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Modern Evangelical Christian Apologetics

This particular post is open-access.  Anyone can read it.  I post five times a week on all sorts of topics related to the New Testament and early Christianity.  To read these posts, simply join the blog.  It doesn’t cost much, and every thin dime goes to charities helping those in need.  No one loses, everyone wins, so join!!

 

I spent yesterday at a conservative evangelical apologetics conference outside of Chicago and, as you might imagine, I was the odd person out.   But I was very well received, people were overwhelmingly gracious and receptive and openly grateful that I had come.  There were jokes about being thrown into the lions’ den, but it didn’t really feel like it.  It felt like I was speaking to a crowd that wanted to hear, respected what I said, and simply fundamentally disagreed.  In particular there was a group of current Moody Bible Institute students there; really interesting, interested, and good humored, and we had a great time together.

What I was most interested in was how Christian apologetics – the intelligent “defense” of the claims of the faith – has changed in the many years since I was involved in the movement, shifted in ways I never would have imagined, very much away from our old fundamentalist assumptions and assertions into a far more reasonable and intellectually sustainable form of discourse that requires actual research and knowledge rather than hard-core theological assertion based on completely dubious premises.

I’ll say something about that in a minute.  The other speakers you can look up: one I didn’t know before, Rob Bowman, whose life has been devoted to exposing Christian “cults” (as he calls them: Mormons; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and so on, and who co-authored Faith Has Its Reasons); another has become a leading voice in Christian apologetics, Mike Licona (the author of Why Are There Differences in the Gospels and The Resurrection of Jesus), whom I’ve publicly debated a number of times and consider a friend; the other is a very learned professor of NT at Asbury Seminary, Craig Keener (the author of Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels), whom I’ve also known for years and whom I refer people to when they want to accuse me of being a workaholic:  “Me???  Look at *Keener*!!!”

I heartily disagree with all three, of course, on fundamental issues.  But it’s on very friendly terms.   The issue at the conference were the “Contradictions” in the New Testament.  How does one deal with apparent or real contradictions and still remain committed to an evangelical view of Scripture as inspired by God and in some sense “inerrant”?  I stress “in some sense” because, as it turns out, it is not at all clear what “inerrant” means, and the three of them actually have different nuanced understandings of it.

And they have internal disputes among themselves about both what the term should mean and, most interesting for me, how one is to deal with what looks like a contradiction.   The discussions yesterday (well, most of them) were at a much, much higher academic/intellectual level than ones I’ve had, say, during a recent debate on the blog.   I think some of the positions staked out yesterday were utterly, demonstrably, mind-bogglingly simply WRONG.  But they were advanced with the kind of learning and historical knowledge that we simply didn’t see back in my apologetics days in the mid-1970s.

Roughly speaking I was hearing two positions, neither of them ones we were taught and advanced in the day (in my circles).   One of the two strikes me as completely tenable, though again, only in a sense.

Our old position, back then, was that any contradiction in the New Testament Gospels (or the Bible, for that matter; but yesterday we were talking only about the Gospels) can in fact be reconciled if you look closely and deeply enough at the matter.  ANY contradiction.  To be sure, there may be places where you aren’t sure HOW to reconcile them, but in principle they are all reconcilable in one way or another.

And, as a corollary, everything the Bible says is literally true.  There are no mistakes, of any kind, whatsoever, in the Bible.

That was our view, and that’s what we called inerrancy.  It still strikes me as, well, the “common sense” understanding of what the term means:  “no errors.”  Any error of any kind is an error.  And so if there are any errors, the book is not inerrant.

None of the three speakers yesterday has that view, even though they call the Bible inerrant and affirm that it is completely reliable.   Their views strike me as odd – that they can admit there are, technically speaking, incorrect statements in the Bible but that it is still without error.  But they consider my old view (no mistakes of any kind whatsoever) as a dated kind of fundamentalism that is simply not held by thinking Christians any more, and, even more interesting, that my objections to their views are rooted in fundamentalist views that I myself don’t accept but that I’m assuming in order to attack their alternative views.  In other words, they think I’m kicking a dead horse.

Interesting.

They do know that fundamentalist Christians do continue to hold to these views.  But they are heartily opposed to them and do not think they advance the Christian cause.  At least as I understand what they’re saying.

