Is Christianity Thriving Because its Critics Aren’t Doing Enough?

Is Christianity Thriving Because its Critics Aren’t Doing Enough? March 8, 2017
vaticanphoto (1)
Students at the Vatican Library examine a Syriac manuscript. H/T to Kristian Heal.


The past few years, I’ve gone from studying early Christianity and the Bible from a purely historical standpoint, to becoming deeply invested in the broader philosophical and theological stakes here—in short, from “what did the early Christians believe?” to “and is it true?”

Now, to be sure, I’ve never been a believer, for as long as I’ve had the capacity to even imagine that Christianity might not be true. But in more recent times, I’ve come to a radically different view of what it means to be justified in that (non)belief.

I can’t remember the original reason I rejected Christianity. At first, it was almost certainly because of a kind of apatheism; that I simply had better things to do with my time than to speculate about religion, much less go to church. In terms of when the question of religious truth actually truly popped up on my critical radar, however, I can imagine rejecting it on the basis of a vague “why even consider the possibility that Christianity and only Christianity is true, when there are other major religions that also make a claim to ultimate truth?”, or something like that.

In the 10 to 15 years since the idea of the truth of Christianity (or the lack thereof) even crossed my mind, I think I’ve learned about as much about Christianity—certainly the earliest Christianity, and/or the New Testament itself—as anyone else out there, layman or scholar. 

I offer this little mini–personal history not an appeal to authority or to boast or anything, but really only to express my surprise at where I’ve ended up, vis-à-vis others around me.

Now, I know very few people go into something as specific as the academic study of Christianity after they’ve rejected the idea of its truth. But does anything happen in terms of people’s personal belief—in terms of their identification as Christians—once they do know all the academic contours of Christianity and its history?

Judging only by the religious affiliation of scholars of Christianity themselves, not much happens at all. Maybe there are a few shifts from Catholic to Protestant, or vice versa, and maybe there’s a stray convert to Judaism. To be certain, in their critical pursuits, some prominent scholars like Dale AllisonJohn Hick, Maurice Casey, and John Shelby Spong have ended up with views that push the absolute limits of what can fairly be considered traditional Christianity and/or orthodoxy itself; but, again, in terms of the wider gamut of scholars, it doesn’t look like academic expertise inordinately produces skeptics or non-Christians.

Having spent years studying Christianity, and with where I am currently, the most shocking discovery to me is how in the wide world of academic study of early Christianity, the surprisingly invisible elephant in the room is the question of whether Christianity is actually true or not—and whether critical academic analysis actually has something to say on this issue.

Instead, the biggest theological controversies seem to arise only with arguments and opinions (ones that still position themselves within Christianity, mind you) that test the limits of orthodoxy, or a particular denominationally-delineated orthodoxy.¹

Even the prospect that there may be something inherent in the very discipline of critical study and its methodologies that should give pause in terms of Christian faith itself is raised only sporadically, and commands little attention. For example, prominent Biblical scholar John J. Collins, following the lead of the influential early 20th century critical theologian Ernst Troelsch, argued that “Historical criticism, unlike traditional faith, does not provide for certainty but only for relative degrees of probability,” and that, as such—in tandem with other considerations—critical study is simply “not compatible with a confessional theology that is committed to specific doctrines on the basis of faith,” such as it is in most traditional orthodoxy (“Is a Critical Biblical Theology Possible?” in The Hebrew Bible and Its Interpreters, 5, 14). 

Such a candid admission by one of the world’s top Biblical scholars might be expected to command enormous attention. Instead, the quotations here only surface a handful of times in other academic volumes, and on blogs like this. (Actually, Googling the quotes, my post seems to be one of the only non-academic sources that’s ever quoted this.)

On the other hand, more widely-known works like C. Stephen Evans’ The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith offer philosophical justification to diminish the possibility that the type of investigation entailed by critical historical studies can even have negative implications for traditional faith—at least not when believers preemptively arm themselves with the unassailable and aprioristic armor of faith.²

I’m suggesting, of course, that there’s been a massive institutional failure in the subfield of academic early Christian studies to turn a truly critical eye upon itself in a truly substantive way. 

Now, it’s not the place of literary/historical studies of the Bible on its own to do so; this is really the domain of (more philosophically-oriented) theology more widely. But when we look toward “Christian theology” proper itself—and make no mistake, this subfield commands a large academic presence, with publications here regularly appearing in the book series and journals of Oxford and Camrbidge University Press, and other top publishers—this is largely concerned with attempts to resolve outstanding theological issues in order to sustain a critical Christian faith

If we go into the wider territory of what’s known as philosophy of religion, we do find sophisticated figures who unambiguously reject Christianity in toto: Graham Oppy, Michael Martin, Keith Parsons, Herman Philipse. And yet much of the critical work done in philosophy of religion here is aimed not particularly toward Christianity, but more broadly at classical theism itself—at the the broader God of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, or beyond.

I was stunned to learn that, to the best of my knowledge, the most recent systematic academic criticism of Christianity itself was published over 25 years ago: Michael Martin’s 1991 The Case Against Christianity. Worst still, although Martin’s monograph offered some salient philosophical criticisms of Christianity (especially its traditional metaphysics), there are clear indications of how dated and inadequate it is: for example, the opening chapter was devoted to challenging even the existence of a historical Jesus. Incidentally, in more recent years the latter position has become somewhat of a stereotyped one, ascribed (rightly) to uncritical critics of Christianity—finding its most recent expression in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, which has received virtually unanimous criticism for its wildly speculative reconstruction of the historical origins of Christianity.

