Monday, October 8, 2007

The Postliberalism of Brevard Childs

By Dr Leong Tien Fock

Postliberalism, originated by Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, is one postmodern approach to theology that has captured the attention, even appreciation, of a number of evangelicals. Is postliberalism consistent with evangelicalism? By evangelicalism I mean Christian orthodoxy minus propositionalism, the view held by many evangelicals, notably Carl Henry, that propositions alone are adequate to express theological truth revealed in the Scripture. Given that so much of Scripture is poetry and narrative evangelicalism cannot be faithful to Scripture if it has no room for the imagination to complement propositions to enhance and enrich our perception of theological truth.

Henry H. Knight III in his book A Future for Truth: Evangelical Theology in a Postmodern World presents a summary of Hans Frei’s view that:

the biblical narrative is quite close to history-writing in depicting a common public world. However, in clear distinction from history-writing, biblical narratives introduce supernatural causation and miraculous occurrences. Thus to insist on a rational demonstration that these narratives either are or are not historical is necessarily to misread them; it fails to read them literally, as narratives.

The reason this is so is that, in order to determine their historical accuracy, the narratives are no longer permitted to interpret our world; rather the criteria of Enlightenment modernity are used to evaluate the narratives (pp. 100-101).

One can raise the counter-charge that Frei’s assumption that biblical narratives are “history-like” but not history because they “introduce supernatural causation and miraculous occurrences” is resting on Enlightenment modernity. It is not our purpose to carry on a debate on postliberalism as presented by Frei or George Lindbeck, which has been ably done elsewhere by notable scholars. But the debate generally excludes Bible scholars and biblical theologians. To address this lack I hereby present a paper on Brevard Child’s canonical criticism originally written as a term paper for a graduate course on Old Testament Studies at Wheaton College Graduate School.

Childs is generally regard as a postliberal and his canonical criticism questions Mark Wallace’s argument that “there is a fundamental ambiguity running through postliberalism as to whether the biblical narratives refer to any reality outside the text” (cited in Knight, 105). Since it is this ‘ambiguity’ that decides whether postliberalism and evangelicalism are compatible Child’s cannot be ignored in the debate.

This paper evaluates Childs’ claim that, though the “history-like” narratives of the Old Testament describe a historical-like world that is not historical, the Old Testament is still normative theologically for the Church. The conclusion of the paper is that Childs’ approach amounts to saying that Scripture has no inherent authority; it has authority only because the believing community (the Jews and then the Church) has chosen to grant that authority to it. A campus evangelist recently shared that there are Buddhist students in the Malaysian universities who would say that the Bible is true for Christians because they believe in it and that the Buddhist scriptures are true for Buddhists because they believe in it.


An Exposition and Evaluation of the Underlying Assumption Behind Childs' 'Canonical Criticism' of the Old Testament

One of the most recent issues in Old Testament studies is Canonical Criticism. Brevard Childs has been the most influential advocate of this approach to the Bible. Childs, however, did not and does not like to call his approach 'Canonical Criticism' because "it implies that the canonical approach is considered another historical technique (like) source criticism, form criticism, rhetorical criticism, and similar methods. Rather, the issue at stake (is) a stance from which the Bible can be read as sacred scripture."1 In other words, unlike the other 'criticisms', 'canonical criticism' is not a new procedure for biblical studies but merely a new perspective from which biblical studies is to be approached.

Childs' canonical approach germinated and sprung up from the troubled ground of Biblical Theology. It is a reaction to a reaction. The post-World War II 'Biblical Theology Movement' as he calls it, was a reaction to the Fundamentalist-Liberal controversy of the early 1900s.2 In approaching the Bible, "the Liberals were to be blamed for the loss of theological perspective, so also were the Fundamentalists at fault for their denial of valid Biblical Criticism."3 The Biblical Theology Movement offered an alternative to Biblical studies that was "beyond the liberal-conservative syndrome; ... the possibility of accepting Biblical Criticism without reservation as a valid tool while at the same time recovering a robust, confessionally oriented theology."4

But in its efforts to recover the 'theological dimension of the Bible' without a 'repudiation of the historicocritical method' and hence not returning to the 'precritical era of Biblical Study',5 the Movement was torn apart by "the strain of using orthodox Biblical language for the constructive part of the theology, but at the same time approaching the Bible with all the assumptions of liberalism, (which) proved in the end to cause an impossible tension".6 Childs' approach is a reaction to this 'impossible tension' which became one of the major causes in the breakdown of the Biblical Theology Movement.7

His goal is to recover the theological (and hence authoritative) dimension of the Bible without denying the validity of the 'assumptions of Liberalism' and yet avoid the 'impossible tension'. The 'assumptions of Liberalism' include not only the critical conclusions of source and historical criticism but also those of form and tradition criticism.8 Despite these critical conclusions about the origins and contents of the Scriptures, Childs believes we can still "take the Biblical text seriously in its canonical form"9 (emphasis added). He explains, "the search to discover the original historical contexts for the various parts of the Old and New Testaments is essentially for a number of historicocritical disciplines, such as literary, historical, and comparative religion analysis. However... an interpreter can approach the same material and use only the final stage of the literature as a legitimate context."10 For he asserts that "the relation of the diverse biblical testimonies to each other and to the reality which evoked them is ontological rather than simply historical. It was, therefore, on the ontological level that one could hope to resolve the problem of biblical unity which had become increasingly unmanageable... in the modern period."11 This means it is valid to study the Scriptures theologically in its final form or 'canonical shape'
despite the fact that the Pentateuch is not Mosaic as the Bible itself claims, but a mosaic of myths, legends and perhaps some facts; that not all the oracles in the Book of Isaiah originated from the eighth century prophet; and that the Prophecy of Daniel contains not prophecies but histories told in the future tense.

It is not our concern here to evaluate Childs' claim that the critical methods of liberalism are valid and have "perfected a whole set of new tools for understanding the historical and theological setting of the Bible."12 Neither do we wish to evaluate his claim that "the Canon of the Christian Church is the most appropriate context from which to do Biblical Theology".13 Our concern is the validity of holding both claims at the same time. We recall that he is trying to avoid the 'impossible tension' between a critical view of Scriptures and the theological (and authoritative) use of the same. Does his canonical approach to biblical theology remove the tension?

We will first pinpoint a fundamental assumption underlying his efforts to reconcile the critical conclusions with his canonical theology and then evaluate the validity of this assumption. Although his approach covers both the Old and the New Testaments, we limit our discussion to the Old Testament.

In Childs’ view, "the final canonical literature reflects a long history of development in which the received tradition was selected, transmitted and shaped by hundreds of decisions."14 '' At every stage of the transmission process, "traditions which once arose in a particular milieu and were addressed to various historical situations were shaped in such a way as to serve as a normative expression of God's will to later generations of Israel who had not shared in these original historical events"15 (emphasis added). In these 'shapings” of normative traditions, faithfulness to the original contents and contexts is however not a criterion. "At times there is clear evidence for an intentional blurring of the original historical setting (e.g. Second Isaiah)."16 This freedom to 'blurr' contents and contexts is not limited only to new material to be added to existing normative tradition passed on from the previous editors and redactors, but extended to the latter hitherto authoritative materials as well! This is to 'actualize' past materials in order ''to transmit the tradition in such a way as to prevent its being moored in the past."17 These long series
of shapings and reshapings he calls 'canon’ and the final reshaping that produced the stabilised and standardised Scriptures for all future generations he calls 'canonization'.18

This view of the canonical process is carried over to textual criticism, the goal of which is considered not to recover the 'original text' nor even the closest to it. The oldest and best attested reading may not be the 'correct' reading in the light of reshapings by later editors. Intentional changes in readings by a scribe could be a 'canonical move' to 'actualize' the text. Since the Ma-soretic text (specifically, the ben Asher tradition, since it is the one we received) is considered to be the final form, the goal of textual criticism is to recover the purest Masoretic text. Hence intentional pre-Masoretic scribal changes are 'canonical' and valid but post-Masoretic changes are not.19

The result of such a canonical process is that contents of the Old Testament as found in the present canonical shape do not reflect their original historical form in terms of contexts, purpose, meaning, etc.20 In its original context, the book of Deuteronomy may well be a seventh century document related to the 'reform programme of Josiah (2Kings 22ff.)' and had a role in the centralization of the Israelitic religion.21 But in its present canonical context it is to be treated as “a series of addresses by Moses to the people just before the entry into the promised land of Canaan... to ‘explain the Torah’... to the new generation who was about to cross into the land...”22 In the context of the canon, Deuteronomy also has a 'canonical role' in "providing the hermeneutical key for understanding the law of Moses, that is to say, the Pentateuch, in its role as the sacred scripture of Israel."23 This is true even though the Pentateuch is a mosaic of historically and theologically diverse source materials that have gone through countless editions and redactions. This means the “history-like” narratives of the Old Testament describe a historical-like world that is not historical.

