Category Archives: Apologetics

Confronting Old Testament Controversies, by Tremper Longman. A Review

As a Christian, do you tend to ignore the Old Testament? Do the topics of evolution, Israelite history, violence, and sexuality, with respect to the Old Testament tend to freak you out, due to all of the controversies, surrounding these topics?

Dr. Tremper Longman, professor emeritus at Westmont College, who specializes in the Old Testament, tackles these tough topics in a respectful manner in Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions about Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence. Most Christians have probably not heard of Dr. Longman, yet he has typically operated in “stealth mode,” for ordinary Christians. They are probably unaware of Longman’s pervasive influence in the world of Bible translation. Nearly every major contemporary English Bible translation in use by evangelicals today bears some influence of his. So, when professor Longman stepped in and wrote a book about the toughest controversies in the Old Testament, I knew I that must read it and offer a review.

Do you desire to know and love God’s Word, as found in the Old Testament, but wrestle with some doubts, as to how to read it? Dr. Tremper Longman offers some vital assistance in Confronting Old Testament Controversies.

 

Helping Christians to Better Navigate Controversies, to Encourage Christians to Read Their Old Testament

Reading the Old Testament is sadly neglected by many Christians today, but Dr. Longman makes the Old Testament a lot less intimidating. Longman addresses the “hot potato” issues that have surfaced in popular culture, since the arrival of the “New Atheism,” in the wake of 9/11. Voices like that of Richard Dawkins have dismissed the God of the Old Testament as vindictive, capricious, and violent.

The Old Testament has taken quite a beating in public debates, in the wake of 9/11, and a number of evangelical and “progressive Christian” scholars have sought to answer such critiques. However, while Tremper Longman is sympathetic with these recent attempts to somehow “improve” the Old Testament’s reputation, he carefully shows how some of these re-examinations of the Old Testament fall short of accurately reflecting the actual message of the Old Testament, suggesting better ways to move forward.

Confronting Old Testament Controversies is therefore an engagement with contemporary scholars, who have made an impact on popular publishing regarding Old Testament difficulties, over the past ten to fifteen years or so. A number of these books look at the Old Testament with some sense of embarrassment, sort of like portraying the Old Testament as that crazy uncle of yours, who says wild and outlandish things at your Thanksgiving dinner. You sort of tolerate your uncle, but you manage to find a nice way to shift the conversation. However, Tremper Longman’s main audience is evangelical Christians, who hold to a high view of Scriptural authority, and who want to take the whole of the Bible seriously, but who find themselves troubled at times, with what they read in the Old Testament.

Longman is basically a theological conservative-moderate, when it comes to understanding the Old Testament. He does not find compelling highly-conservative views of the Old Testament, such as Young Earth Creationism, that tend to sidestep the Ancient Near East worldview of the Old Testament writers. But on the other hand, Dr. Longman does not buy into the more critical, revisionist views of the Old Testament, ranging from liberal mainline Old Testament scholars, like a Walter Brueggeman, to “post-evangelical” or “progressive Christian” scholars, who claim at least some partial affinity with evangelical thinking, like Peter Enns.

Here is a summary of Tremper Longman’s approach: Dr. Longman suggests that the scientific theory of biological evolution is fully compatible with the Old Testament’s teaching on God’s creation of the world and the fall of humanity into sin. He fully supports the traditional positions Christians have held, regarding human sexuality, for the past 2,000 years. Dr. Longman does not shy away from the charges levied by the “New Atheists,” regarding claims of genocide and child abuse being sanctioned in the Old Testament. But he does encourage the reader to better understand the Ancient Near East context, in which the Old Testament was written, as being the key to better interpreting such tough passages in the Scriptures. God is a God of judgment against evil, and not a perpetrator of genocide or child abuse.

Digging into Old Testament Controversies

Taking a closer look at Dr. Longman’s treatment of the creation vs. evolution controversy, he argues that there is a basic historicity, even of the earliest parts of Genesis, but he contends that the literary genre of texts, like Genesis 1-11, and the extensive use of metaphor in such texts, makes it difficult to nail down specific historical claims. He acknowledges, for example, that the New Testament does assume a degree of historicity, such as with the Flood of Noah, though the particular details of that historicity are difficult to determine. Longman contends that the primary concern of the New Testament writers is to make certain theological points, such as God’s universal judgment against human sin with respect to the flood, and less on the concrete details of the historical event.

He is also prepared to say that an historical Adam and Eve is not necessary in order to retain the fundamental theology, associated with the creation texts. This does NOT mean that Adam and Eve did not exist, as two historical persons. Rather it is to say that the truthfulness of the Bible does not hinge on demonstrating the historicity of Adam and Eve. Contrary to a certain group of scholars, who in recent years have had a pronounced voice at BioLogos, an evangelical think-tank seeking to find harmony between the Bible and science, Longman firmly believes that humans are created in God’s image and that there was an historic, cosmic Fall. It follows from these fundamental biblical teachings that sin, and the effects of sin, have permeated humanity, thus setting up the need for human salvation, that Christ came to accomplish. Attempts to diminish humanity’s fall into sin, by claiming evolutionary science as an ally, are wrong-headed ways of reading the Old Testament, and should be rejected. In this approach, Dr. Longman fits within an interpretive tradition that goes back to earlier generations of thinkers, such as C.S. Lewis.

Though not a scientist, Tremper Longman is willing to accept the current genetic and biological thinking, that would rule out a single human couple as the sole progenitors of the entire human race. He finds no need to look for concordist solutions, like that of a Glenn Morton, that might find concrete agreement between the Bible and modern science, as he contends that the Bible does not purpose to reveal the intricate details of a scientific approach to the world. It is unfortunate that Dr. Longman published his book before Joshua Swamidass published The Genealogical Adam and Eve. It would have been interesting to see how Dr. Longman might have modified his view, upon interacting fully with Swamidass’ thesis (see my earlier review of Swamidass).

