Sunday, April 18, 2004

Believe it or not?

Rather recently, Nicholas Kristof, a leading columnist for the New York Times, penned an op-ed piece savaging the Christian faith as irrational. (Cf. "Believe it, or Not," August 15, 2003.)

Considering that the New York Times may be the most influential paper in the world, and a leading organ for the liberal elite, his attack should not go unanswered. Let us run through his major claims, and then examine their validity.

1. "The faith in the Virgin Birth reflects the way American Christianity is becoming less intellectual… One of the most poisonous divides is the one between intellectual and religious America."

For Mr. Kristof, traditional Christian faith is anti-intellectual. Scholarship is on the side of the liberals. Very well, then. Let us hold Mr. Kristof to his own stated standard of comparison. Let us see how well he makes a reasoned case for the intellectual superiority of his own position.

2. "Americans are three times as likely to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus (83 percent) as in evolution (28 percent)."

The insinuation seems to be that belief in evolution is a touchstone of rationality. Anyone who denies evolution is, by definition, irrational.

Okay, if that's the implication, then where's the supporting argument? What are Mr. Kristof's reasons for believing in evolution? And how does he field objections to evolution?

Unless Mr. Kristof is prepared to mount an argument for his paradigm of rationality, how is his position any more rational than the opposing position he decries?

I can't help but wonder how long Mr. Kristof would survive in a debate with Michael Behe, Phil Johnson, Bill Dembski or Kurt Wise. I suspect he'd be taken off the stage on a stretcher.

3. "Americans believe, 58 percent to 40 percent, that it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. In contrast, other developed countries overwhelmingly believe that it is not necessary. In France, only 13 percent agree with the U.S. view."

How does this add up to an argument for or against anything? Is truth a matter of percentages? In fact, many secular philosophers embrace moral relativism (e.g., Bertrand Russell, Kai Nielsen, Michael Martin, J. I. Mackie, Charles Taylor).

4. "My grandfather was fairly typical of his generation."

How does Mr. Kristof know that? Does he have polling data for that particular period of American church history?

5. A devout and active Presbyterian elder, he nonetheless believed firmly in evolution and regarded the Virgin Birth as a pious legend.

i) How is it a hallmark of rationality for a man who denies the Bible to be a Presbyterian elder? Wouldn't it be more logical for such a man to make a clean break with the church?

ii) My guess would be that his grandfather was a contemporary of J. Gresham Machen, a fellow Presbyterian, who wrote the standard scholarly defense of the Virgin Birth. (Cf. J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ [Baker, 1977]).

It would appear that neither Mr. Kristof nor his grandfather ever read the work.

6. "Why is GW Bush our president? It was God's choice."

How is that irrational? If you're a Christian with a firm belief in divine providence, then every presidential election reflects the decretive (but not necessarily preceptive) will of God.

This belief would only be irrational if one were an atheist or adherent of finite theism. Is Mr. Kristof an atheist? If so, we're waiting to hear his arguments.

7. "Most Biblical scholars regard the evidence for the Virgin Birth, and for Mary's assumption into Heaven (which was proclaimed as Catholic dogma only in 1950), as so shaky that it pretty much has to be a leap of faith."

i) How does Mr. Kristof happen to know what most Bible scholars believe about the Virgin Birth? What is the sampling base? Where are the polling data? How many Bible scholars has he spoken to? Has he conducted any personal interviews with Bible scholars at any Evangelical seminaries?

Remember, Mr. Kristof writes for what is supposedly the greatest newspaper in the world. So it is not unreasonable to expect some sources, some footnotes. Where are his journalistic rules of evidence?

ii) Is it reasonable to bundle together the dogma of the Assumption with the Virgin Birth? Does the evidentiary weakness of the one automatically drag down the other? Don't both have to be judged separately on the evidence proper to each?

iii) Assuming, for discussion purposes, that most Bible scholars take this position, what are their arguments? Nose-counting is not an argument.

8. "As the Catholic theologian Hans Küng puts it in 'On Being a Christian,' the Virgin Birth is a "collection of largely uncertain, mutually contradictory, strongly legendary" narratives, an echo of virgin birth myths that were widespread in many parts of the ancient world."

i) At one level, this is just another example of circular reasoning. Mr. Kristof supports his liberal opinion by appealing to—liberal opinion!

ii) What contradictions? Specifics, please!

iii) What widespread parthenogenic myths? Give me some names and dates and places, if you will.

The tactical advantage of speaking in groundless generalities is that you don't expose your bare assertions to specific scrutiny and rebuttal.

iv) The aforementioned book by Machen goes over all this ground in some detail. Indeed, Machen's main challenge is to come up with a parallel that is even worth rebutting. There really are no parallels even remotely resembling the Virgin Birth.

