Is The Bible Literally True?

Should we take the Bible literally? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Someone sent me an article from the Huffington Post recently on if the Bible is literally true. The article is by a Steve McSwain who is described as a speaker, author, counselor to congregations, Ambassador to the Councilor on the Parliament for World’s Religions, and Spiritual Teacher. No academic credentials are listed. He does also describe Christianity as his faith so he claims at some level to be a Christian.

He does say at the start that while he values the Bible, he doesn’t believe it to be divinely dictated or a sacred text without error. I don’t know any evangelical today who really holds to the dictation theory. No doubt, there are some in the rank and file who do, but not the majority.

He goes on to say that if you are a Biblical literalist, that this bothers you. You believe that everything must be literal and it must be error-free. At this, I have a problem. What is meant by literal? It’s a term that’s often used and yet few people really define it. Most people do not think Jesus is literally a door or a vine when He uses that language.

Sadly, McSwain is probably accurate when some people think that if they risk undermining the text or questioning it, they could undermine all of it. Everything goes out the window then. This is the all-or-nothing thinking that many Christians do have and amusingly, many skeptics have that as well. I recall one person on Unbelievable? asking a guest on the show that if the Bible doesn’t agree with how Judas died, then how can we trust that Jesus was crucified?

McSwain goes to the flood accounts and says that they obviously contradict. He points to the differences between verses 2 and 15 of chapter 7. Let’s go and look at what they say.

Verse 2: Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate

Verse 15: Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark.

Look. I know that there are possible claims of contradictions and such, but this is not a good one. All that is said in verse 15 is pairs came. It doesn’t specify how many and how many of each kind came. In that case, give the benefit of the doubt to the author instead.

He goes on to say that,

The real Moses never wielded a staff with supernatural powers, the tip of which, when dipped into the Nile, turned the river into a cesspool of blood. Or, when dipped into the Red Sea, caused it to part so Israelites could pass to the other side on dry, not muddy, ground.

None of these Biblical stories, including the ones where Jesus is depicted as defying the laws of nature and performing miracles… as in, walking on water or giving sight to the blind or, most amazingly, raising dead people back to life were recorded as factual, or literal, eyewitness accounts. And, even if they were, they cannot be depicted as such today, if you want any of it to be believed… to be respected… or, to be read with any seriousness.

For the sake of argument, this could be true, but the problem is McSwain gives us no reason to believe any of this. I also have to wonder what kind of Christian he is if he denies any miracles at all. Again, McSwain’s case could hypothetically be right, but he has given us no reason to think so, that is, unless you just come out and agree that miracles don’t happen, but that is the very thing under question.

As for the idea of eyewitness accounts, it would be nice to see some interaction with scholarship, such as Richard Bauckham, but we can suspect that won’t happen. Statements of faith are problematic no matter who says it. Unfortunately, mayn people will read McSwain and believe it because, well he’s in the Huffington Post, and do so without any real reason why they should believe it.

What matters to McSwain is how the stories have shaped the lives of those who hear its message. This can sound good, but while it’s great that people have their lives changed, do we want to enforce the Noble Lie? If Christianity is not true, then there is truly no resurrection, no heaven beyond this world, no hell to shun, no forgiveness of sins, no real love of God.

It’s hard to believe that the early church was really excited about that.

McSwain has a watered down faith. Note I have not said he has to embrace inerrancy, but he seems to have just embraced that Christianity is all about being a good person and the truth of the Bible does not matter. If anything, the truth of the Bible matters abundantly. If it is true that God lived among us and that Jesus died and rose again and there is real forgiveness and a heaven to gain and a hell to avoid and eternal life in resurrected bodies, I should think we would want to know it. If it is not true, then who really cares? But if it is true, it matters greatly. As has been said, if Christianity is not true, it is of no importance. If it is true, it is of the utmost importance.

Atheism and the Case Against Christ Chapter 12

Could Christianity be metaphorical language? Let’s dive into the Deeper Waters and find out.

In this Chapter, McCormick looks at the idea of what if Christianity is just a metaphor and you accept it as a good story, but you just don’t believe all the claims and such. You just go because you enjoy the fellowship or something like that. Maybe it’s the case that we could all see it as metaphorical.

