Some Questions for Matt Oxley

Matt Oxley describes himself as a “former Christian helping others work through the battle of a lost faith.” One aspect of his mission is “to promote intelligent discussion.” So he won’t mind my probing a bit concerning his claim, “I’m a former Christian.”

Recall Scripture states, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2.19) Recently a professing Christian cited this verse for Matt. The implication is that Matt was never a Christian. Matt’s response was, “I know what the Bible says…this isn’t the place to quote scripture at people that know it better than you. It’s arrogant and unkind.” I’m not sure how it is arrogant or unkind to quote Scripture. I can’t say the same for Matt’s snappy boast about his knowledge of Scripture, but I’d like to set that aside, especially since Matt later apologized for his initial reply.

Matt explains, “the thing is – that verse has only been thrown at me about a thousand times now…not to mention the nights it kept me up. I understand your prerogative is to believe the Bible – but please understand that we don’t all believe it.”

Now, the things Matt writes here are by no means unique to him. I’ve read and heard plenty of atheists raise the same sort of objection. But this response puzzles me a great deal, and I’d like to invite Matt to provide some clarification. As it stands, Matt does not strike me as a very self-critical individual. He does not seem aware of the consequences of his own thinking. And that is a problem, especially when it comes to discussions about religious belief and doubts and the like. Of course I may be missing something. I may be mistaken. If I am wrong, then I would like to know in what way I am wrong. So, why am I puzzled?

First, atheists often have this notion that when Christians quote Scripture it is because Christians think everyone else believes Scripture. Of course, that’s nonsense. Christians are well aware that not everyone believes the Bible. In fact it is often because people do not believe the Bible that Christians quote from it. Christians believe the Word of God brings about faith. (Romans 10.14) But another reason Christians quote Scripture to unbelievers is because they are attempting to explain their view to non-Christians. For example, I just cited Romans 10.14 in an effort to explain a Christian practice to unbelievers who may read this blog. Not because I think those unbelievers believe what the text says, but in order to explain the biblical motivation for why Christians do what they do. Does Matt think that Christians quote Scripture because they think everyone else believes it?

Second, the verse cited does; in fact, explain the Christian view concerning Matt’s experience. It is not that Matt was actually a Christian. Rather, Matt professed to be a Christian, and it became evident over time that he was not. It is not that Matt was a Christian and became a non-Christian, but that Matt was never a Christian at all. For whatever reason, many non-Christians who claim to have once been Christian are offended by the aforementioned claim. I do not know why. But I do know that it is the Christian view on the matter, and, whether or not one accepts that view, it must be acknowledged that it is a coherent view. Does Matt think the Christian view of apostasy per 1 John 2.19 is coherent?

Third, Matt claims that he does not believe the Bible. I agree. He does not. And having spent many years studying under and around other unbelievers, including plenty of atheists and agnostics, I realize that many others do not believe the Bible either. That’s not an incredibly profound insight, though I’ve had more than one person try to impress it upon me as such. But here’s what should be an equally weighty statement for the unbeliever: not everyone agrees with you in your rejection of Scripture. No reason to give the atheist an unfair advantage here. Does Matt think everyone disbelieves the Bible like him?

Fourth, Matt does not believe 1 John 2.19 concerning apostates in particular. But what is his alternative? Is Matt claiming that he really was a Christian? That God actually saved Matt from his sin? This would be an odd idea for Matt to believe, given his claims that he lacks belief in both God and sin. How can God have once saved Matt from his sin if neither God nor sin exists? Perhaps I am missing something, but Matt’s thinking appears to me extremely confused on this point. Does Matt think that God saved him from his sin?

Presuppositional categories can be made explicit in this instance by pointing out that the Christian is operating within the confines of his or her own worldview in working out a theology of apostasy from Scripture. Alternatively, the atheist is operating from within the confines of his or her own worldview in rejecting a theology of apostasy from Scripture. Within the Christian worldview, quoting or citing Scripture to unbelievers, the defensive response of unbelievers, and apostasy all make sense. In an atheist worldview, taking offense at the quotation or citation of Scripture and identifying oneself as a “former Christian” make little to no sense. Of course, the unbeliever might define what he or she means by “Christian” here differently from the way a Christian would define the term, but then the unbeliever is simply equivocating on the term for the sake of popularity.

