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What I Believed as a Committed but but non-Fundamentalist Christian

It is a little hard to encapsulate what I thought, believed, and practiced during those years when I had moved away from being a hard-core Bible-believing conservative (as I was in college) but remained a committed Christian (as I was for years after that).   The change did not come overnight so that one day I was one thing (a fundy) and the next I was something else (a liberal).  It was a gradual change marked by important moments and key shifts.   But let me pick a time in my life and try to explain what my faith meant to me at that time.  This will take a couple of posts.

Quick biographical background: when I was doing my PhD in New Testament Studies, a lot of things happened to me personally that affected my faith.  My studies, of course, were one thing.  But outside of that was my daily life.  I was attending the small but interesting Princeton Baptist church, which was part of the American Baptist denomination (very different, and far more diverse, than the Southern Baptists).  It was very much Baptist, but hardly anyone in the church there, including the pastor, was fundamentalist.  There were lots of good, mainline, Christians there, including friends of mine from seminary.

In the second year of my PhD the pastor left and the church asked me if I would serve as their interim pastor for a year, and I agreed.  It was a lot to do – since I was finishing up my graduate course work, taking a full load of seminars, and preparing for my PhD exams.  But still, I took it on, preached three weeks out of every four (taped for replay on the radio the following week!), and doing all the sundry things pastors do (visiting the sick, counseling, the occasional funeral or wedding, running administrative meetings, etc).

When the church found a pastor I felt it was only fair to him to move to a different church (so he wouldn’t feel me breathing down his neck as someone who had done the job before him), and started attending a very nice Lutheran church that came to mean a great deal to me.  It was even more liberal than the Baptist church, but no one really thought about it that way.  This was a church that was *completely* committed to the Lutheran tradition and proud of it.  They didn’t go around talking about being liberal.  They focused on their understanding of the faith in its historical tradition.  And the Lutherans have a *lot* of history.

One of the things I liked about the church is that there were a lot of amazing people in it, including my beloved professor of church history, Karlfried Froehlich, who taught me in seminary and was (and probably still is) the single most erudite person I have ever known.  He was unbelievably learned about … everything.  Also in the church were a number of the high-level Lutheran administrators who ran the denomination out of their offices in New York (Princeton Junction, where the church was located, was a bit of a bedroom community for the big city).  The pastors were sharp, interesting, personable, and well trained.  It was a great setting for me.

So, that’s the moment I’ll pick for saying what I believed at the time.  In a very small nutshell, here are some of the key points:

  • On the most basic level, I continued to believe there was a personal God who in some sense was “behind it all.” I believed the universe was billions of years old, yes.  And yes; I absolutely believed in evolution. And in all the findings of science (one of the people I admired in the church was actually a scientist at Princeton University).  But I thought that behind it all there was, in some sense, a divine being, guiding that which happened, and always had happened, in our world.
  • I thought God was involved in the world still, today, in mysterious and often difficult to discern and understand ways. I did not think that I had figured God out, or that I ever would.  He and his ways and his activities were beyond my comprehension.  But I could detect some of his workings – both in the world and in my own life.  I did not think, though, that I could explain most things, that in fact most things could be “explained” with any confidence – including, and especially, why there is so much pain and suffering in the world if God was active in it.  For me that was simply a mystery I could not understand and probably never would.
  • As a Christian, I thought that Jesus reflected and proclaimed what God was like. I did not think that he was really born of a virgin.  But I thought that in his life and preaching he revealed the character and nature of the supreme God.  His miracles (many, most, or all of which may not actually have happened.  Maybe some of them did?) showed what God is concerned about.  He’s concerned that we help those in need, those who come into the world with birth defects, the disabled, the sick, the poor, the hungry, the needy.  That’s what Jesus did with his miracles.  That’s what we should do.
  • I was deeply committed at that time (as I still am) to the idea that at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation was an apocalyptic message that the world was filled with forces of evil (how can we possibly deny that?), but that God was soon going to intervene to destroy these forces to set up a good kingdom on earth. Jesus was obviously mistaken that it was going to happen within his lifetime.  He was human (even if there was an element of the divine about him).  He made mistakes.  That was one of them.  But that wasn’t the point.  The point was not whether he got the calendar right.  The point was that ultimately, in the end, God has the last word.  Good will triumph over evil.  Ultimately God will be vindicated, as will those who are faithful to him.  Suffering will be reversed.  Evil does not have the last word; God has the last word.  And death is not the end of the story.

I’ll pick up with more of my beliefs at the time in the next post.

