May those who divide Christ be divided with the sword, may they be hewn in pieces, may they be burned alive!
This is a blog post made in response to one of Chris Bolt’s post over at Changing Hats. Since the author is busy working on his PhD and supporting his family, he closed the comments to this particular post, forcing me to take my ball and go home. I really do like Chris Bolt (hereafter: Mr. Bolt) and consider him a friend, so I wanted to emphasize that there is no sarcasm or snark in this response and any appearance of such is an error on my part. Moreover, any error in the representation of Mr. Bolt’s beliefs or statements is also due to error on my part, I just felt that Mr. Bolt was getting bored with atheism (can’t have that!) and thought I’d try to liven things up.
So, let’s begin here:
Presumably the atheist thinks it is somewhat problematic and perhaps even insulting to the Christian to dismiss his or her position as “man-made.”
I would think it is a bold (and truthful) claim to tell a Christian interlocutor that Christianity is man made, it flies in the face of St. Paul when he decries the ‘natural man’ and his mundane philosophies:
“And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” - 1st Corinthians 2:23 (ESV)
The atheist is telling Mr. Bolt that his wisdom is not taught from the Spirit, that his spiritual truths are as base as those worldviews he seeks to dismantle in apologetic discourse. Mr. Bolt goes on to say:
We may then note that the statement as it stands is no insult or argument against Christianity anyway, for there is a sense in which Christianity is man-made. The Bible, for example, was written by men. But it does not follow that it was not also God-breathed.
I think the claim that Christianity is man made strikes deeper than the sense Mr. Bolt speaks of. While men did write the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, they certainly did not do so under common inspiration (in Mr. Bolt’s understanding), and the doctrines that are derivative from scripture could not be viewed as man made (God‘s Triune nature, being an example).
And even where different approaches to logic, morality, and science appear in the atheist bag of tricks they are ultimately reducible to the allegedly autonomous subject. Take away autonomy and you do not have atheism anymore. Everything in atheism is made up. By definition.
I was confused by this statement, and I think a careful distinction needs to be teased out here. For example, if an atheist is conducting some kind of scientific venture where she is describing the speed of a comet in terms of velocity derived from position and time, one could say that the discourse the scientist is using is entirely man made, contingent on human autonomy. Would Mr. Bolt assert that the actual state of affairs of the comet traveling through space is also dependent on human autonomy in an atheist worldview? I don’t think so.
Now let us take Paul’s act of writing the epistle to the Romans. I think Mr. Bolt and I would agree that Paul’s method of communication (epistle writing) and Paul’s language of choice (Greek) are entirely man made, but where our disagreement lies is in the plain and precious truths Paul is communicating. To Mr. Bolt, the divine election described in Romans 9 is not man made, it is an eternal truth. The atheist is telling Mr. Bolt that the divine election described by Paul is in fact a product of man, if humans did not exist, divine election of human persons does not exist.
For the atheist engaged in a scientific and descriptive endeavor, the discourse used is man made, but the subject of the endeavor is not contingent upon human autonomy. The discourse used by Paul is man made, but the subject of his discourse is also contingent upon man. This is the thrust of the atheist’s criticisms that Christianity is man made.
The so-called “New Atheists” are clearly in view here. But even articulate unbelief is foolishness. After reading about the often radical disagreements between sophisticated atheistic thinkers on the most basic questions of human experience one has difficulty denying the old (but good) language that describes such people as “lost.” Some have even taken this as evidence of the Van Tilian claim to the impossibility of the contrary. There is an undoubtedly sharp contrast between the aforementioned tattered autonomous epistemology and biblical epistemology.
I must disagree with Mr. Bolt here sharply and strenuously. The biblical epistemology link does not explain why ancient Christians disagreed over the most basic questions about God’s nature. The epigram that I opened this blog post with comes from the second council of Ephesus (Latrocinium!), where the poor patriarch of Constantinople, Flavian (one of the four greatest Christian Clerics at the time) was beaten so badly by monks that he died just some hours later.
Flavian’s crime? He did not believe Christ had a single nature that was dominated by the divine. Flavian had the same biblical canon as his killers, believed in the same church hierarchy, even agreed that Jesus was God incarnate and was the second person of the Triune Godhead. Now I anticipate two responses to this example.
First, is that the nature of Christ isn’t a basic problem, that it is a technical theological and metaphysical detail that requires someone to presuppose the “basics” to discuss. But how finely do we need to parse the word “basic” to avoid equivocation? I could argue forcefully that even radically different reprobate epistemologies can be understood in terms that describe the whole disagreement as a quibble over details. Hume and Spinoza? W.V.O Quine and Bertrand Russell? I’m not sure Mr. Bolt is being the most charitable in his depiction of rival epistemologies.
Second, I can already imagine a Christian adhering to Presuppositionalism telling me that the doctrinal disputes between the Orthodox and Monophysites is exactly how the scriptures tell us how such things will play out, there will be those Saints who hold to solid scriptural truths based off rigorous exegesis and those whose reasoning has been hampered by the noetic effects of their sin. We should accept there will be heretics like the Monophysites, Pelagians, or Arians, because scripture warns us of them.
My first response is to quote the late great Bishop Warburton’s quip, “ Orthodoxy is my doxy, and Heterodoxy is the other man’s doxy.” I doubt Mr. Bolt finds the quick witted Anglican persuasive, so I also need to point out that Mr. Bolt isn’t being consistent in his critique. The observation that atheistic epistemologies have a great deal of variety among them (most of them being mutually exclusive) is a descriptive judgment, but the remark about biblical epistemology being rock solid is a normative judgment. There are deep divides within the body of Christ from the atheist’s viewpoint, even among Presuppositionalism! How more basic can an issue be than when a person is to be baptized (Presbyterian or Reformed Baptist)? Or how about Federal Vision versus Covenant Theology (Doug Wilson or RC Sproul)? Mr. Bolt is far better than Rome’s defenders over at Catholic Answers, but I can’t help get reminded of the spurious claims that Sola Scriptura’s end result is 70,000 different Protestant denominations. Anyone familiar with the Roman church knows that there a quite wide variety of beliefs held by the clergy alone (much less the lay population) over important issues, despite Papal decrees. As it is on the Roman side of the Tiber, so it is on the other, it is a descriptive fact that there are many divisions under Van Till’s tent on the bank of the Tiber, no matter what the normative epistemology demands.