Now this position makes no sense to me. There was a time I was at a coffee shop once (I was of course getting tea since I uphold that coffee was created by the devil to lead us away from tea.) and talking to someone about Christianity and they asked “What if it was just a story and not really true in a historical sense? Would you lose anything?”

I answered that I would. A story could not provide salvation. It could not provide peace with God. It could not provide righteousness. Thus, I am surprised that it looks like McCormick actually agrees with me. He considers the idea of a Christian who does not believe in the resurrection to be an oxymoron. I would go further. It is a contradiction. If you do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead, I have no reason to see you as a Christian. You may have a nice ethical system and really like the teachings of Jesus, but that’s not enough for salvation.

McCormick’s main concern in this is that people tend to become like those they’re around and if Christians have too many negative ways of thinking, those will be rubbed off on someone. When it comes to those negative characteristics, he refers to the church’s stance on homosexuality as an example. I always find it odd that somehow many atheists I meet automatically think accepting homosexuality is a mark of tolerance. It’s my suspicion that many who do this only side with homosexuals because Christianity opposes homosexuals. It’s not for some concern about homosexuals in themselves.

Let’s suppose also that my argument against homosexuality was more of a natural law argument. Would it be wrong just because I am religious? (A persuasion Francis Beckwith takes in Taking Rites Seriously.) If a skeptic made the same argument, would it suddenly be taken seriously? People might have biases, but arguments don’t. Arguments stand or fall on their own.

We also have to be amazed at the constant talk about tolerance and inclusion. Does this mean the more we allow the more inclusive and tolerant we are? Everyone is exclusive at some point and there are some points no one will tolerate. A church that turned the other way at murder would not be a tolerant church. They would be a wicked one. Of course, I realize at this point McCormick and others could cry out “Are you putting homosexuality on the same level as murder?” No. I’m just going to an extreme to paint a picture.

When people talk about being tolerant or inclusive, they generally mean being tolerant and inclusive of ideas that they agree with already. True tolerance is being able to note a person you have a significant disagreement with, still being able to disagree with them, and still having a relationship with them. I am sure McCormick would like to say for instance that he’s tolerant of any Christian friends he has though he disagrees. That is what tolerance is.

McCormick then goes on to list facts he doesn’t find surprising. 51% of Americans refuse to believe life evolved. 55% subscribe to rapture theology. 36% think Revelation (Not Revelations) is true Bible prophecy.

Okay. Let’s see how I measure up.

I have no problem with evolution as a theory. Since I am not a scientist, I cannot comment on if it happened or not, but it’s not a threat to me if it did. I do not hold to a pre-trib, pre-mill rapture at all. As for Revelation, I do think it’s true prophecy, but it is not to be fulfilled in a literal sense (Or rather was not fulfilled). Revelation is an apocalypse which uses powerful imagery to demonstrate earthly realities.

By the way, all of those beliefs are beliefs I did not grow up with. They changed as I learned and studied this stuff and grew in my position. Could I be wrong? Sure. I’m open to that, but I would need to be shown evidence that I am.

McCormick later says that a number of people will go on believing something even after their beliefs have been shown to be faulty according to some studies. I have no doubt of this. It also cuts both ways. If McCormick is shown his arguments are faulty (And I think I have given enough room for pause in my reviews) will he still hold them just as strongly? What about internet atheists who hold to Jesus mythicism (An idea McCormick seems to toy with) and are shown to be wrong over and over? (Anyone who gets after Christians for disbelieving evolution has no basis whatsoever for endorsing mythicism.) We all need to pause and ask if we hold an intellectual commitment more often or an emotional one.

McCormick points to a study that was done where Christians were told about an article from some researchers judged to be authentic by radiocarbon dating and leading scholars from some recently found scrolls that was the disciples confessing that Christianity was a hoax. The lead scholar on the project had to renounce his faith and said he could no longer be a Christian. According to the study, many people said their faith in Christianity was even stronger.

If I had been part of this study, this is how I would have handled when told the claim.

“Okay. Who are these scholars? What are their names? Where was this scroll found? Who was the lead scholar you spoke of? How recently was this find? Can I go somewhere to get to read the manuscripts for myself?”

