Tag Archives: inerrancy

Why I Trust the Bible: Bible Translator Bill Mounce Answers Real Questions and Doubts

Were the Gospels written by anonymous people who had no direct contact with early eyewitnesses to Jesus of Nazareth?

.… Part of an on-going series on the “historical criticism” of the Bible….

How Do You Answer Critics, Who Try to Use “Historical Criticism,” to Attack the Message of the Bible? 

Dr. Bill Mounce, who has served on the translation committee for the New International Version of the Bible, and as the New Testament Chairperson for the English Standard Version of the Bible, has heard of claims like these before. Critical scholars, most notably represented by those like University of North Carolina professor, Bart Ehrman, argue that the writers of the four Gospels were written by sophisticated Greek-speakers, who lived in a very different world from Jesus’ original followers, made up of mostly illiterate persons, like Peter the fisherman, who primarily spoke Aramaic, and only very little Greek. We have no real idea who exactly wrote the Gospels, though they were probably composed as completed works as late as the 2nd century, and therefore, the historical information presented in them can not be entirely trusted as being accurate about Jesus.

As with any scholarly claim like this, there are elements of truth here. Yes, the four Gospels we have probably did not originally have the names of their authors embedded in the text. Titles like, “the Gospel according to Mark,” were added to the text by the late 2nd century. Yes, Jesus’ original hearers primarily spoke and understood Aramaic, while all four Gospels are written in elegant Greek.

But as Dr. Mounce writes in his Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible, the idea that it was really Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who wrote their respective Gospels, was the unanimous consensus by the mid-2nd century. If the Gospels were truly anonymous, we would have heard of other possible author names being put forward as alternatives. But we do not see any contested argument regarding the names of authors in the historical record. In the ancient world, where we had no mass communication systems, made available by today’s technologies like the Internet, the traditional names of the Gospel writers consistently flourished throughout the geographically vast area of the Roman empire.

Contrast this with the disputes over who wrote the Book of Hebrews, the only New Testament book that lacks a particular claim to a particular author. Tertullian argued that Barnabas wrote Hebrews. Other early church fathers suggest Clement of Rome, or Luke. Eusebius believed it was Paul. Some even say Priscilla wrote it. Origen concluded, “In truth only God knows.”

In the case of Mark’s Gospel, we do have good evidence that Mark was indeed the author. Though the writings have not directly survived, Eusebius tells us of the church father and writer Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, until about 130 CE, who was a disciple of John. Papias in these lost writings had written that Mark had become Peter’s interpreter. Furthermore, Clement of Alexandria attests to Peter being in Rome, preaching in perhaps the 60s, of the first century. This would indicate that Mark probably wrote his Gospel, based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, as derived from sermons that Peter gave in Rome, prior to Peter’s martyrdom.

When Doubts Arise: Having a Reliable Guide to Answer Informed Critics

Bill Mounce givens seasoned, evidence-grounded answers, like the one above, to the type of doubts and questions raised by critics of the Bible today, in Why I Trust the Bible. Dr. Mounce makes judicious use of the insights gained by the “historical criticism” of the Bible, that enhance our understanding of the Scriptural text, rather than undermining it. Mounce’s audience is directed at ordinary Christian believers, who find themselves overwhelmed by the popular claims of skeptics, who are looking for reasoned explanations, that are readily accessible, and that do not descend into the overly technical. For those looking for more academic treatments of these topics, Mounce footnotes his references for those who want to dive deeper into these type of discussions.

I was particularly impressed with Dr. Mounce’s chapters on textual criticism, answering both the criticisms against New Testament itself popularly expressed by the famous atheist/agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman, as well as the King James Only-movement on the other side of the debate. Those few chapters alone are worth the price of the book, written at a level that most people should be able to understand, that covers all of the important questions that are typically raised on this topic.

I can quibble with Dr. Mounce on a few points here and there throughout the book. For example, Dr. Mounce’s claim that the “had formed” for the animals’ creation in Genesis 2:19, as found in the ESV and NIV translations, does not carry a sense of temporal sequence, has been criticized by other scholars as a form of cheating when it comes to certain Bible translations (see page 257). But such complaints are minor, as set within the context of the whole of Dr. Mounce’s excellent work.

All in all, Why I Trust the Bible is probably one of the best resources available, that critique some of the more extreme conclusions made within the “historical criticism” movement, regarding the Bible. From questions about the canon of Scripture to the latest intellectual fad of “Jesus Mythicism,” Bill Mounce hits nearly every major topic that skeptics will bring up about the Bible. That being said, this may not be the right book to give to a knowledgeable non-believer, who devours every book that Bart Ehrman publishes. Dr. Mounce pretty much assumes that his audience are either Christians, or those who are genuinely seeking information about the Bible. There are lots of great books now about the existence of God, how science and faith relate to one another, and social justice issues concerning Christianity, but if I had to pick just one book that specifically looks at the trustworthiness of the Bible, Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible stands near the top of the list.

