Reading the Bible Apologetically: A New Paradigm

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

 

Unless one has been in a coma for 30 years or cloistered away from human contact for decades, you know that secularism has had a major impact on Western Civilization. From the rise of the new atheism, to popular skepticism, to same-sex marriage, to post-modern nihilism, secularism has become the dominant default setting for many, if not most, Americans. As a result, Christianity and biblical morality have become counter-culture. The same Christian Faith that once dominated Western Civilization and brought incalculable progress to humanity is now seen as an impediment to “progress,” being viewed as a narrow-minded relic of bygone superstitions.

What has the Church done in response? Progressive churches surrendered, employing the dictum “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Progressive Christians have become like a chameleon that attaches to the culture and changes color as the culture changes. Progressives have tried so hard to identify with the non-Christian and the secularist that they are now indistinguishable. The legacy of this approach can be seen in the dwindling congregations of mainline denominations who rally around the amorphous cry for “social justice” but somehow forgot about evangelism. It is a worthy endeavor to give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name, but progressives have left out the part about “in Jesus’ name,” where social justice is also an evangelistic opportunity. Once cannot divorce Christianity from a life-transforming message of salvation offered by the grace of God through the finished work of Christ on the cross. Any effort to do so denies the essence of why Jesus came to earth, and substitutes a palliative, “feel good” religion for true conversion.

Conservative Christians, in stark contrast, often act like the proverbial ostrich that sticks its head in the sand. A heightened awareness of the impact of secularism on society has lead many evangelicals to circle the wagons and develop a “victim” mentality. When it dawns on the believer that society no longer holds Christians in the high regard it once did, there are two primary courses of action: (1) Get back to the biblical command to evangelize, making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20), or (2) retreat from society, creating Christian ghettos where Christians feel safe from those dangerous non-Christians. A vast number of conservatives have chosen the latter, creating their own dictum of “if you can’t beat ‘em, separate from ‘em.” The effect is similar to the parents who keep their only child locked up in the attack for his own good, to protect him from the evils that lurk out in the world. When the poor lad is finally discovered, he is an underdeveloped, raving lunatic whose potential was destroyed because of the fear of the parents. In the same manner, the new monasticism that Christian isolation has created is neither healthy for the insulated believers, nor does it help those outside the walls who need the Gospel message.

The first step of fixing a problem is the awareness that there is a problem. The insular tendencies of average church people can be changed to comport with the biblical commands to “Go into all the world” (Matthew 28:19). A radical change in thinking and action would be ideal, but realistically, even small changes can get the church back on track. Years ago when I was a partner in a boat we kept in Newport Harbor in California, I enjoyed the occasional opportunity to motor to Catalina Island 26 miles off the coast. It was a one-hour and 40-minute trip at about 16 knots, and all I had to do was set the compass to 210 degrees once we left the mouth of Newport Harbor to reach Avalon Harbor on Catalina. What if I would have decided to use a trajectory of 209 degrees? I would have missed Catalina entirely. Even a one-degree change in course will result in a new destination. This is lesson for turning the church around—even a slight change can have a significant impact.

So, how may Christendom collectively return to a biblical model of engaging the secular society rather than isolating from it? How about starting with the way we read the Bible (for those Christians who don’t read the Bible, that is your starting point—start reading Scripture to learn what God desires of us). Many Christians read the Bible devotionally, seeking a closer relationship with the Lord. This is a great practice, but if one’s life is absorbed with the “inner life,” how does that help those around us who need to hear the Good News about Jesus? It doesn’t. Thus, here is a radical idea, in addition to reading the Bible devotionally, how about reading it “apologetically?” Let me explain.

First, although many believers are aware of what “Christian Apologetics” is, there are still many whose eyes glaze over at the mention of the term. I’ve begun using a substitute term—“intelligent faith”—in order to help people understand what we are talking about. “Intelligent faith” is descriptive of what apologetics is, namely a belief that is rooted in facts and reason. Apologetics comes from a legal term, apologia, that was used in the ancient courts in Athens to describe a lawyer’s defense of his position using evidence and logic. Peter uses the word apologia, when he says that Christians should “be ready at any time to make a defense of the hope that we have in Jesus.”  How is the Gospel of Jesus defended? By presenting reasons why it is true, e.g., we have a reliable record of what Jesus said and did, eyewitness and primary source accounts, etc.  

