Sunday, September 04, 2016

Is Christianity a bookish faith?

I'm going to comment on some recent statements by Andy Stanley. I believe the first was from about two years ago:


He says that in his freshman lit. class at Georgia State U., the professor referred to many creation myths, and thereby dismantled the faith of every student who grew up in church.

i) Andy's inference is so illogical. But it illustrates the dangers of false expectations. He acts as though, if Gen 1-2 is true, other cultures wouldn't have creation myths. How does that follow? How would the historicity of Gen 1-2 prevent pagans in other cultures from developing independent creation myths? Primitive people are curious about where everything came from. If they are heathen, they will make up stories that reflect their belief in animism or polytheism. This creates no presumption that Gen 1-2 is just another creation myth. 

ii) Andy says he believes Gen 1-2, not because the Bible says so, but because Jesus says so. Now, there's a sense in which Jesus can verify the OT. There is, however, another sense in which the OT must verify the messiahship of Jesus. The claims of Christ are not independent of the OT. To some extent, the claims of Christ presume and depend on the authority of the OT. 

Now, you can have different lines of evidence. There's historical evidence for the NT. And there's the argument from miracles. If you've already established that Jesus is the messiah, then you can deploy that as an argument from authority to verify the OT. 

However, it's also the case that the OT is a necessary standard of comparison for assessing messianic claimants. In that respect, the OT is an independent authority. One wonders how Andy would witness to an Orthodox Jew.

iii) Andy's methodology is naive in another respect. If allegedly parallel creation myths cast doubt on the historicity of Gen 1-2, then by parity of argument, allegedly parallel dying-and-rising savior gods cast doubt on the NT Jesus. Notice how Andy's argument unwittingly plays right into the hands of someone like Robert Price or Richard Carrier who claims that Jesus is just another fictional character in the mythic hero archetype or Rank-Raglan mythotype. Suppose Andy's lit. prof. made Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces required reading? Where would that leave Andy? 

Andy is seeking an intellectual shortcut. But that's an ambush. That simply relocates the battlefield. You can't eliminate the need for Christian apologetics. You can't avoid defending the Bible. 


He followed this up with a whole sermon:



He did make a good point about how some apostates grew up but their faith didn't grow up with them. He then says:

When I hear deconversion stories there is a theme throughout where I get faith-based answers to fact-based questions. This is where the trouble began – "Jesus loves me this I know because my Bible tells me so". There was a conflict of facts when we grew up. If the Bible is the foundation of our faith, then as the Bible goes so goes our faith. This is why you sent your kids off to college and they came back with no faith. If the Bible is the foundation of our faith then it is all or nothing. Christianity becomes a fragile house of cards religion. It comes tumbling down when we discover that perhaps the walls of Jericho did not. In archeology class they're told "we excavated the city of Jericho. By the way there is no evidence that a Hebrew people made some sort of trek from Egypt to Canaan. Do you know there are all sorts of contradictions in the OT? There's all these facts and figures that do not add up. By the way, the Bible seems to teach that the earth is only six thousand years old and everybody knows the earth is 4.5 billion years old and the universe is 14.5 million years old. If the entire Bible isn't true then the Bible isn't true and all of Christianity comes tumbling down.

i) It's true that Christians who grow up in conservative, but anti-intellectual churches, are sitting ducks when they attend a secular college. But their experience is not a reason to redefine Christianity. The identity of the Christian faith is independent of their individual experience. 

ii) By Andy's own admission, their faith was a house of cards because they were given faith-based answers to fact-based questions. The obvious alternative is to expose young churchgoers to Christian apologetics. There's a wealth of material, both in print and online, that fields these objections. 

iii) Andy's a graduate of DTS. Merrill Unger was a fixture at DTS. Unger had a doctorate in archeology. His advisor was Albright–finest archeologist of his generation. In fact, Unger published two books on OT archeology and NT archeology. You'd never know that from Andy's sermon. 

