Wednesday, February 25, 2009

These Truths Are Not Self-Evident...

There are all different types of Christians out there. For example there are these guys. They are the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM). They tell you the answers, and you'd better agree with them. After all, eternity is a long time to be wrong.

Among their many fascinating articles is this gem. It is a list of 100 Truths About Jesus. Each truth is a pithy saying I'm sure the author wants you to take as "fact" supported by hyperlinked Biblical quotes.

Nothing shocking. But what strikes me as I read it is that these "truths" are anything but self-evident. Rather, they are so impenetrable they are nearly useless.

For example, what does it mean that, "Jesus abides forever - Heb. 7:24"? Where does he "abide?" Can I visit? To abide means to continue or to stay... what is he continuing? If he is staying forever does that mean he is never going? Or maybe they mean abide as in "tolerate". In which case what does Jesus tolerate? This is the kind of lovely koan-esque language that religions love to employ and it is wonderful for meditation and theology, but it is more poetry than apologetics where precise definitions are necessary.

One problem with this list of propositions (and it is true of the entire site) is that it assumes an incredible degree of pre-assimilated context. There is a near cultish use of insider vocabulary used without explanation as if the meaning is plain to any observer. What do these things mean:

  • The fruit of righteousness comes through Jesus Christ - Phil. 1:11
  • Jesus is the Rock - 1 Cor. 10:4
  • Jesus is our only mediator between God and ourselves - 1 Tim. 2:5
Even if most readers have enough context to approach these propositions at a basic level of understanding what are they supposed to gain from them? Jesus is the Rock. Okay. Glad I know that now. Hmm. I guess that clears up my confusion about... nothing.

For these propositions to have any value the reader would have to be in a conversation where the assertion that Jesus is the Rock had any meaning. The writers on this site are clearly involved in such a conversation. They see themselves countering all sorts of cultural tendencies they deplore, but they don't give any hint of that here. Answers without questions are useless. (Interestingly the reverse is not always true).

Furthermore, the apparent simplicity (even if it is opaque simplicity) of these propositions belies an enormous amount of interpretation that has already gone into them. Consider number 100 on their list:

  • Jesus came to proclaim freedom for believers - Luke 4:18
The citation they give is Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah in a synagogue in his hometown in Luke. The actual verse reads in the NRSV:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,"
First of all, Jesus is not making a personal announcement here, he is reading scripture aloud in the context of something like a worship service. He does, later in the passage, tell the crowd that "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." So it is not unreasonable to assume that he intends these words from Isaiah as a kind of proclamation, but where does Isaiah mention freedom for "believers"? Freedom could reasonably be applied to two groups in the passage: captives and the oppressed. It mentions nothing at all about whether these groups contain any believers.

So how does the author get to his proposition from the supporting text? Interpretation, duh. The author is assuming that Jesus means something specific by "freedom" and that this "freedom" corresponds with what the author already knows and believes, partly on the basis of other scripture passages, belongs specifically to a group called "believers". I happen to disagree with the author in this case, but I don't think there is anything nefarious about such an interpretive move. I have a feeling, however, that the people at CARM wouldn't want to admit that such debatable interpretation underlies all of their arguments.


jairus' daughter said...

101) Jesus wept (jn 11:35)
102) Jesus changed his mind (mt 15:28)
103) Jesus got angry (mk 11)

anyway, what does "jesus is the rock" mean when actually it's PETER who's the rock? mt 16:18. so there, carm.

Doug Hagler said...

CARM pwned.

Here's where things like this fail in "defending the faith" - the use the Bible as their only source. And you know what? No atheist in the world has even given a bleep about a proof-text plucked from a sacred book, and people from other religions have their own proof-texts which make untestable propositions of their own.

What "apologetics" like this amount to, in my opinion, is an exercise in self-reassurance for those involved. But I can't see how what they're offering would be likely to reach someone who didn't already agree with them.

How many Muslims quoting from the Koran would it take to convert Matt Slick, the head of CARM? Probably somewhere approaching infinity. I don't know what makes him think that the reverse - his organization proof-texting from the Bible - would be more effective.

Doug Hagler said...

Really, it seems like a lot of effort to avoid the only thing I think would ever 'convert' someone - actually building a relationship with them and seeking to understand them.

Nick.Larson said...

nah Doug, you wouldn't want to do that now :P

The problem you've so eloquently pointed out here Aric is that insider language isn't that helpful, but we do it too. Words like total depravity and double agency are Calvinism that just confuse the crap out of most people (including seminary students and a lot of pastors).

So while I understand your point do you really think we are any different?

Aric Clark said...


CARM does rely overmuch on scripture, and this article entirely, but they use other sources elsewhere on their site. But your basic point is dead-on, their methods will never reach anyone outside their circle.

As I think about it, though, I don't know if it is intended to. It seems more likely that they intend to bolster a group mentality and encourage people who already agree with them by providing resources those people can use - not to persuade outsiders, but to persuade themselves. I'm going to write another post about where I think CARM (and ministries like theirs) fail theologically.

@ Nick,

Insider language CAN be a problem if you need to be accessible. My criticism of CARM is that they advertise themselves as a source for material to use in arguments against non-believers, which requires that they be understandable to non-believers.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a mechanic or a doctor or an anthropologist or yes, theologians, using specialized language for speaking among themselves. Specialized language serves a purpose in creating and designating meanings which general language cannot. I am in favor of a bigger vocabulary for the English Language as a whole. It makes our culture richer. I do not want a dumbed down language or a list of common vocabulary which we are restricted to. Most criticisms of "insider language" in my opinion come from the same place that tells pastors they must avoid anything intellectual in their sermons, or people who liked Bush because he spoke like an "everyman" and distrust Obama because of his "high-flying rhetoric". Language is a gift, we should use it.

Aric Clark said...


Secondly, I DO think we're significantly different in that we care about our use of language. We go out of our way, somewhat frequently, to define our terms and make sure we are communicating effectively. When we discover that we are NOT communicating clearly we go back and clarify what we mean.

Also, I don't pretend to be running a ministry intended to debate with people outside the church.