Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Skin-deep faith

I'll comment on a post by Arminian theologian Randal Rauser:

When I was growing up, I learned to read biblical narratives as historically reliable accounts of past events. Whether the issue was the death and resurrection of Jesus, the curious maritime journey of Jonah, the Exodus from Egypt, Samson’s killing a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass, or Adam and Eve talking to a serpent in the Garden of Eden, all these stories were accepted with equal conviction as accurate accounts of past events.

Unlike Rauser, I attended mainline denominations as a child, so I never had that point of contrast. I moved right while Rauser moved left. 

Then I went to university and that “historicity assumption” began to be eroded. 

Such a cliche. How many times have we seen that rerun? 

The erosion began with the details. For example, Exodus 12:37-38 describes the Israelite Exodus as “about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children.” Altogether, the total number would have been close to two million people. But there is no archaeological evidence in ancient Egypt for a demographic shift on this extraordinary scale.

It would help if Rauser bothered to stay abreast of evangelical scholarship. For instance:

Next, there was the matter of dating texts. For example, while I was raised to believe Moses wrote the Torah, I soon discovered that scholars believe the Torah reached final form around the time of the Exile, perhaps eight hundred years after the Exodus. To be sure, these texts would have been based on earlier writings and abundant oral tradition. Nonetheless, the question needs to be asked: how reliable should we consider an eight-hundred-year transmission process?

i) That illustrates the problem of only listening to one side of the argument.

ii) And even if we grant the interval, notice how inspiration doesn't figure in Rauser's assessment. 

Third, there were the scientific considerations. This factor was most obvious when it came to the familiar bedrock narratives of Genesis beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden. How would one reconcile these narratives with the scientific account of earth history? And what about Noah and the global flood? On that point, I soon discovered scholars who insisted that the flood was local. And other scholars attempted to reconcile Adam and Eve with a dizzyingly old earth by suggesting they lived perhaps fifty thousand years ago. But were these narratives, now reread in such a way as to correspond to scientific data, still the same stories? Or had well-intentioned revisions turned them into something different altogether?

Of course, his questions can't be answered in the abstract. Depends on the quality of the exegesis. 

Finally, my historicity assumptions were challenged by literary considerations. The sharpest challenge came with isolated stories like Job and Jonah and Esther. Was there a Job at all? Or was this writing simply a profound poetic-literary exploration of the enduring problem of evil and suffering? Did it miss the point altogether to insist that Job must be a historical person for the book of Job to have authority as an inspired text?

i) How does the genre of Esther differ from Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, &c.? 

ii) Do some scholars classify Jonah as fiction because it clearly belongs to a fictional genre, or do they assign it to a fictional genre because they think the content is fictional? Isn't there circularity in that classification? Because they find it unbelievable, they (re-)classify the book as fiction.

iii) As for Job, in Scripture we have examples where a historical event (indeed, the same historical event) is described in two different ways: a prosaic account as well as a poetic account. Exod 14-15 is a good example. Why not understand Job as a poetic rendering of a historical incident, like Exod 15 in relation to Exod 14? 

iv) In theory, Job could be authoritative even if the characters are fictional. But if Job wasn't a real person who made it through a real ordeal, how is that supposed to encourage Christians in crisis? 

Regarding theological centrality, read the classic creeds (Apostles', Nicene, etc.). That's at the heart of Christian belief.

No, the heart of Christian belief is biblical revelation. 

I believe that there are excellent historical (and theological) reasons to accept the atoning death and historical resurrection of Jesus. But that same degree of historical evidence and theological importance does not apply to many other narratives in Scripture. To put it bluntly, who can seriously insist that Samson’s killing of a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass is as well attested historically and as theologically central as the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus? And if we agree that it isn’t, then why not apportion our belief in various narratives to their theological importance and supporting evidence?

I pointed out that Christians ought to apportion belief and conviction to theological importance and independent corroborative evidence unless they have some overriding reason not to.

i) How would Rauser ever witness to an Orthodox Jew? 

ii) Importance and centrality are irrelevant to whether something is factual. The death of close relatives is more important and central to me than the death of my school teachers (K-12), but does that mean that if I read an obituary about one of my old school teachers, I should have less belief/conviction about that report than the death of a close relative? 

iii) Notice that Rauser doesn't treat the biblical record as having evidentiary value in its own right. 

iv) Even from an evidentialist standpoint, it's flawed reasoning to think you need corroboration for every claim a source makes. Rather, you need sufficient corroboration to demonstrate that the source is trustworthy.

v) Moreover, historical evidence is not the only pertinent line of evidence. Christianity is a living religion. The Bible makes promises. Many Christians experience the promises of Scripture in providential or miraculous ways. Some cases are more dramatic than others. And Christians whose experience is more mundane can be encouraged by the witness of other Christians. It's not confined to evidence from and for the past. Every Christian generation has new evidence that God's promises are true.  

vi) If we apply Rauser's prescription consistently, that means a Christian ought to suspend belief in Scripture, then go through the Bible from start to finish, sentence by sentence, with a set of colored highlighters, to probabilify each individual sentence (or clause) according to a graded ranking system. The default position at the outset of the process is total agnosticism. Comprehensive skepticism. 

It would then be necessary for Scripture to prove itself to you, sentence by sentence, insofar as you can match individual claims in Scripture with independent corroborative evidence. A systematic presumption that nothing in Scripture merits belief. A presumption that can only be overcome in those random cases where corroborative evidence has survived, been discovered, and published.  Rauser's Bible is a color-coded edition, in which the reader constantly oscillates between belief and disbelief, from one sentence to the next, according to the grade each sentence (or clause) receives. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm rather struck by his seeming to classify Esther with Job. That's just...weird. One of the most striking things about Esther is its historical tie-down in the existence of Xerxes, her husband. IIRC, Dorothy Sayers has an essay in which she makes a big deal about her sudden realization that Xerxes, whom she knows of from secular history, is in the Bible. But one of the most striking things about Job is that nobody knows where the land of Uz is and that it has no other strong historical tie-downs and that this *might* (might) be an indication that the book was not intended to be taken as historical.