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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 Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label definitions. Show all posts
Showing posts with label definitions. Show all posts

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Christian Must Believe in the Trinity

In this recent series, I've been working through some of the essential beliefs that identify someone as a Christian. Previous posts have discussed Christianity as a monotheistic faith. We believe there is only one God who has ever existed throughout all of reality. But monotheism isn't exclusive to Christianity. Most people will recognize that Judaism and Islam are also monotheistic.  Christians hold to a very unique type of monotheism. We've also talked about how Christianity holds to the divinity of Jesus, but that Jesus is not the same being as God the Father. In order to be considered a Christian, one must believe that Jesus is God the Son.

At first glance, it seems that the two statements are contradictory. There is only one God, yet there is God the Father and God the Son and one is not the other. To explain exactly how this works, though, has tongue-tied many people throughout the centuries. Add to this another complication as Christians also believe the Holy Spirit is God, and yet He is distinct from the Father and from the Son. How can such a seemingly illogical position be true? The answer lies in the concept of the Trinity,

The Trinity – What is it?

To describe the Christian belief of the Trinity is actually quite simple, but it takes a bit of careful thinking to make sure the concept is properly understood. To say God is a Trinity is to say that God is one being comprised of three persons. The term "Trinity" was first used for the three persons comprising God by the early Church father Tertullian around AD 200.1 Tertullian saw a distinction between what it means to be a person and what it means to be a being. Our difficulty today is primarily because most people think the terms are synonymous. We see a person and we say that the person is a human being. One person = one being.

However, it isn't always the case that the attributes of a being are the same as the attributes of a person. To prove my case, let's proceed downward rather than upward. When Tertullian talks about a being, he means that there is one substance that makes up the entity of God. When we look at our own bodies, we see that every part that properly belongs to our body should be considered human. Every cell is a human cell. We are made up of human "stuff" if you will. Similarly, every part that makes up a plant is "plant stuff." A plant is also a being; it is a living thing that exists. But no one would claim that a plant is a person. That would be foolish!

So, we have two cases here. We recognize a plant as a being, but it has no personhood within it. It has a personhood count of zero, if you will. We also recognize a human as a being that has a personhood count of one. This means that personhood is different from being, as a being can exist without personhood. It then follows that it isn't contradictory to say that God is a being with a personhood count of three. It may be the case that we see no parallel here on earth, it may be the case that there is no other being in all of reality that can claim multiple personhood. However, it is clear that the claim of one being in three persons is not a contradiction, any more than claiming a plant is a being with no personhood should be considered such.

The Trinity – Its Necessity

The Bible clearly recognizes God the Father as God. That claim is usually not disputed. However, as I mentioned last time, it also recognizes Jesus as God and it identifies the Holy Spirit as God, too (Matt. 28:19, Acts 5:3,5, Isa 63:10, 1 Cor. 2:10-11). These three persons are each recognized as fully God and yet God is one. If one denies the triune nature of God, then one is forced into denying some portion of scripture.

Beyond the reconciliation of Scripture, the doctrine of the Trinity holds additional advantages. I've argued this before, but it is through the relationship within the Trinity that God can be considered completely without need. Only a being like the Trinity can be all-loving, and only within a trinity can God express His own humility.

Of course, no one can say exactly how all the aspects of the three-in-one work. That shouldn't be a surprise, though. Scientists today have really good data on quantum models of matter, but you don't have to be able to explain all aspect of quantum mechanics to believe it's true. When talking about God, one is referring to a being that transcends humanity; therefore one should expect that there would be aspects to His nature beyond our comprehension. But that doesn't mean that we cannot apprehend the basic understanding of the Trinity. God is three persons who comprise one being and each is fully God.


1. Carl, Harold F. Ph.D. "Against Praxeas – How Far Did Tertullian Advance the Doctrine of the Trinity?" Global Journal of Classical Theology. (April 2009) Available online at

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Sam Harris' Wrongheaded View of Christian Faith

Photo courtesy Auren Hoffman.
If I ask Christians for a biblical definition of faith, many times I have Hebrews 11:1 quoted to me: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." But, is that the end of the story? Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, takes Hebrews 11:1 as an example of how Christians are not reasoning, how faith is diametrically opposed to reason. He writes, "Read in the right way, this passage seems to render faith entirely self-justifying: perhaps the very fact that one believes in something which has not yet come to pass ( 'things hoped for') or for which one has not evidence ('things not seen') constitutes evidence for its actuality ('assurance')."1

Obviously, Sam Harris is not a Greek scholar, nor is he a biblical scholar. He knows nothing about exegesis and he's just flat wrong on this, but he wants to prove his point. The assurance of things hoped for does mean the assurance of future things. Faith does deal with those things that we don't necessarily know, or that we don't have 100% confidence in. By the way reason deals with things we don't necessarily have 100% confidence in. You can reasonably believe something or you can claim you know something with less than 100% confidence.

