Tag Archives: progressive christianity

End of Summer 2022 Round-Up!!

This summer was amazingly hectic for me with my job at the College of William and Mary. One phrase summarizes my summer: Supply chain delays. But now that students are back on campus, things are starting to settle down.

What follows is my attempt to recap some things that have made me think a lot, so far this year…. Bart Ehrman, “women in ministry,” where do you get your news, David McCullough, Roe vs. Wade, Jordan Peterson, Alex Jones and Sandy Hook, what is the best argument for the Resurrection, the “Late-Date” theory for the Exodus, Henry Emerson Fosdick 100 years later, “progressive Christianity,” divine hiddenness, and analytic philosophy.

A bit disjointed for sure, but all very important. I have a bunch of thoughts, but instead of individual blog posts about each topic, I will try to keep things fairly short, and include the summaries below. Read on!! ….

Blogging Recap… Featuring Bart Ehrman

I have written several blogs this year that I put quite a bit of thought into, after reading several books on my bike ride commutes to work. The longest series is on the “historical criticism” of the Bible, some of its history dating back to the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, how “historical criticism” has both positively and negatively impacted the church, and offering a sample of Bible passages, with a model of doing “historical criticism” in a nuanced way, that appreciates the value of allowing historical method to inform our interpretation of the Bible, without slipping into unnecessary skepticism of the Bible’s divine inspiration.

My fundamental claim, in a nutshell, is that the most common methodology employed by historical critics like Bart Ehrman, as well as “Progressive Christians” who adopt the same methodology, is that they believe that you can only do proper historical research on the Bible by treating it like any other piece of human literature, which in their minds, implies that you must bracket off claims regarding the inspired nature of the Scriptural text as being the very Word of God, at least temporarily. If you fail to bracket that off, you ironically risk distorting the interpretation of the text. Historical critics like Bart Ehrman says the Bible is inherently contradictory, and so he dismisses attempts to try to harmonize Scriptural texts, even in the most nuanced way, as actually obscuring what the Bible is trying to tell us.

I contend that this approach is a false dichotomy. Scripture can be studied as human literature within its historical context while simultaneously affirming the Bible as being the inspired Word of God. A scholar like a Bart Ehrman would disagree. Read the posts for yourself to see if I have made a compelling case contrary to Ehrman.

I am increasingly concerned that the negative impact of “historical criticism” that in the 20th century wrecked havoc in mainline Protestantism is now creeping into certain areas of less denominationally oriented evangelicalism, in a way that most evangelicals are completely unaware of. I will just leave it at that.

The most substantial book review was for Bart Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell. I had not read through a Bart Ehrman book before, with such detail. I can see why Ehrman has so many followers. I am just surprised that there have not been any Bart Ehrman fans who have jumped down on me and made critical comments on the blog yet. I strongly disagree with Bart on many points, but I have to concede that he articulates probably the most cogent critical view that I have read attacking the reliability of the New Testament, which partly explains why he is such a popular author. Plus, I would describe him as an honest non-believer, who does not try to pretend that he is a Christian. His interest in Christianity is primarily historical, trying to make sense of Jesus of Nazareth, the single most influential person in the world who has ever lived. If you want to understand why so many educated people reject the Bible as being authoritative, you better read Bart Ehrman. The chances are high that some highly educated “former” Christian you know, or someone who is going through a faith “deconstruction,” has read some Bart Ehrman.

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An Update on the Complementarian/Egalitarian Divide in Evangelicalism

I also read a couple of books on the “women in ministry” controversy again. I really hate that title, but it is more useful and familiar than the nerdy theological category of complementarianism versus egalitarianism. I wrote extensive critical reviews of both an egalitarian and complementarian authors’ books, but I put a bunch of YouTube video links from Mike Winger’s excellent series into the complementarian review blog post, linked down at the very end.  So far, as of the posting of this blog post, Winger is up to nine (9) deep-dive sessions on the topic!

A large chasm exists between a “broad” complementarian, like a Kevin DeYoung, and an egalitarian, like a Lucy Peppiatt, whereas a “soft” complementarian, like a Mike Winger, stands at a more responsible place in the middle. To put it another way, one side tends to go to the extreme of wanting to “bring back the patriarchy” whereas the other side wants to squash “toxic masculinity.” I believe there is a different way forward. Some egalitarian Christians that I have interacted with think Winger has not made a compelling case for his viewpoint. But invariably few of them are willing to patiently view any of his two hour videos. That does not seem fair to me. I wish I could find the egalitarian view convincing, but the circumstantial evidence brought forward by the egalitarian side seems to come up disappointingly short. I wish this was not the case.

Nevertheless, I still hold high regard for evangelical Christians who are egalitarian in their convictions. My main concern is not in the specific conclusions that are drawn, but rather, I am concerned about the hermeneutical methods that some use to draw their conclusions.  A faulty hermeneutic in one area of reading the Bible can lead to other distortions of Scripture in other areas.

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So, Where Do You Get Your News?

We do not live in the 1970s anymore. Gone are the days of three major television news outlets, CBS, ABC, and NBC nightly news programs, and the hegemony of newspaper publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post. For most of the 1990s, I narrowed down the options even more: The only time I bothered with listening to the news was on my evening commutes with NPR’s All Things Considered playing on the radio. Today, we get our news from various sources, which all give us conflicting and contradictory views of the world, which pretty much makes civil discourse in society today near to impossible.

As the risk of being controversial, I am now a member of the “I stopped listening to NPR when… ” club.

I try to steer clear of exclusively of heavily biased news sources. Occasionally, I will read longer pieces by liberal outlets like the New York Times, but I try to balance it out with stories from the much more conservative Wall Street Journal.  My wife likes listening to The World and Everything In it, the daily news podcast put out by WORLD News Group, which styles itself like a conservative evangelical alternative to NPR’s All Things Considered. WORLD has gotten better over the years, but recent staff upheavals at WORLD make me a little leery as to its future.

I pretty much stick with Ground.News, a secular outfit that ranks the bias of various news organizations when reporting stories, which I find quite helpful.  But I have decided to try the PourOver email newsletter and podcast, as it offers to give a Christian perspective on the news while trying its best to steer clear of heavy bias, without flooding your brain, as it only comes out three times a week. So far the PourOver is a very refreshing approach to the news.

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The Late David McCullough

While the bulk of what is posted on the Veracity blog is an Christian apologetics, my other love is for church history ( and history more broadly). Not too long ago the popular American historian David McCullough died. For me he models what a good historian does. He was the author of various best sellers, including 1776 and John Adams.

Christian blogger Joel J. Miller has a nice remembrance of McCullough on his blog.

At the risk of being a little controversial, blogger Samuel D. James has some insightful thoughts regarding what Christians can learn from McCullough. James points out that some recent Christian books criticizing evangelicalism historically have fallen into a bad habit. In the most memorable quote by James, one particular author “wanted me to see the subjects of her history the way she sees them, not as how they saw themselves. How they interpreted their lives and beliefs was of little consequence. How the generations after them interpreted them was everything. This is the kind of history that gets people angry and eager to deconstruct whatever they sense is tainted by moral failure…. What renews my soul about reading David McCullough’s work is that it doesn’t do this.”  Now that is provocative, but I am inclined to think that James is right, based on some other writings I have read along the same lines.

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The Overturning of Roe vs. Wade

Like a lot of people, I was really surprised when the U.S Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, earlier this year. On the other hand, I am not convinced that the court’s verdict will have a lasting impact on public opinion about abortion, though I could easily be wrong. By putting the issue back in front of the states, the legislative debates will surely continue and get really complicated on a state by state basis. Perhaps the only solution will be something like an amendment to the federal constitution to ultimately settle the matter, and I do not see that as happening anytime soon. The main reason for thinking this is that even if extensive anti-abortion laws get passed, it might be almost impossible to enforce them. Without public support, passing unpopular laws will probably achieve little.

