1. The Various Flavours of Christianity
Differences in the Time of the New Testament
Contemporary Christian groupings
Christianity is Losing Ground
Ignorance Regarding Key Christian Doctrines
Theology: a Pseudoscience
2. The Bible: a Collection of Uninspired Writings
Conventional Views Regarding the Bible
The Biblical Authors were Fallible People
Contradictory and improbable rendering of history
Misquotations of Old Testament Texts by the New Testament
Contradictory Descriptions of God and his Will for Mankind
The two Faces of Fundamentalism
3. Jesus of Nazareth, a Deluded Messiah
The Conventional View of Jesus Christ in Christianity
What we do Know about Jesus
The Trial and Death of Jesus
Views of the Original Christians Regarding Jesus
Paul’s Visions and Revelations
4. Theological Absurdities
Morality and Christianity
Resurrection, the Last Judgment and Life Everlasting
Satan and Demons
5. Religion Explained
Altered States of Consciousness
Human Needs Satisfied
Rituals and Ceremonies
6. Disbelief in a Personal Creator
The Christian God
Efforts to Prove the Existence of God
Attempts to Show the Improbability of God’s Existence
A God Unworthy of Worship
The Impossibility that God Exists
7. Outlines of a Philosophy for the Future
The Scientific Method
The Fundamentals of Ethics
The Human Spirit, Soul and Body
Appendix Jesus in India and Tibet
Ever since philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx started to attack Christianity and religion in general, a fierce battle erupted. No winner has, as yet, emerged from this debate and an unofficial stalemate was declared. Christian theologians declare that atheists (and agnostics) cannot prove their point of view conclusively, namely that God doesn’t exist. Atheists and agnostics contend that the burden of proof rests on Christians to demonstrate that God really does exist, which they cannot do. The consensus seems to be that neither side can prove their claims definitely and finally with logical arguments.
At present, most philosophers, scientists and theologians seem to agree that it is not possible to prove either the existence or the non-existence of the deity of Christianity. One’s acceptance of God’s existence or non-existence is merely a matter of faith, taste or upbringing, it was held. One may, at most, only demonstrate the probability or improbability of the existence of a spiritual being that supposedly created everything. After all, the fact that there are people who call themselves atheists and agnostics in the world is proof of the fact that no watertight proof for the existence of God has been found. If such a proof existed then everybody would have agreed that such an entity or being does, in fact, exist. However, there is no such universal agreement and that is a clear indication that no convincing proof for God’s existence has, as yet, been found – or, for that matter, will ever be found.
This book hopes to break this impasse and show with logical arguments, based on historical and scientific insights, that the God of Christianity never existed and that the Christian religion is the most elaborate superstition ever unleashed upon humanity. It will be shown that the very concept of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, totally perfect, totally good, wise, just, merciful, caring and loving God contains internal contradictions, which have – until now – been overlooked and that this concept, therefore, just cannot be true. It is a basic tenet of the discipline of logics that any idea, which contains internal contradictions and inconsistencies, is absurd and must, therefore, be untrue and be rejected.
It will also be shown that there is clear historical and biblical proof that Jesus of Nazareth, revered by Christians as the second person in the divine trinity, as God incarnate, was a mere mortal without any claim to divinity. The self-appointed apostle, Paul of Tarsus, was the originator of the unfounded myth that Jesus was a divine being.
In addition, a new variety of the philosophy of rationalism will be presented. It will be shown that a rational, credible and beautiful philosophy can be built upon a number of axioms, truths that cannot be proved but are accepted as valid by all informed people.
I know Christianity intimately from the inside out since I was a zealous minister of religion for most of my adult life. I studied theology at the Theological Seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa in the university town of Stellenbosch. Just before and after my retirement from the ministry I developed new insights after having investigated my faith and convictions thoroughly and this book is the result.
Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten
The Theological Seminary, Stellenbosch (established in 1859)
Throughout my career as minister of religion I had difficulties with certain parts of Holy Scripture. I found it impossible, for example, to compose sermons about the miracles Jesus was supposed to have performed. I found it utterly unbelievable that anybody could walk on water, change water into high-quality wine, revitalise decomposing corpses or feed a multitude of people with only a few fishes and a few pieces of bread. Although the Bible often depicts Satan as an evil personage I could never include him in any of my sermons; I always regarded him as a mere personification of all that is bad, wrong and evil.
It was a relief when I held my last sermon and afterwards received a certificate stating that I was from that moment on a retired minister of religion who was of sound doctrine and exemplary behaviour (although that was definitely no longer true regarding the beliefs I held). I just could not continue preaching a Gospel I didn’t believe in anymore. Slowly, but surely, I developed a new set of beliefs and convictions – and this book is the result.
This book is in a certain sense a prophetic book. I will try to show why people will increasingly come to the conclusion that Christianity, despite its beautiful and useful aspects, is a hollow edifice without any real foundations and that it is destined to collapse. I will show that theology is a pseudo-science, in the same league as other pseudo-sciences such as astrology and palmistry. I will show that most Christian doctrines cannot any longer be entertained by rational and sane human beings, due to their inherent inconsistencies, contradictions and absurdities and the fact that they are at odds with established scientific insights. Christianity is already disappearing in many parts of the world, especially in north-western and eastern Europe.
In this book, various quotations will be given from the Bible, together with comments thereon. Certain Christian doctrines will be explained by quoting from three Protestant creeds, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession. These creeds are supposed to provide an authoritative rendering of the message(s) of the Bible, although it will be shown that this is not necessarily the case.
I often mention the findings of various scientific disciplines in this work. I have great respect for rigorous scientific investigation. Our knowledge of the world and ourselves has been growing exponentially during the last two centuries and we can regard that knowledge for the most part as reliable since the technology that was built upon this knowledge does work. The late Christian philosopher Herman Stoker (1969: 135-136) wrote a few decades ago that scientific knowledge is not simply a description of phenomena. It is systemised knowledge that endeavours to understand, to explain and to evaluate. It seeks relationships in order to combine knowledge into a system or a finished whole, called a theory. This description of scientific knowledge still holds good today – despite the fact that Stoker was a Christian.
No scientist will contend that science provides all the answers. Science has its limits. It can only pronounce on phenomena that can be observed by our senses, either directly or indirectly by means of sophisticated instruments, such as radio telescopes, fMRI scanners or electron microscopes. Scientists gather knowledge by means of experiments or observations; they measure, count, weigh and test. But they cannot tell us what the origin of the universe is, what type of behaviour is right or wrong or what the meaning of life is. When we come to those topics, we are dealing with philosophy. In this book, much will be made of scientific insights, but in essence, this book is about philosophy, the love of wisdom. The teachings of the Bible and the dogmas of Christianity will be scrutinised and evaluated according to their logical content and rationality and philosophical and scientific criticism will be levelled against all the irrational ideas and concepts propagated by Christians.
