In his book, “The Christians as the Romans Saw Them”, professor Robert Louis Wilken examines some of the complaints and arguments of some of the more vociferous first and second century critics of Christianity. Like Celsus, for example, who labeled Christ a magician and called the gospels incredulously and historically unreliable; and Porphyry, for another, who attacked Christian orthodoxy as irrational.
In his examination of these critics, Wilken manages to show the epistemological foundation upon which Christians rested even from the very start. Theirs was a central theme which dogged every critic’s line of reasoning – outrage and incredulity at these Christians’ dogmatic appeal to Scripture.
Consider, for example, Galen’s comparison of Christianity to a particular school of philosophy he found unreasonable. In his book, “On Hippocrates’s Anatomy”, Galen wrote:
“They compare those who practice medicine without scientific knowledge to Moses, who framed laws for the tribe of Israel, since it is his method in his books to write without offering proofs, saying, ‘God commanded, God spake.’”
The critic Celsus complained that Christians sought out gullible and uneducated people, “because they were unable to give reasons for their beliefs . . . they asked people to accept what they said solely on faith.”
Celsus went on to write that the gospels themselves were based only on hearsay, arguing, “Why should we give greater credibility to what is written in them than to other stories about Jesus? The accounts in the gospels were written solely by Christians and passed on in Christian circles. Should the legends there be taken with greater seriousness than the many legends in Greek literature? The Christian Gospels offer no reliable basis on which to establish the truth of the accounts about Jesus . . . there is no proof except for your word”
Still another critic, Lucian wrote, “The poor wretches have convinced themselves they are going to be immortal and live for all time. They despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence.”
Time and again no matter the critic, the theme remained the same. Christians based the foundation for their claims entirely upon the authority of Scripture alone. It was a commonly held “scientific” belief, for instance, during the first, second, and third century that God (or more properly, the gods) had created the world using preexisting material. The Christians resolutely rejected this however, arguing instead that God had created the world from nothing. When asked to provide evidence God had created the world from nothing, the Christians simply referred to the first chapter of Genesis as though this was all the evidence they needed.
This dogmatic appeal to the holy Scriptures outraged their critics. So much so that Pliny, a Roman governor, had the Christians quietly put to death for fear of what he believed their dogmatism might mean for the trade unions and for the Roman peace.
Even more than the doctrine of creation stood the Christian’s attitude toward death and resurrection. Celsus found himself so infuriated by their dogmatic appeals towards this subject that he wrote:
“What sort of body, after being entirely corrupted, could return to its original nature and that same condition which it had before it was dissolved? As they (the Christians) have nothing to say in reply, they escape to a most outrageous refuge by saying that ‘anything is possible to God.’”
As for the Christians themselves, they encouraged the dogmatism. The early Christian writer, Hippolytus, for example, addressing a sect who followed the critic Galen, wrote in his book, “The Little Labyrinth”:
“Instead of asking what Holy Scripture says, they stain every nerve to find a form of syllogism to bolster up their impiety (atheism). If anyone challenges them with a text from divine Scripture, they examine it to see whether it can be turned into a conjunctive or disjunctive form of syllogism. They put aside the holy scriptures of God and devote themselves to geometry, since they are from the earth and speak from the earth, and do not know the one who comes from above.”
Oxford professor J. N. D. Kelly echoes Wilken’s examination in his book, “Early Christian Doctrines.” Kelly gives further testimony from early Christians like Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, and John Chrysostom, to name just a few.
From the start, gospel believers were Scripturalists. They relied upon Scripture alone for the knowledge of all truth. We will be hard pressed to find this kind of dogmatism in churches today. Search all the pulpits and pews in America. We will find more people discussing a god in their heart than they will the God of the Bible.
Celsus fell silent long ago, but the critics of Biblical Christianity haven’t. Alongside Celsus today stands the modern Christian. The modern Christian is sure knowledge exists in forms other than propositional, and he is positive truth can be known apart from Scripture.
The modern Christian no longer thinks, but rather feels. He no longer analyzes, but rather intuits. He no longer enjoys the “cold” doctrine of Scripture, but now would rather entertain a warm word from the Lord. In short, the modern Christian has exchanged the systematic and intellectual foundation of Scriptural propositions for the anti-intellectual, self-refuting romanticism of emotionalism. Why? How did we go from the strict scriptural dogmatism of the first three centuries to this sappy, anti-intellectual, anti-scriptural emotionalism that we are forced to deal with today? What happened?
A lot happened. Constantine happened. The pope happened. War, plague, and the Vikings happened. Of course, ten centuries of rabid anti-intellectualism didn’t help matters either. In addition to all this however, existentialism happened.
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher,
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
– Ecclesiastes 1:2
Nietzsche had declared God dead. What he meant, among other things, was that there is no point in people believing in God anymore. God had outlived His usefulness, in other words. Nietzsche had taken Materialism to its fullest conclusion. If matter is eternal and matter is all there is, then all the matter in the universe is pointless and without meaning.
