A Philosophical Definition of Atheism

5 01 2011

The definition of atheism appears to be an issue for some atheists. This is because in reality they are agnostics who don’t know what they believe (pun intended). Atheists will often tell you that there are two varieties of atheism: strong or positive atheism and weak or negative atheism. But if we don’t first define atheism, this distinction is meaningless. Only then we can add attributes such as strong or weak.

So what is atheism? Atheism is the negative or denial of theism: the existence of God. Thus the atheist holds to a specific view, s/he takes a specific standpoint in a discussion, s/he makes a knowledge claim, namely that God does not exist. In a debate between a theist and an atheist about the existence of God, the atheist takes the side that contradicts the question.

Just as there are varieties of theism, such as Christian, Jewish or Muslim theism, there are varieties of atheism, such as Hegelian, humanistic or naturalistic atheism. So note that atheism doesn’t necessarily imply naturalism, the denial of the supernatural. Naturalism is necessarily atheism, but atheism is not necessarily naturalism. An Hegelian atheist, for example, believes in a world spirit, a supernatural reality that is manifested in the collective products of the human mind, such as art, culture and philosophy. Yet he denies the existence of a personal, all-powerful, all-loving and morally perfect Creator, which is theism.

Contrary to what some people will make you believe, atheism is not the lack of belief in God or something like the default position. That’s rather agnosticism. An agnostic simply doesn’t know whether God exists. Let’s define knowledge as justified true belief. If knowledge is justified belief in the truth, then a lack of knowledge is consequently a lack of belief. Knowledge is necessarily belief. Without belief you can’t have knowledge. Disbelief is a form of uncertainty or doubt with respect to the truth. Always take this distinction into account.

There are also varieties or degrees of agnosticism:

  • standard agnosticism: “I don’t know whether God exists. It could be true, it could be false.”
  • skepticism: “I don’t know whether God exists, but I very much doubt it / don’t believe it.”
  • fundamental agnosticism: “I can’t know whether God exists. God is unknowable.”

Note that, while a skeptic simply doesn’t believe in the proposition: God exists, an atheist has justified belief in the falsehood of this proposition, s/he knows that the proposition “God exists” is false and thus asserts that its negative “God does not exist” is true. Strong or weak atheism, then, does not depend on the degree of certainty, but on the justification. A strong atheist has strong, positive arguments for his belief, a weak or negative atheist has no or little justification, but only demolishes the arguments of the theist (which doesn’t make atheism stronger, but only makes theism weaker). At any rate, whether weak or strong, an atheist still makes a knowledge claim, an agnostic or skeptic doesn’t.

So, summing up, how would you answer the question: Does God exist? and check to what position you belong:

COPYRIGHT © 2011 Life put in perspective by Harry Buckley. All rights reserved.

The original video uploaded on the YouTube channel YouApologetics:

I just don’t understand you.

29 05 2010

“I just don’t understand you. How can anyone with your education, who reads as much as you, believe the things you believe? How can you possibly believe in God, a kindly grand-father-in-the-sky, when you see the suffering in the world caused by AIDS and tsunamis and famines and wars? You understand a lot about modern science—how can you deny evolution and believe there is anything more to the real you than your body and your brain? You must know that miracles—violations of the laws of nature—are impossible. How can you believe that spooky things like angels and demons are real? And your claims to know absolute truth—don’t let me get started! Given everything we know about all the different religions and cultures in the world, how can you be so arrogant to believe that any one religion or morality is true and not merely a useful, culturally constructed fiction?”
— J. P. Moreland (American Christian philosopher, theologian and apologist, 1948-)

Does the Bible really say Jesus is God? – A text-critical study of corrupt passages (2/2)

29 05 2010

In the first part, I’ve discussed some passages that affirm the deity of Christ in the most literal sense. In this sequel, I will continue my discussion with some passages in the writings traditionally attributed to the apostle John.

John’s writings are known for their emphasis on the divine credentials of the Christ as the Son of God. If there ever was an apostle that believed Jesus was God incarnate, without doubt it would be John. In no other gospel but the gospel of John, the deity of Christ is described so unequivocally that many skeptics doubt the authenticity of passages such as chapter 8, 10 and 17.

John 1:1
But I need not resort to such passages. Our first encounter of a possible theos reference to Christ is in the well-known verse: John 1:1, which reads in the first part:

  • “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God”

Which in Greek reads: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν.