Marvin Olasky, an outspoken pro-life journalist, agrees citing what we know from history: “From the 1840s through the 1940s, public opinion concerning abortion was more negative than it is now, but even during that era, enforcement of abortion bans was rare. Millions of abortions occurred during that century, but only a tiny percentage of doctors did prison time. It was hard to get police to arrest, juries to convict, or judges to support jury decisions and turn down appeals.” As the subtitle of his article in Christianity Today declares, “Looking ahead, Christians should focus less on enforcement than on changing cultural attitudes.”

In the meantime, I am grateful for friends who work in or otherwise support crisis pregnancy centers that offer assistance to those in need. In my area of Williamsburg, Virginia, the closest center is CareNet Peninsula. They do great work there. It is through such efforts that perhaps there will be a day when abortion becomes an unthinkable option for people faced with such difficult decisions.

The “right to life” cause, in the political sphere, is primarily an effort led by Christians, as Bible readers seek to make their moral convictions known within the public arena. There are notable exceptions to this, as the late and famed New Atheist Christopher Hitchens opposed abortion. But by and large, I doubt if we will see a remarkable surge in support of the “right to life” until we have a massive wave of Christian spiritual revival in the West. That can only come about by prayer and evangelization, which means in part engaging in the type of apologetics being promoted here on the Veracity blog. Interestingly, history shows us that as more and more people came to Christ in the Roman Empire, in the first 500 years of the church, that this shifted public opinion away from promoting abortion. As more people embraced the Gospel, the less support there was for abortion. Perhaps this can be a lesson for us in the 21st century.

I just recently ran across a short, Tik-Tok type video, put out by one of my favorite YouTube apologists, Michael Jones, at Inspiring Philosophy, who addresses the objection that the Bible actually sanctions induced abortions, based on Numbers 5:27. I have been hearing the Numbers 5:27 pro-abortion argument a lot lately, and really did not know how to respond to it, until I saw Jones’ video. Jones argues that the NIV translation is unlikely, and explains what might be a much better translation. Worth checking out:

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The Return of Jordan Peterson

While the world was swirling in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the outspoken Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, had a close brush with death of another kind. As a result of a successful nation hoping medical tour, Peterson finally made it out of this crisis and is back on the public stage. Many have described Jordan Peterson’s teachings as a “gateway drug” to Christianity, and I believe this is correct.

Alas, I need to get up on my soapbox for a minute: Oddly, there are a number of Christians I know who do not like Jordan Peterson, and interestingly they (almost) all seem to be egalitarians. Some of whom I respect think Peterson is a secular-type of Mark Driscoll, which I kind of get, but at the same time, I really think this misses the point. Just because Mark Driscoll turned out to fail a lot of people miserably does not mean that the need he was trying to address was false. At the same time, a lot of critics who are not so impressed with Peterson also admit that the need for men to take responsibility, as a way of finding purpose in life, is still essential. Is that not what Peterson’s message boils down to? I am left scratching my head.

The following video by Peterson is perhaps the best short video supporting a psychological apologetic for complementarianism, urging Christians to stop downgrading men with constant talk about “toxic masculinity” and instead challenging young men to step forward and take responsibility, as a matter of Christian virtue. As Peterson argues, by supporting young men this will have a positive impact on young women as well. Plus, I believe that taking seriously Peterson’s argument will go a long ways towards trimming back the number of mass shootings, which are almost universally committed by young, disaffected and lonely males, longing for a sense of visionary purpose in life…. and that ranges from the Uvalde, Texas elementary school shooter, who had no father figure in his life, to the May 2022 racist shooter in Buffalo, N.Y. where as a child, he felt he did not have “that much importance” to his family, and that “my parents know little about me,” despite outward appearances that he had a nice, balanced family life.

I know that as Peterson, as an agnostic, does not have the best command of certain particulars of Bible translation, and that he should “stay in his lane,” so to speak. This video has sparked numerous, thoughtful reflections by Christians, pointing out the things that Peterson got right in the video, while acknowledging his shortcomings. With that in mind, I commend the effort the Peterson is putting forward, and I am befuddled as to why so many believing Christians find his message so off-putting. Perhaps it is because we as Christians are at times too prideful? Sometimes it helps to receive the rebuke from someone outside of the church, like Jordan Peterson, as a prophetic challenge to Christians to wake up out of our slumber.

Nevertheless, we should not define doctrine based on what Jordan Peterson says, but rather we should look to the Bible as our final authority. Jennie Pollock, a blogger in the U.K., has a nice short essay summarizing what she says, “Why I love my complementarian church.

As a bonus, I found a really provocative approach to the issue of having “women as elders” by Dr. Gerry Breshears. In the following video interview by Preston Sprinkle, Breshears argues as a “soft” complementarian that only qualified men are to serve as local church elders, but interestingly, this has NOTHING to do with hierarchy. In fact, Breshears contends that neither Paul nor Timothy would have qualified to become church elders, even though Paul was an apostle and Timothy was the undisputed leader of the church in Ephesus. Agree or not, Dr. Breshears’ presentation will turn your head upside down on this (as it did mine!):

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Alex Jones, Sandy Hook, and Conspiracy-Theory Driven “Christianity”

There is just some absolutely crazy stuff going on at the fringes of the evangelical Christian world. The story of Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who was recently sued by parents of a child killed by the Sandy Hook mass shooter, says that he is a “Christian.

Author Elizabeth Williamson has written a whole book about this, An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth, something I want to put on my reading list. Here is part of the promotional flyer on the cover for the book: “On December 14, 2012, a gunman killed twenty first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Ten years later, Sandy Hook has become a foundational story of how false conspiracy narratives and malicious misinformation have gained traction in society….One of the nation’s most devastating mass shootings, Sandy Hook was used to create destructive and painful myths. Driven by ideology or profit, or for no sound reason at all, some people insisted it never occurred, or was staged by the federal government as a pretext for seizing Americans’ firearms. They tormented the victims’ relatives online, accosted them on the street and at memorial events, accusing them of faking their loved ones’ murders. Some family members have been stalked and forced into hiding. A gun was fired into the home of one parent.”

As Williamson argues, the professing “Christian” Alex Jones was propagating this conspiracy theory, repeatedly using his InfoWars platform to spread these lies, influencing his followers to threaten some of those Sandy Hook parents. Over time, Jones eventually started to back off on such claims, but it took a number of years before he finally emphatically admitting that the killings were real, during this summer’s trial. Why it took Jones so long to admit his errors is baffling. Was it all just for show? Why he continues to propagate further lies and just plain odd behavior is even more troubling.

The testimony of this mother of one of the kids murdered at Sandy Hook, confronting the lies that Alex Jones continues to spread is heart-wrenching:

I do not know enough about the story, other than this, but the connection between such far-out conspiracy theories and such proponents claiming to be Christian is incredibly bizarre. The damage done by these conspiratorial theorizing defies the mind.

How is it that so many other professing “evangelical Christians” appear to be taken in by this stuff? Well, it appears that there is some research now that might help to explain what is going on. A growing number of professed “evangelical Christians” have been leaving the church. Some estimates indicate that such “unchurched” evangelical Christians now make up the largest religious group in the American South, an absolutely stunning statistic.

You read that right: the largest religious group in the American South are unchurched people claiming to be evangelical Christians.

Effectively, we have a steadily growing number of people who are leaving churches, while still claiming to be Christian, who are no longer being discipled by churches but who are instead being discipled by right-wing media outlets, that claim to promote Christian values. Historian Daniel K. Williams summarizes it like this: “Data suggests that, when their attendance drops, these nominal Christians become hyper-individualistic, devoted to law and order, cynical about systems, and distrustful of others.”