Nietzsche concluded that if nature is all there is, then nature and everything about it is a meaningless, pointless machine. Since humans simply just were, they were then just simply machines. Nothing we do matters, argued Nietzsche. Nothing we do is either good or bad, ugly or beautiful, just or unjust, right or wrong. Everything just is. The hunter kills, the prey dies, the flowers wilt, the waters drown. The machinery just is, and there is no meaning or purpose behind it. Nietzsche was far from the first to see this, but his voice was one of the loudest.
Stuck in such a bleak outlook on life, philosophers and artists began struggling to transcend Nihilism. Enter existentialism.
Existentialists began to argue there are at least two kinds of knowledge – personal and impersonal, or objective and subjective. Impersonal knowledge, argued the existentialist, is the knowledge of propositions. A proposition is a statement (verbal, written or contemplated) that is either true or false. These statements can be as simple as 2 + 2 = 4, birds fly, and grass is green, or they can be as complex as the IRS tax code.
This kind of knowledge, said the existentialists, is pointless, because it has no personal value. So what if the grass is green? So what if birds fly? So what if every stop sign is not yellow. What do any of these propositions matter to me?
For the existentialist, propositional knowledge is as meaningless as Nietzsche’s machine. It is without value for the individual UNTIL the individual chooses to give it value by lending to it his own personal meaning (hence, personal knowledge).
Churches in the West, already plundered to the gills by the false gospel doctrine of Wesley, Fisher and Finney, slipped as easily into existentialism as one might slip a hand into a glove. The existential Theist began to view orthodoxy and doctrine as pointless. Confessional Christianity became to the existential theist as meaningless as Nietzsche’s machine.
“What I really need is to become clear in my own mind what I must do, not what I must know – except in so far as a knowing must precede every action. The important thing is to understand what I am destined for, to perceive what the Deity wants me to do, the point is to find the truth for me, to find that idea for which I am ready to live and die. What good would it do me to discover a so-called objective truth, though I were to work my way through the systems of the philosophers and were able, if need be, to pass them in review?” – Soren Kierkegaard, A Short Life of Kierkegaard, pg 82
What good would it do me to discover objective truth, asks Kierkegaard. And in the question we catch the echo of Nietzsche’s plight. Grass is green, birds fly, trees have branches, Christ died to redeem His people from their sins. So what? That’s all just dead orthodoxy if it doesn’t do anything for me.
We might ask the existential theist what it means for him to hear the news that it is true Christ satisfied God’s wrath on behalf of His elect? The existentialist might answer, it means nothing until I first give it meaning.
For the existential theist, doctrine has little to no value if it is not first met with the “purpose driven life.” My purpose, my significance, my best life now. If God’s doctrine does not satisfy my doctrine, then I’m told I’ve missed the truth about God’s doctrine.
And don’t think for one moment this absurdity is something found only in non-reformed, non-Calvinist, Arminian and Roman Catholic churches either. Far from it. It is every bit as entrenched in the reformed churches as it is everywhere else.
Take, for instance, the all too common claim that faith is “not mere intellectual assent”. If all knowledge is propositional though, and a proposition is a statement that is either true or false, then how can the belief of that proposition be anything but “mere intellectual assent”? And therein lies the self refuting claim of existentialism, for if there exists a kind of knowledge that cannot be stated as either true or false, then it is a knowledge that is neither true or false.
Judges 21:25 In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
The existential pastor is one who no longer shepherds his flock by expounding the gospel’s doctrines. He rather instead relates to them his own personal experience.
The existentialist attempts to lay claim to something he asserts is true on the basis that all knowledge can be stated as true. If that doesn’t sound like a dog chasing its tail, then I don’t know what does.
In contrast to this insanity is the real truth. The real truth that all knowledge is propositional, and the Bible’s propositions are all truth.
The existentialist rejects the truth that all knowledge is propositional, because he does not like where it leads. Since the Bible’s propositions are all truth, and therefore all truth is propositional, then it stands to reason that faith can be no more than intellectually comprehended, mental assent. This throws the existentialist into fits, because he finds himself trapped once more by the emptiness of his Nihilism.
After all, if intellectual agreement with a set of cold, impersonal propositions is the definition of faith in Christ, then what’s the point? Where’s the meaning? Where’s the significance? The Christian life has become for the existentialist nothing more than God sovereignly ordaining machines to agree with facts about Him. Might as well paraphrase Kierkegaard at that point and ask, what good would it do me to discover God?
The existentialists wants more, because he wants a lie. He wants to feel significantly more than human, because he secretly suspects the serpent was right – he really can be as God (Genesis 3:1-5).
The truth is that human life does have significance and meaning, but only in that God has created everything for His glory. It is in His glory that a man finds meaning and significance. I was made to honor Him.
Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through Him and for Him. – Colossians 1:15-16
This propositional truth is significant, because it is centered on His glory. His doctrine is a glorious doctrine. That propositions that state His truth are significant propositions. Knowing them and agreeing with them brings Him glory.
If His glory is not the point though, if instead my glory is the point, then nothing that serves to glorify Him matters until it first glorifies me. Hath God said you shall not eat of any of the trees in the garden, asked the serpent? And the existentialist nods in answer. Yes, and now my life is meaningless.