Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Bible in Context: Dr. Bart Ehrman and the Doctrine of Inerrancy

Before I get started, let me just say that it’s a blessing to be able to return to the Center for Theological Studies. I have had a unique summer, writing daily for some time, only to stop and resort to reading. I’ve spent the last several days catching up on sleep and trying to pamper my body after beating it up for about five months straight (I call this “Spring semester”!). In order to write strong, a theologian sometimes needs to sleep as strongly. The last several days have been a good example of this. Needless to say, I have still been reading and keeping my mind sharp. I think my mentor would almost try to arrest me if I didn’t (Dr. Keathley, I know you wouldn’t...just kidding).

Recently, I got the opportunity to watch a few debates online at Youtube. I highly recommend the site for those who love good debates. Call it the apologist in me, but I love to see Christians debate atheists...particularly when William Lane Craig will debate an evolutionist. There are some good debates of his on Youtube; the ones I saw recently are his debate against Dr. John Shook. I actually laughed at Richard Dawkins’s response to the question of why he would not debate William Lane Craig. His response was not sufficient at all...but it goes to show believers just how scared atheists become when we engage the world via the human intellect. With our God-given minds, we can literally make the world speechless before our God!!!

In today’s post, however, I intend to discuss the William Lane Craig debate against Bart D. Ehrman. For those who may not know, William Lane Craig is a professor out at Biola University as well as a Christian apologist and author; famous among his books is Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, Third Edition. He is also the author of The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom. Dr. Craig often defends the Classical approach to apologetics and is a heavyweight on the subject.

To counter him, there is Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Dr. Ehrman, for those who may not know, is a former professor of mine. I sat under him in his well-known “New Testament Literature” class, back in Spring 2003. It was Dr. Ehrman that influenced me (indirectly) to attend seminary right after college. Upon my arrival at Southeastern Seminary in August 2006, I met former classmates of mine from Carolina who were also influenced in Dr. Ehrman’s class to attend seminary to learn how to defend the faith. Unbeknownst to Dr. Ehrman, my fellow seminarians and I are here at Southeastern because God used him to push us in the right direction. I like to think of what happened with my friends and me as a “God-using-King-Cyrus-to-free-the-Israelites” sort of thing.

In any case, watching the Youtube debate between Dr. Craig and Dr. Ehrman was an entertaining one indeed ( Of course, Dr. Ehrman’s usual argument consists of the statement, “The Bible contains errors, inconsistencies, and contradictions.” All throughout the debate, this is the Ehrman cry. In fact, I recently saw Dr. Ehrman debate Dr. Craig Evans (professor from Acadia Divinity in Nova Scotia) in New Orleans this past February 2011. He said the exact same thing.

Unfortunately, Dr. Craig did not answer Dr. Ehrman’s questions regarding inerrancy. Craig’s remark (an extremely brilliant one indeed) was, “Inerrancy is not the subject of tonight’s debate.” Still, though, I think we should answer the question of inerrancy because everything rides on inerrancy. If the Bible is not inerrant, if the Bible contains errors, then the Bible could be wrong on salvation (and thus loses its infallibility). As a result everything else crumbles. If the Bible is wrong in one part, why should we believe any of it? This is no small matter indeed...and Christians have gotta learn to step up to the plate and defend what we believe. The time to smile and be passive is long gone. A new millennium now awaits us. The task of apologetics is before us.

After watching the debate, I decided to do a little reading on the I picked up Dr. Norman Geisler’s edited work titled Inerrancy. The work has great chapters on the apostles and inerrancy, Jesus and inerrancy, the doctrine of inerrancy as upheld by the church fathers, tackling the supposed “errors” that atheists have claimed the Bible possesses, not to mention the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy in the appendix. I have not provided all the chapters in this work, but I highly suggest you buy it. Every Christian ought to have at least one book on inerrancy on their bookshelf.

 These words of the Chicago Statement provide for me the response to Dr. Ehrman’s claim that the Bible contains “errors, inconsistencies, and contradictions.” In one paragraph, the writers of the Chicago Statement tie inerrancy to the sovereignty of God:

“We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of his penman’s milieu, a milieu that God controls in His sovereign providence; it is misinterpretation to imagine otherwise” (Chicago Statement, printed in Inerrancy by Dr. Norman Geisler, editor. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980, page 500).

The first statement underlined above is one that I think is often missed in the debate on inerrancy: that is, the statement that discusses “milieu,” what I call “context.” Dr. Craig did not respond like the above quote from the Chicago Statement...but I think this proves most fatal to Dr. Ehrman’s position. If God used the conventions of the first century to produce the New Testament, then we must find the reason behind why the writers wrote the things they did. One of the most basic principles one will hear the first day of the seminary Hermeneutics class is, “A text means what it means in its context.” That is, a passage must first be interpreted in its context before one can give the text an appropriate, contemporary interpretation. If the Old and New Testaments have context, then the entire Bible does...which means that one cannot approach the text with twenty-first-century lenses without examining the text with first-century lenses first.

When we do, we find that the writers must be assessed on the conventions (historical, literary, artistic, etc.) of their day. When Dr. Ehrman says, “The Bible has errors, inconsistencies, and contradictions,” he is applying a modern-day notion of these terms. His approach to the Bible would be the same thing as if I accused Geoffrey Chaucer of “misspelling” a word in his Canterbury Tales, where he may have written “signe” instead of “sign.” Today’s spelling of the word may be “sign,” but there very well may have been (in his day) the spelling of “signe” or “syne.” I simply cannot overlook Chaucer’s context (Middle English) when assessing his work. The same can be said of assessing the Bible on its own terms.

The Chicago writers continue to hammer home respect for conventions and context in the Statement:

“Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed; since, for instance, non-chronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it” (Chicago Statement, Inerrancy, page 500).

Non-chronological narration is also attacked, as well as rounded numbers and so forth. But, once again, if these were acceptable conventions of the day, why should they be labeled “errors” or “inconsistencies”? In order for someone to label statements as errors, there must be something to compare or place beside the statements. What is that ruler or measure of comparison, one may ask? Modern standards of notation! But, did these exist in the Bible days? No. How, then, can one anachronistically place the Bible outside of its time and label it an error? This goes against how we assess other documents, literary works, and statements. And I think to do this to only the Bible (while leaving other works such as Plato’s “Republic” or Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” unscathed) is a heresy and a travesty to proper thought.

We cannot take a work out of its time and make it fit the conventions of our day. Neither can we take a modern-day work and make it fit the conventions of an earlier time. As the Chicago writers stated, God, in His sovereignty, utilized the literary and historical conventions of Jesus’ day. So, in order to label the four Gospels, for example, as “erroneous,” one must find the literary conventions of the first century, then measure the four Gospels beside those conventions. And until Dr. Ehrman does this, the supposed “debate” is really no debate at all...much ado about nothing. God bless.

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