Jul 13 • 21M

Snake-think

Our problems with apologetics are as old as Adam

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This is the audio version of a regular weekly email journal from Tony Payne, that seeks to apply the liberating truth of Christ crucified to every aspect of life and ministry.
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I was doing some teaching on apologetics recently on Campus, and as we milled around outside afterwards, one of the students asked a thoughtful question.

Why is it that contemporary apologetics mostly focuses on the two approaches that enjoy the least biblical support and have the most risks attached?

To understand the question, some background.

My presentation had been based on the ‘Seven types of apologetics’ essay that I rolled out on The Payneful Truth last year (pt 1, pt 2). As a refresher (or to save you reading from scratch), I argued that in the varied world of contemporary apologetics and evangelistic persuasion, the word ‘apologetics’ gets thrown around pretty loosely—so much so that it’s possible to identify seven different kinds of persuasion or argument that might have the label ‘apologetics’ slapped on them these days.  They were:

  1. Gospel persuasion: the arguments and evidence and reasoning that we employ when actually explaining the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection (e.g. evidence that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead).

  2. Gospel objections: having explained the gospel, we answer the various questions and objections that people raise against it (e.g. “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?”; “I don’t believe that we are all sinners and rebels”; and so on).

  3. Pre-emptive objections: before we get to talking about the gospel itself, we might address the general objections people have to God and Christianity (e.g. “Why does God allow suffering?”; “Hasn’t science disproved Christianity?”; “Why is Christianity so anti-women and anti-gay?” etc.)  

  4. Building Christian confidence: one function or type of apologetics is bolstering the confidence of Christians by providing answers and reasons for their doubts, and for the common objections that society throws at us.

  5. God talk and life: way back at the ‘engage’ or pre-evangelistic end of the spectrum, the way we talk and behave in everyday life can open up and commend the subject of the gospel, in a Colossians 4:5-6 kind of way.

  6. Positive reasons: These are positive arguments we put forward for the truth or attractiveness of the Christian faith. They might be some version of the classic proofs of the existence of God; they might be arguments that start with the people’s inherent desires and aspirations and show that Christianity fulfills them; they might seek to present the positive goodness of Christianity in the most reasonable and attractive way, to get some traction with the modern, secular person.

  7. Critique (kategoria): Rather than provide a defense or ‘apologia’, this form of persuasion points out the inconsistencies and dysfunctions in the non-Christian worldview. It critiques the world, rather than answering the critiques of the world. (Paul’s speech in Acts 17 is a classic case in point.)

I argued that we find types 1, 2, 4, 5, and 7 in the example and instructions of the apostles, and suggested that these were the ones we should also focus on in our own evangelism and persuasion. Types 3 and 6—‘Pre-emptive objections’ and ‘Positive reasons’—are not only difficult to find in the New Testament but have considerable risks attached. The ‘pre-emptive objections’ approach puts us on the backfoot, and often gives too much credence to the validity or genuineness of the objection; the ‘positive reasons’ strategy often seeks to frame Christianity in terms that are attractive to the prevailing secular mind, thereby risking a distortion of the counter-intuitive, offensive nature of the gospel.

Unfortunately, it is precisely these two latter types (3 and 6) that tend to dominate the field of contemporary apologetics and persuasion.

Hence the question I was asked: How has this come to be the case? Why do we end up focusing on the two apologetic approaches that have least to commend them?

In answer, I made a few vague, stuttering remarks about the trends of modern thought, and our temptation to give the world too much credit, and our lack of belief in the power of the gospel itself, and how everything had gone to pot since the Enlightenment, and so on. All no doubt true, but a bit incoherent.

But then a few days later, in the slow process of moving some books around at home—slow because I keep stopping to browse through old favourites—I came across Graeme Goldsworthy’s underappreciated Gospel-centred Hermeneutics. Not a light read but full of gold. And I remembered and found again this section on page 60:

Sinful thinking is ‘snake-think’, the kind of noetic rebellion proposed by the serpent in Eden. It is diametrically opposed to the mind renewed by the gospel … At this point we can say that the godless presuppositions underlying the temptation and fall in Genesis 3 include the following:

  • If God is there, he does not communicate the truth.

  • We do not need God to reveal the rational framework for understanding reality;

  • Human reason is autonomous, and the ultimate arbiter of truth and falsity, right and wrong.

In essence, these presuppositions are those of the secular mind that were given such sophisticated expression in the philosophies of the Enlightenment.

‘Noetic rebellion’—there’s a phrase you would only hear spoken in the halls of academe. ‘Noetic’ means ‘to do with the mind’ (from the Greek word nous, ‘mind’, ‘understanding’, ‘intellectual perception’). Why we can’t just say ‘mental rebellion’ I’m not sure, but I digress.

At one level, Goldsworthy’s point is one that you’ve heard in a thousand sermons on Genesis 3—that the fall involved a false set of assumptions and beliefs about God: that even if he is there, we can’t trust him and don’t need him; that we can gain wisdom and truth on our own terms; that we can become like God ourselves, as self-legislating judges of what is true and good.

