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‘Four Gospels, one Jesus.’

‘Four Gospels, one Jesus.’

This short essay discusses the variations in the unique biographies of Jesus as written by the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

John described Jesus in his gospel as, “…the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  If this Jesus Christ of Nazareth is the one and only Son of God and the four canonical gospels document His story, then it can be posited that one may possess significant information and understanding concerning who Jesus was, the events of His life, and the content of His spoken message. The four gospels can therefore be understood as four accounts or biographies of Jesus’ good news message according to differing preachers.  After many decades of spreading Jesus’ gospel message through the world, the four authors recorded their gospels between approximately 45CE and 95CE.  Like any biographer, the evangelists each selected certain facts to include in their writings while intentionally omitting others.  Each author seeks to portray his point in such a way that it best captures and reflects Jesus and the message of the good news, resulting not in an incomplete gospel but a deliberately tailored narrative of Jesus’ life.[1]

This paper will discuss that a key reason for the differences between the four gospels is that each of the evangelists intended to record their own unique “gospel”.  In Romans 16:25, Paul describes his dedication to disseminating the message of Jesus, referring to it as “my gospel”.  Similarly, the evangelists took the responsibility to report the life of Jesus and his key message from four different vantage points.[2] Subsequently, their perspectives on Jesus and his message varied because they each knew their teacher differently.[3]  This paper will also show how the Greco-Roman biographical genre of the time contributed to the differences between the gospels and that concern regarding the historical accuracy of the gospels should be considered not alarming or limiting to the message of their central character, Jesus.  Finally, this paper will also show how the Synoptic Problem, which is the uncertainty concerning which source each gospel was dependent may not be a problem at all utilising Streeter’s four-source hypothesis, which promotes the uniqueness of each of the synoptics apart from the self-evident uniqueness of the Gospel of John.

 

My Gospel: Taking responsibility to record the person of Jesus Christ and his message.

The gospel can be defined as the good news or the good message and is derived from the Greek word euaggelion, which is used in the first verse of the gospel of Mark. Euaggelion is one of three words underpinning the English word evangelism.  The additional two words include euaggelizo, meaning the ministry of announcing the good news, and euanggelistes, meaning the messenger.  Jesus, the Great Evangelist, spent more than three years of ministry as the messenger of the message, which is the good news of salvation for all through faith.  He then died on the cross as the atoning sacrifice and final instalment of the gospel.  The four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are evangelists who are modelled on the Great Evangelist, their saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ.

There is only one Jesus and one gospel message, the principia evangelii[4] found in the four gospels.[5]  Understanding the gospels as the principia evangelii however does not satisfy complaints concerning the gospel differences.  This is found in the “my gospel” intention of the four evangelists and their use of “spotlighting”[6] or utilising emphasis as a tool to highlight in their gospel account what they believed to be most important in revealing the messenger and his message. When being interview Licona explains spotlighting in the resurrection narratives,  

In Matthew and Mark, there is one angel who is mentioned at the tomb. In Luke and John, you have two. Could it be that Mark, followed by Matthew, is shining his literary spotlight on the angel who’s announcing that Jesus has been raised, even though they know of another angel who was present? Some scholars would say that Luke and John embellished the story by adding a second angel. But embellishment is certainly not a tendency of Luke. Spotlighting was a common practice and explains the difference better, in my opinion.[7]

Mark’s “my gospel” commences as an overtly evangelistic heralding of Jesus as the messenger and the good news of salvation.  His gospel follows a fast-paced, action packed expose of Jesus miraculous powers.  It was written in common language as his message for all people to meet the common man Jesus who is the Son of God.  Matthew and Luke in recording their own “my gospel”, correct much of the spelling and grammar when utilising Mark as a source.

Matthew’s “my gospel” approach is very Jewish.  He therefore opens his book with the Jewish genealogy from Abraham to Jesus, an addition to Mark’s gospel. Matthew structures his gospel in five long discourses, possibly corresponding to the five books of Moses’ Pentateuch.[8] To fully prove Jesus as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets (Matt 5:17) he constantly quotes Old Testament prophecy throughout his gospel.  An example that is only found in Matthew’s gospel is Judas’ acceptance of 30 pieces of silver (Matt 27:9) fulfilling the Zechariah’s prophesy (although he mistakenly attributes this to Jeremiah), “So they paid me thirty pieces of silver” (Zech 11:12).

Luke’s “my gospel” is clearly outlined in verses one to four of the first chapter.  He describes his gospels as an, “orderly account” of the tradition passed onto him.  Luke’s “my gospel” is positioned to appeal universally to all Gentiles.  An example of this is the Greco-Roman literary styled formal dedication of the book to Theophilus, also found in his other book, Acts.[9]  Luke’s “spotlighting” is slanted to the Gentiles throughout his writings. His genealogy, unlike Matthew’s, goes all the way back to Adam, the father of all humankind.  In Luke 2:32 where he acknowledges Jesus as, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles…”, Luke is the only evangelist to highlight Jesus statements of Elijah and the widow in Zarephath as well as the cleansing of Naaman the Syrian’s leprosy, both miracles which were performed on non-Jews.[10]

John’s “my gospel” account is fantastically different from the other three, while remaining completely agreeable with the truth concerning Jesus and his message.  John begins with a cosmological sermon introducing Jesus as the logos and undoubtedly stating that Jesus is in fact God.  His intention for writing is found in John 20:31, which states “…these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”.  John does not depend on the other three gospels as a source but is intent on supplementing the synoptics by accentuating his own key theological themes, such as Jesus as the “logos,” the “I am” statements, and the Father-Son relationship between God and Jesus. [11]  John includes none of Jesus’ parables in his gospel; he appears satisfied with their recording in the Synoptics, however, he is not satisfied with the seemingly short length of Jesus ministry found in the synoptics and in turn mentions three Passovers in his own gospel, showing the reader that Jesus ministry occurred over at least three years.

 

Greco-Roman biography encourages the Evangelists to reveal Jesus and promote his message.

The aim of Greco-Roman biography was to reveal the central character by weaving the persons words and actions into the narrative.[12] Licona says, “In the middle of the twentieth century, most New Testament scholars regarded the Gospels as sui generis.[13] Then in 1977, Charles Talbert proposed that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography, and others made similar proposals in the years that followed… Today, a growing majority of scholars regard the Gospels as Greco-Roman biography”.[14]

Licona explores the writing of Plutarch, a biographer who wrote around the same times as the gospels were being authored. He notes that Plutarch in his own writings explains his desire to portray the life of the character while leaving the detailed description of the characters surrounds to others.[15] Licona states, “Greco-Roman biography was a broad and flexible genre. The biographies often differ from one another so much that scholars often divide the genre into various subsets”.[16] The four evangelists wrote four biographies with the intent of revealing the Jesus Christ. The differences in their biographies can be attributed to this broad and flexible genre. The elasticity of the gospel narratives is not a forgetting of the facts or a reinterpretation of what happened but an embracing of the mode of biography of the day and using it to highlight and promote Jesus’ good news of salvation. The mode fits perfectly with the authors motive spread the message of Jesus. It allowed the four evangelists the freedom to use some of the facts as they saw best to promote the message of the gospel with concern to the Jesus, Gods own Son not concern to recording history perfectly. This can be difficult for us in the modern era with our concern for accurate historical facts.

 

The concern for the historical Jesus

Prior to the eighteen century Christians understood the gospels to be an accurate historical account of the life of Jesus. The obvious problem however was the lack of harmonisation in the four gospel accounts.[17] Some early church fathers like Augustine have gone to great lengths to harmonise these textual inconsistencies. The age of enlightenment brought about a wave of questioning of the historical accuracy of the gospels built on the evidence of their inconsistencies to one another. Crossan uses a research method for interpreting the historicity of the gospels to obtain an accurate historical Jesus. Crossan uses anthropological and sociological methods for interpreting the times of Jesus to explain the Jesus but in so doing leaves little weight in the Jewish traditions of the time as well as leaning on non-canonical sources like the Gospel of Thomas.[18] The intent of scholars like Crossan is to apply an objective method of research to the earliest manuscripts of Christian writings to construct a picture of Jesus that is historically accurate. This construction is to protect the purity of the interpretation in defence of an oft subjective creation of whoever one would like Jesus to be.[19]

A huge proportion of gospel research has focused its energies on revealing this historical Jesus.[20]This approach however is some conflict with the evangelist’s intention to reveal the person and the message of Jesus therefore is to an extent limited in its ability to explain the differences in the gospel narratives. The gospels contain many facts concerning Jesus but are not intended to be historically accurate and the sequence of biography was not meant to produce a detailed work on the life of Jesus.[21] Therefore the Greco-Roman biographical genre empowered the biographer to reveal the personage of the central character, Jesus without the limitations a detailed historical account. In the four evangelist’s writings, we see the freedom to fully embrace “their gospel” and tailor the message for their intended audience in line with their perspective of Jesus.

 

The Synoptic Problem could be a help

The synoptic problem is the challenge of understanding the literary relationships between the three synoptic gospels. In understanding the differences in the intentions of the authors the synoptic problem could a help rather than a problem in understanding the evangelist’s intention to make their gospel message their own. Many hypotheses have been posed for the synoptic problem, one of the earliest being Augustine’s Matthean priority. In the late 18th century Griesbach put forth a “two-gospel hypothesis” stating Mark as dependent on both Matthew and Luke. [22] In more recent times and now and commonly accepted the “two-source hypothesis” asserts Matthew and Luke’s dependence on Mark, which therefore is assumed first authored as well as dependence on “Hypothetical-Q,” suggested to be a source lost in history.

 

All four evangelists are special

In 1924 Streeter outlined a four-source hypothesis to solve the synoptic problem. Streeter builds on the two-source hypothesis adding in “special-Matthew” and “special-Luke” as independent personal sources that these two evangelists drew on in addition to the Gospel of Mark and Hypothetical Q.[23] Streeter’s hypothesis illuminates the unique portion of each gospel, further supporting the idea that each Evangelist took responsibility for their own gospel and did not merely mimic their sources.

