Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Fruit Of Neglecting Apologetics

There have been some news stories lately about polling showing a decline in belief in the historicity of the infancy narratives. A local newspaper interviewed some pastors about how they address such doubts:

Some pastors say their approach is a straightforward retelling of the story, confident in its historical truth.

“I don’t try and prove how right the Nativity” story is, said the Rev. Samuel W. Chambers Sr., pastor of Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in New Brighton. “God needs no proof. Either you believe in Him or you don’t.”

The Rev. James B. Farnan, pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Bethel Park, agreed.

“You can’t deny the historical nature of sacred Scripture,” he said. Noting that the Gospels quote Hebrew Scripture passages they say were fulfilled in Jesus, Father Farnan added: “His is the only birth that has been predicted not only when and where but to what family and to what person.”

Other preachers say they don’t insist on belief in the details of the account but urge listeners to focus on what they see as the main message of passages — God becoming human to save humanity.

“The Christian faith is about way more than belief in the historical accuracy of every detail of the biblical story,” said the Rev. Roger Owens, professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

“Just as the angels in the Bible so often say when they appear to someone, ‘Do not be afraid,’ I would say to preachers: ‘Do not fear,’” added Rev. Owens, who is speaking from experience: He preached for five years at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C., to a congregation of well-educated and potentially skeptical hearers.

“You will be doing your congregation a great service if you move from the peripheral details to the center,” he said. “Belief in the virgin birth might be a late development, and it might not be attested to in every Gospel, but if that’s what your faith stands on, it’s a flimsy faith. In Jesus, God took on flesh, and became truly human. This is the heart.”…

The Rev. Dean Weaver, pastor of Memorial Park Church, a Presbyterian church in Hampton, said that while he affirms the historical truth of the narratives, he doesn’t use Christmas sermons to win over skeptics.

“Typically at Christmastime, it’s not about arguments or proof-texting or skepticism, it’s really about the beauty and the mystery of the Christmas narrative, and people entering into the fact that God came into the world because he loves us,” he said.

Plus, he said, “at Christmastime, you hope there’s some willingness to entertain the idea that the supernatural is actually real. Most people at this time of year, even if they’re skeptical, they’re open to at least wanting to believe that.”

Rev. Owens echoed the thought, summarizing his advice for preachers: “Despite what surveys say, you should step into your pulpit believing that the people there long to believe, because they do. They’ve lived in religion obsessed long enough with who’s in and who’s out, who’s got it right, and who’s got it wrong, and they are tired and they want to believe.”

While these pastors don't want to address the historical issues much, there are a lot of other people who do, like Richard Carrier and Bart Ehrman. As more books, television programs, and web sites argue against the historicity of the Biblical accounts, pastors continue to claim that they can love people while neglecting their minds. I suspect that many of these pastors don't know much about the historical issues, and they don't want to take the time and effort to learn more. Like their pastors, laymen are highly ignorant, apathetic, and sometimes even contemptuous about apologetics in general and Christmas apologetics in particular.

Over this past Christmas season, how many Evangelical web sites did you see addressing apologetic issues in depth? Or at all? By contrast, how many put up posts about Christmas music, Christmas humor, Christmas theology, etc.? When Richard Bauckham delivered a lecture supporting the historicity of Luke's infancy material this past October, how many Evangelical web sites did you see posting about it? How many of those sites have ever posted a response to Raymond Brown's book on the infancy narratives, which has been the standard work in the field for a few decades now? How many Evangelical web sites (or Twitter accounts, books, television programs, etc.) have responded to more recent books arguing against the historicity of the infancy narratives, like Geza Vermes' or Andrew Lincoln's? What are parents doing to teach and prepare their children on these issues? When a culture launches such an extensive and sustained assault on the historicity of the Biblical accounts of Jesus' childhood, is it sufficient to respond with sermons about what we can learn from Mary, Christmas plays, and some Christmas music videos posted on our web sites?