Longman’s treatment of the controversies concerning the historicity of the Exodus and Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, are generally aligned with most other evangelical approaches to such controversies, though he does not envision the traditional calculation of 2-4 million Israelites wandering through the Sinai desert. Instead, Dr. Longman is content to say that the biblical record suggests a smaller force of former slaves, making their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan, numbering in the tens of thousands, as opposed to the several million (this view concurs with my reading of the relevant texts). Longman suggests that such a reading of Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land is fully consistent with Scripture, as well as modern archaeology.

Longman argues against certain “progressive evangelical” attempts to dehistoricize Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, advanced by scholars, such as Kenton Sparks,in his Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture (see my review of Sparks from another book he helped to write on the historicity of Genesis). Sparks, along with others, like Eric Seibert, in his The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy, believe that the claim of the God of the Old Testament, as being a god of violence, is without warrant, because there was no such violent conquest of the land of Canaan to begin with. Essentially such revisionist reviews contend that the narrative of the Book of Judges best describes how the Israelites arose within the land of Canaan. The conquest view, as detailed in the Book of Joshua, was basically made up in the mind of the Scriptural author, a fictionalizing of ancient Israelite history meant to address concerns in the minds of Jews during and after the Babylonian Exile.

Yet Dr. Longman is unconvinced by such reasoning, as he contends that the warrior status of Yahweh, the God of Israel, is fundamental to the Israelite conception of God. However, the warrior nature of Yahweh is not one of genocide, or unwarranted violence, but rather that of a God of judgment, who punishes wickedness and fights against evil. Therefore, Longman sees no compelling need to try to de-historicize the basic contour of the Joshua conquest.

Longman also engages perspectives that align towards more classically-oriented evangelical views of Scripture, such as scholars like Paul Copan, John Walton, Preston Sprinkle, and Gregory Boyd (follow those links to see some relevant book titles), particularly when it comes to the question of divine violence in the Old Testament. Reading the works of these other authors should be balanced alongside Tremper Longman’s nuanced critiques of these works. The differences between Longman and these other authors are relatively minor (as compared to the vast differences between Longman and writers like Seibert and Sparks). But as Copan, Sprinkle, and Boyd are probably more familiar to evangelical readers, Tremper Longman’s engagement with the details are very helpful.

Longman resists the current trend towards rejecting a traditional Christian view of marriage and human sexuality, a trend that is taken up by more progressive thinkers. For example, he believes that while Christians need to do a better job of reaching out to same-sex attracted persons, he nevertheless concludes that same-sex relations are not within the scope of God’s purposes for human sexuality, per the teaching of both Old and New Testaments. Longman makes specific recommendations that Christians should be more intentional in making room for single people, including those who are same-sex attracted, in the the life of the church, while still affirming the biblical teaching of marriage between a man and a woman.

Tremper Longman’s position upholding the concept of marriage, solely between a man and a woman, is surely not popular within the larger cultural conversation during today’s era. But he advises that Scripture urges believers to live at peace among our non-believing neighbors. As one notable expression of this, he recommends that Christians back off from attempts to get the state to pass and enforce anti-homosexuality laws, as he sees that such legislation is counterproductive to maintaining a positive Christian witness in our postmodern, secular society.

Having personally wrestled with such interpretive Old Testament issues over the years, I have appreciated Dr. Longman’s fresh approach to deal honestly with the challenges of the Old Testament, while still encouraging his readers to avoid a kind of “practical Marcionism,” as Longman puts it, that would lower our confidence in the Bible.

Marcion was a 2nd-century Christian who advocated getting rid of the Old Testament. Marcion’s views were soundly rejected as being heretical by the early church. A better way to deal with a “practical Marcion” approach is to appreciate a more robust understanding of progressive revelation. Once we see that the teaching of the New Testament completes the job of what was started in the Old Testament, it puts the Old Testament in a more proper perspective.

One particular benefit in Confronting Old Testament Controversies is how carefully and generously Dr. Longman interacts with the writings of his former student, Pete Enns, another Old Testament scholar, the author of The Bible Tells Me So, who runs the “The Bible for Normal People” podcast, that is very popular among more liberal-leaning, “progressive” Christians. Dr. Longman is strongly opposed to some of the readings that Pete Enns gives to certain parts of the Old Testament, but he does so in such a friendly manner, that it is truly a model for good, irenic conversation, despite having fundamental disagreements. I wish I could be that charitable towards others, when such theological disagreements come up.

I had read Pete Enns The Bible Tells Me So about five years ago, and I was quite disappointed to see how far Pete had moved beyond his position, as expressed earlier in his 2005 Incarnation and Inspiration. In many ways, Confronting Old Testament Controversies is the book I wish Pete Enns would have written, as a followup to Incarnation and Inspiration, so I am very glad that Tremper Longman, as a longtime friend, former teacher, and cheerful critic, wrote what he wrote. Dr. Longman works out a view of biblical inerrancy, by developing a very helpful approach to biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), that takes the challenges offered by the Old Testament with seriousness, while not being totally drawn into unwarranted skepticism.

One unresolved area for me, when reading Longman, has to deal with God’s commands for Joshua and the Israelites for them to destroy the Canaanites, including young children.  In Joshua 6:21, we read, “They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys,” and in Deuteronomy 20:16-17a, “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction.” Christian apologist and philosopher Paul Copan regards this type of language as hyperbole, thus avoiding the claim that bothers many Christians, that God is somehow endorsing infanticide, or even, indirectly, abortion, by silently including pregnant women and infants in with the command to completely destroy the Canaanites. Yet Longman suggests that this type of reading by Copan is really wishful thinking: “As much as we might want to believe that God did not command the death of women and children, such a view finds no support in the relevant texts” (Longman, p. 169).

