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When you meet up with friends you haven’t seen for 17 years, there is an element of risk, especially if you’ve been invited to a Gospel meeting after tea. Such was the case with an out-of-the-blue invitation from Jack and Sheila. Their church Grace Baptist Church (Link (http://www.gbcsl.org/)) in Maryland, East London, has a regular outreach meeting. Jack had known since 1989 that I had backslidden somewhat, because I had included him on the circulation list of my Tractatus1, receiving the friendly rebuke that I had an Undisciplined Mind; which I presume meant that I didn’t discipline my beliefs to be in accord with the Truth, or else allowed myself to entertain too many heresies.
In case I sound over-critical in what follows, I must state that Jack and I have always been open about our disagreements. Jack is one of the gentlest and most sincere people one could hope to meet, but one who knows his own mind and has a clear grasp of the issues he thinks are fundamental.
As background for non-participants: while we were both at Brentwood Road Evangelical Free Church in Romford, Essex (Link (http://romford-evan.co.uk/)), we had a certain affinity in that, maybe unlike most church members, we both had an interest in doctrine, even if not quite the same view on what sound doctrine was. Also, Jack’s son Peter was a very bright boy (now on the verge of becoming a consultant anaesthetist) to whom I taught the rudiments of Hebrew.
Before tea, and after catching up on news of who’d died in the intervening years, we discussed the doctrinal position of Grace Baptist Church, which is that of the London Baptist Confession of Faith (Link - Defunct) of 1689, and with which all members of the Church have to concur, with the exception that they are allowed to have doubts over the claim in 26.4 that the Pope is the Antichrist. It would be easy to raise a snigger at this rather antiquated idea, but a more serious objection is to the wisdom of imposing on any congregation such a long statement of sustained exegesis. Is it supposed to be inspired, on a par with the Scriptures themselves? Of course, this would be denied (and was when I raised the matter), but if it is not inspired, why insist on it? Doesn’t it encourage people to dissimulate, or sign what they don’t understand? Place no greater burden … but we have all this doctrinal baggage.
It is difficult to know where to draw the line. Christian congregations are supposed to know and believe the truths of Christianity. The church members are supposed to “equally yoked” in the Lord’s work, and this isn’t possible if not all believe the essentials. However, different groups have different beliefs as to what the essentials are. If you only accept into fellowship those who believe the same as you do, you’ll end up as a congregation of one. So, a line has to be drawn somewhere. In my zealous days, I and others of like mind would fall silent during hymns of dubious doctrine, and not say the dispensationally-inappropriate portion of the Lords prayer. We’d not take Communion, even at the risk of being mistaken for “sinners”, and wouldn’t sign any declaration of faith that was intended to be understood as asserting doctrines we disagreed with. This meant we couldn’t be accepted into fellowship at any church worth being in fellowship with. This was the case at Romford Evangelical Free Church, where Julie and I couldn’t be accepted into fellowship, because we wouldn’t take Communion and didn’t believe in eternal conscious torment for “the wicked” (otherwise known as most of your friends and relatives). Howeer, we were very close friends with the then Pastor and his wife, much more so than were those in fellowship, probably because they could speak freely with us rather than having to watch out for church politics all the time. Then another pastor came along who was less fussy about doctrinal niceties, and we were enfellowshipped. But in retrospect, this was the beginning of the end, for me at least.
We did come up with our own declaration (Link (http://www.obt.org.uk/doctrinal-basis)), which is somewhat brief, and which I eventually couldn’t sign either when I ceased to believe in Biblical inerrancy. It was however, only incumbent on Trustees, and writers and speakers were not to transgress during their writing and speaking. I still accept the rather magisterial-sounding tenet “the recognition of Scripture as the sole arbiter in matters of Christian doctrine and practice and that received tradition and opinions are of no binding authority”, which was a swipe at all Christian traditions, including our own. I would, though, write it differently today to make the grammar less clunky.