How is the canonical approach to exegesis similar and/or dissimilar to the critical and evangelical approaches? According to Childs, "the usual critical method of biblical exegesis is, first, to seek to restore an original historical setting by stripping away those very elements which constitute the canonical shape. Little wonder that once the biblical text has been securely anchored in the historical past by 'decanonizing' it, the interpreter has difficulty applying it to the modern religious context."24 The evangelical approach also seeks to study the text in its original historical contexts. But unlike the critical approach, it need not ‘decanonize' it. For to the evangelical, the original historical context is also the canonical context. Hence, like the canonical interpreter, he is also studying the text in the context of the canon. But the latter approach does not see the canonical context as equivalent to the historical context. What difference does it make in terms of
exegesis? For the evangelical, the canonical context, being the same as the historical context, can be informed by contemporary historical information. For instance, Deuteronomy in its canonical context records a covenant renewal between God and the new generation of Israelites. But it has been shown that the form of the book is similar to the form of second millennium Hittite suzerain-vassal treaties. This information gives an entirely new dimension in our exegesis and understanding of Deuteronomy. For the canonical approach, Deuteronomy still portrays a covenant renewal mediated through Moses (second millennium). But extra biblical second millennium information is irrelevant since the book is supposed to be composed in the first millennium.

In other words, not all, if not most, of the events mentioned in the Old Testament need to be rooted in verifiable history (Historie). Even actual events recorded in the Bible may not be in the temporal and spatial contexts as reconstructed in the canonical 'history'. This intentional (and at times unintentional) reinterpretation and reshaping of historical content is justifiable because the intention of editors and redactors is not to transmit historically reliable information but 'Israel's theological reflections' that were to be normative for subsequent generations.25 As Sheppard puts it, "the function of historical detail in the canonical context is not always primarily to inform the reader of an ancient state of affairs. Such detail in the canonical context generally is not evidence for an historical reconstruction. For example, the present shape of the Sinai narratives is first concerned about position and order. These narratives define the theological status of the Decalogue and Book of the Covenant vis-a-vis an elect people and their leaders, rather than draw an objective picture of the event at Sinai."26 Hence "history-like detail is used chiefly as dressing or preparation for the proper hearing of a tradition which is itself neither historical narrative nor bound up in an historical incident, but rich with a peculiar contemporaneity for those who in faith yearn to hear the voice of God."27

But how can the 'voice of God' be heard from such 'theological reflections' that are not reliable with respect to the historical details that 'dress' the reflections? Childs explains, "(the canonical approach) reckons with the fact that Israel bore witness to its encounter with God in actual time and space, and yet registered its testimony in a text through a multilayered manner which far
transcends the categories of ordinary historical discourse."28 So the underlying assumption is that normative theological truth can be transmitted through transposing and juxtaposing together different fragments of historically and theologically unrelated materials from different oral and/or written sources (such as J,E,D,P) which by themselves have different contexts, purposes and meanings, etc., to create a new context (such as that seen in the Pentateuch). So Childs claims that the use of the canon as a context for theological studies frees the individual fragments of the Old Testament from the 'imprisonment' of their respective contexts to integrate into a new and unrelated context the whole of which is more than the sum of the parts.29 This is the explanation for the assertion that the unity and continuity of the Old Testament is not historical but ontological i.e., theological.

Certainly editors and redactors had the right to (if they did) transpose and juxtapose such diverse materials into a new context to communicate theological truths. The question is why should a document thus constructed be normative for Israel of old and also for the Church today? It has been noted that the 'theological reflections' thus transmitted do still reflect Israel's actual encounters with God even though the redactors had the freedom to re-interpret existing scriptures and uproot new materials from their original contexts and incorporate them into the former. But in Childs' view this 'freedom' does not represent arbitrariness. For in the transmission of Scriptures there was an inseparable relationship between the text and the community that treasures it as Scripture. The text had a continuous effect in 'shaping' the community just as the community in turn has a continuous effect in shaping the text.30 In other words, each generation of editors and redactors have themselves been affected and 'shaped' by the Scriptures they received. So when they went about shaping and reshaping Scriptures for subsequent generations they would not do so in an arbitrary way.

This view opens the way for an explanation for the authority of Scriptures in the canonical context despite the acceptance of critical conclusions. Childs hypothesizes that Israel's authoritative Scripture initially consisted of laws revealed to Moses by God who also commissioned him to write them down. These authoritative laws became the norm by which new laws were measured and added. This new corpus then became the new norm for further additions. The process is repeated through countless additions (and reshapings). In this way, materials added (and reshaped) after Moses became authoritative. But accepting critical conclusions, Childs is prepared to ascribe much fewer laws to Moses than the Bible itself does. He explains away the difficulty by suggesting that later persons who added the additional non-Mosaic laws that had been attributed to Moses did so in the name of the latter. "Thus laws attributed to Moses were deemed authoritative and conversely authoritative laws were attributed to Moses."31

Through this theologically-controlled manner of transmission the Scripture in its final form is normative for Israel, the original community of faith that was shaped by and in turn shaped the
Old Testament. "The early Church inherited the Jewish Scriptures along with its understanding of canon..."32 By accepting the Old Testament as normative for obedient life, the Church thus identifies herself with Israel as the community of faith.33

Childs' preceding hypothesis does seem to justify his underlying assumption that normative theology can be transmitted through a conflation of theologically and historically diverse materials. The assumption as a whole sounds valid. But we would like to show that it creates hermeneutical tensions with regards to some crucial theological concepts in the Old Testament. These 'theological reflections' are so intricately interwoven with historical details in such a way that unless the latter are real, i.e., the canonical context of the passage corresponds to the historical context, the validity or even the normativeness of the theology concerned is questionable.

Firstly, consider the very issue of the basis or origin of Mosaic authority. Childs has rightly noted that "Moses' role as mediator of the divine law is deeply rooted in the Sinai tradition".34 In other words, in the understanding of Israel, the laws attributed to Moses are authoritative because God revealed them to him at Sinai. "If a law functioned authoritatively for Israel, it must be from Sinai. Conversely, if it is from Sinai, it must be authoritative." 35 But in the canonical shape of the Sinai tradition, in Childs’ own words, "the revelation of Sinai (Ex 19) is integrally connected with the deliverance from Egypt."36 In fact, he adds, "the commandments are prefaced by (a 'self-introductory') formula (Ex 20:2) to make clear that they are understood as the will of Yahweh who has delivered his people from bondage... The formula identifies the authority and right of God to make known his will because he has already graciously acted in Israel's behalf ... the giving of the law presupposes the deliverance from Egypt"37 (emphasis added).

Hence, in the context of the canon, the origin of the law as well as the basis of its normativeness stand on two events, Sinai and the Exodus. If any or both of these events as described did not occur in real history, the 'theological reflections' on the basis of the revelation and authority of the Mosaic Law does not make good sense. Further, the Mosaic authority which Israel recognized in real history must originate in the real history of Israel. If the Pentateuch is a conflation of historically diverse materials and the canonical context does not reflect the historical context, Mosaic authority would appear to originate with the redactor who shaped the account relating to the same. For we have no other evidence relating to the origin of Mosaic authority. And the assumption that God did reveal to Moses authoritative laws is the basis of Childs' crucial hypothesis discussed above. His approach is thus resting on very subjective ground.

