Sunday, June 5, 2016

The certainty of the Spirit

I have been reading Origen's Contra Celsum, because I want to dig deep into the works and writings of this impressive theologian. I find it very entertaining. It is like reading a third century version of Alvin Plantinga's review of Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Celsus comes off as a bit of a village atheist (he was an Epicurean, after all) and not exactly charitable in his treatment of Christian claims. I'm only into the first book of the whole Contra Celsum, but there are already very many golden one- and many-liners here and there worth quoting and treating at length.

I was particularly surprised with some of Origen's comments in his preface, however. It begins, as it seems Origen always does, with some very impressive remarks about Christ's silence before the accusations of outsiders:

Our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ was silent when false witnesses spoke against him, and answered nothing when he was accused; he was convinced that all his life and actions among the Jews were better than any speech in refutation of the false witness and superior to any words that he might say in reply to the accusations... 
Now Jesus is always being falsely accused, and there is never a time when he is not being accused so long as there is evil among men. He is still silent in face of this and does not answer with his voice; but he makes his defence in the lives of his genuine disciples, for their lives cry out the real facts and defeat all false charges, refuting and overthrowing the slanders and accusations (Contra Celsum, preface §§1-2)

The best defense of Christianity, it would seem, is in Origen's judgment the difference of the life of Christians themselves. Those who say that Christians are stupid, that they are hypocrites, that they blindly believe in something that has no reality or substance, etc. -- these persons are best refuted by the contrary evidence of Christian lives of virtue, honor, and wisdom. Just as Christ was silent before his accusers, his own life and ways serving as better evidence for the truth of his claims about himself than any syllogism could, so also he is silent when his people are slandered. He doesn't come down from heaven to defend himself; he doesn't strike boorish and moronic village atheists like Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers. The genuine lives of wisdom and virtue of the average Christian on the street can refute all such arguments and properly defend the honor of the Lord.

That, in any case, is what Origen says. But because he was asked to write a refutation of Celsus, he set out to compose his polemical response to Celsus's doctrine, somewhat arrogantly titled The True Doctrine. This latter document seeks to refute the claims of Christianity and to tell the true story about its origins, etc. Origen, however, doesn't find any of the arguments compelling, nor can he see how they would compel anyone who has the Spirit of God:

Nevertheless, that we may not appear to shirk the task which you have set us, we have tried our best to reply to each particular point in Celsus' book and to refute it as it seemed fitting to us, although his arguments cannot shake the faith of any true Christian. God forbid that there should be found anyone who, after receiving such love of God as that which is in Christ Jesus, has been shaken in his purpose by the words of Celsus or one of his sort... 
Accordingly I have no sympathy with anyone who had faith in Christ such that it could be shaken by Celsus (who is no longer living the common life among men but has already been dead a long time), or by any plausibility of argument. I do not know in what category I ought to reckon one who needs written arguments in books to restore and confirm him in his faith after it has been shaken by the accusations brought by Celsus against the Christians. But nevertheless, since among the multitude of people supposed to believe some people of this kind might be found, who may be shaken and disturbed by the writings of Celsus, and who may be restored by the reply to them if what is said is of a character that is destructive of Celsus arguments and clarifies the truth, we decided to yield to your demand and to compose a treatise in reply to that which you sent us... 
Yet better is the man who, even if he meets with Celsus' book, has no need of any answer to it at all, but pays no attention to anything in his book, which is despised with good reason even by the ordinary believer in Christ on account of the Spirit which is in him (§§3-4, 6).

Origen here talks like the Romanian Pentecostals I grew up around: a person with the Spirit of God, with a genuine experience of God in Jesus Christ, has no need of arguments to solidify his faith against the sophistic and crude attacks of the Celsuses of his age, whether it's Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or whoever else. The testimony of the Spirit within the believer, which bears witness to our spirits that we are children of God (Rom 8:16), is sufficient evidence to secure the faith of a Christian. On the other hand, a person who is "tossed around by every wind of doctrine" (Eph 4:14) is lacking in a genuine experience and awareness of God. That person, perhaps Origen might say, if he is anything like the Romanian Pentecostals, ought to seek a genuine experience of God in prayer. Then she'll be stable and secure in her identity, and her faith will be firm.

What should we think about the reality that very many Christians out there have the weak kind of faith by which Origen here is dumbfounded? He says that he doesn't know how to classify such a person. The implicit explanation in all of this is that these people lack the Holy Spirit. There is nothing within them that testifies to the reality of what they allegedly believe; there is no experiential component to anchor them in their intellectual commitment to the belief in Jesus. People like these are tossed about by every argument and lack stability.

There is an interesting ecclesiological problem to consider in this respect, if this explanation is true. What sense can be made of the apparent reality that countless Christians in America, for example, actually lack the Holy Spirit? What has to be done to address this problem, devastating if ever there were one? Or is the alternative to reject this proposed diagnosis and merely to count them up as all being weak in faith?

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