Sunday, April 12, 2009

Faith, doubt, and disbelief

“None of these traditions and narratives can be said to remove doubt. Yet even though they suggest that doubt was not eliminated altogether for those who had the original Easter experiences, some conservative Christians today not only claim a higher degree of certainty than the apostles seem to have had, but make such certainty the standard of their Christian orthodoxy. If the apostles do not meet the criteria of their ‘fundamentals of the faith’, nor do the New Testament authors, then something is terribly wrong with this definition of Christianity.”

“Be that as it may, the point remains that Easter is not about historical certainty. In Matthew, it even explicitly includes doubt. And by making the day a day for celebrating certainty, we risk losing one of the most important steps that may help us to experience the ‘resurrection power’ that drove early Christianity and has continued to transform lives down the ages.”

“I wish you a happy Easter. But to get there, you may need to experience the uncertainty the earliest disciples felt. And then, finding no certainty to cling to, may you know the powerful, life-transforming effect of letting go. It is like being reborn, like being raised from death to life.”

This is a good example of how McGrath misinterprets the Bible to justify his own experience.

1.Since McGrath doesn’t regard the NT as a reliable source of historical information, it’s duplicitous of him to cite these narratives as if he believes them, as if they describe real events.

2.These incidents are not recorded to justify doubt. They are not turning doubt into a paradigm of faith. Rather, they are recorded to remove doubt. To reassure the reader.

3.McGrath is not a doubter. McGrath is a disbeliever. Far from being doubtful, McGrath exhibits a high degree of certainty when it comes to disbelieving the miraculous elements of the Bible. This is another example of his duplicity. He casts himself in the role of an honest doubter when, in fact, he’s a doctrinaire unbeliever.


  1. Steve Hays: "McGrath is not a doubter. McGrath is a disbeliever. Far from being doubtful, McGrath exhibits a high degree of certainty when it comes to disbelieving the miraculous elements of the Bible. This is another example of his duplicity. He casts himself in the role of an honest doubter when, in fact, he’s a doctrinaire unbeliever."

    An accurate summation.

    And let's not forget the fact that he teaches a Sunday School class at Crooked Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis which shows that he is a wolf-apostate in sheep's clothing.

  2. We have to ask what people were doubting, why they doubted it, whether that doubt is portrayed positively by scripture, and whether it was overcome. Just citing some passages about doubt among the resurrection witnesses isn't sufficient. There's a difference between a highly undefined doubt among some resurrection witnesses and the highly defined rejection of so much of what the early Christians believed by somebody like James McGrath. Matthew 28:17 doesn't tell us much about the nature of the doubt, even what its object was. But even if we assume doubt about the resurrection, it doesn't follow that those people continued to doubt, that their doubt was comparable to McGrath's rejection of the resurrection, that they also doubted the many other aspects of traditional Christianity that McGrath rejects, etc. If somebody who believed in Jesus' other miracles, for example, doubted the resurrection temporarily, such doubt is far from McGrath's position.

    McGrath makes many misleading comments in his article, such as:

    "Luke and John, written some 50 years after the fact, are the first to introduce a physical element to the encounter with Jesus."

    The creed of 1 Corinthians 15 is a creed, not a biography or church history, for example, so we wouldn't expect many details about the nature of the resurrection appearances there. Still, the details we do have there (the fact that some of the witnesses were unbelievers beforehand, the involvement of coordinated group activity, etc.) are inconsistent with naturalistic theories.

    Mark's gospel doesn't narrate any resurrection appearances, so, again, we wouldn't expect the details McGrath is referring to there. But the empty tomb implies a physical resurrection, the Jewish context suggests that the witnesses would have looked for physical evidence, and human nature in general suggests that physical evidence would have been sought. The idea that hundreds of resurrection witnesses living in a first-century Jewish context would have all, or even mostly, failed to seek physical evidence is highly unlikely. It's even more unlikely that such a lack of interest in physical evidence would have continued for decades, until around the time when McGrath thinks Luke and John were written.

    How does McGrath know that Luke significantly postdates Matthew? He doesn't.

    As the contrast between the discussion of the resurrection witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15 and the lack of such details about resurrection appearances in Mark's gospel illustrates, a later account can be a less detailed account. An author can leave out details he's aware of. Luke suggests that his material goes back to the original witnesses (Luke 1:1-4). The absence of some of his details in a source like Mark's gospel or Matthew's gospel isn't sufficient reason to reject Luke's account.

    Matthew tells us that the risen Jesus' feet were touched (Matthew 28:9). And when a passage like Matthew 28:17 tells us that people "saw" Jesus, with references to an empty tomb and the touching of His feet in the context, the likely meaning of "saw" is a reference to physical vision.

