Tag Archives: uncertainty

Uncertainty

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.

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A year of employment

Today marks the first anniversary of my starting my current job. For those of you who were with me throughout 2012, you will know that I lost two jobs and spent 6 months unemployed. This is a brief look back at the last year and the legacy that the extended periods of unemployment have left.

Having gone to a lot of interviews and been rejected from them, I finally got a job offer just before Christmas 2012. I chose to keep this to myself until Christmas morning when I showed mum the email confirming my offer; that was my Christmas present to her – and yes, she did cry.

I knew that as I started a new job I would be going straight into a busy period as the company has a year end of the 31st of December and so the finance department would be working on the year end accounts, with an announcement due to the stock market in late February. Though not afraid of a bit of hard work, I was anticipating quite a few days when one might be working until 10pm in the office and coming in on Saturdays and Sundays, as is usual for finance staff at this time of year. So I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that the office gets locked up at 8pm and you get kicked out then. The front door is operated by a key rather than a swipe card so you can’t go in on a Saturday unless you have a key (and only a few people have these) so I ended up not working late once nor working at a weekend.

In fact, in the whole year I only worked twice on a Saturday, each time with several weeks’ notice and got a day off in lieu. One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about the job has been the discipline we have as a team in terms of getting things right. The idea of “that’ll do” simply doesn’t occur; we operate by the motif “if it’s not 100% right, it’s wrong” and that suits my personality and how I work in a professional setting. In that respect, I really do enjoy my job.

Of course, being back in a work environment means having to work with people. In the past on this blog I’ve tried to express that I have some misanthropic tendencies – this is a touch further than a general introversion. There’s one chap in the office who likes to “work people out” and he will characterise them by certain proclivities or personality traits. After having been there for about 9 months he confessed to me that I was still a closed book to him. I don’t go out to the office socials and I avoid any hint of sociability wherever I can, including not going to the office Christmas party. To some, this may be seen as being unfriendly or anti-social, but in reality these are situations that make me intensely uncomfortable and which are best avoided. Just as, given the recent poor weather, one might look outside and see it is cold, wet & windy, you wouldn’t necessarily choose to walk out of the front door in shorts & t-shirt for a casual walk round the local park. But that’s the kind of level of discomfort I’m talking about. My avoidance of this, though not unique, is not necessarily the most common and so the more outgoing characters (who are those I get on with the least) cannot understand this, even if one tries to explain. Thankfully, though, there are other introverts in the department, even if they are not as extreme as I am.

But the year has not really been a resumption of “business as usual” as I had previously felt in my other jobs. Having been made redundant from one and fired from another, I am more aware of the tenuous grasp we have on our careers. Every time my line manager and the head of department had a private conversation, I couldn’t help but be reminded that I’d seen exactly the same happen in the days leading up to my dismissal from the 2nd job I lost in 2012. It physically hurts when that panic twang hits your chest. This was made all the worse as there was a major project going on at around the time my probationary period was due to be up. So my line manager and her boss were constantly going off into private meeting rooms and having conversations which I didn’t know about. Their calendars were blank so I couldn’t see any meeting agendas, so I got paranoid that they were discussing whether or not to keep me on. My probation was never discussed in the days or weeks leading up the date when it was due to expire and I was afraid to bring up the subject in case I came across as impertinent.

As it was, I passed my probationary period and I was “let in” on the secret which they had been discussing (which was a corporate transaction which is now a matter of public record). That put me as ease for a little while, though at that time my personal life took a turn for the worse. So with the combination of a “more secure” job in London combined with a very personal reason for wanting to leave Sussex behind, I made the decision to move, cutting nearly all ties with what had been my home for over 5 years. One or two of you know more details about why this was, but I don’t think I’m ready to put that into writing on the blog yet. In spite of wanting to leave that element of my life behind, I am reminded on a nearly weekly basis of that reason, which may stay with me, even if just as a curse on my lips, for years to come. If there’s anything I’ve come to realise more viscerally than ever before is that our past is not always something that can be left behind. When that past has painful elements to it, it leaves a psychological scar, but like Pavlov’s dogs, the pain can be reawakened at the right (or wrong) signal. So with the private conversations my line manager has with the head of department setting off my alarm bells, I’m not sure I can ever witness that without feeling like my job is on the line.

