Apologetics

Top, Pop, and Slop Apologetics

Q: Please offer some insights into how you do research and study in order to discover the truths that you teach?

A: Well, that is a big question. I have often used three words to describe what I do here at the Christian Research Institute. There is “top,” “pop,” and “slop.” In order to be able to do what we do, not just individually but as an institute, it is important for us to engage in top apologetics. In other words, grapple with the deep issues on a deep level. But, to remain there would be a disservice for our constituency.

So, what I attempt to do is take the complex and make it simple and transferable. If you do not do top apologetics, you end up doing slop apologetics, which means all you are doing is regurgitating things that people have said, which may or may not be true. But, if you do top apologetics, then you can take apologetics and popularize that for your constituency. That is what we have been doing at the Christian Research Institute for many, many years, by taking the complex, making it simple and transferable so that you might not only hear but remember and then use what you have learned for God’s glory and for the extension of His kingdom.

We have two tracks that we run on. It is not just an intellectual track. It is not only the truth track. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6 NIV). He is the way and the truth, and He is the way and the life. There is a track that we run on that is very important — truth matters. If you are guided by the Book of Mormon, you are going to fall into the abyss. If you are guided by the Qur’an, you are going to miss the mark. You have to have a reliable authority. A reliable map, if you will.

But, the map is not the territory, the menu is not the meal, the cradle should not be mistaken before its occupant. There is, along with the truth line, as it were, there is a life line. That involves experiencing deification, what Peter spoke of when he said we are to be partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). I said on yesterday’s broadcast when I did an interview with Frederica Mathewes-Green, the Eucharist or Communion or the Lord’s Table — lots of different monikers by which you can describe this — is the principle means by which we experience the graces by which we can experience deification.

Now, we will never become what God is in the Godhead, it is an abomination to think that we would, be we are brought into fellowship with the Trinity. We are brought into union with God. We are brought into a state where we can live the Christian life not just by our own energies but by all His energies, which so powerfully work in us.

I look at primary resources when I do my research. I look at extrabiblical Christian sources. The writings of the church fathers. I look at ancient non-Christian sources such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Plinius, and the list goes on. I am very aware of historical and current scholarship. All of that is what we do at the Christian Research Institute so that the answers that you get are reliable and trustworthy.

— Hank Hanegraaff

Discernment in an Age of Information Overload (Hank Hanegraaff)

In Essentials Unity: E-Q-U-I-P The Mission of the Christian Research Institute (Hank Hanegraaff)

Becoming a “Seasoned” Apologist (Adam Pelser)

The Ten Commandments of Apologetics (Dan Story)

When Salt Loses Its Flavor (Doug Groothuis)

This blog is adapted from the June 6, 2016, Bible Answer Man broadcast.

Apologetics

Truth & Post-Truth

cri-blog-hanegraaff-hank-post-truthIt is quite stunning. The editors of the Oxford Dictionaries have selected their word of the year for 2016. It is hard to imagine what it might be. Even harder to imagine that this is the word for the year when you actually hear the word. Their choice could not be more apropos as a sign of the times. It is an authentic reflection of the state of our culture. The word of the year? Well, here it is—post-truth.

Post-truth is an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Think about that for a moment. Objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. The Oxford editors actually explain that:

The concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom [Brexit] and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase ‘post-truth politics’.

The OUPblog indicates,

Post-truth has gone from being a peripheral term to being a mainstay in political commentary, now often being used by major publications without the need for clarification or definition in their headlines.

The bottom line here is that post-truth in the year 2016 stands in stark opposition to plain truth in the past. One is based on subjectivism, the other on objective facts.

All of this of course begs a simple question: What is truth? Or maybe more importantly: Why is truth important? To answer that question, it might be significant to go back a time when Jesus Christ stood before Pontius Pilate. “What is truth?” was the very question that Pontius Pilate posed to Jesus Christ (John 18:38). Here the Roman prefect of Judah was standing toe to toe with the personification of truth and yet he missed its reality.

I would say that postmodern people who hold that emotion trumps fact, that feelings trump biology, that there is no such thing as objective truth, very much like Pilate, miss truth’s very essence. They stare at truth but they fail to recognize its identity. What is that identity? Well, truth is an aspect of the very nature of God Himself; therefore, to put on truth is to put on Christ, for Christ is truth (John 14:6; Eph, 4:24; 6:14). Christians are to be the bearers of truth.

I love what Os Guinness said when he articulated that Christianity is not true because it works, that would be not truth but pragmatism. It is not true because it feels right that is subjectivism. It is not true because it is my truth that is relativism. Christianity is true because it is anchored in the person of Jesus Christ the one who spoke and the universe leaped into existence. Truth, therefore, we must say, clearly and correctly is anything that corresponds to reality. As such, truth should never yield to the size and the strength of the latest lobby group. Nor is truth really a matter of preference or opinion; rather, truth is true even when everyone denies it and a lie is a lie even if everyone affirms it including the editors of the Oxford Dictionaries. Truth properly understood is essential for you and I to have a realistic worldview.

It is sad to say that sophistry, sensationalism, Scriptorture, superstition, and post-truth subjectivity has sabotaged truth in our epic of time. Our view of reality is seriously skewed when that happens. The death of truth spells—this is pretty serious—the death of truth spells the death of civilization. As such, the redefinition of truth in post-Christian America is no small thing. I think we ought to stand with Alexander Solzhenitsyn who initiated the Velvet Revolution and he did so because he understood that one word of truth properly defined outweighs the entire world.

—Hank Hanegraaff

This blog adapted from the November 21, 2016 Bible Answer Man broadcast.

Apologetics

Answering Accusations about Genocidal Gods

cri-blog-copan-paul-god-and-genocideThere are atheist philosophers, who say they love to believe in a God, but they cannot abide the God of Christianity, and so often they see no difference between the God of Christianity and the Allah of Islam. Talk about the distinction between the two.

With regard to the Old Testament, we see that war is geographically limited to the land that God had promised to Abraham, whereas within Islam there is no such geographic limitation. Anything that is outside of the world of Islam is considered the abode of war; therefore, justifiably take-able to be put under the rule of Islam.

There is also something that is in God’s plan for bringing judgment upon the Canaanites. Of course, it is a twofold thing, to drive out the Canaanites and those who remain behind leave themselves vulnerable to attack. It is primarily driving them out (Exod. 23:27-31; Deut. 7:20-24; Josh. 24:12-13).  Then you have a certain time limit here, this is part of God’s unfolding purposes giving the land that is inhabited by the Canaanites to the people of Israel but not until the Canaanites have reached the sufficient low point in their wickedness and then can judgment fall (Gen. 15:12-16). There is a historical length or time limit here that is involved, whereas in Islamic jihad there is no historical or temporal limitation.