One Serious Gripe

If I had one serious complaint to make about Why I Trust the Bible it would be that the book is too short. Why I Trust the Bible could have explored certain issues at a greater length and depth, but the author chose not to. Dr. Mounce’s book clocks in at around 280 pages, whereas British Anglican liberal scholar John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths, ( reviewed earlier in this blog post series on Veracity ), and endorsed by Bart Ehrman, clocks in at a hefty and whopping 635 pages. Both books are written for a popular audience, and easily digestible. Both books address overlapping material. Both Dr. Mounce and Dr. Barton are world-class scholars. But in spite of the length of Barton’s A History of the Bible, that might easily scare off some readers, Barton’s book outsells Dr. Mounce’s shorter Why I Trust the Bible, and most likely, will continue to outsell it.

I wonder if the topic of “historical criticism” of the Bible is avoided by church-going believers, because they are afraid with what they might find there. Thankfully, Bill Mounce’s Why I Trust the Bible does not exploit such fears, as it actually does the exact opposite. But perhaps the popularity of John Barton’s A History of the Bible exploits the growing skeptical reading audience’s desire for more material to challenge historic, orthodox Christianity.

While conservative evangelical book publishing has continued to improve tremendously over the past few decades, substantial volumes geared towards the general public have languished when compared to similar texts produced by progressive Christian and non-believing scholars. Back when I was in seminary in the 1990s, I remember being mesmerized by books written by the progressive Bible scholar, Elaine Pagels, available at the Barnes and Noble bookstore, while being frustrated by the lack of alternative volumes written by otherwise equally competent conservative evangelical scholars, on similar topics, altogether absent from those Barnes and Noble bookshelves. Elaine Pagels was introducing me to a whole new world of “historical criticism,” but the evangelical churches I knew of in those days, addressed such topics with crickets!!

Is this the fault of evangelical book publishers, or the book reading market that tends to shy away from lengthy books of this type? I do not know that answer here. But what I do know is that we need more substantial books, along the lines of Mounce’s Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible, that help to counter a growing skepticism in an increasingly secularized world.

 

In closing out this book review, I am leaving a whole list of teasers that might inspire you to go out and buy the book. Thankfully, Dr. Mounce has released a set of short videos, most of them clocking in at well under 5-minutes, that give you a summary of each chapter, plus a few extra videos that dive a little deeper into more complex topics. Here is the link to the entire YouTube playlist, but right below is the first video in the list, and I have hyperlinked to the other videos in the playlist, just below that. This is great stuff for your own personal discipleship journey, and might even be useful in a small group setting. Enjoy!! 

 

Chapter 1: Did Jesus really exist? Who was the Jesus of history?

Chapter 2: Who wrote the Gospels?

Chapter 3: Are there really contradictions in the Bible?

Chapter 4: What about “discrepancies” in the Bible that really, really look like contradictions?

Chapter 5: Why do we have 27 books in the New Testament?

Chapter 6: When was the New Testament canon closed? What was the role of the church?

Chapter 7: Are the original Greek texts for the New Testament hopelessly corrupt?

Chapter 8: How were the ancient New Testament manuscripts copied down through the generations?

Chapter 9: How does Dr. Bill Mounce interact with the claims of Dr. Bart Ehrman?

Chapter 10: There are so many Bible translations! Which ones can you trust?

Chapter 11: What are different philosophies behind Bible translations?

Chapter 12: Can I trust the character of God given to us in the Old Testament?

Chapter 13: Can we trust the historicity of the Old Testament?

Conclusion: Why does Dr. Mounce trust the Bible, and why should I?

What is “Jesus Mythicism?”

Does the Bible adequately show that Jesus really existed?

How accurate are the Gospels, if they were written down at least 20-25 years after Jesus lived on earth?

How good were the memories of the Gospel writers?

A tough apparent contradiction: Staff, or no staff?

Staff, or no staff? A shorter summary.

How many times did Peter deny Jesus?

Does the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew contradict the genealogy in Luke?


Was Jesus Mistaken About Abiathar? : Why Thoughtful Study is Better Than Ad-Hoc Harmonizations

In his 2005 New York Times best seller, Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman told the story of how he discovered that there were mistakes in the Bible. Despite having attended stalwart evangelical institutions, like Moody Bible College and Wheaton College, in Illinois, Ehrman arrived at Princeton Theological Seminary, having serious questions about the Bible’s reliability.

