"God Always Has an Escape Clause": Deconstructing Theodicy (Part 1)

Introduction

In this series of posts, I’ll be unpacking, and then deconstructing, theodicy. Where do you land on this issue? Perhaps you’ve struggled to reconcile your views of God with that of the biblical text, and observable evils that take place in our world virtually every day.

The doctrine of “theodicy,” in its most formal definition, means “a defense of God”–in other words, an attempt to vindicate him in the face of the existence of evil. This would include two categories of evil: what is termed “natural evil” (or “acts of God” as defined by insurance companies)–things like floods, fires, lightning strikes, tsunamis, storms, volcanoes, etc.

The second category is termed “human evil” and covers “man’s inhumanity to man” types of evils: the Holocaust, Stalinist purges, atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge regime and Pol Pot, Assad of Syria using chemical weapons against civilians, serial killers, mass shootings, acts of terror, and so on.

The obvious question posed regarding natural evil is this: if God is truly all-powerful, and all-knowing, and indeed merciful and loving toward his creation, then why does he allow such evil to exist? If he truly cares for humanity (and the environment too), then why doesn’t he step in to stop these things from happening over and over again?

Historically, there are two basic possibilities posed by thinkers who have pondered this subject deeply. The first option is this: God is indeed all-powerful and all-knowing, and could prevent these disasters from happening, but he does not want to do so. In this case, it makes him an uncaring monster or even a cruel fiend. The second possibility is this: God is not all-powerful or all-knowing, and is thus incapable of preventing these types of disasters. In this case, the God as presented in the Bible is not the same God as the real one; he isn’t omniscient or omnipresent, and simply doesn’t have the ability to stop evil from taking place.

Exploring Theodicy

Theodicy, as mentioned above, involves a robust defense of God as posed by these problems. There are two basic lines of defense: one, a defense of the person of God that involves an appeal to his other attributes (love, mercy, longsuffering, allowing humanity free will; God the wise father teaching his people a lesson by allowing suffering; God allowing evil as a means of judgement on a particular people group or nation; and so on).

Another possibility, it is argued, is this: God does know about the evil, and he cares, and could technically do something about it; it’s just that he’s not choosing to act–at the moment. The future judgement of the good and the evil, it is believed, will one day sort everything out, and everything will be put to rights in the future.

The second line of defense involves the wider use of Scripture. When dealing with passages in the Old Testament, for example, where God commanded the nation of Israel to commit genocide of entire people groups, other texts are brought in to justify such behavior. In the case of the occupation of Canaan, as an example, scholars will point to statements made in Genesis where God told Abraham that “the sin of the Canaanites has not yet reached its limits.” By the time of Joshua, and the command to commit genocide of these same peoples, it is pointed out that God allowed them over 400 years to repent. They didn’t, and persisted in their sin, so God was entirely justified in wiping them out–down to the last man, woman, and child.

Other options include balancing out the judgement/justice views of God as presented in Scripture. God, the righteous judge, has to judge sin; to overlook it would be for him to go against his own character and nature. Therefore, to wipe out the evil Canaanites was the correct thing for God to do, because if they had been allowed to coexist alongside Israel, these evil people would have led Israel astray into idolatry and wickedness, and would influence them to commit violations of their covenant with God.

The fact that this very type of thing happened numerous times in the book of Judges, Kings and Chronicles, it is pointed out, is proof positive that such people groups shouldn’t have been allowed to live in order to maintain Israel’s status as a “holy and chosen nation” that had a missional role for the wider world. These lofty goals were constantly compromised by Israel’s syncretistic tendencies, so the best decision on God’s behalf was to wipe out these evil influences surrounding the nation.

Conclusion

It seems to me, though, that we need to step back and look at this issue from a wider perspective. If a Christian reads the Bible from an inerrantist point of view, then he or she is forced to accept the characterization of God that the text presents to its readers. Simply a straight reading of texts involving genocide, for example, demonstrates that God himself commanded his followers to carry out this action.

That’s what the text states unequivocally: God told his people to do it. But since this view of God is incompatible with the apparently loving and merciful God presented elsewhere in Scripture, thus the inerrantist (or biblical literalist) is forced to adopt a position whereby he or she must defend this seemingly aberrant, “two-faced Janus” God.

Therefore, for the person who still wants to retain a view of God, but cannot reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable Gods, what can she do?

There are two basic options available: one, changing your views of God; or two, changing your view of the text (hermeneutic, or lens through which you interpret the Bible).

In Part 2, I’ll be delving into these two basic options available for a person who still wants to hang on to some form of belief in God. How might that work? Check back for the next installment, coming soon!

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Is There Life After Evangelicalism?

Have you walked away from the church for some reason or other? If that's the case, then here's my question for you at this point: where are you headed now?

For those of us who grew up within evangelical or fundamentalist Christian churches and have since walked away from the church (and possibly the Christian faith altogether), there is often a major sense of "separation anxiety" to deal with. The doctrines and teachings we received from preachers Sunday after Sunday, month after month and year after year were deeply ingrained into our very souls and ended up forming both our identities and worldviews.

One can't listen to sermons on a weekly basis (allegedly based upon the Bible), year in and year out, and not be somehow impacted on a very deep level by this sort of indoctrination.

Triggering

One of the most common issues that ex-evangelicals report is how, after leaving the church behind, they are triggered by all sorts of strange things. Oftentimes they aren't aware of the connections between the triggered emotions and their past lives. But what causes this triggering?

In many cases, what triggers them often stems from such things as their years spent within the evangelical culture; the variety of teaching they received; their experiences with spiritually (or sexually) abusive church leaders; or perhaps it relates to how horribly they may have been treated by other Christians. Whatever the cause, all of these things and more can trigger people and cause mental health and emotional problems later on in life. Religion even contributes, in some cases, to trauma-related PTSD. The very real fear, for example, of the possibility of going to hell causes many people to have major issues, for which they may need therapy.

As time goes on, and ex-churchgoers move farther and farther away from their past beliefs, oftentimes as they process their experiences, they begin to notice just how emotionally and psychologically scarred they are from all of those experiences. They begin to understand just how messed up they were emotionally, spiritually, and perhaps sexually too. If you're like me, and many of my friends who similarly came out of the church, you've had to undergo therapy and counseling to help you process these experiences from the past.

Some of this damage can be traced to the "black-and-white" dualistic thinking in which the evangelical church often specializes: us-versus-them, sacred vs. secular, good vs. evil, God vs. Satan. Politically, it can be seen in the way people are characterized: Republican Christians (who stand for God, home-schooling, "traditional family values" and the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, gun rights, Donald Trump and the American way) vs. liberal Democrats (who stand for such terrible things as gay marriage, abortion rights, stricter gun control legislation, LGBTQ inclusion, gender fluidity, feminism, etc.).

In other words, oftentimes churches make their parishioners feel that they're a part of an embattled, persecuted minority. The notion of "taking a stand for God and Jesus" in Western society may mean that they have to go on the offensive to get their point across to that person with whom they disagree vehemently on a particular issue. Hell, Christians will even vilify other Christians with whom they disagree—be it over an issue of theology or a certain biblical interpretation like speaking in tongues, end-times rapture scenarios, or whether a woman can preach in a church, or even be a pastor or an elder. On the extreme end of the patriarchal scale, for example, John Piper argues (based upon his interpretation of the Bible) that women should not be allowed to preach in churches; and that furthermore, they shouldn't even be allowed to teach men in seminaries.

