Enjoy the podcast:
I don’t understand it, and neither do you
The last blog was a bit of an experiment as I wanted to see how much ground I could give to the Christian and still make my case. However, you must understand that I really do not give up any of that ground. And I will be taking it back for the remainder of the series.
In this part, I turn from the philosophical to the practical. Even if I wanted to take the bible seriously, I couldn’t get very far with it. That is because I don’t understand it, and neither do you, or anyone else for that matter.
As an academic endeavor, understanding the bible is hopeless. Don’t take my word for it. Just ask all the scholars who have devoted their lives to understanding some part of it. Note how little agreement they have with other scholars who have done the same. If those scholars cannot master their area of expertise, you are even less equipped to do so.
Christians cannot agree on the most basic propositions central to the religion. They are using the same sacred texts, hearing from the same indwelling spirit, and possess the same measure of sincerity and faith. Yet on the following topics, cannot agree on what the bible actually says and means:
Is hell a real place? Jesus said it was a place prepared for the devil and his angels. But other Christians say it is a state of mind rather than a place. Others say it is a state of being. According to Pew Research, only about 2/3 of religious people believe in hell. That means 1 in 3 people reading the bible find no reason to believe in hell. Many of those people are scholars and clerics. If they can’t figure out what the bible says about hell, what makes you think you can?
Homosexuality – When I was a kid, homosexuality was an abomination to god. As far as I knew, all Christians were in agreement on this straightforward moral claim. According to Pew Research, the majority of Christians now believe there is nothing wrong with homosexuality. It is clearly not as straightforward as I once believed.
YEC – Young earth creationism is the idea that god created humans mostly as we are today all at once, and in the last 6,000 to 10,000 years. Gallup indicates that 39% of Americans believe this to be the case. Eliminate the non-Christians and that number is likely to go up. Many Christians deny that YECs make up a significant percentage of Christianity. They are clearly wrong. At the time of this writing, I am making arrangements for a YEC to be on my podcast, Skeptics and Seekers. He sought me out, not the other way around.
These three issues represent major doctrine, morality, and foundational truth claims about nature. In the denomination I grew up in, these were salvific issues. Dale would likely say these issues are inconsequential. But there is even disagreement about that.
Further, these are not the only doctrinal, ethical, or nature issues over which Christian opinion is hopelessly divided. But there is more to the problem than failure to understand the content. We don’t even agree on what type of content it is.
Word of God
We cannot hope to understand the meaning of the content before we get a grip on its nature. The most basic question one can ask about the bible is one that probes what it is. Some say the bible is the word of god, inspired by god, written by god, preserved by god, transmitted by god, and ultimately, interpreted by god.
Others would say that the bible is the word of men inspired by their understanding of the world, fact-checked and preserved by no one. Still others take a little from column A and a little from column B. I don’t want to jump into hermeneutics (techniques of interpretation0 just yet. But I just want to point out that we have no hope of interpreting the text if we can’t decide who it is from and who it is to.
There is also the matter os determining what the bible is for. Some say it is just to help us make sense of existential and ethical issues we face in life. Some say it is to help us come to a satisfying relationship with god. And others say the only purpose is to save as many souls from hell as possible. That one is a bit awkward since a significant number of Christians don’t even believe in hell.
By inspiration of God
Because my word count has caught up with me, I will cut it off at this point: Inspiration of god has become the get out of jail free card for Christians trying to explain the nature of the Bible. They can’t explain it in sensible terms. So they resort to this very spiritual sounding phrase that, itself, comes from the Bible. Ironically, it is just more Christian speak that means nothing in the real world.
Dale and I will surely talk about this more in the podcast. So listen out for that. In closing, I will just say that the Bible is even more impossible to understand than I have laid out here. If I write a book of fiction clearly marked as fiction, and placed in the fiction section of the library, you have a pretty good chance of understanding and appreciating what you are reading. Easy.
Let’s complicate the issue by taking that same book of fiction and marking it as history. Now, you find it in the history section. You will instantly be confused by what you read. We can make things even worse. Take the same book and confuse the authorship. Let’s further say I am merely chandelling aliens from another planet, or wisdom from beyond the pale veil. Now what?
You will read a passage that narrates an event that is literally impossible. That is not a problem in fiction written by me. But If I were just channeling an omni-dimensional being with knowledge and abilities that defied your understanding of impossible, you wouldn’t know what to make of the passage. The bible is an even worse book than what I just described. Not only don’t you understand any part of it, you can’t. You literally can’t understand it.
And that’s the view from the skeptic.
Why Care About the Bible (Part 2)- Christian View
The argument from biblical confusion, is one of the most persuasive skeptical arguments against Christianity, I think it is one of the most difficult objections to deal with and as such I want to give it the full credence it deserves. I myself, as a Christian, have experienced instances of confusion or have occasionally found it difficult to understand the truth about a certain doctrine or commandment in the Bible; for crying out loud even the Apostle Peter himself (or at least an inspired writer of Holy Scripture) admitted, “His Paul’s letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16).
So, Christians can hardly blame non-Christians (being completely devoid of the guidance of the Holy Spirit) for being confused at times- I can understand why skeptics might feel the task of coming to unanimous understanding of everything in the Bible is a rather hopeless task.
But I want to say, don’t give up hope! God is not the author of confusion and doesn’t want his flock to be deceived or fall into error, there are some helpful hermeneutical principles which I think can help address this issue.
