Learning Shariah at a Phoenix Mosque

21 May

There is a well-known mosque in Phoenix, Arizona. It is north of Orangewood and east of 27th Ave. Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, both killed when they attacked a Draw Muhammad Contest in Texas, attended this mosque.Hassan Abujihaad, convicted of handing over military intelligence to al Qaeda, attended this mosque.

I didn’t know all that then. On Friday, December 16th, 2011, I was passing out copies of the Gospel According to St. John on a public sidewalk near mosque. The team I was with was there to discuss Islam and Christianity with Muslims for the purpose of having all peoples call Jesus Lord and be saved from their sins. Here’s how we proceed: I usually ask the men leaving prayer as they are on their way to their vehicles if they have read the Holy Injil. Most people pass by but sometimes they take one and say “thank you”, while other times they say “no” – in so many words or less. However, if they stop or inquire further I say, “This is Gospel According to Saint John in Arabic and English”. Sometimes, we talk more.

One man I spoke with that day was ‘Miraj’, who was visiting Phoenix from the midwest. We spoke for about one full hour. The first 50 minutes were very cordial. I told him he was nice and respectful numerous times. I apologized once for cutting him off in my excitement. He was very patient and understanding. This is not to say I was not troubled by some things he said. Miraj told me Muslims had proof for their beliefs while Christians utilized “blind faith”, that mosques have been burnt down in the United States, and that persecution in countries such as Pakistan was not bad at all (in fact, he claimed the laws there usually protect Christians). Most troubling was this exchange:

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Me: “What if I said anything like that [like what a Muslim apologist I just quoted said about Jesus] about Muhammad in an Islamic country?”
Him: “You cannot say that because the punishment is very clear, like if you say that such thing, you will be beheaded – that’s the punishment and it is clear – there is no two opinions about it – that’s very clear.”
Me: “Listen, my name is Mark. What is your name?”

Him: “Miraj.”
Me: “Miraj?”

Him: “Yeah.”
Me: “Miraj, we just shook hands and we’re talking, we’re calm, I’m not making fun of you, you’re not making fun of me – this is good. But right now if I said something dirty about Muhammad what should happen to me?”

Him: “Well, because here I don’t have all the …”
Me: “What should happen to me under God’s law?”

Him: “Well, then in Islamic law, it’s clear, if you insult Prophet Muhammad, then the punishment is you should be beheaded”.

Shortly after this, a tall young man (pictured in the video below briefly, wearing all white) interrupted us. I had already spoken with this young man the week prior briefly – he was rude and not well-informed. I did my best to get the conversation with Miraj back on track. I asked the tall man to please refrain from interjecting and we could talk again next week.  He said he was going to leave but then did not and loudly dominated the conversation. Whenever he told me to stop and listen to him, he would place his rather-large hands on my shoulders in a less than gentle manner. This tall man said the following to Miraj:  

“Good job, brother. You handle it. Yeah, just stick to the truth like that.  Don’t worry. Don’t be like salty Muslims and be like, ‘oh, no, in Islam we don’t have these things’”. 

I responded: “No, no, he said I should I should be beheaded if I say something dirty. He said this; so you would be happy about him.” 

The tall man said back to me: “Well, of course – you can’t. In a Muslim state that’s the punishment; no one talk about the messenger of Allah.”

I noticed Miraj became more aggressive the minute this other man arrived. He began saying things like this: “It doesn’t matter what you like and don’t like, what matters is what God likes and what he wants. Your opinion doesn’t count – you are no one.” This comment was in regards to my distaste for Sharia Law. This may not seem like a very big deal but for the most part Miraj was not saying things like this before. For example, at one point he even said that Pakistan applied some of its blasphemy laws in an unfair manner against Christians. We continued on like this for a few minutes and the tall man quickly lost whatever patience he had and said the following:

“Here’s what: Islam is the fastest growing religion no matter if you like it and it’s going to dominate the whole world – no matter if you like it. You’re going to be paying the jizyah when that time comes. You’re going to be paying the jizyah.”

I replied: “And you know who is going to judge you?”

“God. Only God.” 

“Yes—”

“You’re going to be paying the jizyah, buddy. It’s going to dominate the whole thing.”

“And this is your dream.”

“It’s going to dominate everything.”

“And this is your dream.”

“It’s not a dream, it is already happening. Yup, it’s already happening.”

