Thursday, August 26, 2010

Book Review: Craig and Copan's "Contending With Christianity's Critics"

Contending With Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists & Other Objectors. Ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009. 293 pp. $19.99.

Contending With Christianity’s Critics is the product of academic presentations at the Evangelical Philosophical Society’s annual conferences dedicated to “addressing challenges from the New Atheists and other contemporary critics” (viii). It is divided neatly into three sections with six chapters each. Part I (‘The Existence of God’) responds to atheistic arguments against God’s existence. Part II (‘The Jesus of History’) responds to skeptical reconceptions of Jesus of Nazareth. Part III (‘The Coherence of Christian Doctrine’) defends the coherence of theism broadly and the more particular doctrines of trinity, incarnation, atonement, hell, and omniscience. Contending is a useful anthology of articles geared towards establishing the rationality of the Christian faith. What follows is a very brief summary of each article’s thesis.

Part I – The Existence of God

Chapter 1 – ‘Dawkins’s Delusion’, by William Lane Craig (2-5). Craig addresses Richard Dawkins’s insistence that apparent design is an unsatisfactory argument for the existence of God (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2006). Craig rightly points out that Dawkins is mistaken to believe that ‘apparent design’ is the sole or primary weapon in the theistic arsenal. Craig writes: “At most all that follows is that we should not infer God’s existence on the basis of the appearance of design in the universe.” (3) But if we have other grounds on which we conclude ‘God exists’, then Dawkins’s argument is irrelevant. Similarly, Craig critiques Dawkins’s objection that theists must explain ‘who designed the Designer’ (a take on the old familiar ‘if God made the universe, then who made God?’). Both scientifically and philosophically, “in order to recognize an explanation as the best, one needn’t have an explanation of the explanation.” (4)

Chapter 2 – ‘At Home in the Multiverse? Critiquing the Atheist Many-Worlds Scenario’, by James Daniel Sinclair (6-25). The key conceptual problem faced by atheism is that the universe appears intricately-designed and finely-tuned. Multiverse theory deals with apparent design by multiplying actual universes. With a multitude of universes out there, one of them is bound to have conditions fitting for the development of life—we of course happen to find ourselves in that one. Sinclair develops six primary problems inherent to multiverse theory. His strongest theses (from my perspective) are [1] the difficulty of demonstrating the reality of other worlds (11-16); [2] the existence of positive proof for a single universe (16-20); and [6] independent proof of a transcendent Creator (23-24).

Chapter 3 – ‘Confronting Naturalism: The Argument from Reason, by Victor Reppert
(26-46). Reppert condenses his thesis (more fully worked out in C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea [2003]) that “if naturalism were true, there would be no scientists to discover” the truth of naturalism (27). Rationality and scientific inquiry depends upon the framework which only theism can provide. Atheism inevitably leads to universal skepticism. A very helpful essay.

Chapter 4 – ‘Belief in God: A Trick Of Our Brain?’, by Michael J. Murray
(47-57). Murray demonstrates that many aspects of human thought seem to be hardwired into our brains; among them are the key domains of morality and religion. He concludes: “Belief in … God … arises through the natural, ordinary operation of human minds in natural ordinary environments.” (57) Murray’s essay is an excellent apologetic based on human spirituality and morality.

Chapter 5 – ‘The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism’, by Mark D. Linville
(58-73). Linville insists that evolutionary naturalism cannot explain morality, but rather can only explain morality away. Evolution suggests the non-existence of moral facts and knowledge (61-62); we have moral beliefs, but these beliefs are not based upon anything which is independently true. Like many others, Linville concludes that evolutionary morality cannot proceed beyond descriptive accounts (what is) towards prescriptive morality (what ought to be).

Chapter 6 – ‘Dawkins’s Best Argument Against God’s Existence’, by Gregory E. Ganssle
(74-86). Dawkins’s best argument, as summarized by Ganssle, is that if God existed, the universe would be significantly different than the one we experience. Dawkins suggests that some aspects of the world (e.g. long process of biological development) ‘fit better’ with atheism than theism. Ganssle replies that there are more (and more significant) aspects of the universe (e.g. ordered-ness, rationality, consciousness, free agency, objective moral obligations) which ‘fit better’ with theism than atheism.

Part II – The Jesus of History

Chapter 7 – ‘Criteria For the Gospels’ Authenticity’, by Robert H. Stein (88-103). The consensus of contemporary biblical scholarship is that Gospel passages are to be considered inauthentic unless proven authentic (guilty until proven innocent, rather than innocent until proven guilty). Stein then outlines two sets of criteria used by scholars to determine the authenticity of Gospel materials: seven positive criteria (multiple attestation, embarrassment, dissimilarity, Palestinian environment, editorial contrast, frequency, and coherence) and three negative criteria (contradiction to authentic sayings, environmental contradiction, tendencies from developing tradition). Stein suggests that these criteria can be fruitfully used by evangelical biblical scholars to demonstrate the authenticity and historicity of the vast majority of the Gospel tradition. However, Stein also argues that it does not matter whether we satisfy the canons of critical scholarship in demonstrating authenticity of Gospel materials. The worldview presuppositions from which critical scholars work (especially the pre-commitment to a closed universe in which miracles cannot occur) predetermine their rejection of any miracle stories in the Gospels. Stein’s article is an excellent introduction to the criteria used to determine authenticity, as well as the significance of worldview from which biblical scholars work.