In the meantime, since Martin’s 1991 monograph, there’s been no systematic academic monograph that critiques (in toto) its bastardization of Jewish theology and the Hebrew Bible—a critique that might find useful bedfellows in the work of early Christian scholars Heikki Räisänen and E. P. Sanders, et al.³—or its (mis)appropriation of Jewish prophecy and messianism. More broadly here, there’s been no systematic attempt to challenge Christianity as a whole on eschatological grounds, in light of Jesus’ apparent failed messianism, and the failure of other related Christian prophecies and hopes. (Ironically, in a recent volume, to which a few prominent Biblical scholars/theologians contributed, many actually concede that some of the earliest Christian hopes and predictions here decisively failed to come true, while at the same time offering a new apologetic explanation—one that seems to have been absent from historic Christian interpretation—that these prophecies/predictions were conditional in the first place. See my review of this proposal here.) 

Although the ancient practice of pseudepigraphy, where authors wrote documents in the name of other figures who didn’t in fact write them, has become increasingly recognized as a fundamentally deceptive practice—and despite the fact that this sort of deception is regularly understood as the impetus behind the production of a few different canonical New Testament epistles themselves—there’s been little sustained attempt to flesh out the (profound) theological implications of this, for the notion of Biblical inspiration, etc. (Bart Ehrman’s monograph Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics seeks only to understand the details and context of pseudepigraphy, and doesn’t focus on the broader theological implications.)⁴

Similarly, although the diversity (and often contradictory nature) of the theologies offered in the New Testament continues to be a popular topic and assumption among Biblical scholars, most theological efforts here are channeled into finding a fundamental unity in the midst of this apparent disunity, preserving Biblical and apostolic authority here, and failing to emphasize those instances in which we there may not be any sincere way beyond inconsistency or even incoherence. (Again, Heikki Räisänen’s Paul and the Law might be an important study in this regard.) 

Furthermore, there’s only recently been an academic monograph, by Hector Avalos, that mounts an assault on the viability of foundational Christian ethics (The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics). Finally, beyond the Bible itself, we might hone in on more specific denominational theologies, to apply many of the same critical modes of analysis to, say, Catholic theology and texts as a whole, challenging these on historical or even broader analytical and philosophical grounds.⁵

In many ways, what I’ve suggested here could tie into Hector Avalos and André Gagné’s call for a “second wave” of New Atheism—which, incidentally, found its main expression in their Manifesto for Secular Scriptural Scholarship ​and Religious Studies

There are certain points of action that Avalos and André Gagné delineate that I don’t necessarily agree with: perhaps not least of which the fact that I don’t necessarily identify as an atheist these days. But I certainly agree that non-Christian or non-religious scholars who are nonetheless working in the academic study of Christianity, or religious studies more broadly, have much more to contribute.  

Ironically, however, in calling non-Christians and others to devote more attention to the greater theological dimensions and implications of critical historical and literary study of the Bible (and beyond)—to start engaging in a subfield almost wholly populated by Christians, and whose aim is indeed the critical defense of Christianity—nonetheless it might remain the case that our greatest allies can be Christian scholars themselves: those like Dale Allison, John Hick, and others who stand out as voices in the wilderness among their Christian colleagues, and who have in fact laid much of the groundwork that can be built upon in an even more critical engagement with Christian theology. In turn, if better integrated, Christian scholars themselves might benefit from our perspective, and begin to see the full weight of the challenges we bring.

I’ve titled this post “Is Christianity Thriving Because its Critics Aren’t Doing Enough?” On one hand, admittedly, I think it’d be naive to believe that Christianity as a whole only thrives because of the esteem it still enjoys among scholars, or because of the place of Christian theology itself as a viable and indeed eminent academic discipline. Among the several billion Christian believers, it’s surely only a small percentage that’s intimately acquainted with academic Biblical studies or other critical theological disciplines.

But many of these believers are represented by ecclesiastical hierarchies which themselves are quite conversant with this discipline and others. In light of this, then, if we were to ever see somewhat of a paradigm shift in Christian theology, I think it’s perfectly possible that this could have somewhat of a “top-down” effect where, as churches around the world are forced to engage ever-more critically, this is profoundly felt in the lives of believers.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] As one of the more significant (mini-)crises here, I’m thinking of the response to the volume The Myth of God Incarnate in the late 1970s. In more recent times, evolution continues to be a hot-button issue that generates a lot of inter-denominational strife, as it has for decades.

[2] For an expression on the inadequacy of this approach, see the review by Luke Timothy Johnson in the Journal of Biblical Literature

[3] The category of “anti-Judaism” in early Christianity has been a popular one for Christian scholars over the past few decades; though this is rarely used as a standpoint from which to mount a systematic theological challenge to the truth of Christianity itself. (One of the more poignant studies that suggests a more radical critique can be found in Abel Bibliowicz’s Jews and Gentiles in the Early Jesus Movement: An Unintended Journey—but this is really more of a popular-level work that leaves a lot to be desired, critically speaking.)

[4] For a study that does at least attempt to really engage with the critical implications here, however, see Stanley Porter’s article “Pauline Authorship and the Pastoral Epistles: Implications for Canon.” (Also Ansberry, Strine, Klink, and Lincicum’s “Pseudepigraphy and the Canon”?)

I’ve actually suggested elsewhere that we might see deception as an even broader lens for understanding the development of early Christianity in many aspects.

[5] I’ve often called for contemporary philosophical metaphysicians to pay greater attention to things like transubstantiation, and other mainstays of Catholic metaphysics—ones that are clearly integral to Catholic theology as a whole. (For more on this and related issues, see my post here.)

Also, I left this out in my original version of this post, but there’s another recent and important publication that sits at the nexus between Biblical studies and philosophy of religion: Jaco Gericke‘s 2012 The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion. (In fact, the work of Jaco Gericke more generally is fairly groundbreaking.)

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