Tag Archives: doubt

The idolisation of doubt

Of late, there has been an increasing trend of christians extolling the virtue of doubt. One quote in particular which epitomises this is:

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”

The quote is actually from Anne Lamott, though it seems to be frequently misattributed to Paul Tillich.

The trouble with the usage the way this quote is used, and the way that doubt is spoken of sometimes, it comes across that doubt is the end goal, the point of enlightenment. This can tip over into hubris, whereby there can be a kind sneering at those who stand firm in their convictions.

Doubt is indeed a useful thing, but then again, so is medicine. Medicine doesn’t do much good unless you use it. It’s no good parading it around, saying “Look, I have medicine.” You actually have to take the medicine and allow it to perform it’s healing work. Likewise, doubt has to be used for something. It has to be the basis of enquiry, of searching for the answers.

One of the conundrums when dealing with questions of faith, doubt and certainty is that there can be a certainty that nothing is certain. OK, that’s a bit twisty, let’s try putting it another. The idea that ‘everything can be doubted’ is itself an idea that is so certain in some people’s minds that it has become an unquestionable dogma, precisely of the kind the same people so frequently oppose.

If I doubt something, I investigate. The fluidity of that doubt may firm up as I learn more and understand more. If I have the same doubts in a year’s time, is that a sign of maturity? I think not; it is stagnation. It’s a giving up in the face of a tough problem.

Compare the quote at the top with that from the letter to the Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Another translation has ‘confidence’ and ‘assurance’ in place of ‘substance’ and ‘evidence’. The relevant Greek words being translated are hypostasis and elenchos. To equate faith with doubt here seems like a wrong way of reading the passage. And yes, I do think it is possible to state that some ideas that some christians hold about christianity are wrong.

Please don’t mistake me. I am not arguing for dogmatic, unquestionable assertions here. My point is that the way doubt is spoken of is that it is an end in itself and that there can be a temptation to humble-brag about having doubts. Such a display is, in my opinion, little more than an example of blowing one’s own trumpet or of being the self-righteous Pharisee. Instead, it is preferable for us to be firm in our convictions, not swayed or tossed by the winds of the latest opinion, but to have those convictions open to challenge. For firmness does not the mean the same as immovability. We must be open to learning, to being corrected, yet to be so to a reasonable degree.


Creative Commons: Horia Andrei Varlan

Creative Commons: Horia Andrei Varlan

In this blog post, I wanted to look in a bit more detail at a quote I posted on Twitter on Saturday the 4th. The quote was as follows:

“Interpreting the bible is very interesting, but we don’t really know what it means.”

This prompted a response from an old friend I know from university, asking me what I thought of it. I replied as follows:

“Kind of agree. I aim to declare with boldness that which I acknowledge I might be wrong about.”

This prompted a response from a Methodist follower of mine to say

“Then we are lost”

I stated at the time that I would then aim to put a little more nuance on this in a blog post. So this should hopefully add a little more flesh to the matter, though it is by no means my final word on the topic.

First, a little on the context. This came up at a monthly bible school I have recently started attending at the church I’ve settled at after having moved house last year. The overall discussion was about the Magi, with a significant portion devoted to whether or not they were Zoroastrians. The point at this stage in the discussion had been about Jewish eschatology and how a good many intelligent people had ideas about how and when the Messiah would come, but what actually happened, even though it fitted up with the Old Testament prophecies, still came rather unexpectedly. Therefore, though we have a wealth of ideas about christian eschatology, ideas of heaven, hell, resurrection and annihilation, it might well turn that we have all got a little bit right most mostly wrong, and that what we expect will be radically confounded. It was at this point that the original quote came in.

Quoting things on Twitter is fraught with danger, as the brevity of that medium necessarily entails curtailed explanations. I posted the quote almost at a whim (something I do far more often there than on this blog), but it highlighted a strand of thinking that often runs through my head; that being what I expressed briefly in my follow-up. To expand upon it, I would draw a dichotomy between humility and hubris. Humility says, “I might be wrong.” Hubris says, “I am right.” Of course, just about any human who holds an opinion does so because they think they are right. But it is one thing to think you are right and another to state categorically that you are right.