Getting back to the main plot, in the car on the way to the meeting, Jack opined that the Open Bible Trust (OBT (http://www.obt.org.uk/)) hadn’t been good for me. This is one of many diagnoses of where I’ve gone wrong. I think the idea was that we were an off-shoot of the Plymouth Brethren, and obsessed with Prophesy. This was not very close to the truth. Well, the OBT certainly would have difficulty with parts of the Baptist Confession, but does not claim to be a Church, and so is excusable in its focus on Bible Study. That’s what it does. Affiliates tend to worship in their local church. In any case, had I not come into contact with the OBT (or their forebears, the Berean Forward Movement), I would probably now still be a Carthusian, much to the detriment of my wife and children. What is close to the truth is that the OBT and its forebears had an obsession about “joined-up thinking”. You should try to understand the Biblical message as a whole, and note God’s different dealings with men at different times and places. Acts-282 Dispensationalism is, in one respect, just a (rather clever) attempt to make things fit together. The trouble with this approach is that if you try to join up your thinking too much, you may find (or think you’ve found) that it won’t all fit.
I was somewhat ambivalent about the invitation to a Gospel meeting. Just what did Jack hope to achieve? As far as the facts and the logic of the Christian faith are concerned, I imagine I know as much as any professing Christian, though I’m aware that mere intellectual knowledge is irrelevant to which side of the divide you’re on. Additionally, Jack believes in the persistence of the saints (it’s in the Baptist Confession). Unfortunately it seems to be a doctrine of doubtful utility, since the rider is that it’s the saints that persevere, so failure to persevere is a symptom of non-sainthood. We briefly discussed his son Peter in this regard. I also mentioned Spurgeon’s story (which I probably heard first from Jack) about the drunkard coming up to him and claiming to be one of his converts. “Glad to hear it, came the reply, because you’re obviously not one of God’s converts.” Because evangelical Christianity stresses the importance of faith, declension in this department is worse than a mere moral backsliding or a false set of priorities. Maybe if I’d just killed my wife and family, but sincerely repented of it, I’d be much better off in Jack’s book, destined for eternal bliss rather than the long frazzle. But one must not jest about such things.
It would have been easy to feel somewhat affronted, but I decided that Jack had concern for me and was doing what he could. In any case, I’m still open to persuasion, if not to abdication of responsibility. Maybe, the hope is that by the foolishness of preaching the Holy Spirit will do his mysterious work. Besides, there’s a long tradition of evangelical neophytes confronting liberal Bishops with “the Gospel”, on the presumption that they’ve never heard it before. I have to plead guilty to something like this. Looking back on my early 1980s correspondence with the Prior of Parkminster, after I’d “come out from amongst them”, it’s difficult but to diagnose ridiculous presumption, and I’m amazed he went along with the correspondence so long.
Anyway, after struggling through the traffic, and failing to pick up a reluctant delinquent (with whom I presumably share a boat), we arrived 5 minutes or so late during the first hymn. The minister, Pastor Blaize (Link (http://www.gbcsl.org/about/)) read from the New King James Version the first part of Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, the very familiar passage about Jesus as the “the Way, the Truth and the Life”. He then expounded the passage in a wholesome and animated manner, speaking without notes. He firstly focused on the exclusivity of the claim in the famous verse – the “the” – and then talked on the three elements of the hendiatris. I can’t remember all the details, but could probably reconstruct them, having heard that particular sermon so often before. The style reminded me of that of Rev. Godfrey Fielder (whom I’ve sadly lost contact with; despite vigorous Googling, I couldn’t find any contact reference for him, or for his brother Geraint).
Since the argument was so familiar – and it was an attempt to persuade the listener – I was considering various issues during the sermon itself. The first was just why substitutory atonement was necessary. This wasn’t strictly the topic of this sermon, and I don’t remember it being touched on much, and my mind wandered off a bit to the sermons I’d heard on that topic. I wasn’t sure whether Scripture really explained or just assumed this doctrine, though I’d heard many a rant that made the attempt. It is almost as though God had got himself into a bit of a bind with respect to his own righteousness, and couldn’t just forgive – the penalty had to be paid by God himself who’d set the penalty in the first place (the wages of sin are death; without the shedding of blood is no remission, Caiaphas’s unwitting prophesy that one man should die for the people and so on). I can’t remember whether this is actually argued for in Scripture, or whether these things are just claims that exegetes have tried to explain and defend in response to sceptical claims that the whole idea of blood sacrifice is rather crude and a rationalisation of historical practices.
