Ask Drs. Vince and Jo Vitale (April 16-20, 2018)

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(Carson Weitnauer) #1

Hi friends,

This week we have the opportunity to ask Vince and Jo Vitale our evangelistic and apologetic questions! As you may know, they are the Director and Dean of Studies, respectively, for the Zacharias Institute. They are serve as the featured speakers on the popular Ask Away podcast.

I enjoy working next to them in our Atlanta headquarters. We regularly pray together, collaborate with one another, and share stories of seeing the gospel transform lives. I know that you will benefit from asking them your questions in Connect!

Ask away!
Carson

Vince Vitale’s bio

Vince Vitale is Director of the Zacharias Institute. He was educated at Princeton University and the University of Oxford, and he taught philosophy of religion and served as a faculty member at both of these universities. It was during his undergraduate studies in philosophy at Princeton that Vince took an unexpected journey from skeptic to evangelist. He then completed masters and PhD studies at Oxford, receiving a Daniel M. Sachs Graduating Scholarship (which was awarded annually to one graduating Princetonian) and a Clarendon Scholarship (supported by Oxford University Press).

While researching at Oxford, Vince developed a new response to the problem of evil. This response—termed the Non-Identity Defense—is discussed in Vince and Ravi Zacharias’s book Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense . In 2017, Vince and Ravi released a second co-authored book, Jesus Among Secular Gods: The Countercultural Claims of Christ. For his work on Søren Kierkegaard, Inter-Varsity Press and Tyndale House awarded Vince the title IVP Young Philosopher of Religion of the Year 2013.

Vince also has an interest in the intersection of faith and sport. He played varsity soccer at Princeton, was a “double Blue” at Oxford (competing for the university in soccer and boxing), and has traveled with Athletes in Action mission teams to four continents. While teaching at Princeton, Vince served as Faculty Director of the Athletes in Action ministry on campus.

Vince has commended the Christian faith on the campuses of many universities, including UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon, Princeton, Oxford, and Cambridge. This past year he had the privilege of speaking at Google Headquarters and Passion City Church.

Vince is incredibly grateful to be married to Jo, who also works with RZIM as the Dean of Studies for the Zacharias Institute.

Jo Vitale’s bio

Jo Vitale is Dean of Studies at the Zacharias Institute and an Itinerant Speaker for RZIM. Prior to joining the US team, Jo was a speaker for RZIM Europe, where she also served in teaching and pastoral roles at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.

During her years in Oxford, Jo graduated with a first-class degree in theology from the University of Oxford. Jo then completed an MSt in biblical interpretation and a DPhil (PhD) in Old Testament studies, both at the University of Oxford. Her doctoral dissertation was on the subject of “women and beauty in the Old Testament.” It was also in Oxford, at St. Aldate’s church, that Jo met and married Vince.

Since joining RZIM, Jo has spoken internationally in a variety of contexts, including universities, churches, schools, conferences, and radio programs. She has also been involved in leading several weeklong outreach events at universities in America and the United Kingdom. With her background in biblical studies, Jo has a particular passion for speaking on questions of biblical reliability, challenges to the character of God (including questions related to sexism, war, slavery, and judgment in the Old and New Testaments), and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in a world of competing truth claims.

Although a UK national, Jo is now based at the Zacharias Institute in Alpharetta, Georgia.


(Petrina Gomez) #3

Dear Vince and Jo,

May I first begin by saying thank you so much for the warmest of welcomes during EAP November 2017. I love you both with all my heart!

I have a question pertaining to philosophy. A good friend of mine was curious about my new interest in apologetics. When I tried to briefly describe what apologetics was (questions about life, purpose, meaning, morality, etc.) her face lit up and she began to speak about a, and I quote, “very similar” train of thought; stoic philosophy.

To be honest, I don’t know much about stoicism except from the word “stoic” itself. From my light reading, I gather that stoic philosophy is centred around one’s self, resembling a pattern like other philosophies which have evolved over time into major world views.

I hope that you may be able to advice me on how the gospel specifically responds to such a philosophy. Perhaps, what sort of questions should I raise or books I should look at? I tried to look up videos on YouTube to share with her but I couldn’t find something as specific as Stoicism Vs. The Gospel to draw distinctions.

Thank you for taking my question and praying that God will tremendously bless you both!

Blessings,
Petrina


(Joe Gonzalez ) #4

What are the best books that you would recommend for a new believer in Christ?