Tremper Longman’s view of divine violence was probably the weakest part of the book for me. My concern in Tremper Longman’s critique is that I am not entirely convinced that Copan’s view is completely subject to the criticism of being mere wishful thinking. God’s treatment of such classes of vulnerable human persons, and subjecting them to death, would surely be the case in the story of Noah’s flood, which made no distinction when the flood waters presumably killed small children and pregnant women, as part of God’s judgment against humanity’s sin. We have no Scriptural text that indicates that small children and pregnant women were somehow secretly snuck onboard the ark, to avoid the terrors of the floodwaters. The possibility of a large local flood, as opposed to a global flood, offers some leeway here where some humans might have found sanctuary in some unknown manner. 2 Peter 2:5 does say that the flood came upon the “world of the ungodly,” thus suggesting a possible, more limited scope of the flood, but such a conclusion would still be pure speculation. Nevertheless, with respect to Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, the use of hyperbolic and exaggerated language, a common characteristic of ancient writings of all kinds, lends some credibility to Paul Copan’s viewpoint.

Framing Old Testament Controversies within the Context of the New Testament… and Doing So Responsibly

Thankfully the vast bulk of the Old Testament is not fraught with such theological difficulties. Nevertheless, there are topics like these in Scripture that grate against modern sensibilities, for which wishful thinking does not always successfully erase. To pretend that these difficulties are not there is dishonest. We just simply have to acknowledge the presence of such difficult texts in the Bible, accepting their authority, and try to make sense of how such teaching is to be applied in the post-New Testament era. Vigorous debate still continues concerning what applications of certain Old Testament teachings and principles have been superseded under the New Covenant. Yet ultimately, the Old Testament needs to be read within the light of the New Testament, as the New Testament stands as the definitive commentary on the Old Testament.

That being said, the presence of God-ordained violence in the Old Testament is problematic for many evangelical Christians today, who without hesitation condemn all sorts of abortion and infanticide, as being contrary to the revealed plans and purposes of God. As I have not read Paul Copan extensively on this topic, I will reserve further judgment on Longman’s critique until I have looked more at Copan’s argumentation in greater detail.

Thankfully, the progressive nature of God’s revelation in Scripture need not deter us from saying that the New Testament emphasis on giving everyone the opportunity to have faith in Christ, including the unborn and infants, supersedes any possible ethical difficulties found in the Old Testament. For God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4 NIV). Nowhere do we read in the New Testament that infants and the unborn are not to be included by the “all people” mentioned in this text. Christians are called to be “prolife,” for at least that one reason.

It is as though there is a tension in the Old Testament, contrasting God’s judgment against evil and sin, that pertains to all of us, while still yet another theme that emphasizes God’s universal love for all that God created. The story of Jonah preaching to those wicked Ninevites, where Jonah complains about God’s compassion and mercy towards the enemies of Israel, is a good example of this universalistic theme. This does not mean ultimately that all will be saved in the end, nor does it mean that God will wipe out all of humanity, or close to it, as was done with the flood of Noah. It is by looking at the message of the New Testament whereby we begin to see how this tension might be resolved.

There are few cases where I would take issue with Longman on certain interpretations of particular passages.  For example, he favors the New Living Translation (NLT) reading of Genesis 3:16, “And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.” (p.214-215).  I am not convinced that the translation of the Hebrew word behind “desire” necessarily implies the concept of “control.” It could simply mean a sense of “longing,” as opposed to a concept that implies some sort of power struggle between man and woman (See my engagement with this text, along with Wendy Alsup’s research and exegesis). However, such criticisms of Confronting Old Testament Controversies need not override the overwhelming positive tenor and aim of Longman’s helpful book.

Not everything in the Bible is neat and tidy. There are clearly moments I wish it was, but to be honest, that probably would not be a good idea. Having a stock of answers that can not be questioned is a recipe for spiritual pride. I would rather have some unsettled questions in my mind than I would having pat and easy answers to difficult questions, that tend to paper over and hide the difficulties. Thankfully, there is more to the story than getting stuck on difficulties in the Old Testament. The good news to be found in the Gospel is that the New Testament completes the story that the Old Testament started.

I would recommend Confronting Old Testament Controversies for anyone who struggles with doubt regarding what they read in the Old Testament, even if one is not convinced by every position that Longman ultimately lands on. Along with Wheaton College’s John Walton and Dr. Michael Heiser, at Celebration Church, Jacksonville, Florida, Dr. Tremper Longman joins my list of perhaps being among the best living Old Testament scholars, who write specifically for a non-academic audience.

For a couple of excellent interviews with Dr. Tremper Longman, about important topics in the book, you should view the following two interviews, on Preston Sprinkle’s video podcast:


Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland. An Extended Review

Where did “secularism” come from? Are secular values at war with Christianity?

The late venerable statesman for Protestant evangelical Christianity, J. I. Packer, remarked that the greatest threat to evangelical faith today comes not from the so-called “religious” world, such as the revival of a resurgent Roman Catholicism, bent on undercutting the principles of the Reformation. Neither does it come from an amalgamation of Eastern religiosity, as in the New Age Movement, and perhaps not even from Islam, despite its rapid growth. Rather, the “Great Tradition” of Christianity, the triad of evangelical Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, share a common adversary: a relentless and pervasive secularism. The various strands of Christianity have their profound differences, but they all face together a common challenge: Secularism is the acid that corrodes Christian belief.

Originally, the English word “secularize” came into use during the period of the Protestant Reformation, when lands owned by the church were confiscated and placed in the hands of the state. To make something secular in the 16th century was not an attack on Christianity, but rather, a means of empowering the state to limit the influence and power of the Roman Catholic Church.

But what drives the ethical and worldview imperatives of a secular view of reality in the 21st century? Today, many contend that secularism owes its origins to classical, ancient Greece, only to be pushed aside by the rise of the Christian church, in the Roman empire. Centuries later, by at least the 18th century, secularism was revived through the narrative of Enlightenment, with the triumph of a scientific approach to the world, over and against the superstitious outlook of Christianity, whereby slavery was eventually eradicated, human rights celebrated, and the shackles of repressive sexual restrictions removed…. so the story goes.