There is a vast literature regarding Christianity, theism, agnosticism and atheism, as well as the quest for the “historical Jesus”. I certainly did not have the time or opportunity to read it all – and I don’t think anybody has ever been able to do so. I trust though, that those works that I have consulted are a good cross section of what has been written on these subjects and that the ideas which I present here are founded upon good evidence and proof. This book is not merely a summary of all the ideas and arguments to bolster some or other school of thought and I hope to present a meaningful contribution to the debate regarding the value and reliability of the Christian religion in all its permutations by presenting a number of new insights and arguments.
It has to be stressed that in my analysis of the Christian faith, I take the text of the Bible rather seriously. Each author of a biblical book tried to convey a certain message to his readers. It may be assumed that the biblical authors were serious about their convictions and that they were convinced that they really spoke on behalf of their God – just as there were various other pagan oracles in the ancient world. But it is possible to step, as it were, into their frame of mind and conclude what really prompted them to write what they wrote. With the knowledge we have of the world in which these authors lived we may reconstruct what really happened and why they constructed myths and presented certain legends and fantasies as fact. The pious deception played upon humanity by prophets and apostles will thereby be exposed and explained.
* * *
I predict with confidence that Christianity is destined to become extinct, due to the knowledge explosion through the internet, although respect for Jesus of Nazareth as a wise teacher will probably remain.
The spread of Christianity during the first few centuries was made possible by the availability of Holy Scriptures and other literature – the Old Testament of the Jews, the letters of the apostle Paul and other early Christian authors, various Gospels, some of which did not make it into the Bible, and the extensive writings of the church fathers. Other religions in the Roman Empire did not have that advantage and became extinct (Ehrman, 2005: 19). Philosophy enjoyed much respect in antiquity and the books of various philosophers were copied and disseminated on a large scale. The corpus of Christian literature gave Christianity an elevated status, similar to the most respected philosophical schools of the time.
The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was made possible by the invention of the printing press. Martin Luther started the Reformation in 1517 and his ideas could be spread through the printed word after Gutenberg had invented his printing press half a century earlier. More people had access to published works in Luther’s time than during the Middle Ages when books still had to be copied by hand and that made these people turn their backs on many of the superstitions held by the Medieval Church.
The downfall of communism and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 became possible through the Xerox machine and television. The anti-communist underground in Poland, East Germany and elsewhere distributed pamphlets with their ideas, which were multiplied on clandestine copying machines, while television programmes from West Berlin with news regarding the failures of communism could be picked up in the whole of East Berlin. That led to the demise of communism.
The internet, which revolutionised the distribution of knowledge, became available during the nineties of the previous century. The mass of information, which thus became accessible to the world’s population, will cause a similar reaction as the Reformation of the sixteenth century and the peaceful revolutions, which swept communist regimes away. It becomes clearer and clearer every day that the orthodox Christian faith is built upon a number of fictions and fantasies; it is like a house of cards that will, inevitably, be blown away by the winds of change. The days are passing when certain preachers were able to build vast religious and financial empires and to influence people to adore them as saints.
Christianity is destined to wither away and make way for rational thought, the insights of science and a moral way of living without a religious foundation.
Through the ages, Christianity was built upon different world views. In antiquity, when the various biblical books were written, a primitive world view was prevalent. People thought of the earth as the centre of the universe. They experienced the world as being flat. God or the gods lived somewhere on mountain tops or in the sky beyond the stars, while hell or the abode of the dead was thought to be below the surface of the earth. The world was populated by all sorts of spiritual beings – gods, angels, demons and the spirits of the ancestors.
This world view was superseded since the Renaissance by a modern world view in which scientific discoveries played a major role. Christianity managed to adapt to a certain extent to this new world view in which the earth was seen as a tiny speck in a vast universe without a centre. No space could be found inside the universe for heaven and hell and these were thought to occupy higher dimensions of space and time, outside the physical universe. The idea was accepted that natural phenomena have natural causes and that everything in the universe was ruled by the laws of nature – except, perhaps, in exceptional cases where God intervened and performed miracles. Most Christians seem to be stuck in this world view.
It will be shown that even this modernised world view of Christians cannot be entertained any longer and is nothing but an outdated superstition. A superstition is described as a “belief, half-belief, or practice for which there appears to be no rational substance” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010: Superstition). It will be shown that all theistic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – amount to systems of pious superstitions, which cannot be entertained anymore in the light of all the available evidence.
The book contains much that will keep theologians, philosophers and scientists busy, but it is also aimed at the layperson who is interested in religion, philosophy and science.
Chapter 1 THE VARIOUS FLAVOURS OF CHRISTIANITY
Overview of this chapter:
- Differences in the Time of the New Testament
- Contemporary Christian Groupings
- Doctrinal Differences
- Christianity is Losing Ground
- Ignorance Regarding Key Christian Doctrines
- Theology: a Pseudoscience
Differences in the Time of the New Testament
When people call themselves Christians it is not always clear what they mean. There is a large number of denominations consisting of main-stream churches, various sects and even syncretistic groups where ideas from Christianity and other religions have been thrown together and combined. There are a number of theological “schools”, each with its own characteristic doctrines and teachings. In addition, Christianity is also characterised by a number of “movements”, each with its own emphasis on certain ideas from the Bible.
This diversity compels one to ask: who are the “real” Christians? Are there any “real” Christians? Which group is on the right track – if any? Why are there so many groups that see each other as opponents and even as adversaries and enemies?
The New Testament book of Acts is supposed to present a historical account of how Christianity started and developed after the ascension into heaven of Jesus Christ. The impression is created that early Christianity was a unified movement which started on the day of Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and a number of other followers of Jesus. The trials and tribulations of the Jerusalem congregation are sketched in the first few chapters of this book and then Paul arrives on the scene in chapter 9 where his conversion to Christianity is described. The rest of Acts is devoted to Paul’s missionary travels, as well as his contacts with the Jerusalem congregation.
In the following chapters it will be demonstrated that parts of the book of Acts are simply fiction or fantasy, which are contradicted by details given in Paul’s own letters about his life and work.
It will also be demonstrated in chapter 3 that the followers of Jesus never formed a unified movement. There was, for instance, the Jewish Jesus movement. These people never thought of themselves as belonging to a new religion and they continued to worship in the Jerusalem temple, just as the other Jews of their time (Acts 2: 46 & 5: 12). They were called the “sect of the Nazarenes” in Acts 24: 5. Then there were also those who followed the teachings of the apostle Paul who actually created a new religion, and who broke away from the Jewish religion. They were called “Christians” in Antioch, the city where Paul was a preacher before he embarked on his missionary travels (Acts 11: 26).
