XFiles: When Critics Ask (Conclusion)March 7, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 14.)
Time to wrap up our side-trip into Dr. Norm Geisler’s book When Critics Ask. We’ll pick up today with number 13 on his list of “errors” allegedly made by critics. And 13 seems to be Dr. Geisler’s lucky number because this one is an arguably genuine error:
13. Assuming that round numbers are false.
A good example of this would be the passage about the basin in Solomon’s Temple that, according to the Bible, was ten cubits in diameter and thirty cubits in circumference. As any good geometry student knows, a circle with a 10 cubit diameter would have a circumference of 10 x pi, or roughly 31.416 cubits. Technically speaking, the Bible is “wrong” by about one and a half cubits. But frankly, that’s just being picky. Rounding off awkward numbers is a perfectly normal, acceptable, and understandable practice in ordinary speech (like I did just now with the “one and a half” reference). Besides, there are much more significant errors that disprove Biblical inerrancy much more definitively, so it’s really not worth pressing this particular issue.
The next point isn’t quite so lucky for Dr. Geisler.
14. Neglecting to note that the bible uses different literary devices.
Yeah, the guy who sincerely and with great conviction argues that the creation myths in Genesis 1-10 must be literally true, is accusing Bible critics of failing to recognize the fact that the Bible uses different literary devices to make its points. This is another argument that would be fun to look at in Dr. Geisler’s book itself, because it’s dollars to donuts that he’s using this argument only when the Bible says something he disagrees with. I’ve had similar conversations with creationists, when I pointed out that the Bible uniformly and consistently refers to heaven as a physical location in the sky over Palestine. We know that there’s no throne of God above some “firmament” floating in the sky, and therefore Biblical references to heaven are all metaphor, doncha know. Even when real people allegedly travel, physically, to and from there. Awesome.
15. Forgetting that only the original text, not every copy of scripture, is without error.
Another fun one. Despite the claim that God wants the Bible to be our sole infallible source of moral and spiritual authority, the fact remains that there is nothing magical or supernatural preventing Bibles from containing errors. Even apart from the issue of different translations, not all Bible manuscripts agree, even in the original Greek and Hebrew. There are pieces of the text that have variant readings, and other parts where scholars aren’t sure what the original words and/or meaning were.
Now granted, this amounts to really a very small percentage of the text. Just enough, in fact, to belie the claim that the Bibles we have today are literally infallible. But the discrepancies are there, and consequently Bible scholars have to come up with an excuse to cover the problem. And they have: they assure us that it’s only the original manuscripts that are infallible and without error, and therefore the mistakes we see right in front of us are merely copyists’ errors.
And how do we know that the mistake was not present in the original also? Well, we don’t have the originals, so you can’t prove that the mistake was there, right? Sadly, for some people, that’s all the “proof” they need. But I expect Dr. Geisler would appeal to another argument: textual criticism.
Textual criticism is the art and science of reconstructing the original text by tracing the ancestry of each variant reading. This is exactly the same sort of technique that Drs. Geisler and Turek rejected when discussing the techniques used by evolutionists to trace the ancestry of variant species. Somehow, though, Dr. Geisler has absolutely no qualms about using these same methods to reconstruct the evolution of variant texts in the transmission of the Scriptures.
Nor should he. It’s a perfectly valid technique, and it works just as well and just as reliably whether you’re applying it to uncials or palimpsests or endogenous retroviruses. The problem is that it doesn’t always let you reconstruct the original text exactly and entirely, leaving you with a “preferred reading” that still does not eliminate all the problems and ambiguities. And it doesn’t work for the Old Testament at all, because a group of rabbis called the Masoretes went through and came up with their own OT canon by the simple expedient of destroying all the other variants. Only the Dead Sea scrolls are known to have escaped (and not all of those texts have been released by the Israeli government, which makes you wonder what’s in them that needs to be kept so secret, eh?).
16. Confusing general statements with universal ones.
Aka the “all does not mean all” defense. Jesus said, “With God, all things are possible,” but what he actually meant by that was that with God, all things that are possible are possible. Um, yeah, it would be hard for a statement like that to be false, don’t you think? You could use that slogan to sell a lot of things. “With Smirnoff, all things that are possible, are possible.” Hey, I’ll buy that!