(Helen Tan) #5

Hi Vince and Jo, thank you for this great opportunity to learn from you! I’m just wading into the waters of the debate between Intelligent Design and Theistic Evolution advocates. It appears to be a rather heated debate (with science caught right smack in the middle of it) and I was wondering if you could share your views on the thinking behind both these groups. Thank you.


(Mitch) #6

Hi Vince and Jo,
Firstly it was a pleasure to meet Jo at Reboot Belfast… An amazing response at the end after your talk jo…we are looking forward to having you both visit Belfast next year (cheeky request).

Anyway my Question:

As an evangelist who uses apologetics I have found the training received from OCCA and RZIM incredibly helpful and fruitful. However its been my observation that placing apologetics alongside evangelism and not integrating it into early discipleship is a missed opportunity.

Can you advice on any resources that are a great place for new christians to start the adventure of discipleship and apologetics?
What has been your experience of introducing apologetics early into discipleship programmes.


(Robert Fields) #7

Good evening Jo and Vince. Thank you for your time.

Ravi stated in one of his “Leadership and Worship” series that we must first sense God before we can serve God. He did not elaborate on what he meant by “sense”. I struggle with this because I seem to experience more of an intellectual ascent of God but not as one person put it, “Jesus was more real to me than the flesh on my bones.” I question if I have become dull to the presence of God in my life, though He is all I ever think about. If I had to explain to someone else what its like to “sense” God I honestly would not know how to do so. What am I missing?

Thanks and God Bless!
Robert Fields


Reflections on sensing God's presence
(Jo Vitale) #8

Hi Mitch,

Great to hear from you, and hope the work is going well in Northern Ireland!

We really appreciate your observation, and we think you are absolutely right about there being a missed opportunity in our all-too-frequent failure to link up the early discipleship of new Christians alongside apologetics. When you think about it, it’s actually a really strange disconnect! After all, before someone becomes a Christian, we invest so much time answering their questions. Then, all of a sudden, as soon as they’ve prayed a prayer of commitment, we often sweep them into Church community with little regard for the fact that Christianity is still going to feel very strange to them in many ways, and that they are at the beginning, not the end, of their question asking.

This was driven home for us just last month, when Jo met up with a student in California that she’d had the opportunity to pray with to become a Christian a year earlier. While it was amazing to reconnect, it was also discouraging to see that in terms of her intellectual understanding of the Christian faith, and consequently her intimacy with the Lord, this student had barely moved forwards from where she was a year ago. She shared that after becoming a Christian, she had joined a campus ministry that she still regularly attended, but she was disheartened as she felt like what she encountered was a bunch of guys who were interested in dating her (!), when what she was seeking was an intellectual community who were interested in exploring with her the deep questions of faith that she was still wrestling with.

We find it helpful to think of becoming a Christian as starting a new relationship. One of the greatest joys of starting a relationship with someone is that, as you say, you are embarking on an adventure of discovery. Two of the key components in any new relationship are that you get to know one another and you enjoy being together.

In some ways, this is a bit of a balancing act. For example, if you focus exclusively on asking questions without also taking the time to just enjoy each other’s company by doing things together that you love to do, then you may wind up compiling a database about the other person, but you won’t be growing relationally closer to each other. This is a bit like a guy who admires a woman from a distance and always inquires of others about her but can’t work up the nerve to actually talk to her.

On the other hand, if you spend all your time just having fun together, perhaps because you’re scared of asking the deeper questions, then the relationship becomes frustrating and shallow, and in the long run it will be unsustainable. The key, then, when it comes to the relationship between discipleship and apologetics (both for new believers, and for the rest of us!) is not to let your intimacy outstrip your knowledge, or to allow knowledge to outstrip intimacy. Rather, we must recognize that knowledge fosters intimacy, intimacy enhances knowledge, and that we need both.

With this in mind, one approach that we are advocates for are seeker Bible studies. It’s good to start with the Bible not only because it’s our primary means of learning how to listen to God, but also because it means that any apologetic questions are first and foremost centered around the core essentials of faith, rather than heading off down rabbit trails that may or may not be helpful for new believers.

