Should an inerrant Bible be the very foundation of Christianity?

Eric Reitan, a progressive Christian philosopher (having written an excellent book on the New Atheism and one defending universal salvation) gave several arguments against the central place of the Bible for our faith.

 

How Does God Reveal? Five Christian Reasons to Doubt Biblical Inerrancy

 
The Patheos website is currently hosting a multi-blog conversation about progressive Christianity and Scripture which has generated numerous engaging and thoughtful contributions–such as this one by James McGrath. Because the relationship between progressive Christian faith and the Bible is one of my enduring interests, the sudden flood of interesting essays on the topic has inspired me to take a few minutes to reflect on the issue myself. 

As a philosopher of religion, the way I approach this topic is in terms of a philosophical question: What theory of revelation fits best with the Christian view of God? Put another way, if there is a God that fits the broadly Christian description, how would we expect such a God to reveal the divine nature and will to the world?

Many conservative Christians take it for granted that God has revealed the divine nature and will in and through a specific book. More precisely (although they aren’t usually this precise), they believe that God inspired certain human authors at various times in history to write texts that inerrantly express divine truths–and then inspired other human beings to correctly recognize these texts and include all and only them in the comprehensive collection of Scriptures we call the Bible.

Let’s call this the theory of biblical inerrancy.

Does this theory fit well with broader Christian beliefs? Is this a good Christian theory about divine revelation, culminating in a good Christian theory about what the Bible is and what sort of authority we should attach to it? I think there are a number of reasons to be skeptical.

Put more narrowly, I think there are a number of reasons why Christians should be skeptical, given their Christian starting points. Let’s consider at least some of these reasons.

1. Christianity holds that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God

Traditional Christian teaching holds that Jesus is the Word made Flesh, the incarnation of God in history. And this means that for Christians, the primary and monumental revelation of God is in the person of Jesus, not in any book (however inspired). It is this fact which motivated George MacDonald to say of the Bible,

It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth. The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God. It is Christ “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” not the Bible, save as leading to him.

Biblical inerrantists might argue that nothing precludes God from both revealing the divine nature primarily in Jesus and authoring an inerrant book as a secondary revelation. This is true as far as it goes. But there are reasons for concern.

First, there’s a difference between the kind of revelation that Jesus represents, and the kind that a book represents. A person and a book are different things, and we learn from them in different ways. Consider the difference between having a mentor in the project of becoming a better person, and reading self-help books.

Doesn’t Christianity teach that God’s preferred way of disclosing the divine nature and will is through personal, living relationship rather than fixed words? The problem with throwing in an inerrant book as a “supplemental” revelation is that it can lead to Bible-worship. Given human psychology, there is something alluring about having a book with all the answers. But if God primarily wants us to find the answers through personal engagement with the living God, as discovered in Jesus, isn’t there a real danger that fixation on the Bible will distract the faithful from God’s primary mode of self-disclosure?

None of this is to say that human stories–witness accounts of divine revelation in history–aren’t important. They can motivate a desire to seek out the one whom the stories are about, and they can offer tools for discerning whether you’ve found the one you seek or an imposter. But once they are seen as secondary, as valuable as a means to an end, the need for inerrancy dissipates. If what really matters is my friendship with Joe, and if I sought out and formed a friendship with him because lots of people told me stories about him that revealed him as an awesome guy I wanted to meet, do I really need to insist that those storytellers were inerrant? Why?

2. The Jesus of Scripture was not an inerrantist

In John 8:1-11, we have the story of the teachers of the law coming to Jesus with an adulteress, and asking Him whether they ought to stone her to death as the Scriptures prescribe. The passage itself declares that this was a trap: If Jesus came out and directly told them not to stone her, He would be defying a direct scriptural injunction.

He avoided the trap: He didn’t directly telling them to act contrary to Scripture. Instead, He told them that the one without sin should cast the first stone.

It is a stunning and powerful story (no wonder someone decided to write it into the Gospel of John, even though it didn’t appear in the earliest versions). But notice that Jesus didn’t tell them to do what Scripture prescribed. Instead, He found a powerful way to drive home exactly what was wrong with following that scriptural injunction–in a way that avoided their trap.

In short, Jesus disagreed with some of the teachings in the Scriptures of His day. In the Sermon on the Mount, he offered gentle correctives to earlier teachings–teachings which started in a direction but didn’t go far enough. The lex talionis command to punish evildoers eye for eye and tooth for tooth may, at the time, have served as a restraint on retributive impulses: don’t punish beyond the severity of the crime. But for Jesus, that level of restrain was insufficient. It was a start on a path, perhaps, but only that. Jesus followed the trajectory of that path to its conclusion, and enjoined His listeners to turn the other cheek.

In short, it’s clear Jesus didn’t have the inerrantist view towards the Scriptures of His day that conservative Christians have towards the Christian Scriptures of today. Conservatives might argue that Jesus would view the modern Bible–or maybe just the New Testament?–in the way they favor, even if the approach to Scripture that He actually modeled is at odds with their approach.

Allow me to treat such a speculative claim with suspicion. If Jesus is the primary revelation of God in history, then it strikes me as appropriate to follow His model for approaching Scripture, and respectfully look beyond the letters on the page to the deeper intentions that finite human authors might have missed, noticing trajectories and exploring where they might lead.

3. In the New Testament, Paul distinguished between his views and the Lord’s

 In 1 Corinthians 7:10-12, Paul says the following:

To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her…

I’ve talked about this passage before, so I won’t go into details. What interests me is the distinction Paul makes between his own views and those of the Lord. In this passage, it’s clear that Paul did not see Himself as taking dictation from God. He made a clear distinction between his own opinions and those of the Lord, and by making the distinction explicit was signaling to his readers that they should treat the injunctions differently–as if he didn’t want to claim for himself the kind of authority that he took to accompany Jesus’ explicit teachings.

But if inerrantism is true, then Paul’s teachings are the inerrant word of God, and so have the same kind of authority as Jesus’ words. In other words, if inerrantism is true, then Paul was wrong to make the distinction he made. But that distinction is made by Paul in a letter that’s in the Bible. And if inerrantism is true, a distinction made in a letter that’s in the Bible has to be accurate. But if it’s accurate, inerrantism isn’t true. Zounds!

An exercise in creative interpretation might offer the inerrantist the wiggle room to escape this logical trap, but inerrantists are routinely skeptical of such creative interpretation of Scripture. At best, then, this amounts to a difficulty for inerrantism, the sort of difficulty one often sees when trying to force a theory onto subject matter that doesn’t quite suit it. Theories can perhaps weather some such difficulties, but if they become too common it is hard to reasonably persist in endorsing the theory.

4. Efforts to overcome apparent contradictions in Scripture lead to a false view of Scripture

Speaking of difficulties of this sort, the Bible isn’t a neat, orderly, systematically consistent treatise. The Gospel narratives, for example, aren’t identical. They tell the stories of Jesus’ life in different ways. Details differ–for example, in accounts of the resurrection. Bart Ehrman does a fine job of cataloguing  many of these in Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible.

Mostly, these tensions aren’t explicit contradictions but rather what might be called apparent ones: they don’t seem as if they can go together, because you’d need to tell a rather convoluted story to make them fit.

Inerrantists have not been remiss in offering such convoluted stories. But if you need to tell enough of them in order to make your theory map onto what it’s supposed to explain, the theory becomes increasingly implausible.

And there’s another problem, one that should be of concern to Christians who care about the Bible. The convoluted tales that you have to tell in order to make disparate biblical narratives fit together end up leading you away from an honest appreciation of the message of the biblical authors. As Ehrman puts it, “To approach the stories in this way is to rob each author of his own integrity as an author and to deprive him of the meaning that he conveys in his story.”