As an example, think about a man dating a women he is considering marrying. He talks with his friends and says, "I think it's time to ask her to marry me." His friends may reply, "Well do you think she will say yes?" A reasonable response would be, "I have faith that she's going to say yes so I'm going to ask the question. If I had no faith that she would say yes, then I wouldn't ask at all."  Is such a faith a blind faith? Or is it based nio years of involvement and growing to know one another? I had faith that my wife and I would be compatible together as husband and wife. How can I know that? The only way to know how compatible we are is to become husband and wife. We cannot know that beforehand.

When we talk about "the assurance of things hoped for," it is not merely something which does has not come to pass. When we talk about "the conviction of things not seen," it is the writer using a Hebrew idiom where if they wanted to stress a point or add emphasis they would repeat it. That's what the writer of Hebrews is doing here. The lines "The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" is the same phrase said differently. It's a linguistic device.

Both Sam Harris and Christians need to realize that the Bible isn't meant to be taken so superficially. Hebrews 11:1 it is a good definition of one aspect of faith. It is not the sum total of what faith means, just as saying God is love is not the sum total of all that God is. God is also defined as a Spirit. God is also defined as a consuming fire. We are told many things that God is in the Bible and love is one aspect of God's character, but it's not the sum total of God's character. God has more depth to Him than merely love. Similarly, Hebrews 11:1 does not provide a complete definition of faith. One must take the passage for what the author intended, and not limit the whole concept of faith to that one verse. If you'd like to read a fuller definition of the biblical meaning of faith, see this post. But there is one thing you can actually know, and that is that Sam Harris' version of Hebrews 11:1 is nothing but a straw man.


1. Harris, Sam. The End of Faith.
(New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2004). 65.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Should We Take the Slaughter of the Canaanites Literally?

I read a recent column by Meghan Daum in the Los Angeles Times where she decried the decision by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to update the definition of the word "literally." Daum writes:
"The entry defines the adverb 'literally' as 'in a literal manner or sense; exactly: the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the roundabout. ' But then it adds a note: 'informal, used for emphasis while not being literally true: I have received literally thousands of letters.'

"The latter, say the editors, 'is not acceptable in formal contexts, though it is widespread.'"1
Daum recognizes in the article that language is fluid and meanings change. (When was the last time you heard someone use the word gay in a sentence and had it mean happy?) But she complains that literally should not mean figuratively, which is its opposite. She continues:
"I'm sorry: 'Literal' does not mean the same thing as 'not at all literal.' It is not a contranym, like 'sanction,' which means both to punish and to condone, or 'garnish,' which means both to add on and to take away. It's a plain old word with a plain old meaning."
I have another take on the word.  I think that people are not using the word "literally" with the intent to mean figuratively. I think they are using another rhetorical device called hyperbole. Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement intended to "evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression, but is not meant to be taken literally" according to Wikipedia. This is generally the way I see the word work in speech, as when my wife says "it will take me literally five minutes to get ready." Believe me, if I used a stopwatch at that point, I would be in big trouble!

Because "literally" is being employed as a rhetorical device, it means one must understand the statement at the level of the sentence, not the word. Of course, it can cause a bit of confusion when the word "literally" is in a phrase that asks you to not take the phrase literally! People today have a common understanding of this, but I wonder how such conversation will be interpreted in, say, a thousand years.

All of this brings me to reflect on a charge that atheists like Richard Dawkins bring against the God of the Bible. Dawkins asks how any God that would command the slaughter of the Canaanites—even women and children—can be considered a good god? In his objection, Dawkins employs charges of "genocide" or other loaded language. But I believe there are people who are earnestly concerned about this question, so it does require a thoughtful response.

Dr. Paul Copan, in his book Is God a Moral Monster?, does a great job of explaining that part of the problem with the passages in the book of Joshua is that Joshua employed hyperbole in warfare language which was common to all those in the ancient Near East. This is borne out in the fact that while Joshua records his efforts resulted in "all the land captured, all the kings defeated, and all the Canaanites destroyed ( cf. 10:40-42; 11:16-23),"2 If this description is to be taken literally, then how come the book of Judges opens with an attack on Israel by the very same Canaanites that should have been non-existent? It seems that Joshua's description is more like an avid football fan who proclaims "We killed those guys!" upon a game ending with a score of 9-7.

Copan notes that this idea of overstating one's case isn't exclusive to Israel. He point's to Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen's work and lists examples of similar hyperbole from the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Moabites, and the Assyrians.3

Of course, there are other mitigating factors that also undercut the charge of divine genocide, but I wanted to focus on this one right now. Given that today we understand how the word "literally" is used (and we seem to be aware of when to take "literally" literally), why should it be such a stretch to acknowledge that people from the past would use similar rhetorical language, especially concerning such an emotionally charged topic as warfare? It would be as irresponsible to charge the Israelites with genocide as it would be for me to pull out my stopwatch with my wife, and the end result may be as messy.