But if we are going to ask people to read the Bible, then we need to be sure that they start out by reading it with someone. Sometimes, we send people on their way with a Bible telling them just to go read it, without recognizing just how alien it can be to our culture today, and without giving people the basic interpretative skills to know how to read it. We’d recommend starting by focusing on a gospel, and we think an excellent tool for doing this is Becky Manley Pippert’s ‘Uncovering the Life of Jesus’ (based on Luke’s gospel), which is an extremely accessible seeker Bible study designed for a Christian to read with either a seeker or a new believer, and it includes really helpful questions to direct the conversation.

In addition to this, we encourage new believers not to shy away from their many questions but to write them down in a list and bring them to the person or to the community that is discipling them (one girl that Jo mentors has started putting colored post-it notes in her Bible to highlight passages that she is struggling with from an apologetics perspective, and then they work through them together for an hour every few weeks - these days, her Bible is looking pretty colorful!).

As you go through these questions with a new believer, it’s important to help them think through, “Why am I asking this question? Why is this important to me? Does this have bearing on my faith or my relationships right now, or is this a question that we could put to the side and come returned to later?”

We say this because early on in discipleship, the key goal is first and foremost to get to know Jesus, rather than getting distracted by side projects. There’s a reason that you spend some time getting to know someone well before you invite them home to meet all of your extended relations, and your strange cousins, and initiate them into all the weird and wonderful rituals that make up your family! Otherwise, you may completely overwhelm them! Likewise, we think it’s important with Christian discipleship that we start with getting to know Jesus, and focusing our questions around him (for some resource suggestions, see our answer to Joe’s question above). Once we know Jesus, then there is a stability and confidence to our relationship from which we can go on to explore the mysteries and complexities of faith, but we find it healthy and effective to begin by majoring on the majors.

Another piece of practical advice that we frequently remind ourselves of is that when it comes to discipleship, it’s more important that we help people to become Christians than that we try to make them our type of Christian. This can be a huge temptation, because by default we all believe our own views to be the right ones, or we wouldn’t hold them! But when it comes to answering the questions of a new believer, we need to be careful not to create stumbling blocks for them by always providing them with definitive answers to secondary and tertiary questions that orthodox Christians may legitimately differ on.

Alongside this, patience is key. It’s easy to forget sometimes just how long it took us to come to a specific theological position, and so the temptation is to hurry others along to seeing things our way, rather than allowing them the space and time to enjoy the journey that God is taking them on.

And even as we (rightly) encourage their questions, we still need to be careful that we don’t give the impression that once you become a Christian, you should expect an answer to everything. It’s a privilege how much God does reveal to us about himself, because he truly wants us to know him intimately. And yet, to slightly adapt an analogy used by Tim Keller, becoming a Christian is like falling off a cliff to find yourself caught by a tree branch stops your fall: it’s not your own strength that saves you, it’s the strength of the branch. Likewise, even as we learn to love God with our minds, we also have to hold to the truth that our salvation doesn’t rest upon our reasoning abilities, or the strength of our arguments, but upon the sacrifice that God made on our behalf.

Over time, however, encouraging new believers to write down their questions and bring them into a forum or context where they feel comfortable asking them can be a powerful exercise. Then, as the months go by, they can look back on their questions, see just how many have been answered, and realize just how robust the Christian worldview is in dealing with their biggest questions of life.

One other crucial practice that we would recommend would be not to wait to invite new believers into evangelism, but to get alongside them and encourage them into it early on. We say this in part because the longer a new believer waits in telling their friends and family that they’ve become a Christian, the more it hinders their own discipleship. It’s like a having a secret relationship; it is difficult to really live it out fully until you are sharing about it with others.

Additionally, the sooner a Christian begins talking about their faith, the sooner they will come to realize what the key questions really are, and what they themselves need to know not only to be effective in evangelism, but to grow in confidence in their own faith.

We also believe that while it can sometimes be difficult to see God at work in your own heart or your own life, there is nothing more compelling or faith building than seeing the Holy Spirit at work in evangelism, convicting and transforming other people’s lives. We can both say that nothing was more confirming of our faith than the first time that we saw someone’s eyes light up as they began to see Jesus for who he truly is.

People often think that they need to take some kind of course, or have a certain number of years in church, or have a certain amount of theological knowledge before they are qualified to share with others about Jesus. We don’t see biblical warrant for this thought, and our experience is the opposite: that it is precisely by getting out there and sharing the faith that we are in turn built up and established in faith, as we receive the incredible encouragement that the God of the universe delights in using us—despite all of our faults and imperfections—for his grandest purpose of inviting people into his kingdom.