Roughly speaking – at least as I’m getting this as an outsider to their internal discussions, disagreements – as I said, there appear to be two approaches to texts that appear to be contradictions:

One is indeed to “reconcile” them as best as possible; or, the term they appear to prefer, “harmonize” them: that is take the two texts that appear to contradict each other and show how they actually fit together, possibly in a complicated way, into a harmonized whole so that they round out and complement each other, rather than stand at odds with one another.

OK, we used to do that.  But the current view seems to be much more open to the possibility that there are places that we simply can’t figure it out, places that do appear to be contradictory.  And here is the KICKER.   When they (the evangelicals who take this view) admit there are apparent contradictions, then they say that the details are not important.  What matters is the major message.  The ultimate point.  The big picture.  The gist.   The gist of what a passage is trying to teach is what is inspired and inerrant.  Not the picayune details.

That is to say – a phrase you hear a lot in these circles – “the Bible is inerrant in what it affirms.”  That is, it makes no mistakes in what what it is trying to teach.

So you might have a story in which Jesus heals someone, found, say, in both Matthew and Luke.  There may be small contradictory details: in one he heals the person before he does this other thing, in the other he heals the person after he does the other thing.  Small discrepancy.  But the story is not trying to teach *when* Jesus did the miracle.  It’s trying to teach that he did the miracle.  And it is inerrant about that.  He *did* do the miracle.

We never ever would have allowed that back in my days at Moody Bible Institute.  But it’s becoming a thinking-person’s view among evangelicals who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, apparently.

But the other change – the second position – strikes me as even more significant, a real step toward traditional scholarship, which tries to explain WHY there are contradictions, and then goes on to say that since we know why they are there, they are not really contradictions.

It will take a bit to explain this view.  It’s the one really catching on.  I think it is completely right that we can explain why there are contradictions.  My problem is that just because you know why you have a problem does not mean you don’t have a problem.  I’ll explain more about that in my next post.


A New Way of Explaining Contradictions in an “Inerrant” Bible
But the Women Who Did *NOT* Doubt the Resurrection

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    forthfading  October 20, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I have been a huge fan of your debates for many years now. It was through said debates that you helped me move from a fundamentalist to almost as far to the left as you can be and still say you’re a Christian. I am a fan of Dr. Licona as well and got to attend the debate y’all had at Kennesaw State University. You also had a debate with James White a few years ago and in a recent vlog he said he was almost done with earning his PhD in Textual Criticism. He said he wanted to debate you again but this time with the right credentials. I only mention it because you may have been the inspiration for him earning an accredited doctorate since you wiped the floor with him in your debate. Do you feel like a welcomed colleague with Christian scholars like Criag Evans, Dan Wallace, Craig Keener, etc., or do you feel more like the enemy?
    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2019

      Interesting. Where is he doing his PhD?

      • Avatar
        forthfading  October 21, 2019

        Dr. Ehrman,

        James White is studying at North-West University in South Africa and earning his PhD in Ancient Languages and Text Studies (according to his website). He claims the school has one of the best programs in Textual Criticism. The University has some pretty prolific faculty members, so I hope he is getting a good education. His dissertation is on p45 (not sure what that is, but am sure you do). He claims to cite you, David Parker, Dan Wallace, Mike Holmes, and a few more as experts in the field. Whatever he thinks about you as an apostate is probably null when it comes to serious scholarship.

        Do you feel like a true colleague with fundamental scholars like Craig Evans and Craig Keener or more like an enemy?

        Thanks

        • Bart
          Bart  October 22, 2019

          Ah, so he’s doing a degree at a university he doesn’t have to attend, doesn’t have to take any classes or seminars at, and doesn’t have regular contact with any faculty members. Is that right? And did he have to take any PhD exams? OK then….

          • Avatar
            forthfading  October 22, 2019

            I guess so. I am kinda clueless. I know it is getting pretty common to earn degrees completely online. I know he is not going to get the expert level training as you would at a top tier research university like UNC. I am not really a fan of him because he seems to represent a more militant type of apologist. When he debates I get the feeling he is trying to prove the other person wrong or present their worldviews as idiotic, verses simply showing an audience the difference in thoughts, research, and scholarship. When you debate I can tell you just want to show the other side of the coin and let the audience decide what is more credible. That is ultimately how you got me to move from being a strict fundamentalist. I just thought it was interesting because I think you inspired him to go back to school. He doesn’t want to be a top scholar as much as I think he just wants to be seen as credible.

