Unravelling fundamentalist truth

This is the fourth post in Peter Bolt’s series on the New Atheists. (Read the first, second and third.)

‘Fundamentalism’ is a swear word. It takes many forms, theistic and atheistic. Basically it is rationalism in a different guise.

As is often the case when a word becomes a swear word, there is also a positive sense of the word that lies buried beneath the invective. ‘Queenslander’ means something entirely different on State of Origin night than when I am looking for a holiday destination. A ‘fundamentalist’ (positively speaking) is someone who holds that there are certain ‘fundamentals’ that ought to believed, for these give shape to their world view. In this positive sense, there are ‘fundamentals’ in any branch of knowledge (= science)—whether about God, or not about God.

Within ‘theistic’ circles, there is a ‘fundamentalist’ mindset that includes a very tight definition of what the New Testament (indeed, the Bible) should be like. It goes like this: if the Bible is God’s word and if God is perfect, then the Bible should contain no errors at all. As noble as this sounds, this is to decide the question beforehand. That is, rightly or wrongly, it needs to be recognized for what it is: an a priori argument.

There is a long history of people deciding beforehand what God should (or should not) be like (a priori), and then, by virtue of their own definition, deciding other things that do (or do not) follow. This approach can lead to many sad stories of people missing just how ‘good’ the good news is—because they have struggled against their own definitions!

Take the story of Bart Ehrman, for example. Richard Dawkins rejoices over this tale of a present-day New Testament scholar, whom he places among the ‘sophisticated Christians’ who moved from being a ‘fundamentalist’ to being a ‘sceptic’, due to discovering what Dawkins calls the “massive fallibility of the scriptures”.1

Ehrman’s books add an autobiographical touch to this journey: he had Episcopal beginnings; he was ‘born-again’ in his teens; he attended, firstly, the fundamentalist Moody Bible College and then evangelical Wheaton; and his coming of age happened at scholarly Princeton.2 At the fundamentalist end of that movement, he thought, “the Bible is the inerrant word of God. It contains no mistakes”.3 At the other end, he came to view the Bible as “a very human book, with very human points of view, many of which differ from one another”.4

This kind of journey (although, here, I am not describing Ehrman’s journey in particular, please note) could be described with a syllogism:

I used to think that 1. The Bible as the word of God should contain no errors.
I discovered that 2. The Bible contains differences between authors (which I labelled ‘errors’).
I now conclude that 3. Therefore the Bible is not God’s word, but only human.

The atheist version of this syllogism has been around for a long time. (There’s nothing ‘new’ here for the ‘New Atheists’, although Ehrman’s journey and observations have, of course, excited their interest). This is no surprise, for both the theistic and atheistic versions of this ‘fundamentalist’ view of the Bible have something in common: they are two sides of the one coin. They both arise from rationalism.

The empiricist, on the other hand, would say, “We cannot decide the question beforehand; we have to look at the evidence. What do we see there? What is the Bible like? And yes, it does make the claim to be God’s word, so what does this book, which claims to be God’s word, actually look like? Oh, and—did you notice—it actually claims to be the word of human beings as well. How do those two sides fit together?”

As in other branches of science, when questions, difficulties, problems and even downright apparent contradictions arise, this is not the moment for rejecting everything, but a moment for asking further questions, researching more and constructing possible scenarios—just like Dawkins says of the ‘gaps’ in other kinds of scientific knowledge:

It is an essential part of the scientific enterprise to admit ignorance, even to exult in ignorance as a challenge to future conquests.5

Furthermore, in fact, the ‘differences’ in the New Testament are nothing new to anyone really, and there are other views of inspiration around that can cope adequately with them. That is, as long as we want to be empiricists, we should deal with the facts as they present themselves, rather than being rationalists, who predetermine what the case ought to be, then struggle against the evidence when it is not what they ask for.

