In high school I entered into some lively discussions about religion with one of my best friends, a Mormon. One of these discussions centered around a thought experiment: What if a man who had never heard of Christianity ran across a Bible for the first time, say a Gideon’s Bible in a hotel room? If he accepted that the Bible is of divine origin and proceeded to read it in great detail, with no access to commentaries or teachers or any other theological resources (except for historical background material supplied in the writings of contemporaries of the scriptural authors), what kind of theology would this man develop? Would it end up resembling the theology of any of the thousands of Christian denominations of the past or present?
I grew up believing my family’s version of Christianity to be the one most faithful to the original spirit of Jesus and of the biblical authors. Certainly I knew there were unresolved questions about this or that doctrine or practice on the margins, but at the core, we were on the same page with Jesus, Paul, James, Peter, John, and the others who founded the early church. We were not like the liberals who pick and choose from the Bible what they want to believe, chucking out the rest. We recognized that any allowance for homosexuality was foreign to the text, for example. We were not like the Catholics who illegitimately read into a verse or two the infallible authority of the Pope or the transubstantiation of the eucharist into Jesus’ body and blood. We were not like the Mormons who allow the authority of the Bible to be superseded by the writings of a charlatan like Joseph Smith. We were not like the liberation theologians who substituted the gospel of Jesus Christ for a leftist political agenda. We were not like those in the African independent churches who teach that polygamy is within the bounds of God’s will. We were not like the televangelists who preach a health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. We had nothing to do with those who teach that works (even the work of baptism) are necessary for salvation or that the grace of God through the shed blood of Jesus on the cross is insufficient to secure our salvation. We upheld the reality of an eternal heaven and an eternal hell–real places where all of us would really live consciously forever. We eschewed the notion that a true believer, once saved, can ever become “unsaved,” though we didn’t accept strict Calvinist predestination. We opposed those who would attempt to square an old earth or a merely local noachian flood with the text of Genesis. We were suspicious of Pentecostal teachings and practices, even if we didn’t consider their errors serious enough to bar their followers from God’s larger family. We were convinced that Jesus could return at any moment, snatching up his elect into the clouds on the day of the Rapture, and leaving behind the unbelievers (and those who subsequently became believers) to suffer seven years of intense tribulation, followed by a thousand years of Christ’s glorious reign on earth while the unbelievers are tormented in a lake of fire. We didn’t give an inch to those who admitted the possibility of any errors in the biblical text, whether on matters of salvation, of history, or of science–or of any other matter, for that matter. Every word in the Bible was there for a reason, even if God allowed the writing style of the individual authors to be preserved in the text. We defended the Bible against liberal scholarship, higher criticism, and the denial of the supernatural (e.g., the Virigin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus). In the churches we attended, we were almost all of us pro-life, anti-tax, anti-welfare, anti-women’s lib, anti-civil rights, pro-Vietnam War Republicans (that is, we were opposed to all that that the hippies from the 1960s stood for, even though I didn’t grow up in the 1960s myself). But the most important shibboleth of all was the need for a personal relationship with Jesus. It was not enough to give mental assent to the above positions; we had to invite Jesus into our heart and fellowship with him day in and day out, experiencing the reality of God’s presence in our lives.
This was my particular background, a background shared by millions of believers around the world who have been influenced by one or more strains of Baptist, dispensationalist, pietistic, Bible Church, and/or fundamentalist theology, a subset of evangelical Protestantism. Most (if not all!) of these believers assume that their particular reading of the Bible on the above questions is the one most closely aligned with the intent of the biblical authors. To be sure, not all of these beliefs are considered essential tenets of faith; a “pre-tribber” can find fellowship with a “post-tribber,” but maybe less so with an amellenialist, for example. Or one who believes in “once saved, always saved” can fellowship with someone who believes that salvation can be lost. It’s another matter when it comes to what’s required for salvation: once works are added to the mix, that’s the line in the sand that must not be crossed.
Over the years I grew somewhat more open to others’ views. For example, in college I came to admit the possibility that some Catholics might be saved after all, especially those that had a personal relationship with Jesus. Imagine the generosity of spirit that must have come across me, allowing me to admit that not all Catholics are going to spend an eternity of conscious torment in hell! And then I also began to appreciate, if not embrace, the spirit of Pentecostalism, having read many of the writings of Charles Finney and of the singer-songwriter Keith Green and having befriended some Pentecostals at the Christian college I attended. I could no longer say for certain whether I believed in a pre-trib or post-trib rapture, and I also went back and forth on the questions of predestination and the possibility of losing one’s salvation, finding texts on both sides of these issues in the Bible. After considering Matthew 25 (among other texts), in the 1980s I also began to wonder whether there might be some merit in “Lordship Salvation,” a controversial movement that maintains it’s not enough just to believe the gospel in order to be saved; we must also demonstrate by our actions that we believe, or it’s likely we really don’t believe in the first place.
Also during college, I began to ponder the teachings of Jesus pertaining to wealth and the poor, especially in the Gospel of Luke. What I discovered ran counter to the prevailing evangelical teaching that wealth is okay as long as we don’t allow it to come between us and God. No, in Luke, as I discuss in my book, Jesus taught not only against an improper attitude toward wealth but against keeping wealth itself. Similarly, I was confronted by his teaching against violence in passages like Matthew 5:39: “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” I thus felt a growing cognitive dissonance between the often pro-war, pro-wealth evangelical community of which I was a part and the teachings of Jesus I read in the Gospels.
Which brings us back to our Gideon’s Bible thought experiment. It slowly dawned on me the extent to which the particular contours of my faith had been shaped by a religious tradition that didn’t necessarily coincide as perfectly with the Bible as I had always thought it did. And if I had been oblivious to just a few of these discordances, how many more were lying outside my radar? How much of what I believed all my life conflicted in one way or another with one biblical author or another, without my even realizing it?
At this point some of my readers might wonder, What’s the big deal? Everyone knows there are differences in opinion among believers, but if we diligently seek out the intent of the original authors of the Bible, taking into consideration the historical context, using responsible hermeneutics, comparing scripture with scripture, and seeking God’s guidance, God will in fact lead us into all truth, at least into all the truth that really matters. The rest we can hold in suspense until all is revealed in the fullness of time.
It all matters because since the time my doubts about Christianity came to a head, I have been confronted more times that I can count by well-meaning individuals who have said, “If you only had subscribed to this version (invariably meaning the version held to by the one confronting me) of Christianity, you might not have gone down this path.” I’ve been told my former evangelical faith was not conservative enough or not Calvinistic enough, but more often I’ve been told my former faith was too fundamentalistic and that it would have endured if it had been more flexible, more broad, less legalistic. Well, I’m sorry, but I didn’t have a say in the religious background in which I grew up, nor has anyone really. When I hear these post-mortem assessments, they come across as a more than a bit condescending: “Well, well, you were like a protected tree that grew up in a climate-controlled greenhouse supported with a lattice of pre-packaged answers, but when you were let out into the big bad world, the first hailstorm pummeled your tender, flaccid twigs and chewed you up. Pity, really.” Or from a Calvinist, “Well, you never grasped or embraced the sovereignty of God.” Or from a Pentecostal, “Well, you never drank in the power of the Spirit.” Or from a peitistic evangelical, “Well, you never experienced a genuine personal relationship with Jesus” (even though there’s no discernable difference between my experience and theirs). Or from a Catholic, “Did you really ever experience traces of grace?”
For those who haven’t been confronted by such a conflicting cacophony of post-mortem voices, it’s difficult to appreciate how exasperating the experience can be. Underlying all these voices is the assumption that there can’t possibly be a problem with Christianity itself; the problem lies with Ken’s misconceptions of True Christianity. Yet the irreconcilable differences among the beliefs held by those earnestly attempting to set me straight (many of whom have studied the Bible and sought God for decades but simply can’t agree with each other) help to confirm to me that Christianity is, never has been, and never will be a reliable guiding light to the nature of reality.
Though I’ve already expressed above my frustration with some moderate or liberal believers who assume it was my fundamentalism that led to the shipwrecking of my faith, I can still appreciate that they are at least aware of the differences between their faith and that of the New Testament writers. They accept that the biblical authors were at least in part products of their time, that their various teachings can’t all be reconciled, and that there is room for growing and learning about God beyond what’s contained in the ancient scriptures. Evangelicals and fundamentalists, by contrast, cannot accept that the biblical authors taught conflicting messages or that there’s any significant daylight between what the scriptures teach and what they themselves believe. They’ve opened that Gideon Bible, have applied the right hermeneutics, and have embraced the True New Testament doctrines. There’s often little appreciation of the long, winding history of theological thought that led to the present Bible Church/Dispensational/(partial) Calvinist doctrinal statement posted on the church’s website or taught at Dallas Theological Seminary. Sure, there’s an awareness of church history in some quarters, but these are often matters of mere curiosity, learned without any real acknowledgement of the near absolute dependence of one’s beliefs on ancient and modern church history outside the New Testament.