When you do this, you care more about preserving your theory about the Bible than you do about understanding and taking in its message. For me, this is one of the greatest tragedies of an inerrantist approach to Scripture: It makes it difficult for readers to engage with the Bible on its own terms. It’s like someone who is so devoted to a false image of their spouse that they can’t see their spouse for the person they really are. Likewise, the steps that need to be taken in order to preserve the doctrine of inerrancy in the face of the Bible’s actual content means that it becomes impossible to have an intimate relationship with the Bible as it really is. This is not taking the Bible seriously. It is taking the doctrine of inerrancy seriously at the expense of the Bible.  

5. God is love

Christianity teaches that God is love. In fact, it is the closest thing Christians have to a scriptural definition of God:  “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8).

If God is love, then we experience God when we love. If God is love, then the primary way we can encounter God is through loving and being loved–that is, through cultivating loving relationships with persons. This may help to explain the Christian view that a person–Jesus–served in history as God’s fundamental revelation, rather than a book. Books can’t love you. And you can’t love a book in the sense of “love” that Christians (and the author of 1 John) have in mind when we say God is love.

When we feel the profound presence of the divine showering love upon us–or when we feel the joy of being loved by others–we are encountering the divine nature as something coming to us from the outside. But when we love our neighbors as ourselves, we are channeling divine love, and experiencing it “from within” (so to speak). The divine nature is moving within us, more intimately connected to us than any mere object of experience. I think this is what the author of 1 John means when he says that whoever does not love does not know God. To love others is to be filled with the spirit of God. It is to let God in.

If any of that is true, then it is by encouraging us to love one another that God makes possible the most profound revelation of the divine nature and will. And while the Bible does encourage us to love one another, the theory about the Bible which takes it to be the inerrant revelation of God may actually be an impediment to love.

We end up focusing more attention on the Bible than on our neighbors. We are more committed to “doing what the Bible says” than we are to loving those around us. Out of a desire to be connected with God, we insist that homosexuality is always and everywhere sinful–and when the gay and lesbian neighbors we are supposed to love cry out in despair, their lives crushed by these teachings, we stifle our compassion, shutting out love in fear that loving them as ourselves might lead us to question the inerrancy of the Bible.

If God is love, then any theory of revelation that tells us to find God by burying our noses in a book is a problematic theory. If God is love, we must look for God in the love we see in the world. The Bible, understood as a flawed and finite human testament to the God of love working in history, can be a deeply meaningful partner in our quest to encounter God and live in the light of divine goodness. But as soon as it is treated as inerrant, it is in danger of becoming a bludgeon used to silence those neighbors who want to share experiences that don’t quite fit with this or that verse.

The Bible points away from itself. Respect for it demands that we look up from the page and engage with our neighbors and the creation. God is alive in the world. The Bible tells us that God is alive in the world. In so doing, the book is telling us that if we want to find God, we need to look into our neighbor’s face with love, and at the natural world and all its creatures with love.

Because God is there. God is there, revealing Himself in the vibrancy of life and the child’s laugh and the mother’s tender kiss. God is there, in the gay man who sits by his longtime partner’s hospital bedside, gently stroking his brow. God is there, in the joyous wedding vows of the lesbian couple that can finally get a legal marriage after years together.

And any time a too-literal allegiance to the letter of the biblical text causes someone not to see the face of God in that tenderness and joy, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has blocked divine revelation, impeding God’s effort to self-disclose to the world.

 

 

Here follows my own response.

 

Dear Eric,

it would be a terrible understatement to say that this post of yours was extraordinarily amazing 🙂

Here is a major problem for the Conservative Protestant position: it cannot merely be that their Bible is inerrant, but also that people who first recognized it that way were as well. If they weren’t, what give us the guarantee that their decision was correct?

Therefore, I view the doctrine of Solo Scriptura as rationally extremely problematic.


I also agree that God’s revelation was the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and that it is not propositional knowledge, even if it logically entails affirming certain truths.

I think that Biblical inerrancy is IMPOSSIBLE in the first place, due to the presence of many conflicting voices in the collection of books having been gathered under that name.

Therefore, ironically enough, inerrantists themselves have constantly to pick and choose which texts they take at face values and which they necessarily have to distort because they contradict the former.

The real danger here is that according to the doctrine of inerrancy, if you find some Biblical verses describing God as commanding moral atrocities, you HAVE to conclude that the God experienced by ALL other Biblical writers endorsed them as well.

Tragically, nasty fundamentalists considerably water down Christ’s call to love our enemies to make it match the theology of the imprecatory psalms.

And many of them will give up Christianity altogether, become bitter anti-atheists while keeping the same fundamentalistic mindset.
So a New Atheist recently wrote he wants to burn the whole Bible because of the presence of atrocities within it, ignoring the obvious fact there are many other Biblical authors who did not approve at all of them.

As you expressed it so well, the priority of Conservative Evangelicals is NOT to become more loving persons and turn the world into a better place BUT to combat heresies and frenetically defend particular verses having been empirically refuted.

This explains rather well why they’re so obsessed with homosexuality while utterly ignoring (or even upholding) crying social inequalities.
I have come to see books within the Biblical Canon in the same way I view other Jewish and Christian books, and offered a parallel between C.S. Lewis and the apostle Paul writing down their experiences with God.

I think that the basis of a progressive Christian theology should be the idea that as a perfect being, God has necessarily to be much more loving and just than any (purely) human being could ever be.

Thus, if your theology teaches that God predetermined countless babies to grow up for being damned and eternally suffer, you’ve made a reductio-ad absurdum of it.

I think you’re an incredibly bright person and defender of our faith, and I wish much more people would read your writings instead of those of William Lane Craig.
His evil view of God is one of the main reasons why Conservative Evangelicalism is increasingly collapsing.
https://lotharlorraine.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/armenian-genocide-02-jpg.jpeg
Keep the good work!

 

 

 

 

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34 thoughts on “Should an inerrant Bible be the very foundation of Christianity?

  1. And this means that for Christians, the primary and monumental revelation of God is in the person of Jesus, not in any book….

    That would only make sense if there is something that could be known about “the person of Jesus” that doesn´t require reading a book – if we could actually talk to Jesus for example. But there is no such knowledge, it ultimately all boils down to books, nothing less, nothing more.

    • Hallo lieber Andy, merci vielmols fir dien Einwand 😉

      Ich hon leider keen Zit, eeni longi Ontwoat ze schriew, do ich sehr viel Erwet bi de Uni hon.

      The point of Eric Reitan was that you don’t need to believe in Biblical inerrancy for being a Christian.
      You can clearly assert (like the great apologist C,.S. Lewis himself did) that there are “devilish” things in the Bible attributed to God, such as the psalmist praying for the violent death of the children of his foes.

      Given my view of the Bible,recognizing this is like recognizing that Christian authors between 400 AC. and 2302 A.C got (or will get) God wrong in some respects.

      As for Jesus, you don’t need inerrant Gospels but documents reliably reporting his central deeds (love for the outcasts, unjust death at the cross and triumphing resurrection).

      Do we have such documents? My daunting contention is that it all depends on your background beliefs concerning the supernatural.

      Let us suppose that ( all things being equal ) all the New Testament contained NO supernatural deed at all, and that Jesus was unjustly executed, but managed to survive the crucifixion and passed on some great moral teaching to his disciples before dying).

      Let us suppose that the TEXTUAL SITUATION is exactly the same, but there are no supernatural thing whatsoever.

      It is my belief that the large majority of historians would consider his life, execution and death as extremely reliable, much more reliable than sayings of Socrates whose earliest documentation was written many centuries later.

      And if you look at Skeptical literature, you’ll see that the (alleged) extreme implausibility of miracles play a large role in the rejection of the Gospel’s historicity.

