Giving Apologetics a Bad Name

Giving Apologetics a Bad Name June 3, 2018

I have had some conversations recently with someone who thinks that circular arguments are sometimes OK. And around the same time, the possible circularity of arguments attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John came up in my Sunday school class. In John 8, Jesus is depicted as saying that his testimony about himself is essentially self-authenticating. This is all the more problematic because Jesus is depicted in chapter 5 as saying that if he testifies about himself, his testimony is not valid!

Given that there are also tensions/contradictions found within chapter 8 in close proximity to one another, I am not inclined to conclude that the author wrote one thing, forgot what he had written by the time he got further into the work, and then contradicted himself without realizing it. The tensions/contradictions suggest that the author either was content to live with paradox, or could find no way out of a paradoxical way of thinking that he found himself saddled with. The author of the Gospel certainly seems to have wanted to say both that Jesus needed no other confirmation than his own words and authority, and that (as the Torah requires) he had witnesses that could be called on his behalf.

This whole motif is a reason why the Gospel of John has been described as one long trial of Jesus. As readers of my book John’s Apologetic Christology will know, I think that this “trial” reflects issues not only that emerged between Jesus and the Jewish leadership of his time, but also subsequently, including between the Christians by and for whom the Gospel was written, and the leaders of the local Jewish community that they until recently had been part of. And I also think that, in trying to synthesize and explore the implications of core beliefs that he inherited, the author crafted a portrait of Jesus that was full of unresolved tensions that it would be left for later Christians to wrestle with.

In connection with the present topic, though, I would note that the Johannine portrait of Jesus – despite the title of my book – would not work especially well as apologetics, at least not if aimed towards anyone not inclined to at least tolerate paradoxes. On the other hand, the author is clearly wrestling with his heritage and his context, and that was at the heart of apologetics in the ancient/classic sense.

In case anyone is wondering, it did occur to me that I could make a parody song on this topic, with lyrics like this in the chorus:

Circular arguments are to blame

Darlin’ you give faith a bad name (bad name)

At present I have no plan to pursue a complete song, but I could be persuaded otherwise (and I think that, as my voice has developed and as I’ve learned how to add vocal distortion, I can do a decent impression of Jon Bon Jovi).

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    There are some great choices for songs. “Circle in the Sand” by Belinda Carlisle. “Wheel in the Sky” – Journey. Lots of good stuff.

    So, I agree with you that I think it’s likely a single author was ok with these statements coexisting, but I do want to throw out that another possibility is that the book we know of as John is combining more than one source text together.

    • I am inclined to think there are sources behind the Gospel, too. I don’t see them as dividing along the line between “I do not judge” and “but if I do judge.” 🙂

      Maybe there will be multiple parody songs in the end…

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        When I was in school, one of my friends took a Baptist hymn and reworked it:

        My God is real
        He’s real in my soul
        And soul rhymes with Joel
        And my name is Joel
        My God is real

        That led us down a whole line of apologetics centering around what someone’s name was.

        • John MacDonald

          I had a poem rhyming “God” with “Fraud,” lol

      • Realist1234

        Have you read Richard Bauckham’s revised 2nd ed of his book ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’? I found his arguments quite strong.

        • John MacDonald

          On the issue of the plausibility of Bauckham’s thesis, here are two rounds of debate between him and Bart Ehrman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dw1T5AEhk9E ; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGyk72y3UE4

          • Realist1234

            Thanks for this. Bauckham wins the debate hands down. He’s done his research, Ehrman clearly has not. He doesnt seem to be even aware of the inclusio narrative technique found within Mark’s Gospel, a technique found in other ancient writings. It seems for Ehrman unless the author specifically says “I formally state this writing is based on the eyewitness testimony of ” then re refuses to accept it. But he is just showing his ignorance of similar ancient writings. And he still maintains that the 4 Gospels were associated with individual authors only from the late 2nd century onwards. Truly laughable (actually I moaned rather than laughed). If you or I were quoting Jesus’ words would we say, oh yes when Jesus said ‘……’ as recorded in the Gospel of Luke? Of course not, we simply would have quoted His words. And that’s precisely what the early church fathers did. Yet Ehrman finds it strange that they didnt explicitly mention which Gospel they were quoting from, and then comes to the wrong conclusion! I could go on.

