History of the Church Part Five: Colonialism and Evangelism

Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.A. Theology

SO FAR WE HAVE explored how the Christian church began, the “marks” and underlying doctrine of the Christian church, Islamism and the Crusades, and the impact of dissension and the Protestant Reformation. In Part Five, I will expound on colonialism and evangelism. Of concern to many individuals over the life of the Christian church is whether colonization deliberately included forcing Christianity on indigenous peoples. Whether missionaries were agents of imperialism or a separate activity meant only to share the gospel. And whether these “lesser evils” are of no concern given the spreading of the gospel.

Colonialism is defined as “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” A good example of this concept is how three major powers occupied Afghanistan over the centuries: the British, the Soviets, and the United States. Colonization is sometimes done for the sake of increased security in a region, as in the case with Afghanistan. Rashid writes, “Afghanistan’s geo-strategic location on the crossroads between Iran, the Arabian Sea and India, and between Central Asia and South Asia, has given its territory and mountain passes a significance since the earliest Aryan invasions 6,000 years ago” (1). Regarding Medieval expansion Mumford notes, “When these limits were overpassed, the medieval town, as a functioning organism, ceased almost by definition to exist; for the whole community structure was a system of limitations and boundaries; and their breakdown in the city revealed an even wider dismantling through the whole culture” (2).

Gonzalez writes, “In the Western world, the attitudes of Christians toward colonialism were widely divergent,” adding, “Many Christians of profound convictions protested against the treatment of people in some colonized areas [yet many] were convinced that their enterprise was justified by the benefits the colonized would receive” (3). Some have objected over the years to the concept that God placed the benefits of Western civilization and Christian faith in the hands of white people. I certainly understand this objection; in fact, I wrote in the margin of my copy of Gonzalez, Why say “white people?” Without malice or prejudice, some Christians believe God placed the gospel in the hands of Europeans and North American settlers as “…the so-called white man’s burden: to take to the rest of the world the benefits of industrialization, capitalism, democracy, and Christianity” (4). To the extent that this is likely true, I pray that “white” men and women always share the great news of the gospel with respect and without any air of superiority.

Liew and Segovia write about, “…the process of theological (political-liberationist) as well as critical (imperial-postcolonial) engagement with the relation between the colonialist project and the biblical tradition,” adding, “Worthy of note in this regard is the formation of a network of theologians devoted to the formulation of a Christian theology with poverty and oppression at its core” (5). To me, this approach aligns with the life and ministry of Jesus, who came to minister to the poor, the captive, the homeless and hungry, and to set people free from hopeless oppression (see Luke 6:20-21, 16:19-25; Mark 12:41-44). Yet, the main focus of the story of Christianity is not about “social justice,” but salvation. (See my article Identity Politics in Social and Biblical Justice, June 27, 2021.)

There was an anti-colonial reaction to the work of colonizers whether or not they came bearing the good news of the gospel. Modernity, an intended benefit of colonization, often brought about the dislocation of vast masses who became landless, the destruction of many of the endemic cultural patterns that had sustained societies for centuries, and growing disparities in living conditions between rich and poor. But this is more a result of racial and cultural arrogance than the efforts of missionaries. Gonzalez notes, “The church was deeply influenced by all these circumstances and ideas, but the relationship between colonialism and missions was very complex” (6). Unfortunately, it has often been alleged that missionaries were agents of colonialism, but this was not always true. Further, there were many cases where missionaries reached regions that had never been visited by white traders or colonizers.

The “Mission” of Missionaries

It is true that the colonial expansion of the West—particularly the Protestant West—coincided with its missionary expansion, with the two sometimes impeding each other. Gonzalez said one of the most remarkable characteristics of the missionary movement during the nineteenth century was “…the formation of missionary societies.” Forerunners for the movement were the Society of Promoting Christian Knowledge (S.P.C.K.), founded in 1698, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (S.P.G.), founded in 1701 (7). Many such “societies” were formed from this modest beginning. It is important to note that during this time most Western settlements had little or no official relationship with missionary enterprises. This was the “official” position in the new colonies of North America.

Spencer addresses the positive and negative aspects of Christian missions. He asks, “What if we had empirical, long-term, statistically significant evidence that Christianity increased the general well-being of surrounding populations? It turns out we do.” The basic assumption of many in our culture is exactly the opposite. They claim the Christian ethic is repressive, and that it detracts from human flourishing. Nineteenth-century history is considered by some scholars to bring the legacy of colonialism, which is far from positive in most cases, and is blended with the history of Protestant missionaries. Christian missions are sometimes described as a form of cultural imperialism, viewed as negatively as economic and social colonial oppression. Spencer writes, “This confusion of missions and colonialism, though, appears to be in error” (8).

Samson writes, “Perhaps the most obvious problem, one which has attracted revisionists in recent years, is the dilemma raised by traditional critiques of Christianisation [sic]. If missionaries were always racist colonialists, how did they make converts?” Samson adds, “Instead of being the dupes of colonialism, whose actions must be limited to the subjectivities of victimisation [sic] or resistance, they can be regarded as active agents in their own histories” (9). Etherington said, “…writing[s] about the relationship between colonialism and Christianity [are] still permeated by disputes about the role of organised [sic] religion in sustaining white supremacy, despite an emerging consensus among historians that Christianity was a two‐edged sword that could undercut as well as sustain domination” (10).

Gonzalez leads us on a necessary quest to understand missions to the original thirteen colonies. For example, colonists were not “…free…cultivating their own land, but indentured labor working the land [now] owned by a colonial company” (11). As to religious freedom, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania led the new world in that direction. Yet, Gonzalez notes the evils of colonization in the New World included mistreatment of Indians. The British wanted their land, and to reach that goal the British followed a policy of extermination and confinement. Thankfully, others (including true missionaries) thought religious tolerance was best because it was God’s will. Conversion to Christianity must be accomplished through an apologetic and evangelism that serves only to provide a defense (a reason) for the hope that is in a believer in Christ to anyone who asks, but to do so with gentleness and respect” (see 1 Pet. 3:15).

Concluding Remarks

It is unfortunately true that abuses and ulterior motives lurk in nearly every corner of human endeavor. I think it is interesting to track and analyze historical, social, and theological developments. The “birth” of Christianity did not happen in a vacuum. Rather, its roots are in Judaism. During the first century of the Christian church, most people considered it a heretical sect of Judaism and not necessarily a “new” religion. The progressive thread of salvation and redemption can be seen throughout the entirety of Scripture. Judaism and Christianity have “rolled with the punches” so-to-speak, developing alongside cultural diversity, colonialization, and purposeful evangelism. Obviously, there are pros and cons to missions achieved alongside global expansion.

Numerous Christians in academia and the church see globalization as a two-edged sword. Some of the more egregious actions taken in the name of conquest or expansion included domination of indigenous peoples, the taking of land in the name of expansion, and forceful servitude (slavery). It would be nice if this had not occurred specific to the world in which missions were conducted, but it was likely unavoidable. Consequently, it can be difficult to see the “good” impact Christianity has on new populations under such circumstances. From a positive perspective, the missionary movement necessitated a spirit of cooperation that seemed to bring churches and denominations together in pursuit of the Great Commission (see Matt. 28:19-20). Gonzalez stated that missionary societies often pulled members from more than one denomination. This helped curb “competing” messages and rivalries among witnessing missionaries.