    The same observation applies to 1 Corinthians 15. Paul was a Jew writing about other Jewish resurrection witnesses, referring to a physical burial of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:4), referring to how the same "it" that was buried is raised (1 Corinthians 15:36, 15:42-44, 15:53-54), etc. Thus, when Paul refers to how Jesus "appeared" and was "seen" (1 Corinthians 9:1), the likely implication is that physical appearances and physical vision were involved.

    At the time I read McGrath's article, it had two positive responses, one from AIGBusted and another from Steven Carr. That tells you something.

  3. Good post.

    We don't need to spend a lot of time on McGrath's position for precisely the reasons you give.

    He quotes sources which he doesn't believe to be accurate as an authority. Surely this destroys any possibility of objectivity in the argument from the start. If we are analysing for historical content a dodgy source, such as a hagiography, we need some objective way to separate fact from fiction. Prejudice won't do.

    He certainly displays the utmost certainty in every comment he makes. Indeed he relies primarily on self-confident assertion as his main debating tool. "Doubter", no. "Bigot" yes.

  4. really why would the church allow him to teach?

  5. McGrath has backed himself into a dilemma. If, on the one hand, he regards the Gospels as unreliable, then he can't cite the example of doubters in the Gospels (even if his interpretation were correct) to justify doubt.

    If, on the other hand, he treats the Gospels as sufficiently reliable to cite the example of doubters in the Gospels, then that also commits him to Gospel miracles.

  6. Steve Hays: "McGrath has backed himself into a dilemma."

    Many times over. That hasn't stopped him from continuing in his incoherence. And leading others astray.

    Rhology: "I've been having an enlightening conversation with him as well."

    Rhology to McGrath: "Let me commend to your reading the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy to help you."

    Dear Rhology,

    "Professor" James F. McGrath's rejection of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy on this Triablogue post Trapped in the Matrix is the genesis of this "conversation". And which led to the regrettable discovery that James F. McGrath is a published apostate who is leading others astray in a number of venues.

  7. TU...AD,

    I didn't really expect him to read it. I pointed it out to him to shame him for his very crappy hermeneutical not-skills. A little irony never hurt nobody. ;-)

  8. And let's give the man his due, though - he IS a professor, not a "professor". Unless you know sthg I don't know, let's not cast aspersions on his credentials.


  9. Dear Rhology,

    My quoted "Professor" with regards to McGrath had nothing to do with his academic title. Rather, it was in reference to him being someone who professes Christ, but who is not a genuine disciple and follower of the risen and living Christ.

    My apologies for not being as clear as I was before when I identified him as a wolf-apostate.

  10. [Repost from "Trapped in the Matrix" thread]

    Roger Pearse: "Listening to a wolf complaining that the sheep won't let him in is a curious experience, isn't it?"

    Steve Hays: "Moreover, you’re the one who’s trying to harm the cause of Christ. You’re a typical, militant apostate. Having lost your faith, you mission in life is now to undermine the faith of others."

    Steve Hays from the The Last Puritan thread: "But when he becomes a proselytizer, then I’ll disabuse him of his pretty illusions. Christians play for keeps.

    Apostasy is Good Friday without the prospect of Easter. McGrath denies the empty tomb. And by denying the empty tomb, he entombs us all."
    Here is a good graphic that's posted by Justin Taylor in reference to emergent Tony Jones that's arguably just as applicable to Professor James F. McGrath; it's a graphic of a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing.
    JT's blogpost title is "The Implications of This Must Not Be Evaded."

  11. Steve Hays: "McGrath is not a doubter. McGrath is a disbeliever. Far from being doubtful, McGrath exhibits a high degree of certainty when it comes to disbelieving the miraculous elements of the Bible. This is another example of his duplicity. He casts himself in the role of an honest doubter when, in fact, he’s a doctrinaire unbeliever."

    McGrath, not surprisingly, disagrees in his post: Easter Sunday School:

    "Let me just conclude by emphasizing the difference between uncertainty and what Christians sometimes refer to as "unbelief". The latter represents a refusal to believe something or someone no matter what evidence is presented, and I think it is safe to say that Christians are no less guilty of such an attitude than non-Christians. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is what often happens when you abandon unbelief, when you stop stubbornly assuming that you are always right, and open your views to be challenged (and hopefully in the process improved) by wise advice, by evidence, by reality. The sad part is that unbelief passes for faith in some Christian circles."

    With regards to my wolf-apostate identification of James McGrath, I note what he writes here:

    "In my Sunday school class..." which he teaches.

