Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Paul, Marcion & the Church Fathers

Here are a few statements that (I think) can be widely agreed by scholars on all sides of the various fences as being 'facts':
  1. Marcion (or his followers) compiled the first collection of 'New Testament' books. This consisted of one Gospel and ten letters attributed to the Apostle Paul. This was in the early part of the 2nd century.
  2. The Gospel used by Marcionites (and which they thought was by Paul) was similar to the gospel we now call 'Luke' although it was considerably shorter than the canonical version of Luke we are familiar with today.
  3. The Epistles used by the Marcionites were, likewise, considerably shorter than the canonical versions of Paul's letters as we know then today. They were: Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Laodiceans [our "Ephesians"], Colossians, Philemon and Philippians.
  4. In the late 2nd century (and later), the Church Fathers had access to longer versions of the Epistles of Paul and the Gospel of Luke and compared these with the Marcionite versions.
  5. There is no documentary evidence of any pre-Marcionite Pauline Epistle or pre-Marcionite Gospel of Luke.
It is tricky to reconstruct what might have happened way back then.

The orthodox view is that:
  • Paul wrote the Epistles, pretty much as we have them today. Someone else wrote Luke, pretty much as we have it today.
  • Marcion took them and edited them to suit his own purposes.
However, given the lack of evidence, at least two other possibilities should be considered. First that:
  • Paul wrote the Episles and Marcion used them without editing. Similarly with Luke.
  • An anti-Marcionite edited them to conform to the emerging 'catholic' worldview. Rehabilitating Paul (and Luke) in the process.
Or, possibly:
  • Marcion wrote the Epistles (and gospel, perhaps) and attributed them to Paul.
  • An anti-Marcionite edited them to conform to the emerging 'catholic' worldview. Rehabilitating Paul in the process.
How can we choose between these options? I don't think we have any evidence to refute either of the latter two. All we can do is appeal to the majority - most people believe the orthodox view, so it is more likely that it is the truth. The problem is, that most people believe the orthodox view, because it was the orthodox view that won in the battle of the ideologies. The winner in a contest isn't always the 'right' one.

The water gets further muddied when you consider 'redaction criticism' - in many places it does look like the epistles of Paul have been edited or partially rewritten by later writers. I have on my shelf a copy of J.C. O'Neill's commentary on Romans. In it he pulls the book of Romans to bits and attempts to reconstruct the 'original' Pauline letter. His reconstruction is less than a third of the canonical version. I must say that I find it implausible that quite so much additional material was added to Romans in the space of a few decades, apparently by several different editors, and that no traces survive of earlier (less edited) versions of the letter. However, many of his points are valid, and it certainly looks as if someone has padded out Romans with some additional material. Bultmann referred to this person as the 'Ecclesiastical Redactor' and David Trobisch has claimed that this was Polycarp in his book "The First Edition of the New Testament".

So does the 'fact' that the canonical letters of Paul have apparently been edited lend any support to either of the later options? Well, possibly yes, although all it really casts a question over is whether the canonical letters of Paul are the same as when Paul wrote them. The evidence seems to indicate someone has edited them - presumably with a purpose. And presumably that purpose was to either remove offending content (i.e. content that disagreed with the view of the editor) or to add in sanitising content (i.e. content representing the views of the editor, which softens the blow of some other content, which has been retained).

I've not really got a conclusion here. Except to say that I can't see a strong case for believing in the orthodox transmission route. Someone wrote the Epistles, this much is clear. Some later person edited them, this is probable. Some of the content is not from the original writer, possibly. So how can you justify using these writings as a guide for living? Well, for the most part, it works. You could choose to simply be pragmatic and live by a system that has been shown to work. But what if its not true? This is where the buck stops for me. Not whether it works or not, but whether its true.

Still don't know.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Apologetics vs the Scientific Method

I've listened to a lot of apologetics lately. I mean a lot.

It has left me very frustrated. Apologetics is, or should be, a defense of the Christian faith. It really should stem from 1 Peter 3v15:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (NIV)
I find it interesting that the word 'reason' features so centrally in that verse. For it is the lack of reason in apologetics which is annoying me.

The Scientific Method

The scientific method is a tried and tested way of using evidence (generally, but not always, in the form of experiments) to confirm or refute hypotheses. The process goes something like this:
  1. Propose hypothesis or range of hypotheses. These may be based on prior knowledge or may be pure speculation.
  2. Carry out experiment or make observation which is able to provide evidence relevant to the hypotheses.
  3. Attempt to falsify the hypotheses using the evidence.
  4. Hypotheses which are refuted (shown to be falsifiable) by the evidence are dismissed.
  5. Hypotheses which are unable to be falsified are considered to be reasonable and are held to be valid until further evidence is found.
Stage 3 is crucial in the scientific method. It is only by attempting to falsify each hypothesis that its worth is ultimately found.