 

This post is free for everyone.  The others cost!  But not a lot.  For about $2 per month you get 5-6 posts per *week* of this length.  So why not join?  You get huge bang for your buck, and every dime goes to charity!

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More of What I Believed When I Was a Committed (non-fundamentalist) Christian
Can (or Should) We Change the Canon of Scripture? A Blast from the Past

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Comments

  1. talmoore
    talmoore  June 10, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, since politics and religion have become so intertwined as of late, when you became more religiously liberal did you become more politically liberal as well?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2017

      I’d say they’ve always been intertwined; it’s just becoming more obvious now (though even now, not to everyone….). But yes, I developed more political social concerns for the needy as I began to move away from fundamentalism

      • talmoore
        talmoore  June 11, 2017

        Corollary question: When I hear fundamentalists use the Parable of the Talents to excuse America’s exploitative capitalist system, not to mention the old lie about the Eye Of The Needle being a gate in Jerusalem, it makes me want to pull my hair out. It’s like they’re willfully ignoring all the other parts of the Bible where it says that God doesn’t like greedy pricks, just so they can be greedy pricks with a clear conscience. Were you one of those fundies who pushed this rationalization?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 12, 2017

          No, I was more of a “give up of what you have for others” kind of fundy.

  2. DavidBeaman  June 10, 2017

    I am looking forward to the following posts on this. I am particularly interested as to how you went from what you believed according to this post to what you believe now.

    I find it difficult to understand how suffering in the world would make you stop believing that there is God since most suffering in the world is caused by people who have free will to do so; even the suffering caused by natural disasters could be greatly reduced, if not completely illuminated, if people made better choices as to where to live and how to build. Furthermore, if you came to think that if there was a God, he would intervene to stop people from causing suffering that would negate free will, something which is said to be very important to God so we wouldn’t just be God’s puppets.

    No need to explain in response to this comment since you plan on explaining as this series of posts continue.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2017

      Throughout the vast majority of human history, humans have been completely defenseless against the ravages of nature. It’s only in very, very modern times that this has begun to change. And even now it hasn’t changed. When 300,000 people die from a random tsunami….

      • talmoore
        talmoore  June 11, 2017

        “When 300,000 people die from a random tsunami….”

        Well, that’s what they get for living along the coast, right?

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 11, 2017

      “since most suffering in the world is caused by people who have free will to do so”

      Tell that to the 4,000 American children who get leukemia every year.

      • catguy  June 12, 2017

        I would say it is fairly conclusive that cancers of all kinds as we know them today are caused by our environment and the food and water we put into our bodies and the air we breathe including the toxic byproducts of all the plastics in our lives. We are increasing our odds of disease with all the GMO foods, agricultural runoffs from large corporate farms, insecticides, etc. The industrialization of our world has a great deal to do with what is killing us.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  June 14, 2017

          True, because until the industrial revolution no one ever got cancer.

          • SidDhartha1953  June 17, 2017

            …and human life expectancy is steadily going down because of science and technology. smh

          • HawksJ  June 17, 2017

            And, prior to the industrial revolution, people lived such long, healthy, disease-free lives.

  3. RonaldTaska  June 10, 2017

    Good summary. Keep going! Thanks

  4. tompicard
    tompicard  June 10, 2017

    I am pretty much in agreement with all those above bullet points (particularly the last 2).

    But there are some shades of differences, I don’t think there is any scriptural evidence that God’s purposes can ever be completed without humankind’s cooperation.

    So if
    a) Good will triumph over evil, or
    b) God will be vindicated, or
    c) Suffering will be reversed, and
    d) God [will have] the last word. etc
    it would always depend on whether people respond to God’s message and messenger or not.

    • catguy  June 12, 2017

      Interesting comment. Where in scripture does it say God needs man’s help in accomplishing His purposes? Wouldn’t that make God rather weak if he needs our help? We are supposed to be kind to and give help and assistance to our fellow man but that is evidence of the fruits of love. Not that God needs our help in doing these things. Just curious where you came up with your idea on God needing assistance.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  June 14, 2017

        God created the heavens, the earth, the stars; He made this man king or that one, etc.? How does that compare to you or I building a house or even a skyscraper, or David or Solomon ruling a kingdom in Judea? So, the Old Testament, accurately emphasizes God’s complete powerfulness, contrasting it to human being’s utter impotence. But there are numerous examples of humans apparently frustrating God’s Will. Are we to assume it was really God’s Will for Adam and Eve to be kicked out of the Garden? Are we to assume it was God’s Will to create man on the earth only so He will later repent of His own decision (Gen 6:6). Moses prophesied that if the Israelites followed the Law they would prosper, and if they disobeyed the Law, they would experience catastrophes. Does the fact that the Israelites subsequently ignored the Law and faced ruin mean that was God’s Will?