Certainly normative 'theological reflections' like the nature of God or the value of the Law can be 'dressed' in 'history-like' details much like in realistic parables. But certain 'theological reflections'
like the origin and basis of normativeness itself cannot be similarly 'dressed'. Either the canonical reflection on Mosaic authority is invalid or the historical dressings are real. Hence approaching the text in the context of the canon without repudiating critical views creates strain in certain 'theological reflections'.

Another such reflection is in the sphere of predictive prophecy in the Old Testament. According to Deuteronomy 18 and Jeremiah 28, true prophets can be identified from false ones when their words come to pass. Childs affirms that "the truth of prophecy is determined by God's confirmation in action."38 But if prediction-fulfillment occurs only in the 'history-like' details in the context of the canon that does not reflect prediction-fulfillment in real time and space what value do such 'vindications' of the authority of the prophets and their prophecies have? In fact it borders upon deception on the part of the redactor.

Strains in predictive prophecy heighten to unbearable tensions in some of the more overt predictions such as those in Isaiah. Childs believes that though Isaiah 40ff "were originally addressed to Hebrew exiles in Babylon by an unnamed exilic prophet during the sixth century,... the present canonical shape of the book of Isaiah has furnished these chapters with a very different setting. Chapters 40ff are now understood as a prophetic word of promise offered to Israel by the eighth century prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem."39

To demonstrate the kind of tensions that can emerge from a canonical approach to Isaiah 40ff, we would use Isaiah 46. Here is an oracle in which Yahweh vindicates his Uniqueness over and against the worthlessness of Bel and Nebo by his ability to predict the future. Even a critical scholar like Mckenzie understands the 'prediction' in this oracle as the rise of Cyrus and his conquest of Babylon.40 If the oracle was indeed sixth century in its original context as Childs believes, the 'prediction’ was merely a political commentary and would have had no value for the purpose it was given--vindicate Yahweh's Uniqueness. It would be silly if not stupid of the exilic prophet to use this line of polemic against Babylonian gods, especially when the Jews had already suffered under the Babylonians. It would be incredible if the original hearers took the “prophecy” seriously.

Canonical criticism assumes that such an oracle would be rooted out of its time (where it most likely did not enjoy acceptance) and planted into the eighth century. As far as Childs is concerned, the attempt is not a deliberate deception to make a political commentary sounds like a prediction. His way out of such an implication is to assert that "by placing the message of Second Isaiah within the context of the eighth-century prophet his message of promise becomes a prophetic word not tied to a specific historical referent, but directed to the future."41 With respect to a 'specific historical referent’ like Cyrus he explains that "the original historical particularity--Cyrus has become a theological construct almost indistinguishable from Abraham [believed to be fictitious]."42 By reducing a historical figure to a ‘theological construct' he removes the predictive element in the oracle under discussion. But the truth and hence normativeness of the 'theological reflection' on the Uniqueness of God and the worthlessness of idols stands on prediction. If there be no prediction in real time and space the oracle in the canonical context (eighth century) is as useless as it was in its historical context (sixth century).

It would be unnecessary to point out all the difficulties apparent in a canonical approach to the above oracle. Yet this is only one of several similar oracles. The weakness of Childs' underlying assumption that normative theology can be transmitted by conflating historically unrelated materials is thus most obvious in the area of predictive prophecy. He has said that "to assume that the prophet can be understood only if each oracle is related to a specific historical event or located in its original cultural milieu is to introduce a major hermeneutical confusion into the discipline and to render an understanding of the canonical scriptures impossible.”43 But without making the assumption that Childs here forbids, not only will the preceding prophecy against idols not be understood (as a vindication of God--its stated purpose), the prophet/redactor cannot be understood (why he would use predictive ability as a polemic when there is no prediction in reality). The issue is to evaluate the critical presupposition that predictive prophecy cannot be true in reality.

Approaching the Old Testament in the context of the canon without repudiating critical conclusions is indeed full of tension. And the tension has now been found in connection with crucial theological concepts of the Old Testament, viz., the authority of the Law and the Prophets and the Uniqueness of Yahweh over idols! Childs' canonical approach has really not removed, only reduced, the 'impossible tension’ that plagued the Biblical Theology Movement. Unless the canonical context corresponds to and is rooted in the historical context, no normative theology can be consistently developed for the Old Testament. A critical view of the latter and an authoritative theological use of the same are undoubtedly mutually exclusive. In the final analysis, Childs’ approach amounts to saying that Scripture has no inherent authority. It has authority only because the believing community (the Jews and then the Church) has chosen to grant that authority to it. It is like saying the Scripture is truth simple because the Church believes it is so.




End notes

1 . Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 82. Hereafter, IOTS.
2. Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westrainster, 1970), 19. Hereafter, BTC.
3. Childs, BTC, 54.
4. Ibid., 21.
5. Ibid., 54-55.
6. Ibid., 105.
7. Ibid.
8. Childs, IOTS, 74-79.
9. Childs, BTC, 102.
10. Ibid., 98.
11. Gerald Sheppard, "Canon Criticism: The Proposal of Brevard Childs and an Assessment for Evangelical Hermeneutics," Studia Biblica Et Theologica 4, no. 2(1974): 5. Sheppard was a student of Childs and had "the privilege of continuous private discussions" on the subject with him.
12. Childs, BTC
13. Ibid., 99
14. Childs, Old Testament Theology in Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 11. Hereafter, OTTCC.
15. Childs, "The Exegetical Significance of Canon for the Study of the Old Testament," Supplements to Vetus Testamentum XXIX (1977): 67. Hereafter, SVT.
16.Childs, IOTS, 79.
17. Ibid., 78-79.
18. Ibid. 58-59.
19. Ibid. 96-106.
20.This is systematically elaborated in Childs, SVT, 70-77.
21. Childs, IOTS, 205-206.
22. Ibid., 211-212.
23. Ibid., 224.
24. Ibid., 79.
25. Childs, OTTCC, 11.
26. Sheppard, Ibid., 14.
27. Ibid.
28. Childs, OTTCC, l6.
29. Childs, BTC, 99-100,109.
30. Childs, SVT, 78.
31. Childs, IOTS, 152-l55.
32. Childs, "The Old Testament as Scripture of the Church," Concordia Theological Monthly 45(1972): 711.
33. Childs, OTTCC, 15.
34. Childs, IOTS, 62.
35. Childs, OTTCC, 55.
36. Ibid., 53.
37. Childs, The Book of Exodus. A Critical. Theological Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), 401-402.
38. Childs, OTTCC, 139.
39. Childs, IOTS, 325.
40. John L. Mckenzie, Second Isaiah. The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1967), 87-88.
41. Childs, IOTS, 326.
42. Childs, "The Canonical Shape of the Prophetic Literature," Interpretation 32(1978): 53.
43. Ibid., 53.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Historical Reliability of the Old Testament

By Dr Leong Tien Fock

The Bible has been subjected to an incredibly extensive and intensive scrutiny by critics. Yet, unless one only reads the critics' work, it has not only survived the trial but has in fact thrived in it. Christians should be familiar with a defense of the Bible even in the absence of an offense. For the intellectual and spiritual climate we live in is such that the claims of the Bible do not seem or feel real. We need to be able to consciously affirm in our heart that the Bible is reliable and trustworthy.

The reliability of the Bible is fundamental to the credibility of the Christian faith. All Christian doctrines, including the doctrine of the Bible as the Word of God, are based on the Bible. Given the often vicious and seemingly credible attacks on the Bible, a Christian who is confronted with them may find his faith shaken or even shattered. This essay is written with the conviction that it is possible for anyone who is not already prejudiced against the Bible (or who is at least willing to temporarily suspend such a bias) to see that there is a remarkably solid basis to believe in the reliability of the Bible.

We will focus only on the Old Testament and use three criteria to establish the its reliability: the bibliographical test, the internal evidence test, and the external evidence test. These common-sense tests, often used to test the reliability of the New Testament, cannot be said to be biased towards the Bible. For they are postulated by military historian C. Sanders in his 1952 book, Introduction to Research in English Literary History. The tests are most suitable for our purpose not only because they are not biased towards the Bible. Since they are employed in testing the reliability of general historical and literary documents, they are also most suitable because we are testing the reliability of the OT as a literary-historical and not as a religious document (thus its claim to divine origin will not be assumed).