I can believe Williams because I know of a several  professing Christians who have pretty much given up on going to church. They are not Sandy Hook conspiracy promoters, but they follow the same pattern that Williams summarizes.

As a reaction against this, I also know of several professed “Progressive Christians” who have a negative view of conservative evangelical faith, particularly that which often carries the label of “Christian nationalism.” But it might help such friends of mine to consider that perhaps what they are reacting against is not actual Christianity being practiced in our churches, but rather, they are reacting against a kind of fake Christianity practiced by professing “Christians” who would rather stay home and watch conservative media outlets on television instead of going to a vibrant Christian fellowship on Sunday mornings, and otherwise actively becoming part of some community, where they might get discipled in the faith.

Just something to think about.

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Dispute over the Minimal versus Maximal Facts Argument for the Resurrection

For some reason that I fail to grasp, there is an ongoing debate as to which is better, the minimal facts or the maximal facts argument for the Resurrection. In short, my answer is, use whatever argument that will help your interlocutor take a step closer to Jesus.

Christian apologist and YouTuber Mike Winger is a bit simplistic here, but he has a decent short summary of each approach:

The minimal facts argument, articulated best by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, suggests that we limit the evidence used in our argument to those facts that the widest spectrum of biblical scholars and historians, ranging from conservative to liberal, will most reasonably accept. For example, many scholars and historians today believe that the Apostle Paul only wrote 7 of the 13 letters in the New Testament attributed in him. Also, many scholars suggest that a good deal of the material we have in the Gospels is historically unreliable, much of it being the product of the early church placing ideas and words on the lips of Jesus. For people who are to some degree aware of what such scholars and historians say, the minimal facts approach will probably meet the least amount of resistance. Nevertheless, the goal is to try to persuade people that Christians can be thoughtful and still believe in the Resurrection at the same time, so that inquirers might consider taking further steps in having a deeper understanding of what the implications of the Resurrection are, so that they might embrace the whole of the Christian message.

Alternatively, the maximal facts approach suggests that we use the entire arsenal of evidence from the New Testament to make our case for the Resurrection. My thought is that we should use whatever approach makes sense, based on the assumptions made by the audience with whom we are engaging. If someone follows the broad scholarly opinion, I would lead with the minimal facts argument. If someone is willing to accept the whole of the New Testament as historically reliable, or is at least fairly open to it, then I would use the maximal facts approach instead.

In other words, Christians should invest the necessary time to be able communicate both arguments, both the minimal facts and the maximal facts approach in their evangelistic conversation. Since in my experience, most Christians I know are not familiar with the minimal facts approach at all, and that they tend to fumble their way through some variation of the maximal facts approach, it would be the most wisest thing to learn both approaches, with their pluses and minuses.

The key is this: Know your audience. Adjust your argument accordingly so that you keep the discussion on track, in hopes that your friend will take a closer step to knowing Jesus. Pretty straightforward, to me, at least.

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Why I am a Late-Date Proponent of the Exodus

I have written a several blog posts over the years, making a case for the Scriptural account of the Exodus, while acknowledging that there is a good Scriptural evidence that the traditional view of the number of Israelites being about 2 to 4 million involved is actually way over inflated. My most visited blog post on Veracity deals with this issue.

I have come to conclude that the so-called “late date” theory of when the Exodus occurred is probably the best explanation of both the Scriptural archaeological data, as YouTuber apologist Michael Jones, and his Egyptologist consultant, Dr. David A. Falk, suggest. Here are some of the latest and best YouTube videos that dig into the details. I am still open to changing my mind on all of this, but to date, this position seems to be the best argument to make to support the historicity of the Exodus:

Lest anyone think I am being unfair here, you might want to listen to the following interview that Sean McDowell did with archaeologist Dr. Titus Kennedy, who favors an early date (15th c. BCE) versus Jones/Falk’s late date (13th c. BCE) proposal. Jones was previously an early date advocate, like Kennedy, but was convinced on the late date (as I am) by Dr. Falk. If you are still persuaded by the early date proposal, let me just say that the late date proposal, in my view, is easier to defend with non-believers, regarding the historicity of the Exodus. At some point, I hope to do a whole blog series regarding the historicity issue of the Exodus, but that’ll be some time far off into the future!!

I could be wrong about the “Late-Date” (13th century). The “Early-Date” (15th century) could be correct. Whatever I am, I am not impressed by chariot wheels stories passed around by Ron Wyatt. No Christian archaeologist is either.

As a bonus, here is another cool video from Inspiring Philosophy about the stopping of the sun moving in Joshua 10:

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Shall the Fundamentalists Win? – Harry Emerson Fosdick 100 Years Later

On May 21, 1922, Henry Emerson Fosdick, a Baptist serving in a New York City Presbyterian Church, preached a most (in)famous sermon entitled, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Fosdick’s sermon was a tipping point in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the early 20th century, that led to the split between liberal mainline Protestants and conservative evangelical fundamentalists in America, during the 1920s. One hundred years later, church historian Darryl Hart discusses the impact of this sermon on the church today.

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The Debate over Defining “Progressive Christianity”

Alisa Childers’ popular book 2020 Another Gospel?: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity continues to stir controversy among evangelical believers. At the heart of the issue is the question: So what exactly is “progressive Christianity?” I gave my answer about a year ago, but Childers’ book continues to invigorate intense conversation. Try listening to this dialogue between Randal Rauser and Douglas Groothius:

The problem with “progressive Christianity” really is about definition of terms, but it also points to the difficulty in being able to know where to draw the line between essentials and non-essentials of Christian faith. In the 20th century, the line between liberal mainline Protestantism and conservative evangelicalism was pretty clear. Here in the 21st century, this is not the case any more, as the term “evangelical” gets played around with a lot. In my view, it is better to err on the side against progressive Christianity.

But it gets complicated. Part of the growth of progressive Christianity is a reaction against another growing trend of self-proclaimed “conservative evangelical” Christians who no longer attend church (as I noted above). According to historian Daniel K. Williams, the category of lapsed and non-church-attending “evangelicals: are now the largest religious body in the South, the home of the “Bible Belt.” In other words, more and more “progressive Christians” attend churches where they react against so-called “conservative evangelicals,” or “Christian nationalists,” who rarely enter the door of a church. What a mess.

In defense of Alisa Childers, I must say that in the various videos that I have seen, Childers is actually quite honest and revealing that “progressive Christianity” is indeed a very loose and difficult concept to define, as various “progressive Christians” will often contradict one another. For some reason, Randal Rauser does not see this. Perhaps this is because Alisa’s book comes across as less nuanced, and I will admit that I have not read her book, so Randal might be right. Still, I think she has a good approach to this, even when I do not completely agree with every particular position she takes on certain issues. I would say that her journey away from egalitarianism to complementarianism is a perspective that does not get discussed that much.

To her credit, Alisa Childers has a quite revealing interview with Bobby Conway, the One-Minute Apologist, who actually went through his own deconstruction process a few years after he started his One-Minute Apologist YouTube channel. As he describes in the video, the destructive behavior that resulted from his deconstruction process cost him his job as a church pastor, but thankfully he has been in recovery since then.