….. in a series on the “historical criticism” of the Bible….

Did Jesus mess up when He referenced the Old Testament, or did He say what He did on purpose? (Credit: Christianity Today magazine.)

When Harmonization is Helpful … and When the Search for Ad-Hoc Harmonizations Can Lead Someone Away from Faith

Bart Ehrman decided to write a hefty paper about a famous Bible discrepancy in Mark  2, where critics have claimed that Jesus mistakenly named “Abiathar” as a high priest in days of King David, when he should have used the name “Ahimelich.” Ehrman used the tools of “historical criticism” he had learned, trying to harmonize the details to somehow make the Bible “fit.” After pages and pages of analysis, a professor suggested to him that perhaps Mark or Jesus simply got that particular detail wrong.

At that moment, years of effort to “defend the Bible” came crashing down around Dr. Erhman. He remained a Christian after that for a few years, albeit a rather liberal or progressive one. But he gave up his faith altogether soon thereafter, the process of deconstruction having run its course to a full-blown agnosticism, if not downright atheism.

This story helped to catapult book sales of Misquoting Jesus, and later titles, thus giving Dr. Erhman the privilege of selling millions of books, for over the past 17 years. Every year or so, I have run into someone I know, or someone close to them, who has looked to Dr. Ehrman’s books as part of their deconstruction movement out of Christianity. Anytime Dr. Ehrman shows up on YouTube, he gets thousands of views.

Now, I am not saying that Dr. Erhman has been in it for the money. He is not. Nor is he purposefully attempting to destroy the faith of other believers in telling his story. He is not doing that either. Some Christians take a cheap shot at Ehrman and make wild accusations like these. Not only are such accusations unfair, they fail to adequately address some valid questions about what the Bible is actually teaching, concerns raised by Dr. Ehrman.

Other Christians have taken a more measured approach, but still find themselves nervous when they hear such claims, suggesting that Jesus, or someone else in the Bible, was wrong. The natural tendency is then to gravitate towards some relatively quick, ad hoc explanation of the discrepancy. You then latch onto some “possible” way of interpreting a passage differently, breathe a sigh of relief, and then move onto the next difficulty.

Now, such harmonization is not without merit. One of my favorite YouTube apologists, Inspiring Philosophy, somewhat leans towards this very approach with that passage. However, caution is in order, as such harmonization efforts can easily come across as either self-serving or overly complex, thereby encouraging skeptical critics to remain hardened in their skepticism.

A Quick Sidebar: One or Two Temple Cleansings?

A quick example here can suffice: All four Gospels each record one instance of Jesus cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem. However, while Matthew, Mark and Luke place this event around the week prior to Jesus’ Crucifixion, John places the event at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Some Christians, with godly scholarly support, contend for a harmonization approach, whereby we are to conclude that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice during his public ministry, first at the beginning of His public ministry, and second towards the end of His public ministry (One gracious, friendly commentator on a previous blog post even gave me a theological reason why there must have been two cleansings…. though well intended, I was not convinced).

While there is nothing technically wrong with this harmonization, it can come across as sounding rather ad hoc, or forced, as it fails to answer the question as to why no one single Gospel records the two Temple cleansings. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that Jesus could have gotten away with the first Temple cleansing in John, without getting arrested, but the second Temple cleansing chimes in well with his arrest later in the Passion Week.

Rather, a much better solution is to say that John was not trying to give a chronological account of the one Temple cleansing. Instead, John put the (single) Temple cleansing first in his narrative, to theologically highlight the fact that Jesus came to take down the Old Covenant, as represented by the Temple, and install a New Covenant, centered around faith in Jesus as the Son of God.

In other words, Temple worship does not save us. But faith in Jesus does. And that is Good News!! There is no real concern about possibly “de-historicizing” or “demythologizing” the Bible, as Rudolf Bultmann tried to do. It just makes better sense to read the text this way. No ad hoc harmonization required.

The main problem with a rather ad hoc harmonization approach to the Scriptures is that it tends to reduce Bible study to working a puzzle, merely trying to find solutions to a problem to be solved, instead of seeing Bible discrepancies as a window into exploring a mystery that sets a truly Christian imagination on fire. While sometimes solving a puzzle in the Bible is a worthwhile endeavor, as is the case with syncing up Paul’s description of his missionary journeys, when compared to potential discrepancies we find in the Book of Acts, the rich 2,000 year history of Christian reading and study of the Scriptures suggests meditating on the intricacies of Bible discrepancies actually helps the reader enter into the theological depths of God’s Word, at a whole new level. When the juices begin to flow to help the believer to expand their imagination, to think God’s thoughts after Him, to see that there are mysteries unfolding in the text, then that is a wonderful sign that the Holy Spirit is at work.

