Saturday, January 2, 2010

Silencing Skepticism: An Introduction

In other series, we look at objections to the historic Christian faith coming from competing world views: Jews, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, for example. Objections often come, however, not from adherents to a specific world view, but from non-Christians of all different persuasions, skeptical of the Bible and of Christian truth claims. These "skeptics" attack the validity of Scripture using a wide variety of arguments, from seeming contradictions in the Bible, to logical problems in theology, and beyond. Some of these arguments appear, on the surface, to be very convincing, and many unprepared Christians find themselves at best unable to respond effectively, and at worst deeply shaken in their faith. In this series, we'll examine these arguments and demonstrate that when it comes to such skeptics, their bark is bigger than their bite.

In the first entry in this series (after this introduction), we'll look at a popular claim from skeptics, that the story of Jesus recorded in the New Testament is merely a repackaging of ancient pagan myths. When one compares what is recorded of Jesus, they'll argue, with figures from myths and mystery religions that appear to predate Him, such as Mithras or Horus, one sees that their alleged lives are largely identical. How should the Christian respond to this claim? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Exegetical Eschatology: Four Views of the Future

The word eschatology is defined as "any system of doctrines concerning last, or final, matters, as death, the Judgment, the future state, etc." In Christian theology, it is the study of the "end times." It includes discussion of such topics as the return of Christ, the antichrist, the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment. Relevant passages include Jesus' Olivet Discourse, the book of Revelation and much of Daniel's prophecies.

The word exegesis is "critical explanation or interpretation of a text or portion of a text." It comes from the Greek exegeisthai which means "to interpret," and is comprised of the root words ex, meaning "out," and hegeisthai, meaning "to lead, guide." Thus, exegesis is the extraction of meaning out from, in the case of Judeo-Christianity, the Bible. In contrast, eisegesis means "an interpretation...that expresses the interpreter's own ideas, bias, or the like, rather than the meaning of the text." In other words, it is the reading into the Bible one's own beliefs.

In this new series, "Exegetical Eschatology," as the name suggests, this subject of the "end times" will be discussed with an emphasis on the extraction of meaning from Scripture. Throughout the history of the Church this topic has been the subject not only of intense debate, but also of speculation as to its relevance to contemporary world events. Particularly in modern times, there are large numbers of Christians speculating as to whether some modern figure is the antichrist, or if microchips implanted into body parts are the "mark of the beast," or if perceived increases in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters like hurricanes indicate the end is at hand. Eschatology has also in modern times been the subject of popular entertainment, in the form of horror movies and pseudo-fictional literary works such as Time LaHaye's Left Behind series.

With so much in-house debate amongst Christians as to the nature of biblical prophecies concerning the "end times," with such frequent and, often, fanatical speculation as to the relevance of modern persons and events to prophetic passages in the Bible, and with so many varied eschatolological positions infusing modern entertainment, one may wonder why we should concern ourselves with what Scripture has to say about the subject at all. Is there any hope of coming to properly--that is, biblically--understand anything about the "end times?" I happen to think there is, and even if I did not, I'm not inclined to believe that wholesale portions of Scripture were given to us by God knowing full well that we stood no chance of grasping even the smallest iota of His words.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wrestling With the Watch Tower: Not a God of Confusion

Previously in this series we saw that some of the passages the Watch Tower points to in order to cast doubt on the belief that Jesus is God do not support their case. In Jesus, the Firstborn of All Creation we found that the word "firstborn" communicates preeminence, rather than birth order. In Jesus, the Only-Begotten Son we discovered that the word rendered "only-begotten" is used of children born second to parents whose firstborn is still alive, and means "unique" rather than "only one born to." And in "The Father is Greater than I" we saw that the Father is greater than the Son in terms of authority, not nature.