We see a biblical example of this in John 4, when after encountering Jesus, the Samaritan woman (the first evangelist described in John’s gospel!) immediately runs back to her town and declares to them, “Come, see the man who told me everything I ever did! Could he be the Messiah?” (John 4:29) So compelling was she in both her witness and her transformation that the town first believes because of her testimony, before going on to encounter Jesus for themselves. Likewise, in Mark 5, after Jesus heals the demon-possessed man, rather than taking him along even though he begs to go with them, Jesus commands him, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done or you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19). So he does, “and all the people were amazed” (Mark 5:20). How remarkable that while our instinctive response in that situation would be to think the man needs further discipling before he is anywhere near ready to bear witness, Jesus’ response is the exact opposite. He tells him to go.

The week after Vince became a believer in college, he was taken on a mission trip over spring break to Panama City Beach. At that point he didn’t even know what a missions trip was, and he had almost no idea what he was doing. Yet he traces his passion for sharing the gospel and coming alive in the Christian faith to that week when for the first time he had the chance to share with others about what Jesus had done in his life. Holding people back from evangelism only creates fear of evangelism, so let’s come alongside new believers and invite them into a life of not only discipleship but disciple-making!

These are just some of our own reflections on evangelism and apologetics within the discipleship process. For further suggestions on specific resources for new believers, both in terms of discipleship and apologetics, please check out our answer to Joe’s question above, which we’ll be posting later today. In the mean time, keep up the good work, Mitch! You are blessing so many young people in your country both in your evangelism and your discipleship, and it is a privilege to work with you and learn from you.

Cheers,

Jo and Vince


(Mitch) #11

Thanks you so much Jo and Vince for not only taking the time to respond but also responding in such an accessible way.

I am inspired! Very very helpful indeed.
Your comments ‘not to wait to invite new believers into evangelism’ is something I have been couscous of recently… My good friend Canon J.John came to faith on a Thursday was invited on to the streets to do evangelism with the team on Saturday, church on Sunday and small group bible study on Wednesday. He followed that pattern for 3 years! I suspect that foundation has helped him become the evangelist that he is today.
Your wisdom of keeping the focus on Jesus in the early discipleship is both valid and refreshing.

Your advice has be formative and put me on the right track…I am reminded my Michael Ramsden’s comments on 1 Peter 3:15 ‘Always be prepared’ is a bit like the idea of ‘keeping fit’ you need to work at it! On that note i’m off to the Apologists Gym to work those discipleship/apologetics muscles.
:slight_smile:

Thank you, once again I am in your debt.

catch up soon,

Mitch


(Jo Vitale) #12

Dear Joe,

Thanks so much for your question. We love that you are asking this question, because it is a very good sign that not only are you sharing your faith, but that you’re committed to continuing to journey with people to become disciples of Jesus Christ!

We have shared some practical advice in our response to Mitch about the importance of blending discipleship with both apologetics and evangelism, so that new believers are encouraged to grow in both knowledge of, and intimacy with, the Lord.

Here we want to share with you some resources for helping new believers begin their journey (although this is by no means a comprehensive list, just a starting point!):

1. Book Resources:

  • Seeker Bible Studies . Of utmost importance to a new believer is learning to hear from God through reading Scripture, and we believe that the best place to begin to do this is by participating in Bible study with both Christians and other new believers. Our top pick for this would Becky Pippert’s seeker Bible study on the gospel of Luke, Uncovering the Life of Jesus . If you’re looking for guidance on how to lead these effectively, then read her book, How to Lead a Seeker Bible Discussion . Becky is an experienced and passionate evangelist, and if you haven’t already, I encourage you to check out her resources: https://www.thegoodbook.com/authors/rebecca-manley-pippert

In terms of personal Bible study, we recommend that new believers both get a Study Bible and make use of a Bible reading plan to help them get into the Word. In addition, here are some recommended reading resources for new Christians both on how to read the Bible, and coming to terms with who Jesus is, and what it means to follow him:

The Life: A Portrait of Jesus – J. John

Jesus: A Short Life – John Dickson

Every Day with Jesus: First Steps for New Believers – Greg Laurie

The Walk: Steps for New and Renewed Followers of Jesus – Stephen Smallman

New Believers Guide to Effective Christian Living – Greg Laurie

The Jesus I Never Knew – Philip Yancey

The Cross of Christ – John Stott (more advanced, but brilliant for getting to grips with what the atonement means)

2. DVD Resources for Group Study.

  • The Alpha Course . During our years living in the UK, time and again we have seen people come to faith, or new believers grow in their faith, through this 10-week introductory course to Christianity. Leaders can either play the DVDs before a discussion, or follow the Alpha booklets and guidelines to construct your own talks on the topics. Alpha has now modified it’s resources to be more accessible globally, and in terms of creating an accessible, informal and comfortable space to introduce people to Christianity and give them the freedom to ask their questions, this is a brilliant program.

