Does the Bible count as evidence for Christianity?

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Here's another oldie from before the blog that I'm finally getting around to transferring here. The original discussion was from February 3, 2003 (with some minor modifications a few days later), and the addendum is from August 27, 2003, just before I opened up the first location of Parablemania.

Some people say something like the following:

�You can't quote the Bible to prove the Bible because it's circular reasoning.�

There's something about what they're saying that's right. The following is a bad argument:

1. The Bible says it's the word of God.
2. I can trust what it says, since it's the word of God.
3. Therefore, I can trust it when it says it's the word of God, so I should believe that it's the word of God.

However, that�s not the only thing someone can mean when saying that the Bible can count as evidence for Christianity. I have in mind a very different kind of argument. What Christians call the Old Testament (and what scholars today call the Hebrew Bible) could have taken something like 1500 years to produce, perhaps shorter but certainly well over 1000 years even by liberal estimates (though how much of it one says is early depends on one�s presuppositions). Adding in the New Testament (or Greek Bible, if you prefer that name) brings it to 1500-2000 years. Think about what's happened in the last 2000 years.

Two related arguments come to mind. One has to do with prophecy. The other is from the unity of the Bible.

The prophecy argument:

The best way to focus on prophecy is probably not the kind like this:

"Prophets said it, and it happened, so that shows that the prophets were inspired".

A lot of people will be unconvinced by that, because they will look at how vague the prophecies are and all the alternate interpretations and say that anyone could pull together prophecies when they're that vague and find enough to fit any particular set of events. Besides, couldn't the New Testament authors have written accounts engineered to fit with what they saw as prophecy from the Old Testament? (I'm not saying I agree with everything in this response. I'm just reporting why a lot of people aren't convinced by it.)

Here's the kind of prophecy argument I think will do better. Look into what the Messianic expectations actually were at the time of Jesus and compare them with the actual prophecies they believed led to this. Look at the tensions within the prophecies and how the New Testament authors resolved them compared with how the people of Jesus' time focused on just bits of them without dealing with others. Two examples will show the idea. In lots of these prophecies, there is something of God coming � Yahweh himself. This is all through Isaiah, especially in chs. 9 (can you be clearer than "mighty God"?) and 40 (it's the way of Yahweh that's being prepared for, since he will come as a mighty warrior) and quite clearly in Ezekiel 34, when God says he will come and be his people's shepherd.

Yet through all of this, there's a clear sense that God's coming is through a righteous human king as a son of David (Isaiah 9 and 11) and also as a suffering servant (the chapters following Isaiah 40, especially vivid in 42 and 53). These are somehow the same event. Ezekiel 34, after saying that God is the one who will come and be their shepherd, goes on to say that he will send his servant David to be their shepherd. These passages don't resolve this tension. They just leave it hanging. The same point comes out of Jesus' argument about Psalm 110 (Yahweh says to my Lord...) also shows that there is a Lord who Yahweh can talk to and say "sit down at my right hand", something David could only partially fulfill.

What should someone conclude? It seems that the scriptures foretold something very much like what Christian theology developed about Jesus, and the people looking for a Messiah at the time wouldn't have come up with it on their own, since they weren't seeing all of this in the scriptures. Jesus' views on the law and on prophecy about himself (as presented in the gospels) don't fit with what the people of his time expected. How could all that have developed as an accident? Even worse for the critic of Christianity, how could the apostles have engineered all the texts to fit this picture if they had no reason to return to the original tensions in the passages rather than the later "political Messiah" interpretations of their day? Did the death of their leader lead them to conclude that he was God himself when he didn't claim it for himself, especially death in a cursed form?

