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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes

Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Why There's No Such Thing as a Lost Gospel


Are there really "lost" Gospel texts that were eliminated from the Bible? The claim has been circulating for many decades now, with specials on television that highlight the Gospel of Judas or books such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Yet, simply because someone calls a writing "Gospel" does that mean it should be considered as a candidate for Scripture alongside Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? I don't think so.

There are a number of reasons why the texts that are collectively known as the "lost" Gospels are nothing of the kind. First of all, they were written much later than the canonical Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were all penned in the first century, within 30 to 60 of Jesus's ministry. However, scholars have dated the vast majority of the Gnostic Gospels to originate in the second or third centuries. Scholars who are both liberal and conservative agree that the Gnostic accounts were created after the apostolic age.1 That means Gnostic works bearing the name of Thomas or James or Peter or Judas are definite forgeries.

Gnostic Texts Rely on the Canonical Gospels

Although the Gnostic Gospels are forgeries, the reason why they use the names of well-known apostles is interesting. The writers knew that for their writings to have any credence at all, they would have to bear the name of recognized figures during Jesus's ministry. Thus, the names of Thomas, James, Peter, and Judas are used to try and give these writings an air of authority.

Martin Hengel makes the point that unlike the original four Gospels, these Gnostics were written with the name attached to them from the very beginning. He notices that there are no competing claims nor are there any discussions about the author attribution for the Gnostic texts as there was for the canonical Gospels. He then concludes, "The uniformity of this unusual form of title strongly suggests that the titles "were not secondary additions but part of the Gospels as originally circulated. . . . [T]hese superscriptions were not added to the Gospels secondarily, long after their composition . . ."2

The question one should ask next, though, is how did those reading the Gnostic texts know these names of the apostles? The answer is simply that the four canonical Gospels were not only already in existence, but accepted as authoritative. In fact, by the middle of the second century, all four of the Biblical Gospels have been quoted as authoritative by Polycarp, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and included in the Diatessaron, a book that sought to harmonize all the Gospel accounts.

Further, throughout the Gnostics accounts, familiar portions of the canonical Gospels are leveraged. We read of Pilate washing his hands and of Jesus being buried in a tomb in the Gospel of Peter. About a third of the Gospel of Thomas are sayings of Jesus that steal from the canonical accounts.3 Ben Witherington concurs, writing "One of the key indicators that Gnosticism is a later development is that it depends on the canonical Gospels for its substance when it comes to the story of Jesus. Even more tellingly, the Gnostic texts try to de-Judaize the New Testament story."4

Gnostic Texts Seek to Usurp Gospel Accounts

Witherington's last point is not to be missed. The Gnostic texts set themselves apart from the canonical texts in both their theology and their claims to be the truth while the established Christianity of the church fathers was false. The term gnostic is based on a Greek word for knowledge, and the Gnostics continually preached that they had secret knowledge others didn't. The Apocalypse of Peter clearly sets the Gnostics against the Christian church leaders when it proclaims, "And there shall be others of those who are outside our number who name themselves bishop and also deacons, as if they have received their authority from God. They bend themselves under the judgment of the leaders. Those people are dry canals" (emphasis added).5 The Testimony of Truth proclaims "They do not have the word which gives life." 6

It is clear that the Gnostic Gospels are not on par with the canonical Gospels with regards to their sources. They are forgeries that were written too late, they relied on the existing four Gospels for at least some of their content 9thus tacitly endorsing Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as properly authoritative), and they set themselves up to be competitors to the teachings of the church that were handed down from the apostles. These so-called Gospels were never lost; they were simply rejected as poor imitations of what true scripture would look like.


