No, That’s Not Christianity: Part 2
My last article was about how Christians just don’t follow, nor even actually read the Bible. We think we do, but we don’t. We’re indoctrinated into a certain set of assumptions about what it teaches, but we don’t know what it’s really about, what God’s purposes are for the Church or what the overall narrative is. We have a collective idea about what the Bible teaches – about the afterlife, as just one glaring example – but it is demonstrably wrong.
But it’s not just our ideas about the afterlife that are wrong. As bad as that might sound, this is far from the worst aspect of our failure as the Church.
There is a more subtle and insidious, and immensely more destructive and far-reaching symptom of our collective, functional apostasy.
To explain, some background is in order.
The Engine of Rebirth
When the Church first began on the Day of Pentecost in the year 30 AD, their central, defining mission was to bear witness to the risen Jesus:
“‘God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it … Therefore let all Israel know with certainty that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.’
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’
Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.’ With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’” (Acts 2:32-40)
Soon after, when Peter and John drew a crowd at the temple by healing a beggar, they quickly brought it back to that central point: “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” (Acts 3:14-15)
The apostles proclaimed the resurrected Jesus – and not just that Jesus had risen from the dead, but that they were witnesses to it, to him, and that this historical event to which they bore witness validated the overall biblical narrative. As Peter explained in that inaugural sermon, it was that belief in Christ’s resurrection that was the catalyst for faith in God, which was the condition of receiving the Holy Spirit, who transformed their inner natures; and it was on the basis of that shared nature, identity and cause in Christ that they formed that community we call “the Church,” which was “the Body of Christ” – the new temple through which God dwelled on Earth.
And, this sequence of salvific conditions is reiterated throughout the New Testament:
“You also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,” wrote Paul (Ephesians 1:13).
“I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?” Paul also wrote (Galatians 3:2).
As the apostle Peter wrote later, “Through (Christ) you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, and so your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:21)
People put their faith in God because of the resurrection, and, we read, they were justified before God on the basis of that faith; being justified, God gave them His own Spirit to transform their inner natures to regenerate them into the likeness of Christ, making them immortal – destined to be resurrected as he was.
As Peter continued, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.”
A Subtle Inversion
All of this might sound quite basic and possibly even tediously familiar to regular churchgoers, but there is a crucial component to that formula that we typically get terribly wrong.
Did you catch it?
Note again how Peter wrote that, “It is through Christ that you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.”
Many Christians today, if you asked them why they believe in Christ, why they believe he rose from the dead, why they believe the Bible is the word of God and Christianity is true, will tell you something like, “It’s because I have faith.”
It is entirely common to hear remarks like, “No, we don’t know that he rose from the dead …” or “ … we don’t know that God exists and that Christianity is true. That’s where faith comes in.”
(The Daily Wire’s Andrew Klavan, whom I respect and admire and watch every week, and who is a professing devout, born-again Christian, made virtually this exact remark not too long ago on his show at the start of an interview with Jordan Peterson.)
But notice how Peter didn’t say, “We believe the resurrection … because we have faith.”
No, he said, “We have faith because we believe the resurrection.”
That distinction might at first seem subtle, and therefore inconsequential. But there is nothing trivial about the difference. The enormity and impact of the difference cannot be overstated.
The resurrection is not true for us because of any faith that we bring to the question – not according to the founders of Christianity. No, it is by learning that the resurrection really and truly happened that we understand God’s nature and character at a visceral and fundamental level – realizing that He is the living God, who exists and is absolute Master over death and life and has intervened powerfully in actual time and space and history and empirical human experience – and so we put our trust in Him. That is what “faith” means – not an alternative to reason or to knowing, nor a suspension of disbelief nor “blind faith” nor superstition, but a personal trust. Faith is a relationship orientation, not an epistemology nor a side-stepping of our rational faculties. Faith is beyond logic or intellect, but it doesn’t bypass logic and intellect – it stands on their shoulders. Faith is a response to what is apprehended by logic and intellect, not an alternative to our use of logic and intellect.
Clearly, if we tell a friend or loved one, “I have faith in you,” it doesn’t mean, “I can’t really be certain of anything about you, or even your existence …”
No, it means, “I trust you – on the evidence of the pattern of your past behavior, I believe the best about you: you’ll do what you promise and you won’t betray me or break your word, and you’ll do what you set out to do.”