In other words, the hypothetical syllogism could have a different outcome:

I used to think that 1. The Bible as the word of God should contain no errors.
I discovered that 2. The Bible contains differences between authors (which I labelled ‘errors’).
I now conclude that 3. My previous view of the Bible needs to be revised. How does the Bible, as the word of human beings, also bring me the word of God?

1 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2006, pp. 120-121.

Bart D Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and why, HarperCollins, New York, 2005, pp. 1–15.

3 ibid., p. 4.

4 ibid., p. 13.

5 Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 151.

30 thoughts on “Unravelling fundamentalist truth

  1. Peter Bolt,

    I think your point 2 does not describe non-Christians fairly. I find that more often the point 2 is:
    – I discovered that 2. The Bible has contradictions and errors (copying errors and many deliberate changes made by scribes). I think this is closer to Ehrman’s view.
    – I discovered that 2. The Bible offers such a bad or incoherent guide to morality coming from the just and loving God.

    New atheist see that it is irrelevant if the Bible contains differences between authors because they hear Christians claim that the Holy Spirit guided/inspired all these books in the Bible.

  2. Peter,

    I’m a fundamentalist. The reason I believe the Bible has no errors is because it says it contains no errors. It’s a presuppositional argument, but then that should come as no surprise in an apologetic context.

    The logical argument you gave (God’s word > God is perfect > no error) may be used by some fundamentalists, but having moved in the circles for a while, I don’t think it’s the primary argument at all.

    The dilemma’s raised by the two facts of Scripture being God’s word and man’s word are not hard to address if one is willing to consider the nuance of orthodox bibliology.

    In other words, I think we can defend God’s word without needing to beat up on fundamentalist thinking. The fact is, fundamentalist thinking has been at the forefront of the defence of Scripture in the not too distant past.

  3. Ben,

    In order to the avoid the a priori, deductive argument that is based on two explicit teachings of Scripture, I would need to take an inductive look at Scripture to answer that question.

    Since that would necessarily be a lengthy process, I’ll instead direct you to any of the excellent evangelical systematic theology textbooks in print.

    That said, your point is taken. The doctrine doesn’t have an easy prooftext to refer to.

    On the other hand, my points stand. First, the deductive argument follows. Second, there are various nuances within inerrancy (absolute inerrancy, full inerrancy, etc.) which help blend the empirical with the “rationalistic” evidence.

  4. Ben
    I can answer that.  It doesn’t.  It also doesn’t give us a list of books that the bible contain.  Nor does it even call itself “the Bible”.  None of the books claim to be the infallible, inspired word of God and even if they did, it does not prove that it is.  The only real answer to the question is that the early Church in the fourth century made a definitive list of the books to be considered the Word of God. 

    The problem with Protestants debating with Atheist is that the Atheists will win if Protestants insist that the bible self-authenticates itself.  On the other hand, Catholics at least don’t pretend that the bible appeared on a cloud from heaven.  The Catholic Church insists that fallible men wrote the infallible word of God and, through the church, we can know this for sure.  Jesus never wrote a word, nor did He command anyone to do so.  So the Atheist could also pose the question as to why Christians are a people of the book when it’s author never asked for one.

    Of course, this isn’t going to convince you of the reality of God, nor of His Word.  Thought I’d throw a spanner in the works, which will annoy some, I’m sure:)

  5. Jason,
    No offence intended. I did try to say that there is a fundamentalism of a positive kind, which I believe. I guess my real target is the kind of rationalism (whether theistic, or atheistic) that declares beforehand what God should or should not be like, or should or should not do, a priori, by definition, and then proceeds to the evidence. A more empirical approach, I believe, is demanded by the evidence, that is, by the nature of the New Testament itself.

  6. Hi Donna,
    thanks for your contribution. There is more to say about how the books we know as the ‘New Testament’ emerged. I don’t think any Protestant would like the caricature of the book falling from Heaven—that may be said of other books, but not a Protestant argument about the Bible, I don’t think.

    Any later decisions about the NT books were also not <em>bestowing<em> authority upon them, but were simply <em>recognising<em> the books that had already emerged as ‘apostolic’.

