How Apologetics Can Diminish Christianity

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James K. A. Smith’s book, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, is the most insightful and interesting book I have read in the last few months. And though I don’t consume books at the rate of Kevin DeYoung or Tyler Cowen, I do read a lot of books. So for a book to grab me the way this one did and clearly set itself off from the others says a lot about the book.

This book, as the subtitle betrays, is not a straightforward presentation of Smith’s own views; rather, he writes to explain the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose depth is said to be hidden behind inaccessible prose and terminology. But Smith does a good job (as far as I can tell — I am only familiar with Taylor’s reputation, not his work) of presenting Charles Taylor’s ideas from A Secular Age. And the way that Taylor’s theory explains so much about our society and its relationship to faith. It accounts for dichotomies and conflicts that other, more simple (and less erudite?) accounts cannot account for.

I am in the process of creating a sermon series based on the ideas I have found. I am unsure, but I expect to be working on this series for a few more months before I am ready to preach the sermons from it. But until then, I want to share some of the gems I have found in this book.

Secularism, Christianity, and Apologetics

One aspect of modern Christianity that Smith, channeling Taylor, brings into sharp relief is how thoroughly modern and secular it is. We Christians often pose as if we are the valiant defenders of older values and beliefs that secularism wants to toss aside. But so often we have sublimated much of modernism into our lives and use its assumptions as our starting place.

One area where this is clearly evident is in some areas of Christian apologetics, which positions itself as the core defender of the faith, but so often borrows some secular assumptions and methodologies as its starting place. Of course, reading around in Kierkegaard’s writings about a decade ago alerted me to some of it. But Smith’s work was a good reminder.

A lengthy Quotation From Smith

In a section aptly title, “How Apologetics Diminishes Christianity,” Smith writes:

“Taylor offers an analysis of the apologetic strategy that emerges in the midst of these shifts — not only as a response to them, but already as a reflection of them. In trying to assess just how the modern social imaginary came to permeate a wider culture, Taylor focuses on Christian responses to this emerging humanism and the ‘eclipses’ we’ve just noted. What he finds is that the responses themselves have already conceded the game; that is, the responses to this diminishment of transcendence already accede to it in important ways (Taylor will later call this ‘pre-shrunk religion’ [p. 226]). As he notes, ‘the great apologetic effort called forth by this disaffection itself narrowed its focus so drastically. It barely invoked the saving action of Christ, nor did it dwell on the life of devotion and prayer, although the seventeenth century was rich in this. The arguments turned exclusively on demonstrating God as Creator, and showing his Providence’ (p. 225). What we get in the name of ‘Christian’ defenses of transcendence, then, is ‘a less theologically elaborate faith’ that, ironically, paves the way for exclusive humanism. God is reduced to a Creator and religion is reduced to morality (p. 225). The ‘deism’ of providential deism bears many marks of the ‘theism’ that is often defended in contemporary apologetics. The particularities of specifically Christian beliefs are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity — as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice.

“When Taylor broached this theme earlier, he specifically noted that the ‘religion’ that is defended by such apologetic strategies has little to do with religion in terms of worship: ‘…Moreover, there didn’t seem to be any essential place for the worship of God, other than through the cultivation of reason and constancy.’ What we see, then, is the ‘relegation of worship as ultimately unnecessary and irrelevant’ (p. 117). This is the scaled-down religion that will be rejected ‘by Wesley from one direction, and later secular humanists from the other’ (p. 226).

“…And it is precisely in this context, when we adopt a ‘disengaged stance,’ that the project of theodicy ramps up; thinking we’re positioned to see everything, we now expect an answer to whatever puzzles us, including the problem of evil. Nothing should be inscrutable.” (p. 51-2)

The Problems with the Minimal Defensible Unit

Taylor’s view on this is significant and on target for how apologetics is often attempted. In our attempt to defend our faith, providing a “reason for the hope within” to everyone we encounter, we have sometimes done more damage than good. Because our faith (both in the sense of our personal conviction and in the sense of a set of beliefs) becomes diluted, culled of any aspect we might find difficult to decisively defend.