In several places in the Bible, Abraham is presented as the prototype for the faith that justifies us to salvation: “Abram believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” If we look at that episode in context, “faith” quite obviously doesn’t mean the blind belief or superstition or suspension of disbelief that we too often mean when we use that word. Abram was in the midst of a face-to-face, in-person encounter with God, and God had already physically manifested to Abram multiple times in his life by that point. So, God’s mere existence was not the object of Abram’s faith, nor any given doctrine about God. These were matters of established, empirical fact already. It was the assurance of God’s promises to him that Abram believed – his trust in God’s character and faithfulness – by which he was justified.
That is the faith that justifies us before God: we believe He will do what He has promised, and the resurrection is our reason for believing that.
Paul, in his sermon to the Athenians on Mars Hill, said that the resurrection is itself the proof of the truth of Christianity: “God has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the Man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)
Also, returning to that inaugural sermon, the point that Peter drove home was that, on the basis of his resurrection from the dead, Israel should “know with certainty that God has made this Jesus both Lord and Messiah.” (Acts 2:32-36)
The resurrection is our basis for faith, not the object of it. Our faith doesn’t authenticate the resurrection – the resurrection is the catalyst and justification for our faith.
And — contrary to popular Calvinist teaching — faith is the condition of regeneration, not the other way around. Regeneration occurs on the condition of faith, and faith is a response to rational belief in the resurrection, according to the consistent teaching of the New Testament writers.
Rebirth Rooted in Reason
So, persuading people that it was actually – literally and objectively – true, through reasoned argument and appeals to empirical and verifiable evidence, was their primary occupation as apostles:
“We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty,” wrote the apostle (2 Peter 1:16).
“The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard,” wrote another (1 John 1:2-3).
When Paul stood before King Agrippa and told him of Christ’s resurrection and Festus the proconsul accused him of being out of his mind, he answered:
“‘I am not insane, most excellent Festus. What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.’
Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?’
Paul replied, ‘Short time or long – I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am … ‘“ (Acts 26:25-29)
They cited recent history and empirical evidence for their claims of Christ’s resurrection. Paul appealed to their knowledge of public events to support his case, with the goal of reasoned persuasion, which was essentially Paul’s full-time job as an apostle working to initiate people into the Christian religion:
“Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” (Acts 9:22)
“As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them … explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.” (Acts 17:2, 3)
“So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (Acts 17:17)
“Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 18:4)
“(Paul) went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews.” (Acts 18:19)
“He vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate … “ (Acts 18:28)
“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)
They devoted their efforts so fully to persuading them of the truth of the resurrection because that was how they imparted faith in God, and it is only by faith in God that anyone could receive the Holy Spirit for regeneration/rebirth to eternal life. Apprehending the literal, factual truth of the resurrection was not a matter of faith, but of fact, and it was how they initiated people into everything else for which the term “Christianity” is shorthand: faith, repentance, baptism, discipleship, obedience to God, fellowship, the sacraments, theosis/eternal life, the world to come, etc.
Without the truth of the resurrection, Paul said, all of that was a tragic and deceptive exercise in futility, but with it, immortality and the world itself were their inheritance.
A Trifling Truth
Now, compare that picture of the early Church and its outlook, objectives and methods – particularly with regard to the central Fact underpinning the gospel – with what we call “church” today.
If you’re there in church on Sunday morning, sitting in a pew and taking part in the proceedings, typically, the people running the show presuppose that you are a “believer,” in some sense, but very little if any meaningful effort is made to ensure that this is the case. The actual truth or falsehood of Christianity is rarely if ever raised for consideration or concern, much less addressed with any earnest and vigorous presentation of evidence and arguments with an intent to persuade, nor to equip members of the congregation to persuade outsiders, nor even to defend themselves against the inevitable and unrelenting challenges with which they are constantly confronted outside the church walls.
Whether or not the resurrection actually happened is entirely beside the point for most people in church, by all appearances – including the leaders.
If it is being addressed, it’s an afterthought and it’s done off to the side in what we call an “apologetics” ministry, while the main activity of the church is more preoccupied with life-coaching and mining the Bible for “relevance,” or support for whatever pet topic the preacher has in mind that week, or any number of other worldly concerns (again, see my last article if my point here isn’t clear).
