Jesus and Theism

One might jump from atheism to a simultaneous acceptance of both Jesus and God, but belief in Jesus makes no sense without belief in God. Jesus’s life and teaching were addressed to Jews who accepted the existence of God. And the opening of John’s Gospel makes no sense without the assumption of the existence of God. So even someone with no prior belief in God could not adopt belief in Jesus without also adopting belief in God.

If I read Greg’s comment correctly – and I may misunderstand it – he is not saying that the only way to become a Christian is first to become a deist or theist (due to rational arguments) and then later become a Christian. I think he is saying that if you don’t think there is any God, the whole world of discourse in which “Jesus talk” operates won’t exist for you. So belief in God must come at the latest simultaneously with belief in Jesus; it can’t come later than belief in Jesus.

Also Greg spoke of “understanding the gospel”, which is more than simply “believing in Jesus”; it means understanding what the Gospel is saying about Jesus. And surely part of what the prologue to the Gospel of John is saying is that Jesus is God – which again makes “understanding the gospel” contingent upon accepting the existence of God. The claim “X was God” is absurd unless the reality of God is granted. Anyone who was uncertain whether or not God exists would not, while still in that state of uncertainty, be able to accept Jesus – not with full understanding of Jesus. One might be able to trust Jesus as a wise man, a compassionate healer, etc., but if one really wasn’t certain whether or not God existed, he could not have a correct understanding of Jesus.

In the language of philosophy, belief in God is logically prior to belief in Jesus, even if it isn’t always temporally prior. I took Greg to be saying something to that effect.

Yet there is scriptural warrant for this view:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Heb 11:6).

Human experience is always messy, but since Jesus came as God to reconcile us to God, it’s hard to see that a living faith in him could exist without belief in God. There are many who are attracted to Jesus for some moral or other reasons - but that is not salvation. As Paul says:

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead , you will be saved.

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I think you are missing the point. The model often put forward is that we first move to belief in God, and then move to trust in Jesus, because Jesus is logically dependent on belief in God. Among many other reasons this seems to be a false formulation, empirically speaking I’ve often seen people come to trust in Jesus and belief in God at the same time. Especially after we recognize that our concepts of God are so manmade, as most atheists do (and most Christians should but don’t), Jesus can give us grounding for belief in God, and therefore be necessary for some to encounter first, before belief in God can come.

Which is to say, again…

Eddie says the same…

Yes, we can come to belief in both at the same time. So that is my main point.

I’m not yet sure that its true that belief in Jesus makes no sense without belief in God. If we remember following Jesus is a process, it might begin with trusting Him. Then, in time move to belief in God. In fact, I know this to be the path of some in my world. Jesus is really compelling. He is reason enough to believe in God. Sometime there is a journey, and the way things arise works different than we expect.

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Hence my note about the messiness of experience. Another example - we are supposed to repent and turn to Christ, but for whatever reason it’s not unknown for people to commit allegiance to Christ and only later realise that sin separates us from God.

There was a stage in my own childish life before Christ when I became interested in him because the UFO books I was reading suggested he was a wise extraterrestrial bringing a message of pacifism. George Adamski and Desmond Leslie the Moody and Sankey of my twelve-year old experience! However, a proper preacher subsequently managed to undo that work, or turn it to better account.

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Yes, Joshua, I agree that this could happen, but the statement “I believe in Jesus” in such a case becomes equivocal. If “I believe in Jesus” means “There is something about this man and his teaching that I find compelling, so I am going to listen to him, follow him around, sit at his feet as he speaks” then one might be a follower of Jesus without yet believing in God. But if “I believe in Jesus” means what it has usually meant in the history of Christianity, then it means “I hold this man to be the Son of God” or “I hold this man to be God Incarnate” or “I hold this man to be the Messiah promised by God” – none of which make sense without a simultaneous belief in God.

I don’t think we are disagreeing here. I grant the existence of the personal pathway you are talking about. I’m merely pointing out that “belief in Jesus” in the most common sense of that phrase always goes hand-in-hand with belief in God. In that sense, Greg’s statement was accurate. But your reply – that we mustn’t infer, from Greg’s statement, that there is a always a move to deism or theism first, followed by a conversion to Jesus – is also appropriate. So we all agree, and everyone’s happy. :slight_smile:

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A post was split to a new topic: Welcome Greg to the Forum

You are right. We do seem to be on the same page.

