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The Case for Christianity

(Colin Chapman, Lion, 1981)

A Review by Theo Todman

May 1988

In his introduction, the author describes how this book grew out of material developed for youth clubs and expanded for work with students in discussion groups. What the book tries to do is present a view of the world as understood and experienced by Christians and ask whether such beliefs and experiences can be said to be true and to fit in with the facts of history and of common experience.

Colin Chapman's approach is to divide the book into seven sections, starting from the basic human problems and their Christian answers and leading to a request for a decision. On the way, the Christian message is analysed into its basic contentions and assumptions about God, man, the universe, truth and salvation and these are tested to see if they are verifiable historically, philosophically or scientifically.

Next, some alternatives to Christianity are considered; namely, the major religions and various philosophies. As a stimulus to considering the latter, the ideas of ten key thinkers are presented.

Finally, the person of Jesus of Nazareth receives close attention, particular points of concentration being his relationship to God, the meaning of his death and the reality of his resurrection.

One of the most commendable aspects of Colin Chapman's approach is the way in which he breaks down his subject matter into manageable portions that are copiously illustrated both visually and by quotes from original writings.

The author appears as a kind of referee or chairman, allowing the protagonists to speak in turn in their own words. Hence, the actual words rather than the substance of Scripture are used and the writings of the philosophers, or at least of other writers who have pronounced on these subjects, are quoted.

This makes the book a good introduction to a wide range of literature (the references are unobtrusively but copiously documented at the end of the book).

Of course, such a clinical and seemingly objective procedure cannot work perfectly. The author, writing from a conservative evangelical position, is obviously not impartial. His ability to choose the questions, to choose the particular passages to quote as answers and to direct the course of the debate means that those uncommitted to Christianity may feel that the outcome has been predetermined.

It is also difficult for the uncommitted to present others' views completely or sympathetically. We have all squirmed at some of the distorted accounts of Christianity we have heard and no doubt anyone knowledgeable about any particular alternative philosophical or religious position described in the book would be unhappy with a presentation delivered in a page or so and dismissed in less.

However, I certainly found the presentations stimulating and the author is clearly going out of his way to be fair.

As stated above, the book starts by considering certain basic questions and a selection of conflicting answers. The questions considered are the individual, the meaning of life, values, truth, love, suffering, death, the future of man (as an individual), the supernatural and evil.

Next, various Christian assumptions are examined. God is stated to be personal but infinite, the creator and sustainer of the universe, loving but holy, one and three. Man is presented as created in the image of God, but a rebel who can yet become a son. The universe was created and is sustained by a God who has a plan for it.

Truth has been revealed by God who has made it subject to verification. Finally the Christian view of Salvation is presented as something that man cannot provide for himself but which is given by a God who must judge but who wants to forgive and who has provided that forgiveness at great cost to himself.

The author suggests that the truth of Christianity may be verified just as other historical, philosophical or scientific theories are verified. Namely, by internal consistency, by consistency with the body of knowledge external to itself and by its practical consequences. I was pleased to see that he stressed the importance of the possibility of falsification. If a statement cannot be (or could not have been) contradicted by any conceivable observation then it can have no great claim on our belief.

However, while agreeing that Christianity is a historical religion based on factual events and that it could be shown to be false if one of its historical foundations was shown to be untrue, I felt that the example approved of was rather glib. I cannot think of any conceivable ostrakon (inscribed potsherd) that could conclusively prove that Joseph was the natural father of Jesus, so cannot imagine losing my faith should one be discovered.

Similarly, but in an example not considered in the book, how could any Palestinian skeleton be conclusively proved to be that of the Lord. Historical verification and falsification are neither of them straightforward.

Another problem with verifiability is that a system is not monolithic. Christianity as a whole cannot be said to be simply true or false. While the author is correct in pointing out that an elementary or compound statement is either true or false but not both at once, this only applies to a statement that is well defined.

Even two people who both admit the other to be Christians will not be fully agreed as to what the truths of Christianity are. Hence, C. S. Lewis's maxim that "Christianity is what Christians say it is" does not really make sense.

The falsification of even one of the major doctrines of Christianity would not necessarily consign the whole system to the rubbish heap, though its character might be greatly changed.

The major religions covered are primal (ie. African) religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam. These are presented descriptively in the words of some of their modern adherents or students. The various beliefs are then analysed briefly for adequacy. This is usually done fairly and gently.

However, one blot is an appreciative quote from Francis Schaeffer in which a young Hindu is "disposed of by being persuaded to admit (presumably wrongly) that in Hinduism cruelty and non-cruelty are ultimately equal and is then 'proved wrong' by the threat of having boiling water poured over his head".

