Friday, December 08, 2006

Blowing the Case for Faith

The fourth chapter of Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Faith opens -- as all discourses on Biblical inerrancy must -- by bringing up the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal before introducing us to “one of the most well-known and effective defenders of Christianity in the world” who will explain for us why, if God is so wonderful, he slaughtered so many people.

Strobel pauses only to inform us that his subject, Norman Geisler of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, is “dressed in a multicolored sweater over a blue button-down shirt” before delving into some of the most difficult questions Christians must face about the authority of the book that guides them.

“Isn’t the Bible chock full of contradictions and inconsistencies that undermine its reliability?” Strobel wants to know.

“I’ve made a hobby of collecting alleged discrepancies, inaccuracies, and conflicting statements in the Bible. I have a list of about 800 of them,” says Dr. Geisler. “Of the 800 allegations I’ve studied, I haven’t found one single error in the Bible.”

Referring to the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, Geisler says, “Here you have an impeccable historian, who has been proven right in hundreds of details and never proven wrong, writing the whole history of Jesus and the early church.”

It is true that many of the details contained in Luke-Acts with regard to geography and history are accurate. But on the other hand, if I wrote a novel set in Manhattan, after 13 years of living here I would be unlikely to get the details wrong. (See Left Behind’s vision of post-Rapture New York.) Geisler’s argument is a little bit like historians finding the novel Gone With the Wind 3,000 years from now, doing some research and discovering there actually was a city called Atlanta in a country called America which in fact had a civil war right at the time the book claims it did, and then concluding that Scarlett O’Hara was a historical person.

Luke tells us Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem in order to register for the census which was ordered by the Roman governor of Syria, Quirinius. Now, history shows that there really was a Publius Sulpicius Quirinius who was the Roman proconsul in Damascus and he did, in fact, order a registration for the purpose of taxation. The problem is that both Luke and Matthew insist Herod the Great was king at the time of Christ’s birth, and we know that Quirinius came to Syria a decade after Herod’s death. Does this muddle have major theological implications? Not necessarily. But it’s a lie – in other words, a sin – to claim there are no historical errors in Luke.

Matthew and Luke-Acts agree on a great many things, but one of the places where they significantly disagree is on the fate of Judas. After the arrest of Christ, Matthew says Judas went back to the temple and threw the thirty pieces of silver on the ground before he went and hanged himself. Acts says Judas used the money to buy a field, and falling headlong, he burst asunder and all his entrails spilled out. How does Geisler address these differing accounts?

“Somebody came along later, found his body, cut the rope, and the bloated body fell onto the rocks. What happens? The bowels gush out, just as the Bible says. They’re not contradictory, they’re complementary.”

In response to this act of theological cowardice, Strobel writes, “I had to admit, Geisler was on track.”

The whole chapter is full of outrageous nonsense like this. It’s no wonder skeptics are sure Christianity is an intellectual wasteland, when we address glaring inconsistencies by insisting, under the banner of literal inerrancy, that the Bible doesn’t really say what it plainly says. Questions about the historical accuracy of scripture and the picture it paints of God are serious and deserve serious answers. Evangelicals believe they have a duty to bring people to the faith, but if they’re going to respond to legitimate concerns by asking us not to look behind the curtain, they’re only going to continue to drive people away.


Randall said...

Concerning your statements about Quirinius please check out the following link.


Andy said...

Thanks, Randall!

The Greek of Luke 2:2 can be translated...

Well, "can be translated" is not really very useful when the experts who have translated the Bible have universally chosen not to phrase it that way, presumably because this is a less compelling or likely rendering of the original.

Quirinius was governor of Syria on two occasions

According to the book I am currently reading, Roman records and other histories are sufficient to indicate that we know that Quirinius was employed elsewhere during the reign of Herod the Great.

I don't mean to imply that this is some kind of significant error that calls everything Luke wrote into question; for me, it's a little bit like misremembering who the secretary of the treasury was under JFK. It's only significant for people who insist that in order for the Bible to have any value at all in terms of its spiritual truths, it must also be 100% historically accurate, and to that end they go to great lengths to insist that it is, which undermines the credibility of every Christian person.

A more objective statement would be to say that scholars disagree on the historical accuracy of this passage.

Andy said...

PS, I am really having fun with this Ankerberg site, thank you. Endless future blog-fodder here...

Future Geek said...