A House of Cards

What's most important, in such a scenario? It turns out that more Christians would rather be right than approach the truth; shockingly, many Christians in such a system and worldview would feel fine about "winning" an argument, and destroying a relationship with another person over it, as long as they can walk away and claim that "Well, at least I was right." Sadly, this is just one legacy of much of evangelicalism, but it helps to explain why Christians can, so much of the time, just be assholes—not just to non-Christians out there in that evil, secular world, but to each other too.

Contributing to this type of thinking is this problem: for many evangelicals, the stakes are simply too high. This explains why they can be so rabid in defending their particular point of view, no matter how warped. But the reality is that this entire edifice is built upon a shaky foundation; it's a house of cards. For example, many evangelical Christians simply can't entertain the remotest possibility that their Bibles might contain even the tiniest mistake. Their entire view of God and Jesus is tied up with the truthfulness not just of the text of Scripture, but with God's very nature as a truth-telling deity. By this logic, if Scripture were somehow found to be flawed, false, or in error, then by extension, their God disintegrates also.

It's all interconnected. Take out one card, and their entire faith collapses.

This type of thinking may help to explain why so many evangelicals cling fiercely to such doctrines as biblical inspiration and inerrancy, and defend them to the hilt; but typically, it's largely because of their theological commitments that drives them to embrace such a position. This leads in turn to behaviours such as bibliolatry (worship of the Bible as somehow a "magical book") and biblical literalism (claiming to take every word in Scripture literally, even though this is technically impossible to do).

The ultimate irony in all of this is, of course, that most Christians don't really obey even some of the clearer teachings in the Bible: foot-washing, women not being allowed to teach (or even speak) in churches, greeting each other with a holy kiss, raising "holy hands in prayer," and so on. Conveniently, many of these injunctions are explained away as not being "culturally relevant" today; but when it comes to a hot-button issue like homosexuality, both sides of that argument will delve into both Old and New Testaments to bring up a litany of verses that prove definitively that God is for it—or maybe he's totally against it. They certainly can't agree on any one interpretation of these texts.

Here's another example of the way this treatment of the Bible ends up taking Christians into strange places. Doctrines such as the so-called "young-earth creationism" spring from such a literalistic hermeneutic. This belief, to which many evangelicals hold, came about when someone thought to add up the genealogies in the Pentateuch, and subsequently deduced that the earth is but 6-10,000 years old. Since this is biblically true, it is believed, such heresies like evolution, the big bang theory, and the rest of Darwin's thinking must be violently rebutted, because (as everyone knows) the first few chapters of Genesis were meant to be read as nothing more than a science textbook explaining the origins of the cosmos and humanity.

Again: take away one card from this entire house of cards, and the whole faith system collapses. But who would want to hold to such a shaky belief?

Conclusion

In the final analysis, when combining the interpersonal conflicts experienced between many Christians, together with a healthy dose of shame and guilt every Sunday from the pulpit, there you have it: church. Here's what is so bizarre: even though you're a Christian, and you're on your way to heaven, every week you hear the same variation of a familiar guilt-inducing message. God is disappointed and angry with you. Why? Because you haven't been reading your Bible enough, praying enough, and evangelizing enough, so the preacher tells you each Sunday, so why not add that to the already heavy burden of shame being heaped on your shoulders?

Not only that, but much of the worship within the Sunday service is based upon a familiar theme: how broken we are before God, and that we are nothing without his help. No wonder people feel so badly and ashamed about themselves, because basically--we're worthless and weak apart from God.

I have to ask, in all seriousness: why would anybody want to be a part of such a system?

Believe it or not, there is real life after evangelicalism; there's freedom and release from those heavy burdens—but this life is, strangely enough, to be discovered outside the walls of most churches.

There's irony for you.

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"Proof-Texting" From the Bible: The Unwavering Logic of Biblical Inerrancy

What's the deal with Christians who resort to listing a series of "proof-texts" that they firmly believe will prove their point, beyond the shadow of a doubt? Clearly, they believe that firing such a broadside of biblical texts at their opponent will guarantee them a certain victory in any disputation involving theological or biblical interpretations.

This practice has really struck me lately.

I’m a part of a couple of Facebook groups, all of which are (allegedly, at least) what you’d describe as “post-evangelical” types. However, I have noticed that just because a person is part of those groups, it certainly does not mean that he or she agrees with the vast majority of people’s deconstruction process.

In fact, there are a few self-appointed “heresy hunters” within certain of these groups who feel that it’s their God-ordained duty to pounce on any statement made that they consider to be heretical, false or unorthodox. What follows after that is the obligatory and exhaustive list of biblical "proof-texts" to buttress their point of view.

As a teacher in theological schools, I’ve had students like this in class, and they can be unrelenting, disruptive and frankly tiring in their efforts to police both the teacher and students alike for anything they consider to be potential heresies, incorrect biblical interpretations, or simply any area of disagreement theologically.

Proof-Texting to "Win" an Argument

Let me give you an example. In one recent case in one of these groups, one of my threads about classifying different categories of various people who have left the institutional church got hijacked by a couple of “fundagelicals”. Despite the original theme, and subsequent good conversation around the topic, somehow the conversation digressed into an argument about...the clear and present danger posed by homosexuality in American society today.

Perhaps predictably, then, especially regarding such a hot-button topic, the thread quickly veered off track, and turned into a squabble. Absolutist phrases were emphatically stated, such as: “The evangelical church in America has clearly lost its way by allowing this ever-growing perversion to carry on in society unchecked," and "The insidious 'gay agenda' needs to be stopped in its tracks by committed Christians!"

And on it went, with more and more thunderous statements made by the two heresy hunters.

But why exactly is this the case, at least according to these two? How has the evangelical church "lost its way," and what exactly makes homosexuality a sin? Because clearly “it goes against the Bible,” according to one of these self-appointed heresy policemen.

As the argument went on with another person who opposed his views, this individual went down the traditional (and tiresomely predictable) conservative evangelical argument route to make his emphatic point: first came a compendium of a list of proof texts (where he believes the Bible condemns homosexuality), followed by the obligatory all-caps shouting: "WE JUST NEED TO DO WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS!!"

End of the argument, apparently, in this man’s opinion; simply shout louder, parade a list of proof-texts from the Bible buttressing your argument, and you’ve won. Game, set, and match, from his point of view.

Never mind that proof-texting carries with it the inherent problem of grabbing isolated verses from the Bible, that may well be ripped out of their original literary and historical contexts, and subsequently mis-applied in a completely different situation.

But what’s the logic behind such thinking?

Is The Bible Indeed the "Rule Book for Life?"

The more I study the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, the more I have come to believe that the unwavering logic behind proof-texting relates to a position that has turned the Bible into a "special book" (magical almost) that stands head and shoulders above other sacred religious texts, be they ancient or modern. In other words, any statement made that uses proof-texts from the Bible trumps any other argument. It is the rule book for all of life, and should be listened to, and obeyed, whenever it has anything to say about....anything, really.

The adoption of the doctrine of inerrancy by fundamentalists around the end of the 19th century (and now evangelicals currently) has led in turn to biblicism, bibliolatry, and biblical literalism. It has also led to the notion of "biblical absolutism"--the teaching that "the Bible is entirely sufficient for all facts of science, history, geography, psychology, theology," etc.

Originally arising out of the fundamentalist-liberal debates and culture wars of the late 19th-mid-20th centuries, the doctrine of inerrancy was formulated (as the fundamentalists saw it anyway) as a means by which they could protect the Bible from the unrelenting assault of liberal higher criticism on the historicity and facticity of the text. Viewed contextually, and from the distance of time and space, we can certainly understand why the fundamentalists felt the need to construct such a doctrine at the time; but today, one must question whether evangelicals have in fact overcommitted themselves to what was perhaps a largely indefensible proposition in the first place.

