This morning, when I confessed that I was in process of reading John Loftus' new book, Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End, a friend expressed his condolences. I replied that actually I enjoy reading John's books: for one thing, he possesses an uncanny instinct for setting the volleyball up over the net, just where his own side is most vulnerable.
For example, John's claim that Christianity has imprisoned women in a dungeon, inspired my long series on this site (which Lord willing will grow into a book before long), showing that in fact, nothing has liberated women more than the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. And his Outsider Test for Faith did inspire me to write my own book, How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story. That is a book I had not planned to write, but now I think every missionary and every apologist should read. Reviewers whom I respect have called the book as a "must read," an "engrossing historical tapestry" even a "treasure chest." So thanks, John, for encouraging Christians to explore the Gospel in light of world cultures, and discover more fully the amazing biblical truths that such a probe (when actually conducted, instead of just recommended) reveals.
And already in the second chapter of Unapologetic, I believe I have struck more gold.
John's target in Chapter Two, "Anselm and the Philosophy of Religion," is St. Anselm, the 11th Century archbishop and philosopher who was born in Italy, then migrated to England. John's point is that Philosophy of Religion is a crock. Since Anselm was a famous and influential philosopher of religion, and undoubtedly very smart, the fact that his "insights" prove so worthless, helps show how unnecessary the whole field is. Anselm can't even explain why Jesus died on the cross, the very heart of Christian theology! At least, Anselm's explanation no longer seems credible, though it was innovative in its day. It seems that Christian theories of Jesus' redemptive act are the products of a given social consciousness, and succeed one another as conditions change. "Theology evolves to keep up with the times," as those spin-doctors we call theologians pick new verses out of the Bible to justify whatever clever new explanation we dream up.
I am not going to defend St. Anselm's argument in this post. I like Anselm a lot, mind you: I tell the story of how he found God in the introduction to my Faith Seeking Understanding. (An anthology which includes contributions from eminent modern Christian thinkers who, like Anselm, also seek understanding through reasonable faith, like Don Page, Alvin Plantinga, Rodney Stark, Philip Yancey and Yuan Zhiming.) Anselm's disciple Eadmer paints a picture of a kind and thoughtful Christian leader, who was also a mountaineer and a seeker after God! But I have not read Anselm's philosophical work deeply enough to defend it, nor, as a modern Christian, do I feel a great need to do so. One of my teachers (Dr. Bernard Farr) once said that Anselm's Ontological Argument was actually more of a prayer than an argument: whatever their merits, his theories are no necessary part of the Christian faith. I recognize Anselm as a respected elder brother in Christ, but not a father to my faith.
C. S. Lewis is another matter.
Lewis was to me, and to millions of modern Christians, something like what Anselm was to Eadmer. As one who tries to interpret Christianity for theologically less-informed secular comrades, Loftus ought to know what Lewis says about various theories of atonement in his most famous theological book, Mere Christianity. Even if he doesn't rebut Lewis, Loftus ought not to set the ball up over the net for Lewis to slam it back in his face, not just in Mere Christianity but in one of Lewis first letters as a new Christian, 85 years before Loftus took up his pen to write this book!
But that, we shall see, is exactly what happened. And in the process, Lewis not only made the atonement more understandable, but gave us deeper reasons to believe it is true.
"Prior to Anselm the earliest attempt to conceptualize what Jesus did for the world on the cross was the ransom theory. Such a version of the atonement stood for roughly a thousand years as the generally accepted one. According to Origen, the fall of Adam and Eve in a paradisiacal garden placed human beings under the jurisdiction of Satan, or the Devil. Humans became his possessions. God's son Jesus came to die on the cross to pay Satan's ransom price so we could be released from his slavery and rule . . .
"But times had changed for Anselm in the 11th Century. No longer were large numbers of people in slavery. So what to do? Anselm set forth his satisfaction theory of the atonement . . . Anselm argued instead that our sins are an insult to God and detract from his honor. Therefore God's honor must be restored and the insult must be undone, but only through the death of the innocent God-man can God's honor be restored . . . "
"John Hick informs us that Anselm's theory 'made sense within the culture of medieval Europe' in that it reflected 'a strongly hierarchical and tightly knit society . . . When one did something to undermine the dignity and authority of one's earthly overlord, one had either to be punished or to give sufficient satisfaction to appease the lord's injured dignity."