That seems so unlikely that I have to conclude that Jesus did claim these prophecies in all their tension to apply to him, which leads us to the liar-lunatic-lord trilemma. Many point out that such a trilemma commits a fallacy, since there are supposed to be other options, most importantly the option that Jesus didn�t say the things the Bible reports him as saying but that the early Christians put them on his lips. But I think what I�ve just said makes that far more unlikely than some critics would allow. Jesus' moral teachings strike such a chord and show me how unbelievably anti-God I am in my own nature that I can't believe he was making it all up or was deceived, so I have to conclude he is Yahweh who was prophesied to come as a human king and suffering servant, the latter more for his first coming and the former more for the future return.

I would also note the huge change in Paul's thought from persecuting Christians to worshiping with them, founding churches, loving Christ, and pouring his heart into God's work. What would have caused a Pharisee, possibly even a member of the Sanhedrin, to undergo such a change? People focus on the change of the 11 disciples from Jesus' ministry to afterward, which is significant, but Paul is on another level entirely. He later describes himself as the worst of sinners, a persecutor of Christ himself.

The most interesting thing to me about this is not just the change but how it changed his theology, his biblical interpretation, and his sense of God's fundamental heart. It's like night and day comparing his letters to the Pharisees he and Jesus contrast their message with. The only thing I can think of to explain this is that he had such a vivid encounter with the resurrected Christ that he had to go back and rethink all of the scriptures that he'd spent so much time in, leading to a revolutionary understanding that just happened to match up to and explain what the apostles confirmed about what Jesus had taught them. You can use a liar-lunatic-"met-the-Lord" argument with Paul at this point.

That's the form of the prophecy argument that seems to me to be incredibly good. People will still resist it, of course, but it seems more to be grasping at straws or out of mere ignorance of what the Hebrew Bible actually says than anything else.

Unity of the Bible:

Before I go into the argument, I should point out that some people see disunity in the Bible and therefore use it as a reason to undermine the Bible. I�m well aware of such approaches. First, I don�t think most such arguments hold any water at all. See my handout from an apologetics course I taught on issues relating to challenges against the Bible for some details on supposed contradictions in the Bible. Most of these claims involve misunderstandings of the cultural context, the standards of recording information, or the possibility that two accounts of something can present different details while both being accurate. Many of them also ignore the fact that some accounts are presenting the deeper meaning of something that is merely reported elsewhere. The worst kind of mistake is to assume that a tension between two ideas that don�t seem to go together is a contradiction when both are deliberately affirmed together in the same passages to make a deliberate theological point (say, that God is sovereign yet we�re fully responsible for what we do). It�s hardly worth spending much time responding to that kind of reductionism.

My second point about this objection is probably even more to the point. I�m not (at least in this piece) arguing for inerrancy, the view that every detail of the Bible is entirely accurate on whatever level it was intended to be about. (Disclaimer: inerrantism doesn�t mean you have to take Genesis 1 as a science text unless it was originally intended as such. If Genesis 1 is not about a scientific ordering of when different things were created but a theological description of the God of Israel as creator of all things, as opposed to other views of God, then don�t read it as a science text, and you can still take it as accurate for what it was communicating.) The idea that the Bible is inerrant (or infallible, if you prefer, which isn�t exactly the same thing), is an important element in what I take to be orthodox Christian belief. I don�t deny it. However, it is not what I�m trying to argue in this discussion, and I�m not sure the argument I�m presenting here will get exactly that view. Perhaps all I�m arguing for here is that the Bible, in its general progression or argument, is united in its progression of telling of the fall, the problems that resulted, what would be required for a solution, and what God�s solution is now and will be. Just that suggests something amazing, given the time scale and multiplicity of backgrounds involved in the eventual product. All I claim to have shown is that it should count as evidence that God was involved in its coming together. Inerrantism or infallibilism would not follow just from that, at least not in a way that could be shown convincingly and easily (though I think once you admit God�s hand in it, the inerrantist or infallibilist has her foot in the door, but I�ll leave that thought for another time).

