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Becoming a Non-Fundamentalist Christian

After realizing that the Bible does in fact contain mistakes, I became a non-fundamentalist Christian and remained one for many years.  It is not easy to describe exactly what I believed “at the time,” only because it was a good expanse of time and there was a kind of transition period in which I evolved into the kind of open-minded, reflective believer that I became and remained, again for some years.

At the early stages I suppose you could describe me as a fairly liberal evangelical.  There are lots of Christians like that in the world, and most of my friends at Princeton Seminary were in that mold.   How does one describe that kind of Christian?

Such Christians very much, and wholeheartedly, think that God speaks through the Bible.  He uses it to communicate to his people.  Not in order to give them science lessons (what really happened on the third day of creation?) but in order to instruct them about how they should live and be.  God wants his people to show love to one another and to all people, to work for justice, to strive for peace, to do good in the world, to love him above all things, and so on.   Many liberal evangelicals are social activists, believing that God has called them to be beacons of light to this world, which requires political and social activity that leads to improved living conditions and lives for all people.

Others are really more about a personal relationship with God that he has provided through Christ.  Far more important than the question of whether there can be a mistake in the Bible is …

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Appreciating the Myths of the Bible
Fundamentalism and the Truth of the Bible

60

Comments

  1. nichael  May 16, 2017

    To take this all a step further:

    First, if we accept, as above, that “the Bible is not a guide to all science and history – and it was never meant to be.” And, second, if we extend this to take the view that religion (i.e. the stories and beliefs that folks hold about themselves, and their relationship to the world and to each other) is, ultimately, a human –or, perhaps better, a cultural– construct, then this leads to an important question.

    In a nutshell, just how important –or how necessary– are the historical features of the life of Jesus to a meaningful Christianity? Could such a Christianity exist even if these ties were severed?

    (Or, if we want to stroll all the way out to the end of the limb, could it be possible to have a meaningful Christianity in the absence of a belief in a God?)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2017

      My personal view is: yes to the first question and no to the second.

      • SidDhartha1953  May 21, 2017

        I can acknowledge that a Christianity that denies the existence of God outright would be strange, to say the least; but I think an enlightened, non-fundamentalist Christianity can work quite well with a position of total agnosticism ABOUT God: i.e. that, while one grants THAT God is, one cannot begin to say WHAT God is and that it is not the Christian’s place to do so.

  2. flshrP  May 16, 2017

    Once you convince yourself that almighty God can inspire mythical thinking, you’ve then stepped onto the proverbial slippery slope. If Genesis, etc. are myths, then you have to face the possibility that the source of these myths is the human authors of the Bible, not God, and that your idea of God is also mythical and arises from the same source.

    Once you confront this realization honestly, you are half way out of the Church. You will be driven to acknowledge that agnosticism is where you’re headed and, very likely, you will end up an atheist.

    Don’t know why this didn’t happen to Bruce Metzger. Perhaps he stopped short of doubting the existence of God. Perhaps he was able to partition his thinking to handle the cognitive dissonance that he might have experienced in this regard, i.e. believing that God can inspire mythical thinking in humans while not being mythical Himself.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2017

      I think I disagree. The Bible can be a very human book and the Christian faith can still be 100% valid. It’s not Biblianity but Christianity.

      • GregLogan  May 21, 2017

        Biblianity – or Bibliolatry (as my in my most geekiest days….).

        Fundamentalists worship the Bible – not God.

    • mwbaugh  May 19, 2017

      Slippery slope is a logical fallacy.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  May 16, 2017

    I would think that most mainline and catholic Christians fall within this same category.

  4. rburos  May 16, 2017

    This is my favorite post you have written–which I guess means it’s all down hill from here lol.

  5. nbraith1975  May 16, 2017

    My take on fundamentalism is that if you base your faith in a book that you declare to be the inherent word of God, then you better be ready to back up that declaration if even one word of that book are proven to be wrong or contradictory.

    In my case, I have had doubts for many years about basing Christianity on a set of stories and letters written by men about the life and message of Jesus. Not in the sense that it is not possible to use these writings to help historically identify Jesus’ life and teachings, but in a sense that the writings themselves have evolved over time to become Christianity – with Jesus becoming nothing more than a bit player in the grand scheme of “Church doctrine.” After all, no Christian I have ever met or known really wants to literally “live” the life Jesus taught his disciples and followers to live. It’s much easier to live by a set of doctrines and liturgy created by “religious” men from a selective set of stories and letters complied in one book.

  6. RonaldTaska  May 16, 2017

    Your path is a very interesting path which mirrors my own path except that you have read and studied a whole lot more than I have, but the end point of our searches seems very similar.

