Dialogue with Joel (re: Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God”)

Joel Watts writes the blog Unsettled Christianity.  He recently published this post about Thom Stark’s response to my review of The Human Faces of God:  What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It (a 12-part review which begins with this introduction).

I’m just going to leave the dialogue there at Joel’s site because it’s long and it would be too tedious to try to reformat it here.  This link above will take you to it.  The dialogue begins just beneath the short post.  (There were some others who commented, but it was mainly Joel and me.)

I’ll let the conversation speak for itself except to say that one of the things I learned from this exchange is that the phrase “The Bible is the word of God” is an anathema to someone like Joel.  Going into the conversation I knew that he disagreed with that statement (because he was supportive of Thom’s book), but I did not know the revulsion that its utterance provoked in him.  This explains in part why it must have been hard for him at times to engage reasonably and exchange views with a goal of finding any points of agreement that might exist.  This also helps explain why the conversation ended the way it did:  I finally gave up hope that we could summarize our points of agreement and disagreement.

Regarding the fundamental issue, I often say “The Bible is the word of God,” or “The Scriptures are the word of God.”  When I do, I don’t mean that it’s all of the word of God there is.  Nor do I intend to distract from the truth that Jesus Christ is the embodiment of the word of God (and thus is rightly called “The Word” or “the Word of God”).  Less still do I want to obscure the truth that the Bible is pointing us to Christ and not to itself (John 5:39).

What I do mean to say by those phrases is that the Bible is reliable.  It is a message from God – that the men who wrote the texts that we call the Bible were writing on behalf of God and not on behalf of themselves.  In other words, Scripture is trustworthy as communication from our Creator, and we can read it with at least the same degree of confidence that we read a book, a newspaper, or any other reputable media today.

Having said that, I am not saying that we living in the 21st Century can open it up at any page and read the sentences as if God were speaking directly to us (like a newspaper or magazine published today).  Nor am I saying that we can read it from beginning to end as we would normally read a book.  The Bible is a collection of documents and each document is a product of the age in which it was written – in language, idiom, culture, and other respects.  And of course there are variations in genre and writing style.  There are letters, histories, poems, and more.  And all of it comes through human expression.

The Bible is thus a special book, but it is not magical.  It was written by humans and it is read by humans.  If we read it with a humble heart we can hear the word of God in its pages, and the Holy Spirit will bring to us the meaning for us.  But that understanding usually comes as we recognize, for example, that the apostle Paul was writing a letter to churches in the region of Galatia which knew him face to face and who had become misdirected by other teachers who we do not know…and so on.  You get my point.  We should not let the expression “The Bible is the word of God” cause us to read it out of context or impute to it single-book structure that it does not possess.

Would this pacify Joel?  It didn’t seem to, but I thought it was worth emphasizing here.

Daniel Wallace Debates Bart Ehrman about the Reliability of the New Testament Manuscripts

Mike Licona brings news of Daniel Wallace‘s October debate with Bart Ehrman about the reliability  of the New Testament texts in this two-minute video clip:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=rfoWCgq1h90]

HT:  Jim West at Zwinglius Redivivus

In the clip Dan mentions a website where you can obtain a DVD of the debate.  It is The Center of the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, for which he is the Executive Director.

Related information:

Here is my open letter to Bart Ehrman.

And here is reference to a debate between Mike Licona and Bart Ehrman about the resurrection of Christ.

Here is reference to another debate, this one between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman about the resurrection.

Finally, here is a refutation by John Warwick Montgomery of Bart Ehrman’s claim that there are forgeries in the New Testament.

Notwithstanding Richard Dawkins, Design Requires a Designer

Richard Dawkins fancies himself that he has effectively dismissed the argument that the observation of design implies a designer.  That is, he, in effect, denies that we can observe creation and infer that we were created by God, as Paul does in Romans 1:20.

Dr. Robert Cargill recently wrote a blog post titled “On Competent Versus Intelligent Design” in which he references Dawkins’ position in a way that indicates he accepts it.  I began commenting on Bob’s post here taking issue with the point, and if I didn’t convince him that design does indeed imply a designer and that Dawkins’ refutation fails, I at least gave him pause.

Of course, the point here is not the interaction between Cargill and me, but rather that it is foolish to suggest that a design does not have a designer, that a watch does not have a watchmaker, or that creation does not have a Creator.  And that foolishness is not mitigated by how many academic degrees you hold or how smart the rest of the world thinks you are.