Chapter 8 – ‘Jesus the Seer’, by Ben Witherington III
(104-112). Witherington condenses his major work (Jesus the Seer, 1999) into a very brief article. He contends that Jesus’ dual key themes of ‘the Son of Man’ and ‘the kingdom of God’ are found together in one primary Old Testament text – Daniel 7:13-14. After working through images of prophecy and wisdom, Witherington concludes that there is remarkable continuity “between Jesus’ self-understanding, His self-presentation, and the later theologizing that was done about Jesus.” (112)

Chapter 9 – ‘The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line: The Convergence of Eyewitnesses and Early Proclamation’, by Gary R. Habermas
(113-125). Habermas seeks to establish the early and eyewitness proclamation of the resurrection of Christ by focusing not on the Gospels, but on the Pauline letters. He suggests that since 1 Corinthians 15:3ff calls upon tradition received by Paul from earlier sources, we can successfully trace his reception of that tradition back to Paul’s original trip to Jerusalem, in A.D. 34/36. The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection was thus a central part of Christian preaching from the very birth of the church (124). While skeptical scholars are reticent to accept it (due to worldview presuppositions), Christ’s resurrection is strongly historically evidenced.

Chapter 10 – ‘How Scholars Fabricate Jesus’, by Craig A. Evans
(126-147). Evans’ thesis (condensed from his longer work by the same name) is that the radical and ridiculous assertions about Jesus made by popularists like Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) are facilitated by the loose and uncritical way in which critical biblical scholars treat non-canonical Gospels. In the rest of the chapter, Evans considers the four most common gospels embraced and promoted by heterodox scholars – Thomas, ‘Peter’, Egerton, and ‘Secret Mark’. Evans argues that Thomas is a 2nd-century Syrian work based on Tatian’s Diatesseron; ‘Peter’ may not even be the ‘Gospel of Peter’ referred to be Serapion, and even if it is, is a later work dependent upon the canonicals; Egerton is most probably a 2nd-century conflation of the Synoptic and Johannine traditions; and ‘Secret Mark’ is a 20th-century literary forgery perpetrated by its ‘discoverer’, Morton Smith. In each case, the non-canonical gospel prized by critical scholars and used as an authoritative source for the ‘real’ historical Jesus is a later, dependent, and imaginative work which teaches us about the early Christian community, but not about the historical Christ.

Chapter 11 – ‘How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament? An Examination of Bart Ehrman’s Claims’, by Daniel B. Wallace
(148-166). Wallace laments that what used to be fringe questioning of the New Testament textual tradition has become popularized and ‘mainstreamized’ in the work of scholars like Bart Ehrman. He suggests that the success of Ehrman et al is due to its appeal to “the skeptic who wants reasons not to believe [in Christ], who considers the Bible a book of myths.” (151) Wallace proceeds to consider the major arguments set forth by Ehrman, demonstrating that, in each case, he vastly over-states the case. Cardinal doctrines are not affected by textual variants (153-54); problematic (interpolated) passages (Mk. 16:9-20, Jn. 7:53-8:11, 1 Jn. 5:7-8) are recognized as secondary additions by evangelical scholars (154-56). Four other passages (Heb. 2:8-9, Mk. 1:41, Mt. 24:36, and Jn. 1:18) have textual variants that may change the interpretation of that passage, but in each case, either variant understanding is anticipated and confirmed in other New Testament passages; thus, again, no doctrine is affected or undermined (156-65). As Wallace concludes: “just because a particular verse does not affirm a cherished doctrine does not mean that the doctrine cannot be found in the NT.” (166) Wallace condemns Ehrman’s work for failing to consider evidence and rationality, and instead engaging in alarmism, unfounded provocation, and misrepresentation. I admired Wallace’s blunt treatment of Ehrman’s questionable scholarship and assertions.

Chapter 12 – ‘Who Did Jesus Think He Was?’, by Michael J. Wilkins
(167-181). Wilkins considers the critical scholars’ claim that when the Gospels assign divine or exalted status to Jesus, they are reflecting later Christian interpolations, rather than authentic historical occurrences or utterances. Using Peter’s confession of Christ (Mk. 8:29-30, Mt. 16:16) as a test case, Wilkins uses three of the criteria for historical authenticity (Palestinian background, embarrassment, and historical coherence) to establish that Peter’s confession is truly historical. Wilkins concludes that Jesus saw himself as deliverer, sacrificial servant, willing Lord, and humble king—the Christ of the Christian faith.