    For about 5 years, I spent a lot of time visiting just about every church in Durham and Chapel Hill. I do think that almost all of them try to solve problems and issues by finding scriptures to quote. It became hard for me to take these scriptural arguments seriously after I learned that the Bible is full of errors. Again, the question arises how do we know what we know if the Bible may not always be correct? Some say prayer guides them, but I have seen arguments where both sides contend that the Holy Spirit is guiding them. Who is right in those cases? How do we know this?

    Some contend that the Bible contains all that is necessary for salvation and I sometimes think that is a good way of summarizing it.

    On to the theodicy problem….

    It still seems more likely to me that ancient men wrote what they did in an attempt to explain stuff and that is more likely than that God inspired their writing

    • tomruda  May 19, 2017

      There is a story that seems to help answer this. It is about the great Jewish sage Hillel:
      ‘Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” – Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a ‘

      We can get stuck in the commentary and miss the essence. Proof is not required.

  7. john76  May 16, 2017

    Dr Ehrman said: “Among other things that means the world was not created in six days.  There was a big bang 13.8 billion years ago.”

    What happened before that? How did the materials that made up the big bang get there in the first place? lol

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2017

      If I had the definitive answers to *those* questions, I would be one incredibly rich scholar….

      • Boltonian  May 17, 2017

        …and a Nobel laureate to boot!

      • doug  May 17, 2017

        Yep – sometimes the three most honest words in the English language are “I don’t know”.

        • GregLogan  May 21, 2017

          AMEN!

          I am good with “I don’t know”

          BTW – there are actually 4 words…:-)

        • GregLogan  May 21, 2017

          I would like to eliminate the term “liberal” – and the “liberal” vs “fundamentalist” memes.

          There is simply truth and error.

          The Bible has errors – that is truth. People claim otherwise – are simply people – who are in error.

          Similarly in political circles, etc.

          The term liberal has been highly “partisaned” and maligned – used as a whipping boy by profiteers and people of no good will. We need to take that “tool” out of their hands.

      • john76  May 17, 2017

        I don’t think there will ever be scientific answers to “those questions,” lol. We can trace our current state of affairs back to the Big Bang, but that doesn’t explain how the materials that made up the Big Bang got there in the first place. When we eventually find something more original (some cosmologists posit “membranes”), the question will then become how those materials got there. The cosmological argument says everything must eventually be traced back to an uncaused cause, but this is really just a God of the Gaps fallacy (inserting God into a Gap in scientific knowledge). In the end, I think this will simply remain one of the great mysteries.

    • Wilusa  May 17, 2017

      I know you weren’t asking those questions seriously. But I have to note that at least some scientists now theorize that the Big Bang was caused by the eruption of a supermassive black hole in an older universe. And if that’s true, Big Bangs may be happening *frequently*, in a larger Cosmos.

      Some used to argue that “our” Big Bang could have turned out in a great many ways, only one of which would produce a viable universe. Proof of a higher Power’s having influenced it, right? No – not if dozens of Big Bangs may be happening, somewhere, at any moment! Some few are sure to have the “just-right” outcome.

    • Eskil  May 17, 2017

      E=mc^2

    • Rthompsonmdog  May 18, 2017

      The word before in your question “What happened before that?” may be meaningless. The big bang is, currently, as far back as one can go in our understanding of space-time. Cosmologists try to come up with models and explanations for what can be said to have occurred. Some of these models may have left traces in the large-scale structure of the universe or some other remnant of the CMB radiation.
      If curious (and you can stand William Lane Craig), there is a debate between Sean Carroll and WLC which raises questions like this.

      https://youtu.be/X0qKZqPy9T8

    • SidDhartha1953  May 21, 2017

      I’m not a cosmologist, so take this with a pinch of quarks. As I can grasp what I’ve read, there are two possible answers to your question: 1) Nothing happened before the big bang because time itself is a product of the big bang; or, 2) Something may have caused the big bang, but we can’t know anything about it because all the laws of science as they now operate were created in the big bang. We don’t know what laws, if any, existed “prior to” that.

    • catguy  June 6, 2017

      There is a belief among some Christians called the “Gap Theory” which attempts to reconcile the billions year old earth with 6-day Creation. It comes from supposedly a poor translation of Gen. 1:2. The correct translation should be that the earth BECAME chaotic and empty. With this different perfect tense it means that something happened. There was creation which included all the elements in the Periodic Table and a Big Bang took place and the universe expanded, planets came into existence, etc. In the “Gap Theory” it is believed there was a first creation on earth that included all the dinosaurs. A largely reptilian planet of warm tropical climate. That world went away for whatever reason (the earth became chaotic and empty) and at some later time there was a second 6-day creation which included Adam and the Garden and so on. I am not advocating a belief in this Gap Theory but only to mention it is one way Creationists have reconciled ancient earth with a 6,000-year existence of human beings.