In effect, much of Christian apologetics is forced to reduce Christianity to its minimal defensible unit (my phrase) in order to, well, defend it to the skeptics around us. But you get a Christianity that is close to losing some of the aspects needed for Christianity. (How many apologists argue for and talk about God in a way that leaves out the triune nature of the Christian God?) And you get a Christianity whose emphases are different from those of historic Christianity. The exciting, life-changing bits of Christianity aren’t the narrow set of historical stories and statements of Jesus whose historicity can be strongly defended. The Christianity that results is often one that our predecessors in the faith would not have recognized.

And so many apologists leave their arguments with a great gap between what they have defended and what historic Christianity. Or, if they do argue for these parts, the quality of the arguments for these tenants is often much lower than the quality of the arguments for more generic teachings. One famous apologist has compelling arguments for the existence of a Creator of some type, but his arguments that this Creator is personal lacks the rigor of the other arguments.

So maybe we should take care not to do apologetics that is cut off from the rich theology of historic Christianity. Though I admit that some of these teachings are not the easiest ones to defend, but, as Taylor notes, ours is not a ‘disengaged stance.’ We believe we cannot know the answer to many of the problems, and some of the reasons and justification for beliefs or commands have not yet been laid bare. But that is the nature of our faith. When we deny this to better answer the skeptic’s questions, we end up pushing aside many aspects of Christianity, losing it in the meantime.

And if we lose Christianity in the process of defending it, what are we really defending?

Does 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 Teach Purgatory?

Recently, some of my friends were troubled by 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. They did not understand the passage, and they thought it seemed like Paul’s teaching in this passage was very close to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. So I decided to work through this passage to see how to understand it. A careful understanding of the passage shows that it is not teaching the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.

1 Corinthians 3:10-15 (NIV)

10By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

Context

Notice what is going on in chapter 3. The Corinthian church has divided over which “church leader” they follow. In 1 Cor. 3:1-4, Paul accuses them of this. He directly says that this is immature of them. Their division is a spiritual problem. But he then moves to address the problem directly in verses 5-9. He is continuing to discuss the topic he addressed 1 Cor. 1:10-17. So Paul is thinking about ministry workers and how to appropriately view their work.

That context is important for when we get to verses 10-15. Paul is not talking about the everyday deeds of each Christian. He is talking about the Kingdom work of ministry workers.

To underline this, notice that in 3:9, Paul emphasizes that the worker does not matter; God matters. Each worker has his role and God provides their work with success. Paul then says this in verse 9, “For we are God’s co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s fields, God’s building.” He is stressing that the individual ministry leader (Paul, Apollos, etc.) does not matter; they are merely laborers in God’s farm.

To clearly see that Paul is not talking about every Christian in 3:10-15, pay close attention to verse 9. Who are the co-workers? Every Christian? No. Apollos and Paul are the co-workers. How does Paul refer to the congregation in this passage? As the fields and buildings in and among whom the laborers (the ministry leaders) work.

So let’s go into 1 Cor. 3:10ff. understanding that Paul is talking about Christian leaders and the humble, God-centered perspective that we should see their work.

Purgatory

I don’t want to confuse things, but I’m not just trying to explain 1 Cor. 3:10-15. I am trying to explain why I don’t think that it is a description of the Catholic teaching on Purgatory.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1030) defines Purgatory this way: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

Notice a few things about this:

  • This applies to most Christians. Most Christians die without being imperfectly purified. That’s not explicit in this quotation, but my understanding is that the Catholic Church believes most Christians will go through Purgatory.
  • The fire is a fire of purification of the person.

Understanding 1 Cor. 3:10-15

So, with the context and the Catholic teaching on Purgatory before us, let’s go through 1 Cor. 3:10-15 to understand it better.

By the grace God has given me: Paul has a broad understanding of grace. Grace can give forgiveness, but it can also empower. In Romans 12:6ff., Paul uses “grace” to talk about the “spiritual gifts” (as we might call them) that God gives to Christians. In Eph. 4:7, he uses it again to talk about spiritual gifts, or, more accurately, ministry roles. Specifically, he talks about leadership roles like a prophet, an elder, etc. So when Paul says “by the grace God has given me,” he’s not directly talking about forgiveness. He’s talking about the role he was given as an apostle.

I laid a foundation as a wise builder: Paul means that he planted that congregation. Paul was the one who started the Corinthian church through his missionary efforts. Paul uses this same language — laying a foundation as a builder to talk about beginning a church — in Romans 15:20. Paul was a wise builder in starting the Corinthian church.

and someone else is building on it. In other words, Paul started a work that he was not finish. He was leaving it to others to do. Others were tending to the Corinthian congregation.