John clearly has Genesis 1 in mind here. If you compare John 1 and Genesis 1, you will find many parallels, the same applies to the first chapter of John’s first epistle. Moreover, whatever logos may mean or allude to, it clearly stands for a person, whose identity is Jesus Christ. The preposition pros, for instance, implies an intimate relationship between the presence of one person and another. So Christ, the logos, is personally distinct from God. Then the verse continues with:

  • καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος “and the Word was God.”

Yes, the Greek article is missing in front of the second theos as you may know, and no, this verse is not as controversial as you might think. Grammatically, there three possible readings:

  1. indefinite: “and the Word was a god”
  2. definite: “and the Word was God”
  3. qualitative: “and the Word was God in essence”

Most scholars agree that this passage καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος does not mean ”and the Word was a god” and that theos should not be taken as indefinite, unless you want to argue that John was a polytheist. So this option clearly is out.

Now some argue that a definite reading would suggest that Jesus Christ be taken personally identical with the Father, i.e. “Jesus = the Father”. Yet, frankly, this implication is a trivial one, for we don’t find an article with reference to the Father either, for instance, in John 1:18, 3:2 and 8:54 etc. and, as you’ve seen in Part 1, we do find an article with reference to Jesus in other verses identifying Jesus as “God”. Moreover, considering the preceding clause “the Word was with God”, the personal distinction between the Father and the Word could still be preserved, even if one should read “and the Word was God”1.

But should the omission of the article incline us to read theos qualitatively, it would only serve to confirm again the idea that Jesus was fully God, one in divine essence with the Father (John 10:27). For the absence of the article as well as the fronting of the noun theos could indicate that a qualitative meaning or a more abstract nuance was intended, as most scholars assert. In that case theos would suggest that the Word was not just “divine”, but the same as God in nature, i.e. one in essence with the Father, but distinct in person (as is suggested by the preceding “the Word was with God,” i.e. the Father). So, in that case, a better translation would be “and the Logos was God in essence” or as the New English Bible (1961) puts it “And what God was, the Word was”.

So whether we read it as definite or qualitative, either reading would constitute John’s confession that Jesus was God, which in light of his gospel as well as his other writings seems to make perfectly sense.

There are some textual variants that show the article was added later, but this is far from evidence for the extrapolation that the text was corrupted by Trinitarians in defence against Arianism. For 1) Arius never contested that Jesus was God, but defended the idea that Jesus was a created being, which the presence of any article would not necessarily disprove, and 2) it could be misunderstood to make Jesus personally identical with the Father, which is not what Trinitarians believe.

John 1:18
Let’s move on to v. 18:

  • “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (NASB)”

This is a verse well-known for its textual problem, namely: the majority of manuscripts, esp. the younger ones, read ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός “the unique Son” instead of μονογενὴς θεός “unique God”. Note that μονογενής is traditionally rendered “only-begotten”, but it actually means “one of a kind”, i.e. unique or only (cp. English heterogeneous “of a different kind”), its use in the NT happens to be restricted to children. (The common thought that the Son is begotten and the Father unbegotten can’t be substantiated based upon this word.)

The external evidence is ambiguous here. Though we find “unique God” in the earliest manuscripts, they are of the same or closely related textual traditions and the patristic citations support both readings. Yet the reading “unique God” would be the shortest as well as the most difficult reading. It is far more likely that a scribe would emendate μονογενὴς θεός “unique God”, which even has no article, into ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός “the unique Son”. The latter occurs predominantly in the writings of John and could easily have been altered to assimilate this verse with, for example, John 3:16. Moreover, again we have no article with theos, which intentionally allows for a qualitative nuance, so that it is about the essence of God and not the identity of God, the Father, keeping the two personally distinct. After all, since the use of monogenés “unique” and kólpos “bosom” obviously imply the Son, one would be inclined to read μονογενής substantively as in John 1:14, meaning: “the unique [Son], essentially God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made [him] known.”

John 20:28
We’ll continue with Thomas’ proclamation in John 20:28,

  • “Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.””

(John 20:27-29)

This climactic confession of faith by doubting Thomas after touching the risen Lord is an unmistakable affirmation that Jesus revealed himself as both Lord and God. We find the same wording throughout the Bible in, for example, Deut 6:13 “It is the LORD your God (lit. YHWH, your God) you shall fear”, 2 Sam 7:22 “Therefore you are great, O Lord God (lit. O Lord, YHWH). For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you” Ps 35:23 “My Lord and my God”, Rev 4:11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God” etc. There are no textual problems here and this verse so explicitly proclaims Jesus as God that it requires no further discussion, but may it continue to amaze us.

1 John 5:20
Our last verse is 1 John 5:20, which reads:

  • “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.”

