Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How the Church Answers

Celsus wrote on Amazon that "Christianity is founded on four absurdities." (see prior post) As we go forward, I intend to discuss questions about the atonement that his four propositions raise. It is important, because we are "betting the farm" on the atonement.

But first we will benefit from an excursion. This excursion will illustrate something important about the methods the church has used to answer propositions like those Celsus wrote. Collectively, these methods are called apologetics. Generally, the church's apologetics have been poor, and the church is itself to blame for what people have come to think of Jesus.

Our excursion begins with the name the writer on Amazon chose. He uses the pen name Celsus. I think this writer is a knowledgeable person. Celsus was the first person whose work is historically preserved that provides a broad-ranging and organized criticism of Jesus. The church father, Origen, thought Celsus' attack on Jesus was important enough to be answered point by point. Origen quoted verbatim each passage from Celsus' work, and then answered each proposition.

I came across Celsus while meditating on Jesus in Gethsemane. Celsus disapproved, ridiculed, and mocked Jesus for his behavior in Gethsemane. Celsus is the classic example of critics who compare Jesus unfavorably to others who have faced death, particularly death by execution. Think of Socrates and Stephen. He weighed Jesus in the scale of classical Pagan ideals of bravery and courage. Compared to classical heroes, Celsus saw Jesus as pathetically weak and whimpering. He used his picture of a groveling Jesus to prove that Jesus would unravel civilization with cowardice.

Fast forward to the 20th century. Celsus' criticism of Jesus in Gethsemane is represented by, for example, M. M. Mangasarian. He was ordained into the Congregationalist ministry. He studied for the Presbyterian ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. He became pastor of Spring Garden Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Twenty one years later he published his first book to prove that Jesus was a myth. He showed his and Celsus' picture of the pitiful Jesus in Gethsemane. He quoted Jesus from the cross saying, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He concluded that all this "was tantamount to an admission by the [gospel] writers that they were dealing with a symbolic Christ, an ideal figure, a hero of a play, and not a historical figure."

Of course the answer given in the 20th century for Jesus’ behavior in Gethsemane would be that he is a myth. That was Origen’s answer to Celsus in the 3rd century. Celsus had rejected Jesus as a myth. That was odd because Celsus was a pious adherent to the myths of classicism. Origen replied that such stories as are told of Jesus are admitted to be true when told of Pagan divinities such as Apollo, so why can they not also be true when told of the Christian Messiah? If Apollo, though a myth, may be accepted, what could be wrong with adding the myth of Jesus? (see by searching in The Truth About Jesus: Is He a Myth)

What kind of answer is that? What kind of truth does that ascribe to Jesus? That is only mythical truth, not true truth, not historical incarnation and historical crucifixion. Origen’s classical formulation of a defense of Jesus capitulates to mythology. No wonder unbelievers take Jesus as a myth. The church told them to see him that way! Seldom does the church answer as Ole Hallesby did, saying, "The cross is a reality, the world's most real reality." (Religious or Christian, Augsburg edition, 1939, p. 101.)

The church's apologetics generally have had an objective and a method. The objective has been to remove the offense of the cross or the scandal of the cross. Supposedly, an inoffensive cross will be more attractive. The method has been to submit the cross to examination by the world's thinking. The apologists try to force the cross to explain itself within the narrow categories of secular philosophy and Pagan religion.

In the case of Origen and Celsus, the category of Pagan religious thought is myth, so Origen answered on the basis of myth. But then, everything became mythical including Jesus and the cross.

In the West, philosophy has had five branches: metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, logic, and morals. The church has tried to force the cross to answer within this or that metaphysic, within this or that epistemology, within this or that logic, and so on. But then everything became nauseating metaphysical speculation that turned ordinary people away from Jesus, and then from philosophy, and then back to Paganism. This is the post-modern world. The West today is very much like the Pagan context in which the New Testament was written.

There are two problems with the church's typical objective and method of apologetics. First, when the offense of the cross is removed, the cross stops being the cross. Therefore the offenseless cross does not explain the offensive cross. It only explains a caricature, not the historical cross. Evangelistically, then, the world seldom hears about the cross -- the offensive cross -- from the church.

Second, when the cross is forced to explain itself in, say, metaphysical terms, metaphysics are never forced to explain themselves in cross terms. When the cross is forced to explain itself in epistemological terms, epistemology is never forced to explain itself in cross terms.

All this is solved by Luther's theology of the cross. By "theology of the cross" I do not mean what men, though theologians, say of the cross. Hallesby says of it, "I do not mean now what men say of the cross, but what the cross says of men." (Religious or Christian, Augsburg edition, p. 110.)

The cross is the totalizing category. Metaphysics exist, if at all, within the category of cross. Epistemology exists, if at all, within the category of cross. The cross speaks of everything, and everything is what the cross says it is.

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