Connecting the dots associated with what at first appears to be conflicting data points in the Bible have led to some of the most remarkable conversions in the history of the church. It is that type of fired up Christian imagination that helped to turn former skeptics, like the 5th century Augustine of Hippo, to the 20th century Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, to having faith in Jesus. Bishop Ambrose in Rome helped Augustine see the Bible in a whole new way. J.R.R. Tolkien did this for his Oxford scholar/friend C.S. Lewis.

A Case Study on Doing Bible Study Without Excessive Harmonization

British pastor/teacher Andrew Wilson takes the difficult Mark 2 passage regarding Jesus’ supposed “mistake” about Abiathar as an illustration to make this very point, and he makes the illustration a lot better than I can. I took part of Wilson’s essay from behind the paywall at Christianity Today magazine to post the best part here, so I hope Christianity Today will not mind (it may just inspire someone to subscribe to CT, which would be for their benefit).  Enjoy and be edified:

One of my favorite discrepancies is Jesus’ “mistake” in Mark 2. In this passage, the Pharisees criticize Jesus for letting his disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath. In response, Jesus explains that he and his friends are doing what David and his men did when they ate the holy bread in the time of Abiathar the high priest (Mark 2:25–26). The problem is, 1 Samuel 21 tells us that Ahimelech, not his son Abiathar, was the high priest at the time that David and his men ate the holy bread. Either Jesus made a mistake or Mark did. In either case, evangelicals get nervous.

Scholar Bart Ehrman said that when he discovered this discrepancy in seminary, it kick-started his departure from Christianity. Progressive UK pastor Steve Chalke made it his opening salvo in a debate with me about the truthfulness of the Bible. Countless Christians, on the other hand, upon seeing the problem, have rushed to their study Bibles or other resources where they discover, in relief, that the Greek phrase epi Abiathar could mean “in the passage about Abiathar” rather than “in the time of Abiathar.” “That must be it,” they exclaim. “Problem solved. On to Mark 3.”

Yet there is far more going on in Mark 2. Jesus’ argument is not that he has found an obscure guy in the Old Testament who once ate bread on a Saturday. His point is that David, Israel’s true king-in-waiting, and his consecrated friends were allowed the holy bread that day. Jesus is interpreting his actions through the story of Israel’s greatest king. He is saying, in that cryptic way he often does, “I am David. These guys are my men. So they can eat what they want.”

So Jesus is David, the true king of Israel, and the disciples are his allies. But they aren’t the only characters in the story. Herod is Saul, the current king who has drifted from God and now wants to kill the pretender to the throne. John the Baptist is Samuel, the fiery prophet who prepares the way for the new king and confronts the old one. Judas is Doeg the Edomite, the betrayer. And Abiathar? He is Eli’s great-great-grandson, the last surviving member of the old priestly line, whose eventual removal from the priesthood would prove true God’s word through Samuel (1 Kings 2:27).

All of this means that Jesus mentions Abiathar rather than Ahimelech for good reason. He is saying, “I am David, these are my men, and the current priests are Abiathar. They are in charge now, but in just a few years their priesthood will end, just like Abiathar’s. And my kingdom will be established, just like David’s.”

I think that’s wonderful. The Holy Spirit didn’t put discrepancies in Scripture to provide fuel for skeptics, employment for commentators, or annoyance for evangelical Christians. He did it to make us think, search, meditate, read, learn—and be ever filled with awe.

Andrew Wilson’s treatment of this difficult passage is a good example of a better way we should deal with certain Bible discrepancies.  In the next post in this series, just in time for end of Holy Week, we will examine one of the most puzzling passages in the Gospels. To give you a hint, we will be talking about “Zombies” in the Bible. Look for it on Good Friday!

In the meantime, please keep Michael Licona in your prayers for his big 7-hour debate with Bart Ehrman, to be recorded tomorrow, on the question, “Did the Resurrection of Jesus Really Happen?” It happens tomorrow, April 9th, starting at 9:30am, EDT!!


The Rise and Fall of Summer 2021

Now that the last days of summer are waning, I am writing a post to reflect on some spiritual matters that I have been considering lately.

As we near the end of August, 2021, aside from Hurricane Ida bearing down on Louisiana, what is on the minds of many is the deteriorating situation in Kabul, Afghanistan. The obvious quandary is that the Taliban has not had a very stellar record in the area of upholding basic human rights, to say the least. The situation is particularly precarious for women and young girls, due to the strict Taliban interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. Critics of the Christian faith have for years sought to fault the Bible for promoting misogyny, but those claims pale in comparison to the strict, Taliban readings of the Koran, regarding the treatment of women.

