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There is no method of confirmation
In part two of this series, I opined that a good reason to stop caring about what the bible says is that no one truly understands it, nor can they. This is a different objection. But it picks up where that left off. Most Christians sincerely believe they do understand the most important parts of the bible. Still, they recognize that there are multiple views.
The problem is less about understanding a certain aspect of the bible, and more about confirming what one thinks they know in light of opposing views. Here is some more explanation for why this is a problem:
Breaking the tie
On a recent show in conversation with Natalie Collins, I laid out my case for why I believed the bible was not egalitarian with regard to women’s roles. Natalie was arguing the egalitarian position. After we both made our case, the one moderating the discussion at the time wanted to know what the method was for breaking the tie. After all, we both presented biblical cases for our position.
Personally, I don’t think it was a tie, or even close to a tie. Natalie ultimately agreed that when just considering the words of the bible, my case was far stronger. She went on to acknowledge that one couldn’t get to her position from scripture alone.
The reason Natalie continues to hold to her position is that she has a tie-breaker to which she has access, and no one else. She has an unfalsifiable, direct and private revelation from Jesus. That trumps the plain reading of the text every time.
To be fair, Natalie recognizes the problem. She knows that there is nothing that she can say or do to convince another person of the validity of her private revelation. She further insists that to see things exactly as she does, one would need a similar direct experience of Jesus. This is not how most people settle their doctrinal differences.
Since the protestant movement is dominated by the doctrine of sola scriptura (scripture alone), Christians tend to argue the soundness of their doctrine based on their understanding of what the bible actually says without making reference to a private revelation.
Of course, there lies the problem. If you can draw dueling doctrines from the bible, how does one go about breaking the tie? One person points out that in one part of the bible, a woman is not allowed to teach or usurp authority over a man. Yet another part calls a woman as being an apostle. Each debater believers they have an argument that effectively renders the other arguments moot. But there is actually no way to confirm one view over another.
When scientists disagree, they can set up experiments and do the math to see which idea actually works out. There is a builtin method of testing the claims and breaking the tie. The resolution to some disputes might have to wait several generations until technology provides for experiments not currently possible. But even if we have to wait for that resolution, it is possible to come by.
No such process exists in religion. The bible says what it says. One can try to invalidate the words of the bible. But that would be self-defeating. There is no committee to which one can appeal that serves as the authority for resolving biblical conflicts. There is no way to pray for a resolution to see which person is right. When two people dispute the meaning of scripture, they should both give up, as neither has a method for resolving it.
Avoiding confirmation bias
Confirmation bias is one of the most pernicious problems because it is literally us fooling ourselves into thinking we have performed an honest search for the truth. All of the sources we read confirm our opinion. That opinion is also confirmed by our community. When we let scripture interpret scripture, it is no surprise that we find other scriptures also supporting our views.
One of the worst things about confirmation bias is that you don’t realize it when you have fallen prey to it. Scientific methodology has a built-in mechanism for identifying and overcoming confirmation bias. In fact, that was one of the driving forces behind why we came up with the scientific method to begin with.
The scientific method supersedes the opinion of monarchs, priests, family, and self. However, a biblical interpretation cannot be superseded by anything. So once you have formed a biblical opinion, there is nothing to check it against.
This is where Christians suggest avenues of confirmation such as the internal witness of the holy spirit, or community confirmation, or confirmation from the church leaders. But these all require a form of magical thinking, and can themselves, hide confirmation bias.
For instance, it is common for the spirit of god to confirm with us that which we already believe. Naturally, a community of charismatics high gleefully confirm your understanding of spiritual gifts. You chose a church community that thinks the way you do. The same is true for the church leaders. But take your doctrine about speaking in tongues to a community that doesn’t buy into those gifts, and you would not get the same confirmation.
The bible has no power to persuade
The inability to confirm one’s understanding of the bible means that it has no power to persuade. You can never win an argument with anyone who sees the bible differently from you. It renders the act of arguing over what the bible says and means, pointless. We quickly hit the place where neither party can advance their argument further. It all devolves into a shouting match over untestable claims.
One strategy I thought about trying was to simply agree with the person I happen to be talking to on whatever biblical view they are espousing. I would simply point out that they view they are proposing is different than the one offered by the last person who explained it to me. And I will maintain that agreement until I talk to the next person who has a different opinion.
It is a cute little passive aggressive ploy that highlights the fact that no two Christians hold exactly the same view of scripture. Perhaps I could fix the problem by settling down in a local church and listening to a single preacher. But I could only hold his opinions as long as he does. Over time, people change their minds about what they think the bible is saying. So I can only be as sure as the surest person I talk to.
I could settle it by always agreeing with the person who has the most impressive academic record. So I guess I just have to agree with whatever WLC says. But that only works until someone with an equal or greater set of credentials comes along and says something different. Back to square one.