In addition, there were at least two other early movements that had links with the followers of Jesus and Christianity – the followers of John the Baptist and a number of Gnostic sects.
We read in the Gospels that John had a number of disciples, some of whom later became disciples of Jesus (Matt 14: 12). Paul encountered some of John’s followers during his missionary travels (Acts 18: 24-25 & 19: 1-5). A group of these followers of John survive today in northern Iraq and northern Iran. They are known as Mandaeans and they follow the teachings of John, together with some Gnostic ideas (Thomas, 2007: passim).
The origin of the Gnostic movement(s) is unknown, although Simon Magus – of whom we read in Acts 8: 9-24 – was one of the influential figures. This movement, which consisted of a number of unrelated groups, combined certain teachings of Jesus with elements from neoplatonic philosophy and the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. According to them, a person could be saved from this sinful material world by gaining knowledge (gnosis; Greek: gnw'siß) of his spiritual home with God (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010: Gnosticism).
It is possible that Christians were warned against this movement in 1 Tim 6: 20-21 –
“O Timothy, take good care of that which is given to you, turning away from the wrong and foolish talk and arguments of that knowledge which is falsely so named; through which some, who gave their minds to it, have been turned away from the faith” (own emphasis).
Within the version of Christianity introduced by Paul, there also existed more than one variety. Paul’s own letters are rather rational and he tried to convince his readers of his views with arguments from the Old Testament. The writings attributed to John – the Gospel and three letters – have their own distinct flavour, which tend to be speculative and seem to a certain extent to be influenced by Gnosticism and Greek philosophy. The last book in the Bible, Revelation, is one of a kind and contains visions and prophecies and was influenced by pagan astrology (Malina, 1995: passim).
A number of extra-biblical gospels have come to light during past decades. Some of them show clear Gnostic influences and, therefore, never made it into the Bible. Others contain pure fiction and endeavour to fill the gaps in our knowledge about Jesus. It took a long time before there was consensus about which books should be regarded as having divine authority and should be included in the New Testament (Armstrong, 2007: passim).
The second century Roman scholar, Celsus, who wrote a tractate against the Christians, had this to say about the disunity of the Christians in his day (as quoted from his critic, Origen):
"Christians at first were few in number, and held the same opinions; but when they grew to be a great multitude, they were divided and separated, each wishing to have his own individual party: for this was their object from the beginning" (Origen, Liber III: 10).
It is clear, therefore, that early Christianity never formed a unified and homogenous movement and that remained the case throughout the ages. There were at all stages groups who fought each other and condemned their opponents as heretics and apostates (Ehrman, 2005: 152). During the first few Christian centuries there were various competing forms of Christianity – orthodoxy (which won the day), Arianism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism, Ebionism and so forth. The number of competing varieties only increased as the centuries passed.
Contemporary Christian Groupings
Christianity today is a religion with many faces and denominations. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimated that 34,000 denominations existed in 2000, rising to an estimated 43,000 in 2012. These numbers have exploded to the present number from +1,600 in the year 1900 (The Way?, 2012).
Some Christian groupings are large, e.g. the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Churches, various Protestant churches such as the Lutherans, Baptists and Reformed or Presbyterian churches, and the Anglican community. A large number of smaller denominations and sects exist.
Within Christianity, there are various movements, which are not restricted to certain denominations. There are, for instance, pentecostalists, fundamentalists, pietists, charismatics and evangelicals. There are, likewise, various theological “schools”. One finds Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Charismatic, Pentecostalist, Pietistic, Liberation and Liberal or post-modern theologies; they all differ regarding key aspects of the Christian faith.
The Roman Catholic Church denomination is the largest Christian group in the world today with more than a billion followers constituting about half of the world's Christian population. There are approximately 800 million Protestants in the world and approximately 260 million people worldwide are Orthodox Christians. About 279 million people (12.8% of the world's Christian population) regard themselves as Pentecostalists, 304 million (14%) are charismatics, and 285 million (13.1%) are Evangelicals, or Bible-believing Christians. These last three categories overlap in many instances (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2011).
All these groups call themselves Christians, followers of Jesus Christ. They all read the same Bible and pray to the same God. Yet, they are divided and their teachings diverge on many points. This begs the question: which one of them is on the right track? Which denomination or movement interprets the Bible correctly? Which denomination or movement is most faithful to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles?
As will be shown, there are various dogmatic or doctrinal differences between these groups. If they all rely on the same Bible, one cannot but come to the conclusion that the message of the Bible cannot be very clear and may be interpreted in diverse ways. If that is true, then it also means that no group within Christianity can be regarded as the “real” Christians.
When I was a young minister of religion, fresh from theological seminary, I thought that only my church was on the right track and that most other churches were heading in the wrong direction. In many a sermon, I criticized the charismatic movement, Pentecostalism, the Roman Catholic Church and various other heresies (as I saw them). As the years passed on, I came to the conclusion that my own church had many flaws, that its doctrines were not above criticism and that many questionable practices were tolerated. When I started preaching about the wrongs of apartheid, which in those days was seen as the will of God, some members of my congregation reported me to the secret Security Branch of the Police.
Differences between Christians
Christian theologians, churches, denominations, movements and ordinary Christians have deep-rooted differences regarding quite a number of doctrinal issues. They differ regarding the following:
- Protestant churches are of the opinion that Christians should base their faith only on the teachings of the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox churches also rely on tradition as part of God’s revelation to man and adherents of Pentecostal and charismatic groups believe that God is still communicating with believers as he did in biblical times when he spoke to prophets, apostles and others. There is, in other words, no unanimity regarding the source(s) of the Christian faith.
- Pentecostals and charismatics rely very much on the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers and they believe that God still makes use of people with a prophetic gift to communicate with his children; other Christians believe that the guidance of the Holy Spirit is only to be found in Scripture.
- The doctrine regarding the Triune God: exactly how do we have to understand the idea that there is only one God but three divine Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Are they distinct Persons or only different names for the same divine entity? Although the “official” position of most Christian groups is that the Trinity consists of three distinct divine Persons, united in one Godhead, the popular idea held by many ordinary Christians amounts to a merger of the three Persons.
- How are we to understand the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ? Did Christ hide his divine nature while on earth or was he only apparently a human being? The “official” view held by most Christian denominations is that Christ had two distinct natures – a divine nature (which was hidden while he was on earth) and a true human nature with all its limitations. Many ordinary Christians often do not understand this distinction and they explain the many miracles attributed to Jesus due to the idea that he was, after all, “God Almighty”.
- The traditional Protestant position is that a sinner can only be saved by having faith in Jesus Christ; the Catholic and Orthodox view is that a person’s life style and good deeds play a role in determining his/her destination in the afterlife.