Mark as the first biographer of Jesus ministry and miracles relies only on the oral tradition he is privy to as his source and sets out to herald the beginning of the good news. He owns his gospel by the fact he produces it. His concern is to simply produce a ground-breaking text of the good news, it is special because it has become the first written account of the gospel. This said Streeter’s hypothesis assuming Markan priority makes sense as only 3% of Mark’s gospel is unique to Matthew and Luke and proves its writing as the first and source to the next two.    

Matthew and Luke’s gospel are special because they do only redact Mark’s gospel as their key building block but they also ensure their own unique contribution to Jesus and the good news message taken from their own unique encounters with Jesus, perspectives on the gospel message and personal preferences from the oral sources they chose to draw on for their gospel account. The gospel of Matthew contains 20% unique material (special-Matthew or M) and Luke 35% special-Luke or L. We know well that John’s gospel is almost completely unique and therefore very special.

 

Conclusion

Jesus Christ is the one and only Son who came from the Father.  The four gospels are the first books of the New Testament and are the only canonical biographies of the person of Jesus and are some of the earliest written outlines of the good news message.  The four gospels, however, differ in their biographical sequence, accounts of Jesus, and in the details describing the same events.  This paper has attributed the differences in gospel accounts to the respective evangelist’s passion to take responsibility for, “my gospel,” which was their own writing of the good news. In committing to author, the good news each evangelist has taken a unique vantage point on Jesus, highlighting their personal perspective of the gospel message.  The Greco-Roman biography of the time with its flexible narrative, empowered the evangelists to fully reveal their central character.  This subsequently weakened the historical accuracy of the writings.  The paper challenges the concern of those seeking the historical Jesus by the gospel writers embracing of the Greco-Roman genre of the time to tell their unique account.  The historical Jesus vein of theological research has much value and should be explored further to limit the readers risk of creating their own Jesus from the gospels.  The synoptic problem when seen through the lens of the “my gospel” intention of the authors becomes a help to explain the gospel differences.  Although some gospels were dependent on others as sources, each gospel contains significant unique content.  Further exploration should be undertaken to include John’s gospel in this argument, as the Synoptic problem only concerns three gospels. There is and was and will only be one central character to the good news message, Jesus. The four unique gospels provide the understanding to this one Jesus, their differences are what makes each account unique and in turn valuable in shinning more light on the messenger of the message, Jesus, the Son of God.     

 

Footnotes

[1] Andrew Jukes, [The Characteristic Differences of The Four Gospels.] The Differences of The Four Gospels. Considered as Revealing Various Relations of The Lord Jesus Christ (Pickering & Inglis: London, 1965), 3.

[2] Michael Licona, Why Are There Differences in The Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press, 2017), 2

[3] William Franke, “Gospel as Personal Knowing: Theological Reflections on Not Just a Literary Genre”, Theology Today 68, no. 4 (2012): 413-423, accessed September 28, 2017, http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=a6bdda64-dae4-4fb9-b944-04a18290b035%40sessionmgr4008.

[4] The basic teachings of the gospel of salvation.

[5] Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and The One Gospel of Jesus Christ (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000), 10.

[6] Caleb Lindgren, “Why Don’t the Gospel Writers Tell the Same Story?”, Christianity Today, 2017, accessed September 20, 2017, 46. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=8e2d887c-4111-4e44-9ca9-3e6d8df75047%40sessionmgr4010.

[7] Caleb Lindgren, “Why Don’t the Gospel Writers Tell the Same Story?”, Christianity Today, 2017, accessed September 20, 2017, 46. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=8e2d887c-4111-4e44-9ca9-3e6d8df75047%40sessionmgr4010.

[8] Robert H Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Michigan: Zondervan, 1994), 161.

[9] Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 206.

[10] Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 207.

[11] The Gospel of John chapters 14-17.

[12] Licona, Why Are There Differences in The Gospels? 4.

[13] The idea that the gospels are their own unique literary genre.

[14] Licona, Why Are There Differences in The Gospels? 3.

[15] Licona, Why Are There Differences in The Gospels? 4.

[16] Licona, Why Are There Differences in The Gospels? 5.

[17] D. A Carson and Douglas J Moo, An Introduction to The New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), 50.

[18] A. E. Harvey, The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant by John Dominic Crossan, The Journal of Theological Studies. Vol. 44, No. 1 (APRIL 1993), 226-228, http://www.jstor.org.divinity.idm.oclc.org/stable/23967105 (accessed 24 September 2017).

[19] John Crossan, “The life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant, The Christian Century 108, no. 37 (1991) 1194-1200. http://www.christiancentury.org (accessed 26 September 2017).

[20] William, “Gospel as Personal Knowing: Theological Reflections on Not Just a Literary Genre”, 413-423.

[21] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to The New Testament, 53.

[22] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to The New Testament, 31.

[23] B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (London: Macmillian, 1924) https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/4gospels_streeter/complete.pdf (accessed 1 October 2017).

 

Bibliography

Carson, D. A, and Douglas J Moo. An Introduction to The New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992.

Crossan, John. D. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991.

Crossan, John. D. The life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant, The Christian Century 108, no. 37 (1991) 1194-1200. http://www.christiancentury.org (accessed 26 September 2017).

Franke, William. “Gospel as Personal Knowing: Theological Reflections on Not Just a Literary Genre”. Theology Today 68, no. 4 (2012): 413-423. Accessed September 28, 2017. http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=a6bdda64-dae4-4fb9-b944-04a18290b035%40sessionmgr4008.

Gundry, Robert H. A Survey of The New Testament. 3rd ed. Michigan: Zondervan, 1994.

Harvey, A. E. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant by John

Dominic, Crossan. The Journal of Theological Studies, 1993. Accessed 24 September 2017.

Hengel, Martin. The Four Gospels and The One Gospel of Jesus Christ. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000.

http://www.jstor.org.divinity.idm.oclc.org/stable/23967105

Jukes, Andrew. [The Characteristic Differences of The Four Gospels.] The Differences of The Four Gospels. Considered as Revealing Various Relations of The Lord Jesus Christ. Pickering & Inglis: London, 1965.

Licona, Michael. Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography.Oxford University Press, 2017.

Lindgren, Caleb. “Why Don’t the Gospel Writers Tell the Same Story?”. Christianity Today, 2017. Accessed September 20, 2017. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=8e2d887c-4111-4e44-9ca9-3e6d8df75047%40sessionmgr4010.

Streeter, B. H., The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins. London: Macmillian, 1924. https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/4gospels_streeter/complete.pdf (accessed 1 October 2017).

Karl Marx and articulating God

Karl Marx and articulating God

This short philosophical essay dives into the atheistic philosophy of Karl Marx, author of the, ‘Communist Manifesto.’ In particular this paper will focus on his beliefs about Christianity derived from his 11 theses penned in response to Ludwig Feuerbach’s book ‘The Essence of Christianity’ (1881).

The 19th century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach published his magnum opus titled ‘The Essence of Christianity’ in 1881.[1]  This prompted Karl Marx to author eleven theses in response to Feuerbach’ work, which was subsequently published as part one of the ‘The German Ideology.’[2] This essay will analyse Marx’s response to Feuerbach’s writings, namely Marx’s ‘Theses on Feuerbach,’ examining his conceptualisation concerning god.  Specifically, this essay will address Marx’s philosophical inheritance as received from Georg Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, before exploring Marx’s critique of religion, which in this context was Christianity that was considered to be the absolute truth and underpinned the Prussian State.[3]  Finally, this essay will attempt to analyse Marx’s idea and expression of god or idol, proposing this to be the ‘enlightened’ individual; the being that is fully aware of their own objective power and free from all class oppression as a result of revolutionary action.

Feuerbach can be understood as a philosophical link between the great German philosopher Georg Hegel and Karl Marx.  Hegelian philosophy emphasised rationality and idealism and maintained the idea that God could be defined and understood as creator, objective, distant, and greater than creation itself.  Whilst the ‘right Hegelians’ took Hegel’s philosophy in a conservative direction, the ‘young Hegelians’, including Feuerbach, explored Hegel’s ideas and developed radical critiques against religion, due to its perceived restriction upon individuals’ freedom and reason.[4]  

In Feuerbach’s analysis of Hegelianism, he denotes it to be speculative theology.[5] In his work, Feuerbach designs a more grounded approach to God, describing him as the product of human projections.  Feuerbach states, “Man is the God of Christianity; Anthropology the mystery of Christian Theology”.[6]  Here he posits that God is the product or consequence of man’s projections, suggesting that God is both man and man- made.  Subsequently, man is Feuerbach’s essence of Christianity.