Don’t believe me? In an article on inerrancy, Carlos Bovell cites conservative evangelical theologian Dr James Boice on the subject: “In conservative Reformed circles, Boice describes the same bibliological viewpoint: ‘Inerrancy means that when all the facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything they teach, whether that teaching has to do with doctrine, history, science, geography, geology, or other disciplines or knowledge.’”1

This stance on biblical inerrancy, taken by conservative evangelicals like Boice and many others, is nothing less than what is termed biblical absolutism. Thus, armed with what they view as a text having the ultimate authority, and final say in any argument, self-appointed (and self-righteous) biblical absolutists feel empowered to go forward and ruthlessly root out any and all heretical statements made by others.

The Logic Behind Proof-Texting

Therefore, on this subject of making use of proof-texting to win an argument, I think I’ve come to an understanding of the operative logic behind the proof-texting mentality. It proceeds down the following lines, and makes use of a series of basic presuppositions: since the Bible is a) inspired by God, who only speaks the truth and cannot lie, on that basis it is therefore b) inerrant (error-free), c) infallible (wholly trustworthy), and finally d) authoritative, governing all areas of faith and practice (and perhaps all the other fields of knowledge claimed by scholars such as Boice also).

Therefore, it is believed that since it possesses all of those qualities, many evangelicals (like the ones in my example earlier) tend to use the Bible just like one would make use of a rule-book, for example, in a sporting event. Every coach, or for that matter passionate sports fan, when disputing particular rules of a game, has appealed to the rule book for that sport as the ultimate authority to settle the argument. Whoever understands the rule book the best, and therefore forces the (referee or umpire or other coach) to admit that they are indeed wrong on a particular point, not only wins the argument, they may possibly win the game too. Of course, this does not take into account the fact that even the rules of every sport are subject to the vagaries of interpretation.

But by treating Scripture as such, according to theologian NT Wright, many Christians who want to claim that “the Bible is authoritative” have thereby turned it into a book of authoritative rules, as opposed to what it is—largely an ancient narrative text.2

According to Wright, however, when examined more closely, it turns out that the Bible itself never really claims to be a rule book. Wright argues that ironically, Christians who try to turn Scripture into a slate of norms governing all areas of life are grossly misusing and mis-applying it. Not only that, but as mentioned above, many of the biblical verses used for proof-texting to win an argument are lifted out of both their literary and historical contexts.

Conclusion

The major problem encountered in dealing with proof-texting Christians is of course that while they think they've "won the battle," ultimately they will have lost the war. In other words, from their point of view, every single battle is a hill worth dying on, no matter how (seemingly) trivial it may be, whether it’s a biblical or a theological argument. They firmly believe that they can't afford to budge even a single inch, or that would somehow prove them (and the Bible itself) to be wrong. The entire house of cards would come crashing down, so they resort to a largely indefensible position because the stakes are simply too high.

On a larger scale, not only is evangelical Christianity in America losing (or has already lost perhaps) the culture war, on an individual relational basis, that Bible-bashing proof-texter never seems to care overly much about the relational damage they may be causing to another human being.

At the conclusion of the argument—that they believe they’ve won by bashing the other person over the head with a list of texts to prove their point—they can walk away, secure in the knowledge that “Well, at least I was right.” Never mind that the other person has been hurt and devastated relationally by such toxic treatment at the hands of this self-righteous, and self-appointed, keyboard warrior.

Therefore, if you were the one on the receiving end of the attacks, and your feelings were damaged in the exchange with this "heresy hunter," then guess what?

It's your problem--not theirs.

Sources

1 Bovell, Carlos R. “Inerrancy, a Paradigm in Crisis.” In Bovell, Carlos R., ed. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture: Historical, Biblical, and Theoretical Perspectives. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011: 57-58.

2 Wright, N.T. “How Can the Bible be Considered Authoritative?” Vox Evangelica 21 (1991): 13.

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Responding to Andy Savage, Highpoint Church, and Sexual Assault

Is it truly any wonder that victims of sexual assault by clergy feel that it's not safe for them to come forward with their stories of abuse? The recent #metoo, #churchtoo and #SilenceIsNotSpiritual campaigns, involving the many heartbreaking stories of victims, have demonstrated time and time again that churches not only harbor and protect serial abusers, worse yet they oftentimes enable the abuse to continue. How? By silencing and shaming the victims, and engaging in ongoing cover-ups.

Sadly, this seems to be a recurring theme; we've been seeing it for years now in the Catholic Church, with its appalling cover-up campaign of pedophile priests. The attitude on the part of those in church leadership who engage in the cover-ups seems to be that they don't want the stories coming out publicly, mostly because it will damage the public perception of their church or ministry. So much of the time, the victims' stories are suppressed, denied or minimized; and sadly, those who suffered the abuse end up being sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism, money, fame, and so forth.

Recently, it came out that Andy Savage, “teaching pastor” of Highpoint Church in Memphis, TN, was involved in the sexual assault of Jules Woodson some 20 years ago. At the time, she was a 17-year old teenager, and Savage was the 20-year-old youth pastor of Woodlands Park Baptist Church in The Woodlands, Texas (now StoneBridge Church). After leaving Woodlands Park, Savage has gone on to have a highly successful career in ministry at Highpoint Church. Until now, Savage had thought the entire incident to have been successfully buried in the past; but oftentimes, those skeletons in the closet have disconcerting ways of rattling loudly enough to get someone's attention.

Exploring Themes

There are several themes that come out of this story; in the interests of space, unfortunately I can't cover everything in this post.

(If you want more information on this breaking story, here are some helpful links. General details of the situation can be found in this Huffington Post article, along with the statement from Savage's victim, Jules Woodson, on the Wartburg Watch site (warning, some graphic sexual content). Finally, a transcript of a recent service at Highpoint church, in which Savage and head pastor Chris Conlee publicly discuss the issue, can be found here on the MakeChurchSafe.com site). 

As I carefully processed through Savage's “apology” service at Highpoint, went through Ms. Woodson's statements, and read various articles on this issue, it struck me that there are several noteworthy aspects of this situation that need to be explored in further detail, and assessed critically.

It is also important to note that much of the current conversation, from Highpoint and Savage, centers on him, and not the victim. Do they believe he truly committed a crime, those 20 years ago? What support will there be for his victim going forward? Although it may seem like a commendable stance for his current ministry to stand by he and his family, what about his victim? And finally, what--if any--consequences will there be for Savage? 

The following themes may in fact help those who are seeking to process through what happened, both in the past, and how Highpoint is choosing to handle the situation.

  1. The assault itself by the-then youth pastor, Andy Savage, was clearly not only a traumatic experience for his victim, Jules Woodson, a 17-year old minor; further compounding her shame and guilt was the way church leadership (Woodlands Park Baptist Church, TX), handled it. They covered it up; did not call the police to report Savage's criminal activity; did not reveal the full extent of Savage's actions to the church; allowed him to depart back to his home city of Memphis, with a “leaving ceremony” of sorts; and even had the gall, years later, to contemplate bringing him back into the church as a pastor. So why didn't Woodlands Park follow due diligence, and report the matter to the police, as they should have? Failure to do that leaves them open to legal action, surely; not to mention it's the right thing to do, regardless of the PR consequences to the church or to Savage's reputation and future ministerial career. Woodland Park allowed Savage to get away with his criminal behavior scot-free, and worse yet, the church participated in the subsequent cover-up. When she did finally summon the courage to share her story in a women's ministry class, Woodson speaks of “breaking the rules of silence” enforced by the church, and that she knew by doing so “there would be consequences to my actions.” Woodland Park's actions only reinforced Woodson's shame, guilt and depression, and further speaks to the issue of why so many victims are fearful of coming forward to report incidents of sexual assaults, and specifically by members of the clergy. As I said at the outset, often the victims aren't believed, the assaults are denied or minimized, and the continuing culture of abusers--protected by the system--continues on.