- Some churches administer infant baptism, while others declare this to be heresy and insist that only believing adults may be baptised. Those who support infant baptism argue that there are a number of instances mentioned in the Bible where whole households – children included – were baptised by the apostles. Their opponents declare that a person may only be baptised if he has made a conscious decision for Christ.
- There are churches that maintain that one cannot be saved without having being baptised, while others do not support this idea. It has to be noted that the Bible nowhere mentions that the disciples/apostles of Jesus were ever baptised, while the unbaptised criminal crucified with Jesus received the promise of paradise directly after his death.
- Some churches declare that only baptism by immersion is valid – just as Jesus was baptised in the Jordan by John the Baptist. Others point out that Jesus was not baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and that this example does not count, while the first Christian baptism took place in Jerusalem where thousands of people were baptised, which could only have happened by the sprinkling of water because there were no pools or rivers in ancient Jerusalem where immersion could take place.
- The Lord’s supper or Eucharist: how must we understand the bread and the wine? Do these really miraculously change into Jesus Christ’s body and blood – while still looking and tasting like bread and wine – or are they only symbols of his flesh and blood as Protestants contend?
- Catholic and Orthodox churches maintain that there are seven sacraments; Protestants only recognise two sacraments.
- Catholic and Orthodox churches venerate a host of saints of which the most important is Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom they even call the “mother of God”; in 1950 the Pope officially declared that Mary did not die but descended directly into heaven, just as Jesus did. Protestants think that this amounts to idolatry because they find no justification for this belief in the Bible.
- Protestants accuse Catholics of leaving Jesus on the cross, due to the fact that Catholic churches all have crucifixes depicting Jesus’ execution. Protestants contend that the Gospels tell us clearly that Jesus was taken off from the cross, was buried and was resurrected – and therefore it is wrong to depict Jesus as if he never left the cross.
- Some Protestant churches declare that only those people who are chosen by God will inherit eternal life, but there are also those who maintain that one’s eternal destination is totally dependent upon one’s own choice for or against God and Christ.
- Some denominations believe that all men are born as sinners and that all deserve eternal punishment, unless they are born again; others believe that sin and evil does not exist in a new-born child and that the bad examples of others lead that child to fall into sin.
- Most churches congregate on Sundays, the first day of the week, but there are also those who believe that we have to obey the Ten Commandments in this respect and congregate on the seventh day of the week, that is, on a Saturday.
- Certain charismatic churches support the so-called “prosperity theology”, according to which believers may expect that God bless them with earthly riches; if they fail to gain this prosperity it is a sign that they lack faith. Mainline churches declare this position to be a distortion of the message of the Bible.
- There is no unanimity in Christianity regarding the role and place of women. There are those who advocate the position that the Bible prohibits women from holding offices in the church, while there are also those who hold exactly the opposite view.
- Some churches are organised hierarchically. That means that there are bishops, archbishops and other church leaders who have the authority to make decisions of behalf of the whole believing community. Other churches are more democratic and each congregation is managed by a board consisting of elders and deacons who are chosen by the members of the congregation. Both these incompatible positions are justified from the same Bible.
- An extreme example of the hierarchical position is to be found in the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches that the pope as spiritual leader of the church is able to make infallible pronouncements – as declared by the First Vatican Council in 1870. Protestants reject this position and contend that there is absolutely no Scriptural support for this idea and that there are many instances where popes in the past held wrong and even heretical points of view.
- The Roman Catholic Church teaches that people who die go to Purgatory – a place or state of purification before they can be admitted into heaven. Protestants declare that there is no basis for this doctrine in the Holy Scriptures and that when God forgives the sins of a sinner all his/her guilt has been taken away so that he/she is ready to enter heaven without having to go through a purification process after death.
- According to Roman Catholic teaching, it is possible for one person to help a deceased loved one to leave Purgatory earlier by performing certain good deeds, such going on a pilgrimage, giving alms to the needy or to buy indulgences. Protestants reject this idea.
- There is a wide divergence of views regarding the second coming of Christ and judgment day. Some Christians maintain that the end will be preceded by a glorious millennium during which believers will reign with Christ on earth. Others find no Scriptural foundation for this point of view.
It is abundantly clear that there is much confusion within Christianity regarding many key doctrines. One cannot but ask: Whom must we believe? Which church or movement is correct? Who understands and obeys the Bible faithfully? The fact that Christians cannot agree on a large number of doctrinal issues may be the reason why so many people – especially in the Western world – turned their backs on religion. They seem to reason that if Christians cannot agree amongst themselves on a number of important topics then none of them can be taken seriously.
History has shown that it is possible to prove almost any point of view while quoting verses from the Bible – ethical, theological and political. There were those who justified all sorts of positions from the Bible – apartheid, racism, communism, capitalism, socialism, anti-Semitism, fascism, slavery, the denial of human rights to minorities and women, polygamy, a flat earth, so-called “scientific creationism”, a crack-down on homosexuals and witches and a prohibition on premarital sex – to mention but a few.
As will be shown in chapter 2, there are deep-rooted differences regarding the acceptance of scientific theories and findings within Christianity. So-called “scientific creationism” is an endeavour to prove from the Bible that the biological theory of evolution is evil and false. There are also those, on the other hand, who declare that we cannot misuse and abuse the Bible as if it were a scientific manual and that there is nothing in the Bible to contradict the theory of evolution (see chapter 2 for more details).
The result of all these doctrinal differences and differences in style is that churches and church leaders criticise and attack each other, try to steal the other’s followers and make outrageous claims about their own superiority. For example: during January 2017 Pastor TB Joshua, a well-known spiritual leader from Nigeria and leader of the Synagogue Church of All Nations, declared that there are too many pastors in Malawi and that that is the reason why there is so much poverty in that country! In addition, many of the pastors are, according to him, “fake pastors and prophets” (News24 Wire, 12.01.2017). The trouble is that Joshua has received much criticism in turn due to his own practices and views, including a claim that he can cure people who suffer from “homosexual demons” and HIV through prayer (Mail Online, 12.01.2017). Joshua pronounced various “prophecies” over the years, including the prediction that the president of Malawi, Peter Mutharika, would die before 1 April 2016 – which never happened (The Telegraph, 13.03.2016). He also predicted that Hilary Clinton would become the next president of America – which also did not come to pass (Punch, 13.11.2016).
Only one conclusion can be drawn from this state of affairs: the credibility of many a Christian leader is close to zero. Which one of them can we believe when they start attacking and vilifying each other?
Differences with other religions
Knowledge about religions other than Christianity is much more available to Christians than ever before. The printed media, television and the electronic media brought the world’s religions into closer contact with each other. It became clear to many Christians that many Muslims, Buddhists, Judaists and adherents of other religions are happy, mature and balanced people, that they are leading morally exemplary lives and that they are very sincere about their religious beliefs.
