I have had many discussions with my apologetics-inclined friends on the nature and purpose of church. One thing I have heard again and again is the notion that all churches–even all services–should be seeker-friendly or should reflect what C.S. Lewis calls “mere Christianity.” Mere Christianity, as defined by C.S. Lewis, is essentially that which all Christians everywhere have believed.
Interestingly, I have run into several people from a broad spectrum of backgrounds who have told me that they think all churches should be “mere Christian” churches centered on apologetics. The point of church on this view is to evangelize and to provide Christians with reasons to believe what they believe.
Statements like this are repeated by many of my apologist friends. I had a conversation with one friend in which I was informed that the purpose of church was to evangelize, and what better way to do that then to go to “mere Christianity” and have every service revolve around apologetics discussion. That’s right, this person–and others I have talked to–said that every sermon, every service, every time the church meets should be about apologetics and should not focus on those doctrines which have caused so much division within the body of Christ.
As an apologist with an MA in the field, this has some appeal! After all, were all churches to do this it would certainly raise my “employability” quotient! I would be in demand every single Sunday. But realistically, I think that statements like this show underlying confusion about the nature of church and the importance of Christian doctrine.
The Point of Church
There is no way for a complete, systematic outline of what church is about in a post like this. Nor would I claim to be an expert on the doctrine of the church. So, at risk of being simplistic, I would say that the meaning of church is to glorify God. How is this done?* I think it’s clear that the creedal statements about the church accepted throughout the history of Christianity (dare I say, the “mere Christian” definition of church?) is that it is “holy” and a “communion of saints” (Apostles’ Creed) and it is “holy and Apostolic” and “catholic/universal” (Nicene Creed).
A church should not be a place which wards off those who are seeking, but the ultimate purpose of church, confessed for over a thousand years, is to be “holy” and a community of saints. The body of Christ is not immediately perfect; but the point of church is to have community with fellow saints–the Body of Christ. Worshiping and glorifying our Creator and Redeemer is central to the life of the church. If we abandon that, we abandon the very reason for having community to begin with.
Whatever vision we have of church, then, should incorporate how the church has always defined itself. A primary need for the Christian is to worship and thank God for the blessings poured out on us each and every day. The community of believers longs to worship Christ, to join the company of angles to laud and magnify the name of the Most High God.
Moreover, when we look at the verse I led this post with, the church is a place to get the “solid food” believers need to go beyond the “milk.” Churches instruct the community in how to move beyond the “milk” of “mere Christianity” and acceptance of the bare minimum and into “solid food” and a fuller understanding of God’s word.
I have my own vision of what a church that is focused on apologetics would look like.
The “Apologetics Church” would have a study group for both youth and adults to participate in which focused upon various apologetics issues. The group would start at a basic level, teaching on the nature of apologetics and its methods, then move into individual objections to the Christian faith.
The pastor would have studied apologetics on his/her own and would integrate apologetics into sermons when appropriate (Easter would be a great time to talk about evidence for the resurrection, for example). The church would have a monthly “outreach night” in which the local community was invited in to discuss questions about the faith and simply engage in dialogue over desserts or a snack. The church would have groups that went to a movie, or an art show, or a concert, etc. and then met afterwards to discuss the implications of that media for the Christian worldview.
It would be a church aware of, but not overtaken by, apologetics. It would be an evangelical, mission-oriented church, but not a missions-only church.
I have said only the bare minimum about the nature of church and its function. Ultimately, though, I think a vision of the nature of church should include apologetics, but it should not be reduced to it. We seek “solid food” and long for deeper knowledge of God. Your church is an excellent place to get that needed, longed-for instruction.
As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs for you.. (Psalm 42:1)
The Church Universal: Reformation Review- I take a deeper look into the definition of a “universal church” in a post that focuses on theology of the reformation.
*As a Lutheran, I would say that glorifying God in church is best done through Word and Sacrament, but I realize that not all churches are sacramental and do not desire to start that debate here.
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“Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy” by Richard Swinburne is one of those rare books which forces one to think about and analyze every argument it contains, whether one agrees or disagrees with the conclusions. It addresses claims of revelation. Can it be true that a religion’s books or creeds contain truth?
The book starts off with a section on “Meaning” which analyzes terminology, presupposition, analogy and metaphor, and genre in turn. This section is fantastic reading for the philosopher of religion as it takes some higher notions found in philosophy of language and applies them to religious studies. The chapter on presupposition was the first part I found particularly striking. It is here that Swinburne first begins to lay the groundwork for his overarching argument about the Christian Revelation and Scripture. He argues that presuppositions are not contained in the message conveyed in spoken or written word. He writes, “In order to separate statement from presupposition, we must ask, whatever the speaker’s actual beliefs, are there any common beliefs of the clture presupposed in the utterance which can be siphoned off, leaving what the culture would naturally suppose to be its message intact?” (30). This “siphoning” of meaning is necessary because “[a]lthough speakers may use declarative sentences for many different purposes… the paradigm job of such sentences is to convey information, to ad to the hearer’s stock of beliefs” (29). Swinburne offers the following example to demonstrate his argument. Suppose a Roman historian wrote that “The divine Augustus traveled to Brindisi.” This sentence is not intended to convey the information that Augustus is divine. That Augustus is divine is presupposed by the author of the sentence. Rather, the sentence is intended to tell the reader that Augustus traveled to Brindisi (29). Swinburne also outlines and describes various genres and how they can relate to a religious revelation.
