Conflicting views of Scripture and the world
Prof. William Lane Craig and Dr. Mike Licona use a typical fundamentalist approach to interpret the Bible and they therefore believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. According to this approach the Bible is inspired by God and does not contain any contradictions – period. Everything mentioned in the Bible is factually true and historically correct. They are absolutely convinced that Jonah, for instance, could and did indeed live inside a (living) fish (and in the water) for three days. They read the gospels from the same antiquated perspective and are convinced that Jesus was indeed resurrected literally, historically and physically from the dead.
Biblical scholars proved this kind of understanding of the Bible as untenable at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. The following facts brought them to the conclusion. Firstly, the Bible contains many contradictions. Consider the following examples (Cf. Barr 1977:309–311; Deist 1978:3–7):
1. There are two irreconcilable versions of creation in Genesis: Genesis 1:1–2:4a and Genesis 2:4b–3:24.
2. According to Gen. 6:19-22; 7:15 two pairs of all animals had to be taken into the Ark. However, the impure animals later approached the ark in two pairs and the pure animals in pairs of seven (Gen. 7:2
3. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus’ cleansing of the occurred at the beginning of his (recorded) activity (Joh 2:13-25), but the synoptic gospels place it much later, at the end just before his crucifixion (Mark 11:15-18; Matt 21:12-17; Luc 19:45
Secondly, scholars also discovered that the Bible contains material which was borrowed from other cultures. The most obvious examples are that of the story of the deluge also know as Noah’s story (Gen. 6-9) and that of the well-known section in the book of Proverbs (Prov 22:17–24:22). The story about the deluge correlates with the Mesopotamian version, known as the Gilgamesh narrative. This section in Proverbs was taken from an Egyptian wisdom writing, known as the Wisdom of Amenemope.
Thirdly, scholarly study made it quite clear that the Bible was written by people for people living in a specific context (which is not ours). None of the books is addressed to Christians living in the twentieth or twenty-first century. It was not directly God-inspired. He did not whisper it into human ears (or consciousness) as was previously believed or based on the so-called doctrine of inspiration, as alluded to in 2 Timothy 3:16. Biblical scholars were subsequently forced to formulate a new understanding of the Bible and its origin: the Bible is just an ordinary book, fraught with the imprints and idiosyncrasies left by the authors from whose mind it originated. James Barr (1980:88) is therefore correct when he states that biblical scholars were forced to “...build a doctrine of scripture ‘from below’ and not ‘from above’” They had to “... read it for what it itself is and what itself says, and avoid reading into it ‘the evangelical doctrine of scripture’, the opinions that some people in evangelical Protestantism held about the Bible two centuries or so ago.
These two conflicting viewpoints about the Bible were present last night during the presentations and discussions but the audience seemed to have been oblivious to it. Most of last nights’ attendees were simply not aware of all of the research and that is why Bernard McGinn (1989:539) is so critically correct in his assertion that: “The conflict of interpretations between academic readings carried on in schools of divinity and religion and in departments of English on the one hand and the mass of general readers on the other is probably greater now than ever before.”
Quite apart from the differing viewpoints about the Bible the two groups also adhere to widely divergent world views. The manner in which William Craig attempted to explain Jesus’ bodily resurrection and ascension is a case in point. It is patently unscientific (if not transparent trickery) to claim that Jesus’ body currently resides in a foreign and alien dimension of which we are totally unaware of. You simply have to accept prevailing universal world views or reject it but you cannot logically reconcile antiquated biblical perceptions with our modern world by any stretch of the imagination. We have no tacit evidence of any direct and present-day divine intervention or the occurrence of godly miracles anymore, as was generally believed to be the case during the antiquities. James Barr (1977:209) who made a thorough study of fundamentalism writes the following about this phenomenon in Christianity: “Fundamentalism is, in the end, a religion of the old world: in doctrine, in philosophy, in personal outlook it looks back to the eighteenth century”.
Barr, J. 1977. Fundamentalism. London: SCM Press.
