Helping Sensible People Believe the Crazy Stuff Christians Profess


Tim Keller and Pete Enns

Any reader of my blog has a clue of how much I owe to Tim Keller, but only a clue. I follow his sermons, lectures, and books very closely. I’ve gained immensely from him.

My experience of reading the NYTimes piece where Nicholas Kristof engages Tim Keller with some of his doubts, surrounding the usual suspects of the virgin birth and a bodily resurrection was both heartening and frustrating. Heartening because it was good to see Keller take a shot at articulating reasons for his hope even in an edited, shortened version like he was allowed. Frustrating because, as someone who occupies the same time and space as both of them, I didn’t find the older answers terribly convincing to my own inner skeptic. Many of us share Kristof’s skepticism and doubts simply because we share the same culture and the culture prejudices our conditioned, unconscious, believing faculties in the same way his are.

Peter Enns posted a blog post suggesting that Keller’s approach was pastorally inadequate.

There is both loss in this reality but also grace. Loss because the joy of innocent belief is gone. Grace (costly, not cheap) because our shared burden means we can connect and relate to unbelieving skeptics over similar things. The reason CS Lewis’ apologetics are so powerful are because he himself had to work through the questions for himself.

I fully appreciate that on one hand I am a poor candidate to critique Tim Keller’s apologetics. He’s engaged far more smart, skeptical people and brought them to faith than I have. I’ve been the happy recipient of so many of his apologetic arguments and illustrations. At the same time we all come to these questions from different places and grapple with them in different ways.

CS Lewis and the Fornicators

I was recently going through a number of CS Lewis essays again and came across this portion of “Christian Apologetics” where Lewis shares his experiences mostly of preaching to RAF pilots during WWII.

(3) A sense of sin is almost totally lacking. Our situation is thus very different from that of the Apostles. The Pagans (and still more the metuentes) to whom they preached were haunted by a sense of guilt and to them the Gospel was, therefore, ‘good news’. We address people who have been trained to believe that whatever goes wrong in the world is someone else’s fault—the Capitalists’, the Government’s, the Nazis’, the Generals’ etc. They approach God Himself as His judges. They want to know, not whether they can be acquitted for sin, but whether He can be acquitted for creating such a world.

In attacking this fatal insensibility it is useless to direct attention (a) To sins your audience do not commit, or (b) To things they do, but do not regard as sins. They are usually not drunkards. They are mostly fornicators, but then they do not feel fornication to be wrong. It is, therefore, useless to dwell on either of these subjects. (Now that contraceptives have removed the obviously uncharitable element in fornication I do not myself think we can expect people to recognize it as sin until they have accepted Christianity as a whole.)

I cannot offer you a water-tight technique for awakening the sense of sin. I can only say that, in my experience, if one begins from the sin that has been one’s own chief problem during the last week, one is very often surprised at the way this shaft goes home. But whatever method we use, our continual effort must be to get their mind away from public affairs and ‘crime’ and bring them down to brass tacks—to the whole network of spite, greed, envy, unfairness and conceit in the lives of ‘ordinary decent people’ like themselves (and ourselves).
Lewis, C. S. (1994). God in the Dock. (W. Hooper, Ed.) (pp. 94–95). HarperOne.

I think Lewis sheds light on two contemporary issues that are challenging the church today.

The first is that of the Christian sexual ethic which is what he addresses directly. It is (pragmatically) useless to dwell on these things or expect people to recognize it as sin until they accept Christianity as a whole. I think he is right on this. This I think offers us some guidance on how the church needs to navigate its times. It may be that we’re getting far beyond the challenge Lewis faced of mere contraception and into the space where unrestricted sexual license will bring even unbelieving people to question the new sexual ethic. We may arrive at a place not unlike the 4th and 5th century in Augustine’s time where a frenzy of fixation on chastity could become fashionable again, but we are not there yet.

This is not the heart of where I’m going with this so I’ll move one.

The second is for Kristof’s area of doubt which is modern “naturalism” as Lewis would call it or “materialism” as we might call it usually shadowed by scientism. What the resurrection and the virgin birth have in common are their miraculous aspects. These cause many of us to stumble. Lewis pays a great deal of attention to this in his book Miracles and many of his shorter pieces. I think Keller deals with it well too in his latest apologetic book Making Sense of God. In his book length treatment he had more space to engage the issues.

I think the same instinct that Lewis felt towards the “fornicators” he was preaching to is helpful for this situation. It will take time for people of our culture to live into their Christianity even before they figure out or exorcise the doubts surrounding these cultural issues. Keller repeatedly makes the point that often people need to WANT to become Christians before they are able to. Christian belief and morality is aspirational before it is actual. This “aspirational before actual” in belief and morality isn’t of course just true for skeptics, it is true of all Christians as well. We grow up into the faith often slowly but sometimes in fits and starts.