But each one should build with care. Obviously, whoever is building, that is, whoever is working in the Corinthian church to grow it and spiritually mature it, needs to do so carefully. They are working at God’s work. Ministry leaders should never take lightly the responsibility they have to work among God’s people.

11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. Why should the workers take care? It’s because they there is already one foundation laid. They should neither undermine Christ or build anything on top of such a great foundation that does not belong on it. Paul has already (in 1 Corinthians 1) argued that the divisions arising in the church at Corinth were actually reflections on Jesus Christ. (“Was Christ divided?” Paul asked.)

12If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, Again, Paul is talking about the work of Christian ministers, people working in the church for God. Since he is using the metaphor of building, he keeps with that metaphor to describe how many workers can build onto the foundation. And their contributions are of different types and different qualities. (Remember that what is being built here is a local congregation.)

13their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. The work is of a different quality. But that is not always obvious. We know this from experience. It is sometimes hard to see if Christians ministers and leaders are building up the church or harming the church. Sometimes the truth of what the minister is doing is hidden within their own hearts, their own intentions. But Paul writes that there will be a time when the worth of everyone’s work will be revealed: the Day (of Judgment). Now, let’s keep in mind that the Corinthian church is divided among people following different leaders. And Paul reminds them that every Christian leader will have their work revealed. It won’t be hidden. We will see what it is truly worth, what they have actually accomplished.

It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. How will it be revealed? With fire. In the Bible, the imagery of fire is used often. Sometimes fire destroys. Sometimes it punishes. Sometimes it purifies. Here, the fire destroys. It doesn’t destroy the worker, though — it destroys their work! Again, follow Paul’s train of thought. Many people contribute to the building up of the church, but the quality of their work differs. Some minister’s work is not a good quality. It doesn’t help the church. And that will be revealed (and their work destroyed) on the Day of Judgment.How will it be revealed? With fire. In the Bible, the imagery of fire is used often. Sometimes fire destroys. Sometimes it punishes. Sometimes it purifies. Here, the fire tests. The valuable materials survive. The poor materials are burned up. It doesn’t destroy the worker, though — it destroys their work! Again, follow Paul’s train of thought. Many people contribute to the building up of the church, but the quality of their work differs. Some minister’s work is not a good quality. It doesn’t help the church. And that will be revealed (and their work destroyed) on the Day of Judgment.

How does this work? I’m not sure. Paul could mean that the negative effects of a bad or bad-intentioned minister will be destroyed on the last day. The church will be purified of the effects of these ministers’ labors. The good quality work of a minister survives for eternity; the bad quality work of a minister is destroyed.

14If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. It’s the good quality work of a minister that gets rewarded. The mature Christians in the church. The new converts. The close community. The bad work (for example, divisiveness) will be destroyed, and the minister who did that work will not be rewarded for it.

15If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. The bad minister’s work gets burned up, and so he will suffer the loss of what he build. His work will not last for eternity. But the builder will be saved. But he will be saved even though his work was burned up; he escaped those flames.The bad minister’s work gets burned up, and so he will suffer the loss of what he build. His work will not last for eternity. But the builder will be saved. But he will be saved even though his work was burned up; he escaped those flames. The flames aren’t flames that are purifying him or even testing him. The imagery seems to be of a worker standing among his work when his work (a room of a house, say) is consumed by flames. He runs out and is saved from the flames burning his work. It is not imagery of the worker being purified by passing through flames.

How This Differs From Purgatory

So let’s notice how this differs from purgatory. I’ll just enumerate them so that it will be easier to reference each point.