Most westernised countries uphold the principle of religious freedom. That means that any inhabitant of a given country is entitled to belong to the religious organisation of his or her choice or even not to adhere to any religion. This places the various religions on the same legal footing and creates the assumption that all religions are more or less equal.
This poses the following questions: on which basis does Christianity claim to be the only valid and true religion? Who says that only the Christian Bible contains God’s will for mankind? How can we be sure that other religions, besides Christianity, do not also provide valuable insights into the nature and will of God?
During 2016 a television series was screened in which the actor Morgan Freeman featured, namely The Story of God. He interviewed numerous adherents and spiritual leaders of all the main religions on earth. This series suggested that all religions are legitimate paths to reach God.
This religious pluralism led many Christian theologians to come to the conclusion that the work of missionaries in the past, where they tried to convert adherents of other religions to Christianity, was ill-founded and actually arrogant. These theologians propose that Christians ought rather to enter into dialogue with people from other religions in order to find common ground and to promote mutual respect.
This religious pluralism also led many Christians to come to the conclusion that no religion can be relied upon to provide a road map for life since they differ so much between themselves. If these different religious views clash and they cannot agree on certain key points, then the conclusion may be reached that they are all wrong and deluded. The people who came to this conclusion often also point out that horrific crimes have been perpetrated in the name of religious fanaticism:
- Muslims extremists who commit suicide with explosives strapped to their bodies in a bus or on a busy street to take as many “infidel” victims with them as possible;
- The fact that certain Muslim countries prohibit the practice of any other religion within their borders and that people who transgress these prohibitions are punished harshly, even put to death;
- The many religious wars that have been fought through the ages, even in our own time;
- The torching of the great library in Alexandria, Egypt, by fanatical Christians in AD 391 because it was suspected of housing heretical and blasphemous books, thereby destroying a large number of irreplaceable books from Antiquity;
- The Holy Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church, which sentenced many suspected heretics or witches to death after extracting confessions from them under torture (see chapter 4 for more on this);
- Many Roman Catholic clerics, and even the pope, who closed their eyes to the horrors of Nazi Germany during the Second World War and who helped Nazi criminals to escape justice after the war (see chapter 4 for more details);
- Roman Catholic bishops who protected pedophile priests until the public outcry against this practice forced the pope to crack down on the culprits;
- Many Protestants who also persecuted suspected witches;
- Fundamentalist Christians who have bombed abortion clinics in the belief that they are defending God’s honour; and
- Christian missionaries who forcibly took children away from their pagan parents to raise them as Christians, mostly with the help of the civil authorities.
The list is actually endless. These practices forced many people from Christian countries to conclude that all forms of religion are bad and unhealthy and have to be avoided.
Christianity is Losing Ground
Christianity is, without doubt, the largest religion in the world. The possibility exists that Christianity will lose this position in favour of Islam, sometime in the future. The Christian religion is slowly, but surely, losing ground.
It is estimated that there are about 2,18 billion Christians world-wide, roughly a third of the world’s population. Christianity seems to grow only in Africa and the Far East (Fairchild, 2011). On the other hand, Europe and North America, which used to be Christian continents in previous centuries and where every adult person was assumed to be a believer – with the exception of Jews and heretics – are nowadays more secularist or humanist than Christian.
World-wide, Christianity is growing slower than Islam, the fastest growing religion. Between 1970 and 2010 Islam has gained 4,23% of the world population, while Christianity only gained 2,10% during the same period (Wikipedia, 2015: Irreligion).
America is a case in point. Alex Jones wrote in 2012:
“Is Christianity in decline in America? When you examine the cold, hard numbers it is simply not possible to come to any other conclusion. Over the past few decades, the percentage of Christians in America has been steadily declining. This has especially been true among young people [and] there has been a mass exodus of teens and young adults out of U.S. churches. In addition, what ‘Christianity’ means to American Christians today is often far different from what ‘Christianity’ meant to their parents and their grandparents. Millions upon millions of Christians in the United States simply do not believe many of the fundamental principles of the Christian faith any longer. Without a doubt, America is becoming a less ‘Christian’ nation.”
The proportion of Americans that consider themselves to be Christians has been steadily declining. Back in 1990, 86 percent of all Americans called themselves Christians. By 2008, that number has dropped to 76 percent. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who reject religion entirely has soared. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans with "no religion" more than doubled between 1990 and 2008. 15 percent of all Americans in 2008 said that they have "no religion". That is up from 8 percent in 1990 (Infowars, 2015). In 2015, that number has again risen to 33% (Wikipedia, 2015: Irreligion).
A Pew research report in 2015 in which 35 000 people were polled found that 30% of Americans never or seldom attend religious services. This is up from 27% in 2007. Almost 23% of Americans in 2014 had no religious affiliation and did not find religion to be an important aspect of their lives – up from 16% in 2007. Only 63% of those polled were absolutely certain that God exists – compared to 71% in 2007. The overall picture is that Americans are steadily becoming less religious (Pew Research Center, 2015: 3, 4, 143, 149 & 152).
Professor Hans Küng, the well-known Swiss-German theologian, characterises the Catholic Church world-wide, but especially in the Western World, as “gravely ill” and “terminally ill”. The church is losing members at an alarming rate and fewer and fewer young men report for training as priests. Dwindling parishes are being merged and there are not enough priests to minister effectively to the remaining congregations. The church is bleeding dry – and few bishops acknowledge that this dangerous situation exists (Küng, 2013: 14-42).
John Humphries quotes the results of a survey done by the polling organisation YouGov in Britain. Of those polled, 25% declared themselves to be agnostics or atheists. On the other hand, only 22% believe in a personal God. The percentage of people who prayed regularly or fairly regularly amounts to 24%. Those who never pray or hardly ever pray are 74% of those polled. Only 11% attend a place of worship at least once a month (Humphries, 2007: 112-115).
If trends continue, the number of non-believers in Britain is set to overtake the number of Christians by 2030. It was found that Christianity is losing more than half a million believers every year, while the count of atheists and agnostics is going up by almost 750,000 annually (Martin, 2012).
South Africa also has a sizable percentage nonreligious people, although the numbers are lower than in the countries listed above. South Africa had 15,1% of its population calling themselves nonreligious in 2001 – slightly below the world average, which was estimated at 16% at that time. According to the census figures of 1996 and 2001 for South Africa, the number of nonreligious persons rose in this time from 4,6 million to 6,8 million. This is an increase from 11,7% in 1996 to 15,1% in 2001 (Statistics South Africa, 2004: 24). It can be assumed that this figure has again increased since 2001. An international survey conducted in 2011 and 2012 claimed that only 64% of South Africans regarded themselves to be religious (News24, 10.08.2012).
