Knowledge, Truth, and Christianity’s First Critics
February 11, 2013, 12:21 pm
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by David Bishop

In his book “The Christians as the Romans Saw Them”, Professor Robert Louis Wilken examines some of the complaints and arguments of some of the more veracious first and second century critics of Christianity.  Like Celsus, for example, who labeled Christ a magician and called the gospels incredulously and historically unreliable; or Porphyry, who attacked Christian orthodoxy as irrational.

In his examination of the critics, Wilken manages to show the epistemological foundation upon which Christians rested even from the very start.  romanphilosophers
It was a central theme that ran throughout every critic’s line of reasoning – outrage and incredulity at the Christian’s blanket dogmatic appeal to Scripture as the sole authority.   Consider, for example, Galen’s comparison of Christianity to a particular school of philosophy he found unreasonable in his book, “On Hippocrates’s Anatomy”:

“They compare those who practice medicine without scientific knowledge to Moses, who framed laws for the tribe of Israel, since it is his method in his books to write without offering proofs, saying, ‘God commanded, God spake.’”

Another critic, Celsus, complained that Christians sought out gullible and uneducated people, “because they were unable to give reasons for their beliefs . . .they asked people to accept what they said solely on faith.”

Celsus went on to write that the gospels themselves were based only on hearsay, arguing,  “Why should we give greater credibility to what is written in them than to other stories about Jesus?  The accounts in the gospels were written solely by Christians and passed on in Christian circles.  Should the legends there be taken with greater seriousness than the many legends in Greek literature?  The Christian Gospels offer no reliable basis on which to establish the truth of the accounts about Jesus . . . there is no proof except for your word”

Still another critic, Lucian, wrote of the Christians, “The poor wretches have convinced themselves that they are going to be immortal and live for all time.  They despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence.”

eternal clock.img_assist_customWe find time and again, no matter the critic, no matter the date, the theme remained the same.  Christians based the foundation for their claims entirely upon the authority of Scripture alone.  It was a commonly held “scientific” belief, for example, during the first, second, and third century that God (or gods) had created the world using preexisting material.  The Christians resolutely rejected this however, arguing instead that that God had created the world from nothing.  When asked to provide evidence that God had created the world from nothing, the Christians simply referred to the first chapter of Genesis.

This dogmatic appeal outraged their critics.  So much so that Pliny, a Roman governor, had the Christians quietly put to death for fear of what he believed their dogmatism might mean for the trade unions and for the Roman peace.

Even more than the doctrine of creation stood the Christian’s attitude toward death and resurrection.  Celsus found himself so infuriated by their dogmatic appeals on this subject that he wrote:

“What sort of body, after being entirely corrupted, could return to its original nature and that same condition which it had before it was dissolved?  As they (the Christians) have nothing to say in reply, they escape to a most outrageous refuge by saying that ‘anything is possible to God.’”

As for the Christians themselves, they encouraged the dogmatism.  The early Christian writer, Hippolytus, for example, addressing a sect that followed the critic Galen, wrote in his book, “The Little Labyrinth”:

“Instead of asking what Holy Scripture says, they stain every nerve to find a form of syllogism to bolster up their impiety (atheism).  If anyone challenges them with a text from divine Scripture, they examine it to see whether it can be turned into a conjunctive or disjunctive form of syllogism.  They put aside the holy scriptures of God, and devote themselves to geometry, since they are from the earth and speak from the earth, and do not know the one who comes from above.”

Oxford professor J. N. D. Kelly echoes Wilken’s examination in his book, “Early Christian Doctrines.”  Kelly gives further testimony from early Christians like Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, and John Chrysostom, to name just a few.

From the start, gospel believers were always Scripturally dogmatic.   It is a far different matter in most churches today.  The modern Christian today, for instance, insists that truth can be known apart from Scripture.  He insists that some knowledge of God transcends the propositional knowledge of Scripture.    Or to put it in the modern jargon of American Churchianity, he insists that people can “know about God in their head, but not know Him in their heart.”

The Modern Christian


Celsus fell silent long ago, but the critics haven’t.  Alongside Celsus today stands the modern Christian.  The modern Christian presupposes that knowledge exists in forms other than propositional, and that truth can sometimes be known apart from Scripture.  The modern Christian no longer thinks, but rather feels.  He no longer analyzes, but rather intuits.   He no longer studies the Scriptures systematically, but rather waits upon the Lord for a word.  In short, the modern Christian has exchanged the systematic and intellectual foundation of Scriptural dogmatism for the anti-intellectual, self-refuting romanticism of emotionalism.   Why?  How did we go from the strict scriptural dogmatism of the first three centuries to this sappy, anti-intellectual, anti-scriptural emotionalism that we are forced to deal with today?  What happened?