Apologetics also considers evidence and hypotheses. However, the chain of events is somewhat different:

Apologetic Method
  1. Start with a range of hypotheses (i.e. beliefs), generally derived from the bible or church tradition.
  2. When new evidence is presented, formulate a plausible argument which can be used to explain why the evidence is consistent with the prior hypotheses.
  3. If no plausible argument can be found, attempt to discredit or refute the evidence. In extreme cases, simply ignore the evidence.
  4. If none of that works, simply get the argument bogged down in really technical theories so that the audience is bamboozled or loses interest.
  5. Assert that the hypothesis is validated.
There are two basic problems here. The first is that the apologist assumes, from the outset, that the hypotheses are true. The apologist is convinced of that, so in the event of an apparent tension between hypothesis and evidence, it must be the evidence, or our understanding of it, which is at fault. The validity of the hypotheses is never seriously considered.

The second problem falls in the plausible argument. Just because an argument is plausible, doesn't mean that its probable or actually true.

The crux of the issue is that when there is a tension between hypothesis and evidence, science assumes that the hypothesis is flawed, while apologetics assumes that the evidence is flawed.

Of course, the evidence could be flawed. But apologetics will never lead to refinements in the hypotheses, thus will never take us closer to the truth about reality. Science just might.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The God of Moses and Joshua (and his implications)

Every now and then, books or articles I read touch on the question of the (apparent) immoral behaviour of God as presented in the early books of the Old Testament - particularly the stories of the conquest of Canaan.

God, as presented in these books, commands his people to slaughter entire towns and nations, not merely killing the soldiers involved in battles, but killing women, children and even animals. Sometimes it is implied that the women and children of the defeated enemies may be kept as slaves, sometimes even sex slaves. But it goes beyond that, God is also presented as enacting extreme vengeance on his own people - sometimes commanding groups of them to slaughter other groups of them, and sometimes sending disease, poisonous snakes, etc. among them.

What are we supposed to do with these passages? Ignore them, explain them away, believe them, in some way base our own behaviour on them? Did these events actually happen? Did God command these events?

Here are all the possible options, as I see it (if there are others, please comment and tell me):
  1. It happened more or less as recorded. God did and commanded these things. His people carried out genocide in his name. This makes God (and the people who obey his commands) morally responsible for the actions and would mean that the bible contains accurate history and theology.
  2. The events happened; the people did the genocide. But not all of the events were commanded or enacted by God. This makes the people morally responsible, but lets God off the hook. This would mean that the bible contains accurate history but inaccurate theology.
  3. God commanded such things, but the people did not carry out the genocide. This makes God morally responsible, lets the people off the hook, and would mean that the bible contains inaccurate history but accurate theology.
  4. God did not command such things. The events did not happen. This would make the bible neither historically accurate or theologically accurate.
Ever since I first wrestled with these issues, I have kind of assumed that option 2 was the closest to the truth. That the (later) writers of the biblical accounts knew the events in their own history and theologised them by inserting the commands of God into the story to explain or defend the behaviour of their ancestors.

The reason for this choice was basically based on the presupposition that God is good. And therefore God could not have commanded such acts. The story (as presented) seems inconsistent with the known character if the loving God, so there must be something wrong. God could not have issued these commands, so they must be insertions of the authors, not historical events.

The problem with this assumption is that it reduces the biblical accounts to being simply wrong on the question of what God is like. I never really grasped the consequences of this belief before, but if the bible is wrong on this issue, then we have no basis for knowing what God is like from any parts of the bible. If this bit is wrong, why should we expect that (for example) Isaiah or Jeremiah are any more accurate, and what about Matthew or Romans?

Pretty much all we know about the character of God comes from the bible. So here all I was doing was taking the picture of God as presented in one part of the bible, and assuming that to be true, and using it to dismiss an alternative picture of God, given in another part of the bible. I never, until recently, noticed the flaw in that reasoning. Put simply, there is no way of knowing which of the pictures of God presented in the bible is the true one. Indeed, there is no way of knowing if any of them are true.

