Apologetics: Errors in the Bible

This is another post from my apologetics series. These questions are ones that have been discussed in my apologetics group at Mississippi State Wesley Foundation.

Mistakes in the Bible: How can we trust it?

If the bible is “divinely inspired”, why are there so many inconsistencies and errors? (see this website for examples: http://www.freethoughtdebater.org/2011/12/30/bible-errors-and-contradictions/

Possible Solutions:

1.  Original infallibility argument. Maintain that the original manuscripts were perfect and without error, but that mankind over time has introduced small errors in translation. This is ultimately unsatisfactory, as it leaves us without any way to determine what still is or isn’t divinely inspired. Whether the original was perfect or not, we don’t have it anymore. How then could we be certain that what we’re reading is accurate and what God wanted at all? One could respond that God has guided the biblical translators enough to avoid such a drastic deterioration of scripture, but this too will leave many unsatisfied.  

2. Deny errors. One could hold that there are no errors at all in the bible, and that even in its modern form it is perfect and exactly as God wanted it. Doing this would require a vast amount of work, as one would have to go through every single supposed contradiction and show why they do not conflict. Furthermore, there are many errors which would be immensely difficult to reconcile, requiring what many would consider to be “mental gymnastics”, or denying the obvious. Nevertheless, it is possible to pursue such a position, though it may be unsatisfactory or appear downright unintellectual to many.

3. Alternative purpose argument. One could take up the position that scripture was never intended to be a strictly historical or scientific record, but instead its primary aim is to be theologically sound. Though there may be small errors and contradictions in scripture, the guidance of the Holy Spirit ensures that the theological meaning God wants to express is still clear and present within scripture. Many supposed errors, such as those within the four Gospels, could be explained as done on purpose then. It may be that the point wasn’t to relay an accurate historical portrait of Jesus, but that each Gospel aimed at making a particular theological point, and did this in a narrative or culturally relative fashion that sometimes required highlighting one thing over another, omittance of certain events, or a slightly different arrangement of events. This would not technically be an error, but instead a purposeful design that fulfills its end goal: to accurately describe what Jesus and God are like, not to describe what and when they did things.  This response can also be very unsatisfying for some. While it doesn’t require that all of the Bible be fictitious, is does leave it open and vague as to what exactly happened, how it happened, when it happened, and where it happened. Ultimately, a proponent of this position is putting it on faith that at least most, if not all, of the things described in scripture happened in a similar way as they are depicted in the Bible. While many events can find support from alternative sources (i.e. ancient historians or archaeology), not all of them can. For these events we only have our faith.

Shouting at Sinners: A Guide to Accountability

If you’ve heard me talk about theology long enough, you’ve probably heard my rant on Christian accountability and the modern Church. I have many topics that I’m passionate about in philosophy and theology (and thus many rants), but this one has got to be in my top five. As much as I care about the subject, I often feel I don’t express it in quite the right way, or people sidetrack me and don’t quite catch my meaning.

So what’s Christian accountability?  It’s the opposite of what we practice today, in almost every way.  Western society at large has taken a rather laissez-faire approach to social interaction. Live and let live, you do you and I’ll do me. Even in the Church we’ve taken to keeping quiet about others misdeeds (at least to them, we love to gossip about it behind their backs). As a society, westerners (and Americans especially) are afraid of offending someone. What a ridiculous concept! The authors of the Bible are wise enough to notice that people’s decisions are not self-contained. What we do affects others, whether it be in big or small ways (and it’s often the former). If you’ve read even one epistle from the new testament, you’ll notice that the early church knew this. They confronted others about their sin and they even cut off people that refused to change. Letter after letter, the apostles were not afraid to call out entire churches for their wrong doings.

So is that all there is to it? We just tell people they’re sinning and if they don’t listen we abandon them? By no means! I’ve seen many a proud southern church-goer eager to point out all the flaws in the people around them, from dancing just a little too close all the way to *gasp* enjoying that somewhat risque comedy. This isn’t the kind of accountability so often encouraged in scripture. I like to think there’s a four step program to Christian accountability, so it’s a little more involved than shouting at sinners.