Tom Holland, a leading popular historian from the U.K., who has written top-notch histories of the ancient world, once embraced this dominant, contemporary secular perspective (this Tom Holland is not to be confused with the Spiderman actor!). Holland had grown up in the Church of England, but his fascination with dinosaurs as a child triggered his eventual move away from the Christian faith towards atheism. Sunday School depictions of Adam and Eve running around with dinosaurs, merely a few thousand years ago, effectively caused this young boy to doubt his tender faith in the God of the Bible. The glamorous romanticism of the ancient Greeks caught his imagination instead, which has inspired his writing career.

Yet years later, Holland’s latest book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, dismantled his own earlier thesis, of a secular view of the world superseding Christianity. Now Holland believes, despite the loud appeals otherwise, that it is Christianity that has made the modern world what it is. Christians should take notice of Tom Holland’s revisionist perspective of history, as he has given us a helpful framework for understanding where the Christian church is, in this current cultural moment, resulting from decades of social change.

The Christian roots of our growing secular world has created a crisis, that few secular intellectual elites have been willing to accept, up until recently. A liberal secularism embraces human rights, the equal dignity of all persons (except, apparently, in the case of the unborn), a desire to rid the world of poverty, and the responsibility to care for the weak and the sick. But as Holland makes his case in Dominion, these are all essentially Christian values, an embarrassment for those who wish to see orthodox Christian faith cast upon the dung heap of forgotten human history.

Dominion is equally a fascinating, entertaining read, as well as being a deeply and intellectually stimulating read, that fills the mind with challenges. The thesis being proposed in Dominion, that of a self-confessed secularist critiquing secularism, deserves a careful in-depth review, which I will currently explore.
Continue reading


Ravi Zacharias Update: Celebrity and the Psychology of Trust

We are learning more about the accusations against Ravi Zacharias, since I posted about the newer developments a few weeks ago.

Ravi’s relationships with some female employees at a spa he owned, that Christianity Today reported, has triggered Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) to hire a legal firm to investigate the claims. Ravi’s denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, also announced that they would open yet a second investigation of Ravi, since the one that they conducted several years ago. To complicate matters, the woman who was involved in a sexting controversy with Ravi several years ago, and her husband, have come forward to tell their side of the story, despite the fact that both parties had signed an NDA. The couple have done so claiming that Ravi and RZIM had already violated their side of the NDA, through a previous published Christianity Today article (which was updated this past week). The couple has hired Boz Tchividjian, a lawyer and grandson of Billy Graham, as their legal adviser.

I do not see a need to rehearse the specifics of the accusations. You can follow the links above to learn more.

What I want to do here in this post is to analyze some of the responses on social media, regarding how these accusations about Ravi have been received by Christians, and the general public. Vice President Michael Pence, at Ravi’s memorial service, called Ravi “the greatest Christian Apologist of this [the 21st] century.”  There is no doubt that Ravi Zacharias has been one of the most well-known Christian celebrities in the contemporary era.

Many, like me, are grieved about these accusations. As someone who has taught Ravi Zacharias material in adult Bible classes, and who has appreciated a few of his books, I have looked up to Ravi, just as others have done. Ravi’s ministry has benefited my life and the lives of others that I know, and students I have taught. So, I would naturally want to defend Ravi’s reputation here.

At the same time, truth must prevail above all else. Some who have stepped forward with their accusations have been hurt very deeply by all of this, and have seen their reputations tarnished (rightly or wrongly). Others have remained anonymous, due partly to the embarrassing nature of the accusations. Such voices need to be heard, and taken seriously. An independent analysis of the evidence needs to be made, and so it is troubling that a journalist like Julie Roys is skeptical that the investigation sponsored by RZIM will truly be independent. I sincerely hope Julie is wrong about this, and that the truth will come out. Regardless of what happens, we should not be fearful of the truth, recognizing even that if Ravi is shown to have been clearly in the wrong, that this only demonstrates that all of us are sinners, who stand in need of the grace of God to set us free from our sin. YouTube apologist Whaddo You Meme?? has the right perspective here.

But not everyone responds this way. The double-downing effect that some have, in defense of Ravi, is expected to a certain degree. We are called to uphold the reputation of Christian leaders. “A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume” (Ecclesiastes 7:1 NLT).

Sadly however, some who have rallied to Ravi’s defense have done so in a manner that is greatly troubling, that takes the teaching of Scripture and turns it on its head, completely upside down. Here are some examples that are disturbing:

  • Some have defended Ravi by questioning why such accusations have only emerged after Ravi died, this past May, thus raising suspicion. But in cases of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, it is very rare for victims to come forward right away, out of fear of repercussion against them. Trauma from abuse can take years and years to overcome.
  • Some have defended Ravi by assaulting the character of the accusers, claiming that the accusers are “in it for the money,” for example. True, there are cases where false accusations are made, in order to cause great harm on Christian leaders, etc. Nevertheless, everyone needs to be fairly heard. The problem with the Christian celebrity syndrome is that we are typically more inclined to trust the famous and powerful celebrity and dismiss the less well known, and less powerful person.
  • Some have made some completely outlandish claims, that Christian journalists at Christianity Today have adopted a compromising, liberal attitude towards evangelical faith, and therefore, they have used that liberal distrust to attack a good man. I then wonder what such folks think when other Christian news outlets, like WORLD News Group, ChurchLeaders.com, and the Roys Report, also report the same story, and even bring out new points of data. Is every Christian journalist out there who investigates a Christian celebrity simply a tool for the “far left,” “liberal” biased media?? Really??

While I am surely grieved about the accusations against Ravi, I am probably more grieved by supposed defenders of Ravi who are willing to risk tarnishing other people as merely “pawns of Satan” in an effort to make an idol out of a Christian celebrity. Christians sometimes overuse the language of “tools of Satan” and the “demonic” to attack other people, and avoid the hard work of listening. Yes, Satan is at work to tear down what God is building. But when we attribute “Satan” wrongly to the pursuit of truth, no matter how painful it is, we only do tremendous harm. Any sort of ad hominem attack against a person is no substitute for an honest look at the evidence. Instead, we are called to worship Jesus, and not any fallen man.

