Atheism and the goodness of God 12: why believe in Jesus?

The last chapter I’m going to look at in this series on the Atheism and the Goodness of God, is Mark Mittelberg’s ‘Why Faith in Jesus Matters’ which forms chapter 14 of God is Good, God is Great: why believing in God is Reasonable and Responsible.

This chapter reads like an evangelistic sermon, exhorting a response from the reader.

He begins with the often overlooked point that everybody – Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, agnostic and atheist – has faith in something, even if it faith in ourselves or faith that it doesn’t matter what we believe and how we live.

The Christian believes that it really matters that we have faith in Jesus.

His main two points revolve around two questions:

1. But why trust in Jesus?

For faith to be worth having it needs to be true and good and so ‘faithworthy’. Faith in Jesus depends on his identity being worthy of faith. So Mittelberg gives an apologia for the ‘greatness and goodness of Jesus.

Power: Jesus demonstrated his miracle working power over nature and over death itself.

Knowledge: he knows people’s thoughts before they speak.

Eternity: Jesus claims to be equal with God and never corrects people’s impressions that they are blaspheming

Love and Grace; Jesus consistently shows risky, barrier-breaking love and grace to those who are marginalised, ostracised and alienated.

2. Why is faith in Jesus important?

Mittelberg’s basic point is a very familiar one – that we are deeply flawed, we don’t have all the answers, we ‘deserve punishment for our sins and failings’ and that God, in infinite love, has made a way for us through Jesus.

And to talk hold of this hope, we need to step out in faith, to respond, to believe and receive (Jn 1:12) and so have the life that is available for us in Jesus (Jn 10:10).

While this is a very familiar way of presenting the good news, I thought this was a disappointing chapter. The reasons to believe in Jesus did not go beyond general proof texts. He says for example that Jesus repeatedly goes around saying he was the Son of God, ‘meaning he uniquely shared in the Father’s divine nature.’ This is not accurate. The meaning of the term can’t be reduced to equalling deity as Mittelberg suggests.

In general the discussion, contrary to much of the book, is written with no engagement with objections and arguments from an agnostic or atheist perspective. It all reads very ‘in house’.

This all raises questions: how best is the good news communicated to a sceptical post-Christendom culture? How do you try to ‘get over’ the ‘over-familiarity’ that many in Ireland have towards Christianity so the good news can be ‘heard’ afresh?

a bit of persecution can be good for you?

Following up on my previous post on the Westminster Declaration:

James Cary has a nice turn of phrase in an article ‘Crosses to bear’ in Third Way, May 2010.

Christians would do well not only to look to Jesus but to Daniel and his friends. When they defied the orders of Nebuchadnezzar in order to follow the Lord they did so knowing that they would receive unjust lethal punishment. They did not whine that this was unfair, but accepted their fate because they deemed their faith to be worth dying for. If British Christians baulk at the odd tribunal, what are they really saying about their faith?’

So, should Christians not pursue their rights to freedom of religion and accept in faith whatever comes their way?

World Christianity: ‘I wake up and smell the chocolate’

We’ve been talking about being a Christian in the global south via Philip Jenkins’s fascinating book

Here’s a really great article about ‘a day in the life’ of Comfort Kumeah, a Fairtrade Cocoa Farmer in Ghana.

Do make a few minutes and have a read. It’s well worth it.

And ask yourself ‘What has this woman got to teach me?

She’ll probably convert you to Fairtrade – a powerful story of the power of basic economic justice.

She will uplift your mind from all minor gripes and inconveniences we in the West moan about

She will tell of you of community and simplicity

She will tell you of thanksgiving and praise to God in the midst of grief

She will tell you of the strength and unselfish life of one woman inspiring others

What about this for a closing line:

I always pray before I sleep and thank God for taking care of me, my children and my company. I never feel dissatisfied with my life. I am surrounded by beauty, I eat well and I am free

Truly wonderful.

Dipping into Baptism 4: the case for believer’s baptism

Continuing our discussion of a good recent book on the contested waters of baptism is Baptism: Three Views, edited by the late David F Wright just before he died.

The three views are:

  1. Believers’ Baptism View: Bruce A. Ware
  2. Infant Baptism View: Sinclair B. Ferguson
  3. Dual-Practice Baptism View: Anthony N. S. Lane

In this post I’ll simply give a summary of Bruce Ware’s chapter on a biblical, theological and historical account of believer’s baptism – that those baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit should have believed in Jesus before being baptized by immersion.