A survey done by the online News Service, News24, during April 2017 under its readers in South Africa posed the following question to which five possible responses were supplied: “What is the best thing about Easter long weekend?” Only 37.6% of the respondents marked “the religious significance”. Those who preferred “time off from work” and “family time” amounted to 55,8% of the total. Very few votes were given to “pickled fish” and “Easter eggs” (News24, 18.04.2017). Although this survey may not be representative of the population of the country as a whole it, nevertheless, demonstrates a trend away from religion.
A South African professor in theology recently told me that fewer and fewer students are studying theology with the goal of entering the ministry in South Africa. He foresees that in a few years’ time, when a large number of middle-aged ministers will go into retirement, there will simply not be enough young people to replace them. In addition, the intellectual abilities of theological students have steadily declined over the years with the result that students who are studying at present are less bright that students of a generation ago. This all bodes ill for the future of the church.
In addition, the ability of congregations in South Africa to pay the salaries of their ministers is also declining. More and more congregations will therefore only be able to afford part-time ministers and that means that many a minister of religion will be compelled to pursue another (part-time or full-time) job for which he or she is not always adequately trained. The lack of pastoral care in these congregations will only hasten their dissolution and demise. This state of affairs may be one of the reasons why brighter students prefer to take courses at university that will lead to better job security instead of preparing for the ministry.
Large percentages of the populations of the following countries during 2015 may be regarded as nonreligious:
- Norway 78%
- Czech Republic 67,8%
- Sweden +65,5%
- Cuba 64%
- Vietnam +63,5%
- Denmark +61,5%
- Switzerland 57%
- Netherlands +56,1%
- Albania 52%
- United Kingdom +52%
- Japan 51,8%
- Azerbaijan 51%
- China +50,5%
- Estonia 49%
- France 48,5%
- Russia 48,1%
- Belarus 47,8%
- South Korea 46,5%
- Serbia 45%
- Finland +44%
- Hungary 42,6%
- Ukraine 42,4%
- Iceland 42%
- New Zealand 41.9%
- Latvia 40,6%
- Belgium 35,4%
- Germany 34,6%
- Chile 33,8%
- USA 33%
- South Africa 32%
(Wikipedia, 2015: Irreligion)
There is a clear trend visible in these statistics. The countries with the highest percentages of people with no religious affiliations are either affluent and sophisticated former Protestant countries in Europe and the English-speaking world, or former/current communist countries where atheism used to be part of the state ideology.
Churches in Europe are losing members in ever-increasing numbers. A good case in point is the Protestant congregation in the university town of Leyden in the Netherlands. The largest and oldest church building of the town, the church of St Peter (Pieterskerk), a 600 year old gothic basilica, is no longer utilised for religious purposes; it now serves as a conference centre, wedding venue, banqueting hall, exposition centre and concert hall. It is being managed by a trust called the “Stichting Pieterskerk Leiden” (Stichting Pieterskerk Leiden, 2015). This trend is to be found in many a European town or city.
The time of the year when this trend towards secularism becomes most visible is at Christmas. This feast is meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ – although nobody knows on which date he was actually born. Nevertheless, very little of Jesus Christ has remained in contemporary Christmas. It is a time of partying, drinking, eating, being idle, giving presents and visiting friends and family. The urban scene is dominated by multi-coloured Christmas trees, glittering stars and other shiny decorations. It is the time of the year when retail business reaches a peak as everybody is focused on consuming the maximum amount. Of Jesus Christ very little is left, the bearded figure of Father Christmas is the focus of attention and that is a clear symptom of the way the Western World is progressing.
Scientists without religion
A survey done among members with e-mail addresses of the Royal Society, the most prestigious body of scientists in the English-speaking world, revealed that 78,8% of the members did not believe that a personal God exists (Dawkins, 2006: 102). A meta-analysis done in 2002 found that there is a strong correlation between unbelief and IQ or educational level. That means that more intelligent people and better educated people tend not to believe in God (Dawkins, 2006: 103).
The 517 members of the US National Academy of Sciences disclosed in a survey that only 7% of these scientists reported that they believed in a personal God. Of the rest, 72.2%% were atheists and 20,8% called themselves agnostics (Stenger, 2009: 75).
Greg Graffin, a lecturer in biology at UCLA, sent a questionnaire to fellow biologists regarding their religious beliefs. Of the 149 who responded, only 13 (+9%) believed in a God who intervened in the world. Of his respondents, 88% rejected the notion of immortality (Graffin & Olson, 2010: 41 & 45).
Hill (2011: 533-551) conducted a study under American graduates regarding their religious beliefs and he concluded: “The results indicate that some, but not all, religious beliefs are altered by higher education. Most notably, respondents become slightly more skeptical of the super-empirical if they attend and graduate from college. The effects are often exaggerated for college graduates and those attending elite universities.”
Christianity is disappearing
Christianity is by no means dead. It is, after all, the largest religion in the world. There are, though, clear signs that Christianity is disappearing from many countries. In 1910 about 35% of the world’s population were Christians. This figure has dropped in a century to 32%. In 1910, 66,3% of the world’s Christians lived in Europe. This figure has decreased to 25,9% in 2010 (Pew Research Center, 2011). This trend is due to spread to the rest of the world as well. It may, though, be a slow process.
It has to be pointed out that the phenomena of atheism or agnosticism would have been unthinkable during the Middle Ages. People were burned at the stake merely for being suspected of harbouring heretical notions. The Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church is still remembered today as a very dark blot on the history of Christianity. The rise of rationalism during the seventeenth century and the accumulation of scientific knowledge, inevitably, forced the Church to rethink these practices – although they are clearly prescribed by the Bible (see chapter 2). When these persecutions halted, people became free to think for themselves and to embrace ideas that ran counter to the superstitions contained in the Scriptures.
It must be remembered that the worldview of the authors and first readers of the Bible was a primitive one. For them, the world was flat. Heaven was somewhere above and hell was below the surface of the earth. Earth was the centre of the cosmos. The universe was, according to this worldview, filled with living creatures as well as gods, spirits, angels and demons that all played a part in events on earth. The scientific revolution that started during the Renaissance altered this world view. We now see that earth is a tiny speck in a huge universe in which there is no place either for heaven or for hell. Many people, though, still believe in spirits, angels and demons, although these beings don’t seem to interfere with everyday life so much anymore. Many Christians still believe in miracles when God somehow or other is supposed to interfere with the usual operation of the laws of nature.