If too many Christians don’t know how to analyze the information, then yes, this is a problem. McCormick doesn’t mention if any of the skeptics asked questions about the documents and if they didn’t, that’s just as much a problem for skepticism as they are just believing a claim without having sound evidence for it. I happen to agree with many problems McCormick diagnoses in this chapter. I just disagree with the solution to them. The problem is not Christianity as skeptics show the exact same mindset many times. The problem is an over-riding anti-intellectualism in our culture.

McCormick says that one of the reasons the God of classical theism has been so influential is because that God is worthy of worship. Well no. Of course, that God is worthy of worship, but that is not why that type won out. Why it won out was because of evidence. People were convinced Christianity was true, which I would argue was based on the evidence despite what McCormick says. The Christian concept won out so well and then came with such great philosophy from the Greeks that polytheism just couldn’t last.

At Location 4032, McCormick says the truth problem has to be confronted. I agree.

Either what is being claimed about the world, its origins, and humankind’s place in it is accurate or not. And either we have good reasons to think it is true or we don’t. What are those claims and what is the evidence for them? Does all life emanate from some spiritual force? Is some supernatural, conscious, or personal force responsible for the creation of the universe or not? Do we entirely cease to exist when we die or not? What are our reasons for thinking so?

These are all excellent questions.

It’s a pity they were all ignored.

He later asks that if God is all these omni qualities, why does he use such human means to achieve His means. Why does He form such a loving and intimate relationship with a person who prays? We still wonder how it is that McCormick came across this theological knowledge of what an omni being would or would not do. It certainly doesn’t come from experience of what an omni being would do since he is an atheist and cannot believe he has ever encountered such a being. Where does he get these ideas?

As for why God would do this, how about this? To reach humans. What we find in Scripture is that God is so far-reaching that the Son is even willing to take on humanity and go to the lowest position he can. God has no pride. Using human means is not beneath Him. Interacting with human beings is not beneath Him.

McCormick towards the end of the chapter talks about the Clergy Project. This is to help clergy who have decided they are atheists but depend on their jobs for their livelihood and such and can’t just quit. First, I find it interesting that in talking about fakers that McCormick wants to admit atheists like this exist. Second, when one sees the reasons for their doubt in the book, it’s often based on a rigid literalism. This is why we need more apologetics in the church.

In the end, while I do agree that Christianity is not a metaphor, I think the problem of McCormick is he allows no metaphors whatsoever. Everything is literal and rigid and God must act the way that McCormick thinks he should. The irony is that McCormick has more in common with the Christians he goes after than he realizes.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 13

McCormick’s Gaffe

 

The Hang-Up Of Literalism

Can literalism be  danger? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Often times in debate, I am charged by atheists with ignoring the literal meaning of the text. Many Christians meanwhile think it’s a virtue to take very text as literally as possible. It’s ironic that both groups read the text the same way. All that differs really is the allegiance.

When we say literal, most often, people mean a straightforward idea. The text means what it says and says what it means. Of course, there are texts like that out there. There are also texts that are not like that. You know what other work of literature out there contains some pieces that are straightforward literal and some that are not?

Nearly every single other one that exists.

When I spoke of the Christian and the atheist above, both of these groups often forget the Bible is literature. Whatever else you think it is, be it you think it’s the Word of God or be it you think it is the “Buy-bull” as some atheists say, it is still a work of literature and should be treated as such. That means you will use many of the same techniques you use when reading other works of literature to read the Bible.

I once wrote a blog post where I went through the Gospel of John and showed that Jesus had immense difficulties with people who interpreted his text literally. Given that this was such a problem, perhaps we should not read Scripture that way. Yet as soon as I say that, there rises up an immediate question.

“How do you know which pieces are literal and which are not?”

Well, how do you do that with other literature?

There’s no magic bullet rule. Really. There isn’t. Most writers assume that their audience does not consist of fools. In fact, most of us assume some background knowledge on the part of the author. For instance, in my writing this series, for the most part I have not defined a single word. That might seem like a blatantly obvious point, but I also haven’t gone through saying “This is literal” or “This is hyperbole” or “This is a metaphor” or anything like that. I tend to leave it to you, the reader, to find out because I frankly don’t want to assume you don’t know how to read.