Loftus notes that this shows how "theology evolves to keep up with the times:"
"Reinterpret the Bible if you have to. Deny the major voices in the Bible. Find the minority voices. Find the canon within the canon of 'scriptures' that support the new doctrinal views alien to the overall thrust of these 'sacred' texts.' . . . Move the goal posts so that critics of Christianity always seem to miss kicking the field goal. Then, after moving the goal posts so many times that the resultant Christianity is alien to the earliest forms of it that fought for dominance, boldly claim Christianity has survived the attacks of all its critics."
But unfortunately, Anselm's model is passe now, too. We're not feudal vassals, anymore. And so the Reformers invented the penal substitution theory, which some Christians still hold to. And they, too, found scriptural support for their model!
But we don't punish innocent people! And so modern Christians have come up with a whole spate of new theories explaining this core Christian doctrine.
This frenzy of publication and conferencing reveals the doctrine of atonement to be a "crisis in theology," Loftus argues. Since Christianity doesn't have much evidence in its favor, all it can claim is consistency. But when doctrines seem to conflict -- perhaps as substituting an innocent man for a guilty one would seem to conflict with Christian ideas of justice, though Loftus doesn't spell this out -- then "sophisticated obfuscationist theologians" troop into the Spin Room, and start spinning.
On the face of it, Loftus' argument, while interesting, seems incomplete. For one thing, Loftus doesn't mention, still less try to find out, what theory of Atonement actually is most defensible from a biblical perspective. Does the Bible offer a clear theory at all? If so, which theologians, in John's lofty Loftusness, are spinning the worst? And which ones actually may be a bit closer to the true spirit of the New Testament?
We do, after all, have core data to work from. We have the New Testament, to begin with. If theologians are all equally slippery, and all their models are equally wretched, then it really wouldn't matter which theory they proposed. But if the Bible actually supports one of these models more than others, then why shouldn't theologians be able to argue for that model? And one of these theologians might have better warrant for his model than the others.
Why does John ignore that issue? Is it because his own argument depends on pure relativism to work -- to pretend that theologians are all equally disingenuous, equally slimy, and the whole discipline lacks discipline at all?
But what if, in fact, the New Testament does NOT favor one model clearly? As it happens, that's even worse for John's argument, for reasons C. S. Lewis explained in Mere Christianity, but came to realize at the very beginning of his faith.
Lewis Rebuts Loftus' Relativism
In a chapter of Mere Christianity called "The Perfect Penitent," Lewis wrote:
"Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem to me quite so immoral and so silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any other is Christianity. The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work . . .
"But then they warn you that this picture is not what the scientists actually believe. What the scientists believe is a mathematical formula. The pictures are there only to help you to understand the formula. They are not really true in the way the formula is; they do not give you the real thing but only something more or less like it. They are only meant to help, and if they do not help you can drop them. The thing itself cannot be pictured, it can only be expressed mathematically."
To give an analogy (the one Lewis uses in that passage, as I recall), human beings have not always understood exactly how food nourishes our bodies. Yet even without such a theory, people have gone on eating, and gaining nourishment. And if our present theories of nutrition some day fall into disfavor, we shall go on eating and gaining nourishment. (One might add that "primitive" diets, such as those of the Italians and Japanese, were often much healthier than modern diets, despite our added understanding!)
On this analogy, that models change, in no way undermines the facts they describe. Nor does it mean that the science which seeks to describe the benefits we gain -- "faith seeking understanding," as Anselm rightly put it, though Loftus also derides this motto -- is in any way illegitimate or (to indulge myself with a piquant pun) founded itself "at a cross-roads."
My point isn't that Lewis is right. It is that 70 years before John Loftus took it upon his shoulders to explain to fellow skeptics why Christian thinking about the atonement is a mess, probably the most famous Christian apologetic book of our time offered a simple distinction which, if valid, complete destroys Loftus' argument. Yet Loftus paid it no attention at all. None. Zero. Zilch. (To borrow John's own method of emphasis.)