God is, and we need to reconcile ourselves to that fact in a productive way:  God Wants a Loving Relationship with You

N. T. Wright Points the Way to the Kingdom of God

In these two video clips (which total less than ten minutes) N. T. Wright points the way to the kingdom of God on earth – which begins with seeking Jesus anew.

Wright is headed the right direction.  But he won’t get to the destination if he stays tethered to the church.  It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

For more, see Seeking the Kingdom of God Instead of Church

HT:  Brian LePort of Near Emmaus

Professor Craig Keener on the Gospels as Ancient Biographies

Dr. Craig S. Keener is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary.  Here is roughly fifteen minutes of video which has him distinguishing the literary form of ancient from that of modern biography:  Keener post at the Centre for Public Christianity.

HT:  Brian LePort at Near Emmaus

See also this post on Richard Bauckham, a British scholar who has also researched ancient biography as a literary genre.

The gospels are biographies but they are not shaped like the biographies we are used to reading.  These two scholars explain how biographies took different shape in ancient times. They will help you clear away false expectations and see the life of Christ in the gospels more clearly.

An Open Letter to Thom Stark

[Note:  Thom Stark wrote a book titled The Human Faces of God:  What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It).  I wrote a 12-part review of this book which begins with this introduction.  Thom wrote a response to my review which appears at this page on his web site.  I then wrote a response to Thom’s response which you can find here.]

Dear Thom,

As you may recall, about a year ago I ran across a review of your book on Steve Douglas‘ blog, Undeception. I commented on this particular post of his, and in the exchange both you and Steve insisted that I couldn’t reasonably argue with your book until I’d read it.  (Up until that point, I’d only read the front matter and the first chapter.)  As you know, I’ve since read the entire book and reviewed it.

Going through this process has convinced me that I really did know enough to argue with you about your thesis last year.  It’s all there in the title:  “Scripture…gets God wrong.”  That idea bothered me when I first read it, and it bothers me still.

Your book was lengthy, but not convincing.  Having a chapter titled, “Jesus Was Wrong” probably did not help your case…at least where I was concerned.  Jesus lacks no credibility with me.

The next time someone objects to your thesis, don’t make them feel like they have to read your book in order to make the objection.

In any case, I hope you’ll have a change of heart.  Jesus Christ Is God.

Mike

[Thom’s response to this open letter is here.]

Thom Stark Responds to My Review of His Book

I wrote a 12-part review of Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God:  What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (And Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It).  The review begins with this introduction.  Thom wrote a response to the entire review and it appears here on his book’s website.  Here is my response to Thom’s response.  I’ll try to be brief.

(By the way, all the set-off quotes below are from Thom’s response and not the book itself.)

Thom’s main objection seems to be that my review has mischaracterized and misrepresented his book.  I don’t think that’s the case, but we’ll work through his responses below to each installment of the review and you can decide for yourself.

Thom also says that I have misdiagnosed his motives.  First of all, I have tried to stay away from his deeper motives as I know as little about them as I do anyone else’s.  Where I have inferred motives, it has been with regard to obvious intent that anyone could discern.  For example, he wrote a book.  Although I don’t think he ever explicitly said that he wanted people to read it, I assume that was his motive in writing it.  I also assume that the title of the book states his thesis and that the arguments of the various chapters are offered to persuade the reader to accept the thesis – even though I can’t recall his explicitly admitting these motivations.  These are the sort of simple assumptions I’m making about Thom’s motives –  nothing that requires a psychiatric degree.  Beyond that, and as I say in the review, I’m sure Thom is writing truth as he sees it with the intent of helping his readers.  In that regard, he and I are standing on the same ground – albeit in different places.  I don’t think he bears you ill – I just think he does you and himself ill.

Introduction:

I make the point that I’m arguing for us to adopt Jesus’ view of the Scripture, and that Jesus’ view is that the  Bible is the word of God (one attribute of which is that it is free of error).  Thom responds:

Never mind that I discuss at some length Jesus’ view of and usage of scripture. Never mind that I directly confront the issue of whether Jesus’ view of scripture is something we must adopt just because it belonged to Jesus.

I don’t see how I’ve gotten Thom wrong on this point.  He doesn’t think that just because an attitude belonged to Jesus that we should adopt it.  You could read the part of the book he’s describing, or you could read title of his book which reads in part “What Scripture reveals when it gets God wrong.”  Plus he has a chapter, the title of which is “Jesus Was Wrong.”  I can’t see where I’m misrepresenting him.  He thinks Scripture gets God wrong.  What’s to misrepresent?

