Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

Biblical fundamentalists often interpret the scripture’s more poetic moments in a literal fashion — understanding, for instance, the Bible’s “historical” stories in the same way they think proper, modern history should be written. This is especially so in the case of the Gospels, those writings that narrate the activities and teachings of Jesus. Jesus spoke every word, performed every deed — and he did these things in the locations and sequences stated in the Gospels. Or at least this is what is assumed.

But there is a problem. When the Gospels are placed side by side and carefully compared, differences emerge. One will notice variations in the wording of Jesus’ utterances, variations in the details of some of the stories, and sometimes variations in chronology and sequence. These differences can shake one’s confidence in the reliability and truthfulness of the Bible. The solution, fundamentalists believe, is to find ways of harmonizing the discrepancies. If harmonization is successful, then the fundamentalist view of the Bible remains viable — all is well. But what if harmonization doesn’t work?

This is where New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and several of his popular books of the last decade come in. From Misquoting Jesus to his new How Jesus Became God, he hammers away at the pat answers and simplistic harmonizations. Biblical fundamentalism, Ehrman contends, is simply wrong. Therefore, he reasons, the Bible really can’t be trusted.

There is just one problem with this conclusion — it is flawed at its very core.

In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman argues that today’s text of the Bible (and he mostly speaks in reference to the Greek New Testament) does not exactly match that of the original writings and that some of the changes in the text were deliberate, at times motivated by theological dogmas. Therefore, we really don’t know what the evangelists originally wrote. In Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman shows why the Gospel narratives cannot be harmonized, nor their histories trusted. In Forged: Writing in the Name of God, he argues that several books of the Bible were not written by their ascribed authors. Most recently, in How Jesus Became God, Ehrman argues that the early church’s belief that Jesus was divine was not what Jesus claimed, nor what his original disciples believed.

Some of what Ehrman claims is not controversial in mainstream scholarship. All scholars of the Bible, including conservative evangelicals, know that there are some textual uncertainties. All, including most conservative scholars, know that oftentimes we cannot harmonize discrepant details. And all know that there was development in theological thinking about Jesus, especially after the resurrection.

The problem is that, in his popular books, Ehrman is frequently guilty of the logical fallacy of the excluded middle, the idea that there are only two options — either we have every word of the original text or we do not; either we have harmonious accounts of the teaching and activities of Jesus or we don’t.

Bart Ehrman is arguing like a fundamentalist. It is an all-or-nothing approach. If the Bible is truly inspired (and therefore trustworthy), it must be free from discrepancies. But this is not how most seasoned scholars think, including evangelicals. Nor was it the way early Christians thought.

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One of the first to comment on the Gospels was Papias of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Writing near the beginning of the second century, Papias says the author of the Gospel of Mark compiled chreiai (“useful, instructive anecdotes”) and wasn’t concerned with exact sequence and chronological order. The scholars and lecturers of this period of time instructed their pupils in the chreiai of the great thinkers, teaching them how to edit, contract, or expand the chreiai, and to give them new application, in order to make clear to new audiences the true meaning and significance of the wisdom of the great thinkers. Creative adaptation was expected. Remaining true to the original idea was essential.

This is what the writers of the New Testament Gospels did. Indeed, this is how Jesus taught his disciples when he said, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matt. 13:52). That is, the disciples of Jesus are to pull out new lessons and applications, as well as the old, from the treasure of teaching Jesus has given them. Why should anyone be surprised that the disciples and the evangelists who followed them did what Jesus instructed them to do? Each evangelist presented the life and teaching of Jesus in his own fashion, using creative ways that made it understandable and relevant to different cultures and settings. The numerous differences and discrepancies we see in the Gospels are the result of the writers doing what Jesus taught — and in many ways reflect the standards of history writing current in late antiquity.

At work in Ehrman’s books is an unrelenting attack directed against the fundamentalist understanding of the Bible. Ehrman is not attacking a straw man, for the object of his attacks does indeed exist. But his books address fundamentalist readings, not mainstream understandings of the Bible and the stories it tells. Christian scholars of every stripe believe that the biblical text, especially the Greek text of the New Testament, is well preserved, that the Gospels are accurate and tell us what Jesus really taught and did, and that the conviction that Jesus was in some sense divine is rooted in Jesus himself, in what he taught, and in the extraordinary things he did.

Craig A. Evans
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  • brianleport

    Well stated, Dr. Evans!

  • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

    If there are internal inconsistencies it becomes impossible to trust the bible axiomatically. This is what fundamentalists do, which is fallacious to start with, but demonstrating inconsistencies makes it more obviously fallacious. By “trust the bible” I mean to say ‘trust that the bible is describing reality and not mythology/chreiai’. The problem I think fundamentalists instinctually understand is that if you remove this axiom of a priori trusting the bible, you lose the basis for deciding what’s myth and what’s describing reality. When this basis is undermined all you have left is evidence, and there’s precious little for any supernatural claim of the bible.

  • http://www.ntexegesis.com/ Brian Renshaw

    Good word, thanks!

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    In fact, that isn’t even what the word Inspired means. The Holy Spirit isn’t some ancient babylonian mystery cult god come to take control of a living hand to write the Bible.

    • Doug Wilkening

      You are correct as far as today’s Christian beliefs are concerned. However, the guided hand was the dominant conservative Christian position on the inspiration of the Bible during the mid 20th century and probably earlier. I’ve read many a musty, dusty theology book from the 1940’s and 1950’s, and that’s exactly what they taught.

      One of the many reasons that propagandists such as Ehrman are off base is that they consistently argue against a set of Christian beliefs that were popular seventy-five or more years ago but that have long since fallen out of favor in both mainstream as well as evangelical Christianity. The skeptics are half a century or more behind the times. They badly need to update their arguments.

      • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

        Mid 20th century is rather late for me. But then again, I’m Catholic. Inspired *never* meant that for us.

        • Doug Wilkening

          I should have said, “dominant conservative Evangelical position….” I was inadvertently being parochial. Thanks for the correction.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            No, thank you for the education. I’m always willing to learn the theological history of our separated brethren, in fact, it’s been a fascination of me for some time. Especially the third to sixth generations away from Mother Church, of which this is a part; something happened in America starting in the late 1700s that took a relatively few Christian denominations from two major schisms (in 950 and 1517, respectively) and suddenly strange theology was branching out all over the place.

            I for one blame the First Amendment of the American Constitution and the rumored brutality and real aggression of the Catholic Inquisition in Spain. The new world was a place of exploration- not just physically, but spiritually- and once heretics were no longer burned at the stake, people went a little bit nuts for a while.

            Still, I’m looking forward, with Pope Francis, to the reunification ceremonies to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the original schism. The Protest is finally dying with the work Pope Benedict did in this arena; Lutherans and Anglicans and Roman Catholics at least will have much to celebrate on October 31, 2017 indeed. And Pope Francis is now even making inroads with the Orthodox, if the Islamics don’t kill all the Patriarchs off first. Martyrdom is a powerful force for unification as well.

          • Bill

            The belief that the Scriptures are fully inspired and infallible did not arise in modern times and it has been the dominant teaching of Christians in both the East and West from the earliest days. This view of the Scriptures was consistent with view held by many Jews about the books in the Hebrew Bible. Paul refers to these as the “oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2) and identifies these texts as first among the “advantages of the Jews” (Rom. 3:1). Notice in the quotes below that the words “true utterance,” “oracles,”incapable of false statement,” inspired by the Holy Spirit, “no single error due to the author,” are used.

            The Scriptures are:
            “the true utterance of the Holy Spirit” (Clement of Rome, 30-100 AD)
            “the oracles of the Lord” (Polycarp, 65-155 AD)
            “(writers of scripture) were incapable of a false statement.” (Irenaeus, 120-202 AD)
            “The sacred volumes are fully inspired by the Holy Spirit and there is no passage either in the Law or the Gospel, or the
            writings of an Apostle, which does not proceed from the inspired source of Divine Truth.” (Origen, 185-254 AD)
            “I have learnt to ascribe to those Books which are of the Canonical rank, and only to them, such reverence and honor, that I firmly
            believe that no single error due to the author is found in any of them.” (Augustine, 354-430)

            “The author of Holy Writ is God” and “It is heretical to say that any falsehood whatever is contained either in the Gospels or in any canonical Scripture.” (Thomas Aquinas, 1226-1274)
            In referring to Scripture and tradition, the Council of Trent says that both were given by “dictation by the mouth of Jesus Christ or of the Holy Ghost (Council of Trent, Session 4, 1546)

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            True meant something different than you mean it to mean, however. None of it is falsehood in the sense you mean it either.