  • RZIM’s Everyday Questions . This RZIM DVD resource is designed for a church community groups to think through apologetic questions together, and it is also a clear introduction to apologetics for new believers who are beginning to think through the implications of the Christian worldview in regards to some of life’s biggest questions.

  • Jesus Among Secular Gods study guide. This six-week apologetics study from Ravi and Vince is designed for discussion groups to help Christians (new and old) consider contemporary worldviews and apologetics questions in an accessible format, as well as equipping them for evangelism. http://rzim.org/global-blog/jasg-study/

  • Towards belief and Jesus the Game Changer. These are two other helpful DVD series produced by Olive Tree Media (based in Australia). Based around interviews with apologists and academics from around the world, the first series engages with key apologetics topics, while the second looks at the impact of Jesus’ teaching in transforming the world. These series are designed for small study groups, and are ideal as a way of introducing seekers or new believers to the robust message of the Christian faith.

  • The Life of Jesus: Who He Is and Why He Matters. This DVD series, designed for study groups and produced by Dr John Dickson, founder of the Center for Public Christianity in Australia, is a great introduction to the historical evidence for Jesus, and the significance of his life.

3. Other Resources:

  • RZIM Academy. For believers who are trying to understand the implications of their new worldview for how they engage with culture today and answer the big questions of life, RZIM Academy’s core module is an excellent overview of the major apologetic questions that they themselves may be wrestling through, and which others will certainly ask them about their new-found faith. As a follow up, the Faith and Reason elective offers a helpful doctrinal foundation for the Christian faith.

  • Ask Away podcast. Along with our host, Michael Davis, Vince and I are recording a weekly podcast specifically designed to answer the common questions that both believers and skeptics ask about the Christian faith. Each show responds to real questions submitted by listeners, so this is an opportunity for new believers to have their questions answered, both the ones they are already wrestling with, and the ones they may not yet have thought of!

  • Bethinking.org . This is a website that we often point seekers and new believers towards, because it is both robust and accessible. Depending on what questions people are seeking answers to, they can choose their topic of interest (e.g. Bible, Science, Other Religions etc.), and then pick their level of entry into the topic (introductory/intermediate/advanced), followed by the medium (articles/podcast/video). One way to help disciple a new believer might be to pick different topics or articles to read together over the week, and then discuss them.

For other recommendations, check out RZIM’s ‘recommended reading’ (http://rzim.org/about/resources/recommended-reading/) and ‘apologetics resources’ (http://rzim.org/about/resources/links/) pages.

Finally, here are some recommended readings from our colleague, Tom Tarrants, in three critical areas:

Knowing God:

  • The Knowledge of the Holy , A.W. Tozer

  • The Pursuit of God , A.W. Tozer

  • Knowing God , J.I. Packer

  • The Holiness of God , R.C. Sproul

Spiritual Disciplines:

  • Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Life , Donald Whitney

  • Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life , Donald Whitney

  • Prayer , O. Hallesby

  • Prayer Power Unlimited , J. Oswald Sanders

  • Meditating on the Word, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Discipleship:

  • In His Image , Michael Wilkins

  • The Cost of Commitment , John White

  • Humility , Andrew Murray

  • The Sermon on the Mount , Martyn Lloyd-Jones

  • The Cost of Discipleship , Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  • Discipleship Essentials , Greg Ogden

We hope this is helpful to you, and please feel free to share any resources that you in turn have found useful as you disciple new believers.

Grace,

Vince and Jo


(Megan Kemp) #13

Hi Vince and Jo!

My question is about your studies and how you have emerged from your intense time doing so.

