Non-Christian historian Bart Ehrman attended a Christian apologetics conference

Are we allowed to look at the Bible as a historical document?
Are we allowed to look at the Bible as a historical document?

My summaries of Bart Ehrman’s debates mock him for being a rigid Moody Bible Institute fundamentalist whose blind faith was shattered by 1) minor Bible difficulties, 2) disappointment that God allows good people to suffer, 3) wanting to look smart to his professors, and 4) the desire to make lots of money selling apostasy porn to the New York Times set. But maybe he is not as bad as I thought.

Consider this blog post in which Ehrman reports on his experiences at a recent apologetics conference, where he met with a few of the more effective and engaging evangelical scholars.

He writes:

I spent yesterday at a conservative evangelical apologetics conference outside of Chicago and, as you might imagine, I was the odd person out. But I was very well received, people were overwhelmingly gracious and receptive and openly grateful that I had come. There were jokes about being thrown into the lions’ den, but it didn’t really feel like it. It felt like I was speaking to a crowd that wanted to hear, respected what I said, and simply fundamentally disagreed. In particular there was a group of current Moody Bible Institute students there; really interesting, interested, and good humored, and we had a great time together.

What I was most interested in was how Christian apologetics – the intelligent “defense” of the claims of the faith – has changed in the many years since I was involved in the movement, shifted in ways I never would have imagined, very much away from our old fundamentalist assumptions and assertions into a far more reasonable and intellectually sustainable form of discourse that requires actual research and knowledge rather than hard-core theological assertion based on completely dubious premises.

[…]The issue at the conference were the “Contradictions” in the New Testament. How does one deal with apparent or real contradictions and still remain committed to an evangelical view of Scripture as inspired by God and in some sense “inerrant”?

[…]The discussions yesterday (well, most of them) were at a much, much higher academic/intellectual level than ones I’ve had, say, during a recent debate on the blog. I think some of the positions staked out yesterday were utterly, demonstrably, mind-bogglingly simply WRONG. But they were advanced with the kind of learning and historical knowledge that we simply didn’t see back in my apologetics days in the mid-1970s.

Roughly speaking I was hearing two positions, neither of them ones we were taught and advanced in the day (in my circles). One of the two strikes me as completely tenable, though again, only in a sense.

Our old position, back then, was that any contradiction in the New Testament Gospels (or the Bible, for that matter; but yesterday we were talking only about the Gospels) can in fact be reconciled if you look closely and deeply enough at the matter. ANY contradiction. To be sure, there may be places where you aren’t sure HOW to reconcile them, but in principle they are all reconcilable in one way or another.

And, as a corollary, everything the Bible says is literally true. There are no mistakes, of any kind, whatsoever, in the Bible.

[…]None of the three speakers yesterday has that view, even though they call the Bible inerrant and affirm that it is completely reliable. Their views strike me as odd – that they can admit there are, technically speaking, incorrect statements in the Bible but that it is still without error. But they consider my old view (no mistakes of any kind whatsoever) as a dated kind of fundamentalism that is simply not held by thinking Christians any more, and, even more interesting, that my objections to their views are rooted in fundamentalist views that I myself don’t accept but that I’m assuming in order to attack their alternative views. In other words, they think I’m kicking a dead horse.


And here are the two views that were presented:

One is indeed to “reconcile” them as best as possible; or, the term they appear to prefer, “harmonize” them: that is take the two texts that appear to contradict each other and show how they actually fit together, possibly in a complicated way, into a harmonized whole so that they round out and complement each other, rather than stand at odds with one another.

[…]The current view seems to be much more open to the possibility that there are places that we simply can’t figure it out, places that do appear to be contradictory. And here is the KICKER. When they (the evangelicals who take this view) admit there are apparent contradictions, then they say that the details are not important. What matters is the major message. The ultimate point. The big picture. The gist. The gist of what a passage is trying to teach is what is inspired and inerrant. Not the picayune details.

That is to say – a phrase you hear a lot in these circles – “the Bible is inerrant in what it affirms.” That is, it makes no mistakes in what what it is trying to teach.