I think it is necessary to separate the sociocultural impact of colonization from the religious impact of missions. Certainly, most Christian missionaries who bring the gospel to remote parts of the globe have a singleness of purpose: to share the good news of Jesus Christ. I would conclude that colonization was not specific to evangelism. Of course, globalization was not always undertaken with pure motives. It seems the lion’s share of colonizers intended to benefit from expansion, industrialization, increased labor forces, additional sources of raw materials and minerals, agriculture, hunting and trapping, and eventual resale of real estate for profit. Of those colonizers, some intended to bring indigenous peoples out of their primitive state of existence. A smaller percentage, although their prime objective was economical, were practicing Christians who brought the gospel with them. I see no reason to pitch the baby out with the bathwater.

References

(1) Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2000), 7.
(2) Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1961), 313.
(3) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christiantiy, Vol.II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 417.
(4) Ibid., 417.
(5) Tat-Siong Benny Liew and Fernando F. Segovia, Colonialism and the Bible (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2.018), xiii.
(6) Gonzalez, Ibid., 418.
(7) Ibid., 418.
(8) Andrew Spencer, “How Christian Missionaries Changed the World for the Better,” Institute for Faith, Works & Economics (Feb. 10, 2014). URL: https://tifwe.org/the-truth-about-missionaries/
(9) Jane Samson, The Problem of Colonialism in the Western Historiography of Christian Missions, Vol. 2 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishing, 2021), 511.
(10) Norman Etherington, “Recent trends in the historiography of Christianity in Southern Africa,” Journal of South African Studies, 22:2, 201-219, DOI: 10.1080/03057079608708487.
(11) Gonzalez, Ibid., 276.

Podcast Just One Week Away!

I am excited about launching the podcast. Due to some orthopedic issues, I had to delay the launch. Now, I am waiting for delivery of an adapter I need to plug my Blue Yeti USB microphone into the XLR port on the mixer panel.

Podcast episodes will be posted on this WordPress blog. I will let you know where to click as soon as I figure it out on this end. Thankfully, WordPress chat tech support is remarkably spot on, so I expect no issues.

Yay! Podcast!

Upcoming Podcast!

I am in the process of starting a podcast regarding the same categories and issues discussed on this blog. I have not yet decided the frequency of postings, but ideally I would like to do one every day. The podcast episodes will be hosted by WordPress, and possibly one other mainstream host site. I am pitching to my board of elders at church for placing a link on the church website and Facebook page. Please watch for additional announcements.

I am very excited about expanding my ministry to include podcasts.

The Practical Application of Narrative Apologetics

Written by Steven Barto, BS Psy

STORIES OFFER APOLOGETIC possibilities that are more effective than approaches that rely on rhetorical argument. Certainly, this is because stories engage audiences that would otherwise choose to pass on logical discourse. C.S. Lewis believed a well-told story opens the imagination to new ways of thinking and believing. He believed this approach allows the Christian story to be put forth in its “real potency,” allowing it to sneak past the watchful eye of rationalism.

Christian apologetics has three crucial tasks. First, it must engage cultural objections to religious belief that dominate public discourse in today’s post-Christian society. Second, it must show the ways in which Christianity connects with the lives and concerns of everyday people. Third, it must present Christian beliefs in a way that contemporary culture can relate and understand. Using the medium of story to achieve these goals should be considered by all who engage in evangelism and apologetics in the twenty-first century.

With the proliferation of “non-religious” theories on origin, morality, purpose, and destiny, the early twenty-first century has presented Christianity with a challenge like no other. The evangelistic and apologetic approaches that worked well in the 1950s and 60s do not fit the culture of today. Postmodern writers are attempting to move public discourse forward in a way that uses the best insights of the past without being trapped by it. Postmodern theologians stress experience over reason, subjectivity over objectivity, spirituality over religion, images over words, outward over inward. Are these things good? Sure. But this orientation can be taken too far, leaving Holy Scripture in its wake. Over-stressing such thinking when sharing the gospel tends to lean more toward liberalism. Today, experience is valued more highly than reason, which causes truth to become relative. This often leads to heresy and dogma outside the scope of truth.

But please realize there is no need for Christian evangelists or apologists to panic over the rise of postmodernity. It certainly brings some real challenges, but the Christian faith possesses many resources for meeting such challenges. The faith was able to thrive during the first century, when Jewish leaders persecuted Jews who joined “the way” of Christ. Christianity continued to grow during the rule of the Roman Empire despite torture, beheading, and crucifixion. Certainly, the negative mood today toward theism in general, and Christianity in particular, requires Christians to alter their methods. It is important to connect with people where they’re at rather than telling them where they should be.

Kevin Vanhoozer (1) suggests that postmodernity can be summarized in terms of four major tenets:

  1. Reason. The modern approach of reasoning by argument is viewed with suspicion by postmodern writers. Where modernity believed in a single universal reason, postmodernity holds that there are many different approaches to rationality. Postmoderns deny the notion of universality; reason is merely a context, a relative affair.
  2. Truth. Postmodernity is suspicious of the idea of truth because of the way in which it has been used to legitimize oppression, or give justification to vested interests. Postmoderns see truth as a compelling story told by persons in positions of power in order to force their way of seeing and organizing the natural and social world.
  3. History. Where modern writers tried to find universal patterns in history, postmodernity is “incredulous towards narratives that purport to recount universal history.” From the standpoint of Christian apologetics, this means any attempt to see universal significance in the narrative of Jesus Christ will be viewed with intense suspicion by some in today’s culture.
  4. Self. Postmodernity rejects any notion there is “one true way of recounting one’s own history” and thus concludes there is “no true way of narrating one’s own identity.” All ways of understanding the individual are open-ended and partial. Postmoderns decry universal answers to the question of human identity.

Alister McGrath said apologetics is not about inventing the rationality, imaginative power, or moral depths of the Christian faith. It is about pointing them out, and allowing people to see them clearly and appreciate them for what they are. He writes, “This means the apologist must be able and willing to develop a deep and informed appreciation of the Christian faith. Yet this is not enough: it is also important to develop an outsider perspective” (2). In other words, it is helpful to understand how the great themes of the Christian faith can be defended and explained to people who are not familiar with its vocabulary or practices. This “cultural” engagement involves establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying.

A Theological Approach

J.R.R. Tolkien did not refer to Christianity specifically as a metanarrative, but he conveyed the same sentiment when he said Christianity is a story of a larger kind. He suggested that “myths” are ubiquitous, appealing primarily to the imagination and reasoning. Man relates naturally to story. No doubt, this is due in large part because man is created in the image of God (imago Dei), the Great Creator. Man possesses the unique ability to create stories that tend to reflect the divine nature of creation itself. Tolkien referred to this concept as “sub-creation” in his poem Mythopoeia. Accordingly, his theology of religion is grounded in Christianity’s metanarrative. Myth elicits a strong sense of wonder and imagination that fuels man’s longing for meaning. Myth contains deeper truths that otherwise might remain unspoken. Moreover, it creates intellectual and imaginative space for stories.

Tolkien’s position regarding myth persuaded C.S. Lewis to move from a general theism to Christianity itself. Lewis was finally able to see the Christian story as more than a set of doctrines or moral principles. Instead, he regarded it as a grand narrative that ultimately generated and supported such ideas and values. Lewis decided myths offer at least a gleam of divine truth. No longer did Lewis see Christianity as one myth among many, but as representing the fulfillment of all myths. What he called the true myth toward which all other myths merely point. In other words, Christianity tells the true story about humanity that makes sense of all other myths humanity tells about itself. As “dim dreams or premonitions” of the greater and fuller truth of the Christian gospel, Lewis believed the biblical narrative gives rise to a clear and complete vision or ontology of things. He said, “It is like watching something come gradually into focus.”