I maintain that our hypothetical Gideon Bible reader would have been mightily confused and conflicted at the end of his exercise, not being able to call on a theologian or scholar to explain all the conflicting messages. I doubt he would have come up with the Orthodox teaching of the Trinity by reading a Gideon New Testament on his own. This doctrine was hammered out in excruciating detail through debates, councils, and edicts for over three Christian centuries. He likely would have been left with the impression from all the NT writers except Paul and John that salvation requires works and not just faith. He might think that Paul accepts the legitimacy of baptism for the dead. He certainly wouldn’t find any scriptural reason to think slavery as an institution should be abolished, but instead that slaves should obey their masters. He would find some verses in Paul and elsewhere to make him think salvation can’t be lost, and he would find others in Hebrews and 2 Peter and elsewhere to make him think that one’s salvation can indeed be forfeited. He would find verses in Paul (especially Romans 9) that lead him to think that only God chooses who will be saved (and that we don’t have a choice), while finding others that teach that God wants all to be saved, if only they would come to him like chicks coming to their mother hen. He would find some verses teaching that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment, while finding others that speak of the destruction or annihilation of the lost. He would find some verses that allow for divorce in the case of unfaithfulness or desertion, while finding others that allow for no such thing. He would find some verses that speak of the eternal hereafter on planet earth, while others speak of the hereafter in Paradise or heaven. He would in no way be able to untangle the mystery of eschatology in the neat and orderly way that the dispensationalists or the preterists believe they’ve cracked that nut. I’ll cut this potentially long list very short in the interest of time.
In a sense I find that as a nonbeliever, the Bible is much clearer to me now than when I believed the Bible to be inerrant. Because the Bible had to be inerrant, whenever two or more passages seemed to be conveying different teachings, I tended to pronounce the “clear” passage as authoritative and the “less clear” passage as needing some sort of alternate interpretation to make it fit with the “clearer” passage. For example, consider the following, which, because of prior theological commitments concerning the sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice, cannot be taken at face value or must be regarded as “unclear” by many evangelicals:
“Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
Now that I’m no longer constrained by my prior evangelical theological commitments, I’m free to read this as it appears on its face: there was something lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions that Paul could supply. This run so deeply counter to evangelical theology that it must be immediately dismissed as heretical, but it’s difficult to come to any other conclusion while remaining honest with the text.
Or consider 1 Timothy 2:11-15:
“11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”
Verse 15 is universally considered as an “unclear” passage by evangelicals. But it’s clear enough to me as one no longer bound by inerrancy. Women are saved through childbearing, and furthermore, if they don’t continue in faith, love, and holiness, they’ll lose the shot at salvation that childbearing afforded them. Nothing could be clearer.
What I’m trying to drive home with these two small examples among many is that it’s supremely naive to think that any one group has an authoritative handle on what the biblical authors really believed or taught. At least liberals don’t even pretend their beliefs line up with the NT writers on all counts. But many conservatives mistakenly think their theology really is faithful to the Bible, allowing them (without conscious hypocrisy) to use the Bible as a weapon against all who would (in their view) play fast and loose with its teachings. This is dangerous. Unconscious hypocrisy can be more insidious than conscious hypocrisy, because conscious hypocrisy can at least sometimes be accompanied by a twinge of restraining guilt, and it’s easier to call someone out on conscious than on unconscious hypocrisy.
I was once a third (more like forth or fifth) party to a sexual abuse situation in a missionary environment. The family of the accused complained that the missionary organization that called out the accused was not following the biblical approach of having the accuser (the alleged preteen female victim of the sexual abuse, now an adult) confront the accused. I met with a couple of the family members of the accused and tried to explain how difficult it would have been for the accuser to have confronted the accused face to face, and the response was, “Well the Bible says this is how it’s to be done, and it doesn’t matter how difficult it is; we must follow the authority of the Bible in this matter.” I proceeded to read to this fairly well-to-do couple a few verses in Luke that clearly teach against the keeping of wealth, asking if they were then ready to sell everything they had and give to the poor as Jesus taught. I don’t recall their response, but it apparently didn’t make an impact. They remained unconsciously hypocritical in their insistence that the mission board follow one scriptural passage when it served their interests but were unable to acknowledge what another scriptural passage taught when it ran counter to their interests. Thus the scriptures can be used as a bludgeon to cajole others into accepting whatever doctrines or practices one is convinced of, while at the same time overlooking any number of other inconvenient doctrines and practices.
What are your thoughts? If you’ve deconverted, have you been confronted by various well-meaning individuals who’ve assumed that if you had adopted their version of Christianity, your faith could have been preserved? If you’re a conservative believer, have you assessed the relative contributions of the Bible, church history, and the need to harmonize discordant passages as factors determining what you believe?
53 responses to “Will the real Christianity please stand up?”
For a couple of years I thought all believers were deluded idiots, clinging to something they know deep down is false, but at least the fundamentalists were adhering to the religion as closely as possible while everyone else was just picking and choosing. I was especially disgusted with liberal or progressive Christianity, thinking that was the worst abuse of Jesus and the Bible to date.
I’ve often thought that if I hadnt spent my religious life as a fundamentalist
Sorry…stupid iphone keyboard.
I used to think if I had not been a fundamentalist I would have been able to stay in the fold, and I sometimes I wish I had stayed in the fold. When your entire worldview hinges on the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture, admitting to errors and failures brings down the entire world and forces you have relearn everything you thought you knew.
I walked away from Christianity entirely, chucking it all out as unworthy of attention because it was utter crap used to control people, judge people and validate hatred. Thanks to writers like Bishop John Shelby Spong, Karen Armstrong and Dr. Price I’ve been able to get a better perspective on the history, cultural, and literary traditions the Bible grew out of and appreciate the Bible and Christianity more than before. Now that I no longer think of the religion as the path to eternal life, I can look at it the same way I look at Egyptian mythology and appreciate the stories and the sparks of profound truth encountered by primitive people.
In fact, I’ve done such a 180 that I have a much deeper appreciation for Progressive Christianity now that I know more about their faith position — in my view, they are the only Christians who’ve had the courage to take the blinders off and genuinely study the Bible. They have the strength to see it for what it is; a useful tool, an icon of our culture, the holy book we American’s are most familiar with, but only one holy book among many.
If I had the luxury of growing up in a tradition that allowed the Bible as a living document, made by inspired humans but fallible, I may well have embraced Progressive Christianity and stayed in a community of believers.
Even though I have tremendous respect and appreciation for Progressive Christianity, I’m still not sure I could ever attend their services. Christianity for me was always about the promise of eternal life and a personal relationship with a supernatural being. Without those elements, it’s just a group of friends who get together once a week when I’d rather sleep in!
Thanks for your thoughts, Samantha! I hear you; I’ve also toyed with the idea of attending a progressive church, but I haven’t been able to convince my family to join me in the proposition, so it lacks any real appeal over just not going at all…
I really liked this post. I’ve wondered how my views would have been different if I had been raised in a more liberal church/family. I don’t think I’d still be a Christian, but I probably would have faded out rather than leaving in fury. And it might have happened later in life for me. But we’ll never know.
I like you example of the hypothetical Gideon Bible reader and how confused he might be. It reminds me of reading the Bible in middle school, confused as to why I would read something and feel like I had read its opposite not long before.
Thanks, Erica. Interesting–your experience has got me to thinking that those of us who leave a conservative religious tradition seem in general to be more keyed up about what we left behind than those who leave a more liberal faith. I guess that makes sense, but perhaps reflecting on the reasons for this difference could help us look at our experience a little more dispassionately.
I think that all people pick and choose what they want to believe. Whether they embrace how they were raised, whether they toss it out and go looking for something else, we all still pick and choose what we want. I don’t think it is something limited to Christians. You’ll find the same thing among other beliefs and even non-believers.
