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.
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?