  2. Note: What Andy Savage did to Ms. Woodson was a crime that should have been reported to the police by church leadership. But what did they do instead? Just a couple of days after the assault was reported to them by Ms. Woodson, the leadership allowed Savage to lead a 2-day "abstinence course" called--wait for it--"True Love Waits." In this course, Savage taught his students that they should have no sexual contact, or even touching, before marriage. Ms. Woodson states that the irony of the entire situation was not lost on her at the time. Instead of removing Savage immediately from leadership, and reporting the assault to the police, the leadership turned a blind eye and let an abuser teach a class on sexual abstinence. Those decisions by the church leadership at the time were beyond appalling, and only served to allow Savage to get away with his actions. In the wider church context, also, this narrative speaks to the damage that evangelical "purity culture" has wrought in the lives of many a young person, both in terms of mental health and relationships.
  3. The staff of Savage's current church, Highpoint Church in Memphis, TN, apparently was aware of the “sexual incident” (as Savage phrases it) between he and Ms. Woodson years before. The questions that arise are these: did Savage, when he came on board as the teaching pastor years ago, fully disclose every single detail of the sexual assault? In other words, did Highpoint know that he had sexually assaulted a minor, which is a crime? The words Savage used to describe the encounter (as nothing more than a “sexual incident with a teenager”) both minimizes the impact of his actions, and seeks to lessen the apparent trauma suffered by the victim. A “sexual incident” makes it sound like he had perhaps consensual sex with a teenager, or engaged in consensual sexual activity not involving intercourse. But even still, both of these actions would have constituted sexual assault of a minor, or statutory rape. Surely, then, Highpoint takes a share of the blame—wouldn't the sexual assault of a minor be grounds for refusing to put someone in a pastoral position, where he would be free to exploit other victims and potentially abuse again? When they installed him as teaching pastor all those years ago, surely someone must have questioned the wisdom of placing an offender in a position of such authority. That is, unless Savage lied to them at the time, and did not fully disclose the full horror of what he had done to Woodson. But it still raises the question as to whether or not Highpoint should have trusted Savage's continuing judgement and actions by placing him in such a leadership capacity.

  4. Even if Highpoint were not aware of the full extent of Savage's actions, which would appear somewhat to lessen their responsibility in placing him in the teaching pastor role, their current reaction to the scandal nonetheless still speaks volumes. The response by head pastor Chris Conlee of Highpoint runs along these thematic lines: “Yes, Andy Savage did something bad with a teenage girl, but it happened 20 years ago. And besides, we knew all about it when he came on board; but he said he'd repented and 'responded biblically' at the time by seeking forgiveness, quitting the ministry, etc. Furthermore, he hasn't done anything bad since he's been here—he's a stand-up guy with a great family. Surely he and his family have suffered enough without us heaping more shame and guilt on him, or casting stones in his direction. And moreover, we feel really, really bad about what happened to the poor victim, too. So let's say a blanket prayer for everybody involved in the situation, and move on.” This is not, says Conlee, “taking anybody's side” in the situation—except for God's side, of course, which (in his view, at least), involves saying a quick prayer, asking God and everybody in the church for forgiveness, and burying it all in the past, where it apparently belongs. It's what God would want us to do--according to their reading of the Bible, anyway.

  5. Savage's recent “apology” involves denial, distancing and minimization. He repeatedly states that “the incident occurred 20 years ago” (distancing statements); it was only a “sexual incident” and not sexual assault of a minor, a criminal act (minimizing of behavior). He also minimizes the impact of his actions with justification and rationalizing behavior: he claims to have told important people about it, but they all agreed that it was not a big enough deal to warrant any sort of punitive action. For example, in his apology, Savage defends his character since the assault by trotting out the following evidence: that a) he informed his future wife when they were engaged, but she married him anyway; b) he informed the church, but they hired him anyway; c) finally, he claims that in all the years since “the incident,” he's never done anything even remotely close to repeating such behavior. Of course, we are just taking his word for it, at this point. His argument is as follows: He's disclosed his actions, properly repented, done all the right things, made all the right moves, been a great guy for years; so all of those things should really, really...motivate us to let him off the hook for this whole thing. Right? And the church's response follows a similar line: Hasn't he suffered enough already? Come on, everybody—let's give the poor guy a break. Never mind the victim, after all; well, we did pray for her, so she should be good to go. God will take care of the rest...

  6. To me, finally, it's pretty sickening that not only did Savage and Conlee spin this whole situation to suit their own ends by turning it into a “biblical teaching opportunity” at Highpoint, what makes matters worse is this: the congregation responded by saying repeated “Amen's” throughout the service. Following Savage's initial “apology” statement, they gave him a standing ovation. All is forgiven.

Conclusion

I began this post by asking the question: “Is it truly any wonder that victims of sexual assault by clergy feel that it's not safe for them to come forward with their stories of abuse?” Given the treatment of Ms. Woodson, both by her former church—who did not call police, covered up the initial sexual assault, and let Savage walk away scot-free—and the current response by Savage and Conlee of Highpoint, pretty much sums up the whole mess.

Victims of abuse like Woodson, and the many more who have been (or are currently being abused) by members of the clergy, know for certain that their stories won't be believed by those in church leadership. Worse yet, they are afraid—and rightfully so—that they will be cast as the one who destroyed some poor pastor or priest's career by coming forward with their accounts of being abused. The fact that those in leadership view so many of these situations as needing to “protect the empire at all costs,” in turn end up destroying many a victim's life by their actions.

In so many cases, then, the abuser is therefore enabled to keep on abusing, protected by the church system and culture of silence. Meanwhile, the victims are left to suffer, alone with their pain, trauma, shame and guilt. In the case of Savage, I would not at all be surprised if, in the coming weeks and months, more victims come forward. It is hard to believe that this was a one-off incident; if the recent #metoo campaign has shown us anything, it's that the first victim who speaks up tends to open up the floodgates for other victims to come forward.

If that does occur, what then will become of all the high-sounding and pious rhetoric of pastor Chris Conlee? Summarizing his defense of Savage, and the church's position of “forgive, forget, and move on,” Conlee states that we shouldn't throw stones at a good man like Savage, who has certainly made mistakes in his past. Why ever not? “Because you never heal by hurting others,” he intoned at the conclusion of the service. 

There may be a kernel of truth to his statement, but note that in all of the story, neither Savage nor the churches of which he was a part have had to pay any sort of price, both in legal terms or in loss of position.

The clear message, then, seems to be this: “We want healing, forgiveness, and restoration for everyone involved—as long as it costs us nothing.”

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Exploring "The Bad Jesus" and Second Wave New Atheism: Part 1

Introduction

Are you on a journey that involves deconstructing your past, inherited beliefs about God?

Are you a Christian who is questioning any element of what you thought you knew, and thought you believed about Jesus, the Bible, and the church? 

If these descriptions fit you at all, then this and the next post I will write on these subjects should help you to do just that--and perhaps walk a bit further down the road of deconstruction and discovery.

A few years ago, I was researching the topic of “biblical literacy” for a paper I was writing for the Evangelical Homiletics Society conference. I wasn’t able to attend the conference, but the paper I wrote somehow made it in. During this research phase, I came across a wide variety of points of view on this subject of biblical literacy that literally ran the gamut.

The interesting aspect of what I discovered are what I ended up calling the various “stakeholders” in the discussion. It turns out that there are at least four groups who hold a share in the subject: first, church leaders and denominations; second, professional biblical scholars and professors; third, teachers of English literature; and fourth, Bible publishers.