Yes, yes, and yes – what I kept thinking as I read this post. I was raised in a more “mainstream” denomination (Lutheran) but with a very conservative bent. I took it all more and more “seriously” (ie, literally) though the years, and later I was the one most strongly hating myself for that/blaming that path for my own and other family members’ fall from faith. One of my biggest sources of guilt was the idea that had I taken a more ‘liberal’ route we would all remain within faith. But ideas similar to Samantha’s then assailed me. If one of my more horrendous regrets was possible lost salvation — well, participation in a liberal faith that doesn’t see this as an issue versus total absence of faith would be no different from each other on that issue anyway, so…
And yet I still find myself in a muddle over it all on some levels, almost 5 years on.
Thanks, Julia! Yes, it’s a wrenching experience for just about all of us who go through this process. We’re programmed to refer to it as a negative thing: we “lost” our faith, we “fell from” faith, our faith was “shipwrecked,” we deconverted–all negative terms. But we can’t forget how much we’ve gained, most especially the ability to look reality squarely in the face, without the nagging suspicion that we’re not being honest with the way things really are. I can’t think of anything I would trade that for.
Thank you. The years you devoted to ministry are certainly not for naught; your support is a godsend. Wait, can I use that word? 😉
Obviously, if someone who was otherwise wholly unfamiliar with the Judeo-Christian tradition were to stumble upon a Gideon Bible in a hotel room somewhere they would be very confused by a “book” that is really a disparate collection of ancient writings whose contents assume a great deal of context that such a person would not possess. In one sense, it hardly matters what kind of theology such a person would come up with as they could hardly do anything else other than read the Bible anachronistically in such a way that their theology would probably tell us more about the person in the hotel room than the original theological vision of Jesus and Paul. But in another sense, I suppose the thought experiment is useful because it reminds us that when we read the Bible we invariably do so through the lens of the Judeo-Christian tradition and are not able to read it independently of that tradition along with the person in the hotel room. In other words, the thought experiment suggests the following dilemma: Either we read the Bible through a cultural lens that gives us real access to its original context but not without the cost of imposing its own set of distortions or we read the Bible like the person in the hotel room, free of the lens’s distortions but not without the cost of being hopelessly divorced from the original context of what we’re reading in the first place.
Take yourself for example, growing up in a branch of the Christian tradition you were taught to read the Bible in a certain way; however, since your departure from that tradition you have managed to overcome at least some of the distortions that tradition imposed on the Bible in your reading of the same. In particular, you no longer feel the need to read the Bible in such a way that every passage within it must be consistent with every other passage in keeping with the doctrine of inerrancy, hence your statement about how the Bible seems much “clearer” to you now than in the past. But if you have managed to throw off some hermeneutical shackles there are others that yet remain. For example, the reason why it is now “clear” to you that Paul considered himself to be a co-redeemer along with Christ on the basis of Col 1:24 is that in that place Paul clearly states that his sufferings fill up what is lacking with those of Christ himself, and given the redemptive nature of the latter something similar must also be said for the former. However, this reasoning assumes that the sufferings of Christ are redemptive in the first place and how could you possibly know that without also assuming something like the penal substitutionary model of the atonement common in evangelical circles? Someone like myself who has rejected both an evangelical understanding of the Bible as well as an evangelical understanding of the atonement would not necessarily read Col 1:24 in this way (and I don’t by the way, neither do I share your post-evangelical reading of 1 Tim 2:15). As you would no doubt admit, it’s not as if you can assume that your evangelical upbringing got everything else right about Christian theology except its doctrine of the Bible.
RT, you make a good point about the need for historical background material in interpreting the scriptures. I’ve now added the parenthetical statement to this sentence:
And you make another good point about my reading into Col., 1:24 Paul’s co-redeemer role with Christ. I’ve altered it to make my conclusion more modest as follows:
These concessions don’t alter the main point I was attempting to make: that many believers, especially conservative ones, are unaware of the extent to which what they believe is dependent on the theological traditions they’ve been exposed to, no matter how strongly they believe they’re just doing valid hermeneutics on the raw text.
Ruth’s comments above are a propos: we don’t realize how much we’re affected by what we want to believe. But I would also add that we don’t realize how much we we believe is affected by the milieu in which we live and breathe. It’s like a fish being unaware of the water in which it swims. This applies not only to conservative believers, but all of us, as you’ve ably pointed out to me with some of the assumptions I’ve carried into my post-Christian worldview.
I like the concessions and agree with your main point as well. However, I would also stress that it’s been my experience that the thinking of all types of people is (more or less) equally molded by their milieu and that this phenomenon is no more prevalent amongst conservatives than it is everyone else. It’s just that conservatives being conservative are naturally more influenced by tradition than other types.
“Yet the irreconcilable differences among the beliefs held by those earnestly attempting to set me straight (many of whom have studied the Bible and sought God for decades but who simply can’t agree with each other) help to confirm to me that Christianity is, never has been, and never will be a reliable guiding light to the nature of reality.”
I felt like this was a very revealing comment on your part. How can you be so sure that God isn’t revealing certain truths through Christian scriptures simply because people who earnestly read those scriptures disagree amongst themselves? Do you know with certainty what it would look like if God were to reveal something through various writings (assuming he exists)? It’s fundamentalist thinking to insist that in order for God to reveal some things through a particular set of writings that those writings must also be inspired, inerrant, perspicuous, etc. and that there must be some group of true Christians who have figured everything out and speak the truth of God with one voice (certainly, no one in the NT claims such a thing). I know of many conservative Southern Baptists in my hometown who think this way, but you no longer think like one of those people. Right?
RT, it seems you know a thing or two about psychology: you suppose (correctly) that I’m averse to fundamentalist thinking, so you tie my arguments to fundamentalism and say, “You don’t want to think like a fundamentalist now, do you, Ken?” My response would be that just because fundamentalists think in a certain way about a certain matter doesn’t automatically mean their thinking is invalid on that matter. I can agree with fundamentalists on any number of matters that relate to our common humanity and our shared knowledge of the world around us. I can admire a fundamentalist for her devotion to her husband and children or her serving in a soup kitchen. I can agree with a fundamentalist that the earth goes around the sun. And I can also agree on the likelihood that if a perfect, omniscient god were to leave a record of his intentions to humanity in written form, it would not be marred by contradictions that make it impossible for those reading the text honestly and diligently to come to agreement on a number of important subjects. I say “likelihood” expressly, because I can’t say what God would or would not do; I’m just expressing I would expect it to be more likely than not that such a revelation would be free from real contradictions. But if it wasn’t his intention to provide a reliable revelation, why did he fashion my mind (or allow it to be molded by those around me) in such a way that I would find it natural to think that a perfect God would likely inspire a text without important contradictions? Let’s suppose for a moment that my assumption really is valid. Then it would seem to me that your position (that we shouldn’t expect a divine revelation to be free from major contradictions) could be construed as a retroactive response to the evident reality that the Bible does contain significant discrepancies, not that that’s what we should have have expected in the first place. But if you can throw in the (accurate) charge that I’m thinking like a fundamentalist, then that’s the coup de grace that demonstrates I really ought to reconsider my otherwise reasonable starting assumption.
You raised some good points here. It’s a bit sloppy of me to suggest hypocrisy on your part whenever you happen to share a belief with fundamentalists. Clearly, fundamentalists aren’t wrong about everything and in any case it would only be hypocritical for you to share certain beliefs with them at this point. And I think you are also right to ask whether my own understanding of the Bible is anything more than a post-hoc response to my own realization of its shortcomings.
With respect to my own intuitions about what sort of expectations the Bible must satisfy, it seems to me that since Christians should be able to develop their doctrines from the Bible it follows that the Bible at a minimum must be sufficiently reliable for the purposes of theology but not necessarily perfect in the sense demanded by fundamentalists. I take this to mean that there can’t be any major contradictions and/or errors of fact at the center of the theological narrative that runs through the Bible and that it is from this center that Christians should be able to develop their doctrines. To give a more theological argument, it also seems evident to me that if Yahweh is a god who sets aside imperfect people for his work in the world, both in the biblical record as well as in the life of his people in non-biblical history, then it seems quite unreasonable to expect that he must also set aside perfect scriptures for his imperfect people and much more reasonable to expect that he would set aside imperfect scriptures for his imperfect people. Putting together both arguments, the most reasonable expectation to hold about the Bible is that it is a collection of imperfect writings that are nevertheless sufficiently reliable for the purposes of theology, the latter understood as being relative to the center of the theological narrative that runs through the Bible.