For Vince, how has the deep, “heavy” philosophy study you’ve done changed how you answer questions, and your heart for evangelism? (I have never taken a philosophy class, so when I dabble in reading it, some of it seems so “over my head”.) When I’ve heard you answer questions, you are so clear and concise, yet you have so much knowledge and years of heavy philosophical study. How do you take all of that, and answer so clearly? (I apologize, I’m having a hard time forming the question.)

And for Jo, how would you say you have emerged after years of theological study? If you think about Jo beginning that journey, what has changed in your heart for evangelism, discipleship and your current work because of the time you spent studying?

Thank you both!

Megan


(Carson Weitnauer) #14

Hi Vince and Jo,

Sometimes we get into conversations where we are getting bombarded with objections to Christianity. It can feel overwhelming to answer so many difficult questions. How can we best navigate these situations and respectfully redirect people’s attention to Jesus?


(Robert Fields) #15

This is Robert again. Has there been a response to my question of needing to sense God before we can serve God?

I would truly appreciate some insight on the matter.

Thanks and God Bless!


(cindy lee) #16

Hi, I love to read and even more to know that there is so many resources out there. Yet, I have one question. When opening my youth daughters to knowing Christ, what book do I get them to read with me and study together?

Thanks so much.


(Daniel Cirone) #18

Hi Vince and Jo,
Firstly, thank you for taking the time to read and respond to so many. I thoroughly enjoy listening to you both on the Ask Away Podcast. Vince, hello from New Jersey!

Vince, I know you have a speciality in dealing with suffering. I was hoping you could shed some light on what might be viewed as “lesser suffering.” Anxiety plagues so many on a day-to-day basis. It can cloud the mind and cause so much worry. What is your take on anxiety disorders from a Christian lens? Is it something demonic? Is it biological? Somewhere in between?

Thank you again for your time.


(Jo Vitale) #19

Dear Petrina,

So good to hear from you! And how encouraging that you’re sharing about your interest in apologetics, and getting into these kind of conversations, with your friends!

Wow, your question is a big one! Not least because Stoicism is a school of thought that has been through various phases and expressions since it was first founded as a philosophy by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rdCentury BC (“stoic” coming from the Greek “stoa poikilê”, meaning “colonnade”, and referring to the porch in the Agora, the marketplace in Athens, where Zeno used to teach).

In summary, ancient Stoicism was founded on the belief that the universe we live in has a rational order, referred to as the “Logos”. While ancient Stoics thought of this rational ordering of the universe (“Logos”) as “God”, this was not a relational deity, but rather a kind of semi-conscious, impersonal universe. Far from worshipping a transcendent God of revelation, therefore, ancient Stoics were pantheists who believed this ‘Logos’ to be the rational principle in all of us. In that sense, they were naturalists who didn’t believe in an eternal afterlife, but ordered their lives to the logic that they perceived in a deterministic universe.

While some Stoics do still believe in some kind of semi-conscious rational principle loosely termed “God”, many modern Stoics today are atheists and naturalists who see themselves as continuing in the same Stoic tradition of emphasizing the rationality of the universe, particularly in regards to scientific inquiry. Stoicism also appeals to many today not only because of its emphasis on the rationality of the universe, but also because Stoic philosophy teaches the importance of living virtuously. According to the stoics, what it means to live the ‘good life’ is not to allow ourselves to be ruled by our passions, but rather to align ourselves to the rational order of the universe and rule over our instincts with reason. In the words of the 1stCentury AD Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca,

“For what prevents us from saying that the happy life is to have a mind that is free, lofty, fearless and steadfast - a mind that is placed beyond the reach of fear, beyond the reach of desire, that counts virtue the only good, baseness the only evil, and all else but a worthless mass of things, which come and go without increasing or diminishing the highest good, and neither subtract any part from the happy life nor add any part to it?” (Seneca, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters )

Although many people think of Stoics as fatalistic, its not so much that they are pessimists, but rather that they emphasize the importance of recognizing what you can change about your circumstances and the world around you, and what is predetermined such that you have no control over it, and to gracefully accept the latter while influencing the former.

From a humanistic perspective, it is easy to see the appeal of Stoicism: a philosophy that appears to offer a framework for living a rational and virtuous life without needing to appeal to a divine law-giver as the source of either our rationality or our morality.

When it comes to engaging with Stoicism today, how encouraging it is that we are hardly the first Christians to find ourselves standing in the marketplace of ideas and wondering how to respond to the competing philosophies that surround us. In fact, it was around 2000 years ago that the Apostle Paul first set foot in the city of Athens. Luke, the author of the book of Acts, described Athens as a city “swamped by idols” (Acts 17:16), and dominated by the two rival philosophies of the Stoics and the Epicureans.