All too often, the resurrection is affirmed as true only in an implied “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”-kind of sense. As in, the actual literal, factual truth of it isn’t seen as important. What’s important is that it is “true” to the extent that we affirm whatever abstract sentimentality it is believed to represent. Preachers might make impassioned emotional appeals to believe the resurrection, but no one is likely to leave that service with any greater rational understanding of the historical case for it: they’ll just be exhorted to “have faith,” and possibly made to feel guilty about it if they don’t, and so passively pressured to pretend that they do in order to fit in as a “good Christian.”
A (Supposedly) Biblical License for Negligence
Of course, there is a wide gamut of pious-sounding slogans and cliches for why God supposedly wants it that way.
As already discussed, their mis-definition of “faith” is among the most frequent.
“You can’t argue people into heaven,” is another favorite, which I believe has also been thoroughly refuted by now.
“It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to make people believe, not ours,” is an equally frequent objection.
This just isn’t taught anywhere in the Bible, though, and it betrays a profound ignorance of what the Bible does teach.
One of the most oft-cited passages for this position is Ephesians 2:8, which reads, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
“See? Faith comes from God, not us,” they argue.
If that’s true, though, it’s only true in the aforementioned sense that God has given us an evidentiary basis for faith in the form of the resurrection of Christ, as Peter wrote and as Paul told the Athenians. And, of course, it’s true in the sense that it is God in Whom we are placing our faith, which can only be because He merits it, so in that sense, “faith comes from God,” just as our faith in anybody is rooted in who they are as a person, and so originates from them. It does not follow, however, that God bypasses our rational processes to bestow faith by way of the Holy Spirit.
As has already been established, faith precedes and is the condition of regeneration. Claiming that the Holy Spirit gives us faith puts the cart before the horse — regeneration does not precede or provide the causal basis for faith. That is a distortion, reversal and negation of the gospel taught in the Bible.
Besides all that, it is grammatically impossible that Paul wrote this passage to convey that “faith comes from God, not from us.” Words in Greek always have gender: masculine, feminine or neuter. Relative pronouns, such as “this” or “that” or “these” always agree in gender with the noun to which they refer. The word for “faith” in that verse, “pisteos,” is feminine, while the word for “this” in that verse, “touto,” is neuter. It doesn’t agree in gender with the other two nouns in that verse either, which means the “this” doesn’t refer to any of the terms individually, but to the whole clause. Paul is saying, “This is God’s plan.” He isn’t speaking to God as the supplier of any particular component of the plan, but to the plan as a whole: it is the gift of God that we are saved by grace through faith. It isn’t our plan, but His. But, it is abundantly clear from innumerable other passages throughout the Bible that there are conditions to that plan that we are required to meet – namely, faith.
Another favorite proof-text for this idea is from 1 Corinthians 2:
“The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” (v. 10-14)
According to this, they explain, Christian belief comes from the Spirit of God, because it is only by the Spirit of God that a person can accept the things of God. And that seems like a reasonable interpretation of this passage, at first, until you pay attention to what he’s actually saying.
If you read it in context, it simply cannot mean that. Paul clearly wasn’t speaking to the question of how people come into faith – he isn’t talking about how unbelievers become believers. The portion cited above, Paul said, was “a message of wisdom among the mature” (v. 6). He’s not speaking to or about unbelievers or yet-to-be believers. He’s speaking to the already initiated.
There is nothing in this passage about how one receives the Spirit, but you obviously have to first have the Spirit in order to be able to listen to the Spirit speaking to you from within, and we’ve already seen from numerous other passages that faith is a prerequisite of and therefore precedes the receiving of the Spirit.
He credits the Spirit with empowering him to preach, but he says nothing about the Spirit empowering belief – except, perhaps, by implication, as the Spirit spoke through Paul. Paul is hardly citing the Spirit here as some disembodied mystical force that bypassed their faculties of reason to bestow belief. Quite the opposite. The Spirit is present in the world only through the Church – through believers. In fact, there is no example anywhere in Scripture of the Spirit of God acting in the world on His own. He only ever acts in the world through believers, through human agents. In order to act in the world, the Spirit of God must be embodied, and He is embodied – by definition – through the Church. That is what the Church is: the dwelling place in which God lives on Earth by His Spirit.
