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The Historic Christian Response of Presuppositionalism to Biblical Criticism: Classic Harmonization

April 22, 2009 8 comments

Over at my blog, I have been writing a series of posts (a four part series:  part one, part two, part three, part four) about the faulty epistemology of multiple version onlyism.  I hope that doesn’t stop you from reading this post.  Epistemology is in essence how we know what we know.  The two major categories I have considered are presuppositional epistemology and evidential epistemology.   We should be presuppositional and I tell you why, especially applying this to the issue of the preservation of Scripture, in those four posts.   You should read them.  I’ve made it easy with the links.  My last post over there, which I uploaded on April 21, 2009, Tuesday, has been linked to by a couple of sites (here and here) that deal with textual criticism.

This entree would probably be my fifth in this series and I’ll probably retitle it and post it over there.  I don’t want to do that yet, because I want that article to run a fuller gamot before I post over it.

I introduced the last in the epistemology series with an article that came out in USA Today in its opinion section called Fightin’ Words, which was a positive review of Bart Ehrman’s book, Jesus Interrupted.   In the book, it seems that Ehrman uses the typical techniques of biblical criticism to undermine the authority of scripture, primarily by attempting to make the Bible look like it contradicts itself.  The point, of course, is that if the Bible does do that, then it isn’t inspired or divine.   The author of the USA Today article mentions that James White makes a personal attack against Ehrman by speaking of Ehrman’s unbelieving bias, to which he, Tom Krattenmaker retorts:

If criticisms of Ehrman veer toward the personal it’s because his evidence — the Bible’s own text — is what it is. And there is no denying the inconsistencies he surfaces between the various Gospels and letters that form the New Testament.

Bart Ehrman, the chairman of the Bible department at the University of North Carolina, is a significant liberal to deal with.  To start, Ehrman himself is a one time “born-again” evangelical who attended Moody, then Wheaton, and finally Princeton when he said goodbye to his faith.   Then much of the attack on scripture that you might hear used by atheistic scientists and from anti-Christian Islamics comes from the pen of Bart Ehrman.

What Ehrman has done, and in a way of marketing genius, is taken the very old, academic arguments against God and the Bible and written them in very simple, story-like terms, attempting to get graduate school material into comic book form and to make dusty, theological material very accessible to the average person.  As I have gone door-to-door out here in California, I have many times heard points made that I knew came from Ehrman.  Ehrman’s books often become NY Times bestsellers and are featured at the front of mainstream bookstores.  They provide talking points to those who have or wish to push the eject button on Christianity.

From a human standpoint, it is to Ehrman’s credit that he has not just written the books and then hid out in his little hovel in Chapel Hill.  He has traveled around, very much like Christopher Hitchens has done after writing God Is Not Great, and debated those on the other side who oppose his view.  Part of Ehrman’s schtick is his ability to talk in everyman language and to appear to have no harmful agenda.   If you listen to him closely, it’s easy to see that he’s actually dishonest.   He presents content that cannot rise above the level of speculation and yet makes it sound like it is the most likely scenario.   Some of that is seen in this part of the USA Today column:

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).

What about that paragraph?  Ehrman presumes that the gospel accounts contradict one another in the sections on His death and birth accounts and that the words of Jesus on the cross are contradictory.   What do we say about what Ehrman expresses as apparent inconsistencies?  If you are reading this, it isn’t difficult to answer these biblical criticisms.   Knowing the nature of Christ, it is easy for us to believe Jesus questioned God (in fulfillment of prophecy, by the way) about forsaking Him and prayed for His executioners.  They both happened.  Neither of the accounts contradict each other.

Each gospel has a unique, eyewitness point of view.  Each has a particular theme.  Altogether they don’t contradict, but present a full, panoramic, textured picture of the life of Christ.  Matthew doesn’t say that Joseph and Mary were living in Bethlehem.  Matthew also presents Jesus as God and he believed Jesus was God as much as John did.  We call this answer “harmonization.”  The various accounts do harmonize without contradiction, which is the nature of eyewitness accounts.  If they were exactly the same, we would have a bigger problem, because then we might think that the witnesses just plagiarized one another.

Biblical Criticism

Biblical criticism has been around since the books of Scripture were inspired by God.  The present form that Ehrman is attempting to popularize is another mainly post-enlightenment invention.  Wikipedia gives a fine synopsis:

Biblical criticism, defined as the treatment of biblical texts as natural rather than supernatural artifacts, grew out of the rationalism of the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 19th century it was divided between the Higher Criticism, the study of the composition and history of biblical texts, and lower criticsm, the close examination of the text to establish their original or “correct” readings.