Barr, J. 1980. The Scope and Authority of the Bible. London: SCM. (Explorations in Theology 7.)
Deist, F.E. 1978. Heuristics, Hermeneutics and Authority in the Study of Scripture. Port Elizabeth: University of Port Elizabeth. (Research Paper, C 14)
McGinn, B. 1989. Revelation, in Alter, R & Kermode, F (ed), The Literary Guide to the Bible, 523–541. London: Fontana.
On the debate of 12 May
The one thing that I mostly admire in the NHN is that it provides a space for open and critical discussion. For that reason I want to respond to this debate by primarily focusing on our internal debate and only secondarily on Drs Craig and Licona.
In his response to the debate Sakkie identifies two issues: a fundamentalistic view of Scripture and world-view. He suggests that Craig and Licona operate with a fundamentalistic view of Scripture while his view is to treat the texts as narratives. Therefore, the first part of his speech consists of an analysis of the differences between the gospel narratives on the resurrection. Let me make three remarks about this point.
First, 90% of all historical sources are probably of a narrative nature (as are most testimonies in courts of law). On most historical events or court cases around the world there are different narratives about what has happened. The fact of narratives and even the fact that they different about the same event is no indication that the "event" did not take place. After all, that is what much of historiography is about, sorting out from the variety and contradictory narratives what has happened.
Second, differences between sources is no argument against the historicity or actuality of an event. The fact that the gospels differ with regard to historical detail is no argument against the reality of the event. The differences and contradictions are excellent ammunition against people like Craig and Licona with a correspondence theory of truth (i.e., if a text claim A then A actually happened).
Thirdly, it might be the case that Craig and Licona share a fundamentalistic view of Scripture (and they evidently do) but that was not the basis of their arguments. In fact, they simply treated the texts as historical sources and one could question their historical method that depends on an ethnocentric reading of the sources and a correspondence theory of truth. In their case it does equal a fundamentalistic view of Scripture but they did not rely on that. Ironically, both Sakkie and Hansie seems themselves to be caught in a fundamentalistic view of Scripture that maintains if the Bible were indeed to say that Jesus was raised form the dead, they will have to accept it as a historical fact. Let me put it in a different way: the shared assumption in the debate was that if the texts were to say that Jesus was bodily/physically resurrected, then he was bodily/physically resurrected. The one side claimed that that is indeed what the text "say" (read as historical evidence and applying the historical method, they conclude Jesus was physically resurrected) while the other side tried to show that the texts do not "say" or "teaches" that Jesus was resurrected (because if the texts were to clam that, we probably have to accept it).
Underneath this shared assumption is what Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. It is to see real things where they are not or to take others’ statements as literal when they cannot be transported to our world as literal. In his second reflection above Sakkie uses the distinction between literal and metaphorical statements while the distinction between fact (logos) and myth has also been used in the debate. Generally speaking most cultures make such distinctions but not on the same basis. There are good theoretical reasons why historical Jesus scholars no longer simply assign everything that is foreign to themselves as metaphor or myth. For one, they have learned that people do live in diverse realities where things can be perceived differently. Let me explain this point from another very practical angle.
Most Christians today believe in Jesus' literal, physical and bodily resurrection; throughout history that was what most Christians believed (proven by the fact that the denial and not the confirmation of this claim has time and again lead to persecution as well as the numerous confessions and apologies to that regard). Most early Christian documents claim precisely that and almost every single New Testament book take it for granted. Paul and the Gospels explicitly state, say, teach that (and even if James does not mention the resurrection it is not difficult to show that everybody in the early church believed that; even the gnostic gospels — although they differed about the kind of body and the importance of it). That Jesus was physically and bodily raised is precisely what the texts in one way or another claim or say, what the early church believed and what they thought was real. But that is precisely where the historical issue starts. Why did they believe it and what did they think in believing it.