The Biblical writers were the same way with an important difference. First off, most anyone who could read their text had to be educated since literacy was not as abundant as it is today. Second, many of their texts would be read by the readers and would also be read to an audience. Often times, especially in the NT, this could include having commentary. When Phoebe delivers the letter to the Romans, chances are, she explained it as well.

Unfortunately, we in the West often think the Bible was written to us in our time and culture and language and place and can be totally separated from its own time and culture and language and place. No. It can’t. That background is different from ours very often. We can have a tendency to read our own ideas into the text.

One key example of this is when the Old Testament talks about slavery. Most people over here in the West today will think of the Civil War. Is that what the writer had in mind? Maybe. Maybe not. If you want to know what he had in mind, you have to study slavery in the Ancient Near East. That requires work. I’m not going to go into detail on it now. That will leave some work for you to do, but if you care about what the text means, it’s something you’ll likely do.

In fact, literal is itself misunderstood. The word really means “According to the intent of the author.” It requires work to try to get into the mind of the author, but that is work worth doing. As we continue looking at hermeneutics, we’ll learn some questions to ask and how to do the research.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Scripture and Cosmology

What do I think of Kyle Greenwood’s book published by IVP? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I always have an interest in books on science and faith and books I think could be related to inerrancy and books about the worldview of people who lived in Biblical times. With Kyle Greenwood’s work, I have all three. The heavy emphasis is on the third part with a still sizable portion on the first and just a touching on the second, but the reader who goes through this book will be informed on the topic under consideration better.

One of the great problems we have today is people trying to read modern science into the Bible. Christians want to act as if so much of modern science was predicted by the Bible long ago, as if God had a great interest in teaching people scientific principles. That He does not does not mean that He does not care about science, but it does mean that He was wanting to get across a major message and was willing to leave the rest for us. After all, God told us things that we could not know on our own and left what we could discover for ourselves to be discovered by ourselves.

For non-Christians, there is this idea of course that if God spoke, God would speak in agreement with our modern science. One can only wonder what would happen if we were living 1,000 years from now and how much of our science might be different. Would we need a whole new Bible at that point because the science had changed? If the Bible supposedly does not speak about modern science and in scientific language, then it should not be treated seriously.

Greenwood writes to first off show how the ancients viewed the world with the main elements being land, heavens, and sea. Was their worldview primitive by comparison? Yes. What of it? God did indeed speak in that world and used the terminology that the people would be familiar with. Rather than give a whole discourse on the scientific nature of reality, something that would be largely unintelligible to the people back then and would have no way whatsoever to be discovered and backed back then, He instead chose to use the terminology of their time and culture in order to give His revelation.

Of course, in some ways, the Hebrews did not borrow from their pagan neighbors as much as they might have shared similar cosmology. This wasn’t attributed to the gods and there wasn’t sacred space for various deities out there. Everything was attributed to the one God and it was the one God who kept everything in motion by His wisdom and by His power. Naturally, this continues in the New Testament where Jesus Himself is included in this creative force as being the agent of God’s creation.

Greenwood also interacts with how the worldview of cosmology was changing. The first major change was brought by Aristotle and then more change came later on through minds like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. Through this, interpretations had to be changed and could it be they had to be changed because we were reading science into the text to begin with and had removed it from its original context? This is why I have been especially pleased with the work of scholars like John Walton as well that point out that works like Genesis 1-3 are not written to answer scientific questions but to answer questions on the nature of God.

To be fair, while I have not been an extensive reader on the medieval period and history, I have done some and there were a few parts that I thought I wanted to check up on. I would certainly want to make clear that the time was not really a dark ages time. There was indeed great scientific advancement going on and I think the work that Greenwood cites illustrates some fine examples of that going on.

Now we come to today. What can we learn? It’s not that science and faith don’t mix. Of course they do. I think Greenwood would mainly agree with Galileo. It is the role of creation to tell us how the heavens go and the role of Scripture to tell us how to go to heaven. Many times when we have married a scientific interpretation to the Bible, it has led to embarrassment mainly because that’s not what the text was trying to teach us in the first place. Does this mean the Bible errored? No more than there’s an error when we talk about sunrise and sunset today. We simply have God speaking in the language of the people at the time. The nature of their cosmological claims does not alter the truth being conveyed. (The glory of God reaching to the ends of the Earth does not change depending on the size and shape of the Earth. God is still the most glorious.)