This is furthered by the fact that the company has recently undergone a change in the directorate. With change comes uncertainty; that much is true in any environment. In the business world, though, that uncertainty almost always surrounds someone’s livelihood. Having been through a redundancy process before, one cannot help but recognise the winds. It’s not a science; it is more akin to a farmer reading the sky. The storm clouds seem to be gathering. I don’t know much for certain; nothing’s been announced and if there were any private memos around, this would not be the place to disclose them.

A job for life is the thing of the past. In a society where are lawmakers try to make it easier to get rid of staff, those of us who might loosely be deemed the working class are constantly looking over our shoulders. I say loosely, because the traditional box labelled “working class” isn’t one I fit into well, especially as I have what one might deem a white-collar job. In this sense of working class, I mean those of us who are hired and fired, rather than those who do the hiring and firing.

The idea of joblessness is no longer a theory for me. I know to stay away from electricity substations (who could forget that public information film we all saw in school?) but only from theory. It is something I have experienced or witnessed. But joblessness is a tangible reality and one that is every bit as unpleasant as the reason I left Sussex. The difference between them is that having a job as source of income, I had the freedom to make the decision to leave, to take my life, pick it up and move it to a different location. Being unemployed has more repercussions; choice is something removed from you. You can’t just pick up and move on. Knowing what that means in the sense of breathing it every day, living with that helplessness, reliant on the decisions of others as to whether or not you will eat or have a roof over your head is a prospect I don’t want to face again, but if the past is something we must look in the eye then I know I can’t run from it forever. The chase will tire me out eventually.

For now, though, happy anniversary.

The Semantics of Statistics

This has been brewing in my head for a while, and now that I’ve got a little time on Saturday night, I shall attempt to get my thoughts into a Word document before copying and pasting into WordPress at a later time.

I get quite annoyed when I read or hear people getting the wrong end of the stick when they talk about statistics and probability. Specifically, my beef is with the use of the word “random” in a very loose way. Of course, I don’t discount the possibility that I have been careless myself, but I can’t think of any examples. To illustrate this, it cropped up in a quite revealing conversation I had recently with a creationist.

I have laid out my position on this before, so I won’t go into too much depth. One trick that catches a lot of people out is the mixture of truth with untruth. In this particular conversation, I pointed out that some very good evolutionary science has had some very poor philosophy attached to it; but the problem that is created is that many of evolution’s best apologists fail to distinguish between them. What then happens is that those who lack the ability to discern between them are left with a choice to either reject or accept this mixture of ideas. Hence, you can often accept some poor thinking (as in the case of those who think evolution rules out God) or you can reject the good science (in the case of the creationist).

My observation, based on talking to a number of those who hold either of these views, is that there is a lack of understanding of what it means to be “random.” The phrases (or something equivalent to them) are that “evolution is a random process” or “genetic variations are random.”  Also, the word “chance” is used in this context though I find this so ambiguous, scientifically speaking, as to be almost useless.  The false interpretation, which seems to be relatively common, is that something which is random is indeterminate. What is true, however, is that it simply means something is unpredictable. Of course, if something is indeterminate, it will be unpredictable, but it is a logical fallacy to say that something which is unpredictable is necessarily indeterminate.

To demonstrate this, we need only consider chaotic motion. One example of this is the motion of a magnet suspended above several others. The motion is governed by a well understood interaction of electromagnetic forces and gravity. However, minor variations in the initial conditions will result in wide differences in the resultant motion. So by observing the initial conditions, one cannot practically measure to a sufficient degree of accuracy in order to be able to predict the motion.

Things get even more pronounced when you talk of quantum mechanics. As most people know, the problem of measurement can no longer become overcome even in theory. In the quantum world, probabilities rule. You no longer speak of a particles position, but rather of the probabilities of finding it in a given position. And if you do find its position precisely, there’s no way of knowing its momentum. For nigh on 100 years, there are have been competing ideas as to how to interpret this, ranging from the Copenhagen interpretation to the many worlds hypothesis.

It’s fascinating how probabilities change simply on the basis of the revelation of information. Anyone who has scratched their ends and eventually come to the right solution for the Monty Hall problem know that the crucial bit of information is that the host knows where the best prize is. Unlike the Monty Hall problem, Deal or No Deal has a host who is clueless as to where the prizes are located. The top prize is £250,000 and at the start of the game there is a 1 in 22 chance that the player has the box with them. But as the game progresses, and the £250,000 is not revealed, the probability increases. Nothing has physically changed about the box, only the information has changed.

