetics, then, is not the same thing as preaching the Gospel.  Its goal is not to save a man’s soul, but to illumine his mind in the way that the Church Fathers called preparatio evangelii, preparation for the Gospel.  It is not another way to demand the repentance of the unbeliever.  It is only a way to remove objections to the Gospel so that the preaching of the Gospel is not obscured by extraneous matters.

As R.C. Sproul wonderfully expressed it, “If theology is the queen of the sciences, apologetics is her handmaid.  It introduces people to the queen and demonstrates her majesty.”[1]

Dialectic vs. Eristic

Dialectic means respectful, rational conversation.  It’s ordinary usage in Greek referred to philosophical discussions, such as those in which men like Socrates and Aristotle engaged.  But we should recognize that dialectic is not just for pagans.  Scripture itself uses the word to describe several of Paul’s defense speeches.

For example, in Acts 17, in both Thessalonica and Athens, the word dialegomenos, meaning “to argue” in the sense of making rational arguments in conversation with other people, is used of Paul’s attempts to persuade the unbelievers of the truth about Jesus.  The same word comes up in Acts 18:4 and Acts 19:8 in the context of Paul’s arguments in the Jewish synagogues.

Eristic, on the other hand, means arguing just for the sake of arguing, or arguing to fulfill some emotional need in ourselves.  The Greek word eris means “strife.”  Several places in the New Testament warn us to avoid strife and instead to cultivate such godly virtues as peace, joy, contentment, and a love that covers a multitude of sins.

Eristic can occur when we feel threatened by another viewpoint and respond out of our feelings of being threatened.  It can also occur when we think we know a whole lot about something, and our opponent does not, and so we are going to let him have it, to show how ignorant he is and how informed we ourselves are.

Apologetics should not follow the eristic mode, because it is not about arguing to prove ourselves superior, or arguing because we like to argue, or lashing out because we feel threatened and feel we need to say something in response.

A key point: apologetics properly considered is not unremitting ideological warfare against other human beings, as some maintain.  It is defensive, not offensive.  We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against demonic powers – we may be talking to an atheist or Muslim or a Hindu, but that human person is not our enemy: the demonic forces of falsehood and deception that motivate his position are our enemies.

We are fighting the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places, and this sort of fighting is done with spiritual weapons.  What we want to be doing toward the human person who faces us with objections and questions is to talk to them, not attempt to destroy them.  If apologetics is giving a defense of our faith, then we must attempt to persuade them of our position.  That is what a defense speech in a court of law is about, and again, the term apologia originally came from the legal world.

Consider what King Agrippa says to Paul after Paul’s defense speech: “almost you persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:28).  Also consider some of the hearers at the Areopagus, who, after Paul’s discourse said, “we want to hear you some more on this matter” (Acts 17:32).  Because of Paul’s defense speeches, his apologetics, the people in these passages were wavering on the edge of being persuaded.

This all sounds nice, but of course there are people out there who do not wish to be persuaded of Christianity and who will, in fact, treat their interactions with us as warfare and ourselves as objects to be destroyed.  In such cases, we may reluctantly, have to go to war.  But warfare is not apologetics.  Warfare is more properly called polemics – apologetics is “defense;” polemics is “attack.”

Sometimes apologetics and polemics may overlap.  Let’s say we are defending creation against evolution, and in the course of our positive defense of creation we find ourselves making negative arguments against evolution.  At that point, we are transitioning from apologetics, defense, to polemics, attack.

However, whether doing apologetics or polemics we must remember to conduct ourselves dialectically, not eristically.  Dialectic means conversational.  It is a give-and-take process of reasoning with someone in order to persuade them of the truth of our position.  Again, we are talking to a human being made in the image of God, not monsters.  We are trying to persuade a person, not destroy an enemy.

Eristic is entirely different.  An eristic approach to another person is an approach that is based on hostility, not on gentleness and respect, as 1 Pet. 3:15 enjoins us.  Our goal when we do apologetics should be to model dialectic, not eristic.

Consider the way that the Apostle Paul treated the pagan idolators on Mars Hill in Acts 17.  Does he mock them to scorn?  Call them stupid for not believing truth?  Treat them like enemies to be destroyed?  No.  Paul treats the pagan idolators as human beings deserving respect because they are image bearers of God and, significantly, because for all their paganism and idolatry, there are in fact a number of truths about God and God’s world that they know, and Paul uses these as stepping stones to proclaim what they do not know.

Unfortunately, the line between dialectic and eristic is sometimes easily blurred because there often seems to be so much at stake.  We can all too easily begin to feel like we must defeat the skeptic or else the Faith itself will suffer defeat.

This is a false perception: Truth considered in itself is not dependent on anyone’s ability to cogently state it and defeat all comers in battle; likewise, Christianity is not dependent on our defenses of it.

The eristic approach is also easy to get wrapped up in because apologetics is often very “heady” stuff.  It often involves heavy duty intellectual content, and it is very easy to get puffed up about all that we think we know in our heads.

This too is a false perception: no matter how much we learn there will always be 1,000 things that we know next to nothing or perhaps even nothing about.  The more we learn, the more we should remember the ignorance we came out of, and so the more we should try to cultivate humility in how we present what we know to others.  This is especially true because we are defending our Faith, which is close to our heart.

A passion for truth is not the same thing as a passion for fighting.  Again, we need to remember that we are talking to human beings made in God’s image, not monsters.  We are trying to persuade them, not destroy them.  As Augustine wisely said in the City of God, Christians should always remember that God’s kingdom gets its members from the Devil’s kingdom, and so we should “bear with their hostility until we find them confessing the faith” (I.35).


[1] Classical Apologetics (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 1984), pg. 16.