On the other hand, I don’t think that there are any good arguments for thinking that the Bible (however qualified) must be considered perfect in some way so that it is perspicuous, inerrant, etc. Sometimes fundamentalists will insist that the words of the Bible are putatively the very words of God himself and that the greater part of the history of God’s Spirit-led people affirms their understanding of the Bible, but there are no good arguments for thinking that the former is true a priori nor is it the case that the greater part of church history affirms any particular theory of the Bible much less that of today’s fundamentalists (and even if it did it’s not as if much of theological consequence would follow from this fact). Rather, it seems to me that fundamentalists affirm what they do about the Bible not because of any good arguments but because of the historical circumstances that accompanied the development of their traditional Protestant theology, which is to say that fundamentalists believe what they do about the Bible because of how the latter acts as a substitute for the infallible authority of the church in traditional Protestant theology.
Finally, there is still the matter as to whether my own view of the Bible stands up to scrutiny and I think it does. Certainly, I have not detected any major contradictions at the theological center of the Bible in my own reading; moreover, that there are still many people today who affirm the inerrancy of the Bible suggests that contradictions of this type almost certainly do not exist (note the contrast with the undeniably different theological narratives present in Greek mythology). Of course, in addition to being unclear in various respects the Bible contains many minor contradictions and errors of fact as well as some legendary and/or mythic material (e.g. the stories of Adam and Eve, the flood of Noah, the tower of Babel, etc.), but none of this is inconsistent with the claim that the Bible is generally reliable at its theological center. As to whether there are any major errors of fact contained within the theological center of the Bible, I would say that such are either impossible to demonstrate (e.g. that the kingdom of God was not established in heaven along with the destruction of the temple in 70 CE) or would be very difficult to demonstrate and therefore are unlikely to be so (e.g. that the body of Jesus did not ascend into heaven, that there cannot be any historical basis for the Exodus event, etc.). Lastly, you might insist that even if there are no demonstrable contradictions and/or errors of fact contained within the theological center of the Bible that nevertheless what we do know about the Bible is bad enough that it should make me question its reliability; however, I would resist this by saying that such imperfections do not bother me because I do not find them to be anymore present in the Bible than I do in the Christian communities I’ve known (indeed, much less so) and that it seems unreasonable to me to expect that the imperfections of the former cannot be anything less than that of the latter.
Or could it not be seen as fitting well with both being equally human, with zero evidence of an immortal source?
My position is that just as God sets aside imperfect human beings for his work in the world so also he has set aside imperfect human scriptures for his imperfect people so that they can know about God and carry out his work. I don’t deny the humanity of the scriptures contained in the Bible nor do I suggest anything like the idea that their words were dictated by the Spirit or that they came down from heaven. Again, it’s fundamentalist thinking to insist that in order for God to reveal something through scriptures that he must have written the scriptures himself whether by direct or indirect means.
RT, I follow what you’re saying about the distinction between historical/factual matters and core theological concepts. Yet if it’s acceptable (or even, on your view, expected) for the text to contain incidental factual errors, on what basis can you rule out the possibility or probability of core theological errors? It seems this is an arbitrary distinction. Also, in my post, almost all the examples of discrepancies I provided were theological in nature. Not just incidental theological points–things like the nature of the atonement, the Godhead/Trinity, election, and the requirement(s) for salvation, among many others. These are at the core of what it means to be a Christian, and I don’t accept that these differences in Christian theology are due merely to the shortcomings of those doing the interpreting; many are due to differences in the text itself. Most apostates like me didn’t leave the faith because Solomon didn’t know the precise value of pi or because Jesus didn’t realize there were seeds smaller that the mustard seed; we left because we ran into a raft of theological, ethical, and (only secondarily) scientific and historical problems in the text.
Julia made an important point: how do we distinguish between a purely natural Bible and a divine revelation if the Bible looks merely human? It might well be inspired in spite of its humanity, but how would we know that it isn’t merely human if it doesn’t differ from anything that humans could write? There are myriad ways God could have revealed himself in such a way as to make it clear it was from him: He could have written his message on our heart as in Jeremiah 31:33: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” In other words, he could have supernaturally made it so we heard an unforgettable voice (as if inscribed in our hearts, able to be recalled verbatim) and that when we compared notes with others, the revelation would match up perfectly in the language we speak, not in a language subject to change, not on tablets or scrolls subject to disintegration or loss, etc. Or he could have put a message in the stars. Or any number of other ways that would require a supernatural explanation. But the way it ended up happening it is the only way it could have happened if it were in fact purely natural: using human writers with human language on material surfaces, complete with contradictions among the different authors on matters of theology, history, science, etc. Again, I’m not saying God couldn’t have worked this way, but then how do we know he in fact did?
Since it’s related, I’ll include here my response to an interesting post entitled Can God speak through myth?” by progressive Christian author Rachel Held Evans:
First of all, I don’t rule out the possibility that the Bible contains errors at the heart of its theological narrative but am only insisting that the existence of such errors would pose a very serious challenge to Christianity as an intellectually viable faith in a way that other errors would not (i.e. Christians should not expect to find errors at the theological center of their scriptures and should be troubled if they do find them). Secondly, the distinction between errors that might exist at the heart of the Bible’s theological narrative and errors that don’t is an important distinction and anything but arbitrary for the reason that Christianity stands or falls with its central theological narrative but does not necessarily stand or fall with everything found in the Bible. Again, it’s only a fundamentalist mindset that takes a “Bible says” approach to Christian doctrine and doesn’t make the sort of distinction between essentials and non-essentials that I’m making (e.g. Christianity can easily survive the realization that Gen 2-3 is an ahistorical myth whereas it cannot survive the discovery of an ossuary that unambiguously contains the bones of Jesus thereby disproving the historicity of his resurrection).
“Also, in my post, almost all the examples of discrepancies I provided were theological in nature…These are at the core of what it means to be a Christian, and I don’t accept that these differences in Christian theology are due merely to the shortcomings of those doing the interpreting; many are due to differences in the text itself.”
The well-known theological conundrums you listed are by no means as irreconcilable as you suggest. For example, the tension that arises from positing that the scope of salvation is in one sense particular with respect to election but also universal in another respect is resolved through the idea that God is not trying to reconcile everyone to himself through Christ at the same time (i.e. the elect are saved in the eschatological age with everyone else in the ages beyond, cf. Rev 20:5a); similarly, the tension that arises from positing that all those whom God has predestined will also be glorified even as there are some who will permanently abandon their faith is resolved by recognizing that God only preserves the faith of the elect so that they will not permanently abandon their faith but does not do this for the non-elect who come to faith. Moreover, contrary to what is implied in your post there are no passages that unambiguously teach that either the non-elect are permanently separated from God in a state of torment (the correct reading of aionios in such passages as Matt 25:46 is a point of controversy in scholarly circles) or that this earth is the place in which the elect are resurrected and reign with Christ over the new earth. Finally, differences such as those between Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’s teaching on divorce and that of Mark, Luke, and Paul are relatively minor and unimportant along with such questions as to what Paul meant by his lone reference to people being baptized for the dead in 1 Cor 15:29 or whether he endorsed such a practice. Etc.
By and large, there are satisfying non-ad hoc ways of resolving the conundrums you listed it’s just that most of them are unacceptable to conservative Southern Baptists and other fundamentalists which is why they never get resolved in those circles.
“Most apostates like me didn’t leave the faith because Solomon didn’t know the precise value of pi or because Jesus didn’t realize there were seeds smaller that the mustard seed; we left because we ran into a raft of theological, ethical, and (only secondarily) scientific and historical problems in the text.”
I disagree, judging by the mass of personal stories I’ve read online my impression has been that most of the people you’re talking about leave the faith because of the problems they ran into with the theology of their youth and don’t explore the rich religious tradition that is Christianity with any real depth. Let’s be honest here, most people are lazy and figure that either God’s gonna get it done right the first time with respect to their theology or they can’t be bothered to pursue it any further. I think that many of these people leave the faith far too quickly by taking a “my parent’s theology or bust” approach to Christianity instead of fully exploring other possibilities in which to understand and develop their Christian faith before finally throwing in the towel on the whole thing. Let me also add that this isn’t an abstract point for me as the second paragraph of your post almost perfectly describes the theology in which I was raised and as you can imagine I have become quite familiar with the process of continually having to revisit my theology in ways that are sometimes painful.
“Julia made an important point: how do we distinguish between a purely natural Bible and a divine revelation if the Bible looks merely human?”