Likewise, the last couple of weeks have seen exam results for Scottish Highers, A-Levels and GCSEs. All the papers have been marked and the exam results are known to the examiners. Yet to the students, with a sealed envelope in their hand their lack of knowledge of the contents means that the results could still go either way; they could get the grades they need or they might not. To them, the probability factor makes it indistinguishable from a crazy scenario whereby the results weren’t fixed until they opened the envelope.

I hope that made some kind of sense. I know it’s slightly disjointed. But I hope you found it interesting. Let me know what you think.

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?

Paul: Disciple, apostle, both, neither?

About a month ago now, Gurdur delivered an interesting post on the ministry of Paul, and how it does or doesn’t relate to the ministry of Jesus. The idea that Paul was the real “inventor” of christianity who misinterpreted Jesus is a very old one, but one that has had something of a mini-revival of late.

As it references a couple of other blog posts, I would recommend you follow-up on those as well. I promised Gurdur a response, so here is mine. OK, it’s the start of mine. This has started to snowball, and I’m still trying to dig up some reliable evidence for the later parts. So this is going to be split across several posts, to avoid it becoming a thesis.

As it happens, I was given the book Did St Paul Get Jesus Right? by David Wenham for my birthday, after I made that promise. Though I had an outline of a response in mind after reading Gurdur’s original post, I have subsequently read Wenham’s book (and a review will follow later). So while the thrust of my discussion is unchanged, some of the fine details have been influenced by this subsequent reading.

The main point I wanted to pick up on here was this quote:

“it’s odd how much regard many Christians give Paul, given Paul never even was rumoured to have met Jesus. An experience, a vision along the road to Damascus? So what? Many of us have such things without getting adulated for it. Paul simply wasn’t one of the disciples.”

I’m not sure if Gurdur meant modern christians, early christians or both, though I think in terms of the modern christians, the dominant reasons are the fact that he is credited with writing the largest number of books of the New Testament (even though the writings of Luke actually account for a largest number of words) and also his great erudition in those writings.

I think Gurdur has made a very common mistake here that many christians still get confused about; that of equating the terms “apostle” and “disciple” and using them interchangeably. The Greek term translated as disciple is ‘mathetes’ which can also be translated (according to Strong’s) as ‘student’, ‘follower’ or ‘a committed learner and follower’. In this parlance, a disciple is a very wide group, in a similar way that the term ‘saint’ was originally meant to mean ‘a believer’ and was not reserved for any special set of individuals, which is why I refer to Paul rather than to St Paul. If Gurdur meant he wasn’t one of “The Twelve,” then this is, of course, correct.

On the other hand, the term translated as apostle is ‘apostolos’ derived from ‘apostello’ which means to send out. Etymologically, this is also where get the term apostate from, although in the former sense it is used to mean sent out in a more missionary-style meaning, whereas the latter has connotations of excommunication. Again, referring to Strong’s, one of the uses specifies “often used as in a technical sense for the divinely appointed founders of the church.”

To me, one of the key passages in understanding the difference is Matthew 10, when the gospel author begins by saying “And having called his twelve disciples, He gave them authority over unclean spirits, so as to throw them out, and to heal every disease and every weakness of the body. And the names of the twelve apostles were….”

I understand this as a demonstration that there is a difference between a disciple and an apostle, and that difference is the authority given to them by Jesus. A disciple is someone who follows a given leader, but an apostle is someone who is sent out with authority by a leader.

The split in the uses between apostle & disciple is very interesting. The term apostle is used only once in Matthew (in the passage cited above), once in Mark, 6 times in Luke and never in John. The majority of the uses are in the book of Acts with the rest of the uses scattered amongst the epistles. If you compare this to the term disciple, the latter’s use is never used in the epistles. It is used 242 times between Matthew & Acts. Matthew has the most with around 75 uses; Acts has the fewest with about 27 (I haven’t been too precise in my counting).

Further evidence to support the difference between the disciples and apostles is provided in the first use in Acts, in chapter 1. Peter is described as standing up in the middle of the disciples, who numbered about 120. He goes on to talk about replacing Judas, who by this time had committed suicide. Two possible candidates were chosen from amongst those who had been with them since Jesus’s baptism from John. This implies to me there was a bit of a crowd that followed Jesus regularly, in addition to The Twelve. This does make for an interesting view when you read the gospels and read of Jesus talking to his disciples, where many (I think) assume the gospel author is talking about 12 individuals, when I think it may in fact be more; but I’m not certain of this.

