If the Proof is in the Pudding, Where Is the Christian Pudding? Three Proofs of Christianity

In the work of Thomas Kuhn (allegedly) and taken up in a sort of broad, unquestioning way in what is called postmodernism is the notion of incommensurateness. Given a certain culture or language, a certain paradigm, a particular worldview, is it not the case that the experience, the theory, or the reality of one set of persons is beyond the ability or capacity of another set of persons to grasp? In fact, isn’t that precisely the claim of Christianity? Those outside of the faith cannot know, understand, or grasp, what it is that those who are part of the faith have. The good postmodern would just point out that this is always the case with human religions and human experience. Where the modernist would appeal to proofs of evidence and apologetic arguments the postmodernist maintains that all these proofs and evidence are based on a shared metanarrative that is in no way an established (or common sense) notion of reality. The tendency has been to fall back on one’s personal experience or personal testimony as the most compelling Christian proof in this postmodern age. We seem to be caught in a closed circle in which someone on the outside cannot penetrate the circle as there is no continuity with the truth that they hold or the world that they live in? One inside the circle is simply asked to believe and obey without anything lying outside this circle of belief and obedience (a ghetto of belief is the charge leveled at Karl Barth). This is a rather depressing conclusion which I believe can be improved upon through the Johannine understanding of proof or testimony.

John Stott identifies obedience, belief, and love in I John as tests of authentic Christianity. It occurred to me, especially when the false teachers at Ephesus are taken into account, that these may be as much proofs of Christianity as they are tests. Couldn’t we say this threefold thesis is not simply about proving one is a Christian but a living proof of the difference Christianity makes. If the proof is in the pudding – this is the pudding. That is, John is pointing the believers to an immediate realization of the truth of Christianity. Obedience speaks of the restoration and enabling of human agency as its own kind of proof. Agape love is itself an immediate way in which to know God and is the experience of reconciliation with both God and the neighbor. Presumably this agape love will be marked by the characteristics of non-violence, mutual subordination, and self-giving sacrifice which mark it out as unique to Christianity. Believing is a direct engagement with the historicity of the person and work of Christ and a process in which the reign of Christ is realized in human understanding. Rightly understood, belief (doctrine), obedience (the embodied capacities of human agency), and agape love have a universal continuity recognizable on the basis of history, the capacities or incapacities of human agency, and the fulfillment of human sociality.

This is why John can conclude that “The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself” (I John 5:10, NASB). He is not simply describing experiential proofs which are incommensurate with universal experience. Rather, anyone can ascertain the historicity of the person of Jesus (belief is on the basis of the incarnate not the disincarnate Christ). Everyone can recognize the distinct marker of Christianity in agape love. The restoration of human agency in loving service of the other is its own testimony. It may be that John is setting forth tests of what an authentic Christianity looks like, but he seems to be offering the Ephesians more than tests: Proofs to be wielded against the false teachers and perhaps our own tendencies to despair.

The proof of obedience

The false teachers are promising a potential empowerment based on a secret knowledge which will be realized in a disembodied seeing of God. The promise is that human agency will take on a divine like status and this is the key selling point of the false teaching. John is offering a more mundane proof; not that one will become a master of the universe but that one will become a master of self and her own body. Obedience has proven to be impossible due to sin and this was the point of the law; not to offer up life and love but to demonstrate an incapacity for both. The expectation of obedience as a proof stands in contrast to Moses prediction, even as he gave the law, that the law would simply mark Jewish rebellion. The Christian answer to this predicament is not, as often supposed, to blame and get rid of the law. The Christian answer is to address the problem of sin and death. The Gnostic answer, like the Gnostic cults of our day and the Gnostic tendencies of mainstream Christianity mistake the problem for the answer.