Bibliographical test

Like many other ancient documents, we do not possess the original Hebrew manuscripts (handwritten copies) of the OT, which have all perished. Our printed Hebrew OT is based on a manuscript which was hand-copied from an earlier manuscript, which was itself copied form an earlier manuscript, and so on. Copying by hand introduces accidental errors or even intentional changes. How then can we be sure that after so many recopyings what we have today is a faithful reproduction of the original document?

The bibliographical test looks at (1) the number of extant (preserved) manuscripts we now have and (2) the time span between the earliest extant manuscript and the original document. A shorter time span means less recopyings between the extant copy and the original text and thus less corruptions, whether accidental or intentional, would have crept in. The larger the number of extant manuscripts the more materials there are to help eliminate the corruptions that may have crept in. In short, the larger the number of extant manuscripts and the shorter the time span, the more likely we can restore an authentic version of the document.

Since more than one set of manuscripts were copied from an existing set, and more sets were later copied from these sets, and so on, there were different “textual traditions” down the line. For the Hebrew OT, by AD 135 the text of a certain tradition was adopted as the standard. Hebrew OT manuscripts that were made after this time all came from this standardized text. The Hebrew text was then written basically without the vowels. Between about AD 500-950 scholars known as the Masoretes standardized the text further by adding the vowels to it. The result is the Masoretic Text, or in short, the MT.

The MT manuscript upon which our printed Hebrew OT is based is the Leningrad Codex, now kept at the public library in Leningrad. It contains the entire OT and is dated AD 1008. We have relatively few MT manuscripts earlier than this: two that contain most of the OT and several others that contain (substantial) parts of it. There are more than 3000 manuscripts from AD 1100 to the arrival of the printing press in AD 1450. But since these are copies of the earlier ones, they are of no help in detecting errors that have crept into the MT.

With so few manuscripts available to reconstruct the original OT, and the time span between the composition of the OT (1400-400 BC) and the earliest extant copy of the MT (about 900 AD) is a huge 1300-2300 years. So unlike the Greek NT, the Hebrew OT does not seem to pass the bibliographical test with flying colors.

But this is not the complete story. Space does not allow us to tell the whole story. We will tell enough to show that there is no reason to doubt that the OT we now have is essentially the same as the original.

MT manuscripts may lack in terms of quantity but not in terms of quality. Due to the Jewish reverence for their Scriptures (the OT), the scribes who copied the manuscripts were known to observe a very strict set of rules that ensured extreme care in avoiding errors. In fact the new copies were believed to be so accurate that the older copies that were damaged in any way were destroyed. This contributed to the lack of earlier OT manuscripts.

The accuracy in the copying has been confirmed in several ways. The most important is through the comparison of the extant MT with Hebrew OT manuscripts from the famous Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), the first batch of which was discovered in 1947. These manuscripts date from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD. That means they are about a thousand years older than the earliest MT manuscript we have. All the OT books except Esther are represented.

The discovery of the DSS thus drastically shortens the time span between the composition of the OT and the earliest extant OT manuscript, as well as multiplies the number of extant OT manuscripts. This alone puts the OT on a better footing than the respective History of Herodotus and Thucydides, which are attested by only 8 manuscripts and the earliest manuscript for each is over 1300 years later than the original. Yet according to respected NT scholar F. F. Bruce, “no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt” because of this.

But we are more interested in confirming the unusual accuracy in the copying of the OT manuscripts. Most of the OT manuscripts from the DSS are fragmentary but there is one complete scroll with the entire book of Isaiah intact. Like most of the other OT manuscripts the Isaiah scroll came from the same textual tradition that (centuries later) produced the MT. A comparison with the MT Isaiah shows that these two texts, which were 1000 years apart in age, are more than 95 per cent identical word-for-word. The 5 per cent variation consists mainly in obvious slips of the pen or changes in spelling. Millar Burrows of Yale University wrote, “It is a matter of wonder that through something like a thousand years the text underwent so little alteration. As I said in my first article on the scroll, ‘Herein lies its chief importance, supporting the fidelity of the Masoretic tradition.’”

If the text changed so little in its second thousand years there is good reason to believe that it changed very little in its first thousand years. This means that the textual tradition that produced the MT has been accurately preserved. To further confirm that this tradition is faithful to the original, we will look at the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch.

The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the OT made between 250-150 BC. The Samaritan Pentateuch is the Scriptures (in Hebrew) of the Samaritans, who separated from the Jews probably during the 5th or 4th century BC but many claim at the end of the 2nd century BC. It is the Samaritan version of the Jewish Pentateuch. Though most of the OT manuscripts from the DSS are from the same tradition that produced the MT, there are other DSS manuscripts that can be identified as belonging to the separate textual traditions that produced the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch respectively. So the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch can be used as independent sources to confirm the fidelity of the textual tradition behind the MT. And a comparison of the three texts shows that, though there are variations indicating different traditions, overall they are essentially the same. All the major historical facts and almost all the minor details are the same.

This is not even all the evidence. No wonder Sir Frederic Kenyon, recognized by even Islamic scholars as an authority on ancient manuscripts, could say, “The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true word of God [i.e., the Scriptures as originally penned], handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries.”

The Historical Reliability of the Old Testament I

Internal Evidence Test

The bibliographical test only establishes the authenticity of the OT, i.e., what we have today is a faithful reproduction of the original manuscripts. It does not tell us if the authentic contents are themselves historically reliable. In other words, given that what we have today in the OT is essentially what the authors wrote, how do we know if what they wrote was factually true in the first place?

In the internal evidence test we determine whether the contents of the document itself point towards its reliability or otherwise. According to historian and legal scholar J. W. Montgomery, “historical and literary scholarship continues to follow Aristotle’s dictum that the benefit of doubt is to be given to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself. This means that one must listen to the claims of the document under analysis, and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualifies himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies.”

The OT covers a very large historical span. By necessity, we will focus on the most crucial historical events, viz., the Exodus from Egypt under Moses and the Conquest of Canaan under Joshua. Thus we will focus on the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua.

We will first use the internal evidence test to evaluate the historical reliability of these books and then use the external evidence test to confirm our evaluation.

Based on the internal claims of the OT, Jews and Christians had traditionally believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. But the modern “scientific” mindset is such that it naturally rejects the possibility of anything that science cannot explain. This includes the miracles recorded in the Bible. And the Pentateuch is full of them. If Moses wrote it, it will be very difficult to deny miracles without accusing him of telling blatant lies. For most of the miracles in the Pentateuch are said to be accomplished either through Moses himself or in his presence. The early critics, apparently recognizing Aristotle’s dictum of giving the author the benefit of the doubt, must have found it very difficult to reject Moses’ firsthand eyewitness accounts.

The easier way out would be to deny that Moses ever wrote those accounts. So, beginning in the 18th century, in line with the rise of the (now outmoded) anti-supernatural modernist worldview, the traditional view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch was finally replaced by the JEDP theory in mainline academic circles.

This theory (also called the documentary hypothesis) assumes that the Pentateuch is a cut-and-paste patchwork from four different documents named J, E, D, and P, all composed long after Moses died. Suffice it here to note that this theory is not based on any objective basis and it robs the Pentateuch of the benefit of the doubt. Firstly, the existence of these four separate documents is simply assumed (no one has found them). Secondly, the “evidence” for this theory is open to opposite and better interpretations. Even the apparent contradictions can be reasonably explained but again the critics would ignore or reject them.

One of the most important “evidence” for the theory is the different divine names used in the Pentateuch. It arbitrarily rules out the possibility that Moses could have used different names to refer to God. It thus assumes that whenever the name Yahweh (or Jehovah) occurs, that portion of the text must have been a cut-and-paste from the J document. And when the name Elohim occurs, the source must be the E document. There are times when the two names occur in the very same paragraph and even same sentence, resulting in incredible dissections of the text. And the JEDP scholars disagree among themselves over where to draw the line as to which portion came from which of the four imagined documents.