This will be a fine book in anyone’s library working to understand the worldview of people of the Bible and how better to interpret the text today.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Faith Vs Fact. Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. Part 1

What do I think of Coyne’s book published by Viking Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

It’s hard to really describe Coyne’s book on Faith vs. Fact. Two sayings that I was given fit it well. The first is that every page is better than the next. The second is that it is not to be tossed aside lightly but hurled with great force. It would be difficult to imagine a more uninformed writing on a topic unless one had read the rest of modern atheists today like Dawkins and Harris and others. I had even made a number of predictions before reading Coyne’s book that I was sure would take place. Lo and behold, my predictions were right. While the modern atheists consider themselves to be clear and rational thinkers, they pretty much just copy and paste what everyone else says.

It’s also important to point out that looking up references in this book is quite difficult. Coyne does not give page numbers or titles often and the end notes do not even have the page numbers nor are they numbered. Hopefully this will be taken care of in future editions.

It’s hardly a shock to see that Coyne starts early off with the works of Draper and White to show the conflict of science and religion. Of course, many of the claims in the book are known to be just plain false by historians of science. Some of them in White’s book for instance remain entirely unverified today. For much of this, I will rely on the work of James Hannam. It is noteworthy that Coyne never once brings up a book such as Galileo Goes To Jail. Numbers is a real scholar in the field and an agnostic. The book contains a number of agnostic writers and while there are Christians and other faiths as well, you cannot tell by looking at the chapters who is writing what. Coyne is holding on to a myth for atheists that should have been dispelled years ago, but like all people of faith, he has to hold on to those myths to support his belief system.

Now some might want to ask me about my own personal opinions at this point. That’s fine. I’ll clear it up. I am not a scientist and I do not discuss science as science. When it comes to evolution, it makes no difference whatsoever to me and I oppose Christians who have not studied evolution commenting on it. If they want to criticize it, well God bless them, but make sure that if they do, that it is a scientific critique. We do not need a critique of “The Bible says X.” I think too often we have read Genesis as if it was meant to be a scientific and material account instead of the functional account I believe it would have been seen to be by the ancient Israelites and others. If evolution is to fall, and that is not my call at all, it will fall because it is bad science. Either way, the question matters not to me. I am not saying it is unimportant, but that I do not have the time to study it and my interpretation of Genesis doesn’t care about the question.

It’s a shame however that Coyne and other atheists do not pay the same courtesy. While I am not an authority on science and do not thus speak on science, Coyne and others who are not authorities in the relevant field think they can speak on philosophy and history and theology. It is certainly amusing to read a book where it is claimed that Christians have overstepped their bounds (And indeed, too many do and I have strong words for them just as much) and yet Coyne regularly does this where he speaks on topics he has no expertise on and as we shall see later on, he quite frankly makes embarrassing statements that would make any scholar in the field shake their head in disbelief.

Coyne tells us on page 6 that it is off limits to attack religion. I must admit this was a newsflash to me. I suppose it must be news to the rest of the world. The new atheists have been publishing books since shortly after 9/11. Most every Easter you can see a new article or theory coming out claiming something crazy about Jesus that we’re just now discovering. I can go on Facebook and YouTube and see numerous people speaking out against religion. We have seen homosexual activists targeting people of faith, as we are often called. If it is taboo to go after religion, it is apparent that most of the world didn’t get the memo.

I am also confused as to what percentage of Americans are atheists. On page 9, we are told that nearly 20 percent of Americans are either atheists or agnostics or say their religion is nothing in particular. On page 12, we’re told that 83 percent of Americans believe in God and only 4 percent are atheists. Color me confused as to which one it is.

Coyne points to the National Academy of Sciences containing a large number of atheists, but why should this be a surprise? The question of God as we will see is not a scientific question, but is rather a philosophical and metaphysical question. Why should a scientist hold any sort of authority there? Of course, I will not accept the redefinition of science that Coyne gives later on. But why does the NAS statistic not trouble me? Let’s look at what their web site says.

