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.