I could ignore all outside voices and go with my own opinions about what the bible is saying. But there are many places where it could go in any one of multiple directions. How do I persuade myself of any given position? What most Christians seem to do in such situations is they find a way to live with the tension of holding two opposing views. I tried, but couldn’t maintain it.
If a person does not believe in math, you can show them math in action and convince them of the power of math. If a person does not believe in the bible, you cannot show them the bible in action and convince them of the power of the bible. It simply doesn’t work that way. You have to buy into the bible presuppositionally, or on faith before it holds any power to persuade. But there is nothing you can say to a nonbeliever about the bible that would convince them to consider it an authority on anything.
Conclusion: The first miracle
While I was in the process of writing this post, a commenter on the Unbelievable discussion board made the following statement that I just had to include:
there is plenty of historic evidence as in the ancient writings, reasoning and personal experience. The question is if you can reason what the bible says, e.g. how you interpret its teaching. It amuses me how Christians and non-Christian alike believe the bible to promise magical miracles that underpin their materialistic thinking. If you for example think that Jesus teaches in his first lesson that it is an embarrassment not to have enough wine and that your lack of material resources requires divine intervention to produce a fake reality – or that a fine wine is more valuable than the water of ritual purification you follow Santa who gives you your confirmation bias you want, not Jesus. The miracle here is for people to realize that the water if ritual purification of baptism is the most valuable drink you can ever receive.
Here, the poster makes a bold claim about the meaning of Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine. He is hectoring all who don’t see it his way. To him, the meaning is obvious. I asked him how he got that interpretation from the water to wine miracle. He responded with the following:
applied critical thinking.
Jesus was miffed that his mum felt the lack of wine to be worthy of divine intervention – so he told them all a lesson serving them the finest of waters – that which was was good enough to be put into those sacred vessels – that together with the comments of the master of ceremony about receiving the most valuable drink you could ever receive would have made you sober up in one go and made you feel ashamed of your materialistic thinking to expect more wine. Most people unfortunately have gone beyond that point to realize why they can’t go through the eye of the needle.
The implication is that anyone who didn’t see things his way was not using applied critical thinking. I will end this post with the words I used to end the conversation:
I clearly do not have that level of applied critical thinking. You have weaved together a beautiful interpretation. But nothing about it is plain or obvious on the first, or even second reading. If that is how we have to read the bible, I don’t think I am cut out for it.
And that’s the view from the skeptic.
Why I Stopped Caring About What the Bible Says, and Why You Should too (Part 5)- Christian Response
Let me just start by saying, the answer to the Skeptic’s attack on Christianity and the Bible this week is Molinism- Molinism solves it all, end of discussion! (Lol, just having a little bit of fun given how much I know all you skeptics appreciate the sheer brilliance my Molinistic Defeater explanation). Anyways, my see my serious answer immediately below.
In Part 5 of the Skeptic’s series on “Why He Stopped Caring About the Bible”, he seems to double down on his mistaken notion that all Christian interpretations are “created equal” as it were. This is not the case, even if there are some hard to interpret verses in the Bible whereby one cannot be too dogmatic in their opinion vs. the interpretations of others, the majority of Scripture is in fact understandable to the average reader today by systematically using basic hermeneutical principles.
Note that the main thrust of the Skeptic’s case is not so much to do with the specific examples of varying interpretations provided (such as egalitarianism vs. complementarianism issue), but more to do with coming up with a systematic method that one can use consistently to any such Biblical examples. As such here is a link with a series that deals with this issue in detail and supports the egalitarian perspective =http://christianthinktank.com/femalex.html (& also here is a quick take on the Water into Wine Miracle =https://www.gotquestions.org/wedding-at-Cana.html or Craig Keener on the Water imagery in John here =https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdcwx18dIWw – I confess I haven’t read the comments in question, so I’m not fully sure I understand what point the Christian is making there, so hopefully these have some relevance).
Avoiding Confirmation Bias
Here the skeptic rightly points out that one’s confirmation biases can often seem to obscure what the Bible is saying to us. Unfortunately, this is part of the human predicament in any field of study, including in the scientific discipline.
Hence, humans have devised various methods based on fundamental logical reasoning principles to obtain some measure of objectivity in helping them to assess the various interpretations of relevant data. The study of the Bible is ultimately no different (or at least not much different) than any other human endeavour in this regard; the Bible as a whole is an inspired and direct propositional revelation from God and as such, we have a primary duty to let the Scriptures interpret other texts that might present a difficulty. This is the first hermeneutical principle that is necessary for all Christians to have a proper understanding, sometimes certain passages are expanded upon or elucidated by the use of other inspired writings. There is nothing wrong with using this kind of interpretational technique to help us to understand what the biblical texts are saying, we use this all the time in everyday life- if one Saturday afternoon you ask me to “pick up the red thing on the counter” and there are two red things on the counter (red swim shorts and a red top), I may be confused as to which red thing you wanted me to pick up; but if I remember that you also revealed to me earlier that you wanted to go swimming with me today and mentioned that you hate wearing red tops on Saturdays for some reason, then I can easily use these various revelations you’ve given me to put things together and conclude you want me to pick up the red swim shorts.