It is not surprising that in more recent times, even scholars who reject Mosaic authorship have argued against the JEDP theory. But this theory is still assumed in mainline academic work. According to prominent OT scholar H. H. Rowley, “That it [the JEDP theory] is widely rejected in whole or in part is doubtless true, but there is no view to put in its place that would not be more widely and emphatically rejected.... [The theory] is only a working hypothesis, which can be abandoned with alacrity when a more satisfactory view is found, but which cannot with profit be abandoned until then.” In other words, there are critical scholars who still assume the JEDP theory in their work not because they are convinced that it is true, but only because the alternative--Mosaic authorship--is totally unacceptable (to their outmoded modernist mindset).

Furthermore, we now have an objective external framework to support Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. We will focus on the book of Deuteronomy.

It is generally agreed that Deuteronomy was structured as a treaty patterned after the treaties of the ancient biblical world. Kenneth Kitchen, a respected scholar of the ancient biblical world, has shown that the structure of the treaties changed with time. He found that Deuteronomy matches the 15th/14th century BC Hittite treaties: Title/Preamble (Deut 1:1-5); Historical Prologue (1:6-3:29); Stipulations (4-26); Deposit of Text (31:9, 24-26); Public Reading (31:10-13); Witnesses (31:16-30, 26; 32:1-47); Blessing (28:1-14); Curses (28:15-68).

Moses lived in the 15th/14th century BC. Though this does not prove that Moses wrote Deuteronomy, the incredible match gives credible support to the biblical claim that Moses wrote it. The major opposing voice is that of noted critical scholar Moshe Weinfeld. He admits that the major sections of the Hittite treaties are present in Deuteronomy but refuses to come to the most logical conclusion. Instead he insists that Deuteronomy is patterned after the 7th century BC Assyrian treaties because, unlike the short curses in the Hittite treaties, Deuteronomy and the Assyrian treaties have elaborate series of curses. But the Assyrian treaties had a different structure altogether: Title/Preamble; Witnesses; Stipulations; Curses. Entire sections were missing.

Thus the weight of evidence is stacked against Weinfeld. He tries to explain this problem away. He suggests that the Historical Prologue (which gave justifications for the demands made in the treaty) and the Blessing were missing because the Assyrian emperor was too proud and arrogant to give any justification for his demands or promise any blessing. He uses tentative language like “it seems that” and “may explain” and spells out that this is (only) an assumption. He thus argues as if the critic had the benefit of the doubt.

Another critical scholar, A. D. H. Mayes, admits that Deuteronomy most closely resembles the Hittite treaties but thinks that this was because the (15th/14th century) structure was superimposed on Deuteronomy in the 7th/6th century! This and other improbable objections betray the incredible tide of (unwarranted) prejudice against Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy.

To claim that Moses wrote Deuteronomy is not to say that there was no later updating of the text by others. A clear case is the account of Moses’ death in Deuteronomy 34. Most likely Joshua, his personal assistant and then successor, wrote it. Though not mentioned in the text Joshua was most likely with Moses just prior to his death. We have evidence that he could and would follow Moses even to places forbidden to all others (see Exod 24:13-14).

Since the book of Joshua lies within our focus, let us note that Joshua 24 contains a short supplementary covenant made through Joshua (Josh 24:25) and it is also patterned after the Hittite treaties: Title/Preamble (Josh 24:1-2); Historical Prologue (24:2-13); Stipulations (24:14-25); Deposit of Text (24:26); Public Reading (absent here); Witnesses (24:22); Blessing and Curses (24:19-20).

That means, either Joshua (traditionally believed) or someone who could have been an eyewitness must have written the book of Joshua. Under the internal evidence test, and without imposing the outmoded anti-supernatural worldview, the book must be taken seriously unless there is valid reason to doubt its reliability. Critics will point out that the accounts of the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua contradict those in the book of Judges. Joshua 9-12 gives the impression of a complete conquest while Judges 1 (as well as the later chapters of Joshua) says it was only a partial conquest.

Recently K. L. Younger’s comparison of Joshua 9-12 with other conquest accounts in the ancient biblical world has shown that the conquest accounts in Joshua followed the standard conventions in reporting conquests, including the use of hyperbole. Specifically, we can now say on objective ground that claims of absolute total conquest (as in Josh 10:40-42) are hyperbolic and not meant to be taken literally.

Thus the biblical records documenting the Exodus under Moses and the Conquest under Joshua can be trusted as eyewitness accounts. Since myths and legends take a long time to develop these records should be trusted as historically reliable.

The Historical Reliability of the Old Testament II

External Evidence Test

We have observed the dictum of Aristotle that Moses and Joshua should be trusted unless there are valid reasons to doubt them. The very nature of literary and historical evidence requires this. To justify giving them this benefit of the doubt we now look at how their testimonies stand up against evidence outside the OT.

Critics claim that there is no external evidence whatsoever to support the claim that the Exodus or the Conquest took place. One piece of external evidence for each event is adequate to prove them wrong as well as meet the requirement of the external evidence test to confirm the above conclusion of the internal evidence test. And if the OT stands up to scrutiny on these two events, which are accompanied by more miracles than any other events recorded in the OT, critics will have virtually no reason to question the historical reliability of the OT as a whole. After all, the rejection of the supernatural is fundamental to the critical view of the OT.

Numbers 33:3-50 summarizes the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Jordan River. It lists the stations where they camped. Of interest here is the last six stations (Num 33:45-50): Iyyim--Dibon--Almon-diblathaim--Nebo--Abel-shittim--Jordan. Traditionally, because the account was so specific and precise in detail, Bible scholars saw it as evidence for its historical reliability.

However, what was considered as a strength became a weakness in the eyes of the modern critic. Based on archaeological work at a site believed to be where Dibon was, it was concluded that Dibon did not exist before the 9th century BC. That means Dibon did not exist during Moses’ time. This is taken as an “irrefutable evidence” that the record is unreliable. This is also one of the main reasons why critical scholars deny there was ever an Israelite conquest of Canaan.

But recently Charles Krahmalkov of the University of Michigan found Dibon mentioned in an Egyptian inscription dated to 1500-1400 BC. So the city existed during Moses’ time; archaeologists just have not identified it. Furthermore, this inscription lists some of the stations along a road leading from the southern end of the Dead Sea to the Jordan River. (Comparing this with two other similar lists shows that none of them lists all the stations along this road.) The stations listed are: Iyyin--Dibon--Abel--Jordan. A comparison with the longer list in Numbers 33:45-50 shows that this was the same road taken by the Israelites. So we have an external confirmation that the account of the route of the Exodus is historically reliable.

John Garstang, who excavated the site of Jericho between 1930-1936, created excitement when he concluded that “the walls fell, shaken apparently by an earthquake, and the city destroyed by fire, about 1400 BC.... The link with Joshua and the Israelites is only circumstantial but it seems to be solid without flaw.” Unfortunately, his successor Kathleen Kenyon, after reviewing his findings and then “confirming” her conclusion through further excavations, said the city was destroyed in 1550 BC, 150 years before the Conquest. That means the biblical account was unreliable.

For 25 years this view could not be challenged because she published her conclusions without supplying the detailed evidence. An independent assessment was not possible. But 12 years after her death the detailed evidence was published. When archaeologist Bryant Wood reviewed both Garstang and Kenyon’s findings, he returned to Garstang’s conclusion that Jericho was destroyed in 1400 BC.

It is not disputed that Jericho was destroyed violently. The question is the date. One reliable dating method is to look at the design of the pottery, which changed with time, much like the design of our cars. Wood, whose Ph.D. thesis was on Canaanite pottery between 1550-1200 BC, was uniquely qualified for the job. He discovered that Kenyon came to her conclusion not by looking at what she and Garstang found but what she did not find. She looked in vain for imported pottery (suggesting luxury) in an area she herself considered to be “simple villages” giving “no suggestion at all of luxury.” Wood’s conclusion is based mainly on the pottery that Garstang and Kenyon found. Although Wood’s arguments are difficult to refute, Kenyon’s conclusion is still assumed in critical circles.