I’m just pushing back on the notion (and we seem to agree on this) that somehow belief in God is a necessary precondition for approaching Jesus. To the contrary, I find Jesus to be the best grounding for belief in God, and therefore logically prior to theism, even if belief in Jesus and God might temporarily arise together or in another order.

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I agree, not necessary for approaching Jesus. But once a full understanding of the meaning of Jesus’s life and teaching is arrived at, accepting that full understanding requires accepting the existence of God also (as of course Jesus himself did).

The only disagreement I have is over your expression “logically prior to theism” – I don’t see how it can be logically prior, given that theism has been conceptualized, and accepted, by Jews, Muslims and others, including Melchizedek who, I presume, never heard of Jesus and did not base his belief on God on Jesus. But that objection doesn’t rule out the possible truth of your statement that Jesus is “the best grounding for belief in God”; it might be possible to arrive at theism in several ways, some better than others. So again we have no final disagreement.

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So this is turning into an elucidating conversation. I suppose this is also where my “Lutheran” tendencies are coming to the surface.

Totally agree.

I suppose though that I want to make a distinction between man-made gods, made in our image, and the God we find by way of Jesus, however, who is deeply non-intuitive, not of us, and unsettling to reason.

Now, I agree that we can come to belief in God before Jesus, but the flip that happens in the Resurrection is that Jesus becomes better grounding for belief in God than anything that could have come before. While many things can lead us to Jesus, the Gospel reorders our entire world around Him, and He ends up overshadowing them all. He is greater.

This is why I really do not like the label “theist”. It also seems the standard formulation (atheist -> theism -> Jesus) all to often becomes an a rationale to avoid discussing Jesus in our secular society. Ironically, this formulation is used both to argue against confessing Jesus with both atheists and other theists.

Yes, Joshua, your reticence is understandable, because the term “theist” is really a philosophical term more than a religious one. It’s used for broad intellectual purposes, to distinguish between various conceptions of God, e.g., theism is distinguished from deism, from polytheism, from atheism, and (pax to G. Brooks) from pantheism. But the religious believer doesn’t usually go around saying, “I am a theist”; he says, “I am a Christian” or “I am a Muslim” or the like. “Theism” is too colorless a term to capture the concrete feel of religious life. People aren’t “theists in general” but particular kinds of theists, and the particular kind of theist one is makes a huge difference, religiously speaking.

As you point out, for Christians, the understanding of Jesus makes a difference in how God is understood; Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all (from a philosophical point of view) correctly called “theists”, but they are (from a religious point of view) different in crucial respects.

It’s of course possible for a person (as in the case of C. S. Lewis) to arrive at theism by philosophical reasoning, and then become a particular kind of theist, such as a Christian, later on. This sometimes happens, with people whose mind is of an intellectual or academic cast. But I think that most people who become theists become at the same time Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. For most people, the religious quest isn’t primarily an exercise in philosophical reasoning, but has a strong personal aspect, and the various religious traditions help the new believer to put a personal face on God.

Generally speaking, I wouldn’t try to convert a person to “theism” in the abstract. But if I felt a very strong resistance to Jesus-language (maybe the person had been brought up in narrow fundamentalism and had come to hate the name of Jesus, merely due to association), and if I sensed that the person thought that “science has proved there is no God”, I might well employ arguments from nature (which wouldn’t bring up odious images of Bible-thumping, harsh sermons, and tyrannical, puritanical elders) to show that nature, far from indicating the non-existence of God, points in the direction of some intelligent mind. There might well be an openness there, whereas jumping to Jesus-talk right away might call up all the defenses and close the door.

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It makes such a large difference I wonder why we categorize things this way. It seems like the taxonomy is off.

The taxonomy was developed by scholars of religion, who had academic ends rather than the concerns of religious practice in mind. One of the goals of the taxonomy was to indicate how many gods one believed in; hence monotheism, polytheism, dualism (e.g., Zoroastrianism); another was to indicate differing relationships of the divine to the world; hence theism, pantheism, panentheism. The taxonomy is useful for the ends it was meant to serve. But it springs mostly from the needs of philosophy of religion, not of religious life itself – though of course what we call theism or monotheism, the exclusive worship of one God, can also be seen as a genuine religious principle in Judaism and religions built on it or shaped by it.