The question here is what person the pronoun houtos rendered “he” or “this” refers to. Grammatically, it is ambiguous: although Jesus Christ would be the closest preceding referent, it could still refer to the Father. Contextually, however, the predicate “eternal life” is never used with the Father and John applies it like logos as a personification of Jesus Christ. Yes, both the Father and the Son have life (John 5:26, 6:27), but only the Son is eternal life. For John begins his letter with a wording very similar to the first words of his gospel: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us (1 John 1:1-2).” And earlier in this chapter, John identifies the eternal life with the Son, distinct from the Father: “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” (1 John 5:11) Therefore, the final predicates of this verse “the true God and eternal life” constitute another strong and remarkable affirmation of the deity of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ.

1. “the Word was God” could also be understood in the sense of property (like the qualitative reading), not of identity, like “Charles is king”, i.e. Charles has the property of kingship, such that “the Word was God” could make perfectly sense as the Word has the property of divinity.

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COPYRIGHT © 2010 Life put in perspective by Harry Buckley. All rights reserved.

Does the Bible really say Jesus is God? – A text-critical study of corrupt passages (1/2)

29 05 2010
  • “You are my witnesses,” declares YHWH, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.”

(Isaiah 43:10)

Muslims, Jehovah’s witnesses and anyone else to whom the doctrine of Christ’s divinity is a stone of stumbling continually accuse Christians of the deification of a mere created person. They will try to show that the earliest New Testament manuscripts were corrupted to conform to the doctrine of the council of Nicaea (325 AD) that declared Jesus to be one in essence with God, the Father.

Does the Bible say that Jesus is God? Even though the answer is straightforward for most orthodox Christians, I think this is a legitimate question that needs to be addressed. Before we can assess this, we must critically examine what the Bible says. So the question is: Do the earliest manuscripts demonstrate that Jesus is God, i.e. theos, or was it added to the Bible later by Trinitarians?

One of the reasons why this is an important question is that Christianity is all about Christ: how Christ is presented in the Bible marks out our Christian faith. Yet even if I should fail to provide any overtly explicit statements that Jesus was theos meaning ‘God’, this still wouldn’t mean that the Trinity is an unbiblical doctrine and should be abandoned. It may well be that Jesus made undeniable implicit or oblique claims to divine status, which I believe is the case, but our quest will be rather for explicit claims. For it is these claims that most skeptics cast doubt upon.

First of all, we must acknowledge that Jesus never used theos meaning ‘God’ to refer to himself. For, although Jesus may have called himself the Son of God, whatever that may mean, He never used theos ‘God’ directly. He even distinguishes himself from God in several passages such as the well-known cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And even Paul, who believed Jesus was God, confirms this distinction in, for example, Eph 1:17, which reads “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory”. Moreover, we don’t find any theos claims either in the synoptic gospels or in the apostles’ preaching in the book of Acts. So we have to look in other sources.

The idea skeptics tend to defend is that the early church altered the Biblical manuscripts to make sure it agreed with their Trinitarian understanding of the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Father. Though we can’t deny that such practices may have occurred, it doesn’t follow that all direct theos claims we might find must be the result of corruption. After all, prior to the Arian controversy in the 4th century, early church fathers explicitly professed the deity of Christ. They must have concluded this from a certain authority other than the council of Nicaea.

Romans 9:5
One of the possible earliest confessions of Jesus’ being called theos is the passage of Romans 9:5.

  • “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (ESV)”

(which in Greek reads: ὧν οἱ πατέρες, καὶ ἐξ ὧν ὁ Χριστὸς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα: ὁ ὢν ἐπὶ πάντων θεὸς εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, ἀμήν)

Since this final doxology1 in the relative clause ὁ ὢν ἐπὶ πάντων θεὸς εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας meaning “the one being God over all worthy of praise unto the ages” doesn’t have punctuation in the earliest manuscripts, it can either be read as a syndetic doxology to ὁ Χριστoς meaning “Christ” preceding it or an inserted asyndetic2 doxology to the Father. But what is the most plausible reading? Bruce Metzger (1994: 460-461), a textual commentator, gives us five reasons why the doxology most likely refers to Christ. In brief, these are:

  1. it suits the natural structure of the sentence: we would not expect a change of subject;
  2. the participle ὁ ὢν meaning “the one being” or “he who is” would otherwise have been superfluous;
  3. the construction, if asyndetic, would be unique for Paul’s doxologies;
  4. the construction, if asyndetic, would be syntactically unique for the Bible;
  5. there is no contextual-psychological explanation for the insertion of a doxology to the Father.