Anyway, that was a long interlude. Back to Paul. The question is, was he really an apostle?

Although I am not well versed in the reasons for believing it, I am of the understanding that Galatians is widely considered to be the earliest of the books to be written by Paul. His opening statement is pretty unequivocal in affirming his apostleship.

It is not surprising that there is general harmony between the accounts of Paul’s conversion (I really hate that word, by the way, it makes it sound like a person is a car) in Acts and Galatians. Given that is likely that Acts was written by Luke, who joined Paul on one of his later journeys, then the accounts that Luke gives (in chapters 9, 22 and 26) was probably passed on to him by Paul in the first place. It has to be noted that even Luke makes a bit blunder in internal consistency as to whether or not Paul’s companions heard a voice or not (compare 9:7 with 22:9). Again, here we see a differentiation between the disciples and the apostles in that Paul says he didn’t meet up with the apostles for 3 years after Damascus (Galatians 1:12-20) yet in the account in Acts the first thing he did was go to the disciples in Acts 9:1-26.

When the term apostle is used in relation to Paul, the main passage I would reference is 1 Corinthians 9 where it seems evident that Paul has made a claim to be an apostle but that this is disputed by some people in in the church at Corinth. In verse 1, Paul’s own definition seems to be someone who has seen Jesus, which is where we come back to Gurdur’s point about the road to Damascus.

I don’t know precisely what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. I have heard the explanation of an epileptic fit, and indeed I have heard that used a possible explanation of what some passages of the bible describe as demonic possession. Some of this is explored by Charles Foster in his book, Wired For God, where he states, “The history of religion is crowded with epileptics,” and this is then referenced to The Falling Sickness: A History of Epilepsy from the Greeks to the Beginning of Modern Neurology by O. Temkin, though I have not read this book myself. The one thing I think it is fairly safe to say is that something happened to Paul; I think to claim that the whole episode was conjured up seems far-fetched, given that Paul was travelling was others present at the time who could have easily testified otherwise. The fact that they are neither named nor referred to again except for the Damascus testimonies is, for the historian, just a bit annoying. But it doesn’t falsify Paul’s testimony.

I think Gurdur summed it up well with the phrase: “Unanswered and unanswerable questions.” From my point of view, I don’t think it’s particularly important whether or not we consider Paul to be an apostle. The only time it really makes anything more than a semantic difference is if one appeals to “apostolic authority” in relation to the formation of the New Testament canon.

In the next part of the response, I’ll be looking a bit more at the authorship of some of the Pauline corpus and considering whether or not some, all or none was forged.

How do you define a christian? Part 2: Creeds & Confessions

Link to part 1.

One of the major developments in the history of christianity was the development of the various creeds. Probably the most famous of these in the Nicene Creed, which came out of the first council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. There are various other creeds such the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasean Creed, the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession. These have been used over the years as a statement of faith to affirm what various christians believe. i.e. a christian might be defined as someone who agrees with one or more of these statements of faith. However, I have some reservations about them:

Firstly, they are often taken as foundational, when in fact they are really conclusions. I recently had someone “throw” the Nicene creed at me during a discussion as their way of stating what I believed. I found it quite ironic as the discussion had been started by an atheist who was tired of being told what he believed, and I pointed out that christians were also often “told” what they believed. I think the irony was, unfortunately, lost on my accuser. However, it showed the perception that such creeds have outside of christianity, as being the basis on which on all else rests. As I shall demonstrate later in this post, there are some conclusions in them that I have not yet reached.

If you were to define a christian as someone who believes one or more of the creeds, then what about someone like me who has some reservations about a few points? It strikes me as a little too dogmatic.

Second, there is a dilemma over how long or short they should be. Generally, the shorter they are, the more inclusive they are, and the level of inclusiveness will decrease the more detail is included. I will deal with inclusion/exclusion in a little more detail in the next part. For now, I am not convinced that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians that:

“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”(1 Cor 1:10, NKJV)

that he had in mind a kind of “Stepford church” where everyone absolutely thought the same thing. After all, the same letter has chapter 12 in it (I won’t copy it all here) where he talks about us all being different, yet united in Christ. So it seems to me more reasonable to suppose that in chapter 1, what he had in mind was that all should agree on “the basics.” Of course, here is where we hit the nub of the problem – how do agree a) what the topics that should be foundational are and, b) what the content of those statements should be.