References

1 Scholar Darrell Bock in his book The Mission Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub, 2006), points to the work of Rebell, Ehrman, Klauk, Lapham and White to support these dates.
2. Hengel, Martin. The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Collection and Origin of the Canonical Gospels. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International, 2000. Print. 50.
3. One such example is Thomas 20 which reads, "The disciples said to Jesus, 'Tell us what Heaven's kingdom is like.' He said to them, "'It's like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.'"
4. Witherington, Ben. The Gospel Code: Novel Claims about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Da Vinci. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004. Print. 22.
5. "The Apocalypse of Peter." Translated by James Brashler and Roger A. Bullard. The Nag Hammadi Library. Web. http://gnosis.org/naghamm/apopet.html
6. "The Testimony of Truth." Translated by Søren Giversen and Birger A. Pearson. The Nag Hammadi Library. Web. http://gnosis.org/naghamm/testruth.html

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Does a Fertilized Egg Have a Soul?


A recent article in the British publication Premier Christianity asked the question, "Does individual life really begin at conception?"1 David Instone-Brewer argues conception is too early to consider the embryo or zygote a person, pointing to the fact that cells are undifferentiated and the embryo could split into twins. He notes that prior to the 14 day mark, cells are undifferentiated, therefore "the number of nerve and brain cells in the human embryo is zero, and it has less complexity than the simplest microscopic worm."

Instone-Brewer doesn't rest his argument on biology, however. He's more fair than that. He offers a theological argument as to why 14 is the magic number. He continues:

For a completely different reason, theologians might also regard 14 days as a significant starting point for individual life. This is the date before which the cell-bundle could split into identical twins or larger multiples. We don't know if God injects a fully formed spirit at some point (like Plato imagined) or whether our spirit develops while our body develops. However, we can be sure that God does not give an individual spirit to a bundle of cells before 14 days because if those cells did subsequently split into identical twins, they would have only half of a human spirit each. Theologically speaking, therefore, individual spiritual life cannot start before 14 days after conception.

What Makes a Living Thing Alive?

Here is where I think Instone-Brewer goes wrong. While it is true that a single embryo will infrequently split into multiples, Instone-Brewer seems to offer a stunted definition of what the soul is. In his explanation above, he tries to separate the soul from the growing embryo as something that God perhaps adds to the entity. Yet, he doesn't take into account what is the thing that causes the embryo to be considered a living thing at all.

Regardless of whether our soul is fully formed or develops with the body, there is something that is unique about an embryo in that it is a living entity. It is different from a rock or a piece of wood. It is even different from a human corpse. The embryo is alive. The Bible has traditionally taught that the thing that separates a living being from an inanimate object is the soul.2 In Genesis 2:7 we read, "Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." The word used for God's breathing and the word used for being are both forms of the Hebrew word nephesh which is the primary word for soul. In the Genesis passage, God fashions the body—that is, all the parts are there and read to work—but the body doesn't become alive until the soul is given to it by God.

There are several other passages that illustrate the soul as being the distinctive element separating life and death. Genesis 35:18, which recounts Rachel's death, describes her passing by recording her soul's departure from the body. Also, Elijah when raising the widow's dead son in 1 Kings 17:21 prayed "Let this child's life (nephesh) return to him."

The Difference between a Being and Tissue

Of course, someone may offer an objection at this point, asking "What about cells such as skin cultures they keep alive in Petri dishes? Certainly, those don't have a soul, do they?" Well, I would argue no. First, a soul is a single entity that relates to the entire being. Instone-Brewer is right in noting that an embryo splitting into twins would leave each with half a soul. Similarly, a sperm cell and an ovum don't each have half a soul that fuses together when they unite. This is equating the immaterial aspect of the soul with the material aspect of the cells themselves. The soul encapsulates and animates the entire person.

Because the soul supervenes upon the entire person, it can be said that the soul provides the guidance or teleos for the body to operate properly. In other words, one's body is like an assembly of musicians and one's DNA is the sheet music. However, without a conductor to regulate the system, a symphony would never be produced. An embryo and even a zygote (fertilized egg) have that conductor in the soul, which animates the organism with forward progress. It builds a body.

Contrast that with cells in a dish. There is no telos there; the cells simply continue in a mechanical fashion as long as. In fact, one can compare them to the organs of an organ donor. If you are an organ donor, you have allowed certain body organs to be taken from you after you die and transplanted into another person. The organs are not removed until you are really dead, yet certain organs can for a limited time and with intervention stay viable for longer periods. While the cells of these organs are still operational, they will also die unless they are placed within a living being where their purpose may be fulfilled.

