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Sunday, April 03, 2016

Explaining Anomalies Biblically or Otherwise


I of late have attended, much to my dismay, a Bible study. Not a mere discussion of the Bible but one formed around fundamentalist doctrine. Of a sort. The study was basically independent of leadership, which is to say it had no church leader leading the group around some central theme or book (other than The Holy Bible itself), as is the norm in such things. I was intrigued because the instigator of the group titled it An Inquiry into the Bible.

That was intriguing since I welcome such inquiries. There are, to my mind, too many "certainties" around the biblical Word. Some questioning is very much welcome in my world.

We began with Genesis. It began quite slowly. We could not make a lot of headway past the first two verses. The idea of a "Gap Theory" loomed and this lead to a discussion on how old the earth was (between 5,000 and 8,000 years old). Evolution crept in, but only to be dismissed as an example of what is wrong with the teaching within our public schools.

Though I attempted to correct certain misinformed opinions regarding evolutionary science and geology, I was outnumbered. Was it surprising to me that everyone could so easily disavow modern science? Though I was aware that there were fundamentalists holding these beliefs, yes, it was still surprising to me.

Still, this was nothing compared to the next meeting when we somehow touched on the infallibility of the Word itself. Now, I hold a mostly progressive opinion of the Bible. It is my opinion that the Bible is not the Word of God, though I do find some sections "inspired." But I must also say that I find The Brothers Karamazov inspired, and Don Quixote and Turner's paintings also inspired. The fundamentalist finds things oddly different than in my biblical worldview. I tend to agree with Bishop Shelby Sprong when he says that the Bible is an epic, created to give the early Jews a story to better explain their history.

I attempted to turn the argument to a different standard, something other than the Bible as foundational. If there were some other process, or experience, or something that we could all agree on as being a touchstone--something much like the cogito ergo sum--some Archimedean lever point, then we could start to form a consensus.

So I threw out this: We need to ask the question, But is it true? Of everything. Even the Bible. Unfortunately fundamentalists will not give up the idea of the inerrant Word of God. Their reasoning is circular: The Bible says it is the Word of God, therefore it is the Word of God. Inconsistencies are nonexistent. Why? Because there could not be any errors or inconsistencies since...there cannot be errors or inconsistencies in the Bible. It is the Word of God...get it?

But is it true?

I was given an essay by R. C. Sproul entitled, Explaining Anomalies. Sproul is a Reformed Christian, which basically means he is a fundamentalist of the Calvinist sort. He famously disavowed any friendliness with the Catholic Church by Chuck Colson and Fr. Richard Neuhaus and others by denouncing the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document of 1994. (As an aside, the more contact with conservative fundamentalism I have, the more I notice an extreme anti-Catholic sentiment, verging on hate.)

Sproul's argument, or excuse really, is that the more we discover concerning the Bible the less divergencies will arise. Sproul explains, "Other discrepancies in the biblical account have yet to be resolved, but that doesn’t mean we should doubt Scripture’s truthfulness." Sproul compares the paradigm of Bible scholarship and archaeology with science, with the theories of Ptolemy giving way to Copernicus only when "too many anomalies were discovered" within the Ptolemaic system. Well, one has to ask oneself, are there too many discrepancies within the Bible to ascribe them to God, and shouldn't we begin to reconsider the divine nature of the Word? Not according to Sproul who sees each and every one of these pesky anomalies being cleared up one after the other. I am not so confident, especially after spending a few hours discussing creationism with a bunch of fundamentalists. (Here is a list of the more commonly seen discrepancies/anomolies within the Bible, the sort that fundamentalists like Sproul easily explain away as being merely differences of perspective and emphasis:  http://infidels.org/library/modern/jim_meritt/bible-contradictions.html )

This is of course just begging the question, since it supposes the Bible's inerrancy within the premise. If the Bible is not true, does all of Christianity need to be plowed under, compost for some future belief? What could our new touchstone be, if not the Bible? But it must be Truth, and Experience. Do we experience the Spirit? Well, do we? Is it true? Do we truly need doctrine to tell us our experience, to show us if we have given the correct answer on some spiritual quiz? Is there even a correct answer? 

So many questions arise when we give up this touchstone, this box of God, which is the Bible. And once we give up this box, we seem to have to live with these questions. 

I have another question which I feel is analogous to this other one concerning the Bible and Truth: Why do so many Americans (and other people too but Americans especially) dislike poetry? Isn't it because Americans dislike questions? And living with questions? Americans want answers, they want clarity. They hate mysterious fuzziness and mysticism and living within the question. They seem to crave the security of The Answer. Better: They seem to crave the security of The Right Answer. 