Shortly after, the mosque president stormed out, demanding to know what church I was from. He asked if I was from Calvary. He did not believe me when I told him I was not. He told me I could come and talk about Jesus but then asked me not to quote anything from the Qur’an. He said I had to make sure people knew what they were getting was not Islamic. He told me I was deceiving people. Not wanting to be viewed as purposefully deceiving people, I turned to Miraj and asked him if he knew what he was getting; unfortunately, he would not give a straight answer. It did not help that the tall man was still throwing his two cents in. I pointed out that the one article I had said answering-islam.org printed on it. He asked me why it had verses from the Qur’an. I told him because Muslims are not supposed to throw it away that away. In response, he got right up in my face and ripped up the paper – five times. As we continued to speak, he accused me of being a liar and said I was not welcome. I told him I was on a public sidewalk and as long as there was no Sharia Law, I was allowed to be there. The mosque president and I spoke for about five minutes, then he turned and left. The other two men followed suit.

After listening to the audio, there are things I would have done differently. For example, I noticed when the man downplayed Islamic persecution of Christians all over the world, I became agitated. He even mocked the idea of Christian persecution and said Christians do the exact same thing. Even though this issue is dear to me, misinformation is no excuse for me to be rude. Christians must be bold with Muslims, yes, but I also must give them a chance to hear the truth – but only in love. 

NOTE: Some of the audio quoted in this piece can be downloaded right here, on a radio broadcast I did on the topic. Some of the names and such have been changed.

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THE THEOLOGY OF ELTON SIMPSON

7 May

We all wonder what makes a killer* tick. People want to know what goes on in the mind of a terrorist. I can shed light on one: Elton Simpson; my former co-worker and frequent debate partner.

The Christian must think theologically about such people. The Christian must not think the murderer – or any sinner, for that matter – is so different, so much worse. The Christian must remember that outside of Christ, we too face God’s judgment for our sin, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Still, not everyone is ready to drive across the southwest United States to commit murder as Elton was. Why? That is the question. The answer: Elton’s theology.

SALAFI ISLAM

“Are you a Wahabist?”, I asked. Elton waved his hands emphatically: “That is the name Orientalists [British scholars of Islam] gave to those who practice true Islam. I am a Salafi.” Non-Salafi Muslims consider the Salafi understanding of Islam to be strict, rigid, limited, and narrow. Salafis believe Salafi Islam is closest to the Islam of Muhammad and his companions. Estimates indicate Salafi Islam is the fastest-growing form of Islam; the headlines indicate Salafi Islam is also the most violent.

Elton Simpson was a Salafi Muslim – and proud of it.

FAVORITE APOLOGISTS

Zakir Naik, arguably the most prominent Islamic apologist alive, is a Salafi Muslim. Naik, along with Ahmed Deedat (deceased), were Elton’s favorite two Islamic apologists. I learned this when I name dropped the high-minded apologist Shabir Ally. Elton’s response: “We don’t all like Shabir, you know.” I asked who he did like: “Zakir Naik and Ahmed Deedat”.

Elton’s response illustrates the divide between academic discussions of Islam and Islam in real-life.
Ally: an intellectual; a professor with an elite pedigree.
Naik: only debates opponents whom he knows he can defeat.
Deedat: notoriously shoddy arguments which suffered from a lack of logical rigor.
Why then are the latter two considered the YouTube Islamic champions of debate? Passion. Rhetoric. Intensity. Perceived devoutness. 

Elton preferred apologists like Zakir Naik and Ahmed Deedat over Shabir Ally.


OSAMA BIN LADEN

Very early in our relationship, I asked Elton his opinion of Bin Laden. “Hero.” Elton gave his answer almost before I finished saying the name. I paused; he looked at me and waited with sincere eyes. He wasn’t goading me; he wasn’t toying with me; he wasn’t playing. Elton was for real.

In Elton’s mind, Osama Bin Laden was clearly a hero – no qualifications needed.

ISLAMIC REPUBLICS

During one talk, I brought up Islamic republics. Elton quickly told me none of the current countries calling themselves Islamic Republics actually were; he found the idea laughable. I wondered what nation could meet his standard, so I asked. Elton answered: “Pre-2001 Afghanistan.” Elton did not think this was debatable, he viewed it as self-evident.

Elton believed pre-2001 Afghanistan was the only true modern Islamic Republic.


SHARIAH LAWTwitter

When I expressed frustration with Elton about the nature of shariah law, he seemed exasperated: “We don’t follow shariah to please man; it is the command of Allah. Allah’s law is not there to make you feel nice and cozy. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not.” Elton’s Twitter handle was “Shariah Is Light”. How tragically insightful! He understood shariah to illumine humanity’s path about how we should live. 

Elton believed all people should submit to shariah law for their own good.


RELATIONSHIPS WITH CHRISTIANS

Surah 5:51 instructs Muslims not to take Jews or Christians as friends. I asked Elton if he could take a Christian as a friend. He indicated “no”. If I remember correctly, Elton waffled a bit. Perhaps he was considering another interpretation of this aayat (verse), such as “don’t take them as ‘protectors’”? I don’t know.

I do know that later on in our first (rather lengthy) conversation, Elton said he would potentially marry a Christian girl. That struck me as odd.