Now on to the unity argument itself. In some ways it's pretty similar to the prophecy argument above. The idea is to show how the New Testament authors saw all scripture as fulfilled in the new covenant and the person of Christ, which is along the same lines as what I said above, but you can expand it to make sense of the law as a guide to show people to Christ, especially in their incapacity to be truly good apart from him. You can expand it in terms of the whole ritual system looking forward to aspects of Christ and the new covenant, with a spiritual reality behind it all, a reality that it ultimately stood for all along. There are lots of other things that enter the picture in this argument that don�t specifically count as prophecy in the way people normally think of the term, though they probably could be seen that way in an extended sense. Let me give a few concrete examples.

You could go to places like Hosea 1-3, Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 37 about the new covenant and places like I Samuel 15:22, Psalm 40:6-8, Psalm 51:16-19, Amos 5:18-27, Hosea 6:4-6, Isaiah 1:11-17, Micah 6:6-8, Proverbs 21:3, and Jeremiah 7:21-23 where the ritual system itself isn't the point but something deeper (as Jesus insisted in Matthew 5-7 and Matthew 23 and as you see in other places in the NT, most notably Hebrews). Then there's the promise to Abraham that his descendants will bring blessing to the nations, along with the heavy emphasis among the prophets and some of the psalms on this. See Genesis 12:1-3, the end of Psalm 22, Isaiah 11, Isaiah 18:7; 19:18-25; 23:17-18; 27:12-13, and much in the second half of Isaiah, particularly chapter 43. Jonah has a remarkable message for a people not in the covenant community of Israel, one he stubbornly resists. Joel looks forward to God's Spirit poured out on all flesh (Joel 2:28), and everyone (not just every Jew) who calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved. See also Zechariah 8:22; 9:9-10; 14:16-19. I'm just listing passages off the top of my head here, not delving into the details or doing any comprehensive search for every passage I could list. That it�s so easy to list passages off the top of my head says something about how complete and thorough this point is. A full list would be overwhelmingly comprehensive. To evaluate the kind of argument I�m presenting here, you actually need to read the whole Bible as it presents itself, studying carefully the key passages that fit this tendency and seeing how they�re used in the New Testament. You�d have to be looking to what the Bible says about God and God�s continuing work over time. These kinds of study are exactly what too many critics of Christianity have never bothered to do. There�s no way to evaluate this argument carefully without knowing this stuff really well and giving at least a somewhat sympathetic reading of the New Testament when it takes up of all these grand, overarching themes.

All this together shows a unity of theme and purpose to all scripture, despite all the different perspectives involved from different walks of life, different cultural settings, different situations with respect to who is politically in charge, and different stages of the development of the ritual system of worship in ancient Israel. Yet the New Testament pulls it all together to make sense of the progression in terms of:

(1) what was already there as its core principles guiding God�s actions (mercy/lovingkindness, justice, holiness, etc.)

(2) what was already there in terms of what our core problem is (separation from God due to everyone�s rejection of God)

(3) what was already there in terms of what would be required to solve those problems (which would require another whole list of scriptures if were being careful)

(4) what was already there in terms of who would come (back to the first argument above) to solve what the Old Testament acknowledges as humanity's most significant problem

(5) what was already there in terms of the spiritual realities that have always been true and behind all the different modes of communication and ritual throughout God's dealings with people

I wouldn�t say that all these things were absolutely clear throughout all the Biblical record. Paul admits as much when he says that God�s treating the Gentiles as heirs was the mystery of God�s plan in the new covenant, something unknown to all the prophets but made clear through Christ (in terms closer to Peter�s). But there are seeds of all this throughout the Hebrew scriptures, enough Jesus to take some disciples through all the scriptures to show how they all pointed to him (Luke 24). When you take into account the transformation in Paul, forcing him to go back through all the scriptures he had known so well to rethink them in terms of Christ, it�s hard to hold on to the idea that he was that badly deceived (since he was obviously an incredibly intelligent man, and this was such a huge change) or deliberately deceiving (since the kinds of persecution he was willing to undergo, eventually leading to his death, were about as severe as anyone has ever experienced). His reevaluation of the whole scriptures is clearly presented in his letters, and where would this have come from? It�s hard to immerse yourself in those scriptures and consistently find his interpretations so far off the mark in comparison with his contemporaries who were so often reducing the tensions within the scriptures while he affirmed them. This confirms in my mind that Paul�s rethinking of all he had held dear (and was willing to kill people for) really came from an encounter with the risen Christ. At the very least, it should count as evidence for such a hypothesis.