Rather than immediately bashing these alternate philosophies, however, Paul begins his address to the Areopagus in Acts 17 by first establishing common ground:

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23)

By identifying this “altar to an unknown God”, Paul seeks to build a bridge between the philosophers of the day and the “foreign deity” that he is preaching: Christ.

Following Paul’s example, there are certainly commonalities between Christianity and Stoicism that you can affirm with your friend as you seek to engage her in deeper conversation. For example, unlike those who embrace a post-modern philosophy of ‘living your own truth’, both Stoics and Christians recognize a rational order to the universe that we all have our place within.

Likewise, far from advocating hedonistic tendencies, Christianity and Stoic philosophy are both concerned with living virtuous lives, and offer a great deal of practical advice on how this can be achieved. In particular, both Christianity and stoicism emphasize allowing the suffering we endure to produce character, avoiding material excess, and living self-examined lives rather than allowing selfish impulses to rule over us.

While some have drawn such close parallels between Christianity and Stoicism as to advocate for a form of ‘Christian Stoicism’, however, at heart these are two contradictory worldviews. If you want to examine how the gospel responds to Stoicism, then Paul’s speech at the Areopagus is once again a helpful model for us to follow. There are five points that we want to highlight in particular.

Firstly, while Stoics believe that everything is material (even the ‘Logos’ does not transcend the physical universe, but is guiding principle imbued within it), Paul makes sure to distinguish the created universe from the creator God: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). Likewise, while today we recognize the orderly nature of the universe, as Christians we believe God to be the one who not only initiated but sustains that order. A God who can be the cause of the universe precisely because He alone is non-contingent, existing outside of space and time. Indeed, unlike naturalist Stoics who trust in their reason, we might ask why we should trust our brains to produce rational thought, if our minds are the product of an unplanned evolutionary process? For if they are hard-wired by evolution, then at best they are hard-wired for survival, not truth.

Consequently, unlike many modern Stoics who hold atheistic beliefs, Christians conclude that our rationality only makes sense if we are created in the image of a God who has given us minds to reason by. In his own way, Paul makes a similar argument by noting that if we are capable of using our rationality to seek God (Acts 17:27), then whatever God we are seeking must be more than a material thing (“we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man”, Acts 17:29), not lesser than us but far greater, “since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).

Secondly, Stoics seek to live a virtuous life by gaining mastery over their own emotions and responses, everything they achieve is through the work of “human hands” (Acts 17:25), through their own effort. Ultimately, this is a philosophy that celebrates wisdom and living ‘the good life’, but does so with the expectation that this is something we can discipline ourselves to do. However, while this might be an optimistic view of human nature, it’s highly questionable whether it is a realistic view. In the words of the atheist philosopher John Gray, who himself is highly skeptical of this perspective:

“Civilisation is natural for humans, but so is barbarism. The evidence of science and history is that humans are only ever partly and intermittently rational, but for modern humanists the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion. Since it requires a miraculous breach in the order of things, the idea that Jesus returned from the dead is not as contrary to reason as the notion that human beings will in future be different from how they have always been.” (Gray, ‘Humanism and Flying Saucers’)

Thirdly, given that Stoic tradition also perceives anger and retributive justice to be unreasonable, the notion of God as a judge also does not sit easily with Stoicism, something that Paul is quick to highlight: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:30-31).

Of course, there is wisdom in being wary of anger as uncontrolled emotion, but God’s righteous anger against sin is a central tenant of the Christian faith. In the words of John Stott, “The wrath of God is His steady, unrelenting , unremitting, uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its forms and manifestations” (Stott, The Cross of Christ ). For the Christian, the promise that God will deal with evil by upholding justice is a hope for the victims of injustice to hold onto, even if in this lifetime they suffer. For the Stoic, on the other hand, suffering is just a fact of the universe that we have no control over and which cannot be set to rights. The best hope for the Stoic, therefore, is not to look for an ultimate justice, but rather to roll with the punches and allow suffering to mold your character in the brief time that you have.

Fourthly, while the ‘Logos’ may be impersonal within Stoicism, the same cannot be said of Christianity. Rather, as John explains at the beginning of his gospel:

“In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made… And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-3, 14).