Ware’s chapter is followed by a response by Sinclair Ferguson (infant baptism) and Tony Lane (dual practice) and I’ll consider their responses in the next post.

The Biblical Argument

1. Linguistic

The root meaning of the word baptō is to ‘submerge’ or ‘dip’. Immersion is strongly implied.

2. Contextual Argument

In NT examples of baptism, the context also strongly suggests immersion [Jesus’ baptism; Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch]. Post-biblical sources like the Shepherd of Hermas also suggest baptism my immersion. Immersion implies baptism of older believers, not infants.

3. Instruction & Practice of baptism in the NT

Every instruction or command relating to baptism in the NT relates to baptism of those who have repented from sin (John’s baptism) and come to faith in Christ (post-Pentecost baptism). Matthew’s great Commission text links ’baptism and teaching’ indicating those baptized are also able to be taught.

And numerous other texts in the NT (Ware lists over 10 from Acts) links newness of life, reception of the Spirit and baptism – again the compelling evidence suggesting those baptized are believers. Pauline texts are also numerous – (take for example Roms 6:3-4 and Col 2:12) where baptism signifies death of the old life and conversion to new life through faith in Christ. Those baptized have been regenerated by the Spirit – and this rules out infant baptism. As does 1 Peter 3:21 where baptism is linked to the faith of the one baptized.

Ware’s point: ‘belief precedes and grounds the legitimacy of baptism.’

4. Absence of non-believer’s baptism in the NT

Ware adds that there are also no clear incidents of non-believer’s or infant baptism in the NT and argues this puts a considerable burden of proof on those who contend that baptism can be detached from the exercise of faith in the one being baptized.

What of the household baptism of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:33, probably the strongest of the household baptism accounts appealed to by those who practice infant baptism? Ware argues such a view is based on plenty of special pleading. There is no mention of infants in this or other ‘household’ texts. The text is better interpreted as the jailer and his household all becoming believers and being baptized – since all in the household ‘rejoice’ as they believe and are baptized.

Similarly for Acts 2:39 and Peter’s mention of ‘you and your children’ being recipients of God’s fulfilled promise – is far more naturally connected with the preceding verse 38 where the listeners have been exhorted to ‘repent and be baptized’ than building a case for the inclusion of infants within the covenant promises of God.

Paul’s mention of the family of believers, including children, being ‘made holy’ in 1 Corinthians 7:14 is often also appealed to as supportive of infant baptism. Ware notes here how indirect and complex the paedo-baptist position is here.  Infants are included as participants within the new covenant due to the faith of their parents. Yet the text says nothing about baptism and Paul also says the unbelieving spouse will be ‘made holy’. Rather than make big theological jumps to infant baptism being the new covenant successor to circumcision, the simpler and more logical interpretation is to see ‘holy’ here as the presence of the believer in the home ‘setting apart’ the family for gospel witness.

Thus Ware quotes David Wright’s conclusion in 2005 that there is an emerging consensus of NT scholars that

“infant baptism cannot be claimed to be apostolic … the core conviction of Baptist theology that the New Testament attests faith-baptism as the norm, is now more widely attested than at any time since the fourth century i.e., prior to Augustine.”

The Theological Argument

There is actually little space between the infant and believer’s baptism when it comes to the theology of baptism

“as a sign and seal of the new covenant, inaugurated by Christ’s death and resurrection, signifying the promise for the one baptized that sins are forgiven, that new life in Christ is received, and that God gives the person a new heart and the indwelling Spirit , by faith.”

Ware notes that the crucial area of difference is how the relation between the Old and New Covenants is understood.

Paedo-baptists see a strong continuity in terms of baptism functioning within the New in a similar way to circumcision in the Old.

Ware argues this is fundamentally misconceived. In Romans 4:11 Paul refers to circumcision as a sign and seal of faith for Jew and Gentiles precisely to emphasize how circumcision could be ‘set aside’ in light of Christ. There is discontinuity here in regard to circumcision, not continuity.

The parallel then between circumcision and baptism in the new covenant is not between physical circumcision and infant baptism; rather, the parallel is between spiritual circumcision of the heart and baptism which signifies regeneration, faith and union with Christ (cf Col 2:11-12)

And if there is an explicit link between circumcision and infant baptism, is it not remarkable that not one writer of the NT explicitly points this out? This is because, says Ware, the sign of the new covenant, baptism, is administered only to those who are members of the new covenant by faith in Christ.