We also see that in the history of Islam the oppression and war is indiscriminate. Islam attacks Christianized lands and overruns them, whereas with the Canaanites they were a wicked people basically engaged in activities such as infant sacrifice, bestiality, and so forth, acts that would be considered criminal in any civilized society. I can go down the list and talk about a lot of other differences but that is just a sampling of some of these sorts of differences that exists between the Old Testament and Islam.

People so often want to make a distinction between the God of the Old Testament who is a God of violence and cruelty, and the God of the New Testament who is often perceived to be a God of love. What is wrong with reading the Bible or thinking about God in that way?

What we see in the Old Testament is God showing both kindness as well as severity. Paul says this in Romans 11:22, “Behold then the kindness and severity of God” (NASB). Both of those continue through the testaments, but you see in the New Testament both the love of God intensified and the judgment of God intensified.

Yes, even from the lips of Jesus He talks about these things. Jesus does not shrink from identifying with the God of the Old Testament. He talks about capital punishment being exerted in the Old Testament (Matt. 15:4). He talks about judgment being poured out through the Flood (Matt. 24:38-39), or on Tyre and Sidon, warning His contemporaries in Bethsaida and Chorazin that if these signs have been performed to you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon they would have repented and sackcloth and ashes, and warns them about the judgment that is to come (Matt. 11:21-24); namely, the destruction that falls through the Roman Empire in AD 70. You see Jesus’ language very full of this.

You see Stephen (Acts 7) as well as Paul (Acts 13) both affirming the driving out the Canaanites. We see in Hebrews 11 that God uses warfare to bring judgment and so forth. We see even in Hebrews 2 that if punishments were meted out in the Old Testament, everyone received a just compensation for his deeds, how much greater will the judgment be if we neglect so great a salvation.

I think it is just a total misreading to talk about a wrathful God of the Old Testament and of a loving Heavenly Father of the New Testament. This is just the heresy of Marcion (circa AD 100-165), who talked about two different Gods, one mean and nasty and the other kind and loving. No. The New Testament affirms and identifies with the God of the Old Testament.

—Paul Copan

Paul Copan (PhD, Marquette University is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He has authored and edited thirty scholarly and popular books, including Is God a Moral Monster?

For further related study, please consult the books: Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, and Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan.

This blog adapted from the June 29, 2015 Bible Answer Man broadcast.

Apologetics

Using Analogies to Reach the Lost and Refute the Cults

Herrera, Max-AnalogiesReachLostRefuteCults

Article: JAA175 | by Max Herrera

This article first appeared in the Effective Evangelism column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 28, number 5 (2005). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to:  http://www.equip.org

Throughout history, preachers and teachers of God’s Word have used analogies to communicate truth. In the first century, Jesus used many analogies to teach His listeners. Following in Jesus’ footsteps, the apostle Paul used analogies to teach the saints and evangelize the lost. Today, on any given Sunday, pastors all over the world use analogies to preach and teach God’s Word. It is strange, however, that although analogies are prevalent in Christian preaching and teaching, one rarely hears a lesson on how to use analogies effectively. I would like to explain three ways that analogies can be used to reach the lost and refute the cults, and suggest some guidelines for using them.

What’s an Analogy? An analogy is a comparison between two things that are similar; they are the same in some respect and different in some other respect(s). For example, Jesus said that faith is like a mustard seed: they are the same in that both can be small and yet can grow into something large; but they are different in that a mustard seed is an actual kernel that grows in dirt, but faith is not.

Explain Concepts. One way analogies can be used is to explain difficult concepts. Analogies help explain what is unknown in terms of what is known. For example, most people are not familiar with the concept of substance dualism, which is a view of relation between the soul and the body. You could explain this concept by saying, “Substance dualism is the view that the soul and the body are ontologically separate entities, and that the soul acts upon the body.” This explanation is correct, but it does not communicate very well to those who are not already familiar with the concept. A better way to explain it would be in terms of something simple with which your audience is already familiar. You might say, for example, “Substance dualism says that the soul is to the body as a hand is to a glove. The hand is not the glove and the glove is not the hand; they are separate things. The glove, moreover, cannot perform any action without the hand. Similarly, the soul and the body are separate things, and the body cannot perform any action without the soul.” By using images and concepts that are familiar to your audience (i.e., the relation between a hand and a glove), you can explain concepts that are not familiar to them (i.e., a view of the relation between the soul and the body).

Make Arguments. A second use of analogies is to make arguments. One common form is called an a fortiori (“all the stronger”) argument, which asserts that if something is true in one case, it is probably true in a similar case in which the reason for it being true is even stronger. The parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18:1–8 is an example of this type of argument. In it, Jesus tells the story of an unjust judge who executed justice on behalf of a widow who continued to nag him. Jesus then asks a rhetorical question: “Will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?” (v. 7 NASB). The implied answer is yes, God will speedily bring about justice for His elect who continually cry out to Him. Jesus used an analogy to argue that if an unjust judge grudgingly renders justice to an oppressed widow who is persistent, how much more (a fortiori) will God, who is a just judge, speedily render justice to His oppressed elect who are persistent.

Using an analogy to make an a fortiori argument can be an extremely effective tool when witnessing to unbelievers. I remember street witnessing years ago in New York, when a lady came up to the corner where I was standing. I said, “May, I ask you a question?” She replied, “Sure.” I responded, “If you were to die today, where would you go?” She responded, “I don’t know. I never thought about it, but I think I would go to heaven.” I asked, “Why do you think you would go to heaven?” She responded that she was a good person. I replied that all our “righteous” deeds are like filthy rags before an infinite holy God, so it is impossible for us to get to heaven based on our own merit. I then said to her, “Imagine that you committed some crime, and the judge sentenced you to 20 years in prison. Would you want to serve the prison time?” She responded, “No way!” I said, “What if there were a person who was willing to serve your time and the judge allowed it; would you go for that deal?” She responded, “What’s the catch?” I said, “The only stipulation is that you must trust the person who serves your time and believe that he is always looking out for your best interest.” She responded, “I’d go for that deal.” I then told her that God is a judge and we are all guilty before Him, and because of our sin we will be sentenced to an eternity apart from God; however, Christ died on the cross so that we do not have to spend an eternity separated from God. Christ was willing to serve our sentence, but we must trust Him. I then asked her, “If you are willing to have someone serve your 20‐year sentence on earth, are you not willing to have someone serve your eternal sentence?” She said, “Yes, I would be willing.” I then led her in the sinner’s prayer. The a fortiori argument by analogy did not save her, of course, for only God saves; but God can use analogies to touch people’s heads so that He can also touch their hearts.

