I attended a round table lecture and panel discussion on the question of the "Historical Jesus" yesterday at U of M Dearborn. If you're not familiar with this debate it refers to the various positions that assume that all or most of the material in the gospels cannot be taken as reliable historically and so the job of the historian is to peel back the layers of so-called legend or mythical material to unearth the "real" Jesus of history. The panelists included four historians: a scholar in Second Temple Judaism (presenting the "Jewish" view), a Muslim scholar from U of M Ann Arbor, a "Christian" professor from Oakland University, and a sort of theist/deist representing the "Jesus-was-a-mythical-figure" view. Their respective presentations ranged from positive postulations on the reliability of the gospels to humorous self-deprecating anecdotes to down-right blasphemy (I expected as much). The last panelist purporting the mythical jesus view in two instances accused one of the other panelists (a man of faith) and one of the questioners from the audience of engaging in "cyclical reasoning." My first impulse was to push back and reason that if we are people of faith we will almost always be accused of cyclical reasoning ("God is God because/therefore God is God"). I wanted to then justify this (to myself) by suggesting that everyone (especially the mythical jesus proponents) come to the Bible with certain presuppositions (like saying "all supernatural events in the Gospels cannot be true and must therefore be mythical embellishments to the actual 'historical Jesus'" or that this material proves that Jesus didn't exist at all) and that these presuppositions will lead to some form of cyclical reasoning or another. In other words, everyone due to our unavoidable subjective perceptions of reality, engages in some form of cyclical reasoning and that we must simply admit that and place our faith in the one true self-contained logical system (i.e. that of the Bible). This is similar to what Cornelius Van Til articulated in his The Defense of the Faith. Providentially, as I was cleaning out my email inbox, I came across an article today by Ben Shute for The Center for Gospel Culture called "Is God Against Our Reasoning for Him?" (see: http://www.centerforgospelculture.org/2013/11/god-reasoning/ ). In this article Mr. Shute would challenge my initial impulse to defend circular reasoning as unavoidable and give a good defense for the use of classical reason in our apologetics. One of the concerns I have stumbled across and wrestled with in my own studies in ancient Greek Philosophy and Medieval Islamic Philosophy is that philosophical reasoning has a tendency to set up certain standards that call upon God to, in a sense, conform to. For example, in the quest to define justice philosophers have a tendency to regard justice as an ideal that has some kind of existence apart from God that God himself must conform to. God and his word is put on trial by human reason to live up to an external standard of justice. This sounds a lot like idolatry to me. It calls upon God to submit to an ideal we hold to be true and can only lead to usurping God in our hearts. But Mr. Shute suggests that our exercise of reason doesn't have to be this way. So long as we acknowledge that things like justice, and even our own reason flow necessarily from all God is in his majesty and perfect character we need not exercise linear reasoning in a way that sets up little idols like, "justice" alongside God. He writes,
Interestingly, those who allege that using reason to argue for God’s existence is idolatrous typically hold (with Van Til) that the God of the Bible is the only possible foundation for reason. However, this is to imply that reason is not merely a creation of God but something that flows necessarily from his being. Seeking God with an appeal to reason, then, is not requiring God to conform to an external standard; rather, it is seeing whether an alleged revelation of God corresponds to that which must be of God to begin with; it is seeing whether the one claiming to be God matches the fingerprint of God...The irony, of course, is that, if reason is truly of (and not merely from) God, then its consistent, free, and un-coerced exercise upon all the evidence God has provided will necessarily point back to God himself: reason, in its fullness and purity, could not consistently be placed above its Master.
Mr. Shute makes an excellent point and it is the basis for the kind of reasoning we encounter in Tim Keller's book, Reason for God where he posits on several levels that if we call upon our skeptical friends to employ consistent, free, and un-coerced" reason to examine their own subjective perceptions of the Bible and God's creation they will inevitably be pointed "back to God himself." I am still wrestling through these issues. I think is extremely important to nail this down because the implications are profound and impact greatly the way we engage our communities and our city with the gospel.