We see this often in Jesus’ interactions with people. They want something from him, like someone healed, or they want to be with him, and there is a delicate dance between Jesus and them. Sometimes they make it (see Mark 9) and sometimes they don’t as you can see in Matthew 8.

The challenge of the church is going to be to figure out how to engage and enfold fornicators and skeptics in ways that encourages and feeds them in the process while not losing the high aspirational goals for our behavior and beliefs. I think the church has always struggled with this because we all always struggle with this.

Fides Qua vs. Fides Quae

Brad Gregory in his Great Courses History of the Reformation notes the medieval distinction between trust in God and subscription to the content of faith.

IV. Medieval Christianity taught that faith and the practice of the faith were essential for salvation.

A. Medieval theologians distinguished the act of faith from the content of faith and explicit faith from implicit faith.

1. The act of faith (fides qua) refers to trust in God, in Christ as Lord and savior; the content of faith (fides quae) refers to the specific content of faith as preserved and elaborated by the Church.

2. Explicit faith refers to the ability to articulate what one believes and why; implicit faith refers to obedience to, and participation in, Church life without explicit awareness of the content of faith.

B. Faith alone (“dead faith”) was not enough for salvation. Only through a “living faith” expressed in concrete actions might one be saved by God’s grace.

From the Course Guidebook

The question beneath the questions about the resurrection and virgin birth for Kristof I think are not necessarily about “hope of salvation” which acts in our evangelical culture as codewords for making the cut in terms of “going to heaven when you die”. He wants to know what a Christian is, what it means to be a Christian, what the implications are. He’s counting the cost.

I think we begin with the fides qua before the fides quae. I often boil this down to people as “A Christian is someone who trusts Jesus more than they trust themself.”

Why do I do that?

It quickly locates the fides quae issues where they belong, as supports, grounds and reasons for the fides qua.  The heart of the faith is trusting in Jesus and the main obstacle for it is our trust in self.

It is this way that we can see that heroes of the faith, while they may get a lot of fides quae issues wrong. This is what makes the Christian faith “scalable”. By that I mean you can find great faith in a person of limited mental resources, education or experience. Some of the greatest saints I’ve known had little in terms of book learning but trusted Jesus deeply and lived out that trust even with a lot of failures in technical aspects of the faith.

I find this scalability of Christianity absolutely vital for a sense of God’s justice. Jesus notes in Luke 12:32-34 how God gives himself not to the proud, the powerful, the elite, the educated, even if by grace some of them come too, but to the lowly of this world.

Many religions are not scalable. This became a bit issue in Lewis’ conversion in wresting between Hinduism/Buddhism and Christianity. In Eastern religions your ability to escape, to save yourself is directly dependent upon your effort. You MUST meditate, practice, find the path to save yourself. In Christianity it is just the opposite. It is God’s free gift and he lavishes those gifts at times seemingly on the most unworthy.

I don’t agree with your picture of the history of religion— Christ, Buddha, Mohammed and others elaborating an original simplicity. I believe Buddhism to be a simplification of Hinduism and Islam to be a simplification of Xtianity. Clear, lucid, trans-parent, simple religion (Tao plus a shadowy, ethical god in the background) is a late development, usually arising among highly educated people in great cities. What you really start with is ritual, myth, and mystery, the death & return of Balder or Osiris, the dances, the initiations, the sacrifices, the divine kings. Over against that are the Philosophers, Aristotle or Confucius, hardly religious at all. The only two systems in which the mysteries and the philosophies come together are Hinduism & Xtianity: there you get both Metaphysics and Cult (continuous with the primeval cults). That is why my first step was to be sure that one or other of these had the answer. For the reality can’t be one that appeals either only to savages or only to high brows. Real things aren’t like that (e.g. matter is the first most obvious thing you meet— milk, chocolates, apples, and also the object of quantum physics). There is no question of just a crowd of disconnected religions. The choice is between (a.) The materialist world picture: wh. I can’t believe, (b.) The real archaic primitive religions: wh. are not moral enough. (c.) The (claimed) fulfilment of these in Hinduism, (d.) The claimed fulfilment of these in Xtianity. But the weakness of Hinduism is that it doesn’t really join the two strands. Unredeemably savage religion goes on in the village; the Hermit philosophises in the forest: and neither really interferes with the other. It is only Xtianity wh. compels a high brow like me to partake in a ritual blood feast, and also compels a central African convert to attempt an enlightened universal code of ethics.

Vanauken, Sheldon. A Severe Mercy (Kindle Locations 1338-1351). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Just like milk and chocolate are gifts of God for the elite and the simple so too Christ is not owned and enjoyed as property by the theologian or the PhD but the poorest, most uneducated, simplest creature of His can be blessed, enthralled and filled by his goodness.