The archaeological evidence confirms the account of the conquest of Jericho in the following ways: the city was strongly fortified (Josh 2:5,7,15, 6:5,20); the attack occurred just after harvest time in the spring (2:6, 3:15, 5:10); the inhabitants had no time to flee with their foodstuffs (6:1); the siege was short (6:15); the walls were leveled, possibly by an earthquake (6:20); the city was not plundered (6:17-18); the city was burned (6:24).

Dating events in the ancient biblical world is not an exact science. And the date of the destruction of Jericho will continue to be debated. But regardless of whether the date is 1550 or 1400 BC, the uncanny similarities of the unusual circumstances surrounding the fall of Jericho as revealed by archaeology with that recorded in Joshua, should caution any fair-minded person from saying, “there is still no external evidence whatsoever that the conquest took place.”

The Historical Reliability of the Old Testament III

Conclusion

We can now conclude that, based on the results of the three tests, the OT can be accepted as historically reliable. A similar analysis would also affirm the historical reliability of the NT. We must be careful of critical arguments that seem credible only because they put the burden of proof on the Bible. It is this kind of unfair treatment of an ancient document, where there are no living witnesses to defend it, that the three tests are meant to prevent. To deny the benefit of the doubt to the Bible but not to other ancient documents is to practice double standards. To reject the Biblical account on the basis of the miracles recorded is to move the debate from history to philosophy, and presumes an outmoded philosophical view.

The Bible should all the more be deemed “innocent until proven guilty,” because this principle is used even in a court of law where living witnesses are available to defend the accused. The Bible presents historical facts to communicate a theological message. The facts and the message stand or fall together. Since the message has eternal implications, a wrong verdict on the Bible has far more serious consequences that a wrong verdict in a court of law.

The purpose of this essay is obviously not intended to be the final word on the subject, especially in regards to archaeological evidence. It is to sensitize Christians to the unfair approaches critical scholars often use to attack the historical reliability of the Bible, all in the name of “objective (read modernist) scholarship.”

Select Bibliography

Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Revised and Expanded. Chicago: Moody Press, 1986.

Krahmalkov, Charles R. “Exodus Itinerary Confirmed by Egyptian Evidence.” Biblical Archaeology Review 20.5 (Sept./Oct. 1994): 54-62, 79.

McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers: 1999.

Wood, Bryant G. “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Evidence.” Biblical Archaeology Review 16.2 (Mar./Apr. 1990): 44-58.

--------. “Dating Jericho’s Destruction: Bienkowski Is Wrong on All Counts.” Biblical Archaeology Review 16.5 (Sept./Oct. 1990): 45-49, 68-69.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Giving Reason For The Hope I

Giving Reason For The Hope: The Possibility and Necessity of the Apologetic Task as a Ministry Within The Church And Her Mission (1 Peter 3:15)


As a new believer during my teenage days, I discovered apologetics through a booklet written by Josh McDowell. It came as a lifeline at a critical juncture in my spiritual walk as I tried to make sense of the claims of Christ in relation to other faiths, especially the Buddhist-Taoist tradition.

To be frank, I did not come to faith after arriving at satisfactory conclusions about the reliability of Scripture or thorough investigation on the historical evidences of Jesus’ resurrection. The decision to trust in Him as Lord and Savior followed the hearing of a simple gospel message, which convicted me of sins against a holy God and the need for reconciliation with Him through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

However, coming from a plausibility structure that would not take Christian claims at face value, my newfound faith launched an ongoing and often lonely intellectual struggle to understand its justifications and implications. Echoing Anselm, my pilgrimage would be more appropriately described as “faith seeking understanding”.

As time went by, I discovered other reflective people in and outside church who ask fundamental questions in life like our origin, identity, purpose and destiny. The dissatisfaction with simplistic albeit pious clich├ęs for an answer is both our blessing and our curse. I began to feel acutely the vacuum in the local church for suitably equipped ministers who address such issues with sensitivity and knowledge.

Again, I turned to the wisdom of books by Augustine, Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis and others. In this paper, I seek to explore the role of apologetics in Scripture and church history in a missional context before discussing how it may be done in the Malaysian setting.

Giving Reason For The Hope II

The Possibility And Necessity of Apologetics In Scripture

Derived from the Greek word apologia, which meant “defense”, the apologetic task involved refuting objections leveled against the Christian faith (defensive apologetics) and/or providing a positive case for its acceptance (offensive apologetics).

As such, it could play a potentially crucial role in both strengthening the faith of believers and helping to remove obstacles that hinder a seeker from coming to faith in the task of evangelism.


Do we not find numerous biblical instances of reasoned arguments employed in the ministry of Jesus Himself? In His didactic dialogues with Pharisees, Sadducees and disciples, Jesus rationally answered objections, opened up hidden assumptions with well-placed questions and appealed to miraculous signs as evidence for His claims .

During Paul’s missionary journeys, we frequently find him in synagogues persuading and debating Jewish religious leaders and pagan philosophers at Mars Hill on the validity of the gospel (Acts 14:15-17, 17:2-4, 16-31, 18:4, 19:8-9) . Since Luke took care to explicitly record that some who heard his presentation indeed chose to believe (Acts 17:34), the narrative does not function as an illustration of the bankruptcy of persuasion as taught by Watchman Nee. Even some of these converts’ names (Dionysius and Damaris) were mentioned, indicating that these men from Athens eventually made an impact on church life in later years.

Not only that, we also have clear biblical injunction in 1 Peter 3:15-16 for a persecuted church to be prepared to give a credible answer (apologia) to everyone who asked for the reason why they believed. It is not just a nice suggestion or a duty for an elite group of intellectuals only. Biblical apologetics thrive or wither in the whole church as we carry out the missionary task. Interestingly, the same passage also admonished us to be gentle and respectful, keeping a clear conscience and displaying Christ-like behavior before hostile critics. How we need to vigilantly shun the besetting sins of tactless method, intellectual pride and lack of grace evident in many would-be apologists! In 2 Corinthians 10:4-6, the church is urged to take apart arguments that set itself up against the knowledge of Christ, making every thought captive in obedience to Him. Spiritual warfare is therefore not primarily about doing prayer walks around the neighborhood. Especially in a pluralistic context like Malaysia, the church needs more informed, winsome and courageous ambassadors who could engage contemporary challenges in a biblically faithful and culturally relevant manner.

However, there are also some common objections which have been advanced against the use of apologetics in favor of a simple proclamation of the gospel. For example, we are reminded of Paul’s warning “that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Colossians 2:8) and “the gospel is the foolishness of God… I come not with persuasive words of wisdom” (1 Corinthian 1-2). We would do well to remember that ultimately the Holy Spirit is able and responsible to convict and renew a sinner’s heart to repentance and trust in Christ, not the cogency of our arguments. However, a more careful reading of the texts mentioned suggests that Paul was actually warning us against false philosophy, not philosophy per se. In order to beware of false philosophy, we need to be aware of them first!

As we have seen earlier, Paul himself used reasoning in gospel proclamation and his condemnation was directed against prideful intellectualism, not against reason itself (1 Corinthians 8:1). The crucifixion is offensive to human pride for the Jews sought miraculous signs whereas the Greek sophists peddle ‘wisdom’ by improving their speaking skills to persuade people with empty rhetoric, not substance. Simply put, the antidote for arrogance is humility, not ignorance (1 Corinthians 14:20). When Jesus commended the faith of a child (Matthew 18:2-4), He was referring to a child’s dependent humility, not the mental ability of toddlers, as a condition to enter the Kingdom. It is not uncommon to find proud ignoramus who are defensive and unwilling to learn from others too. Therefore, intellectual witness should not be viewed as a competitor or substitute of the Spirit’s work of illumination, but a means by which He could open spiritual eyes to see the truth. Just as the ministry of transportation is to ferry people to a physical place where they can listen to the gospel, the apologetic ministry seeks to bring them to a “cultural and intellectual space” where the communication of the gospel makes plausible sense in the worldview of the hearers.

While it is obvious that God does not need our defense, His sheep nonetheless needs protection from adverse spiritual consequences of false teachings. C. S. Lewis correctly reflects: “To be ignorant and simple now — not to be able to meet the enemies [of Christ] on their own ground — would be to throw down our weapons and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered." Therefore, Scripture seems to mandate a duty for the church to earnestly contend for the faith (Jude 3). While faith is beyond reason, it also does not require a fideistic, intellectual suicide. Biblically understood, faith involves the entire person - knowledge, mental assent as well as a personal commitment.