      So es kommt auf deine Denkvoraussetzungen an 🙂

      • Hi Marc,

        The point of Eric Reitan was that you don’t need to believe in Biblical inerrancy for being a Christian.
        You can clearly assert (like the great apologist C,.S. Lewis himself did) that there are “devilish” things in the Bible attributed to God, such as the psalmist praying for the violent death of the children of his foes.

        Given my view of the Bible,recognizing this is like recognizing that Christian authors between 400 AC. and 2302 A.C got (or will get) God wrong in some respects.

        As for Jesus, you don’t need inerrant Gospels but documents reliably reporting his central deeds (love for the outcasts, unjust death at the cross and triumphing resurrection).

        Do we have such documents?

        I´ll grant you for the sake of the argument that you do have such documents. And my point was that this is all you have – the book is accessible but the person of Jesus Christ is not. So when Reitan says “the primary and monumental revelation of God is in the person of Jesus, not in any book”, it is exactly the other way around, the book is the primary and ONLY revelation, the person is inaccessible.

        Let us suppose that the TEXTUAL SITUATION is exactly the same, but there are no supernatural thing whatsoever.

        It is my belief that the large majority of historians would consider his life, execution and death as extremely reliable,

        I disagree. If we start at the beginning of the story: the birth narratives are transparently made up out of thin air by the gospel writers and they have absolutely nothing to do with historical reality, and this is completely independent of the virgin birth – if we ignore this miracle and just consider the rest of the two birth narratives (which doesn´t involve any miracles except for the star of bethlehem maybe), it would still be completely obvious that the stories are made up out of thin air (and I´m not aware of a single historian who acknowledges that the birth narratives have ANYTHING to do with reality and who is not a fundamentalist christian).

        And if you look at Skeptical literature, you’ll see that the (alleged) extreme implausibility of miracles play a large role in the rejection of the Gospel’s historicity.

        I disagree again. The historian Herodotus wrote that during the second persian invasion of greece, the persians attacked with an army that amounted to roughly 5.2 MILLION people. That would not have been a “miracle”, but I still don´t believe for a second that this actually happened as Herodotus claims because it is ridiculously implausible. It is not about miracles per se, it is about evidence and plausibility.

        • The problem is that showing that the stories aren’t inerrant is a far cry from showing they were “made out of thin air”.

          There might very well have been strange events around the birth of Jesus which are their bases.

          I’m agnostic about this, and I am not sure that all elements are irreconcilable, while it is obvious the recounting cannot be free of errors.

    • If one cannot know Jesus outside of the book, then one can only have a relationship with the book and not with Jesus. Of what significance is the resurrection of Jesus if we cannot have a relationship with him personally?

  2. A stunningly good post. When I read the title, my first response was: which Bible? Protestant and Catholic Christians can’t even agree on the canon. And, we are to assume that our many translations of the Bible are the “right” and the “inerrant” ones? I’m going to reblog this one. Just excellent. Nothing can be added.

  3. HI Andy –

    You said –

    ‘That would only make sense if there is something that could be known about “the person of Jesus” that doesn´t require reading a book – if we could actually talk to Jesus for example. But there is no such knowledge, it ultimately all boils down to books, nothing less, nothing more’.

    By the same token if you read, say, New Atheist Books or even watch the guys on TV you could say that at least part of your knowledge here is second hand. I mean you have no ultimate knowledge that these guys are actually trustworthy independent thinkers because according, to their own description of the nature of things – which includes the nature of human beings- the bottom line is that we are all a bit like robots programmed by our selfish replicators – our memes– and infected by cultural memes that behave like genes (which include religions but in terms of the same description could also include atheism). But actually a New Atheist’s respect for their Four Horsemen is based on completely different criteria – like a love of truth and justice etc as apprehended by them.

    There was a hilarious article by an agnostic comedian in a UK paper imagining Richard Dawkins grabbing the microphone from Martin Luther King when he was making his famous ‘I have a dream speech’ and shouting testily at the crowd, ‘Stop listening to this rubbish. What you really need to do is read a good biology text book (and I’d recommend one of my own of course)’

    The post I’ve quoted obviously is meant to scoff at a particular evangelical way of talking about ‘knowing Jesus personally’. That’s particular evangelical way of talking and at its worst it degenerates into ‘Jesus is my best mate and I am indeed very familiar with him and he meets my every need and whim’. From a broader space mainstream Christians would say they ‘know ‘ Jesus by being part of the Church which is the Body of Christ inasmuch as they have seen vague inklings amongst all of the rubbish in the Church (the sort of rubbish that you get in human organisations) of the possibilities that Jesus intimates, lives out in ‘the book’ – of life lived not in rivalry but in neighbourly love for all.. And we know Jesus in another sense by knowing real people who live this life – and knowing the underlying thread that connects very different people. Some people have sudden experiences of conversion/being called when they come to a knowledge of Jesus. Others follow a more gradual journey of gradual coming to know. (some atheists become atheist in a blinding flash of insight by the same token – Others follow a more gradual path)And indeed the two categories overlap. But the knowing has to do with relationship – and relationship between subjects is a massively important part of human experience that objective science in its current paradigm cannot even begin to give an adequate account of.

    I don’t wish to stir the hornet’s nest here – so I apologise for any too strong polemic in my post. We come in peace ,we wear no swords.:-)

    • Hi Dick,

      you say:

      By the same token if you read, say, New Atheist Books or even watch the guys on TV you could say that at least part of your knowledge here is second hand. I mean you have no ultimate knowledge that…

      I have no ultimate knowledge period. Ultimate / final proofs for anything are impossible – see the Münchhausen trilemma.

      …these guys are actually trustworthy independent thinkers…

      No one is completely trustworthy and no one is completely independent, everyone makes mistakes and everyone has biases, that´s part of the human condition.

      …because according, to their own description of the nature of things – which includes the nature of human beings…

      We might disagree on what humans are made of, in the sense that you would (probably) agree with everything I claim a human is made of, but add some immaterial and ill-defined things (like souls) on top of that. But that is beside the point, humans, ALL humans, are fallible and biased to varying degrees either way – they would be if you are right about what humans are made of and they also would be if Dawkins is right about what humans are made of.

      And now, lets briefly return to what I originally claimed – that all knowledge about Jesus boils down to what you can read in a book. Your reply here doesn´t really address that at all, Richard Dawkins (for example) is a real person that you can actually interact with either in person or via email, twitter or what have you, and you are thus able to learn something about him that does NOT come from reading a book. Pointing out that Dawkins is fallible and biased (and he obviously is just that – fallible and biased – qua being human) is a completely different ballpark.

      From a broader space mainstream Christians would say they ‘know ‘ Jesus by being part of the Church which is the Body of Christ inasmuch as they have seen vague inklings amongst all of the rubbish in the Church (the sort of rubbish that you get in human organisations) of the possibilities that Jesus intimates, lives out in ‘the book’ – of life lived not in rivalry but in neighbourly love for all.. And we know Jesus in another sense by knowing real people who live this life

      That looks like a simple word game. The church is real and you can learn something about it that does not come from reading a book, that much is true, but this is knowledge about the church and it doesn´t magically turn into knowledge about Jesus by calling the church the “Body of Christ” – that´s just a word game. And it immediatly becomes obvious if I ask you to give me a simple piece of verifiable information about the person of Jesus Christ that does not rely on the Bible, you cannot give me one (I´m leaning out of the window here and am happy to be corrected) which means that a book is all you have when it comes to knowledge about Jesus – and that was precisely what I originally claimed.

      I don’t wish to stir the hornet’s nest here – so I apologise for any too strong polemic in my post.

      No need to apologise!