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The Problem of Divine Hiddenness

If there was one area where I think that both atheists and even progressive Christians raise a good question, that I personally struggle with, it has to do with the problem of divine hiddenness. To put it briefly: “Why doesn’t God seem to reveal himself to people who are open and seeking him?” This is something I have to do some more thinking about, so I am not making any claims here. Many Christians tell me that the reason why God sometimes seems silent in a person’s life is because that person has some sort of sin impeding their ability or receptibility to actually hear from or see God at work. I am not so sure about that at this point, but I am willing to learn more. Justin Brierley at “Premier Unbelievable?” invited atheist Alex O’Connor (aka Cosmic Skeptic) and Christian apologist Lukas Ruegger to discuss the issue on the Unbelievable? YouTube channel and podcast. This (and the following) video I probably need to listen to a few times before I finally have some remedial grasp:

Philosopher Liz Jackson was also interviewed a couple of years ago on this very topic:

…. and then there is this…..

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And Finally….. A Christian Approach to Philosophy

I want to introduce you all to a fairly new friend of mine. Dr. Philip Swenson teaches philosophy at the College of William and Mary. I met Philip through the ministry of the Cambridge House, a Christian study center serving the campus community at William and Mary, here in Williamsburg. Dr. Swenson, as you will see below, has interests in the area of free will and responsibility, where he talks about stuff like Monism and compatibilism, and other fancy ideas that I can barely pronounce. Frankly, philosophy at this level is not really my area, but I still enjoy learning things from Philip. You may agree or disagree with him, but the main thing is that Philip loves Jesus!

Recently, Philip told me that he has a few interviews up on a Christian apologetics YouTube channel. So, if you think that Christians are dumb anti-intellectuals, the following videos will cure you of that misguided notion (HA-HA!!). Philip has an interesting background, having grown up in a charismatic church but currently attends a Missouri Synod Lutheran church. What a combination. He was recently interviewed a couple of times on the Analytic Christian YouTube channel (the last video is response by another Christian philosopher, Justin Mooney at Denison University, in defense of Molinism). I will probably have to listen to these a few times myself to get everything, but for those who appreciate analytic philosophy from a Christian perspective, here ya go!!

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…. For the Rest of 2022….

I have started reading a couple of other books which I hope to complete when my wife and I go on vacation later in the Fall. For example, I am near the end of reading a book on “Divine Violence” in the Bible, which has been very helpful to think through during this age of the ongoing war in the Ukraine.

Also, I FINALLY got around to reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, which I have been putting off for about 40 years, and that is no joke. Why did I wait so long? Mere Christianity is really an excellent book, one of the best apologetic books I have ever read. Look for a book review coming out fairly soon. Stay tuned!!

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…. Oh, and Just For Fun….

Found the following video, from a bluegrass band, Southern Raised, performing (oddly enough) the song “Thunderstruck” as an instrumental. Their YouTube channel describes them as a Christian band, but I must say that their version of this well-known song by the Australian heavy-metal rockers, AC-DC, is much better than the original. Lot’s of fun… just wait ’till mid-way towards the end!


On David Bentley Hart’s Tradition and Apocalypse: An Overview of the Dispute

When two theological heavyweights clash with one another, the ensuing dialogue can be fireworks. But one can learn a lot about the state of the church from such disputes.

The immensely erudite and (apparently recently) idiosyncratic Eastern Orthodox David Bentley Hart published an extended essay, Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (Listen to this summary in Hart’s own words). Hart has been one of the greatest theological voices undermining the pretentiousness of the New Atheist movement. In exposing the fault lines of thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Hart’s Atheist Delusions has been regarded as one of the finest polemical works against early 21st century atheism.

Alas, Hart’s star has since fallen after his That All Shall Be Saved, a bold and dogmatically absolutist defense of a Christian universalism, which argues that while there is still a future hell and divine judgment, that experience of hell is ultimately purgative and redeeming, such that none are ultimately lost in the very end.

Like what former megachurch pastor and now California surfer and podcaster Rob Bell strongly hinted at, and what the author of the evangelical blockbuster novel, The Shack, William Paul Young finally came out and admitted, the brilliant and exceedingly well-read David Bentley Hart has whole-heartedly endorsed a theological position that has historically been condemned by the vast majority of Christians. Hart does not care. Anyone who disagrees with him about universalism is effectively morally challenged, in his view, and he is not afraid to unload condescension on his critics.

That was just a few years ago. Now that this previous storm has passed, he has yet again triggered even more controversy.

Continue reading


A History of the Bible: A Progressive Christian View of Scripture… (And Why It Does Not Work)

Shocking truth claims: Did you know that the four Gospels were not based on eye-witness testimony, and that perhaps the Gospel of John was written as late as the second century, and not by the Apostle John? Or that the Apostle Paul had no knowledge of the doctrine of the Trinity? Or that a good chunk of Paul’s letters were never even written by him in the first place?

If you were to pick up a copy of A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths, you might discover shocking claims like this. What might shock you even more is that this popular survey of the Bible was not written by an avowed skeptic of Christianity, like a Bart Ehrman, but rather by John Barton, an Oxford professor emeritus and Anglican priest, serving in the Church of England.

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

Dr. Barton is certainly a well-accomplished scholar, and a very pleasant man through his appearances on YouTube, who has mastered the historical critical tradition of biblical research, which dominates academia today. A History of the Bible has received wide acclaim in the secular press. The Christian Science Monitor describes this volume as “the definitive account of the century,” regarding how we are to understand the Bible. A leading atheist/agnostic Bible scholar, Bart Ehrman, says that the book “gives a superb overview… condensing masses of research into an easily accessible volume for the non-specialist.”

While Dr. Barton is not as well-known on this side of the Atlantic, A History of the Bible is well poised to become a standard exposition for contemporary scholarship rooted in historical criticism, aimed at both believer and non-believer alike. This popular presentation of Barton’s vast research of the Bible over many decades, published by Penguin Books, one of the most reputable book publishers in the world, will surely impress many readers, and in many respects has much to offer. However, one wonders why Dr. Barton continues to describe himself as a Christian believer, and even an Anglican priest, after he dismantles a long history of confidence in the Bible being the very written Word of God.

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked an upsurge of interest in the Bible, and the British Broadcasting Company took notice of this, and decided to broadcast abridged excerpts from Dr. Barton’s book in late 2020. These excerpts were brilliantly read by the Downton Abbey actor, Hugh Bonneville. I can just imagine listening to Lord Grantham speaking from his armchair, from the library in the Downton Abbey estate, with his yellow lab sitting by his side.

In an interview since that broadcast, Barton does not go as far as Bart Ehrman does, in labeling the four Gospels or the “disputed” letters of Paul as outright “forgeries” (many scholars believe that Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, 2 Thessalonians, and Titus were not written by Paul), but rather as an Anglican priest he is still able to say that Christians can find these New Testament books “useful” as part of the accepted canon, even if they were not written by the people who claimed to write them.

Really? Why would a Christian find certain writings to be “useful” that had the explicit purpose of deceiving their readers? How can one treat such writings as being authoritative, under that kind of shadow?

Dr. Barton admittedly has some qualms about all of that, but he forges ahead to try to make some kind of defense of the Bible.

Where John Barton’s A History of the Bible is Helpful

First, let us consider some of the benefits provided by Dr. Barton’s book. Just from these abridged readings of A History of the Bible, the reader is intrigued to learn more about how the Old and New Testament texts came together, how these texts have been preserved over the centuries, how Judaism and Christianity eventually parted ways, and the importance of allegory in the history of Bible interpretation. You can find this type of material elsewhere, but one sure benefit of A History of the Bible is that this is all assembled together in one volume.

John Barton rightly corrects the common misunderstanding that the early Christian church had a completed list of what constituted the books of the entire Old Testament portion of the Bible. To the contrary, the definitive listing of the books of the Old Testament was not firmly established in the Western church until the 16th century, when the Roman Catholic Church officially adopted the books of the “Apocrypha” at the Council of Trent, while the Protestant Reformers officially rejected the “Apocrypha,” declaring it to be inappropriate for establishing church doctrine. In other words, books in the “Apocrypha” like 1 and 2 Maccabees, which are unfamiliar to most Protestants today, were actually well-known to Christians for the first 15 centuries of the church, though their canonical status was unclear across Christendom.