I should add, however, that even on the level of religious practice, the generic theism or monotheism of Christian belief is visible at many points. It is not hard to find Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers, psalms, hymns, etc. which describe God’s uniqueness, greatness, power, wisdom, wrath, mercy, justice, control over nature and the lives of men, in very similar terms. The Psalms Jesus would have recited in the synagogue were not specifically Christian in character, but reflected Jewish monotheism. So while there are unique elements in Christianity, there is also significant overlap of Christian religious life with that of other theistic religious traditions. I have no problem describing Christians as theists, because of such overlaps.

Of course, theism is not a very precise description. If I point to a howler monkey, and ask you what kind of animal it is, and you tell me it is a “mammal”, you aren’t giving a very useful identification. Still less is your answer helpful if you tell me it is a “vertebrate”. What I really want is an answer on the level of dog, cat, elephant, etc. Similarly, if I walk up to a group of Baptists after their Sunday service, and ask them what their religion is, and they answer that they are “theists”, they are giving me very little useful information about their religious ideas and practices. Their answer is correct, yet doesn’t get to the heart of what they are about. A group of Catholics could give the same answer, and I wouldn’t learn a thing about the difference between Catholics and Baptists from such a generic reply. The analytical terms of philosophy of religion are too clumsy a tool for capturing the historically-shaped realities of religious life.

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In the past I would agree with you, but thinking about it more carefully, I’m not sure this has to be the case. Reasoning doesn’t have to proceed “from the larger to the smaller” (i.e. from God to the Christian God), even if a philosophical system is more elegant if phrased in that way. Someone who believes in Jesus first (for example by looking at the evidence of the Resurrection) could have the following two prior beliefs before they seriously considered Christianity or theism, just from common sense:

  1. If someone does X, God exists. (i.e. it is impossible for someone to do X without God being behind it)
  2. If God exists and Jesus did X, then the Christian account of God is true.

Then after they started seriously reading the Bible, they could start to be convinced of the following:
3. Jesus did X. (where X could be the Resurrection, or preach a certain unique, compelling message)
4. From 1, 3: God exists
5. From 2, 4: Christianity is true.

The difference between such a converted person and a Jew or Muslim would be that the latter rejects proposition 3).

In science, we do this all the time, in that often the truth or falsity of an entire theoretical system depends on a few landmark experiments. Later, in textbooks the material could be represented in a way such that it is derived from “first principles” (e.g. Einstein’s Special Relativity), but neither in practice nor in history does everyone actually think in that way.

Now it seems that there is something to the fact that they are called “first principles” - which is why you could call them “logically prior”. But it seems to me there is nothing that necessitates them being logically prior. The reasoning process I described above follows logical rules and doesn’t seem fundamentally inferior (except for reasons of logical “elegance”) to the one where one is first convinced on independent grounds that “God exists”, before moving on to Jesus.

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Your explanation describes very closely my personal experience, what I observe in others, and that seems to be the teaching of Scripture here.

Great analogy @dga471.

It was shift for me too.

I agree, and have already conceded this in previous posts to Joshua. One might, for example, decide both that God exists, and that he is the Christian God, simultaneously.

I agree that someone might reason in this way, and probably some people have in fact reasoned in this way. But let’s do a critical analysis of such reasoning:

A. Note, as an aside, that if you employ this line of reasoning, you can’t also criticize ID folks for “God of the gaps” arguments – since your argument here is based on attributing to God something (a resurrection) you believe could never happen due to natural causes. How can you be sure that, around the corner, science won’t discover some natural way a man can come back from the dead? (Which is the argument used against ID people regarding the origin of life: “Sure, all naturalistic accounts at the moment are extremely weak and implausible, but how do you ID folks know what science will discover in the future? Maybe an account of the chemical origin of life by the sloshing around of aimless molecules will be found in 20 or 50 or 100 years. Science must not allow God of the gaps arguments, and Christian faith shouldn’t depend on them, either.”)

B. More centrally, I don’t see why “God” is put into your premise, rather than “gods” or “spirits” or “sorcerers” or “aliens with an advanced technology”. There might be more than one agent, hypothetically, capable of restoring the dead to life. Why is the jump to “God” (capital G, implying monotheism) automatic?