    The canon was not decreed, it emerged. So, when Paul wrote to the Corinthians, for example, he urged them to recognise his authority as an apostle of Christ. Some were happy to do so, some were not (as is clear from the letter). His claim was to be the apostle to the Gentiles, authorised by the risen Christ. The issue was whether that would be recognised by others.

    Those that recognised his apostolic authority, now had a letter from him. Other churches also had letters from him, and, as these letters were circulated amongst the churches, gradually a ‘corpus’ of Paul’s letters emerged. The same kind of process can be proposed for the emergence of the rest of the NT.

    For sure, some letters of the NT were not as widely accepted as others, which caused some discussion amongst the churches of a later time (and still!). But this reinforces the basic principle that was in operation: has the connection with the apostles been recognised from the beginning?

  7. Hi Peter Bolt,

    I have two questions arising from your post.

    1. You write “[the Bible] does make the claim to be God’s word.” As Donna basically points out, it does not. And your response to her re-frames the NT phenomenon in terms of emergence and apostolic connection. Might it not be better to stop using phrases like “the Bible does make the claim to be God’s word” and replace it with something more accurate?

    2. What do you do if you find the empirical evidence on some issues to be ambiguous and inconclusive? To take a specific example only for illustrative purposes, I am not entirely convinced that the pastoral epistles were written by Paul, and I am also not completely persuaded by those that claim they weren’t.

  8. Rob and Donna – there are at least large chunks of the Bible that claim to be the word of God; e.g. Exod 20:1, Jer 1:4, Ezek 1:3, Joel 1:1, lots of other prophets, 1 Cor 14:36-37, Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel (John 17:8, 14). Hebrews 1-4 frequently cites various parts of the Old Testament using a formula such as “God says:” I think these references constitute an abundant source of material for Peter’s proposed empirical investigation of what it means for a written text to be the word of God.

  9. @Lionel,
    Yes, but don’t you think there is a huge difference between the statements “there are at least large chunks of the Bible that claim to be the word of God” to “the Bible claims to the the word of God”?

  10. 2Tim3:16 might be helpful. “all scripture is God breathed” or in other translations “all scripture is breathed out by God…”

  11. Yes it does open that can of worms…

    Also the Holy Spirit or God’s spirit upon someone, as with the prophets, as well as the apostles I guess is part of it. The idea raised above that it is a fully human written collection of documents that is fully inspired by God. But yes it still leaves open the question of who put together the cannon. While I can answer that with ‘the counsel of Nicea, or the Nicene creed was responsible’, that does not really answer your question does it?

    Sorry but I don’t have an answer, at least an articulated one yet for that, still going through thinking myself.

  12. Callan, the author of 2 Timothy probably had some kind of collection of Hebrew writings in view when he spoke of “all scripture”. Even if the author had something wider in view, it would not have been the protestant canon.

  13. 2Tim3:16 tells us that all scripture is inspired but the problem is it does not give us a list of books to be included.  This is not a prooftext for the bible alone or for bible infalliblity.  Furthermore, this text must be referring to OT scripture, because the NT wasn’t completed as yet.

    Lionel the verses you quote also do not give us definitive lists.

    This is an argument that will go round and round unless there is honesty.  The historical facts are, contrary to what Peter has said, that the canon was decreed firstly by Damascus, then the Council of Hippo and then Carthage.

    We often forget that Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch’s and other writings by the Church fathers were also considered by some to be authoritative.  That is why a decree was made to ensure that documents like the Gospel of Thomas for example did not become an authoritative text.  There was obvious sorting out to be done.

    Peter, I apologise if I offended anyone regarding my comment about the bible coming down from heaven.  I do believe, however, that some Christians do not consider that the bible does not give us a list of books, so therefore cannot be self-authenticating.  A lot is taken for granted and we only need to ask a few questions and look into the history of the church to gain a better understanding.