Goldsworthy’s insight, however, is that this primal ‘snake-think’ is precisely the program of the Enlightenment, and the foundation of modern thought. The Enlightenment was the humanistic project beginning in the late 17th century that sought to cast off the dark, dim understanding of our forebears, who relied on God and his revelation to understand the world. The Enlightenment thinkers wanted to see if we could figure it all out for ourselves, without an answer coming to us ‘from outside’. Could knowledge and truth and morality be found by following our own reason and instincts and experience? Surely yes, said the Enlightenment, and tried to do so.

Fast forward to today, and we are the inheritors of several centuries of what amounts to very sophisticated snake-think. The progress of the Enlightenment has been anything but smooth. In fact, the ‘post-modern’ movement was basically the realization that the assumptions of the Enlightenment were overly optimistic and self-defeating.

All the same, even if post-modern thinkers are a tad less confident about our ability to figure it all out ourselves, the basic serpentine assumption remains. It’s as old as Adam. If there is any rationality or truth or goodness or morality to be found, it will only be discovered or created by us, on our own terms, through our own reason and experience.

Any proposal, therefore, that is put forward—whether Christian or otherwise—needs to accept these ground rules. The truth or falsity of something, its rightness or wrongness, its goodness or badness, its usefulness or otherwise, can only be established on terms decided by us.

In our noetically rebellious world, human reason and experience occupy the bench as Judge. If Christianity wishes to argue for itself, it needs to take its place in the dock, like everything else, and defend itself. It needs to answer the Judge’s objections and questions. It needs to show itself good and reasonable according to our current, autonomous standards of reason and experience.

This is where Goldsworthy’s insight helps answer my student’s question about the focus of much contemporary apologetics.

We find it very easy to focus on apologetic strategy number 3 (pre-emptive objections) and number 6 (positive reasons) because they fit within the dominant thought-patterns of our whole culture, the gravitational pull of which is hard to escape. We’ve grown up with snake-think. It’s the air we breathe. We find it almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which human reason and experience are not the judge and arbiter of everything. By long habit, we assume that Christianity’s normal place is in the dock, cap in hand, seeking to fend off the secular world’s objections and allegations, and hoping to provide attractive, compelling reasons that might satisfy the Judge, or at least make him regard us less negatively.

But you can see the problem. By adopting these apologetic strategies, we choose to work within the framework of the noetic rebellion of our culture. We implicitly accept the ground rules of snake-think, and hope that we can somehow persuade the Judge to think better of us and the gospel, or even to accept the truth of our claim.

This has two real downsides.

Firstly, it doesn’t and can’t work. The Judge of human reason will never be satisfied by the arguments and claims of the genuine gospel, because to do so would require a total reversal of positions. To accept the gospel claim would require the Judge to lay down his gavel, take off his robe, humbly enter the dock, and plead guilty to rebelling against the true creator, lord and judge of the world. What human judge is going to do that?

Secondly, it leads us to change the message. We craft our arguments and persuasion to appeal to snake-think; that is, to a set of human standards, rationalities, aspirations and tastes that are shot-through with rebellion against God. The gospel is the opposite of this—it shames worldly wisdom and refuses to be known by it (see 1 Cor 1-2). It’s hard to see how we could dabble in approaches 3 and 6 at any depth, without it changing our gospel proclamation for the worse.

The great news, though, is that the gospel provides a profound critique of snake-think and a wonderful redemption from it. The simple old gospel is powerfully effective because it addresses the simple old problem—which also happens to be the simple modern problem: rebellion against God. Gospel persuasion is accusatory and liberating rather than defensive or apologetic, because it calls on all people everywhere to leave behind their noetic rebellion and turn back to the only wise God.

That’s how Paul approached the Athenian sophisticates in Acts 17. Rather than adopting a defensive stance—as if he and his message were on trial, and needing to be justified—he gives a quite devastating critique of their foolish idolatry and ignorance, and puts them in the dock before the God and judge of the world. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

Surely it can’t be as simple as that? Won’t people laugh at such a message?

Some will, as they did in Athens.

But by the grace and power of God, others will say “We will hear you again about this” (Acts 17:32).


PS

Goldsworthy’s point (in the passage quoted above) has relevance for so much else. He makes it in the context of how we read, interpret and apply the Bible today (‘hermeneutics’), arguing that Christ as the centre and key of the Scriptures is thus the centre and key for all human knowledge and interpretation.

This is in fact why his argument has relevance for how we think about nearly everything, because it diagnoses the problem that besets all human knowledge in every human culture of every age. The Christ-centred message of the Bible explains us to ourselves, no matter who we are or when or where we live. We don’t need sophisticated cultural analysis to understand the truly important problems of humanity and their solution. In fact, our cultural analysis is so compromised by snake-think that it always misunderstands the true nature of ourselves and the world (because it is predicated on a rejection of the God who created the world).

As I said, Gospel-centred Hermeneutics is no light read, but it’s very much worth it.


A reminder about The Centre for Christian Living event on ‘Deception’ that I’m speaking at on August 24. These events are great for small groups to take a week’s break from their normal Bible study and consider a topic—you can attend as a group in person, or watch it together on livestream. All the details are at the CCL website.