I’ve written on this topic here as well – https://choosinghats.org/2012/04/conversion-stories. I hope Matt will not take unnecessary offense at my questioning his thinking on this matter, and that he will clarify or rethink his claim that he is a “former Christian.”


6 Comments

Pilgrim

You’ve written a good article here on the oft-heard claim of “former Christian”, and I’ve linked to it.

I’m pretty new to your site, but so far it has been a great help and encouragement to me.

Thanks!

AP

Doug

Excellent thinking. Thanks for the post.

Matt Oxley

Chris,

Sorry it’s taken me some time to get around to answering this…it’s been a rather hectic week.

I should note first that the incident in reference is one that I particularly regret because I was uncharacteristically snippish to the young man that I was addressing, and as such I was sure to apologize to him for that. I do believe that he was under the impression that I was a Christian when he posted what he posted however, or at least that’s what I gathered as the conversation proceeded.

That particular verse is bothersome to me, not because it contains some great truth – but because I laid awake at night considering it as my doubts were winning me over. It’s only arrogant because it assumes that those of us whom doubt are unfamiliar with that verse and that it hasn’t been on our minds at one point or another.

A much greater insult, though, is the idea that I’m somehow not a very “self-critical” individual. I’ll leave that for another time however.

To your questions…

The first:

Do I believe (or think) that Christians quote Scripture because they think everyone believes it?

Obviously I don’t believe that, you quote scripture because you believe it and you believe that somehow it is going to make an impact on those that don’t. Of course, I’ve never walked up to a Christian and randomly quoted Dawkins, Darwin, Hitchens, or anyone else – simply because I don’t think it would appeal to that individual. Pearls before swine might be one way to say it (I think I read that somewhere else first) – you don’t know what to do with it and I don’t think it’s an effective tool of communication with Christians.

If I wanted to appeal to the sensibilities of a Christian I might quote from their scriptures, likewise for the Muslim I’d quote from the Qu’ran – not because I believe in either of these books as a source of divinity or truth, but because I’m trying to communicate WITH people rather than AT them.

The second:

Does Matt think the Christian view of apostasy per 1 John 2.19 is coherent?

No, nor do I find much of anything in the Bible to be coherent. You already know this.

The third:

Does Matt think everyone disbelieves the Bible like him?

Obviously not, but that doesn’t have anything to do with efficacy of using the Bible as a reference for discussing things with people that don’t believe.

The fourth:

Does Matt think that God saved him from his sin?

I don’t believe that a god exists, nor that I need to be saved from my sin… What I did in the past believe is much different. I DID beleive those things, I believed them fully and without doubt for a great part of my life…nothing can change the fact that at one time I absolutely believed, nor can anything change the fact that at one time I had questions about that belief, furthermore the fact remains that I no longer hold those beliefs. Were you never a child because you are an adult now?

Remember, I wasn’t a Calvinist, I never used your language to describe salvation and so for you to expect it from me, especially in the past tense – make little sense.

I’m not rejecting the theology of apostacy as scripture would have one believe it, I’m rejecting the notion that one’s scripture is at all relavent to me as an individual well capable of rejecting it now. I’m rejecting your use of scripture to define, instruct, or educate me in lieu of finding methods of communication that will be effective for both parties.

Matt

C.L. Bolt

Matt,

Thank you for the well-thought-out response. Note first that I did not intend to insult you. Self-critical thought is not easy to come by, and people often overlook the logical consequences of their thoughts. Remember I am quite willing to concede my admittedly very subjective opinion. I wrote, “I may be missing something,” and “I may be mistaken.” Now on to your answers to my questions.