    Whilst, for some it may be obvious that the scriptures are God-inspired, for others it is not so obvious.  I often wonder why Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians or Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians were not part of the canon.  When I read them they certainly read as though they are God-breathed. 


  14. Here is a link to some comments on Lionel’s original sola scriptura post which I made outlining an inductive approach to seeing from the Scriptures how one might develop a doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture.

    It is correct that it does not provide a “list”, but it does show how this status of inspired is applied and extended to NT documents.

  15. Donna,
    no offense taken!

    The claim for God’s authority is already there as far back as Paul’s letters were written. ‘He is the apostle of Jesus Christ, therefore …’ Perhaps an illustration of the strength of Paul’s claim can be 1 Cor 14:37 ‘If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord’.

    The recognition of this authority is also there at the time —when the churches received the apostolic letters. Even at the time the churches received Paul’s writings as authoritative; note 2 Peter 3:16 which puts Paul’s writings amongst ‘the other Scriptures’.

    To use the Gospels and Acts to trace this back further, Jesus carefully prepared a select group of men to be his witnesses (and then later added Paul to it), in order to have the foundational role of testifying to what they had seen and heard, before AND after Jesus’ resurrection (see for example Acts 10:41). And yes, he promised to equip them with his Holy Spirit, that is, the presence of God in their lives would help them perform this important foundational task. They are the ones who bring the authorised testimony that is released upon the world by the risen Christ, that is, the ‘word of God’.

    As to the list of books etc, see my comments above. The emergence of the canon requires a historical discussion and, once again, despite views to the contrary (such as those you have pointed out) there was no decision or decree that created some state of affairs that was not there beforehand; there was simply a recognition of the texts that had always been accepted or not (although admittedly the borders of the list were blurry).

  16. Rob,
    I guess i have touched upon your two questions a little in my response to Donna. I think the New Testament as the word of God is closely related to the notion of apostolic authority, and we should track those two things down together. The blanket statement that the NT is the word of God will satisfy those who want to hear such confessions (and I will add mine!), but I am not sure too much is gained simply by the profession of it as a slogan. What it means, it seems to me, is that the NT brings us the authorised witness to Jesus Christ from the very people he commissioned to do that task. They preached the message of the risen Jesus, which they summarised as ‘the gospel’, or ‘the word of God’, and this message is what they also wrote about, and so the New Testament emerged. It is the written gospel, the written ‘word of God’.

    On the authorship question. If the document claims to be by Paul, and the best case can be made for it to NOT be from Paul, then it is a forgery and should not be regarded as part of the canon. This was the attitude of the early Christians, who knew what forgeries were and didn’t think deception was to be embedded into the New Testament.

    The arguments for and against the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals are probably a little beyond the post-at-hand, but I don’t think the ‘no’ case is too strong.

    Notice the ‘direction of travel’ here, however. As with other early church discussions, a body of material had emerged as ‘scripture’, and the question was should it STAY IN. Not should we put it in. That is, the canon emerged, as the authoritative ‘voice’ of the apostles was recognised within.

  17. Peter
    My argument here is not whether the bible is the Word of God or whether the apostles had an authoritative voice.  Simply, the bible cannot and does not self-authenticate.

    Notice that Paul does not authenticate his writings as scripture, but Peter.  Paul did not think he was writing an inspired scripture but a series of letters to the churches. 

    The reference you use in 1 Cor only suggests that he is speaking on behalf of the Lord.  That in itself does not make something scripture.  We all, from time to time speak for the Lord.

    The problem with saying that Jesus used his apostles to bring forth the Word (in written form) is that a very small percentage of them wrote the NT.  So if the apostolic argument is the litmus test, then a good deal of the NT would not be part of the canon.  I am in no way suggesting that the apostles did not have authority and I personally believe all public revelation ceased at the death of the last apostle.  I hope you see my point.