The writings of C.S. Lewis feature an invitation for his audience to decide if the story of Christianity rings true to life experience, and whether it weaved things together in a more coherent manner. He challenged his readers to consider whether they would like to enter into such a world. This approach is quite useful in apologetics and evangelism. He said we do not need to somehow rise above our “finite” mind in order to discover the “real world” of creation and redemption; rather, it has come to us through the incarnation.

Narrating the Incarnation

Jesus Christ is not merely the object of theological and doctrinal discussion. He is a person who is to be known and loved; to be understood and worshiped. This approach is refreshing given the usual debate regarding His deity and His humanity. Tertullian (A.D. 160-220) insisted upon the unity of the person of Christ while distinguishing the proper functions of His humanity and divinity. He essentially considered the incarnation to represent an amalgam (such as when two metals are fused together). Others during Tertullian’s time attempted to distinguish two beings in one person: saying that the Son is the flesh, the human being that is Jesus, while the Father is the spirit, or the God “part” of Christ. Of course, this approach served to divide rather than unite Father and Son.

The Word was not transformed into flesh, as this would imply destruction of what originally existed. Rather, the Word became clothed with flesh. Origen (A.D. 185-254) taught the necessity of a mediator between God and humanity, noting the respective importance of Christ’s divine and human natures in relation to His work. He wrote, “Therefore with this soul acting as a mediator between God and flesh (for it was not possible for the nature of God to be mingled with flesh without a mediator) there was born the God-man, that substance being the connecting link which could assume a body without denying its own nature” (3). Jesus had to be “without sin” in order for “God and man” to co-exist through the incarnation.

An integral element of Christian evangelism and apologetics is an effective explanation of the significance of Christ. Yet, words like “incarnation” are not well-received outside the theology of Christianity. It is important to accurately and faithfully translate theological terms into cultural dialects. For example, the apostle Paul views man’s condition regarding sin as spiritual slavery, from which mankind has been redeemed by Christ (see Gal. 4:5). For Paul, the analogy is not necessarily about moving from bondage to freedom; rather, it is about moving from the domain of fleshly servitude to the law to a new domain: that of belonging to God. Such concepts are heady and require an explanation that can be easily grasped. Narrative apologetics attempts to communicate the remarkable significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ through telling stories.

The Gospel narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) emphasize the transformative impact of Jesus upon those who believe in His ministry. God chose to enter into human habitation. The Word became flesh and lived among us (see John 1:14). God’s compassion for humanity is clearly expressed by the incarnation. Jesus taught us about our sinfulness, and provided the means by which we are able to rise above spiritual death. The narrative of Jesus Christ makes us want to turn our backs on the sinful past and embrace the gospel. The story itself does not save us. There is no incantation, memorization, or recitation that takes the place of redemption. What happened to Christ on the cross is the means by which we are saved. Faith in His sacrificial death can make us whole; allowing us to be healed by God’s grace. Not only does the incarnation help us understand the paramount importance of Jesus Christ, it also tells us something about the kind of God we love and worship as Christians. Yet, we must never misuse the grace of God.

Philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood wrote, “The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history” (5). Some argue that the best apologetics is a good systematic theology. Stephen Wellum says, “We cannot defend the faith (apologetics) without systematic theology” (6). Systematic theology is the exegetical discipline that seeks to grasp the entirety of Scripture as the unfolding of God’s plan from Genesis to Revelation. It is through systematic theology (from the patristic era until now) that doctrine is preserved and the message of sin and redemption is shared. McGrath shares Charles Taylor’s thoughts concerning how to best do apologetics in today’s post-Christian culture: “Taylor persuasively argues that there is a need to move away from the traditional believers-nonbelievers paradigm to a new seekers-dwellers paradigm” (7). Taylor recommends this approach because of numerous alternate beliefs found where modern secularism abounds.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the days of fire-and-brimstone preaching are past. Systematic theology and dogma may speak to the heart of the “dweller,” but a different approach is required for engaging with “seekers.” Essentially, the same fundamental concepts are featured in theology and apologetics; the difference between them is the manner in which these concepts are presented. It is far easier to reach a non-believer through an organized discussion about their doubts and counter-arguments than it is to say unless you believe, you are going to hell. We should not engage in apologetics until we fully know God (including the Godhead), know ourselves as redeemed creatures, made new through the blood of Christ, and plug in to the Body of Christ through a local church. Gathering together, we come to understand our gifts and our calling. We must know the gospel truth as an entire worldview over against the errors of the world.

Apologetics and Evangelism

Apologetics and the Great Commission are complementary. Jesus clearly said we are to go forth, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that He has taught (Matt. 28:19-20). McGrath says apologetics allows for sustained engagement with others, answering questions raised, and showing how the Christian faith is able to provide meaningful answers, but evangelism moves in a different circle. Where apologetics aims to secure consent, evangelism aims to secure commitment (8). Apologetics aims to establish the plausibility of salvation in Christ. Evangelism is inviting someone to become a Christian. Apologetics involves clearing the ground for that invitation. McGrath believes evangelism is like offering someone bread; apologetics is persuading people there is bread to be had and that it is good.

McGrath says, “Apologetics can be likened to drawing curtains to one side so people can catch a glimpse of what lies beyond, or holding a diamond up to the light and allowing its facets to scintillate and sparkle in the sunlight” (9). It is about building bridges, allowing non-believers and skeptics to cross over from the worldview they already have, and to experience the Christian faith. But the task of an apologist is not simply to win arguments or to establish the “rationality” of Christianity. Instead, it is critical to establish “true God” as a God who may be relied upon. It is also important to share the passion, beauty, and mercy of God. C.S. Lewis was attracted to the gospel story because it offers meaning, not merely “propositional correctness.” He said, “Reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning” (10).

For Lewis, belief in God was neither a distraction from life’s hardship, nor a psychological “band aid” for what causes us grief. Instead, discovering God involves discovering our “true self” and redirecting our lives toward that end. God is not a tangible object, but that does not mean He is not Him. He is, in fact, I am. Admittedly, when we first approach the gospel we do so with rational argument in mind. Lewis believed religious faith is grounded on rational norms that are not identical to those governing scientific theories. He wrote, “[The existence of God] is a speculative question as long as it is a question at all. But once it has been answered in the affirmative, you get quite a new situation… You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence” (11).

NOTES

(1) Kevin Vanhoozer, “Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity, ” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 73-75.

(2) Alister E. McGrath, Mere Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 47.

(3) Origen, “On the Two Natures of Christ,” in The Christian Theology Reader, Ibid., 230.

(4) Alister E. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2019), 97.

(5) R.G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), 70.

(6) Stephen Wellum, “4 Things You Can’t Do Without Systematic Discovery,” TGC (Dec. 26, 2017). URL: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/4-things-you-cant-do-systematic-theology/

(7) Charles Taylor, in Narrative Apologetics, Ibid., 99.

(8) McGrath, Mere Apologetics, Ibid., 22.

(9) Ibid., 127.

(10) C.S. Lewis, Rehabilitations and Other Essays (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1939), 158.

(11) C.S. Lewis, Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (London, UK: HarperCollins, 2000), 213-14.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Martin Luther King, Jr. on Love and Justice

The following is from my class in Christian Ethics in pursuit of an M.A. in Theological Studies.

Martin Luther King, Jr. held a remarkable ethical position based upon love and justice, decrying a violent response to violence. King believed in the doctrine of imago Dei—man is created in the image of God. King’s non-violent approach to racism has its roots in Christianity. He said freedom requires taking a stand against racial inequality on the solid rock of brotherhood; of making justice available to all of God’s children. Yet he said the American Negro must never be guilty of “wrongful deeds to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” He promoted loving one’s enemy.

