One of my early mentors taught me that, when you're asking a deposition witness what he knows about X, the best follow-up question you can ask is, "anything else?" That quickly became my all-around favorite deposition question. It’s a singularly useful tool to help ferret out evidence in pursuit of the truth. You can ask it over and over again in a variety of contexts.
There's a similarly useful question we should ask whenever someone makes a categorical, take-it-or-leave-it assertion about theological matters. For an example of such a categorical assertion, check out a discussion over at TitusOneNine. Traditionalist commenters are excoriating the United Church of Christ for having the audacity to debate whether Jesus was God. By and large, the commenters’ view is that anyone who thinks Jesus was not God cannot claim to be a Christian. (Regular readers will know that a different view has been espoused in these pages, but I'm perfectly willing to agree to disagree about it.)
Whenever someone makes a categorical assertion like that in matters theological, my favorite single question is, "tell us how you know that." It encompasses several sub-questions, usually left unspoken out of tact, such as: Why should we assume your assertion isn’t the product of a vivid imagination? Even if what you’re saying is true in some respects, how do we know it’s always true in all possible circumstances?
The “how do you know” question is part of a healthy, show-me mindset that we see in most areas of human life when important matters are at stake. Consider, for example:
- The Law: Prosecutors are not allowed to send someone to prison without first offering admissible evidence to demonstrate guilt beyond a reasonable doubt;
- Medicine: Doctors generally won’t prescribe a treatment for an illness without seeing at least some evidence that the patient in fact suffers from the illness;
- Science: New scientific theories won’t be taken seriously, or even given the time of day, unless they’re supported by observational evidence and are coherent with past data.
We find a show-me mindset even in Scripture. Let me indulge in the guilty pleasure of proof-texting, from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament — it’s not that I think Scripture settles the matter, but that so many traditionalists do think so:
You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD ?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him." [Deut. 18:20–21, emphasis added]
Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. [1 Thess. 5:19–21, emphasis added]
That doesn’t mean we have to be from Missouri about everything in life. But in important matters, yes, we should be — with the degree of show-me attitude depending on the importance of the matter at hand
Asking the Question in Matters Theological
I can’t think of anything more important than foundational theological assertions, such as “Jesus is God.” It seems indisputable to me that a show-me attitude is called for.
So let’s test-drive the how-do-you-know question in that context.
In the debate about Jesus’s divinity, one TitusOneNine commenter offered support in the form of a quotation from Paul’s letter to the Phillipians:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. - Phil. 2:9-11
We can ask the how-do-you-know question again, this time phrasing it as, "how did Paul know that?" Typically, a traditionalist's response will be something like, "Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit,” or sometimes “Paul was handing on what he himself received from the early church.”
One more time: "How do you know that,” or “how did the early church know that?” We can keep drilling down into the issue this way as long as we need to.
We likely won’t keep asking the how-do-you-know question forever. Presumably there’s some action we have to take, or not take, depending on whether Assertion X is true. If there’s no action whatsoever to be taken, one can wonder why anyone cares about debating the matter in the first place. But in any case, at some point we’ll decide one of two things:
1. it’s time to fish or cut bait, and we’re going to take action as though Assertion X were true (or as though it were false);
2. we don’t need to make a decision yet, and so we’re going to remain agnostic about Assertion X for the time being — or we’re going to agree to disagree about it — and instead move on to something else. We may decide this because:
(a) we don’t feel we have enough reliable evidence yet to support a conclusion about Assertion X,
(b) there’s nothing we need to do just yet that depends on whether Assertion X is true — as judges say, the truth or falsity of Assertion X is not a ripe issue.
To me, most theological doctrines fall squarely in both Categories 2(a) and 2(b).
Take the question whether Jesus was God. As I've written about elsewhere on this blog, I don’t regard the evidence in favor of Jesus’s deity as convincing, let alone compelling. Moreover, I can’t think of how I’d live my life any differently either way. Even if Jesus weren't God, I’ve made the choice to follow him, so there’s no need for me to decide whether I believe that to be true, and I therefore choose to remain agnostic on that question.
Jesus was what he was — or if you prefer, he is what he is. It doesn't bother me not to know whether he was God. That's because God seems to reveal things to humanity gradually, not unlike the way parents teach their children. I have faith that if we truly need to know whether Jesus was God Incarnate, we’ll eventually be shown persuasive evidence, in this life or the next.
What Would You Do Differently?
For those traditionalist Christians who insist that Jesus’s deity is indeed a ripe issue, here’s a question: What if anything would you do differently if Jesus were not God?