Then I thought of truth. However appealing the “simple gospel” is, if its logic depends on falsehoods, then it cannot be accepted. This issue came up again in a private discussion I had with Paster Blaize after the service. The Apostle Paul sees a symmetry between the first and the last Adam, the fall and redemption, and argues on this basis. But, if there was no first Adam, and there was no fall of man (even though man is universally sinful), then the argument may fall apart, depending on what its logic is. It might be a literary analogy, like one might use an analogy from Hamlet. But Paster Blaize was insistent that it be taken literally.
The theological problem of theodicy is how we can reconcile the existence of a perfectly good God with the state of the world as we know it. The answer is to posit an initial creation in a perfect state, followed by one or two falls – that of Satan and later that of Adam. But the accounts, if taken literally, aren’t really credible. In fact they are so obviously incredible, that I (and maybe most people who would label themselves Christian) cannot take them literally without doing violence to their intellectual integrity. How can one found one’s life on some sort of double-think whereby you attempt to believe as literal truth what is obviously figurative - whether or not the original authors intended it so … arguably, the NT itself has a strong line in sensus plenior (Link (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensus_plenior)) - just because the self-appointed orthodox insist on it?
Finally, life. This reminded my of another general concern I have with Christian metaphysics – the vitalistic claim that some special magic called “life” can be breathed into matter and make it alive. Is there any such thing? Hasn’t this been disproved by biological science? It seems that there are Christian materialists (of an otherwise conservative persuasion) who try to face up to the apparent facts of biology. I’m not sure what their handling of the scriptural passages is like, as they are mostly philosophers.
So, that was the sermon and my simultaneous musings. Thankfully, there was no “altar call” at the end, but an invitation for all to enjoy a buffet dinner in an upper room. I noticed that a family of Bangladeshi appearance and of limited command of English seemed to have availed themselves of this opportunity for a free meal.
In conversation with Pat (the grandmother of the absent delinquent), I was challenged on five counts.
The evening ended from my perspective with a brief and friendly conversation with Pastor Blaize. We discussed the matter of the interconnectedness of Adams and falls, briefly touched on above, and also touched on belief. Pastor Blaize distinguished 3 forms of belief, using Scholastic terminology that’s rather out of fashion these days, and which I couldn’t quite follow. I expect the following Link (http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html) might clarify matters, though I’ve not really pursued it yet. I promised to follow the discussion up with an email.
I suspect my review will affirm the first two bullets, but maybe there is a third alternative.
Jack tells me that there was an attempted robbery outside the Church after we left. Satan again.
On the way home I think I resolved an issue that had been bugging me on the way over. On the inward journey, some condensation kept sticking to the outside of the car windscreen making it difficult to see where we were going without the windscreen-wipers on, which was rather odd on a hot, dry but humid afternoon. It looked as though some oil had been spread there, but it was suspiciously symmetrical. After the service I investigated, but no oil was to be found. I presume the problem was that the humidity was so great that the blast of cold air from the air-conditioning in the car was cooling the windscreen sufficiently to cause external condensation, which, as we were stuck in a traffic jam, wasn’t dispersed by the wind. On the way home, we travelled faster, and didn’t have the air-condition on full blast, so the problem went away. It’s important to follow these things up. In my first year at grammar school I was diagnosed with short sight and given a pair of spectacles for the first time. The joy of being able to see blades of grass for the first time was somewhat mitigated by my mother’s insistence than they have ear-pieces that stopped them falling off, much to the merriment of my classmates and my deep humiliation. Anyway, I’ve always had a habit of experimenting with things, so I placed the glasses’ lenses on a mirror to see what would happen. Lo, there were little black blobs at the point of contact. I thought this must be condensation or something, though diligent observation revealed none, and I let the matter rest. It was years later when we studied diffraction patterns in “A” Level physics that I realised they were “Newton’s Rings” (Link (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton%27s_rings)). A genius follows up these things. Someone who’s merely clever lets the opportunity slip. I resolved not to do this again. Realising you don’t understand something is an opportunity to learn, and applies to all spheres of intellectual endeavour. Maybe that thought is also an intimation of Satan? Anyway, it doesn’t make for a cosy life, though maybe for a more satisfying one.