        >If God needs our help would that make Him weak?
        maybe, if you understand God being weak meaning His refusal to override His children’s freely made decisions.

        >where came [the] idea on God needing assistance
        I do not believe the above statement that
        “Good will triumph over evil, or ,. ., , God [will have] the last word, depends [partially] on . . . [humans]. . .” can be either definitively deduced or rejected based on our more than 2000 year old biblical scripture. This understanding came from Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

        • SidDhartha1953  June 17, 2017

          Does the fact that a particular individual believed it make it false?

  5. anthonygale  June 10, 2017

    Do you think it is common for people to have extreme shifts in their beliefs, as some wrongfully assume you did? It’s common to see a movie or TV show character say “that is the moment when I lost my faith,” and there is no doubt that many people question their faith in times of difficulty. But I wonder if gradual change, when change occurs, is really the norm.

    Like you, my beliefs changed gradually over many years. I was never fundamentalist. I always knew that the two stories of creation had irreconcilable differences and that Methuselah could not have been 969 years old. I thought those stories were myths and that at some point (say around the time of Abraham) the Bible became history. When I became “more serious about my faith,” I decided to do something I had never really done: read the Bible. I figured that I pretty much knew the gospels already, so I chose to read the Acts of the Apostles. When I read the account of Judas’ death, in the first chapter of the first book after the gospels, I realized the account could not (at least fully) be reconciled with what the Gospel of Matthew says. Maybe the rope broke and he fell into the field, and for some reason neither author said so, but one account said Judas bought the field and the other said the priests did. There was no denying that at least one of the accounts had to be historically inaccurate.

    On one hand, I knew that something I had believed about my religion could not possibly be true. I was also disturbed that, after having gone to Catholic school and church for so many years, I never knew or was told about this account of Judas’ death. Yet I still believed in everything else about my religion. Some people might think that stubborn or irrational, but I disagree. If you’ve believed something strongly for a long time, you aren’t going to just dismiss it and you probably shouldn’t. Even scientists aren’t much different in that regard. Many, who are often emotionally attached to their ideas, will immediately question new evidence that contradicts what they think. To some extent, rightfully so. Perhaps there was a flaw in the new study. Or maybe they are right, just not for the reason they think they are right. There can come a time when such resistant becomes irrational, but I think it would be equally irrationally to immediately dismiss something you think there is evidence for. In my case, ironically, because I became “more serious about my faith”, I had taken an action that caused me to question that faith in less than two minutes. It was a pivotal moment, but it was not “the moment when I lost my faith.” I modified my beliefs and continued to do so over many years for different reasons.

    Coming off that tangent, I think it is more natural and perfectly appropriate to gradually, rather than drastically, change one’s longstanding, deeply held beliefs. Based on your experience, having been a pastor and contemplating such issues for a living, do you think that is true for most people who change their beliefs? And if so, where do you think the idea that people suddenly lose their faith come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2017

      I think people do have radical changes in their beliefs (it’s demonstrable!) but almost NEVER in my experience does this happen suddenly. Seeds of doubt are planted, they are watered, they grow. Sometimes there is a *moment* when it finally hits, but there is always a period of preparation.

    • johnbutleruk  June 13, 2017

      Thanks for sharing. What you’ve said resonates a lot with me.

  6. doug  June 10, 2017

    Sure would be interesting to travel back in time and get to know Jesus personally (assuming I knew his language, culture, etc.). To see what kind of personality he had, how he convinced his followers of his views, to see how he ticked people off, to see what he liked, disliked, feared, did for fun, ordinary things he wished for (did he want a girlfriend?), etc.

    • llamensdor  June 14, 2017

      Read my historical novel, “The Murdered Messiah.”

  7. J--B  June 10, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you remember what your sermons were like when you acted as interim pastor at the Baptist church?