            I dont agree with everything Bauckham has said in his book ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’ but for a lot of it he presents a strong case.

            Ehrman is a scholar for those who know no better, hence the popularity of his books.

          • John MacDonald

            Realist1234 said: “Ehrman is a scholar for those who know no better, hence the popularity of his books.”

            Dr. Ehrman is a full professor at an accredited secular university. You generally don’t get there by being incompetent.

          • Realist1234

            Which makes it all the more shocking.

          • John MacDonald

            I think, for the most part, Ehrman’s popular books simply represent what the consensus of critical scholars say – 1 noted exception being Ehrman’s claim that Jesus is portrayed as a pre-existent angelic being in Paul’s letters.

    • John MacDonald

      Billy Currington’s song “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy” would make a good logic parody song – maybe something like “God is great, beer is good, and your thinking is lazy.” lol

  • John MacDonald

    One point of tension that is kind of neat in G-John is that the disciples needed the wine miracle to put their faith in Jesus (John 2:1-11, compare with the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 17:8-24 LXX), while Jesus says later “Because you have seen Me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29).”

    • John MacDonald

      It’s interesting that we are expected to have confidence in Jesus even though we never knew him, while those that did know him, such as his Family (Mark 3:21, Mark 6:5), Doubting Thomas, and Denying Peter actually knew him and didn’t display the level of confidence expected of us!

      • Realist1234

        Except that they all doubted Him ‘before’ the resurrection. That was the convincing event which they witnessed. We all now live in a post-resurrection era. I find the ones who today reject the resurrection of Jesus do so primarily because of a ‘dead men dont rise’ mind-set. In which case nothing will convince them.

        But Im not sure the level of confidence you imply is really expected of us. Jesus’ words regarding the mustard seed still apply, as do ‘I believe. Help my unbelief!’.

        • John MacDonald

          Realist said: “Except that they all doubted Him ‘before’ the resurrection.”
          – As I said, Jesus’ family thought he was crazy.

        • Lark62

          What? Thomas doubted after the resurrection, and stop doubting only when he touched him. That means he was in the same freaking room with the risen Jesus and didn’t believe without touching him. You really ought to read your book.

          • Realist1234

            Eh, no. Read what I said, ‘Except that they all doubted Him ‘before’ the resurrection. That was the convincing event which they witnessed.’ Emphasis ‘witnessed’. Thomas doubted because he had not yet personally witnessed Jesus after His resurrection. It was only after that encounter that he came to believe. Just like the rest of the disciples.

          • I would point out that, while the Gospel of John has doubt being obliterated through a resurrection encounter, the Gospel of Matthew gives the impression of doubt being one response, alongside worship, of those who had “Easter experiences.”

          • Paul E.

            Always a fascinating aspect of Matthew and one which highlights the ambiguity of such experiences.

          • Lark62

            That was the convincing event which they witnessed.

            Okay, is the defining event the resurrection or witnessing the resurrection? Make up your mind.

            So Thomas “post resurrection” had met his friends who had seen Jesus”, but he got a pass but until he “personally witnessed” Jesus.

            Got it. So when I personally see and touch Jesus, I’ll believe. Til then, I will worry about important things like cleaning lint from the dryer screen.

          • John MacDonald

            Lark62 said: “Got it. So when I personally see and touch Jesus, I’ll believe. Til then, I will worry about important things like cleaning lint from the dryer screen.”

            Yep. And In the Gospel of John, the disciples needed the wine miracle to put their faith in Jesus (compare the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 17:8-24 LXX). Later, John has Jesus say to Thomas that he has seen, and so he believes, but blessed are those who have not seen, and still believe (see John 20:29). You can’t really fault us secular folk for unbelief.