Again, this entire train of thought betrays a fundamentalist mindset. What’s important is not the Bible as such and to what extent we can identify it as being of divine origin but the theological narrative to which the Bible is a witness. To wit, many of the churches in the first few centuries didn’t contain anything like a copy of all the documents that form our NT nor even a copy of the Hebrew Bible but were still able to function as churches on the basis that they understood the major theological storyline of their faith regardless of how few scriptures they had in their possession. To give another example, a scripture of relatively unknown provenance such as Hebrews was canonized not because of any imagined divine origins that would guarantee the correctness of its theology but because it was known to have the right theology in the first place. If anything is of divine origin it would be the central theological narrative of the Bible and not necessarily the Bible itself.
“Or he could have put a message in the stars. Or any number of other ways that would require a supernatural explanation.”
Yes, that would make sense assuming that God intends to have most everyone come to faith in this life, but we know that this isn’t the case on Christianity so I’m not sure what you’re getting at here.
The argument I’m trying to make in this post boils down simply to this:
1) If God wanted to reveal himself in writing (let’s say the Bible), it would seem more likely than not that his revelation would lead reasonable, earnest, knowledgeable, and responsible believers to the same conclusions on fundamental matters–like the nature of the Godhead, the requirements for salvation, the purpose of Jesus’ death (in Christian theism), the fate of those who don’t attain salvation, the possibility of losing one’s salvation, etc.
2) There exists broad and fundamental disunity on the part of reasonable, earnest, and responsible believers who study the Bible on the above matters (and many more)
3) Then it’s probably more likely than not that God has not revealed himself in written form through the Bible.
Now I know you think your conclusions on some or all of these questions are correct, while those of the fundamentalists (or most orthodox believers, for that matter, it would seem) are incorrect, and you have your reasons for thinking so–perhaps some really good reasons. But then those others also have their good reasons for thinking you to be mistaken. I don’t have any interest in proving you’re right or wrong about the eternality of hell or about the nature of the Trinity or of the Atonement. That’s an intramural debate for you to hash out with the majority of believers who’ve come to very different conclusions from yours.
Your approach seems to be to take a lump of clay (a set of possible doctrines), push it (at very high pressure) through the gauntlet (or perhaps meat grinder) of the biblical text, and see what shape the clay takes when it comes out on the other end, declaring that to be the truth. If the text doesn’t appear to allow for Jesus’ kingdom to have been established at any time other than in the first century, for example, then it fails the futurist gauntlet, and since there’s a passage about the kingdom being secret then voila, it was established invisibly in 70 CE, whether or not there was any substantive evidence for said kingdom. But other serious believers will study the text diligently and will find this path blocked at other points in the gauntlet and won’t allow for this interpretation. This same approach seems to have undergirded the development of the doctrine of the Trinity; positing three gods fails the monotheism gauntlet, while denying the divinity of Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit fails the gauntlet of passages that testify to their divinity; ergo, the Trinity. But you’re not convinced. It seems that anything can be made to be fit after applying enough pressure to squeeze the clay through all the obstacles. Again, my focus at this point is not on the merits or demerits of various doctrines, none of which I’m inclined to debate at the moment; I’m simply ruminating on the sausage-making process (to mix metaphors), noting how everyone adamantly certain their sausage is the best (and only possible) sausage.
But before embarking on these exercises, I’m trying to get us all to step back and ask the question, Why take up the gauntlet? Why do we think whatever we can get to come out the other side after we squeeze some possibilities through it should be true, particularly when it comes out contradicting what so many other well-meaning, spiritual, committed, responsible, knowledgeable, intelligent, diligent, and godly people conclude? If the Bible looks for all the world like a human book–like every other book written, holy or otherwise–why complicate matters by making it anything more than what it appears, however influential it may be?
Thank you very much for explicitly formulating your argument, doing this really helps to clarify the nature of this discussion.
Perhaps the biggest problem I have with your argument (besides the fact that I don’t like its conclusion!) is that according to the central narrative of Christianity God doesn’t primarily reveal himself to people through an earnest study of the Bible but through his Spirit working in tandem with the proclamation of the gospel so that even those who are otherwise incapable of earnestly studying the Bible for any number of reasons (e.g. illiteracy, lack of access to a Bible, lack of time to study its contents, etc.) can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and grow spiritually in him. If it were the case that the Bible was supposed to be God’s primary instrument of revelation so that people were intended to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ by studying its contents in isolation then the kinds of epistemological expectations you place on the Bible in the first step of your argument might be more appropriate than I think they are.
Nevertheless, as you know I do believe that God reveals a great many things in the Bible but in its capacity as a secondary instrument of divine revelation I can’t think of any reason why I should expect the Bible to be relatively clear even on major theological points.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I try to base my conclusions on multiple independent lines of evidence while keeping abreast of the latest in scholarship and don’t simply engage in anything like the crude harmonization process you describe.
Well, I suppose the only reason to “take up the gauntlet” even from a Christian perspective would be to try to discover the central theological narrative of Christianity, which is directly relevant to both Christians who’ve putatively come to faith in Jesus by the Spirit as well as anyone else who would like to know what Christianity is all about. But it’s not as if God is calling the nations to a time of intense Bible study before they can decide whether to have faith in his Son according to Christianity, which is what you seem to imagine sometimes.
Let me also add that you write as if I think the Bible came down from heaven and/or was written by God himself when I’ve never shied away from the fact that the Bible is a thoroughly human book that was written by people situated in particular historical contexts complete with all the limitations that come with those contexts. Now, I do believe that God inspired the religious imagination of the various biblical writers and/or their sources for the purposes of revealing his work in the world in toto but that’s a far cray from saying that the Bible is anything other than a human work.
Yeah, in retrospect, I do have to apologize for my crude representation of your hermenutics. I guess it’s impression I got primarily from the discussion on preterism. Maybe after all our back-and-forth discussions, I still don’t understand your take on the Bible. Sometimes it seems you’ve focused on the precise meaning of an particular verse to support a larger doctrine, as in the secret nature of the kingdom lending support to preterism, giving me the impression you see the Bible (or at least parts of it) as verbally inspired. You’re obviously very knowledgeable about the Bible and it seems to me you’ve used it as a storehouse to be mined for clues pointing to answers that most orthodox believers have missed. You’ve studied the precise meanings of the words associated with hell to determine that it’s not eternal, for example, as though these meanings were almost dictated by God (for how would mere earthlings know what hell is like if God didn’t tell them?) to make the true nature of hell evident enough to anyone who’s willing to do the hard work of studying it properly. My impression is that you see the conclusions you’ve come to through the diligent study of the Bible (and secondarily its historical context, etc.) as being capable of trumping the conclusions of orthodoxy, of the doctrines held by the majority of those who’ve thought they’ve done the same thing as you through the ages, namely, studying the Bible diligently to find answers to tough and important theological questions.
I feel as though we’re not making much progress in our discussions because as soon as I think I know what angle you’re coming from, I come to find out I had no clue. I still don’t know really what your position on the Bible is, because on the one had it seems you’re studying and treating it as an inspired, if not inerrant text, while on the other hand denying that you consider it inspired, let alone inerrant. I just don’t have you pegged, I guess.
My three-point argument (I wouldn’t quite call it a syllogism) regarding the inspiration of the Bible can be adapted to any other form of revelation you wish, whether it be via church authority (as in the Catholic and Orthodox churches), the guidance of the Spirit (as in some forms of Pentecostalism, for example), or through dreams and visions:
1) If God wanted to reveal himself, it would seem more likely than not that his revelation would lead sincere and earnest believers to the same conclusions on fundamental matters–like the nature of the Godhead, the requirements for salvation, the purpose of Jesus’ death (in Christian theism), the fate of those who don’t attain salvation, the possibility of losing one’s salvation, etc.
2) There exists broad and fundamental disunity on the part of sincere and earnest believers on the above matters (and many more).
3) Then it’s probably more likely than not that God has not revealed himself to these believers.
Again, I apologize for misrepresenting your approach–it was, in retrospect, below the belt–and I look forward to understanding your position better.
No worries, apology accepted. I’ll get around to responding to this comment sometime tomorrow, have to go to bed with my wife and kid right now.
If you don’t mind, I think I’ll continue our conversation in a fresh commenting thread below.
I am just testing out some common tags in this reply:
It’s not at all surprising that people are in a hurry to dismiss your experiences as the result of some quirk in your upbringing, rather than as the reward of honest inquiry. Maintaining one’s beliefs is easiest if one can imagine all objections to those beliefs as the byproducts of other people’s neuroses.