This seems rather smug. In Hinduism there seems to be no dualism of 'good and evil'. Rather, everything is said to partake of both. With respect to generally 'good' acts, this would seem to be a truism, in a fallen world, rather than a falsehood. All our righteousness is as filthy rags, is it not? However, it must be admitted that it is difficult to see how some evil acts are mixed with much good.

The philosophers covered are Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx and Freud. This part of the book is an excellent introduction to the origin of many of the ideas current in western thought.

I considered the disposal of Hume, whom I believe to have talked a lot of sense, to be rather brusque. His alleged refusal to live in the sceptical system he created, by escaping periodically to the billiard table, is taken to give the lie to his ideas. However, it seems no more than the logical reaction of one who sees himself as having no future 'hope' and therefore opts to 'eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die'.

The 'ism's treated are Scholasticism, Deism, Rationalism, Atheism, Agnosticism, Mysticism, Pantheism, Marxism, Existentialism and Humanism.

There is some overlap amongst the various discussions in this section and also between this section and that on the 'ten key thinkers'. The discussion on Catholic Scholasticism raises the issue of the possibility of two kinds of truth, namely, truths of reason and truths of revelation.

The Scholastics held that the truths of nature and certain truths of religion (eg. the existence of God) could be discovered by man's unaided reason whereas other religious truths (eg. the Trinity or salvation through Christ) require God's special revelation.

This seems to be common sense, though I agree with the author that many will not find the ontological, cosmological (design) or teleological (first cause) arguments very convincing. However, some have found in Scholasticism the seeds of the modern dichotomy between religious and natural truth, where the two are thought of as entirely different species. While this division is to be deplored, it doesn't seem fair to blame the problem on Scholasticism, which was more concerned with the means of attaining truth than with different forms of it.

Incidentally, I think the author incompletely states the ontological argument, which in any case is originally attributable to Anselm rather than to Aquinas. God is defined as 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived' and according to the author, if the idea exists then the thing (ie. God) must exist. Stated thus, the existence of God seems no more obvious than that of unicorns. The point of the proof is that a thing that exists in reality is greater than one that exists only as an idea. Hence, God, so defined, must exist, otherwise he would not be the greatest conceivable thing.

The central portion of the book has concentrated on conflicting and often bleak ideologies, with little direct statement of the case for Christianity. The latter part concentrates on Jesus of Nazareth.

Firstly, the historical evidence, from extra-Biblical sources, for his existence and then the reliability of the Biblical documents are considered. Next, in discussing Jesus' relation to God, his birth, character, claims and miracles are investigated.

First, the Biblical view is put forward. Then possible alternatives, individually answered, are presented. This is done interestingly and informatively from Jehovah's Witness, Jewish and Islamic sources.

The high position given to Jesus in most of these sources is noted but shown to be still inadequate. For instance, the Koran views Jesus as a great prophet, accepts his virgin birth and sinlessness and accords him the titles 'Word of God' and 'Messiah' but explicitly rejects the title 'Son of God', preferring the designation 'Son of Mary'.

In this section, the understandings of Jesus as a created being from heaven, as a prophet sent by God or simply as an ordinary man are discussed, but the truth of him being both fully God and fully man is shown to be the only explanation consistent with the Biblical data.

The author suggests that, if we accept the New Testament at face value, but do not believe it, we are forced to deduce that either Jesus or his disciples were, in the traditional terms, either mad or bad, neither of which possibilities explains the foundation of a religion that so stressed truth and honesty.

The final part of the book deals with the death and resurrection of Jesus. His death is demonstrated to be more than an example or a martyrdom but an event that actually achieved something - the bearing away of our sins - achieving its purpose because of who Jesus was and is. The evidence for the resurrection is examined and various explanations considered. The only explanation that fits the facts of the situation, the time, the transformation of the disciples and the centrality of the resurrection in their preaching is shown to be that Jesus really did rise from the dead. Presuppositions that make all miracles theoretically impossible are warned against.

Having pointed out these things, the author shows that while, in the book, we have been putting Christianity on trial, if Christianity is true then ultimately we ourselves will be on trial. The Christian world-view is not there simply to be admired as a work of art but expects a response from us - and a positive response will start with repentance and faith.

To sum up, the author is to be commanded for tackling so wide a subject in such a fair and attractive way. The text covers some 300 pages, though this area is diluted considerably by illustrations.

Quotations are clearly differentiated from the author's comments by the typeface, but there is no distinction between quotes from Christian and non-Christian writers. I think this is an excellent approach because it forces the reader to concentrate on the arguments rather than simply look to the end of the quote for the 'nihil obstat'. It will require the reader to do a lot of thinking, however!

This raises the question of the anticipated readership of the book. The author does not presuppose any prior knowledge in his readership, though he does assume that they care about the issues raised. The book seems suitable for both Christians and non-Christians.

© Theo Todman May 1988.

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