Since it is a lament about Paul’s kinsmen rejecting the Messiah, a climactic doxology to Christ would be more likely. Objections to this syndetic reading could be that Paul never designates theos to Christ elsewhere and that in the light of what we know of Paul’s doxologies, an equation of Christ’s glory with that of the Father would be improbable. So, in short, taking the doxology together with Christ would be grammatically as well as contextually the most plausible reading, but theologically the most implausible. However, the alleged theological uniqueness of this theos designation to Christ is questionable.

Titus 2:13
For, not only do we find Paul equating Jesus with theos in Phil 2:6, which reads “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”, but also in Paul’s epistle to Titus we may be dealing with yet another reference of theos to Christ. In Titus 2:13, we read:

  • “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us …”

(Titus 2:11-14a ESV)

The final part in Greek: ἐπιφάνειαν τῆς δόξης τοῦ μεγάλου θεοῦ καὶ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.

There are no significant discrepancies between textual variants for this verse. Moreover, the essential unity of the titles God, Saviour and Jesus Christ in this passage is grammatically, textually and contextually unmistakable. First of all, in the Greek, both the initial article of tou and the final pronoun hemon in Greek enclose the unity of “great God and Savior”, which is again combined with the following apposition “Jesus Christ” through case agreement. (This copulative construction is found quite often, cf. Revevelations 1:6, but also 2 Corinthians 1:3, Luke 20:37). If it weren’t about one and the same person, we would definitely expect an article after the conjunction. Lastly, even though, throughout Paul’s epistle to Titus, the title soter meaning “Saviour” is taken together interchangeably with both God (1:3, 2:10, 3:4) and Jesus Christ (1:4, 3:6), the concurrence of epipháneia meaning “appearance” and “Jesus Christ” has many parallels in Paul’s letters, cf. esp. 2 Tim. 1:10 “the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus” and 1 Tim. 6:14 “the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

2 Peter 1:1
In 2 Peter 1:1 we find a similar case:

  • “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

A few manuscripts have “our Lord” instead of “our God”, but the reading we find here has the best external evidence and is according to the lectio difficilior potior principle3. It also likely to be intended by the author, for Peter begins to speak of “his divine power” and things pertaining to “godliness” in v. 3 and calls his addressees “partakers of the divine nature” in v. 4. Therefore, we are forced to conclude, together with Daniel B. Wallace (1995), that both in Tit 2:13 and 2 Pet 1:1, “on a grammatical level, a heavy burden of proof rests with the one who wishes to deny that “God and Savior” refers to one person, Jesus Christ.”

Hebrews 1:8
Let’s have a look at another passage, where theos may refer to Christ, namely Hebrews 1:8-9:

  • “But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

Here the writer of Hebrews quotes a royal Psalm, Psalm 45:6-7 from the LXX (44:7-8). There is an early textual variant that reads rhábdos tês basileías autoû meaning “the sceptre of his kingdom” instead of “your kingdom”, in which case other variants could have been corrected to correspond with the LXX and thus one should render the first part of the quotation with God as the subject something like “Your throne is God forever and ever, the sceptre of uprightness is the sceptre of his kingdom.” But grammatically this would imply a shift from the third to the second person in the next sentence, which would be odd. Contextually, God as the throne of the Son would either imply that God gives up his throne, which doesn’t make sense at all, for Yahweh was believed to be enthroned forever (Ps 102:12) and the Messiah sat down at the right hand of God’s throne (Hebrews 1:3, 12:2), or it would imply that God has final authority over the Son, which could also be said of any angel, whereas this passage is about the supremacy of the Son, being “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (1:3) and “much superior to the angels” (1:4). So, together with the external evidence, the standard reading with sou meaning “your” is to be preferred, making the unique Son of God coequal in sovereignty with God, the Father. It is not surprising that some take this very passage to be the source for the early veneration of the Messiah.

Furthermore, there is a clear parallel here to Yahweh’s Messiah or ‘anointed one’ in Isaiah 61:1, which Jesus read out loud in the synagogue on the Sabbath in Luke 4, thus essentially professing that He was God. Moreover, in Hebrews 1:10, the writer of Hebrews continues his quotation chain with Psalm 102 from the LXX (Ps 101) with reference to the Son: “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands” thus practically equating him with Yahweh, the Creator of heaven and earth.

1. A doxology is an expression of praise.
2. Asyndetic means without a connector.
3. The reading that is the most difficult is more likely to be the correct one.

B. M. Metzger, 1994. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament.
Wallace, D. B., 1995. The Article with Multiple Substantives Connected by Kaiv in the New Testament: Semantics and Significance. Ph.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary.

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