A friend of mine who served in the U.S. military recently sought to help an Afghan interpreter and his family leave the country. A few days ago that interpreter and his family arrived safely in Virginia, but the status of others left behind in Afghanistan is unknown. Furthermore, we must remember that there is a small, yet vibrant Christian community in Afghanistan, who have endured persecution under previous Taliban rule. We must pray for all who are facing extremely difficult circumstances, that God might deliver them from this crisis.

Please, Lord, protect the weak and powerless, and deliver them from danger. Let your loving Truth be made known to these people.

The famous 1975 Hugh Van Es photo, that sticks in the minds of many people, who lived through the 1970s, that recalls the tragic Fall of Saigon, after an extremely controversial and highly destructive war in Southeast Asia.

Reflections on a Meme: An Iconic Photo Examined

As an American, I particularly feel the angst of the loss of American prestige, following after the speedy fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban, after America’s longest active military involvement, in another country, during the entire history of the United States. More than a century ago, the British had to learn their lesson about how difficult it is to achieve military success in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, it was the Soviet Russians who faced the futility of gaining the upper hand in that country. Now, it is the turn of the United States to face the same scenario. When I saw the first video reports of people falling off of C17 planes, trying to leave Kabul, it made me think immediately of the Fall of Saigon, in 1975. I vividly remember the television reports, back when I was in middle school.
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Is the Death of Judas Iscariot a Bible Contradiction?

Critics of the Bible will often point out discrepancies between different Scriptural accounts to be evidence of contradictions in the Bible. A classic case involves differences between Matthew’s account and Luke’s account of the death of Judas Iscariot. In a 2019 debate, critical scholar Bart Ehrman presses the contradiction claim against evangelical Bible scholar, Peter Williams.

Peter Williams’ explanation of what might have happened, in reconciling these accounts, parallels the answer given by Answers in Genesis’ Georgia Purdom. While the standard Williams/Purdom explanation does have a measure of plausibility, I must admit that Bart Ehrman has a point here. Given enough range of possibilities, you can pretty much resolve just about any contradiction.

But some attempts to harmonize the text do not always convince everyone. In Matthew, Judas hangs himself before any mention of the purchase of a field. In Luke-Acts, Judas dies in the field, after he had just bought the field. It is possible that Judas acquired the field, in some manner, before hanging himself, and then afterwards, the chief priests repurchased the field. But the events still seem a bit disconnected. Furthermore, it seems strange that Luke would not have reminded his readers that Judas had hung himself.

I would not want to totally dismiss the Williams/Purdom explanation, but it does border on being ad hoc. Might there be a better resolution to this discrepancy, that has better explanatory power? I think there is, but you have to think a bit “out of the box” to get there.

New Testament scholar Michael Licona has written about the use of compositional devices, that were commonly characteristic of the Greco-Roman bios genre, typical of 1st century literature. Some of those compositional devices would not sound typical for modern readers, particularly those compositional devices that have a more metaphorical understanding behind them. But if we consider the Gospels as examples of such bios literary genre, this might resolve the Judas death discrepancy more satisfactorily. Licona’s critics have accused him of undermining biblical inerrancy, but it is ironically more likely that the supposed defenders of a more strict view of inerrancy, have made it more difficult for the Bible to be defended.

YouTube apologist Michael Jones, a.k.a. Inspiring Philosophy, brings Licona’s insights to bear on the death of Judas conundrum. In the days of King David, Ahithophel deserted David and plotted against the king, in support of Absalom. But when Ahithophel realized that the plot against David would fail, he hung himself (see 2 Samuel 17, especially verse 23). It is possible that Matthew might have used the hanging of Ahithophel as a metaphorical way of saying that Judas was yet another Ahithophel.

This would have been consistent with the practice of Greco-Roman bios to use figures of speech, that may not be obvious to the modern reader. In other words, perhaps Judas did not actually hang himself, but he could have committed suicide in a manner more like it is described by Luke, early in the Book of Acts. This idea is supported by evidence in the Gospel of John, where John alludes to Judas’ betrayal as being like the betrayal of Ahithophel (Psalm 41:9; John 13:18).

If you liked that video, you should review some of the hundred(s) of other YouTube videos at Inspiring Philosophy, that addresses supposed “Bible contradictions.” Michael Jones is one of the new brilliant “Young Apologists” (my way of saying it), that some are calling the “Apologetics Empire.”