Western civilization has in the meantime largely moved into the so-called post-modern period. According to post-modernism, there may be various ways in which the truth about the world and ourselves may be seen. Everything is part of a bigger whole and all phenomena are parts of bigger systems where every part has an influence upon the rest. In this way of thinking and seeing the world, there is no place anymore for the primitive worldview of the Bible and the belief in all sorts of spiritual beings. In other words: the message of the Bible – and religion in general – simply does not appeal to sophisticated people of the present age anymore (Craffert, 2002: 67-87).
Although Christianity is growing in the Third World and it is clear that Islam is gaining ground faster, it is also evident that the fastest growing religious trends in the world today are those of atheism, secularism, agnosticism, naturalism, humanism and rationalism. Christianity is doomed in the long run – and so are Judaism and Islam. Superstitions and outdated ideas die hard but the increase in the levels of education throughout the world will help to sweep the superstitions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam away. Gerald Benedict remarks, quite correctly, that “the demographics of belief indicate a marked trend to atheism and agnosticism” (Benedict, 2013: 37).
Many people turned their backs on the church and religion due to the perceived hypocrisy of bishops, priests, pastors and other church officials. Grayling and Küng both point out that the Roman Catholic Church forbids abortions or the use of contraceptives. A large number of members of this church, nevertheless, do use contraceptives or undergo abortions. This church teaches a strong anti-sex morality, but a large number of homosexual and heterosexual priests have been defrocked after it came to light that they were guilty of pedophilia – something that was denied and covered up for a long time (Grayling, 2012: 44-45; Küng, 2013: passim).
This initial failure to discipline priests guilty of sexual abuse of minors led to police investigations in Germany and other countries – much to the consternation and embarrassment of the Catholic hierarchy (Küng, 2013: 25-28).
All these developments prompted the late Willem de Klerk, a well-known theologian and author in South Africa, to declare that Christianity is experiencing a “crisis” due to the fact that God is disappearing from the world. In many cases, people still participate in religious rituals without believing in the message of the church (De Klerk, 1999: 13-15).
It is actually sad and tragic to see how churches and theologians are – sometimes desperately – struggling to stay relevant. They try their best to prove that the message of the Bible – whatever it is – may be severed from the primitive world view of past ages and may be integrated into the post-modern views of contemporary society. In the process, they alienate less sophisticated, less educated and confused church members – people who got stuck in the world views of previous ages and who still interpret the Bible literally.
These modern theologians twist and turn the contents of the Bible in such a manner in an endeavour to render it meaningful for people of the twenty-first century. But, these theologians also do not seem to be able to convince post-modern people that the Bible’s message has any relevance and they do not realise that it won’t help to update Christianity because Christianity – in whatever form – cannot be updated or defended anymore. It may even be said that their mental gymnastics to translate the message of the Bible – whatever it is – into contemporary language result in an intellectual construct that often differs very little from humanism, agnosticism or even atheism. But they do not convince many people. People of our time just do not find it necessary to take religion seriously, to be saved from their sins, to worship a God whose existence cannot be proved and to belong to a moribund church or religious organisation. The efforts of these post-modern theologians do not impress them in the least. If these theologians want to be honest and credible they must abandon their efforts to bolster Christianity or religion in general and rather abandon religion altogether.
Ignorance Regarding Key Christian Doctrines
It was already shown that there exists much confusion between Christian groups regarding key doctrines. There are, though, also quite a number of other issues on which most Christians are supposed to agree. But there seems to be much ignorance amongst ordinary Christians and even ministers of religion regarding many of these key Christian doctrines.
The doctrines of Reformed churches are contained in the so-called formularies of unity, namely the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt. When theological students of these churches are admitted to the ministry they have to sign a declaration that they accept these creeds as a faithful rendering of scriptural “truths”. If a minister should publish or propagate any ideas that contradict the contents of these creeds then it is regarded as a heresy and that minister may be disciplined.
I have heard many sermons by colleagues from which it appeared that they do not quite understand what the official church doctrine is. More than once, I heard a minister say from the pulpit that the relationship between Christ and believers is like the relationship between a father and his children. Wow! That means that God the Father is actually the grandfather of believers because Christ is supposed to be his Son!
The Canons of Dordt contain a lengthy explanation of the doctrine of predestination, a key reformed or Calvinist doctrine. Many of my former colleagues admitted to me that they have no inkling what the doctrine of predestination really entails and that they are too afraid to preach anything connected to this doctrine because the danger exists that they will only confuse their parishioners.
Ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church eagerly call themselves “reformed”, but they unfortunately do not always know what this means and I have seen many cases where they were easily swayed by the ideas of charismatic and fundamentalist theologians, under the impression that these ideas are in accordance with the reformed creeds. Many ordinary members of the Reformed Churches are constantly being bombarded with ideas from every conceivable Christian movement or group through the mass media. If their ministers are not always sure what the official views of their church regarding a number of doctrines and issues are, then it is to be expected that these lay members will experience much more uncertainty and confusion.
Since the advent of the internet there are literally thousands of sermons available to be downloaded. A large number of these sermons are of questionable quality, but they are nevertheless often adopted by preachers in the Reformed Churches when they cannot find anything to tell their congregations on a Sunday. This also leads to doctrinal confusion on the pulpit and in the pews of congregations throughout the country.
There is a large number of black churches in South Africa. Bengt Sundkler, a Swedish missionary, published his study of these churches in 1948 under the title “Bantu Prophets in South Africa” (reprinted in 2004). He found that there are many break-away churches from the mainline churches amongst the black people in South Africa, where Christian views and elements from traditional African religious cultures are combined into a syncretistic mixture. The leaders of these churches usually model their leadership on the pattern of either traditional witch doctors or tribal chiefs (Sundkler, 2004: passim). The same pattern seems to be repeated in other parts of Africa. That means that many black people practice a religion that may be a combination of Christianity and traditional religions.
A similar situation exists in America. The Barna Research Group conducted a survey of so-called born-again American Christians in 2000 to test their insights into a number of biblical principles. They found the following:
- Only 44% of born-again Christians believe that moral truth is absolute.
- 38% are not sure what to think about moral truth (Barna & Hatch, 2001: 80).
- 85% believe the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings.
- 68% believe that the Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves (this idea is nowhere to be found in the Bible).
- 24% believe that Jesus committed sins when He lived on earth (according to 2 Cor 5: 21 and Heb 4: 15 he never committed a sin).
- 53% believe that the Holy Spirit is a symbol of God’s presence, but is not a living entity.
- 30% believe that Jesus Christ did not return to life physically after He was crucified.
- 26% believe that whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know.
- 24% believe lying is sometimes necessary.
- 47% believe Satan is not a living being but is a symbol of evil.
- 31% believe that if a person is generally good or does enough good things for others, they will earn a place in heaven for themselves.
- 29% believe that all people experience the same outcome after death, regardless of their spiritual beliefs.