Refute Arguments. The third way analogies can be used is to refute bad arguments. If you change the content of a bad argument, but keep the same logical form of the argument, you can show that the conclusion of the argument does not follow from its premises. This is not as difficult as it might sound. For example, Mormons and certain Word Faith teachers assert that God has a body. One of their favorite passages is Genesis 1:26–27, which states that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Those who assert that God has a body reason as follows: man is made in the image and likeness of God; man has a body; therefore, God must have a body. The logical form of their argument is as follows:

x (man) is made in the image and likeness of y (God); x (man) has z (a body); therefore, y (God) has z (a body).

By replacing the content of x, y, and z with similar content, you can show that the conclusion does not follow from its premises. For example, suppose x = a statue, y = Abraham Lincoln, and z = a marble head. Just because a statue is made in the image and likeness of Abraham Lincoln, and the statue has a marble head, it does not follow that Abraham Lincoln has a marble head. Similarly, just because man is made in the image and likeness of God, and man has a body, it does not follow that God has a body.

Guidelines for Using Analogies. There are several things that should be kept in mind when using analogies. First, use simple things that are familiar to your audience. Jesus and Paul, for example, drew many of their analogies from things that were familiar to the first‐century Jewish culture in which they and their listeners lived (e.g., seeds, sheep, wineskins, the temple, etc.).

Second, the greater the similarity between the things that are being compared, the better the analogy; conversely, the less the similarity, the poorer the analogy.

Third, arguments that use analogies render only probable conclusions. The two things (or relationships) being compared are only similar (e.g., an unjust judge’s rendering justice to a nagging widow compared with God’s rendering justice to His elect); therefore, what is true of one is only probably true of the other. The more alike the two things are, the more likely it is that the conclusion is true of both things.

Finally, when comparing two things by analogy, you should compare those characteristics that are essential for making your point. For example, William Paley argued that just as a watch requires an intelligent designer, so does creation require an Intelligent Designer. In his writings, however, Paley emphasized the beauty of the watch, the material of the watch, and other characteristics that do not necessarily indicate intelligent design. Charles Darwin picked up on the fact that Paley’s analogy rested on nonessential features and responded: “The old argument of design in nature as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man.” Darwin was correct that neither beauty in itself nor being an artifact in itself indicates intelligent design; however, the essential characteristics in Paley’s analogy actually were specified complexity and irreducible complexity, which have always indicated intelligent design. Darwin, therefore, was wrong when he concluded that such artifacts cannot be used to argue for the existence of an intelligent designer.

Now, as lights of the world, go let your light shine by using analogies to present the gospel to the lost and refute the cults.

Max Herrera is a graduate of Southern Evangelical Seminary and is coauthor, with Norman L. Geisler and H. Wayne House, of the Battle for God: Responding to the Challenge of Neotheism (Kregel, 2001). He is completing a Ph.D in philosophy at Marquette University.


NOTES

  1. Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004), 335.
  2. Showing that the argument is invalid does not demonstrate that the conclusion is false; instead, it shows that the conclusion does not follow from its premises. The conclusion may still be true, but it has not been demonstrated from its premises.
  3. Charles Darwin, Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1958), 87.
Apologetics

Storytelling As Subversive Apologetics: A New View from the Hill in Acts 17

Godawa, Brian-Storytelling as Subversive Apologetics

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 30, number 2 (2007). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org


SYNOPSIS

Acts 17 is the premiere New Testament model of a Christian apologetic encounter with a pagan culture. Every school of apologetics claims this chapter as its own. Rational argumentation may have been an aspect of Paul’s interaction with the Greek philosophers of Athens at the Areopagus (Greek: the ”Hill of Ares,” also known as Mars’ Hill) that day, but there is another ancient Jewish cultural aspect of Paul’s discourse that often is overlooked. He was not merely accommodating Christianity in rational philosophical terms; he was subverting the Stoic narrative with Judeo‐Christian storytelling.


Subversion is the strategy of engaging oneself in an opponent’s story, retelling the story through a new paradigm and, in the end, taking the opponent’s story captive. An analysis of Paul’s preaching on the Areopagus reveals deliberate similarities to the Stoic narrative that go beyond shallow reference to mere popular culture. The apostle’s oration structurally reflects specific Stoic narrative. Paul subverts Stoicism by retelling the Stoic story through a Christian worldview, thereby leading it captive to the gospel.

Areopagus in Athens. The Areopagus (from the Greek Areios pagos, meaning “Hill of Ares”) was named after the Greek god Ares; when the Roman god Mars was linked with Ares, the spot also became known as Mars’ Hill.1 Athens, especially this hill, was the primary location where the Greek and Roman poets, the cultural leaders of the ancient world, met to exchange ideas (v. 21). The poets would espouse philosophy through didactical tracts, oration, and poems and plays for the populace, just as the popular artists of today propagate pagan worldviews through music, television, and feature films.

Paul’s Areopagus discourse has been used to justify opposing theories of apologetics by Christian cross‐ cultural evangelists, theologians, and apologists alike. It has been interpreted as being a Hellenistic (i.e., culturally Greek) sermon (Martin Dibelius) as well as being entirely antithetical to Hellenism (Cornelius Van Til, F. F. Bruce). Dibelius concludes, “The point at issue is whether it is the Old Testament view of history or the philosophical—particularly the Stoic—view of the world that prevails in the speech on the Areopagus. The difference of opinion that we find among the commentators seems to offer little prospect of a definite solution.”2

One thing most differing viewpoints have in common is their emphasis on Paul’s discourse as rational debate or empirical proof. What they all seem to miss is the narrative structure of his presentation. Perhaps it is this narrative structure that contains the solution to Dibelius’ dilemma. An examination of that structure reveals that Paul does not so much engage in dialectic as he does retell the pagan story within a Christian framework.

First, our examination must put Paul’s presentation in context. He is brought to the Areopagus, which was not merely the name of a location, but also the name of the administrative and judicial body that met there, the highest court in Athens. The Areopagus formally examined and charged violators of the Roman law against “illicit” new religions.3 Though the context suggests an open public interaction and not a formal trial, Luke, the narrator, attempts to cast Paul in Athenian narrative metaphor to Socrates, someone with whom the Athenians would be both familiar and uncomfortable. It was Socrates who Xenophon said was condemned and executed for being “guilty of rejecting the gods acknowledged by the state and of bringing in new divinities.”4 Luke uses a similar phrase to describe Paul when he conveys the accusation from some of the philosophers against Paul in verse 18: “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities.”5 Luke depicts Paul from the start as a heroically defiant Socrates, a philosopher of truth against the mob.