  8. catguy  June 10, 2017

    Not to get sidetracked on denomination business which is not the intent of your post. Baptist churches tend to be independent of a central organization or at least in the General Conference. Not possibly in Southern Baptist. In circa 1987 a number of different Lutheran conferences joined to become Evangelical Lutheran Churches and they are probably the most “liberal” of the different synods. There is Missouri Synod (fairly strict), Wisconsin Synod (stricter), and Apostolic or Finnish Lutheran which you probably never encountered in New Jersey. I have been in several different types of churches including Pentecostal, Lutheran, street corner fundamentalist. It does seem every denomination has its theological arguments about something whether it is open or close communion, or accepting actively gay people, gay marriage, whether or not women can be ordained, etc. The stricter Lutheran synods do not believe in evolution but in literal creation in 6 days. However, interestingly, all Lutheran churches are amillenial meaning they do not believe in a literal 1000 years after Christ returns and they believe Revelation is symbolic and all these events in the apocalypse already happened or they are allegorical in some way. So to me that is cherry picking to say they believe some of the Bible literally and not other parts. I believe many wrestle with how a loving God could allow suffering in the world. I think for some this may drive them away from their church but for others they believe that there is a day of judgment and it will all be sorted out and then all tears will be wiped away. I believe most churches try to tend to the needs of the sick and poor. The streetcorner fundamentalist church I attended raised money for missionary work in India and parts of Asia. As best I know Lutherans are very committed to charity work including helping the poor and hungry. Lastly, I think for me the most difficult thing is wondering when the Lord is finally going to intervene and set up His Kingdom. I have heard so many proclamations from ministers who did some Bible code or figured out a math puzzle in Genesis and came up with the year Christ was going to return. Well, it ain’t happened yet. Thanks for sharing your struggles with us.

  9. Carl  June 10, 2017

    When you believed that you could detect some of God’s workings in your own life did you ever experience a moment of serendipity that was so emphatic that you were convinced it was divine? or could not logically explain at the time?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2017

      Sure, I thought God was active in my life on a number of occasions.

  10. Hume  June 11, 2017

    Bart, honestly I have trouble with this passage in Romans, morally, ethically. Do you think the same?

    Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

    • Hume  June 11, 2017

      Then I find it gets even worse.

      One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2017

      Yes, it is a rather disturbing passage, and a terribly hard one to figure out.

      • SidDhartha1953  June 17, 2017

        But he is not saying anything he wouldn’t have read in the Hebrew scriptures. The Potter metaphor comes from Jeremiah, I think, and the “who do you think you are to question God” is from Job. If there were a personal deity who created and sustains all that is, it would be unlikely to be upset about the same things that upset us. Perspective matters and I can’t imagine what a universal perspective would feel like, except not to care much about minutiae, and every particular thing would be minutiae to that being, wouldn’t it? We want God to be totally unlike us, except we want it to care about the things we care about. Silly, eh?

  11. stuckyabbott  June 11, 2017

    Thanks. Your beliefs are quite clear. That seems like a big movement away from your earlier fundamentalism.

  12. nbraith1975  June 11, 2017

    Bart – Did you ever believe in the Trinity? Did you ever believe in the divinity of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2017

      Absolutely. Whole-heartedly. You can’t be a conservative evangelical and not believe such things.

      • catguy  June 12, 2017

        Dr. Ehrman,

        The Trinity is not in scripture. It wasn’t until 381 CE at the Council of Constantinople that there was even a rough attempt to inculcate the Trinity into some universality of Christian belief. Do you believe in the Trinity because it is accepted as a way to explain who God is or because you found within scripture that Trinity is a valid explanation of how the Holy Spirit ties in with God? Or for some other reason? I personally have trouble with the doctrine because I do not find enough evidence that the Holy Spirit is a person rather than a force and a power.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 14, 2017

          I’m not a Christian, so I don’t believe in the Trinity.

        • SidDhartha1953  June 17, 2017

          I’m no scholar, catguy, but I think you’re wrong. I was puzzling over 2 Cor. 13:13 this morning because a footnote in my NT says that exact formulation is found nowhere else in Paul, yet there it is! Why would he invoke Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit in one breath, if he didn’t consider them in some way a package deal? Bart, I wouldn’t mind knowing your answer to that last question.

        • ftbond  June 18, 2017

          hey, Catguy –

          I’m with you on this one. I don’t think there’s any reason to “personify” the Holy Spirit; hence, no Trinity. I even go a step further, and see no reason to personify the “Logos”, as if it were a pre-existent Jesus.

          I simply believe this: every person is a combination of body + spirit, and that combination is “nephesh” – a “living soul”. A body without a spirit is a rotting corpse, a spirit without a body is a disenfranchised phantom that is unable to experience anything of “life”.

          Humans are a created body and a created spirit. Jesus was a created body, having the Spirit of the Creator. He was indeed the embodiment of God, thus, “Immanuel”, “God With Us”.

  13. Jana  June 11, 2017

    Off topic .. this article gave me the giggles:

    As the late Gore Vidal once stated … America the Land of the Literalists:

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/he-thinks-the-grand-canyon-proves-noahs-flood-was-real?via=newsletter&source=DDAfternoon

  14. wje  June 11, 2017

    Good evening, Bart. Are you an ordained minister? If so, can that be revoked after all the things you have written on this blog?

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