  1. Admit that you’re a sinner too. Are you really a follower of Christ if you don’t believe this? What would the point of Jesus be if we hadn’t sinned? As Paul says, “All have turned away, they have together become worthless. No one does good, not one….All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. Even Jesus makes this a prerequisite (in an often misunderstood verse) as recorded in Matthew, “You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” There it is. The first step to keeping others accountable is to admit that we fall short too.
  2. Confession. No, I’m not Catholic, and no, I’m not talking about sitting in a musty booth whispering all your darkest secrets to a man clad in robes. Confession is all about letting others know that you’ve fallen short. You don’t have to shout to the masses precisely how you sinned, just let people know you’re not perfect (and it does help to speak about particular sin to close friends or in small groups). Too often Christians try to put on a mask and act as if, since they’ve found the Jesus, they’re suddenly sin-free. What nonsense! 1 John puts it this way, “If we say we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” The word used there for “confess” means literally “to publicly declare”.  Even in the epistles, Paul is quick to ask for prayer and admit that even he as an apostle has “a thorn in his side”.  Once people know that you aren’t perfect they’re much more comfortable sharing their own shortcomings. It also bursts our bubble and does away with any holier-than-thouness.
  3. Accountability. Finally, after steps one and two, we’re ready to actually call people out on their sin. There are so many verses on accountability I couldn’t list them all, but there are a couple of notable ones that stand out. “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently…” This should be obvious. We’re called to love like God loves us, so duh, love each other. Be gentle and kind, even in calling one another out. There’s also a nice step by step guide in Matthew to take note of. I won’t quote it word for word, but it goes like this: First talk to the person one on one. If they don’t listen, bring a mutual friend or third party. If they still don’t listen, bring it to the attention of the church at large (basically a huge intervention). If they don’t listen despite all of that, it may be necessary to remove them from the Church (keep in mind that is the last resort and not desirable in any way). Even if we’re forced to take the nuclear option, however, it’s still in love.  Paul mentions doing this in 1 Corinthians, “…throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day that the Lord returns”. In short, we only do this in hopes that such dire measures will make them realize their sinfulness and return to God. The most important thing to remember, regardless of which step you’re at, is to do it in a spirit of gentleness and love.
  4. Corporate sanctification. This is why, even when the Church does try to call people out on sin, we still get it wrong.  It’s not enough to just tell people God disapproves, we must also walk with our brothers and sisters in Christ through the healing process. 1 Thessalonians calls us to, “encourage one another and build each other up.”  The ancient author of proverbs captures this wisdom in saying, “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” The point is that we can’t expect people to change if we simply point out their brokenness and move on. We must walk together, admitting that all have sinned, and building each other up however we can. This is corporate sanctification: the Holy Spirit working through the entirety of the church. God calls His people in Exodus to be a holy nation of priests. To do that, we’ve got to lend each other a hand.

So why haven’t we done this? It’s because accountability takes work. It’s more than just calling someone out. It’s more than just shouting at the sinners. We’ve got to get our hands dirty. We have to pray with sincerity. We have to admit that we’re flawed too, and then jump in and work our way toward holiness hand in hand with everyone else.

Easter: a Season of Wrongness

Mankind is a diverse group of creatures with a multitude of experiences. There are some things; however, which universally tie us together under that one label, “human”. In the Easter season I think the one of most note is the overwhelming feeling that something just isn’t right. From the time we are infants to the time we grow old and die, life presents us with so many innumerable things that don’t seem to us to be just, or that turn the concept of “fairness” on its head. I remember screaming that complaint at my parents often as a child only to be met with the all too well known phrase, “Well, son, life isn’t fair”. Even the current events in politics show this. The left and right shout at each other, and though they use different words they’re really saying something quite similar: “I feel like something is terribly wrong, and we need to do something about it”. Maybe humans don’t necessarily agree on how to fix the wrong, but we certainly agree that it’s there.

Sometimes it’s the small things: “Why can’t I have nice things like X?” or “Why can I not be happy all the time?”. Sometimes we are presented with larger injustices: “Why do people have to die?”. And, seemingly even more often today, we are presented with the greatest of injustices, an event so terrible that it makes us wonder aloud how such a thing could ever be put to rights: 9/11, the terrorist attacks in Paris or Brussels,  a man walking into an elementary school and opening fire, child molestation, the list goes on and on. This feeling of total injustice has led mankind throughout the ages to not only cry foul, but also to feel like there must be some kind of ideal life where everything just works. Enter the great Greek philosophers and their later followers all over the world. Christians stand boldly among them as well. In a tradition that predates even the pre-Socratic philosophers, the ancient Israelite tribes believed that Yahweh created all things, and that He created them in such a way so as to capture this justice. The Garden of Eden captured perfectly our vision of utopia.