Furthermore, the ordering of the books in the Old Testament differs between Jews and Christians, and there is a theological reason for the difference. Christians place the prophets at the end of the Old Testament, which fits in with the overall Scriptural narrative. The story moves from creation to fall to the promised hope of redemption, where the prophets anticipate the coming of the Christ, who will accomplish that redemption. In fact, the Book of Malachi, which ends off the Christian Old Testament, itself ends with a vision for the coming “Day of the Lord,” with the prophet Elijah announcing that time of judgment. It is no mystery that John the Baptist, the herald for Jesus the Redeemer, emerges in the Book of Matthew next, as the “new” Elijah. Furthermore, the figure of Adam is central in the Christian story of the Old Testament, the created human who suffers a terrible fall, where Jesus becomes the “second Adam,” restoring Adam to his original created purpose, according to the New Testament.

Jews, on the other hand, place the two books of Chronicles at the end of their “Old Testament,” their Hebrew Bible, and not the prophets. The last phrase of the last verse in the Chronicles is “Let him go up,” which refers to the promise of the restoration of the land following the Babylonian exile. This is an invitation to the faithful Jew to dwell in the Promised Land. For the Jew, the story of Scripture is more about God establishing the Law with His people, with the promise that if they remain faithful as His people, they will dwell in that land. As for Adam, his presence is largely forgotten after the first few chapters in Genesis, according to Jewish theology. Dr. Barton brings that point out nicely, but I only learned about that difference after being a Christian for about 35 years. Why had it taken so long for me to learn about that?

Plus, Dr. Barton is quite right to say that you can pretty much find whatever you want in the Bible, as the teaching of the Bible has been “shape-shifted” to take upon the concerns of whatever age or culture the reader is in. That really is not a compliment towards readers who use the Bible that way. Simply consider how much effort was made to find out where the COVID-19 virus came from, just by looking at the Bible. Uncomfortable realities like these are sprinkled throughout A History of the Bible. Like taking a cold shower, A History of the Bible will challenge a number of cherished, yet erroneous beliefs.

Where John Barton’s A History of the Bible is NOT Helpful

Unfortunately, Dr. Barton’s liberal bias reveals a persistently bad habit by those who lean too heavily on historical criticism to adjudicate the ultimate interpretation of Scripture, by supposing that a contradiction in Scripture exists, where a reasonably plausible alternative actually makes better sense of the text, within the whole message of Scripture.

Barton makes no attempt to hide his liberal bias. This bias permeates and distorts much of his otherwise helpful prose. For John Barton, the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation fall under the category of adiaphora, or “disputable matters,” from Romans 14:1, which the ESV translation renders as “opinions.” Would any truly historically orthodox Christian find that acceptable? Absolutely not. Nor does any historical creedal document in Barton’s own Anglican Church agree with him. Stretching “disputable matters” to this degree is essentially useless.

Here is another example: In the story of the rich young man who comes up to Jesus, Mark tells us that the man asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers the man with: Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”  

Dr. Barton suggests that Mark is raising some doubt as to whether or not Jesus is truly divine. Dr. Barton then suggests that Matthew contradicts Mark by correcting Mark by having the young man instead ask, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?,” with Jesus responding with, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” (Mark 10:17-18; Matthew 19:16-17)

It is an interesting thing to consider why the Gospels differ here. But Jesus’ response to the young man in Mark’s version does not necessarily imply doubt about Jesus’ divinity. Jesus’ question back to the young man most likely means to get the young man to think (as well as should modern readers), and consider the implications of what he is saying. For if only God is good, then Jesus’ question back to the young man is quite relevant to Jesus’ identity. Mark focuses more on Jesus’ identity, whereas Matthew focuses more on ethical action, that flows from one’s relationship with God. Matthew complements Mark, and vice-versa. To read a contradiction between Mark and Matthew here is to read something into the text that need not exist. Because the discipline of historical (or “higher”) criticism sometimes trains even the best of scholars to look for contradictions, it becomes easier to see such contradictions, when a more nuanced, and far more interesting solution is available to the reader.

Dr. Barton does not make sufficient effort to educate his readers that decades of conservative evangelical scholarship have sought to answer a number of these difficulties, with reasonably plausible alternative solutions. For example, fellow British Anglican Bible scholar Ian Paul faults Dr. Barton for making no mention of the research done by Richard Bauckham, in Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, that makes a cogent case for the Gospels having been based on actual eye-witness testimony. Nor does Dr. Barton engage the argument made, ironically, by a fellow liberal scholar, the late John A.T. Robinson, that many of the books of the New Testament could have easily been written before the year 70 A.D.

When it comes to the common scholarly proposal that many of Paul’s letters were not written by him, Dr. Barton manages to ignore the conservative argument that differences in writing style and vocabulary, tailored to a specific audience, using different secretaries, might sufficiently account for “discrepancies” between the “undisputed” and “disputed” letters of Paul. Nevertheless, Dr. Barton seems okay to live with the “taint of forgery” (p. 186) in such questionable letters, where he can find certain teachings to be persuasive in certain areas, while acknowledging this does take away from the full divine inspiration of these New Testament texts.

This is a bit of an aside, but an important one, nevertheless: Barton’s position regarding what he misleadingly calls the issue of “women’s leadership in the Church” (p. 186), in which his Church of England affirms women serving as elders/presbyters, actually is enhanced by his ambiguous view of Pauline authorship of disputed texts. When it comes to the disputed 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus, the so-called Pastoral letters, where most arguments take place regarding whether or not women may serve as elders in a local church, Barton is easily dismissive of what is taught here. “The Pastorals have no place in attempting to reconstruct the thought of Paul” (p. 186), but acknowledges this regarding what he calls regretfully the issue of “women’s leadership in the Church“:, where conservatives oppose women serving as elders, and liberals affirm women serving as elders”:... conservative opponents who appeal to Paul tend to rely on 1 Timothy, and more liberal believers reply that this letter is not really by Paul anyway. Along these diverging lines, little meeting of minds is possible” (p. 187).

At least Barton is right about that. The gulf between conservative and progressive Christianity seems to widen with each passing year. It is important to note that evangelical egalitarian arguments in favor of both Pauline authorship of the Pastorals AND the affirmation of women serving as elders do not even register a blip on John Barton’s radar. More on that in a future blog post in this series, or for a more in-depth look, read this earlier Veracity posting reviewing a recent book by historian Beth Allison Barr.

Anyway, here is what Barton says on p. 187, as his way of making a conclusion on the “forgeries” of certain letters associated with Paul:

‘A lot depends on how we define the authority of biblical books. Are Paul’s letters authoritative because they are by Paul? If so, then establishing that one of them is in fact pseudonymous presumably reduces or even annuls its authority. Or are they authoritative because they are in the Bible? If so, the question of who wrote them might be regarded as irrelevant.’

Is this a ringing endorsement of the authority of the Bible? Hardly. Furthermore, Dr. Barton makes the rather odd suggestion that none of the four Gospels were considered to be inspired by God, as initially written, simply because modern scholarship acknowledges that Luke and Matthew most probably used Mark as one of their sources for their own gospels. Nor were the writings of Paul considered to be inspired by God either by his first century readers.

Astonishing.

All of this comes from the pen of a scholar hailed as writing “the definitive” book on the Bible for the 21st century.