Additionally, the Bible tells us that the Bible is not for private interpretation, thus it is fully acceptable to employ a “peer-review” process in asking fellow brothers and sisters who may disagree without take on a verse to consider and/or to consult with qualified experts like Pastors/Elders and biblical scholars to gain some valuable knowledge or insights on what the text might be talking about- God expects us to reason from the Scriptures and to use all available avenues of knowledge to help guide us to a proper understanding of Scripture- just remember that not all other avenues are “inspired” in the same way Scripture is and then it becomes easy to prioritize which views can be ruled out biblically vs. which ones are plausible and thus worthy of consideration. Nothing magical here, the “peer-review” technique is a part of every academic discipline (including science), it helps us to recognize various aspects that we may have missed due to confirmation or selection biases- perhaps both parties could be right and we might realize that a certain biblical doctrine is multifaceted like a diamond as opposed to being one-dimensional.
Finally, the Skeptic also says that the Holy Spirit and praying to God play a pivotal role in helping true Christians to understand the Bible; he calls this “magical thinking”- my response is simply, yeah so what? Christianity presupposes a supernatural Being named God and so if God the Holy Spirit is able to further elucidate certain truths in the Bible, then what on Earth is wrong with that? I think, the Skeptic merely assumes that this is nonsense because different people claim to have been infallibly guided by Him and yet they still come to different conclusions on a given matter. Once again, claims are easy but we can’t assume that all claiming Christians are actually being guided by the Holy Spirit vs. their culture or man-made desires/ideas over what the Bible itself actually says; even true Christians who have the Holy Spirit can disagree as some Christians are more mature than others and thus the Holy Spirit is better able to guide some into biblical truth than others based on the individual Christian. So, this “one-size-fits-all” notion of the Holy Spirit’s role in aiding the interpretation of Scripture is a misnomer and explains why even “true Christians” can sometimes disagree on a particular hard to understand text.
Breaking the Tie
The Skeptic goes on to opine about the Bible’s apparent inability to persuade; assuming that after one has done all the hard work and done everything, they can to adjudicate what the Bible is saying in a particular verse/text or issue- he asks, “how on Earth can one ever break the tie”?
Well, I’m going to answer this in two different ways- in the first place the answer depends on just who exactly the Skeptic thinks needs to be persuaded in the first place. If he means to ask how an outside non-Christian observer can ever hope to come to knowledge of the truth of all the matters that Christians disagree over- the answer is that they simply can’t- the Bible being used in that way is not for you to use in that regards, divine revelation is largely meant to be adjudicated upon by believing Christians. Being devoid of the Holy Spirit and left in your unrepentant and corrupt sinful state, you have no hope of understanding the various biblical truths and both the OT and NT make this abundantly clear- for the non-believer the only matter that need concern you, is whether or not the “essential” Gospel message is true or not (though one could obviously use this “confusion factor” as a negative argument against the truth of Christianity as the skeptic attempted to do in Part 2 of this series).
For believing Christians who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit on the other hand, the Bible is much more- we are all meant to want to acquire a full and perfect understanding of God’s revelation. Thus, my answer here, even if it might be seen as somewhat radical by the skeptics, is to simply deny that there are any such biblical interpretations that result in a tie in the first place. Assuming ideal conditions, I think that every single text in the Bible has a clear and undeniable true interpretation (whether we personally are aware of that interpretation or not). So, if on a purely practical level, there are differences of opinion even amoung “true Christians” (which there is- an infallible knowledge of all Scriptural truths doesn’t seem possible in this life), then as I explained earlier, I think the justification for this is that no Christian (whether Apostle or humble taxi cab driver) is able to reach the point of “full restoration/sanctification” and thus be rid of the noetic/spiritual effects of sin. Consequently, different Christians are more mature than others and hence more receptive to the guidance and influence of the H.S. and God-given avenues of knowledge than others in their discernment of scriptural truth.
The unfortunate result of this is that sometimes even “true Christians” can misinterpret things in light of their cultural/societal influences or even sinful desires and/or they can lose perspective and become dogmatic on a particular doctrine that appears to have some biblical support at face value at least, but which in reality is not supported by the Bible. In short, there are no actual “ties” in the Bible to be broken, it is always the fault of the human being when such division of opinion takes place and God simply capitalizes on this man-induced confusion in such a way so as to save as many souls as possible while at the same time providing sufficient means for any Christian to take advantage of to come to the right conclusion if so inclined- the fact that many of us often fail in that regard is not to do with God but us.
And that’s the view of Seeker/Christian.