Apologetics vs. Bible-based faithNovember 16, 2007 — Deacon Duncan
I’ve been browsing through some of the articles at the Tekton Apologetics Ministry site, and found this article by James Patrick Holding on “Why Bible Critics Do Not Deserve the Benefit of the Doubt.” He begins by advocating that skeptics be treated with skepticism.
Whenever you run across any person who criticizes the Bible, claims findings of contradiction or error — they do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. They have to earn it from you.
That’s actually some pretty good advice. Skepticism, after all, means having the mental self-discipline to insist on evidentiary support instead of just taking people’s word for things. What Holding is doing here is urging Christians to become skeptics themselves. That’s a good start. But you’ll never believe what justification he offers for why Christians should be skeptical of the skeptics.
It doesn’t take very long to realize that a thorough understanding of the Bible — and this would actually apply to any complex work from any culture — requires specialized knowledge, and a broad range of specialized knowledge in a variety of fields. Obviously the vast majority of believers spend their entire lives doing little more than reading the Bible in English (or whatever native tongue) and importing into its words whatever ideas they derive from their own experiences. This process is very often one of “decontextualizing” — what I have here called “reading it like it was written yesterday and for you personally.” Of course if the church as a whole is locked into this mentality, you may well suspect that critics (whether Skeptics or other) and those in alternate faiths are no better off.
Wow. Did you catch that? The reason Christians should be skeptical of what skeptics say about the Bible is that not even Christians really understand it, not “thoroughly” anyway. Believers, and people in general, simply don’t have the specialized knowledge, training, and linguistics, that are required, and consequently, they “decontextualize” it (or rather, recontextualize it) and in the process they “import” whatever ideas seem right in their own eyes into the words of the text. And if that’s what Christians do to their own sacred Scriptures, then how can you expect those outside the faith to fare any better?
Naturally, this approach overlooks the case of people such as myself who became critical of the Bible because of exposure to the specialized knowledge and training he says are needed to understand it thoroughly. Indeed, it’s fairly typical that much of the scholarly criticism of the Bible has come from those who, unlike the Church or the public in general, do indeed have the academic background needed to approach the Bible knowledgeably and analytically.
But I’m more impressed by Holding’s assessment of where the “Body of Christ” stands in relation to the Scriptures, as a matter of actual practice. In theory, Protestant Christians (at least) are supposed to hold the Bible as the sole source of authority for Christian faith and practice. In theory, the individual Christian is supposed to be able to read the Bible and say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” In theory, the individual Christian is not supposed to need a specialized (priestly?) class of men to read the Bible for him and to declare to him what it “really means.”
The actual practice, however, utterly fails to live up to this theory. Christians aren’t being informed by the Scriptures, they’re merely importing their own opinions into what they see as the meaning of the texts, and thus investing their opinions with the weight of divine authority (so-called). And we know this, not just because James Patrick Holding (a Christian apologist) admits that it is true, but also because we can see the inevitable, real-world consequences of this problem, in the form of the splintering of the church into endless schisms, denominations, and mutually contradictory doctrinal fads and traditions.
Holding, unfortunately, misses the point of his own observation.
Let’s anticipate and toss off the obvious objection: “Why did God make the Bible so hard to understand, then?” It isn’t — none of this keeps a person from grasping the message of the Bible to the extent required to be saved; where the line is to be drawn is upon those who gratuitously assume that such base knowledge allows them to be competent critics of the text, and make that assumption in absolute ignorance of their own lack of knowledge — what I have elsewhere spoken of in terms of being “unskilled and unaware of it.”
So after telling us that we can’t just take skeptics’ word for it that the Bible has problems, Holding wants us to just take his word for it that nothing he is saying implies any problem with “a person…grasping the message of the Bible to the extent required to be saved”–even though Christians have been disagreeing for 2,000 years over what the requirements of salvation might actually be. After observing the problem and acknowledging the problem, Holding simply denies that it’s a problem. For Christians anyway. He still wants it to be a problem for critics of Christianity.
To drive home his point, Holding lists a number of areas (linguistics, literature, archeology, psychology, etc.) sufficiently deep and diverse that no one scholar could reasonably be expected to master it all. He then asserts that since no one can master all of the requirements, no one can realistically claim to speak authoritatively about the true significance of the Bible. But again, strangely, he seems to think that this is a problem only for those who criticize the Bible, and not for Bible scholarship as a whole.
That’s quite a list, but there’s one more note to add — the holistic ability to put all of it together. How serious is this? Very. A carefully crafted argument about a text being an interpolation can be undermined by a single point from Greco-Roman rhetoric. A claim having to do with psychology can be destroyed by a simple observation from the social sciences. Not even most scholars in the field can master every aspect — what then of the non-specialist critic who puts together a website in his spare time titled 1001 Irrifutible Bible Contradictions? Do these persons deserves our attention? Should they be recognized as authorities? No, they deserve calculated contempt for their efforts.
Logically, the same argument would also apply to anyone putting together a website titled, oh, I dunno, “Tekton Apologetics Ministry” or something. After all, it takes no less study to say you’ve determined, academically, that the Bible is correct than to say that you’ve found errors. In fact, it takes a good deal more study to justify the conclusion that the Bible has no errors, because the counter-proof requires finding only one genuine mistake in the Bible, whereas the inerrantist must analyze and refute all possible errors, and then tackle the more difficult matter of proving that no further errors are possible.
In fact, Holding is quite plainly wrong in asserting that critics of the Bible need to acquire some impossibly difficult list of academic credentials in order to falsify Scripture’s claims to divine infallibility. You do not need a post-PhD mastery of the mathematics of quantum physics to know that the equation “2+2=17” does not add up. Nor do you need advanced degrees in linguistics, psychology, archeology, philosophy, and wood shop, to know that there are problems with a story that contradicts both itself and the real world.
The Gospel is about a God who loves us enough to die for us so that we could be together forever. That’s what Christians claim, and if that’s not what the Bible teaches, then the Bible is simply irrelevant to Christianity. God, however, does not show up in the real world. If He did, Christian doctrine would be based on God, instead of being based on what men wrote about God 2,000+ years ago. If He did show up, Holding would not be trying to refute critics of the Bible by demanding that they meet some impossibly high standard of academic achievement–he’d just point out that the Bible (if we even needed to have one) could be confirmed by simply asking God.
So the story is about a God who ought to be showing up to participate in the relationship He did so much to make possible. But the reality is that God does not show up. It doesn’t even need a high-school education to tell the difference between the story and the reality. Never mind the appeals to the wisdom of men. Simple common sense–and the ability to distinguish between reality and wishful thinking–is all that is required.