            Do you remember if that was an enjoyable debate?

            Thanks

          • Bart
            Bart  October 24, 2019

            No, it wasn’t at all, actually!

          • Avatar
            Pattylt  October 25, 2019

            In other words, he’s just buying a PhD!

          • Bart
            Bart  October 27, 2019

            No, I wouldn’t go that far. He does have to write an extended dissertatoin, have it accepted, and possibly?? defend it? (not sure about that last part). I really don’t know how much guidance he gets for the process.

  2. Avatar
    historyguy2004  October 20, 2019

    An interesting article. Thank you! I’m wondering what the new fundamentalists say about things like the Pericope Adulterae that are entirely missing from the oldest copies of the Gospel. I suppose they hold the view that it’s contained in the original version and is only missing in intermediate versions.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2019

      Fundamentalists, yes. Most evangelicals, no. Even when I was a conservative evangelical, I agreed it wasn’t “original.”

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  October 21, 2019

    “It felt like I was speaking to a crowd that wanted to hear, respected what I said, and simply fundamentally disagreed.”

    If we could take this attitude into general society, we would have a better world.

  4. John4
    John4  October 21, 2019

    Wonderful Bart!

    I’m no expert on this, or anything. And like you, I’m something of an outsider to the great, postwar, evangelical movement. Not, perhaps, as *much* of an outsider as you, lol, but not a sort to raise my hands in prayer during a mega church rock concert, eh… worship service, either.

    With that said, my impression is that the acceptance of contradiction in detail while continuing to assert inerrancy in what the Bible affirms, that movement seems to me to be the great theological advance of postwar, Wheaton College/Billy Graham style evangelicalism over pre-war fundamentalism. That Moody Bible Institute today (unlike Moody back in the ’70’s) appears to be taking that position merely indicates, I would think, that Moody has belatedly shifted from fundamentalism to a broader, softer (and now more popular) evangelicalism.

    Many thanks, Bart! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      Yes, Billy Graham spoke in Chapel at Moody once when I was there, and I thought, at the time, that he was delivering up milquetoast.

  5. Avatar
    jhague  October 21, 2019

    “But they consider my old view (no mistakes of any kind whatsoever) as a dated kind of fundamentalism that is simply not held by thinking Christians any more,”

    Most of the Christians that I know still believe that God created the world in six day, there was a flood, there was an exodus, etc. They also believe that the Bible has no mistakes. And they would refer to themselves as thinking Christians! With the Christian population in general, I think we are pretty far off from having them take a more critical view of the Bible. Is that what you find with your students?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      Yeah, pretty much…

      • Avatar
        jhague  October 22, 2019

        It seems that the changes you noticed at the conservative evangelical apologetics conference are not making it to the general Christian church population. The churches I am referrig to are large community style churches that claim to be progressive in their thinking. I am certain the the lead pastors are aware of the ideas that you heard at the conference but they are not passing this information onto the congregations. So many Christians seem to think if they attend a church that has a praise team band, everyone dresses casually and coffee can be drank in the auditorium, then they are opened minded thinking Christians. It does not appear to me that the new ideas are going to be widely accepted by the Christian population in general any time soon. Do you agree?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 24, 2019

          Yes, I think you are right. That’s why people like Mike Licona have to get out and abotu so much, becuase most people don’t agree with him in those circles.

  6. Avatar
    FireBrand  October 21, 2019

    Does Professor Licona agree with mainstream scholarship on the dating and authorship of the gospels?

  7. Avatar
    Omar6741  October 21, 2019

    What do evagelical apologists think about the virginal conception doctrine? Was Yeshua’ bar Yosef, a Galilean in first century Palestine, really concevied in the womb of a virgin, according to them?

  8. Avatar
    mkgraham60  October 21, 2019

    “How does one deal with apparent or real contradictions and still remain committed to an evangelical view of Scripture as inspired by God and in some sense “inerrant”?
    It still strikes me as, well, the “common sense” understanding of what the term means: “no errors.” Any error of any kind is an error. And so if there are any errors, the book is not inerrant.”

