Tuesday, October 14, 2014

God and Truth: reflections

Today I had the opportunity to participate in the conference at Glendale Community College titled "God and Truth II." The conference was basically a series of presentations by speakers with four different worldviews (deism, atheism, Christianity, and Islam), followed by questions and answers from the audience. The presentations were lively, and it certainly helped that the presenters on the atheist and deist side were my friends, Peter Lupu and Mike Valle. Bill Vallicella also made an appearance. We all went for dinner afterwards, and much fun was had.

I was hoping there would be inter-panelist discussion but time did not permit, so after the presentations we went straight to audience Q&A. Some of the questions were good and insightful, whereas others were less so. In general I really enjoyed myself. I got great positive feedback on my presentation, which you may read here: "The Gospel According to The X-Files."

Because there was no inter-panelist discussion, I thought I would take some time to record here what would have been objections to my interlocutors.

Contra Mike Valle (deism):

Mike made the point that he is not convinced there is enough evidence for the occurrence of the miraculous, though it remains an a priori possibility given the existence and omnipotence of God. I think there is more than adequate evidence, actually. I would here refer to Craig Keener, Miracles (Baker, 2011) who addresses (and demolishes) David Hume's argument against the possibility of miracles, in addition to adducing much (and I mean much) evidence in favor of the occurrence of miracles even into the present day. I think if one wants to maintain a purely deist position, he ought to deal with Keener's very important and well argued book.

Contra M. Zudhi Jasser (Islam):

Jasser brought a few of the Muslim arguments in the Quran about the Trinity, the impossibility of God's having a son, and so on. I think these arguments showed confusion about the precise way in which the claims of the Trinity and of the Incarnation ought to be made. A fuller discussion of this will have to wait for another day, however, because they offered very quickly and not in much detail; I don't remember everything he said.

My argument against Islam is that it is superfluous at best. The New Testament makes the point again and again that in Jesus Christ, all that pertains to salvation is available and offered to all. There is no need for another prophet, no need for another savior, no need for anything else. If you have Christ, you have it all.

Contra Peter Lupu (atheism):

Peter's presentation obviously had appeal to many in the audience, and he is a charming speaker, but I thought many of his claims were easily refuted and demonstrably false.

For instance, he accused me of arguing for the fact of the resurrection by presupposing the New Testament is the Word of God and therefore revelation. That is not what I was doing; I was treating the New Testament and especially the Gospels as eyewitness testimony, which is what they are. They need not be scripture to be reliable sources of information regarding the claims made by Jesus' followers, especially regarding the resurrection appearances.

Peter likewise claimed that the oral tradition which led to the writing of the gospels (which took place much later than the events themselves) is obviously unreliable. This betrays a very poor misunderstanding of the nature of early Christian oral tradition, as well as of the nature of the gospels themselves. The oral tradition did not circulate independently and wildly without control measures. The apostles and Jesus' disciples went about preaching the good news of his resurrection, as well as all the things he did and taught, and they established churches and stayed with those whom they taught for much time as figures of authority. They obviously could have corrected misunderstandings if they circulated, and they had contact with one another, as the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates, so they could even speak with one another about this or that issue as it came up. The apostles and disciples were not immediately translated into heaven after Jesus' ascension; they stayed and preached a word that was theirs, and accepted on their authority, because they were eyewitnesses to it all. Moreover the gospels were written just before or just after the death of the apostles and disciples, so that their testimony would be preserved for later generations. Moreover they were written either by the apostle/disciple himself (Matthew, John) or else by persons closely associated with them and who followed them around as they preached all the time (Mark, Luke). Let me make a further point: the fact that the author wrote the respective gospel at some particular point in history (say, 70 C.E.) does not entail that all the materials going into the gospel were invented or remembered on the spot. Much more likely is that written materials were preserved all the time, all through the apostolic ministry, but were finally combined and preserved in a single gospel at some later point. This removes the so often intimidating "time gap" between the events and their recording. So the bit about oral tradition is just false and mistaken.

Finally Peter said that the canon was only decided in 325 C.E. at the behest of Constantine, and there were a number of personal interests involved in its formation. Actually there was an established New Testament canon far earlier than that, as second century debates with gnostics and Marcionites show: one of the arguments against these groups was that the texts they propose as canonical were not a part of the existing liturgical tradition, which involved reading from Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John every Sunday during worship.

I want to conclude by offering a list of suggested readings:

On the possibility of miracles, see Craig Keener, Miracles (2011).

On the eyewitness reports of the gospels, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2008).

On the formation of the canon and the nature of the gospels, see Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (2000).

On the existence of God, see Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics (2014) and Aquinas (2009). For advanced readers, William F. Vallicella, A Paradigm Theory of Existence (2002).

On general Christian theology, see T.F. Torrance, Atonement and Incarnation (2009), The Trinitarian Faith (2000); Dumitru Stăniloae, The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 3 (2011); Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (2013); Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God.

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