This line of discussion is patronizing to the extent that it paints you as a victim of some third party – your parents, or the denomination in which you were raised – and not as an active participant in your own cognitive and spiritual development. The person using this angle of attack is invariably sympathetic to your plight. “If only you’d been raised properly,” they lament, “you might not have fallen off the wagon. How terribly unfortunate.”
As a nonbeliever and former MK, I’ve received my fair share of these comments, usually tailored to take aim at the “difficulty” or “unfairness” of the life that my missionary parents chose for me. It’s a short step from there to the “let go of your anger” pleas of pop psychology, and all with only the most rudimentary knowledge about my background. 🙂
The truth is that I’m quite satisfied with how and where I grew up, and wouldn’t trade that experience for the world (though I could do without the sympathy).
Thanks, as always, for another thoughtful post.
Maintaining one’s beliefs is easiest if one can imagine all objections to those beliefs as the byproducts of other people’s neuroses.
A perfect description; one I would like to quote.
Feel free, but remember that it cuts both ways. 🙂
With respect to my own views about the Bible, I believe that God inspired the religious imagination of the various biblical writers to communicate a particular theological narrative that we can detect at the center of their writings; however, these people were still very much human beings situated in particular historical contexts when they produced their works so that errors of various kinds are expected to accompany their telling of this narrative. In brief, this narrative is the story of Yahweh’s covenantal relationship with Israel beginning with the Exodus and leading into a story about Yahweh’s covenantal relationship with a new Israel composed of people drawn from every nation with the latter part of the story being prefigured in many respects by the former part.
Now, when it comes down to the difficult work of ironing out the particulars of this narrative my own analysis will admittedly turn on some rather fine exegetical points concerning individual verses in various passages and their relationship to larger biblical themes. For example, given that the promised land of Canaan is for Israel in the OT what the kingdom of God is for the new Israel in the NT it follows that understanding the nature of the latter becomes an important task for anyone trying to discern the aforementioned theological narrative. For my part, I am convinced that the relevant biblical writers are unanimous in situating the kingdom of God in heaven for the following reasons:
Now, I don’t mean to rehash this argumentation except to remind you that I try to support my views with multiple independent lines of evidence that mutually reinforce each other and to give an example of what this looks like.
Of course, you may rightly point out that there others who would disagree with the aforementioned lines of evidence at various points, but I don’t find their objections to be all that weighty. For example, if you remember my heated exchange with Thom, he thought that maybe Luke’s Jesus was referring to the kingdom of God in Luke 17:20 in the sense of the growth of the church a la the seed parables of Matthew and Mark; however, this is unlikely given that Luke identifies the coming of the kingdom with the second coming of Jesus when he brings the kingdom in Luke 23:42-43 not to mention the fact that the kingdom of God almost always refers to the eschatological abode of the righteous and not the church in the NT. Thom also objected to my emphasis on the literal sense of the word “until” in Mark 9:1 and preferred to read the relevant Greek word heós in the sense of “before;” however, this idea must also be considered unlikely as it depends on a very uncommon usage of the word heós. Unfortunately, Thom and I argued over so many different points that the weakness of his position in this regard was not as obvious as it would have been if we had confined our discussion to this point alone. In retrospect, I wish I would have forced Thom to explain what he thought Paul meant when he indicated that the resurrected bodies of the saints would be “age-long in the heavens” (2 Cor 5:1) as opposed to being on the earth within one generation, I imagine he wouldn’t have had much to say and would have concentrated his rhetoric on more difficult aspects of my exegesis (kind of like how he had nothing to say about my observation that Paul clearly taught universalism in such passages as Rom 5:18, 1 Cor 15:22, and 1 Tim 2:4 other than to say that I was wrong – not very convincing of him!).
Interestingly enough, I can offer at least two lines of evidence for thinking that the kingdom was established in heaven along with the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.
The first comes from the prophetic beliefs of the early Jesus movement. They thought that following the resurrection of Jesus that the eschatological restoration of Israel had begun and with it a 40 year prophetic time clock at the end of which there would be a war that would ravage Judea for a “time, times, and half a time” (i.e. approximately three and a half years) and reach its climax with the destruction of the temple at which point Jesus would come down from the third heaven to the second heaven and establish the kingdom of God in the invisible heavenly sanctuary (kind of like how some people thought that the second coming would take place 40 years after the political restoration of Israel in 1988). Now, according to the scholarly guild, our best estimate for the death and putative resurrection of Jesus is 30 CE, which means that the early Jesus movement would have expected a war that would last for approximately three and a half years in 67-70 CE, reaching its climax with the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Amazingly enough, this actually happened and it wasn’t an ex eventu “prophecy” like the one found in Dan 11, suggesting that these events can be interpreted as an earthly sign that the kingdom of God was established in heaven at that time.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to demonstrate that the early Jesus movement held to the prophetic time clock just described. However, we can see hints of such a scenario in Paul’s statement in Rom 13:11 that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (i.e. Paul thought that he was temporally less than halfway to the second coming, suggesting that he had some kind of prophetic time clock in view) as well as in the obscure references found in Revelation to the effect that “the beast” would be allowed to exercise its power over “the holy city” for 42 months in Rev 11:2 and 13:5 not to mention Jesus’s references in the gospels to “this generation” (typically representing a 40 year time period). Although it would take me many paragraphs to demonstrate this sort of thing I believe that the early Jesus movement combined Dan 12:7, Jonah 3, Jesus’s prediction of the temple’s destruction (which was also probably based on prophetic scriptures such as Isa 66:6 and Dan 9:26), and some creativity of their own in order to come up with the 40 prophetic time clock just described. As many scholars recognize, the early Jesus movement was “apocalyptic” in nature and as we all know, developing prophetic time clocks from scriptures is the sort of thing apocalyptic movements do; hence, if nothing else what I am suggesting fits nicely with our historical knowledge of this movement.
Secondly, I am impressed by people who putatively visit a heavenly kingdom as part of an NDE. I know that many others would scoff at this sort of thing but it’s not the case that every Christian who believes in a heavenly kingdom and also has an NDE goes there as part of their NDE as if these experiences were nothing more than the wishful confabulations of one’s consciousness (rather, some Christians have what are described as “distressing” and/or “hellish” NDE experiences instead). For my part, I’ve done enough reading in this area to be convinced that many NDE experiences are genuine (see Carter’s excellent book “Science and the Near-Death Experience”) from which it follows that the many NDEs reporting a heavenly kingdom must be counted as evidence that such has been established and presently exists in some other spiritual dimension.
Returning now to your epistemological argument:
The first step of this argument remains problematic for me. In the first place, what evidence do you have for positing that believers in God should be of one mind on the different tangential matters related to salvation that you list? To view this problem from another angle, consider the following similarly inclined argument against atheism: (1) If God did not exist then the vast majority of people wouldn’t be deluded into thinking that he did exist given his nonexistence (i.e. the majority of people wouldn’t be wrong about the existence of a nonexistent being); (2) however, the vast majority of people do believe in the existence of God, (3) therefore God exists. The problem with this last argument against atheism is similar to your own in that I don’t have any evidence for positing what people should be thinking given some set of metaphysical circumstances.
Leaving that problem aside for now, your revised version of this argument is now open to a different objection, which is that the first step of your argument is unreasonable. It is the case that the vast majority of Christians are of one mind on various statements such those found in the Apostles’s Creed, which by my lights could very well be true in its entirety, and perhaps that is enough to constitute the “fundamental matters” about which the vast majority of Christians should be of one mind. I mean, why should we expect the vast majority of Christians to be of one mind about “the fate of those who don’t attain salvation” in particular?
RT, you raised a good question:
Yes, and the same point could be made about any number of matters on which the vast majority of humanity has been mistaken in the past. If the earth really is round, why is it that just about everyone was deluded into thinking it was flat thousands of years ago? Or why did they think the sun goes around the earth? The answer, of course, is that they relied on appearances and weren’t aware of the later empirical findings that could have challenged their view. I’m not drawing exactly the same parallel with atheism; I don’t claim we have empirical evidence against the existence of God, but I am acknowledging that appearances do tend to suggest the probable existence of superhuman beings who created and sustain the world and who make certain things happen like lightning, disease, planetary orbits, sunshine, and rain.
