I have been considering the implications of Peter Enns’ suggestion that, in the light of the evidence, we should understand the Old Testament differently than we have done in the past. In a comment on the post Interpreting the Old Testament, Brisancian has asked a number of questions about how we can know what’s true.
I thought the questions were important enough to answer in a new post. Quotes from Brisancian’s questions are shown as blockquotes.
Two main questions
There are many religions. If we allow the Bible writers, and our interpretations, to be so creative, how do we know it’s not all just a fraud?
It could be argued that it is simply human lurching and confirmation bias at their worst, entirely consistent with the many fraudulent faith practices the world over. On what basis can we discern that with Christianity, we do not have a similar fraud? By what criterion?”
We wind up, to put things very simply, in a place where all interpretations could be valid, and we ultimately have no referee – not even a hermeneutical method – by which to know what is real and what isn’t. …. You are free to believe the Bible despite the fact that the writers contradicted each other and shape shifted as time went on, because on the incarnational model, that’s the way God wanted it. Perhaps its simply the way *we* wanted it.”
We don’t have certainty
My first response is to point out that we humans have certainty about very few things – basically maths and logic. Everything else, even science, is only more or less probable.
I don’t believe christian belief is any different. Information, evidence, experience, reason, etc, can only lead a believer to the conclusion that christian belief is probable. We face a choice whether we will trust God on this evidential basis, or not.
And disbelief is also no different. The evidence can only lead a sceptic to the conclusion that christian belief is probably wrong, and so they make the choice not to trust the gospel writers and those who claim to have experienced God.
A more fluid view of the Bible doesn’t change anything
Those who believe the Bible is factually inerrant, and to be interpreted literally, still don’t always agree on the message they get from the Bible. Inerrancy doesn’t lead to certainty. So taking a more fluid approach, as Enns suggests, doesn’t really change anything much.
So how can we know religious truth?
This is the key question, I think. And I think the answer is quite clear – we know religious truth the same way we know any other truth, from the evidence.
My website Is there a God contains pages of assessment of evidence for and against the existence of God. The section Truth and evidence specifically addresses some issues related to how we know.
Summarised in Why believe?, I suggest that evidence for God falls into 5 categories:
- The historical evidence for Jesus: using only passages accepted as historical by most secular scholars, a strong case can be made that Jesus was a unique revelation of God.
- Cosmology: so far science doesn’t really have an answer to the questions of how the universe got here, and why is it so apparently well-designed? This suggests that belief in the creator God revealed by Jesus is a sensible possibility.
- Humanity: science also has trouble explaining human experience – our consciousness, apparent free will, our rationality and the almost universal belief in objective ethics. In fact, many scientists disbelieve in these things. But belief in a creator God, as revealed by Jesus, explains what we all experience as human beings.
- Human experience: hundreds of millions of people all over the world claim to have experienced God, in healing, guidance, vision, etc. Are they all frauds? Are they all mistaken? Belief in the God of Jesus seems to make more sense of this evidence.
- It works: millions of people have found christian faith passes the ultimate test – it works in daily life. (Of course others have tried it and found it didn’t work for them, but they are a small minority.)
So that is how I believe we can reasonably believe that christianity is true.
Brisancian’s specific questions
the splintered 30,000 Christian denominations”
This is actually an exaggeration, as I have shown in How many christian denominations worldwide?, most of these 30,000 are just individual organisations. There is still much variation in belief, as there is variation in many matters relating to human beings, but not as much as you suggest.
how does one establish that Judaism was ever legitimate in the first place?”
I don’t know how a Jew would answer, but my answer is that I don’t have to establish that. I believe in Jesus, and I accept what he said about the Old Testament – that is really the main point Enns makes.
what if the Jews were right all along, and Jesus was a fraudulent Messiah?”
The outline of why I think christian belief is the most reasonable, above, answers this. The historical evidence for Jesus being the Messiah is strong. In my judgment it has a stronger historical basis than any other belief, and a stronger claim to truth. But I don’t believe other religions are totally wrong, but they miss some important truths found in christianity.
The fulfillment of prophecy was a major argument that Christians were correct …. yet we find that much of the OT prophecies had been retooled to fit Jesus – the fit was not intrinsic.”
I wouldn’t use prophecy as a major part of my reasons to believe in Jesus for this reason, though I might if I was talking to a Jew who is familiar with Jewish approaches to interpretation. But there are some prophecies that cannot easily be misunderstood – I’m thinking of things like Isiaah 9:1-7, 53:1-12 – and I think these show deep and significant truths that clearly point to Jesus in an amazing way.
we ultimately have no referee – not even a hermeneutical method – by which to know what is real and what isn’t”
Some things are very clear – e.g. Jesus lived, taught, healed, died, was resurrected, and so established the kingdom of God on earth, and we are invited to be part of that – and these are the really important things. Other things are not clear, and may well be understood differently in different ages, and I am not worried much about that.
