Sunday, November 14, 2010

On Proclamation and Persuasion

In the year 1989, the second major International Congress on World Evangelization met in Manila in the Philippines to take up where they'd left off at the first such congress, which met in 1974 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Where the first International Congress on World Evangelization released a document called the Lausanne Covenant, the second such Congress released a document called the Manila Manifesto. I happen to think that both of these documents are powerfully written and right on the money, and today I'd like to ponder one of my favorite quotes from the Manila Manifesto. It says:

The good news must be boldly proclaimed, wherever possible, in church and in public halls, on radio and television, and in the open air, because it is God's power for salvation and we are under obligation to make it known. In our preaching we must faithfully declare the truth which God has revealed in the Bible and struggle to relate it to our own context.

We also affirm that apologetics, namely "the defence and confirmation of the gospel", is integral to the biblical understanding of mission and essential for effective witness in the modern world. Paul "reasoned" with people out of the Scriptures, with a view to "persuading" them of the truth of the gospel. So must we. In fact, all Christians should be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them.

I really want to leap into that second paragraph there, but I think maybe we should take our time and go in order. What do we need to do? We need to proclaim the good news. First of all, let's stop there for a moment. How often do we think of the Christian message as "news" these days? It seems these days that most folks consider it totally 'old hat', yesterday's news, but outdated for today. But it isn't! And it isn't just a 'lifestyle' either; it's a 'message', something you can say or write. And we're supposed to say it! We're supposed to talk about it! But why? Well, first of all, because it's good news. It isn't just some interesting story that you might find tucked on page C5 in the local newspaper. This is front-page stuff, and anyone who's got a good grasp on reality and who reads that headline in faith - "Jesus, Promised Messiah, Dies to Save Everything, Defeats Death; Declared by God to be King over Heaven and Earth" - should have the same reaction that a parent might get when they've lost their toddler in a dangerous part of town, and then find the child happily standing on a street corner, safe and sound; or that a person might feel when they've been suffering for ages from a painful, lethal disease, and suddenly the doctor announces that the medicine is working and they're going to be cured. This is powerful news, wonderful news, marvelous, miraculous, stunningly significant news!

Where should we talk about the good news? Is it something that we should chit-chat about amongst ourselves in cozy, air-conditioned and heated church buildings, and then leave thinking that it can wait again until next week? No! We definitely must talk about it in church. But we also should be talking about it in public halls; it should be on the radio and the television - the real deal, not the counterfeit 'get rich quick: use God for fun and profit!!!' schemes of so many popular televangelists - and it should be spoken in the open air. Indoors and outdoors, in person or on the media, and these days even on the Internet, we need to be sharing the message. From hi-tech to low-tech, leave no tech unused!

So that answers the what and the where, but why? Why should we be spreading this message around? Because it saves. A compassionate person who knows what can help other people will judiciously share that news with others. If I've found out about a really great bargain at the local store and I know that my neighbor is in real need of what the store's got, I should let them know! And more than that, the good news isn't just good news that saves; it's God's power for salvation. The message we're spreading? That is the saving, freeing, liberating might of a God who could easily call entire galaxies into existence from absolutely nothing without the slightest strain or effort. And is it just a nice thing for us to spread it, something we could do if we wanted to be especially nice? No. No, we are obligated to make it known, to make absolutely sure that the whole world has heard the message, whether they believe it or not. It's not an option, like, "Oh, well I could either be a Christian who stays real quiet about it, or I could be a Christian who tells other people about the news." That's not a choice we have. The first person is by definition not being a faithful disciple of Jesus. Only the second one is. This is not a suggestion, it's an order.

When we declare the message, we need to faithfully declare it as truth. It sometimes seems these days that "truth" is not a popular idea. Some folks think that there's something very evil about claiming to have the truth. After all, if on some issue we have the truth, and other people have different ideas, then those ideas are... wait for it... wrong! (Any of you pass out from the sheer shock of it all?) But let's face it, virtually everyone should recognize that there's such a thing as truth. For instance, take the statement "Grover Cleveland lived in the United States of America". That is actually saying something about the way reality is (or, in this case, was). Once you understand what it means, then it's obvious that it can be either true or false. If it's true, then it's true, period. If it's false, then it's false, period. But what it can't be is true-for-me and false-for-you. You might not believe it to be true, but that doesn't make Grover Cleveland suddenly a Pakistani shepherd! Or take another statement: "There is no such thing as absolute truth." First, you have to understand what the terms mean - for instance, that by "absolute truth" we're meaning a statement that has a truth-value independently of any contingent being's assessment of it's truth-value - and then you can see that either it's absolutely true that there's no such thing as absolute truth (in which case, there really is, so then it's false after all), or it's false that there's no such thing as absolute truth (in which case, there really is such a thing as absolute truth). And what Christians are declaring is just such a message. It makes a claim about the way things really are. It could be true; or, it could be partly true and partly false; or, it could just be wrong. But there's nothing somehow bad about claiming that something is absolutely true, though there is, I think, something bad about not being willing to hear what other people have to say on the issue and being willing to be somehow affected by it.

