August 18, 2005

Answering the Cults: A Common Defense

Is it really necessary to understand the cults of Christianity in order to refute them? Do we need to have an exhaustive knowledge of their books and doctrines before we are qualified to offer a critique? I submit that it is not. There are certain claims and issues common to most of them that allow a categorical response to be made.

There is at least one thing common to the derivative religions of Christianity, like Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, the Shakers, and even Islam. Each of them similarly claim that the historic church has gotten things mucked up, and that they, through the illumination of their own founder, have recovered the true teachings of Christ. What this means is that a successful response to this charge would serve equally well against any of these groups, and would undermine their most foundational claim to legitimacy.

I propose a two-stage approach that might look something like the following.

1) Jesus' immediate followers should be considered the highest authority for what Jesus actually taught and meant by His teachings. If this were not so, then Jesus was in reality a poor teacher and a failure in His mission. And if that were the case, I'm not sure why we should be impressed enough with Him to waste our lives serving His cause. This first-generation group authored documents (the New Testament) and mentored the subsequent apostolic fathers, many of whose writings we have access to. The bottom line is that we have adequate materials to consult in order to arbitrate disputes over historical and theological matters regarding Jesus.

2) Unless one has a grudge against the contents of the Bible, there is no good reason to believe that it has been corrupted. The historical and manuscript evidence is on the side of orthodoxy, and support for any conspiracy theories that skeptics might have is so scant that most non-Christian scholars are willing to concede many of the church's claims, e.g., Jesus was really crucified and the tomb was empty, Paul really wrote most of the letters attributed to him, the 4 Gospels are from the first century, the followers of Jesus were dying for their supernatural beliefs in the generation of Jesus, etc. For a more detailed exploration of this point you can refer to one of my recent blog posts: On The Defense of Scripture

If these premises hold, then any group that is based on a challenge to these facts is automatically discredited — we don't really even need to get into the detailed theology of the group. The only thing relevant to the discussion would be any new data that the cult may have to contribute that might shed light on how the early church went wrong in their theology or at what point some corruption of the manuscripts was introduced. But in the absence of that (which is generally the case), we are forced to take the word of a human who arrives on the scene hundreds of years after the fact — someone not trained by Christ (the Author) and whose credentials for making such divine revisionist claims is far inferior to His. For example, Jesus backed his claims with the bullion of a perfect life, miracles, and a resurrection. There is no one else who has held a candle to this, and who should shake our confidence that Jesus' words were authoritative, and that He had the power to get them clearly transmitted for posterity.

Of course, a religious group can bypass these issues by declaring themselves a separate religion from Christianity (i.e., that Jesus, Himself, was off base), but, curiously, this is almost never done. The preferred route is to hijack Christianity and repurpose the name of Jesus. But if a religion chooses to affiliate itself with Christ, then it must be judged by the standard of what is best known about Him. And if it can be established that we do have clear knowledge about what He taught and meant by His teachings, then any group that takes issue with that record is ipso facto disqualified.

For this reason, and others, it is far more important to have a good knowledge of things like scriptural authority, the making of the canon, textual transmission, and Bible translations than it is to have a detailed knowledge of the many cults that you may chance to encounter. With this knowledge in hand, if you encounter a radical group claiming to be the "true" or "restored" church, then you will have a good starting point in your discussion.

Here are some books that may be useful to any who are interested in equipping themselves in this area.

Note: feel free to post any recommendations for books that are worthy of being included in this list. Assuming they are available through LifeWaystores.com, I can have the list modified.

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4 Comments:

At 8/18/2005 11:37 PM, Blogger Vman said...

Islam a christianity cult? Throughout history people have used christ for their own purposes, guidance, hope, answers. These cults do the same thing.

 
At 8/19/2005 12:07 PM, Anonymous Jeff said...

I've been told that in times past the Canadian Mounties were trained to identify counterfeit currency not by studying counterfeit bills, but by studying the real thing. There's no way to be prepared to identify all possible counterfeits by studying them directly. Rather, the idea was to be so familiar with the genuine thing that the job simply became one of identifying deviations from the real currency.
This is the same approach advocated here. If you have studied orthodox Christianity and the evidence for it, and you have found strong evidence for the truthfulness of the claims, then you can rule out any cults as being valid simply because they can't both be true. It doesn't take a knowledge of the cult to do so unless they claim to have evidence against orthodox Christianity.
I would hazard a guess that those who keep protesting that you don't know their religion or can't judge it until you've experienced it are those types of people so thoroughly post-modern that they don't think in terms of truth but rather feelings and preference. For them you can't know if a cult is 'true' until you've tried it and decided if you like it.
Good blog post, thanks!

 
At 8/23/2005 4:47 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Jeff,

A person is already convinced that Christianity is true, I think your approach works. The more thoroughly one understands Christianity, the more easily one recognizes a deviation from it, even if that deviation happens to be something that calls itself "Christian."

But for a person who isn't already convinced that Christianity is true, I don't think your approach will work, because Christianity is counted among those worldviews the person is trying to determine the truth of. It's lumped in with everything else.

A person can only use Christianity as the standard by which to judge everything else if he already knows that Christianity is true. But if Christianity itself is among those religions under question, then it can't be the standard by which to determine if a religion is true or not.

I think Scott's approach is a good one in principle. It's not necessary to study a religion or worldview thoroughly before you can weed it out from your list of possiblities. One rule I like to use, which Ronald Nash also advocates, is the test of reason. It seems to me that the laws of logic can be known with certainty regardless of what religion a person belongs to. More specifically, the law of non-contradiction dictates that two claims that contradict cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense. So if there is any religion that rejects logic or affirms contradictions, we dismiss that religion without having to study it. I think Hinduism and some forms of Buddhism can be weeded out this way. So can New Ageism. Any religion that advocates irrationalism can be dismissed off the bat. That narrows the scope of possibilities considerably.

But I also use the test of common sense. I reject any religion that seems to always deny the obvious. Take Buddhism for example. Many Buddhists deny that there are any particular things, they deny that we have a self that endures through time and change, they deny that there's any self at all, and they sometimes deny that time is real. I just think we should trust our common sense notions unless we have good reason to think they're mistaken. But if we can NEVER trust them, then we're in no position to say what constitutes ignorance and what constitutes enlightenment. If the Buddhists are right, then we can never be rational in believing the Buddhist worldview with its many denials of the obvious.

 
At 8/23/2005 7:46 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sam,

I don't think Jeff really stepped beyond the scope of my material. You're right that the argument is only good for those within the boundaries of Christianity, i.e., those claiming to be the real deal. But for those religions with an entirely separate genealogy, like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, we may have to use a different approach. However (and I almost made this a closing point in my post), you could still lean on the reliability of the Gospel accounts as a defeater for these other religions. If it turns out that Jesus' words really were preserved, and that they were indeed backed up by miracles and the resurrection, then what He said is eminently authoritative. And since His "theology" is radically opposed to all other world religions, and He claims to be the only way, then all other contenders are necessarily defeated.

Your points about the non-rationality of the eastern religions are all good though, and I think a mistaken belief must be confronted on multiple levels, since one never knows which argument (if any) will be persuasive to any given person. I've attempted to argue with people who sought to undermine the concepts of logic and reason in favor of some other way. It is difficult not to simply laugh them off as they go to great pains to justify their worldview by way of — you guessed it — reason and logic.

 

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