Billy Graham echoed this sentiment in his seminal Peace with God. Graham wrote, “When true Christians look at other people, they see no color, nor class, nor condition, but simply human beings with the same longings, needs and aspirations as our own” (1). Near the end of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). King desired to bring America to the place where it would recognize its own evil (2). There is a deontological base to King’s approach, rooted in the attributes of God. King often quoted Scripture regarding loving those who persecute us. It is my opinion that King followed a deontological theory of ethics.

I am impressed with King’s ability to remain committed to Christian ethics in promoting social justice. He was a preacher and a social evangelist, but he was also a representative member of the very people on whose behalf he spoke. His philosophy was like that of other abolitionists and progressive social reformers of the 1960s who were part of a historical progressive movement rooted in and energized by religion. Today, such reformers continue to strive for social justice. Modern progressives live and move in a largely secular vein. In the 60s, King and others used Scripture in a way that showed a lived theology, and it brilliantly presented social reforms consistent with the virtue-based system of Christian ethics. King’s ideas were therefore not his own; they were grounded in the character traits of Jesus Christ and closely followed the attributes of God the Father. Two of God’s key attributes—love and justice—were central to King’s message.

Jesus was a social reformer in that He taught us that “leper’s lives matter,” “Samaritan lives matter,” “Jewish lives matter,” “Gentile lives matter,” “children’s lives matter.” For me, the slogan “all lives matter” tends to blur the idea that Jesus reaches everyone individually. He died for each person regardless of their being a tax collector, fisherman, harlot, outcast, police officer, young Black man, Latina woman, or militant Muslim. All lives matter might sound like a wonderful mantra on its surface. Stephen Mattson writes, “Even though Jesus loves everyone, even to the point of dying for their sins, he went out of his way to intentionally help specific groups of people — the alienated, mistreated, and those facing injustice. Saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ and participating in a movement seeking justice, positive reform, and empowerment is one of the most Christ-like things we can do.

The Following is a Comment from My Professor:

Many thanks, as always, for your strong work on this post. I think you did a nice job of sketching the main contours of Dr. King’s ethical approach, which I do think is broadly deontological in that his most fundamental convictions stem from a plain sense reading of the Christian Scriptures and the commands they contain. That is not to say that Dr. King does not draw on other ethical models (I think he clearly does), but that this is his dominant mode of ethical reflection.

I was intrigued by your comments on Billy Graham, who makes for an interesting conversation partner for Dr. King in this discussion. Like just about everyone else from his era, Graham did have a mixed record when it came to race relations, but it is the case that he held integrated rallies and even shared the stage with Dr. King. But I wonder—and this is where I’d be grateful for your input—what do you think Dr. King would make of Graham’s comment that “true Christians see no color”?

The reason I ask is that, while MLK did “dream” of a day when people would not be judged by the color of their skin, it doesn’t seem to me that he dreamed of a day when no one would see the color of his skin. It’s a complicated question, I realize, especially in our cultural moment. But I would be grateful to hear your thoughts on this important subject.

The Following is My Reply:

Thank you for your response to my initial discussion post. I truly enjoyed this week’s assignment for several reasons, but foremost (as befitting the current turmoil in America over social justice) is King’s persistence in putting forth a public persona that exemplified the ministry of Jesus.

It was through college that King learned to understand justice as love in action. Was he a preacher first, and then a voice for social change, or did he have a vein of social justice running through him before he became ordained and started preaching? I read somewhere that King said, “We must pray earnestly for peace, but we must work vigorously for disarmament.” Was this pragmatic approach rooted in Scripture or social justice? Charles R. Johnson wrote, “[King] was more than just the civil rights leader he is remembered as today. [He] was one of America’s greatest moral and political philosophers, his life founded on deep, sophisticated and courageous spiritual convictions” (3).

King dreamed of a day when human beings would no longer judge a man by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I believe Billy Graham was expressing the same ideal, but chose to remark that true Christians do not see color, class, or condition. I think MLK and Graham were on the same page regarding racism and social justice. Graham exclusively expressed his social justice theory on Christian doctrine: man must emulate the forgiveness and acceptance of Christ, and the grace and mercy of the Father. “True Christians” must see the world in a Christ-like manner. Jesus did not see Samaritan, Jew, Gentile, sinner in the same way most of mankind does. I believe if Christ were here today, He would not see “color, class, or condition.” King pragmatically said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” He might have said those words to Johnson at the White House.

I believe MLK would support Graham’s remarks. Moreover, we cannot ignore or “see past” color, class, or condition as part of our theory of social justice. It is not appropriate to see, describe, treat as, or otherwise interact with people of color as if they were “neutral,” or “not Black.” This seems like a subtle form of discrimination. It could seem to be disingenuous at best.

Footnotes

(1) Billy Graham, Peace with God: The Secret of Happiness (Nashville: W Publishing Group), 1953,1984.

(2) “The Baptist convictions of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Journal of European Baptist Studies, 9(1), 5-21.

(3) Charles R. Johnson, “The King We Need: Martin Luther King, Jr., Moral Philsopher.” (January 20, 2020). Accessed Oct. 31, 2020. URL https://www.lionsroar.com/the-king-we-need-charles-r-johnson-on-the-legacy-of-dr-martin-luther-king-jr/

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Colonialism and Christianity

The following summary is from the last class in Church History in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Early nineteenth century missionaries were important participants in colonial expeditions. Given that many in twenty-first century Western culture decry the era, goals, and abuses of colonialism, we must ask: Did Christianity benefit from an un-Christian impulse (colonialism)? Discuss this by answering the following questions. Were Christian missionaries a positive exception to the abuses of colonialism? Does the fact that colonialism aided Christianity in its spread throughout the entire world bestow ultimate value on the colonial experiences, making colonialism worth it?

It is unfortunately true that abuses and ulterior motives lurk in nearly every corner of human endeavor. I think it is interesting to track and analyze historical, social, and theological developments. The “birth” of Christianity did not happen in a vacuum. Most people during the first century saw Christianity as a heretical sect of Judaism and not necessarily a “new” religion. When I consider the progressive thread of redemption throughout the entirety of Scripture, I am able to accept some of the negatives of Christianity developing alongside colonialism.

Were Christian missionaries a positive exception to the abuses of colonialism?

Colonialism is the total control or governing influence of one nation over people in another nation or territory. It is reasonable to expect abuses and negative consequences with such activity. Many Christians in academia and the church see globalization as a two-edged sword. Some of the more egregious actions often taken in the name of conquest or expansion include domination of indigenous peoples, the taking of land in the name of expansion, and forceful servitude (slavery). It would be nice if this had not occurred specific to evangelism during global expansion, but it was likely unavoidable. Consequently, it can be difficult to see the “good” impact Christianity had on new populations during the era in question.

Most mission societies were not responsible for the troublesome side effects of colonization. However, as Gonzalez notes, the relationship between colonialism and missions is complex and difficult to gauge. Tradesmen, explorers, and colonizers were often accompanied by missionaries. This interrelationship was both positive and negative. I think it is no coincidence that not all churches or colonizers supported missions. Several key companies objected to spreading the Gospel in conjunction with colonialism and industrialization as they feared it would cause disagreements and protests that could hinder economic growth. The aim of colonization was to exploit the economy of each region, which usually led to making the new colony economically dependent on the colonizers; not to share the gospel or plant new churches.

From a positive perspective, the missionary movement necessitated a spirit of cooperation that seemed to bring churches and denominations together in pursuit of the Great Commission. Gonzalez stated that missionary societies often pulled members from more than one denomination. I agree that this helped curb “competing” messages and rivalries among witnessing missionaries. This was possibly the spark that prompted a more ecumenical movement in Christianity. Missionaries stood up against the caste system in India. Protestantism helped liberate those people deemed “untouchable” and excluded from everyday society. Other missions helped rescue women from sexism and violence and spawned their education. Further, the rapid Westernization of Japan aided the work of Christian missionaries.