(If you want to read more about my conclusions, then check out the 5-part series of articles I did on the subject of biblical literacy and preaching here).

Encounters with the “New Atheism”

By far the most refreshing voice I encountered in doing the research belonged to Dr Hector Avalos, who is Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University. Avalos has written extensively about this issue of biblical literacy, and his unique ability is that he—as a trained scholar—can point out objectively many of the flawed presuppositions operative in so much of what passes for objective, historical scholarship.

(Additionally, there are 2 Preacher's Forum podcast episodes--when it was still called that!--from October 2017 featuring an interview with Dr Avalos).

In terms of his own beliefs, Avalos describes himself as a “New Atheist”; this movement has come about largely since the events of 9/11, and exists primarily to caution people about the dangers posed by religion, and religionism, to the world.

What exactly is “religionism?” For example, religionism is demonstrated by the excessive religious fervour, or extreme zeal, that may drive followers to commit extreme acts of terror against people or the environment, for example. Avalos and his fellow New Atheists aren’t necessarily trying to disprove the existence of God—as in classical atheistic thought—but as trained scholars, are seeking to warn and inform people about how any religion can end up being a dangerous entity, and a threat to both people and the environment.

Why is 9/11 such an important date for New Atheists like Avalos? He comments that New Atheism views the phenomenon of this event “as illustrative of the potential of religion to bring global war and even the destruction of the ecosphere.”[1] New Atheists have gone beyond the work of such well-known authors like Dawkins and Hitchens, and seek to bring the element of trained scriptural (not just biblical, but all “ancient sacred texts”) into the conversation. Technically, this newest development should be described as the “second wave” of New Atheists, since they are trained biblical scholars, unlike the work of non-biblical scholars that dominated the first wave.

What exactly makes New Atheism a unique development in terms of biblical and scriptural scholarship? Avalos remarks that “the most salient feature of the New Atheism is that it has gone beyond the basic philosophical and scientific arguments against God and the Bible. The New Atheism emphasizes the immorality of religious thinking itself. It challenges the ethics of Christianity and the Bible, in particular.”[2]

Challenging Christianity and The Bible

As a New Atheist who has written extensively on a variety of subjects, Avalos has come under his share of attacks for his work, mostly by conservative evangelicals. He dares to question such “sacred cows” that have long had a home in Christian scholarship and churches, such as: which Bible? Is there such as thing as THE Bible? The fact is, he points out, that “the text of our New Testament is a hypothetical reconstruction that is identical to no single manuscript extant in the first few centuries of Christianity.

Our canon should have been made of many combinations and included books that we do not consider part of ‘biblical studies.’ Therefore, ‘the Bible’ is partly the construction of scholars (ancient or modern), and today the power to define the Bible still resides mostly with ecclesiastical authorities, as well as with academic biblical scholars. So, even if believers hold ‘the Bible’ to be relevant, it is because clerics and scholars have not divulged how much of it is constructed by scholars.”[3]

Moreover, he points out, what passes for “objective historical scholarship” is often masquerading as theologizing or apologetics by Christian scholars. For one thing, beyond this issue of “which Bible we are using,” in turn it raises a corollary question of “what exactly are the original forms of Jesus’s teaching?” NT scholars, for example, he remarks, “ultimately pick and choose what representation agrees with their opinion of Jesus’ historical teachings.”

In other words, the methods often used by Christian scholars and NT ethicists are as follows: first, paint whatever portrait of the Jesus you want to construct in the first place; and second, find “historical teaching” from the Gospels that backs up your point of view. In this way, the “Jesus of the Gospels” can become whatever we want him to be: a peace-loving, all-inclusive, pacifist guru who never did anything wrong, or said anything wrong. But if he was truly a human being, argues Avalos to the contrary, then surely he must have had flaws—as do we all.

The problem is, he points out, that the counter-argument most Christians would advance to such a claim—that Jesus, as both man and God, was somehow supra-human—doesn’t really fit the evidence from the Gospels that Jesus may have in fact made mistakes, or demonstrated real human flaws. All too often, however, the plain reading of the text (that seems to demonstrate that Jesus had human flaws) is explained away or sanitized.

Such practices by NT scholars and ethicists, seeking to construct a “perfect Jesus” on which to base modern ethics, has in turn led to an even greater problem. New Testament ethicists, for example, have both sanitized and protected those portraits of the Jesus they construct, “regardless of how historical they may be. Whether or not Jesus said or did anything claimed in the Gospels is not as important as the fact that these portrayals have become normative for modern Christians.”[4]

Conclusion

In other words, if what Avalos is saying is correct about the Bible and much of Christian scholarship, we as Christians have some deconstructing to do. We may have, in fact, been sold a bill of goods by biblical scholars, theologians and pastors. While we may well deride certain people for proof-texting from the Bible to “prove” their theological point, or to buttress their argument, it turns out that--as Avalos points out--so much of what passes for “objective historical scholarship” by Christian theologians and ethicists is essentially doing the same types of things—just on a higher, more “academic” level.

The problem is, however, that whatever goes on in the ivory tower of academia will eventually filter its way down to the street level. Pastors trained in such methods in seminary, by professional biblical scholars, will eventually have to translate the method into practical theology, sermons and Bible studies. This is where such teaching makes its way into churches, and the lives of ordinary, everyday average Christians.

Can you question such teaching and theology? Do you dare?

Welcome to the journey of discovery and deconstruction.

Footnotes

[1] Avalos, Hector. The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics. Sheffield: Phoenix Press, 2017: 13.

[2] Avalos, The Bad Jesus, 14.

[3] Avalos, The Bad Jesus, 25.

[4] Avalos, The Bad Jesus, 13.

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What Happens After People Leave the Church?

Introduction

Have you left the church behind? Are you a “post-Christian,” whatever that may mean?

According to a 2016 Pew Research poll of 35,000 American adults, statistics indicate that the population of self-identified “Christians” has dropped significantly from previous polls. The last time Pew engaged in a similar survey in 2007, 78.4% of those surveyed identified themselves as Christian; in 2016, that percentage had dropped to 70.6%.

Based upon the statistics gathered, Pew came to the conclusion that not only is America’s Christian share of the population declining, conversely those who do not identify with any organized religion is also on the rise. What’s been highly publicized, too, is the major shift among millennials, who are leaving evangelical churches in droves. They are reporting having more of a feeling that the church lost them, more so than the other way around.

Additionally, the rise of the recent #EmptyThePews, #Exvangelical, and #HowToEvangelical campaigns are surging among millennials who've walked away from the church, and are expressing their disdain for what they see as a hypocritical and deeply flawed institution in which they are no longer invested.

But surely there is more to the story; while it’s difficult to find actual statistics (in terms of real percentages) of people who have left church, there are at least two aspects to the decision to walk away from the church and the Christian faith: the first involves the “why” they decided to walk away; the second involves the question of “what happens next?”

Where do they go from here?

In this post, I’ll explore at least 11 possibilities related to these questions: why do people leave church, and what happens after that? It turns out that people leave churches for a wide variety of reasons (and this list is by no means exhaustive). It’s also worth nothing that this list is more of a spectrum than a boxed-off final list.

You may, for example, begin in one category, but then as time goes on progress to a different category; or be in the process of moving off the spectrum entirely. See if you can locate yourself, in terms of your spiritual journey, along the following spectrum!

Leaving Church: The Spectrum

I have identified at least 11 groups on the spectrum of “leaving church” that I’ve encountered, and probably there are more that I have yet to be made aware of at the time of this writing.

Note: I’ve edited this post to add another group, taking the list up to 11 so far (as of the 28th of April 2018 at least). More may be coming as I get additional feedback from people.