The next part of the book argues for four possible tests to determine whether a divine revelation has occurred. These tests are 1) whether the content is the “kind of thing which God would have chosen to reveal to humans” 2) “whether the method of expression is one to be expected of God, 3) whether “the church has developed the original revelation in a way which plausibly brings out what was involved in it …”, and 4) “whether the interpretations provide the sort of teaching which God would have chosen to give to humans” (107-108). He argues convincingly for each of these tests applying to the Christian Revelation.
The third part of “Revelation” examines the Christian Revelation specifically. Swinburne argues that Jesus and His message were the “original revelation” provided to believers (145ff). It is in his discussion of the Church and the Bible, however, wherein he forwards his most controversial claims.
The Church, argues Swinburne, is responsible for more than simply establishing the canon of Scripture. He argues that the Church has a central place alongside Scripture in the Christian Revelation, for without the church, interpretation could not happen. The creedal statements central to Christian faith may not have been derived had it not been for the Church (see page 189ff). Further, the Church acts as a method for assessing “rival interpretations” of various Scriptural truths (200). It is undeniable that Swinburne advocates the Church as a high authority–perhaps even on a higher level than Scripture, for he argues that many conflicting interpretations of Scripture can receive almost equal footing on Scripture alone, so the Church is required to determine which of these should be approved (again see p. 200 for an example of this). Swinburne’s view of the Church is one of the most important things in this book, in my opinion, for the Christian to read and digest, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees. For one’s view of the authority of a church body is vastly important with regards to how one views other doctrines. As Swinburne writes, “Which doctrines are to count as central Christian doctrines… depend[s] very much on which ecclesial bodies we judge to be part of the Church. The wider our Church, the fewer such doctrines there will be” (214). This is undoubtedly true, for if one takes only the Roman Catholic Church, for example, as a valid ecclesial body, then one’s net of central Christian doctrines can include everything sanctioned by the Roman Catholics. But let us say that one takes both the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic church to be authoritative, or perhaps they take the Orthodox, Roman, and Reformed churches as authoritative. Well then it seems that only those doctrines which all these bodies agree on can be regarded as central, or essential to, true faith. For if one church contains a doctrine which the others do not, it cannot be regarded as absolutely essential if the other churches are still legitimate. If it were essential and the other bodies disagreed, then those other bodies would not be legitimate, by the criterion of not agreeing on an essential Christian doctrine.
This then provides a valuable springboard for thought about central Christian teaching and what doctrines and ecclesial bodies one regards as valid or central. Swinburne’s discussion on this topic cannot be downplayed. He goes into various criteria which can be used to determine whether a Church body is legitimate. These arguments are incredibly in-depth and interesting. His arguments force the reader to consider his ideas.
The Bible is the final major topic Swinburne addresses in “Revelation.” Here we see all the groundwork laid in Part 1 come into play. What do genre, presuppositions, etc. tell us about the meaning and interpretation of Scripture? This section is another which the Christian would do well to ponder. Swinburne argues that we must take Scripture as being entirely true, but he qualifies this claim by arguing we must also realize what Scripture is–a collection of books written with divine approval but by human hands. Thus, he argues, we should take great care to realize the difference between presupposition and message, history and allegory, etc. While I do not agree with Swinburne on every point, I find his insights particularly interesting. He notes that “[t]he falsity of the presuppositions does not, therefore… affect the truth-value of a sentence which uses them” (244). This kind of argument can be of direct worth to the apologist, for example. He utilizes Genesis 8:2(“The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained” ESV) as an example: “The sky has no windows out of which the rain comes, but the quoted sentence is just the author’s way of saying, within the presuppositions of his culture, that the rain ceased” (244-245). This is a different approach apologetically than the one I would tend to favor, which would argue that the word “window” is used here in a metaphorical or analogous way.
Swinburne’s high view of the church is necessary alongside his view of Scripture. Swinburne writes that “The slogan of Protestant confessions , ‘the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself’, is quite hopeless” (255). For it is the Church which determines acceptable interpretations of Scripture. He writes that “Scripture belongs to the Church” (256). Reading and interpreting Scripture requires a guide. This guide “…is the Church’s theological definitions and other central teaching, its tradition of the proper way to interpret the Bible, and its tradition of how particular passages should be interpreted” (256).
Swinburne’s final chapter seeks to discuss and interpret moral teaching found in Scripture.
Swinburne’s central argument is strong. God has given us a Revelation and has given us the tools to discover what it means. This Revelation is found in Scripture and historically in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is the nuances of Swinburne’s argument which make the book so wonderfully useful. I found myself at times nodding, agreeing with everything Swinburne wrote. At other times I shook my head, jotting rebuttals alongside his text. But the vast majority of the book found me engaged on a new level with topics I thought I had addressed and laid to rest. While I disagree with details of Swinburne’s argument (i.e. he accepts the JEDP view of Scripture, denies the historicity of the person of Jonah, etc.), I found his core arguments compelling. We do need to remember the genre(s) we read as we read Scripture. We need to realize that the ultimate author of Scripture is God, but that Scripture was written within a set of presuppositions distinct from our own.
Swinburne’s analysis of the authority of the church was equally compelling. While he holds a higher view of church authority than I do, his view intertwines the Church with Scripture in compelling ways which absolutely must be considered.
It has been over a month since I finished this work by Swinburne, yet I have found myself consistently turning back to it, and even while writing this review, I found myself contemplating his arguments and drawing truths from him while still disagreeing with him on other areas. I reiterate that I find this work absolutely essential reading for the Christian philosopher. It will challenge and reward the reader in ways that may be entirely unexpected.
Swinburne, Richard. Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. 2nd Edition. Oxford. 2007.
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