Poetry is a question; the Bible is, truly, a question. 

When people read the Bible as if it were The Answer they have placed themselves and God into a box, a box of answers that they have chosen as a refuge against all those pesky doubts that accrue in life. 

But the young are beginning to embrace questions, so I have noticed. They are questioning all sorts of things, what it means to be a male, a female; what it means to be a married couple; what it means to be a success. 

Fundamentalists are consistent in their cry for Revival. The young may well be creating that revival now, or very soon, but I doubt it will be recognizable as one to a conservative Christian. It will be one of a slow unwinding of doctrine and a slow acceptance of a spiritual awakening, but one that does not cut off one from the body of believers, but envelops many in a loving, but poetically questioning spirit. 

I append below the full answer to the Sproul essay: 

FulI disclosure: I saw that the author of this piece was R. C. Sproul. I have to say that I hold some bias against the man. As a longtime supporter of Chuck Colson, I take Sproul to be of a lesser light. He denounced Colson’s efforts (when Colson was working with Richard Niehaus) with Catholics and Evangelicals Together. Ever since then I have held a low opinion of the man.


Sproul’s argument is intellectually dishonest. He argues through two methods, each dishonest in its own way.
I. Sproul: Due to individual personalities the content varies in perspective, but this fact somehow does not create untruthful information. I take it that this explanation is supposed to counter the variants of the resurrection stories (differing accounts, who was present at the rising?), and the two Genesis accounts [Man/woman created simultaneously or one then the other; animals first or animals second?). Now if we send two people to a road and ask them to come back after a half hour and relate to us what they have witnessed, and one tells us that they saw 10 cars and 20 trucks, but then the other person relates to us that they saw 20 trucks and 10 blue whales… Well, we can be assured that the second person is most likely telling a falsehood or is mentally disabled. This does not change if the person relates that he is a prophet of God and speaks what he is ordered to speak by the Lord Himself. If the second person instead relates that he saw the opposite of the first person (10 trucks, 20 cars) then we have to choose: which is telling the truth (if either...both could be wrong). What we do not do--well, Sproul apparently does--is say both are true due to “personality differences.” No; what we always do is assume that there is a Truth and that we can investigate to find out whether one is true or both are false. We investigate. We take our touchstone--TRUTH--and we work till we come as close to the truth as we can. What we don’t do is issue silly pronouncements about truth being dependent on personality differences. Although you could argue that all truth is relative. But Sproul does not take that tack. He would argue that truth is in fact absolute. So this argument is unavailable to him.

II. Sproul: Due to incomplete science, we gradually find out biblical truth as the science becomes more complete. And so as we do archaeological studies we find out more information, for example: Perhaps we find some evidence for the Jewish enslavement in Egypt. This is almost correct to do; what isn’t correct is that this uses the Bible as touchstone, instead of science. But as long as the Bible follows the evidence then there really isn’t a problem. But what happens when the two diverge? Now what do you do? Well, you either use the Bible as touchstone, or you use Truth/science/evidence as touchstone. Using the Bible as touchstone produces one glaring problem: All you have is a literary form which might well be an ancient people’s epic, or myth. What you are trying to do is prove the form, but how do you do that when all you have is the form’s word for it (and after all, the Vedas, the Book of Mormon, the Koran all claim divine origination)? Well, you compare it to...the touchstone. But if your touchstone is, again, the literary form, you have done nothing but practice circular reasoning, or to have produced a fine example of “begging the question.” So you are left with the second choice: using science to prove the literary form. OK, but what if science then says your earth is 4.6 billion years old and the literary form says it is 6000 years old? What if the science says man--actually, all life--evolved from some single-celled algal cell or protozoal cell or something but that the literary form states was created as whole humans by a theistic being all of one piece? Well, you have to choose: is your touchstone the literary form or science?
But there is one thing that you cannot do, because it is intellectually dishonest: you cannot choose only the science that fulfills your literary form’s consistency but ignore the science that disproves it. You don’t get to take some science (let’s say, archaeological evidence for an ancient Jewish well in Samaria) as proof of the Bible yet reject other science (archaeological evidence stating Noah’s flood never happened). Either you take all the science and see where it leads or you live merely within the covers of the Book. Sproul tries to have his cake and eat it too.

What is necessary, and what is intellectually honest, is to take as one’s touchstone Truth, and to say of everything: Is it True? But when you do that you have to take whatever comes as “gospel.” It may well prove that the Bible is to be seen not as the Word of God, but as some epic, some tale that was constructed in order to convey a truth (a literary truth) about the Jewish people, say. You have to let the pieces fall where they may. Otherwise you are not being intellectually honest.

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