You acknowledge, “you [Chris] quote scripture because you believe it and you believe that somehow it is going to make an impact on those that don’t. Of course, I’ve never walked up to a Christian and randomly quoted Dawkins, Darwin, Hitchens, or anyone else – simply because I don’t think it would appeal to that individual.” I’m glad you understand that the reason Christians quote from Scripture is due to their presuppositions about Scripture. The Christian believes the Word of God is extremely powerful, and that it can appeal to a sinner in need of its redemptive truth. Meanwhile, because you, as an atheist, do not think quoting Dawkins, Darwin, or Hitchens would appeal to Christians, you do not do so. Dawkins, Darwin, and Hitchens do not have the sort of divine authority Christians believe the Word of God has. So you see clearly the difference of practice in an exchange based upon different presuppositions.

That having been said, I am not sure how your answer squares with your complaint to the Christian in your initial exchange. You suggested to him that not everyone believes the Bible. The implication was that he was unaware of that fact, and that his ignorance of the aforementioned fact was the cause of his practice of quoting Scripture.

Concerning Dawkins, et al. you also wrote, “you don’t know what to do with it and I don’t think it’s an effective tool of communication with Christians.” Are you suggesting that I am incapable of reading and understanding the authors you mention? I certainly hope you have not gone that far into fundamentalist atheism (it’s bad enough referring to the works of Dawkins and Hitchens as “pearls,” after all!). You continue, “If I wanted to appeal to the sensibilities of a Christian I might quote from their scriptures.” I’m not sure you ever quoted from Scripture during your debate with me, and you rarely, if ever, seem to do so in your exchanges with Christians on your Facebook page. So again, your explanation puzzles me a bit. Of course, I suppose you might not have been trying to appeal to me or your visitors, which is fine. You finish, “I’m trying to communicate WITH people rather than AT them.” Of course, communication must be directed toward someone in order to communicate with that person, so I am not sure of what type of distinction you are drawing here. I also hope your statement is not evidence of sliding back into a negligence of the role of presuppositions in discourse which you already (helpfully!) pinpointed above. That is, the Christian does not quote Scripture because he or she is attempting to communicate “AT” someone (whatever that actually means), but because the Christian believes quoting Scripture might be the best means at the time of communicating “WITH” an unbeliever who needs to hear the truth and have it impressed upon him or her by the Holy Spirit. Again, I recognize you do not believe the Bible is true, or that the Holy Spirit exists, and the like. I’m just asking you to understand the Christian’s position from his or her own presuppositions. By the way, I am happy to quote from Dawkins, Darwin, and Hitchens in speaking with unbelievers. The skeptical difficulties I would bring to your attention in other discussion stem primarily from unbelieving thought.

I asked, “Does Matt think the Christian view of apostasy per 1 John 2.19 is coherent?” Your response was, “No, nor do I find much of anything in the Bible to be coherent. You already know this.” Actually, I was not aware of you taking the stance that most of the Bible is incoherent. Nor was I aware of you subscribing to the position that the Christian view of apostasy is incoherent. I’m also not quite sure what you mean. What specifically, within the Christian understanding of apostasy, is incoherent? Or are you just rejecting that something is “coherent” as a sort of exercise in name-calling? People do the same with words like “logical” and “valid.”

I asked, “Does Matt think everyone disbelieves the Bible like him?” You responded, “Obviously not, but that doesn’t have anything to do with efficacy of using the Bible as a reference for discussing things with people that don’t believe.” Ah, but it does. You see, you are letting the importance of presuppositions fall by the wayside again. You question the efficacy of using the Bible in discussions with people who do not believe it. But you do so based upon your unbelieving presuppositions. Let me reiterate that not everyone agrees with you in your rejection of Scripture. There is no reason to give you, as an atheist, an unfair advantage here. According to Christian presuppositions, it is effective to quote Scripture in encounters with unbelievers. According to non-Christian presuppositions, it is not. But why should the non-Christian position automatically be taken as the default position? Why should it be taken for granted that quoting Scripture to unbelievers is futile? It shouldn’t be! At least not according to Christian presuppositions. You see, the disagreement *always* takes place at the level of presuppositions. That’s what I hope to impress upon you in our exchange.

You write, “I don’t believe that a god exists, nor that I need to be saved from my sin.” Thank you for the clarification. Allow me to clarify then that you were never a Christian. A Christian is a person who (among other things) is saved by the grace of God from his or her sins. Since you do not believe in God or sins, you cannot rightfully claim that you were once a Christian. There was no God to save you, no sin to be saved from, and thus you were never really a Christian at all.