EXPLORING PAUL’S STORY

Paul’s sermon clearly contains biblical truths that are found in both Old and New Testaments: God as transcendent creator and sustainer, His providential control of reality, Christ’s resurrection, and the final judgment. It is highly significant to note, however, that throughout the entire discourse Paul did not quote a single Scripture to these unbelievers. Paul certainly was not ashamed of the gospel and regularly quoted Scriptural references when he considered it appropriate (Acts 17:13; 21:17‐21; 23:5; 26:22‐23; 28:23‐28); therefore, his avoidance of Scripture in this instance is instructive of how to preach and defend the gospel to pagans. Quoting chapter and verse may work with those who are already disposed toward God or the Bible, but Paul appears to consider it inappropriate to do so with those who are hostile or opposed to the faith. Witherington adds, “Arguments are only persuasive if they work within the plausibility structure existing in the minds of the hearers.”6 Paul, rather than offending his hearers, addresses them using the narrative structure of Stoic philosophy.

Stoicism and Structure

Missions scholars Robert Gallagher and Paul Hertig explain that the facts of Paul’s speech mimic the major points of Stoic beliefs. They quote the ancient Roman academic Cicero who outlines these Stoic beliefs: “First, they prove that gods exist; next they explain their nature; then they show that the world is governed by them; and lastly that they care for the fortunes of mankind.”7 The correspondence of these themes with what Paul has to say about God shows that he approaches this topic in the standard way that would have been expected by his audience. He thus establishes his credibility as one who should claim their attention.

Paul enters into the discourse of his listeners; he plays according to the rules of the community he is trying to reach. An examination of each point he makes in his oration will reveal that the identification he is making with their culture is not merely with their structural procedures of argument, but with the content of the Stoic worldview. He is retelling the Stoic story through a Christian metanarrative.8

Verse 22

“Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects.”

Paul begins his address with the Athenian rhetorical convention, “Men of Athens,” noted by such luminary Greeks as Aristotle and Demosthenes.9 He then affirms their religiosity, which also had been acknowledged by the famous Athenian dramatist Sophocles: “Athens is held of states, the most devout”; and the Greek geographer Pausanias: “Athenians more than others venerate the gods.”10

Verse 23

“I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.”

This “Unknown God” inscription may have been the Athenian attempt to hedge their bets against any god they may have missed paying homage to out of ignorance.11 Paul quoted the ambiguous text as a point of departure for reflections on true worship, which was the same conventional technique Pseudo‐ Heraclitus used in his Fourth Epistle.12

Verse 24

“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands”

The Greeks had many sacred temples throughout the ancient world as houses for their gods. The Stoics and other cultural critics, however, considered such attempts at housing the transcendent incorporeal nature of deity to be laughable. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was known to have taught that “temples are not to be built to the gods.”13 Euripides, the celebrated Athenian tragedian, foreshadowed Paul’s own words with the rhetorical question, “What house fashioned by builders could contain the divine form within enclosed walls?”14 The Hebrew tradition also carried such repudiation of a physical dwelling place for God (1 Kings 8:27) but the context of Paul’s speech rings particularly sympathetic to the Stoics residing in the midst of the sacred hill of the Athenian Acropolis, populated by a multitude of temples such as the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Temple of Nike, and the Athenia Polias.

Verse 25

“nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things”

The idea that God does not need humankind, but that humankind needs God as its creator and sustainer is common enough in Hebrew thought (Ps. 50:9‐12), but as Dibelius points out:

The use of the word “serve” is, however, almost unknown in the Greek translation of the Bible, but quite familiar in original Greek (pagan) texts, and in the context with which we are acquainted. The deity is too great to need my “service,” we read in the famous chapter of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, which contains the teleological proof of God.15

Seneca wrote, “God seeks no servants; He himself serves mankind,” which is also reflected in Euripides’ claim that “God has need of nothing.”16 Paul is striking a familiar chord with the Athenian and Stoic narratives.

Verse 26a

“and He made from one every nation of mankind,”

Cicero noted that the “universal brotherhood of mankind”17 was a common theme in Stoicism—although when Stoics spoke of “man” they tended to exclude the barbarians surrounding them.18 Nevertheless, as Seneca observed, “Nature produced us related to one another, since she created us from the same source and to the same end.”19

What is striking in Paul’s dialogue is that he neglects to mention Adam as the “one” from which we are created, something he readily did when writing to the Romans (Rom. 5:12‐21). The Athenians would certainly not be thinking of the Hebrew Adam when they heard that reference to “one.” The “one” they would be thinking of would be the gods themselves. Seneca wrote, “All persons, if they are traced back to their origins, are descendants of the gods,” and Dio Chrysostom affirmed, “It is from the gods that the race of men is sprung.”20 Paul may have been deliberately ambiguous by not distinguishing his definition of “one” from theirs, in order to maintain consistency with the Stoic Greek narrative without revealing his hand. He is undermining Stoicism with the Christian worldview, which will be confirmed conclusively in a climactic plot twist at the end of his narrative.

Verse 26b

“to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times [seasons] and the boundaries of their habitation,”

Christians may read this and immediately consider it an expression of God’s providential sovereignty over history, as in Genesis 1, where God determines the times and seasons, or in Deuteronomy 32:8 where He separates the sons of men and establishes their “boundaries.” Paul’s Athenian audience, however, would refer to their own intellectual heritage on hearing these words. As Juhana Torkki points out, “The idea of God’s kinship to humans is unique in the New Testament writings but common in Stoicism. The Stoic [philosopher] Epictetus devoted a whole essay to the subject.”21 Epictetus writes, “How else could things happen so regularly, by God’s command as it were? When he tells plants to bloom, they bloom, when he tells them to bear fruit, they bear it…Is God [Zeus] then, not capable of overseeing everything and being present with everything and maintaining a certain distribution with everything?”22

Cicero, in one of his Tusculan Disputations, writes that seasons and zones of habitation are evidence of God’s existence.23 Paul continues, with every sentence Luke narrates, to engage Stoic thought by retelling its narrative.

Verse 27

“that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;”

This image, as one commentator explains, “carries the sense of ‘a blind person or the fumbling of a person in the darkness of night,’” as can be found in the writings of Aristophanes and Plato.24 Christian apologist Greg Bahnsen suggests that it may even be a Homeric literary allusion to the Cyclops blindly groping for Odysseus and his men.25 In any case, the image is not a positive one. F. F. Bruce affirms the Hellenistic affinities of this section by quoting the Stoic Dio Chrysostom, “primaeval men are described as ‘not settled separately by themselves far away from the divine being or outside him, but…sharing his nature.’”26 Seneca, true to Stoic form, wrote, “God is near you, He is with you, He is within you.”27

This idea of humanity blindly groping around for what is, in fact, very near it is also a part of scriptural themes (Deut. 28:29), but with a distinct difference. To the Stoics, God’s nearness was a pantheistic nearness. They believed everything was a part of God and God was a part of everything, something Paul would vehemently deny (Rom. 1) but, interestingly enough, does not at this point. He is still maintaining a surface connection with the Stoics by affirming the immanence of God without explicitly qualifying it.