Me: “How could you marry a Christian? I thought you said you couldn’t take a Christian as your friend?”
Elton: “I said I couldn’t have one as my friend. I didn’t say I couldn’t have one as my wife.”

I figured Elton was simply being arbitrary. Since then, I learned there is Hadith precedence for this ruling. Elton wasn’t out of line with Islamic thought; Islamic thought itself is what’s out of line.

Elton’s theology of marriage: your wife is not your friend.


FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Before his death, Elton Simpson went to great lengths to stop an act of free expression: drawing pictures of Muhammad. I do not consider events of this nature to be wise or kind. However, I believe events like this should be allowed. So should the Book of Mormon musical. Same goes for Piss Christ.

Islamic thought holds that creating an image of anything with a soul is haram (forbidden). Drawing Muhammad is especially forbidden. I imagine Elton viewed this art contest as too flagrant to allow; too blasphemous to let stand; too disrespectful to let go unfettered. Somebody had to do something to stop this shameful event – but nobody seemed to be doing anything.

garland-shootingElton must have thought he was the one. This was his time, his chance. Elton Simpson was willing to kill others and let himself be killed in order to defend his Prophet’s honor. For Elton, it was worth it to protect Muhammad’s name. 

In one chilling moment, Elton told me jihad was not one of the Five Pillars of Islam, “jihad was the pinnacle of Islam.” He was explicit: he did not mean an “inner struggle”, he meant a physical struggle against the House of War (the non-Islamic portions of the world).

Elton embraced jihad. Elton embraced death.

                                                                                                                                                                Published 05/06/2015


*I don’t feel entirely comfortable calling Elton a killer; he didn’t actually kill anyone. Yet, I know that was his intention. I know Jesus says “out of the heart come evil thoughts” and “murder” (Matthew 5:19).

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Vocab Malone has a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is a Doctoral student at Talbot School of Theology. He has many recorded debates. His hobbies include reading, coffee, and geek culture.

I KNEW ELTON SIMPSON: MY JIHADIST FRIEND

6 May

I knew Elton Simpson.

On Sunday, May 3, 2015, Elton and a friend opened fire at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas. He was shot and killed shortly after. Elton and his friend drove from Arizona to Texas to attack a gathering celebrating free speech — by displaying artistic depictions of Muhammad. Images of Muhammad are considered highly offensive to Muslims.

No, Elton was not insane. Elton was not mean. Elton was not rude. Elton was not wild-eyed. Elton was not constantly angry. Elton never threatened me. Elton was calm, level-headed, smart, and studious. He was generally kind and well-mannered.  Bright and articulate, he spoke smooth and easy. Elton was not a poor unwanted outcast; a down-and-outer he was not. Neither the simplistic narratives of the right or left work for him.

Elton Simpson

THE CORE ISSUE IS THEOLOGY

I am convinced the secular world will never properly understand people like Elton because the secular world will never properly understand Elton’s theology.

Secularist presuppositions cause many people to seek in vain for a non-theological answer for “radicalization”: economics, insanity, politics, personal nastiness, family problems, blood lust, revenge. Certainly, some of those factors play into some aspects of some people who commit what we know as terrorist acts. But these are not the core.

The core is theology. The core is taking Muhammad, his words and his actions, seriously. Elton took Islam seriously.

How do I know? Elton and I worked for the same company. We spent time together at our mutual workplace. For example, I once asked Elton if he was going to take a certain job promotion:

“No”
“Why not?”
“They would ask me to trim my beard.”
“Why must you keep your beard?”
“To be like the Prophet.”
“Why? You don’t worship him.”
“No, but he was the best example of what it means to live as a Muslim. Do you know what ‘Muslim’ means?”
“Yes – one submitted.”
Yes, submitted to Allah’s will – like Muhammad was.”
“Is that why you wear your pants this way?”
(Elton wore his pants slightly above the ankles)
“Yes, The Prophet never let his garment drag on the ground.”

Elton’s understanding of Islam was such that Muhammad’s example (as found in the accepted Hadith) was paradigmatic for the proper practice of Islam. The way he went about this was very matter of fact. Elton exhibited such a cool confidence in his interpretation of Islam, it is easy to imagine him convincing others to adopt his positions. I once witnessed Elton’s casual yet charismatic sway on display.

THE POWER TO PERSUADE

First, some context: Elton and I conversed at his local mosque a few times. Yes, I have been to the mosque Elton frequented in north Phoenix. Yet, I am not a Muslim. I was at Elton’s mosque to share the gospel with Muslims as they left Friday prayer. I am a Christian; a pastor and a seminary graduate. I engage in evangelism. This is how I ran into my friend at the mosque.