  1. The trial by fire is something that Christian leaders (or minister, elders, etc.) go through. Paul does not indicate that it is for every Christian. That differs from the Catholic doctrine on Purgatory, because Purgatory is not limited just to Christian leaders.
  2. Some people endure the fire of 1 Cor. 3:10-15, but nothing is burned up. It’s only the bad work that is burned up. In Purgatory, everyone in it is purged of their unholiness. That’s not happening here.
  3. The fire of 1 Cor. 3:10-15 is dealing with ministry work, not unholiness. Though the bad work might be caused by unholiness, what is purged is not the unholiness of the worker but the poor quality work that was the result of their labors. That’s different than Purgatory, where it is the individual’s unholiness that is purged. The British scholar C. K. Barrett wrote, “There is thus no hint in the context that the fire has the effect of purifying an unworthy workman.” (First Epistle to the Corinthians, 89)
  4. This is not as clear, because the Catholic Church has not dogmatically declared exactly when Purgatory would be. I have heard Catholic apologists claim that Purgatory could take place in a moment — in the blink of the eye — on Judgment Day. But their practices at various times in history (the selling of indulgences, for example) show that Purgatory is often thought of as happening now. But the fires that Paul talks about in 1 Cor. 3:10-15 are simply on Judgment Day.

Conclusion

I don’t know if what I have written fully explains 1 Cor. 3:10-15. But I hope it is enough for you to see that what Paul writes cannot be used as support for the Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory.

Why I Am Learning Programming

Computer with Programming CodeI have not written many articles in the past six months. Part of that has been a busyness at work and family. Part of that is that I don’t value blogging as highly as I once did. I want to right fewer, better articles. I hope to write my first full-length book in the next two years.

And though I intend to write more articles over the next year than I did last year, there is another reason I have not written as much during the last few months: I have been teaching myself programming.

I am content where I am. I love my job. My family loves where we live and what I do. Though I had some twists and turns in my education, I don’t regret any of them. I am happy I have two degrees in philosophy: few things in life have brought me intellectual satisfaction like philosophy; nothing has trained my critical thinking abilities like philosophy.

Nonetheless, I do have one regret about my undergraduate. I wish I would have double-majored in philosophy and computer science.

But, luckily, computer programming is one of the best fields for autodidacts. So early last year, I decided that I should just teach myself computer programming. I have started with Python. I intend to focus on Python for the next year or two and use it to learn more about the language. Before I explain why I am learning computer programming, let me briefly explain how I have and am learning it:

  1. Worked through John Zelle’s Python Programming: An Introduction to Computer Programming.
  2. Working through FreeCodeCamp.com to learn front-end work, particularly jQuery, JSON, Angular, Javascript, and advanced work with CSS.
  3. Working through Professional JavaScript for Web Developer. (This and the last are being done at the advice of Derek Sivers.)
  4. Using Python, Flask, MySQL, a little JavaScript, and (of course) HTML and CSS to create http://www.jimbrink.org.

So why am I doing this? With a full-time ministry job, three young kids, other projects, and currently in graduate school part-time getting an M.Div., why am I doing this?

Here are a few reasons:

  • I am a nerd. Honestly, I never need any motivation to learn something. The idea of learning to program — particularly since learning to program gives me even more control of my electronic devices — is exciting to me.

  • An experiment in rapid learning. After I left college, I became interested in writers like (Scott Young)[http://www.scotthyoung.com] and (Cal Newport)[http://calnewport.com/blog], who right about efficient ways to learn a subject. So I have enjoyed having a concrete subject to which I can apply some of the advice on rapid learnin.g

  • My son enjoys it. My (almost) seven-year-old son has been obsessed with technology his entire life. He is already saying that he is going to teach college and be a computer programmer. I have already taught him a little Ruby. But since he enjoys it — and I enjoy it — it seems a good idea to learn a little computer programming.

  • Adding another skill. I don’t know enough yet to speak authoritatively about this, but it seems that computer programming would be a helpful skill to have. I have been convinced by Scott Adams that one way of maximizing one’s impact — short of becmoing the best at one skill, which I am not in danger of doing — is to be good at a lot of different skills. I do not immediately see how programming could help me increase my influence, but it’s another skill to add. This increases my flexibility and opportunities.

  • Analytical thinking. I have always enjoyed analytical, logical type thinking. I spend a lot of my days writing, reading, and meeting with people. So it is an oddly relaxing task to try to figure out how to solve a particular programming problem.

Should You Learn Programming?

I plan to write more posts this year, so even if you don’t care about my programming but only my theology or philosophy articles, you will still get those articles. But I wanted to write this article so you would know why I did not write much during the last six months. But I wrote it for another reason. Some of you might be interested in learning a little about programming. (After all, if you use computers often, there’s no reason not to learn a little about it.) And though I am sure there are better ways to begin learning than the path I have taken, you might find what I have done useful.

(Photo by hackNY)