So you might have a story in which Jesus heals someone, found, say, in both Matthew and Luke. There may be small contradictory details: in one he heals the person before he does this other thing, in the other he heals the person after he does the other thing. Small discrepancy. But the story is not trying to teach *when* Jesus did the miracle. It’s trying to teach that he did the miracle. And it is inerrant about that. He *did* do the miracle.

We never ever would have allowed that back in my days at Moody Bible Institute. But it’s becoming a thinking-person’s view among evangelicals who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, apparently.

But the other change – the second position – strikes me as even more significant, a real step toward traditional scholarship, which tries to explain WHY there are contradictions, and then goes on to say that since we know why they are there, they are not really contradictions.

The reason I am posting this is because we are facing a problem in the church, the problem of massive numbers of young people leaving Christianity:

Christianity continues to decline among U.S. adults as the number of adults identifying as “nothing in particular” increases, Pew Research Center found.

The number of American adults who describe themselves as Christian dropped 12 percentage points over the past decade and the number of both Protestants and Catholics in the U.S. has dropped, according to Pew Research data released Thursday.

Surveys Pew conducted over the phone between 2018 and 2019 found 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christian. Meanwhile, 26% of American adults identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” a number that increased from 17% in 2009.

“The data shows that the trend toward religious disaffiliation documented in the Center’s 2007 and 2014 Religious Landscape Studies, and before that in major national studies like the General Social Survey (GSS), has continued apace,” according to Pew.

I was recently at the National Conference on Christian Apologetics, where I saw a debate featuring Michael Licona. Licona is an informed historian who published a book with Oxford University Press about differences in the gospels and the genre of ancient biography.

A video of the debate is here:

Licona argues that ALL ancient authors used “compositional devices” such as “time compression”, which would explain the differences between the gospel accounts. These compositional devices are found in the works of other authors of that period. Most people I polled in the audience liked both debaters, but they thought that Mike Licona won. Licona also emphasized over and over, in his speech, how questions about contradictions, gospel authorship, etc. do not undermine the core of Christianity, which is the bodily resurrection of Jesus. This is important, because even questions about peripheral issues should not affect the core, which is on solid historical grounds.

I think Ehrman’s post shows why apologetics is important for having productive conversations with non-Christians about the Christian worldview. Remember what happened to Antony Flew when someone took the time to share the evidence for a cosmic beginning and fine-tuning and origin of life with him. Bye-bye atheism. This is how the world really works – evidence is important to finding truth. Evangelism works best when we use reason and evidence to make our case that the Christian worldview is true.

We are living in a time when belief in God has been boosted by significant discoveries in the realm of science: origin of the universe, fine-tuning, habitability, origin of life, Cambrian explosion, molecular machines, etc. We have amazing work coming out of philosophers of religion like Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, etc. And now we are seeing ground-breaking, high-quality work coming out of scholars like Richard Bauckham, N.T. Wright, Craig Keener, and Michael Licona. When is the church going to realize the importance of scholarly research for evangelism?

11 thoughts on “Non-Christian historian Bart Ehrman attended a Christian apologetics conference”

  1. I’m so incredibly happy that Bart Ehrman was treated with love and kindness at the conference. I would have pulled my hair out if people were mean to him.

    “When is the church going to realize the importance of scholarly research for evangelism?”

    This is what I’m trying to do with the very large congregation where I serve at. I see my main role in the body of Christ as popularizing the works of apologists so people are aware of the enormous amount of quality resources all things apologetics. It also gives people a venue to talk about their own doubts that they wouldn’t normally talk about.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Also, I believe that J. Warner Wallace said that while not everyone can be a “one million dollar apologist” like WLC. We can all be “one-dollar” apologists. My goal is to be a one-dollar apologist for the local church.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Me too! I wish we were welcomed by churches, because apologetics solves the real problem were facing. Even on social issues like feminism, socialism, sexual revolution, the answer is reasoning with evidence. Showing people how the world really works, and giving them an accurate view of things so they don’t have dadhed expectations and disappointments.