  1. Thank you, Jason Engwer. Your words ring loud and true and you make excellent points. I especially like this sentence:

    "As more books, television programs, and web sites argue against the historicity of the Biblical accounts, pastors continue to claim that they can love people while neglecting their minds."

    I may start quoting that line myself. ;)

    1. Prince Asbel,

      Thanks for the encouragement!

      For the sake of readers in general, I should mention that I do read the comments that are posted in my threads. Sometimes I don't write responses, because of time constraints or for some other reason, but I do read and appreciate the comments that are posted.

  2. Unfortunately, much energy in conservative evangelicalism that could be directed toward apologetic issues is tied up in worrying about which retailers wish shoppers "Merry Christmas" as opposed to "Happy Holidays." Not that this is an entirely unimportant issue, but I do wish organizations like the Family Research Council cared half as much about rationally defending the faith as they do about pressuring non-Christians to honor the Christian roots of the holiday.

    1. christandcosmos,

      I agree. To make matters worse, when family organizations and such occasionally address apologetic issues to some extent, they often rely on the work of scholars and apologists who aren't making much of an effort to develop the best arguments they can. Rather, they produce introductory or intermediate material and make little or no effort to advance beyond that.

      I suspect these tendencies have a lot to do with the typical American lifestyle (and equivalents of it in other parts of the world). Pursuing the American Dream and being popular in our entertainment culture require giving a lot of your time and attention to matters like your career, sports, movies, housework, and doing trivial things with friends and relatives. Getting more involved in apologetics would cost people more than they're willing to give up. It's not just a matter of time. It's also a matter of reputation, money, health, and other factors. You can't do the sort of intellectual work that needs to be done in this kind of culture without paying a significant price for it.

      By the way, after I found the text of Richard Bauckham's lecture online, I contacted several web sites in an attempt to get them to link it. None did. The sites I contacted included some well-known Evangelical ones. They won't even do something as easy as linking such an important lecture by a scholar as significant as Bauckham. I get the impression that some Evangelicals aren't just apathetic about Christmas apologetics. They're contemptuous of it. For some, that seems to be true of their view of apologetics in general. For others, I think there's something they particularly despise about Christmas apologetics, maybe because it interferes with how they'd prefer to spend the Christmas season.

  3. Thanks, Jason, for all your fine work and for your fine work to come! And thanks for always helping people live in light of eternity's values rather than the values and desires of this present world, which is passing away. :-)

  4. This problem is rooted at the seminary level. From what I've read, seminaries tend to have a great deal less funding than secular colleges or universities. This requires seminaries to fund through the tuition model, which incentivizes lower entry standards. The lower the standards, the more students who can pay tuition and fees. For some seminaries, academic selectivity isn't even an option, as the pool of students passing even basic standards wouldn't be enough to keep the institution afloat.

    Basically, seminaries take almost anyone with a BA and a credible profession of faith.

    This creates classes with a low academic standard. How many laypersons considering seminary spend their nights or weekends reading good monographs or other scholarly works in relevant disciplines? Many are already burdened by work and families (because seminaries aren't funded enough to provide sufficient scholarships, and seminary tends to be something you pursue after college). So classes are taught at the high school level with low reading requirements and easy exams. "Research papers" (if they can even be called that) tend to be graded with a rather lenient pen, since few students can properly formulate a thesis with supporting arguments and relevant evidence.

    Of course, the students who graduate from these institutions and go on to be our spiritual and intellectual leaders have no interest (or, sometimes, ability) to study the hard disciplines of ancient history, literature and language. So they are left appealing to general feelings, tradition or other squishy arguments that hold no sway in an environment dominated by plausible sounding skeptical scholars.

    Stricter academic standards for seminaries would go a long way. But that's an institutional problem that I don't see going away anytime soon. You'd need more Christians in business or other profitable professions to fund seminaries so that they can institute stricter standards. Much prayer is needed here.