So that's my latest thoughts on these matters. I know some serious scholars would take issue with a couple steps in my argument, but I'm confident that would just be a matter of going back and defending some undefended claims, and I don't think there's no such defense. I just haven't explicitly put all of it in there, since it would be time-consuming and would take a lot more work than this already took, which was a fair amount. This is a pretty elaborate argument, and people aren't always going to sit down and read or listen to something like this, but much of this is necessary to understand why Christians believe this stuff. Understanding the whole message of God is crucial to understanding what the basic message of God is and why Christians have staunchly affirmed it in the face of persecution, physical or intellectual. People who are going to criticize Christianity should be willing to deal at this level if they're going to be sure their attacks are any good.

Addendum: Innerrancy

Once you have granted this sort of argument, you have a non-viciously-circular argument for scripture as by-and-large trustworthy. What I mean by non-viciously-circular is that any circularity involved in it isn't the intellectually problematic sort. It's circular to affirm your conclusion to prove your conclusion. Any circularity in this argument isn't like that. It's more of an observation of what's in scripture that leads to a pretty compelling portrait of what must be true of that scripture.

Now two points remain in the issue of inerrancy, both mentioned above.

1) Some people overemphasize the difficulties in making these tensions fit together, but I've already addressed that. Textual differences (say in different accounts in Samuel vs. Chronicles) are often easily addresses because of the evidence of copy errors or rounding of large numbers. This doesn't remove every difficulty absolutely, but it gives some good evidence that so many of the so-called errors aren't that at all. There's also the issue of a possible Hebrew text of Samuel and Kings that we've lost, one reflecting something closer to the Septuagint Greek translation of those books that happens to agree more with Chronicles. If such a text existed, and there is some evidence that it did, it may better reflect the original text.

Some people will still not convinced, thinking there are irresolvable contradictions, but any close look at traditional responses to these shows that at worst they are hard-to-reconcile perspectives and not at all contradictions, which always take the form 'p and not p'. Someone who says there was an angelic presence at the empty tomb and someone who says that there was a plurality of angels are not in conflict, so it's not a contradiction. One just gives more details.

Another point worth making is something I said above about Genesis. Biblical passages should be taken for what they were intended to be. If Luke's historical narratives in Luke and Acts are intended to be the sort of historical reportage typical of modern historiography, you have problems, but recent narrative criticism shows that he was taking aspects of a few particular varieties of ancient historiography. Ben Witherington has done some nice work arguing that Luke-Acts is a two-volume historiographical work about something that he believed really happened, the divinely-produced development of early Christianity. Theology certainly informed how he told the story, but the preface to the two-volume work shows that he doesn't think his theology affected whether what he told really happened. He believed it did, and he was seeking to be perfectly accurate by the standards of the kind of historiography he was writing, which was more like the Greek historiographers Thucydides, Polybius, and Tacitus, who had very high standards about distinguishing myths from historical facts than the later Roman historians, one example of which would be Josephus.

Luke seems to have thought of himself in the former tradition, which did allow for things some on the more liberal end might call errors, but I think that's inappropriate to the genre. If Luke reports of a speech by Peter or Paul, we might expect that he is passing off the exact words he gives us as the speech, but that's not the idea at all. He is constructing for us the general thrust of the speech, which in almost all cases was probably far longer and more detailed. Sometimes he uses his own favored terminology to do this, sometimes with the terminology more characteristic of the speaker. This is not to say that he was just constructing it willy-nilly. He tells us he investigated everything thoroughly, and I see no reason not to believe him. Similar things could be said about the gospel of John and its significantly idiosyncratic language applied to Jesus, which could very well be explained by an eyewitness who was later reporting of some things that didn't make it to the other gospels to explain crucial elements of Jesus' ministry and teaching but in the language and theological categories of that eyewitness. So I don't think this first point about supposed contradictions is a problem at all.

