Reading the Bible Like a Paperback

I’ve always been a reader, not only in my work as an apologist and in the classroom, but also in my free time. Outside of New Testament, theological studies, philosophy and history, I’ve widely read economic works, true crime, literature, as well as Science fiction and fantasy. In the latter category, this has included paperback novels (particularly those related to the Star Wars’ Expanded Universe, which are now marketed under the “Star Wars Legends moniker, due to changes in the chronology when Disney acquired the property) as well as more serious works, such as those of H G Wells, Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stoker’s Dracula.

I’ve noticed that I read different types of work differently. That is, I don’t read Timothy Zahn’s original Thrawn Trilogy with the same attention and connection to other fields as when I read to Shakespeare or the New Testament. This is not to insult Zahn, I have read his works and enjoyed them, but I enjoy them in a different way, and the seriousness of the literature demands a different type of engagement.

New Atheists

Often you will see Christian apologists who have commented that “new Atheist” writers have not even consulted rudimentary sources in the debate between Christians and atheists. Another way of explaining this problem is to suggest they have treated the Bible in the same way one would treat a paperback novel, but they seem to think that their expertise rivals that of those who have actually spent decades studying the material as one might study Shakespeare or Milton.

Here is a trick I’ve used in a few cases in facebook discussions when one of the passages atheists regularly rely on is cited, (I rarely use this move because it tends to end discussions rather than facilitate them). I simply ask, “what commentary or theological literature have you read on that particular passage.” Usually the answer is none.[1] Other times I have made the point, perhaps less politely, with the photo of a mug stating, “Your google search is not a substitute for my theology degree.”


It should seem reasonable to assume that unbelievers will not know the Christian Scriptures well, and provided someone is not claiming expertise they do not possess, (by say, writing a book on the matter), I’m not going to quibble, it is my responsibility to make my case, not theirs to accept it a priori. But the objection that gets raised to this issue are ex-evangelicals, and sadly even a few ex-pastors who raise the same passages from the Christian Scriptures, without comment. And yet, in my interactions with ex-evangelicals, the same general ignorance still applies, this seems strange, or perhaps, we might say, it is sad. I believe in part it is because Americans exist in a pseudo-intellectual culture (that is, the average American claims to value knowledge, but only when that knowledge comes easily through documentaries and hip websites, not when there is a need for intellectual ardor and hard work; we wish to be thought well read more than we wish to be well read), but much of the Evangelical culture does not value the mind. (This is perhaps one of the reasons why Reformed churches are growing currently, because the Protestant intellectual tradition largely grows out of Calvin’s Geneva).[2] We speak of reading the Bible, but we do so seeking something spiritual as if the mind is some disconnected, amorphous blob that has nothing to do with the rest of the Christian life. Our theological programs seem built on the predicate that the life of the mind for the believer is only for the pastor, or the seminary professor. If atheists read the Bible like so many cheap paperbacks, perhaps this is because this is precisely how so many believers read the Bible.

We need a balance. Not every Christian is called to be a scholar, not everyone will memorize the Kalam cosmological argument, or the full history of the Christological conflicts of the fourth and fifth centuries, but we also need to again have education programs in our churches that both has some apologetic value, but also some theological and Biblical substance. Doctrine and Biblical studies are not the guarded and isolated domain of the clergy, hoarded to answers questions as needed, but rather the property of the Body as a whole. This is a particular problem in Baptist churches, and I speak as a committed Baptists by conviction on most points.[3] Baptists should be the least hidebound of all the denominations, our view of soul liberty (and the right of every believer to study the Bible for themselves) implies a responsibility to study the Bible. But, sadly, such responsibilities fail to attain the status we might accord so many other duties or pleasures. Perhaps we have so many ex-evangelicals with a college level understanding of naturalism and its premises and a 2nd grade level understanding of the Christian faith, because we have settled for the belief that this is enough. Right now, it isn’t.