Although colonialism brought much abuse and controversy to new regions, does the spread of Christianity outweigh the negative?

Gonzalez tries to draw a line-in-the-sand between colonialism and missions. Missions over the centuries have reached regions not visited by white explorers, traders, or colonizers. Were these “missionary” activities better than those occurring in tandem with expansionism? Is “saving souls” worth it no matter what? Do the ends justify the means? Not an easy question to answer! Many individuals have been brought to Christ during colonization. Over the centuries, Christianity has been labeled elitist, manipulative, arrogant, destructive. Gonzalez describes the so-called “white man’s burden.” Simply stated, it means taking to the rest of the world the benefits of industrialization, capitalism, democracy, and Christianity. I cannot help but think about watching TV documentaries on countries devastated by war and extremism (such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq), or underdeveloped nations showing conditions that no one should want to endure. It’s easy to ask (from my comfortable recliner in modern America) why anyone would enjoy living in such conditions? Actually, this underlying question (nay, concern) is one of the driving forces of many efforts over the centuries to industrialize or “modernize” underdeveloped nations.

Gonzalez said modernity has produced the dislocation of vast masses who became landless, suffering the destruction of cultural patterns that had sustained them for generations. Expansionism has been blamed for growing disparities in living conditions between rich and poor throughout the world (1). Indigenous populations frequently suffered a loss of culture as colonizers tried to impose their way of life on their new “subjects.” White colonizers often considered these native peoples to be savage and lacking in culture. No doubt they felt justified in attempting to bring stability to what they might have considered “barbaric” or primitive populations. This is unfortunately as much a “value judgment” as it is a desire to aid in improving the living conditions.

I think it is necessary to separate the sociocultural impact of colonization from the religious impact of missions. Certainly, most Christian missionaries who bring the gospel to remote parts of the globe have a singleness of purpose: to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in accordance with the command in Matthew 28:18-20. To achieve this, missionaries have translated and distributed the Bible in many languages. Countless indigenous peoples have learned to read through the work of missions. Treaties often included clauses that made allowances for the work of Christian missions. Following the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, the presence of tens of thousands of Protestant missionaries throughout the provinces (many in positions of authority in the church) helped quash further rebellion. Corrupt governments and rampant exploitations met staunch Christian opposition.

I would conclude that colonization was not specific to evangelism. Moreover, globalization was not always undertaken with pure motives. It seems the lion’s share of colonizers intended to benefit from expansion, industrialization, increased labor forces, additional sources of raw materials and minerals, agriculture, hunting and trapping, and eventual resale of real estate for profit. Of those colonizers, some intended to bring indigenous peoples out of their primitive state of existence. A smaller percentage, although their prime objective was economical, were practicing Christians who brought the gospel with them. I see no reason to pitch the baby out with the bathwater. At the least, many seeds of faith were planted. Of course, I believe most missionaries were primarily motivated by the Great Commission. Thankfully, all things tend to work for good for those who love the LORD and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). To this end, I believe the pros of colonialism outweigh the cons relative to spreading the gospel.

Response from Classmates

Thanks for sharing a great post. I deduced that you feel that it was “worth it” in the end. Although I must admit that I wrestled A LOT with my answer this week, I ended up concluding that the abuses of colonialism were not “worth it,” as I don’t think that God would place inherent worth/value on sin and evil. However, I do agree that He can bring good out of all things.

You and I have both shared painful experiences from our own past throughout the coursework. As I was writing this prompt, I couldn’t help but think about how it could relate to my life, or anyone who has experienced some form of abuse. I honestly felt as though the pain that I endured was “worth it” because it led me to Christ, and my salvation is the greatest gift I could receive in this life. I also realized that Christ’s abuses were deemed “worth it” for our salvation—His sufferings in the world and horrible death on the cross gave us a shot at eternity. This is where I struggled!

However, there was a difference with colonization—the individuals who were abused during colonization were not Jesus, but rather His sheep. That is where I decided that the abuses of some to lead to the salvation of others was not “worth it.” God does not delight in sin, and calls us to spread the Gospel, not evil. One of our classmates mentioned that they don’t think that Christians should ally themselves with the “lesser evil,” but rather should uphold to what is true according to the Word. Do you think it could be dangerous to justify a lesser evil in the name of a greater good?

Meredith

My Response to Meredith

Thanks for your response to my initial discussion post. Let me begin by (re)stating the definition of colonialism: the total control or governing influence of one nation over people in another nation or territory. I do so in order to draw a definite line in the sand between colonizers and missionaries. I would further state that those colonizers who were Christians and yet chose to cajole, cheat, manipulate, dominate, or otherwise force themselves and their beliefs on indigenous people merely to profit from associated gains are to blame, and not Christianity itself. Further to this point, I am quoting from Tiffany’s initial discussion post:

It is important to separate out Christianity from Christians, as well as those falsely speaking under the claim of Christianity, in support of this assertion. It is not that Christianity was tarnished, but that the reputation of Christianity blemished. Christianity suffers in the way Christ suffered—in that Christianity is birthed in, sustained by, and brought to culmination in Christ. He is the identity of Christianity (italics in the original).

I would argue that one of the positives of colonization was missionaries often accompanied the colonizers, making it possible for missions to have the means and companionship to travel where they might otherwise be unable to get to. Admittedly, there were more explorers and tradesmen who were motivated by expansion, wealth, and increased territory than there were Christians solely dedicated to sharing the gospel. I can tell you’re on the fence regarding the “worth it” question. You are closer to saying yes than you think. You referenced Romans 8:28: God will always use whatever circumstance or individual He requires to bring about His will.

Grudem (1994) provides insight regarding God’s will as it relates to (i) His absolute moral will, and (ii) His providential will. God’s moral will is revealed in Scripture. We know His character, His affection, His desire for us. We know how He wishes us to behave. He has provided certain “moral commands.” God also has providential (or “secret”) will (1). God is able to permit us to do something that might displease Him in the short run but which brings about His intended results in the long run. This is the very essence of Romans 8:28.

Speaking of our pasts, as I struggled a year and a half ago to stop abusing pain medication and to “forgive” myself of my past and see it as an asset for helping others (rather than a liability), I met a gentleman from Brooklyn who had spent 17 years in active addiction living on the streets. He became a born-again Christian and quit abusing crack. He said, “God wants me to tell you something.” That got my attention for sure. He continued: “He wants you to know that everything you’ve been through from the moment of your birth to this moment right now meeting me was ordained by Him in order to assure you became the man He needs you to be to carry out your ministry.” Whoa!

The concept of God’s providential will also speaks to His eternal plan whereby He determined (before the foundation of the world) to bring about everything that happens, and to work it together for our and His good. Grudem believes this “decree” type of will is critical because it shows us God doesn’t “make things up as He goes.” Grudem says, “He knows the end from the beginning, and he will accomplish all his good purposes” (2).

You quoted a classmate who declared that Christians should not align themselves with the “lesser evil” just because of a potential good outcome. For me, “aligning” with any evil would suggest being complicit. This is a question of personal motive. We must always remember that God works through human actions (even the horrific ones) in His providential oversight of creation. The individual making the wrong decision for the wrong reason is liable for his or her behavior, but God has absolute providence over the situation. I believe we must always remember that nothing about God, His creation, or us (as His image-bearers) is determined by chance or randomness; nor are they determined by impersonal fate or karma (determinism). God is sovereign over all.

Footnotes

(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 418.

(2) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 332.