2) The errantist might still claim that, even if the pushing of supposed contradictions isn't successful to lodge the inerrantist from her position, the inerrantist hasn't established that inerrantism is true. So even if inerrantism hasn't been disproved, it hasn't been established. This is an important point. Hardly any inerrantist thinks inerrantism can be proved without a doubt, just as hardly any Christian thinks Christian beliefs about the resurrection can be proved without a doubt. However, that doesn't mean there's no reason to believe it, and it certainly doesn't mean the evidence doesn't point in that direction. The argument I want to make here is:

a) given what I've said above about the unity and general trustworthiness of the grand themes of the Bible

b) given what I've said about about the silliness and inappropriateness of most claims about supposed errors

c) taken in light of the internal witness of the scriptures toward the authority of the scriptures as God's word, its complete trustworthiness at the deepest levels (cf. Ps.119 for one obvious place), its portrait of Jesus as the embodiment of God's word (esp. John's prologue), its portrayal of the apostles and prophets (at least the ones whose writings are recorded; some think, probably rightly, that the NT gift of prophecy is of a different sort, one to be evaluated by believers in light of scripture) as God's absolutely reliable messengers (since a prophet without that isn't a real prophet, as scripture says; cf. Dt 18), and ultimately the conviction throughout the scriptures that God is true and is not a liar or someone who can speak falsely (for a passage taken to be very old even by liberal scholars, see the Balaam oracles in Numbers)

d) you can conclude that the Bible's presentation of itself as having no errors makes it quite legitimate to believe that it truly is infallible in terms of how it presents itself in the genre each work is intended to be

Not everyone will grant all these things, so the argument isn't what I would call a demonstration. However, I think each move is a legitimate one. Each step, I believe, I can adopt without having to prove absolutely that it's true to every skeptic. I certainly think I even have reasons for such a move, though I'm not sure I can express those reasons. Particularly, I think that these are the sort of steps in reasoning that a well-informed, thoughtful, Spirit-led believer will make because of God's internal witness, whether you think these are infallible convictions from the Spirit or just Spirit-led reasonable conclusions. Is the argument circular? That depends on what you mean by the term. It involves internal evidence, but it doesn't seem to me to be viciously circular in the sense defined above. It doesn't rely on its conclusion to establish that same conclusion.

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7 Comments

Great post, Jeremy, I've checked out a bunch of the textual links. One question that the post raises that you didn't directly address is about the nature of evidence. Many folk think that something x is evidence for y only if x's occuring is somehow sufficient for (or perhaps even necessary as well) for y's occuring. This, of course, would be a mistake. That a husband is holding a bloody knife over the body of his dead wife when the cops rush in is in fact evidence for the husband's killing his wife. This is indeed so, even if in fact the husband did not kill the wife and just walked in after his wife was killed, like in some cheap soap opera, and picks up the knife in horror right when the cops charge in. So, in the weak sense that Biblical passages can in some sense be evidence for what it reports, OF COURSE the Biblical passages are evidence for Christianity (just like any testimony is evidence, albeit defeasible). Of course, the real question, and the conflated one, is whether the Bible or Biblical passages are sufficient, or completely justificatory reasons, and so on, for establishing Christianity. And the answer here is a firm NO. But, with the addition of certain non-biblical, or common sense inductive features, textual interpretive skills, knowledge of human pyschology, the judicious use of inference to the best explanation, and so on, the perhaps the Bible, in conjunction with these factors, could indeed give one compelling cause to say that the Bible plus these factors is evidence in the stronger sense...which hopefully your post helps point towards. Ok, g'night...

