Our Best Argument (RJS)

Celtic Cross Crop2 (2)The final chapter of Tim Keller’s new book Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical turns to what Keller finds is the best argument for Christian faith. Bottom line: it is Jesus. He starts the chapter acknowledging that the previous chapter (see Is it Reasonable?), and for that matter much of the material in the book, provides a convincing argument that it is reasonable to doubt the scientific materialism and secular humanism that governs much of Western culture these days. But this alone isn’t enough to bring anyone to Christ. Why should we find the Christian faith convincing?  In Keller’s view our best argument is the person of Jesus Christ – his life, his teachings, and his resurrection.  While Christianity appears to be shrinking in the West, it is growing globally with its center in the message of Jesus.

Why might this be? What is considered by many in the West (at least in academia) to be a symbol of Western imperialism is being embraced around the globe. Keller makes an important observation (following Richard Bauckham) .

Even when Jesus has been used to legitimate oppression, as in the nineteenth-century American South, the African slaves themselves found their inspiration and power in Jesus to resist their domination. Even though during the early-modern period Christianity was tied too closely to European and American colonialism and empire, today most of the most vital and largest Christian populations are now nonwhite, non-Western. No matter how many efforts have been made to capture and deploy Jesus for imperialistic ends, he has always escaped them. (p. 229)

The church can, at times, be usurped and manipulated as a tool for power. But this is contrary to the gospel and to the teachings of Christ – as many Christians have realized.

Keller starts by explaining why we can trust the Gospels for a reasonably accurate pictures of the life and teaching of Jesus. He makes no appeal to inerrancy or to inspiration. Rather there are valid reasons to think that the Gospels provide access to eyewitness accounts of this life and teaching of Jesus. The gap between the events of Jesus’s life and the writing of Mark covers a few decades, but it is short enough that Mark likely relied on oral histories rather than oral traditions.  Keller refers to Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses to make the case. Keller suggests that “the Gospels do not show signs of having been shaped to fit the needs and sensibilities of the cultures and communities of the time.” (p. 231)  I think he may be overstating the case here, the Gospels appear to be shaped to convey their message to particular audiences – and this accounts for the differing ways the material is arranged – but there is no convincing evidence that the authors invented things out of thin air to do so.  There is every reason to believe that the story of Jesus is substantially rooted in history.

Given this, what are the claims that draw us toward Jesus?

The Character of Jesus. He taught and acted as one having authority – but did so with compassion and justice for the oppressed. “Jesus combines high majesty with the greatest humility, he joins the strongest commitment to justice with astonishing mercy and grace, he reveals a transcendent self-sufficiency and yet entire trust in and reliance upon his heavenly Father.” (p. 233) Keller pulls together a number of pairs of traits that might surprise. Among them: tenderness without weakness, boldness without harshness, humility without uncertainty, integrity without rigidity, passion without prejudice.

The Wisdom and Freedom of Jesus. He is wise in his interactions with people – both the powerful and the powerless. He was not bound by the rules of the day but by the greatest commandments and his mission. Love one another.

The Claims of Jesus. All four Gospel writers portray Jesus as, in some fashion, the embodiment of Israel’s God. This can be subtle or direct, through both words and actions. Keller doesn’t refer to Hays’s books Reading Backwards or Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, but I find these books helpful in understanding the depth of the claim being made by the Gospel writers based on the life and teachings of Jesus. Of course, one could argue that the claims of deity are an invention of the early church.  One strong argument against this – and one that Keller elaborates – is that Jewish culture was deeply monotheistic. This isn’t something that would be invented and argued from Israel’s Scripture without grounding in an inescapable reality of Jesus life and teaching.

The Resurrection of Jesus. The capstone to any argument centered on Jesus is the resurrection. Keller points to N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God  to make his case, but many other recent books also deal with the Resurrection.  The resurrection is impossible – if one starts with this assumption – but otherwise the case for historicity is quite strong. The most significant argument in my opinion is the effect the witness to the resurrection had on the followers of Jesus – from beaten “rebels” to founders of a church that has endured for more than 2000 years. Of course, if the resurrection is history, they were not founders of anything – they were convinced and convicted followers of God through Jesus the Messiah.

Despite the fact that they were poor, few, and marginal, they developed a confidence and fearlessness that enabled them to spread the Gospel gladly, even at the cost of their own lives. Some have thought that the disciples stole the body, but people do not die for a hoax. (p. 243)

If we try to explain the changed lives of the early Christians, we may find ourselves making even greater leaps of faith than if we believed in the Resurrection itself. (p. 244)

Obviously this argument isn’t going to convince every skeptic (and there are many questions that need much more discussion – Keller points to his earlier book The Reason for God as a start). But it is a call to consider the claims of the Gospel.

A Final Note. Tim Keller has a heart directed toward reaching those in our secular culture who are quick to dismiss the Gospel as an outdated, outgrown, and oppressive ancient myth. He structures his arguments in a way that may make some evangelicals wary, but in a way that will connect with this audience and open some minds. Making Sense of God, and his earlier The Reason for God, provide a valuable resource for the church – and for anyone desiring to reach the non-Christians in academic or professional environments. I doubt if the same issues come up everywhere (although some certainly do) and there may be other equally effective approaches in other contexts – Christian ministry isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor – but I expect that the insights gained from these two books will be worthwhile whatever the context.

What is the best argument for Christian faith?

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