A lot happened.  Constantine happened.  The pope happened.  War, plague, and the Vikings happened.  Of course, ten centuries of rabid anti-intellectualism  didn’t help matters either.  Most importantly, however, existentialism happened.

Nietzsche, Nihilism, and the Foundation of Existentialism

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher,
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
– Ecclesiastes 1:2

Nietzsche had declared God dead.  What he meant, among other things, was that there was no point in people believing in God anymore.  God had outlived His usefulness, in other words.  What Nietzsche had done was take Materialism to its fullest and most logical conclusion.  If matter is eternal and matter is all there is, then all the matter in the universe is pointless and without meaning.   nietzsche

Nietzsche had concluded that if nature is all there is, then nature and everything a part of her is a meaningless, pointless machine.   Since humans just were, they were just machines.   Nothing we do matters, argued Nietzsche.   Nothing we do is good, ugly, beautiful or bad.  Everything just is.   Machines just are.   We just are and there is no point to why we just are.

Stuck with such a bleak outlook to life (Nietzsche died insane, driven mad by his own conclusions), philosophers began struggling to transcend Nihilism.  Enter existentialism.

Existentialists began to argue that there are at least two kinds of knowledge – personal and impersonal, or objective and subjective.  Impersonal knowledge, said the existentialist, is the knowledge of propositions. A proposition is a statement (verbal, written or contemplated) that is either true or false.  2 + 2 = 4, birds fly, grass is green.  This knowledge, said the existentialists, is pointless, it has no personal value.  So what that the grass is green? So what that birds fly? What does that mean for me?

For the existentialist, propositional knowledge is as meaningless as Nietzsche’s machine.   It is without value for the individual UNTIL the individual chooses to give it value by giving it personal meaning (hence, personal knowledge).

Western churches, plundered by false doctrine, slipped as easily into existentialism as one might slip a hand into a glove.  The Existential Theist began to view orthodoxy and doctrine as pointless.  Confessional Christianity became to the existential theist as meaningless as Nietzsche’s machine.

Kierkegaard 1“What I really need is to become clear in my own mind what I must do, not what I must know – except in so far as a knowing must precede every action.  The important thing is to understand what I am destined for, to perceive what the Deity wants me to do, the point is to find the truth for me, to find that idea for which I am ready to live and die.  What good would it do me to discover a so-called objective truth, though I were to work my way through the systems of the philosophers and were able, if need be, to pass them in review?”
– Soren Kierkegaard, A Short Life of Kierkegaard, pg 82

What good would it do me to discover objective truth, asks Kierkegaard.  And in the question we catch the echo of Nietzsche’s plight; God is dead and no one cares, if there is a hell I’ll see you there.  Grass is green, birds fly, trees have branches, Christ died to redeem His people from their sins.  So what?  That’s all just dead orthodoxy if it doesn’t mean anything for me.

We might ask the existential theist what it means for him to hear the news that it is true that Christ satisfied God’s wrath on behalf of His elect?   The existentialist might answer, it means nothing until I first give it meaning.

For the existential theist, doctrine has no value UNTIL the individual chooses to give it value by giving it personal meaning.  What does this mean?  It means that for the existential theist, sin has no value while it is understood to mean violating God’s law.  Sin only has meaning once it understood to mean the betraying of a relationship with God.

For the existential theist, repentance is no longer admitting guilt, but rather sorrowing over the act of committing a personal betrayal.  Forgiveness is no longer cancelling a penalty, but rather renewing a fellowship.  Faith is no longer agreeing with a set of propositions, but rather committing oneself to a person.  And the gospel is no longer the news that Christ has accomplished the redemption of His people by dying for His people on a cross, but rather the announcement that Christ has died for you.
The Self-Refuting Center of Theistic Existentialism

Recall that I said a proposition is a verbal, written, or contemplated statement that is either true or false.  The Bible is a book of propositions.  Some of its propositions state that the Bible is the only source and judge of truth.

If some knowledge is non-propositional, as the existentialist claims, then how would the Bible judge something known this way as either true or false?  It couldn’t, because only a proposition is a statement that is either true or false.   Knowledge that cannot be stated as either true or false cannot be stated as either true or false.  And therein lies the self-refuting irrationality at the core of existentialism.

The existentialist attempts to lay claim to something he says is true, but cannot say is true, because it cannot be stated as truth.  If that doesn’t Ignorance-star-wars-889162_640_512sound like a dog chasing its tail, then I don’t know what does.