Marksteen
Good obseration but it would be helpful if you spell out WHY you think "the answer is a firm NO" as to "whether the Bible or Biblical passages are sufficient, or completely justificatory reasons, and so on, for establishing Christianity.."

Of course for non-Christians or theologians spinning yet another argument, the scriptures are not enough, but the Bible already include judicious use of inferences, textual interpretation (such as the meaning of some names given people or places, or the use of types) and a deep insight into human psychology.

And as is well known and accepted among informed believers, while there is a general historical picture presented in the scriptures, and there are specific places and people mentioned, it is not a history, archealogy or anthropology text. It deals primarily with the moral and spiritual, and does so using a mixture of what is literal, symbolic and metaphorical.

Since Christianity is established on the foundation of the scriptures- (including prophecies, moral types, etc) and Jesus himself invited his followers to "search the scriptures they speak of me", it is unclear as to why anything else outside of the scriptures would be needed by informed Christians (as opposed to non-Christians or untaught believers) for establishing Christianity.

The answer to your first question is simple. My argument doesn't count as an absolute demonstration, because it's perfectly consistent with the biblical record being what it is that some evil being decided to create the world and make us believe all these false things about God. Then he constructed a massive document over many years, sovereignly overseeing its development through the inspiration of those faithful to the false God whose image he was constructing to lead such people astray. He wanted the document to seem convincing within its own story but to have some difficulties within it so that people might not suspect it of being too rigged to appear perfect. Thus we got the Bible.

Now I don't think this is a highly plausible story, but it's consistent with the Bible's saying exactly what it says, since in that fictional story the Bible does say the same things it says in reality. Therefore the Bible cannot serve as an absolute proof of its own veracity. There's just no way around that. Any possibility that it could have come about in a different way, as implausible as it might be, is enough to undermine the argument slightly. That doesn't mean it's a bad argument or that the conclusion shouldn't be accepted. It just means that it's not an absolute proof.

There are other, perhaps more likely, stories than the one I gave. Mark would probably give a different one himself. My point is merely about the logic of the argument. The details of the story don't matter.

Also, why are you assuming Mark is a Christian?

Since Christianity is established on the foundation of the scriptures- (including prophecies, moral types, etc) and Jesus himself invited his followers to "search the scriptures they speak of me", it is unclear as to why anything else outside of the scriptures would be needed by informed Christians (as opposed to non-Christians or untaught believers) for establishing Christianity.

You're relying on an ambiguity in 'establish'. Christianity is established on the scriptures in the sense that Christianity is based on the scriptures. That doesn't mean Christianity is formally proved with airtight logic with unquestionable premises based on the scriptures. That's the kind of being established Mark is talking about, and the Bible doesn't do that. What's unclear here is why we should need such a proof, though. Instead of arguing that the Bible is such a proof, which I think is ridiculous, we should be arguing that we need no such proof. That's why I deliberately stopped short of saying I had a proof (though the Carnival of the Vanities host decided to pretend as if I had said such a thing). I merely stated that it was an argument that I think is good.

I’m glad to have read this well written post so thanks for pointing me to it. I guess I now count as one of those people who ‘sit down and read or listen to something like this’, which you say ‘is necessary to understand why Christians believe this stuff’. Of people who are critical of Christianity you expect to have ‘read the whole Bible as it presents itself’ or to have given ‘at least a somewhat sympathetic reading of the New Testament’, things I admit I haven’t done. But then neither have I given ‘at least a somewhat sympathetic reading’ to the whole of the Quran or the Vedas. Have you? You may not wish to be critical of the Muslim or Hindu religion though. Perhaps all you’re trying to show is that you see no compelling reason to ditch the religious tradition in which you’ve been brought up - most people are brought up in some religious tradition or other - which is a different project to showing that one religious tradition is somehow superior to any alternative; I think it’s good to be clear precisely what the project is.