During the Enlightenment, the role of reason was held above Scripture.  Reason was then used to analyze Scripture because the Enlightenment philosophers believed that reason was more trustworthy. This is the basic presupposition that evangelicals and fundamentalists should not agree with but is found at the basis of all critical methods.  The modern academy has not stopped at the threshold of reason.  New forms of reader-response criticism allow any ideology to critique Scripture.  As a result a person is able to find whatever he wants in Scripture.

Some of the famous names of higher criticism, which did what Ehrman does  in Jesus Interrupted, are Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, Julius Wellhausen, David Strauss, Karl Barth, and Rudolf Bultmann.  The modern day Jesus Seminar is a recent example of this ongoing pursuit of de-supernaturalizing the Bible and turning Jesus into a regular person.   One sure byproduct of these efforts will be the disappearance of the institutions from which they gain their paychecks.   There will be no longer any use in studying such an impostor, what Jesus will have become once they’re through with Him and their writings about Him.

What Is the Difference Between the Biblical Critics and Us?

We both operate with different presuppositions.  Of course, they say that they are dealing with the evidence, allowing it to lead them to the truth.  But our presupposition is that the Bible is inspired, God’s Word, and that Jesus is God, Lord, and Savior of the world.  Their presupposition is that the Bible is one of many ancient texts written by men.

I recognize that most evangelicals and fundamentalists attempt to create at least in perception a great distance between higher and lower criticism.  However, Ehrman doesn’t see the great gulf between them.  He shifts back and forth between lower and higher very comfortably.  In one book, he attacks the text of Scripture (Misquoting Jesus) and then he smoothly shifts over to his disection of the content of Scripture (Jesus Interrupted).  He has the same presuppositions and uses the same methodology with both.

What we do with the varied accounts of the gospels again is called harmonization.  We harmonize the text based upon our presuppositions.  We have a high view of God, of Scripture, and of inspiration.  We choose not to see contradictions because we know that God does not deny Himself (2 Tim 2:11-13).  So to recap:  we harmonize differing accounts based upon our scriptural and theological presuppositions.  This is how Christians have operated historically.

Because God is always true and every man a liar (Rom 3:4), we also harmonize what we see outside of the Bible with the Bible.  We don’t harmonize the Bible with what we see outside of the Bible.  The Bible is the final arbiter of truth, so every truth claim is tested by the yardstick of scripture.  In other words, we aren’t integrationists.  Biblical critics, because of the unbelieving presuppositions, place their own reason above the Bible and so rather than questioning their own opinons and conclusions, they question scripture.

Examples of Biblical Criticism in Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism

I’m going to give two examples where post-enlightenment, unbelieving rationalism has influenced evangelicalism and even fundamentalism toward biblical criticism.  This is also the replacement of presuppositional epistemology with evidential epistemology.  Fundamentalism  was by definition to be hostile to biblical criticism in any form.  Here are the two.

1.  Despite the fact that God promised to preserve every Word and make it available to every generation of believers, so that there is only one Bible, evangelicals and fundamentalists have subjected the Bible to lower criticism to produce multiple Bibles, all of which contain errors.

This was not the position of pre-enlightenment Christianity.  Sure they knew there were errors in copies, but they believed that God had preserved every Word and that they were all available to believers of every generation.  When that was mixed with rationalism and science, that changed.  Evangelicals and fundamentalists stopped harmonizing and started submitting to evidentialism, giving up presuppositional epistemology.  I recognize that fundamentalists would say that they are not biblical critics as textual critics.  That’s not the same conclusion that an objective outside source would make.  Harriet A. Harris in Fundamentalism and Evangelicals writes:

Fundamentalism in fact accords with evangelicalism which, according to McGrath, ‘accepts the principle of biblical criticism (although insisting that it be applied responsibly).’  The difference between the two positions becomes a matter of what sorts of biblical criticism are accepted, and how its responsible application is defined.  Here we will discover no hard-and-fast distinctions between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, but varying degrees of acceptance of different forms of criticism.

2.  Despite the fact that the biblical account is a literal twenty-four hour day, seven day creation, and a young earth, biblical criticism in cahoots with secular science has influenced evangelicals and fundamentalists to accept a subjective, day-age, old earth explanation of creation.

This bow to rationalism or Darwinism submits God’s Word to external “evidence” as superior and final arbiter in this matter.  Even fundamentalists have implied that this is acceptable.

So, just to review.  Historically believers have harmonized their interpretation of the evidence with scripture, not vice-versa.  They have also harmonized apparent biblical contradictions.  They have done this based upon their high view of God, scripture, and inspiration.  They have presupposed the Bible as the sole authority for all faith and practice.

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