New Testament scholar Michael Licona goes at it himself from a slightly different angle, suggesting that Matthew is actually describing a hanging here, and that it is Luke instead who is using a figure of speech, of Judas “falling headlong,” as a metaphorical way of saying that Judas’ career was “going downhill” at that point.

What I would conclude here is that there are a variety of possible resolutions to this classic Bible discrepancy, but that allowing for the use of metaphor and figure of speech, where something has been traditionally interpreted in a non-metaphorical sense, might actually be a better, more plausible and even probable way to resolve such difficulties.

Any thoughts Veracity readers?

 

 


Verbicide

I might step on some toes here.

I am just as guilty here as the next person, but in C.S. Lewis’ masterful work, Studies in Words, p.7-8, the great Oxford don nails it:

“Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for ‘very,’ tremendous for ‘great,’ sadism for ‘cruelty,’ and unthinkable for ‘undesirable’ were verbicides. Another way is verbiage, by which I here mean the use of a word as a promise to pay which is never going to be kept. The use of significant as if it were an absolute, and with no intention of ever telling us what the thing is significant of, is an example. So is diametrically when it is used merely to put opposite into the superlative. Men often commit verbicide because they want to snatch a word as a party banner, to appropriate its ‘selling quality.’ Verbicide was committed when we exchanged Whig and Tory for Liberal and Conservative. But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative. . . . and to end up by being purely evaluative– useless synonyms for good or for bad.”

I see this type of verbicide happening all of the time among Christians, including myself. I will use a word like awesome, simply to say that I like something, which is hardly what awesome meant some thirty years ago, in normal speech. To create a sense of awe, or reverence, about something or someone, is what awesome has typically meant for years. Nowadays, awesome has become almost a throw-away word, used to describe how good that hamburger tasted, that you just ate for lunch.

But among fellow Christians, the problem seems like an epidemic. Some believers insist on the literal interpretation of Scripture, when it is clear that literal merely has an inflationary characteristic, that Lewis identifies back in 1960, when he wrote Studies in Words. It is found in the common colloquialism of “it is literally raining cats and dogs out there!” Surely, no one believes that your neighbor’s siamese cat and yellow labrador just landed on your front lawn. No, it simply means that it is raining really, really, really hard.

Verbicide. We have killed the word literally.

We have turned the word literally into something not literal at all. Or to recall the previous blog post, whereby we discovery that metaphors can become so stable, that they can actually become new words. Just think of the word concrete, which in construction lingo, refers to a mixture of cement and sand, and other materials. But it could also have a metaphorical meaning, abstracted away from its construction context, to mean something that is firm or stable itself….. You know, something concrete.

Then there is that old discussion about inerrancy. For some, inerrancy is an affirmation that Scripture is the Christian’s authority. Why would you submit to something as your authority, if you lack the confidence that it is without error? A humble posture of obedience to the teachings of Scripture is predicated on the assumption that you accept the Bible to be true. This is the reason why inerrancy, which affirms the truthfulness of Scripture, is so important.

However, often inerrancy gets spun around to say, “My interpretation of the Bible is inerrant, and your interpretation is not!” So, two Christians can both hold to the inerrancy of the Bible, but if one Christian does not agree with an interpretation of a particular passage, that another Christian holds to, in good conscience, sometimes they might pull out the charge that the other Christian is denying the inerrancy of the Bible.

Yet what they really are doing is arguing for the inerrancy of their own, particular interpretation of a Bible passage. When thought poorly, in this manner, biblical “inerrancy” has less to do with describing and affirming the authority of Scripture, and more to do with evaluating the acceptability or non-acceptability of someone’s interpretation of the Scriptures. Not all interpretations of the Bible are created equal, but when we do stuff like this with words, then the word inerrancy becomes almost useless.

Note, however, I am not saying that inerrancy is not a useful word. I still firmly believe that it is. You can have a correct interpretation of a particular Bible passage, but still refuse to submit to it, if you fail to trust the Bible as God’s True Word. Affirming the inerrancy of Scripture is the first step, but not the last step. We still need to learn how to interpret Scripture correctly. Hopefully, this makes sense and is clear.

So, what I am saying is that when a word like inerrancy gets transformed from Lewis’ descriptive sense; that is, describing the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture, as in the classic usage, to Lewis’ more evaluative sense; that is, “your interpretation of the Bible is bad; therefore, you must be denying the inerrancy of the Bible,” then we have pretty much committed verbicide, thus rendering inerrancy as being an ineffective word.

And that is not good. It is not helpful. But that is what we do.

People of the Word can do some crazy things with words.