You continue, “I DID beleive those things, I believed them fully and without doubt for a great part of my life…nothing can change the fact that at one time I absolutely believed.” Sure, but that did not make you a Christian. If you follow the link in the post above (and no, I did not assume you were obligated to do so) you will read from me the following:

We are not saying that unbelievers never knew God. (Romans 1.19) We are not saying that they never had faith. (James 2.19, 24) We are not saying that they were never with us. (1 John 2.19) They were born into our congregations. They were raised in our Sunday Schools. They learned our confessions, catechisms, and creeds. They participated in the sacraments and ordinances. They sat under the preaching of the Word. They were as wholly involved in the programmatic life of the church as any man or woman could be. They did good works, they called Jesus ‘Lord,’ and they believed themselves to be Christians. (Matthew 7.21-23) We need not deny any of this to the unbeliever.

I do not deny your previous belief or experiences. What I do deny is that you were ever saved in a biblical sense. Indeed, if you ever were, then you would have stayed and continued with us. As it stands, you spend a good portion of your time opposing Christ and his Church.

You ask, “Were you never a child because you are an adult now?” Of course not. Adulthood presupposes childhood. Non-Christianity does not presuppose Christianity. Also, human development involves a change from child to adult. Apostasy does not involve a change from Christianity to non-Christianity. So you’re either very confused about what apostasy really looks like in the Christian worldview, or else you’ve got a bad analogy on your hands. Possibly both, I do not know.

You write, “Remember, I wasn’t a Calvinist, I never used your language to describe salvation and so for you to expect it from me, especially in the past tense – make little sense.” What I am presenting to you (a Christian is someone God saved from his or her sin) has virtually nothing to do with Calvinism. Do you think the Christian who quoted the text from 1 John to you is a Calvinist? I strongly doubt it, though I may be wrong. So why bring Calvinism into it at all? I’m just pointing out the biblical definition of a Christian.

You write, “I’m not rejecting the theology of apostacy as scripture would have one believe it.” Now I’m exceedingly confused. A moment ago you rejected that this theology is coherent. Now you say you do not reject it. You claim to be a “former Christian.” This category is precluded by Scripture. Then you claim that you do not reject the theology of apostasy presented in Scripture. Which is it? I’m not trying to nit-pick here. I am almost certain that I have misunderstood you, and am seeking clarification.

You write, “I’m rejecting the notion that one’s scripture is at all relavent to me as an individual well capable of rejecting it now.” Scripture is relevant to you now because you continue to bill yourself as a “former Christian.” Scripture recognizes no such category. Now, as I have pointed out, you either mean something very different from what Christians do when you use the label “Christian,” or else you are simply mistaken that you were ever a Christian.

You conclude, “I’m rejecting your use of scripture to define, instruct, or educate me in lieu of finding methods of communication that will be effective for both parties.” Right. It appears to me that you are forcing a definition of “Christian” onto Christians that does not come from the Bible and is rejected by the Bible. Yet you expect us to accept *your* definition instead. The move is called “equivocation.” The result is a breakdown in communication. Equivocation does not facilitate communication. Interestingly enough, definitions, instruction, and education *do* facilitate communication, so I’m puzzled, yet again, as to why you would want to force them out of a discussion, if you want to “promote intelligent discussion”?

In any event, thanks for the reply.

RazorsKiss

What has struck me about this entire exchange is that it has validated the presuppositional methodology so very strongly. Matt seems to, in his interactions with us, want to adopt much of our terminology, albeit in weakened forms – such as his use of “frames” in such frequency during the debate – but then on the other hand use the terminology in a completely different fashion from our use of it. It’s a common tactic to project the postmodern usage of “worldview” onto the presuppositionalist – but in my experience it’s almost never the case in regard to any paticular presuppositionalist. In point of fact, it tends to be the person who “borrows” the terminology who uses it as a postmodern would. It seems to me that Matt uses his “frames” as a postmodernist uses “worldview” – as an exercise in subjectivism. It’s the clash of “true for you” vs. “True for me.” On the other hand, he wants to make statements that at least seem to have an objective basis – and to affirm an objective sort of common ground.