C. Note that in your person’s line of reason, the concept “God” is already in place. The person may not have decided whether or not God exists, and the Resurrection may be the evidence that brings about the belief, but the person already has the notion of “God” ready to apply. He intends to use that notion to make sense of the Resurrection (if there is empirical evidence for the Resurrection). So the Christian understanding of the Resurrection which the person ends up arriving at depends on the availability of the monotheistic conception of God. It remains true, then, even in the argument of such a person, that the larger concept “God” lies behind the acceptance of propositions about the divine status of Jesus. The God-concept and the Jesus-is-the-Son-of-God concept remain inseparable.

D. Wittgenstein showed long ago why this must be the case. If someone you knew had died, and a few days later showed up alive, the first thing you would do, if you were relying on your scientific instincts, would be to get a coroner’s report, find out if the person was really dead (as opposed to, say, in a rare type of coma symptomatically indistinguishable from death, etc.); you would then take notes from the person on everything he claimed had happened to him since his purported death, interview eyewitnesses who claimed to have observed him between his “death” and now, etc. You might take DNA tests or other tests to rule out the possibility that this was an impostor or a long-lost twin brother you never knew about, etc. In short, you would bend over backwards to try to find a non-supernatural explanation for the event; you would regard it your duty as a scientist to do so, before accepting that this person had been resurrected. And even if you determined the fact of resurrection, as a scientist you would be expected to treat the resurrection like any other visible phenomenon, and try to find “natural-cause only” explanations for it. So what would justify the leap to “God must have done this?” The answer, for Wittgenstein, is that people don’t derive their religion by some mechanical deduction from facts, but in fact bring their religious understanding to the facts, and use it to filter and make sense of them.

More generally, I think we are using “logically prior” in different senses. What I mean is that the claim “Jesus was God” or “Jesus was the Son of God” or “Jesus was sent by God to redeem us from our sins” or any kindred claim makes no sense except against the backdrop concept of God. That is why the concept of God is “logically prior”. I think you mean that in the order of argument one might decide first that Jesus was someone very special, and only afterward come to the firm conclusion that a God exists. I agree that this could be the order of argument. But that is not what I meant by “logically prior”. I mean that, for Jesus to be what full-blooded, orthodox Christian doctrine has always said that he is, the concept of God is logically required. No God, no Christianity. But the reverse is not true: if Christianity were proved false tomorrow (if, say, we dug up Jesus’s body), that would not prove that God does not exist. Judaism or Islam could still be true. “No God, no Christianity” is valid, but “No Christianity, no God” is not. For that reason, it is correct to say that belief in God is logically prior to beliefs connecting Jesus with God. What order of argument an individual uses to get to belief in Jesus and God is a separate matter.

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Maybe we need a different category: belief vs. confident belief.

I’m not sure grounded and confident belief in God is possible without the Resurrection of this man Jesus. Belief in God obviously exists independent of Jesus, but I am not sure confident belief is grounded without Him.

I’m not sure I understand you here, Joshua. The teaching of Scripture makes clear that Jesus of Nazareth already had a prior belief in God, and that all the Jews he preached to had the same prior belief. His claims of Messiah-hood, his statements about dietary laws and the Sabbath, etc., all were assessed in the light of what they believed they knew about God from the Scriptures. This was true of those who followed him as well as of those who opposed him. I see no Biblical example of any agnostic who saw Jesus, heard Jesus, and then decided, “God must exist”. But I don’t claim to have memorized every single word of Scripture, so if I missed a passage or two, I’m willing to be informed.

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Are you arguing that Jews, Muslims, and others do not have confident belief in God? Or that they have no good grounds for believing in God?

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@eddie this has been among my most productive exchanges with you. Thank you. Let me think about the best way to explain my point. If we can find some common language here, it might really help me. Thank you for taking the time to engage this one.

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I’m glad to contribute any points that are useful to you or others here, Joshua. And let me say that the atmosphere here is very good for such exchanges. On BioLogos, it always seemed that no matter what I said, I was descended upon by a pack of wolves howling for my blood. Here, people raise objections and questions politely, without sarcasm or invective or disdain. I find the discussion partners here gracious and constructive. This enables me to put my best foot forward. I don’t feel the need to respond to aggression with counter-aggression. If you can maintain this atmosphere, you will have a good forum for discussing these issues.

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