Embryos are not like an organ simply because the telos of an embryo is to create an independent entity. One may realize this doesn't happen in 14 days (or even nine months; it takes many years before a human being can be considered fully independent), but it marks a clear distinction between that which is a living being and cells that are mechanically operational.

On the question of where the soul of the twin comes from, you can read the excellent reply Peter D. Williams writes here. However, by ignoring the theology about what makes a human being alive, I think Instone-Brewer's answer is too short-sighted.

References

1. Instone-Brewer, David, and Peter D. Williams. "Does Individual Life Really Begin at Conception?" Premier Christianity. Premier Christian Media Trust, 14 May 2015. Web. 26 May 2015. http://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2015/June-2015/Does-individual-life-really-begin-at-conception.
2.. Although I offer some examples here, a much fuller argument for the soul as that which gives life may be found in J.P. Moreland and Scott Rae's Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), pages 26-40.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Is Morality Grounded in Nature, Utility, or God?



Just as there are three possible sources for moral obligations (determined, designed, or discovered—see previous video), there are three competing ideas offered today for the grounding of morality. Can one derive objective moral principles from naturalism or utilitarianism or must moral law be grounded in God alone? In this last of a four-part series, Lenny discusses the problems with both naturalistic and utilitarian view of morality and shows why moral values and duties are rooted in God and his laws.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Os Guinness Says "We Are All Apologists Now"

I recently received an advanced copy of Os Guinness' forthcoming book Fool's Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. While I haven't yet read the whole thing, Guinness is a solid scholar and a stalwart author who takes both cultural engagement and the defense of the faith seriously.

In this contribution, Guinness doesn't offer another catalog of answers so much as he offers keen insight into the method of communication Christians need to develop in order to be heard in our increasingly noisy society. I'll review the entire book at a later date. For now, I'll leave you with the opening lines of the introduction, which should whet your appetite for more.
We are all apologists now, and we stand at the dawn of the grand age of human apologetics, or so some are saying because our wired world and our global era are a time when expressing, presenting, sharing, defending and selling ourselves have become a staple of everyday life for countless millions of people around the world, both Christians and others. The age of the Internet, it is said, is the age of the self and the selfie. The world is full of people full of themselves. In such an age, "I post, therefore I am."

To put the point more plainly, human interconnectedness in the global era has been raised to a truly global level, with unprecedented speed and on an unprecedented scale. Everyone is now everywhere, and everyone can communicate with everyone else from anywhere and at any time, instantly and cheaply. Communication through the social media in the age of email, text messages, cell phones, tweets and Skype is no longer from "the few to the many" as in the age of the book, the newspaper and television, but from "the many to the many" and all the time.

One of the effects of this level of globalization is plain. Active and inter­active communication is the order of the day. From the shortest texts and tweets to the humblest website, to the angriest blog, to the most visited social networks, the daily communications of the wired world attest that everyone is now in the business of relentless self-promotion—presenting them­selves, explaining themselves, defending themselves, selling themselves or sharing their inner thoughts and emotions as never before in human history. That is why it can be said that we are in the grand secular age of apologetics.

The whole world has taken up apologetics without ever using or knowing the idea as Christians understand it. We are all apologists now, if only on behalf of "the Daily Me" or "the Tweeted Update" that we post for our virtual friends and our cyber community. The great goals of life, we are told, are to gain the widest possible public attention and to reach as many people in the world with our products-and always, our leading product is Us.1
I completely agree with this passage. Everyone seek self-promotion these days, sometimes in ways that are more subtle than others. People feign expertise in subjects they really know nothing about, appearing smarter than they are. The advent of the Google scholar, where people believe the first three hits from a search term are enough to make one knowledgeable about a subject has the effect of chilling conversation and therefore chilling the true accumulation of knowledge. Therefore, Christians do need to be wise as serpents but gentle as doves in their interaction with others. Fool's Talk would be a good start.

