In this episode John and Gregg discuss an article from the Fall 2016 Biola University Magazine entitled, “Young People are Indeed leaving the Church.”
John summarizes the article as stating that the reason why young people are leaving the church is because they have “doubts,” and if these doubts can be sufficiently addressed then young people–essentially millenials–will have better relationships with God (and essentially will stay in church).
The article argues that Christian apologetics is the answer to the lack of church participation among millenials, yet John finds this line of reasoning questionable on several levels. First, the importance of Christian apologetics appears to be exaggerated by the way that the article presents it as a “command”:
These three findings highlight the wisdom of the Apostle Peter when he commanded followers of Christ to ‘be prepared always to give an answer’ (1 Pet. 3:15). The findings also make a strong case for the critical importance of apologetics for the church in the current generation. Doubts are everywhere. Almost all of us have them. And when not properly addressed, they can be spiritually disastrous. By contrast, faithfully answering questions and providing strong evidence for the truth of the Christian faith can have dramatic positive effects on the spiritual lives of others, especially our young people.
From this John wonders, “What does it mean for something to be ‘commanded’?” Does it mean that one must do this thing or be sinning (and so not “following God”)? He also wonders how this ‘command’ to “always be prepared to give an answer” stacks up against other “commands,” such as the command to love God, one’s neighbor, or the ten commandments in the Hebrew Bible?
Second, Gregg raises the point that John himself has also raised before: that John’s own issues with Christianity were not purely intellectual but are also—and maybe more so—experiential, in the sense that Christianity does not seem “to reconcile with” John’s lived experience. So while some people may only have intellectual needs, the experiential needs are also valid. Gregg thinks similarly: an intellectual, apologetic response seems misguided because ‘better’ information is not the sole, and likely not the the primary, determining factor in overcoming obstacles to Christian belief appear viable.
Returning to the question of whether 1 Peter 3:15 represents a “command” to Christians, Gregg notes the significance in terms of communication between the recipients of the New Testament and those of the Hebrew Bible. Specifically, Christians are exhorted to communicate “to the entire world” the good news relative to the kingship of Jesus (and thus the opening of God’s kingdom to all people), whereas the role of Israel as a nation was to be “God’s people.”
So Gregg notes that the unqualified nature of the “greatest” and the “next greatest” commandment—imperatives that remain the same regardless of context—is entirely different from the very specific context of 1 Peter 3. Gregg agrees that being “always prepared to give an answer” may indeed be a very important orientation for Christians in contexts other than that of suffering by experiencing persecution (which is the context of 1 Peter 3), but this does not represent a “command.”
Rather, commandments are unqualified and so they can legitimately be multi-contextual—they don’t sit within a specific context but have universal application.
In reading through 1 Peter 3, Gregg notes Peter’s orientation is towards how Christians are to speak and act in the context of being persecuted, and that in light of acting in ways that are contrary to cultural expectations (for those under persecution) they must always be ready to offer an explanation for their baffling behaviour! In other words, this passage has nothing to do with addressing doubts of non-Christians but with explaining loving, joyful behaviour of Christians in the face of events that would call for the very opposite behaviour!
So Gregg also sees this interpretation as related to point #2: Christians are to be “always prepared to offer a reason” for why they act differently—for the source of their hope, faith, and love—and especially when their current context would seem to preclude having hope, faith, or love. Thus these “reasons” themselves take the form of experientially informed and experientially targeted reasons–they both come from experience and address experience!
John raises a challenge to Gregg of working through a book of the Bible on the podcast. John also wonders how, if Gregg is graduate-trained in theology / Christianity, why he isn’t willing to commit to an interpretation of a biblical verse without first qualifying his credentials and consulting a commentary; where does this leave those people who have no real background in theology or exegesis? Do we all have to be as learned as biblical exegetes in order to feel confident in reading our Bibles?
Also, where the article raises the notion of “doubts” as purely negative, Gregg views them as essential to healthy faith. Further, a doubt about one thing actually represents confidence in something else. In other words, doubts are only one side of the coin: the notion that people are doubting Christianity has its corollary in the fact that these some people are finding more truth elsewhere!
Failing to understand this necessary dynamic (and so understand and engage with these other, seemingly more truthful claims) means that any proposed solution will necessarily miss the mark.
John returns to the notion of biblical truth claims and biblical truth values in terms of 1 Peter and wonders: how would he understand this book? Gregg suggests several steps. First, take a section 10 verses before and 10 verses after the verse under discussion and read this section 5 times, over several days. Let it sink in. Next, pretend this section of text is a painting and try to image what is being portrayed upon the canvas. Note what flows well and what seems disjointed or dissonant in the section. If you find dissonance, ask yourself: What would this section have to mean in order for passage to read or flow smoothly—in order for there to be no dissonance?
So Gregg notes that proof-texting has the effect of highlighting verses, rather than assuming that the biblical text is written competently and “flows.” Thus, hold the assumption that verse is clear and has good flow, and then ask: What would be needed for this to be the case?
Ultimately Gregg thinks that when Christians read the Bible in this way they are seeing entire section of the text as “carriers” for specific verses that these same Christian readers are quite likely simply to “commandify” the highlighted verse in order to validate their own views (or responses) about that verse. Thus Gregg sees the solutions proposed in the article as being an outworking of this method of Bible reading: it is essentially “leading the witness.” Stated otherwise, the article’s authors seem to have a preferred “solution” and then are forming or interpreting the data in order to support that solution.