Chapter One:

Thom’s main point here seems to be that I am not as well-versed in the scholarly literature on the Bible as he is.  I conceded that in the review itself.  I affirm it again here.

I’d only add that I am familiar enough with the scholarly literature to know that there are liberal and conservative wings of that scholarship and that Thom’s views can be plotted on the left side of that spectrum.  Thom concedes as much when he refers to his views as consistent with “mainstream” scholarship (“mainstream,” as you can see, is in the eye of the beholder).

Again, I don’t see how I’ve misrepresented him.

Chapter Two:

Gantt assumes an allegiance to the cause of Christ commits one to an allegiance to the integrity of the Bible. I don’t hold that assumption. See, my allegiance is to truth, first and foremost. And my allegiance to the cause of Christ (namely, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free) is derived from my allegiance to the truth.

I don’t say that allegiance to the cause of Christ commits one to an allegiance to the integrity of the Bible – I say it should.  Obviously, there are people – and Thom is one of them – who profess allegiance to Jesus but not to the integrity of the Bible.  It just doesn’t make sense to me.  The Bible informed Jesus’ life and ministry.  He trusted it.  I can’t find anywhere that He taught His disciples what to do when the Bible got God wrong.  If it’s as big a deal as Thom says it is, surely Jesus would have said something about it.  On the contrary, Jesus trusted the Scriptures and taught others to trust them.

Thom says that a better allegiance is to the truth.  However, for Jesus the Bible was truth (John 17:17; Psalm 119: 142, 151, 160).  Besides, to say that you are loyal to God’s truth but then reject the Bible as truth seems particularly strange for a fellow who defines the cause of Christ in scriptural terms.

Chapter Three:

My point is simply that the evidence we have doesn’t allow us to form a rock-solid view about Jesus’ attitude to scripture. We can get a general picture. He treated it as authoritative. But what does that mean? Well, I think it means something very different for first-century Jews than it does for twenty-first-century evangelicals.

If anything, I think we have to admit that first-century Jews had a higher view of Scripture that twenty-first century evangelicals, for the simple reason that the former died  for their faith in the Scriptures while I don’t think anyone has been killed for holding to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

I said that Jesus wasn’t interested in whether they had errors in them, and wouldn’t have to have that interest in order to make use of stories for one’s purposes.

If Jesus “wasn’t interested in whether [the Scriptures] had errors in them,” then why is Thom?

I have not manufactured the idea that Thom’s view of Scripture is at odds with that of Jesus.  And this is but one example of where Thom himself, in effect, admits this is the case.

Chapter Four:

Let’s return briefly to the settled subject of Thom’s motives.  He says:

That Gantt feels the need to characterize my work as poisonous says more to us about Gantt than it does about me.

I am not saying that it is Thom’s intent to poison faith in Christ and in the Bible – I’m saying that’s his effect.  Apparently there are times when I comment on Thom’s actions that he thinks I’m commenting on his motives.

Thom’s motives are between him and God.  All we have to go on are Thom’s explicit statements and his actions, and what can be reasonably inferred from those statements and actions.

Chapter Five:

On the one hand, we have faith in a good and loving God. I’m for that. On the other hand, we have faith that the Bible portrays a single God who is consistently always good and loving. I’m against that.

If Thom doesn’t want me to say that his view of God and the Scriptures is at variance with that of Jesus’ view, he should quit differentiating himself from Jesus on this point.  Did Jesus not say, “No one is good but God alone”?  Didn’t Jesus conform His life…and death…to “it is written”?  Does anyone hear Jesus warning people not to believe in the genocidal God of the Hebrew Scriptures?

Chapter Six:

Thom takes a curious position in his response to this chapter.  In the book he says that God did nothing to intervene in the self-destructive course of the Canaanites.  When in my review I ask, “How do we know that God did nothing in this regard,” Thom responds:

Because that’s not part of the story.

I say “curious” because Thom is taking the position here that God could not have done anything that was not written in the Bible.  That sounds like he’s trying to “out-fundamentalize” fundamentalism!

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Thom just does not want to leave any door open that might allow a person to believe that the God of the Scriptures is good.

Chapter Seven:

…I’m blindly driven by my desire to undermine the authority of the Bible, clearly at the cost of my own capacity to reason.

Thom obviously doesn’t believe this.  He’s sarcastically representing  what he thinks is my view of him.  (Of course, I could say that he was “caricaturing my view,” “making a straw man,” “misdiagnosing me” and other such things – but that couldn’t be the case, because then he’d be a hypocrite.)