Why does Dr. Barton neglect to tell his readers the following?: The Gospel writers and Paul probably were not aware that they were writing “Scripture” when they were composing their work. But this need not preclude others from recognizing the inspired nature of their texts. Paul himself was quite forceful in claiming that his message was received via divine revelation, and not a product of man’s (Galatians 1:11-12). It would have made no sense for his readers to have rejected his occasional letters as inspired, and at the same time come to recognize that Paul’s Gospel verbal preaching came from God.

Furthermore, even when Paul is supposedly “giving his personal opinion” in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, this most probably means that Paul is making a distinction between (a): Jesus’ teaching, given in Jesus’ earthly ministry, prior to any encounter with Paul, versus (b): teaching that Paul received directly from Jesus, following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Both teachings from Paul and “from the Lord” are equally binding authoritative statements. This neglect on the part of Dr. Barton reveals the fundamental flaw behind A History of the Bible: It shortchanges the divine inspiration of the Bible.

Does A Liberal, Historical Critical Approach to Defend the Bible Really Work?

Speculating on “contradictions in the Bible” may make for interesting scholarly discussions, as a more sophisticated response to a wooden, rigid dogmatism. But this does little to inspire people to have confidence in the Bible as God’s Word. Furthermore, the underlying posture towards the Bible adopted by Dr. Barton is nothing new. For example, doubts about the authorship of several of Paul’s letters are derived from the ideas of early 19th century German theologian F. C. Baur, but the whole project of historical criticism goes back to 17th century philosophers, like Baruch Spinoza, or even earlier.

Making ill-conceived judgments about the sincerity of John Barton’s progressive Christianity would be out of place. In other words, Dr. Barton clearly identifies as being a Christian, and there is no compelling need question to that. But one must consider the ramifications of his teachings. Based on the arguments presented in A History of the Bible, it deserves asking why one would want to become a Christian after reading this book.

For if A History of the Bible was my only source for learning about the Bible, I would merely conclude that the Bible is an interesting cultural artifact. An appreciation for the Bible’s influence on Western culture would be gained, but not really a sense that this is a book based on divine revelation. As a specimen for an anthropology class, it would be interesting. But would this really inspire obedience and worship? I am highly skeptical. The best you can probably get is either British historian Tom Holland’s wistful longing for Christianity to be true (even though he believes it is not), or else the BBC’s Melvyn Bragg perspective that Christianity is a “tribal thing” worth preserving, or even Jordan Peterson’s appreciation of Christianity as the mythological glue of Western society. Admirable as these sentiments are, they are nowhere near close to historic, orthodox Christian faith.

Nevertheless, despite weaknesses like these, Barton’s A History of the Bible does something that we do not find enough of in conservative evangelical churches today. Book reviewer Jeremy Marshall puts the situation like this:

As the Bible fades into the background from the general culture it acquires a power to shock and influence which its previous familiarity has reduced. We might ponder as evangelicals for example on the extraordinary case of Jordan Peterson, who gives 2- to 3-hour talks and draws millions by lecturing mainly on the Bible, without even being a Christian at all…. There is a growing demand to learn about the Bible and what it says to us today from the general public…. Maybe some great biblical scholar can write a book like this, about the Bible from an evangelical perspective, aimed at the general public?

To answer Marshall’s question, I say, “Here! Here!” If only our churches were to address the topics found in John Barton’s A History of the Bible, from a more historically orthodox perspective, framed within a compelling story, we would not only curb the tendency towards a progressive drift in evangelical churches, we would also unleash the power of the Bible itself to dramatically change the lives of people, who have a hunger to know the God of the Bible better. If we fail to take up that task, then we will find our young people looking to books like Dr. Barton’s, and then wonder why anyone would make any fuss about the supposed revelatory “faith” being promoted in the Bible.

If the church fails to take up that challenge, then we might as well tell folks to read books by agnostic/atheist scholar Bart Ehrman, and avoid the complicated efforts to try to “rescue” Christianity from the jaws of skeptical “historical criticism,” as John Barton tries to do.

Attempts like A History of the Bible to somehow rebuild a more flexible form of the Christian faith from a brittle fundamentalism might convince some people reared in the church, searching for a reason to continue to believe. But for the vast majority of folks for whom the Gospel remains opaque, a staunchly progressive approach to the Bible leaves those readers flat. That type of apologetic simply does not work.

 

…. In our next blog post in this series, there will not be a book review, but we will consider how some of the thinking behind “historical criticism” has shifted from the 20th century, to the 21st century, where the prominent 20th century biblical scholar, Rudolf Bultmann enters the story. Stay tuned for that………. Muslim apologist Paul Williams, at Blogging Theology, interviews Dr. John Barton about his book, A History of the Bible. If you want to get a feel for how a highly intelligent, knowledgeable, progressive Christian employs “historical criticism” when reading the Bible, you might find the following interview educational… but you might find it disturbing as well. There is just enough really good stuff in A History of the Bible, that it can easily overshadow the spiritually damaging elements in it that can sneak up on you, and knock out the legs from underneath your faith:


Does Paul’s Telling of History Contradict Luke’s Story in Acts?

In our next blog post in this series on “historical criticism,” we give another example of how historical critics can sometimes distort the Bible, based on certain methodological assumptions brought to the text. This fairly brief case study concerns how the unfolding of historical events as told in Paul’s letters differs from the story told by Luke in Acts. But it helps to put a finger in Acts and another finger in a letter of Paul’s to track with what is happening. What are we to make of these kind of “disconnects,” as some have put it, that we find in the Bible?

… another in a series of blog posts on “historical criticism” of the Bible

Paul in prison, by Rembrandt (credit: Wikipedia). Paul wrote some detailed letters, but do they contradict the story that we find in Luke-Acts?

The discrepancy is very minor, but it serves as a useful illustration. Here is a sample of a blog post written by Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina, a former Christian, and probably the most well known New Testament Bible scholar living today. Dr. Ehrman has developed quite a following, particular among those who are skeptical of the Bible as being the Word of God:

In virtually every instance in which the book of Acts can be compared with Paul’s letters in terms of biographical detail, differences emerge. Sometimes these differences involve minor disagreements concerning where Paul was at a certain time and with whom. As one example, the book of Acts states that when Paul went to Athens he left Timothy and Silas behind in Berea (Acts 17:10-15), and did not meet up with them again until after he left Athens and arrived in Corinth (Acts 18:5). In 1 Thessalonians Paul himself narrates the same sequence of events and indicates just as clearly that he was not in Athens alone, but that Timothy was with him (and possibly Silas as well). It was from Athens that he sent Timothy back to Thessalonica in order to see how the church was doing there (1 Thessalonians 3:1-3).

Although this discrepancy concerns a minor detail, it shows something about the historical reliability of Acts. The narrative coincides with what Paul himself indicates about some matters (he did establish the church in Thessalonica and then leave from there to Athens), but it stands at odds with him on some of the specifics.

Just from reading this, it is easy to get the sense that the Bible is contradicting itself. Dr. Ehrman correctly points out the differences in historical detail between 1 Thessalonians and Acts, but he does so with a little twist.  Did Paul really not meet up with Timothy until after Paul left Athens and arrived in Corinth? Is it possible that Timothy left Berea to travel to Athens to meet Paul, before going back to Thessalonica?  …. Mmmm…… Let us look a little closer….

Depending upon how you approach the text, your evaluation of the differences in the text will, of course, differ. If we take the two documents, 1 Thessalonians and Acts as separate articles of literature, and set the divine inspiration of Scripture aside, it is quite easy to conclude that there is a contradiction between Paul and Luke. This more skeptical view is implied by Dr. Ehrman.

On the other hand, if there is a fundamental unity that exists between these texts, a way of harmonizing the details emerges, without having to go into some rather contorted twists and turns. In fact, there really is a better way to make sense of what we read.

