Faith hermeneutics

Some Christians handle Scripture as if figuring out its meaning is all that matters. They expound it, but don’t apply much of it today. Some other Christians lay hold of and claim Scripture, but they don’t pay attention to context and so misunderstand it. Faith is only as good as its object, so if we misunderstand Scripture we may believe what it’s not saying.

Some Christians value both, but are more gifted in understanding or in faith. We can learn from both sorts of Christians. So:

(1) Let’s do our homework, so we understand God’s Word. (Read Scripture in context, take into account background, genre, etc.)

and:

(2) Let’s believe God’s Word, embracing its truth for our lives and living that faith.

(This was the subject of my book, Spirit Hermeneutics, if anyone wants this argument in a few hundred pages of greater detail!)

Are Christian Scholars Apologists?

An apologia, or apology in the traditional sense, is a defense of something. Any scholar who proposes and defends a thesis (which is how most dissertations are written) does an apology in this sense. Monographs and articles typically advance and defend theses. (One reason that I enjoy writing commentaries is that they are less controversial!) So scholars are “apologists” in this general sense all the time.

Many today, however, limit the use of the terms “apologist” and “apologetics” to the traditional Christian approach of defending the faith. Thus, they apply it more narrowly to a defense of Christian faith or Christian premises. In this way, if Richard Dawkins attacks belief in God and implies that there is no such thing as a smart Christian, Christians who respond to him are called apologists. Both they and Dawkins defend a thesis, but the title “apologist” is given to them rather than to Richard Dawkins.

So long as people are using the title in the traditional Christian sense, this narrower designation is understandable. Christians who answer Dawkins are apologists for Christianity, and Dawkins is self-evidently not one. Christians who argue that Jesus is an actual historical figure are apologists in this sense, and Richard Carrier is not. Those who argue for the historical reliability of the first Gospels are apologists for that premise; those who treat those Gospels as novels or mythography are not.

And yet: one could argue for the existence of God, or for Jesus as an actual historical figure, or for the historical reliability of the Gospels, without being a Christian apologist or even a Christian. One would still be defending a thesis, as would someone denying any of these claims.

 

The major problem is that some use the titles “apologist” and “apologetics” as terms of derision with which to dismiss the work of those with whom they disagree. They mean, “Oh, of course they would say that. They’re defending their Christian belief.”

For the dismissal to work, one must take for granted, first of all, that defending Christian belief is illegitimate. What if the defender actually believes that what they are defending is true? And what if they happen to be correct? How can you know that they are incorrect if you have never looked at the evidence that they present? If you disagree a priori, you should be gracious enough to admit that the reason you disagree is because you disagree with their belief, rather than challenging their credibility as a scholar.

Some also use this dismissal to cover not merely professional apologists, but any scholar who sometimes argues for a thesis consistent with historic Christian premises. Thus if the senior scholar Craig Evans shows how archaeology comports with some biblical claim, or if I find external corroboration for some features in Acts, or if Richard Bauckham revives the possibility of a significant measure of originally eyewitness testimony behind the Gospels, some writers on the internet dismiss these claims (and often our entirely scholarly output) as “apologetic.” If someone argues the opposite on any of these points, the person is considered “objective.”

These charges are leveled regardless of the amount of argumentation or documentation marshalled. They are leveled regardless of where the work is published. If someone’s position is Christian, no amount of research can surmount the suspicion that it is biased—never mind that the antiapologist who levels such a charge does not apply the same suspicion to someone arguing against a Christian position. The dismisser does not take into account the possibility that we argue for these views, and genuinely hold them, because we believe that the evidence points to these positions. The average dismisser appears not to have even read our work; they circulate such reports secondhand based on how some others have used our work.

When used in this manner, the labels “apologist” and “apologetics” function like an ad hominem argument, like any other kind of name calling/deviance labeling. This is essentially a lazy way to dismiss the work of another person without having to engage it.