So I hold many opinions on a variety of topic – some of which get written about here, some of which it may be wiser to refrain from – and in each of these I think I’m correct. But to think that I am so well-informed, intelligent and wise to think that I understand all things perfectly would be absurd. I have been wrong about a great many things before and I think it is probable that there are views I hold now which will turn out to be wrong. Of course, I don’t at this time know which ones they are.

So when I use the word “know” I mean an epistemological certainty. Those things that I “know” are really very few. For all other things, one might consider some sort of scale of doubt. I might be pretty sure about some things. For example, I would have no doubt that the main colour of the laptop on which I am writing this is red. That is something I am happy to say I know. I am pretty sure of the contents of my fridge at the moment. I last looked in it a few hours ago and could quite happily run off a list of what’s there; yet I might make a mistake. I might have miscounted the tubs of yoghurt, for instance, or forgotten to put the sweet chilli sauce back in the fridge after using it for tonight’s dinner.

So when it comes to something like christianity, I am constantly revising my views in light of new evidence or a new perspective. Because I believe the great commission, I am an evangelical. It is right for the church (as a whole) to educate people about the gospel. And we do not do it with a spirit of timidity, but that doesn’t mean it is to be done with a kind of bolshie arrogance. To try to sell christianity as something that ‘has all the answers’ is to not only mislead others, but is a lie to oneself. I can say ‘this is what I believe and this is why’ and even state ‘I believe, to the best of my understanding, that this is true’ but I cannot go so far as to state my beliefs are unequivocally perfect and complete. And if they are not, then I must, out of honesty, confess that I might be wrong.

Is individualism in christianity anachronistic?

In the crowd

I’m currently writing a few blog posts and the question which constitutes the title of this piece has cropped up. Rather than take a long side argument in one of those pieces, I wanted to clear the ground here.

In much of my reading through historically based theology (such as N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God) I keep coming across comments that state that individualism is an anachronistic way of looking at society in the Middle East in the 1st century. However, I’m not wholly convinced.

That’s not to say the criticism is incorrect, I do agree with it quite a lot, just not entirely. Anyone who has done much reading on the early church and its relation to its Jewish roots will see that there was far less individualism then than we find it today’s western culture.

Yet I cannot escape the idea, when reading through the New Testament, that within early christianity were the seeds of a less corporatist mentality. Not that the worldview was switched entirely to individualism, but rather that it shifted to a mid-way point between the two. There was to remain a “group identity” though radically changed from membership of the people-nation of Israel, but at the same time individuals were to take a greater responsibility for their roles within this reformed community.

In 1 Corinthians we get to see most clearly amongst the epistles this half-way house that I described above. The communal view may be seen in chapter 13, epitomised by verse 12:

“For just as the body is one and has many members and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”

There is a recognition of our individuality, and the rest of the chapter looks at the different roles individuals play, yet at the same time, there needs to be a unity. So there is an appreciation that a lung is very different from a finger, just as within a single congregation the person who operates the sound desk serves a very different task than the one who makes the teas & coffees. On a wider scale, the small Anglican church is a rural English village might appear very different from the large Pentecostal church in South Korea. Yet all are to be cherished for who they are, whilst recognising that though they may not come into contact all that often, they are part of a bigger, more complete picture.

The duties of the individual are not lost in this. In the same letter, just a few pages before, we have Paul’s more “physical theology” in 6:12-20. Here, although the metaphorical overtones refer to the church as the body, the instruction is for each individual as a microcosm of the church.

Also, if we look at Romans 10:9-13 (within the wider context of Paul’s discussion) then there can be very little doubt that the referent is the individual and that although Paul does discusses collectivism in both the previous and the subsequent chapters, the idea is firmly that of a single person. This is further backed up by Philippians 2:12.

This New Testament perspective is very different from that we find in the Old Testament. If you read through the prophets, there are numerous references to Israel as a whole and how the nationhood was thought of as a collective.

The example that jumped to my mind was that of Lot’s pleading for Sodom & Gomorrah. Of course, I take this story with more than a pinch of salt (pun intended) as my personal belief is that stories of such “conversations” with God are a shorthand literary device to convey a more general point. But nonetheless, the ideas it contains are those which shaped Judeo-christian beliefs. In this story, God is appears willing to destroy the cities even if a few people are found to be “righteous” – in other words the sins of the city as a whole meant that potentially those who were innocent would be included as part of the punishment.