[1] In a few cases, the retort that has been made is that Evangelical resources are biased. True, but so are the resources coming from every other direction. Bias is an inevitable product of intellectual activity and it cannot be dispensed with completely, but it is possible to be objective with a bias. Thus, the question remains, if the Evangelical resources are wrong, without simply asserting premises that are themselves a source of bias (such as David Hume’s Argument Against Miracles), where specifically do they go wrong. Usually there is no answer on this, but that also tells me I am dealing with a mind too closed to have a productive conversation and it is time to walk away. As I said, this technique tends to be a debate stopper.


[2] Many might object to this statement, but I did not say only Calvinists have an intellectual tradition. It is not that theological education is somehow especially the province of Calvinism, nor is there something intrinsically of greater worth in a Calvinists mind or heart. Rather, the point is historical, the forging of the protestant tradition, including those who dissent from the narrower Calvin, were forged in Geneva. For example, while there is an intellectually vigorous Arminianism in the Anglican tradition, this tradition itself is an outgrowth of the Calvinist roots of an earlier age. Arminius himself was nurtured and fed by the ravens and brooks of Geneva.


But I also assumes that Calvinism is a broader tradition. Back in the 90s, it was fashionable to consider oneself neither a Calvinist, nor an Arminian. This was my own way of describing myself at the time. I believe Calvin was right about election, a position I took initially with a certain degree of trepidation, but one which the logic of Scripture would not allow me to avoid. But I have never agreed with Calvin about reprobation. But, as I have aged, I have come to realize election itself is the dividing line between the two positions, and as such, any type of centrist position is a type of Calvinism. Arminianism is by definition one of the extremes on the spectrum of divine sovereignty and human freewill. The opposite of an Arminian is not the Calvinist, but the theological determinist, a subset of a subset of the Calvinism. In particular, there are distinctions between the Scottish school of Calvinist thought (a much broader tradition in practice) and the Dutch Reformed model, and I think the Scottish model is more adaptable, and a better fit for intellectual enquiry. This is why I call myself a Calvinist, but I do not describe myself as reformed, as I am a dispensationalist, and most reformed confessions of faith repudiate sublapsarianism.

[3] Many differences between denominations comes down to relatively unimportant matters, one of these is “church government.” I personally have come to the conclusion that the reason there are so many various interpretations on this issue of the Biblical data is because the Biblical data is not intended to answer those questions, rather we have a certain flexibility here that is implied. The church’s order has altered throughout history in part to adapt to circumstances and cultural views on leadership. Other than an agnosticism on the issue of government I am a fairly unremarkable Baptist in my conclusions.

Christianity as Faith without Evidence?

One of the central claims by Sam Harris and many internet atheists is the claim that there is no evidence to support religious beliefs, or that religious beliefs are unjustified. In some senses, this should be easily dismissed, like Dawkins and Hitchens, Harris has not adequately done his homework.[1] For example, in his arguments he claims Pascal’s wager advocates belief without evidence,[2] but this does discredit to Pascal. Pascal’s wager is predicated on his statements that the evidence for Christian theism and against it were evenly matched, Harris does not mention this rather critical assumption to the wager, or Pascal’s development of the point. Similarly, of the three places where he footnotes a statement from Augustine, in 2 places his statement is from a secondary source. Additionally, he assumes a definition of religious belief drawn from Kierkegaard’s view of belief as a “Leap in the dark” and Hebrews 11:1, which he treats as a definition of faith. The later point is an example of poor exegesis, however, as that section of text should not be treated as a definition. Nor should Kierkegaard be treated as a universal explanation of Christian theism.

But what is most astonishing is, in my days of arguing on facebook, whenever one begins to produce evidence for the resurrection, the atheists invariable counter is dismissal of the evidence, usually with poor examinations, or by claiming something about the gospels that is believed by “most New Testament scholars,” without noting, or perhaps even understanding, that scholars are as divided on these points as are anyone else.[3] Mention Ramsey’s work with Acts (my usual starting point), references from Tacitus of the Talmud, and the responses are never one of inquiry they are rather closeminded refusals to investigate the matter further, sometimes with the type of haughty ridicule that personifies “New Atheism.”