At the apologetics website Evidence Unseen, we can examine how 1 Thessalonians and Acts can be reconciled with one another. The discrepancy arises because Luke probably omitted mentioning Timothy’s travels to Athens, before reconnecting with Paul once again in Corinth. Here is a reconstruction of events, that resolves the supposed contradiction elaborated by Dr. Ehrman:

1. Paul goes to Athens (“Now those who escorted Paul brought him as far as Athens” Acts 17:15).

2. Silas and Timothy come to Athens. This is not mentioned in Acts. However, Luke does write that Paul told them “to come to him as soon as possible” (Acts 17:15). Paul writes, “We sent Timothy… to strengthen and encourage you” (not mentioned in Acts; 1 Thess. 3:2).

3. Timothy goes back to Thessalonica to check on them (“we sent Timothy… to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith” 1 Thess. 3:2).

4. Paul leaves Athens and travels to Corinth (Acts 18:1).

5. Silas and Timothy come to Corinth with money from Macedonia (Acts 18:5). They also come to Corinth with good news about the church of Thessalonica (“Timothy has come to us from you” 1 Thess. 3:6).

6. Paul writes 1 and 2 Thessalonians from Corinth. This might be what Luke means by writing, “Paul began devoting himself completely to the word” (Acts 18:5).

This example of a Bible “contradiction” is not too difficult to harmonize. True, there are instances where an attempted harmonization of certain discrepancies are not as easy, and one should be careful not to immediately gravitate towards an ad hoc solution that feels forced.

Bart Ehrman, yyy

Bart Ehrman (Agnostic/atheistic critic of the Bible)

Bart Ehrman has been often quoted as saying that given enough effort, you can pretty much reconcile just about any story to make everything fit, and rule out contradictions. But the opposite is also the case.  If you are bound and determined to find a contradiction in Scripture, then there are plenty of ways to find one, if you work at it. It does not always mean that finding a “contradiction” is the best way to understand the text, within its historical context.

Not all “historical criticism” is bad. It is important to reiterate that. Yet the method someone uses to try to sort out what is (a): a difference that can be reconciled or harmonized, versus (b), a difference that can only be regarded as a contradiction, is absolutely crucial when doing scholarship.

Unfortunately, there are many people, including many Christians, who tend to see only one side of the story, such as the popular description told by Dr. Ehrman, thus neglecting a perfectly reasonable approach that resolves the difficulty, without sounding forced, or otherwise implausible. As Proverbs 18:17 wisely states, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (ESV).

….. In this next blog post in this series, we will examine how some progressive Christians make the same type of methodological assumptions about the Bible, as non-believers like Bart Ehrman does, in an effort to try to “rescue” the Bible from critics and skeptics. Does this type of Christian apologetic really work? Wait for a week for the next blog post and judge for yourself.

 


Where Did “Historical Criticism” of the Bible Come From? (Part Two)

Baruch Spinoza is often thought of as the father of the modern world. But in the 17th century, he was not alone in bringing in ideas that would take advantage of the confusion in post-Reformation Europe, and challenging traditional Christian ideas about the Bible. As we explore how the rise of “historical criticism” developed, we can consider the stories of Isaac La Peyrère and Thomas Hobbes, and how they tie in with Spinoza’s story.

…. This is the third in a series of blog posts examining the “historical criticism” of the Bible. “Part one” of the history behind “historical criticism” can be found here. Now we look at “part two” of the history behind “historical criticism”…..

 

Spinoza’s Intellectual Compatriots: Isaac La Peyrère and Thomas Hobbes

Jeffrey Morrow, author of Three Skeptics and the Bible: La Peyrère, Hobbes, Spinoza, and the Reception of Modern Biblical Criticism, highlights the stories of French philosopher Isaac La Peyrère and English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who influenced Baruch Spinoza, in promoting skepticism about the Bible.

Isaac La Peyrère, like Spinoza, had a “conversos” background, with Jewish family roots. La Peyrère grew up in France as a Protestant, but felt forced to convert to Roman Catholicism towards the end of his life, once he published some of his views on the Bible. La Peyrère was deeply interested in the question of where the “Indians”, the native Americans in the New World, actually came from, as it was not obvious from the Bible as to where such people originated.

Many thinkers during the colonial era, up through the 19th century, tried to figure out the origins of America’s native peoples. Most famously, Joseph Smith popularized the speculative hypothesis that the Native Americans were the descendants of the “Lost Ten Tribes,” who disappeared after the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, as described in the Bible. Smith’s “Book of Mormon” continues to enamor people today, though few 21st century anthropologists find any evidence to support the claims presented in the Book of Mormon. Still, it is a fascinating question.

How did Native Americans get to the Americas in the first place? La Peyrère proposed a solution that he believed was consistent with Scriptural teaching that could explain the origin of Native Americans, in his book Prae-Adamitae. Much of La Peyrère’s thesis fits within an orthodox view of the Bible. However, La Peyrère went onto explore more radical ideas about the Bible that would influence Spinoza, and stimulate all sorts of speculations, primarily that Moses had nothing to do with the writing of the Pentateuch. This is what got La Peyrère into trouble.

La Peyrère had been influenced by the Englishman, Thomas Hobbes, who just a few years prior to Prae-Adamitae published his Leviathan. Hobbes had lived his mid-adult life during the intense conflict of the English Civil War, between Puritans like Oliver Cromwell and Roman Catholic sympathizers like King Charles I. Hobbes argued in Leviathan that a strong centralized government was required to prevent civil war, particularly when the participants in the civil conflict were motivated by contrasting theological perspectives. Thomas Hobbes believed that theological dogmatism should always be tempered by a commitment to reason. This appealed to La Peyrère, who had such a family history, where the nature of one’s theological commitments were suspect. It is easy to see how La Peyrère and Thomas Hobbes therefore became intellectual companions to Baruch Spinoza.

Among conservative evangelical scholars today, the more extreme conclusions about the Bible made by Baruch Spinoza, and his philosophical friends, are largely rejected. However, some insights made by Spinoza, and his followers, have been incorporated into a more nuanced description of how the Bible came together. A number of evangelical Bible scholars today adopt what might be called variations on the “supplementary hypothesis,” which contends that the substantial core of literary material in the Pentateuch can be traced back to Moses, but that later editors of the text made certain changes in order to keep the material “up to date.” Such changes were made over several centuries until the Pentateuch’s placement in the Old Testament canon became fixed, in the manner that we now have it.

For a classic example, noted by Bible scholar Claude Mariottini, Genesis 14:14 makes a reference to the city of “Dan,” in northern Israel, the place where Abram (Abraham) rescued his nephew, Lot. The problem here is that the name for this city, “Dan,” did not exist during this time period, and the son of Jacob named “Dan” had not yet been born. Furthermore, Moses as an author certainly would not have known anything about the city of “Dan,” as he died before crossing the Jordan River, into the Promised Land. The city of “Dan” would only become settled by the descendants of Dan, during the conquest of the Promised Land described in the Book of Joshua. While scholars continue to debate the specifics of a solution, it is generally agreed that probably some later editor changed the original name of this area to “Dan,” which reflected a more recent understanding of the city’s location. In this sense, it could be understood that the text of Genesis was kept “up to date” by a later editor, as place names often changed names somewhat frequently over the centuries, as people moved around due to displacement by wars, etc.