I still find this profoundly challenging to my innate sense of justice, and is pointed out (rightly) by opponents of christianity as an example of God appearing capricious or unjust. I am still thinking this point over.

But for the purpose of this piece, the implication is clear: collectivism was a standard part of the mindset of Judaism that was transformed by the Jesus’ death, which heralded a step towards, but not by a long way reaching, individualism.

One may further note the story of Jonah, where he was told to go to the city of Ninevah (which was very large, according to 3:3,4) and speak judgement upon it. Yet one wonders how a city, which by its very nature has no consciousness or will of its own, could possibly take heed. Yet that is the understanding that was present at the time. The city was represented by its king and the actions of the city as a whole reflected that of the king.


It seems clear to me that along with the sea change that was precipitated by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the idea of collectivism/individualism also underwent a paradigm shift. So while collectivism might be needed for understanding the culture before the 1st century, I don’t think it’s right to try to apply that, unaltered, when talking of early christianity.

Yet there’s still something that bugs me about collectivism. It just seems to fall short of good sense. While there may have been a perception of collectivism, but I still think that that perception was simply wrong.

How can God be a just god if it is willing to pass judgement on an individual based on the beliefs and behaviours of their peers?

It may have been that this paradox influenced the change in view from Judaism to Christianity. I’m not asserting that it was, I am merely musing.

10 Reasons why I’d make a rubbish charismatic christian

I recently came across a few posts that were along the lines of “I’d make a rubbish [insert denomination/tradition/affiliation] christian” where the person identifies their own particular type of church. I’ve long thought that I don’t really belong in the kind of church that I do. I think part of it is that I would never want to attend a local church where I was totally comfortable; I like to be challenged and, in turn, to challenge others.

So this is my contribution/confession. I don’t identify my church, as I am not a spokesman for it, but it is sufficient to say that it is an independent charismatic Pentecostal church with no strong ties to any major national or international umbrella organisation. Just note, the only order here is the order I thought of them, and they are no way meant to represent any sort of scale of importance.

I’d make a rubbish charismatic because…

1. I’m not very charismatic. OK, I know that charismatic in the church sense is derived is ‘charismata’ meaning spiritual gifts (see point 6 below) but it is commonly taken in the English vernacular meaning of an outgoing, bubbly sort of person. I’m a quiet, withdrawn, dull sort of person.

2. I never finished The Purpose Driven Life. This seems to be one of the most widely read books in charismatic circles, but I couldn’t stand it. The introduction asks you to sign an agreement with the author, and asks that you only work through 1 tiny chapter each day. I don’t sign agreements readily and don’t’ restrict my reading. I could quite easily have finished the book in a week. But it was just so trite and patronising. And as for the theology, don’t get me started…

[Addendum: sine writing this, I did return to the book and have finished it. You may find a brief review here and a more detailed fisking of it here.]

3. I’m highly sceptical about the Toronto Blessing and Lakeland Revival. Much has been written and said on both of these events. My personal take (briefly) is that what may have started out as a genuine outpouring of the Holy Spirit was quickly overtaken by mass hysteria and hype. To the best of my knowledge, not one of the claimed healings at Lakeland was ever verified (please point me to the supporting evidence if I am wrong).

4. I don’t have the gift of tongues. This often seems to be over-emphasised in charismatic circles. I think it partly comes about as a result of a particular reading of 1 Corinthians 12:31 where Paul writes “strive for the greater gifts” and this is taken immediately to mean talking in foreign languages (or xenolalia). I’m not convinced it is (Paul, in the same book, writes that he would rather people prophesy than speak in foreign languages). I also find it quite demeaning when you hear the occasional preacher saying that if you don’t speak in tongues then you’re not a “true christian.” I find that really unhelpful and wonder how many people have left churches because of a similar rhetoric.

5. I don’t have a copy of the New Living Translation. This seems to be the most common version of the bible used in Charismatic churches, though it’s surprisingly hard to get hold of a copy in print. I had a discussion on what version of the bible I used recently.