If you poke around on social media, whether it be following Twitter, reading Facebook posts, or in the worst possible case, that absolute scourge of the online era, reading YouTube video comments…. I find it to be a terribly depressing display of how Christians can commit verbicide, without much reflective thought. Why some people, even followers of Christ, would resort to such incoherent and even vitriolic language you find online, that they would never-ever-ever use in face-to-face to conversation, is simply appalling. But as the era of using social media has now pretty much become the norm, I am now starting to hear to such abusive talk, by the murder of words, ranging from comments given at a Bible study, to everyday face-to-face conversation with another believer…. And much of this we pick up from the world around us, particularly from our social media habits.

If I were the Pope, and we still had one organized church body, I would instigate a ban on all Christians writing on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube video comments, or at least impose a 24-hour cooling off period, before a Christian types out a response to something they have seen or read online, with threats of immediate excommunication, in order to stop the madness.

If I was smart enough, I would just stop right here….. But please indulge me a few more paragraphs to gripe a bit more about the problem with verbicide….. Otherwise, you can stop now, and enjoy the rest of your day….

Here is a classic example as to why I never simply assume what someone means anymore when they use particular words, particularly when it comes to social media: What grieves me these days is watching what has happened to something like the word gay. In the 1890s, it meant describing someone who was “happy.” Any sexual flavor to the word was simply unknown.

In popular culture, this meaning was preserved even in the opening credits of the 1960s Flintstones cartoon, “we’ll have a gay old time!”

That practice shifted, however, somewhere in my lifetime.

Thirty years ago, and for some of us, still today, gay means to describe the experience of persons, who find themselves with some sort of disposition of being sexually attracted to another person of the same sex. To be gay does not necessarily mean being sexually active, though that is possible. It generally applies to describing someone’s sexual orientation, which may or may not be immutable, but that typically does not change for most people, who think of themselves as gay.

Sure, there are reports that one’s sexual orientation may change over time, but such reports are rarely common. Being gay is more of an internal struggle, as indicating that one’s experience of sexual attraction, is outside of the norm. To be gay, in this sense, is a product of the Fall, but it is not an indication of any particular moral failure, on the part of the person who has this disposition, if they do not act on this disposition, either in thought or deed. To be gay, therefore, only becomes sin when one is tempted to act upon such desire, and succumb to that temptation, either through imaginative lust, or by actually participating in a sexual relationship.

Sadly, over the past few decades, much of the church’s response towards those who say that they are gay has been to try to get them to become heterosexual. But the goal of sanctification is not heterosexuality. Rather, the goal is holiness.

As a result of this misstep in the church, over time, the language of being gay has evolved for some, to be a type of descriptor of someone’s ontological identity. This shift has become sharply pronounced and accelerated in the era of Facebook and Twitter. Instead of merely describing a person’s experience of sexual attraction, the use of the word gay goes deeper than describing personal experience of sexual attraction, as it has come to describe “who I am, as a person,” for someone who thinks of themselves as gay.

A shocking example of this is the same-sex couple in Colorado, who took Jack Phillips, a master cake decorator, to court, for claiming that Phillip’s refusal to endorse a same-sex wedding, using Phillip’s skills as a artist, contrary to Phillip’s evangelical theological beliefs, was actually an attack on who they were as persons. This same-sex couple, and others like them, make the surprising leap that a failure to approve of a particular behavior, by not using socially approved forms of speech, is somehow a violation of someone’s else’s personal identity.

I do not personally know of anyone who consciously thinks of themselves as being gay like this, but clearly I do hear about it. Surely, as contemporary culture continues to raise awareness of “LGBTQ” concerns, the word gay is more and more used, in the media, as indicating a type of social or political identity, implying the active expression of same-sex erotic activity.

My concern is that in response, many Christians then take this word, gay, also in a morally evaluative sense. To be gay, therefore, has no place in God’s divine purposes, even indirect, and therefore not good, in any way, shape, or form. If someone’s experience of same-sex attraction persists, then many Christians believe that there must be something awfully wrong with that person’s faith.

What a shift from the 1890s, the 1960s, or even the 1980s.

So, when a Christian describes themselves as a “single gay Christian,” or a “celibate gay Christian,” they must be careful to define what they mean. But for a growing number of Christians, because of the morally evaluative sense, so prevalently attached to that word, “gay,” any attempt to define what the word means, in any merely descriptive sense, arouses deep suspicion.

Acknowledging the experience of being gay, as a product of the Fall, is insufficient, for some Christians. To the one who holds such deep suspicions, the language of gay must be rejected at every point, for the believing Christian. “Gay” and “celibate” are inherently contradictory, despite any effort at explanation and precise definition.