One Friday afternoon, some fellow Christians and I were at the mosque Elton attended, doing what we often did: quietly and peacefully handing out bilingual (Arabic/English) copies of the Gospel of John to all takers. We stood out of the exit paths, on the public sidewalk. We had an established protocol: when someone said “No”, we responded in clumsy Arabic – “Barak Allahu fik” (a common way of expressing thanks to a person) – and then moved on.

Some days, no one would speak with us or accept our offer of the Holy Injil (what Muslims call the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). This day was not like that – it seemed as if every other person was willingly taking a book – it was fantastic. Elton changed all that. He briefly spoke with me as he came out of prayer and then quickly turned to his fellow Muslims. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but after a brief but friendly-looking conversation, they would hand over the Gospel of John they had just received. Elton went around to as many folks as he could in a very short amount of time, smiling and chatting all the way. Almost every person handed over their book to him. Elton was in the adjacent parking lot by this time. Being that it was private property, we stayed put. Elton then slowly turned towards me and slyly smiled – he held up two hand-sized stacks of gospels and threw them all in the trash. Elton single-handedly stopped 30 people from having a chance to read the Gospel of John.

Mosque Evangelism
our mosque evangelism team after an outreach

As I left that day, I was rather depressed. A bleak feeling settled over me as I sat in my car, waiting at the stop light on 27th Ave. and Glendale. As I looked to my side, I saw Elton. We recognized each other immediately. I quickly rolled down my window and we had a brief conversation till the light changed. I asked him why he was so afraid of his friends reading one book out of the New Testament. I don’t recall his precise reply, but I believe it was something to the effect of, “I’m not afraid, I am just warning them about poison.” 

I believe Elton was genuinely concerned for the Muslims at his mosque. That is why he did what he did that day. I also believe Elton was genuinely concerned for the honor of the one he deems a Prophet – and that is ultimately why he did what he did on May 3rd.

Even though I was surprised by what Elton did – drove from Phoenix to Dallas to kill people who were supporting drawing pictures of Muhammad – I can’t say I was shocked. 

Why? I knew Elton’s theology.


                                                                                PUBLISHED 05/06/2015 ~ PHOENIX, AZ

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Vocab Malone has a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is a Doctoral student at Talbot School of Theology. He has many recorded debates. His hobbies include reading, coffee, and geek culture.

What Is Faith?

14 Jan

WHAT IS FAITH?

Atheists misdefine the Christian concept of faith. The chief offender is Peter BoghossianWhen Peter and the disciples (get it?) define faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know”, we need to ask: “What is their authority, their source for this definition? Have they done any basic exegetical work in the text? What is their justification for their interpretation? Where do they pull their definition from?”

No wise student of world religions and other belief systems should act as if all frameworks have an identical definition of this word/concept. A person may not agree with the way Christian theology defines faith – fine. But shouldn’t they at least understand how Christians have historically utilized the word and concept? If they are not attempting to do this – which appears to be the case—then what are they accomplishing?

Atheists, please understand: any evangelical worth their salt is not interested in some vague philosophy of religion definition of faith but rather the biblical – and especially the New Testament – use of the word and concept.

Will Peter B. be interested? Not likely. But then he will merely be defining something in a way that is designed to be favorable to his ultimate end. That’s not a linguistic consideration; that’s a cheap tactic. Read Peter Boghossian, Atheist Tactitian for more on this.

That is fine for him, but it’s not scholarship. Peter’s definition doesn’t reflect the way the biblical authors used the word. It doesn’t look at the way systematizers use concepts and it won’t reflect most streams of Christianity (sans fideists). Peter and the crew will talk right past all of us without blinking.

Recently, I looked over the Biblical definition of faith. I took some notes. As a Protestant Christian, I go to Scripture (as in ‘sola Scriptura’). I look to the actual Greek word pisteuō (verb form) and then go from there. I included some basic mini-word studies with a few examples of usage. I look to Scripture, its context (in the Greek) and the lexicons. Then I seek to collate and synthesize the data – this is what systematic theology *is*.

With these notes, I have no mere polemic in mind. I offer an understanding of what the Greek word translated as faith means in the New Testament. 

FAITH IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
-Gk. noun pistis and verb pisteuō both occur more than 240 times (verb form used 98 times in Gospel of John), adjective pistos 67 times

-Verb pisteuō often followed by Greek word for ‘that’ (eg, “believe that…”); indicates New Testament faith is concerned with content. NOTE: it is still more than that, though, e.g., Calvin’s Commentary on Romans 3:14-15.

-“Pisteuō may be followed by the simple dative, when the meaning is that of giving credence to, of accepting as true, what someone says.” … it is “faith in the sense of trust.” (New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edition, 1996, from the entry for “faith” by Leon Morris).

-Common construction for saving faith in NT: verb pisteuō followed by preposition eis.
Literally means believe ‘into’ (as in, “believe/trust into Christ”).