Part 3 – The Coherence of Christian Doctrine

Chapter 13 – ‘The Coherence of Theism’, by Charles Taliaferro and Elsa J. Marty (184-204). Taliaferro and Marty endeavor to defend the philosophical coherence of theism generally (not Christianity specifically) by focusing on six commonly-ascribed divine attributes – necessary existence (187), incorporeality (189), essential goodness (193), omnipotence (194), omniscience (198), and eternity (201). The strongest sections are those on omnipotence, where the authors emphasize the concept of perfect power in combination with essential goodness as the key to understanding how God can be both omnipotent and yet unable to perform certain tasks.

Chapter 14 – ‘Is the Trinity a Logical Blunder? God As Three and One’, by Paul Copan
(205-217). Copan moves the discussion from theism generally to Christianity specifically by defending the logical coherence and plausibility of trinitarianism. Discussions of the Trinity run the risk of (a) overemphasizing God’s threeness (and ending in tritheism), (b) overemphasizing God’s oneness (leading to modalism), or (c) rejecting equality (ending in subordinationism). Copan’s use of Cerberus (Hades’ three-headed dog) is jarring, but he prefers it to the traditional analogies (water, egg, etc.). Copan then offers six ‘considerations’ to emphasize when reflecting upon the Trinity (210-15), culminating in God’s essential relationality.

Chapter 15 – ‘Did God Become a Jew? A Defense of the Incarnation’, by Paul Copan
(218-232). Having demonstrated that Trinitarianism is logically coherent, Copan suggests that the dual nature of Jesus Christ is similarly coherent. Copan runs quickly over familiar ground in establishing the New Testament’s affirmation of Jesus’ humanity (220) and equality with God (220-22). He then stresses the distinctions between nature and person, fully/essentially human and merely/commonly human, and Jesus’ human consciousness and Jesus’ divine consciousness (223-27). His brief chapter unfortunately necessitates glossing over those complex and controversial distinctions extremely quickly. Copan closes by considering whether Jesus could have been sincerely tempted yet unable to sin (227-30).

Chapter 16 – ‘Dostoyevsky, Woody Allen, and the Doctrine of Penal Substitution’, by Steve L. Porter
(233-248). Porter indubitably receives the award for the most creative and catchy essay title in this anthology. Porter juxtaposes Dostoyevsky’s notion that guilty parties require punishment in order to find peace with Allen’s portrait of finding peace through avoiding blame and punishment. Allen’s position is gaining increasing ground in contemporary society, making the biblical doctrine of penal substitution distasteful to the general cultural milieu. Porter defends five theses (238-43) which together establish the propriety of God taking our just punishment upon Himself in the person of Christ.

Chapter 17 – ‘Hell: Getting What’s Good My Own Way’, by Stewart Goetz
(249-64). Goetz opens by addressing the thorny question of hell’s disproportionate punishment – what could someone do that deserves eternal torment? Goetz draws upon the philosophical consensus that humans seek what is ‘good’ for them, adds the notion that hell is manifestly not ‘good’, mixes it with a libertarian conception of free will to conclude that no one of their own accord chooses to go to hell (252-55). Rather, people pursue what they perceive as their interests, but can be mistaken in those perceptions (256-57). Humans can seek short-term good which forsakes the future ultimate good of eternal life – in that sense, hell is ultimately just in allowing people to choose what they ought not to choose yet freely do (262-63).

Chapter 18 – ‘What Does God Know? The Problems With Open Theism’, by David P. Hunt
(265-282). Open theism claims that God does not know what will happen in the future, either because future facts are not knowable truths, or because God willingly refrains from knowing them (268). Hunt focuses on the biblical exegesis of passages cited both in favor of open theism (271-72) and classical omniscience (272-73), arguing quite persuasively (esp. with John 18.4) that plain readings favor the classical reading. After briefly defending the long-standing theological tradition favoring omniscience (274-75), Hunt dissembles four (bad) philosophical arguments put forward by open theists (275-82).

The assortment of essays in Contending With Christianity’s Critics are all, to varying degrees, strong and helpful. But the assortment, in topic as well as in technicality and style of writing, is incredibly diverse. Some essays (Sinclair’s and Taliaferro’s) are quite intricate and require more knowledge of the subject than most laypeople (and graduate students) possess. Others (Stein’s, Habermas’, and Evans’) are exceedingly clear and concise, and helpful to Christians across the board. Some (Copan’s) cover rich and deep theological ground too briefly, while others (Hunt’s) deal exceedingly well with topics of contemporary interest. The diversity is to be expected in a compilation of papers presented at an academic conference – I suppose the overly-technical language sometimes encountered is par for the course as well. Nonetheless, the volume could have benefited from some evening out of the writing level and style.

That being said, each of the articles selected by Copan and Craig represent solid, strong scholarship. I was enriched by wading through the chapters that were difficult for me, and encouraged and strengthened by the chapters that went over more familiar territory. I particularly enjoyed Daniel Wallace taking Bart Ehrman to task over his fantastic and unsupportable claims in Misquoting Jesus. Contending With Christianity’s Critics, though not without flaws, provides a helpful tool to the apologist seeking to contend for the truth of our faith.