Jehovah's Witnesses argue their case from other passages as well, and we'll look at those later in this series. At this point, however, the Witness at the Christian's door may try to cast doubt on the historic understanding of God's nature by claiming that it is confusing, pointing to 1 Corinthians 14:33 which reads, "God is not a God of confusion." In their brochure, "Should You Believe in the Trinity?", in an article entitled How Is the Trinity Explained?, the Watch Tower writes:

Thus, the Trinity is considered to be "one God in three Persons." Each is said to be without beginning, having existed for eternity. Each is said to be almighty, with each neither greater nor lesser than the others.

Is such reasoning hard to follow? Many sincere believers have found it to be confusing, contrary to normal reason, unlike anything in their experience. How, they ask, could the Father be God, Jesus be God, and the holy spirit be God, yet there be not three Gods but only one God?

Monday, December 28, 2009

To the Jew First: The Shema and the Trinity

As part of their prescribed daily prayers, observant Jews recite Deuteronomy 6:4, which as it appears in Hebrew text reads, שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד. Transliterated into English it is pronounced, "Shema Yisra'el YHWH Eloheinu YHWH Echad" (though out of reverence for God's name, YHWH or "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" is typically replaced with adonai, meaning "Lord"). English translations render it something like, "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!" This verse is often called the Shema, named after its first word Shema meaning, "to hear."

Christians and Jews alike point to this verse as summarizing the Bible's teaching of monotheism, "the doctrine or belief that there is only one God." Christians, however, believe that the Bible teaches that the one and only true God exists nonetheless as a plurality, that within the one being God there exist distinct interpersonal relationships between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. As it is often summarized, "three persons" but "one being." Christians are unwavering in their affirmation of monotheism, but because the doctrine of the Trinity transcends human understanding, as well as human ability to communicate it effectively, Jews and non-Christians often confuse Christians as teaching some form of polytheism.

Therefore, Jews often object to Christianity based on either the misunderstanding that it teaches polytheism, or on the belief that the Bible does not allow for a plural understanding of the one God. Does the Shema really militate against any idea of a plural, or Triune, God?


The Hebrew word rendered "one" in the Shema is the word echad. Now, at this point, Jews familiar with Christian evangelistic efforts are likely thinking, "Oh no, not this again." This is because some Christians have argued that the word echad intrinsically refers to a compound oneness or unity, such as "one" cluster of grapes. In fact, there are several places in Scripture where it is used in this fashion.

For example, in Genesis 1:5 we read, "God called the light day, and the darkness He called night And there was evening and there was morning, one day." This "one day" is explicitly described as being comprised of multiple parts, evening and morning. Agan in Genesis 2:24 we are told, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh." This "flesh", despite being "one", is nonetheless composed of a man and a woman. And in Ezra 2:64, "the whole assembly" is called "one" but is comprised of many people.

However, skeptical Jews are right to point out that this is not the only way in which this word is used. In Genesis 2:11, "one" river is called "the Pishon", and probably is not used with the knowledge that a river is a collective of numerous water molecules. In Genesis 2:21, God takes "one" of Adam's ribs, referring to a singe rib, not a collection of bones. And in Nehemiah 5:18, an ox is not likely called "one" because it is comprised of millions of replicating cells.

Thus, it does not appear as though the word echad intrinsically carries the meaning of "one in unity," but rather may just as often, if not more often, mean "one in number." However, it is nonetheless relevant that the word can refer to a oneness in unity, a compound unity. If the word has several meanings, we must look to the context to see which of those meanings are valid, and which are not.


In context, the Shema does not appear to be emphasizing the "oneness" of God. Instead, the text is emphasizing the unique nature of God, that He and He alone is God, and that there is no other. Moses is conveying God's commandments to Israel, the first of which was reiterated in the previous chapter:

[God] said, "I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God..." (Deuteronomy 5:5-9)

It is interesting that the first of the "Ten Commandments," which sets the stage for the Shema, is to have no gods before the Lord. The reason, in fact, that we are to obey the rest of God's commandments is precisely because He alone is God. He is above all, His authority supercedes all, His nature transcends all. He deserves our obedience because He is God and there is no other. So whenever Moses is communicating God's laws to His people, it is based on the foundation laid with the very first commandment: God is justified in demanding obedience because He is God alone.

