Last time around, I wrote about some conditions which I would consider necessary to a Christian faith, but that are not sufficient for me to be satisfied with one. If you’re not familiar with the notion of necessary and sufficient conditions, let’s think about what you need to start a campfire. Generally speaking, kindling and firewood are both necessary elements; it’s very hard to start a fire by lighting firewood directly, and kindling alone won’t burn long enough. However, those two things alone are not sufficient for a campfire. You also need a spark as from a flint, or something to heat the kindling, or something that spontaneously combusts like a match. Any one of those is sufficient to start the fire, but none are strictly necessary because one of the others can substitute.
With that distinction hopefully clearer, I’ll return to the topic of faith. It’s rare that anyone becomes a Christian without some exposure to other Christians and without a mind that is receptive to belief, so I consider those factors to be necessary. However, the additional factors that are sufficient to lead someone to accept a Biblical faith are likely to be more specific to each individual. I am not arguing that the following are the only right reasons to be a Christian, merely that they work for me. Nevertheless, I suspect there may be some value in discussing them because others may have similar kinds of questions or a similar mindset to mine.
Also, I should be clear that I am not saying anything about what is necessary or sufficient for salvation or being considered a Christian. This is not an attempt at a comprehensive systematic theology, nor even a full catalog of what I believe. No, it is simply a discussion of which aspects of the Bible and the Christian understanding of it resonate most strongly with me. When I am reading the latest atheist deconstruction of Christianity, or having a conversation with someone is wondering how any right-minded person can believe what I believe, these are the touchstones I come back to.
For me, my faith starts with the Gospels. I believe that we have sufficient evidence from ancient documents that the Gospels represent accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, by individuals with firsthand experience or extensive access to those with firsthand experience. While the notion that a man rose from the dead is an extraordinary one, if I allow for the possibility that such a thing could happen, then I would expect the sorts of behavior and written records that we have actually observed.
Having accepted Jesus’ resurrection, it then makes sense to me to accept his statements about himself, his purpose, and his relationship with His father. His teachings lend authenticity to the theological validity of the Old Testament, and provide a foundation for the later New Testament writings. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the entire Old Testament can be treated monolithically, nor that all subsequent writings about him should be accepted unquestioningly. But starting from the Gospels and working outwards provides a framework by which to critically evaluate those other writings.
Interestingly, this ability to bootstrap an understanding of the Bible is another element that I find compelling about Christianity. If the Bible were a single document that used itself as the primary evidence of its authority, I would find it harder to accept. But because it represents a variety of documents from a range of sources, which can be examined individually and which build on each other to create a rich and interdependent narrative, it feels more satisfying and robust.
Perhaps that comes from my experience with writing software. It’s possible for a single person to write large programs that do complicated things, but more often than not they only work for that person. Those programs tend to be fragile both to use and to modify. A more reliable approach is to build up a large program from smaller programs or modules, each of which has a narrow, well-defined focus. These individual components are easy to understand because of their simplicity, and if they are put together in an orderly way, the overall program is easier to understand as well.
The remaining aspect of the Bible that I find myself returning to in times of doubt is its predictive value. Here I refer not to prophesies of specific events, although I do believe it contains those both for events that have happened and events to come. Rather, I mean that the Bible has a lot to say about how the world works and in particular about how people as a whole will tend to behave. And in my experience, what it has to say turns out to be pretty accurate. Granted, that’s more of a qualitative assessment than a rigorously quantitative one. And by itself, it wouldn’t be sufficient. But the sum total of what I have outlined here is enough for me.
Now, I’m sure some of you feel I’ve left out some important bits of good apologetics. For example, I’ve said nothing about natural theology, about how the universe itself bears witness to God. Or perhaps you think I should have said more about my personal testimony, how I’ve experienced God in my own life. Just because I haven’t discussed them here doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that creation bears the marks of its Creator or that God’s grace and providence are present in my life. But when the night is darkest and the voice of doubt creeps in, the truths that I have discussed are the ones that speak the loudest to my soul. I offer them here as encouragement for anyone who responds to the kinds of things that I do. If you find the greatest comfort in some other facet of Christianity, then let us praise God together that His truth is so wide-reaching and all-encompassing as to speak to us both.
About the author:
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.
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