          • cipher

            So, Thomas believed and gained salvation because Jesus appeared to him personally, post-resurrection.

            But we poor sinners have to believe on the basis of a 2,000 year-old story, or face eternity in hell.

            I would say, “Yeah, that’s fair”, but you’d merely tell me God has no obligation to fair, that it’s his universe and he can manage it however he likes.

          • Realist1234

            Im not sure the traditional understanding of Hell is correct, but leaving that to one side, many millions of people have believed without personally witnessing Jesus’ resurrection, myself included, so Im not sure why youre complaining. Ask yourself, why don’t you believe Jesus?

            Trust me, one day you’ll realise God has been fair all along.

          • cipher

            “Trust me, one day you’ll realise God has been fair all along.”

            I spent 40 years on the prosaic “spiritual quest”. Trust me, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

            But if this question: “Ask yourself, why don’t you believe Jesus?” makes sense to you, you’re literally incapable even of conceptualizing a different perspective – although I’m sure you’re absolutely convinced that isn’t true.

          • Realist1234

            It’s not like I was a Christian since birth, so yes Ive had more than one ‘perspective’.

        • “‘[D]ead men don’t rise’ mind-set” AKA “reality based.”

  • Realist1234

    I dont think there is a contradiction between John 5 & 8. Jesus is saying that because of who He is (‘for I know where I came from and where I am going’) His testimony is true (yet another strong hint at divinity – God is the ultimate authority and needs no witnesses). He is saying here that if the Pharisees recognised Him as to His identity, they would not question His own testimony. But from a human point of view, based on the Law and the demands of the Pharisees, His testimony is also true because He DOES have another witness – His Father. So on both counts, the Pharisees have nothing to complain about.

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      I’m not sure Jesus is appealing to his divinity, but I agree with the general thrust of what you’re saying. I think, in John 8, Jesus is basically saying that his testimony is true whether it conforms to the Law or not, and then proceeds to argue that it does (although not on grounds the Pharisees would be very excited about) because the Pharisees judge according to the Law (the flesh).

      What is perhaps a complicating factor, is that in John 5, the second witness is John the Baptist. In John 8, the second witness is his Father. It’s not unrealistic to think Jesus is making two somewhat different points and, like you, I’d be hesitant to label the difference a contradiction, but it is definitely a difference and worthy of inquiry to ferret out why they would be different, and the difference is not something that is easily resolved.

      • Realist1234

        Strictly speaking in John 5 Jesus says both John and His Father testify about Him. I think in v 32 He is referring to the Father, who is the primary witness. It may be he ‘mentions’ John here because He knew the particular group of people He was speaking to were fully aware of what John had said about Him (the phrase ‘You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth’ implies this group of Jewish leaders had sent a delegation to John to confirm what he was saying about Jesus) . But even here it seems John is very much the secondary witness, with Jesus reminding them if they believed John’s testimony, they would believe in Jesus. Sadly they believed neither.

        • Phil Ledgerwood

          Yeeeaaahhh, sort of I guess. He does technically say the Father has borne witness about him, after he goes on about John, and after he says that the works he is doing bear witness that he was sent by the Father, and then he immediately talks about the Scriptures bearing witness to him. He also talks about Moses writing about him.

          So, I’d be hesitant to say that, in John 5, “the Father” is Jesus’ primary witness and therefore the logical referent of v. 32. I’d probably classify that as what James has pointed out is sort of a way to make the difference “work.” It’s possible that 33-36 is a parenthetical note and the main idea of the text is 32 => 37, but I’m not sure why someone would say that other than an existing theological preference.

          • Realist1234

            I think John is definitely a secondary witness in Jesus’ mind and words as He says ‘I mention John…’ and that He doesnt actually require human testimony.

            But regardless, there is certainly no contradiction or in my view, even ‘tension’.