6. I read the bible in Greek. This is not a boast. I can only read Greek due to the fact that I did a maths degree at university. We quickly ran out of symbols from the modern alphabets and by convention, Greek was the most common. I have had a go at reading Euclid in its original form, though that’s pretty touch going. I rely on Strong’s Greek dictionary in my concordance for the translations. If I am ever unsure about the particular phrasing I go back to the Greek to look it up. Most charismatics I know quote the bible as if it were written in English. Jesus did not say “I am the way the truth and the life,” because he didn’t speak English.

7. I’m not a young earth creationist. Though not a universal amongst charismatics, I think there is a broad leaning towards this view. I know there are some in my own church, and some that are not. For most, though, I don’t know what their view is. I’ve laid out mine here.

8. I don’t drink beer. What I find distinguishes charismatics from, say, baptists, is that fewer charismatics are tee-total. Meetings at the pub are fairly commonplace. However, I never acquired the taste for beer and the smell of it makes me nauseous.

9. I’m highly interested in Biblical origins. This is linked in with points 6 & 8 above. Most charismatics I have across don’t seem to consider the question too much and treat the bible as a neat package, delivered on their doorstep, with no questions about its origin being considered. I find it a fascinating field of study and makes me look at both biblical and non-biblical theological writings in a quite different way than I used to. I am writing a blog post on this subject at the moment, but have no idea when I shall finish.

10. I think that doubt is a valuable thing. I have often heard the notion “don’t think, just believe.” This is usually my prompt to walk out, as I think it’s an abandonment of rational thinking. When we’re called to “love God…with all our minds” I take that to mean we have to be intellectually honest, acknowledge uncertainty and be willing to admit we might be wrong. I subscribe to the view that doubt leads to enquiry which leads to improved knowledge & understanding. For an overview of my theological epistemology, see this.

How do you define a christian: Concluding remarks

This has been a brief overview of some of my thinking as to how we may define a christian. I’ve looked as self-definition, creeds & confessions, the sacraments as boundaries and a cocktail of beliefs.

Hopefully, if you’ve had the patience to read it all, you will have realised that I don’t have a definitive version of what defines a christian and what doesn’t. All I have done is looked at some of the ways in which christians have been defined and shown how they fall short of making a clear demarcation. What that leaves us with is a grey area, and quite a large one at that. Does that mean that there isn’t a definition? No; I don’t think so.

Lurking in the background to all this is of course, the No True Scotsman fallacy. For those unfamiliar with it, please follow the link above. To my mind, there is a difference between there not being a definition and for me as an individual being honest enough to say “I don’t know.”

The way I think of it is like this: The visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is quite narrow, but we can perceive multiple colours within that narrow range. We might very clearly say that an atheist is a radio wave or a Muslim may be an X-ray, they clearly aren’t in the visible light spectrum. When we look at ourselves, we are more inclined to say those in our own nearby vicinity are christians, and perceive those as being far away as being at least questionable. So you might say that I sit at the orange end and am happy to worship alongside the reds and yellows, but I’m not so sure about the purple lot. Meanwhile, those that I perceive as being merely purple are having a fight over whether they’re indigo or violet, whilst viewing me as being a long way from their beliefs and practices. Simply because there is a spectrum of belief within christianity doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a “true christian,” just as you can’t really uphold the idea that there’s no such thing as “visible light.”

Most importantly, I don’t think it is the job of any individual or any organisation to make a determination of who is and who isn’t a christian. The writer to the Hebrews said “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is also able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render account.” (Hebrews 4: 12,13). I’d rather let God decide. It’s a far better judge than I am. Each of the factors discussed in the parts of this series is, I think, a strong indicator, but any one of them alone is not sufficient to be able to tell apart who is a christian and who isn’t. Throughout this, I tried where possible (and probably failed) to distinguish between being discerning and being judgemental.

We are called to be discerning, but warned against judging others; it’s a fine line to tread and I know I get it wrong on plenty of occasions, just as I see others around me do the same (and yes, I will confess to judging people because they judge others).

I think I probably ought to call a halt to it there. So that’s an outline of my muddled thinking. Do you try and define who is and who isn’t a christian? Is it too thorny an issue? Do you think I’m a heretic that should be burned at the stake?

Testimony & Epistemology

After recently reading Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham, some thoughts crystallised in my mind that had been floating around for a bit. This post is my attempt to articulate those thoughts.