I’m impressed with your analysis, the fair and dispassionate way you anticipate and deal with objections and the modesty of your claims. I’m puzzled by your take on, say, Genesis, however: You say we don’t need to read Genesis as a science text, but it’s not clear in what sense Genesis can be said to be ‘true’ then; as a historical text? What's the difference between a scientific and a historical reading in this context, and what are the alternatives? You nicely sum up the Bible as ‘telling of the fall, the problems that resulted, what would be required for a solution, and what God’s solution is now and will be’, but how can we make sense of 'the problem' in a non-fictional way? Was there a time when there were exactly two people on this earth, capable of communicating with God, reptiles and each other or not? I think I understand what you’re trying to do and why, but I’m concerned that once we impute intentions to divine or human authors and pronounce text bites as historical or not at whim, then we can read anything we like into anything at all; we’re just projecting our prejudices. For example, I remember you trying to argue for patriarchy on the grounds of ‘the order of creation’, which I guess goes back to Genesis. So I wonder how you think you can selectively read accounts in Genesis in different ways, whilst blocking alternative selective readings. To me it looks like you’re more sympathetic to science than creationism and to patriarchy rather than feminism; I’m not convinced God is.

I’m not sure there’s a distinction to be made between vicious and non-vicious circularity, or that ‘tensions’ and ‘hard-to-reconcile perspectives’ are anything more than euphemisms: Are you a Hegelian/Marxist, or is God? I’m not sure what to make of reasons I may think I have ‘though I'm not sure I can express those reasons’ either! As for unexpressed/inexpressible reasons being the sort of steps that a ‘Spirit-led believer will make because of God's internal witness’, I think that’s where you lose philosophers.

I'm a lot less willing to be critical of aspects of a religion I know I haven't studied fully if I haven't explored it as well as I could have. I've spent a good bit of time in the Qur'an, but I recognize that a lot of people know it much better than I do, and I listen to them more than I criticize them. A lot of people make claims about the Muslim view of God that I'm somewhat skeptical of. On the other hand, sometimes it's clear that the Qur'an teaches something, and it's clear that many Muslims take it that way, and I can criticize that if I disagree with it, as long as I'm open to being corrected on my interpretation.

What I've found is that many people who criticize evangelical Christians who are not from an evangelical background don't actually know any evangelicals and have not spent much time at all actually reading the Bible. Most who are from evangelical backgrounds seem to me to be influenced by a very narrow range of evangelicalism (what I'd call fundamentalism, in many cases). I see Richard Dawkins criticizing passages in the Bible based on assumptions about the text that few Christians and few biblical scholars (Christian, secular, Jew, or otherwise) would accept.

I'm not saying here that the Bible shows that Christianity is superior to other religions. I'm just arguing that it can provide evidence for Christianity in a way that isn't really circular. Any argument about whether a religion is good needs data about what that religion is like, and the biblical data provide that. You can analyze the data and draw conclusions about whether the moral claims in the documents fit with your moral intuitions, whether the documents come together in a kind of unity that you wouldn't expect of such diversely-generated documents if only human factors explain them, whether the things those documents provide evidence for historically are explainable in naturalistic terms, and so on.

That doesn't yet say a thing about the Qur'an. If I wanted to do an in-depth critique of Islam, I'd want to spend some time discussing it with Muslims who devoutly believe the Qur'an to make sure my conclusions about it fit typical Muslim views (or whether I'll conclude that their views are historically untenable) before I published anything on it. Dawkins seems not to have talked to devout Christians or biblical scholars about whether the book of Judges endorses child sacrifice in the Jephthah story, because they'd all tell him that it doesn't, and they'd have given him good reasons why he shouldn't have concluded that it does.