It is futile to try and show that the texts do not say that and that it was not real for them. They are going to beat you hands down every time you try to deny the simple fact that New Testament (and most early Christian documents) claim and believed that. Therefore, the argument that the reader plays a significant role in creating what a text say just would not fly. While it is partly true, it cannot mean that a reader can willy-nilly alter whatever is not to his/her liking. If a text promotes racism you cannot simply decide to read it mythically or metaphorically; if a text claims a physical resurrection you cannot (and I mean this in the ethical sense of "should not" because as we know, that is precisely how some do read the texts) as reader decide to read it metaphorically.
Apologists conflate what the text say or claim with what is real or what has happened (because the texts claim a physical resurrection it was also the case). In other words, because the texts claim a physical. bodily resurrection it really took place. Critics follow the same conflated logic but attack them on the wrong place, namely, they try to show that actually the texts are not claiming a physical resurrection. This has been the case for the last 200 years ever since critical scholars could no longer accept the textual and confessional claims of a bodily/physical resurrection and therefore tried to show the texts are myths, legends, deluded and the like. They do claim it and critical and historical interpretation demands an explanation precisely of that fact. To return to Sakkie’s argument: if you do not like what the texts say, it does not help to say the reader can solve it (read it away, so to speak) because a reader can determine what s/he reads.
An acceptance that people or texts in the past can claim something such as a physical resurrection or the existence of angles and demons or the evil spirits cause illness or that ancestors rule ones life, is different from accepting that all of these are in fact real or true for us (they could have been true for them). This is precisely where historical work starts because the historical questions are why do people make such a reality claim?, what did they understand them to mean?, how are we to react to such claims? To use a concrete example: Paul wrote a whole chapter in 1 Corinthians explaining what he thinks a spiritual body is (in the version of the world-view that he ascribes to it is related to the stuff that stars and angels are being made of). There was nothing metaphorical or mythical about this belief since it represents a reality view of many in his time. That is the way the world worked for them and reality was perceived and the historical question is how to deal with that in a world-view that no longer share those assumptions.
Sakkie’s second issue has to do with world-view. Ancient people did have a three tiered view of the world and that certainly played a role in the way they talked about Jesus' ascension but I am afraid this world-view has nothing to do with the resurrection stories. The stories about Jesus' resurrection are, however, fully embedded in their world-view in the sense that they took it for real because within their construction of reality (or world-view) deceased people could reemerge and that was confirmed by a variety of experiences. In fact, one can show that afterlife beliefs as well as beliefs about human beings and bodies were related to the kind of experiences that they took for granted in their world-view construction or sense of reality.
In this sense the resurrection debate is fundamentally about world-view but then about the fact that biblical people lived in a totally different view of the world (of which the three storied picture is but one element) where demons and angles were real and deceased ancestors could play a continuous role in peoples’ lives. The idea of resurrection of the body was for many one such element of that world-view (while the Greeks believed in an immortal soul inside the body (which is totally different from the idea of a body/person that will be revived). But the fact that they believed this or took it for real (either immortal souls or the possibility that bodies could be resurrected) does not make it universally true. In this sense the resurrection debate is fundamentally about world-view and not about what the texts claim. Simply put, they were fully convinced about Jesus' bodily, physical resurrection (and that is what the texts are saying) but for a historical understanding that is just the data to be dealt with. The actual issue is how to deal with alien world-views and not what the texts are saying (because it is fairly obvious what the texts are saying).
It is at this point that the poverty (if not total ignorance) of Craig and Licona’s claims about historiography and historical method is most apparent. They use historical method merely to confirm the conflated assumption that if biblical texts say or claim A, then A is a historical fact. Methodologically this is such a bankrupt view of positivistic historical method and historically a display of ignorance about what the biblical texts themselves claim. We have ample evidence that they believed Jesus was physically resurrected because of visionary experiences and that is a fascinating historical question to deal with. And it becomes even more challenging when placed in a comparative context (cross-cultural interpretation) and this is where the weakness of the apologetic position starts: theirs is simply a confirmation of a belief and no method for doing comparative historical interpretation.
I hope we can take this debate to the academic respectable place that it deserves.