Verse 28

“for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His offspring.’”

Paul thus far implicitly has followed the Stoic narrative without qualifying the differences between it and his full narrative. He now, however, becomes more explicit in identifying with these pagans. He favorably quotes some of their own poets to affirm even more identity with them. “In Him we live and move and exist” is a line from Epimenides’s well‐known Cretica:

They fashioned a tomb for thee, ‘O holy and high one’
But thou art not dead; ‘thou livest and abidest for ever’,
For in thee we live and move and have our being (emphasis added).28

The second line that Paul quotes, “we also are His offspring,” is from Epimenides’s fellow‐countryman, Aratus, in his Phaenomena:

Let us begin with Zeus, Never, O men, let us leave him
Unmentioned. All the ways are full of Zeus,
And all the market‐places of human beings. The sea is full
Of him; so are the harbors. In every way we have all to do with Zeus,
For we are truly his offspring (emphasis added).29

Aratus was most likely rephrasing Cleanthe’s poem Hymn to Zeus, which not only refers to men as God’s children, but to Zeus as the sovereign controller of all—in whom men live and move:

Almighty Zeus, nature’s first Cause, governing all things by law.
It is the right of mortals to address thee,
For we who live and creep upon the earth are all thy children (emphasis added).30

These are the same elements of Paul’s discourse in Acts 17:24‐29.

The Stoics themselves had redefined Zeus to be the impersonal pantheistic force, also called the “logos,” as opposed to a personal deity in the pantheon of Greek gods. This logos was still not anything like the personal God of the Hebrew Scriptures. What is disturbing about this section is that Paul does not qualify the pagan quotations that originally were directed to Zeus. He doesn’t clarify by explaining that Zeus is not the God he is talking about. He simply quotes these hymns of praise to Zeus as if they are in agreement with the Christian gospel. The question arises, why does he not distinguish his gospel narrative from theirs?

The answer is found in the idea of subversion. Paul is subverting their concept of God by using common terms with a different definition that he does not reveal immediately, but that eventually undermines their entire narrative. He begins with their conventional understanding of God but steers them eventually to his own.

In quoting pagan references to Zeus, Paul was not affirming paganism but was referencing pagan imagery, poems, and plays to make a point of connection with them as fellow humans. The imago dei (image of God) in pagans reflects distorted truth, but a kind of truth nonetheless. Paul then recasts and transforms that connection with pagan immanence in support of Christian immanence through the doctrine of transcendence (17:24, 27), the resurrection, and final judgment (17:30‐31), but he saves that twist for the end of his sermon.

Verse 29

“we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.”

Another belief of Stoicism was that the divine nature that permeated all things was not reducible to mere artifacts of humanity’s creation. As Epictetus argued, “You are a ‘fragment of God’; you have within you a part of Him…Do you suppose that I am speaking of some external God, made of silver or gold? It is within yourself that you bear Him.”31 Zeno taught, “Men shall neither build temples nor make idols.” Dio Chrysostom wrote, “The living can only be represented by something that is living.”32 Once again, Paul is not ignoring the biblical mocking of “idols of silver and gold” as in Psalm 115:4, but is certainly addressing the issue in a language his hearers would understand, the language of the Stoic narrative.

Verse 30

“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance,”

For the Stoics, ignorance was an important doctrine. It represented the loss of knowledge that humanity formerly possessed, knowledge of their pantheistic unity with the logos. Dio Chrysostom asks in his Discourses, “How, then, could they have remained ignorant and conceived no inkling…[that] they were filled with the divine nature?”33 Epictetus echoes the same sentiment in one of his Discourses, which is quoted in part above: “You are a ‘fragment of God’; you have within you a part of Him. Why then are you ignorant of your own kinship?34 “Pauline “ignorance” was a willing, responsible ignorance, a hardness of heart that came from sinful violation of God’s commands (Eph. 4:17‐19)—but, yet again, Paul does not articulate this distinction. He instead makes an ambiguous reference to a generic “ignorance” that the Stoics most naturally would interpret in their own terms. As Talbert describes, “In all of this, he has sought the common ground. There is nothing he has said yet that would appear ridiculous to his philosophic audience.”35

Verses 30‐31

“God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

Here is where the subversion of Paul’s storytelling rears its head, like the mind‐blowing twist of a movie thriller. Everything is not as it seems. Paul the storyteller gets his pagan audience to nod their heads in agreement, only to be thrown for a loop at the end. Repentance, judgment, and the resurrection, all antithetical to Stoic beliefs, form the conclusion of Paul’s narrative.

Witherington concludes of this Areopagus speech, “What has happened is that Greek notions have been taken up and given new meaning by placing them in a Jewish‐Christian monotheistic context. Apologetics by means of defense and attack is being done, using Greek thought to make monotheistic points. The call for repentance at the end shows where the argument has been going all along—it is not an exercise in diplomacy or compromise but ultimately a call for conversion.”36

The Stoics believed in a “great conflagration” of fire where the universe would end in the same kind of fire out of which it was created.37 This was not the fire of damnation, however, as in Christian doctrine. It was rather the cyclical recurrence of what scientific theorists today would call the “oscillating universe.” Everything would collapse into fire, and then be recreated again out of that fire and relive the same cycle and development of history over and over again. Paul’s call of final, linear, once‐for‐all judgment by a single man was certainly one of the factors, then, that caused some of these interested philosophers to scorn him (v. 32). Note again, however, that even here, Paul never gives the name of Jesus. He alludes to Him and implies His identity, which seems to maintain a sense of mystery about the narrative (something many modern evangelists would surely criticize) . Did everyone know that he was talking about Jesus? At times, silence can be louder than words, and implication can be more alluring than explication.

The other factor sure to provoke the ire of the cosmopolitan Athenian culture‐shapers was the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus. The poet and dramatist Aeschylus wrote what became a prominent Stoic slogan: “When the dust has soaked up a man’s blood, once he is dead there is no resurrection.”38 Paul’s explicit reference to the resurrection was certainly a part of the twist he used in his subversive storytelling to get the Athenians to listen to what they otherwise might ignore.

Secular Sources

A couple of important observations are in line regarding Paul’s reference to pagan poetry and non‐ Christian mythology. First, it points out that, as an orthodox Pharisee who stressed the separation of holiness, he did not consider it unholy to expose himself to the godless media and art forms (books, plays, and poetry) of his day. He did not merely familiarize himself with them, he studied them—well enough to be able to quote them and even utilize their narrative. Paul primarily quoted Scripture in his writings, but he also quoted sinners favorably when appropriate.