Giving Reason For The Hope III

The Possibility And Necessity of Apologetics In Church History

Historically speaking, the apologetic task had an important pedigree and we could learn from its ancient role in the church’s mission as the gospel spread to a predominantly Gentile context. By the second century, educated converts like Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Athenagoras and Aristides of Athens wrote substantial apologetic literature in the face of persecution and intellectual challenges from their Greco-Roman civilisation.

They do not just argue about religion but broader cultural issues like religious freedom, the meaning of education and history of nations. Justin showed appreciation for Socrates and Heraclitus as men who partook of a vague knowledge of the Logos, as honorary Christians specifically in their rejection of pagan religious practices and subsequent ostracization. While we do not know if they had much success with the pagan intelligentsia or political rulers to whom the corpus was addressed, the Apologists nonetheless provided a theological foundation on which later Christian thinkers would develop and finally replace the prevailing pagan philosophies of the day.


Although the legacy of other apologists operating in the context of mission encounter could be cited, their role has significantly diminished in the modern era. In order to glean some lessons on how apologetics at its best has served the church, I would just highlight two outstanding theologians even though their contribution was not entirely without fault . Burdened by many ecclesiastical and pastoral concerns, Augustine was a North African bishop during the fifth century A.D. while Aquinas was a widely-travelled Dominican monk in the medieval era. The former wrote his most significant treatise, The City of God, in response to an “epochal shift” occassioned by the fall of Rome while the latter was roused to encounter the rise of a sophisticated Islamic civilisation in Spain with Summa Contra Gentiles.

In a perceptive study by Curtis Chang, we could see that in their differing interaction with neo-Platonism and Aristotelian philosophy respectively, both men employed a similar rhetorical strategy to enter the challenger’s story, retell it and capture the retold story within the gospel narrative. That is, both men immersed themselves within the paradigm, authorities or story of the alternative worldview to find a shared space for dialogue, then reinterpret it to reveal tragic incompleteness or dissonant tensions inherent in its plot and finally capturing the rival stories by revealing how the ‘resolution’ is finally found in the gospel. They were not trapped behind an airtight fortress that has no point of contact with others. Neither did they lose the dramatic plot of an overarching Christian narrative.

As testament of their labor, Augustine defeated the pagans’ attempt to blame Christianity for Rome’s decline, insisted that the city of God is never coterminous with any “Christian nation” and made possible the preservation of learning in medieval churches. Without Aquinas, the church may reject wholesale Aristotelian insights on sensory-based experiment and empirical evidences, thereby crippling the emergence of modern science in the West. Their legacy of cultural relevance and biblical faithfulness should spur present day Christian thinkers to greater exploits.

Giving Reason For The Hope IV

Challenges For The Apologetic Task In Malaysia

Although there has been laudable work done by organisations like Kairos Research Center and NECF Research Commission, the Malaysian church remains generally shrouded by an anti-intellectual mood that substantially hinder the development of a robust inquiring spirit so crucial for the apologetic task. As many denominations were established by British and American missionaries, the confluence of inherited dispensational-fundamentalist theology, Holiness spirituality (“Let go, Let God!”) and Pentecostal-experiential instincts coloured much of our spiritual ethos. As a result, there is a common emphasis on “the dangers of the world, the comforts of the separated piety, the centrality of evangelism, and an expectation of the End.” Other sociological mitigating circumstances could be cited like pragmatic, populist and “immediate result” activism so characteristic of the enterpreneurial Chinese immigrants’ mindset.

Unsurprisingly, Noll’s critique of the ‘scandal of the evangelical mind’ for an American setting is largely relevant here as well, posing a formidable barrier against the development of an intellectual witness and cultural mandate for many complex and current religious and sociopolitical issues facing the Malaysian church.

Also, in the minds of many Malay Muslims in Southeast Asia, there was no distinction between the arrival of Christian missionaries and the European powers which waged war, colonized their lands and controlled the regional spice trade. The Portugese, Spanish, Dutch and English colonizers fought among themselves for the spoils and cruelly exploited the local people so a deep sense of antipathy remained even today. Long after gaining national independence, the political elite in Indonesia and Malaysia considered Islam as closely linked to nationalism and regarded Christian mission as a social threat. Given such a sensitive post-colonial scenario, some Christians prefer to steer away from a robust apologetics because stressing propositional truth claims seem like a mask for Foucaultian power play and oppression of indigenous cultures.

Another significant challenge comes from a pluralistic mindset, common in Asian societies, which looked with disapproving suspicion, if not open hostility, at any religious faith that claims to be the exclusive truth. While we are obviously living in a society with diverse religious perspectives, religious pluralism is a particular perspective that these religions are equally valid in terms of access to truth and effectiveness in salvation. This view is illustrated beautifully by the ancient story of ten blind men trying to describe an elephant after touching different parts of its body for the first time . As they announced their conflicting discoveries, a heated argument ensued. Awakened by the quarrel, the Rajah corrected all of them by saying, “The elephant is a huge animal and each of you touched a part. In order to know the whole truth about what the elephant looks like, you must put together all the parts!” The moral of the story is that no religion has privileged access to the whole truth. Each religious view is a partial experience of the same Reality from its own culturally conditioned perspective. Given such a cultural milieu, it seems politically incorrect to claim superiority for any particular religion.

Doing Apologetics In The Malaysian Context

Offering diagnosis without prescription makes for light work so let us explore some proposals on how the apologetic task may be carried out in the Malaysian context. In view of many contemporary challenges, Dr Ng Kam Weng urged the Malaysian church to take proactive steps to enhance resources and nurture promising young leaders while they are still in colleges. I heartily concur with his proposal for long-term and intentional programs to equip them with necessary tools to interact with Asian philosophies and religions in an engaging method and accessible language. While there has been a resurgence of apologetic works in the American context, most of the materials were produced in response to atheistic secularism and naturalism.

A typical strategy by classical apologists like William Lane Craig, Norman Geisler and J. P. Moreland would proceed from a defence for the existence of God through various theistic arguments, the possibility of miracles and historical reliability of Scriptures. The goal is to lay a realist, historical foundation for accepting the resurrection of Christ, a crucial ‘clincher’ for the vindication of Christ’s unique claim to Deity. The Malaysian church has definitely benefited from growing evangelical scholarship in defence of the historicity of the Gospels since Muslim apologists like Ahmad Deedat borrowed the tools of liberal biblical criticism in their attempt to show that the Gospels are internally inconsistent or textually corrupt. Such apologetics will continue as long as sensational challenges from The Da Vinci Code, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” documentary and others flood the media.

However, more often than not, we encounter alternative religious systems which already took the existence of the supernatural or spiritual world for granted. In contrast, many Western Christians too quickly dismissed such worldviews as mere superstitions or demonic, neglecting their positive cultural elements and revealing their own captivity to Enlightenment assumptions. Though commonly used in Malaysia, classical apologetics could be unwieldy insofar as it requires extensive memory and grasp of historical or scientific data. Perhaps, the effectiveness of theistic arguments from design, morality, causality and others may be applicable for agnostics or atheists who have developed a synthesis with Buddhism. But what may work for a secular atheist may not work for a theistic Muslim or pantheistic Hindu. Asian Christians need to rethink our rhetorical approach as a series of three-step, logical arguments in favor of a more dialogical engagement, meal hospitality, posing questions that invite participation or self-discovery, story-telling that involves the imagination and listening with empathy. Many people, inundated by totalizing claims of rationality, increasingly yearn for spirituality in the context of authentic community. They also want to see the fruits of our belief in embodied living and compassion for the needy before examining their validity. Having been a layperson-practitioner in various settings, I am convinced that apologetic should be lived out artfully as much as it is argued rationally, in a trust-building faith community where Kingdom perspectives are demonstrated. We should avoid a false dichotomy between truth and grace by following Jesus Christ who personified both (John 1:17).