Because membership is achieved by election, there is no membership application process. Although many names are suggested informally, only Academy members may submit formal nominations. Consideration of a candidate begins with his or her nomination, followed by an extensive and careful vetting process that results in a final ballot at the Academy’s annual meeting in April each year. Currently, a maximum of 84 members may be elected annually. Members must be U.S. citizens; non-citizens are elected as foreign associates, with a maximum of 21 elected annually.

The NAS membership totals approximately 2,250 members and nearly 440 foreign associates, of whom approximately 200 have received Nobel prizes.

So let’s be clear. 84 members are elected a year. If we count Americans alone, how many scientists and engineers get Ph.D.’s a year? 18,000. Considering that’s from Scientific American Coyne should not have any trouble with that. What that amounts to is that NAS can become a sort of exclusive club where people can get other people who agree with them to come on board, which makes it hardly representative of all scientists. Consider it a sort of good ol’ boys club. That does not mean that the work they do is not valid, but it does mean it should hardly be considered a fair representation of all scientists.

On page 15-16, we have the notion from Coyne that we are increasingly realizing free-will does not exist. Supposing this was true, while Coyne says it would eliminate much of theology, it would also eliminate much of everything else. After all, if there is no free-will, Coyne does not believe what he believes because he is a champion of reason or anything of the like. That’s just the way that the atoms have worked together to make him think. He has no say in the matter. None of us should be convinced by anything he says either and if we are, it is not because of reason but because that is how our atoms responded to something somehow.

Coyne on page 20 refers to teleology as an external force driving evolution, at least from a more theistic perspective. Yet when we use the term teleology, this is not what we mean. Teleology comes from the four causes of Aristotle. The last is the final cause. The final cause was the purpose for which something existed or why it did what it did. Final causality exists throughout our world and it is the reality that an agent acts toward an end, be it intentionally or unintentionally. If an iceberg floats through water and cools the water around it, that is final causality. Aristotle considered this to be the most important of the causes.

In fact, as Gilson shows, this is a necessary aspect of evolution. Evolution did not dispense with final causes but itself has a final cause. The final cause is so the most fit species can survive for the passing on of their genetic information. Evolution, like any kind of competition, has the goal, and again this is not necessarily consciously, of producing the best end product. Unfortunately, Coyne does not possess a basic understanding of Aristotelianism at all so it’s not a shock that he makes a mistake like this. The sad part is his faithful followers who do not possess this knowledge will eat this up thinking that Coyne is right in what he says and not bother to check. I see it happen too often with all the bogus claims that atheists spread on the internet about the fields that I do study in.

As predicted, much of what Coyne says depends on his misuse of the term faith. It’s so easily predictable that Coyne will use this. Of course, absent is any interaction with Biblical lexicons or any study of the Greek language to see what the Bible means when it encourages us to have faith. Faith is for Coyne on page 25, the acceptance of things for which there is no strong evidence and of course, throughout the implication is any belief without evidence is faith. Is this what the writers of Scripture meant by faith? Not at all. For a man who later says fields like history are a science, one would have thought he would be more scientific in his approach, but he is not. Coyne has accepted yet another atheist myth. Had he consulted an actual work of scholarship he might have found this definition:

Faith/Faithfulness

“These terms refer to the value of reliability. The value is ascribed to persons as well as to objects and qualities. Relative to persons, faith is reliability in interpersonal relations: it thus takes on the value of enduring personal loyalty, of personal faithfulness. The nouns ‘faith’, ‘belief’, ‘fidelity’, ‘faithfulness,’ as well as the verbs ‘to have faith’ and ‘to believe,’ refers to the social glue that binds one person to another. This bond is the social, externally manifested, emotionally rooted behavior of loyalty, commitment, and solidarity. As a social bond, it works with the value of (personal and group) attachment (translated ‘love’) and the value of (personal and group) allegiance or trust (translated ‘hope.’) p. 72 Pilch and Malina Handbook of Biblical Social Values.

What this means is that faith is really a response to what has been shown. Aristotle would even use the work pistis, which is translated as faith, to refer to a forensic proof. Faith was the loyalty that was owed someone based on the evidence that they had given you. Okay. Well how does that comport with Hebrews 11:1? Very well, thank you. The notion that it is belief without evidence that the Bible espouses is really a myth that atheists throw around without evidence. It is apparent then who the real people of “faith” are.