Marx echoes in part Feuerbach’s reasoning concerning God, suggesting that “religion is inverted consciousness”.[7] Marx in the first thesis, however, criticises Feuerbach for not grasping the significance of human and revolutionary activity.[8]  Marx suggests that Feuerbach remains shackled in contemplation and idealism, the Hegelian mode of abstract thought.  For Marx this only further contributes to the “decomposition of the Hegelian philosophy”.[9] Marx continues to reinforce his position in the third thesis, promoting man as the agent of change.  This language of man-made revolution, change, and praxis is a consistent theme throughout the eleven theses.  Marx aspires to deracinate Hegel’s abstract-God, progress beyond Feuerbach’s projectionist-God, and replace man’s self-made religion with revolution in which “circumstances are changed by men”.[10]

It can be suggested through analysis of these writings that Marx is not what can be described as a negative theologian, the philosopher intent on negating God, as Hegel and Feuerbach may have been.[11]  Marx can be more aptly depicted as a serious atheist, as described by Kojeve who stated, “For the serious atheist God is not”.[12]  Marx directs his focus towards what can be attributed to the human being and does not debate the existence of God as would a negative theologian.  For Marx the idea of atheism was futile as Clarkson captured stating, “In other words, atheism – which asserts the existence of man through the negation of God – becomes an impossibility in the classless society, because that society is the realisation of man as a social being.”[13] 

Marx makes a rare mention of god in his poem “Invocation of One in Despair”, in which he pronounces, “So a god has snatched from me my all, Nothing but revenge is left to me!”.[14]  Although poetic in nature, these lines suggest that Marx’s view of God was as a malevolent being and therefore by default his chosen course will subsequently be revenge against God.  This may be one way in which Marx’s legacy can be interpreted.  Despite this, Marx himself presented less interested in revenge through negation of God, but rather through the criticism of religion, which he perceived to be a blight on the human being.[15]

The sixth and seventh theses deal with what Feuerbach describes as the human essence, defined as “the determination of its being-outside-of-itself”.[16] Whilst Marx agrees with Feuerbach’s resolving of the religious essence into the human essence, he criticises Feuerbach for overlooking that “religious sentiment is itself a social product.”  According to Marx, any conceptualisation of God was entirely man-made and constructed, resulting in Marx’s conclusion that “Man makes religion, religion does not make man”.[17]  

Veres’ proposed that Marx’s goal was in fact the “divinization of the human being”.[18] Whilst Marx upholds the sentiment of god to be a product of man’s own creation, he acknowledges the centrality of religion in assisting humanity’s need to survive, describing it as “the heart of a heartless world”.[19] Marx further explains religion designating it to be man’s “protest against real suffering”, and famously as the ‘opioid’ that kills the pain of life’s reality.[20]

While it is evident that Marx wanted to free humankind from what he perceived to be the restrictions of religion and the inverted consciousness of belief in god, he was also able to acknowledge the value of religion as a stage of humanity’s development.  This suggests that rather than annihilating religion, Marx’s foremost desire is to separate man from it. Veres’ idea of Marx as a militant atheist beset on slaying religion could possibly be biased due to his examination of Marx retrospectively through the lens of modern Marxism.

It appears for Marx that God was addressed swiftly through his early poetry and it was religion upon which he focused his concern.  This was due to the perception that the religious burden upon humankind was appropriate at a certain historical stage and necessary for the development of people groups, but had to be superseded by communism. This was Marx’s great solution to the human condition.[21]  

The final thesis composed by Marx can be interpreted as the crux of all eleven theses, which states, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.[22]  As discussed, Marx affirmed Feuerbach’s idea of God to be man’s projection of his own divine-like virtues.  In this final thesis, Marx depicts Feuerbach, Hegel and all his predecessors to be as interpreters, while he himself as more similar to a liberator, redeeming the human being through the means of revolution.  If Marx ever did envisage a god or being to be idolised it was that of which he viewed himself as; the enlightened individual who did not look to an outside source such as god for direction or strength, but was free from conditions of worth, fully aware of one’s own objective power and enabled to evoke change through a revolutionary consciousness.  This, Marx believed, would result in a person positioned to pursue the greatest good, that of absolute equality.

Marx proposes that for the individual to change history, he must be free not only from the shackles of guilt and self-degradation imposed by religion, but also free from the oppression of the bourgeois, the class of capitalist owners of production.[23] Marx states, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” and his adamant response to this class struggle was revolution.[24]  Most of Marx eleven theses mention the necessity of revolutionary practice and the importance of practical activity.  Given Marx’s emphasis on action, he presents as underwhelmed with Feuerbach’s emphasis on contemplation.  In thesis one, Marx specifically critiques contemplation as the “defect of materialism”.[25]  He further states that it lacks, “sensuous human activity, practice”.[26]  

Marx believed history must be reinterpreted based on production and economics, which started with addressing the alienation of man (Loy p.10).  Marx concurs with Feuerbach that religion has alienated man and applies this same idea to the alienation of man from his product. Volf describes this stating,  

“in alienated societies the products of human activity acquire an independent existence and rule their creators. Essentially, Marx’ critique of alienation is the critique of people’s dependence on their own creation which is based on Marx’ belief that human beings are their own highest beings.”[27]

This highest being, the enlightened man, must unite with a revolutionary movement of proletarians, including labourers, slaves, plebeians, and the working class.  The Communist confession of faith details the rationale for necessary revolutionary action.[28]  It is Marx’s profession of the individual as god, in which faith is in the proletariat’s ability to act in revolutionizing society and unshackling all people from the constraints of labour.  Marx descriptively declares, “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win”.[29]

Karl Marx presents as a true Atheist.  He largely rejected the Hegelian influenced approach of god adopted by Feuerbach, opting to focus on the freedom of humanity from their alienating religion and charting a course of activity and change that would lead to the liberation of the individual.  Marx was dogmatic concerning the necessity of the enlightened man, which can be viewed as Marx’ god or idol, and Communism his belief system.  

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Feuerbach, Ludwig, and G Eliot. The essence of Christianity. (Buffalo, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 1989).

[2] Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, C J Arthur. The German Ideology. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1974).

[3] Horii, Mitsutoshi. “Contextulaizing “religion” of young Karl Marx: A preliminary analysis.” (Critical Research on Religion , 2017), 170-187.

[4] Redding, Paul. “Georg Wilhelm Friedrick Hegel.” (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Paul Redding. Santa Clara: Metaphyscis Research Lab, Stanford University, 2018).

[5] Feuerbach and Eliot. The essence of Christianity.

[6] Feuerbach and Eliot. The essence of Christianity, 336.

[7] Marx, Karl, and Joseph O’Malley. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’. (1970).

[8] Marx, Karl, and Fredrick Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.” (Marx/Engels Selected Works, 13-15. Moscow, USSR: Progress Publishers, 1969).

[9] Marx and Engels. The German Ideology.

[10] Marx, and Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.”

[11] Turner, Denys. “How to be an Atheist.” (New Blackfriars, 2002), 317-335.

[12] Kojeve, Alexandre, and Jeff Love (Eds.). Atheism. (New York, USA: Columbia University Press, 2018), 11.

 

[13] Clarkson, Kathleen, and, David Hawkin. “Marx on Religion: The Influence of Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach on his thought and its implications for the Christian-Marxist dialogue.” (Scotland Journal of Theology, 1978), 533-555.

[14] Marx, Karl. Marxists Internet Archive. n.d. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1837-pre/verse/verse11.htm (accessed September 6, 2019).

[15] Marx, and O’Malley. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’.

[16] Gooch, Todd, and Edward Zalta (ed.). “Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach.” (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Santa Clara: Stanford Univeristy, 2016).

[17] Marx, and O’Malley. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’.

[18] Veres, Tomo. “The ambivalence of Marx’s atheism.” (Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 1985), 549-560.

[19] Marx, and O’Malley. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’.

[20] Marx, and O’Malley. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’.

[21] Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. (London, UK: Penguin Books, 2002).

[22] Marx, and Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.”

[23] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

[24] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

[25] Marx, and Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.”

[26] Marx, and Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.”

[27] Volf, Miroslav. “God, Freedom and Grace: Reflections on the Essentiality of Atheism for Marx and Marxism.” (Biblijsko-teoloski Institut, 1989), 213-229.

[28] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

[29] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

 

 

References

Clarkson, Kathleen, and, David Hawkin. “Marx on Religion: The Influence of Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach on his thought and its implications for the Christian-Marxist dialogue.” Scotland Journal of Theology, 1978.

Feuerbach, Ludwig, and G Eliot. The essence of Christianity. Buffalo, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 1989.

Gooch, Todd, and Edward Zalta (ed.). “Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Santa Clara: Stanford Univeristy, 2016.

Horii, Mitsutoshi. “Contextulaizing “religion” of young Karl Marx: A preliminary analysis .” Critical Research on Religion , 2017.

Kojeve, Alexandre, and Jeff Love (Eds.). Atheism. New York, USA: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Marx, Karl. Marxists Internet Archive. n.d. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1837-pre/verse/verse11.htm (accessed September 6, 2019).

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto. London, UK: Penguin Books, 2002.

Marx Karl, Friedrich Engels, C J Arthur. The German Ideology. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1974.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. “Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.” In Marx/Engels Selected Works, 13-15. Moscow, USSR: Progress Publishers, 1969.

Marx, Karl, and Joseph O’Malley. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’. 1970.

Redding, Paul. “Georg Wilhelm Friedrick Hegel.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Paul Redding. Santa Clara: Metaphyscis Research Lab, Stanford University, 2018.

Turner, Denys. “How to be an Atheist.” New Blackfriars, 2002.

Veres, Tomo. “The ambivalence of Marx’s atheism.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 1985.

Volf, Miroslav. “God, Freedom and Grace: Reflections on the Essentiality of Atheism for Marx and Marxism.” Biblijsko-teoloski Institut, 1989.

Fathering a problem-child Church: Apostle Paul and the Corinthians

Fathering a problem-child Church: Apostle Paul and the Corinthians

This short essay is an exegetical analysis of 1 Corinthians 3:1-9. It centres on Apostle Paul’s challenge in dealing with a plague of factionalism in the Church at Corinth.

 

Introduction

 The Apostle Paul considers himself not just a founder of churches, but a spiritual father who remains responsible for the churches ongoing spiritual growth and their formation in becoming like Christ.  In Galatians 4:19, Paul likens the responsibility and work with the church like, “the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” Similarly, the church that the Apostle Paul founded at Corinth was no exception.  Paul believed he had become their father through the gospel (1 Cor 4:15).  He considered it his apostolic responsibility to see the church at Corinth grow up into the head which is Christ and that Christian success was in becoming mature and no longer being, as Paul depicted, ‘infants’ tossed back and forth.  Furthermore, Paul believed but that the church would be built up to reach a unity in the faith and a common togetherness as the body of Christ (Eph 4:12-15).  The church in Corinth, however, was not unified in Christ.  It was plagued with a factionalism in which differing groups within the church sided with different Christian leaders.  At the beginning of the third chapter of 1 Corinthians the one called to be the Apostle to the church (1 Cor 1:1) describes their partisan mindset as being worldly, fleshy, and that of mere humans.  He then explains to them that mature Christians, those of the Spirit, understand that growth comes from God alone and will produce in them unity rather than quarrelling and jealously (1 Cor 3:1-9).  