In contrast to this insanity is the real truth.  The real truth is that all knowledge is propositional, for all truth is propositional.

The existentialist rejects the truth that all knowledge is propositional though, because he does not like where it leads.

Since all knowledge is propositional because all truth is propositional, then it stands to reason that faith is nothing more than intellectual agreement with a system of propositions.  This throws the existential theist into fits, because he finds himself trapped once more by the emptiness of his Nihilism.  After all, if cold, unfeeling intellectual agreement with an impersonal system of propositions is the foundation and definition of a transformed life, then what’s the point?  Where’s the meaning?  Where’s the significance?  The Christian life has become for the existential theist nothing more than God sovereignly ordaining machines to agree with facts about Him.  Might as well paraphrase Kierkegaard at that point and ask, what good would it do me to discover God?

The existential theist wants more.  He wants to feel significant, because he secretly suspects that God really is sovereign and that everything the individual does he does just as God has ordained him to do.  The existentialist cannot stand for this, because the serpent promised him that he could be as God, and by gum he intends to be just that.

Life does have significance and meaning, but only when it’s taken up into the fact that God has created it all for His glory.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. – Colossians 1:15-16

parrotsPropositional truth has significance, because it glorifies Him.  Doctrine has significance, because it glorifies Him.  Orthodoxy and biblical confessions have significance, because they glorify Him.  Birds fly because flying birds glorify Him.  Grass is green because green grass glorifies Him.  Agreeing with Him that these things are true glorifies Him, because He has said He is trustworthy and He has said these things are true.

If His glory is not the point though, if instead my glory is the point, then nothing that serves to glorify Him matters until it first glorifies me.   Hath God said you shall not eat of any of the trees in the garden, asked the serpent.  And the existentialist nods; God lies, for He knows that in the day you eat of it you shall be like Him, knowing good and evil.

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Comment by johnyeazel

Your article is very insightful. In grad school, I studied the relationship between the common local religion and specific existentialists’ writings. Specifically, I was interested in how Miguel de Unamuno’s writings were different from existentialists from other parts of Europe, due to the predominance of Catholocism in Spain.
I never stopped to consider how profoundly existentialism had affected Christianity itself. Now it seems so obvious.

Comment by Desiree

“It means that for the existential theist, sin has no value while it is understood to mean violating God’s law. Sin only has meaning once it understood to mean the betraying of a relationship with God. For the existential theist, repentance is no longer admitting guilt, but rather sorrowing over the act of committing a personal betrayal. Forgiveness is no longer cancelling a penalty, but rather renewing a fellowship. Faith is no longer agreeing with a set of propositions, but rather committing oneself to a person. And the gospel is no longer the news that Christ has accomplished the redemption of His people by dying for His people on a cross, but rather the announcement that Christ has died for you.”

The existentialist story is about the relationship of man and God WITHOUT a mediator. Man betrays, God forgives, man betrays even God’s forgiveness, God forgives even man’s betrayal of that, … and who wins at the end? The existentialist either has to presume or remain silent. Thus, whether Catholic, Lutheran, Arminian, or Calvinist, all existentialists necessarily lack true ground of assurance.

In the gospel, Christ came to make a sacrifice to God for the elect, which is accepted by God. This mediatorial work ALONE achieved the restoration of the relationship of the elect and God, which manifests in the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the true ground of assurance.

Where’s Christ in the existentialist story? He might be still called the Son of God, but stripped of his mediatorial achievement. Instead, the christ of the existentialism primarily came to make an offer to men, which is to be accepted or rejected by men. Depending on the existentialist, this offer can vary from a gracious law with Spirit-enhanced ability to a general atonement waiting for personal appropriation.

The existentialist confuses grace with either human ascension or divine condescension. Both are true. The incarnation is divine condescension, and the resurrection is human ascension. But grace is properly neither, but the cross. Any notion of the cross that cannot distinguish it from the incarnation or the resurrection does not truly understand grace.

This is perhaps the most serious issue with the Lutheran “theology of cross”. The “theology of cross” opposes understanding grace as human ascension, i.e. the Catholic notion of infused grace, or any human attempt to establish kingdom of heaven on earth. But the “theology of cross” does so by understanding grace as divine condescension. The cross is understood as the ultimate condescension, the death of GOD, God fully embracing the sinner’s situation in order to meet the sinner.

But the cross is first of all about the MAN Jesus Christ bearing his people’s sins and dying to propitiate God’s wrath against their sins. This is grace. Divine condescension is how this grace WAS brought about, and human ascension is what this grace WILL bring about.

Comment by Alien Pebble

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