As Paul wrote elsewhere:
“If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved … for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
How, then, can they call on the One they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the One of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:9-15)
Without people through whom to act, the Spirit of God does nothing. The Church is how the Spirit of God manifests in the world. That’s what the Church is for. That’s what it means for us to be “the body of Christ.”
So, anyone who argues, “Such and such isn’t our job – it’s the job of the Holy Spirit,” betrays a fundamental ignorance of their own role as Christians, as members of the Church. It is, in effect, an abdication of our calling as Christ’s followers. If it is the job of the Holy Spirit, it’s our job, because we are the vessel through whom He acts.
Toward the Abolition of ‘Apologetics’
When I have this conversation in person, by this point many people will have responded, “Oh, OK – you just want more apologetics in church …”
While that’s not precisely wrong and, really, any attention to apologetics would be an improvement on what happens in most churches today, that also completely misses the point.
No, ideally, we would abolish entirely any concept of “apologetics” from our thinking.
“Apologetics” is the term for that category of Christian study concerned with proving the truth of Christianity. It comes from the Greek word “apologia,” meaning “defense,” and Christians have historically based this on passages like the aforementioned episode in which Paul presented his legal defense, and 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”
By now, though, it should be apparent that the apostles themselves would be utterly dumbfounded at our concept of apologetics. While we can find tenuous support for it in their writings, “apologetics” — as a distinct concept — is nowhere to be found in the Bible.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide a rational justification for Christianity. It means that arguing the case for the truth of Christianity was so essential and central to everything they did that “apologetics,” as such, would have been nonsensical as a distinct endeavor.
As we think of “apologetics” – and if we give it any attention at all – it’s an option to Christianity, an add-on. And, it’s done passively, defensively: in the event that some outsider takes the initiative to “ask about our faith,” that’s where “apologetics” comes in.
If we could go back in time to speak with that first generation of Christians and describe our concept of “apologetics,” they would be horrified at our apostasy.
Yes, you read that correctly – apostasy.
“You call that ‘apologetics’?!,” they would ask with outrage and disdain. “We call that ‘doing church.’” The idea that we would have that as a distinct category of ministry or study would elicit the question, “So what is it that you actually do in church, then?”
The Church is described in Scripture as “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Proclaiming and arguing for the truth of our claims should hardly be optional to our mission – it is the very essence of our mission.
As we’ve seen, what we call “apologetics” is how all Christians (besides rare exceptions like Paul, who had the benefit of a direct epiphany) were initiated into the faith to begin with, and their maturation as followers of Christ was significantly, albeit not exclusively, concerned with learning how to initiate others in the same manner, which is how the Church grew so rapidly from a peculiar, localized sect of Judaism to an international world religion in only one generation.
So-called “apologetics,” then, should not be a subset of Christian ministry. It should be the other way around: all of Christian ministry should be subordinated under what we call “apologetics.”
Apostles Outranked Prophets
That isn’t to say that every single individual believer must become what we would regard as an expert “apologist” (for lack of a better term). There was a variety of different roles within the Church.
But, the structure of authority within the Church was one and the same as the epistemological hierarchy within orthodox Christian thought at the time. And, if that sounds like an unintelligible word salad at first, please read on and it will become clear.
For those unfamiliar, “epistemology” is the study of how we obtain knowledge — how we know things, and the hierarchy of authority within the original generation of Christians directly mirrored – and should inform today – the epistemological foundation of Christianity itself:
“So Christ himself gave some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ,” wrote Paul (Ephesians 4:11-14).
This paralleled another passage he wrote to another community of believers:
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing?” (1 Corinthians 12:27-30)
There are different roles, different areas of ministry within the Church, so not everyone is expected to excel in the same areas. But, the purpose of all of these roles was the collective building up, equipping and maturing of the Church, and twice Paul listed them by order of authority and importance: Apostles and prophets outranked all other offices within the Church, while apostles outranked prophets.
A “prophet” is defined in Deuteronomy 18:14-22 as a person who speaks directly for God.
Apostles outranked prophets.
Think about that.
It would be reasonable to assume that prophets would outrank all others, apostles included, since God Himself speaks through them. And, that typically is the paradigm we assume when we read the New Testament and the rest of the Bible: it is the divinely-inspired “word of God” first and foremost, and everything else about it is a corollary to that – we believe it because it is the word of God, and so if it reports an event of history, for instance, we can be certain that the event happened exactly as it is recorded in Scripture, because it’s the word of God.