Granted, most people have neither the time nor the energy to do full blown investigations themselves. When it comes right down to it, we all have to trust other people to a certain degree. Most of the time, we simply have to defer to trusting in some other authority, believing that such authority is speaking truth and willing to do the hard work of investigation, sorting fact from fiction, on behalf of others occupied with the many other aspects of life.

It interesting to observe how when trust is broken that it is almost impossible to rebuild that trust. For example, there are Christians who have already prejudged Ravi to be completely at fault, simply on the basis of believing that Ravi had long been a false teacher. Some still have not forgiven Ravi for having spoken at the Mormon Tabernacle, the first high-profile evangelical preacher to have done so since Dwight L. Moody was invited to speak there, over a century ago. Such Christian critics of Ravi contend that by preaching at the Mormon Tabernacle he was giving tacit approval of Mormonism. So, for such critics, who believe that Joseph Smith was an unrepentant adulterer, they have already concluded that it is no surprise to them that Ravi Zacharias fell into the same kind of sin.

On the other side, many critics of the Christian faith conclude now that Ravi Zacharias is just another in a long line of hypocrites: Just another reason why the Christian faith should be rejected. For many of such critics, if you dig deeper, it comes down to broken trust. Why trust what a Christian says about the Gospel when they speak lies about other matters?

But the Gospel tells us that we need not be fearful of the truth, as even with hypocrites, Jesus had them among even his “elite” group of followers: Peter promised to defend Jesus to the uttermost, but he denied Christ three times, did he not?

Hopefully, Christians will be known as truth-seekers, even when certitude on certain things remain elusive. My confidence in Christ is strengthened, but not entirely built on, the testimony of others, including Christian leaders like Ravi Zacharias. The argument for the truth of Christianity is based on an aggregation of different evidences, of which the personal life and testimony of others is but one component of a much larger mosaic of realities, that point to Jesus. If one component is shown to be unreliable, or at least somewhat shaky, it need not cause us to reject the whole.

According to this Julie Roys’ podcast, it was Ravi Zacharias’ teachings about prophecy fulfillment in the Book of Daniel that first drew skeptic Steve Baughman to consider Ravi’s arguments in defense of the faith. But Baughman was not entirely impressed with Ravi’s treatment of Daniel, which led him to look more closely at Ravi’s ministry, which eventually led to the disclosure of how RZIM did not properly represent Ravi’s academic credentials, in RZIM’s promotional materials. As it turns out, RZIM’s failure to address the academic credentials issue in a more timely manner was but the first in what has now become a series of far more damaging allegations. Why it took an “outsider,” like Steve Baughman, to force RZIM to begin to address these matters in the first place, instead of some hard looks within RZIM itself, still boggles my mind.

I am not sure if Steve Baughman will ever read this, but if he does, I hope he knows that there are still some Christians who value truth above celebrity-Christianity.

It is quite possible that we may never know the full story here, this side of eternity. Ravi Zacharias is no longer here to defend himself. To repeat, I do hope for the best outcome for Ravi’s reputation from the impending investigations. If such is not the case, for which the mounting evidence points more and more towards, then it would be good for Christian parachurch organizations, like RZIM, and the local churches that care for Christian celebrities, like Ravi Zacharias, to do some serious soul-searching. If all, or even some, of the accusations do turn out to be true, it looks like we are dealing with a man who had immense pressure placed on him to perform in a such a way, that he himself could never achieve. His way of relieving the pressure placed upon him, and his own depression and doubts, sadly impacted the lives of others in a hurtful way (listen to the WORLD News Group broadcast on October 15, 2020, starting about at the 27 minute mark to the 30 minute mark for more). Ravi’s own testimony indicated that he wrestled with suicidal thoughts on at least one occasion, as part of his conversion experience as a young man.

Was Ravi really healed from these suicidal thoughts after his conversion? Was there sufficient accountability at RZIM? What was really going on at the RZIM board? Was there sufficient accountability at Ravi Zacharias’ local church? These are difficult questions that probably deserve concentrated attention.

All in all, even if Ravi Zacharias is exonerated, I stand by my original plea from several weeks ago: For the sake of those fine apologists who have risen to take the baton from Ravi, to uphold the message of Jesus Christ for a new generation, RZIM should change the name of their organization, in order to more properly reflect the purpose and vision of the ministry, instead of clinging to a legacy of a manLet us encourage the Vince Vintale’s, the Abdu Murray’s, the Amy Orr-Ewing’s, the Sam Allberry’s, and many other fine apologists at RZIM to flourish in their ministry efforts, without having some dark cloud hanging over them, resulting from any possible reproach, driven by controversies surrounding Ravi, that might impede their work for the Gospel. Let us encourage this new generation of apologists to be set free to boldly spread the love and truth of Jesus across our world today!!


Does Science Make the Biblical Doctrine of Original Sin Obsolete? … (Glenn Morton’s Last Stand)

Neo-orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once famously said that original sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” But what was once “empirically verifiable” is now questioned, and even science is being enlisted as its primary foe.

As the story goes, modern science indicates that it is impossible for the breadth of humanity today to have been derived from a single human pair. If there was no single human pair, there was no Adam and Eve, as the fountainhead of all of humanity. If there was no Adam and Eve, there was no cosmic Fall. Without a cosmic Fall, there was no original sin.1

The conclusion? If the core element of Christian teaching is that Jesus saves us from our sin, then without original sin, the entire Christian story regarding salvation falls flat. Therefore, science has made original sin obsolete. … To continue holding to an obsolete doctrine means that the Bible can not be trusted… The Christian story of sin and salvation implodes…. POOF!!

This is a narrative that has become increasingly popular in the West, as seen from different angles. Many former Christians and other agnostics/atheists point to this as one of the primary reasons why Christian faith must be rejected. Liberal-minded Christians will tend to look the other way and ignore such difficulties. Others from a Christian background will use this objection as a means of rewriting the whole of Christian theology to build a completely different worldview.