Biblical inerrancy is the 500 pound gorilla in the room isn't it?

Andy, do you think you could classify yourself as a Christian agnostic? Sounds like a contradiction, but I've taken to calling myself a zen agnostic.

Anyway, a blog I like, with some discussion of contradictions in the bible, is Specifically, check out the posts on Matthew, or the Temple of Solomon, on this page (you'll have to scroll down).

Andy said...

No, I'm not agnostic at all. In fact, I believe everything in the creed, and I agree with the statement that all scripture is inspired by God and was given by God for our instruction and that everything necessary for salvation is contained in the Bible.


The Bible was not sent down from heaven by fax. The history of the writings themselves are as important as the histories they record in terms of discerning what we are to understand.

My belief that God exists simply does not rest upon the contention that the Bible is historically accurate or free from any kind of contradiction.

I think Christians do their faith and their God a disservice when they use their divinely-bestowed critical thinking skills in the service of shoddy excuses for Biblical inerrancy. Because God is Truth, all searches for Truth will end in God, and we need not be afraid of the query.

Jarred said...

Andy, I personally appreciate your honesty and integrity in studying these issues. I particularly like your analogy of drawing conclusions about Scarlett O'Hara based on the verifiable accurate facts in Gone With the Wind. I've often made the same point, though not nearly as eloquently. Of course, I think that approach to "proof" is stretched even further -- and consequently made even weaker -- when many Christians try to use supporting data for events in one book of the Bible as "proof" of the veracity of other books of the Bible, conveniently forgetting that the Bible was not written as a single manuscript.

Anonymous said...

This is why it's useless to debate the Bible or religion. God belief is faith. If the text to define that faith is full of contradictions, you give ammo to those who question your faith, and create an endless debate that can have no definitive resolution. This debate has been going on for thousands of years. Time would be better spent trying to improve human behavior, without relying on, or trying to prove the reality of a God or other dieties. After-life, leave til your dead. Improve the quality of life here on Earth.

Jarred said...

I'm not sure I agree with you anon. For starters, I'm not sure that the point of that sort of debate should necessarily be about "resolution." To me, mutual understanding and further clarification would be a more reasonable and desirable goal. Of course, I suppose one might argue that it makes the discourse less a debate and more a conversation, and that's fine too. But I think such discussions can be fruitful.

Of course, I also don't consider dicussing the afterlife and making this one mutually exclusive activities. I'm perfectly capable of working towards both goals.

Andy said...

Thanks, Jarred. There was so much in this chapter I wanted to talk about, but this post got longer than I thought was reasonable. I may keep working on it, because as I mentioned, there was just so much to tear apart, and I think it's important to do stuff like this.

Geisler does say outrageous things like (paraphrasing) "We know the Bible is true because Jesus miraculously confirmed all of the prophecies of the Old Testament." But, of course, that doesn't answer anyone's skepticism, and, as you pointed out, it makes the argument in favor look stupid all the way around.

The fact that an event in Jesus' life is mentioned in multiple Gospels can't really be regarded as slam-dunk independent verification of historical record.

Anon, I have to disagree. It's not useless to discuss faith at all; in fact, it's essential to do so. And I would not characterize the Bible as "full of inconsistencies." The great arc of the story, especially in the New Testament, is remarkably coherent. What I am saying is that it's important for the integrity of Christianity to address the textual hiccups head-on, not to deny they're there or to try to explain them away with fantasies like Geisler does here.

Elizabeth said...

But Anonymous said it's useless to *debate* religion, not discuss it. I enjoy discussing religion, but I'm done debating it. Everyone can believe whatever they want, as far as I'm concerned. Whatever is the most meaningful tradition for you--if it helps you to be a better person, and to find community, it is all worth it.

Thank you Future Geek--that's what I am, a Christian Agnostic. I no longer "know" that there is a God, or what he/she/it is like. I choose to believe in the Christian God but I certainly am not going to put that belief over relationships with people right in front of me.

Andy said...

But Anonymous said it's useless to *debate* religion, not discuss it.

Ah, now I see the distinction. Thank you for pointing that out. It's probably because every time I discuss religion it turns into a debate, LOL.

Lydia Kritzman said...

If Christians are wrong (and I'm not claiming to be one) and You're right, then they have waste their lives and the lives of the people they converted. However if you're wrong, and they're right about God and eternity, you've wasted eternity.