For Genesis, my view is this. I do believe there to have been two human beings who were the ancestors of all other human beings, and I see nothing in the standard evolutionary account to require this (there is even evidence for . I take the events described in the early chapters of Genesis to be historical accounts, but I don't think the language of days in Genesis 1 is referring to 24-hour periods or even longer periods, not a chronological ordering of the events it describes but a theological organizing technique. It's being used to separate out different aspects of God's creation. It has to do with ordering reality and structuring it, differentiating and grouping. There are indications within the account that things aren't in chronological order. For example, the more narrative account in ch.2 puts things in a different order, at least at face value (although there are ways to take that differently if you were to take ch.1 to be chronological in a way that they're consistent, but that's not the most obvious way to take them).

To be clear, I'm not a patriarchalist in the traditional sense. I don't think there are intrinsic differences between men and women grounding different role responsibilities. I wouldn't be surprised to find differences in how God made men and women on the general level (not absolutes) to correspond to role intentions on God's part, but I don't think there's any ground in our intrinsic nature for differences in ethics. I do think there's a difference in responsibility and a structure for reflecting Trinitarian relations in male-female relations in exactly two realms -- marriage and church leadership. The husband-elder role is self-sacrificial service, and the non-elder/wife role is submission to authority, which is Christ's authority over the church as displayed in husband or elder, but the husband/elder is leading with the self-sacrificial love of Christ, who died for the church, so it's that kind of leadership that's being submitted to (and it's not female in the church case but all non-elders; the only place sex/gender comes in is the Pauline restriction of eldership to men; there's no sense in which it's only women who submit). There are lots of people who have this view who think there are very clear strictures on when submission is appropriate and who deny submission to have a place when there are moral issues at stake, for example, and I have at least some sympathy for such a view (although it's been a long time since I've looked carefully at those issues; it's something I want to come back to once I'm done with my dissertation). Someone published a recent article on this that I wanted to read, but I've lost track of who and where. I suspect that his view would be a lot less objectionable to those who oppose patriarchal views than what you're probably thinking patriarchal views involve. I'm not suggesting that you'd agree with it, but I'm also pretty sure you don't understand my view, and the suggestion that it's patriarchal (a word I wouldn't use to describe it) is suggestive of that.

‘I see Richard Dawkins criticizing passages in the Bible based on assumptions … that few Christians … would accept.’

OK, but I don’t see why criticism should be confined to the Christian denomination with the largest following. It’s no wonder if a scientist is interested in a literal reading of the Bible; nor is it a miracle if the claims in the Bible, the Quran and Mein Kampf fit with our moral intuitions or with current science if we may conveniently depart from a literal reading whenever they don’t! So I won’t blame Dawkins if he can’t get interested in ad hoc interpretations, however popular they may be. But you’re certainly right to bring background assumptions to the fore. That God wrote or inspired a book of revelation at all is such an assumption, which Aristotle would be no more likely to grant than Dawkins is. If you start off as a Spirit-led Bible believer of course you may find it all compelling; but then you may be nearer to existentialist positions than you think.

The difference between racism and ‘anti-racism-with-just-one-exception’ or between patriarchy and ‘feminism-with-exactly-two-exceptions’ is imperceptible to me, probably because I shun the scholastic word-games in which you seem on occasion to indulge and excel. As I said, there are several virtues nicely exemplified in this post, though there comes a point where paths diverge. Good luck with your dissertation!

But I don't think I can conveniently depart from the plain meaning of scripture whenever it suits me. It certainly would suit me to go full-blown egalitarian. It would be lot more politically correct. But I don't think that's scripture's teaching. I don't think Christians should ban shellfish-eating, because the scriptures themselves remove the dietary codes of the Mosaic law. I don't think a passage reflecting a phenomenological perspective teaches a primitive cosmology anymore than speaking of the sunrise today amounts to holding to a pre-modern model of the universe. Evangelicals (and their precursors) have long held that there are principles guiding how to interpret, and those principles are derived in part from how scripture uses earlier scriptures and speaks of earlier scriptures. I don't see how any of that presupposes existentialism.

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