Footnote 1: I’m trying to work out why I even care about the above matters any more. If a Christian has to believe 6 impossible things before breakfast, then I can’t join the club, and that’s an end to it.
Footnote 2: If I remember correctly, in F W Farrar’s sequel to Darkness and Dawn (I forget the title – my copy seems to have “walked”) - a historical novel which deals with the Bar Kochba revolt - there’s a character called Aher5, who’s always disputing, and isn’t comfortably part of the community. But when the chips are down in the final confrontation with Rome, he comes down on the right side. I feel a measure of sympathy for him. The Lord knows those that are his, and it’s no-one else’s business. And let him who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity – that’s the Christian’s duty.
Footnote 1: (Tractatus Reprise)
It is an open question how valuable my "documentary" approach is. It demands a lot of both writer and reader, and it may force the writer to be more explicit than he/she is ready to be. It forces into the open ignorance and incoherence that is hidden if one's beliefs are not exposed to public scrutiny.
I tried this approach back in 1989, and documented and circulated my position in brief. I did receive quite a lot of feedback, but much of it was contradictory (in that different people determined my critical error to be in different places) and none very cogent, to my mind. I then greatly expanded the document, which was further circulated in 1990 to a subset of friends, as well as to John Polkinghorne (Link (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Polkinghorne)), John Habgood Link (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Habgood) and Paul Helm (Link (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Helm)), from whom I received further interesting but not very useful feedback. It has been sitting on my website since 2001 (note that an updated version is being prepared here1).
Since the early 1990s I’ve received little feedback from those whose opinions I seek, though I have to admit that I’ve parked the issue somewhat and have only fairly recently re-opened it. I did receive a verse-by-verse commentary from someone in my Mensa Philosophical Discussion Group, which I admittedly didn’t pay as much attention to as I ought.
I intend to review all this in the near future, to see what impact formal training in philosophy has had on my thoughts. While the objections to belief I think most cogent are discussed in some detail in the document alluded to above, I have started to write a short-list2, currently in draft form.
This document constitutes my philosophical thoughts on the validity of Christianity. Its name and format are modelled on a well-known (and, of course, infinitely superior) work by Ludwig Wittgenstein. So as not to deceive the unwary, this evaluation is reluctantly negative. I am not a scoffer, so the evaluation is a serious one. However, I cannot see how Christianity or any other religious system can be made to work without either intellectual compromise or denuding the religious system of content.
The text of this document has not had a major overhaul in almost the last ten years, so my ideas have probably moved on somewhat in the interim. Readers may find the style rather inclined towards ex cathedra statements. This is because the document was written as an attempt to structure my views on these subjects rather than to seek to justify them in exhaustive detail. The web-based format does allow expatiation ad infinitem, and I will seek to progress in that direction in due course.
The document revolves around 20 basic assumptions into which my argument is broken down. I'm not yet happy that these are the best 20 and that there are no redundancies. However, given the whole document is geared around these fundamental tenets, I feel reluctant to change them until I have a clearer idea of how the structural change would affect the entire argument. So, we're stuck with them until inspiration strikes.
These 20 primary points of the argument, together with 4 appendices, are as below.
To find out more about each statement, click on the hyperlink to the underlying document, where the statement is broken down into more detail and, where possible, justified.
For a concatenation of the whole document in topic-title sequence, follow this link.
Please address any criticism of or suggested improvements to this paper to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Footnote 1.2: (Problems with the Christian Worldview)
As always, this note will start off as a brain-dump, which I’ll tidy up and segregate into hyper-linked topics in due course. Note that while this caveat persists, this note (which has been whacked out in a couple of hours, and shows it) is in DRAFT, and cannot be taken to represent my considered views. As it’s hidden down a long chain of hyperlinks, maybe no-one will notice it until I’ve had the opportunity to tweak it a bit.
I’ve admitted that I have “problems” with Christianity. So, what are my “problems”? I need to address this question from at least three angles.