Furthermore, this truth is truth which God has revealed in the Bible. I've known a lot of professing Christians who have said to me that they don't really care what the Bible says on [pick an issue of choice], for some reason that usually amounts to, "Well I don't like not being the boss." And that is a sad, sad, sad thing, because that is not the heart of a disciple. That is not the attitude that Jesus had towards the Scriptures, and it isn't the attitude that a disciple of Jesus should have towards the Scriptures either. Now, before you get too far, does this mean that every Christian has to be a biblical inerrantist, so that if - for example - there's some mistake somewhere in 2 Chronicles, then Jesus didn't rise from the dead and doesn't now rule as Lord? Think for just a moment how ridiculous that is. Instead of worrying about whether the Bible is inerrant, what Christians can and should agree on is that it's authoritative. We do not get to just make up whatever we want. If the Bible says, 'X is a sin', and if our best methods of sifting the text give us every reason to believe that that's still true today, then it's time to face the facts, quit living in la-la land, and deal with it.

And thus, Christians are called to struggle to take what the Bible actually says - which of course requires that we do the serious work required to understand it, rather than being lazy like so many Christians who think that real study of the Bible is and should be forever beyond them because it goes over their head now and they don't really care enough to try to learn something for a change - and accept that that's really what it says, and that the Bible is not something we can discard at random. But then we must also struggle to take what we've seen there and figure out how to apply that to where we are today. A lot of Christians have a "the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it" mentality. And I'm not saying that there isn't some truth in there. But it also isn't sufficient. Very, very few Christians believe that everything in the Bible is equally applicable to today's situation in the exact same way. The Bible itself says otherwise, since obviously the Old Testament distinguishes between the circumcised people of God and those 'uncircumcised Philistines', while the New Testament says that you can be part of the people of God and keep your foreskin too, so long as you have the reality to which circumcision was pointing all along: namely, a heart, a center of being and willing, that's allowed the Spirit of God to come to it and to remove everything that might hinder it from being a public witness to a covenant made with God. And then there are the sacrificial laws, and plenty of others. Is this always an easy task? No. And that's especially true for people who don't study how to do it. But as Christians, we need to be able to faithfully relate the Bible to our context in ways that are accurate to how God would intend us to do it.

But that's not all! The Manila Manifesto next goes on to talk about something called apologetics. That's not a very common word; what does it mean? Well, the Manifesto defines it as "the defence and confirmation of the gospel". The word 'apologetics' comes from the Greek word apologia, meaning 'defense'. It's the name of one of Plato's works, the Apology, which was not about Socrates saying he was sorry for being so annoying all the time, but instead was about Socrates' speech in his defense when he was on trial. There are a lot of people out there these days who would love to put Christianity on trial, whether in the media or in the classroom or just in general. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, etc., etc., etc.... there are a lot of them. And beneath all the plentiful rhetoric and bluster and irrational outrage, sometimes - whether intentionally or by accident - they actually make a case (almost always a weak one) against the Christian faith. You could say that they're acting as the prosecution. And Christians are called upon to speak up for the defense, to answer the charges. And even more than that, Christians are at times called upon to make their own positive case for Christianity and against other rival ideas. Christians are called to argue. That doesn't mean that we're called to be abrasive, arrogant, annoying, loud, or obnoxious; it means that we're called to present our case, our reasons, for the position we've taken.

Now, one of the phrases that gets bandied around pretty often is, "You can't argue somebody into the kingdom." And that's true. There's no amount of arguing that can bring somebody to faith, all on its own and without the involvement of the Spirit and their own free will. You also can't love somebody into the kingdom. There's no amount of love you can give that is sure to bring somebody to faith in Jesus, apart from the work of the Spirit and their own choice in the matter. The same is true of preaching. The same is true of quoting the Bible. The same is true of, well, anything you can do. So does that mean you shouldn't preach, or love, or witness? Nope! The Spirit can use those fruitfully to bring a person to the point where they have the option of whether or not to respond - and the same goes for arguing/apologetics.