The loss of human agency or the inability to coordinate mind and body (not doing what one wants) can be resolved in the Gnostic fashion, by presuming that the body (and with it the law) is a hindrance to the full potential and will of man. Scientology, for example, illustrates the Gnostic or cultic solution to the mind body problem. L. Ron Hubbard has “cleared” himself completely of the body and achieved the final insight (the “Eighth Dynamic”) by dying. The Scientologist like the Gnostics of John’s day suggests that no one take anything on “faith alone” but by paying for “auditing and training” one attains absolute certainty. The Gnostics, the cults, the false teachers, sell a secret knowledge which gradually inducts one into the upper echelons of the society. Tom Cruise and John Travolta are convinced Scientology is responsible for their stardom and the lesser lights in the cult imagine they too can achieve success, of god-like proportion, if they remain committed. The ultimate success will only be found in death, which is the final stage of enlightenment (going completely “clear”). Mormons are promised a planet, Muslims a haram, many cults promise empowerment, many Christians might point to a future heavenly mansion. First century Gnosticism promised – very similar to Scientology – a god-like status.

What one discovers in the details of the various cults is the enslavement of its members to one another and an oppressive doctrine which is death dealing in its application. One of the members of Scientology reports that Hubbard ended his life in near insanity in his attempt to “audit” and “clear” himself of alien powers inhabiting his soul. The science fiction writer bought into his own diagnosis and cure and it seems to have been more than he could bear. The promised “freedom” of the cult is absent even in its founder.

Cults succeed for the same reason Coke continues to be “IT.” There is no “IT” there but part of advertising or brain washing is for everyone to pretend, not simply to dupe others, but to convince the self. In a world where religion and human experience is thought to be incommensurate the danger is that all claims are equal in that none can claim priority over another as all are equally relative to the particularities of the individual. A Christianity fostered in notions of incommensurateness deploys the same mode and method (e.g. in the mega-church health and wealth gospel) as any religion or product of self-improvement. Scientologists are continually lured with a higher level of achievement, deeper knowledge of the secrets of success, so that the longer one stays with the cult the more one has invested and so the deeper the commitment. Failed forms of Christianity, too, take the “This is It” mode of salesmanship and mass delusion so that the concrete realities of being human are elided in the eagerness to have arrived. Those who have departed from scientology, some after most of a life-time spent in practicing it, testify to a deep shame at being duped. Likewise, those who have passed through the mega-church experience now constitute something of a counter movement. The incapacitating nature of the cults and the debilitating nature of gnostic Christianity point to the failure of human agency – an incapacity for obedience.

The Gnostics of John’s day and the Gnostics of our day would claim to be able to “overcome the world” – that is they would claim that their secret knowledge can literally transport the soul beyond the confines of material reality. The pursuit of the promised empowerment – just one step removed – spiritually, personally, and financially impoverishes those who pursue the lure that is continually dangled before them. They are promised a knowing of experiential certainty but this certainty commonly ends in disillusionment.

The proof of obedience is the resolution to the mind/body problem in which the body is not abandoned but is brought under control in the service of love. This loving obedience is not a relinquishing of human agency (as is often the case in the cults), but is a demonstration of a coordinated body (both individual and corporate).

The proof of believing

John speaks of Christ and those born of God through belief as having overcome the world. The difference from a Gnostic notion of overcoming is in the identity of this world that is overcome and how it is overcome. The world that is overcome by Christ, through faith, is the world constituted by human beings. The principalities and powers, the ruling authorities, the government of Herod, Pilate, and the religious rulers of his day, along with the prejudices, and racism of his day are all part of the world Jesus is overcoming. The Prince of this world offers a religion of plenitude (stones turned to bread), of personal well-being (flying from the heights of the Temple unhurt) and of empowerment (all these kingdoms will be yours). The religions of the Prince and the “powers that be” represent in a very concrete manner the one that Christ has challenged and driven out. The world the Gnostics would overcome is the actually existing world, the created material world, which is seen as falling short of reality.

What is up for debate here is the nature of the human predicament. What precisely needs overcoming? What pains you, what is the source of your suffering, what is the human disease from which we all need escape? The false teachers point at the body, the law, material reality, or creation itself as presenting an obstacle that needs to be overcome. Gnostic knowing entails a refusal of the realities of the world, including death, and the positing of an alternative reality. In this understanding, there is an incommensurate knowing as it is based on this nearly inaccessible reality which is ultimately gotten at only by passage through death. Death is posited as the final doorway to this alternate reality.