Epistemology is a subject in which I have a steadily growing interest. I have just started reading Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, though it’s a bit of a beast of a book, so don’t expect to see the review much before October. I may come back and revise this post after I have finished that.

As alluded to in my review of Bauckham’s book, the willingness to accept eyewitness testimony (hereafter, to be simply referred to as testimony) does not immediately imply a hermeneutic of credulity. There is a word for those who would accept without critique what they are told as testimony: gullible. Now, in spite of how often I have heard that accusation levelled at all christians, it simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; if it were true then everyone who has ever professed faith must be intellectually retarded, but a brief look around the world today, and in history reveals this to be untrue. Of course, that is not to say that every christian has reached their faith by careful reasoning and the examination of the available evidence; indeed I have met many who prefer to not think about the challenges posed to the claims of christianity, but these are the minority. There is also then the adage that if you have met a christian who doesn’t seem to have any doubts, then you just don’t know them well enough.

When I read or talk to critics of the bible, there is a phrase I often hear is “there’s no evidence for….” At which point a look of puzzlement usually smothers my face. The reason for this is that the person I am speaking to has completely disregarded the fact that we have the collection of books known as the bible, which is evidence. I think a far more honest term would be “there’s no corroborative evidence for…” which is a very different statement.

I have heard it said that christianity is the religion of the historian. I am increasingly coming round to this point of view as most of the strongest arguments come from history, rather than science, philosophy or sociology. That is not to say that these don’t have important things to say about christianity (and vice versa), rather I just don’t find them as convincing as I do for the historical basis for the person, death and resurrection of Jesus. Where certain ideas taken as cherished by christians have had to be thrown out of the window because of subsequent research, there do not appear to be any scholars who have credibly formed and tested hypotheses for the origins of christianity on an historical basis; there may be plenty of supposition, but very little evidence to support this. If anyone knows of a suitable riposte, please let me know as I would love to read it/them.

As I have said before, my worldview is that the set of things for which there is evidence is smaller than the set of things which are true. That is to say, there may be many truths for which there is no evidence. Of course, this then raises the question, “How do we know it’s true?” which is perfectly valid and deserves serious consideration. I still don’t have a definitive answer for that.

One of the key differences between history and science is the ability to generate evidence. Science can devise experiments in order to gather new evidence from well-designed experiments in order to confirm or deny an hypothesis. History, on the other hand, has to build the most reasonable explanation, based on the evidence available. Of course, you can always do archaeological excavations, or search through ancient libraries, but you can’t always find what you want. To go back to Bauckham, much of his book was based on the testimony of Papias, but we have no surviving manuscripts of his; only some quotes from Eusebius a couple of centuries afterwards.

To give a somewhat trivial example, I could tell you what I had for dinner last night. It happened to be a chicken curry. I can testify that that is true, and I know it to be so. However, I ate alone, with the blinds shut, so there are no other eyewitnesses, as far as I know. So how might one determine whether or not my testimony is true? Well, one could go through my bins and examine the contents thereof to find evidence of the ingredients of a chicken curry. This would certainly not constitute proof as there would be no way to pin the ingredients down to a specific date (it could have been the night before) or to ascertain that the ingredients were used together, as opposed to being used in the cooking of two separate meals.

An alternative approach may be to pump my stomach and examine the contents. Now this is a pretty extreme measure, but if you really wanted to find out, then this may be an option; albeit one that I would resist with what little physical strength I have! Also, this method would only work for the last couple of meals. If my question had been posed about what I ate on the 10th of February this year (or last year) then the answer would be quite unknowable; although in this case, I couldn’t testify myself, as I don’t have that good a memory.

Of course, we could try to falsify the proposition, yet what are the falsification criteria? Perhaps I was seen elsewhere, eating something different; but in the absence of other eyewitnesses, this cannot be a possibility. It is not clear to me that there are, given what the circumstances outlined above, any criteria upon which can be based any level of falsifiability. To draw the analogy to a close, before it gets over-strained, the fact that I ate a chicken curry is, for all practical purposes, unfalsifiable. However, this does not impact on the truth of the assertion. So it is with testimony. There may be many potential ways in which a testimony may be falsified (e.g. by direct contradiction with another testimony – although we need to be careful about the possibility of two different views of the same thing appearing radically different, or contradiction with other corroborative evidence, etc.). However, as noted above, the historian cannot generate additional evidence. He or she may search for it, but it may simply be the case that what they are searching for has been lost.