Easter reminds us of something else though, as if life didn’t already shove it in our faces every other day: the Garden of Eden is long gone. Men and Women, God’s prized possessions, turned against Him and sided with the rebellious traitor, Satan, the Devil himself who now rules the world.  What a depressing story. And we are clearly still living it. New horrors are unleashed on the world every day. So why not just shut it out? We could certainly choose to ignore all the bad in the world outside us and instead choose to act like everything is fine in our own little world. Why remind ourselves that life can be so terrible, and that really we’re stuck in it? Because of Easter.

Easter does not only remind us that Christ died, that God himself came into a world ruled by sin and was killed by it. It also reminds us that even death and sin cannot separate us from God. He is actively working in the world to restore his beloved creatures to their intended state of perfection, just as it was in the garden. Yes, the world killed Jesus of Nazareth, but then something else happened. Jesus rose from the dead and, as Paul put it, defeated death itself. “O, Death, where is your victory? Where is your sting?” Christ’s resurrection is a statement that, though the battle is still furiously raging on between the forces of good and evil, God has already won the war. Christ’s resurrection is Yahweh’s victory cry! What could put the wold, with all of its problems, to rights? Jesus.

As we continue on in the Easter season, and in life in general, let’s not ignore the injustice, not even the smallest wrongs. Keep in mind also that, though all of the bad can seem overwhelming at times, we have already been proclaimed victors in Christ. By his wounds we are healed, and the world put to right.

Apologetics: War and Violence in Scripture

This is yet another post from my apologetics series. I lead a group at Mississippi State Wesley Foundation on apologetics and we have covered a wide array of topics this past semester. These are brief summaries of possible responses to common worries.

 

Moral Objections to God from Scripture: Violence and Warfare in the Bible

  1. If God is good, then why does he often encourage wars, and why is there so much violence in the Bible?

Possible Solutions:

1. The Sovereign God response (again). Similar to the response to the classical problem of evil, this response calls upon God’s divine omniscience and wisdom. God sees all possible outcomes, and chooses the best one. So if God ordains war, even if it seems horrible to us, He is only doing what is best. Furthermore, any people who God punishes with violence and war are sinners, and so deserve no better to begin with. God can do as He pleases. Much like the response to the classic problem of evil, this response can leave many feeling very unsatisfied, as it seems God is using an “ends justify the means” approach, treating many as merely pawns in his drawn out game.

2. Response from Middle-eastern literary studies. From dashing babies heads on rocks to devoting entire towns up for destruction, it is clear that the Bible contains violence. This can be explained by a look into literary traditions of early middle-eastern culture. It was quite common for authors to exaggerate greatly about the deeds of their armies, and perhaps the violence in the Bible is meant to relay a message different than what we in a western culture would expect. For more info on this, check out these two articles from seedbed, which do a much better job of explaining than I could.

 

http://seedbed.com/feed/violence-in-the-old-testament-starting-points/

http://seedbed.com/feed/7-keys-to-understanding-violence-in-the-book-of-joshua/

 

Apologetics: Oppression of Women?

This is yet another post from my apologetics group at the Mississippi State Wesley Foundation.

Moral Objections to God from Scripture: Women’s Rights

  1. If God is good, why are women allowed to be subjugated and mistreated in scripture?

Possible Solutions:

1.) Seeking alternative definitions of equality. Our Western ideas about gender equality may not be perfect. Though women are given different roles than men, this does not mean they are any less holy or part of God’s family.  Being under a man is the natural order and part of God’s design, and is thus not a bad thing as our society claims.  An objector may point out that women are often just as capable, if not more capable, than men at performing many leadership tasks. It seems a cruel joke to make a creature specifically designed to be submissive. This really makes it seem as if God only tolerates women, but that men are his truly prized possession. A supporter of the alternative definitions approach may reply that this is merely a result of sin and our deteriorated Western culture. This response will still be unsatisfactory to many, however.