          • Bill

            I am not sure how you know what I mean by true based on my statements. I did not attempt to define what true means. My point was that the belief that the scriptures are true and without error is belief/doctrine that goes all the way back to the Apostles. It did not begin with the modern period. Now concerning whether the ancients allowed more flexibility in their definition of what counts as true, I would say that most did. But then again, most contemporary, informed evangelicals do as well.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            They are true and without error. Entirely. Within their purpose, they are true and without error.

            The problem comes in with Sola Scriptura and the attempt to use them to replace the Authority of the Apostles.

          • Bill

            I don’t see the Scriptures and Apostolic authority as being at odds with each other. I see Apostolic authority as being expressed through the New Covenant Scriptures. Surely you would not hold to the view that Apostolic authority is contrary to Scriptural authority.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            I hold the view that Apostolic Authority the only human authority Christ granted, and that scripture is *created* by Apostolic Authority.

            The books are inspired, the table of contents, depends on Apostolic Authority.

            Thus, Scriptural Authority, on it’s own, is a useless concept. It’s just a special case of Apostolic Authority, and without Catholicism, you no longer have Apostolic Authority.

          • Bill
          • Doug Wilkening

            You may want to also look at the Eastern Orthodox point of view, in which “Apostolic authority” is replaced by the authority of the church as a community of believers anointed by the Holy Spirit. The two concepts function similarly in establishing the authority of scripture, but the Roman Catholic position is more hierarchically oriented, whereas the Eastern Orthodox position is more communally-oriented. Given the two, my own personal preference is for the Eastern Orthodox.

            But you are correct that the Calvinist sola scriptura doesn’t work, it’s a logical impossibility, simply because nowhere in the scriptures does it say which writings constitute the canon of scripture. We need either an apostolic authority or a communal authority to at the very least inform us as to which writings constitute scripture.
            That’s my two cents.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            From the Roman Catholic point of view, the Eastern Orthodox Churches have just as much Apostolic Authority as we do- and have in some situations, done a much better job of protecting it (The Syriac Orthodox Liturgy and Canon of Scripture come to mind, even if they were retranslations from the Greek back into Aramaic in the 450s). I like the subsidiarity of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy though- it insures you at least have a low level competent authority making the local decisions, but has *standards* as to who that authority is that are universal. The whole idea of a hierarchy where the Pope has the *least* power, and the local Bishop or Parish Priest the greatest, is interesting in and of itself.

  • stefanstackhouse

    Scholars have been practicing the discipline of textual criticism for a couple of centuries now, and they have had a HUGE number of texts to work with – far more than for any other ancient document. Ehrman surely knows this. The modern critical text of the Greek New Testament that we now have is as accurate and reliable as any ancient document possibly can be, and far more so than most.

    The public ministry of Jesus went on for almost three years. He was teaching and working miracles almost every day. He certainly repeated his teachings over and over again as He traveled from village to village, but many of the things He said repeatedly were undoubtedly not always repeated EXACTLY. I am sure that He had a basic “stump speech”, of which the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain are two examples of a sermon that must have been delivered dozens if not hundreds of times. Each time was a little different, just as these two examples differ from each other. Such things do not constitute a “contradiction”. In fact, the vast majority of things that unbelievers like Ehrman cite as contradictions can easily be attributed to different recollections of different but commonly similar incidents that happened over the course of three years.

    If you really don’t want to believe in God, in Jesus, and in the Bible, you can always find reasons for disbelief. Faith wouldn’t be possible if faithlessness were not also possible.

  • ansonheath

    Excellent analysis! The Bible is a narrative, not a detailed chronology. In other words, understanding the whole story is paramount – like seeing the forest, not just getting tangled up in the trees! It’s not a gotcha game on any one scripture.

  • http://nleaven.wordpress.com/ TC Robinson

    Excellent! Bart Ehrmans argues like the very ones he continues to target. Time for Ehrman to engage the likes of Dr. Evans.

  • Richard Conway

    I don’t think it is necessary to bring fundamentalism as a whole into the argument, considering that one of the five fundamental beliefs of inerrancy could be argued as this middle road as well (depending upon the exact definition of inerrancy to a fundamentalist. I take my ideas of it from JI Packer’s book on fundamentalism, although that may be a dated definition). Ehrman presents an either/or fallacy and that’s enough to point out to defeat his argument.