But if we can't distinguish between them, how can we have any faith? I think there's three options:
  1. Choose to believe that all of the biblical pictures are able to be reconciled and that all, equally, paint an accurate and true picture of God. This is the view of most conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists and is more or less the view I was raised to believe. However, it is now a view I have to reject. The more I read, the more I reflect on these issues, the more I see that the bible does not present a uniform and reconcilable picture of God, rather it presents multiple pictures which, quite simply, do not present the same God. At best, the bible presents multiple flawed views and misunderstandings of the real God. At worst, it could be that none of the views contain enough truth to be trustworthy. Which brings us to point 2.
  2. Chose to disbelieve all of the biblical pictures. If none of the pictures can be shown to be trustworthy, then all should be rejected. This way, inevitably, leads to agnosticism. Possibly the whole way to atheism. The more I read (on all sides of the discussion), the more compelling this option seems to become. Perhaps this is the only truly rational choice. But its a choice I haven't made (yet?).
  3. The final option, as I see it, is to pick your favourite view of God, as presented in the bible, and run with it. I think that's what most believers do in practice anyway, without actually thinking about it, but it is possible to be intentional about it too. This seems to be what certain denominations do by defining a statement of faith, etc. For example, in a recent sermon from The Meeting House, they expressed the opinion that their whole belief system is intentionally viewed through the lens of the Gospels. In other words, they start with the words of Jesus and if they encounter anything that seems to disagree with that picture, the Jesus picture trumps the alternative. Jesus trumps Paul's opinions, Jesus picture of the loving Father trumps the OT God of vengeance, etc. The problem for me is that this leaves you with the problem of how to choose which picture to follow? There is no compelling reason to choose one over another. Yes, choosing the Jesus picture is more consistent with contemporary morality than choosing the Moses/Joshua picture, but that doesn't make one more true or accurate than the other. It really does boil down to picking a favourite, or, in most cases, accepting (or never questioning) the picture that you were raised with. I'm no longer sure what to believe, and I'm also not sure if I can justify (to myself) deciding to believe one option, when the evidence for any of them is so slight.
But back to the original question of the Canaanite genocide.

The more I've read on the subject recently, the more things point to options 3 or 4 (from the first list up there) being closer to reality. There is no archaeological evidence that these events actually happened. Indeed, a close look at the biblical evidence (the list of unconquered lands at the end of Joshua) makes it clear that the genocide never happened either - the unconquered lands after the alleged genocide include several of the lands which should have been wiped out already.

So, either God commanded genocide, but the Israelites did not follow through, or God did not command any such thing, so it never happened.

Believing either of these options is to acknowledge that the bible is wrong. The stories are not history, they are reduced to tall tales of the olden days, which may contain nuggets of events which actually happened, but most of the story, including the commands of God, are embellishments, added by storytellers around the campfire or added by historians with an agenda to push - perhaps bolstering the claim that the Israelites were ethnically different from the Canaanites ("We must be, there's none of those guys left...").

This leads us to the point of acknowledging, once again, that some of the stuff in the bible is simply not true. Perhaps, in some cases, it is deliberate fiction. This brings us, of course, again, to the question of how you can distinguish the truth from the falsehood, and if there is any truth in there at all. And I'm slowly coming to the realisation that you can't.

Its an all or nothing thing. Accept all of the bible as true and accurate (yes, I know that some of it is poetry and some is allegory, so some of it can't be true or accurate within its own genre type) with regard to history and with regard to claims of the character of God. Or. Reject it all as true or accurate.

Problem is, I can't accept it all without rejecting reason, logic and common sense, but I don't want to reject it all. I am more than slightly concerned that "can't" inevitably trumps "don't want to", which leads to only one inevitable outcome. Maybe I have to make that choice eventually. But not yet.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


John 17v20-23:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
I've been listening to a fascinating sermon series from The Meeting House in Canada over the past few weeks. It's called 'One Church' and each week, for the last 8 or 9 weeks, they have invited leaders from different denominations to their own to come and explain the basic beliefs of that denomination and to preach a short message in The Meeting House. So far I've listened to talks from the perspective of the Anglican Church, The Brethren in Christ (which is the denomination of the Meeting House, not to be confused with the Brethren), the Salvation Army, Presbyterians, Catholics, Pentecostals, the United Church of Canada, and Harvest Bible Chapel. There was a sermon by Philip Yancey in the middle there too.

In addition to that, the pastors of The Meeting House do a separate podcast called the 'Round Table' in which they delve deeper into some of the issues raised in the Sunday sermons. I've listened to a few of those too. Highly recommended.

The aim of the series, as expressed many times in the podcasts, is to try and learn from 'other parts of the body of Christ'. They say that there is unity in the body of Christ, even though it is split into many denominations.

And yet, when you listen to the discussions between the various denominations, it is clear that several of them (perhaps not all) have the underlying viewpoint that 'we are right and you are wrong, and your way of being Christians is fundamentally flawed'. In other words, they speak of unity, and yet it is clearly not there in any real or tangible way.

Last week, they read the passage quoted above, where Jesus prays for unity among all believers. It had never really occurred to me before, but now it seems clear to me that here we have an example of a prayer that Jesus prayed which simply, in the past two thousand years, has not been answered.

Sure, parts of the church have shown unity at various times in history, but the history of the church is largely one of schism and disunity, not one of communion and unity.

The disunity in the church has always bothered me. But I'd never noticed before that the disunity is evidence that God didn't answer Jesus's prayer. The implications of that are huge. And I think I'll leave it until another post before I unpack that one...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011