A Summer in the Psalms
There was an exchange at the last evening Bible Study we had with Hanan, our Orthodox Rabbi friend, before he went back to Jerusalem for a couple of months. Because this was one of Hanan’s last evenings in Dallas for a while, we were joined at that last Bible Study by a number of his students and friends for our conversation about what we believe as Christians and Jews about what happens to us when we die. As always, Hanan was engaging, provocative, inquisitive and well-informed in what he had to say. After I made a response to Hanan’s comments, pushing him at a couple of points about the problem of death that his position seemed unable or unwilling to deal with and talking about how Christianity addresses it head-on with its affirmation of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we opened the floor to questions, and some lively conversation ensued.
In the course of an exchange that I had with a guest who was present with us that night, a self-identified “cultural but not particularly religious Jew” who had as many issues with what Hanan had said as he did with me and anything that I had said, he dismissed what I had said about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ with a wave of his hand and the comment, “Well, that’s what you believe is true.” And I surprised even myself with the immediacy and forcefulness of my response. “No,” I said, “it’s what I know is true!” The next question that he should have asked me, but failed to, was: “So, how do you know that it’s true?”
Early in my spiritual life I came to the realization that the big question that I was going to have to figure out was how do I know that what I think I know to be true of God is, in fact, true? By both temperament and training, I am an advocate and a practitioner of what the theologian Emil Brunner (1889-1966) called “believing thinking.” I want to love God with all of my mind (Matthew 22:37), and the way that I do this is by encouraging my faith to seek understanding. I am a member of and a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) because I found in this denominational tradition an affirmation of this approach to faith. Our founders believed in what John Locke called the “reasonableness of Christianity.” They didn’t regard the life of the mind to be incompatible with the life of faith. And so, rather than discouraging the asking of hard questions, our tradition has actively encouraged it. And so I have wrestled for years with this question of how we know what we think we know. I regard this to be one of the most basic questions that we can ask, and one of the most urgent to be answered.
So, how do I answer it?
How do I know that Christianity is true?
Well, I have gotten to the place where to answer this question I have to make the distinction between “knowing” that Christianity is true and “showing” that Christianity is true. This is a distinction that has been drawn most helpfully for me by the theologian William Lane Craig. In his book Reasonable Faith (Crossway 1984) Dr. Craig explained that he knows that Christianity is true because of his own immediate experience of it. Oh, Dr. Craig believes that good and sufficient reasons can be amassed to establish the credibility of the Gospel’s claims. This is what he means by “showing that Christianity is true.”
John Stackhouse, another theologian of Dr. Craig’s ilk, writes about this as the matter of the “plausibility” of Christianity (Humble Apologetics – Oxford -2002). He says that we cannot force Christian belief by rational argument alone. What we can establish by rational argument is the “plausibility” of what Christianity claims. I can’t build a case for Christianity that proves it’s true. I can’t possibly answer every question that could be asked or demolish every objection that could be voiced. Such certainty is well beyond my ability to reason and explain. But what I think I can do is to make the case that Christianity is “credible,” “plausible,” or to use the language of my own spiritual tradition as a Disciple, “reasonable.” I can’t prove that Christianity is true beyond all shadow of doubt by the force of an intellectual argument, but I think that I can make a pretty good case for the idea that Christianity could be true; that it’s “plausible.” I think that I can show that what Christianity teaches is the very best way to make sense of the facts as we have them. I think that I can show that it is neither illogical nor irrational to believe that Christianity could be true. As Dr. Stackhouse puts it, I think that I can get Christianity into the conversation in the marketplace of ideas. I can make a case that Christianity at least ought to be seriously entertained by a thinking person. And I believe that it is this showing that Christianity could be true that creates the proper conditions in which one can come to actually know that Christianity is true.
Paul gave us his testimony in I Timothy chapter 1. He announced the Gospel’s great truth: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (15). But the way that Paul then went on to talk about this great truth was personally from his own experience of it. He described himself as the “foremost” of sinners (15), and then twice he explained that Christ had nevertheless shown him mercy (13, 16). In verse 14 Paul actually coined a term in order to able to better express his own experience of God’s mercy for him. “The grace of our Lord overflowed” he explained. The word for “overflowed” here is a compound term. It consists of the Greek word “pleon” which is a comparative term that means “more” or “greater” in terms of quantity, and the Greek word “huper” which means “over” and “above,” as in abundance. Think of a bathtub that is filled to overflowing or a river spilling over its banks. And this was Paul’s experience of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. He had received it in abundance, in “super-abundance.” The persuasiveness of what the Gospel proclaims, Paul explained, is in its application to our hearts by the Holy Spirit. And this is the very same thing that Psalm 107 – our Psalm from last Sunday morning – tells us to do. The great truth that it declares is that the Lord is good, His loving-kindness is everlasting. But rather than just being an abstract affirmation about God to be dissected and debated, Psalm 107 made its declaration of God’s goodness and faithfulness personal with the instruction – “Let the Redeemed of the Lord say so.”
Claxton Moore was an Episcopal priest in Houston who wrote a book back in 1968 in which he suggested that “only a word of honest testimony has much of a chance to penetrate the skepticism of today’s unbelievers” (John Claypool – The Preaching Event – 102). The most important truth we have to share with other people is about how “God happened” to us. And this is where our certainty about Christianity being true must finally be lodged. I can make a series of arguments that I think can establish the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as being the most credible way to account for the facts of history. I think I can show how what Christianity claims could reasonably be true. But to actually know that what Christianity claims is true, I must finally go to the argument that the familiar Easter hymn poetically makes: “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart.”
In Romans 8 Paul talked about the assurance of faith that God gives us through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (8:16). This corresponds to what Jesus said in the Upper Room about the witness of the Holy Spirit that accompanies the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ (John 15:26-27). In the first letter of John, in his discussion of the spirit of antichrist (2:18-27), John “made it quite clear that it is the Holy Spirit within us who gives believers conviction of the truth of Christianity” (Craig 44). The parallel to this in the Gospel ministry of Jesus Christ was Peter’s good confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Loving God, on the road to Caesarea-Philippi. “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you,” Jesus told Peter after his confession, “but My Father who is in heaven” (16:17). Paul, writing to the Corinthians, said that the same dynamic was at work in his own ministry of preaching Christ and Him crucified. “My message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,” Paul explained, “that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (I Corinthians 2:4-5). And I can’t tell you what a relief this is to me as a Christian preacher and teacher.
I don’t make anybody a Christian. The eternal destiny of another person does not depend on the persuasiveness of the arguments that I can make. It’s my job to show what the Bible teaches and to be able to explain why I find it to be credible. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to close the deal. I can show you why I think that Christianity is true, but only the Holy Spirit can provide you with the basis for knowing that Christianity is true.
In conclusion to his discussion about showing and knowing that Christianity is true, William Lane Craig says that when someone ask why you are a Christian, your response should sound something like this –
“My friend, I know Christianity is true because God’s Spirit lives in me and assures me that it is true. And you can know it is true, too, because God is knocking at the door of your heart, telling you the same thing. If you are sincerely seeking God, then God will give you assurance that the gospel is true. Now, to try to show you it’s true, I’ll share with you some arguments and evidence that I really find convincing. But should my arguments seem weak and unconvincing to you, that’s my fault, not God’s. It only shows that I’m a poor apologist, not that the gospel is untrue. Whatever you think of my arguments, God still loves you and holds you accountable. I’ll do my best to present good arguments to you. But ultimately you have to deal, not with arguments, but with God himself.” (Reasonable Faith 58)
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so (Psalm 107:2). DBS+