The Christian, the Witness, the Presbyter and the Pope

The facts won’t set you free but getting them wrong doesn’t help.

A Christian rang me about Jehovah’s Witnesses at her door. She had answered their challenge of the Trinity using the popular ‘trinity text’ from 1 John:

There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one (1 John 5:7, KJV)

They told her that this verse was a later addition to the Bible and she wanted to know what to do. I confirmed their report, explaining that these words were not found in any Greek text before the sixteenth century. “But I have used this verse in witnessing for over twenty years”, she said, “what should I do?”

The simple answer, of course, is stop using it. Of course, some Christians insist this verse does belong there but, since you won’t convince a Jehovah’s Witness, why fight over it? It’s not as if the Bible is short of sound arguments for the Trinity and the deity of Christ; try this book.

I have reflected since on how the JWs were right but unsaved, while she was wrong and saved. The Witnesses had the facts, but the Christian had the truth. What lesson are we to draw from this?

We are all familiar with the wonderful promise of Scripture:

If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” John 8:13)

But if you don’t have your facts right how can you be said to have the truth?

The Presbyter

In a letter to Corinth dating to the end of the first century Clement of Rome wrote about the futility of doubting the resurrection (reminiscent of 1 Corinthians 15). Like Paul before him he used illustrations from nature – day and night, seed that ‘decays’ in the soil only to produce new life – the phoenix. That’s right, Clement of Rome used the mythical African bird, the phoenix, to illustrate the resurrection. Furthermore, he wrote as though the phoenix was anything but mythical, rehearsing details of the story as though presenting ‘facts’:

There is a bird which is called the phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and it lives five hundred years; and when the time of it’s dissolution in death is at hand, it makes itself a sepulchre…and when the time is fulfilled it enters into it and dies. Now, from the corruption of its flesh there springs a worm…which puts forth wings.”

Now, we might well laugh at such ‘ignorance and superstition’ but Clement did not have the National Geographic Channel to help him know the facts of the matter. What he did have was the truth that the resurrection was a reality and nature itself can be useful in illustrating the truth.

The Pope

It is popularly believed that when Galileo presented his view of the solar system Pope Urban VIII punished and silenced him because Galileo’s views were too revolutionary (no pun intended). The story goes that, in the old, Aristotelian, view, the earth was at the centre of the universe, putting man at the centre of creation. Galileo’s findings removed man from the centre, effectively demoting him. The opposite, however, is the truth

Aristotle taught that the earth’s position at the centre, far from making it most important, emphasised the earth’s corrupt nature compared with the heavens. This was not an especially Christian view but arrived at by observing the celestial bodies as ‘perfect’ in their orb-like appearance and in their movement in concentric circles compared with the earth, which was self-evidently lumpy, scarred, unmoving and, therefore, ‘imperfect’.

The centre was seen as the lowest place in the universe and Galileo’s theories were thought to elevate it to a position that failed to reflect its true corrupt nature. It is also not true that the church of the day was Galileo’s enemy. Rather, it was the scientific community that questioned and denounced his findings and the church that sponsored and encouraged him (Urban was a friend of Galileo).1

Two questions arose from Galileo’s findings, i.e. 1) do they truly reflect the nature of creation? This was far from a settled argument in his day and many scientists rejected his findings. 2) What effect would this new teaching have on how we interpret Scripture and our understanding of the ‘fallen’ nature of man?

The church argued that ‘changeable’ science should not interpret ‘unchangeable’ Scripture and if our understanding was to change it was a matter for the church, which has not been as averse to change as popular myth would have us believe.

The Facts won’t set you Free.

We learn valuable lessons from these three examples in relation to apologetics.

In the first example it is clearly important to get the facts right simply because it makes our witnessing more credible. It improves our understanding and makes us better disciples and teachers. But the facts, in themselves, don’t save us. The Witnesses had the facts but remained unsaved. The Christian had the truth, was saved, but was ignorant of some facts relating to the truth. This was unhelpful.

In the second example Clement had the truth about the resurrection and illustrated it with the ‘facts’, as they were understood in his day. We know today that the phoenix was a mythical creature and would look for a better illustration of the truth. However, Clement still had the truth and his ignorance of the facts did not change that. God accommodates the message to the time, as Calvin pointed out when he said, “As it became a good theologian, [Moses] had respect to us rather than to the stars” when he wrote his account of creation. Jesus did not come to correct our general misconceptions but to save us by faith in his truth.

In the third example, contrary to popular myth, the church was very interested in the facts but also aware of the nature of facts that can be clearly seen to change over time. Their concern was that, while facts change, often to enlighten and educate us, God’s truth should be guarded and not easily surrendered to the sometimes-fickle nature of man’s scientific speculations. We rightly seek the facts but know how they can be interpreted in ways that jeopardise the truth (witness Darwinism).

The implications of all this for us are that we should:

Be humble in our presentation of ‘facts’, knowing that, like the lady with the Witnesses, we might one day find our understanding of the facts less solid than we thought. The facts are our helper so long as they remain true, the gospel is our anchor because it always remains true.

Distinguish between analogies, which always break down eventually, and the truth they illustrate, so that, like Clement, we are passionate about the truth, and not about our clever arguments. The phoenix illustration made sense in his day but is quaint to us, but the gospel makes sense in all ages.

When facts are established and great change is inevitable, we should be prepared to embrace change in our understanding, like Urban VIII, but, like Urban, careful to guard that it is our understanding that changes by way of increasing and correcting and not the gospel, which is unchangeable.

1 You can read more about this in Philip Sampson’s book, Six Modern Myths, pub. IVP, 2000.

Categories: Apologetics

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