-New Testament faith is not merely accepting certain things as true, but emphasizes trusting a person – Christ. 

Calvin comments: “To separate faith from trust (Latin, fiducia) would be equal to an attempt to separate heat and light from the sun” (Commentary on Ephesians 3:12). The emphasis is the object of faith: the person of Christ. The idea is that God is reliable, dependable, and truthful – therefore trustworthy.

– Sometimes pisteuō is followed by epi, ‘upon’ (e.g., Acts 9:42).

– Also characteristic of the New Testament is the absolute use of the verb pisteuō (e.g., John 4:41).

FAITH IN PAUL
-Faith is used in New Testament often as the antithesis of WORKS – not of rationality or thought.

-For example, Paul writes that ‘A man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ’ … ‘even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law’ … ‘because by works of the law shall no one be justified’ (Galatians 2:16).

-Here faith denotes relying on God’s grace as opposed to one’s own merit or work. This is what the Protestant Reformers meant by the Latin motto, “sola fide” (by “faith alone”).

FAITH IN HEBREWS
-The author of Hebrews sees faith as a historic trait for the people of God (in chapter 11 he gives numerous examples)

John Frame comments: “…although faith is not blind, it is different from sight. The heroes of Hebrews 11 endured terrible sufferings, not seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises, the heavenly city. They walked by faith. They had God’s word, and that word was reliable. But it did not answer all their questions or tell each one why his or her suffering was necessary. Yet their prevailed. The very nature of faith is to persevere despite unanswered questions. Thus does God’s word encourage sufferers to hold on tightly to God’s promises and not to be overcome with doubt.” (Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction, John Frame, 1994), p 179.

-The author of Hebrews does contrast faith (Gr. pistis) with things seen (Gr. blepomenon) in Hebrews 11:1.

In general, faith in the New Testament is seen as synonymous with trust. It is usually contrasted with “works” – NOT REASON! The exception (to a certain extent) is the Book of Hebrews. The author uses the concept in a somewhat different way. Still, if a person reads the whole book – or at least all of chapter 11 – they should be able to see how the author seeks to tie faith to the concept of hope. The author doesn’t seek to divorce it from reason (the idea of true faith vs. true reason is not even in the Bible). With that being said, the author of Hebrews does show there is a “not-yet” aspect; there is something still in the future still, which we have not yet seen or experienced but trust God that it will happen.

FAITH IN JAMES
-Often uses faith to denote intellectual assent, as in demons who believe God exists in James 2:19.

NOTE: CHRISTIAN FAITH IS HYPOTHETICALLY FALSIFIABLE (1 Corinthians 15)
IF Christ has not been raised

THEN Paul’s preaching is vain (Greek kene: empty, without content, purposeless, untrue)

IF Christ has not been raised
THEN the Corinthians faith is also vain (Greek kene: empty, without content, purposeless, untrue)

IF Christ has not been raised
THEN the apostles are misrepresenting God

IF Christ has not been raised
THEN your faith is futile (Greek mataia: worthless, powerless, without effect, useless)

IF Christ has not been raised
THEN Christians are of all people most to be pitied

FAITH IN VAN TIL: 

As a Calvinist, I ask what others in the Reformed tradition have said: a theologian (Frame), a philosopher (Van Til) and an exegete (Calvin), all who represent the Reformed Christian tradition. Then we may ask, “How have others understood the concept of faith historically?”

“Christianity is not irrational” … “it must not be taken on blind faith”
(Common Grace and The Gospel, 1972), p 184.

“…the Christian faith is not a blind faith but is faith based on evidence…”
(A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 1969), p 250.

FAITH IN CALVIN:

“Our faith cannot rest on anything other than his eternal truth” (aeterna eius veritate) – Commentary on Genesis 17:4

“Faith is a knowledge of the divine will toward us received from his word” (Institutes, 3.2.6).

“We make the foundation of faith the gratuitous promise, because in it faith properly consists” (3.2.29).

*All of Chapter 2 of Book 3 of Calvin’s Institutes is on faith; he defines it and explains its properties. 

EPILOGUE

On a slightly different trek, one may ask what is the source or cause for said faith. Well, that gets us into what is called the ‘ordo salutis’ (Latin,” order of salvation”).

The source of this trust (why does any one person begin trusting/have faith in the first place?) is understood to be an effect resulting from the supernatural work of the person of the Holy Spirit upon the mind of an individual. Sometimes this is talked about under the rubric of something called “effectual calling”.

Reformed types believe regeneration is a gift and must precede genuine faith – or trust. Arminian or Wesleyan types think that people believe (have faith/trust) on via their own means and then as a result are born again (regenerated) after. People often go to the Greek of Ephesians 2:8-10 to discuss this question.

