Misplaced Faith and Misguided Suspicion
A tired and common condescending put-down so often leveled against anyone who drifts away or turns against a tight-knit group of any kind is to accuse them of never having understood or been truly with the group from the beginning. The group-defensive-arrogance is almost too hot to approach. “No-one who really understands what we are about could ever possibly disown us.” Those remaining true to the original cause reflect and look for past signs of faults in those departed to explain why they left. Those who do leave or dissent are never taken at their word when they try to explain their reasons. It is some sin or missing key element that is the “real reason”. A letter in the Bible says the same, and Craig Evans says it of scholars whose studies have led them away from their fundamentalism:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; . . . 1 John 2:19
Erhman’s struggle with faith — and I feel for him — grows out of mistaken expectations of the nature and function of Scripture, mistaken expectations that he was taught as a young, impressionable fundamentalist Christian. (p.31)
The condescension reeks. In both passages. Evans “feels for” the lost sheep who was wrongly set up from his days as an “impressionable” youth. We are listening to a pastor of superior learning and experience (according to his Preface) informing his other children why their erstwhile colleague no longer plays with them. The message is religious and moral, not scholarly. It is about the True Faith. It is not scholarly except in some of its language and in relation to a few branches growing out of Ehrman’s views.
Like the author of the first epistle of John, Evans seems to think it enough to propose his personal “insights” into the spiritual flaws of the scholars Robert Funk, James Robinson, Robert Price and Bart Ehrmann. He opts to spiritually condemn rather than offer a synopsis of scholarly arguments that would, when unpacked, hopefully challenge to their views of the Bible. A reader wanting to discover what is actually wrong in scholarly terms with the basic arguments of these scholars will find nothing here. Certainly Evans does give a few contradictory views of specific points of their arguments, but this is only tackling the odd twig or branch of one of the sceptic’s arguments, not their fundamental conclusions.
I should clarify at this point that I am not supporting here any of the arguments of Funk, Erhman et al, but am discussing Evans’ religious sermonizing approach posing as scholarly critique in relation to them.
I have studied in depth various strands of history, educational philosophy and English literature but until I began reading a few of the Christian fundamentalist apologetics I had never come across scholars rebutting one another with barbs like “misplaced faith” or “misguided suspicion”. Suspicion is, of course, the antithesis of faith, so the two complaints are really the stamp of the one coin.
Rather than take up critical debate and challenges on their own terms, as is done in every other discipline I know, fundamentalist scholars seem to insist on applying special rules of their own: one must have “faith” in the gospel and the texts that bear witness of that gospel, and failure to take the texts at face value is somehow deemed “a hermeneutic of suspicion”, that is, “unscholarly”. Reasons and evidence for a fundamentalist interpretation need not be a factor. The failure to adopt the “right” interpretation, the “face value” fundamentalist interpretation, is enough to invite the charge of “misguided suspicion”.
“Rigid fundamentalism” — never the Bible — is mostly to blame!
Incapable of admitting that there could be any real merit in a sceptic’s view of the Bible, Evans has to confess the sins of the church for being largely responsible for such waywardness.
A big part of the problem starts with conservative Protestant Christianity itself, especially of the Western variety. Due to controversies, such as the modernist-fundamentalist debacle at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries . . . detailed statements (or confessions) were drawn up. . . . [S]ome of these statements seemed to take priority over Scripture itself.
It is not surprising that negative reactions to this sort of rigidity have occurred. (p.19)
So the rise of scepticism is due largely to the “commandments of men” taking the place of “the commandments of God” (Mark 7:6-7).
I think it plays a significant role in why some scholars and clergy experience a crisis of faith and make radical shifts. (p.20)
This is, of course, quite insulting to any such scholars and clergy. Evans is effectively saying that they could not tell the difference between confessional statements of the church and scripture, or that they could not rightly discern the true merit of views of the Bible that derived from those confessional statements.
Evans claims that “learned study of Scripture that addresses serious questions — such as who wrote the books of the Bible, under what circumstances, with what purpose and, with respect to historical issues, how accurately — invariably works against rigid fundamentalism” (pp19-20). He is obviously informing the reader that his own serious study removed any rigid fundamentalism he may have had.
Yet somehow Evans finds it in himself to be able to suggest the contrary view when it comes to sceptics: that believing scholars and clergy finally — after years of study — let rigid fundamentalist beliefs break their faith.
Misplaced faith — not true faith — is to blame!
Evans continues to compassionately twist the knife in his former believers. They could never have had real faith, the faith he himself has, is his implication.
They believed the wrong things:
- that “Scriptures must be inerrant according to rather strict idiosyncratic standards”;
- that “we must be able to harmonize the four Gospels.”
Again note Evans’s care with his words. He of course does believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures, but he allows a bit of slack for a few goof-ups. And he doesn’t say that the Gospels can’t be harmonized at some level — just that there may be some things we can’t quite sort out. Maybe one of the little goof-ups allowed for.
The irony is that these wrong beliefs, even if one embraces them with a bit of slack so that they are not wrong anymore, but right beliefs as Evans holds to them, do not come from the Bible anyway, but are a church confession through and through.
So it seems that what has saved Evans’s faith is not his “learned study of Scripture” as he claims, but believing the Protestant church’s nineteenth and early twentieth century confessional statements but with an attitude of forgiveness to cover the evidence against them and that would make a lie of them.
He is portraying such former believers as being latter-day rigid Pharisee types who placed their faith in the commandments of men and therefore fell away — some years after undergoing the study that “invariably” would have made them less Pharisaical.
So what need will there be for Evans to actually address any of their arguments or assumptions and conclusions in any serious way? He has already explained all the choir needs to know.
Misguided suspicions — not logically valid enquiry — is to blame!
What Evans means here is the “unreasonable assumption” that the contemporaries of Jesus were either incapable of or uninterested in recollecting accurately what Jesus said and did and passing it on, accurately.
This is an interesting spin Evans has placed on scholarly debates about oral transmission.
On one hand, he has reduced the scholarly works on orality and the mechanics of oral cultures, mostly originating in nonbiblical studies and borrowed by biblical scholars, to a matter of a bad (unChristian) personal attitude towards people of the past.
Sin is to blame, not scholarship.
After all, words like “hypercritical”, “unreasonable”, and accusations of personal “incapability” and “lack of interest”, are normally reserved for personal moral judgments, and Evans clearly uses them this way of the sceptics. I very much doubt that the debates relating to orality in other disciplines would be couched in the language that Evans applies to bible sceptics.
On the other hand, Evans has bypassed completely the scholarly enquiries that find evidence in the gospels that their authors used sources other than oral traditions. Is this because his faith will not allow him to give credence to any scholarly enquiry that seriously challenges that faith? Sin, bad attitudes, unreasonable assumptions, disdain for the abilities of those who knew his Saviour, has to be the reason for scepticism.
The devil is to blame. Not scholarship. Evans is a scholar. Other scholars have not studied enough like he has. Or they had Pharisaical legalistic attitudes to begin with.
Will look at his discussions of Funk, Robinson, Price and Ehrman next post.
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