Here, then, are the 11, with possibly more to come:

1. People who have left the church (for a wide variety of reasons), but who still identify as Christians, believe in God and Jesus, and accept the Scriptures; and they want to keep doing church, just in different ways (more organic, less hierarchical?). Often you will hear from this group a form of argument that proceeds as follows: they believe that current forms of “institutional churches” are, in many ways, “doing church wrong” as far as they understand what church should be, based on their particular reading of Scripture. Richard Jacobson, author of the book Unchurching: Christianity without Churchianity would be a great example of someone from this group; perhaps also Frank Viola’s Reimagining Church fits in here too.

2. People who’ve left the church, still follow Jesus and believe in God, but don’t desire to participate in any form of intentional church gathering. In other words: still Christian, just don’t want to have anything to do with church any more; sort of “lone wolf” Christians going it pretty much alone.

Note: Obviously, the reasons behind the decision to walk away in these first two are myriad, highly complex, and need to be seriously nuanced. For the purposes of this spectrum, though, if you identify with either 1-2, you will be able to supply your own reasons as to why you walked away from the church.

3. People who have emotionally and perhaps intellectually left the organized church, but who continue to attend because their spouse or other family members still want to attend church. They are, in other words, physically present, but mentally checked out or “switched off.” Still attending church and going through the motions, they are only doing it to please someone else. Perhaps they are keeping quiet so as not to rock the boat by “outing” the fact that they no longer buy into what the church is doing. It could be also that they are secretly deconstructing various aspects of their Christian faith, or have even become an atheist; but this group feels that (for a variety of reasons) they can’t tell any of their friends or family members about it, so…Sunday after Sunday, you’ll find them quietly sitting in the pews. But they’re not engaged at all!

4. People who have been forced to leave, or quit church, by those in leadership. Perhaps they’ve experienced spiritual, sexual, or some other types of abuse, for example, or left for other similar reasons. Perhaps they’ve been treated hideously by other Christians and walked away because they just couldn’t handle the ill-treatment any more. They have not abandoned their Christian faith, and still want to participate in fellowship of any kind; but obviously would have major trust issues with those individuals involved in various forms of church leadership, and for good reason. It’s just that they’ve essentially been driven out and thus for them, church is no longer a safe place or space.

5. "Exvangelicals” (ex-evangelicals) who have left the church, are deconstructing their former faith, and currently no longer know what to believe anymore. I’ve found in this group that most exvangelicals have little or no desire to be a part of an organized, mainstream evangelical church. But among this group, there are some who still attend church; admittedly, perhaps a more progressive or liberal church, but church nonetheless.

6. Another category would be those exvangelicals who have progressed a bit more than just “not knowing what to believe anymore.” This group might define themselves as “a mixture of exvangelical and exploring other religions.” One could, for example, identify as “a Christo-pagan and yet follow another religious path, but also meld that with some of their former Christian beliefs.” This might be described as somewhat of a syncretistic approach, holding on to some aspects of their former faith, yet at the same time displaying an openness to spirituality and/or other religions.

7. People who have left the church; but significantly, these folks have given up on God as well, and have become atheist/agnostic. They no longer identify as Christians, and have no desire to return back to the faith, or participate in any form of church.

8. Those who have left the church, have rejected specifically the Judeo-Christian God (“Abrahamic God” someone called it), but who are open, and exploring, forms of spirituality or other religions as a life philosophy. This group has moved beyond the somewhat syncretistic approach of #6.

9. People who have left the church, but have not necessarily given up on their beliefs in God per se. I call this a “modified deist” position and might look like this: one still believes in the God who created the cosmos (or kicked off the evolutionary process, whichever), but then left it to its own devices. This is the “cosmic clock-maker God” of classic deist thought. This view would admit that there is a God, then, but he’s either no longer around, or he’s merely “watching us from a distance,” as the song has it. Food for thought: this position would go a long way toward explaining the problem of evil, incidentally: God has left humanity alone to work out its own problems, issues and solutions without his help. It’s also up to us to face evil in the form of the forces of nature (fire, floods, hurricanes, etc.), as well as doing something about the effects of evil people who harm others.

10. Those who've left the church and who describe themselves as "being Woke!" This group has become perhaps a tad more militant or outspoken against their former church home. This describes people who "are on a mission to completely dismantle, and do away with patriarchy. They are about working to disrupt the system of domination, ownership and exploitation of nature. Having left the church behind, they now seek to restore people's connection to our own human feelings that have been desensitized by patriarchal conditioning," much of which is embodied in not just Christianity but in all 3 Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).

11. This group of people have left the church and are much more militant about it than #10. Some in this category are actively seeking to dissuade people from becoming Christians, or may even try to talk Christians out of their faith, to the point of engaging in arguments with them. This group might be described as those who have become "angry atheists" after walking away from church. Why are they so angry? It turns out there are numerous reasons, but here's a few: a) they're upset and angry about the damage that religion has done in the world, both historically and currently; b) they're disillusioned when they come to believe that their former faith may have been built on mythology, or a corrupted or untrustworthy Bible; c) their God (in whom they used to believe) has somehow failed them, or disappointed them, or their understanding of him has been shaken to the point that they totally abandoned all beliefs in him. They are angry that they ever believed in such a God in the first place, and may be upset with themselves for being duped into believing in him at all. They may see Christians as "gullible but well-meaning fools" who live in a world of cognitive dissonance, but are able to keep their faith by neatly compartmentalizing potential problems. The angry atheist, for example, might view such types as comfortably living in a state of denial in order to continue clinging to a particular view of God that is comforting to them.

Conclusion

Did you find yourself on the spectrum at all? Or do you believe there are more categories that should be added in addition to the 11 I’ve identified so far?

I find especially as we progress further along the spectrum, say with numbers 7-10 for example, that a lot of those folk who have left the church and have become atheist/agnostic, or specifically rejecting the version of God proclaimed in Judaism and Christianity, that there is much more to the story. Oftentimes these 2 types report feeling just like brainwashed members of a religious cult who, once they leave that group, are quite angry and bitter about having been lied to and misled by those in leadership.

Quite often, there’s a fairly simplistic “biblical worldview” presented in much of evangelicalism that doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny; and besides, many evangelical churches don’t exactly encourage tough questions. Thus when things do fall apart, it often comes as a severe shock to many to discover that their faith wasn’t in fact very robust at all.

Moreover, in my continued interaction with people from this end of the spectrum, it becomes abundantly clear that within much of evangelical Christianity, for example, children are raised within a system that can present a very warped and distorted view of God or Jesus. This is typically based upon a particular reading of the Bible, certain theological or hermeneutical committments, or doctrinal/denominational distinctives.

These subjective biases can severely distort the picture of God that children, teens and adults alike form as they grow up and stay within that particular system. Once they walk away from it, however, their rejection of that God can be based on a “God who failed” type of thing. Small wonder, then, that they would want to reject such a characterization of God.

Another possibility, too, is that they come to question aspects of God that are presented in Scripture that seem irreconcilable. How could, for example, the God who ordered the genocide of entire people groups in the Old Testament be the same loving, merciful and forgiving God portrayed elsewhere in Scripture? Perhaps they feel they can’t reconcile this God, and so give up on him entirely rather than live with the cognitive dissonance any longer.

I’m also intrigued by the modified deist view of number 9. Perhaps this is a moderating position of a person who still wants to believe in God, but perhaps can’t reconcile their former views of God with the problem of evil. This view, however, has a major issue to surmount: what do you do with the Bible? It seems to present a very active God who does get personally involved in the affairs of humanity over time. Thus you’d have to call into question the biblical record (that is, if you still believe in the Bible, of course).  If you don't accept the Bible as your basic frame of reference, then this is somewhat of a moot point.