So then, if testimony is all we have, what can we say about it? Bauckham’s approach was to give them the benefit of the doubt. In this, I would somewhat agree with him, but with a word of warning. If a witness is shown to be untrustworthy in related key areas, then extra doubt may of course be cast on their testimony. I would think it unwise to reject them outright because of this.

There has been a recent example, when such a rejection has taken place. That is, in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK). The case was dependent on an eyewitness, but the case was ultimately thrown out because of a lack of corroborative evidence and aspersions made against the eyewitness. For my part, I do not hold an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of DSK. I merely include this paragraph to get you thinking at how relevant, and thorny, the issue still is today. It is not a problem restricted to historical theology, and one which I think we will continue to wrestle with for many years to come.

Book Review: Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this book. I had heard various things about Ehrman, though had not read anything of his before. Since he is a former student of Bruce Metzger, I expected extremely careful and thorough scholarship. At the same time, I had heard that his own beliefs had covered a gamut of viewpoints over the years from christian to atheist to agnostic, and that his writings were deeply critical and challenging to modern day christians. So, unsure of precisely what to expect, I opened his book with an open mind.

I have to start with a comment on Ehrman’s writing style and communication abilities: they are superb. He makes his case very cogently and acknowledges where there are doubts and possible objections to his propositions. Thoroughly honest in his approach, his model of writing is one that could well be followed by many others. Few theologians I have read have written with such clarity.

So what are these propositions? Well, he invents a new term for an old group known to any historian of church history. The early church leaders are now rebranded as “proto-orthodox.” That is, a group of people in the 2nd-4th centuries whose beliefs became what we now recognise as Christian orthodoxy. To summarise, imagine a young tree sapling. The traditional view of church history has been that “heretical” views and non-orthodox texts and opinions grew out of early christianity as a kind of ‘branch’ that either was cut-off or died anyway, leaving the main trunk intact. The revisionist viewpoint espoused by Ehrman was that there were lots of saplings growing in parallel, and that in the battle for survival, most of the saplings were killed and the victors, being the ones who wrote the history, distorted the true picture of what happened. Ehrman’s hypothesis, crudely outlined above, owes a great deal to Walter Bauer, who is given due recognition and acknowledgement in the text.

This certainly should raise a few eyebrows amongst historically-minded christians. For the first third of the book, which I thought were the most interesting, he looks at a few early non-canonical writings at the stories they contain as well as the stories behind their discovery and their authorship. Throughout this discourse, there is this thread of “proto-orthodox” though it seems entirely superfluous to the discussion, and no attempt is made to justify it. The central third of the book looks at the different bodies of beliefs, looking at the Ebionites, the Marcionites and there is a broad overview of the broad spectrum of belief which fell under the umbrella term of Gnosticism.

It is only in the last third of the book that Ehrman attempts to justify his proposition of the “proto-orthodox.” Crucial to this discussion is the authorship of the books of the New Testament. Here is where some of his arguments seem to lack coherency. For example, he states (quite correctly) that we have no surviving “original” documents but then goes on to argue that the “proto-orthodox” have altered the originals to suit their own doctrines. But if you do not know what the originals said, how can this be justified?

Likewise, I am well aware that there are controversies over the identity of the authors of the New Testament, but Ehrman does not really explore these. On a number of occasions, he states that the books of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus and 2 Peter were probably forgeries, though no evidence to support this proposition is ever given. Instead we have reference to “most scholars” though these are not named or referenced. So, whilst being eager to get to grips with this more revisionist viewpoint, I was left frustrated that it was not well supported.