      • Debatable, but in principle yes, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus

        However note the phrasing of the sentence I originally objected to:
        “And this means that for Christians, the primary and monumental revelation of God is in the person of Jesus, not in any book….”
        – my objection is that even if there is such a person (i.e. even if Jesus actually was resurrected), christians have no means of interacting with said person, all you know about Jesus comes from reading about him, not from interacting with him. So it it precisely the other way around, the book is of key importance while the person doesn´t really matter – because only the book is available but the person is not.

  4. Andy – aha you are a Wittgenstein man I think. Thanks for you kindness in the response 🙂 – and it’s so refreshing to meet a nice atheist who is also a blogger (I know plenty of really nice atheist but they don’t often post no blogs) I’m not sure that I have the time this week to think through religion and language games – its; the sort of thing that Mary Midgely and Phillipa Foot are good on from a purely agnostic standpoint; but I may have to leave it for the moment because it’s not my metier and I don’t have bags of time.

    I think one thing that Eric may be saying here concerns an internal Christian ‘language game’ about the meaning of the phrase ;Word of God’. Christian Fundamentalists see the Bible as the Word of God – or the ‘Word made Book’ .And some on this grounds see all portions of the bible as literally inspired and equally valid. Mainstream Christians see Jesus – primarily as pictured in the Gospels – as the Word of God. So for example they will be interested in exactly how Jesus related to people in these accounts – and how he breaks down cultural taboo’s and reaches out to outsiders for example. And they will take their guidance on how to live from this rather than from other passages in the bible that enshrine exclusivist cultural taboos. I’m sure this is what Eric is talking about actually.

    Extra Biblical evidence – direct and indirect – for the existence Jesus come from a lot of sources. The Testament of Flavius Josephus is one – but Josephus wasn’t a Jewish Christian and source criticism has shown that his account was tampered with to try and suggest this by a scribe in Imperial Christian Rome (Josephus speaks very favourably of the Roman Emperor – so it was convenient for him to be seen as a Jewish Christian just when the Church was jettisoning its earlier anti-Imperial stance.

    So I think we have three possible discussions here

    What do we think of Eric’s distinction between Jesus as the Word as opposed to the entire written text of the Bible as the Word of God – that’s an internal debate for Christians I guess which outsiders can interject in to ask for clarity.

    What do Christian’ mean by the ‘language game’ in which they claim that they relate to Jesus personally in the here and now? Eric should be able to say something about this – he’s a bloody philosopher after all:_-D.

    What is the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus?

    All three topics are big topics 😀 Thanks Marc for over stimulating the conversation – you man of over indulgence in coffee 😀

    And nice to meet you Andy – and thanks for your courtesy. 🙂

    • I unfortunately didn´t read Wittgenstein but he´s ranked highly on the my to-read list 😉

      Regarding your three possible discussions, I am agnostic regarding the historicity question but as long as the mythicists position fails to gain any ground within the respectice academic communities, I´ll accept that there most likely was a historical Jesus (I´m not a historian and I didn´t read most of the relevant literature, so accepting the consensus opinion of experts in the relevant fields seems like the only rational option to me), so I don´t object to there being a historical Jesus.

      When it comes to “relating to Jesus personally” however, I definitely would object. Such a personal relationship with Jesus as many protestant denominations advocate it, simply doesn´t exist – a “relationship” with Jesus is not possible (even if I assume that Jesus was resurrected!) and what the respective protestant denominations seem to talk about rather seems to be some form of “inspiration” by stories *about* Jesus, but not anything that involves INTERaction with Jesus. So we are left with the third point which you refer to as ” Eric’s distinction between Jesus as the Word as opposed to the entire written text of the Bible as the Word of God” – and here I indeed have to ask for clarification because it is not clear to me what you mean by that.

      To clarify my position further, I claim that your (or any other christian´s) only access to Jesus is via books / stories written about Jesus, while the *person* of Jesus is not available for interaction, and that Eric´s claim that “the primary and monumental revelation of God is in the person of Jesus, not in any book”, is thus false, because the book is all he has (as far as I can tell).

      And nice to meet you too, it´s pleasant to have a courteous exchange about this subject 😉

      • “Regarding your three possible discussions, I am agnostic regarding the historicity question but as long as the mythicists position fails to gain any ground within the respectice academic communities, I´ll accept that there most likely was a historical Jesus (I´m not a historian and I didn´t read most of the relevant literature, so accepting the consensus opinion of experts in the relevant fields seems like the only rational option to me), so I don´t object to there being a historical Jesus. ”

        Interesting, I’ve come to differ with you on this point, Andy. I don’t think that consensus necessarily produces truth, because the researchers are always going to rely on UNPROVEN assumptions which are culturally and psychologically conditioned.

        Let us say that in my research field, I ask the question: “What give you the guarantee that this reaction mechanism fits the chemical reality?”

        If someone just answered me: “Well, the most intelligent chemists out there think it is the case, so it must be true”, I would CRY FOUL and demand empirical and theoretical justifications for all assumptions the model is grounded on.

        So I reject mythicism and creationism because I am convinced they are extremely unlikely DUE to the evidence.

        But I really don’t accept appeal to consensus.
        So if someone tell me “Materialism must be true because it is affirmed by the scientific elite in America” I’d ask back:

        And what makes their arguments compelling?
        If the person responds: “Because their IQ is so above average, the arguments are valid, so your objections must be wrong”
        I’d cry foul anew and still consider the arguments as invalid UNTIL one has shown me why they are very plausible using empirical and logical grounds.

        Does that make me an irrational person to your mind? 🙂

        • Interesting, I’ve come to differ with you on this point, Andy. I don’t think that consensus necessarily produces truth, because the researchers are always going to rely on UNPROVEN assumptions which are culturally and psychologically conditioned.[1]

          Let us say that in my research field, I ask the question: “What give you the guarantee that this reaction mechanism fits the chemical reality?”

          If someone just answered me: “Well, the most intelligent chemists out there think it is the case, so it must be true”, I would CRY FOUL and demand empirical and theoretical justifications [2] for all assumptions the model is grounded on.

          1. Could you give me three examples of such an unproven assumptions that some researchers make as a basis of their research but you which you disagree with?
          2. That is not what I said. I said that I have no rational basis for disagreeing with the expert consensus, not that it must be true because it is based on an expert consensus, To stay in your example, a chemical mechanism doesn´t necessarily have to match reality because there is a consensus among chemists that it does, but I, as a non-chemist, have no rational basis of disagreeing with the consensus without actually studying the subject intensively (and “intensively” doesn´t mean “get a PhD in chemistry and at least two decades of research experience”, but it also doesn´t mean “spend five minutes reading a blog post written by a non-chemist with an anti-chemistry agenda”).

          So I reject mythicism and creationism because I am convinced they are extremely unlikely DUE to the evidence.

          Really? Could you please give me a list of the academic literature that you have studied which is relevant for the Jesus-historicity question then and a rough estimate of the fraction of must-read publications for this question this amounts to? For me this fraction would be exactly 0% – I haven´t read a single academic publication relevant for this subject. All I have read is Ehrman´s book on the subect (not an academic publication) and the the back and forth between Carrier and Ehrman about it. Based on just that, it seems as if historicity is a very hard to defend position and Ehrman failed to do so (spectacularly…), but that by itself wouldn´t even come close to being a rational justification for the belief “the consensus opinion of historians regarding the historicity of Jesus is wrong” because I have barely even scratched the surface of the subject.

          But I really don’t accept appeal to consensus.

          Look, you have exactly three alternatives:
          1. For questions that fall way out of your own areas of expertise, you base your opinions mostly on trusting experts (real or perceived experts (and it is IMO one of the key criteria of becoming an informed citizen to learn how to be able to distinguish between the two)).
          2. For questions that fall way out of your own areas of expertise (and that means MOST questions), you stay completely agnostic.
          3. You are by far the smartest person that ever lived and an expert in EVERY subject from literary criticism and climate science over macroeconomics and cardiovascular diseases to philosophy to metaphysics and anthropology, and you also spend your entire time doing nothing but studying the evidence and arguments that any given expert consensus, from the historicity of Jesus to climate change, is based on.