Most christians try to resolve this by setting up fixed doctrinal statements, and unwritten but still fairly fixed codes of behaviour. But I don’t think that is the New Testament way. Instead, God gives us his Spirit to lead each of us, and all of us collectively, into new truths, if we will only listen. In these things, we “walk by faith, not by sight”.
Perhaps the empty tomb was simply a literary device that came to be thought of as literal. Perhaps those who say that Paul only believed in a spiritual resurrection were correct (he never mentions an empty tomb).”
The evidence for the resurrection is very good – most scholars, not just christians, believe Jesus was indeed executed and buried, his tomb was later found empty, and/or that his followers had visions of him alive. It is a pre-commitment to naturalism that prevents belief in the resurrection, not a lack of historical evidence.
I think very few scholars would agree with this statement about Paul. Paul speaks of Jesus dying and rising again in 1 Corinthians 15 in a way that only makes sense if both are physical events.
Perhaps the creation account is simply allegory. That would mean that God’s Word does not actually tell us where anything came from. And millennia of believers have asserted that it did, and so were quite misled by “revelation”.”
Perhaps not allegory, but pehaps myth. I agree. But I disagree with the other two statements.
- It tells us exactly where everything came from – from God – it just doesn’t tell us how he did it.
- I cannot see how anyone was harmed over the past 3 millennia for believing literally in Genesis 1-3. Read other creation myths, and they make Genesis seem rather sober, and I don’t think anyone was harmed by believing them.
Perhaps there is no afterlife for believers. ….. Why think that the NT expectations were ontologically real if the OT expectations were not? “
I don’t believe it is correct to say that OT expectations were wrong – they just didn’t have a very clear expectation. But we believe there is growth in God’s revelation, culminating in the coming of Jesus and the Spirit, and it is they who give us our reason to believe in “life in the age to come”.
You are free to believe the Bible despite the fact that the writers contradicted each other and shape shifted as time went on, because on the incarnational model, that’s the way God wanted it. Perhaps its simply the way *we* wanted it.”
My belief in the NT is based on the conclusions of the historians. There are minor apparent contradictions and variations, but the central message is clear and consistent. My belief in the OT is based on Jesus, and his attitude suggests to me that Enns is right about it. I don’t think it has much to do with what I want.
We are left without the slightest evidence that these texts are something more than human… they are permitted error on historical fact… they are permitted error on scientific fact… they are permitted internal contradiction with one another… they are permitted license to redefine meanings over time, ad hoc… they are permitted to change prophecy to fit the events we observe…”
There is no source of information that I know of that we regard as being without error. We are used to minor errors in everything human beings do, and we cope with that quite well.
My faith is based on the NT, and it has been heavily scrutinised by secular scholars. Its problems and difficulties are well known, but that hasn’t stopped them almost unanimously agreeing that the NT tells us some good historical information about Jesus.
On that basis, it is reasonable to trust that the difficulties are not insurmountable and the information we gain from the parts that scholars are uncertain about is sufficiently trustworthy. That is a matter of faith, based on the evidence we do have.
Thanks Brisancian for some important and legitimate questions. I hope I have given reasonable answers, but there is nothing compelling anyone to accept them. We each make a choice.
But I think we should recognise that there is uncertainty in unbelief, more uncertainty in my view. I think it isn’t sensible to highlight the uncertainties of belief but ignore the uncertainties of unbelief. Sitting on the fence is sensible for a time while we gather information, but in then end, we only have one life, and staying on the fence is just as much a choice.
I have lived with my choice for half a century, and while I have had plenty of doubts and questions, I remain happy with my choice and as convinced as ever that it is the right one. I wish readers, including Brisancian, well in making your choices.
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons
Thanks for taking the time to consider. I think your blog post is great, and quite fair in representation. I like the notion of making a post out of it… it keeps it from getting lost down in some comment thread somewhere. I may follow suit, since my thoughts are probably long enough for a post as well.
BTW, I appreciate your tone of civility and mutual dialogue. Something for everyone in the blogosphere to aspire to, myself included. I really enjoy “level chair” conversations without people talking down to each other. Been hard to keep that hat on lately, so much blowback on my change in views. Anyway, thanks for being an honest interlocutor.
Counter-commentary to come… 🙂
G’day Matt. I look forward to whatever you decide to write, and whether here or on your blog.
Thanks for the comment about “tone of civility and mutual dialogue”. That’s something I strongly believe in, and have slowly learnt over many years, though I still don’t always get it right. I appreciate that you are generally the same.
I’m sorry if there has been “so much blowback on my change in views”. From my experience of others who have left christian faith, their former fellow-believers are often new to internet discussion, and unused to people changing their minds about christian belief. So it is a learning experience for them, though sometimes their learning can be painful for people like you – especially if they never learn! I hope you can weather the storm without too much damage on either side!
Catch you later.
Yeah, the whole scenario has its ups and downs. It may be on the ebb though, which I won’t argue with. You’re a good guy, appreciate it.
Thanks Eric and Matt, I always enjoy a good debate by two civil and smart people.