Back to reading the Bible apologetically. When I come to a passage such as Matthew 9:2-9, the account of the healing of a paralyzed man (also recorded in Luke chapter 5 and Mark chapter 2), there are many “takeaways” from the story—Jesus can heal, Jesus has the authority to forgive sin, others’ faith can have an impact on us. But when we analyze the text, we find skeptics who did not think Jesus could forgive sins. How can a skeptic be convinced of Jesus’ spiritual authority? Jesus told the paralyzed man “Your sins are forgiven.” But anyone can make that claim. Jesus could have tried to bolster his claim to forgive sins by saying, “I swear I can forgive sins.” But such a self-serving declaration has little, if any, evidential value. If someone is known to be an honest person, a claim without any supporting evidence might still be believed by some, but skeptics want more—usually empirical (“testable, verifiable”) evidence. 

With the crowd watching Jesus provided the evidence needed, first asking the skeptics, “which is easier to say—‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Rise up and walk?’” It is easier to say “Your sins are forgiven” because no one can prove or disprove whether sins were forgiven, since “forgiveness” is something that happens in the unseen, spiritual realm. Thus, Jesus adds, “So that you may know the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins,” he tells the paralyzed man, “Rise up and walk.” With all eyes on him, the man got up and walked. Jesus performed a visual, verifiable miracle to back up His claim that He can forgive sins. For the skeptics observing this, it was now reasonable to conclude that Jesus could, indeed, forgive sins, because He provided them with miraculous evidence of His healing ability. In fact, it would be unreasonable for them to continue to doubt Jesus’ ability to forgive sins after seeing the miracle. 

Thus, the apologetic takeaway from the account of Jesus healing the paralytic is that Jesus used evidence to support His spiritual claims. This fact becomes more significant when Jesus says He is going to die on a cross for the sins of humanity. It was not uncommon for the Romans in the 1st century to crucify people who were seen as a danger to Rome. Why is Jesus’ crucifixion any different? Primarily because of who He was (claiming to be God incarnate) and the spiritual claim He attached to His crucifixion (that He was going to bear the sins of the world). In case someone was skeptical about whether Jesus was truly going to die for the sins of the world, Jesus offered evidence as to why anyone should believe that He would bear our sins. The evidence? He claimed He was going to rise from the dead on the third day as proof that His claims and promises were true. Thus, when Jesus rose, as testified by the eyewitnesses, it was reasonable to conclude that His message and claims were true.

If we re-orient our approach to reading the New Testament and start looking for all the evidence and reasons for believing Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, then we will start amassing talking points that can be shared with skeptics. There are examples on virtually every page of the New Testament. For example, in the Book of Acts, chapter 17, Paul visits Athens, and is confronted by philosophers. Paul gives them evidence and reasons why they need to drop their superstitions and see that Jesus demonstrated his divinity by rising from the dead. The result was stunning—even among the skeptical philosophers, “some joined him and believed,” others “sneered,” while others wanted to hear more. Paul’s willingness to present the Gospel set him up for rejection by some, yet some believed. The fact that some will reject the claims of Christianity should not come as a surprise, since Jesus alluded to the way to life being “narrow” (Matthew 7:14). Some are not ready, and perhaps among the Athenian philosophers who wanted to hear more there were additional converts. But some “believed,” and history tells us that one of the converts, Dionysius, later became a Bishop of Athens. The Mars Hill (Acts 17) event is an example of a passage that can be read apologetically, and ideas gleaned from the passage that provide a way to present the Gospel, i.e., “evangelism,” to those we come in contact with. 

 

I challenge you to try to read the New Testament apologetically, looking for the evidence and reasons given by Jesus and the biblical writers for believing that Jesus is the Way to God. I trust that the truth of the Gospel will jump from the pages and encourage you to step out and share the evidence when opportunities arise. And part of evangelism is being sensitive to when there is an opening to mention the evidence for why Christianity is true. The more believers who take this approach, the better the church will do in fulfilling its role in reaching the world as opposed to hiding from the world. Jesus gave us the authority and evidence we need to turn hearts and minds to Him. He also gave us the charge to engage the world with the Good News. Are you ready to change your approach to reading the New Testament by one degree so that you become more effective in reaching skeptics and the unsaved? If so, we may see a new surge of evangelism, conversion, and a restoration of the reputation of Christianity.