          • I’d rather opt for agnosticism coupled with a pragmatic attitude of acting AS IF, if I have no reason to doubt it.

            But let us consider that a skeptic told to me: “More complex explanations are always more unlikely BECAUSE this principle is accepted by most people with high IQ”.
            I’d still reject this until he proves to me why it is so.

          • I think that a consensus produces pragmatic beliefs with no (necessary) warrant that the theory is probably true.

            If it were really the case that a consensus shows that a hypothesis is most likely true, there would be no need for scientists to appeal to many successful experiments and simulation results for showing the truth of a model in a textbook.

            All they’d have to do would be:
            “This model is accepted by almost any expert in the field, therefore it is true”.

            That would impoverish scientific research, wouldn’t it?

            As for mysticism, I find it extremely unlikely that in one or two generations a very basic feature of the early Christian belief (Jesus was a non-existing mythical being) got lost in such a short time span.

            Do mythicists have examples of other religious communities where such a radical evolution took place?

            It seems extremely more likely to assume there were (at the very least) a historical Jesus whose deeds gave rise to their faith.

            I find this argument much more impressive than the fact mythicism is almost universally rejected.

            As for the historicity of the resurrection, let us consider that the four Gospels reported that Jesus was crucified, but managed to survive and stay alive during two weeks where he passed on wise teachings to them before finally deceasing.

            Let us suppose that this is precisely what we also found in 1 Corinthians: “As our Lord could wonderfully survive his unjust death for teaching us the Way of the truth…” (or something like that).

            Would there be the same level of skepticism about this?
            My best guess is that this wouldn’t be the case. While some historians would be unsure, many would conclude this is most likely what happened, regardless of the presence of non-historical elements earlier on.

            But as I said in other posts, I don’t think you need to prove this to be a Christian, since I view faith as hope , like most progressive believers I know do.
            It would be rationally irresponsible to keep being a Christian if good arguments AGAINST the resurrection were to emerge, but I don’t think it is the case, even though I spent countless hours reading writings on Infidels.com and their rebuttals by believers (as well as the counter-rebuttals).

      • I’d rather opt for agnosticism coupled with a pragmatic attitude of acting AS IF, if I have no reason to doubt it.

        Think about what that would mean in practice – it would mean that you actually have *very* few genuine beliefs and most of your “beliefs” are rather a pragmatic “acting-as-if” stance. Lets take a few random examples:
        – A man called “Julius Caesar” played a key role in the events that led to the rise of the roman empire.
        – A few hundred million years ago, there was only one continent and one ocean on this planet.
        – The sun is largely composed out of hydrogen and nuclear fusion, where two hydrogen atoms form one helium atom, happens in it.
        I´d wager that you actually, genuinely, do believe that all of those claims are true. I´d also wager that you actually know very little about what they *exactly* mean (including all details) and *why* they are true (without looking it up of course, no cheating! 😉 ). Am I wrong?

        But let us consider that a skeptic told to me: “More complex explanations are always more unlikely BECAUSE this principle is accepted by most people with high IQ”.
        I’d still reject this until he proves to me why it is so.

        An appeal to expert opinion is essentially an argument, and it can be a fallacious argument or a valid one. Appealing to expert opinion is a fallacious argument if the opinion you appeal to does not come from a genuine expert, or does not represent a representative sample of expert opinions. It can also be invalid if you misstate the conclusion and say that a claim *must* be *necessarily* true if there is an expert consensus for it instead of saying that it is the most likely option given the available evidence. But if I told you for example that all logicians agree that a conjunction of two propositions logically CANNOT be more likely than either proposition individually, and further demonstrated to you that this is indeed a consensus by showing you a representative sample of sources to support the claim (e.g. textbooks), then I could construct a valid argument that the claim “a conjunction of propositions can only be equally likely or less likely than the individual propositions” is most likely true – even if I would not show you a formal proof of why this is the case, the argument would still be valid.
        And such an appeal to expert opinion is often the only argument that is pragmatically accessible, I can show you the proof for why Fermat´s last theorem is true, but you most likely wouldn´t understand it – because even most mathematicians don´t understand it.

      • I think that a consensus produces pragmatic beliefs with no (necessary) warrant that the theory is probably true.

        I repeat:
        “Lets take a few random examples:
        – A man called “Julius Caesar” played a key role in the events that led to the rise of the roman empire.
        – A few hundred million years ago, there was only one continent and one ocean on this planet.
        – The sun is largely composed out of hydrogen and nuclear fusion, where two hydrogen atoms form one helium atom, happens in it.
        I´d wager that you actually, genuinely, do believe that all of those claims are true. I´d also wager that you actually know very little about what they *exactly* mean (including all details) and *why* they are true (without looking it up of course, no cheating! 😉 ). Am I wrong?”
        Could you please answer that?

        If it were really the case that a consensus shows that a hypothesis is most likely true, there would be no need for scientists to appeal to many successful experiments and simulation results for showing the truth of a model in a textbook.

        All they’d have to do would be:
        “This model is accepted by almost any expert in the field, therefore it is true”.

        *sigh*. Lets take an example where I am an expert in: evolutionary genetics. I could explain to you plenty of details for why the available genomic data of chimpanzees and humans strongly supports the claim that both share a common ancestor, but the vast majority of those details require background knowledge that you most likely do not have (random example: do you know exactly what “incomplete lineage sorting” means?) and that you would have to study first. And that is why I would talk differently about this subject to someone who is also an expert on evolutionary genetics compared to someone who is not. That is so *necessarily*, it could only be different if we all had the exact same background knowledge and we all would be experts about everything – but that´s not the case. You cannot present your research to the general public in a way that they understand it just as well as you yourself, without EVERYONE having the required background knowledge and being an expert on chemistry. That is why there are academic publications that presuppose that the reader is familiar with the subject and that are written for experts, and popular literature that presents a condensed and “dumbed down” version for the general public. If your opinion is based entirely on the popular literature, then it is necessarily based on trust to a big degree – because the popular literature is incomplete, dumbed-down and hides all the messy details from you.
        If your aim is to not believe things (or only pragmatically accept them) if this would require some degree of trusting experts, then there is very little left for you to believe, the things that you are not an expert on vastly outnumber the things that you are an expert on and this won´t change even if you spend the rest of your life studying.

        As for mysticism, I find it extremely unlikely that in one or two generations a very basic feature of the early Christian belief (Jesus was a non-existing mythical being) got lost in such a short time span.

        Do mythicists have examples of other religious communities where such a radical evolution took place?

        I´m the wrong person to have this conversation with, but based on what little I do know, I can say that some words you should be looking up are “deification” and “euhemerism” (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euhemerism#Deification ). I´m not interested in defending mythicism btw, and I am not a mythicist either, all I say is that I have little basis for believing that there was a historical Jesus beyond trusting the consensus of experts, and based on what you write here, you don´t have such a basis either (it sounds as if Dick has one though).

        My best guess is that this wouldn’t be the case. While some historians would be unsure, many would conclude this is most likely what happened, regardless of the presence of non-historical elements earlier on.

        I´m not a historian, but I strongly doubt that historians would trust sources who go as far as fabricating entire geneaologies on the first pages unless they make claims that are corrobated by other sources (and then only trust them for those claims but not for any others).

        But as I said in other posts, I don’t think you need to prove this to be a Christian, since I view faith as hope , like most progressive believers I know do.