Second, this appropriation of pagan cultural images and thought forms by biblical writers reflects more than a mere quoting of popular sayings or shallow cultural reference. It illustrates a redemptive interaction with those thought forms, a certain amount of involvement in, and affirmation of, the prevailing culture, in service to the gospel. A simple comparison of Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 with Cleanthes’s Hymn to Zeus, a well‐known summary of Stoic doctrine, illustrates an almost point‐by‐point correspondence of ideas.39 Paul’s preaching in Acts 17 is not a shallow usage of mere phrases, but a deep structural identification with Stoic narrative and images that “align with” the gospel. The list of convergences can be summarized thus:

StoicNarrative-Acts 17Lastly, this incident is not the only place where subversion occurs in the Bible. The Dictionary of New Testament Background cites more than 100 New Testament passages that reflect “Examples of Convergence between Pagan and Early Christian Texts.” Citations, images and word pictures are quoted, adapted, or appropriated from such pagans as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plutarch, Tacitus, Xenophon, Aristotle, Seneca, and other Hellenistic cultural sources. The sheer volume of such biblical reference suggests an interactive intercourse of Scriptural writings with culture rather than absolute separation or shallow manipulation of that culture.40

SUBVERSION VS. SYNCRETISM

Some Christians may react with fear that this kind of redemptive interaction with culture is syncretism, an attempt to fuse two incompatible systems of thought. Subversion, however, is not syncretism. Subversion is what Paul engaged in.

In subversion, the narrative, images, and symbols of one system are discreetly redefined or altered in the new system. Paul quotes a poem to Zeus, but covertly intends a different deity. He superficially affirms the immanence of the Stoic “Universal Reason” that controls and determines all nature and men, yet he describes this universal all‐powerful deity as personal rather than as abstract law. He agrees with the Stoics that men are ignorant of God and His justice, but then affirms that God proved that He will judge the world through Christ by raising Christ from the dead—two doctrines the Stoics were vehemently against. He affirms the unity of humanity and the immanence of God in all things, but contradicts Stoic pantheism and redefines that immanence by affirming God’s transcendence and the Creator/creature distinction. Paul did not reveal these stark differences between the gospel and the Stoic narrative until the end of his talk. He was subverting paganism, not syncretizing Christianity with it.

Subversive Story Strategy

By casting his presentation of the gospel in terms that Stoics could identify with and by undermining their narrative with alterations, Paul is strategically subverting through story. Author Curtis Chang, in his book Engaging Unbelief, explains this rhetorical strategy as three‐fold: “1. Entering the challenger’s story, 2. Retelling the story, 3. Capturing that retold tale with the gospel metanarrative.”41 He explains that the claim that we observe evidence objectively and apply reason neutrally to prove our worldview is an artifact of Enlightenment mythology. The truth is that each epoch of thought in history, whether Medieval, Enlightenment, or Postmodern, is a contest in storytelling. “The one who can tell the best story, in a very real sense, wins the epoch.”42

Chang affirms the inescapability of story and image through history even in philosophical argumentation: “Strikingly, many of the classic philosophical arguments from different traditions seem to take the form of a story: from Plato’s scene of the man bound to the chair in the cave to Hobbes’s elaborate drama of the ‘state of nature,’ to John Rawls’s ‘choosing game.’”43 Stories may come in many different genres, but we cannot escape them.

Many Christian apologists and theologians have tended to focus on the doctrinal content of Paul’s Areopagus speech at the expense of the narrative structure that carries the message. There is certainly more proclamation in this passage than rational argument.

The progression of events from creation to fall to redemption that characterize Paul’s narrative reflects the beginning, middle, and end of linear Western storytelling. God is Lord, He created all things and created all people from one (creation), then determined the seasons and boundaries. People then became blind and were found groping in the darkness post‐Eden, ignorant of their very identity as His children (fall). Then God raised a man from the dead and will judge the world in the future through that same man. Through repentance, people can escape their ignorance and separation from God (redemption). Creation, fall, redemption; beginning, middle, end; Genesis, Covenant, Eschaton are elements of narrative that communicate worldview.

Does this retelling of stories simply reduce persuasion to a relativistic “stand‐off” between opposing stories with no criteria for discerning which is true? Scholar N. T. Wright suggests that the way to handle the clash of competing stories is to tell yet another story, one that encompasses and explains the stories of one’s opposition, yet contains an explanation for the anomalies or contradictions within those stories:

There is no such thing as “neutral” or “objective” proof; only the claim that the story we are now telling about the world as a whole makes more sense, in its outline and detail, than other potential or actual stories that may be on offer. Simplicity of outline, elegance in handling the details within it, the inclusion of all the parts of the story, and the ability of the story to make sense beyond its immediate subject‐matter: these are what count.44

While a significant number of Christian apologists would consider Wright’s claim as neglectful of Paul’s appeal to evidence elsewhere (v. 31), it is certainly instructive of the opposite neglect that many have had for the legitimate operations of story or narrative coherence in persuasion.

Paul tells the story of mankind in Acts 17, a story that encompasses and includes images and elements of the Stoic story, but solves the problems of that system within a more coherent and meaningful story that conveys Christianity. He studies and engages in the Stoic story, retells that story, and captures it with the gospel metanarrative. Paul subverts Stoic paganism with the Christian worldview.

Samplings of Subversion

In the first paragraph of this article, I mentioned the entertainment of Hollywood as a strong analogy of the influence of the Greek poets. I would like to conclude with an example of a Hollywood movie that uses subversive storytelling in a way similar to Paul on the Areopagus. The Exorcism of Emily Rose, written and directed by Scott Derrickson, uses the power of story to subvert the modernist mindset that believes all spiritual beliefs are superstitious misunderstandings of scientific phenomena. Emily Rose is based on an allegedly true story of a Roman Catholic priest on trial for criminal negligence in the death of a college girl named Emily Rose. Emily comes to the priest because she believes she is demon possessed. In the midst of a laborious exorcism ritual, she dies from self‐inflicted wounds, and the priest goes to trial. The setting of a court is strikingly reminiscent of Paul’s standing in the Areopagus, speaking to the “modernist” lawyers and rhetoricians of his day.

Erin Bruner, a female attorney, defends the priest by seeking to prove the “possibility” of demon possession in court. The prosecutor mocks her through the trial, referring to her spiritual arguments as superstition unworthy of legal procedure in a modern scientific world. He then seeks to prove that Emily had epilepsy, which required drugs, not “voodoo,” resulting in the priest’s blood guilt. The movie presents both sides of the argument in court so equally that legal or rational certainty is impossible. The privilege of seeing Emily’s experience of demon possession outside that court of law leaves the viewer with a strong sense that the empirical prejudice of modern science has been undermined. Supernatural evil, and by extension, supernatural good (God) is real. Derrickson uses the story to subvert the stranglehold of modernity on the Western mind, and the inadequacy of rationalism and the scientific method in discovering everything there is to know about truth.