That was not the epistemology of the early Church, though.
Apostles outranked prophets.
An apostle’s defining task was to provide eyewitness testimony about the risen Jesus and other firsthand historical information about the Messiah, and so their writings and instruction were valued primarily for that reason – as we can see from the repeated emphasis on the value of eyewitnesses and direct testimony throughout the New Testament. This is a value that survived into the period of the Apostolic Fathers and beyond, as we can see from the writings of the early Church Fathers (particularly in the writings of Papias of Hierapolis, for instance, who sought out and interviewed any firsthand witnesses to Jesus he could). This was in keeping with the historiographical best practices of the ancient world, established by the likes of Herodotus, Thucydides and others, which continues to this day to be the gold standard of historiography: the writer of history (and the modern journalist) should either be a firsthand witness to the events he reports, or should interview those who were.
And, this was the repeated basis for the New Testament writers’ reports about Jesus. They did not preface their accounts with “The word of the Lord came to me … “ or “Thus saith the Lord” or anything else to indicate direct supernatural revelation as the source of their information.
Rather, they wrote:
“He who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe … This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” (John 19:35; 21:24)
“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4)
These were supernatural events they witnessed, but they offered their reports about them on the same terms as any other events of history – on the basis of eyewitness testimony – and so they were meant to be evaluated accordingly, on the same terms as any other historical writings.
Yes, Really – Apostles Outranked Prophets
When Peter wrote about having personally witnessed the glorification of Jesus – reiterating that these were not “cleverly devised stories,” but events he personally witnessed and experienced – he went on to write, “So we have the word of the prophets confirmed, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
This is a perfect representation of the overall pattern we’ve seen in the New Testament, according to which, in the minds of early Christians and the New Testament writers themselves, the historical validated the supernatural and prophetic: Jesus’ death and resurrection proved him to be the Messiah and thereby confirmed the writings of the prophets who foretold him, thereby validating the overall biblical narrative, and so the same prophets who foretold the Messiah in the first place should be believed when they also promised his return.
But, popular thinking within the Church today is militantly hostile to this idea, and nowhere is that more clearly on display than in the controversy surrounding this particular passage.
In his MacArthur Study Bible commentary on the NKJV’s rendering of 2 Peter 1:19, John MacArthur wrote:
“This translation could indicate that the eyewitness account of Christ’s majesty at the Transfiguration confirmed the Scriptures. However, the Gr. word order is crucial in that it does not say that. It says, ‘And we have more sure the prophetic word.’ That original arrangement of the sentence supports the interpretation that Peter is ranking Scripture over experience. The prophetic word (Scripture) is more complete, more permanent, and more authoritative than the experience of anyone. More specifically, the Word of God is a more reliable verification of the teachings about the person, atonement, and second coming of Christ than even the genuine first hand (sic) experiences of the apostles themselves.”
I realize, of course, that John MacArthur is a giant in the eyes of Western Christians today and has more credibility in the Church than I am likely to ever have. That is precisely why it’s so important to address this. If we can look past his towering stature and influence within the Church and evaluate his commentary objectively, we’ll see that his thinking is not only dead wrong, but is emblematic of the thesis of this article, which is that today’s Church catastrophically sabotages its own mission by working in direct opposition to the actual teachings of the Bible.
To put it bluntly, his reading of 2 Peter 1:19 is preposterous on its face.
First off, let’s step back and take stock of what he’s actually claiming: MacArthur thinks Peter was saying that the Scripture was “even more sure” than his personal experience of seeing Christ glorified before his very eyes and hearing the voice of God endorse him with his own ears. But why in the world would that be? He had a tradition that claimed the Scripture to have ultimately come from God, sure. But how did he know that tradition was correct, and why would it be more reliable than his direct experience, from which he knew for a fact that God had endorsed Jesus? Well, he tells us exactly why the tradition is correct: because he saw the prophecies fulfilled in his own experience. His experience confirmed the tradition. Prophets are intermediaries through whom God speaks, while Peter got the truth directly from the Source — from God Himself and from Jesus himself — but MacArthur would have us believe that Peter is instructing us to put greater stock in the intermediaries.