This sets the stage for the next chapter containing the Shema. Starting from the beginning of chapter 6,

Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the LORD your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it, so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. O Israel, you should listen and be careful to do it, that it may be well with you and that you may multiply greatly, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. (Deuteronomy 6:1-6)

We see, then, a similar pattern as when the commandments were first given, and then reiterated in the previous chapter. The first command in the list emphasizes God's authority, which comes from His uniqueness, and the following commands are authoritative because God, by virtue of being God alone, deserves obedience. Hence, several translations render the verse slightly differently:

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord [the only Lord]. (Amplified Bible)

Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. (New Living Translation)

Listen, Israel! The LORD our God is the only true God! (Contemporary English Version)

Listen, people of Israel! The Lord our God is the only Lord. (New Century Version)

Israel, listen to me. The Lord is our God. The Lord is the one and only God. (New International Reader's Version)

These translations recognize the emphasis on God's uniqueness, and render the verse accordingly. And, sure enough, the definition of echad includes "only". So the Shema does not cast doubt on the doctrine of a Triune (plural) God. It merely militates against polytheism, and as already pointed out, Christians throughout history who've affirmed belief in the Trinity are unwaveringly monotheistic.

Does the Shema, however, hint at all to God's nature? Is there anything in the text of the Shema that can point us in one direction or another?


The phrase "our God" in the Shema is the translation of a peculiar word, elohim. In Hebrew, words are either masculine or feminine, and singular nouns are conjugated to make them plural. The word behema, for example, is a feminine noun meaning "beast", and is conjugated as behemoth to make a plural, feminine noun. Similarly, kohen is a singular masculine noun meaning "priest", and is conjugated kohannim to make a plural, masculine noun. Thus, generally speaking (like any language, Hebrew is more complicated than this simplification), a singular, masculine noun is made plural by modifying the ending syllable and adding "im".

In the same way, elohim is the plural conjugation of the singular word, eloha. In the Shema, the literal rendering of the word would be, "our Gods." This is not to suggest that the verse teaches polytheism; as explained above, the emphasis in this verse is God's uniqueness, that He is God and there is no other. And polytheism is militated against throughout the entirety of Scripture. However, the fact that one of the nouns most often used to refer to God is plural in its very nature may hint at something.


Verbs in Hebrew are modified based on the subject of the sentence. They, like nouns, have singular and plural forms, and when a verb appears in its singular form then the noun, too, is singular. In many places throughout the Bible, elohim appears with the singular form of a verb, and thus the plural nature of the noun emphasizes God's superiority and transcendence.

However, in other places elohim appears with the plural form of verbs. In Genesis 20:13, the text is rendered "when God caused me to wander from my father's house," but the plural noun elohim is used with the plural verb "they caused me to wander." Again in 2 Samuel 7:23 we're told "God went", and again elohim is used with the plural verb "they went." And in Psalm 58:11 the psalmist sings that "there is a God who judges" combining elohim with the plural verb "they judge."

So the plural nature of the word elohim that appears in the Shema intrinsically suggests a plural nature to God since it often appears with plural verbs. But it doesn't end there. In the same way that the plural noun elohim appears often with plural verbs, it also sometimes appears with plural pronouns. In Genesis 1:26 we're told, "Then God [elohim] said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.'" Again in Genesis 3:22 "the LORD God said, 'Behold, the man has become like one of Us." The text is rendered "let Us" and "in Our" and "one of Us" because plural pronouns are being used, rather than the singular pronouns that would be expected of a wholly singular God.


Thus, though the text of the Shema is not in and of itself proof of the doctrine of the Trinity, it nonetheless does not cast doubt on it, either. Quite to the contrary, the plural noun elohim used there, often appearing in conjunction with plural verbs and plural pronouns, hints at the plural nature of God. Indeed, evidence of God's triune nature appears throughout the entirety of the Old Testament, as we will see in future posts in this series.