        It would be rationally irresponsible to keep being a Christian if good arguments AGAINST the resurrection were to emerge, but I don’t think it is the case, even though I spent countless hours reading writings on Infidels.com and their rebuttals by believers (as well as the counter-rebuttals).

        I see no point in arguing against that in the first place. If you don´t believe it but rather merely hope that it is true, then this means that the available evidence is not sufficient to convince you that the resurrection of Jesus actually did happen. So why argue at all? I don´t believe that Jesus was resurrected and you don´t believe it either, the only difference seems to be that you hope that it is true while I don´t care whether it is true.

        That was a rather long digression 😀 Just to make this clear: I had no intentions of raising the mythicist subject, I am not a mythicist, and i am not interested in defending the mythicist position. All I objected to was this little sentence:
        “And this means that for Christians, the primary and monumental revelation of God is in the person of Jesus, not in any book….”
        – because it is precisely the other way around given that only books about Jesus are accessible to christians while the person of Jesus is not.

        • Hey Andy.

          You have a good point about the past existence of a super-continent: unlike the existence of Cesar (which is extremely likely due to its historical consequence), this is not something I can verify by myself without spending many hours to get familiar with the subject.

          So diesbezueglich hast du mich besiegt 🙂

          Still, I think that it is NOT irrational for a knowledgeable individual to doubt a consensus if she finds that important assumptions are groundless.

          Let us consider the example of Ockham’s razor. Your argument relies on one important assumption: each theory has a numerical degree of belief every rational agent should have (Bayesianism), and it fails to prove that the probability of the more complex theory is STRICLY inferior to the simplest one, instead of inferior OR equal.

          So, regardless of the number of people convinced that this is a compelling demonstration of the razor, I think it is rational for me to remain unconvinced unless these two problems are solved.

          Let us now consider another example, Bayesianism (even though it is not a consensus view).

          An often celebrated “proof” is the Dutch Book argument.
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_book

          I find it relies (at least) on three problematic assumptions:

          – the intensity of one’s belief in one’s brain is proportional to the amount of money one is willing to bet

          – a rational agent can never refuse to bet

          – probability expectancy (ich bin mir nicht ganz sicher, dass man “Erwartungswert” auf Englisch so uebersetzen kann…) exist, which implies that we have to do with a repeteable event which can’t be an abstract theory.

          If you currently read the literature, you will find people raising similar criticism.

          But let us suppose that in 20 years almost everyone is a Bayesian.

          I ask: “why should I trust in the Dutch Book Argument?” and the only response is: “Because almost everyone does.”

          Am I (as a knowledgeable person) irrational if I remain entirely unconvinced?

          As for evolution, I am not convinced at all by the consensus argument, because the experts are NOT examining in an impartial way both Darwinism and creationism/ID and trying to see if facts explained by Evolution could also be accounted by creationism. The large majority presupposes that everything has a natural cause, or that if one can explain a past event in a natural way, it must have been so, while not considering whether or not creationists can also account for it.

          IF the experts impartially considered BOTH hypotheses and turned up concluding that creationism can be ruled out , this would be a good reason to reject it.
          But since the largest number don’t do that at all, I’m underwhelmed by the “consensus”.

          That said, I DO BELIEVE that evolution is true and this is due to evidence which flatly contradicts creationist claims, like the existence of the very same viral genes in both humans and apes and examples of poor design which can’t be explained away.
          But the consensus of experts (whose large majority) presupposing that natural explanations HAVE to hold (or to be at the very least extremely more likely) is not a disproof of creationism, as far as my hopelessly irrational primate brain is concerned.

          And I’m saying this as someone taking the view that the Genesis accounts were intented as symbolic tales.

          Ich hoffe, dass du von meiner Querdenkerei nicht zu sehr angewidert wirst 😉

          The problem with you Andy, is that your raise so many interesting questions one could spend countless hours arguing with you.

          I’m tempting to just briefly mention that the example of deification you showed are NOT examples of people:

          – first believing and celebrating a purely mythical, non-physically existing being
          – coming to view him as a real man in only one (or at most two) generations.

          They only provide a possible natural explanation as to why the first Christians came to view a really existing Jesus as divine.

        • “*sigh*. Lets take an example where I am an expert in: evolutionary genetics. I could explain to you plenty of details for why the available genomic data of chimpanzees and humans strongly supports the claim that both share a common ancestor, but the vast majority of those details require background knowledge that you most likely do not have (random example: do you know exactly what “incomplete lineage sorting” means?) and that you would have to study first. And that is why I would talk differently about this subject to someone who is also an expert on evolutionary genetics compared to someone who is not. That is so *necessarily*, it could only be different if we all had the exact same background knowledge and we all would be experts about everything – but that´s not the case. You cannot present your research to the general public in a way that they understand it just as well as you yourself, without EVERYONE having the required background knowledge and being an expert on chemistry. ”

          As I said, proving evolution implies much more than just showing it is COMPATIBLE with all the data.
          It involes proving that the competing theory (i.e. creationism) can’t account for the same data as well, or that we have theoretical (perhaps philosophical) reasons to view it as pretty unlikely.

          To my mind, a good consensus argument would involve great scientists objectively assessing things such a junk DNA and bad design and concluding it is utterly incompatible with supernatural creation.

          Now I happen to believe you don’t have to be an expert for achieving this: in such cases “liegt es auf der Hand” and one must be BLIND for still upholding a creationist belief in the face of this 🙂

      • Hey Andy.

        You have a good point about the past existence of a super-continent: unlike the existence of Cesar (which is extremely likely due to its historical consequence), this is not something I can verify by myself without spending many hours to get familiar with the subject.

        But also for Caesar, it can be problematic – I´m aware that plenty of stuff has been written about the guy (by his contemporaries and by himself), that there are statues of the dude, and coins with his image. I also know some vague details about when he lived and what he had to do with the rise of the roman empire. But virtually all of that is based on what I had to memorize in school – if someone would doubt that, I couldn´t defend the consensus of historians without looking the details up first (and probably still wouldn´t be able to do a very good job because I am not familiar with the methodology used by historians), but I still believe that it is true even though I´ve never bothered to look up any of the details, so what I believe here is largely based on trusting that historians are not idiots and do not have a mysterious agenda that motivates them to “lie for Caesar” :-).

        Still, I think that it is NOT irrational for a knowledgeable individual to doubt a consensus if she finds that important assumptions are groundless.

        I completely agree. Having some knowledge about the subject can be completely sufficient to rationally doubt an expert consensus, however, the Dunning-Kruger effect becomes a problem here, creationists are a perfect illustration for that.

        Let us consider the example of Ockham’s razor. Your argument relies on one important assumption: each theory has a numerical degree of belief every rational agent should have (Bayesianism), and it fails to prove that the probability of the more complex theory is STRICLY inferior to the simplest one, instead of inferior OR equal.

        Nope, I actually explicitly said less OR equal 😉 (if both of the propositions in the conjunction have a likelihood of 1, the likelihood of the conjunction is obviously exactly equal to the likelihood of the individual propositions).
        I also don´t presuppose bayesianism, I am talking about propositions for which Occam´s razor might potentially be relevant, if you talk about propositions that cannot be meaningfully associated with a likelihood, then tryihng to justify Occam´s razor for them is simply pointless because it couldn´t possibly apply in the first place.

        Let us now consider another example, Bayesianism (even though it is not a consensus view).

        An often celebrated “proof” is the Dutch Book argument.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_book

        I find it relies (at least) on three problematic assumptions:

        – the intensity of one’s belief in one’s brain is proportional to the amount of money one is willing to bet

        – a rational agent can never refuse to bet

        – probability expectancy (ich bin mir nicht ganz sicher, dass man “Erwartungswert” auf Englisch so uebersetzen kann…) exist, which implies that we have to do with a repeteable event which can’t be an abstract theory.

