The Monday “On Religion” feature in USA Today is consistently interesting, even if often exasperating. That is what should be expected of an opinion column — strong opinions in both the column and the reaction it prompts. Well, get ready to form your own opinion about today’s feature, for it is likely to make a lot of waves.
Tom Krattenmaker, a Portland, Oregon based member of the paper’s Board of Contributors, levels a broadside attack on the unity, inspiration, and veracity of the Bible as the Word of God in his column, “Fightin’ Words“.
Krattenmaker first celebrates what he describes as “a year of retreat and retrench” for conservative Christianity. Now, he says, “here come more challenges to traditionalist views of the Bible and Christian faith from a lineup of big-name, liberal-leaning scholars and theologians.”
First up on Krattenmaker’s list is Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina. As Krattenmaker explains, Ehrman “mounts evidence against literalist conceptions of the Bible as factual history and a divinely transmitted testament to an afterlife-focused religion called Christianity.”
If the Bible is the literal word of God, Ehrman asks, how could it be inconsistent on so many details large and small? Let’s start with an example appropriate to the just-concluded Easter season marking the Savior’s death and resurrection: As Jesus was dying on the cross, was he in agony, questioning why God had forsaken him? Or was he serene, praying for his executioners? It depends, Ehrman points out, on whether you’re reading the Gospel of Mark or Luke. Regarding Jesus’ birthplace of Bethlehem, had his parents traveled there for a census (Luke’s version) or is it where they happened to live (Matthew’s version)? Did Jesus speak of himself as God? (Yes, in John; no, in Matthew.)
Bart Ehrman has established himself as the media’s go-to professor in terms of denying the truthfulness and unity of the Bible, especially the New Testament. Ehrman, who has written several best-selling books seeking to debunk and discredit the New Testament and classical Christianity, is a popularizer for many accusations long alleged against the Bible. He takes passages (such as the passion passages from Mark and Luke) and sees contradictions where the church has always seen complimentary accounts. Christ did indeed utter the cry of God-forsakenness recounted by Mark, but this was itself a citation of the Psalms that points to a much different purpose and meaning than Ehrman implies. Which is the true account, Mark or Luke? It takes very little imagination to understand that, in the crucible of the crucifixion event, Jesus experienced both the agony of the God-forsakenness he experienced (and knew He was meant to experience on behalf of sinners) and the serenity that He also experienced, given his faith in the Father’s purposes and power to raise him from the dead.
Of course, if you are coming to the Bible from the perspective of one who has rejected Christianity, you are likely to see the kind of pattern Ehrman alleges. Of course, if he did see the Bible as the perfect and completely truthful Word of God, he would not remain a rejecter of the Christian Gospel.
No one comes to the Bible without presuppositions and a basic intellectual disposition. That is true for Bart Ehrman, and it is no less true for the evangelical believer. In both cases, the presuppositions assign the way each will read the Bible. Krattenmaker simplistically cites Ehrman as his authority for suggesting that Jesus spoke of himself as God in John’s gospel but not in Matthew. But this facile assertion, offered without any supporting argument, does not take in to account that throughout the Gospel of Matthew Jesus speaks and acts as God. When Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, He cites Scripture with the formula, “you have heard it said.” When Jesus then continues by saying, “but I say unto you,” He speaks as God in a way that any first-century Jewish person would have readily understood. Nature obeys his command, and he performs miracles (even bringing the dead back to life) that show his providential control over the created order.
The believing church has always understood that we need all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in order to understand all that we need to know about Jesus, his words, and the events of his earthly life and ministry. What sets the church apart from Bart Ehrman (and others who make such arguments) is that the church sees these four witnesses as complimentary and mutually supportive. Where we have difficulty understanding how one gospel relates to another we face a basic question — one tied to the presuppositions we bring to our reading of the Bible. We will see the problem as lying either in our inability to understand the Bible or in the Bible’s inability to offer a consistent and consistently truthful message.
The crux of Krattenmaker’s argument comes here:
Ehrman’s book has met with a fierce reaction from some quarters, which is understandable. Who among us isn’t inclined to fight back when our deepest, most cherished beliefs are challenged? But there is no need to demonize him as a “wolf” on the prowl against the church, as one critic has. His ideas, like so many other new thoughts and new insights that keep coming around with the surety of the seasons, need not be regarded as insults against God or bids to prove the Bible false.
Krattenmaker argues that Ehrman’s efforts to debunk the New Testament, along with other “new thoughts and new insights,” “need not be regarded as insults against God or bids to prove the Bible false.”
This claim makes sense if, and only if, Krattenmaker does not believe that “false” is the opposite of “true.” Ehman openly and extensively makes his claim that the Bible is filled with error — false information. Krattenmaker may wish to use euphemisms (“varying perspectives and changing interpretations”), but there is no way to reconcile Bart Ehrman’s proposals with any claim that the Bible is, in any meaningful sense, true. Just in case anyone missed this point, Krattenmaker circles back to assert that “there is no denying the inconsistencies [Ehrman] surfaces between the various Gospels and letters that form the New Testament.”
Krattenmaker also warns that defenders of “the conservative faith” face yet more — including a new book by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Again, Krattenmaker signals his glib affirmation of the argument put forth by Borg and Crossan by stating that the authors “point out that Paul didn’t really write the more conservative teachings attributed to him.” Point out? This is the kind of expression appropriate for some settings ( such as “Professor Smith pointed out that deceased people are dead”) but not to the simple assertion that these two authors — both of whom reject classical Christianity — “point out” that Paul didn’t write many of the letters assigned to him.
Borg and Crossan don’t like what Paul writes in his letters about the roles of men and women, about homosexuality, and any number of issues. So, they propose that Paul actually didn’t write those letters, and that a conservative conspiracy within the early church successfully changed Paul into a conservative himself. Like the infamous Jesus Seminar did with Jesus, Borg and Crossan do with Paul — they create him in their own image, ready for tenure review at the local college’s religious studies faculty.
The agenda of the biblical revisionists is clear. If the Bible is a collection of merely human documents that are internally contradictory, indicating an underlying diversity of conflicting interpretations of Christ and the Gospel, we are left with no authority for knowing what Christianity is. Accordingly, we can now make it in our own image.
USA Today bills the “On Religion” column as a means of “illuminating the national conversation.” Well, Tom Krattenmaker’s column is certainly illuminating. But what it illuminates is what Tom Krattenmaker, Bart Ehrman, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan believe about the Bible, and thus about Christianity. Consider yourself illuminated.
R. Albert Mohler Jr.
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