  8. hasankhan  May 16, 2017

    God by definition is superior and more intelligent than humans. When we create a piece of literature, we try to keep it free of errors and contradictions. To say that God did it on purpose for some mysterious reason, doesn’t make sense.

    Qur’an (4:82) Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from [any] other than Allah, they would have found within it much contradiction.

    Also I’m curious how does one go from conclusion that there are errors in Bible to the conclusion that the entire store is myth? Is it not possible that God created the universe by causing a Big Bang? Is it not possible that God caused every creature to evolve but send down Adam from a different universe (heaven) while keeping the DNA similar to other creatures (because they have to have similar characteristics to survive on earth)?

    Qur’an (21:30) Have those who disbelieved not considered that the heavens and the earth were a joined entity, and We separated them and made from water every living thing? Then will they not believe?

    It’s possible God’s revelation was mixed with stuff written by humans and so the mixture doesn’t make sense anymore but there could be a possibility of truth being mixed with falsehood. What do you think?

    Qur’an (2:79) So woe to those who write the “scripture” with their own hands, then say, “This is from Allah,” in order to exchange it for a small price. Woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn.

    • SidDhartha1953  May 21, 2017

      What if I decide to make up a different definition of God? How would you know one is right and the other wrong?

  9. mjt  May 16, 2017

    Do liberal Christians (maybe not all of them, but for the most part) agree with fundamentalist Christians, that there is some kind of afterlife, a positive one if one accepts Jesus, and a negative one otherwise?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2017

      My sense is that most liberal Christians believe in a heaven of some kind, but many to the left of center do not think it is dependent on having a particular set of theological beliefs. Fewer believe in a place of punishment after death.

  10. gwayersdds  May 16, 2017

    To me it is obvious that the Genesis stories are created to try to explain how the world came to be the way it is. The tower of Babel to explain the different languages for example. Borrowing heavily from Babylonian myths like the epic of Gilgamesh and creating the story of Noah. Many different cultures have a great flood myth. Possibly dating back to when the Black Sea was created by the flooding in of the Mediterranian Sea through the Bosphorus strait. Thus they should not be thought of as inerrant. I believe that God created. How He created is for the scientists, not the writers of Genesis.

  11. Robby  May 16, 2017

    Dr Ehrman,
    As a professor, if god was your student and his work, the Bible, was submitted as let’s say his thesis paper, what grade would you give him?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2017

      Depends on whether it was a history class or a literature class!

  12. dragonfly  May 16, 2017

    Ok, I can see how you can spend a whole lecture talking about this.

  13. Jason  May 16, 2017

    Thank you for the honesty and earnestness of this window into your most personal journey.

  14. The Agnostic Christian
    The Agnostic Christian  May 16, 2017

    Once I left Fundamentalism I was only a non-Fundamentalist for a short while before finally rejecting Christianity. I think the Biblical writers and characters, including Jesus, were literalists and Fundamentalists and it was so easy to see Liberalism was just pandering to modern science just so it could have it’s cake and it eat it. As far as I was concerned that type of religion was not worth having so I gave it all up and had a massive void in my life for a long time.

  15. Prestige7jem  May 16, 2017

    My question to scholars like Metzger is how can you discern the difference between God inspiring authors of the Bible and the idea of God inspiring the authors of the Bible? Or do they see any difference in the two postulates?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2017

      I’m not sure I follow the question or the difference you’re positing. Is it a difference between God inspiring *some* authors of the Bible and his inspiring *all* of them? Metzger believed they were all inspired in some sense.

      • Prestige7jem  May 18, 2017

        thanks Dr Ehrman. If one regards the Bible as the inspired word of God, is it God himself that inspired the text or is it the authors’ belief in God that inspired the text? Is there any way to distinguish between the two? I grant from a non-believing position it may sound odd, but how does a believing scholar address it if at all?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 19, 2017

          My sense is that many of those who believe the Bible is inspired do not think it is necessary also to think that the authors *knew* they were inspired.

  16. Jessie  May 17, 2017

    Your writing is a very revealing examination of the evolution of belief from fundamentalism to more liberal beliefs.

    “The Descent of the Modernists” graphic from 1922 struck me as hyperbolic, but now I am wondering. Is it possible that the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920’s was right in expressing a concern (from the fundamentalists) that the first step toward agnosticism was believing that the Bible was *not* infallible?

