Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Chucking the OT

I'm going to comment on a recent response that Craig gave to a questioner:

When people ask me what unanswered questions I still have, I tell them, “I don’t know what to do with these Old Testament stories about Noah and the ark, the Tower of Babel, and so on.” So I find myself in the same boat as you, Jon. I don’t have any good answer how to resolve these problems. Yet these unanswered difficulties have not kept me from Christian faith or from abandoning Christian faith. Why not?

In one sense there's not much to say by way of response because Craig doesn't specify what in particular he finds problematic about these OT "stories". There is, though, a self-reinforcing factor in his attitude. Because he doesn't feel the need to take them seriously, because they're expendable for him, he hasn't made much effort to work through the perceived problems. 

Well, a large part of the reason, as you note, is that the truth of what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” doesn’t stand or fall with such questions. “Mere Christianity” denotes those central truths of a Christian worldview. 

Although I think there might be some value in "mere Christianity" as a preliminary apologetic overture, mere Christianity is an artificial construct. A man-made sample. It's like the Jesus of scholars who presume to give us their reconstruction of what Jesus was "really" like. Christianity is not in the first instance a set of central truths but a set of central events. Events freighted with theological significance. Events leading up to Jesus, including OT history, as well as the conception and calling of John the Baptist. Then the life, death, resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. As well as apostles and prophets whom he and the Holy Spirit raised up to interpret the events and disseminate the Gospel. It doesn't begin with ideas, but with divine action in history. The truths need to track the events. Truths grounded in events. Events that include divine revelation. That's Christianity in real space and time, as God reveals it through people and events. Not a freeze-dried abstract. 

If a person believes that God exists and raised Jesus from the dead in vindication of his allegedly blasphemous personal clams, then one ought to be a Christian, and the rest is details, a matter of in-house debate among Christians. 

So the historical narratives of the OT are merely a detail–a dispensable detail? The history of God's dealings with Israel is just a dispensable detail? The prophetic oracles of the OT are just detail–a dispensable detail? Whether or not God raised up prophets who foresaw the messiah is just a dispensable detail? We can uncouple the NT train from the OT train and leave it behind while we ride off into the sunset? Is that what Craig means? He's so cavalier. 

Questions about the historical reliability of these ancient Jewish texts just has [sic] no direct bearing on whether God exists…

It has direct bearing on whether Yahweh exists. On whether God is a God who acted in world history and ancient Near Eastern history. A God who spoke to and through the prophets of Israel. 

…or Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. 

What God raised Jesus from the dead if not Yahweh? You know, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That God. And the God of patriarchal history is supposed to be continuous with the God of prediluvial history. Take the heraldic allusion to the creation account in the prologue to John. The light and darkness motif in Jn 1 hearkens back to the light and darkness motif in Gen 1. The God who made the world now enters the world stage he made. Just as the Creator in Genesis is the light-giver the life-giver, Jesus is the light-giver the life-giver.

Can you imagine any historian denying the historicity of some event in the Gospels because, say, the story of the Tower of Babel is a myth?

Actually, I can. It's hardly uncommon to see critics dismiss the Gospel narratives because they betray the same supernatural outlook as the OT. The same "mythological," "superstitious" outlook as the OT. Angels, demons, miracles, exorcisms. Heavenly beings "coming down" from the sky and going back "up" to God's celestial abode in the clouds. Wasn't that Bultman's argument?  

The most important move you make dialectically is exploiting the Christological implications of rejecting the historicity of the problematic Old Testament narratives. Your claim is that since Jesus evidently believed in the historicity of these stories, then if we allow that these narratives are not historical, we allow that Christ has erred. But what are the Christological implications of that? Now that’s a really good question which theologians need to explore! 

Craig acts like that's virgin territory. But this has been going on since Schleiermacher, give or take. There are two stock alternatives. One is appeal to accommodation. Jesus is speaking ad hominem. 