9. "Jaroslav Pelikan, the great Yale historian and theologian, says in his book "Mary Through the Centuries" that the earliest references to Mary (like Mark's gospel, the first to be written, or Paul's letter to the Galatians) don't mention anything unusual about the conception of Jesus."

i) Notice the studied ambiguity of this statement. It could mean that (a) Mark and Paul do not mention the conception of Jesus at all; or that (b) they mention the conception of Jesus, but without reference to anything unusual; or that (c) they mention the usual process of conception.

Only (c) would be inconsistent with the NT witness to the Virgin birth, whereas Mark represents the position of (a).

ii) Where in Galatians does Mr. Kristof suppose that Paul makes any reference to Mary?

iii) Mr. Kristof disregards differences of genre. Since Paul is writing a topical letter rather than a biography, he would have no occasion to mention the circumstances surrounding the birth of Christ—just as Mr. Kristof's op-ed piece makes no mention of the Iraq war.

10. "The Gospels of Matthew and Luke do say Mary was a virgin."

i) But I thought that Küng referred to a collection of narratives. How do two sources constitute a collection?

ii) The New York Times often runs a single-source story. So what's wrong with a two-source story? Isn't that considered to be sufficient corroboration for a reliable news report?

iii) Although the Virgin Birth is in no need of a broader database, there is wider warrant for the doctrine than Kristof, in his willful ignorance, is even aware of. (Cf. M. Brown. C. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus [Baker, 2003], 3:17-32; 199-210; Cranfield, On Romans and Other New Testament Essays [T&T Clark, 1988], 153-56; J. Motyer, "Content and context in the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14," TynB 21 [1970], 118ff.; E.Y. Young, Studies in Isaiah [Tyndale, 1954], 171ff).

11. "Internal evidence suggests that that part of Luke, in particular, may have been added later by someone else (it is written, for example, in a different kind of Greek than the rest of that gospel)."

i) When a news reporter interviews someone for a story, doesn't he often model the wording of his story on his source?

ii) If the Gospel of Luke was issued in more than one edition, shouldn't there be variant MSS? Where is Mr. Kristof's text-critical evidence for this conjecture?

iii) In the Gospel of Luke, the miraculous conception of Christ parallels the miraculous conception of the Baptist—only the Virgin Birth is even more miraculous, and thus goes to show the superiority of Christ over John the Baptist and the OT prophets. Such a comparison and contrast is integral to the Lucan narrative. Hence, the Virgin Birth is a fundamental feature of Luke's high Christology.

12. "Yet despite the lack of scientific or historical evidence..."

i) There is a lack of scientific evidence for the birth of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon. Science generally deals with repeated and repeatable events, whereas history deals with unrepeatable events.

ii) The subject-matter of science is ordinary providence. Since a virgin birth would be unnatural, Mr. Kristof commits a category mistake by demanding scientific evidence of a miraculous event.

13. "The great intellectual traditions of Catholic and Protestant churches alike are withering, leaving the scholarly and religious worlds increasingly antagonistic."

It is hard to know what to make of this statement. Belief in the Virgin Birth is the unanimous position of the historic Christian church. It has figured in the creed of such high-powered thinkers as Anselm, Augustine, Scotus, Aquinas, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, and Berkeley, to name a few.

Is Mr. Kristof saying that men like Oswald Allis, Gleason Archer, Roger Beckwith, Craig Blomberg, F.F. Bruce, D. A. Carson, Bill Dembski, John Frame, Donald Guthrie, Vern Poythress, Rousas Rushdoony, B. B Warfield, Donald Wiseman, and E. Y. Young are unscholarly or anti-intellectual? Mr. Kristof may make it easy on himself by dismissing the opposing side unread, but—in that event—who is the obscurantist?

14. "I worry partly because of the time I've spent with self-satisfied and unquestioning mullahs and imams."

Notice the abrupt equation, the sudden shift, the invidious comparison between conservative Christians and radical Muslims. Mr. Kristof has done nothing in his article to lay the foundation for this guilt-by-association smear.

15. "The heart is a wonderful organ, but so is the brain."

Actually, it is quite unclear how a brain which was the byproduct of a non-purposive evolutionary process can be relied on to arrive at the truth. (Cf. For a critique of evolutionary epistemology, cf. A. Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function [Oxford, 1993]). Sounds like a leap of faith to me!

Although Mr. Kristof fancies himself and his circle to represent the beleaguered intelligentsia, all that comes across in this hit-and-run piece is an effort to project an intellectual image. But there is no argumentation to back up the air of superiority.

Some readers might object that I'm making unreasonable demands on a brief op-ed piece. But even an op-ed piece ought to reflect a well-informed opinion, and not engage in sweeping allegations that have no discernible basis in fact. If space constraints hinder Mr. Kristof from doing justice to the issues, then he should not try to cover so much ground in so little space. One suspects that Mr. Kristof favors this fact-free shooting gallery because he is firing blanks. But that will at least spare the Church the expense of investing in flak-jackets.

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