The Inspired Word of God
The first thing to do is to define what Christians mean by saying that the Bible is “inspired” and to recognize that this is different than the notions of “infallibility” and/or “inerrancy” of the Bible. Now, an important misunderstanding that comes up is that the Bible doesn’t claim the authors of Scripture themselves were inspired but that the end product of Scripture is inspired; so inspiration is a property of the text not the authors of the text (though this is not to exclude the possibility that the authors themselves could also have been “inspired” in some way as well, just as the OT prophets and Apostles were claimed to be inspired in various ways).
There are various aspects to the doctrine of “inspiration” as well that one should be aware of; Scriptural inspiration is said to be, i) “plenary” (meaning the entirety of Scripture as a whole has this property- it speaks to the breadth of inspiration), ii) “verbal” in that the very words themselves are said to be inspired (the depth of inspiration), and iii) “confluent”- in that it is the product of both human and divine efforts. Note that these aspects of inspiration extend to more than just the philosophical informational content of the text, but to the actual “sentential” content of Scripture- down to its very words. This is why the preservation of Scripture is a very important issue as one should aspire to getting as close as possible to the very words used in the original autographs whenever possible.
What might a helpful model of inspiration look like which includes all 3 of these aspects of the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture? Well Molonistically speaking, through God’s Middle Knowledge, He would know in advance what every human biblical author would freely choose to write of their own freewill in every given set of circumstances and then He could then set up the desired set of circumstances via His creating a specific logically possible world vs. another one; a world in which the specific books He wanted to be considered Scripture would come to be known as Holy Scripture. So, God knew in advance what words would be freely written (plenary and verbal inspiration) but at the same time as he didn’t dictate those words to the human authors then this allows for the confluency of Scripture as well- each human author freely choose the words that they wrote down (in general unless quoting something, etc.); this notion is called a “supervisory” model of biblical inspiration.
At this point the issue of the preservation of those original words is an entirely separate yet related issue. Now, I don’t believe that the inspired words of the original autographs have been preserved perfectly in every Biblical manuscript and/or translation of it; and yet, through the “Textual Tenacity Argument” (see James White debate in the sources), I think we can be fairly confident today that we can reconstruct the vast majority of the original NT and know what words were used. However, while this type of argument is sufficient to resolve many confusing verses today (as we readily have access to scholarship and Bible versions online), I don’t think that appealing to modern scholarship can get Christians completely “off-the-hook” with regard to all the potentially confusing Bible passages, after all all back in the 1700’s the only thing available was the KJV in English. A such, God is obligated to provide the means for resolving or handling any areas of “undue confusion” which may be said to exist in the KJV specifically as well as for any other translations in similar circumstances.
God is NOT the Author of “Undue” Confusion
Finally, as to the specific issues, I don’t have room to get into them here, but suffice it to say that I don’t find them to be too problematic to be honest, though that is merely the case with regard to the examples mentioned by the skeptic and I could easily point out a couple of my own areas of confusion in the Bible instead.
My notion here is that God cannot be guilty of allowing for areas of “undue confusion” in the Bible (not this is a qualified form of simple confusion, as that is inevitable for any book, even a divinely inspired one). I define “undue confusion” as any confusion that obtains within a “reasonable person” (legal definition- average person with average intelligence and knowledge after doing an average amount of due diligence, etc.) which would “unnecessarily/unjustifiably” hinder them from achieving their salvation. Only in this type of scenario can one blame God.
So, let’s say I want to know whether a woman can be a preacher or not, but I’m confused between two apparently contradictory passages. Further, for brevity sake, let us suppose that I’ve done everything in my power to resolve the apparent discrepancy by consulting all my available avenues of knowledge (i.e. fulfilled my due diligence aspect), but yet I still come up confused- isn’t God to blame for this?
Well, no I don’t think so. Think about it for a second, even in this worst case scenario where we can’t find a resolution to our issue, God has provided us an obvious means to know what to do; if it appears to be an unresolvable contradiction then Christian should simply refrain from making any dogmatic judgements one way or another about it until they learn which of the options is in fact correct at a later time; here I would follow my own moral conscience the moral principles of autonomy and justice and not refrain a women from teaching unless and until I gain clarification on the verses in question.
To my mind, Christians often get into a quandary by desperately feeling they need to take a firm position on something unclear in Scripture and then becoming dogmatically entrenched into that position. In these types of situations I think a little patience goes a long way; if you continue to remain open to learning the truth about the matter in question, then the answers will be forth coming in due time and if not, well then it doesn’t matter either way in terms of your achieving salvation or else God would be responsible for causing “undue confusion” (which is logically impossible for a morally perfect God to do in the first place). Hence, after exhausting all of one’s epistemic resources to come to a proper understanding of some difficult Bible verse, if no clarity or progress can be achieved, then “sit tight”, God will reveal the answer to you either in this life or the next 😊
And that’s the take of the Seeker/Christian.
Recommended Sources (for further study):
a) https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3-doctrine-of-revelation/ – see Parts #4-7 of William Lane Craig’s class Biblical Inspiration (also covered is the canonicity, inerrancy, etc. in other parts of the series).
b) Videos of the above source = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8QV3vv3ZU (Part 4), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-FXDBWILKQ (Part 5), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-B0R5kBFE3w (Part 6) & finally = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4He2PV53RWo (Part 7).
c) James White debate with Bart Ehrman on the “Textual Tenacity” of the Biblical texts (how God has preserved his perfect original NT autograph into the modern world) = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moHInA9fAsI & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2Mp4v8VQwQ .