Now, let us evaluate another influential apologetic method called Reformed epistemology. Defended by philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Wolterstorff and others, it challenged the Enlightenment demand that everything we believe in must be supported by sufficient evidence. While some beliefs do require evidence, we cannot go on an infinite regress of proofs for every belief. Somewhere along the line, the buck stops at some properly basic beliefs which we intuitively know without inference from other beliefs. It is argued that evidences for God’s existence are not necessary for a rational faith even though such evidences may indeed exist. Echoing Calvin, belief in God emerges from an innate ‘sense of the divine’. Christians have epistemic permission to believe in God since such basic beliefs are the results of our cognitive faculties functioning successfully according to their design of producing true beliefs.

By probing hidden presuppositions behind the demand for evidences, I find Reformed epistemology helpful to deflect the burden of proof from resting solely on the believer’s shoulders. After all, how many church members in our midst could grasp such subtle philosophical nuances as found in the ontological argument? By rightly rejecting a self-defeating criteria for knowledge demanded by Cartesian foundationalism, a believer is not obligated to be a temporary agnostic or give up the faith at the pain of irrationality even if he has no access to any theistic proofs. It seems to be a workable strategy against the dominant naturalistic accounts of epistemology that Plantinga had to wrestle with. However, in a pluralistic context, it seems to open wide the door for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims to claim ‘epistemic rights’ to their fundamental beliefs as properly basic as well.

While committed to the necessity of Holy Spirit’s inner witness to convict us of the truth, Harold Netland pointed out that various self-authenticating experiences that overcome any amount of contrary evidences could also be found in other religions. Our notions of what constitutes basic beliefs depend heavily on prior ontological and theological understanding of the nature of human beings. We cannot take these assumptions for granted especially if others do not share them. But if there is no neutral, universally rational foundation by which we could evaluate conflicting truth claims, on what basis do we privilege the Christian gospel? Is it merely one among the many we choose from due to the whims of history or culture? While postmodernism or pluralism may arguably provide a level playing field for all kinds of stories, a religious claim that has no referent beyond their respective ‘language games’ become trivial or subverted.

Influenced by Reformed epistemology, Stanley Grenz tried to answer this burning question by focusing on an ‘incarnational’ apologetics, which has impressed many emerging leaders today. He observed that the goal of all social traditions is to construct a well-ordered society. Instead of asking, “Which religion alone is true?” the question should be reformulated as, “Which religious vision provides the basis for community in the truest sense?” Although all religious traditions may contribute to societal cohesion, Grenz’s contention is that the gospel alone provides a more complete vision of the nature of community that all human religious traditions aspire to achieve since it embodies the highest understanding of who God actually is. The human search for communal relationship actually mirrors the Triune nature of the eternal God Himself as “plurality-in-unity”. The church is the visible embodiment of God’s universal purpose in the gospel to reconcile a diverse people and renew them in a gathered community as a sign of the age to come.

In the Asian context, where collective identity and relationship are stressed despite rapid erosion by modernistic individualism, I appreciate Grenz’s insights for an apologetic strategy integrally modeled in the church. However, as he himself has noted, various communities espouse different understandings of what constitutes true community. Without some common ground in our understanding of what “community” means, how could we then claim that the Christian story fulfills what they are actually seeking? And if such radically differing visions are ultimately incommensurable, it seems to undercut the claim that the gospel provides a “more” complete basis for community life in comparison. Ironically, Grenz’s proposals seem to make sense only if we do not overstate the divergence in our foundations of rationality, morality and community. This should not be surprising since different human cultures and languages do share a common humanity.

Without going back to Cartesian foundationalism, I find the structure of “incarnational” apologetics work best within a critical realist or chastened, modest, Reidian foundationalism. Again, Harold Netland is perceptive to point out that current discontent with positive apologetics owes more to the manner in which it is sometimes done and unrealistic expectations set by proponents.


Could a humble and realistic approach to positive apologetics be sustained? In my humble opinion, there is enough room in the apologetic task to draw on the strengths from different methodologies to construct a positive, cumulative case for Christian theism. Since the gospel provides the most comprehensively plausible, logically coherent and existentially satisfying explanation of the universe and our human experience, we could rejoice in the convergence of many apologetic streams. From the classical apologists, we drink in empirical evidences that demand a verdict. From the Reformed epistemologists, we learn to trust in the Spirit’s ability to produce genuine faith apart from arguments. From the presuppositionalists, we discover that unique features of human life make sense only when interpreted through a biblical outlook. With the incarnational apologists, we live out the practical demonstration of the faith in a living, ecclesical community.

Giving Reason For The Hope V

No matter how we conceptualize it, the ethical criterion of truth remains a crucial challenge for the faith community. As a minority, we are called to demonstrate how a Trinitarian approach for community formation nurtures ‘unity-in-diversity’ in contradistinction from a potentially pluralistic but violent clash of civilizations or a docile state of monistic ‘dhimmitude’.

If the ultimate apologetic is found in Jesus’ prayer that His believers may be one as a reflection of Trinitarian love (John 17:21-22), our challenge today may sound like this: “How would the koinonia as an inclusive, sanctified, racially and socially diverse community of faith be any different from a monolithic ummah or a secular, fragmented individualism?” Would the church translate theology into socio-political practices that would answer our community’s yearning for racial reconciliation, public governance with integrity, peacemaking and liberation from oppression and poverty? The late Lesslie Newbigin wrote that it is precisely because we want unity that we seek the truth by which alone humankind can become one: “That truth is not a doctrine or a worldview or even a religious experience; it is certainly not to be found by repeating abstract nouns like justice and love; it is the man Jesus Christ in whom God was reconciling the world. The Truth is personal, concrete, historical.”

If the Malaysian church could thus demonstrate an alternative society that transcends ethnic, cultural, economic class and political barriers, the perception of Christianity as a Western colonial reality will be more effectively exorcised. Our apologetic should also take on board a faithful portrayal of Christ, as the Suffering Servant-King who laid aside His majesty and emptied Himself in humility to rescue and serve humanity (Matthew 10:28, Luke 22:27). The cross subverts every pretension to power by violence and de-legitimates manipulation and oppression. Although it does not guarantee innocence in its adherents, we find within the biblical meta-narrative is two inherent anti-totalizing inclinations - a radical sensitivity to suffering and God’s overarching creational intent over all, thus preventing a partisan abuse. Through the atonement of Christ, the way for reconciliation and forgiveness is made possible even for the oppressors.

In a stirring call, Engel and Dryness argued that the New Testament church made a parody of the ‘center-periphery’ mission model, which has as its starting point centers of power and wealth before moving to the periphery of those who were impoverished spiritually and physically. The book of Acts recorded how the gospel made its way from Jerusalem, an insignificant backwater of the Roman Empire to the very household of Caesar. Today, churches in the so-called Two-Thirds World need to embody the self-emptying and suffering Christ, not the imperialist Caesar. As servant-leaders, we need to engage contemporary issues in our proclamation and service for the sake of the world as significant missionary-sending contributors. In word and deed, we sensitively recognize the diversity and integrity of different cultures and ‘language games’, while holding to the significant possibility for meaningful communication as we also share a basic humanity in God’s image and live together in the same created world.

Concluding Remarks

While there is certainly indispensable necessity for worldview encounter and legitimate art of persuasion, we need to get beyond a confrontational mode of interfaith dialogue. There are also other themes which deserve our attention like interfaith dialogues in promoting common social harmony, joint action in overcoming racism, AIDS and poverty. Although the process of Islamization is a growing concern, which calls for courageous countercultural witness, the church also needs to draw from the rich resources for social programs that spring from a common theistic outlook with Islam, the national religion, as opposed to naturalistic secularism. At the same time, dialogue-in-life should permeate the rank and file in the office, classroom, factory and ‘rumah terbuka’ during festivities. That is, Christians should abandon a ‘ghetto’ mentality and actively pursue to be with the other, collaborate with them in action and discourse to understand and be understood. To be effective, the laity must be equipped to do conversational evangelism.


In conclusion, let us heed the rousing call for the apologetic task by J. G. Machen when he said, “It is true that the decisive thing is the regenerative power of God. That can overcome all lack of preparation, and the absence of that makes even the best preparation useless. But as a matter of fact God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the while collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.”

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sunday, January 14, 2007