Glenn Morton (1950-2020). A maverick creationist(?), who defied labeling, finished his final book, Eden Was Here: New Evidence for the Historicity of Genesis, within days before his death. Morton makes the case for an historical Adam and Eve, thereby linking the Fall of humanity, and its association with original sin, to a specific event in the very ancient past.

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Tactics, by Greg Koukl. Already, my book of the year!

Greg Koukl’s Tactics stands out as the best book that I have read this year, and the year is not even over yet. Koukl, the founder of the apologetics ministry, Stand to Reason, originally wrote this book about ten years ago. A tenth anniversary edition of the book has come out. David Wood, another Christian apologist, say that Tactics is the one apologetics book every Christian needs to read in 2020. So, I decided to take him up on that, and get the audiobook version.

I am so glad that I did. David Wood is right.

Greg Koukl’s book on “tactics” should be required reading for EACH and EVERY CHRISTIAN who struggles with sharing their faith with others.

Greg Koukl’s Tactics is the single most important book in Christian apologetics that you would ever need.

I like to think of myself as an evangelist, but I am not a very good one. I must confess, it just seems like evangelism is getting harder and harder, with every passing year. I find myself continually intimidated, when getting into conversations with others. I never think that I have the most persuasive arguments, when sharing my faith, so I just end up staying quiet most of the time. I even have the same frustration, when trying to discuss a difficult, controversial topic with another fellow Christian, when we have a disagreement. I would rather change the conversation, and avoid the discussion altogether.

“How ’bout them Yankees!! … Nice weather we are having, right?”

This is where Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions really comes in, and makes the difference. Tactics is not so much about what to say in a gospel conversation, or any conversation, for that matter. It is more about how to engage in a conversation.

Perhaps it goes back to my days as a young believer of doing door-to-door evangelism. I have always envisioned that gospel-oriented conversations need to be about “closing the deal,” and pressing for a decision for Christ.

Not so, according to Greg Koukl. For if we really trust the leading of God, that He might work through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to change a person’s heart, then it really is not our job to try to “convert” someone. Rather, it is about trying to give someone else something new to think about, and then letting God do the rest of the work.

When you are in a gospel conversation, trying to muster up the best case to win someone over to your point of view, is not the goal, according to Greg Koukl. Rarely is a “debating mode” effective. Rather,  one should be about asking good questions, and thus making your interlocutor do the work of having to defend their position, for which they are advancing. If you focus on trying to ask good questions, then you might end up helping the other person to realize that they are believing something, without sufficient justification for that point of view. If the other person begins to suspect that their own position is not as well thought out as they originally thought, it could serve as an opportunity for God to work in the mind and heart of that other person.

Oh…. and just one more thing……

 

 

Greg Koukl and the “Columbo Tactic”

Greg Koukl advances basically two questions that can be used to help anyone out, in any conversation, when you feel like you are stuck, and unable to come up with any other reasonable question, that does not make you sound stupid:

  • (1) What do you mean by that?, and
  • (2) How did you come to that conclusion?

Koukl calls this the “Columbo Tactic,” named after the 1970s TV detective show, where Peter Falk played the part of a bumbling police detective. But the magic about “Columbo” is that he was always able to sneak in a few strategically placed questions that eventually discloses the killer. Greg Koukl uses this “Columbo Tactic” as a means of “putting a pebble into someone else’s shoe“. It is then up to God to move in that person’s life, to bring about meaningful change. We can then pray that God bring another Christian in the path of the other person, and thereby spark a deeper conversation.

Here are merely a few gems that Koukl lays out for the reader, based on the “Columbo Tactic,” of asking, “What do you mean by that?,” and “How did you come to that conclusion?” Here is what I learned:

  • If someone gets mad, I lose. In other words, if I get upset, or the other person gets upset and angry, then I lose the opportunity to try to “put a pebble into someone else’s shoe“….. I have made a lot of people mad, or I get really frustrated and upset with myself, so I REALLY need to learn how have better conversations, as Greg Koukl illustrates.
  • The person making the claim bears the burden of proof. It is always better, when in conversation, to ask questions instead of making claims. You do not need to defend if you are asking questions. But when you make a claim, you bear the burden of proof to defend it. It is always more effective to reverse the burden of proof and place it on the other person, whenever you are being challenged.
  • Always take the time to ask questions about the other person’s belief, to make sure you properly understand it. If you do not understand the other person’s perspective, then they can easily dismiss you for twisting their words…. and they would be right!!
  • Ask questions that might help another person see an inconsistency with their belief structure, as a means of giving them something to think about. Many times, people will make assertions that will oddly contradict some other deeply held belief. For example, is the statement, “There is no such thing as absolute truth,” an absolutely true statement? Asking questions is always better than making statements about someone else’s belief. Koukl calls this the “suicide” tactic, as inconsistency in deeply held beliefs leads to a type of intellectual suicide (I just wish Koukl had a better name for this tactic).
  • Put yourself in the position of taking on someone’s point of view, and examine where such a view might lead. Often the natural conclusion to such viewpoints can be self-undermining. Koukl calls this tactic “taking the roof off” of another person’s argument. This is actually the best use case for what is called “propositional apologetics,” whereby you can follow the train of thought that leads from a person’s presuppositions, to arrive at a conclusion, and then ask whether or not the conclusion is acceptable.
  • You do not need to allow a steamroller, someone who keeps bombarding you with claims and questions, to get to you. Instead, first stop the person and ask for the time respond. If they keep steamrolling you, point that out, and ask for courtesy. If that does not slow down the conversation, then give the person the last word and walk away.
  • If you do not know the answer to someone else’s question, simply say “I do not know.” Ask for some time to go research the question, before making a response.
  • There is a difference between possibility, plausibility, and probability. If someone else makes an assertion, there are basically these three options to explore.
    • First, is it possible? In some sense, just about anything is possible. However, some assertions are not possible, once that assertion is reasonably and carefully examined. Impossible assertions can be disregarded by the sheer weight of evidence that easily and convincingly works against the assertion.
    • Secondly, is it plausible? Something might be possible, but not necessarily plausible. In other words, is there actually evidence that might support the assertion? In the absence of other alternatives, is there reliable evidence available that indicates that the assertion is not simply possible, but plausible?
    • Thirdly, is it probable? Given other plausible alternatives, does the assertion being examined have enough evidence behind it to make it more acceptable than the other available alternatives? One can still acknowledge an assertion as not only possible, but even plausible, as a sign in giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, that they might be correct. But that does not commit you to accept the assertion, if it turns out that there is at least one other, more probable assertion available. We are not obligated to accept assertions that are merely possible, or even if they are merely plausible. Instead, we are to accept assertions that are more probable, as compared to other assertions.
Greg Koukl’s Tactics, and Peter Boghossian’s and James Lindsay’s How to Have Impossible Conversations