2.) Denial of the accusation approach. Another approach to this problem is to point towards a misunderstanding of the context of passages that seem oppressive. God created Adam and Eve both equally, and placed Eve as Adam’s helper (which could also be translated as “partner”) and the submissiveness described in Genesis 3 is a curse the result of sin, not a command by God.  Furthermore, women are often exalted in scripture. Miriam, Aaron’s sister, is a leader (a prophetess who leads worship), Debrah is given the title of Judge, Ruth is included within Jesus’s genealogy and has a whole book devoted to her story, Jesus permits Martha’s sister, Mary, to sit and learn, which was completely against cultural standards at the time. Many of the verses often quoted about women’s submission can be interpreted very differently with historical context taken into account (a good place to look for this is in N.T. Wright’s commentaries. I’m also writing a paper on this for a class, which you are welcome to read once finished).   Even so, it seems that women are often looked down upon or as lesser than men by many within the church due to differences in interpretation. This may seem troubling, despite taking this approach.

 

 

Apologetics: The Problem of Evil

This is my second post in a series on Apologetics. These answers are ones discussed in a group I’m leading at the Mississippi State University Wesley Foundation. Though I don’t hold to all of these views, I try to represent each one fairly.

***It should be noted that responses marked as “unsatisfactory” are not necessarily the wrong answer, nor are responses marked as “satisfactory” necessarily more correct than others. It simply means that these responses leave more to be desired. The answer may not be as conclusive as we would like, etc. Nevertheless, they may still end up being a sufficient  answer, and their satisfactory status says nothing about how right or wrong they actually are.***

 

The Classic Problem of Evil:

  1. If God is good, why then is there so much evil in the world?

 

Possible Solutions:

1.) The Sovereign God response. Supposing that God is sovereign over all, it seems that he would be able to stop the gross injustices and evil in the world. We can postulate, however, that God, in His infinite wisdom, has seen that allowing such evil will bring about a greater good. In other words, “God makes all things good.” This answer seems particularly troublesome, however, precisely because of God’s divine omniscience as presented within it. If God could see all things, then He also could have foreseen the devil tempting mankind and our inevitable fall (as any such omniscience implies determinism, so it seems that if God knows everything ahead of time, then everything is set in place and our “decisions” matter little or are entirely illusory), then God could have also prevented these events from transpiring (and it also seems to imply that God created evil, as He knew what would happen from the start). Even if this wasn’t possible, God surely sees every evil deed that has been, is being, or will be committed (the holocaust, genocides, the slaughter and rape of innocents, even children) and yet He merely sits and watches without intervening. It could also be argued that the idea that this is the best possible world is dissatisfying.  Are we really supposed to believe that, in all his wisdom, this is the best God could do?  A supporter of the Sovereign God response may reply to these objections that the human mind is inferior to that of God, and even though it may be difficult to comprehend, God knows what He’s doing. This response, however, will leave many very dissatisfied.

2.) The Free Will response.  Many will take the opposite path from the Sovereign God position and suggest that God has given man free will.  Since we do have free will, it is not God’s decisions but our own which have created such a distasteful world.  In fact, one could point out the numerous times throughout scripture where mankind messed everything up while God tried with everything He had to set things straight again, even unto death.  So it was Adam’s decision, not God’s, that ultimately lead to the fall. This kind of response will also require further thinking on God’s foreknowledge, as it seems that if we do have truly free will then God couldn’t know what our next move may be (so this would go against the classical view of God’s omniscience). Several views to look into include Arminianism, Molinism, and Open Theism.  One objection to the Free Will response asks whether or not free will is truly worth all of the pain and suffering in the world. Adam made his decision and it was a bad one, so why not step in and stop it? One could respond that if God were to decide to correct Adam’s decision without mankind freely choosing for Him to do so, then it would defeat the purpose of free will to begin with. Why offer someone a choice if you’ll only truly allow them to choose option A? Even with this in mind, one still may wonder if creating truly free creatures is worth so much evil. Ultimately, a Christian has to have faith in God (trust in God’s character) that He is in fact doing what’s best.

Apologetics: Creation or Evolution?

If you know me at all, you probably know that I’m pretty big into philosophy and theology, and you may know that I’m into Christian apologetics. You may also know that I lead an apologetics group at the Mississippi State University Wesley Foundation. I’ve been leading the group since last semester, and we’ve covered a broad array of topics. One of the guys that comes regularly asked me to make a list of the topics we’ve covered and the responses to them. I thought I might post those topics/responses here periodically! So here we go: the first topic was Creation.