Now, there's no doubt that Jesus and other Bible writers sometimes respond to people on their own terms. And you can play along with a falsehood to disprove it. But that's very different than deriving a conclusion from a false premise that you expect the listener to treat as a true conclusion. 

The other is kenosis. And Craig toys with that:

Did Jesus hold false beliefs in his human consciousness? Did he think the sun goes around the Earth? Did he think the Earth was at the center of the universe? Did he think there were any stars beyond those we can see at night? I’m not going to try to answer those questions, but I think they’re worth asking. Did God stoop so low in condescending to become a man that he took on such cognitive limitations that Jesus shared false beliefs typically held by other ordinary first century Jews? Since I have good reason to believe in his deity, as explained above, I would sooner admit that Jesus could hold false beliefs (that ultimately don’t matter) rather than deny his divinity. Rather than impose on him our a priori conceptions of what divinity implies, we need to be open to learning from the Gospels what the incarnation entailed.

Several problems with that response:

i) Isn't this explanation nonsensical given Craig's admittedly Apollinarian Christology? On Craig's view, Christ's consciousness was nothing more or less than pure divine consciousness. 

It seems you’re not familiar with my proposed neo-Apollinarian Christology in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. It was crafted precisely because I think the usual model tends to Nestorianism for the reasons you mention. On the traditional model the human soul of Christ is not a person, which I find baffling. On my model the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the soul of Jesus Christ. By taking on a human body the Logos completed the human nature of Christ, making him a body/soul composite. So Christ has two complete natures, divine and human. 

ii) Although humans are normally fallible, that's only true where unaided reason is concerned. Even a mere human being can be infallible if God protects him from error. Therefore, it doesn't follow, even in reference to Christ's human nature, that he had to be fallible. 

iii) In addition, there's the question of whether the hypostatic union protected his human nature from error. Even if his human nature was fallible, it wasn't autonomous. His human nature was always under the control of his divine nature. In a union between divine and human, the human will be subordinate to the divine. Even if the human nature entertained false beliefs, it's not as if the human nature acted independently of the divine nature, to which it was linked. Not like multiple-personality disorder where one personality surfaces, then says and does things at variance with the sublimated personality. 

v) The real question concerns the teaching of Christ. For instance, God might allow a prophet to entertain false beliefs. That by itself leads no one astray. If, however, a prophet is speaking in God's name, then it does matter whether his statements are true or false. And a fortiori, that surely applies in the greater case of Christ. 

In any case, I don’t feel pushed that far yet. 

That far yet. Craig has made statements in the past few years that indicate that he's drifting leftward. Maybe that's because he's retirement age, so he can now collect a pension.  

I think the texts you cite for showing that Jesus held false beliefs about the Old Testament are fairly weak. Mark 10.6–9; Matthew 19.4-5, for example, are just quotations from Genesis about the purpose for which God created man and woman. Making such a theological point in no way commits one to the historicity of the narrative. 

Talk about a false dichotomy! How does the theological point survive if the very rationale that Jesus gives is bogus? Christ is grounding his position on marriage and divorce in the history of divine action. But if that's not how it happened, how does his point still stand? 

Moreover, his audience would inevitably assume that he took the historicity of the narrative for granted. Did Jesus privately deny it, but pretend that it was factual in public? Is that what Craig is suggesting? 

So your only example of any force is Luke 17:26-7, where Jesus says, “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them.” But this reference, like Jesus’ reference to Jonah, is compatible with citing a story to make one’s point. I might say to someone “Just as Robinson Crusoe had his man Friday to assist him, so I have my wife Jan to help me,” without thinking to commit myself to the historicity of Robinson Crusoe!

That's a blatantly disanalogous comparison. Robinson Crusoe is intentionally fictional. The reader already knows that. Ironically, Craig's comparison is only persuasive because the fictional genre of Robinson Crusoe is agreed upon. But that's surely not how Christ's Jewish audience viewed the Pentateuch. Or Matthew's implied reader. 