        I know the concept of a dutch book but I have no idea what it is supposed to have to do with proving bayesianism (I assume you mean by that a bayesian interpretation of probabilities).
        .

        If you currently read the literature, you will find people raising similar criticism.

        But let us suppose that in 20 years almost everyone is a Bayesian.

        I ask: “why should I trust in the Dutch Book Argument?” and the only response is: “Because almost everyone does.”

        Am I (as a knowledgeable person) irrational if I remain entirely unconvinced?

        I´m not sure I understand what you are talking about. Again, I assume that by “bayesianism” you mean a bayesian interpretation of what “probability” means, and if that is the case, then I have no idea what the dutch book has to do with proving that a subjectivist or objectivist bayesian interpretation of probability is the correct interpretation.

        As for evolution, I am not convinced at all by the consensus argument, because the experts are NOT examining in an impartial way both Darwinism and creationism/ID and trying to see if facts explained by Evolution could also be accounted by creationism. The large majority presupposes that everything has a natural cause, or that if one can explain a past event in a natural way, it must have been so, while not considering whether or not creationists can also account for it.

        IF the experts impartially considered BOTH hypotheses and turned up concluding that creationism can be ruled out , this would be a good reason to reject it.
        But since the largest number don’t do that at all, I’m underwhelmed by the “consensus”.

        That said, I DO BELIEVE that evolution is true and this is due to evidence which flatly contradicts creationist claims, like the existence of the very same viral genes in both humans and apes and examples of poor design which can’t be explained away.

        Srsly? Well, let me put my creationist hat on for a second 😀
        You believe that evolution is true because you are aware of evidence that contradicts creationist claims, but that is like saying that Islam must be true because you are aware of evidence that disproves hinduism (and it is the exact same failure of logic that many creationists make in reverse by proposing that alleged evidence against evolution is evidence FOR creationism).
        You further refer to “examples of bad design”, but you cannot possibly know whether something is “bad design” or not without making assumptions about the designers and their abilities and intentions, assumptions that cdesign proponentsists categorically refuse to make – so your objection is completely baseless against ID, maybe the “design” in question would make total sense if you knew who the designers were, what they wanted to accomplish, and which methods they had access to (the correct argument against ID, which you did not make, would be that it cannot possibly be supported or contradicted by any evidence what-so-ever precisely because it refuses to make such assumptions).
        Regarding “viral genes”, you believe that creationists cannot account for them? Endogenous retroviruses are obviously all functional (the transcription factor binding site of the tumor suppressor p53 (one of the most important and most regulated genes you have) for example is included in human ERV-LTR regions) and the seemingly orthologous positions of ERVs in the genomes of humans and chimpanzees (for example) are obviously due to the fact that humans and apes (humans are also apes btw) have a common designer – what I just said was half-true and half-Bullshit, can you explain why?
        And a “large majority” of us presupposes “that if one can explain a past event in a natural way, it must have been so”? Sorry, but we are not THAT stupid – we are actually intimately familiar with this problem because there are thousands (no exaggeration) of examples where we have more than one (sometimes MUCH more than one) explanation for the observed data (there are researchers who work on nothing but developing methods for how to best choose one explanation when many are possible).
        So in some way you actually misrepresent both the position of evolutionists and creationists / cdesign proponentsists here 😉

        Ich hoffe, dass du von meiner Querdenkerei nicht zu sehr angewidert wirst 😉

        Kein Problem, die Welt braucht mehr Querdenker ;-).

      • As I said, proving evolution implies much more than just showing it is COMPATIBLE with all the data.
        It involes proving that the competing theory (i.e. creationism) can’t account for the same data as well, or that we have theoretical (perhaps philosophical) reasons to view it as pretty unlikely.

        I completely disagree. First of all, the arguments that support common descent (for example) do not boil down to “the data is COMPATIBLE with it”. If some observation is compatible with common descent (for example) but doesn´t favor common descent over ¬common descent, then the observation would be completely useless as evidence for (or against) common descent.
        Random example: if common descent is true, then the distribution of similarities of ALL organismic traits (including neutral and deleterious ones) has to correspond to an objective nested hierarchy (how well this corresponds to a nested hierarchy can be expressed mathematically and tested for statistical significance), observing such a distribution is thus not merely something that is compatible with common descent, it is rather precisely what common descent *predicts*.
        Similarly, observing that you are not paraplegic is *compatible* with the claim that you killed someone by shooting him, but that observation would be completely useless as evidence for you being a murderer, finding powder burns on your hand that match the murder weapon however would be a *prediction* if you are the murderer and this observation would be evidence for you being the murderer (and yes, there are alternative explanations for how those powder burns could be on your hand which do not involve you being the murderer, but that doesn´t change the fact that the observation is evidence FOR you being the murderer and not merely something that is compatible with you being the murderer).

        To my mind, a good consensus argument would involve great scientists objectively assessing things such a junk DNA and bad design and concluding it is utterly incompatible with supernatural creation.

        When it comes to creationism, it has been systematically disproven from all conceivable perspectives. And regarding ID, it cannot be evaluated in any way because it doesn´t actually claim anything.
        To stay in the examples I used above, is it possible that the powder burns on your hand did not get there because you fired the gun but rather because an unknown number of unknown powder burn designers placed these marks on your hand for unknown reasons at an unknown point in time with unknown methods? Sure is.
        Is it possible that the observed distribution of similarities for organismic traits is due to an unknown number of unknown designers doing something unknown at unknown points in time that led to this result in an unknown way for unknown reasons with unknown means? Sure is.
        Or, more generally, is it possible that [insert scientific claim here] is actually false and what rather happened is that an unknown number of unknown designers did something unknown at unknown points in time for unknown reasons with unknown means that happens to produce the result predicted by [insert scientific claim here]? Sure is.

  5. Hi Andy

    With historical Jesus research – I reckon a person would need to read about the history of the ‘Quest for the historical Jesus’ – looking at the Renaissance Christian Humanists, the nineteenth century Tubingen School, Strauss’ ‘Die Leiben Jesu’ (which turned George Elliot into an agnostic) etc and peaking in Schweitzer who debunked the first attempt at this Quest. Of the ‘modern quest – I reckon a look at the difference between Fundamentalist, Conservative Evangelical and other perspectives on the Bible from a Christian viewpoint would be useful – see James Barr’s ‘Fundamentalism; adn this makes sense of Liberal Evangelical uses of scripture such as we find in Peter Enns’. If you really want a classy summary of the modern quest from a Christian agnostic viewpoint you can do no better than John Dominic Crossan’s – The Historical Jesus (and his Jesus a Revolutionary Biography and Saying of Jesus)– which takes in the classical authors, sifts Josephus etc, looks at the Honour Shame anthological context of Jesus’ milieu – and there is no reason why this book should not also appeal to atheists and agnostics – it is magisterial). IF you want to see a confessional Christian approach that still integrates the Second Quest for the Historical Jesus insights you can do no better than read N.T. Wright. These books also touch in a big way another more controversial writings like Morton Smiths’ ‘Jesus the Magician’ and ‘Clement of Alexandria The Secret Gospel of Mark’’ and John Allegro’s ‘Sacred Mushroom, Hyam Macoboy’s ‘Paul and the Sacred Executioner’ and explore Geza Vermes’s work on the Jewish Quest for the Historical Jewish Jesus – and they come with extensive bibliographies. I’ve read these works too. I’m still a Christian universalist 

    Andy I just want to stick up for Marc here – because he’s my much respected friend and I’m a man of honour to my friends. Marc is a controversialist and an excellent facilitator of discussion (that can go through the roof :-D)and a doughty interviewer. I think perhaps he has got into deep water here – because he’s not an historian as such. But hey – I’m letting him off because he is a very bright all rounder and like all of us is making sense of a complex world and sharing this grappling with complexity with us – braver than I am :-D)
    DO have a look at Wittgenstein. The thing about language games is that we have different ways of using language and each type of language has its own rules like a game. Therefore a scientists use of language (when s/he is begin a scientist) is different than an historians. An historian’s use of language is different than a poet’s etc And the language we use to talk of existential and subjective experience is different form that we use when we are attempting to be objective We need to be aware of which language game we are using when talking about complex issues so that we don’t talk past each other. And Wittgenstein did have a place for things that are beyond language. He stated –‘;That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we should remain silent’.