This paper will show that the factionalism in the church was only a surface issue or a symptom.  Further analysis reveals that Paul was attempting to parent a problem child church[1], which was suffering from chronic immaturity as evidenced by worldly mindsets, behaviours and most concerningly the aforementioned factionalism that was resulting in division among the congregation rather than manifesting unity in love.  Spiritually the church in Corinth was stuck perpetually at the infant stage.   

 

The City of Corinth

Corinth was one of the most important cities in the Roman world. Destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC it was rebuilt by Julius Caesar exceeding Athens in importance during this early Christian era.[2]  Corinth had a reputation for immoral living.  For example, to become “Corinthianised” was the equivalent of being sexually immoral.  “The trip to Corinth is not for every man,” observed several ancient travellers.  Despite this, Corinth was important to the spread of the gospel as it sat between two major harbours in the province of Achaia and connected southern Greece to the mainland.[3]    

 

The church in Corinth

In Acts 18:1 Luke tells us that, “Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.”  He was most likely there from the autumn of 50 CE to the summer of 52.[4]  Upon arriving in Corinth Paul meets Aquilla and Priscilla and begins to live and work with them as a tentmaker (Acts 18:3). After unsuccessfully preaching to the Jews (v. 6) Paul commits to preach only to the Gentiles and subsequently many Corinthians came to believe in Jesus.  After receiving a word from the Lord encouraging Paul by saying, “he has many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10), Paul remains in Corinth for 18 months laying the only possible foundation in the church, Jesus Christ himself (1 Cor 3:10-11).[5]  Once the church was well established he left for Ephesus.   

It was from the city of Ephesus that Paul wrote what we call his first letter to the Corinthians.  It appears that this letter was in fact his second letter to the church, due to the suggested existence of what scholars refer to as “letter A.”[6] The evidence for this is found in references to this earlier letter such as in 1 Corinthians 5:9 when it states, “I wrote you in my letter…”.  Letter A has not survived to the present day.  The correspondence continues from Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth as described in 2 Corinthians 2:4 and 7:8, which reference a “sorrowful” letter, likely written after Pauls self-described “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1).[7] Subsequently, 2 Corinthians is the fourth letter to the church.

 

The Father and the Problem child

To use Paul’s own words, the relationship between himself as the father of the church and its members was painful and at best very strained (2 Cor 2:1).  Like a parent with a problem child, it can be posited that the church in Corinth was likely the most challenging of the churches that he had birthed.[8]

Both of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians can be considered occasional letters, meaning that the letters were not merely utilised as a means by which Paul was able to record and publish his teachings, but they were motivated by genuine church issues and addressed to real people.[9]  The situation that appears to lead to Paul writing 1 Corinthians are the reports from Chloe’s household concerning the quarrels over who was following which Christian leader (1:11-12).  The appeal of Paul’s letter is found in the preceding verse (1:10), that they would be “perfectly united” without division.  Paul’s appeal echo’s that of any good parent calling their children to love one another, sort out their differences, and live by the principles of the training they received at home.  The purpose of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is to insist as the founding father of the church that they move away from infant Christian living that is in fact worldly and unspiritual, and grow up and spiritually mature. Gundry describes the purpose of 1 Corinthians, stating that “Aberrant beliefs and practices of astonishing variety and vulgarism flourished in the Corinthian church. It is to solve those problems that Paul writes this epistle.”[10]  Gundry is correct in the pointing out of the many inaccurate beliefs and practices operating in the church, as a long list of issues are addressed in the letter including concerns attributed to disunity and divisions, sexual immorality, lawsuits among brothers, marriage, food offered to idols, the order of public worship, communion, spiritual gifts, and finally eschatological questions concerning the resurrection.  Gundry’s exploration of the letter from Paul to the church, however, only acknowledges the bad fruit and not the root cause from which these problems arise.  The church is as a sick child needing healing of its immaturity.  Gorman describes this fundamental problem of the church at Corinth as, “a failure to understand the real-life consequences of the gospel of ‘Jesus Christ, and Him crucified’” (2:2). Possibly the climax of Paul’s appeal is the famous “love chapter,” found in 1 Corinthians 13.  At the heart of this chapter we find verse five describing love as “not self-seeking.”[11]  Love is not selfish and therefore does not insist on its own way.[12]  Jesus Christ taught that great love was in laying down one’s life for his friends (John 15:13), which is ultimately what Jesus did this for the believers in Corinth when He was crucified.  Paul in his letter reminds the church of this gospel truth and that to be mature and spiritual is to imitate Christ (1 Cor 4:16, 11:1).[13]      

 

Immaturity leading to factionalism

The 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 passage is written in the context as the first among a long list of issues that Paul addresses.  He spends the first four chapters confronting the cancer of factionalism that has spread throughout the church, which is in complete contradiction to his appeal that the Corinthians be unified in love (1 Cor 1:10).  The passage can be broken into two parts; the core issue and underlying sickness of the church, followed by the church’s immaturity (vs. 1-3) and the consequences of factionalism (vs. 4-9).

Moffat postulates of the immature Corinthians that, “the church was in the world as it was meant to be, but the world was in the church, as it ought not to be.[14]  Paul, before emphasising this worldliness, softens his rebuke by addressing the church as “brothers and sisters.”[15]  He then unequivocally diagnoses this problem child church as immature as evidenced by their juvenile spirituality.  Paul does not even address them as spiritual, rather highlights their lack of preparedness for solid food and again reiterates their worldliness as evident in their quarrelling, which Paul bemoans as mere humanness.   

The immaturity of the church is labelled by Paul as worldly and appears twice in verses one and three.  For the first occurrence of the label ‘worldly,’ Paul utilises the Greek word sarkinos, which means fleshy or made of flesh.  He describes their Christian state as infants in Christ, likening them to new converts who are still learning how to put aside the misdeeds of the body and live according to the Spirit (Rom 8:3).  For the in the second use of the label worldly, however, Paul writes the Greek word sarkikos, which means to be characterised by the flesh.  Tyndale defines this as meaning, “you could help it (being flesh-like) but you don’t.”[16]  Paul clearly expects a spiritual maturity that ought to be demonstrated by unity rather than quarrelling.  Paul deducts their infant state as a result of choice to not help themselves to solid spiritual food, but rather indulge in an unwillingness to grow up and living according to the Spirit.

Sandwiched between chapters one and three of Paul’s criticism of the church’s factionalism is a glorious chapter that compares living by the Spirit to operating as a mere human, one that does not have Christ.  1 Corinthians 2 talks of the, “message of wisdom spoken among the mature.” Those who live by the Spirit discern the message of wisdom through the Holy Spirt, they are mature in faith not wise by the standard of the age.  Mounce describes the type of Christians dominating the church in Corinth stating that “there are Christians who, long after they receive Christ, prove themselves unable to receive solid knowledge of the Scripture, mature theological dialogue, and seasoned Christian behaviour.”[17]  Had the church in Corinth functioned in line with the teaching of Paul and subsequently the message of Christ, they would have avoided the quarrelling that led them to the cancerous spread of factionalism among the believers.

 

Christian leaders and growth

In the same way that two children may argue over toys and experience great difficulty cooperating, the Corinthian churches immaturity produced dissent and quarrelling amongst the church that in turn prevented them from partaking in perfect unity of mind and thought (1 Cor 1:10).  The factionalism addressed in 1 Corinthians 3:4-9 is initially raised in the first chapter of Paul’s letter where he specifically says that the quarrels are concerning the following of four Christian leaders including Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter) and Christ (1:12). Gundry suggests that the Corinthian factionalism is a product of hero worship, suggesting that the followers of Paul were loyal to him as the founder, the admirers of Apollos for his famous eloquence (Acts 18:24) and finally Peter who had won the affection of the Jewish section of the diverse congregation.[18]  Hero worship, however, is a strong indictment.  The church does present as somewhat idolatrous in nature throughout Paul’s letter, although this is never one of his specific concerns.  Carson affirms the obvious division of the church in Corinth but notes that the bible does not suggest that the ministry of Apollos (3:6) and Peter in Corinth (if he came to Corinth at all), promoted a party spirit.[19]  Fee minimises the factionalism even further, turning his attention to the entire church’s opposition to its founder Paul.[20]  It is suggested by Hagner that the most serious division is actually between Paul and the entirety of the church and that the key issue is actually the challenge to his authority.[21]  Hagner’s hypothesis complements the problem child identity of the church to its father Paul, who birthed the church through the gospel (1 Cor 4:15).  Paul’s defence of his apostleship in chapters four and nine articulate Paul’s right to speak into the life of the church.  The “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1) and the “sorrowful letter” (2 Cor 7:8) also demonstrate Paul’s affinity with the church and his obvious freedom to speak into the churches issues like a father figure.

Paul does not address the purpose of the factionalist groups as their claims are unimportant along with the entire issue of church divisions, they exist only as a symptom of a church stuck in the infant stage of its development.  Paul does take the opportunity, however, to teach the truth concerning Christian leaders.  He intertwines this teaching with an explanation of God’s modus operandi for maturing believers and churches, utilising a farming illustration to divide the worker or farmer from God, who is the source of all growth.  In this illustration the workers are Paul himself and Apollos, who are described as mere servants.  Ironside aptly states “the servant cannot take the place of the master… for the servant has no power to cause the fruit to produce.”[22]  Paul’s explanation places himself, the father of the work, on equal standing with Apollos, explaining that the waterer and the planter are equal, co-workers and far inferior to the source of growth being God Himself.  Through this explanation from Paul, both he and Apollos lose any significant standing and the respective opinions of the quarrelling parties are annulled.

Paul is a true Apostolic Father and servant to the church of Corinth. He understood he was their Father through the gospel, they were his dear children and the purpose of his writing was not to shame them but to warn them (1 Cor 4:14-15). Regrettably, like an adolescent rejecting the wisdom and good will of a parent the Corinthians did not know who they were to Paul.

Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 diagnose the underlying sickness of the church, spiritual immaturity, he then rebukes them concerning the factionalism that is dividing the church. The paper has shown that partisan issue as one of a long list of dirty laundry addressed by Paul, but it was not the sole reason for his letter. The purpose of his letter was to address the infantile Christianity producing the factionalism, the worldliness in the church and to appeal to the church to move on to maturity which would in turn be evidenced by love, unity and a oneness in mind and thought.

The church struggled with the same issue of immaturity for some time. We know this because more than 40 years after Pauls letter,[23] Clement writes to the same church urging them to, “take up the epistle of that blessed apostle, Paul… since you were even then engaged in partisanship.”[24] 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 is highly applicable today, the issue of the Corinthians is still common today. Much of the body of Christ is not unified but is splintered and continues to figurately cry out, “I follow Paul,” and “I follow Apollos.” All believers must choose to live according to the message of Jesus, that is love toward brothers, neighbours and even enemies this mature spiritual behaviour will alleviate our immaturity and worldliness. 

 

 

 Footnotes

[1] Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the crucified Lord (Grand Rapids: Eerdams Publishing, 2004), 227.

[2] Donald A. Hagner, The New testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 478.

[3] Gorman, Apostle of the crucified Lord, 228.

[4] Hagner, The New testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction, 477.

[5] D. A. Carson, Douglas J Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 264.

[6] Carson, Moo, and Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament, 265.

[7] Hagner, The New testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction, 479.

[8] Gorman, Apostle of the crucified Lord, 227.

[9] Carson, Moo, and Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament, 259.

[10] Robert H. Gundry, A survey of the New Testament (Michigan: Zondervan, 1994), 359.

[11] Gorman, Apostle of the crucified Lord, 228.

[12] Leon Morris, The first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: an introduction and commentary (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 180.

[13] Gorman, Apostle of the crucified Lord, 237.

[14] J. Moffatt, An Introduction to the literature of the New Testament (T & T Clark, 1927), xv, quoted in Leon Morris, The first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: an introduction and commentary.

[15] Morris, The first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: an introduction and commentary, 61.

[16] Morris, The first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: an introduction and commentary, 61.

[17] Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary. “Infant”

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+cor+3&version=NIV (accessed November 2, 2017)

[18] Gundry, A survey of the New Testament, 362.

[19] Carson, Moo, and Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament, 264.

[20] Gordon D. Fee, The First epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 5.

[21] Hagner, The New testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction, 483.

[22] H. A. Ironside, Address on the first epistle to the Corinthians (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1969), 121.

[23] Early Christian Writings. “First Clement.” http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/1clement.html (accessed November 3, 2017).

[24] 1 Clement 47 (translation J.B. Lightfoot).

 

Wrestling with God and with man

Wrestling with God and with man

This short essay is an exegetical exploration of Genesis 32:22-32, Jacob’s wrestle with God at Jabbok. It outlines the importance of doubt, struggle and overcoming in the life of Jacob that foreshadowed the journey of Israel and ultimately the pathway of all Believers. Wrestling with God produces mature Christians.

 

 

The wrestle between God and His creation is universal as all individual’s struggle to discover their purpose and identity.  The recording of events in Genesis 32:22-32 illustrate how the Patriarch Jacob, the grandson of Abraham and the current guardian of the covenant between God and his family, was no exception to this struggle.  This passage details how Jacob who in his habitual manner, has fled his father-in-law Laban and arrives at the wadi, Jabbok.  Here Jacob anxiously anticipates the impending confrontation with his brother Esau, whom he also fled from as a young man.  Jacob’s constant wrestle with man has led him to a final wrestle with God, which is of such significance that by dawn Jacob is bestowed a new name and permanently disabled.

This essay will demonstrate that the author’s intended meaning of Genesis 32:22-32 was to reveal the nature of Israel’s future relationship with God, utilising Jacob’s wrestle with life and God Himself as an example.  The man with whom Jacob wrestles acknowledges his life journey thus far, stating “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (v.28).  This statement is more than an astute description of Jacob’s life.  It is a prophetic statement outlining the future for the nation of Israel, which similarly would include long periods of wrestling and subsequent prevailing, seasons of blessing, and days that host new beginnings.

 

Setting the scene
Genesis 32:22-32 can be divided into three sections; Jacob’s long wrestle through the night with a faceless and nameless opponent (vv. 22-25), the dawn of the day that results in Jacob blessed with a new name (vv. 26-29), and the new day in which Jacob departs Jabbok forever marked by God (vv. 30-32).

The author of the Pentateuch and this passage in Genesis is traditionally believed to be Moses.  Although a reasonable assumption, there exists no conclusive evidence to support this.  Due to the work in source criticism authors from the pre-exilic and post exilic ages are hypothesized to have collated the Pentateuch[1] together in their present form during the time of the early monarchy to represent a “look back” on Israel’s ancestry.[2]  Assuming this is correct the author’s intention would likely be to record the origins of Israel for the Israelite reader.[3]  The purpose of translating the oral story to written text would be to describe the birth of Israel in Jewish history and to give context to the dark periods experienced by the nation as they wrestle with their God, as well as the subsequent times of blessing throughout their tumultuous history. 

 

Wrestling: God and humans
Tired, alone and at the end of his human strength, the Lord’s word to Jacob’s mother Rebekah, that “the elder shall serve the younger”[4] and the subsequent belief that he would be free from Esau’s vengeance, would have appeared unlikely to Jacob.  Jacob’s striving with God and humans accurately describes his life until now.  The Hebrew word for striven, warah, means to persist or contend.  The New International Version Bible (NIV) utilises the word ‘struggle’ to emphasise the tussling nature of Jacob’s relationship with God and people. The two camps into which he has grown[5]mirrors two dimensions of Jacob’s life struggles; the divine and the human.[6]

In the night an unknown man thrusts himself upon Jacob, however, Jacob is not easily overcome.  The years of evading the wrath of his physically superior brother Esau and resisting the injustice of a cunning Laban, all the while amassing a personal fortune has shaped Jacob into a staunch contender.  Verse 24 states the man grapples with Jacob throughout the night until day break.  Jacob’s stamina is not diminished and his divine opponent aware that he is not prevailing against him draws on supernatural strength to disable him and continues to wrestle, eventually crying out “Let me go!” (v. 26).  Brueggemann postulates that the wrestling match was a draw and even suggests that, “Jacob is the stronger party.”[7]  This, however, could only be possible if the man is not God, which is not the case as Jacob identifies his opponent as God in verse 30.  God has infinite and unstoppable strength and is not suggesting that God is lacking or that Jacob is superior in any way.  Rather, the author is attempting to emphasise Jacob’s persistence.  Frederick aptly describes Jacob’s wrestle with God as ‘the magnificent defeat.’[8]  The magnificence of the conflict is Jacob’s undying perseverance captured in his declaration, “I will not let you go.”

God desires the attribute of perseverance in his people Israel.  This trait is required of the Israelites to persist through slavery in Egypt, the wandering to and conquest of the land of Canaan and even in exile when the nation appears to be dislocate and limping.  The prophet Hosea when appealing to Israel to return from their adultery to God reminds the people of Jacob’s plight, “In the womb he tried to supplant his brother, and in his manhood he strove with God.”[9] The two dimensions of wrestling are rendered ideal by the prophet, however the following verse explains how Jacob succeeded where Israel currently was not, “He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor.”[10]Hosea’s referencing of the story acknowledges that Jacob’s victory was not found in his own ways, his own power or in turning to other gods, but in his persistence and humbling himself vulnerable before God, which leads to blessing and new beginnings.

 

Naming: The dawning of a blessed nation 
The persistent and prevailing attitude of Jacob is his winning. The wrestle throughout the night reaches its climax at day break and the divine being must vanish, a mark of the antiquity on which the story is based.[11] Despite his valiant efforts, Jacob is now exhausted with a dislocated hip.  God, however, cannot be worn out and in simply touching Jacob’s hip has dealt his opponent a critical blow.  The winner of the wrestle is affirmed in Jacob’s indirect acceptance of defeat, as he requests a blessing from the man who says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (v. 28).  This blessing is the pivotal turning point of Jacob’s life trajectory and subsequently the birthing of a new nation, Israel.  This passage in Genesis 32 and naming are closely linked.  Long states “the fixation on names and naming in this text, that is, Jacob’s name, the man’s name, and the name of the place all underscore the name change for Jacob,”[12] which suggests the name change is of primary importance in the passage.

The meaning of Jacob is ‘supplanter’, which reflects his character as a usurper of Esau’s firstborn position and rightful double portion blessing.[13]  The divine being who wrestles with Jacob renames him Israel in a prophetic statement that has overtures not only for Jacob’s immediate life trajectory as the Father of a nation but for the entire nation of Israel being born in this very statement. The name Israel has been suggested to originally have meant “El rules” (the god El was the head of the Northwest Semitic pantheon[14]), however, based on the current passage is interpreted to mean “the one who strives with God.” This connotation is fitting for the identity of Israel as a nation that persists and remains faithful to their God.

It must not be forgotten that the blessing did not stop at the bestowing of a new name but also in the acknowledgement that  “… you have prevailed.”  Alternate translations use the words ‘won’ (New Living Translation) and ‘overcome’ (NIV) to highlight the victorious destination achieved by Jacob.  Victory was attained by remaining in the wrestle with God and humans, not because of natural strength or his ability to deceive.  Jacob prevails with prayer not with natural strength and this is the change of Jacob to Israel.[15]

Waltke’s statement that this narrative “is a quite concrete assertion about the forming of Israel”[16] supports this paper’s interpretation of the meaning of the passage.  Similarly, the prophet Isaiah states, “he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel.”[17]  It can be concluded that both man and nation are divinely shaped at Jabbok.  The denotation of the new name identifies the nation of Israel as not created through the Patriarchs only, but formed by God’s own hands in readiness to produce a saving Messiah.