Now do many Christians have a faulty view of faith? Absolutely, but are those the people Coyne should really go to to get the best of the other side, especially if he wants to be scientific and gathering evidence? Why not study what Christians throughout history have meant by faith? Unfortunately, this seems to be out of bounds for Coyne. Coyne will keep perpetuating this myth throughout his book as if when science came along that all of a sudden people decided that they should have evidence for their beliefs. Sorry Coyne, but numerous people, including Christians, reached that conclusion long before you did.

We can be pleased to see that Coyne says history is a science, but unfortunately as it will be shown later on, this is because Coyne deems to be scientific, any system that relies on gathering evidence for its claims. It’s easy to say that something is scientific in that sense if you just change what the words mean. In doing this, Coyne hopes to show the superiority of science later by saying that history is included under the rubric of science. Not really. History is its own field and it has a historical method just as much as there is a scientific method.

This is all the more amusing since in the book also Coyne says he was practicing science for thirty years and he had never thought about what science was. In fact, he tells us that until he started writing this book, his definition was false. Well it’s nice to know that Coyne is writing to tell us that science and religion are incompatible when before even starting the book he didn’t know what science was. Somehow he knew that whatever science was, it had to be incompatible with religion. Perhaps Coyne should have invested more thought into what it was that he was doing all these decades.

Coyne also speaks against those who claim we shouldn’t accept evolution because we do not see in in our time, to which he says we ignore the massive historical evidence in the fossil record and such. He tells us that if we only accept as true what we see with our own eyes in our own time, we’d have to regard all of human history as dubious. It’s amusing to know this same person will later say we have to be suspicious of miracles because we do not see them around the world today. (However, this claim is also false. Coyne has not shown any interaction with Craig Keener’s massive two-volume work Miracles. One would think that being scientific, Coyne would have wanted to look at the best work of evidence on the topic presented and no, when it comes to miracles there also isn’t even any response to John Earman’s refutation of Hume’s argument. Coyne should have been interested in this since Earman is himself an agnostic and says that Hume’s argument, which Coyne endorses, would be a science stopper if followed through consistently.) Of course, we will find that Coyne’s understanding of historical miracle claims is incredibly lacking, in fact, no doubt one of the worst moments of ignorance in the book.

I am also quite sure that David Bentley Hart would be surprised to find that he is listed as a liberal theologian. I am quite sure it’s because Coyne does not understand what Hart would mean by referring to God as the ground of being. While Coyne does have listed in the back Hart’s book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, he might have been better served by going to a book like Hart’s Atheist Delusions. But then again, never let not understanding what someone is talking about be a reason to stop you from speaking on what that person is saying.

Coyne also tells us that the Nicene Creed contradicts other faiths, which it does, as if there is some point to this. It seems odd to say that it’s an argument against a worldview that it contradicts all other worldviews. Of course it does. Coyne does tell us that the creed tells us Jesus is the Messiah and other faiths don’t accept this, including Islam. In fact, Muslims believe that those who accept Jesus as the Messiah will go to Hell. Well, this would certainly be news to most Muslims. As we find in Sura 3:45

(Remember) when the angels said: “O Maryam (Mary)! Verily, Allah gives you the glad tidings of a Word [“Be!” – and he was! i.e. ‘Iesa (Jesus) the son of Maryam (Mary)] from Him, his name will be the Messiah ‘Iesa (Jesus), the son of Maryam (Mary), held in honour in this world and in the Hereafter, and will be one of those who are near to Allah.”

Did Coyne not do any fact checking? The Muslims are opposed to saying Jesus is the Son of God or the second person of the Trinity, but not opposed to saying that He is the Messiah.

Coyne also says literalism is not a modern offshoot, but rather is the historical way of reading Scripture. The only way Coyne could believe this is if he had no experience with the way the ancients read Scripture. Even before the New Testament, we have works like Longenecker’s showing the various ways many passages of the Old Testament was read by the apostles and their contemporaries at the time, such as the Qumran community. Had he moved on to later times, Coyne would have been able to find that the church fathers happened to love allegory, including Augustine who he refers to as a literalist. (For Coyne, it looks like if you believe in a historical Adam and that Jesus died and rose again, you must be a literalist, a rather naive way of approaching a claim.) Origen, for instance, was all over the place with his use of allegory. He could have also read Mark Sheridan’s work about how God was spoken of in the patristic tradition and passages were often not read in their literal sense because they had to be read in a way that was fitting of God, meaning He had no body or no emotions so those passages had to be read differently. A work like Robert Rea’s would have shown him that in the medieval period, there were four different styles of reading a text.