    Whilst I don’t want to harp on what I have said previously regarding when the official canon was ratified, the fact remains that these councils sought to settle some disputes that were around at the time.  Even if I give you the point that the canon was already generally accepted before these councils, it still proves that men, not the bible claim them to be scripture – albeit with the help of the Holy Spirit.  If a definitive statement was not made, then we could still be debating the validity of the Gospel of Thomas or any of the other spurious books that were floating around at the time.  Imagine, if the church did not make a definitive statement about whether gentiles should be circumcised or not at the council of Jerusalem, some poor fellows would be putting off indefinitely their faith in Christ!


  18. @Rob (answering your comment about 10 comments ago!) Yes, there’s a significant difference. But no, I don’t think it’s a “huge” difference, given that the large chunks are numerous and are spread across many different parts of the canon.

  19. Donna,
    There are several indications of an intersubjective experience (that is a subjective experience shared by many) of a conviction that these words of men are the words of God, and this is evident already in the NT age (1 Thess 1:5, 2:13), and mentioned by Jesus in his ‘my sheep hear my voice’ (Jn 10:3, etc). In my very limited research into the question, this relationship to ‘a book’ is something apparently NOT shared by other groups with ‘sacred books’.

    Paul’s claims are authoritative, not just speaking for the Lord in some general sense. Check out the next verse (1 Cor 14:38) ‘If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized’. (!)

    There is no problem saying that councils settled disputes, that is true. In regard to the canon, this means they recognised what had already been received by the churches from the beginning—and so rejected other writings or claims as having NOT been received from the beginning. Notice Bp Serapion’s wording, for example: ‘… we carefully reject, knowing that no such writings have ever been handed down to us’.

    As for lists, there are several outside what the councils stated, as you no doubt realise. These were compiled because alternative theories were on offer (such as Marcion). There is the Muratorian fragment (mid 2nd c), Codex Claromontanus (late 3rd), and Eusebius of Caesarea (early 4th). These three show that about 20 of the NT books were unquestioned from 2nd century.

    But having said all this, to get back to the original post, there is no need to have an ‘a priori’ view that the Scriptures MUST BE self-authenticating etc. The discussion needs to begin historically (not theologically or ecclesiastically), namely, where do we need to go to find the primary sources for the early christian movement, and, more importantly, for the person that began it all, a crucified man who (so the story goes) rose from the dead.  The empirical quest for evidence (rather than rationalistic decisions beforehand) drives us back to these writings and, based in eyewitness testimony, they are therefore (historically) authoritative. And, lo and behold, they proclaim ‘the word of God’, namely, that Jesus Christ died and rose again for a lost world.

  20. Hi Peter,
    Thanks for your reply. I did not want to get into a debate about authorship of the pastoral epistles – I was merely giving a concrete example to illustrate my question about ambiguity of empirical evidence.

    Can I pursue this question with reference to your most recent comment? You say that the discussion needs to begin historically and conclude by saying that the NT canon is historically authoritative. Do you reach this conclusion via some historical method? Given that historical reconstruction of ancient movements can do no better than positing conclusions in terms of “probabilities” due to (sometimes) ambiguous and incomplete evidence, how do you move toward confession while remaining within this empirical framework? I don’t think you can. At some point, one needs to bring something else to the table if one wants to confess that the Bible is the word of God – some a priori commitment, social conditioning, conviction by the Spirit, subjective experience or whatever.

    However, perhaps (if I have understood you correctly) your post is asking not whether the Bible is the word of God (that is actually the premise, provided that one understands “Bible” as the protestant canon), but rather, what does it mean for the Bible to be the word of God. You then assert that empirical method undermines the case for the doctrine inerrancy, as “fundamentalists” understand it.

    I would probably go further, as I think that there is strong empirical evidence to suggest that Jesus subverted parts of the Torah. On the other hand (as most readers of this blog will probably point out – see Sandy’s comment for example), Jesus affirmed Torah as God’s word. If this is the case, then Jesus shows some ambivalence toward Torah. This will have unsettling implications for some.