I have had many disagreements over the years with people over what issues are foundational. Admittedly, most of those have been with creationists who argue along the lines that if you don’t believe the literalist interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, then how can you claim to believe any of the bible.

The more interesting debates are on b) where people’s own theologies and prejudices really come to the fore, my own included, though I shan’t delve into them here. I’m sure a browse through this blog (especially anything tagged “apologetics” will reveal something of my worldview)

The third objection I have about creeds is their formalistic structure. The bible is not a book of systematic theology. Nor is it simply a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” To restrict the books of bible to a short list of normative statements has two effects:

1) It strips the bible of its richness. There is much that is nuanced in the composition of the bible, with the same topics being approached from different viewpoints by different writers, addressed to different audiences.

2) It sets in stone what may already be misunderstood and creates further room for misunderstanding. I would liken this to the codifying of the American constitution, where the supreme court judges have it as their job to interpret the constitution and where, it seems to me, their interpretations can be quite far removed from the intentions of the original authors. It is a case of a text being ripped from its context as a pretext.

Of course, in all this, I have not (yet) denied the actual content of the creeds themselves. I will only state my reservations about one (the Apostles’ Creed), for fear of boring you even further, and of repeating myself. You can then decide whether to burn me at the stake or not.

1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:
5. The third day he rose again from the dead:
6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:
8. I believe in the Holy Ghost:
9. I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:
10. The forgiveness of sins:
1l. The resurrection of the body:
12. And the life everlasting. Amen.

In point 3, I am not convinced of the historicity of the virgin birth. Firstly, the eyewitness evidence “from the beginning” was from the start of Jesus’ ministry as an adult, so I am quite sceptical about the source from which Matthew and Luke obtained the nativity narrative. There is also the potential that Matthew in particular was not originally a Greek composition, and that the word that was translated as virgin (gk: parthenos) may have originally meant “young girl.” This latter theory seems to be falsified though by verse 18 of the first chapter “Now of Iesous Messiah the birth thus was: being betrothed for the mother of Him, Mariam, to Ioseph, before joining of them, she was found in womb, pregnant by Spirit Holy.” (Green’s literal translation).

In point 4, there is a statement that Jesus “descended into hell.” The canonical gospels make no mentioned of where Jesus went (if anywhere at all) during the time of his death. To the best of my knowledge (please correct me if I am mistaken), the idea of Jesus going to hell was a comparatively late idea, and the earliest writings to contain the idea was in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter. The earliest date for this work is the mid-second century, though it was more likely written towards the end of that century. In it, there is “a voice out of the heavens crying, “Hast thou preached to them that sleep [i.e. the dead]?” and from the [talking] cross was heard the answer, “Yes.””

The point that really sticks in my craw is point 9: “I believe in a holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” At the time it was composed, nothing resembling the modern Roman Catholic church had been established. The first use of the term “pope” (I am here using the Anglicisation, if you will forgive both the linguistic sloppiness and the denominational pun!) was used as a descriptive for Damasus the first, some half a century after the first council of Nicaea. The term catholic, therefore, had the contemporary meaning of “worldwide” with none of the connotations that we would associate with Roman Catholicism today. My point here is not so much with the actual statement of this section of the creed, but rather with the wording as used, which I think is misleading to the modern reader. Readers who are likely to misinterpret the term “catholic” are also likely to misunderstand the term “saints” where this is actually a general term for believers, rather than any special subset of holy folk who have been beatified.

So far, I’ve been quite negative, and you have probably tsk’d and tutted your way through this with various disagreements along the way. To try and give some balance to this, I’m not wholly opposed to them. I think they can be a great guide to study where we can ask “how were these conclusions reached?” and “why are these considered the important points?” However, I believer in the idea that christianity is not restricting, it is freeing. And I will choose to exercise my free thought to believe what I think is true, and not to be dictated by some conclusions that others have made for me.

To my understanding, one of the key features of their development was less about asserting what christians believed to those outside the church, but rather to defend against heresies that had developed within the church. So for example, some of the items included in the Athanasian creed were included for the specific purpose of countering Arianism. By this, there was an attempt to make a distinction between who “truly” was a christian and who merely professed to be such. This leads to the sociological problem of “the other” and how that may be used to define a group identity, which I shall look at in the next part.