(3) Grudem, 333.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Significance of the Reformation and Colonial Expansion

The following summary is from my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

In his book, History of Christianity, Vol. 1,  Justo L. Gonzalez writes, “Living as we do, only five centuries after both the Reformation and the colonial expansion of Iberia, it may be too early to decide which of the two will eventually have greater significance to the course of Christianity” (489). He provides his own cautious opinion a few sentences later, but I want to know what you think. Which would you say has exerted the “greater significance to the course of Christianity” to date: The Reformation or colonial expansion?

In this final discussion prompt for Church History Part 1, we were asked to address the theological benefits of the Reformation versus the evangelical benefits of colonial expansion. Which of these two has contributed the most to the course of Christianity? Initially, it seems like an easy matter to determine. Martin Luther almost single-handedly reeled in an out-of-control papacy, helping to preserve the true tenet of Christianity: salvation by grace through faith alone in Christ alone. No man has the power to grant forgiveness of sins or to direct any amount of penance that will satisfy the wages of sin. But what of the evangelical benefits of colonialism?

Clearly, by the time of Martin Luther’s proposed changes, the church needed profound reformation. In fact, many longed for it. Gonzalez notes that many priests and monastics who wished to be faithful to their calling were finding this to be exceedingly difficult given the many lax practices beginning to plague the church. The Reformation helped bring Christianity back to its intended soteriology by challenging papal forgiveness, penance, indulgences, and promotion of purgatory. Gonzalez said this “Resulted in major divisions that exist to this day.” Luther didn’t plan to start a new church. He merely addressed in his 95 Theses numerous issues that needed to be changed within the Catholic Church, focusing on only the Word of God as the starting point and final authority. Luther formed objections to transubstantiation during communion, baptism prior to conversion, and the selling of indulgences. He essentially took on ecclesial meritocracy and attempted to tear apart the bond of church and state. The benefits of the Reformation were not limited to religion: Protestantism has given us open-ended and undisciplined argument, fostering new ideas in everyday life, reviving traditional doctrine, and questioning improper church orthodoxies.

Regarding evangelism, Christ gave us an emphatic directive in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (NRSV). He said, “‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.’ And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it” (Mark 16:15, 20). Gonzalez believes colonialism in Iberia “…resulted in the largest expansion of Christianity in both number of followers and geographic reach since its very inception.” 1 Unfortunately, the goal of some Protestant leaders in colonizing the Iberian Peninsula seemed to be domination of local culture and ideology through a hegemony of leadership, rooted in Christian theology. Christian colonists came up against Islam and Judaism in Iberia, no doubt with a lingering memory of persecution under the religious and political leaders of both faiths. There was a sort-of balancing act between Protestantism and local beliefs regarding ancient gods. This tended to push toward syncretism. It’s one thing to be enthusiastic for the gospel, but the approach must be of Christ and based on “God inside.” I believe motivation for such expansion must be sharing and teaching; not cajoling and oppressing. The latter is akin to radical Protestantism, whose spirituality is affective or “emotional” at best, and which at worst causes compliance out of fear. This leads to pseudo-pietism. Many colonists who left England wanted to escape the tyranny of a state religion that was trampling on their beliefs. Historians believe these “conquering” Protestants were looking for the opportunity to make their faith the dominant religion. Accordingly, many were rather intolerant of other beliefs, especially those inexorably linked to local culture.

As I noted above, you would think it’s easy to compare notes on the Reformation and Christianity’s colonialism and decide which of these activities afforded the most benefits to the faith as a global religion. The church is commanded to go forth into every nation, spreading the Good News—teaching and baptizing, making disciples of Christ for further proliferation of the gospel. Colonialism always brings with it explorers, travelers, merchants, and missionaries. As interaction and commerce increased between nations, so did spreading of the gospel. Even those nations who did not become predominately Christian were impacted by trade practices, monetary systems, politics, and culture imported by Protestants. Increased travel and trade no doubt led to heightened concerns over security and sovereignty, creating the need for a larger military.

I believe it is the Reformation that had the greatest positive impact on the spread of Christianity throughout Europe, Africa, and the Americas. With the advent of the Dominicans and other monastic groups, piety was on the rise. Gonzalez writes, “Soon there were other similar movements, or ancient orders that now followed the example of the Franciscans and Dominicans… their main objective was preaching, teaching, and study.”  World-renowned universities (such as Paris, Oxford) benefited from Dominicans teaching as professors. Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Alexander of Hales, the Friars Minor, and the Franciscans established footholds in all major universities. Additionally, at just the right moment—when the papacy seemed most out of control and operating outside the scope of accepted Christian doctrine—Martin Luther and others successfully challenged ill-advised dogma and heresy in the church.  Evangelism remains one of Christianity’s most sacred and clearly established responsibilities, but without first recognizing and correcting questionable practices and heretical beliefs the result would be similar to a framer making even a minor mistake in the angle of the footer when framing a room—this would cause the foundation wall to be out of square several inches over its expanse. Protestant Reformation corrected serious misalignments concerning salvation, baptism, the Eucharist, papal authority, deep-rooted meritocracy, and other troublesome practices in the Catholic Church that had to be brought into order with Scripture and proper church doctrine. Failure to address these matters would have caused a slow-but-steady drift away from the core doctrines of Christianity. It is for these reasons I put more emphasis on Reformation than colonialism.

A response from David, one of my classmates:

I guess there may be two points of clarification. First, whether or not some form of reformation was inevitable given the age of reason. I’m claiming that reformation was inevitable given the sort of anthropological and philosophical changes that happened ithe post medieval world. I’m not sure what a splintering of Catholicism would have looked like if it weren’t a cohesive movement, but I can imagine that all of the ideals that you listed as central principles of the reformation would have manifest. 

The second area that needs clarification is to what extent Colonialism may have sped up the processes of democratization, language unification, and globalization. A few quick examples. I was at a conference six weeks ago where donations were being made to translate smaller books into French for African Seminary students in Francophone countries. I know believers in South America that use Spanish worship songs written in Mexico. I know student groups in Germany and Finland that sing worship songs in English seamlessly. It’s possible that the movement towards primary languages (English, German, French, Swahili, Russian, Mandarin, etc.) may act as one of the fastest causes for globalization. Colonization also placed an undue emphasis on manifest destiny and exploration (although they have quite a mixed history concerning civil rights) that have probably sped up the process of uniting the church through time. 

I guess my final question is to what extent Christians see value and long-lasting impact within the history of the reformation. I certainly see its incredible impact upon Christendom in reforming both the Catholic Church and birthing hundreds of new movements, but I lament the average Christian who couldn’t put together a meaningful set of thoughts about its practical and ecclesial impacts upon the church. It seems that as people turn to reading, discussion, and a better understanding of this time period and history of the church, that their faith is invigorated and strengthened. It is up to us to continue this process! I know that I’ve been blessed by the course material and a deeper dive into the history of the church!

My rebuttal:

David,

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this week’s discussion. I concluded in my initial discussion post that the Protestant Reformation impacted Christianity more than colonialism. D.F. Wright says the Reformation cannot be separated from its historical context—political, socioeconomic, and intellectual—however, he believes the movement was “fundamentally religious in motivation.” 1 You mentioned Christianity’s waning hegemony in the West as the basis for identifying colonialism as the greater growth factor. Given the fact that hegemony is more akin to politico-military dominance, and because we can see the negative impact secularism and non-religious affiliation has had in Europe and America over the past few decades, I do not think colonialism packs enough of a punch to provide consistent and lasting results. Arguably, globalization has been a close cousin of colonialism, thereby giving “legs” to the gospel message. After all, colonialism is inextricably accompanied by travelers, tradesmen, merchants, scholars, and missionaries. But the mere “invasion” of Christianity into a nation-state does not guarantee a majority of believers, nor does it prevent a slow drifting away from the gospel as the result of syncretism, secularism, pluralism, or any number of isms. 