Consequently, Christians have always felt they had to defend the Bible. If you read broadly however you discover that it is next to impossible to defend the entire Bible. 

i) That's equivocal. It's impossible to prove that everything in the Bible is true in the sense that we don't have corroborative evidence for everything in the Bible. So the Bible is unverifiable in that sense. That, however, is not a reasonable standard. Rather, you provide evidence that the source is generally reliable. Like evaluating a witness. The point is not to corroborate everything he says, but to establish that he's a trustworthy observer and reporter. 

ii) We don't necessarily or even routinely need corroboration to be warranted in believing a factual claim. Most of what I know about my parents' lives before I was born comes from what they told me. I don't have corroboration for most of what they told me about their lives before I was born, but I'm justified in believing what they told me. In the nature of the case, they are the best source of information regarding their own lives. 

You may be able to hang on to the Bible but your kids and grand kids will not. If you left Christianity because you found out the Bible was fallible you left unnecessarily.

It is not Andy's prerogative to redefine Christianity. If, moreover, someone no longer believes the Bible, then he ought to leave the Christian faith. 

People did not make the early copies because they believed they were inspired but because they believed they were true. Christianity made its greatest strides 282 years before the Bible even existed. Christianity was not born on the back of, "The Bible says." Before the OT and NT were combined into the first Bible, Christianity had already replaced most gods and was the state religion of the Roman Empire. No one had even held a Bible.

That's so confused!

i) On the one hand, Andy appeals to the profusion of copies Christians made of NT documents. On the other hand, he denies that Christianity was a bookish religion. But his claim is contradictory. The profusion of copies in the early church shows you that Christianity was a book-centered faith. That's why they copied and recopied the NT in the first place. 

ii) You don't need to own a personal copy of the Bible to have a Bible-based faith. That's why you had the public reading of the Scriptures in Christian meetings (e.g. 1 Thes 5:27; 1 Tim 4:13; Col 4:16; Rev 1:3). This mirrored the Jewish practice of reading the OT scriptures aloud in the synagogue (e.g. Lk 4:16; Acts 13:15; 15:21). That's a medium of mass communication. One speaker>many listeners. 

iii) In principle, a Christian can get by with a summary understanding of the Christian faith (e.g. the Apostles' Creed). However, that's secondary and derivative. It ultimately depends on the primary source historical documents. 

iv) In the early church there were basically two lines of evidence for the messiahship of Jesus: (a) the argument from prophecy and (b) the argument from miracles. Early Christians quoted the OT to show that Jesus matched the OT job description of the messiah. The OT is a foundational criterion for messianic claimants.  

Christianity doesn't exist because of the Bible, just as you don't exist because of your birth certificate. A birth certificate documents something that happened. If you lose it, you don't go out of existence.

i) Regarding reported events, there's an elementary sense in which the event is more fundamental than the report. The report is based on the event.

However, even though the event is more ultimate in the order of being, yet in the order of knowing, most of us must take the report as our starting-point. Unless we witness an event for ourselves, we are dependent on the testimony of others. The report is our only source of information regarding what happened or whether something happened. 

ii) His comparison is preposterous. Naturally I know that I exist, apart from any documentation. From this it hardly follows that I know someone else existed–2000 years ago–apart from any documentation.  

On the one hand he says the NT was widely copied not because it was inspired but because it was true. On the other hand, he says the big question in the early church wasn't whether the Bible true, but whether Jesus rose from the dead. So he contradicts himself.

Moreover, the historicity of the Bible was a bone of contention in the early Christianity. For instance, pagan critics like Celsus and Porphyry attacked the historicity of the Bible, so early Christian apologists like Origen, Jerome, and Eusebius defended it. 

Andy appeals to evidence that the Gospels belong to a historical genre. He appeals to evidence that the NT was written during the lifetime of eyewitnesses to the historical Jesus. He says that rules out legionary embellishment, because eyewitnesses would challenge that. 