And remarking on #10 and #11, it seems that a lot of post-evangelicals who become atheists go through what is described as an "angry atheist phase." It's hard to stay angry, though, at both God and at Christians; someone told me recently, "You can't live angry." It is difficult to stay in this phase for extended periods of time; some do, however, and see it as their personal mission to tell the world about the abuses of patriarchy, and the major flaws, problems, contradictions and hypocrisies they see within the church--and potentially with God too.

Where do you fall on the spectrum of 1-11? Please leave a comment below if you feel that more should be added to the list.

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Deconstructing Biblical Inerrancy

Introduction

When's the last time you heard--or used--the word "inerrant" in any sort of context?

The fact is this: the very word “inerrant” is not one that is used by really anybody today--except by those within conservative, evangelical churches. In the final two MindShift podcasts for 2017, this is a topic that Ray Gilford and I explored, and I wanted to expand a bit further on the topic in this post.

Maybe you've never even heard of the term! So, what does it mean?

The basic definition of inerrancy involves "ascribing a quality to something that is believed to be 'error-free.'” In the case of the Bible, inerrancy refers to the belief that the Scripture is 100% without error in everything that it affirms. In other words, it is held that Scripture tells the truth about, well...everything.

Most evangelicals today would hold to some form of the following position on this teaching of inerrancy: there are no mistakes, contradictions, errors or false teachings of any kind to be found within the pages of Scripture, from Genesis right through to Revelation. This notion is largely based upon the following logical chain: God can only tell the truth --> this truth-telling God originated his communication to humanity ("God's Word") --> the authors wrote exactly what this truthful God wanted them to say, without error as guided by the Spirit (inspiration) --> therefore the Bible is 100% error-free.

But where did this doctrine arise, and how can anybody claim that an ancient book is completely without error, if it is—at some level at least—the product of fallible human authors and editors?

The Modernists and the Fundamentalists

The very word “inerrancy,” as applied to the Bible, arises out of the late 19th century. Framed by the debates between the modernists and the fundamentalists, these two groups began to do battle over such issues as the trustworthiness, veracity and historical accuracy of the Scriptures.

(For more information on this subject, please read my article on the origins of the two sides on this hotly-contested debate).

On one side of the divide were the modernists: liberal-leaning Christians who sought to synthesize their faith with the findings of modern science and biblical criticism, much of which arose from German scholarship in the late 18th through the 19th centuries. These liberal Christians were trying to find a way forward that would allow them to remain Christians, yet at the same time be "modern" in their thinking (hence the name). Liberals ended up questioning, for example, such things as the virgin birth of Jesus; the historical veracity of the Gospel record; the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch; and the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.

The fundamentalists, on the other hand, not only completely disagreed with the aims of liberal scholarship, they believed furthermore that the liberals were leading an all-out assault on the Bible. They accused the liberals of attacking not only the Bible’s veracity, but also of seeking to destroy the very heart of what they considered to be orthodox, historic Christianity. The name "fundamentalist" arose from a series of "fundamental" core beliefs that they believed represented the very essence of historic Christianity. The fundamentalists affirmed them, and the liberals denied them; thus in the view of the fundamentalists, liberal Christianity was "no gospel at all."

Thus, over a century ago, the stage was set for a clash of epic proportions between the liberals and the fundamentalists; the echoes of this publicly-fought culture war still resonate down through the corridors of time to this very day.

The Doctrine of Inerrancy

The doctrine of inerrancy itself arises out of the context of the heresy trial of Professor Charles Briggs of Union Seminary in 1891-1983, on the charge that he had abandoned the classic Presbyterian doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. His accusers, conservative scholars BB Warfield and Archibald Hodge, led the offensive against Briggs.

Within the context of this debate over the inspiration of Scripture, “conservatives developed the doctrine of inerrancy to guard the Bible against attack. They also used the doctrine as a diagnostic tool, to quickly discern whether an individual’s doctrine of Scripture was ‘liberal.’ Fundamentalists thus used the doctrine as both a shield and a weapon.”[1]

As mentioned earlier, the echoes of this clash between the liberals and the fundamentalists echo down through the decades, and still resonate today in many conservative evangelical churches, Bible colleges and seminaries. Many evangelicals even today are still concerned that the Bible is under assault, and with it, Christianity as a religion also.

Mangum comments on this phenomenon:

“Conservatives have never forgotten what happened to them in the early twentieth century; whole separatist denominations exist to this day as a result of these events. When conservatives tell what happened, it is a story of wolves coming into the church unawares in sheep’s clothing, using sheep’s language, and masquerading under sheep’s pseudo-piety. Therefore, of utmost importance to conservatives was the formulation of litmus tests and effective shibboleths by which subversive forces within the churches (and particularly within the churches’ academic institutions) could be rooted out. The doctrine of inerrancy served effectively as just such a litmus test and shibboleth.”[2]

According to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and Hermeneutics, framed at a 1978 international conference of concerned evangelical leaders, this is what the doctrine entails: as mentioned above, it begins with the notion (or presupposition) that God himself speaks only truth. Thus, by the agency and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the writers of Scripture wrote down exactly what this truth-speaking God wanted them to write, without error.

In its entirety, then, Scripture is God’s revelation of himself to humanity, and because of the Spirit’s guidance of human authors in the process of inspiration, it is therefore both true and accurate in everything that it affirms. The key statement is found in Article X:

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy.  We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.”[3]

Where are the Original Manuscripts?

Within this affirmation, particularly noteworthy is the phrase “autographic text of Scripture,” which refers to the original manuscripts, or autographs, of Scripture. So, for example, the first and original epistle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth would be illustrative of an original autograph, or first manuscript. However, for conservative scholars who affirm this teaching, there are several problems, chief of which is this: we do not possess a single original manuscript. That is a significant potential flaw in their argument, it would appear.

How, then, are Christians to know for certain that their Bibles today—which are copies of copies of copies, and translations from dead languages to boot—are indeed both inspired and inerrant?

The common answer given by conservative evangelical scholars on this question is that God has preserved his Word throughout the centuries. They admit that we do not possess the originals; but this is not something about which the average Christian should be worried. Why not? Because the science of textual criticism virtually guarantees that the Bibles we possess today are a near-faithful rendering of those original manuscripts. In the words of conservative scholar Sexton, “The field of textual criticism is crucial for the life of the church, both for ascertaining the original text and for affirming the inerrancy of that text.”[4]

Conservative scholar Dr John MacArthur concurs with Sexton’s position, and moreover states that “We believe in the Word of God.  We believe that it is inspired.  We believe that it is without error in the original autographs, and God has protected and preserved it to this day so that it substantially remains faithful to its original revelation.  We believe that when the Word speaks, we are commanded to listen.”[5]

This is not a new problem biblical scholars have suddenly uncovered. In the 17th century, Reformed scholar Francis Turretin stated: "By 'original texts' we do not mean the very autographs from the hands of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, which are known to be nonexistent. We mean copies (apographa), which have come in their name, because they record for us that word of God in the same words into which the sacred writers committed it under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit."[6]

On a Theopedia.com article on bibilcal inerrancy, the authors comment that "one should not worry [about the missing original autographs], for when we understand the Reliability of the New Testament and the reliability of the Old Testament, we may have confidence that our current Bibles are 98% accurate, and no major doctrine is affected by the manuscript variants. Likewise, the Bible has proved itself reliable through prophecy, historical events, archaeology, and in many other areas.”[7]

Once again, MacArthur would agree with this sentiment. He argues that only “the true text [of Scripture] must be used. We are indebted to those select scholars who labor tediously in the field of textual criticism. Their studies recover the original text of Scripture from the large volume of extant manuscript copies which are flawed by textual variants.”[8]

The Chicago Statement goes even one step beyond MacArthur, and addresses this same issue of whether a Christian should be concerned about these missing manuscripts. The Statement says:

“We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.”[9]

Deconstructing Inerrancy

One can see clearly from the above statement that conservative evangelicals, like their fundamentalist forbearers a century ago, are perhaps just as desperately keen to preserve the biblical text, and thereby guard against the possibility of any errors creeping in.

