Tag Archives: Apologetics

The 2019 Annual Vose Lecture

On August 2, 2019 Ben Witherington III delivered the Annual Vose Lecture on the theme, “A Singular Jesus in a Pluralistic Culture.” In essence, the lecture was an applied New Testament apologetics within a Wesleyan Evangelical framework of thought. Witherington explored Jesus’ self-understanding as reported in the gospels, assessing the historical worth of this portrayal, and arguing that an incarnational understanding of Jesus is a necessary deduction from the New Testament data, and the foundation of Christian witness in a pluralistic context.

Witherington began by identifying two well-known key phrases in the ministry of the historical Jesus: his use of the title “Son of Man,” and his use of the imagery and language of “the kingdom of God.” He argued that these two concepts appear together in only one Old Testament text: Daniel 7:13-14, with the additional note that in vv. 25-27 the kingdom is given to the saints. Witherington argued that Jesus believed that he was both divine and human, and that he used the Son of Man title to indicate this. The title encompasses the fullness of Jesus’ person. As many other scholars have also argued, Jesus selected this relatively obscure title to set himself forth on his own terms, and in so doing, avoided other terms loaded with contemporary pre-conceptions and significance which were antithetical to the message he sought to communicate.

Turning to the issue of pluralism, Witherington insists that the Christian claim of Jesus’ uniqueness and supremacy is not about the wisdom or value of other cultures or their beliefs, but about the central question and reality of salvation. Jesus’ claim was unique, as was his death and resurrection, and his relationship with the Father. He was also sinless although Witherington, applying his Wesleyan framework to Christology, argues that Jesus could have sinned but did not. Jesus’ incarnation was a genuine embrace of a fully human life with all its limitations and possibilities. He was certainly tempted to use his divine powers (e.g. to turn stones into bread) but did not, for he did not access the inherent divinity of his person. His life was one of divine self-limitation without any aspect of loss of the divine being.

This was much more a popular than an academic lecture and much appreciated, especially by the ordinary church-goers who made up a sizable chunk of the audience. Witherington presented a thoroughly Evangelical account of apologetics grounded in substantial New Testament theology. The lecture both supported and called for a robust confidence in the gospel on the part of everyday believers as they encounter the challenge to faith in Jesus Christ in a culture that espouses the equivalence of just about any and all worldviews, spiritualities, and perspectives.

On Saturday morning following the public lecture, Ben Witherington addressed a second more academic lecture to another audience on the theme of “Paul, Covenantal Theology, and the Law.” In this thoughtful and thought-provoking lecture Witherington insisted that the Law must be understood within its Old Testament / Ancient Near Eastern context, that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of both grace and law—and indeed all the biblical covenants had this feature. The New Covenant was not a renewal of the Old Covenant, i.e. as one covenant with diverse administrations, but was an entirely new covenant.

Witherington explored in some detail key New Testament texts such as 2 Corinthians 3, Galatians 4:1-8, Philippians 3: 4-8, before turning his attention especially to Romans (something we asked him to do). There he explored Paul’s thought in Romans 10; 7:7-25; and 8:1-4. He argues that Paul considered that the Law was a temporary arrangement for Israel (the paidagōgos or “child-minder”) until they should come “to maturity.” The believer has been set free from sin and death, and so also from the Law. Thus they are not under the Law of Moses, but under the Law of Christ.

Both lectures were followed by a lively Question & Answer session, and by ongoing conversation after the formalities were concluded. It was a privilege to have such an accomplished New Testament exegete and commentator visit Vose Seminary and bring the wealth of his learning to our community. Further, Ben Witherington’s Wesleyan commitments also brought a fresh flavour to the lectures; it is not that often that this perspective has been so competently and enthusiastically presented and defended (in my experience at least) in Perth in recent years. Despite his great learning, massive literary output, and global stature, Ben wore his learning lightly. I am sure that those who attended the lectures were certainly enriched by what he presented. This was the third Annual Vose Lecture, and a very fine addition to this growing heritage.

Worship on Sunday

sunday-worshipA few weeks ago while preparing a talk for City Bible Forum, I read an essay by Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne, entitled “Evidence for the Resurrection.” Swinburne, who retired in 2002, is a major Christian apologist of the late twentieth-century, with substantial contributions in the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science. He attached an appendix to his essay simply entitled “Sunday.”

