I’ve been reading Prof. Larry Hurtado’s blog lately. One of the most delightful but simple blogs is about the “original text” of the Bible. In this blog, he interacts with a book edited by the controversial Bart Ehrman and Michael Holmes. The most quotable part of the blog states the problem of “original text” very clearly,
“One problem is the ambiguity of the term ‘original text.’ If one means the ‘autograph’ as it came from the author, there was already likely a copying/transmission process involved from the outset, which likely means that there were at least some differences among even these very first copies (as one expects of any text copied by hand). And in some cases, authors might have released more than one copy or even more than one ‘edition’ of a given writing (e.g., Acts??).”
The quote reminds me of countless conversations I had with conservatives (aka evangelicals) about the view on inerrancy. The whole idea that “the Bible” (whatever that means) has some kind of original text is highly popular even among evangelical “scholars,” but our study on variances and widely diverse texts actually leads us to some other conclusions (e.g. Jeremiah’s multiple versions?) that look more like Hurtado’s than the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy, especially article x in it.
The quote also reminds me of many dialogues I had with pastors. One old pastor told me that students tend to lose their faith when they enter seminary. Another pastor told me that such data (or many other historical “problems”) was great for the academy but was best kept from congregation in fear of them losing their faith. After all, isn’t the job of the shepherd the same as the police, “to serve and protect”? This kind of advice is very prevalent among evangelicals. It’s the party line! I hear them repeated like some magical mantra among fellow ministers. All these ideals sound good on the surface, until we examine them. Upon taking a closer look, these ideas also sound hypocritical and insidious. They’re hypocritical because we aren’t telling them the truth, only a watered-down variation of a half-truth. We create crisis of faith for those who are intellectually inclined. Without the right information, the intellectual will suffer a true crisis when confronted with the data.
The situation points to a larger problem with our current state of affairs. Evangelical churches have been looking only to grow in number. Many glory in statistics. What we neglect however is the critical assessment on the nature and substance of faith. Why in fact would congregation members go into seminary and lose their faith? Is their faith a fragile little flower that can’t take the intellectual scorching sun and raging storms of heresies.? Would truth cause one to lose faith? Should we fear truth? Is our brand of Christianity justification by fear rather than by faith?
A faith that can’t deal with the advanced data at hand is hardly worth keeping. If some critical data surface, our faith is shaken. Our fall says more about our faith than the data. Evangelicalism has created a faith that has mistaken certainty for faith, doctrine of inerrant original text for God, and need/self-centeredness for true spirituality. We have also created a pastoral culture that is completely secularized where everything is measured in statistics (e.g. church size). We have mistaken coddling for protection. We have mistaken spoiling our congregation with ignorance for pastoral care. Coddling is not caring. Coddling is harmful. It creates a false sense of safety via isolationism. Once your congregation reenters the intellectual world, whatever simplistic doctrines we teach them will leave them exposed rather than protected. We have created artificiality that breeds superficial certainty and childishness rather than deep faith and maturity.
Regarding all this, how should we think as pastors?
First, most of us need to change our mindset immediately. The problem is not just individual ministers. The problem is the entire culture created by the bubble called evangelicalism. We’ve been toeing the wrong party line. Our evangelical political correctness (i.e. party line) has poisoned our faith beyond repair. Our fortress built on sinking sand crumples even with a little breeze being blown against it. The above is an evangelical problem because no matter how each evangelical minister is educated in the best institution, it makes little difference when it comes to approaching this problem of the Bible. We need to stop thinking that our people are complete idiots or we’ll create complete idiots. We need to stop thinking that our people are infants who can’t handle anything other than milk. This demands that we become profound teachers who study rather than CEO’s who drive this church growth machine.
Second, we need to educate. Many pastors are ill-educated in such matters because they too have been going to evangelical seminaries that avoid such hard topics. They themselves fear the experts who come to their church with intellectually challenging lectures only to leave the pastoral staff scrambling for answers. If the pulpit does not allow sufficient time to talk about this information, we should start having special classes just on these topics to inform our congregations. If our ministers do not feel qualified enough, then hire someone qualified from the outside to teach this stuff. Bart Ehrman has been receiving a bum deal lately because he’s been raising questions about faith in the public arena. He has become popular because of his eloquent presentation skills. Many evangelicals think that Bart Ehrman is the villain. I say, “No.” Evangelicalism IS the true villain. One colleague (a former PhD classmate) told me, “Ehrman’s stuff is nothing new. We all know his data since we were studying for our masters.” That may be true, but it IS new because we have created a larger market for Ehrman by producing sheep who do not know this fascinating data. Neither can the sheep interpret the data nor do they know the implications for biblical interpretation. Ehrman is not the enemy. We are our own worst enemy. Thus, our job is not to create some occasional teaching moments to fulfill our minimal intellectual needs. Our job is to show people consistently that there’re things that are more profound than the little felt needs in which we’re wrapped up. It is no wonder that the writer of the Pastoral Letters used educational vocabulary. The ancient church was also an educational institution in matters of faith. Somehow these days, the church has become a place where all your needs other than intellectual needs are met. This should not be so.
At the end of the day, the problem is not data. The problem is faith. True faith should be able to pass the test of uncertainty and intellectual scrutiny. By presenting data honestly, ministers will only strengthen and not weaken the faith. True faith also believes that no amount of “facts” (aka truth) can hurt our relationship with God. The other kinds of faith are a flimsy substitute that ought to be thrown to the rubbish heap. If we want a faith that is worth keeping, it is time for a change.
PS. For a response to Erhman, read the latest work by Craig Evans and Michael Bird here.