In other words, we have killed the word “gay.”

As a result, some Christians over the years, have cast aside the wholly negative language of gay, and then, in the most neutral sense possible, as so many of us think, and now speak exclusively of being “same-sex attracted.” In other words, to be same-sex attracted is to have such a disposition, or orientation, towards finding a member of the same sex attractive. This sense of being same-sex attracted can be characterized as allowing for a presentation of a temptation, that could lead to sin, either in thought, as in lust, or in deed, engaging in sexual relations. The same-sex attracted Christian then wrestles with their condition, seeking to resist temptation, that they might not succumb to sin, if they wish to be faithful to the classic teaching of the Scriptures.  Interestingly, the very language Christians use here has become a topic of intense debate, within the evangelical church.

A excellent example of this type of preference of one term, “same-sex attracted” against another similar term, “gay,” to describe the experience of some Christians, who nevertheless hold to the traditional view of marriage, as being exclusively between a man and a woman, can be found in a 2019 resolution among Southern Baptists.

In other words, for Southern Baptists in 2019, it is permissible to “identify” as being “same-sex attracted,” while still affirming celibacy. But it is NOT permissible to “identify” as being “gay,” while still affirming celibacy. Why? Because presumably being “same-sex attracted” carries no morally evaluative stigma with it, whereas “gay” does.

According to C.S. Lewis, this is how we go about murdering words.

But just within the last couple of years, I am seeing that same language of “same-sex attracted” being cast under the same, morally evaluative scrutiny as gay once was. Now even some Christians are calling on others to reject the language of same-sex attracted, as inherently being a damnable sin, by the mere presentation of a Fallen desire.

I am an advocate for ministries, like Celebrate Recovery, where Christian people gather together, and confide with one another that they are “recovering or sober alcoholics,” and the like. Granted, there is a danger here. For it might be misconstrued, that to describe one’s self as a “recovering or sober alcoholicis an unfortunate means of “identifying” with your sin, instead of trusting fully with Christ, as the very center and grounding of one’s identity. All sin is sin, so we should not major on the particularities. Christ and Christ alone is and should be our sole identity. I totally get that.

However, there is also an equally important danger going too far in the other direction. The aversion to using the language of a “recovering or sober alcoholicmight lead one to think that one’s particular experience, wrestling against a particular tendency towards a particular sin, might cause us to downplay the particularities of a person’s struggle. In other words, I am concerned that there might come a day when is it no longer permissible to self-describe oneself as an “alcoholic,” in this manner, because it inherently implies a morally evaluative status.

But this would be wrong-headed. For the best way for an “alcoholic” to make their journey towards recovery, is by finding support among other “recovering alcoholics.” There can be some overlap with “recovering pornography addicts” or “recovering gambling addicts,” but the experiences are nevertheless still different. Someone with a gambling addiction is not always the best person to help someone with an alcohol problem. A recovering alcoholic can only offer limited assistance to someone who suffers from chronic overeating.

I suggest, we should not shy away from talking about the unique aspects of one’s experience with unique sanctification struggles, for fear of “over-identifying” with something apart from Christ. Sadly, I believe that the Southern Baptist 2019 resolution can lead some towards this type of unhealthy shyness.

What makes the 2019 resolution so bizarre is that Celebrate Recovery, with its goal of helping people with their “hurts, habits, and hang-ups,” had its genesis in a Southern Baptist church.

Theologically, it is like it is becoming more impossible to carefully distinguish temptation from sin, without collapsing the latter onto the former. It reminds of me of playing tag football as a kid, when my neighbor would move the goalposts, right in the middle of the play. I thought I was getting to the touchdown zone, only to discover that the touchdown zone had moved down the field, another few yards away.

What a frustrating thing it is, to have a conversation with someone, thinking you are talking about the same thing, only to realize that the goalposts have been moved on you, and you discover that you can not even agree on the basic terms of the conversation.

Perhaps it is because I do not watch television any more, on a regular basis, that I notice these things. Perhaps it is due to the way Facebook, and other means of social media exchange, take place in an online world. But it really bothers me to see so many, otherwise earnest Christians falling into these changing patterns of thinking and expression. And, if I am honest, it probably influences me in such subtle ways that I am not even aware of it.

Alas. We as Christians follow the ways of the world without thinking carefully and clearly, just as Lewis observed.

Or perhaps a better way to put it is this: language is changing, and these days, in the era of social media, it is changing more rapidly than ever before. But sadly, Christians can easily get stuck in certain language patterns, without realizing it, that can make effective communication exceedingly difficult.

We live in strange times.

Lord help us.


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