I’ve always maintained that our most fundamental beliefs are held as an interconnecting matrix, though with some form of hierarchy of belief. That’s what I tried to describe in my Christian Tractatus (updated version in progress). So, this statement of issues (and of the alternatives) can’t really be viewed in isolation. However, if I try to expand on all this here, I’ll be repeating what I’ve said elsewhere. This summary will have to remain simplistic.
A final preliminary point is that not all Christians (the more zealous may accuse these of being Christians “falsely so-called”) will find all of my objections to be real issues2. However, the versions of Christianity I have “problems” with are those that posit an active God and a supernaturalist worldview. Weaker versions, it seems to me, make no practical difference to our lives, and confuse issues by using supernaturalist terminology with a naturalist meaning.
So, what are the issues? I’ll list them with elaborating footnotes to be provided in due course.
It may be that it is possible to make an accommodation for all these objections, as liberal Christianity has done, but in general the supporters of the “strong” versions of Christianity won’t have any of it – probably for good reason: such a version of Christianity is hardly worth believing in, and is nothing but muddle and equivocation.
It is worth pointing out that there are some aspects of Christianity that often feature in popular objections that I don’t take issue with, either because I reject the objections, or because the tenets objected to are not properly part of Christianity. A brief summary:
Firstly, those popular objections I don’t think cogent:
Secondly, those items that are part of orthodox Christianity, but which may not me properly Bible-based, and so their rejection isn’t relevant to the rejection of Biblical Christianity:
And what alternative explanation can be given? This is highly complex, as there are so many plots and sub-plots. Also, it cannot be incumbent on the unbeliever to give a precise alternative account of the origin of what he sees as myth. Who knows precisely how the Greek myths arose, but does this ignorance mean that it’s incumbent on us to believe in them. The reason I may have for feeling an obligation to provide an alternative account of Christianity is that it is (even to the contemporary western mind) not quite so ridiculous as the Greek myths. Also, it is a worldview I myself have espoused and a good many intelligent contemporaries also espouse. I excuse myself from having to give an alternative account of the other religions that satisfy the second point on account of the failure of the first: I am profoundly ignorant of them, and even if I wasn’t, think that experience “from the inside” is necessary before pouring on the scorn.
I suppose my alternative account would be along the lines of “religious progress”. An initial propitiatory, tribal account of the relation of the individual / society to God was improved upon, firstly within the propitiatory framework of animal sacrifice, ultimately seeing that such actions can’t work, and by refining the concept of God. I think it’s a suggestion of genius to see these sacrifices as “types and shadows”, leading up to the one true sacrifice of Jesus. But this doesn’t make this suggestion correct. Just why does God need propitiation in the first place? As for Jesus’ own views, I don’t subscribe to the “mad, bad or God” trichotomy that C.S. Lewis proposes. It’s not likely that Jesus directly claimed to be God (despite the suggestions in John), but it is likely that he acted out the role of Isaiah’s suffering servant. I would have to say that in this he was mistaken, but this doesn’t make him mad or bad.
I need to add a footnote on probabilities, maybe using the game of Cluedo (Link (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cluedo)) as a springboard. The basic idea is that if we deny that Colonel Mustard did it, we don’t have to believe that Professor Plumb did it. There are many alternatives. The most likely suspect isn’t thereby guilty. We can be assured that p(it is not the case that Colonel Mustard did it) = 1 – p(Colonel Mustard did it). If Colonel Mustard didn’t do it, then even though each of the alternatives has low initial probability, yet one of them must be true. Say I bought 1,000,000 tickets for yesterday’s lottery. Then, presumably, the odds on my winning the lottery were greater than the odds on any other entrant. Yet I still didn’t win it, and was unlikely to have done so. I mention this because I’ve recently read a somewhat silly paper asking whether it’s rational for Christians to believe in the Resurrection (of Jesus). The “pro” author thinks there are four sensible alternatives, and picks them off one by one. So Jesus must have risen from the dead. This reasoning is fallacious.
My personal worldview
… to be supplied: not because I’ve not got one … it can probably be deduced from my Christian Tractatus … but because I haven’t got round to writing up a quick summary yet. We don’t live in a vacuum, and it’s all very well being negative. However, ab initio, this is a very complex and creative task, which is why the alternative “package deal” approach is so much more popular (though maybe the “don’t know, care less” approach wins the day in the popularity stakes).