    I personally struggle to see how (for example) 1 Samuel 15 fits with a picture of a just and loving God, and with Jesus’ ethic of loving one’s enemies, following the way of the cross and renouncing violence. To me, the empirical evidence seems to point away from traditional mainstream evangelical understandings of scripture. I have spoken to many people about this and have found no satisfactory answers.

  21. Hi Lionel,
    Thanks for your reply. But there is still the problem of determining what was in the canon. And whose canon? Have you read the apocrypha? Parts of that claim to be the word of God. What is your position on it? Something similar to the 39 articles? Do you read it for example of life and instruction of manners? Matters are somewhat more complex, and those who ask genuine questions are so often hit with proof texts and waving slogans that it can be exasperating at times. (Please note that I am not accusing you of doing this smile )

  22. Hi Rob,

    I think Tobit is one of the funniest books I’ve read for a while. I especially love the random domesticated dog (Tob 5:16, 11:4). wink I think others are discussing the questions about canon quite adequately, so I’ll refrain.

    In all this, I was only responding to your comment: ‘Might it not be better to stop using phrases like “the Bible does make the claim to be God’s word” and replace it with something more accurate?’ My point is that, while it needs to be qualified by canonical considerations, “the Bible does make the claim to be God’s word” is still a helpful phrase, providing an important piece of data for Peter’s empirical quest.

  23. Lionel, the quest you speak of is hardly proceeding with rigor if you label “the Bible does make the claim to be God’s word” as an important piece of empirical data. If you think that it is a helpful phrase that summarises conclusions that you have come to after negotiating through various complex arguments, then fine, but let’s not short-circuit the whole process that draws you to that conclusion by simply calling it data.

    I hope that this does not sound harsh in tone, and I am not meaning to be argumentative. But I don’t think that conservative evangelicals do themselves any favours by ignoring the complexity of the situation. As you at least acknowledged five comments above, there IS a “significant difference” between the two claims that were being made.

  24. Hi Lionel,
    Let me put it another way. Luther doubted that James should have been part of the canon. (Even if you dispute this claim, suppose for the sake of argument that he did). You would probably disagree with him. On what basis do you differ with Luther and follow the broad consensus of the church? The author makes no explicit internal claim that he is writing the words of God, even though he addresses his readers with authority. There is no other book in the Bible that attests to it scriptural status.

    (I do acknowledge that you don’t want to get into a debate about the canon, so if you don’t want to continue, just let me know and I won’t take it personally smile )

  25. Hi Rob,

    No harshness or argumentativeness inferred (nor intended)! I think these are good questions, but I reckon the specific details of the canon are too complex (and time consuming) for me to fruitfully discuss in this forum.

    I do agree that we sometimes have to acknowledge the complexity of the canonical situation. But not always. In this case, in the context of Peter’s post, the phrase “the Bible claims to be God’s word” works quite well. Why is that? Because in this case, the idea of the Bible being God’s word is not being used to close down the discussion, but to open it up. Whether or not you’re dealing implicitly with the Bible as a whole or explicitly with those many parts of the Bible that do claim to be God’s word (or which claim that other parts of the Bible are God’s word), the quest is ultimately the same: to work out what the claim “this is God’s word” actually means in its context, without assuming you know what the answer is.

    I think that the canonical question is a good question, but not always relevant to the task at hand.

  26. Rob,
    1. ‘historically authoritative’ simply means: how else are you going to get at the historical facts except through the word of those who were familiar with them (eyewitnesses or those who reported the eyewitness accounts)? As with any event, there is a group of people who alone know of ‘what happened’, and so their word is ‘historically authoritative’. This is certainly ‘historical method’, and, yes, it includes the usual associated ‘probability’ arguments.