The key thing to understanding the claim that Christians have faith, but no evidence, is that it is predicated on the naturalistic assumption that evidence for miracles should be treated prejudicially as false, that is, when evidence is cited, it must be dismissed because miracles don’t happen.[4] That is, their worldview begins with a close mind, not an enquiring one. There is a lot more here than can be quickly unpacked, but it is useful to know that the charge itself is false, it isn’t that Christians believe without evidence, it is that Christians believe on the basis of evidence that atheists do not seem to wish to examine.

[1]This is treating him kindly, it is either this, or he is deliberately misrepresenting positions raised by others.

[2] Please note, adequate care should always be used with Pascal’s work on the subject since it was a project he did not complete before his death.

[3] Much of modern theological scholarship was deeply impacted by German Idealism, particularly by Hegel. Biblical scholarship is divided, unsurprisingly along theological lines. Some view the theological left as neutral, but their epistemology is impacted by continental philosophers and Hume, they are therefore as partisan and biased in their analysis as they claim evangelical scholars to be.


Interestingly, much of the debate concerning the gospels comes down to the writings of the very early church fathers. The theological liberal, argues they are unreliable, and usually makes this claim with inadequate evidence and reasoning. The fathers were men, therefore not infallible, and they were men who held to the scientific theories of their times, but there are good reasons for not dismissing the fathers so hastily, or to paint with two broad a brush and argue that some error in one father discredits all who follow. First, they had more information than the 19th century German critics did, they had access to documents and sources we do not. Second, their claims for the gospels are unanimous, but we would not expect unanimity in the second century fathers of the gospel writers were actually unknown. Third, we would expect the gospels would be attributed to the leading lights among the apostles, not Matthew, Mark and Luke. Mark is a minor character, best known for his failings in the New Testament era, though early tradition places him as working with Peter. Matthew is an apostle, but hardly prominent. Luke was merely a companion of Paul’s, and not an apostle in his own right. There is also a certain likelihood of the identifications that fits modern historiography, but was likely less impressive to ancient thinkers. There are regularly raised questions asserting Galilean fishermen could not have written the gospels. This I think is a faulty question, sociological data of history is too imprecise for the claim to either be considered proven, or refuted. I dislike the sheer number of assumptions needed to make that case, either way. But, it is ultimately irrelevant. Matthew was a tax collector, meaning he was literate. Mark is associated with Peter in early tradition, and was also from an apparently wealthy Levitical family (and thus was likely educated). Luke, who wrote as a historian, was also a learned man. John probably came from a somewhat well off family (his father owned two boats and had hired workers) and so he might have had some advantages in education other fisherman did not have. Additionally, his gospel is later than the synoptics, and therefore, he had ample time during his ministry to learn the necessary skills before writing the gospel.


But here is where it gets interesting, some of the issues within NT scholarship come from treating something called the Two-Source theory as being very certain, and this is used as grounds to claim the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. This reasoning, is backwards. That is, if there is a problem between the two source version and the patristic data, the patristic data has far better credibility than imagining sources on the basis of Hegel’s approach to dialectic.

[4]This is the sum effect of David Hume’s argument against miracles. The argument has two parts, an “in principle” section is a circular argument, and would seem to make it impossible to believe in new discoveries, if followed with any rigor. Second, his “in fact” set of four statements that are really examples of argumentium ad hominem implying ancients were too ignorant and uneducated to understand the in principle argument, with a claim that religious miracles cancel each other out, this later part is a non-sequitar, since as CS Lewis noted, what is present are not actually contradictory. Additionally, Hume’s arguments are couched in his own brand of radical skepticism, and one wonders if the argument can be grounded without that skepticism, a skepticism that his modern proponents do not share.