The Fides Qua of Abraham

To me this is the only way to cut through the pluralism challenge, not simply presented to us horizontally by multiple competing contemporary cultures, but vertically,  by multiple past cultures.

If we ponder the shape of Abraham’s faith we bump into various things. What might Abraham, a man of his time actually believed? How much could he have known about God fides quae based on his day and time? He was likely a henotheist, beginning to follow Yhwh while assuming there were many competing gods about. Many of his thoughts and ideas would seem pagan or heretical to us today, as well they should given the fuller revelations we’re the beneficiaries of, yet he is a champion of faith.

What was God testing in him in Genesis 22? God was testing Abraham’s ability to trust him MORE than he trusted himself. That is at the heart of Abraham’s story. That is at the heart of our stories with God through the travails of this world.

Why the Age of Decay is Unstable and How Faith Fits In

Another point that I dug up out of Lewis recently touches on this. He notes that God is lavish with his gifts of pleasure for human beings, but what he does not offer is security in the age of decay.

The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

Lewis, C. S. (2001). The Problem of Pain (p. 116). New York: HarperOne.

God is using even the age of decay to move us to faith. We learn to trust in him by virtue of our unstable world.

How the Articles of Faith can Support Fides Qua

So now we see how a belief in the resurrection supports child-like trust in complex adults. In this world of seeming chaos and pain how can I trust in providence? How can I believe Heidelberg Catechism’s Lord’s Day 10?

I may learn to trust in God like Abraham without the resurrection, but the resurrection is such a tremendous aid in believing. Yes, via Smedes the uneven distribution of miracles challenges as well as strengthens, yet touching the wounds of Jesus brings Thomas to profession of faith. The stretching to believe the virgin birth and the resurrection, often with the help of others (See Lewis on the Virgin Birth). It is the conflict between my culture and the Christian claims that becomes the fruitful space where faith grows.

I found Lewis’ “Dogma and the Universe” in God in the Dock helpful with this.

IT IS A COMMON REPROACH AGAINST CHRISTIANITY THAT ITS dogmas are unchanging, while human knowledge is in continual growth. Hence, to unbelievers, we seem to be always engaged in the hopeless task of trying to force the new knowledge into moulds which it has outgrown. I think this feeling alienates the outsider much more than any particular discrepancies between this or that doctrine and this or that scientific theory. We may, as we say, ‘get over’ dozens of isolated ‘difficulties’, but that does not alter his sense that the endeavour as a whole is doomed to failure and perverse: indeed, the more ingenious, the more perverse. For it seems to him clear that, if our ancestors had known what we know about the universe, Christianity would never have existed at all: and, however we patch and mend, no system of thought which claims to be immutable can, in the long run, adjust itself to our growing knowledge.

Lewis, C. S. (1994). God in the Dock. (W. Hooper, Ed.) (p. 24). HarperOne.

In other words we, who aren’t really doing the science ourselves, have picked up an attitude, a posture, a hash of a conclusion that suggests, mostly through the common osmosis of sociology of knowledge that ideas such as the virgin birth and the resurrection are unbelievable, because all the beautiful people find it that way. This is, in all fairness, exactly the opposite of the way that many of us came to believe them in the first place. We believed them because we had a good father or mother or pastor who believed them so naturally we did too. Isn’t this how we come to believe much of what we believe?

Lewis also point out that what we do with Christianity here is actually the opposite practice of good science. The good scientist finds precisely the point where the fashionable belief is out of step with the evidence, and doggedly pursues the unfashionable belief while the critics heap scorn and derision upon them for holding out on something that is popularly rejected. This is at the basis of Jonathan Haidt’s mission to unseat political correctness in the university.

Real science is always endangered by the sociology of knowledge. This is of course Thomas Kuhn’s main point in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Fashionability is as much science’s great enemy as any medieval Christian dogma.

It is for this reason that the virgin birth and the resurrection become sand in the oyster, forcing us to rub against our culture challenging us to go beyond the what is fashionable both inside the church and outside, especially now that sub-cultural walls have been disrupted by technology and we all live far more in the culture than we do in the church.

For this reason Christian progressivism when it is aligned to the movement of the culture is so destructive of faith. It removes many of the elements that make Christians grow. It will never succeed, however, because the age of decay keeps removing every platform we erect to try to construct our universe on ourselves.

The church then, as it has always been, attempts to work the middle ground between what it can never fully accomplish, the perfection of our beliefs (fides quae) and moral lives and what it can never fully escape, our engagement in the worlds we inhabit. Kristof is walking the path of the seeker. Keller is working to help him into the fold. Enns rightly notes that we need to find ways to help and wonders about the little we see in the Times. I’ll side with Enns on the idea that old paths may no longer work as they once did to old destinations. I’ll side with Keller that the old destinations themselves are vital in creating fresh, living faith.


About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Daily Links and Notes, Institutional Church, Missional, theological and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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