XFiles: When critics askFebruary 21, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 14.)
There’s an old quip that’s been reprinted on countless T-shirts, plaques, posters and such. It goes like this:
Rule 1: The boss never makes mistakes.
Rule 2: If the boss makes a mistake, see Rule #1.
Rule 3: Any mistakes not covered by Rule #2, see Rule #1.
It may not sound theological at first glance, but see if anything sounds familiar in Geisler and Turek’s discussion of Bible inerrancy:
So what happens when we think we’ve found an error in the Bible? Augustine had the answer. “If we are perplexed by any apparent contradiction in Scripture,” he wisely noted, “it is not allowable to say, ‘The author of this book is mistaken’; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.”
This is rather a significant point, because the it shows that the modern Christian concept of Biblical inerrancy is based on centuries, not to say millennia, of Christian teachers in denial. It is simply “not allowable” to admit that there are contradictions in the Bible. By definition, if we find a mistake in the Bible, it only proves that we—not the Scriptures—are mistaken. See Rule #1.
Small wonder, than, that Christians are unable to find any errors in the Scripture when they’re working under Augustine’s rules.
Of course as Bible scholars have known since before Augustine, there are errors and contradictions in the Bible. If there weren’t, no one would need to make rules disallowing people from noticing them. That’s a problem for Bible-believing Christians, because it shows that the Bible is not the Truth they’re looking for. One man’s problem is another man’s opportunity, though, and for Dr. Geisler it’s a perfect chance to plug one of his other books.
In When Critics Ask, we identify seventeen errors typically made by critics. Here is a summary of just four of them.
And if you like the four you see, you’ll want to run right out and buy the other thirteen rationalizations excuses explanations for why Bible “difficulties” don’t count. But why stop at four? Let’s have a look at Geisler’s complete list of seventeen “errors” allegedly made by Bible critics.
- Assuming that the unexplained is not explainable
- Presuming the Bible guilty until proven innocent
- Confusing our fallible interpretations with God’s infallible revelation
- Failing to understand the context of the passage.
- Neglecting to interpret difficult passages in the light of clear ones
- Basing a teaching on an obscure passage
- Forgetting that the Bible is a human book with human characteristics
- Assuming that a partial report is a false report
- Demanding that NT citations of the OT always be exact quotations
- Assuming that divergent accounts are false ones
- Presuming that the Bible approves of all its records
- Forgetting that the Bible uses non-technical, everyday language
- Assuming that round numbers are false
- Neglecting to note that the bible uses different literary devices
- Forgetting that only the original text, not every copy of scripture, is without error
- Confusing general statements with universal ones
- Forgetting that latter revelation supersedes previous revelation
Ironically, point number one pretty much sums up the whole first half of I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST. We can’t explain (or at least, Geisler and Turek can’t explain) how this or that feature ended up in the universe, and therefore it’s unexplainable, and therefore supernatural, and therefore there is a single personal intelligent God Who can only communicate with us through an infallible Book. When critics assume that the unexplained is unexplainable, it’s an error. When Geisler and Turek do it, it’s a full seven chapter’s worth of “evidence.”
The problem with presenting this argument as a critical “error” is that it overlooks the distinction between problems due to ignorance and problems due to contradiction. In the first half of their book, Geisler and Turek argue that the mysteries of nature are unexplainable just because science has not yet figured out all the answers. That’s a different problem than trying to explain why one passage of Scripture says that Tyre will cease to exist after Nebuchadnezzar, and other passages that say Paul found it a thriving city of trade centuries later. Problems that stem from our ignorance are not inexplicable; we just need to learn more. Problems that come from outright contradictions, however, are genuine problems. “Error” number one is just Geisler accusing critics of failing to consider the possibility of rationalization.