Actually, aside from some prodding by others, my interest in reading Tactics was driven by reading/listening to another book, that takes a similar approach, but from a completely different worldview perspective. This book, How To Have Impossible Conversations, was written by a pair of atheists, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay.

So why would I invest in reading a book written by a pair of atheists, as an aid in helping me as a Christian have better conversations with others, who do not share my Christian convictions? Allow me to explain.

Boghossian and Lindsay are two academics who were behind the embarrassingly silly “Grievance Studies Hoax” (or, for another story about it),that exposed corruption in the academy. Such corruption has led to things like an ideologically-driven mindset regarding Critical Race Theory and the “cancel culture.” Boghossian and Lindsay are on the forefront of trying to educate people about Critical Race Theory, and they oddly make a surprising alliance with evangelical Christians, who are also concerned about free speech on college campuses. Boghossian and Lindsay, though they are not persuaded by the truth claims of evangelical Christianity, have developed a very similar approach to Koukl’s Tactics, that can help people engage in “impossible conversations.” Despite some sharp differences, I thoroughly enjoyed How To Have Impossible Conversations.

Peter Boghossian, in particular, is often credited with founding the idea of “Street Epistemology,” which is essentially an update of the Socratic method, whereby you can enter into casual conversations with people, in order to determine how others have arrived at the beliefs they hold. While Boghossian has in mind steering conversation partners towards atheism, the same type of conversation, handled in a different manner, could also be used to help others to consider Christianity instead.

This is where Greg Koukl’s Tactics comes in. In fact, Koukl addresses some of Peter Boghossian’s “tactics” popularized in Boghossian’s earlier book A Manual for Creating Atheists. As you might guess, as a Christian, I was startled by such an aggressive book title! Since then Boghossian has toned down his atheism rhetoric, resulting in a more fair and nuanced How To Have Impossible Conversations.

For example, Boghossian was heavily criticized in his earlier book, because of his awkward definition of “faith” as “pretending to know things that you don’t know” and “belief without evidence,” a criticism that Greg Koukl highlights in Tactics.  Impossible Conversations backs off on that awkward claim and chimes in on more refined themes, just as Koukl refined the arguments in his Tactics book, the 10th anniversary edition that I read.

The main piece of good advice in How To Have Impossible Conversations, that is not clearly presented in Tactics, is regarding the willingness to change one’s view. It really makes no sense to try to ask someone to change their view, if you are not willing to change your own view. Greg Koukl does not really bring this idea out well enough in Tactics, though Koukl does admit that sometimes we can easily misrepresent the views of our interlocutor, which is a good reason why good listening skills are essential for the Christian, that can help us to change our mind, as to where someone else might be coming from.

I know that for myself, I have had to change my mind several times on certain Christian topics, as some formerly held beliefs have proven to be indefensible when talking with skeptical non-believers. For example, for years I used the argument that 11 out of the 12 apostles at Pentecost died as martyrs for their faith, which subsequent research has shown to be an overstatement of the actual evidence. As a result, I no longer use that specific argument in my conversations with others, though I will contend that the evidence indicates that all of the apostles were willing to die for their faith in the Risen Christ, and none of them committed apostasy.

One practical way to think through having a willingness to change my own beliefs is to consider under what conditions, or what type of evidence would I need to see, in order to change my own beliefs.  If we are willing to ask this about ourselves, it would also open up ways to be able to ask this of others. A central point that Peter Boghossian makes in How To Have Impossible Conversations is that just because certain arguments or lines of evidence might convince you, that does not mean that such arguments or lines of evidence will convince someone else. We human beings can be complex creatures (Here is a helpful outline to How To Have Impossible Conversations).

Both How To Have Impossible Conversations and Tactics have proven to be exceptionally helpful to me, as I am pretty terrible when it comes to having such “impossible conversations,” and sharing my faith with others. I am so wanting to “win the argument” intellectually, that I am not-so well-trained in learning how to “win the person.” This point has been driven home to me over the years, since I have been writing for the Veracity blog. It has also come up, when I have had conversations with other Christians, who do not share the same doctrinal convictions that I have.

My concerns have also increased, as a number of my Christian friends seem to be drawn more and more to various conspiracy theories, or other unfalsifiable ways of thinking, both on the right and on the left, that in my view, tend to discredit our Christian witness. My reaction is almost always to lose my cool, and keep insisting on “the facts.” But Greg Koukl in Tactics, and even Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay in How to Have Impossible Conversations, are helping me to better approach these difficult conversations. I am encouraged to focus more on trying to understand how other people come to the conclusions that they arrive at, and less on trying to prove the other person to be wrong. In learning to listen better to what the other person is saying, and figuring out why they are saying it, I actually learn more, even if it means modifying some of my own beliefs.

But it is not easy: I am pretty stubborn at all of this. As Greg Koukl advises, I need to put myself more in “learning mode,” developing a sense of curiosity and wonder, about why other people believe the things they do, instead of becoming a type of “message delivery service” (Peter Boghossian’s term), that mostly puts other people on the defensive. When people become defensive, the likelihood of someone changing their beliefs is drastically reduced. If people feel like they are being attacked, they tend to double-down on their beliefs, instead of being open to change. And nobody wins in that type of environment, neither the other person, and certainly not me.