The book will be released July of 2015. You can pre-order on Amazon here.

References

1.Guinness, Os. Fool's Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity, 2015. Print.15-16.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Is It Fair for God to Judge Those Who Never Heard?

Christianity teaches that all people are born sinners. They have a natural desire to rebel against the things of God, to be selfish and immoral. But God does not abandon them here. The good news of the Gospel is that God sent his only son Jesus to become a man and redeem us from our sins. Once we put our trust in Jesus and his act of redemption, we are reconciled to God and we can commune with him forever.



In the Christian story, both the judgment of men and the reconciliation of them are acts of God. But some cry foul at this story, claiming God is unfair for judging those who may have never heard about Jesus or their need for redemption. Is God truly unfair to those who were isolated by geography or history from the Gospel? The Apostle Paul argues they aren't, and offers a couple of reasons why.

1. God Revels Himself to All Men

In Paul's day, most of the world wasn't familiar with Christianity or even the Jewish ideas from which it sprang. When writing to the Romans, Paul realizes that the church in Rome would include people from many different backgrounds and locations across the known world. He tells the Christians there that while God had revealed himself and his holy standard to the Jews through the writings of Moses and the prophets, the Romans didn't. However Paul contends the Romans should still realize there is a God to whom they are accountable. In Romans 1:20 he writes, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

Imagine those who were first settling the country. Immigrants didn't speak the same language. They came from places with different laws and different customs. One family travels west and finds a picturesque spot with a stream and a meadow. However, there's a fence that encloses the land. Though the immigrant understands little of the law, he would assume that the fence is an indicator that someone had claimed this land. He would realize the fence doesn't simply appear. Even if he comes from a culture that had never used fences to mark property boundaries, through a quick examination he could easily conclude its purpose and meaning.

Similarly, no matter how isolated any culture is from the Gospel, every human being can recognize that there is design in our world. In fact, every culture has recognized that they didn't appear from nothing and there is an order to nature, to survival, and to reproduction. That's why all cultures adhere to some kind of religious practice. It demonstrates how all cultures have recognized there is something higher than themselves to whom they are beholden. In other words, mankind is never the final authority. One must look beyond himself to discover the deepest truths about his design and purpose in the world.

2. People Don't Even Measure up to Their Own Standards

The second point Paul makes is while different cultures have varying standards of morality, no one can claim innocence before God. Of course, no one can measure up to God's requirement of perfection, especially if they don't know all of what God's perfection entails. Yet, Paul states the Romans have within their own consciences enough of God's law to be accountable for that much. He writes:
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares (Rom 2:14-16, NASB).
Here, Paul simply claims that commandments like "Do not lie, do not murder, do not commit adultery" are universal. There would be many societies who had never heard of the Ten Commandments, yet would recognize the wrongness of such actions. While in some cultures a man may have only one wife and in others a man may have four wives, there is no culture where it is OK to take another man's wife.

The hook is all people fail not only at achieving God's standards, but even at holding their own. Think about two men who work at an office. One is coming in three to four minutes late and sometimes stretches his lunch hour to an hour and a half. The other is strictly prompt, but from time to time will use the work printer to make flyers for a birthday party or take a highlighter and some pens home to use there. The first man may justify his actions, thinking "I may be a few minutes late, but at least I don't steal like that guy!" while the second is thinking "I may use a few extra office supplies, but at least I care enough about my job to be on time!" The fact is both men are guilty and their attempts at self-justification prove it.

Driving on the Freeway

The clearest example I can give on how all people fail to measure up to their own law is by simply asking you to think about your experiences on the freeway. In what ways do you criticize others? If your driving was judged by the same standard as you judge everyone else, do you think you would have no strikes against yourself? I know I would!

If God did nothing more than judge each person on their own standard of conduct they held for others, each one of us would be found completely guilty before him. So, how can anyone accuse God of not being fair? It certainly isn't in his judgment of them. Perhaps they are complaining that he hasn't made redemption sufficiently clear. We can address that topic in another post.

Image courtesy Andrew Mitchell and licensed by the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) License
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