On the one hand there is the complaint that we are, in effect, being too dogmatic and absolutistic – then on the other hand the claim that we need to speak “to”, not “at” our interlocutors. This reminds me of the Romanists who on the one hand complain of the multitude of differing interpretations caused by Sola Scriptura – then treat “Prots” as a singular entity for the purposes of rhetoric. Which is it? Do we need to both, separately, be absolutistic and dogmatic (as much of his supporting comments seem to evidence) or do we need to find a “common ground” that is separate from either viewpoint? This is the same trap that evidentialists fall into with their apologetic methodology – and, ironically, many of their unbelieving counterparts also fall into. Is there a common ground, or is there? I have much more sympathy with an unbeliever who sticks to his guns and says that there is an objective truth to their position, and that their opponent’s position is only understandable in terms of their own – this is a properly presuppositional approach. The unholy amalgamation of “subjective” and “objective” so many approach the issue with is a failure on any number of levels.

This isn’t even to mention the equivocations being made in the use of the term “former Christian”, aChris pointed out. Theologically, and historically, it is just simply the case that “Christian” means “saved from their sins” – not merely “professor”. The variety of controversies in even the ancient church in reference to apostasy and the proper response to it amply attest to this. There is simply no such animal as a “former Christian” – and this is, both definitionally and categorically – different from something like “former Muslim” or “former atheist”. This is, simply, because to be “Christian” is to be stay a Christian. Whatever the modern day adherents of Pelagius have to say about the issue, Augustine put the issue to rest with great forcefulness. Whether many of today’s professing Christians are, in fact, semi-pelagians still has nothing to do with the fact that Christianity, following Whthe Scriptural witness, defines what is a Christian rather clearly. So, it remains the case that Matt either *was* saved from his sins by the atonement of Christ – which he flatly rejects – or that he was never a Christian in the first place, as he was not so atoned for. Was he a professing, albeit ignorant “Christian,” in the sense that he thought he was one? Most likely so. There is a difference between a “professing Christian” and a “persevering Christian,” however – and whatever he might think of the merits of historic Christianity, it remains the case that historic Christianity has a clear and established definition to be dealt with.

So, if he is to make the “differing Christianities” claim – think of this – can he then treat “=hristianity” as a monolith from that point forward? If he treats each heresy of Scriptural Christianity as an equally valid Christianity – he then has to make it clear which view he’s dealing with – as well as differentiate them from others. We are quite clear as to our position in regards to semi-pelagianism and the like – if he wants to tie us under the same umbrellla while simultaneously critiquing our responses as lacking nuance, he seems to have forgotten a few steps. Such as making it clear that he is a former adherent to a heresy of Christianity, for example – which definitionally makes him not “one of us” to begin with. This lacks the rhetorical flavor of “former Christian,” to be sure, but it has the benefit of being true. While he may take umbrage at his self-criticism being questioned, this seems to be a prime example of where it is lacking. Further, does he understand that elsewhere, quite frequently, we have critiqued unbelief, as a system, for being *inherently incapable* of self-examination due to the self being what amounts to the absolute *authority* for any such examination of the kind? The inherent subjectivity of the entire worldview renders self-examination an impossibility, by the nature of the case. Stating that it appears that self-examination is wanting is hardly a personal attack of some sort – because what is in view is a criticism of unbelief’s inability to actually be self-critical when the self is the court of appeal.

Another example, which Chris also alluded to – the comparison between Dawkins and Hitchens being quoted to the Bible being quoted. It’s obvious that Matt doesn’t consider these men to be inerrant – so why are they even being considered in comparison? Perhaps because they are considered to be authoritative in another sense – but then again, what “common ground”.of authority is he going to suggest that we can both accept, that will enable us to talk “to and not at” each other? While he talks a good game about “frames” and the like, I submit to you that “I don’t think it means what you think it means.” He’s using it in the postmodernist sense – we are not. We aren’t talking about thesis, antithesis, and somehow we need to find a synthesis – which, when you boil it down, seems to be what he’s actually proposing.

via Choosing Hats: Some Questions for Matt Oxley

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