Other examples of subversion in Hollywood movies are: The Island, which uses a science‐fiction action chase film to subvert the utilitarian murderous ethos of our “pro‐choice” culture; The Wicker Man, a subversion of Wicca and pagan earth worship; and Apocalypto, a subversion of the “noble savage” myth of the indigenous native Americans.

The traditional approach to Christian apologetics is the detailed accumulation of rational arguments and empirical evidence for the existence of God, the reliability of the Bible, and the miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ. The conventional image of a Christian apologist is one who studies apologetics or philosophy at a university, one who wields logical arguments for the existence of God and manuscript evidence for the reliability of the Bible, or one who engages in debates about evolution or Islam. These remain valid and important endeavors, but in a postmodern world focused on narrative discourse we need also to take a lesson from the apostle Paul and expand our avenues for evangelism and defending the faith. We need more Christian apologists writing revisionist biographies of godless deities such as Darwin, Marx, and Freud; writing for and subverting pagan television sitcoms; bringing a Christian worldview interpretation to their journalism in secular magazines and news reporting; making horror films that undermine the idol of modernity as did The Exorcism of Emily Rose; writing, singing, and playing subversive industrial music, rock music, and rap music. We need to be actively, sacredly subverting the secular stories of the culture, and restoring their fragmented narratives for Christ. If it was good enough for the apostle Paul on top of Mars’ Hill then, it’s certainly good enough for those of us in the shade of the Hollywood hills now.45

Brian Godawa is the screenwriter for the award-winning feature film, To End All Wars. He is author of Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (InterVarsity Press, 2002).

 


NOTES

  1. See Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Areopagus,” the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Areopagus. See also The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001–05), s.v. “Mars, in Roman Religion and Mythology,” and “Mars’ Hill,” http://www.bartleby.com/65/ma/Mars‐html, and http://www.bartleby.com/65/ma/MarsHill.html.
  2. Martin Dibelius and K. C. Hanson, The Book of Acts: Form, Style, and Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2004), 98.
  3. Robert L. Gallagher and Paul Hertig, Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 224–25.
  4. Xenophon, Memorabilia, chap. 1. See also Plato, Apology 24B‐C; Euthyphro 1C; 2B; 3B.
  5. All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.
  6. Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A SocioRhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 530.
  7. Cicero, On The Nature of the Gods4, quoted in Gallagher and Hertig, 230.
  8. Although the text reveals that both Epicureans and Stoics were there (Acts 17:17–18), it appears that Paul chooses Stoicism to identify with, perhaps because of its closer affinity with the elements of his intended message.
  9. Aristotle, Or. 1, Demosthenes, Exordia 54, quoted in Witherington, 520.
  10. Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, 260; Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.17.1, quoted in Charles H. Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2001), 153.
  11. Dibelius and Hanson, 103.
  12. Talbert, 153.
  13. Explained of Zeno by Plutarch in his Moralia, 1034B, quoted in Juhana Torkki, “The Dramatic Account of Paul’s Encounter with Philosophy: An Analysis of Acts 17:16–34 with Regard to Contemporary Philosophical Debates” (academic dissertation, Helsinki: Helsinki University Printing House, 2004), 105.
  14. Euripides, frag. 968, quoted in F. F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press Ltd., 2000), 240.
  15. Dibelius and Hanson, 105‐
  16. Seneca, Epistle47; Euripides, Hercules 1345–46, quoted in Talbert, 155.
  17. Cicero, On Duties, 3.6.28, quoted in Lee, 88.
  18. Bruce, 241.
  19. Seneca, Epistle52, quoted in Michelle V. Lee, Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 84.
  20. Seneca, Epistle1; Dio Chrysostom, Oration 30.26, quoted in Talbert, 156.
  21. Torkki, 87.
  22. Epictetus Discourse14, quoted in A. A. Long, Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002), 25–26.
  23. Cicero Tusculan Disputations28.68–69, quoted in Talbert, 156.
  24. Aristophanes Ec. 315, Pax 691; Plato Phaedo 99b, quoted in Witherington, 528–29.
  25. Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. Robert Booth (Atlanta: American Vision, 1996), 260–61.
  26. Dio Chrysostom Olympic Oration 12:28, quoted in F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, New International Commentary on the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 339.
  27. Seneca Epistle1–2, quoted in Talbert, 156.
  28. Bruce, The Book of the Acts 338–39.
  29. Loring Brace, Unknown God or Inspiration Among PreChristian Races (1890; repr., Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2003), 123.
  30. Epictetus, Discourses8.11–12, quoted in Gallagher, 232.
  31. Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies76; Dio Chrysostom, Oration 12.83, quoted in Talbert, 156.
  32. Dio Chrysostom, Discourses27; cf. 12.12, 16, 21, quoted in Gallagher, 229.
  33. Epictetus, Discourses8.11–14, quoted in Gallagher, 229.
  34. Talbert, 156.
  35. Witherington, 524.
  36. , 526.
  37. Aeschylus, Eumenides 647, quoted in Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 247.
  38. See Cleanthes, “Hymn to Zeus” (trans. M. A. C. Ellery, 1976), Department of Classics, Monmouth College, http://www.utexas.edu/courses/citylife/readings/cleanthes_hymn.html.
  39. D. Charles, “Examples of Convergence between Pagan and Early Christian Texts,” The Dictionary of New Testament Background (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, 2000). Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 1.0.
  40. Curtis Chang, Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine to Aquinas (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 26.
  41. , 29.
  42. , 30.
  43. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992), 42.
  44. This article is excerpted and adapted from a manuscript the author plans to have published, tentatively titled, Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story and Imagination.
Apologetics

Applying Biblical Principles to Social Issues

Anderson, Kerby-Social Issues

This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 30, number 1 (2007). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

Turn on the television or open a newspaper or tune in to talk radio. Within a few moments you will be confronted with ethical issues and topics. Daily we face ethical choices that are enshrouded in controversial moral complexity, including abortion, euthanasia, cloning, genetic engineering, race relations, drug abuse, homosexuality, gambling, pornography, and capital punishment. The rise of technology and the fall of ethical consensus have plunged our twenty‐first century society into a cauldron of moral debates and dilemmas.

Never has our society found itself in greater need of a biblical perspective with which to evaluate moral issues, and never have Christians been less equipped to address these topics. Two years ago, the Barna Research Group found that only nine percent of born‐again Christians base their life decisions on the biblical principles of a Christian worldview.

How do we begin to evaluate the complex social and political issues of our day from a biblical perspective? How do we keep from being carried away by the latest cultural trend that is blowing in the wind? Here are some key biblical principles to apply and faulty logic to avoid.

Biblical Principles. A key biblical principle that applies to the area of bioethics is the sanctity of human life. Such verses as Psalm 139:13–16 show that God’s care and concern extend to the womb. Other verses such as Jeremiah 1:5, Judges 13:7–8, Psalm 51:5, and Exodus 21:22–25, give framework and additional perspective to this principle. This can apply to issues ranging from abortion to stem cell research to infanticide.