What Dr. Geisler claims is an error made by critics is really a quibble raised by apologists, and it’s based on a fundamental and inescapable weakness of all Scripture-based authority systems: interpretations are debatable. You have to interpret a document, because a text can’t explain itself. It’s not like a living prophet or apostle, whom you could dialog with and who could clarify what he meant by this or that term. If the Bible says that “all Israel will be saved” and some critic points out that not all Israel will be saved, you can quibble over what “all” means, or what “saved” means, or who “Israel” refers to. There’s no objective, external, and unambiguous standard for determining which interpretation is correct. Every believer is free to believe whatever interpretation seems right in his own eyes.
Thus, whenever a critic points out problems with what the Bible says, whether it’s about general/universal statements or anything else a critic might see as a problem, Dr. Geisler can claim that the critic is merely committing an error of interpretation. He does not need to prove, or even define, what the “correct” interpretation should be, and he can even change his own interpretation in midstream as needed to dodge the issue of the moment. There’s no fixed standard for what the correct interpretation must be, and therefore it’s always safe for the apologist to accuse the critic of having a wrong interpretation.
17. Forgetting that latter revelation supersedes previous revelation.
That’s what’s so great about Eternal, Universal and Unchanging Truth—when your side wins the theological debate, you get to pick a new Eternal, Universal and Unchanging Truth. It “supersedes” the old Truth, like magic. And if you call now, we’ll even let you keep your old Truth, absolutely free!
In science, new discoveries supersede old ones because the old ones were fallible and inaccurate, and subject to improvement as we learn more about the real world. Christian apologists, however, have to maintain the myth that the Bible does not contradict itself, and has never been fallible or inaccurate. How do they do it? Easy: when you find a problem with the teachings of the Old Testament, they just say, “Oh, that doesn’t matter, because we have the New Testament now.” The problem has been “superseded,” allowing the apologist to simply gloss over it and ignore it.
But you can’t get rid of a problem just by declaring that the old Infallible Truth has now been superseded. If you’re going to have an Eternal and Unchanging God, with an Eternal and Unchanging Moral Law that dictates what it does and does not take to please Him, then sweeping and significant changes in His alleged True Faith should not happen. There shouldn’t be a need for reforms. God shouldn’t have released a version that He knew was going to need radical changes for the 2.0 release. Poor quality control is a sign of shoddy workmanship.
Ok, that’s a bit facetious. What it’s really a sign of is men taking an old religion and simply adapting it to new purposes (predictably, with themselves as the ones in charge of the new religion).
This goes back to the whole Myth Hypothesis vs Gospel Hypothesis issue. If you begin by knowing that Christianity must be the One True Faith, and you work your way backwards to some plausible-sounding scenario directed at achieving your apologetic goals, then you can sketch out a plot in which some already-established religion lends its “brand recognition” to your new faith just before being “superseded” by it. But that’s rationalization, thinking backwards to achieve a predetermined conclusion.
If we start with the premise that there exists a loving Heavenly Father Who knows how to save His children from Hell, why not just do that first? It’s just as educational, and beneficial, and it rescues untold numbers of innocent animals from being made to suffer so that wicked humans can escape the consequences of their sins. There’s no need to start off with some imperfect Old Religion that would need to be superseded. Just do it the right way first.
So if we think about the logical consequences of each hypothesis, it’s easy to see that the facts are much more consistent with the theory that Christianity is just men essentially vampirizing Judaism. Christianity, being a mere human invention, needs to attach itself to Judaism in order to absorb its established legitimacy—having no life of its own (to start with) it needs a living host to feed from. A genuine religion, ordained by God before the foundation of the world, would not need to take such a parasitic and detrimental approach: it could just as easily bestow the best and most effective religion from the very start.
And we’re done with our little side trip. Seventeen alleged “errors” that Dr. Geisler uses to try and evade the problems in his fallible, erroneous and superstitious Bible, and of these, only a couple of the minor objections are even reasonable. And none of this would be an issue in the first place if it weren’t for his God’s consistent, universal, and undeniable absence from real life.
If Dr. Geisler had a God that was willing and able to behave as though He believed what the Bible says about Him, we wouldn’t need an infallible Word of God because we’d have the actual God Himself. He supposedly loves us enough to die for us so that He could be with us, and supposedly has the power to pull it off, and to eliminate the last obstacle separating us from Him, so He’d be both willing and able to show up to participate, in person, in that relationship He worked so hard to make possible.
In which case, apologists like Dr. Geisler would be out of a job. Makes you think, don’t it?