RESOURCES: Peter debated Tim McGrew on this topic on Unbelievable Radio here. It was good overall (not to say I agree with Tim 100%, I don’t). Also, see the RTB podcast “Is Christian “Faith” Blind?” (Apr 10, 2013).

Debating the Problem of Evil with Atheists [video]

2 Dec

I (Vocab) debated two atheists at once out in the open in downtown Phoenix (Jason Short, Tempe, AZ and Randy Chesley, Portland, OR). The topic was the problem of evil and the title was “Does Evil Nullify God’s Existence?” Here is the video 

Here is the Question and Answer Session from the Audience…

And here are two podcast reviews of the debate:

Backpack Radio: “Atheists Behaving Badly” [04/29/2012]

Redemption Radio with Jeff Durbin: Max Headroom, Vocab Malone & …

Date: April 6, 2012
MODERATORS:
Professor Sanjay Merchant (Grand Canyon University) and Ryan Smeets

To read the biographies of the debate participants, go here

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 ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Vocab Malone is an URBAN APOLOGIST and slam poet. Vocab holds a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is  pursuing a D. Min at Talbot. Follow him on Twitter @VocabMalone
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Atheist David Fitzgerald Wrong About John the Baptist

12 Nov

Do you meet all of the following conditions?
-under 35 years old
-an atheist
-debate Christians on the Internet
-have attended a talk put on by the Secular Student Alliance

If you answered yes to all four, chances are, you know David Fitzgerald. You might also know Dave if you are a Christian apologist who is involved with campus ministry. Apparently, William Lane Craig knows. David is the author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All? and promotes the Christ-Myth Theory, which claims Jesus Christ never lived.

I debated (informally) David on three different occasions in 2013. In our second conversation, he made a claim that John the Baptist was a failed Messiah. This claim came in the flow of an argument he was making about  Jesus (supposedly) not having the same amount of historical corroboration as so-called “loser Messiahs”. I asked Dave for evidence or a source for his take on J to tha B. He mentioned the Clementine Recognitions, saying it backs him up. Watch the debate here and note our dialogue between 12 and 13 minutes.

Next:
-pause the video
-read sections 155 and 160 of Book I of the Clementine Recognitions
(it’s pasted in below and I’ve underlined the most relevant lines but you can read more here)

 

1.54 — Jewish Sects.
“For when the rising of Christ was at hand for the abolition of sacrifices, and for the bestowal of the grace of baptism, the enemy, understanding from the predictions that the time was at hand, wrought various schisms among the people, that, if haply it might be possible to abolish the former sin, the latter fault might be incorrigible.
“The first schism, therefore, was that of those who were called Sadducees, which took their rise almost in the time of John. These, as more righteous than others, began to separate themselves from the assembly of the people, and to deny the resurrection of the dead, and to assert that by an argument of infidelity, saying that it was unworthy that God should be worshipped, as it were, under the promise of a reward. The first author of this opinion was Dositheus; the second was Simon.
“Another schism is that of the Samaritans; for they deny the resurrection of the dead, and assert that God is not to be worshipped in Jerusalem, but on Mount Gerizim. They indeed rightly, from the predictions of Moses, expect the one true Prophet; but by the wickedness of Dositheus they were hindered from believing that Jesus is He whom they were expecting.
“The scribes also, and Pharisees, are led away into another schism; but these, being baptized by John, and holding the word of truth received from the tradition of Moses as the key of the kingdom of heaven, have hid it from the hearing of the people.
“Yea, some even of the disciples of John, who seemed to be great ones, have separated themselves from the people, and proclaimed their own master as the Christ. But all these schisms have been prepared, that by means of them the faith of Christ and baptism might be hindered.”
1.60 — Disciples of John Refuted.
“And, behold, one of the disciples of John asserted that John was the Christ, and not Jesus, inasmuch as Jesus Himself declared that John was greater than all men and all prophets.’If, then, ‘said he, ‘he be greater than all, he must be held to be greater than Moses, and than Jesus himself. But if he be the greatest of all, then must he be the Christ.’ 
“To this Simon the Canaanite, answering, asserted that John was indeed greater than all the prophets, and all who are born of women, yet that he is not greater than the Son of man. Accordingly Jesus is also the Christ, whereas John is only a prophet: and there is as much difference between him and Jesus, as between the forerunner and Him whose forerunner he is; or as between Him who gives the law, and him who keeps the law. Having made these and similar statements, the Canaanite also was silent.
“After him Barnabas, who also is called Matthias, who was substituted as an apostle in the place of Judas, began to exhort the people that they should not regard Jesus with hatred, nor speak evil of Him. For it were far more proper, even for one who might be in ignorance or in doubt concerning Jesus, to love than to hate Him. For God has affixed a reward to love, a penalty to hatred. ‘For the very fact,’ said he, ‘that He assumed a Jewish body, and was born among the Jews, how has not this incited us all to love Him?’ When he had spoken this, and more to the same effect, he stopped.”