  12. Steve Hays: "He casts himself in the role of an honest doubter when, in fact, he’s a doctrinaire unbeliever."James McGrath offers up a unique defense which I have never seen before in the comment thread of his post Self-Critical Faith:

    "I wouldn't say I "reject" the virgin birth and the resurrection as a physical event. What I would say is that I do not find myself able, based on the evidence, to feel confident that either represents a historical fact. I've given the reasons in other posts and so won't repeat them here (although I'd be happy to upon request, if finding older posts on this subject is a hassle and you are wondering why I view things this way). And so the challenge for me lately has been what I ought to say as a Christian who doesn't find it possible to affirm a virgin birth or physical resurrection with confidence based on historical investigation, and who equally does not feel that he can bypass historical methods and say "Jesus must have been raised in a physical body, because I've had this life-changing experience".

    What I've found is that there seem to be other Christians, including in the earliest church, who were able to affirm their Christian faith without these components. The Gospels of Mark and John don't mention a virginal conception. Mark doesn't mention resurrection appearances, and neither Mark nor Matthew claims that the Easter experiences were physical in nature. Paul never mentions the virgin birth, and says that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God".

    I could go on. But my point is that it does seem to me that it is possible to be a Christian and not affirm these doctrines. It is not that I deny them on principle. It is simply that I don't feel that I have any way to confirm them, and must figure out what it means to be a Christian when I cannot prove these things, and what it is I am to proclaim as a Christian in this circumstance.

    Is there a danger of dilution of Christianity in my standpoint? It is absolutely a peril, one that has always been there. When I interact with, and sometimes learn from, other religious traditions, philosophies and the natural sciences, it is not clear that I'm doing something fundamentally different than the early church did with respect to Platonism, or the medieval church with respect to Aristotle."

  13. Rhology said:

    "I've been having an enlightening conversation with him as well. Just for your edification."

    Enlightened and edified are not what I think of when I read through your conversation with Professor McGrath.

    Eg. "But the truth of the matter is that, when conservative Christians [like Rhology] choose to quote the Bible about homosexuality or some other issue, but ignore its teachings about wealth and social justice, and then object that "you cannot set yourself up as an authority over the Bible", they [like Rhology] are deceiving themselves and often others."

    Rhology, are you deceiving yourself and others because of your selective reading of Scripture coupled with your use of the objection to McGrath (and others) that "you cannot set yourself up as an authority over the Bible"?


  14. Of course, Rhology is just another blinkered and benighted fundy like I am. We're too blinded by our fideism to share in McGrath's enlightenment.

  15. Steve said: "Of course, Rhology is just another blinkered and benighted fundy like I am."

    I guess blinkered and benighted fundies just don't understand McGrath when he says "But my point is that it does seem to me that it is possible to be a Christian and not affirm these doctrines [Virgin Birth and the Resurrection]."

    IMO, McGrath is a much more dangerous apostate than Bart Ehrman and John Loftus. At least those two apostates don't proclaim themselves as Christians and teach Sunday School at a Baptist Church like McGrath does.

    Furthermore, I don't see how Professor McGrath can honestly be a member of Crooked Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis. Their official formal statement of beliefs state:

    "... we hold the following beliefs as essential to our faith and practice.

    Christ: First and foremost, we believe that God sent His one and only Son, Jesus Christ, to dwell among us in human form, that he died on a cross as a sacrifice for our sin, and on the third day rose from the dead (Luke 23 & 24; Matthew 27 & 28). We believe that we receive Eternal Life when we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Master of our lives and that He is alive in us today. (John 3:16, 17, 36 and Galatians 2:20). He is our assurance of life with God after death (1 John 5:11-12).

    The Bible: The Scriptures are our only written authority. We believe these sacred writings are God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16) and essential for establishing a vital Christian faith. No other writing before or since equals God's Word in revealing His truth and love to us."


    We have Crooked Creek's Statement of Beliefs and we also have McGrath saying that he doesn't affirm the physical, historical, factual resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    And McGrath teaches Sunday School. Does the senior pastor or the board of deacons or elders or whoever's in charge of the spiritual care, feeding, and protection of the flock at Crooked Creek Baptist Church even know or care that Professor James F. McGrath does not honestly uphold their church's Statement of Beliefs and is teaching a Sunday School class?

    And if they do know about McGrath, and yet still permit him to continue, are they then not morally culpable for aiding and abetting any spiritual damage done to the Crooked Creek Baptist flock, not to mention the spiritual damage being done to McGrath's own soul?

    These are serious matters.

  16. Ooops, I forgot to write in this italicized part in my comment above:

    "I guess blinkered and benighted fundies like myself just don't understand McGrath...".

  17. TUAD, Will you send me a quick email, please?

  18. Dear Rhology,

    I don't have Outlook configured on my computer, otherwise I would send you an e-mail.

    My e-mail address is