John’s concern in the Gospel is to show that Jesus directly challenges the one who holds the power of death by challenging him on his own ground. Jesus takes up the cross to overcome death and to open up resurrection life. He does this though throughout his life. Demonstrating through the common elements of the world that He is the bread of life, the living water, the Truth incarnate. He overcomes death, disease, lack of health or sustenance, as he is “I Am” – the very source of life. As I John concludes, “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 Jn 5:12). This life is immediately evident in the restored agency of obedience and the historically engaged doctrine of belief.

John’s doctrinal test or doctrinal proof of believing – unlike Gnostic or Scientology knowing – is not mysticism or science fiction. It is grounded, then, in the historicity of Christ. The experience of knowing God rests on knowledge of the Jesus who came historically (John 1:10, 26; 6:69; 8:19; 9:29; 14:17; 16:3). John does not leave out knowing but knowing God is on the basis of believing in the historical Jesus. The claim to behold Jesus’ “glory” (1:14) in the events of Jesus historical ministry already entails the vision of belief. The same event falls either on blind eyes or on those eyes that can see the glory of God. What the eyewitnesses “beheld” (or failed to behold) is not only the events themselves (since John did not believe that all who witnessed them interpreted this as his glory; cf., e.g., 11:45–46; 14:17; 17:24–25), but their meaning. Some of this meaning was available to them only in retrospect (2:22; 12:16) but what came to constitute a fully developed faith is the events of the life of Jesus filled out with the understanding that He is the Christ.

Belief in Jesus does not refer so much to an intensity of inward devotion as it does to an acknowledgement of God’s objective work in history through Christ. For John, it is not for knowing but for believing that he writes but this believing is based on what Jesus did and leads to a theological realization of who Christ is: “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (Jn 20:30-31). While experience (firsthand vision) speaks of knowing, belief is the only means of appropriating the Word of God (become flesh) and this believing is the basis of knowing or loving God and neighbor.

The proof of love

John’s social proof of agape love seems to be the end point both of belief and obedience. John juxtaposes two things we would not normally set against one another in that God is not available to sight but he is available in love. This love is not obtained through the eyes but through imitating the divine model (the love and obedience are inseparable). It is a love so peculiar that the Christian claim is that it is only available through the new birth given by the Son. We have then the equation of love with knowing God and of keeping his commandments. And we have the reverse of this – that insisting on knowing God through sight seems to exclude love and can be equated with lawlessness (in which the mutual sort of agape love – loving the brethren seems to be excluded). Alienation and reconciliation are immediately evident in the contrast. Agape is evident in love of God and love of the fellowship and its absence is itself testimony to a failed humanity (or a failed Christianity).

The danger, about which John is warning the Ephesians, is that Christians will fall into selling Christianity in the manner of the false teachers. “Smile big and proclaim that Jesus is ‘IT.’ Health, wealth, success and becoming a master of the universe are just around the corner for you too if you will only join up.” John turns them back to an embodied Christianity which does not hold out a lure of an infinite disincarnate life (death). The private, secret knowledge of the false teachers is not a knowing that binds together but involves an inward turn with invisible (other worldly) marks of achievement. As with Scientology, Masonry, and Mormonism one is inducted into a hierarchy of knowing which creates a hierarchy of persons separated out on the ladder to success. Pursuit of this privatized knowledge is alienating – it alienates as we pursue it. The very desire associated with this knowledge is one that cuts us off from life and love. This false knowledge depends upon incommensurateness – the impossibility of universality and continuity with all of human experience. It must deny John’s primary proof – a self-evident universal love channeled through an empowered/obedient human agent engaged in the realities of the world.

John insists that authentic Christianity is self-evident. Obedience, believing, and agape love unfold then as an immediate proof. Here is the self-evident testimony or proof of Christianity.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.