One central idea behind historical criticism, articulated so controversially by Baruch Spinoza, is that we should analyze the Bible just like we would analyze any other ancient book. There is a sense in which Spinoza’s approach is to be welcomed, but yet there is another sense in which this approach falls flat. Like many of the great ancient books, the Bible is truly a great work of human literature, and historical criticism has done much to enhance our appreciation and understanding of the historical context of the Bible as literature. However, most ancient books lack a claim to being divine revelation, whereas the uniqueness of the Bible is founded upon the idea that it is the inspired Word of God. The tendency among certain advocates of historical criticism to divorce the human, literary aspects of the Scriptural text from the claim of divine inspiration is a bad habit of mind, that has had far reaching consequences over the recent centuries.

Historical Criticism: A Tool for Deconstruction … Or Reconstruction, for Christian Faith?

A much repeated story these days is that for some, who grow up in a Christian community, the personal discovery of the “historical criticism” of the Bible leads to a deconstruction of Christian faith. Walter Lippmann, a 20th century journalist and political theorist, famously stated that it is the “acids of modernity” that corrode traditional faith. For some this corrosion results in a form of “progressive Christianity” that hangs onto Christian faith, but only by a slim thread of substance. For others, it leads to agnosticism, if not outright atheism. But is such corrosion the only trajectory of such deconstruction? Or can it instead lead to a type of reconstruction of faith, placed on better footing?

Steven Nadler, a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in his A Book Forged in Hell, that was partially reviewed in a previous blog post, makes much of Spinoza’s intention to find a more “scientific” approach to the Bible, that supersedes the theological wrangling of different dogmatic commitments to the Bible. In 17th century Europe, where theological disputes often boiled over into heated political disputes, that even led to violence, Spinoza argued that a more rational approach to the Bible, based on “scientific” principles, would lead to peace between those who held different views of the Bible.

Spinoza despised superstition, assigned both traditional Judaism and Christianity into that category, and ironically argued that a belief in miracles was actually counter to the true knowledge of God. For Spinoza, the value of Scripture comes from its ability to move people to treat others with justice and charity, as would any other piece of great literature. It is in this sense, and only in this sense, of the Bible as a source for encouraging good moral behavior, that Spinoza would ascribe the notion of “divine” to the Bible. Spinoza’s views, radical for the 17th century, have become the assumed foundation for a secular worldview, in the 21st century, where science is often viewed as the only reliable, objective means for human thought and ethics.

The problem with this narrative is that it assumes that pure objectivity, when it comes to historical criticism, is rationally attainable. Professional historians are quick to say they deal more in the realm of historical probabilities, rather than historical certainties. Though a noble aim, the quest for certainty, in using the scientific tools of historical criticism, even for interpreting the Bible, does not result in the type of certainty that many would like.

Furthermore, the claim of the Bible itself, is not that it is a collection of morally inspiring thoughts derived from merely human authors. Rather, the Bible itself claims to be the inspired Word of God, surely written by humans, but not merely human, being divinely originated as well.  However, if one follows the path of Spinoza that Steven Nadler admiringly portrays, that inherently corrosive terminus of deconstruction is all but guaranteed. Like pulling on the loose threads of a sweater, as one’s faith begins to unravel, some might try to salvage some of those loose threads, whereas others will simply toss the whole mess of sweater remains in the garbage. Is there yet not another path?

Towards the Reconstruction of Christian Faith

Jeffrey Morrow, the author of Three Skeptics and the Bible, was raised culturally Jewish, then became a Protestant evangelical, and then ultimately entered the Roman Catholic Church, and who is now a theologian at Seton Hall University. In Three Skeptics and the Bible, Morrow challenges the narrative that true objectivity, when it comes to historical criticism, is possible. Contemporary historical criticism rightly has explored the reception history of the Bible, as the message of the Bible has been received by different communities across the ages in very different ways. Nevertheless, Morrow argues that the discipline of historical criticism itself has had its own reception history, particularly since its genesis in the thought of Baruch Spinoza and his 17th century philosophical friends.

Morrow’s thesis is that the original development of historical criticism, pioneered by Spinoza, is rooted in the historical context of the 17th century, political church-state debate. The questions that Spinoza faced when reading the Bible were not new to him. People had been wrestling with such questions for centuries. What was new with Spinoza was his desire to take the control of Biblical interpretation out of the hands of spiritual authorities and place it in the hands of the political authorities of the state. In Spinoza’s historical context of living in the pluralism of 17th century Dutch society, this meant that every spiritual authority, whether it be Jewish, Protestant or Roman Catholic, would come under the secular authority of the state.

Did Baruch Spinoza really understand the drawn-out consequences of his own thesis? One specific critique of historical criticism, in its most skeptical form, is that in the effort to read the Bible like any piece of ancient literature, the tendency to set aside the claim that God had a hand in authoring the Bible, robs the text of its underlying unity. We all know that the Bible was written by dozens of authors, across many centuries, in many different specific historical and literary contexts. But what keeps the Bible together as a whole is buttressed by the claim that God is ultimately the divine author throughout, working through the human authors, in order to give us a coherent, unified text. Without that sense of an underlying unity, the tendency among some scholars is to divide the Scriptures into multiple, disparate parts, thus cutting away the coherency of the text, that has been maintained by Jewish and Christian readers for centuries.

Furthermore, this Scriptural text was meant to be read, studied, prayed through, and sung in community. The Bible was not meant to be merely a book. Rather, it was meant to be an invitation to experience the deep mysteries of life, within the context of corporate worship. Spinoza, prompted by La Peyrère and Hobbes, turned the Bible into a mere book, to be dissected.

This does not mean we should simply gloss over the diversity in the Scriptural text as being inconsequential. For example, why is it that certain parts of the Pentateuch exclusively use the name “Yahweh” (singular) for God, while other parts only use the name “Elohim” (plural) for God? Does the Old Testament embrace some concept of a “divine council”? Some Christians unfortunately take a Wizard of Oz, “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” approach to such questions. Instead the tools provided by historical criticism can help us to make better sense of what the text is trying to tell us. The probing challenges offered by Baruch Spinoza and his followers, properly framed, without going to extremes, can actually help us.

As a Roman Catholic, Jeffrey Morrow comes down on the Protestant Reformers, contending that the trend away from more allegorical readings of the Bible, and a concern for a more literal approach to Scripture, inevitably led to the skepticism of La Peyrère, Hobbes, and Spinoza. This critique is difficult for a Protestant evangelical like me to hear, but it is still worth hearing. Morrow values the sacramental aspect of interacting with the Bible, something that many of my fellow Protestants tend to be weaker on than our Roman Catholic friends.

The main lesson offered by Morrow in his Three Skeptics and the Bible is that while historical criticism, properly understood, can indeed inform our understanding of the Bible, it nevertheless can not completely supersede the bias of the scholar. When we only look to scholars for the answers to our theological questions, divorced from a local Christian community, it can easily distort our vision of faith. Therefore, if left unchecked, such biases can lead to certain habits of mind that can cloud our understanding of the Bible, as it was meant to be understood by God. Instead, Christians need to be a part of a healthy local church, where people can wrestle with their questions about the Bible, in an atmosphere of worship, love, support, and understanding.

Historical criticism of the Bible has certain benefits, but it also has certain limitations. If we begin our study of the Bible with a certain radical skepticism of thought, that sets off any claim to divine inspiration to the side, then it is very difficult to get back to a genuinely historically orthodox perspective of the Christian faith. It often leads to a deconstruction of Christian faith. On the other hand, if we approach the text of Scripture with more of a trust in God’s ability to communicate through Scripture, and instead apply skepticism towards our own ability to understand the text, then it is more likely that this will lead to a reconstruction of faith, gaining a greater sense of confidence that God is truly speaking to us, through His Word in Scripture.

In our next blog post in this series, coming out in a week or so, we will look at a short case study (shorter than this current blog post), examining how the assumptions brought to the Scriptural text will make a difference when applying historical criticism. Stay tuned.


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