    Did the historical-critical method make some fundamentalists uncomfortable?

    Thank you for another fantastic post.
    Cheers,
    J.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      Yes indeed: fundies are sword enemies of the historical critical method.

  17. erudite  May 17, 2017

    I view Genesis as the creation myth of the Jewish people.

  18. Eskil  May 17, 2017

    Could we translate Genesis 1:1 “bereshit bara elohim et hashamayim ve et haaretz” to “The beginning created celestial bodies, the heavens and the earth”. Gods (Elohim) and celestial bodies being more or less equal concepts in ancient times. That would be close to the big bang theory i.e. big bang being the beginning and living beings been created out of the stardust from the celestial bodies. Based on the law of conservation of energy, also Jesus did pre-existed in the big bang in one form or another – as a mater of fact all of us did.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      There is no word in there for “celestial bodies,” as distinct from “the heavens”

  19. searchingfortruthineverything  May 18, 2017

    Isn’t it true that some of early groups claiming to be Christ’s “true church” or the “correct” version of “Christianity” used different systems of hermeneutics.

    For example there were the Gnostics and then there was Origen who some say used a distorted type, ante-type approach to interpret the Scriptures and this was one of several systems or methods of hermeneutics or Biblical interpretation (Alexandrian school of theology) the other then popular method or systematic theological approach was the Antiochene school of theology, two different schools of thought whom had two completely different views of most of the Bible.

    So who today can say who had the correct system of hermeneutics and who today uses these same types of approach to systematically interpret the Scriptures?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      Yes to your first question. People tend to think their own hermeneutics are the commonsensical and therefore correct one.

  20. dragonfly  May 19, 2017

    When you believed the bible was the inerrant word of God, what did you think about the non-canonical books, like other gospels and letters etc? When you became a more liberal Christian did you change the way you thought about these books?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      They were frankly of absolutely no interest to me!!

      • catguy  June 6, 2017

        Dr. Ehrman, you talk in some of your Great Courses about how the church canon came to become orthodoxy. And once that orthodoxy was accepted by the bishops at that time from the regional churches anything else was heresy. In your opinion do you think that any of the non-canonical books should have been included as part of the Bible?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 7, 2017

          I”m not sure what you mean by “should” have. Do you mean are there other books that I wish could have been included? As a historian I tend to look at what did happen, and why, rather than pronounce what people ought to have done instead.

  21. tompicard
    tompicard  May 31, 2017

    I think most fundamentalist believe that the ‘Kingdom of God’, as described/taught by Jesus, entails these features, among others
    a. Kingdom of God comes by a supernatural intervention of a being riding on a literal cloud
    b. Kingdom of God entails elimination of all physical illnesses and pain
    c. Kingdom of God entails abolition of humankind’s bodily death
    d. other magical features
    But I don’t think these are features of most common liberal christian theologies (well at least not at the church I attend).

    1) Did you believe these to be historic features of Jesus’ ministry when you were a fundamentalist?
    2) Did you continue believe these to be historic features of Jesus’ teachings when you left the fundamentalist fold to became a liberal christian? [this is hard for me to imagine]
    3) Why do you again believe these to be historic features of Jesus’ teachings now that you’ve left the liberal christian mindset and became agnostic?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      1. Yup; 2; Yup; 3. Just because it’s what Jesus taught doesn’t mean I have to accept it. The evidence is that these were his teachings.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  June 1, 2017

        As a liberal christian did you believe that had the disciple who asked Jesus what he must do to ‘gain eternal life’, had in addition to following all the commandments had also sold all his goods, given it to the poor, and followed Jesus, that that disciple would still be alive today?

        Or as a liberal christian did you accept that Jesus’ advice, at least in this instance, was a bunch of kookiness?

        or have I misunderstood.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 2, 2017

          No, I assumed he was talking about eternal life in heaven.

          • tompicard
            tompicard  June 2, 2017

            So, you assumed that Jesus recognized a difference between ‘eternal life on earth’ and ‘eternal life in heaven’?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 5, 2017

            No, not exactly. I don’t think he thought about eternal life in heaven. Eternity would be lived here on a perfected earth.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  June 1, 2017

        I understand you don’t now accept these premises but I wasn’t aware that was common feeling of modern liberal christian scholars (which i think you categorized yourself for a period of time).

        Can you reference for me any liberal christian scholars’ books which profess that Jesus taught a coming initiated by a magical person who doesn’t have to obey law of gravity and/or doesn’t have to conform himself to modern biology and medicine?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 2, 2017

          I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re asking. Most Christian scholars don’t think that Jesus was concerned about modern biology or medicine.

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