 

Marking: limping into a new day
Upon arriving at Jabbok, Jacob was fearful of meeting with his brother Esau.  After encountering God face to face, Jacob’s initial fears are quenched for he had met with God and lived.   He subsequently names the place of his encounter with God ‘Peniel’ or ‘Penuel’ to enshrine the memory.  The encounter with God not only marked Jacob physically but also inwardly as it altered his approach to the future and instilled him with confidence.  The mark of God upon Jacob is evident across his lifespan from this encounter onward.  Even at the end of his lifetime and he is dying, he must lean upon the top of his staff as he blesses Ephraim and Manasseh.[18]

The Jabbok theophany turns Jacob’s perilous journey with Esau from aggressive conflict to warm reconciliation,[19] demonstrating Jacob’s wrestle with not just God but also people has finished.  Despite this, the wrestle for Israel as a nation with God and humans has just begun.  The promise of light after darkness, however, has been secured.  The author emphasises the day breaking three times in Genesis 32:22-32, highlighting its importance and metaphorically suggesting that despite future periods of darkness and confusion that Israel may experience, the eventual dawning of light and clarity will transpire for the new nation.  The mark of God is upon Israel as it was upon Cain[20], as a mark of ownership which also ensures protection.

 

Conclusion
The Jabbok passage is a timeless story laden with principles for life.  This essay has outlined the three parts of Jacob’s encounter including his wrestling with God, his blessing from God and his marking by God.  The intended meaning of the passage, however, is not for Jacob alone.  In his blessing he is renamed Israel, which becomes the national name of his posterity and the God of his family becomes the God of the nation.

A messianic hint exists in the author’s writing and it would be useful and enlightening to pursue the messianic thread in the future writings pertaining to Israel beyond Genesis.  The limp Jacob exhibits for the remainder of his life is a foreshadow that is superseded by price the Messiah would pay for Israel and all people.  Despite receiving a new name, it did not ensure a completely new nature for Israel and a Messiah would reveal a superior way to redemption.  The need for a new light dawning, greater than Jacob’s after Jabbok would be required for Israel to be completely reconciled to God but God knowing he would send this messiah needed a nation from which to birth His very own son. The prophet Isaiah knows that the light will be a child born, a son given.[21]

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Andrew Hill and John Walton. Survey of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 64.

[2] Fredrick Carlson Holgren, “Holding your own against God: Genesis 32:22-32.” Interpretation 44, no. 1 (1990), 5-17, http://web.a.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=6&sid=698eeffd-418e-4436-86d6-28e67be14023%40sessionmgr4007 (accessed March 29, 2018), 7.

[3] Holgren, “Holding your own against God: Genesis 32:22-32”, 7.

[4] Genesis 25:23

[5] Genesis 32:10

[6] Bruce K Waltke and Cathi J Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).

[7] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2010), 267-268.

[8] Frederick Buechner, The magnificent defeat (New York City: Harper Collins, 1965).

[9] Hosea 12:3

[10] Hosea 12:4

[11] Michael D Coogan et al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 57.

[12] Jesse Long, “Wrestling with God to win: a literary reading of the story of Jacob at Jabbok in honor of Don Williams.” Stone-Campbell Journal, (2012), 47-61, http://web.a.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=8&sid=698eeffd-418e-4436-86d6-28e67be14023%40sessionmgr4007 (accessed March 29, 2018), 49.

[13] Genesis 25:29-34

[14] Coogan et al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 57.

[15] Brueggemann, Genesis, 270.

[16] Waltke and Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary.

[17] Isaiah 43:1

[18] Hebrews 11:21

[19] Brueggemann, Genesis, 271.

[20] Genesis 4:15

[21] Isaiah 9:6

 

 

 

Bibliography

Barker, Kenneth L. New International Version Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2010.

Buechner, Frederick. The magnificent defeat. New York City: Harper Collins, 1965.

Coogan, Michael D, Marc Z Brettler, Carol Newsom, and Pheme Perkins. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010 

Hill, Andrew, and John Walton. Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Holgren, Fredrick Carlson. “Holding your own against God: Genesis 32:22-32.” Interpretation 44, no. 1 (1990): 5-17. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=6&sid=69eeffd-418e-4436-86d6-28e67be14023%40sessionmgr4007 (accessed March 29, 2018).

Long, Jesse. “Wrestling with God to win: a literary reading of the story of Jacob at Jabbok in honor of Don Williams.” Stone-Campbell Journal, 2012: 47-61. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=8&sid=69eeffd-418e-4436-86d6-28e67be14023%40sessionmgr4007 (accessed March 29, 2018).

Manser, Martin H. Dictionary of Bible Themes. Kindle edition: BookBaby, 1996.

Waltke, Bruce K, and Cathi J Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

 

Sam Harris and The New Atheist Movement

Sam Harris and The New Atheist Movement

Sam Harris is a key figure in the current philosophical revolution known as New Atheism. Harris is part of the so-called four Horseman, along with Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett. This long essay is a critical description and assessment of Harris’ denial of God and its relationship to our cultural circumstances.

 

 

Introduction

The foundation of atheism is the denial of God.  This unbelief in a transcendent Being differs to many people who may subscribe to a religious belief system and its subsequent ways of living.  At times, atheism can be presented and interpreted as antagonistic to religious belief systems, particularly as leading atheists focus much of their attention on depicting religious beliefs as irrational, archaic and obsolete.  Sam Harris appraises religion and belief in God this manner.  This essay will focus on exploring and critiquing Harris’ unique denial of God, his argument against religion and finally his influence in contemporary Western culture. 

 

God as monster

As is common in atheist rhetoric, Harris does not dismiss God and focus elsewhere, rather, Harris invests a considerable amount of time and academic thought into exploring and articulating the character of God before assuming the task of substantiating the absurdity of his existence.[1] Utilising references to sacred religious texts, Harris describes God as a genocidal and torture-demanding monster, who is either impotent or evil in his role as sovereign over all.[2]  Specifically referencing the Bible, Harris depicts God as a being that gleefully sends unbelievers to burn for eternity,[3] demands the genocidal slaughtering of non-Israelites,[4] [5]and requires the torture and death of heretics as occurred during the Holy Inquisition of the 12th century and the Jihadi attacks on infidels in the 21st century.[6]  Harris’ disdain for the Christian God is captured in his writing when he states, “We know enough at this moment to say that the God of Abraham is not only unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.”[7]  Based on his interpretation of God, Harris concludes that, “Words like ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ must go the way of ‘Apollo’ and ‘Baal’ or they will unmake our world.”[8]  Harris’ concern is that if this violent and murderous God, along with the ancient religious texts that normalise his archaic demands, are not disowned by people of logic then the secular world we enjoy will be destroyed.

The Quran along with the Hebrew and Christian Bibles are considered by believers to be divinely inspired by God.  Muslims deem the Quran to be the most perfect and miraculous book ever composed, believing it was spoken by Allah and penned by the Prophet Mohammad through direct revelation.[9]  The Quran is regarded by Muslims as sacred and its eloquently written wisdom unrivalled, rendering it beyond human questioning.[10]  Likewise, Orthodox Christianity holds that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, written by various authors under the supernatural inspiration the Holy Spirit.[11]  Sam Harris posits that if God were to author a book it would be imperative that it be of a higher calibre than that of the Quran or the Bible.  He also disapproves of sacred texts due to their lack of internal consistency and incoherent style. Harris believes this calls into question an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent deity, who’s writing skills should be perfect.[12]  Harris’ argument against Quran may be justified. Composed in the seventh century the so-called perfect nature of the Quran is defended by weak Islamic apologetics. When the Quran’s claims are objectively evaluated, they fall short. Arguments such as its fulfilled prophecies, of which it holds none and its mathematical patterns which when studied turn out to be fudged data or only basic patterns.[13]  It’s claims to advanced scientific truths, a technique called Bucaillesim are all scientifically incorrect.[14]  In addition to this, the Quran is a closed book, meaning it is devoid of objective scholarship and its contents largely unknown by Muslims who rely solely on an Iman to interpret and communicate their holy scriptures.

 

Holy books: Bible and Quran

Harris’ critique of the Bible as a means to discredit Christianity, is grossly oversimplified.  The Bible is a book that has endured millennia of textual criticism from both believers and nonbelievers.  Harris does not attempt to address this and avoids the enormous body of sound hermeneutical work undertaken possibly because it does not align with his presuppositions.  Hermeneutics can be defined as “The science and the art of Biblical interpretation.”[15]  Hermeneutics is a science because it abides by principles that ensure objective and accurate analysis is undertaken, it is an art as it requires skill on behalf of the interpreter in applying these principles.[16]  Interpretation of the Bible, as understood by most Christians, is the reading of biblical passages through the accurate historical context and literary style. Fee and Stuart state that, “Interpretation of the Bible is demanded by the tension that exists between its eternal relevance and its historical particularity.”[17]

Harris’ misunderstanding of Bible interpretation is highlighted when discussing slavery.   Harris states, “Consult the Bible, and you will discover the creator of the universe clearly expects us to keep slaves.”[18]  Harris references Exodus 21:7-11 and Ephesians 6:5 as supporting evidence for this position.[19]  Reviewing the passage in Exodus utilising the basic contextual principle of Biblical interpretation, it can be seen that the enslaved daughter in this passage is a bond-servant who actually receives rights and protections unprecedented at that time by any other culture of the Ancient Near East.  When understood in the correct historical framework, the Israelite community is employing revolutionary social practices. In Harris’ Ephesians reference, he fails to acknowledge the normality of slavery in the Greco-Roman society during this epoch in history.[20]  Harris consistently misconstrues the intent of the Bible, failing to capture its purpose as a progressive revealing of God through humankind over many centuries.  The scourge of slavery has plagued every society for all of human history.  The message of the Bible, whilst it may not directly denounce slavery in its contextual time and place, does move the heart of humankind towards abolition.  While Harris uses the apparent silence of Jesus and the Apostle Paul on slavery as evidence for his position regarding a cruel and unjust God, it can be clearly seen that the message of Jesus as disseminated by Paul, was unarguably one of freedom as seen in Biblical passages like “Set the captives free,”[21] and, “There is neither slave nor free.”[22]  Harris’ arguments against the authenticity of religious texts, specifically the Christian and Hebrews Bibles, are found to be lacking when adopting the appropriate tools and principles of examining ancient texts such as these.  Rather, Harris skews the interpretation, especially that of the Bible, in order to accommodate his own subjective position of the divine being that the text was written to reveal. 