        1. Here’s the thing, I think it requires multiple approaches. Even the most reason-oriented of us is still at the base level an emotional creature. We can’t ignore one or the other in our approach to evangelism (though we all have our preferences and respond better when those are met). I know individuals that have come to the faith through a more “magic words” approach to them. And when it comes to those in the Calvinists/Reformed traditions, there’s really not a reason to go beyond this because it’s not free will that brings one to Christ but God’s direct action. However, for the rest of us crazy believers, there really isn’t a one-size fits all approach.

          Of course, seminaries are not doing a great job of balancing these things. My current program, the Evangelism class was a mix of relationship building (which is always a good thing for evangelism) and reliance on what essentially is a magic words approach (which made up the bulk of the course material). This is an incomplete approach to evangelism, particularly in a world where the default Western worldview is a somewhat emotional take on naturalism.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. High quality work is coming out of the scholars you mention. And I agree with you about who won that particular debate. I also agree that the church at large needs better regard for scholarly research. And not just for evangelism but for functioning as light and salt in society, combining grace and truth, loving God and people well, the Creator’s intentional prerogatives, and being lifelong learners e.g. discipleship as well.

    I also have significant theological-implication concerns with all of the scholars you list in your next to the last sentence. Sometimes it can seem like saying so puts one at risk of undermining appreciation for evangelical scholarship. To further complicate matters I also agreed more with the other debater on how he spoke of handling the harmonization of challenging passages.

    Lastly, I’m not confident that Ehrman’s issue with evangelical trust in Christ and Scripture (“game set match” if he only got the resurrection, or ‘reconciling’ passages versus ‘harmonizing’ them) or even his take on a what constitutes good scholarship, like those who speak of the ‘good’ climate change science, is really his deal-breaker issue. Nobody wants to be publicly ‘psychologized’ but from his public record on related subjects, my intuition leans toward his ‘deal-breaker’ being more in the category of theodicy and probably more specifically with the hiddenness of God at some critical point in his life.


    1. Yes, but that just means that we need to get him a more realistic view of God as not your cosmic butler. That might require him to read better scholarship on the problem of evil and divine hiddenness.

      I think the guy was not well prepared for real life by the Moody view of inerrancy and the Moody view of a mystical God who spekas through feelings and makes everything crazy that a believer wants to do work out somehow. God isn’t like that. You can do everything right and still get hurt. Just ask Jesus. We need to have a view of Christianity that makes suffering for doing right a normal part of the Christian life. And we need Christians to be more practical and wiser, instead of flying by the seat of their pants seeking fun and thrills.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Inerrancy?

    Suppose you wrote a term paper for a class. The instructor returned it to you with a lower grade. She said your content was better than any other: better research, better analysis, better organization, etc. However you misspelled a few words, so she gave you a ‘C.’

    You told her you’d done so much research and analysis you had to rush at the end to get it in by the deadline. You said an ‘A-‘ would be much more appropriate, since the content was so good, and the spelling errors had a negligible effect on that. But she wouldn’t change the grade.

    How would you feel about that? Perhaps that the instructor really didn’t much of a feel for what was really important?

    So what’s this have to do with inerrancy? Actually a lot. Let’s review some of the issues:

    * inerrancy only applies to original documents, which we don’t have and couldn’t identify even if we did

    * though mostly trivial, there are very many small variations in available manuscripts

    * our knowledge of cultural contexts thousands of years ago is incomplete

    * note “the meaning of this word is uncertain” and alternate translation footnotes in the NIV, which show translation difficulties

    * translations into modern languages are diverse; for example look up an individual verse at Bible Gateway and click the “in all English translations” link below to see how much variation there is in 50+ translations

    And here’s the real kicker: interpretation. There are no inspired interpretations that accompany the original texts. Hence denominations have significantly differing theologies, most supposedly based on essentially the same scriptures.

    God uses fallible human beings to preach the gospel, translate scriptures, write commentaries and develop theologies. They don’t always do it perfectly. So why is it a problem to admit the possibility that some human errors might have crept into even the original texts?

    I think I have a higher view of scripture. For me, the content is so powerful that it overwhelms any human errors from the reception of the original divine message all the way down the line. And despite the translation and other problems, it works for people who speak many different languages, at different times in history, with differing social status, etc. Ultimately it works for “whoever has ears to hear” even if there never were any 100% perfect original documents.


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