    All very good wishes from rainy England

  6. But let us consider that a skeptic told to me: “More complex explanations are always more unlikely BECAUSE this principle is accepted by most people with high IQ”.

    That’s what is known as ‘shaving the beard with Occam’s razor’ (and an English Christian first thought of it) 😀 It is a good principle of logic and science – at least for reductionist science. I’ll take a couple of years break and think how its works in terms of the other language games – maps of truth 🙂

  7. I’d rather opt for agnosticism coupled with a pragmatic attitude of acting AS IF, if I have no reason to doubt it.

    Exactly Marc – coming to any sort of faith is not purely a matter of rational deliberation – although this is part of it and a very important part of it. There are lots of different ways for arcing for the truth of any system of faith. There is a book whose title and author I forget at the moment – that argues from a very pen minded Christian point of view for the emotional coherence of Christianity from a human point of view. IT’s all about it meeting our hard wired needs – if it has a proper balance – as people who often try our best but have a wonderful ability to – in the author’s words ‘F**** things up’. And Christianity at its best does not expect perfection of us and recognises our human frailty in f***ing things up. The same earthy author responds to Richard Dawkin’s slogan ‘Relax – there probably isn’t a God’ with the retort ‘How the f*** would you know’ (the f888 word was also a favourite of Joy Davidson – C.S. Lewis’ wife I understand although I think it best saved for emergencies as a last resort to stave off our natural inclination to get violently ill tempered). So yes – intellectual certainty – which we can never have – is not the only criteria for trust. St Anslem said that ‘belief is faith/trust seeking understanding’ – and all of us put our faith in things in life and then work out why we have this faith. It’s normal and it’s good pragmatic reason as opposed to abstract reasoning.

    I’m really sorry for my intervention above – Perhaps I could have phrased it better. I was just trying to argue as an historian – which I am (and Andy’s question was about credentials and scope of knowledge). He addressed these to you – so I had to rhetorically defend you to answer as a historian. Ooops a daisy.

    • Hi Dick,
      “I’m really sorry for my intervention above”
      – no need to be sorry, that´s what a comment thread is for, I´m happy with you butting in and I´m sure Marc is happy with that as well 😉

      ” I was just trying to argue as an historian – which I am (and Andy’s question was about credentials and scope of knowledge). He addressed these to you – so I had to rhetorically defend you to answer as a historian. ”
      – That´s cool. But note again that it was not my intention to defend mythicism, it wasn´t even my intention to raise the subject in the first place. My disagreement with Marc was rather more generally about the role of expert opinions in belief formation. I argued that plenty of our beliefs (and not only pragmatic “as-if” stances, but rather genuine beliefs) largely boil down to trusting what experts say. You seem to be familiar with the methods that historians use and also familiar with the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus, Marc and I however are not, and IMHO that means that Marc and I either have to spend a LOT of time learning as much about the subject as you did or trust what the experts say or simply refuse to have an opinion about the subject (there are shades of grey between those extremes of course). And similarly, Marc most likely knows much more about chemistry than either one of us and I most likely know much more about biology than the two of you do – yet all of us have beliefs that fall into those subjects. It is not humanly possible to become an expert in everything, and without trusting experts to a certain degree, there would be very little left to believe, because there are much more things that you are not an expert on than things that you are an expert on.

      • Let me now shout a cry of despair: with my unconventional views, it is extremely hard for me to find friends on any side of the culture war 😦 😦 😦

        I´m curious, is that a problem you only have online or in the real world as well? I only lived for extended periods of time in the UK and in Germany so far, and, at least afaict, we don´t really have a culture *war* in europe – we have the same controversies but we can talk about them without yelling insults at each other. I support the left party for example, which is extremely unpopular in Germany due to our history with the GDR, but I never had to be afraid to voice my political views and was never mocked or insulted for doing so in meatspace. Online it´s a completely different matter of course, but that seems to me mostly due to the fact that these debates are dominated by US-americans online – that´s why I stay out of them most of the time and just think to myself “damn, those yankees are crazy” (ok, what I actually think is “Die spinnen die Amis” 😉 ).
        Are your experiences different?

  8. Nice post Marc 🙂

    I find people often tend to agree with the beliefs or doctrines that are the most comfortable for them to support. So biblical inerrancy can be difficult to keep because it involves acknowledging many things that you may not like or understand or that you may disagree with. Yet, for many, it is much more comfortable to support the notion of inerrancy because it doesn’t require you to be separated from the commonly-held opinions of your fellow believers nor be forced to find ways to justify yourself.

    The same happens, for example, with hell. How many Christians really take seriously the idea that there might not be an eternal hell, whatever that may entail? Many are not aware of alternatives yet many of those who ARE aware of the alternatives do not give them any thought. Why? Because as ghastly a notion as eternal suffering may seem to be, to say you don’t believe in it would be putting yourself up to opposition, maybe even opposition with God. So you have to explain it away, maybe by using the defence of free will or by shifting your focus to God’s yearning, thirsty desire to save you, rather than his immediate and bizarre change of heart as soon as you take your last breath.

    Personally, I think we should just concentrate on being as close to the Spirit of God as possible; through prayer, through meditation, through worship, through our day-to-day actions, through fellowship with other believers and yes, through reading the Bible. I’m not ready or willing to take a dogmatic view on the authority or fallibility of the Bible. I find a lot of the arguments on both sides to be lacking in love, fruit and helpfulness in general. I want to be able love the Bible and to have a desire to read it whenever I can, simply because it tells me about the one I love more than anything. I don’t really care for declaring it to be inerrant, nor do I care for arguing that it is filled with errors and mistakes, maybe even things that are plain immoral.

    People should pray before, during and after they study and read it and see where that takes them.

    Treat it as precious but not God Himself 🙂

  9. ‘It is not humanly possible to become an expert in everything, and without trusting experts to a certain degree, there would be very little left to believe, because there are much more things that you are not an expert on than things that you are an expert on’.

    Agreed 🙂

    And I really like Jonny’s post too. The one thing I would say is that people sometimes grow to hate the bible because they have been schooled in theological tradition which uses it as a tool to make the despair of themselves and feel fear and loathing of others -and they can’t see it with different eyes at least for the time being. I love the Bible too for all the reasons you say Jonny – but I’d understand someone who had grown to hate it because they could only see it as a book legitimising self hatred and other hatred.For such reasons love grows cold.

    • Absolutely Dick and I completely fight against that kind of use of the Bible – it’s awful even to think about the damage it has caused people because of gross misrepresentations of how it should be used. I have an utter disdain for any use of the Bible that justifies anything that is unloving or that causes unnecessary disunity and I would oppose any tradition that consciously or even unconsciously results in that view of it.

      If someone finds fear and hatred in the Bible or if they’re in a state where it’s causing them hurt (as for many people it does) then I’d say that they should be careful with it or even not read it until they’re in a place where they are ready to.

      I just don’t want to support anything that leads to either treating the Bible as God or going the other way and treating it with little to no respect or reverence. Neither of those are helpful.

  10. To put your faith in the Bible rather than prayer or action is to disobey the Bible itself and exclude yourself from direct experience of God.
    Love God and love your neighbor not a book.

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