“Error” number 2 is just as insubstantial. “Presuming the Bible guilty until proven innocent” might just as easily be phrased as “failing to assume that the Bible is correct.” It’s an excuse for believers to retreat behind a presumption of innocence that demands an absurdly high standard of critical evidence to disprove—not just proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but proof beyond all possible conceivable potential for doubt. But that’s backwards. It’s not the critic’s job to explain the difficulties, it’s up to the apologists to show that the Biblical record is consistent with itself, with Christian teaching, and with reality. If they can. Accusing critics of evil assumptions is just an ad hominem red herring.
Number 3, “Confusing our fallible interpretations with God’s infallible revelation,” is the old scam that allows believers to claim infallible authority (because their teachings are based on God’s infallible revelation) while at the same time disclaiming any accountability for mistakes in their teachings (because it’s just “our fallible interpretations”). If you don’t have an infallible interpretation then you don’t have an infallible revelation. Even if the “revelation” were infallible as written, it’s worthless unless it can enter your understanding infallibly. If it can’t, then what you possess in your understanding is not infallible revelation, and thus not a basis for infallible authority.
Number 4 (“Failing to understand the context of the passage”) might actually be valid in some circumstances, so we’d have to consider that one on a case-by-case basis. Number 5, however, is the Golden Loophole, so let’s take a moment to zero in on that one.
According to Geisler and Turek, critics err by “[n]eglecting to interpret difficult passages in the light of clear ones.” This is a reference to the Protestant practice of using the clear and simple passages of the Bible illuminate one’s understanding of the obscure and difficult passages. Buying into this principle, however, guarantees that you will end up with a highly personalized and subjective understanding of the Bible, because different people are going to have a different perception of which passages are “clear” and “simple.”
For example, James 2, in discussing the relationship between faith, good works, and salvation, declares that “man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (v. 24). In Ephesians 2, by contrast, Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, that no one may boast.”
The English translation of Eph. 2 doesn’t convey the full grammatical sense of the original, in which the word “that” (in the phrase “and that not of yourselves”) is singular neuter, whereas the word it appears to modify (“faith”) is singular feminine. The pronoun, thus, might be a bit ambiguous, as might the following “it.” Is Paul referring to salvation, or to grace, or to the fact that God graciously chose to save us through faith? What is it that is not “a result of works,” the grace, the salvation, the faith?
In terms of the complexity of the sentence, it would seem that Paul’s statement ought to be the difficult one, and James’ the more clear and easy one. Yet for millions of Protestants, it is the other way around: the “clear” passage is Ephesians 2:8-9, which they use as a guide to the “true” meaning of James 2. And James 2, despite its simple grammar and clear logic is “difficult” because it contradicts the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone. That’s right, you can designate a Bible passage as “difficult” just because fails to teach what you think it should.
That’s why there are so many Protestant sects, divisions, movements, and so on. Each person starts with the passages that seem “clear and obvious” in his own eyes, which naturally will be the passages that appear most consistent with what he already sees as true. These passages then become the foundational concepts upon which he constructs his understanding of the more “difficult” passages—suitably interpreted by the “clear and easy” ones, of course. And the end result is that he builds up a unique, personal network of interpretations that reflect whatever seems right in his own eyes.
“Error” number 5, therefore, boils down to accusing critics of failing to make the mistake that leads believers into ascribing divine authority to their own personal opinions, via the mechanism of using “easy” Bible passages to construct a personal belief system.
By the way, there’s enough commonality in human nature that we can find groups of people with similar initial beliefs (e.g. the Fred Phelps gang, liberal Christians, legalistic Christians, charismatic Christians, and so on), so it’s easy to see why believers might be fooled into thinking they and their peers had really “found it.” You and I are enough alike that the same passages seem “clear” and “obvious,” so in sharing our Bible interpretations, we tend to validate each other. But the real basis of our faith is subjective, i.e. what is it that seems “clear and obvious” to each of us personally. We call it “Bible based,” but it’s actually our own subjective opinions dressed up in chapters and verses. Sounds like spirituality, but smells like ego. Go figure, eh?
This looks like a good stopping point for this week. Hmm, 5 down and 12 to go. This may take another post or two. Tune in again next time…