- 35% do not believe that a failure to consciously accept Jesus Christ as Saviour will condemn somebody to hell.
- 10% believe in reincarnation.
- 27% believe that God is ultimately responsible for allowing suffering in one’s life.
- 30% believe that all religious faiths teach the same basic principles (Barna & Hatch, 2001: 190-194).
Barna and Hatch conclude (2001: 202):
“The Church is rotting from the inside out, crippled by abiblical theology. () Let’s acknowledge that we are in a state of spiritual anarchy.”
These authors also assert:
- “The core values of the Church are a mixture of the world’s values and a series of spiritually oriented preferences” (Barna & Hatch, 2001: 88).
- “Our desire for convenience has changed how we select and engage with our church. Rather than starting with a theological perspective and picking a church that will foster spiritual growth that is consistent with our biblical convictions, most of us select a church that is close to our home and that offers worship services at times that fit our schedule. (….) Our longing for stimulating experiences means that we will attend a church that is in vogue, and our first order of business is to take advantage of the satisfying events it has to offer. It becomes vitally important for us to feel good about our church choice and church experiences” (Barna & Hatch, 2001: 90).
- “The predominant belief is that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe something and feel good about it. () Millions of adults say they believe in and worship God, but they have no idea what worship means, who God is, what He stands for and what He expects of those who wish to relate to Him” (Barna & Hatch, 2001: 186).
Barna & Hatch (2001: 228) provide this diagnosis:
“Evangelism will become tougher and tougher among adults since a large number of them will have made a first-time decision in the past but have been abandoned after that decision, and thus fallen away from the faith. Reviving their interest in Christianity will prove to be extremely difficult.”
Not only are the numbers of Christians dwindling in Europe, South Africa, America and elsewhere, the spiritual strength of the churches in these countries also seems to be waning. The future for Christianity in America truly looks bleak, according to Barna and Hatch – and this also seems to apply to the rest of the Western world.
There may also be another reason why certain Christians in America and elsewhere do not support some orthodox biblical teachings anymore: They have been exposed to newer research findings regarding the origins of the Bible, which contradict the traditional views. When people start to question traditional belief systems – as has happened in Europe – then it does not take long for them to leave the church and abandon their Christian beliefs altogether. This, also, does not bode well for the future of Christianity in America, Europe and elsewhere.
Theology: a Pseudoscience
Field of study
Students at universities are able to study a large number of sciences. Each scientific discipline has a more or less clear idea of what is being studied and investigated in that subject. For instance: astronomy investigates the cosmos, geography investigates the earth’s surface, botany studies plants, economics deals with the world of money, history studies the actions of humans and societies in the past, psychology looks at human behaviour, etcetera.
One may, however, also ask: what is the field of study of theology? Is it a science at all? Or is it a pseudo-science, such as astrology, phrenology or palmistry? The fact that it is being taught at certain universities does not automatically qualify it as a science. It must be admitted that the oldest European universities from medieval times started as schools where theology, law and medicine were taught (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010: University). But that does not mean that the practice and teaching of theology can still be regarded as a scientific activity in our time.
In modern universities, various disciplines connected to religion are being taught: history of religions, religious studies, philosophy of religion, psychology of religion, sociology of religion, biblical studies, history of Christianity, cultural anthropology, and so forth (Seckler, 1980: 27). It is clear, therefore, that there is consensus that religion, as a phenomenon and human activity, is a legitimate field of study. The question, though, remains: is theology in itself a science?
Theologians disagree amongst themselves what exactly is supposed to be studied or investigated when they practice and teach Christian theology – just as various denominations and Christian groupings cannot agree on a number of doctrinal issues.. The following diverging thoughts regarding the nature of theology as a scientific discipline can be found:
Theology is the science that studies God
There are theologians who see their discipline as a field of study in which God is being studied (Pannenberg, 1976: 297 & 301; Dreyer, 1981: 2; Stone, 1988: 92) These authors may have a valid point. The word “theology”, after all, means “knowledge about God”.
One has to agree, though, that God cannot be an object of study. All the known sciences gather data through experimentation, calculation, observation. analysis and deduction and base their explanations and theories on an interpretation of these data. It is, however, not possible to perform experiments in which God is involved, to do calculations regarding God or to observe God. It is, therefore, not possible to have a science that studies and investigates God directly or indirectly.
Theology is the science that studies the Bible
Other Christian theologians argue that theology studies the Bible (Hodge, 1871: 15 & 21; Kuyper, 1894a: 164, 244; Firet, 1968: 13; Heyns and Jonker, 1974: 13, 132, 137; Venter, 1995: 185).
This view is problematic. Theologians who study the Old and the New Testaments also have to study the secular history of those times. They also rely on secular sciences such as archaeology and textual criticism; the last mentioned discipline is needed to reconstruct the original text of the biblical books. Church historians don’t find their study material in the Bible; they have to consult all sorts of documents created by individuals and ecclesiastical bodies in the past to know what happened in the church through the ages. Practical theologians rely to a large extent on the social sciences. Theologians, therefore, do much more than only study the text of the Bible.
Theology is the science that studies the Christian faith
Various theologians propagate the view that theology investigates the Christian faith (Schilling, 1968: 79-80; Küng; 1989a: 32; Ott, 1973: 35; Seckler, 1980: 18, 19, 31; Metz, 1984: 44, 50-52; Van Huyssteen, 1986: 2-3; and Muller, 1991: 185).
This view is also not without problems. Kuyper pointed out that the study of the Christian faith as a cultural phenomenon cannot be regarded as a science as such; it can only be seen as a topic that can be investigated by practitioners of the history of religions or sociology of religion – just as other religions are also investigated by these sciences (Kuyper, 1894a: 267-268). Heyns and Jonker (1974: 56) thought along similar lines.
Theology is the science that investigates God’s revelation in Scripture and creation
König (1978: 18 & 31) wrote that theology is supposed to investigate God and the whole of creation from the perspective of faith. The study object of theology is, therefore, God and his whole creation. According to Oden (1982: x), theology is "that knowledge of God witnessed to in Scripture, mediated through tradition, reflected upon by systematic reasoning, and embodied in personal and social experience."
This point of view means that theology has to take note of the results of all the other sciences – natural sciences and social sciences. That boils down to the fact that theology cannot be distinguished from (Christian) philosophy, which also deals with the whole of reality.
It became clear that theologians give widely differing answers when trying to answer the question: What is the field of study of theology?
If it is not possible to reach unanimity then one has to conclude that theologians don’t really know what they are doing and theology, therefore, cannot be regarded as a scientific endeavour. One cannot but agree with Thomas Paine who declared towards the end of the eighteenth century that theology “is the study of human opinions and of human fancies concerning God” (Paine, 1880: 26)
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