Are we walking a fine line with our faith? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
Yesterday, I wrote about how we are playing Evangelical Jenga. I described this as bibliolatry. To be sure, this is not the same as idolatry, to deal with any misconceptions. The term is a figure of speech. It is a position that gives a high view of the Bible but at the same time, acts as if the Bible will not stand up to criticism.
In light of the actions of Geisler, I am seeing this as more and more of a problem. Before dealing with that, let’s state upfront what my view is not.
My view is NOT saying that believing in Inerrancy is being fundamentalist. Not at all. By and large, I have no problem with the ICBI statements. I do hold to Inerrancy, but the difference with me is I seek to hold to it the way an ancient Jewish person would. For instance, consider this statement of Al Mohler.
“The Bible claims to be inspired by the Holy Spirit right down to the inspired words”
Okay. This sounds good and holy to so many people, and then along comes Bart Ehrman. “What if you don’t have the inspired words?” Indeed. What if you don’t? I do not know of a textual critic today, conservative or liberal, who would say we have 100% accuracy in what the text of Scripture says. There are some minor parts in question. In 1 John 1:4 is it “our joy” or “your joy”? We don’t know. Does any doctrine of Christianity hang on this? Nope. Not a one. Not having exact wordage does not trouble me because we have highly reliable wordage.
When we talk about the exact words, what about something like this as I blogged about in the future of Biblical scholarship. Let’s just use one example, the baptism of Jesus.
In Matthew 3:17, we read these words at the baptism of Jesus.
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:11 says this:
“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Luke 3:22 also says this:
“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Okay. Mark and Luke agree, but Matthew is quite different. You can say the thrust is the same, but there is also the difference that Matthew is addressed to the crowds. Mark and Luke make it personal to Jesus. What was said?
If you want exact wordage, you won’t get it, but this wasn’t a problem for Jews. Consider in Exodus 20 when we get to the fourth commandment we read this:
“8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
When the Ten Commandments, and remember, these were said to be written by the finger of God, were repeated in Deuteronomy 5, what do we read for that commandment?
“12 “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
Those two are different. Of course, the thrust of it is still the same. The Jews would do something like this even with the words of God. Now of course, they were copious in copying the manuscripts, but with retelling an event, there was no major problem with paraphrasing.
If we insist on having exact wordage every time, we will have problems when someone like Ehrman comes along. What happens when you’re a youth who has been taught that God gave us what we have down to the very words and then find out that some of those words are called into question?
To consider how problematic this is, look at what Geisler says in his article against Robert Sloan.
“However, this is no consolation for an inerrantist since even one error in the Bible would mean it is not the Word of God because God cannot error in even one thing that He affirms. After all, how many mistakes can an omniscient Being make? Zip , zero, zilch! None!”
While it is true that an omniscient being can make no mistakes, there is a problem here. It is something to talk about what a being like God can do. It is more important to talk about what He did do. Consider this statement I read this morning in Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus.”
“This became a problem for my view of inspiration, for I came to realize that it would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place. If he wanted his people to have his words, surely he would have given them to them (and possibly even given them the words in a language they could understand, rather than Greek and Hebrew). The fact that we don’t have the words surely must show, I reasoned, that he did not preserve them for us. And if he didn’t perform that miracle, there seemed to be no reason to think he performed the earlier miracle of inspiring these words.” (Location 201 of 4258 on the Kindle)
As one who debates internet atheists regularly, I will attest that so many times we can hear the objection about “If God is so omnipotent and omniscient, then why are there textual variants?” If we base our arguments on “God can” then we have to defend so much that we need not defend. Let’s base our arguments on “What does the evidence say God did?”
Now I am not saying God did not inspire the words of Scripture. I hold to that. I just hold that that does not require perfection in the scribes. God is not a micromanager. By and large, I think the scribes have done an excellent job in preserving the text, far better than other ancient manuscripts that we have. My concern is statements like those of Geisler and Mohler are setting our youth up for failure when they meet an Ehrman.
Suppose you have a youth who grows up in a church where Inerrancy is hammered on, but in the modern sense of Geisler and Mohler. This student is taught to honor the very words of Scripture as being what God wanted for us. God is capable of preserving His word. We must be clear on the exact words used in every case.
Then they get to Bart Ehrman. What do they find out? They are told that there are several several variants. Does Ehrman overdo his case? Yes. Are most of those variants non-consequential, as he himself admits? Yes. Is Christianity really in danger? No.
Now suppose this student believes in passages like 1 John 5:7 or John 7:53-8:11 or Mark 16:9-20. None of these passages I hold to be authentic. Most conservative critics would agree. What happens when the student hears this from Ehrman and reads that even conservative scholars agree?
The same thing that happened to Ehrman. When he was told that “Maybe Mark made a mistake” on a paper he wrote, the floodgates were open. It’s called the snowball effect of thinking.
We’ve all had this happen before. It is where you think one bad thing and then speculate about all the awful things that will follow next. You can work yourself into a panic over things that will never happen because your negative thinking just spirals out of control. It’s emotional reasoning and it’s a great producer of fundamentalist atheists.
So what do we do?
For starters, do we ditch Inerrancy and inspiration? No. Now if someone is convinced by the evidence Inerrancy is not true nor inspiration, they should not believe it. However, they should also be willing to be open to being wrong. On the other hand, the reverse is true. If someone does believe in them, they should be open to being wrong. If we want people to examine the evidence for the resurrection and go where it leads, we have to put our cards on the table and do the same.
Second, we must not be afraid to ask the hard questions. If we are sure our view is correct, we will want to ask the questions. We will want to go as deep into our studies as we possibly can. We will want to examine everything instead of just starting with our conclusion and going from there.
Third, we are going to have to get out of our modern understandings. Modernity has many beliefs we can agree with, but we cannot impose modernity on an ancient text. The Bible was not written to us. It was written for us. It does not speak in our cultural nuances. Because we are people who tend to value literalism, that does not mean that the Bible does. Because we value strict chronology, that does not mean that the Bible does. Something that is wrong by our modern literary standards might not be by ancient Jewish standards.
Fourth, we have to keep going on the essentials. We have to make a historical case for the resurrection. I don’t bother addressing “biblical contradictions” much any more except for if it’s a Christian having an episode of doubt. Why? Because it becomes a game of “Stump the Bible Scholar.” You answer one objection from someone and they don’t acknowledge it. Instead, they just go get another one and you have to answer that and if you don’t answer it the way they think works, then they can reject any aspect of Scripture as historical. Today, with web sites like “Evil Bible” or “The Skeptics Annotated Bible”, the non-Christian can look up a plethora of “contradictions” without doing any research whatsoever. The Christian must spend their time doing research that will be a wasted effort on the audience. I don’t have a problem with research of course, but our time can better be invested in the most important areas. I would rather we prove the resurrection, the foundation of Christianity, rather than Inerrancy.
The reality is we can deal with most of these problems by changing our approach. What about that student I used as an example earlier. Well I think Bart Ehrman is an example of just such a student who found out his view was wrong and everything snowballed after that. He started asking “Is it possible that X and Y really contradict?” One could say it’s possible, but one needs to show it. Imagine what difference it could make if Ehrman had truly followed in the footsteps of someone like Metzger instead of going the opposite way?
We claim to be people of evidence. Let’s live that way. Let’s go where it leads and really debate the issues instead of making pronouncements from Sinai.