“Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Acts 17:11
Several years ago, I experienced a season of doubt about my beliefs with respect to God, Jesus, and the Bible. In the midst of that time, one thing I kept asking myself was whether or not there were some external circumstances that were contributing to my doubt. I thought it was important to doubt my doubts, so to speak. Were there perhaps some unexamined, cultural presuppositions that I was unconsciously absorbing that predisposed me to such deep skepticism? No one lives in a vacuum and every age/culture has its prevailing set of world views and possible blind spots – sets of unjustified, but widely accepted assumptions – that are absorbed unconsciously. I realized that understanding the age in which I lived was just as important as getting all of my questions about God and the Bible answered. Otherwise, I might be allowing some unjustified assumptions to color my conclusions.
According to a new book by scholars Andreas J. Köstenberger (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary), Darrell L. Bock (Dallas Theological Seminary), and Josh D. Chatraw (Liberty University), we live in an age of unbridled hyper-skepticism. The title, Truth in a Culture of Doubt, caught my attention for it implied that doubt can actually be a cultural phenomenon. This idea paralleled nicely with my conclusion that at least some of my doubt was not necessarily reasonable, but actually simply a consequence of living in the modern age. Bock et al. claim that certain prevailing attitudes have become idols guiding what we deem legitimate in our search for what is true. Two of these idols are diversity and tolerance. These ideas, the authors say, have led to an undue hyper-skepticism towards religion, in general, and towards any exclusive truth claims, especially claims coming from any realm other than empirical science.
Skepticism, in and of itself is not bad. It is important to be rigorous in our examination of our beliefs, especially those beliefs that will have implications in every area of our lives. Think of the Bereans mentioned in Acts that examined the Scriptures every day to determine if what Paul was saying was correct. They were commended as being noble for this! Yet, could skepticism take on a life of its own and become an end in itself? Can it become a sort knee-jerk and dogmatic position akin to a knee-jerk, dogmatic fundamentalism? I’d say that from my own experience, this can certainly be the case.
The specific skepticism that the authors are addressing has to do with recent doubt thrown on the historicity of the New Testament by the well-known biblical scholar Bart Ehrman. Ehrman is a force to contend with – his academic credentials are impeccable, something very important in this age of “the experts say…” He has authored a slew of books in the last ten years on biblical criticism, some of which have actually made it to the New York Times bestseller list. His writing and speaking are engaging, clear, and persuasive. He has participated in numerous debates (one of which I was able to attend was here in Dallas a few years ago).
Perhaps, what makes his popularity so important (and, perhaps what is the making of his popularity) is that he claims that his work represents the best, lay-level summary of how contemporary scholarship views the veracity of the New Testament. And, this summary is not good for Christians who believe the truth claims of these ancient documents. He was once a conservative, evangelical Christian, but after supposedly removing the bias of his strict fundamentalist approach to Scripture, he is now an agnostic. It seems, if these authors are correct, Ehrman has fallen into the same cultural trap. It seems that he has moved from religious fundamentalism to skeptical fundamentalism – from religious dogma to skeptical dogma.
Bock, et al, begin with the warning that this summary of Ehrman’s does not represent all the data. They point out that his work does not accurately depict the discussion taking place in academic circles. They claim that Ehrman is the victim of a sort of run-away hyper-skepticism that has blinded him to the rich academic discourse occurring right now in the field. In other words, his conclusions are very one-sided. Could it be that Ehrman has been blinded by the idols of this age, as well?
As the authors walk the reader through the various skeptical challenges brought by Ehrman, ranging from the problem of evil, supposed irreconcilable contradictions in the texts themselves, corrupt transmission of the manuscripts, doubts about the authorship of the various books, and charges of suppression of diversity or other manifestations of Christianity by powerful church leaders.
Two observations can be made about Ehrman’s approach. First, as said above, he is highly selective in which respected peer-reviewed scholarship he gleans his data from. Conservative scholars and their interpretations and criticisms of his work are simply not considered, interacted with, or acknowledged. In this regard, he is unduly biased. Additionally, Ehrman has seemed to go from one extreme to another in his approach. He rejected the rigid, fundamentalist approach he once used only to pick up a rigid, skeptical approach. He has very little acknowledgment of or tolerance for more nuanced views that more than adequately answer his objections. Given his approach, it is no surprise that he has come to the conclusions he has!
One quote of a quote from the book that I think summarizes Ehrman’s problem best comes from the New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright:
“The guild of New Testament studies has become so used to operating with a hermeneutic of suspicion that we find ourselves trapped in our own subtleties. If two ancient writers agree about something, that proves one got it from the other. If they seem to disagree, that proves that one or both are wrong. If they say an event fulfilled biblical prophecy, they made it up to look like that. If an event or saying fits a writer’s theological scheme, that writer invented it. If there are two accounts of similar events, they are a “doublet” (there was only one event); but if a single account has anything odd about it, there must have been two events, which are now conflated. And so on. Anything to show how clever we are, how subtle, to have smoked out the reality behind the text. But, as any author who has watched her or his books being reviewed will know, such reconstructions again and again miss the point, often wildly. If we cannot get it right when we share a culture, a period, and a language, it is highly likely that many of our subtle reconstructions of ancient texts and histories are our own unhistorical fantasies, unrecognized only because the writers are long since dead and cannot answer back. Suspicion is all very well; there is also such a thing as a hermeneutic of paranoia. Somebody says something; they must have a motive; therefore they must have made it up. Just because we are rightly determined to avoid a hermeneutic of credulity, that does not mean there is no such thing as appropriate trust, or even readiness to suspend disbelief for a while, and see where it gets us.” (pg 77)
The book is structured in an easy to follow format, moving through each skeptical claim made by Ehrman and then laying out various answers to the claim through examining different test cases within the biblical text. At the end of each chapter, the authors provide several discussion questions that make the book well-suited for a small group study.
Christian parents may ask why it is important to know and understand the arguments put forth by Ehrman. If you plan on sending your child to a secular university, you can depend on them running across Ehrman’s work at some point. If you are not equipped with answers and resources to point your children towards, their faith may suffer tremendously. Even if they never are exposed to his work, they will most certainly be exposed to the culture of doubt over exclusive truth claims in which we live.
I can most certainly recommend this book as an excellent resource for your arsenal. These kinds of doubts are the “flaming arrows” of our time – be ready.
Here’s an Amazon link to the book: Truth in a Culture of Doubt
Here are some excellent little interviews about the book with Dr. Bock: