Dismissed

by Ron Julian


Christians with a high view of the Bible have long recognized that much of the world disagrees with them. Opposition can be a healthy thing; having to defend one’s beliefs in the marketplace of ideas is good for the mind and the soul. More and more, however, the “conservative” Christian faces not so much disagreement but outright dismissal. Christianity is presented as so obviously irrational and bigoted that no one could take it seriously. Bible believing Christians are not just wrong, but shameful.

Now, shame is a powerful weapon. Shaming is often much more effective than rational argument. To deliver the knockout blow, merely imply that your opponents are so obviously and stupendously wrong that they could not possibly be justified in their beliefs. They are either naïve or ignorant or self-righteous or bigoted; whatever the explanation might be, they ought to be ashamed of ever having thought…what they think. More and more, Bible believing Christians are finding themselves targeted in this way, their opinions portrayed as so obviously stupid and intolerant that every right thinking person is justified in dismissing them out of hand. It is only natural, then, that Christians find themselves feeling defensive and uncertain in response.

These things came to mind when I read a recent blog post in the Huffington Post religion section (March 14, 2013), “6 Things Christians Should Just Stop Saying,” by Steve McSwain. The six things Christians should stop saying are:

1. The Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God. (Summary: No, the Bible is obviously filled with errors, and saying that the “original manuscripts” are error free is irrelevant, since we don’t have them.)

2. We just believe the Bible. (Summary: No, you just believe your interpretation of the Bible, and other equally sincere Christians disagree with you.)

3. Jesus is the only way to Heaven. (Summary: No, you interpret John 14:6 to mean that, but I interpret it differently, and you have no right to arrogantly assume your interpretation is correct.)

4. The rapture of Jesus is imminent. (Summary: The rest of us Christians are tired of apologizing for you wackos who keep predicting the end of the world. Shut up.)

5. Homosexuality is a chosen lifestyle and it is a sin against God. (Summary: Our culture is changing its mind about this, so move beyond the prejudice of the apostle Paul and get with it.)

6. The earth is less than 10,000 years old. (Summary: stop insisting these myths be taught in our schools, or that courts display the ten commandments, or that the founders of the U.S. were Christians; our democracy will not survive unless you stop.)

This post was a classic example of the sort of argumentation that leaves many Christians feeling confused and insecure. From my perspective, however, the post is an appalling combination of bad argumentation and rhetorical bullying. I say this even though I agree with McSwain that three of the six statements are problematic—at least, I could agree with him if we meant the same thing by them, which I doubt. (I’ll leave you to guess which three.) And I know that McSwain says he is a Christian himself. But since he misrepresents and contemptuously dismisses the thinking of pretty much every Christian I’ve ever known, his post ends up being a great example of intellectual bullying. We won’t look at his entire argument, but I thought it would be worthwhile to examine some of the ways he makes his case. The unfortunate sorts of arguments he uses are all too common these days. Forewarned is forearmed.

The Folly of Inerrancy

To start with, let’s examine McSwain’s comments on the inerrancy of the Bible. It is not my purpose here to argue for inerrancy, but rather to note the way this author argues against it. Here is what he says to convince Christians they should stop saying, “The Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God”:

It isn’t inerrant and not likely even in the “original manuscripts.” But then, I cannot say that with absolute certainty, anymore than anyone else can either.

Why? Because no such “original” manuscripts even exists. That’s like saying, “We believe there are aliens on other planets!”

Good for you. Now, prove it.

As we have it, no matter what translation you favor, the Bible is replete with errors. To pretend otherwise is your right. To say otherwise is a lie. You are entitled to your opinions, your assumptions, even your beliefs. What you are not entitled to is a misrepresentation of the facts.

He has basically two things to say: 1) We don’t have the original manuscripts, and 2) The Bible is obviously filled with errors. Both of these points, however, have the same fatal flaw: McSwain has not troubled to understand the position he is dismissing. Many Christians, I suspect, have not worked through for themselves the issues involved with the inerrancy of the Bible. In order, then, to make clear just how irrelevant and unfair McSwain’s comments are, I need to talk a bit about the way inerrantists think about the Bible.

Imagine that you are on an expedition to find buried treasure deep in the heart of a deserted island. For a guide, you have a book written by the man who hid the treasure. At the beginning of the guide book, the man has written, “I am the one who buried the treasure, and I leave these instructions for my descendants. I have checked these instructions again and again; if you follow them faithfully, you will find the treasure you seek.” But the book is only a copy of the original, and it is old, sometimes cryptic, torn in spots, and written in an archaic dialect. What attitude do we, the treasure hunters, take to these instructions? We recognize that the copyist might have made mistakes; we know that we might be translating it wrong; we acknowledge that some of the cryptic language is hard to interpret. We do not have a perfect copy of the instructions, nor do we have perfect understanding of them. But what we do have is confidence that the old map-maker knew what he was talking about. He claims to have buried the treasure; he claims that he checked carefully to make sure he wrote the instructions accurately. We keep trying to perfect our understanding of the book because we have confidence that it is true. We may not understand the book fully yet, but one thing we do not do: we do not question whether the man who wrote the instructions knew what he was talking about.

Those who believe in inerrancy see mankind as being in a similar position with the Bible. The Bible, they would argue, claims to be speaking nothing but truth. The inerrantist believes that claim to be a credible one, although there are problems to deal with. Some discrepancies seem possible. There are other places that we don’t understand. There are problems of textual transmission. We do not have perfect understanding by any means. But we believe that the Bible claims to speak only the truth and that it is rational and compelling to accept that claim. We question our translations; we question our manuscript copies; we question our interpretations. But one thing we do not question is the truth of the Bible’s message, to the extent that we have understood what that is.

In the light of this, then, we can understand the unfairness of McSwain’s comments. First, he points out that we don’t have the original manuscripts. But no thoughtful proponent of inerrancy argues that we have the original manuscripts. Inerrantists acknowledge the imperfection of their understanding, the potential problems created by imperfect copies and imperfect interpretations. What they do argue is that it makes a difference whether we are striving to understand an accurate or an inaccurate text. Of course our striving will be incomplete and imperfect. We can question whether Paul wrote a particular word in our manuscripts. We can question whether we have accurately understood what Paul meant. But we do not question whether Paul knew what he was talking about. Paul claims to speak with the authority of Jesus because he was taught by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit. The inerrantist accepts that claim. We can see the difference this makes by looking at McSwain’s own words. When he says concerning homosexuality that we should “move beyond the prejudice of Paul,” he has gone way beyond the issue of whether we have the “original manuscripts”; he is saying that we have accurately understood what Paul taught, but Paul was wrong.

Even more serious is the bullying way McSwain asserts that the Bible obviously has errors:

As we have it, no matter what translation you favor, the Bible is replete with errors. To pretend otherwise is your right. To say otherwise is a lie. You are entitled to your opinions, your assumptions, even your beliefs. What you are not entitled to is a misrepresentation of the facts.

This is the classic technique of the rhetorical bully: assume that your position is obviously true and then berate your opponents for their bad faith; the Bible’s errors are so obvious that the inerrantist must be pretending and lying. What this totally obscures is the fact that many thoughtful defenses of inerrancy have been written that deal with the phenomenon of potential errors—defenses that appeal to the nature of error, the philosophy of language, the principles of textual transmission, and much more. Now, maybe those arguments are wrong. I’m not objecting to the fact that McSwain doesn’t agree with those arguments; I’m objecting to the fact that he ignores those arguments and makes anyone who believes in inerrancy out to be a stupid liar. To my mind, this is slanderous and reprehensible. And yet it will serve its purpose. The readers of the Huffington Post can congratulate themselves for not being such dishonest fools, and those Christians who have a high view of Scripture can hang back, uncertain and ashamed to be thought of as deceivers who are afraid to face reality.

McSwain uses this name-calling technique throughout. When dismissing the idea of the “rapture,” he says:

So, please, please. If you want to believe in the charts that Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye and other “get-rich-off-the-stupidity-of-Christians” have duped scores into believing, then have at it.

Now, as it happens, I don’t agree with Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye either. But this sort of name-calling is the exact opposite of the thoughtful sort of critiques that ultimately convinced me they were wrong.

Only Your Interpretation

The points made in this post often hinge on the “it’s only your interpretation” argument—that is, “You may think that the Bible teaches X, but I interpret it differently, and I have just as much right to my opinion as you do.” This is seen most clearly in the discussion of point 3, “Jesus is the only way to heaven.” McSwain says that this mistaken idea arises from misreading John 14:6:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.

The typical Christian understands Jesus to be saying, “If you do not believe in Me, you won’t go to the Father when you die.” But McSwain has a different interpretation. As I understand McSwain’s argument, Jesus was only saying something positive to the disciples: when He goes away, He will continue to lead them to the Father. He was not making the negative statement that there is no other way to heaven. (I can’t say I entirely understand McSwain’s argument because he doesn’t explain the explicitly negative statement Jesus makes: “no one comes to the Father, but through me.”) At any rate, McSwain wants Christians to know that there are “equally sincere” Christians who have a different interpretation of John 14:6. He concludes:

Again, it’s your right to “believe” or, more accurately, interpret Scripture as you wish. You do not, however, have permission to arrogantly assume your way of interpreting the words of Jesus are the only way to understand His words.

This charge that Christians are “arrogant” is very common, but I confess it makes no sense to me. The author is arguing that Christians should stop saying that Jesus is the only way. Why? Because he has a different interpretation of John 14:6, and it is arrogant for them to think that their interpretation is right. But why isn’t it arrogant for McSwain to think his interpretation is right? If other Christians need to stop saying that Jesus is the only way (because it is only their interpretation), then why doesn’t McSwain need to stop saying that Jesus is not the only way (because it is only his interpretation)? If he is “equally sincere” in his interpretation, doesn’t that mean that Christians who think Jesus is the only way are “equally sincere” as well? If it is OK for McSwain to say they are wrong, isn’t it also OK for them to say he is wrong?

My suspicion is that McSwain hasn’t accurately described his real objection. The reason that he is not arrogant for giving his interpretation of John 14:6 is that his interpretation supports a welcoming, non-exclusive theology. His interpretation does not insist that Jesus is the only way. Other Christians, though, are interpreting the passage in an exclusive way, and being exclusive is arrogant. In other words, McSwain has a prior belief that Jesus would never exclude anyone, and so Jesus couldn’t have meant that He is the only way. Only a bad, arrogant person would read John 14:6 as saying that Jesus is the only way. Again, McSwain doesn’t say that, but since the argument he gives doesn’t seem to make sense, perhaps this is his real objection.

Conclusion

Conservative Christians are facing a growing consensus that our views are obviously contemptible. We believe the Bible is infallible because we are hiding our heads in the sand. We believe that Jesus is the only way because we are elitist bigots. We believe homosexuality is a sin because we are scared to death of our own sexuality. We don’t believe in Darwinian evolution because we are ignorant and uneducated rubes who are afraid to look at the evidence. And so it is becoming more common for our opponents to abandon rational argument and resort to shaming techniques. Just stating what Christians believe is thought to be enough to show how ridiculous Christianity is.

My only concern in this article is to remind Christians that name-calling is not an argument. Misrepresenting the other guy’s beliefs is not an argument. We do not need to be afraid of “arguments” like this. Of course, sometimes we deserve other people’s criticism. Sometimes we are hiding our heads in the sand, and we need to be called on it. If people are rightly accusing us of being irrational or elitist, then we need to cut it out. But we are not guilty just by virtue of having a strong view of the Bible or a high view of Jesus. What those who ridicule Christianity often don’t recognize is how much their own presuppositions determine what looks cool and what looks contemptible. The critics pat each other on the back every time they “score” a point against Christians, but self-congratulation is no substitute for reasoned argument.

Copyright April 2013 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Ron Julian