An important distinction to be made between your premise and mine is that, given the existence of an omnipotent god who wishes to reveal himself to his people, the ability of this god to meet his goal of self-revelation cannot be constrained by anything other than what he allows to constrain it. So if earnest Christians are divided on what they must do to be saved (of course they’re aware they’re supposed to follow Jesus, but what all does that entail?), or on whether God is three persons or one, for example, then it’s because he allowed those divisions to exist, not that he couldn’t have prevented those divisions, despite Jesus’ promise to lead his followers in to all truth.
Conversely, if there is no god who wishes to reveal himself to his people or to correct their errors, then it shouldn’t be too surprising that people would adopt mistaken views based on appearances, whether it be that the earth is flat, that the sun goes around the earth, that a feather would fall more slowly than a cannon ball in a vacuum, that the earth is just a few thousand years old, or (if indeed it’s mistaken) that supernatural beings exist that created and/or governed the world.
Because when primitive peoples spoke about “the earth” they were only thinking of the small patch of it that they knew about, which they correctly described as being “flat” by the way. From my point of view, they were no less wrong about the topology of the earth than Newton was about the nature of space and time relative to Einstein’s theory of relativity and were not as “deluded” as you suggest.
This statement is also wrongheaded. From one point of view, the sun does rotate around the earth, primitive peoples weren’t really wrong about this either. In fact, if we really wanted to we could do all our physics from a geocentric perspective, the only reason why we don’t do this is because the mathematics of it would far too messy and needlessly complicated.
It seems to me that you’ve bought in to the myth of the Enlightenment hook, line, and sinker, which is that all peoples before the 16th century were mired in superstitious/mythological/religious ignorance and darkness (hence, your constant references to them being “deluded” by appearances) until we were led out of that darkness by a savior in the scientific method, which will then enable us to enjoy a veritable paradise on earth in the near future that is only made possible by the savior’s work of scientific advancement (as you can tell, the myth of the Enlightenment in its 19th century form liberally borrows from Christianity). Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
I don’t mean to be harsh, but this argument is based on some rather pietistic fundamentalist assumptions. First of all, it’s not as if Jesus actually spoke the words of John 16:13 word-for-word but probably said something like this, which was subsequently remembered and then recorded in that verse, for all we know this might not be a perfect representation of whatever Jesus originally said (assuming he said anything like this in the first place). Secondly, given the larger context of John 16:12-15, all that might be meant by this phrase is that the Spirit will announce the rest of the revelation to the disciples after Jesus is gone, some of which they can’t bear to hear right now according to Jesus in v. 12 (i.e. Jesus won’t reveal everything to his disciples at this time because they couldn’t handle it if he did a la Colonel Jessup in a Few Good Men), in which case your interpretation of this verse to the effect that the Spirit will guide the disciples into a perfect state of doctrinal unity and keep them there is off-base. On the other hand, I would imagine that more pietistic types would read this verse and imagine that Jesus was actually speaking these very words to them and assuring them that he would guide them into all truth throughout their lives via the Spirit (perhaps this is how you used to read that verse before you left Christianity).
Although it’s impossible to know for certain, something like this could very well have been the case with respect to the Protestant Reformation. I don’t think that even Catholic theologians and scholars doubt at this point that the doctrine and praxis of the Reformers was a good deal closer to that of Paul’s churches than their 16th century Catholic counterparts (I’m not writing from a Reformed perspective either).
RT, I was planning on bringing my comments to a close (and hope I can now), but your last response warrants a bit of a response on my part.
The only reason I used the word “deluded” with respect to those who thought the earth was flat was as a parallel to your wording: “If God did not exist then the vast majority of people wouldn’t be deluded into thinking that he did exist given his nonexistence.” I normally avoid the use of the word “deluded” as I find it unnecessarily provocative.
RT, it astounds me how often I attempt to make a point, but instead of (or in addition to) really engaging the larger point I’m making, you’ll zero in on some detail or another that’s beside the point, focusing on the trees instead of on the forest and unnecessarily drawing out our conversations. You and I both know the ancients (as well as us today) held and continue to hold incorrect views on certain aspects of the world. That’s the point I was using in service of my larger point, which is that it shouldn’t overly surprise us if the majority of the people throughout history should hold incorrect views on the existence of gods, for example. But instead of acknowledging that the ancients got some things wrong (something no one would dispute), I get a lecture about how they weren’t so wrong after all and about how I’ve messianized the Enlightenment. You may have a bone to pick with me on that, but that’s a subject for another conversation. (And it’s beside the point for me to respond–but I’ll do so anyway since this is my last comment–that I don’t messianize the Enlightenment; I know some of their leaders were tyrants and drunk with their own self-importance, nor were they the ones who discovered the earth was flat of that the earth goes around the sun; some of the ancient Greeks figured that out well before the advent of modern science, which is why I expressly used the term “thousands of years ago”).
I’m not pretending that any of my criticisms of Christianity conform to the rigors of twentieth-century analytic philosophy; I’m not a philosopher. But if you’re going to insist that my critiques so conform, then I’m going to insist that your reasons for believing in Christianity likewise conform to these rigors. If they do, it seems you should be able to publish them in an analytic philosophy journal. I doubt you can prove Christianity any more than I can disprove it; we’re both reduced to assessing the most likely way things appear to us based on what we know. I’m no more bound to disprove Christianity using analytic philosophy than you are to prove it analytically.
All I’ve been trying to say in this whole blog post is that the way things are with respect to the disunity among Christians is the only way they could be if there is no self-revealing god (if Christians were united, that would require a miracle, since all religions invariably fracture). You could be right; Christianity could well be true in spite of all its deep divisions, but the divisions at the very least don’t help the case of divine self-revelation. They simply make it look to outsiders to be consistent with what we see in every other man-made religion. If I understand you correctly, Christianity could be true whether or not these kinds of divisions exist. But naturalism would be inconsistent with the existence of one religion that’s fully unified in a way that all the other religions are not, given the way human nature works. So naturalism is the position that’s potentially falsifiable, whereas Christianity is not in this regard.
Thanks again for all your thought-provoking comments, even if we disagree on much. Ciao!
Just a final followup–I recognize that a lot of my arguments haven’t been airtight. I’m not really trying to prove anything, and I should probably take back some of my statements to the effect of, “all I’m trying to show in this post…” In the end, I think that most readers, including Christians, can see that the disunity among believers doesn’t do Christianity any favors. It’s a liability that can be more easily felt than proven. I’ve never asserted that it disproves Christianity, just that it’s a liability.
You’re right, the discussion about the level of correctness and/or incorrectness of pre-modern peoples about various things along with the myth of the Enlightenment belong to another conversation.
Obviously, it doesn’t help Christianity that there are many Christians who earnestly practice their faith while remaining divided over more than a few major points of doctrine; however, I deny that this state of affairs casts any real doubt on the truthfulness of the religion.
Finally, as you know, I’ve really enjoyed our conversations and sincerely hope that you find your way back to God sooner rather than later. To be perfectly honest, while I can’t quite demonstrate the truthfulness of Christianity via analytic philosophy I think that some form of the religion is very likely to be true. On the other hand, I have very little doubt that something a lot like God exists and that we are fundamentally spiritual beings that will continue to experience conscious existence after the death of our physical bodies (these are the sorts of things that I can demonstrate via analytic philosophy), so if nothing else I’m quite sure that the metaphysical furniture of Christianity is true if not the larger metaphysical narrative itself.
RT, thanks again for the dialogue. I’m going to need to keep my comments brief in the interest of time, but I wanted to say I perceive a “meta” dispute among Christians, not about particular doctrines but about the relative importance of different doctrines and which ones are to be considered essential or “core,” as you say. While you may not consider some or all of the following questions following questions to be critical, there are other earnest Christians who do, and this difference itself is perhaps more consequential than any of the particular questions in this list: What must I do to be saved?, or Do I have a choice in whether to be saved or not?, or If my unsaved neighbor goes to hell, will it be eternal?, or What’s going to happen to people like Ken who once apparently believed but no longer believe?, or Is Jesus a man or a god or a part of a godhead?, or How can I know what’s true in the Bible if parts of it are true and parts aren’t?, or If sin was brought into the world by Adam, and Jesus is the second Adam who reversed what the first Adam did, then what happens if there was no real Adam?. Again, the point I’m making in this paragraph is not whether you think that any of these questions are critical or why, but to suggest that probably most Christians do consider some if not most of these questions to critical and would deem you a heretic for not likewise considering them critical, and it’s this point of contention that compounds all the individual disagreements to an even higher level. You might consider the bare-bones Apostles’ Creed to be sufficient, but many other earnest Christians would not. Where in all this is the Spirit of God that Jesus promised to lead his followers into “all truth”?