Historical Support for Believer’s Baptism

Lastly, Ware remarks on the growing scholarly consensus, including that of David Wright, that believer’s baptism was the normal practice of the church for the first four centuries and that infant baptism did not develop in any significant way until after that date.


Ware concludes by appealing for the practice of believer’s baptism in that it will help to safeguard the health and vitality of the church. It gives believers an opportunity to testify to their faith, and it helps, at least by structure and design, to connect baptism with genuine personal faith.

Atheism and the Goodness of God 11: Is God evil?

The next to last post on God is Great, God is Good is Paul Copan’s ‘Are the Old Testament Laws Evil?’.

This chapter would have been better called ‘Is Yahweh evil?’ for this is the nub of the question.

Dawkins calls God an ‘evil monster’ who is jealous, bloodthirsty, commands ethnic cleansing and is generally an appalling role model, never mind a good and great God.

And of course there is nothing like Christopher Hitchens for a bit of bombast and bludgeoning prose. For him the Old Testament was put together by ‘crude uncultured human animals’.

And with similar confidence, Sam Harris says that if the OT is true we should still be stoning people for heresy, adultery, homosexuality and so on.

Copan calls this a crass hermeneutic and says we need to understand the OT moral framework through the lens of what John Goldingay calls the five stages of Israel’s history:

  1. wandering clan
  2. theocratic nation
  3. monarchy
  4. afflicted remnant
  5. post-exilic community of promise

The OT world of patriarchy, slavery, polygamy, and war is alien to us [although not to other parts of the world today] The OT God starts with people where they are and demonstrates a progressive ethic , built on the monumental foundations of Gen 1-3 and mankind made in the image of God.

Copan takes the example of slavery. The OT contains significant modifications to the common practices of slavery in the ANE. It has:

–  Unprecedented human and legal rights for slaves – treated as persons and protected

– Condemnation of kidnapping a person to sell as a slave

– Hebrew debt slaves  – to be released in the 7th year

– Release of injured slaves

– Owners accountable for how they treat slaves

The big point here is Israel’s moderation and enlightened stance compared to the ruthless comparable law codes like Hammurabi which has brutal punishments, an elitist hierarchy of sanctions, and slaves having no rights at all.

“The informed inhabitant of the Ancient Near East would have thought ‘Quick, get me to Israel’!

What of ‘Lex Talionis’ (an eye for an eye)? Copan argues this is actually a moderation of unreasonable punishment and is not taken literally. It acted as a prohibition against unjust and disproportionate judgement.

And the superficial critiques of the New Atheists and others often ignore the ‘warm moral overtones’ of the Mosaic law  – love for God, love for neighbour, care for the alien, justice for the oppressed, forgiveness of debts and so forth.

Basically, Copan sees the Mosaic law as an accommodation to a morally underdeveloped Ancient Near Eastern cultural mindset.

The problem with the New Atheist caricature is that it takes no account of how Christians actually read, interpret and apply the OT.

Sundays on Mark (14): Mark 6:1-6

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections on Mark’s gospel

This week Mark 6:1-6: A Prophet without honour

Jesus returns to Nazareth with his band of disciples following the astonishing events Mark has just recorded.

He stays a few days until ‘Sabbath came’. The synagogue service can be imagined. The word of his remarkable deeds has been creating ‘messianic mania’ over Galilee and beyond and now here he is, back home.

His teaching does not seem to disappoint in terms of its impact. Such is his wisdom that it sparks a surprised and yet disbelieving response.

Despite later theological gymnastics, the reference to James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon and their sisters is clearly to Jesus’ biological family. Jesus also clearly identifies himself as a prophet, yet without honour among those who are too familiar with his local roots to accept any possibility beyond that horizon.

Jesus is rejected by all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons throughout his ministry. He is the Messiah that no-one expects and few can accept. The twist here is the local context. Their disbelief is fairly understandable – would you or I have been any different?

The text ends with two unexpected comments. Jesus is amazed at their lack of faith and is only able to heal a few. Now not much seems to amaze Jesus, usually it is the other way around. And how is his power limited by lack of faith? Mark’s spare description does not explain, but his emphasis seems to be on how unbelief excludes itself from experiencing the blessing of God.

The events, however, bring the Christological question again in focus: ‘What do you make of Jesus?’

A Prophet Without Honor

1Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. 2When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! 3Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

4Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” 5He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6And he was amazed at their lack of faith.