Re-listen to David’s claims about John as a failed Messiah – does the source (which is a late work falsely ascribed to Clement of Rome) match his claims?

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 ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Vocab Malone is an urban apologist and slam poet. Vocab holds a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is  pursuing a D. Min at Talbot.  Follow him on Twitter @VocabMalone

 

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CELSUS vs. THE EARLY CHRISTIANS (177-180 AD)

1 Nov

WHO WAS CELSUS? Celsus

No discussion on critics of the ancient church would be complete without the most salient of them all – the pagan intellectual Celsus.

He wrote a polemical tour de force titled True Doctrine (also translated as True Word, True Account or True Discourse), published in the late second century (ca.  170 AD). Celsus’ attack was the first all-out – and informed – salvo we have on Christianity. More than a passing comment or a veiled allusion; it was a collection of objections contra Christianity.

Initially, Celsus seems to have been overlooked by Christians but a century later Origen felt it was prudent to respond to the work in his Against Celsus (ca. 246 AD). The strange thing about Origen going toe to toe with the ghost of Celsus is both were essentially Platonists! They held in common many presuppositions, though Origen saw God as personal and Celsus did not, for Celsus believed Christianity’s “doctrine of a divine intervention in history is incompatible with Platonic axioms”.[1] Celsus, a a philosopher of the Middle Platonist school, did not reject everything in Christianity outright (e.g., the Logos doctrine, certain ethical principles, etc.).

I have a begrudging respect for Celsus and readily admit some of his arguments went unanswered by Christian apologists, even the illuminative Origen. In a twist of history that would probably surprise both men, the way we have Celsus’ True Doctrine preserved today is because Origen quoted Celsus at-length in his response work, Contra Celsum.

 

ORIGEN

ORIGEN

WHY DID CELSUS ATTACK CHRISTIANITY?

Celsus attacked the church out of genuine love for the Roman Empire, which he felt was being undermined. Celsus chided Christians as “sectarians “. Celsus was annoyed, perhaps even frightened that Christianity was not linked to any one state or place. Henry Chadwick says “Celsus was the first known person to realize this non-political, quietist, and pacifist community had in its power to transform the social and political order of the empire” and that “it aimed at the capture of society throughout all its strata” [2]. This is something Celsus did not want.

Celsus – like many Roman gentlemen – was a social conservative in a certain sense of the word. Celsus had misgivings about polytheism but still defended more traditional Roman religious views. Celsus claimed at hero shrines, the gods can be seen in human form and they do not appear only once “in a secretive and stealthy manner like the fellow who deceived the Christians” [Origen, Against Celsus 7.35]. Celsus lists positive benefits some have experienced from oracles: wisdom, revelation, miracle signs, appearances, health, and prophetic utterances which are fulfilled [Against Celsus 8.45].

This general Roman attitude, which Celsus displayed, was one reason the Romans gave Jews a degree of freedom in their religious practice – it was old: “”As the Jews, then, became a peculiar people, and enacted laws in keeping with the customs of their country, and maintain them up to the present time, and observe a mode of worship which, whatever be its nature, is yet derived from their fathers…” [Against Celsus 5.25]. Christianity was novel, though, and Celsus even mocked this new faith for not having buildings!

Celsus discerned Christianity was not like Judaism: it was not limited to a certain ethnic group; people of all backgrounds were converting to Christianity. Celsus explained Christian unity in light of sociology: “Their agreement is quite amazing, the more so as it may be shown to rest on no trustworthy foundation.” The thing that binds them together, Celsus believes, is persecution; this helps their cause.

 

HOW DID CELSUS KNOW ABOUT CHRISTIANITY?

Generally speaking, Celsus did not uncritically repeat wild rumors floating around about Christianity. Instead, Celsus launched attacks where it would hurt. He was not given to attacking straw men, for Celsus “was a man who relied not on rumors and hearsay evidence but on personal observation and careful study” [3]. Celsus took time and effort to study Christianity to dissect it properly. He studied the Hebrew Scriptures and some of the gospels (he at least knew Matthew, Luke and 1 Corinthians).

He probably had personal contact with Christians. He claimed he knew what appear to be hyper-Charismatics (Montanists, perhaps?) in both Palestine and Phoenicia – he even quotes some of their ecstatic utterances [Against Celsus 7.9].

It is possible Celsus had even been witnessed to by some Christians. The evangelistic zeal of the early church is something that annoyed him: “Christians with little or no education seized every opportunity to witness to people, and when confronted by educated pagans they still would not stop pushing their opinions” [4].

Not only was Celsus familiar with Christian evangelists but he was also familiar with some of the work of Christian apologists, the heretic Marcion, and some of the gnostic sects. Celsus is acquainted enough with Marcionism that he uses the clever tactic of leveraging the Christian’s own heretics against the orthodox Christians.