In conclusion, I do not find Ehrman’s revisionist definition of early christians as “proto-orthodox” to be convincing. It is well-argued, but the evidence presented just doesn’t seem to provide sufficient weight to back up his proposition. The conclusion of the book is also slightly odd. Ehrman recognises that there are some elements of heretical groups that are making a comeback in one guise or another, and he seems to suggest that a plurality of belief and the resurrection of some gonostic or Marcionite thinking is necessarily a good thing. But to me, applying Occam’s Razor, the simplest and most logical explanation behind the demise of the heretical elements looked at here were because they were late inventions that grew out a pre-existing orthodoxy that was already in place from the time of Acts. These later ideas lacked that most important ingredient: truth. While having different opinions is perfectly welcome, I do not agree with Ehrman that this in itself is a good thing if it introduces untruth. I have great respect for his writing and his research, and would recommend this book to anyone interested in this history of early christianity and the heretical beliefs that grew out of it. However, I would recommend it as part of a wider study, which I shall be doing myself. I have, as you may see, recently completed The New Testament And The People of God by N.T. Wright and on my table, waiting to be read this summer/autumn are Alister McGrath’s Heresy: A History of defending the truth and W.H.C. Frend’s The Early Church.

Praying, not shouting

I was really struck by something someone in my housegroup said last week, and I just thought I’d share some of those thoughts. The conversation had drifted onto prayer, and this person was paraphrasing Bill Johnson where the line of thought went something like this:

It is wrong to start your intercessory prayers, “God, if it’s your will….,” because we should be seeking God and trying to find work out what his will for us is. Then, once established, whatever we pray will be in God’s will anyway.

Now, I have a few reservations about such a line of thinking, but in the spirit of unity, I will lay those aside for now to carry on my main train of thought. This person went on to say that if we are given authority in our prayers, then we have no need to shout when we pray, because the Holy Spirit is the one with power, not our vocal chords.

It got me thinking about the cult of celebrity Christians and televangelists, etc. where you do see people putting on a performance. There was a very good show on faith healing hoaxes that Derren Brown did recently, which I would highly recommend you watch if you get the chance (though I do not know how to get hold of it on dvd, on-demand player, etc. – I’m no techno whizz, in spite of my bespectacled appearance). One aspect of the programme was to look at the theatrical over-exuberance of many so-called “faith healers” which I have always been highly sceptical about. The person in my housegroup managed to put into words what had previously been a half-formed thought in the back of my mind for some time.

I will not condemn anyone for shouting in their prayers, as that seems to me judgemental and potentially divisive and unnecessarily antagonistic. What I would like to do is to question why they do it, given that it seems completely illogical. It reminded me of 1 Kings 19, when Elijah was told to go and stand on a mountain. “And behold, JWH passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke the rocks before JWH. [But] JWH was not in the wind. After the wind, came an earthquake, [but] JWH was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake was a fire, [but] JWH was not in the fire. After the fire came a voice, a small whisper.”

Likewise, in Matthew 6, prior to Jesus giving the template for ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ he said: “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues, and in the corners of the open streets, so that they may be seen by others. But you, when you pray, enter into your room, shut your door and pray to your Father in secret.“

There is also a motif that Jesus used about the words that someone speaks being the fruit of what is in their heart. So if Bill Johnson is right (and I’m not saying that he is), then to pray “if it is your will” demonstrates an uncertainty in one’s heart. And if you are to pray in line with the God’s will, then that means you already have God’s will in your heart. The trouble I have with this is the question, “what if I’m wrong?” What if I have misunderstood? Should I go about boldly declaring what God’s will is, if my own fallibility has gotten in the way? It is for this reason that I embrace doubt and try to be careful with what I say. I don’t always get it right. I, like every other Christian and other human being, makes mistakes.

I don’t usually go the prayer meetings at my church. That tends to be because they are scheduled for the busiest time of the month for me, workwise, so I am not physically able to get out of the office and do the ~1.5 hour commute to get there on time. On the few occasions I have made it (where I am usually only of two people to turn up in a suit) it has always struck me that about 20% of the people do 80% of the “out-loud” praying. These people tend to be the more outgoing and charismatic sort of personalities, which is the polar opposite of me. I find talking to people an intensely stressful experience, as I like to construct what I have to say before starting to talk. Usually, by the time I have put together a train of thought in a coherent manner, any conversation to which it may pertain will have moved on. This is largely why I prefer typing. I can do it at my own pace, am less likely to say something stupid (though that probability is >0%) and can make extensive use of the backspace key.

I know that’s not the most structured thing I’ve ever written. I was just putting some thoughts down. I hope they have some semblance of congruity.