Here we get to the primary distinction between Christianity and Stoicism, which is that within Christianity, we do not believe in a impersonal guiding principle, but we call upon a knowable, personable God. The Logos who took on flesh, God incarnate, so that we can truly say that on account of the person of Jesus (“a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:31)), God really is “not far from everyone of us” (Acts 17:27). This is a personal God who is in his very nature not only rational, but relational.

And finally, as Paul himself concludes, we can verify the truthfulness of the Christian claim that “the man he has appointed” is indeed the divine Logos, a God who is personal in nature, through Jesus’ historical resurrection from the dead. Once again, this act of resurrection, and what it signifies in regards to the promise of eternal life, is radically distinct from the Stoic naturalistic perspective that we have this one life and nothing more (“Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live. The inescapable is hanging over your head. While you have life in you, while you still can, make yourself good.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations4.17)). Hence the mixed reaction of Paul’s hearers at the Areopagus to Paul’s declaration that

“‘…he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” (Acts 17:31-32).

There is so much more that could be said here! But I hope this is a useful starting point for you as you consider how to respond. Below are a few resources if you’re interested in doing further reading on the contrast between Stoic philosophy and Christianity. We’ll certainly be praying for you, Petrina, and that you are able to have a fruitful dialogue with your friend over the coming weeks!

Blessings,

Jo and Vince

Further Reading:


(Carson Weitnauer) #20

A post was split to a new topic: Reflections on sensing God’s presence


(Kristyn Nichols) #21

Hi Vince and Jo!
I am so excited for this opportunity to interact with you! I have learned much from your Ask Away podcast. I recently directed one of my professors to it who is struggling with her faith. I am a university student who will be going to a seminary in the fall! I am very excited. I have some foundational questions, however that seem to hinder me. The biggest one is, how do we know that the Bible is, in fact, the Word of God? It seems everything is riding on that answer. I have searched for answers and have found many, however nothing ever seems to be enough. Thoughts?
Thank you so much!
Kristyn


(Jo Vitale) #22

Hi Robert,

This is just a quick note to say that we really appreciate your sincere and heartfelt question, and it is definitely one that we have ourselves wrestled with at different seasons of our lives. We are so glad to see Andrew’s response already, and really appreciate his encouragement to wait on the Lord, it’s one of our favorite Scriptures as well.

On account of the fact that your question is such an important one, and because we believe it’s a question that many people struggle with throughout their Christian lives, we don’t want to try and rush an answer in the very short amount of time that we have left this week. Instead, we would like to do an Ask Away podcast episode around your question, so that we can give it full consideration and a more in-depth response. We won’t be recording again for another couple of weeks, but we’d love to include it in the next batch of questions. Our apologies for the delay in responding to you, but hopefully we can give you a more robust answer once we do. We’ll be sure to let you know once we do!

In the meantime, we wanted you to know that we are praying for you today, that you might know that the Lord loves your consistent commitment and faithfulness to Him, and He delights in the way that you think on Him all the time. How beautiful and amazing it is that the same can be said of the way He thinks of you, that you are on His mind, and in His heart, all the time!

God bless you,

Jo


(Lori Sevedge) #23

I have enjoyed reading Vince and Ravi’s book Why Suffering and hearing Jo speak at the JMI conference in Oklahoma, particularly “Foreigners, Slavery and Women in the Old Testament.” My question is for Jo. Are you going to write a book? I would love to hear more from you on Women and how they are valued in Christianity. That talk you gave was exceptional. I have read “Is the Bible Intolerant” by Amy Orr Ewing and it was very good but I wish there was more resources on this topic out there. My son works with a secular organization that helps women and children who are victims of domestic violence. I am also starting to volunteer with another such organization myself. My frustration lies in the fact that the church is not doing more. This topic becomes political and those who support victims of domestic violence are many times pro abortion and support other feminist issues while the church appears to be silent. I fear the church is still unwittingly hurting women by teaching oppressive views (that are not biblical) and just not speaking out. The church has led the way on righting wrongs of injustice in the past, why are we not doing more in this one? I would love to hear more from you on this. I want to help educate my local church and others to be pro-women doesn’t mean you are feminist. Will you be writing a book about it? What do you suggest I read in the meantime? Thanks so much for all you do and speaking the truth. May God bless whatever He calls you to!

God Bless you,
Lori Sevedge


(Jo Vitale) #24