    I sincerely believe that this can be part of the New Testament & it still be inerrant, even though worded differently brings about the problem & contradiction. Here’s my explanation of how it works in my mind.
    Team A played team B in a huge football game. The players & coaches, who were on the field, in the locker room, & eyewitnesses as participants had their recap of the game. Fans of both teams in the stands had their recap of the game. Their recaps were all very different in how they saw the action proceed, BUT, everyone got the score correct & knew who won the game. Would they be inerrant, since their recaps were different even though they got the same result? Another example would be my mom & dad telling a story of something I did 40 years ago. They sure remembered it differently than I did, but we all 3 remember it.
    It all comes together just as the game recaps but from different views. Maybe oversimplified, but that’s how I see certain discrepancies in the New Testament and still keep my faith strong.

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  October 22, 2019

      I understand what you are saying but I still have a problem with claiming it inerrant. The overall results may be consistent but, as in the football game, there are discrepancies and someone is in error! Perhaps the inerrant claim needs to be dropped rather than redefined by one group while others still use the original meaning? Claim it is consistent but not inerrant. Just my thoughts…

  9. Avatar
    dankoh  October 22, 2019

    The Talmud has a similar problem when trying to extract a legal principle (or even a homiletic) from two passages that appear to be irreconcilable. Much of Talmudic logic was developed to deal with these conflicts, but sometimes the rabbis would just throw up their hands and say תיק״ו (tayku) – shorthand for “When Elijah comes to announce the messiah, he will solve all problems and difficulties.”

    Because of course there couldn’t be any true contradictions.

  10. Avatar
    tbrower495  October 22, 2019

    I find it amusing that contemporary Evangelical apologists are making their stand at what the Bible teaches, and are willing to cede ground over contradictions, and the like. For me, the contradictions (and I think the book is full of them) are of far less consequence. After 20+ years as an evangelical, I left the faith many years ago due primarily to what the Bible teaches. A partial list of examples (in no particular order):
    –Divine sanctioning of brutal slavery
    –Divine ordering of numerous genocidal rampages
    –The long bloody trail of divine mass-killings
    –Hell, the sadistic divine torture chamber
    –Repulsive anthropomorphic portrayals of God
    –Denigration of women
    –Appeasing an angry deity through human sacrifice
    –Denigration of life in this world
    –Exclusivistic intolerance
    –Denigration of unbelievers
    –Denigration of reason
    –Fraudulent claims of prophetic fulfillment
    –Denigration of humanity

  11. Avatar
    PBS  October 23, 2019

    I’m a Christian and a pastor. I had the privilege of studying under Dr. Bowman for a couple of classes in Biola University’s Apologetics MA program. He was both a fine scholar and kind man. But even back then (early 2000s) I recall thinking that based on the nature of the Bible—that we actually have—(theologically diverse, ambiguous at times, contradictory at points (e.g. who killed Goliath, David or Elhanan?; did God incite David (2 Sam.) to take the census or was it Satan (2 Chr. 21)?; did Jesus cleanse the temple at the end of his ministry (synoptics) or at the beginning (John)?; is the order of creation that of Gen. 1 or Gen. 2?, etc.) that we either have to admit that the Bible is clearly not inerrant (according to the plain meaning of “inerrant”) or realize that to call the Bible inerrant is a category error. Or both (my own view). In class one day, Dr. Bowman replied to my view that we should drop the whole inerrancy thing by winsomely replying “Son, those are fightin’ words around here.”

    But I maintained my view (and was not dismissed from the program😁). Some reasons: in the NT, the gospel of John clearly values theology over strict historical accuracy (e.g. the placement of the temple cleansing). In the OT, 2 Samuel’s theology lead him/editors to depict a very wicked and never-repentant King Manasseh. The theological need two hundred years later in 2 Chronicles lead to quite a different Manesseh. He was indeed evil for most of his reign, but then he was hauled off to Babylon (by Assyria—that’s odd) and then was fully repentant and restored back to Jerusalem!). The point: none of the writers in these examples appear to care about inerrant exactitude as moderns do!

    Bottom line: many contradictions do exist (but I’ve yet to encounter one that presented a death-blow to Christianity). Therefore, the Bible & God’s book of creation so to speak allow for one to hold to a reasonable & warranted commitment to Christ and, due to the nature of the Bible, attempting to hoist inerrancy upon it is a category error.