Secondly, I will freely grant that my self-taught smatterings of Greek don’t approach what I assume MacArthur’s expertise to be, but they don’t really need to for the weakness of his argument to be evident. He tells us that the Greek word order is “crucial,” but we don’t come away from his commentary with any greater knowledge of the original Greek – merely his word that it “supports the interpretation that Peter is ranking Scripture over experience.”
In other words, there is nothing explicit in the Greek that demands that reading. If there was, we can be sure MacArthur would have said so instead of relying on weak inferences.
There is nothing about the Greek word order that makes it say what MacArthur claims. He merely asserts that because Peter’s affirmation of Scripture follows after his discussion of his own experience, he must be comparing them to each other, but nothing in the text itself supports this. MacArthur is just fitting it to his own preconceived epistemology.
The Greek reads, “and (kai) we have (echomen) confirmed/more sure (bebaioteron) the (ton) prophetic (prophetikon) word (logon).”
The Greek word translated “confirmed” or “more sure” is “bebaioteron,” and it comes from the root “bebaios,” which is the same word translated “confirm” or “sure” a few lines earlier in verse 10, where Peter wrote, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more eager to confirm/make sure your call and election … ”
Combined with the suffix -teron, the word indeed becomes comparative, meaning “made more sure,” but there is nothing about the text itself to indicate that the comparison is between the word of the prophets and Peter’s experience, as MacArthur claims. No, the comparison is between the word of the prophets before Peter’s experience, and the word of the prophets after, with the latter being more reliable and assured precisely because of Peter’s experience. He was an apostle referencing the prophets, and we know from elsewhere that apostles outranked prophets.
Not only is this in keeping with the pattern we’ve already seen in the New Testament, but it’s also consistent with the explicit teachings of the Old Testament:
“You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed,” said Moses in the aforementioned definition of the role of a prophet.
“When all this comes true – and it surely will – then they will know that a prophet has been among them,” wrote Ezekiel (33:33).
This phrase or something like it is repeated more than 50 times throughout the book of Ezekiel, because prophecy is validated by its fulfillment in history, and Peter was just appealing to this basic, elementary idea that all students of the Scripture understood.
MacArthur’s interpretation is representative of a different and decidedly anti-biblical mentality that is characteristic of the modern Church, which comes from a warped, absolutist idea of Sola Scriptura. This slogan, meaning “by the Scripture alone,” comes out of the Protestant Reformation to express the idea that it is the Bible in which final authority resides, as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church. As in, the Church should be held to the standards and practices found in the Bible, rather than fitting the Bible to the traditions and dictates of the Church.
On those terms, Sola Scriptura is reasonable and good and indispensable to genuine Christianity.
Those are not the terms on which MacArthur and much of the rest of the modern Church apply Sola Scriptura, though.
They apply it as an absolute – it isn’t just “Scripture versus man-made tradition and dogma.” To them, Scripture trumps logic, reason, evidence and everything else. To them, Scripture is a substitute for the basic rational processes by which a person arrives at a set of beliefs. To them, the authority of Scripture is what philosophers call a “properly basic belief”: it is axiomatic, foundational to all else. They regard the Scripture as “self-authenticating,” and so side-step basic questions like, “Why the Bible instead of the Quran or the Bhagavad-Gita or the Book of Mormon?”
This pays lip-service to the authority of Scripture while actively undermining its actual teachings.
Applied absolutely – even in its original, correct sense of “Scripture versus Church” – Sola Scriptura presents a false dichotomy. The Scripture is authoritative precisely because it is the product of and connects us back to that original community of believers, and to the Jewish people of whom they were an outgrowth. The proper comparison is not “Scripture versus Church,” but “original Church versus the Church in all other times and places.” The Scriptures are authoritative because they came from the Church, represent the Church and tell us how to be the Church. The Scriptures are the monument left by the original Church that enables us to connect with them across history.
Also, as we have seen, the Scripture doesn’t offer itself on those terms. It is an epistemological error to start out insisting that the Bible is the Word of God and go from there. It puts the cart before the horse. You should end up there, but you can’t start there. The biblical writers did not teach, “this is true because it says so and the Scripture is the word of God.” No, they taught, “these things actually happened in history, fulfilling the prophets, therefore, this is the word of God.”
As in, we are not supposed to believe these things happened “because the word of God says so.” Rather, we believe the Bible is the word of God because these things happened, which we can and should verify by the same standards we would any other events of history.
