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Robert Price Martin

Review of The Case Against Christianity (1998)

Robert M. Price


Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity. Temple University Press, 1991. 273 pp. ISBN 1-56639-081-8 (hard cover); 0-87722-767-5 (paperbound). Reviewed by Robert M. Price.

After a dozen years of active involvement as a born-again Christian, and another twenty as some sort of Liberal Protestant, I finally gave up on Christianity. I did so partly because the approach to life and faith just no longer rang true to me, partly because the beliefs no longer made any sense. Or rather, I could no longer make light of the fact that they made no sense by retreating to claims of “mystery” and “divine paradox.” Wherever I turned, whatever issue I examined (and in the course of a Ph.D. program in Systematic Theology and another in New Testament and Early Christianity I had occasion to examine quite a number of them, and from a sympathetic standpoint), I found that the great “verities” of the Christian creeds seemed to make sense only so long as you didn’t trouble to think them out too far. If you did, then you inevitably found it was a matter of apologetics. Advocates of the doctrines of Incarnation, Atonement, biblical authority, the Resurrection, the Trinity invariably wound up on the ropes, honest enough to admit that the old doctrines, forged in an era when things looked quite different, could he held today only with considerable retooling, and even then it was a challenge to show their relevance, what difference it would make to believe them. How the believer was at any advantage in dealing with his own problems or the problems of the world because he believed the doctrines. In the end it became apparent to me that theologians stuck to their guns because of sentimentality and because of their association with Christian communities that could be given up no more easily than family associations. Christianity had to be true. But it wasn’t. It isn’t. And that is what philosopher Michael Martin (also the author of Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, 1990) demonstrates with great cogency and breadth in this volume.

Martin deals with pretty much the whole menu of historic Christian doctrines (the historical existence, resurrection, virgin birth, second advent, and incarnation of Jesus, Christian ethics, salvation by faith and/or works, divine voluntarism, and the atonement). He begins with a searching and provocative section on the morality of belief, whether one is entitled to take a short-cut to desirable beliefs without sufficient evidence to establish them. Of course his answer is that one is not, as any religious believer will readily admit when it comes to any other (non-religious) area of life and decision making. Through the rest of the book Martin has little difficulty showing how all the Christian doctrines float in the air like Macy’s parade floats. But he doesn’t stop there. Not only is faith in insupportable notions a sin, a cheat, but Martin shows how doctrine after doctrine falls apart on close examination. There is nothing really to believe! There is no systematic coherence to most of them, no reason belief A should lead to belief B, other than by historical accident. Implicit in the argument of the book is the important insight that the Christian belief set (I almost said “belief-system”) is an accidental collection of doctrines which only sometimes even fit together without being forced. Believers feel they must take or leave the whole thing simply because they accepted it all in one gulp from the church or evangelist who catechized them. If they bothered to question or readjust any particular belief, the illusion of seamlessness would pop like a soap bubble. It would no longer be a matter of simple faith, which is what they want. What, really, does the Incarnation have to do with the atonement? Why should belief in the incarnation of God in Christ imply Trinitarianism instead of Modalism or Tritheism? The believer never even stops to think of these things. But Martin does. He leaves few stones unturned, few paths untrodden, in his effort to reveal the arbitrariness and self-vitiation of the hydra-headed theology.

I would have enjoyed seeing Martin pause at greater length over the implausibilities attendant on the evolution of Orthodox God-Man Christology, but having, one supposes, to make some tough triage calls given a manageable-length volume, he focuses more on recent attempts to render the two-nature Christology coherent (e.g., Thomas V. Morris’s astonishing “two-minds” argument, which sounds like the Nestorian heresy to me!). Martin’s approach is rigorously philosophical. It is good to see him take on Alvin Plantinga, whose “What? Me worry?” approach to epistemology and foundationalism lets supposedly sophisticated believers off the hook way too easily (see also D.Z. Phillips’s chapter on “Reformed Epistemology” in his Faith After Foundationalism).

Martin’s got you covered. There’s a tendency for liberal and neo-orthodox theologians to agree with severe criticisms of traditional faith and then to say, “But of course, this doesn’t affect my position!” Look at Karl Barth’s introduction to Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, Harper Torchbook edition, or Paul Tillich’s claim that the God atheists reject does not exist. But Martin zeroes in on such modernizers and demythologizers in a separate chapter. Liberal theologians usually manage to end up with a lot of sentimental mush or something that gains its strength from an unspoken accommodation to the very humanism it still claims superiority over. Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen’s question is still a good one: is Liberalism still Christian? If so, it is a toothless tiger.

With such a comprehensive work as Martin’s The Case Against Christianity I find myself with few criticisms to make. Let me just note a couple of minor factual errors. Observing that the Nicene Creed said little about the Holy Spirit, Martin says this lack was rectified at the Council of Chalcedon. The result was the “Nicene-Chalcedonian Creed.” Actually, Chalcedon produced its own creed, while the Nicene Creed was embellished instead at the Council of Constantinople. There is no “Nicene-Chalcedonian Creed” so far as I know, but rather a Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Also, he garbles wording of the Testimonium Flavianum, the paragraph on Jesus interpolated into Josephus. These slips in no way affect the cogency of the argument, but you know apologists: they love nothing better than to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. They will point to glitches like this and say, “Why bother responding when the atheist doesn’t even have his facts straight?” That’s a dodge, but it’s a shame to give ’em an inch.

More seriously, I kind of wish Martin hadn’t opened his discussion of the resurrection of Jesus with the observation that for all we know, one day science may discover how a man could rise from the dead without divine intervention. He mentions it as a mere possibility, but why bother? Fundamentalists will seize on it as if to make Martin seem to be grasping at straws. Martin might better have pointed to the neglected research of J. Duncan M. Derrett (Anastasis: The Resurrection as a Historical Event) who shows how nick-of-time recussitations from the very lip of the grave were so common in the ancient world that ancient medical texts commonly discussed them. Along the same lines, though, Martin does a fine job of pointing out the absurdity of apologists who appeal to modern physics theories of indeterminacy to argue that there is no absolute cause-and effect structure of inflexible natural law. Apologists thus think to chip away at the “closed system” of naturalists; but what they are really doing is to subvert the very natural regularity that would make an anomalous event seem to point to a supernatural cause. In other words, they destroy the argument from miracle by their attempted defense of it!

When my wife Carol saw me reading The Case Against Christianity, her comment was, “Yeah, like you need one!” Well, some people do. And Martin has provided a good one.

“Review of Case Against Christianity” is copyright © 1998 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1998 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Robert M. Price.