You know, perhaps something of philosophical consequence would follow if it were the case that there was practically nothing about which the vast majority of Christians could agree on, but that’s not the case given the wide acceptance of statements like those found in the Apostles’s Creed. On the other hand, I don’t think that anything of philosophical consequence follows from the fact that Christian’s can’t agree about any number of different things such as the correct theory of the atonement, the fate of the non-elect, etc.
I’m curious, to what extent do the answers to these questions still interest you, Ken Daniels. Maybe I’ll answer these questions from what I consider to be an ideal Christian perspective as a downpayment to you answering mine.
Q: What must I do to be saved?
A: Turn to Jesus in repentance and faith.
Q: Do I have a choice in whether to be saved or not?
A: Depends on how you define “choice.”
Q: If my unsaved neighbor goes to hell, will it be eternal?
Q: What’s going to happen to people like Ken who once apparently believed but no longer believe?
A: I don’t know; in any case, Ken’s story isn’t finished yet. Nevertheless, he will eventually make it to the kingdom of heaven one way or another.
Q: Is Jesus a man or a god or a part of a godhead?
A: Both a god and part of the godhead.
Q: How can I know what’s true in the Bible if parts of it are true and parts aren’t?
A: Identify the parts of the Bible that speak to its primary theological narrative through study.
Q: If sin was brought into the world by Adam, and Jesus is the second Adam who reversed what the first Adam did, then what happens if there was no real Adam?
A: Then it means that Paul’s metaphorical juxtaposition between Jesus and Adam becomes only slightly less effective. Besides, Jesus is not thought to reverse what Adam “did” so much as the consequences that supposedly followed from what he did (i.e. the fact that humans are by nature sinful). Of course, we don’t need to have a mythical story about Adam in order to appreciate the obvious fact that humans are by nature sinful, nothing is lost by admitting the ahistorical nature of Gen 2-3.
I understand what you’re getting at but I’m not sure why I should necessarily care at this stage in my spiritual development about what most earnest Christians think is either important or heretical other than the fact that I need to be mindful of their prejudices so as not to needlessly create discord. On the other hand, I can see why these things would be important to someone who is young in the faith and knows very little about Christianity as I was that person once so many years ago.
Touché. Perhaps John was going beyond what Jesus originally said on this point with his usage of the word “all.”
RT, thanks for laying out your positions on the questions I raised, though my aim in listing those questions was to provide examples of doctrines on which many Christians disagree not only on their contents but on their importance. Many of these questions have been matters of theological life and death through the centuries. For what it’s worth, I think your take on many of these questions is more reasonable (given the truth of Christianity in some sense) than that of the majority of fundamentalists and other orthodox believers. But again, that’s not my point; my point is that earnest Christians disagree about some very big matters (that you happen to think aren’t as crucial as they do) despite Jesus’ promise that the Spirit would lead his followers into all truth.
We could go back and forth endlessly on this, but I can only express that the divisions that exist among earnest believers do not lend confidence in favor of the existence of a self-revealing god. It just looks for all the world like mere men are hashing through what they believe based on their limited ability to interpret the writings of other mere men penned thousands of years ago–nothing more, nothing less. You can continue arguing that there’s nothing of philosophical consequence to these disagreements, but the reality and the likely naturalistic explanation for these divisions remain, and they will continue to cast doubt on the Christian enterprise for as long as they exist.
I gave a more substantive response to this point in a recent comment above.
I disagree, analytic philosophy is the plane in which the substance of this sort of intuitive judgment is revealed. If nothing of philosophical consequence follows from a particular observation then it means that there isn’t much substance in more intuitive judgments based on that observation alone. To give an example of why this is the case, imagine that you and I were ancient Egyptians who lived in the same village four thousand years ago and had the following conversation:
Similarly, analytic philosophy would also have prevented pre-modern peoples from thinking that demons are the cause of disease and that lightning bolts are the activity of the gods without the results of modern science for the same reason that no good philosophical arguments exist for these ideas.
The way this was explained away to me in Bible College is that anything that could be taken as an historical event, like speaking in tongues should be considered a “one time” event not to be practiced or used as theology today.
so this gets tricky of course with your examples listed above but I accepted this plus presbyterian doctrine for a long time.
also could you copy your posts to the old site that does not allow comments? This is blocked by the corporate firewall
Yes. I remember growing up that there were many things in the Bible that I either didn’t understand or couldn’t reconcile with the theology I was taught, as my family visited different churches and I was exposed to different ways of putting together one’s Christian theology it slowly dawned on me that I had no idea how to make sense of the Bible for myself and was unable to evaluate the content of the sermons I was hearing. It was as if one preacher could say one thing and another preacher could say the exact opposite and I couldn’t tell which one was more faithful to the Bible or if neither of them were (in retrospect, this was a benefit of growing up in a family not wedded to any particular church or denomination). I also remember reading lots of dispensational literature lying around the house speculating as to what kind of eschatological scenario would unfold in the future, at first I found this stuff to be somewhat exciting, and even a little frightening, but by the time I was a freshmen in high school it began to seem a little ridiculous and some part of me could sense that this stuff probably wasn’t true. Forgive me for rambling, but I also remember reading apologetics literature in defense of young earth creationism and biblical inerrancy sometime in high school and as I found myself reading one speculation after another concerning the possible existence of such things as a water “canopy” in order to account for the unnaturally long lifespans in Genesis I remember a smile slowly forming across my face, this stuff probably wasn’t true either. Honestly, I never really had that much confidence in a lot of what I was taught growing up. My parents were obviously winging it.
At the same time though, I never doubted the existence of God or the idea that we were reconciled to him through Jesus his Son. You see, I had my first religious experience at the age of 5 in the front yard of my family’s house at twilight while I was alone. I remember God somehow telling my spirit that he loved me tremendously and that there were a lot of things that I had to do in this life (that comforted me). Throughout my secondary education I maintained a very active spiritual life where I would go regularly to God in prayer when my parents divorced and whenever I was bullied in school and over a great many other things, more religious experiences took place during this time. The point of this biographical material is that this perhaps unusually active spiritual life in my childhood caused me to interpret errors in my theology later on not as evidence against the existence of God or the central tenets of my faith but as an opportunity to learn more about God in the sense that such errors were things that my parents and those who influenced them got wrong about God and that I could do better (I knew it wouldn’t take much effort to improve on the “canopy” theory in any case). Maybe this is why I found your book so irritating, my feeling is that you misinterpreted the errors in your conservative evangelical theology and let go of your faith (hopefully, temporarily) instead of seeing those errors the same way I had, as an opportunity to grow spiritually in your understanding of God and learn things about him that your spiritual mentors couldn’t accept.
I could go on but that’s enough for now.
I appreciate your ability to state what’s been bothering me for so long. I’m fifty eight years old and only now discovering that I simply cannot prop up Christianity in my head any longer. Your words have not persuaded me of anything. I walked away already persuaded but in walking away I felt so incredibly alone. It has been a wonderful discovery to find there are many that have gone down this road. Everything I have read from you could have been written by my own hand. Perhaps without the clarity you provide but my conclusions are the same. Thanks for your efforts.
It’s actually a great and useful piece of information. I’m glad that you just shared this useful information with us.
Please stay us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.
May I simply say what a comfort to find someone who actually understands what
they are talking about online. You actually realize how
to bring a problem to light and make it important.
A lot more people should check this out and understand this side of the story.
I can’t believe you are not more popular given that you surely have the gift.
I was wondering if you ever considered changing the structure of your blog?
Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could
a little more in the way of content so people could
connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or
2 pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?
hi!,I really like your writing very a lot! share we keep up a correspondence more
approximately your post on AOL? I need an expert on this house to resolve
my problem. Maybe that’s you! Taking a look ahead to look you.
If you would like to improve your experience just keep visiting this site and
be updated with the latest gossip posted here.
I am really loving the theme/design of your weblog. Do you
ever run into any browser compatibility issues? A small number of my blog visitors
have complained about my site not working
correctly in Explorer but looks great in Firefox. Do you have any
advice to help fix this problem?
hi!,I like your writing so much! percentage we communicate more about your post on AOL?
I need a specialist in this space to solve my problem.
May be that’s you! Taking a look ahead to peer you.
Pingback: Response to Heather Tomlinson’s critique of Why I Believed, Part 1 | The Deconversion Oasis