Now, I basically agree with him. Problem is, he can't avoid defending the historical reliability of the NT. Mythicists like Robert Price, Richard Carrier, and Richard Miller have counterarguments. They appeal to the rapid evolution of urban legends by citing cargo cults and Roswell. They say the Gospels were written at the very time most eyewitnesses were dead. They say there was a blackout during the crucial period. They say Christians destroyed evidence. Likewise, you have Bart Ehrman's new book attacking the reliability of eyewitness recollection.

Now, I don't think those are good arguments. I've critiqued all these guys. So have others. 

The point, though, is that Andy can't go around the NT to get straight to Jesus. You can't defend the historical Jesus without defending the historicity of the NT. 

Indeed, Andy sways back and forth between two opposing claims. Sometimes he acts as though you can circumvent the NT. At other times he defends the historical reliability of the NT. 

Jesus loves me this I know because Matthew tells me so and he walked with Jesus; because Luke tells me so and he was really detailed; because Paul tells me so and he once persecuted the church; because His original followers were martyred believing so. The reason why you should consider following Jesus is not because the Bible says so.

I'm sorry, but that's as dumb as straw. On the one hand he appeals to the letters of Paul and the canonical Gospels. On the other hand, he says we don't follow Jesus because the Bible says so. Why can't he see the screaming contradiction? 

3 comments:

  1. What about referring to Holy Tradition in the apostolic church to help the christian college freshman survive the assault by Prof. Bad Wolf? What about referring to the liturgy of the apostolic church, handed down to us, by those who steadfastly continued in the saying of the prayers and the breaking of the bread (acts 2,42)? which seems a lot to me like the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist which is celebrated every Divine Liturgy/Mass in the apostolic church (orthodox; catholic)? If we have no faith in the church which gave us the scriptures, then how can we have faith in those scriptures which they handed down? By the way I like your blog - I linked to it somehow via Roger Pearse's page, or a page he linked to, which linked to another, which linked to you.

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    Replies
    1. Patrick Constantine

      "What about referring to Holy Tradition in the apostolic church to help the christian college freshman survive the assault by Prof. Bad Wolf?"

      This assumes there's something "holy" about "tradition".

      "What about referring to the liturgy of the apostolic church, handed down to us, by those who steadfastly continued in the saying of the prayers and the breaking of the bread (acts 2,42)? which seems a lot to me like the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist which is celebrated every Divine Liturgy/Mass in the apostolic church (orthodox; catholic)?"

      This assumes we can trust "the apostolic church" which seems to be the Roman Catholic (or possibly an Eastern orthodox) church in your mind (e.g. when you say "Divine Liturgy/Mass").

      "If we have no faith in the church which gave us the scriptures, then how can we have faith in those scriptures which they handed down?"

      This assumes "the church...gave us the scriptures". If by this you mean what Catholics or the EO mean, then that's highly contentious to say the least.

      More practically speaking, if the Christian college student is told to trust "holy tradition" and "the apostolic church," then how is that any different than if a Muslim is told to trust in Islam and Islamic tradition, a Mormon is told to trust the Mormon scriptures and community, etc.?

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    2. "What about referring to Holy Tradition in the apostolic church to help the christian college freshman survive the assault by Prof. Bad Wolf? What about referring to the liturgy of the apostolic church, handed down to us, by those who steadfastly continued in the saying of the prayers and the breaking of the bread (acts 2,42)?"

      A professor who turns his guns on Scripture can turn the same guns on tradition. If he impugns the authority of Scripture, he can impugn the authority of tradition. It's not as if Scripture is dubitable but tradition is indubitable.

      "If we have no faith in the church which gave us the scriptures, then how can we have faith in those scriptures which they handed down?"

      I've discussed the basis for the Protestant canon on many occasions. For starters, the Jews, not "the church," gave us the OT scriptures.

      It's unclear what you mean by "giving" the Scriptures. "The church" didn't produce the Scriptures. Rather, inspired individuals did that. Perhaps you simply mean a process of transmission.

      There's a distinction between treating some church fathers as historical witnesses to the NT canon, and treating them as authority figures.

      The Bible isn't a random pile of books, arbitrarily selected from a larger random pile of books. The canon of Scripture is mutually attesting through various lines of intertextuality.

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