Footnote 1.2.2: (The Church as Guardian of the Truth)
The problem is exacerbated by the general ultra-protestant claim that the Church “lost it” immediately after the apostolic period and started promulgating all sorts of false doctrine. We have no reliable historical tradition of correct interpretation, the rediscovery of the full truth having to await an early 20th century East Ender. I expect this explains why the reformation protestants didn’t reject patristics, or at least accepted (or took into consideration) those Church Fathers most consonant with their own position. Otherwise, the (non-) believer is left very much to his/her own judgment – both as to the reliability of the old books, and to the reliability of those who might help to interpret them.
Interestingly, I have some fairly extensive correspondence with the Prior of Parkminster from the early 1980s on this issue, which I hope to make available on-line in due course. Naturally, his view was that the moderating influence of the Church is required to maintain order. I might accept this if we could both agree who “the Church” is, and if the opinions of the various branches of the Church weren't so often obviously wrong.
Footnote 2: (Acts 28 Dispensationalism)
A. An outline of Acts 28 dispensationalism is as follows:-
B. The main factors motivating the construction of dispensationalism are:-
C. My main objections to dispensationalism are as follows:-
Footnote 3: (Bible – Pluses and Minuses)
… "Barker (Kenneth) - The NIV Study Bible: New International Version": Conservative Evangelical4
… "Berlin (Adele), Brettler (Marc Zvi) & Fishbane (Michael) - The Jewish Study Bible: Featuring the Jewish Publication Society TANAKH": Jewish5.
… "Harrison (R.K.) - Introduction to the Old Testament": Conservative Evangelical6.
… "Ehrman (Bart D.) - The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings": Liberal Christian7.
… "Guthrie (Donald) - New Testament Introduction": Conservative Evangelical8=6.
… "Levine (Amy-Jill) & Brettler (Marc Zvi), Eds. - The Jewish Annotated New Testament": Jewish9.
Footnote 1: With some regret, I don’t think I can count myself any longer as a Christian. Click here for Note for a discussion with a friend back in 2007 which explains my reasons in some detail.
Footnote 3: This is rather a lot. We’ll see how we progress.
Footnote 4: This is the text I’ve just read (in 2013). I won’t read it through again this time round, but will use it and the notes to supply a conservative Christian perspective on passages of disputed interpretation.
Footnote 5: This is described as for those Jews of the “Conservative, Reformed or Reconstructionist” persuasions. According to the Publisher’s blurb, “Orthodox” Jews also were involved in the translation of the Text, which is the one I shall read as my primary text for the OT. So, presumably, there’s a distinction between “Conservative” and “Orthodox” Jews. Currently, I’ve no idea what Reconstructionist Jews believe, but will no doubt find out.
Footnote 6: Nothing to say, yet. I’ve had this book some time, and have not looked at it much. It seems rather dull.
Footnote 7: Very liberal, in fact, and less scholarly than many (though far from “popular”). But opinionated and stimulating.
Footnote 8: Nothing to say, yet. I’ve had this book some time, and have not looked at it much. It seems rather dull.
Footnote 9: Maybe oddly, this will be my primary text for reading the New Testament.
Footnote 10: I originally thought “two years”, but it won’t be enough. I’ll need some sort of plan to achieve even this, but given my propensity to produce elaborate plans that lead nowhere, I’ll skip the plan until I’ve got some momentum together.
Footnote 11: It’ll no doubt be possible, but this is another task awaiting sufficient “momentum” to be worthwhile.
The world is open to investigation.
Footnote 5: (Aher)
I had presumed Aher to be a reification of the Hebrew for “Another”, as in the Talmudic disputations where “… another said …” such and such, usually some dodgy interpretation that no-one respectable would hold. In fact, a quick Google has indicated that, while the etymology is correct, it’s likely to be a reference to a real Jewish heretic, Elisha ben Abuyah (Link (http://www.jcrelations.net/Aher+%5BElisha+ben+Abuyah%5D+and+Jesus.2219.0.html?L=3)). If you follow this link you’ll find an interesting, though not very sound, article from a journal of Jewish-Christian relations.Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05
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Timestamp: 12/10/2018 09:16:04. Comments to email@example.com.