Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Why some people lose faith

Why do folks like Bart Ehrman lose their faith? There are different reasons people lose faith. In some cases, it's due to a personal tragedy, or succumbing to sexual temptation.

According to Ehrman:

A turning point came in my second semester, in a course I was taking with a much revered and pious professor named Cullen Story…we had to write a final term paper on an interpretive crux of our own choosing. I chose a passage in Mark 2…
In my paper for Professor Story, I developed a long and complicated argument to the effect that even though Mark indicates this happened "when Abiathar was the high priest," it doesn't really mean that Abiathar was the high priest, but that the event took place in the part of the scriptural text that has Abiathar as one of the main characters. My argument was based on the meaning of the Greek words involved and was a bit convoluted. I was pretty sure Professor Story would appreciate the argument, since I knew him as a good Christian scholar who obviously (like me) would never think there could be anything like a genuine error in the Bible. But at the end of my paper he made a simple one-line comment that for some reason went straight through me. He wrote: "Maybe Mark just made a mistake." I started thinking about it, considering all the work I had put into the paper, realizing that I had had to do some pretty fancy exegetical footwork to get around the problem, and that my solution was in fact a bit of a stretch. I finally concluded, "Hmm . . . maybe Mark did make a mistake." 
Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened. For if there could be one little, picayune mistake in Mark 2, maybe there could be mistakes in other places as well. B. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (HarperCollins, 2005), 8-9.

However, there's something fishy about that explanation. As he says elsewhere:

When I went to Wheaton, I was warned not to go to Princeton Theological Seminary — a Presbyterian school training ministers — because “there aren’t any Christians there.” Really. I did indeed know that my faith would be challenged there, because it was “liberal” (REALLY liberal for my tastes).  

But if he knew ahead of time that his Princeton profs. rejected the inerrancy of Scripture, how can he honestly say "I was pretty sure Professor Story would appreciate the argument, since I knew him as a good Christian scholar who obviously (like me) would never think there could be anything like a genuine error in the Bible"?

Given what he knew about Princeton's reputation, why would Story's remark knock him off his pins? Indeed, didn't he have reason to expect that his Princeton profs. would impugn the inerrancy of Scripture? 

Which brings me to another point: Some people lose faith when they first encounter objections to Scripture or Christian theology. Say, their freshman year in college. Or reading a book by an atheist. Or browsing an atheist website. 

But then you have people like Ehrman who lose their faith much later in the educational process. In graduate or post-graduate school. By that stage, this is hardly the first time they've run across these challenges. The stock objections aren't surprising anymore. So is there some other factor? Some new factor? Consider this statement:

I began my teaching career in a very different context, at a secular research university in New Jersey: Rutgers. After teaching there for four years, in 1988 I moved to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the truly great state universities in the country. My colleagues in both places have been specialists in a wide range of academic disciplines: classics, anthropology, American studies, philosophy, and lots of other disciplines, especially history. I live with and move among people who do serious historical research for a living. That’s what they have done for their entire academic lives. It’s not a Christian school context, but the context of a purely academic, research institution. 

Here I think he unwittingly tips his hand. There are two related reasons a person might lose their faith in graduate or post-graduate school. Both of them involve an inferiority complex, but this can take different forms.

There's a social inferiority complex. Take the social climber. Have you noticed how often people move left to move up? They move in two directions simultaneously. According to Ehrman:

My father was a salesman for a corrugated box company; my mother was a secretary. 

So by going to Moody, then Wheaton, then Princeton, then becoming a college prof., he was moving up the social ladder. But what if acceptance in elite circles induces you to share their outlook? You want to fit in. Be one of them. So you curry favor. Avoid incurring their disapproval. They are the gatekeepers of elite society. 

Just see how flattered he feels to "live with and move among people who do serious historical research for a living."

He "made" it. He's arrived! As Sinatra would say, "I want to find I'm number one, top of the heap, top of the list, king of the hill". 

Some people don't suffer from a social inferiority complex, so they aren't susceptible to that kind of compromise. There can be different reasons for that. Some people just don't care about status. Impressing strangers. They don't feel they have anything to prove to others. 

Then you have some people who were born into elite society. They don't aspire to that status. They already have it. So they aren't overawed by members of the elite. For them, that's ordinary. Nothing special. 

In addition, there's an intellectual inferiority complex. People like Bart Ehman and Peter Enns aren't overly-bright. I don't mean they're unintelligent. But they're not men of outstanding intellect. 

By contrast, you have some very gifted moderate to conservative scholars who don't need their self-esteem stroked by members of the guild. Most of their colleagues are not their intellectual peers. So they are unimpressed by liberal scholarship. Too independent to take liberal groupthink seriously. 

It would, of course, be better for all concerned parties to base their self-esteem on what God thinks of us in Christ. 


  1. I was just wondering this. Great article!!

  2. "'Maybe [Bart Ehrman] just made a mistake.'... Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened."

  3. So here's my question: is it really possible to lose one's faith/salvation? The Holy Spirit enter us when we are saved and it's not as if we can change our minds and simply evict Him like an unwanted tenant, right? I have always believed that if one claimed to lose his/her salvation then it wasn't real in the first place.

    1. In Calvinism, it's impossible for someone to lose his salvation. It is, however, possible for a professing Christian to lose his faith. Saving faith is the result of regeneration. However, Christian belief isn't necessarily the effect of regeneration. Sometimes Christian belief is simply the effect of indoctrination at an impressionable time of life. Social conditioning. There's more to saving faith than mere belief. Saving faith as a divine source in regeneration.

  4. Steve this is an insightful post and I thought it was great that you discussed human nature with view of themselves.