A related biblical principle involves the equality of human beings. The Bible teaches that God has made “of one blood all nations of men” (Acts 17:26 KJV). The Bible also teaches that it is wrong for a Christian to have feelings of superiority (Phil. 2). Believers are told not to make class distinctions between various people (James 2). Paul teaches the spiritual equality of all people in Christ (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). These teachings can apply to our views of racial relations and of government.

The third principle concerns the biblical perspective on marriage. Marriage is God’s plan and provides intimate companionship for life (Gen. 2:18). Marriage provides a context for the procreation and nurture of children (Eph. 6:1–2) and a godly outlet for sexual desire (1 Cor. 7:2). This principle can apply to such diverse issues as artificial reproduction (which often introduces a third party into the pregnancy) and cohabitation (unmarried couples living together).

The fourth biblical principle entails the boundaries of sexual behavior. The Bible teaches that sex is to be within the bounds of marriage, as a man and a woman become one flesh (Eph. 5:31). Paul admonishes us to “flee” (1 Cor. 6:18) and “avoid” (1 Thess. 4:3) sexual immorality and to control our own bodies in a way that is “holy and honorable” (1 Thess. 4:5 NIV). These values can apply to such issues as premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality.

The fifth principle commands obedience to the authority of government and civic bodies. Government is ordained by God (Rom.13:1–7). We are to render service and obedience to the government (Matt. 22:21) and submit to civil authority (1 Pet. 2:13–17). There may be certain issues, however, that force us to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). This can apply to war, civil disobedience, politics, and government.

Biblical Discernment. Often it is difficult to determine what is true and what is false in a world that offers a puzzling array of solutions across a broad spectrum of belief systems, most of which contradict each other and, as such, underscore the crucial need for Christians to develop godly discernment. Discernment is a word that appears fairly often in the Bible (1 Sam. 25:32–33; 1 Kings 3:10–11; 4:29; Psalm 119:66; Prov. 2:3; Dan. 2:14; Phil. 1:9). Colossians 2:8, similarly, reads, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” Because so many facts, claims, and opinions are being tossed about, Christians need to develop discernment to avoid being taken captive by false ideas. These often appear in the form of fallacies. A fallacy, by definition, is a mistaken idea, an error, or a flaw in reasoning. Here are a few of the more popular fallacies often encountered in the heat of debate:

The Fallacy of Equivocation: the use of vague terms. Someone can start off using language we think we understand and then veer off into a new meaning. Readers of the Christian Research Journal are well aware of the fact that religious cults are often guilty of this. A cult member might say that he believes in salvation by grace, but what he really means by that is that you have to join his cult and work your way toward salvation according to the dictates already established by the cult. It is helpful to ask a person to define whatever vague terms he or she is using so that you can avoid being caught by the fallacy of equivocation.

Equivocation is used frequently in bioethics issues. Proponents of stem cell research often will not acknowledge the distinction between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells, and those trying to legalize cloning will refer to it as somatic cell nuclear transfer. Unless you have scientific background, you may not understand the difference in stem cells and the fact that cloning advocates are using complex terms to confuse you.

The Fallacy of Card Stacking: the selective use of evidence. Many advocates are guilty of listing all the points in favor of their position while ignoring the serious points against it. Don’t embrace or jump on the latest intellectual fad without checking the evidence.

The most common biology textbooks in high school and college never provide students with evidence against evolution. Jonathan Wells, in his book Icons of Evolution, shows that the examples used in most textbooks are either wrong or misleading. Some of the examples are known frauds (such as the Haeckel embryos) and continue to appear in textbooks decades after they were found fraudulent.

The Fallacy of the Appeal to Authority: reliance on authority to the exclusion of logic and evidence. Just because an expert says it, doesn’t necessarily make it true. We live in a culture that worships experts, but not all experts are right. Hiram’s Law says: “If you consult enough experts, you can confirm any opinion.”

People who argue that global warming is caused by human activity often say that “the debate in the scientific community is over,” but an Internet search of critics of the theories behind global warming will show that there are many scientists with credentials in climatology or meteorology who question aspects of the global warming scenario. It is not accurate to say that the debate is over when the debate is still taking place.

The Fallacy of Ad Hominem (Latin, “against the man”): an attack against a person rather than the person’s argument. People who use this fallacy attack the person instead of dealing with the validity of the person’s argument simply because the argument is a threat to them. Often, the more sound the argument, the more vitriolic the ad hominem rhetoric. If there is evidence for the validity of the position, proponents usually argue the merits of the position; when evidence is lacking, they attack the critics.

Examples of this fallacy abound. Citizens who want to define marriage as occurring between one man and one woman are called bigots. Scientists who criticize evolution are subjected to withering attacks on their character and scientific credentials. Scientists who question global warming are compared to holocaust deniers.

The Fallacy of the Straw Man: the mischaracterization of an opponent’s argument in such a way that it is easy to attack and knock down. Liberal commentators say that evangelical Christians want to implement a religious theocracy in America; even though this is rarely the case, the hyperbole works to marginalize Christian activists who believe they have a responsibility to speak to social and political issues.

The Fallacy of Sidestepping: the evasion or dodging of an issue by changing the subject. Politicians do this in press conferences when they do not answer the question a reporter actually asks, but instead answer a question they wish someone had asked. Professors sometimes do that when a student points out an inconsistency or a leap in logic.

Ask a proponent of abortion whether the fetus is human and you are likely to see this technique in action. He or she might start talking about a woman’s right to choose or the right of women to control their own bodies. Perhaps you will hear a discourse on the need to tolerate various viewpoints in a pluralistic society. You probably won’t get a straight answer to an important question, however.

The Fallacy of the Red Herring: the use of a tangent to distract an opponent from the issue in question (from the practice of luring hunting dogs off the trail with the scent of a herring fish). Proponents of embryonic stem cell research rarely discuss the morality of destroying human embryos; instead they will go off on a tangent (employing another oft‐used fallacy, that of the Emotional Appeal) and talk about the various diseases that could be treated and the thousands of people who could be helped with the research.

People may change the subject in debates because they want to argue their points on more familiar ground or they know they cannot win their argument on the specific issue at hand. Be on the alert when this happens.

A person with discernment will recognize these tactics and beware. We are called to develop discernment as we tear down the false arguments that people raise against the knowledge of God. By doing this we will learn to take every thought captive to the obedience to Christ (2 Cor. 10:4–5).

— Kerby Anderson

Kerby Anderson is National Director of Probe Ministries and host of the radio talk show Point of View. He holds a master’s degree in science from Yale University and a master’s degree in government from Georgetown University.