The Protestant Reformation provided tools for addressing the proliferation of papal abuses (theological and societal) connected with meritocracy, penance, indulgences, false foundations for papal authority and pedigree, a perverted priesthood, and the usurping of Christ’s intercessory/mediation ministry (1 Tim. 2:5). I am not nearly as concerned with a weakening of Christianity’s hegemony as I am watering down of the gospel itself. Historically, all major theistic religions have attempted to wield sociopolitical control. Islam, for example, is best described as a theocracy. As Wright notes, the Reformation was meant to help restore the proper “face” of Christianity by fighting for independence from papal authority and hierarchical succession. The Body of Christ must be grounded in election and calling rather than consecution or papal appointment. Although colonialism provides opportunity for spreading the gospel, such global initiatives are no substitute for the Great Commission. Responsibility for evangelism truly rests with the community of believers. Frankly, this is the only means by which we can control the message. To accomplish this end, we have to spread the gospel in strict accordance with Christian doctrine. Given how far off course the gospel had been pushed, the Reformation was necessary to correct egregious abuses and misconceptions. Without this realignment, evangelism (whether or not it was tethered to globalization) would have been unable to rightly deliver the Word of Truth.

Even 500 years hence, the Reformation continues to impact both Catholics and Protestants. Martin Luther changed the course of Western history for the better. I find it key that Luther had to first grapple with Romans 1:17 and come to see how it is through faith alone in Christ alone that he/we put on the righteousness of God. Luther put himself through a harrowing ordeal before coming to understand that we are of Israel not because we are of the seed of Abraham; it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise (Rom. 9:8). The Reformation yielded a theology that is theocentric. Lines had become blurred regarding the Eucharist, church hierarchy, the papacy, which led to confusion and schism. Even so, reformers did not completely agree on every issue. Luther believed in “consubstantiation.” Calvin gave too much credence to the Mosaic Law (calling it a necessary “guide” to live by as a believer), and Luther believed the Law was merely intended to show us our sins and the need for a savior.

The above notwithstanding, I also do not believe colonialism (or any version or degree thereof) can have a “lasting impression.” Much of my reading in the past has involved the history of urbanization, development of the city over time, geopolitical theories and influences, and the remarkable lack of stability in many markets and economies in history. The first five centuries of Christianity show a rather unpredictable “atmosphere” for religious beliefs given the wide scope of persecution—state-wide at times, regional or local at other times; active prosecution and persecution under some emperors versus “incidental” sanctions under others. Consider the many changes we’ve seen in Israel since it became a nation-state in 1948. Look at how democratic (or progressive) socialism is fighting to make a comeback in this year’s presidential election. (We first saw progressivism under Woodrow Wilson). Sometimes a mere change in political philosophy can wipe out decades of progress.

Finally, I must mention the likely ecumenical era we’ll see in the “final days” as the false prophet and the Antichrist attempt to push for globalization and one world religion. For what it’s worth, I see the Reformation as having a lasting impact on Christianity, and systematic theology as the means by which the community of believers can preserve doctrinal truths in the face of colonialism and globalization. What I mean is this: We cannot assure a pure gospel message simply because colonialism has led to a proliferation of believers. We have to stay the course. I believe the Reformation has aided in the fine-tuning and preservation of Christianity even 500 years later.

 


1 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: Harper One, 2010), 489.

2 Gonzalez, 489.


 

Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Part Two)

“But sanctify the LORD God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15, NASB).

have you ever been

THE GENERAL PROBLEM, the problem that faces anyone with a message nowadays, is the broad cultural doubt about absolutes and the authority figures who presume to enforce them. Interestingly, a byproduct of this type of skepticism leads to complacent satisfaction with what one already knows and believes. I’m reminded of a comment I heard at a seminar years ago. The facilitator of the meeting said, “There is what we know and there’s what we don’t know, but more importantly there’s what we don’t know that we don’t know. Brilliant!

Alan Bloom, in his best-seller The Closing of the American Mind, said openness results in American conformism—out there in the rest of the world is a drab diversity that teaches only that values are relative, whereas here in America we can create all the lifestyles we want. Our openness means we do not need others. Bloom says, “Thus what is advertised as a great opening is a great closing.”

It begs the question: If there are no grounds upon which one can argue that one civilization is superior to another, or that one moral code is loftier than another, or that one way of doing things is better than another, then why bother learning about other cultures and philosophies and religions? What begins as a political value of coexisting with differences and resisting authoritarianism that would squelch individuality has become, ironically, a broad indifference to difference and a disincentive to improving oneself by learning from others.

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Christians have a particularly hard time getting the message of the Gospel across to people today. A Christian sharing his or her faith is almost immediately labeled a Bible-thumping wingnut or, worse, a narrow-minded elitist. The other person is typically not inclined to sit still for any length of time to listen to an argument on the Gospel. They are especially unwilling to tolerate any sort of suggestion that they need to convert to Christianity. My life is just fine the way it is, thank you very much! Moreover, statistically most Americans today believe they are already Christians. They celebrate Christmas and Easter, go to church on a fairly regular basis, and treat the poor and disadvantaged with compassion. If they think they are a Christian, why would they need to hear from someone else about the Christian faith? Especially if they think they’re going to hear a lecture that they’re really not much of a Christian.

Detractors of the Christian Faith

“The number-one attraction to the Christian faith is other Christians. Unfortunately, however, the number-one detraction to the Christian faith is other Christians.” (Pastor Mike Miller)

Several years ago Hollywood gave us an in-depth look at ongoing child molestation in the Archdiocese of Boston in the docudrama Spotlight starring Michael Keaton. Under an extraordinary cloak of secrecy, the Archdiocese quietly settled scores of sexual abuse cases leveled against at least 70 priests in Boston. The Spotlight investigative team of the Boston Globe found court records and other documents that identified 19 present and former priests who had been accused as pedophiles. The investigative team discovered that the church’s annual directories showed as many as 107 priests were removed from parishes and placed in such categories as “sick leave” or “absent on leave” and “awaiting assignment.”

Cardinal Bernard Law says he “cannot estimate” how many priests have molested children.

Cardinal Bernard Law, Archdiocese of Boston

The child molestation problem in the Catholic church is only one of numerous failings atheists and doubters like to cite when attacking Christianity. As scandals go, the one involving Jim Bakker was huge. Bakker was accused of raping Jessica Hahn, a church secretary, then paying $279,000 for her silence. Hahn blew the whistle on questionable financial doings at PTL, a conglomerate of the Bakkers that included the church, a televangelist network, a theme park, a water park, and an extravagant residential complex. As a result of Ms. Hahn’s whistle blowing, Jim Bakker was found guilty on 24 counts of fraud and sentenced to 45 years in prison. He was paroled after serving 5 years behind bars.

In 1988, Jimmy Swaggart was implicated in a sex scandal involving a prostitute that resulted in his suspension and ultimate defrocking by the Assemblies of God church. Of course, this led to Swaggart’s now-famous “I have sinned” speech on television. Swaggart was found in the company of another prostitute in 1991, but refused to talk about the incident, deciding it was “flat none of your business.” Several prominent pastors have also come under fire for amassing fortunes and living an opulent lifestyle. Joel Osteen is said to have a personal net worth of $40 million. Kenneth Copeland (The Believer’s Voice of Victory) is worth approximately $760 million. Pat Roberson is said to have a personal net worth of $100 million. Copeland owns a $17.5 million jet, and lives in a lakefront mansion worth $6 million. The median salary of a pastor in America as of March 2018 is $93,760.