 

Celsus-Bust_philosopher_LouvreWHAT DID CELSUS SAY AGAINST CHRISTIANITY?

Contra Celsum 2.6: “Jesus kept all the Jewish customs”.

Celsus says the praxis of Jesus stands in contradistinction to the praxis of Christians. Of course, Celsus had his fair share of criticism for the Jews and their Scriptures! Celsus probably borrowed some of his verbal ammunition from Jewish sources (an unknown Jewish anti-Christian polemical tract?). In the course of an attack on Christian doctrine, Celsus introduces a Jewish character (Origen called him “the Jew of Celsus”) who repeats common Jewish jabs against Jesus [Against Celsus 1.32]. By this method, Celsus even includes the charge that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a soldier named Panthera.

Contra Celsum 1.38: “there he learned certain magical powers which the Egyptians are proud to have. He returned full of pride in these powers, and gave himself the title of God”.[5] 

Celsus also says Jesus studied magic and practiced sorcery in Egypt. [6] Celsus uses more elements from the life of Jesus against the Christians here. Celsus refers to both the miracles and some of the (misconstrued) background of Jesus in a very real, albeit negative, way.

Contra Celsum 6.34: “If Christ had been thrown down a cliff or pushed into a pit, or strangled with a rope … then they would speak of a cliff of life, or a pit of resurrection, or a rope of immortality”.

Celsus mockingly confirms the death of Jesus as well as the method. Celsus made fun of Christian references to the cross as a glorious thing. Celsus questioned the logic of the crucifixion, wondering why the so-called “Son of God” would let himself be killed that way. Celsus pointed out that Christians would not worship Zeus because his tomb was right there in plain sight in Crete, yet their “god” was supposedly resurrected from his tomb.

Celsus did not believe in the resurrection; in his mind, it was a decidedly disgusting and repugnant belief. Celsus wondered why Christians worshipped a dead man as immortal. Further, Celsus argues that Christian doctrine twisted the Greek concept of immortality of the soul into the resurrection. Celsus felt the doctrine of the resurrection was based on an incorrect interpretation of reincarnation. Celsus chided the Christians for rejecting the traditional gods on one hand and then worshipping a mere man on the other. Worse yet; the man had lived recently: “If these men worshipped no other God but one, perhaps they would have a valid argument against the others. But in fact they worship to an extravagant degree this man who appeared recently” (Contra Celsum 8.12).

Not surprisingly, Celsus honed in on the central feature of Christianity: the worship of Christ. He criticized Christians for being inconsistent: how can they claim to worship the one true God, reject polytheism, and yet then offer unto Jesus hyperthreskeuousi: “excessive worship”?[Against Celsus 8.12] Besides, there were other men more worthy of worship than Christ, such as figures from ancient Greece. If that is not bad enough, this man was a convicted criminal who had been disgraced and executed. It is not hard to see why Celsus thought these were better candidates when he viewed Jesus, the lowly carpenter who was, “a pestilent fellow”, a liar and a wicked sorcerer (remember, Celsus claimed Jesus learned magic while studying in Egypt).

Against Celsus 4.3: “What could be the purpose of such a visit to earth by God? To find out what is taking place among human? Does he not know everything?”

Celsus fundamentally rejected the incarnation. He accused Christians of exalting Jesus the man to godhood status in order to ignore any real god – a Christological cop out. For Celsus, it was ludicrous they thought this was consistent with monotheism!

CELSUS AND THE CHRIST-MYTH THEORY

Celsus was willing to use historical elements from the life of Jesus against Christianity; a clever tactic. The Christ-Mythicist should see that if Jesus never existed, Celsus would have been more than willing to say so. Why did he not just say, “Your Messiah never even existed”? Furthermore, Celsus mocked the Hebrew Scriptures for being chock full of stupid myths and silly fables. This is important because Celsus never made a similar charge about the existence of Jesus. Although he had great suspicions about the alleged supernatural aspects to his life, such as the virgin birth and the fulfilled prophecies attributed to him, Celsus never questioned the existence of Jesus.

NOTES

[1] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1967), 116.
[2] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1967), 69.
[3] Stephen Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986), 148]
[4] Tim Dowley, Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1977), 87.
[5] Ibid., 1.28 Alternate translation: ” “…having tried his hand at certain magical powers he returned from there, and on account of those magical powers gave himself the title of God”.
[6] Both of these thoughts can be found in the Babylonian Talmud(b. Sanhedrin 67a; 106a; cf. The Toledoth Jesu). See Peter Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007).

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 ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Vocab Malone is an urban apologist and slam poet. Vocab holds a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is  pursuing a D. Min at Talbot. Follow him on Twitter @VocabMalone
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