What’s more, if we are truly following the Scripture and heeding the teachings we find there, we find that, according to the Bible, there are truths that are more basic and fundamental than the Bible.
Paul wrote, “What may be known about God is plain … because God has made it plain … For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”
He also said, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”
As in, the Bible itself tells us that the arguments of “natural theology” or “general revelation,” i.e., classical apologetics – arguments like the Cosmological, Teleological and Moral arguments – are more foundational and fundamental than the Bible.
So, if the Bible is indeed true, we should be able to start (epistemologically speaking), not with the Bible, but with observation of nature and deductive reasoning to arrive at God’s existence and attributes, and then evaluate the Bible on historiographical terms, and then, by these objective and verifiable means, discover that the Bible is true, rather than presupposing it on the basis of tribal loyalty and cultural indoctrination.
A Church that Works for the Devil
The original Church and the generations of Christians who immediately succeeded them made new Christians and advanced God’s kingdom on Earth by rationally persuading people of the objective truth about the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus. This was the catalyst for their faith in God, and so God gave them His Spirit to regenerate them into the likeness of His Son as well as to empower them to continue the work of advancing His kingdom.
When we consider the modern Church in comparison, is it any wonder that Christianity is dying in the West, our lampstand is nearly extinguished and our civilization is plunging ever more deeply into depravity and darkness?
Our apostasy is not merely in the fact that we fail to make new Christians by teaching the historical fact of the resurrection, though.
That would be bad enough on its own, but we’re also actively doing the Enemy’s work for him. Not only do we fail to preach the gospel, but we actively work against the gospel.
When we speak of “faith” as if it’s beyond the reach of rational apprehension, we effectively turn it into a sort of gnostic mystery religion reserved only for the special people so chosen for it. “If you don’t have faith, you just don’t have faith,” we effectively convey, as we abdicate our responsibility to persuade people. From an epistemological standpoint, we shut the door to Christian belief by presenting it as something unverifiable and unknowable apart from the intervention of disembodied mystical forces beyond our control or comprehension.
As if that’s not bad enough, the situation is even worse still.
When we say things like, “I believe the resurrection …” or “I believe the Bible …” or “I believe Christianity is true … because I have faith,” again, we are establishing “faith” as subjective, personal, private and self-defined. “It’s true because I believe it,” we effectively convey.
We make ourselves – our own subjective feelings and perceptions – the foundation of our belief system.
The appeal of this kind of “faith” is obvious enough: a “faith” rooted in subjective feelings and other-than-rational bases is unfalsifiable. It can never be disproven or challenged, because it is beyond the reach of argumentation or reason.
Also, and most appealingly to the vast and diverse tastes and prejudices that make up the marketplace of religious consumers, it is endlessly malleable, because feelings are endlessly manipulable. You can attach them to whatever, to whomever, you want.
And if so-called “Christian” belief is validated by this supposedly ineffable internal disposition we call “faith,” then so is everything else: Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Wicca, New Age, occultism … their practitioners’ beliefs are just as sincere and heartfelt as ours, and so on the terms on which Christianity is popularly offered, they are just as valid.
And, this epistemological relativism isn’t limited just to religion. It means all of reality is socially-constructed. Are you a teenage girl who thinks she’s a boy trapped in a girl’s body? Well, that’s “your truth,” and it’s just as valid as anyone else’s “truth.” Men who think themselves women are to be regarded as such, and vice-versa, and we are just now reordering our entire civilization on this foundation of shifting sand.
Most sincere Christians recognize that we are presently steeped in a high-stakes spiritual war over the soul of our civilization, and the most conspicuous lines of conflict are between the political Right and the Left, between so-called “progressive churches” and “conservative churches.”
But that’s not where the real war is happening.
Speaking to my fellow conservative, Bible-believing Christians – ground zero for this war is right in our own churches and seminaries. We are the ones – not the Lefists or “progressives” or so-called “liberal churches” – who have given the Enemy all the weapons and ammunition he needs to conquer us. It is our own practices and stated premises that are being used against us, because – not only have we departed from what the Bible actually teaches about the mission and methods of the True Church – but we have negated the very concepts of “faith” and “belief,” and so inverted reality itself. We have become the antithesis of what the Church is supposed to be, and so we fight the Evil One’s war on his behalf, effectively handing him the keys both to our churches and our civilization.
It’s long past time we took them back.