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Unfortunately, Christianity in North America has suffered considerably from the widely reported—and widely enjoyed—failures of prominent clergy. Over and over again, talk-radio shows that feature religion have been besieged by callers who wanted to report on personal disappointments with people who call themselves Christians. An abusive father here, a repressive mother there; a flirtatious pastor or licentious youth leader; a thieving church treasurer or a dishonest employee who had proudly proclaimed his faith—over and over again, people of all walks of life report encounters with repellent Christians guilty of rather questionable behavior. These individuals come to symbolize Christianity to their victims, and the pain that they cause sticks to the religion they profess.

A Sign of the Times

We live in a sort-of time-between-the-times, in which people raised in a more or less Christian culture now are reacting against it. This condition especially afflicts Baby Boomers, that generation that has defined itself so centrally as rebelling against “the Establishment.” Christianity was a part of the regime of Mom and Dad against whom they were reacting. Christian apologetics, accordingly, will have to be especially sensitive to this sort of resentment, as well as the incredulity expressed by many over outrageous scandals like the ones I described above. With the increasing presence of believers of other faiths, especially Islam, we are being forced to express a multicultural acceptance of the beliefs of others, sometimes to the subduing or exclusion of our own Christian beliefs. Again, Christians are considered narrow-minded, bigoted, elitist, and just plain dumb. This gulf today is essentially between liberalism and conservatism.

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Skepticism, fear, and anger toward traditional religion are growing in power and influence. The non-churchgoing population in the United States and Europe is steadily increasing. The number of Americans answering “no religious preference” to poll questions has skyrocketed, having doubled or even tripled in the last decade (Douthat, 2007). A century ago most U.S. universities shifted from a formally Christian foundation to an overtly secular one. In short, the world is polarizing over religion. It is getting both more religious and less religious at the same time. For example, in Europe Christianity is growing modestly and Islam is growing exponentially, while fundamentalism is coming under constant vitriolic fire in the U.S.

As a child, the plausibility of a faith usually rests on the authority of others, but when we reach adulthood there is a need for personal, firsthand experience as well. I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior the year I turned thirteen. I was baptized as an outward public sign of my new faith. I do not recall experiencing the presence of God. I unfortunately fell by the wayside for decades, struggling for forty years in active addiction. It took a 12-Step program to give me back the God of my youth and to discover the meaning of spirituality. I learned that we cannot inherit our salvation from our parents. Ultimately, I came to grips with my own faults, powerlessness, and problems. It was painful, but it has proven to make all the difference in my adult life. It has created in me an absolute conviction of the reality of the Good News of the Gospel.

Can Doubt be a Powerful Tool?

Is certainty overrated? Today’s militant atheists believe no one can prove the existence of God, so why bother trying? The late Christopher Hitchens, an atheist known across academia as a defender of science and reality, was fond of stating that parents’ forcing their faith in God on their children is a form of child abuse, adding that it predisposes children to believing a myth rather than seeking observable, verifiable truth.

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Is it wrong to have doubts about your faith in God? Scripture says without faith it is impossible to please God (see Hebrews 11:6), and that a person who doubts shouldn’t expect to receive anything from Him (see James 1:7). In Matthew 9:23-25, we read about a father who brought his son to Jesus seeking healing for a life-long disease, perhaps epilepsy. The father said to Jesus, “If you can do anything…” Jesus replied, “‘If you can?’ Everything is possible for one who believes.” The man answered, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (NIV). So there is nothing unusual for even a Christian to experience doubt. In fact, even among the disciples some doubted.

Christianity isn’t about having faith in faith alone. The Greek word for faith (pistis) is a derivative of the Greek word for persuasion (peitho). In other words, faith is not merely a blind, mindless acceptance of things our parents told us. Instead, it is a confidence based upon convincing evidence. Perhaps this is why Josh and Sean McDowell titled their book on seeking evidence in support of the Gospel Evidence That Demands a Verdict. This father-and-son team wanted to help arm Christians who have been stumped by arguments against the Bible or Christianity. I’ve actually been told that Christianity is nothing but a fairy tale, unsupported by scientific fact. Lee Strobel, an award-winning journalist for the Chicago Tribune, set out to prove to his wife and the rest of the world that Christianity was bunk. What resulted was his book The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. The book also led to a major motion picture of the same name, and a series of books to follow.

Was Jesus an Apologist?

Jesus was a brilliant thinker, who used logical arguments to refute His critics and establish the truth of His views. When Jesus praised the faith of children, He was encouraging humility as a virtue, not irrational religious trust or a blind leap of faith in the dark. Jesus deftly employed a variety of reasoning strategies in His debates on various topics. These include escaping the horns of a dilemma, a fortiori arguments, appeals to evidence, and reductio ad absurdum arguments. Jesus’ use of persuasive arguments demonstrates that He was both a philosopher and an apologist who rationally defended His worldview in discussions with some of the best thinkers of His day. This intellectual approach does not detract from His divine authority but enhances it.

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Jesus’ high estimation of rationality and His own application of arguments indicate that Christianity is not an anti-intellectual faith. Followers of Jesus today, therefore, should emulate His intellectual zeal, using the same kinds of arguments He Himself used. Jesus’ argumentative strategies have applications to four contemporary debates: (i) the relationship between God and morality; (ii) the reliability of the New Testament; (iii) the resurrection of Jesus; and (iv) ethical relativism.

Apologetics Strengthens Believers

Many Christians claim to believe in Jesus, but only a minority can articulate good reasons for why their beliefs are true. When Christians learn good evidences for the truth of the Bible, for the existence of God, or how to respond to tough challenges to the faith, they gain confidence in their beliefs. Numerous studies show a number of students tend to leave the church during their college years. While they leave for many different kinds of reasons (moral, volitional, emotional, relational, etc.), intellectual questions are one important factor. Young people have genuine intellectual questions. And when these questions are not answered, many leave the church. Perhaps the contemporary church needs a renewal of apologetics.

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People naturally have questions. They always have and always will. Jesus understood this. One of the key functions of apologetics, then, is to respond to questions and clear away objections people have that hinder their trust in Christ. Apologist, author, and speaker Ravi Zacharias emphasizes the important impact of an alert response to someone’s question, even in a small way: “Do not underestimate the role you play in clearing the obstacles in someone’s spiritual journey. A seed sown here, a light shone there, may be all that is needed to move someone one step further.”

Evangelism and apologetics are closely related. Both have a common general goal: encouraging commitment to Jesus Christ. In fact, in certain theological circles, apologetics has been labeled pre-evangelism. On this understanding, apologetics clears the ground for evangelism; it makes evangelism more effective by preemptively addressing impediments to hearing the Gospel. This is certainly true, but apologetics is also useful in the midst of the presentation of the Gospel and after the presentation of the Gospel. In other words, there is no moment in which a Christian takes off his or her evangelist hat and puts on their apologist hat. The relationship is more seamless than that. The difference between the two is one of focus rather than substance. Evangelism is focused on presenting the Gospel; apologetics is focused on defending and commending the Gospel. There is, moreover, an important difference in the audience of evangelism and apologetics. Evangelism is done only with non-Christians, but apologetics is done with Christians and non-Christians alike.

What’s Next?

Next Monday I will delve into “There Can’t Be Only One True Religion, Can There?”

References

Bloom, A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Douthat, R. (July/August 2007). “Crisis of Faith.” The Atlantic Monthly.

McDowell, J. and McDowell, S. (2017). Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Updated and Expanded. Nashville, TN: Thomas Collins.