Swinburne notes that since the earliest days of the church there has been a universal Christian custom of celebrating the Eucharist on a Sunday. This practice, in turn, is grounded on the belief—deriving from the apostles themselves—that Christ had risen on a particular day (Swinburne, “Evidence for the Resurrection,” in Davis, Kendall & O’Collins (eds.), The Resurrection (Oxford: OUP, 1997), 208). Swinburne provides evidence for this claim from the New Testament, but also from the Didachē, from Justin’s First Apology, and significantly, from Eusebius’ record of two Ebionite groups who celebrated “the Lord’s day very much like us in commemoration of his resurrection” (209). That the Ebionites, a group deeply committed to Jewish discipline, practised Sunday worship in place of the Sabbath, is particularly noteworthy. Also noteworthy is the fact that there is no record in the early centuries of the church of the Eucharist being practised on any other day but Sunday.

There is no plausible origin of the sacredness of Sunday from outside Christianity. There is only one simple explanation: the Eucharist was celebrated on a Sunday from the first years of Christianity because Christians believed that the central Christian event of the resurrection occurred on a Sunday (209).

This, however, is only half the story; who, asks Swinburne, in those very early days decided that the Eucharist was to be celebrated on a Sunday? There is no hint in the New Testament that the apostles made this decision. Yet there are suggestions towards an answer to this ‘who decided’ question. First, Swinburne notes that the New Testament records a number of appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples on the first day of the week, including the day of the resurrection itself, and further, that a number of these appearances occurred in the context of a meal. Second, he notes that the descriptions of these appearances include the Eucharistic phrases Paul and Luke used in their last supper accounts (e.g. ‘breaking bread,’ ‘taking,’ giving’ and ‘in like manner’), and so suggests that Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances included the Eucharist. Third, the synoptic tradition records the word of Jesus to the effect that he will not “drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when [he] drinks it anew” in the kingdom of God (cf. Mark 14:25). Yet Swinburne notes that in Acts 10:41 Peter testifies that the risen Jesus appeared to his witnesses, and that he used to eat and drink with them after his resurrection.Swinburne

All this suggests an explanation of the universality of the tradition of Sunday celebration—not merely in the belief that Jesus rose on a Sunday, but in the belief of the apostles that they had joined with Jesus in post-resurrection Eucharists which he commanded them to continue on Sundays (211).

Swinburne acknowledges that his argument faces the silence of an explicit New Testament record of such a Eucharistic meal, but does not find this absence especially troubling. He also suggests that Paul’s “for I passed onto you what I received from the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:23), can be understood in terms of what came from the mouth of the Lord himself, via an oral tradition.

Whether or not Swinburne is correct in his suggestion—and certainly there are alternative views—some account must be given for the universal custom of Sunday Eucharistic celebration, especially amongst those Jewish believers who comprised the very earliest church. Such an account must surely come to grips with early Christian belief that Jesus rose on that first Easter, or indeed, that some of the earliest witnesses believed they ate and drank with the risen Lord on or shortly after that day.

Something happened which led to this new development in history. What happened? The most plausible explanation is simply that the earliest Christians truly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. What is the most plausible reason for the emergence of this belief? The belief that Jesus had appeared to a variety of individuals and groups, and the testimony of those who had seen him. Even the age-old tradition of Sunday worship is an evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.

I must admit that I found Swinburne’s conclusion very attractive:

So there is some reason to suppose that the universal custom of Sunday Eucharist derives from the post-resurrection practice and command of Jesus himself… (212).

This morning in worship, the gathered community took the bread and drank the cup as we do each Sunday, and as God’s people regularly have done since the earliest days of the church, perhaps even, from that very first Easter when Jesus “took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them…” (Luke 24:30). Just as Moses and the elders ate and drank a covenant meal in the presence of Yahweh (Exodus 24), so the apostles and other believers may have done the same in the presence of the risen Christ. And so we, when we gather in worship to eat the bread and drink the cup, do so in the presence of the risen and coming Jesus, for he has promised: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them…For I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 18:20; 28:20).

Women Apologists

Image: Jeremy Cowart
Image: Jeremy Cowart

The April issue of Christianity Today has two interesting articles on women engaged in teaching and practicing apologetics. Apparently this is somewhat unusual since apologetics has often or even usually been a male domain. The first article, “The Unexpected Defenders” tells the story of five women, all associated with the Master of Arts (Apologetics) degree at Houston Baptist University. Part of the interest in the article concerns the unique approach to apologetics adopted by these women (cultural apologetics),  as well as exploring what these women bring to the practice of apologetics as women.

Ultimately, apologetics is driven by love. You have to love people enough to listen to their questions and do the hard work of finding answers for them (Nancy Pearcey).

The second article, “The Oxford Revivalist,” shifts attention to the UK and to the work of Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics program director, Amy Orr-Ewing. Her story is quite amazing and well worth reading.

“Without women we wouldn’t know what happened at the Cross,” says Orr-Ewing. “John’s there, but all the other witnesses to the words from the cross are female. And women are the first witnesses to the Resurrection. If you’re a Christian, you believe the Lord arranged for that. That’s not unintentional. That’s amazing.”