We seem to have New Testament examples of this phenomenon. For example, Jude 9 mentions an incident in The Assumption of Moses, an apocryphal work which was never part of the Jewish canon of Scripture. 

i) If, for the sake of argument, it came down to a forced option between the inerrancy of Scripture and the canonicity of Jude, why does Craig think the inerrancy of Scripture as a whole is expendable to preserve the canonicity of one rather marginal book? If push came to show, why not say it was a mistake for the church to include Jude in the canon rather than to say the Bible was mistaken?

I'm not saying that's the actual choice which confronts us. I'm just questioning Craig's priorities, on his own grounds. If he's going to promote a mere Christianity about central truths, why not a mere canon of central books? If Jude is less well-attested than other NT books, and if Jude is theologically peripheral compared to the Gospels or Pauline Epistles or Hebrews or 1 John or Revelation, why sacrifice the inspiration of 65 books for the canonicity of one additional book? Again, I'm not saying we have to make that choice. 

ii) Fact is, we don't know for sure why Jude cites an apocryphal work. Jude is one page long. Due to its extreme brevity, Jude has almost no context. Commentators strain to divine the audience, the opponents, the occasion, sitz-em-leben. That's very difficult and very uncertain when we have so little to go on. So few clues to work with. 

1 Timothy 3:8 makes a comparison to a couple of characters named in Jewish targums, Dead Seas scrolls, and rabbinic traditions, which were similarly never part of the Jewish canon. Such comparisons do not commit the authors to the historicity of the characters or events. 

Jewish tradition invented names for the Egyptian sorcerers. That's simply for ease of reference. It's useful to have something to call them, the way churchmen invented a name for the rich man (Dives) in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man. That's hardly comparable to relegating OT narratives to legend, myth, or pious fiction. 

We may have something similar in Romans 5.7, where Paul says, “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.” Simon Gathercole, a fine NewTestament scholar, points out that Paul is appealing to a common motif in Greco-Roman culture of someone’s stepping forward to die in the place of another. The most famous example in antiquity was Alcestis in Euripides’ play by that name, who volunteered to die in the place of her husband King Admetus. Alcestis was celebrated for centuries, and her name is to be found even in epitaphs on Christian graves. Gathercole thinks that in Roman 5.7 Paul may actually be thinking of Alcestis. He says, in effect, “Alcestis was willing to die for her beloved husband, but Christ died for his enemies.” So saying would not commit Paul to the historicity of this purely literary figure!

It's just a proverbial truism. That's very different from historical narratives. 

In any case, how can we be sure that the Old Testament stories are false? 

Wow. That's a ringing endorsement! 

Several years ago, an article caught my eye about two secular geophysicists who think that the flood of Noah could have been a catastrophic, local event caused when the Bosporus straits, which were formerly closed, opened up, causing the Mediterranean Sea to spill through and create what is today the Black Sea! I never cared to look into it because, as explained above, I just don’t think it matters much. But maybe something of the sort really happened.

His attitude is completely out of alignment with the Jewish milieu of the NT. With their reverence for the OT scriptures.

The great literature of the world shows us that works which are non-historical, like the plays of Shakespeare or the novels of Dostoyevsky or the fables of Aesop, have important truths to teach us. 

Although fiction can be enlightening or edifying, it's useless in a personal crisis because you know it isn't real, so it gives you no encouragement regarding the future. 

I accept historicity as a sort of default position. But I have an open mind. 

There's no virtue in having an open mind for its own sake. There's no virtue in having an open mind about everything. Indeed, a Christian is not supposed to have a perpetually open mind, but a made-up mind. He can remain open-minded about some things, of course. But not about biblical revelation. 


  1. Well, regarding the Tower of Babel, that event is an excellent prefiguring of Roman Catholic apologetics.

  2. Thanks for this analysis. Good answer to Rom. 5:7 also.