  12. Avatar
    webattorney  October 25, 2019

    It all depends on how you define or limit what the main argument or gist is. As I understand it, if the main argument is that Jesus was Son of God, and he was sent by God and died for our sins, and whoever believes in him will have an everlasting life, I find that gist unprovable by any means. It’s highly unlikely that God would have sent his own Son for our sins but would willingly punish us in Hell for eternity. But if religion gives one more sense of peace and sense of purpose and face or accept death with more dignity and less fear, I am all for any religion.

  13. Avatar
    Anna Basso  October 27, 2019

    I see that putting you in the debate ensures credibility. I study evangelical behavior in a South American country; and here this follows the trend of what has been seen in North America, people leaving religious institutions. I think it takes more convincing theology today than at other times, to a specific religious market (that´s my intuition). The fact that an agnostic New Testament scholar needs to be called to moderate the themes is unfortunate for them, and a prize for you. As you mentioned in the post your position remains the same as decades ago, theirs, by the contrary, suffer the crisis and the pressure of the times.

  14. Avatar
    michael51  November 10, 2019

    You didn’t mention the traditional position that the original manuscripts were inerrant and that errors and contradictions slipped in during copying. Has that been largely abandoned?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 10, 2019

      No, that part is completely assumed still. But the contradictions we’re talking about are not ones created by later copyists, but appear to be “original” to the text.

  15. Avatar
    michael51  November 11, 2019

    I remember popular apologetics of the 70s and 80s. I still have my books by Josh McDowell, John Montgomery, and others. As I see it, you’ve had a lot to do with changes in apologetics. Back then, there was a pushback against the idea that a person had to turn off his/her brain to believe the Bible, so apologists wanted to show that the weight of evidence was actually on the side of Christianity and that it was reasonable and defensible, and in so doing, turn the tables on its critics. The idea was that any fair-minded person who examined the evidence would come to the conclusion that the Bible’s claims could be accepted. (Remember, McDowell was a critic of Christianity who set out to use objective evidence to discredit the Bible and instead was converted through what he learned.) More than once, I heard it said that if someone claims there are errors in the Bible, challenge the person to point one out, and you wouldn’t get an answer, meaning that critics weren’t informed. Your popular books have shown this not to be true—that you actually know more about what’s in the Bible than many Christians and are also a skeptic and your opinion isn’t based on ignorance. This puts apologists back on the defensive, so they’ve had to develop a different approach moving forward. You mentioned how well you were received by the group. I think that’s part of the approach. The fact that you present yourself with class, and your position in a very matter-of-fact way (you aren’t hostile or come across as an enemy of the church with a mission to dismantle it) would make it “unchristian” and counter-productive to treat you otherwise. You have actually done Christianity a service—as I’ve heard it said by those you debate—by forcing the church to deal with problematic points that have always been just accepted at face value.

    Seems to me what has changed has been what is considered “inspiration.” The current approach is to allow more human involvement in producing the text—that the writers were drawing on what they saw and heard or learned from others just as a writer would normally do instead of the Holy Spirit providing the details, which is where the inerrancy would come from because God wouldn’t make a mistake.

  16. Avatar
    megamattc  January 11, 2020

    This proposal says nothing about what the writers of a text thought and wanted to say at the time they wrote it. That should be the basic comparandum for determining whether two texts are compatible with each other. Otherwise modern interpreters whitewash the most significant aspects of the meaning of a text. That is exactly what the evangelicals do when they say that what matters is what the passage is meant to teach, because that question of what the writer wanted to ‘teach’ is what we must find out through historical inquiry. Have these people never heard of Hayden White?

  17. Avatar
    mnels  May 26, 2020

    Bart (not just him but many scholars) has really done a terrific job in his career pushing back against fundamentalism and encouraging more sophisticated approaches like the ones he described at this conference. And I say this as a committed Catholic and Thomist–I want better scholarship to be done from all sides of the issue and think that we’ve all benefited from Bart’s work.

    Although, it should be noted that the view that “the Bible is inerrant in what it intends to teach” might be new in evangelical scholarship, but already in the 1960s the Catholic church had already taken this stance in Vatican II.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2020

      Yup, this is a case of conservative evangelicals getting closer in line with other conservative Christians (though they of course would not want to see it that way!)

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