 

Science vs. Religion

The pursuit and discovery of truth is a universal quest embarked upon by humanity throughout history.  Sam Harris is evidently a passionate pursuer of the truth.  He presents as unafraid to articulate tough philosophical questions and challenge that which he believes obscures or distracts from the truth.  In his quest for rational truth, Harris presents science as opposing to religion and faith.[23]  He describes their coexistence as an unavoidable conflict, stating that, “science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma is always at the expense of science.”[24]  The emphasis on ‘always’ applied by Harris is due to his definitive and largely overgeneralised position that faith is always an obstacle to what is true and is unable to contribute or cooperate in the discovery of truth.  Science alone is supreme.

As detailed in his writings, Harris confidence and conviction rests in science and he overtly bemoans those individuals who have placed faith in a supernatural God and a sacred text. Harris describes faith as “nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reason fails.”[25]  This, however, is an inaccurate definition of faith.  What Harris is defining holds similarity with what may be termed “blind faith,” belief devoid of evidence.  Inversely, Harris’ assurance in science alone and his position regarding the faith religious individuals, is a statement of belief itself that extends beyond what can be ascertained by scientific discovery.  Furthermore, while he reasons that faith in a supernatural God is blind, misguided and without evidence, this faith and this God that he is far from extinct despite the continual battering. Particularly the cosmological, kalam cosmological, moral, teleological and ontological arguments for God have been clearly articulated and are more reasonably probable than Harris’ denials.[26]  

Sam Harris fervently rejects a God that is compatible with science, preferring to believe that science and religion are opposing and irredeemable forces.  This, however, lacks evidentiary support.  For example, the fact that sixty percent of Nobel Laureates up until the year 2000 were Christians suggests that science and religion are in fact compatible and even complimentary, rather than conflicting.[27]  Albert Einstein famously stated, “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”[28] Both continue valuably in understanding life and human reason.  As John Lennox says, “Science and God mix very well. It is science and atheism that do not mix.”[29]

Sam Harris claims there exists a complete lack of evidence to support the verification of a transcendent being.  The product of believing in such a being produces religious dogma that is devoid of corroborating evidence, such as the virgin birth, the spirit entering the zygote at conception, and a God who both hears the prayers of all people and answers them according to his wisdom.[30]  Sarcastically, Harris describes that in the same way that people no longer believe in or pray to the Greek god Poseidon when sailing, belief in the Christian God should also discontinue.[31]  Here Harris makes a fundamental category error, suggesting that those who follow long standing religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam hold beliefs that are not dissimilar to those believing in characters of legend such as Santa Claus and mythology such as Poseidon.[32] Whilst there exists no evidence for the existence of legendary or mythological beings, religious apologists have responded with a wide array of evidence for the existence of God drawn from scientific evidence in natural law to the moral evidence in the human psyche.[33]

Throughout history science has been proved and disproved in ways that continue to align this field of study with the Bible.  For instance, it was believed for many centuries that the earth was eternal, and that matter could neither be created or destroyed.[34]  The eighteenth-century law of conservation enshrined this theory as ‘settled science’ therefore disqualifying the need for a Creator.  Scientific convergence in the twentieth century such as relative theory and thermodynamics, however, substantiated that the universe had a distinct beginning.  This finding supports the creation story as poetically told in Genesis 1 and John 1 in the Bible.[35]  Harris’ argument against God is a belief consistent with his naturalistic worldview, however, while he is successful in critiquing others belief systems, he has been unable to convincingly account with scientific evidence his atheistic belief system that appears to be deeply flawed at the point of origins.

 

Naturalism and evolution

Consistent with the Naturalistic Worldview, Harris is a devout supporter of evolutionary theory.  Harris boldly claims that, “Anything that denies we evolved from primates is utter delusion”[36] and he confidently states that the Bible is unquestionably wrong regarding the creation of all things by God.[37]  While Harris promotes evolution to a sacred position that requires no questioning, it remains as theory, a hypothesis concerning the existence of all life.  The argument concerning origins between the naturalistic and theistic worldviews has been long standing.  Debate arises concerning the reality that living organisms stay true to their type, as Charles Darwin himself saw when breeding pigeons.[38] Further evidence against the evolutionary perspective is that scientists have never bred a successfully mutating organism.  DNA mutations are in fact often harmful or deadly and whilst changes in fur colour or limb size can occur, they have never proven to create new structures.[39]  Another example that undermines the theory of evolution is that living structures are often irreducibly complex in meaning.  The evidence is weak in suggesting that these complex living structures could have evolved in small and gradual steps over a long period of time.[40]

 

Harris states that “The core of science is intellectual honesty.”[41]  He does, however, promote evolution as a fact, which in itself fails to be appropriately honest.  While evolution is a theory with many detractors, Harris fails to admit that reason has a far larger scope than science.  Science and rationality are not synonymous and there exist many rational questions that cannot be answered by science alone, such as ‘why are we here?’, ‘what is the purpose of life’ and ‘how should we live?’[42]  Science, whilst immense in value, does possess limitations.  Harris holds a belief system and possess a worldview like all individuals.  His faith and certainty rest in science, a worldview often referred to as Scientism.  Scientism is the belief that science is the only way to truth.[43]  This belief, however, is not compatible with reality.   For example, if science can explain all rational life then why have universities not shut down the faculties of arts, history, literature and music?[44] Harris’ self-described ‘no-faith’ is in fact a religious belief system, in which one of the by-products is challenging the predominant theistic worldviews of the cultural context in the West.

 

Attack on Christianity and the superiority of Eastern Wisdom 

As aforementioned, Harris’ approach to disqualifying God and religion is aggressive. His disdain for the Christian worldview is clearly evident;

“There is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend eternity in hell …[45]

Despite Harris’ contempt for religion, he appears to exhibit some regard and even praise for the Eastern religions.  Harris states that, “When the great philosopher mystics of the East are weighed against the patriarchs of Western philosophical and theological traditions, the difference is unmistakeable.”[46]  This could be considered counterintuitive considering many of Harris’ arguments against religion of which much of Eastern philosophy is.  Harris esteems the wisdom originating from the East, while possessing a negative bias towards Western Philosophy and religion.  He fails, however, to address the wisdom conveyed in the teachings of Jesus such as in the sermon on the mount.[47]  It is widely accepted that this passage of wisdom underpins western thought and culture and such significant wisdom cannot merely be disregarded.  We can directly track the West’s skill of invention, value of servant leadership, material prosperity, anti-corruption and concern for the poor back to this one sermon from over two thousand years ago.  Harris’ reception toward the wisdom and spirituality of the East, especially Buddhism, appears inconsistent with his stanch intolerability of religion.  It can be posited, however, that Buddhism provides Harris with concepts such as meditation, the illusion of self, and peaceful relations.  Harris adopts these convenient concepts that allow him to articulate a metaphysical explanation for life and address the human quest of spirituality, while placing no religious demands on his scientific rationality.  A heavy critic of liberal Christians, Jews and Muslims it appears that Harris is himself guilty of religious moderation in employing some of the tenants of Buddhism and discarding others.[48]

 

Rational spirituality

In examination of spirituality and the supernatural, Harris states that “Our minds are all we have,”[49]and argues that spirituality is possible without religion.  This approach could be labelled as ‘rational spirituality.’  Harris argues that religions have hijacked spiritual experiences and seeks to explain these experiences scientifically whilst simultaneously discrediting religion and the supernatural.  Theorising the relationship between science and spirituality appears to be of primary importance to Harris and he proposes that the connection between the two is human consciousness.[50]  He further suggests that by exploring the nature of consciousness through deliberate training such as meditation, humans can be spiritually satisfied and subsequently have no need for God or religion.[51]  Furthermore, Harris argues that if humans are able to be fully conscious in the moment through mindfulness, the deliberate practice of self-awareness, they would be able to acquire truth concerning themselves, disqualifying the need for religion or God.[52]  These conclusions, however, are inferenced from his own spiritual experiences rather than sound scientific inquiry.  The scientific evidence Harris does utilise to support his theory regarding the consciousness connection is from neuroscientific split-brain research, which he claims demonstrates the implausibility of humans possessing a spirit and subsequently undermines spirituality in relation to God.  This research, however, fails to robustly substantiate his theory, particularly when Harris himself admits that “consciousness is notoriously difficult to understand.”[53]

 

Cultural circumstances and the rise of the new atheists 

Sam Harris’ career and the specific atheistic perspective he avidly promotes, rose into popularity following the catastrophic terror attacks in New York City on the ninth of November 2001.  Following this tragedy, Harris, already a philosophy graduate from Stanford, published his first book, ‘End of Faith – Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason’.  This occurred at a time where many people were destabilized by the event, confused and seeking answers as to how and why such terror had occurred in an advanced western nation and Harris’ notion that faith and religion were the culprit may have been tempting to adopt.  Harris was not alone in his quest for what he has promoted as rationality in opposition to religious ignorance.  Collaborating with other high-profile atheists, specifically Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, Harris has become known as a member of what is referred to as ‘the four horsemen’.[54]  