***It should be noted that responses marked as “unsatisfactory” are not necessarily the wrong answer, nor are responses marked as “satisfactory” necessarily more correct than others. It simply means that these responses leave more to be desired. The answer may not be as conclusive as we would like, etc. Nevertheless, they may still end up being a sufficient  answer, and their satisfactory status says nothing about how right or wrong they actually are.***

 

Creation or Evolution?

Q. How are we to take the Genesis account? If it is literal, what are we to do with evolution and other scientific counter-proofs? If we do not read it literally, how can we justify that? It doesn’t seem to be enough to merely claim that parts of the Bible are metaphorical simply because they can’t mesh well with modern science.

 

Possible Responses

1.) Read Genesis literally. There is plenty of counter evidence against evolution. The most convincing (that I’ve heard) is a question aimed against scientific presuppositions and Anthropological methods. It seems that many times scientists and anthropologists go into studies with a bias toward darwinism and philosophical naturalism that skews results. Example: In finding Lucy, the anthropologists noticed that her feet were not the proper shape so as to support walking upright. They had already postulated that she was the missing link, and this assumption led them to believe that over time her bones had been bent and warped by pressure from animals walking over her skeleton. This assumption and others like it may lead one to question the conclusions scientists come to, not only in the field of evolution, but in many other areas as well. Even so, disproving Evolution does not necessarily provide support for the Genesis account (this is a logical fallacy called “affirming the antecedent”. We can’t assume that B is true just because A is not). In fact, there still seems to be good evidence that the world was not created in 7 days, is much older than 7,000 years, and that life did not develop in the way that Genesis describes. A person intent on taking the literal position would have to find convincing evidence to support the Genesis account aside from simply dismissing evolution.

2.) Take Genesis 1 to be metaphorical or poetic. Many suppose that the first chapter of Genesis is poetry, and thus conclude that it does not conflict with evolution. This is due to Genesis 1’s structure and poetic repetition. One problem this presents, however, is that the idea of the protohuman even as presented by Genesis 2 (i.e. Adam and Eve) is not consistent with an evolutionary idea of the proto human. Evolution posits (if taken to be true) that such a change from Ape to human (or single cell to multi-cellular organism, to aquatic animal, to ape, to human) would have been very gradual and would have started from more than just one set of humans. It seems that it would be difficult (note: difficult but not necessarily impossible or unreasonable) to reconcile the Genesis 1 theory with evolution. It is certainly possible, however, to hold that Genesis 1 is poetic while also using the argument from above to dismantle evolution. Thus, Genesis 1 can still be seen as metaphorical while also denying evolution. This may seem somewhat unsatisfying to some, however, as it leaves the exact account of creation somewhat vague. Furthermore, there exists convincing historical and scientific data that conflicts with more than just Genesis 1, but also with Noah’s ark, the tower of Babel, and many other biblical accounts of early humanity. These counter-proofs will also have to be dealt with.

3.) Take Genesis 1-11 as metaphorical. A study of ancient religious literature reveals that tribes would often relay important theological information through the telling of stories. Though these tribes would not have taken such stories as being literal (such as the Native Americans and the tale of the Great Turtle, or of the Diving Beetle), they still held them as sacred and understood the parables to relay important information about the nature of the divine. The same could be said of the Genesis account. A tradition of religious storytelling is clearly present in tribes surrounding the Israelites, and this tradition of learning through parables was one that was passed along from rabbi to rabbi, all the way up to Jesus himself. Genesis can be divided primarily into two sections: a macroscopic view of humanity from 1-11, and a microscopic view through the lens of the Abrahamic tradition in the latter portion of the book. The first 11 chapters draw heavily on surrounding Canaanite mythology (i.e. Noah and the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Genesis 1-2 account and early Canaanite holy rituals). It seems as though these stories were adopted and adapted in order to make a point. It would be easy to see how God, in desiring to relate to the Israelites through their own culture, took stories they would have already been familiar with and changed them slightly so as to reveal his true character. This view is compatible with evolution, as the purpose of the creation account would be entirely theological and not historical. If one does not accept evolution, however, then this approach can be somewhat dissatisfying as, like the response above, it leaves the creation vague and entirely unanswered. This is also not a popular theological position as it makes many uncomfortable to think that beloved biblical characters like Noah could be fictitious.

 

Looking towards Heaven: A philosophical venture into the mysteries of God, Truth, and the cosmos.