I don’t think of Thom the way he’s described here.  But I can use much of the same language to describe what I do believe.  He has used his own capacity to reason and come to the conclusion that the Bible should not be viewed as the word of God.  He honestly believes that it’s in the best interest of people to see the Bible as containing many significant errors.  And therefore he has written a book (first a blog) to make that very point.  However many good intentions may have paved the road he’s constructed, that road leads to an unpleasant place.

Chapter Eight:

I don’t believe Jesus is God…

I do.

Chapter Nine:

Yeah. Take it from the pseudonymous book of 2 Peter—the Bible never lies.

Even if you have concerns about some aspects of the biblical texts, is this the way you talk about a collection of books you say that you revere as coming from God?

In his response to the next chapter, Thom quotes Jeremiah 8:8:

How can you say, ‘We are wise,
and the law of Yahweh is with us’,
when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie?

Has he considered that when he writes that the Bible lies, he is fulfilling this passage?

Chapter Ten:

I leave it to faith communities to determine what the texts are going to mean for them.

Here Thom seems to offer no hope to a poor individual soul who would read the Scriptures and hope to find God’s truth on his own.  The guy (or gal) has to find a group.  However, Thom goes to make sure we have no hope at all, for he says:

I clearly state that there is no anchor. In fact, the only appearance of the word “anchor” in my book is in a paragraph in which I argue that we don’t have one. Neither the Bible nor the believing community is an anchor. We have to argue with both of them, and that’s the best we can do.

No anchor?  Does anyone think that Jesus was telling His disciples that there was no anchor in the Scriptures when He said, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken,” or “Scripture cannot be broken,” or “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets…; not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass…,” or “Heaven and earth will pass away but My words will not pass away”?

Thom Stark has a view of the Scriptures that is remarkably different from the one held by Jesus Christ.  I have not misrepresented him on this point.

Conclusion:

Thom’s response is so full of sarcasm that can be hard at times to find a direct statement by him which clearly reveals his stance.  I don’t mind sarcasm; it can be effective in communication if not used to excess.  However, when the meal is covered in salt one can’t help wondering if the cook is just not confident about the food.

In addition to saying that I misrepresent his position, Thom has said that I have not engaged his arguments.  Indeed, it’s true I’ve not brought forward every nuance of his arguments, nor have I engaged with all of his arguments.  I don’t want to strain out gnats and swallow camels.  I’ve brought forward those themes that are consistent through his arguments.  And I have dealt with those themes.

Thom is right when he says he can line up people who agree with him, but “woe to you when all men speak well of you for in the same way their fathers used to treat the false prophets.”  Am I saying that because Thom is articulating a view held by certain academics and faith communities that this proves him wrong?  Of course not.  But neither does having supporters mean he’s right.   God knows who is right and who is wrong.  And only God is fully right and always right.  He gave us the Scriptures that we might have at least a portion of truth always available to read even when our souls are so storm-tossed that they cannot be made to think straight.

I stand by what I have said:  You may trust Jesus as utterly reliable.  And you may trust the Scriptures as an utterly reliable witness to Him.

How Much of the Word of God Is Making Its Way into Our Everyday Speech?

The King James Bible brought the word of God to the English masses – and it affected the way they communicated.  That is, biblical allusions became commonplace in speaking and writing, where they were not before.  (For more see The Word of God Is Closer to Us Than We Realize.)

Thus we have inherited an English literature and language seasoned with references to the word of God.  Now, consider how little of modern-day culture makes reference to the Bible, its narratives or its aphorisms.  We are surely passing on to future generations less of an inheritance than we ourselves received.  This is not right.

We should be enriching our speech with the word of God, not depleting it.

Do you think you do not have the right or responsibility to speak the word of God?  Consider:  The Bible Does Not Belong to Christians and Jews Only

The Word of God Is Closer to Us Than We Realize

Courtesy of Kenneth Kidd, feature writer for the Toronto Star, we learn the following:

In his book Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, David Crystal tallies nearly 300 everyday expressions that were birthed with the King’s James Bible — twice as many as its nearest rival, Shakespeare.

Kenneth’s full article is titled Why the Bible matters: Its words live on.  In that article he goes on to say:

For four centuries, the King James Bible has anchored nearly every aspect of English-speaking culture with its enduring allegories and images, its prose both elegant and concise. Even if you destroyed every copy, notes [Christopher] Hitchens, its words would live on, transmitted “by way of Shakespeare and Milton and Bunyan and Coleridge.”