However, the main problem with the position of inerrancy is that it essentially paints the holder of that teaching into a corner. For the inerrantist, unfortunately the stakes are too high; it’s all-or-nothing, with the implications of admitting to a mistake catastrophic to their entire faith as Christians. Although they vigorously deny that they hold to some sort of “dictation model” of inspiration, it would almost seem that in order to preserve a high view of inspiration and inerrancy, they are virtually committed to such a position.

But does this type of "dictation model of inspiration" override biblical authors' personality and freedom of expression? As I used to teach my students in first-year Bible classes, whichever choice one makes—either the Bible as a dictation model or a total human book with no divine involvement— leaves one foundering on a rock at some point. In other words, whichever choice one makes a) solves some problems, but b) creates others.

On the one hand, going with the “100% God/0% humans” model is nothing more than mechanical dictation or ghost writing, which completely overrides the human authors’ personalities. Scripture does give evidence that human personalities and freedom of expression are throughout, as in for example the very-real human laments encountered in the book of Psalms.

On the other hand, going with the “0% God/100% humans” model means that the Bible is not inspired, trustworthy, authoritative, and thus is not special as an ancient text. Any variation along that spectrum of models only solves certain problems, while creating others.

Pick your poison.

There’s a second problem with inerrancy, mentioned earlier: we do not possess those original manuscripts. Furthermore, there’s an additional major issue: higher biblical criticism has demonstrated that the “original” manuscripts were, in fact, edited and redacted over time. Texts were also compiled from a variety of sources, both oral and written.

We must therefore pose a series of questions: when was a biblical text “stabilized” as it were, in its final form? Do we limit that final form to the canon of Scripture, or should we search for another, more elusive, “original”? If we even possessed an original text, exactly how would we be able to verify beyond all doubt that it was in fact an original manuscript? It might end up being dismissed as nothing more than a variant reading, when in fact it was an original.

The questions continue to mount. For example: are the "extra-biblical sources" that biblical authors used to compile a text to be considered inspired also? When Paul quoted from secular Greek philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17), should we consider them to be inspired? Perhaps Paul's sermon was inspired only when it was preached in time and space in Athens. Or should it be considered inspired only when it was included into the book of Acts in its final form? And finally, where does the inspiration process end--with the finally-edited book itself, or with the completed canon of Scripture?

Malley attempts to shed some light on this entire issue when he affirms that

“…the Bible’s inerrancy is limited to the original manuscripts. By original manuscripts is meant the parchments and papyri upon which the biblical authors (or their secretaries) first wrote the biblical texts—documents that are usually referred to as the autographs. This declaration allows that all manner of errors may have crept into the Bible in the process of copying. By itself this is completely irrelevant: the attribution of inerrancy to the original manuscripts is of little interest if that inerrancy has not been preserved. The doctrinal statement leaves out the assumption—necessary for confidence in actual Bibles—that the transmission process was largely faithful. If we are to understand what people actually think about biblical authority, we cannot trust the formal statement of doctrine but must look to more direct evidence.”[10]

In the end, unfortunately, the whole enterprise of inerrancy becomes little more than an exercise of searching for an elusive text down many rabbit holes. No wonder that conservative evangelicals, as were the fundamentalists a generation beforehand, so resistant to historical biblical criticism; form, source and redaction criticism, for example, obviously pose a huge existential problem for the inerrantist’s faith. Any chink in the armor of inerrancy becomes a fatal flaw destined to take down the entire system--and potentially, the personal faith of the inerrantist to boot.

One can see why conservatives have historically rejected, and tried to battle against, higher biblical criticism (at least from the variety of sources and editing point of view). If they were to admit that the findings of historical criticism were correct on any level, then the implications to their fairly simplistic view of inspiration and inerrancy would fall apart quickly, I suspect. But since their overcommitment to an inspired an inerrant Bible is intrinsically tied both to their identities and Christian faith, it is perhaps too emotionally threatening even to question or possibly deconstruct.

Conclusion

What happens when a conservative biblical scholar, committed to the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy, is confronted with potential evidence that disrupts their position? Bovell comments that “When an evangelical carries on his or her work in a context of paradigmatic crisis, that work can take on a special character with regard to its allegiance to the dominant paradigm. In the case of evangelicals reflecting upon the doctrine of inerrancy, it is ironic that it is precisely their single-minded faith commitment to Scripture that makes the crisis and all subsequent phases of extraordinary science so acute in the first place.”[11]

This overcommitment to biblical inerrancy has birthed a wide variety of distortions: biblicism (biblical literalism), bibliolatry (worship of the Bible as somehow a “magic book”), biblical absolutism (the idea that the Bible alone contains everything we need to know, including science, history, geography, and human psychology); and finally, biblical foundationalism (the expectations that all Christian beliefs are to be found in the Bible).

Clues that evangelical Christians have adopted such stances can be witnessed in often-made, high-sounding and pious statements, such as: "our church has a high view of the Bible"; "making biblical choices," "biblical  values" or "living biblically"; "biblical preaching" or “holding to biblical standards.” But surely this is narrowly circular reasoning; their belief that the Bible is authoritative and inspired is in turn derived from…statements made by the Bible itself that it is inspired, and thus authoritative.

But such circularity, although perhaps noticed by some, does not disturb most evangelical Christians; from their point of view, the reality that they are holding to such circular logic may be deemed a valid point, but ultimately it is not a relevant one—because the stakes are simply too high to admit that there might, in fact, be some major problems with their position. The implications are, quite simply, potentially too overwhelming, too emotionally threatening.


Sources

[1] Mangum, Todd. “The Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy, the Inerrancy of Scripture, and the Development of American Dispensationalism.” In Bovell, Carlos, ed. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture: Historical, Biblical, and Theoretical Perspectives: Volume 1. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publishers, 2011: 34.

[2] Mangum, “The Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy,” 37 (parenthesis his).

[3] The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and Hermeneutics. The  International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1978: Article X.

[4] Sexton, Jason. “NT Textual Criticism and Inerrancy.” The Master’s Seminary Journal 17/1 (Spring 2006): 52.

[5] MacArthur, John. Assorted Attacks on the Bible (Romans 1.18-32).” Sermon delivered on 27th August 2006. Accessible on http://www.gty.org.uk/resources/sermons/90-320/assorted-attacks-on-the-bible

[6] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Second Topic “The Holy Scriptures.”

[7] “Inerrancy,” (http://theopedia.com/inerrancy (Accessed 6th December 2017).

[8] MacArthur, John. ““The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy: Expository Preaching.” The Master’s Seminary Journal  Volume 1 Number 1 (Spring 1990): 9.

[9] The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and Hermeneutics, Article X.

[10] Malley, Brian. “Biblical Authority: A Social Scientist’s Perspective.” In In Bovell, Carlos, ed. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture: Historical, Biblical, and Theoretical Perspectives: Volume 1. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publishers, 2011: 161.

[11] Bovell, Carlos. “Inerrancy, a Paradigm in Crisis.” In Bovell, Carlos, ed. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture: Historical, Biblical, and Theoretical Perspectives: Volume 1. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publishers, 2011: 60.

 

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