Thoughtful questions require a thoughtful response. However, with folks like Richard Dawkins they continue to use the objection without even understanding how the language of the day was used. Thoughtful questions do require thoughtful responses. But with folks like Dawkins, when a thoughtful response is given, it isn't thoughtfully accepted.


1. Daum, Meghan. "To thine own selfie be true – literally." The Los Angeles Times. 12 Dec, 2013:,0,6736521.column#ixzz2nNfBYwVp 13 Dec 2013.

2. Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011). 170.

3. Ibid. 172.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

What is Faith? A Proper Understanding

Photo courtesy Richard MacDonald.
What is faith? As I discuss issues like the existence of God I find that much of the time people have misunderstood the Christian concept of faith.  Bertrand Russell, the famous early 20th century atheist defined faith as, "the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. Where there is evidence, no one speaks of 'faith.' We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence."1 Sam Harris defines it this way: "Religious faith is simply unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern."2 Both of these definitions miss the mark, erecting a straw man instead of a robust understanding of what faith is.

This misunderstanding is not limited to unbelievers, though; many Christians are also confused on what biblical faith means. They have an underdeveloped view of faith, assuming that it is some kind of trust without evidence or they think that faith is exclusively defined by a single Bible verse, like Hebrews 11:1. That verse reads, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  While the writer to the Hebrews was trying to give one aspect of what faith means, this verse is no more an exhaustive definition of faith than the statement "God is a consuming fire"—which is found in the following chapter—defines all aspects of who God is.

The Biblical Understanding of Faith

When you look at all the different ways faith is mentioned and expressed in the Bible, you'll find that faith in God encompasses three components: a proper understanding of the object of our faith, an assent or agreement with the claim of faith, and an exercise of trust that is the outworking of that assent.

First, in order to have faith, you must properly understand what it is you're asked to have faith in. The Christian no more believes in a cruel, vindictive God than the atheist does.  This is not the kind of God a Christian could have faith in. True faith in God means that one must at least understand what we mean when we say "God."  God has certain attributes and qualities.  Christians believe in an eternal God, a God from whom all goodness stems. The Christian God is not capricious, but unchanging, gracious, long-suffering and holy. If one doesn't understand these concepts, then the faith that one has would rightly be suspect. This is where many atheists go wrong.  They hold to an image of God that is inaccurate and they then reject that type of a God.

Beyond the mere understanding of the object of faith, the believer must give intellectual assent or agreement to the claims of faith. So, in our example, once you understand what the concept of God entails, then it is necessary for you to hold that such a being either exists or doesn't exist. Thus, faith is tied to belief. To have faith in God is to believe that He exists. But belief is not enough, for James said that even the demons believe in God and tremble!3To have faith means we must go beyond mere assent and exercise a level of trust in Him.  Trust is a necessary feature of faith.

The Evidence for Faith

All these components, understanding, assent, and trust, don't happen in a vacuum. We take the propositions we know to be true, such as everything that begins to exist has a cause, the universe shows evidence of design, for absolute moral values to exist they must originate from a moral lawgiver, and we use our reasoning ability to weigh them as evidence for the Christian God. We also have the internal witness of God and we have historical testimony such as the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead. Because we have all of this, we can more easily place our trust in God as not only being real, but as one who is trustworthy to guide our lives. As J.P. Moreland states, "Belief in rests on belief that."

Even in Hebrews 11, this pattern shows itself. To clarify his definition of faith, the writer to the Hebrews follows up verse one with over thirty verses of examples of how God actually worked in the lives of those who had trusted Him in the past. He recounts how those in the past trusted God and their faith was rewarded, as they  "conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight."4He then says in the first verse of chapter twelve that these examples provide evidence for the faith that we should have. He exhorts the Christian, writing "since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us."5

Christian faith is not a leap in the dark.  The concept of "blind faith" is completely foreign to the Bible. Instead, when the Bible speaks of faith, it means a trust based on past history and evidence. Christianity has always grounded itself to a specific historical event, hanging the faith of its followers on the actuality of Christ's resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:14-19 Paul says that Christianity should be dismissed if the resurrection is not a reality. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the Christian view of faith is more measured and rational that others may have you believe.


1. Bertrand Russell as quoted in Introducing Philosophy of Religion by Chad Meister.
(New York: Routledge, 2009). 158.
2. Harris, Sam. The End of Faith.
(New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2004). 65.
3. James 2:19. ESV.
4. Hebrews 11:34-35. ESV.
5. Hebfrrews 12:1.ESV.
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