    2. This then moves us beyond discussion of ‘a book’, to the person the book is about. What do our sources say about Jesus and the movement which sprang from him? Because it largely (but of course not wholly) pivots upon his resurrection from the dead, that is what the witnesses are especially called to testify to (Acts 10:39–43), and that is what they did (see the testimony now embedded in Acts). This event was clothed around with 1) the rest of Jesus’ life and work; 2) the prophetic witness, now proclaimed to be fulfilled in him; 3) the strange events of the Day of Pentecost, ie. the pouring out of the last-days’ Holy Spirit (Acts 2). Putting it all together they concluded and proclaimed: ‘this Jesus is both Lord and Christ’.

    3. This message they therefore proclaimed as ‘the word of God’, ‘the gospel of God’, ‘the word of life’, etc etc. And this apostolic witness (joined by that of Paul with his own distinct ‘event’ to speak of, see Acts 9, 22, 26; Gal 1; and other allusions) eventually became embedded in letters/Gospels written to support the expanding Christian movement, and this ‘emerged’ as the New Testament.

    4. As part of the evidence from the earliest days, there was a ‘subjective’ experience labelled ‘conviction’ and described as recognising in the word of human beings the word of God (e.g. 1 Thess 1:5; 2:13), that was wrought by the Holy Spirit. Because this experience is more than one person’s, it is better to call it ‘intersubjective’—and this intersubjective experience forms part of the ‘evidence’. It also appears to continue beyond the NT period and into today. But it is not (or need not be) ‘a priori’, but arises after the event and by means of the event, through hearing and considering the apostolic witness to what they called ‘the word of God’, namely, the message about Jesus.

    5. The post was against a rationalistic view of things (which, it seems, we are all prone to), that seeks to say what things should be, rather than seeking to understand how they actually are. The latter (which I am calling empirical) method leads to a great deal of messiness, perhaps, and for those who like a cut and dried, black and white, answer, it may seem disatisfying. But that is the complexity of real life in the real world, and that is history. And, because Christianity is all about a historical person who rose from the dead as ‘Lord and Christ’, then Christians are ‘stuck’ (thankfully) with history. But, in this case, it speaks loudly enough.

    6. I, like you, think that Jesus changed the status of the Old Testament—not by setting it aside, but by fulfilling it. (I know this raises more issues!). And, yes, there is much in the OT that now strikes against our (Christian inspired?) sense of morality. I haven’t touched on that as yet, but I know it is a real problem for many. Again (and not to dismiss it as unimportant at all), this speaks of the ‘messiness’ the empiricist is ‘stuck with’—even the awkwardness of a God who ‘does these kind of things’ is part of the data. And, as in the post, whereas the Rationalist might say, ‘God shouldn’t do this kind of thing’; the empiricist says, ‘this raises more questions for us about what God is and is not like. Let’s inquire further …’.

  27. Hi Peter,
    Thanks for your response. I broadly agree with the way you have explained things here. In particular, I welcome the acknowledgment that (as understood in the context in which you wrote) there are associated probabilities, that not everything is black and white, and that there is a “great deal of messiness”. I feel that I have been arguing this case to friends for a number of years, but that I have been getting little traction. Perhaps because some of my tentative conclusions about how one navigates that “messiness” is too radical.

    I have a number of observations.

    i) Your comment seems to advocate that the Word of God is to be seen (initially at least) as the apostolic proclamation about Jesus, and that the written texts take the function primarily as witness to Jesus or to that proclamation.

    ii) If we are to let go of our rationalist mindset, then we cannot insist, a priori, that all parts of the Bible cohere or are consistent. (In fact, at present I don’t think the thesis that all the scriptures cohere can be sustained empirically, but that is just my judgment.)

    iii) This, in turn, opens up a wide spectrum of interpretive possibilities. Which texts do we privelege? (And let’s face it, we all privelege some texts over others; we might as well be honest about it.) How do we relate with those who take a different perspective?

    iv) Related to this, it seems to me that if Paul or the author of Matthew were to take a contemporary evangelical course in Biblical exegesis (at least, as it was modelled to me by my time at CBS), they may well fail the exam. This is how I read the empirical evidence. Consequently one should explore more creative and flexible approaches to intepreting scripture (the OT at least).

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