Added Mini-Tactics  in Greg Koukl’s Tactics

The first half of Tactics is really the foundation of the book, a thorough going analysis of the Columbo tactic. Koukl even adds a chapter on how to reframe a conversation, if and when you find yourself having the Columbo tactic applied to you!!

The second half of Tactics is more about analyzing common arguments that you often hear in difficult conversations. While not as strong as the first half of the book, the tactics laid out in the second half of the book serve as a means of putting the Columbo tactic to effective use, in real life situations. For example, Greg Koukl helps the reader to identify intellectually suicidal statements, that do nothing more than to kill a conversation.  Some common conversation stoppers include,  “All religions are the same” and “There are no absolutes.” But having a way to analyze such arguments, by reading a book like this, while the pressure is off, is very, very helpful for when the pressure is on, and you are engaged in a conversation, where someone might be skeptical to the Christian faith.

I particularly benefitted from a new chapter on “Mini-Tactics,” that was not available in the original edition of Tactics:

  • “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” A lot of critics will make an appeal to Jesus in order to try to defeat certain Christian arguments. Instead, we should try to enlist Jesus on “our side,” as a defense. For example, if someone really does not like what the Apostle Paul says, but still likes Jesus, it is good to remind them that the Apostle Paul was personally selected by the Jesus to be his spokesperson to the Gentiles. If Paul was seriously wrong for something he taught, then Jesus was wrong for picking him to be his representative.
  •  “Sticks & Stones.” Others may call you names like “bigot,” “hater,” etc. But a way to turn this around is to argue that even if I were a “bigot” or “hater,” how would that alter the substance of the argument that is found presented in the Bible?
  • “Moving Toward the Objection. Sometimes it is better to embrace the objection, in order to show that it has no force. For example, some argue that Christianity is simply but a crutch for weak people. To respond to that, move toward the objection by saying that people who are in need do need a crutch. What is wrong with that?
  • “Watch Your Language.” Avoid Christian-ese as much as possible. Find terms and definitions that your interlocutor will accept. For example, instead of always insisting “The Bible says, The Bible says,” it might be better to say “Jesus says,” or “Paul says.” It is still true, but it gets you away from always falling back on overused Christian lingo.
  • “The Power of SO.” If someone makes a claim that is irrelevant, then a possible response would be to say “so what?” Even if the claim is true, ask why would this have any bearing on the argument at hand?
A Friendly Criticism of Greg Koukl’s Tactics

Alas, despite being my book of the year so far, the book is not perfect. It helps that in Tactics, Koukl provides a number of examples in how he uses Tactics to help better frame a more productive conversation. However, I am not always convinced by every specific example that Koukl uses, and the way he uses them. This is really my primary criticism of the book, but I do feel obligated to point it out, as non-believing critics have noticed this as well. In particular, I am not always persuaded by how well Greg Koukl defines his terms, when engaging in apologetic conversation. In some cases, he even overstates certain “facts.” It is very easy to correctly state certain “facts,” but then make the error of smuggling in other “facts,” that are not so factual.

For example, the term “evolution” means different things to different people. I normally think of “evolution” in purely the sense of a biological scientific theory, whereas I think Greg Koukl generally uses it in a broader sense of a materialistic worldview. The same concern comes from the use of the term “intelligent design,” which means different things to different people as well. For if I were in conversation with Greg Koukl himself, I would be generally inclined, after reading his book, to employ the Columbo tactic with him, and ask Greg, “What do you mean by evolution?,” or “What do you mean by intelligent design?,” and “How did you come to that conclusion regarding evolution?

Also, as a “pro-life” advocate, Greg Koukl develops very good arguments against abortion. Yet while such arguments are compelling in critiquing the ethics of abortion, applying the same arguments regarding public policy concerning abortion left me still sympathetic, but less convinced. Such arguments regarding the latter may needlessly muddy the waters, making the larger and far more important ethical case less effective. Koukl also tends to overstate his case, with his use of certain “facts” regarding the supposedly orthodox Christian faith of the majority of the individual American “Founding Fathers” (Read this critique of a modified version of Greg Koukl’s view).

The problem here is that once you bring up an argument, with an interlocutor, that really is not very solid, but then you try to make it appear to be really good, you can easily lose your interlocutor. It can have the negative effect of encouraging your interlocutor to ignore the really good arguments that you are trying to make. If they distrust you on a somewhat shaky argument, there is a good chance they will distrust you when you actually make a substantially better argument. Stick with the really good arguments, and avoid the ones that tend towards the shaky side of things.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of ways whereby readers can “agree to disagree” with some of the examples that Greg Koukl uses, and still benefit from the underlying principles. The great exposition of the “Columbo tactic” at work, that Greg Koukl lays out in detail in the book, makes his book worth the effort, despite any other shortcomings, to help any and every Christian become a more effective ambassador for Christ.

Greg Koukl’s Tactics as Your “One Book” on Christian Apologetics

My big takeaway from Tactics is learning how not be silenced when I am in a conversation with someone else, and in learning how to help steer a conversation in a productive direction, whereby both myself and my conversation partner can truly learn something new. The book is perfect for introverts! It can create an opening whereby the Holy Spirit can do his thing, and convict hearts, which is absolutely something that I can NOT do!  As Greg Koukl put it, the goal of a Gospel conversation is simply to “put a stone or pebble in someone else’s shoe,” and then let God do the rest.

If you only have money to buy one book on Christian apologetics, buy Tactics!

I rarely go back and re-read parts of a book, even that I enjoy, but in this case, I have found myself going back over several times, and re-listening to how Greg Koukl presents Tactics. I have learned something new every time. If you want to learn how to engage in Gospel conversations, without being intimidated, then please get a copy and read Tactics!

Here is a great interview on Capturing Christianity with Greg Koukl!


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