Consider the Christian formula, "Jesus died for our sins," or "Through Jesus' death, we can find redemption." As a literary historian, Lewis had come to recognize that the raw data of the gospels was highly credible. What it meant, how Jesus' death worked on those who trust him, was another matter, a matter for theologians to grapple with and try to explain. Lewis also came to recognize that their theories need not be a "Zero Sum Game," as Loftus assumes. (He loves playing "believers" off against one another, that is the whole, mistaken point of his Outsider Test for Faith, which I rebut.) Maybe there is still SOME truth to the "substitution theory" of atonement. Maybe other "pictures" help you to understand the "formula" better. But they need not be at war with one another, nor does the value of one, prove the worthlessness of others. (I especially appreciate what French literary anthropologist Rene Girard has contributed with his theory of the Scapegoat, but I don't think that's the whole story, either. After all, if a fact can be explained in several ways, does that mean it is false? If the cornerstone holds the entire building in place, does that mean it is weak?)
But C. S. Lewis was not merely arguing, he was explaining how he himself had come to faith.
Fourteen years before he wrote Mere Christianity, the atonement was one of the "crucial" issues Lewis faced, in his famous late-night talk with Hugh Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien along Addison's Walk in Magdalene, Oxford. A few weeks later, he wrote to his life-long friend, Arthur Greeves, to explain why he was finding himself more and more in the Christian camp:
"What has been holding me back (at any rate for the last year or so) has not been so much a difficulty in believing as a difficulty in knowing what the doctrine meant: you can't believe a thing while you are ignorant of what the thing is. My puzzle was over the whole doctrine of Redemption: in what sense the life and death of Christ 'saved' or 'opened salvation to' the world. I could see how miraculous salvation might be necessary: one could see from ordinary experience how sin (e.g., the case of a drunkard) could get a man to such a point that he was bound to reach Hell (i.e., complete degradation and misery) in this life unless something quite beyond mere natural help or effort stepped in. And I could well imagine a whole world being in the same state and similarly in need of miracle. What I couldn't see was how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) 2000 years ago could help us here and now -- except in so far as his example helped us. And the example business, though true and important, is not Christianity: right in the centre of Christianity, in Gospels and St. Paul, you keep on getting something quite different and very mysterious expressed in those phrases I have so often ridiculed ('propitiation'- 'sacrifice' -- 'the blood of the Lamb') -- expressions which I could only interpret in senses that seemed to me either silly or shocking.
"Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn't mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself (cc. the quotation opposite the title page of Dymer*) I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Baldur, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even though I could not say in cold prose 'what it meant.'
"Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on use in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God's myth where the others are men's myths: ie, the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, usig such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call 'real things.' Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a 'description' of God (that no finite mind could take in), but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The 'doctrines' we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.
"No time for more now. I hope to have some literary chat in my next letter."
"Jack." (October 18, 1931, From The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Family Letters 1905-1931, p. 976-977)
*Walter Hooper, Lewis' energetic editor, looked up the quote Lewis referred to, which Lewis had placed in his pre-Christian poem Dymer. The quote was originally from the Elder Edda. (Indeed I quoted it, and much more of that text, in How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story.) Hooper then copied Odin's remarkable words (which I show are paralleled in other traditions as well), in a footnote at the bottom of page 977:
"Nine nights I hung upon the Tree, wounded with the spear as an offered to Odin, myself sacrificed to myself."
This sends shivers down one's spine, and back up again. Here we find, not only a beautiful portrait of redemption in pre-Christian European mythology, which as I show aided the conversion of our ancestors. (Along with Baldur the Beautiful, with whom readers of Lewis' Surprised By Joy will recognize, and then Dream of the Rood.) Here we see that same myth helping a man who would become the modern world's greatest apologist, understand an intellectual difficulty in the Christian faith, opening a door through which thousands would enter. (And even convert nations away from dogmatic atheism, I argued eleven years ago somewhat tongue-in-cheek.)
So thank you, John Loftus! You continue to raise, as Chesterton said of skeptics in his day, questions far deeper than you yourself recognize -- questions answered with quintessential power and even majesty in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.