But since Coyne mentioned Augustine, let’s use a quote of his on interpretation.

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [1 Timothy 1.7]

Augustine would probably be disappointed at the way many lay people handle the Scriptures today. By the way, if Coyne wants to know where this comes from, it comes from Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis. Augustine’s literal meaning was also that everything was created all at once instantly and that the days are laid out more in a framework type of hypothesis.

If this is so, why the hang-up on literalism today? To begin with, Coyne never defines literalism and if he means that every passage is read in a wooden sense, no one does that. Much of the Bible does have metaphorical language and figures of speech and hyperbole and the like. Yet one cause of it today is that we are seen as a Democracy and every man should be able to understand the basic position of Christianity and that means the Bible should be readily understandable by everyone. Well it’s not. As my friend Werner Mischke says in his book, “Culturally speaking, the Bible does not ‘belong’ to you; It’s not your book.” Coyne could have benefited by reading other works like The New Testament World or Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes. Ironically, the real enemy here is a more fundamentalist approach to Scripture, and yet it is the exact same approach Coyne takes. He is a victim of the problem he sees in his opposition. Were we to get past much of our anthropological elitism, we’d start studying the Bible and trying to fit ourselves into the worldview of its authors. We might disagree with it still, sure, but we’d have a better informed disagreement.

This kind of material leads up to where we’ll continue next time, with what I consider to be one of the most embarrassing paragraphs in Coyne’s book.

Part 2 of the review can be found here.

Part 3 can be found here.

Part 4 can be found here.

Part 5 can be found here.

Book Plunge: Language for God in Patristic Tradition

What do I think about Mark Sheridan’s book published by IVP? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

How do you interpret a text of Scripture? The ways it’s done throughout history have changed and this book by Mark Sheridan is a fascinating look at the earliest interpreters. Today, we often have an idea that we have to get at the “literal” meaning of the text, but a look at the church fathers shows they were quite different. In fact, it looks like many times the last thing they wanted to do was to take the text “literally.” The first point was to take the text in a manner that was fitting to God. This would mean that you had to avoid things that would seem like emotional outbursts on the part of the deity. If the text said God was angry, you had to interpret that differently because the deity does not get angry. While I agree with that point, it is irrelevant to the thesis of the book as well. You can say that fathers were wrong in that belief, but the reality is that is still how they interpreted the text.

It wasn’t just them. They got this also from Philo who before Christianity followed the same kind of path with looking at the work we call the Old Testament today, even to the point of thinking philosophers like Plato had read Moses. Philo wanted to make sure the text was also being read in a way that was fitting to God and this would often mean a strong allegorical interpretation. The church fathers followed in suit with the allegory and sometimes, it looks quite amazing. We can look at what the church fathers said in their day and wonder how it could be that someone would come to that interpretation.

For instance, consider Psalm 137 where we are told about Babylon that happy is he who takes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. It’s not just moderns today who have a hard time interpreting the passage. The ancients did too. Their viewpoint was that the children of Babylon are the sins that we struggle with. The rock that the babies then were dashed against was Christ. The message the Psalmist was giving then was that we should take our sins and dash them against the rock of Christ so that they could be destroyed. Most of us today look at that and say “Huh?”, but in the time of the Fathers, this would have been seen as a valid interpretation.

Other passages were also troubling to them. What about what Abraham did with Hagar? What are we to do with that? What about the imprecatory Psalms? What are we to do with those? What about the conquest of Canaan? How do we handle that? The ancients struggled with this just like we do. Sheridan takes us through many of the church fathers to see how they interpreted these passages. In the end then, he takes us up to our modern era to show how we handle them today. Do we necessarily have a clear interpretation? Maybe not, but it is important to see how this has gone on throughout history and to realize that our hang-up on literalism is really a more modern one than anything else.

I do encourage those interested in the history of interpretation to read Sheridan’s book. You’ll quite likely disagree with your Christian ancestors, but it will be well worth the read.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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