Another thing that gets thrown around a lot is, "Oh, well, you just have to have faith." And it's true; we do need to have faith. But that means real faith, not misdefined faith. Faith essentially means our trust and our loyalty to someone or something. When we have faith in God, we're loyal to him (which is why obedience is a crucial component of a living faith, and why "faith without works is dead" - James 2:26); we also trust in God, which means not only that we trust in his capacity to save us and his love for us, but also that we trust him to be faithful to his promises and to be truthful to us when he speaks. Nothing in that means that we're supposed to do things contrary to reason. Nothing in that means that we should just will ourselves to believe things really really hard. Faith is a proper component in a rational life - and, as my favorite quote from Galileo runs in part, "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." We can, at least in part, use reason to help us realize that God exists, that God can be trusted, and that he actually has (or hasn't) said what we think he's said. Nowhere does the Bible command us to believe things without good reason; nowhere. It is, after all, a book where God tells people, "Come now, let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18). If faith were believing things for no good reason, the Bible would not have told us to be faithful!

But back to the Manila Manifesto. We've mentioned what apologetics is and looked at two common objections to it, and both fail. Furthermore, as the Manifesto itself points out, apologetics is very, very biblical! Over and over again in Acts, we see Paul going into new places and immediately reasoning with people to try to rationally persuade them that the Christian message is true. In Thessalonica, Paul "went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead" (Acts 17:2-3). In Athens, Paul "reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him" (Acts 17:17-18). In Corinth, too, Paul "reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks" (Acts 18:4). At Ephesus, Paul "went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews" (Acts 18:19). And Paul is not alone! An Alexandrian Jew named Apollos became a Christian and swiftly was noted as a very capable apologist; the Bible says that Apollos "was a great help to those who by grace had believed" precisely because Apollos "vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah" (Acts 18:27-28).

Now, not all people were convinced, even by Paul and Apollos, and the Parable of the Soils helps us understand why. But note the contrast between the people in Thessalonica and the people in Berea who eagerly accepted Paul's message, after they checked it against Scripture and saw that it matched up - and the Bible praises the Bereans for that. This work was not without success! So the alleged ineffectiveness of apologetics also can't be used to discredit it. The Bible is pretty clear that apologetics is a good thing. This is why the Manila Manifesto is able to say that apologetics is "integral to the biblical understanding of mission". The evangelists of the early church did not simply walk around proclaiming the message; they made a case for the message; they offered people reasons why they ought to accept it. A crucial aspect of the mission that the Church has is apologetics.

Evangelism used to be very apologetic in nature - and we still often need the same today, where it's called for. And it's for good reason that the Manila Manifesto says that apologetics is "essential for effective witness in the modern world", and that "all Christians should be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them". (The last quote, by the way, draws on 1 Peter 3:15: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have"; the word 'reason' here is apologia, the Greek word from which we get 'apologetics'.) This is not an option; this is not something that is good for some Christians who are really into that sort of stuff. Apologetics of some sort is a task given to all Christians in some capacity, just as serving others and witnessing are. Now, not all of us have an equal capacity for all of those, nor do all of us have a particular desire to do all of those. But we all have all of those callings. And apologetics is also important. In today's world, Christianity has many challengers. There are plenty of worldviews that reject important aspects of the Christian message; Christianity is not the only message vying for your obedience, or my obedience, or your neighbor's obedience. There's Islam, and Buddhism, and atheism (including, of course, the 'new atheism'), and scientism/verificationism, and relativism and various strains of postmodern thought, and a wide range of others; and then within the church, many of the ancient heresies still exist - both at the lay level in regular churches, as well as in unorthodox religious movements that some people call "cults" (though I don't think that's an accurate use of the word) - to compete with the orthodox faith that was "once for all entrusted to God's holy people" (Jude 3). And Christians need to be equipped to deal with living in the presence of other religions and other worldviews. That is not just recommended; it is essential for effective witness - because many people these days are not in a position where they will simply come to faith the moment they hear someone mention Jesus. They may need some persuading as a part of the evangelistic process that, by the grace of God and through the work of his Spirit on that person's heart, may in due time bring them to a point where they, too, are ready to begin a life of Christian discipleship. So, to reiterate:

The good news must be boldly proclaimed, wherever possible,
in church and in public halls, on radio and television, and in the open air,
because it is God's power for salvation and we are under obligation to make it known.
In our preaching we must faithfully declare the truth which God has revealed in the Bible
and struggle to relate it to our own context.
We also affirm that apologetics, namely "the defence and confirmation of the gospel",
is integral to the biblical understanding of mission and essential for effective witness in the modern world.
Paul "reasoned" from people out of the Scriptures, with a view to "persuading" them of the truth of the gospel.
So must we. In fact, all Christians should be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them.

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