The aforementioned authors, the four horsemen, are considered leaders of the purported new atheist school of contemporary western philosophy.[55]  In 2007, these individuals held a filmed discussion that became a viral internet sensation, epitomizing the thirst for atheistic content in the twenty-first century.[56]  This was further evidenced in the composition of books that centered around atheism, the denial of God, and a re-enlightenment of the western mind, which became highly popular in the west. Stephen Fry captures the sense of a new movement in atheistic thought, led in part by Harris, stating that, “The four had between them broken new ground in the English-speaking world, opening up debate everywhere, empowering humanism and secularism for a new generation, and giving voice to the always lurking and now growing suspicion that the worst aspects of religion, from faith-healing fakery to murderous martyrdom, could both be separated from the essential nature of religion itself.”[57]

Theological inquiry can be affirming of God’s existence and character, while also negating the claims against God’s authenticity.  This renders many atheists as somewhat negative theologians.[58]  Many of the issues that followers of the ‘new atheism’ movement utilise to validate their position include human suffering, church corruption, religious extremism and the origins of the universe.  These topics have been debated by philosophers and humankind in general for millennia and are familiar in their use to discredit religion and disqualify God.  The arguments of Harris and other leading atheists in our present cultural moment may be considered new to a new generation but are reincarnations of earlier atheistic thought and philosophy merely applied to a different time period.  For example, David Hume stated, “A wise man’s belief is based on evidence.”[59]  This is also what underpins Harris’ current philosophical position. Hence, it can be argued that the new atheist movement, while possessing some current momentum, is not new at all.  Rather, it is the same old new atheism. What could be considered novel, however, is the extravaganza that follows these zealous non-believers.  Habermas describes these individuals as atheistic evangelicals, secular fundamentalists, bombastic preachers, and the masters of hyperbole, portraying God as murderous, irrational and ‘not great’.[60]  Subsequently, religion and its subscribers are described as delusional, ignorant, fanatical and poisonous.  In addition to this, many of the issues raised could be considered peripheral concerns laced with much enthusiastic and biased rhetoric.  For example, an issue Harris discusses is Christians preoccupation with abortion and premarital sex, while overlooking more significant issues such as resolving famine.[61]  Harris’ issues with the behaviour of Christian people, however, fail to contribute in a meaningful way to disproving Christian truth claims.  The more substantial arguments raised by Sam Harris and company, such as those concerning God’s existence, morality, evil, and inconsistences of the sacred texts, do requiring countering and discussion in our society. 

            While much of the current atheistic thought has pre-existed for some time, the new atheist movement and popularization of current philosophers such as Sam Harris has flourished in contemporary culture.  Western culture continues to become increasingly secular and has shifted away from religious affiliation.  This has resulted in the rise of the ‘nones’, those individuals who identify as non-religious and feel most aligned with atheism or agnosticism.[62]  This category of individuals consist of a younger demographic and represent a larger group in America than that of the Catholics and Protestants between 2007 and 2014.[63]  Similarly, in Australia between the 2011 and 2016 National censuses, no religion increased by seven percent leaving non-belief as the largest group in Australia, ahead of Catholics.[64]  The rise of Islamic sanctioned violence and terror not only in the Middle East but in many western nations may have contributed to this through creating a disgust for religion in general.  Furthermore, Christianity has been publicly tarnished by child abuse scandals and bible literacy is at an all-time low.  These factors amongst many others contribute to the current destabilisation of faith in God and religious alignment, resulting in a search for meaning outside or beyond traditional religious places.  Harris’ popular rational atheism merged with an embracing of spirituality has proven to be an influential combination.  In a cultural landscape of spiritual barrenness, Harris offers his converts a spiritual experience through conscious meditation and the transcendence of self, while allowing his followers to hold their staunch atheistic position. 

 

Conclusion

Sam Harris’ negation of God is vast, it touches many elements of philosophy and theology and has become a weighting opinion in our contemporary western culture. The assessment of Harris’ denial of God has focussed on his self-proclaimed rational scientific approach to God and religion, including the sacred texts of religion and spirituality. Further to this Harris’ claims of spirituality without God or religion are remarkable but lack significant evidence. Harris’ denial of God echo similar long standing atheistic and theist questions concerning God however Harris and his counterparts have approached the argument with a sarcastic tone and bombastic preaching to win a new generation of atheist converts. The cultural ingredients leading to the prominence of Harris’ assertions and the new atheist movement are considered consequential. Despite the hyperbole Harris and the other horseman, God remains immovable and religious practice among most people remains treasured and meaningful.  

 

 

Bibliography

Australian Bureau of Statistics: 2016 Census data reveals “no religion” is rising fast. 27 June 2017. https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/mediareleasesbyReleaseDate/7E65A144540551D7CA258148000E2B85 (accessed November 18, 2019).

Bucaille, Maurice. The Bible, The Quran and Science: The Holy Scriptures examined in the Light of Modern Knowledge. New York: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2003.

Colson, Charles. How Now Shall We Live? Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999.

Conner, Kevin J, and Ken Malmin. Interpreting the Scriptures. Portland: Malmin Publishers, 1976. 

Craig, William Lane. “The New Atheism and Five Arguments for God.” Reasonable Faith. 2010. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/existence-nature-of-god/the-new-atheism-and-five-arguments-for-god/ (accessed November 25th, 2019). 

Einstein, Albert. “Science and Religion.” Nature 146, 1940: 605-607. 

Fee, Gordon D, and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for all its worth. Michigan: Grand Rapids, 1993. 

Habermas, Gary R. “The Plight of the New Atheism: A critique.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51:4, December 2008: 813-27.

Harris, Sam. Letter to a Christian Nation. London: Transworld Publishers, 2007.

—. The End of Faith. The Free Press, 2004. 

—. The Moral Landscape. New York: Free Press, 2010. 

—. Waking Up. London: Transworld Publishers, 2014. 

Hitchens, Christopher , Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. The Four Horseman. New York: Random House, 2019. 

Hume, David. “Of Miracles.” In An Inquiry concerning Human Understanding, 96-115. 1748. 

Lennox, John C. Can science explain everything? Denmark: The Good Book Company, 2019. 

McDowell, Joshua, and Don Stewart. Handbook of Today’s Religions. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983. 

Pew Research Centre: America’s Changing Religious Landscape. 12 May 2015. https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/ (accessed November 18, 2019). 

Quershi, Nabeel. Seeking Allah, finding Jesus. Michigan: Zondervan, 2016. 

Turner, Denys. “How to be an Atheist.” New Blackfriars 83, 2002: 317-335.

 

Footnotes

[1] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, (London: Transworld Publishers, 2007), 67.

[2] Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 55.

[3] Matthew 25:41

[4] Deuteronomy 13:6, 8-15

[5] Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 4.

[6] Sam Harris, The End of Faith (The Free Press, 2004), 81.

[7] Harris, The End of Faith, 224.

[8] Harris, The End of Faith, 14.

[9] Nabeel Quershi, Seeking Allah, finding Jesus, (Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 228.

[10] Quershi, Seeking Allah, finding Jesus, 229.

[11] 2 Peter 1:21

[12] Harris, The End of Faith, 17.

[13] Quershi, Seeking Allah, finding Jesus, 230.

[14] Maurice Bucaille, The Bible, The Quran and Science: The Holy Scriptures examined in the Light of Modern Knowledge, (New York: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2003), 218.

[15] Kevin J Conner and Ken Malmin, Interpreting the Scriptures, (Portland: Malmin Publishers, 1976), 1.

[16] Conner, Interpreting the Scriptures, 1.

[17] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all its worth (Michigan: Grand Rapids, 1993), 17.

[18] Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 14.

[19] Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 16.

[20] Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 14-19.

[21] Luke 4:18

[22] Galatians 3:28

[23] Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 62-68.

[24] Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 63.

[25] Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 67.

[26] William Lane Craig, “The New Atheism and Five Arguments for God,” https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/existence-nature-of-god/the-new-atheism-and-five-arguments-for-god/ (accessed November 25th, 2019).

[27] John C. Lennox, Can science explain everything? (Denmark: The Good Book Company, 2019), 71.

[28] Albert Einstein, “Science and Religion” Nature 146, (1940): 606.

[29] Lennox, Can science explain everything? 49.

[30] Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 64.

[31] Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 64.

[32] Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 68.

[33] Lennox, Can science explain everything? 31.

[34] Charles Colson, How Now Shall we Live? (Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999), 51.

[35] Colson, How Now Shall we Live? 52.

[36] Sam Harris, Waking Up, (London: Transworld Publishers, 2014), 62.

[37] Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 71.

[38] Colson, How Now Shall We Live? 83.

[39] Colson, How Now Shall We Live? 84.

[40] Colson, How Now Shall We Live? 89.

[41] Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 66.

[42] Lennox, Can science explain everything? 27.

[43] Lennox, Can science explain everything? 26.

[44] Lennox, Can science explain everything? 25.

[45] Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 74.

[46] Harris, End of Faith, 215.

[47] Matthew 5-7.

[48] Joshua McDowell and Don Stewart, Handbook of Today’s Religions, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983), 311.

[49] Harris, Waking Up, 2.

[50] Harris, Waking Up, 7.

[51] Harris, Waking Up, 8.

[52] Harris, Waking Up, 81.

[53] Harris, Waking Up, 51.

[54] Christopher Hitchens et al., The Four Horseman (New York: Random House, 2019), 1.

[55] Hitchens et al., The Four Horseman, 1.

[56] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7IHU28aR2E

[57] Hitchens et al., The Four Horseman, XIV.

[58] Denys Turner, “How to be an Atheist”, New Blackfriars 83 (2002): 318.

[59] David Hume, “Of Miracles”, An Inquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748): 97-98.

[60] Gary R. Habermas, “The Plight of the New Atheism: A critique”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51:4 (2008): 815.

[61] Habermas, “The Plight of the New Atheism: A critique”, 817-818.

[62] Pew Research Centre: “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” 12 May 2015. https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/ (accessed November 18, 2019).

[63] Pew Research Centre: “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” 12 May 2015. https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/ (accessed November 18, 2019).

[64] Australian Bureau of Statistics: “2016 Census data reveals “no religion” is rising fast.” 27 June 2017. https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/mediareleasesbyReleaseDate/7E65A144540551D7CA258148000E2B85 (accessed November 18, 2019).