Of course, some publications merit dismissal, but normally not before perusing them to see if they contain worthy arguments! Also, scholars are not obligated to engage popular-level arguments (blog posts and the like; so why am I doing so? Notice that I am doing so only in a blog post …). In today’s world, scholarship would grind to a halt if scholars had to respond to everything that anyone says. Moreover, even in scholarly work itself, it is no longer possible (at least in most areas of New Testament) for scholars to engage every scholarly work; there are simply too many to keep up with. But lack of engagement is not the same as dismissal—unless the scholars in question go silent specifically on every work that disagrees with them.

Most scholars are sometimes “apologists” in the most general sense of defending a thesis. Many scholars exploring the historical origins of Christianity will sometimes pronounce in favor of something historical (the vast majority at least agree on basic matters, such as Jesus being a historical figure, being Jewish, being Galilean, etc.) Some scholars specialize in demonstrating particular historical claims, and these may coincide with Christian beliefs (which the scholars may hold at times because they find such claims persuasive). So nonapologists should not dismiss all “apologists” even in the narrower sense unless they start with a premise that what the apologist is arguing must be wrong.

Some apologists do argue a thesis or one side of an argument without considering alternatives. That is the sort of approach that good scholars warn our doctoral students against: you may propose a thesis for your dissertation topic, but be ready to adapt it as your research shows its weaknesses or even voids it. But I know some professional apologists who do adjust their views as they discover new information—what any scholar, indeed, any honest person, must be ready to do.

Only when scholars do not genuinely believe what they are arguing for (normally difficult to discern, though some novel proposals published in quest of tenure these days seem suspect) or when they argue poorly, use misinformation, or are exceptionally careless do their works warrant dismissal.

So let’s be honest. Most scholars, and most people in generally, defend viewpoints at times. Ideally, we should do so open-mindedly and always welcome new information that modifies our positions. But dismissing those who argue for a position simply because that position is a Christian one are a priori dismissing Christian belief. That may work in a blog post, but in honest intellectual inquiry they will have to do better than a priori dismissals.

Differences in the Gospels, part 3

There are, as noted in parts 1 and 2, differences among the Gospels. So, picking up where we left off last time:

Second and third examples:

In Luke 7:3-6, after a significant sermon by Jesus, local Judean elders and the centurion’s friends intercede for and deliver messages for him; he does not come directly to Jesus. In Matt 8:5-7, shortly after Jesus’s parallel sermon, the centurion comes directly to Jesus, with no intermediaries.

Likewise, Matt 9:18 omits messengers in Mark 5; whereas in Mark messengers inform Jairus of his daughter’s death after he has asked Jesus to heal her (Mark 5:23, 35), in Matthew this synagogue official simply announces his daughter’s death to Jesus directly.

These examples fit not only ancient biographic conventions, but ordinary discourse. When we recount events to someone who may not want to hear every detail, we streamline a story down to the most essential points that we want to convey. I think that’s what Matthew’s doing here. If you disagree, that’s fine; you may in fact have better explanations. I have no personal stake in any particular way of explaining the differences. In some cases we are just guessing; in others, as in these second and third examples, a pattern appears to suggest one sort of explanation as more probable than another.

But whatever explanation you might prefer, please don’t try to deny what’s in the text, in the name of honoring it. That’s imposing your beliefs on the Bible, rather than submitting to what is actually there. That is not respectful to the biblical text. And certainly don’t deny what’s in the text in front of you while claiming that you are upholding biblical authority! Someone who denies what is in front of them in the text is not upholding biblical authority; they are denying it.

So here is my advice to those who, in the name of defending Scripture, don’t want to acknowledge differences. (Not that I meet many people like that; maybe I am preaching here to what I was right after my conversion.)

If they don’t see differences, it’s fairly obvious that they have never worked their way through a synopsis of the Gospels. Maybe it’s time that instead of hammering others with their theological or philosophical assumptions, they read the actual biblical text closely.

And here is my advice to those who, for the sake of attacking Scripture, see such differences as significant contradictions. (Not that those who do so normally consult me for advice.)

Look: if Matthew and Luke made changes in Mark, that means that they knew what Mark said and made the changes anyway. You yourself probably recognize that their audiences had probably already heard Mark. They obviously did not see a problem with this. Simply repeating their sources verbatim was not what they were trying to do. (In fact, most ancient historians paraphrased and adapted the wording of their sources more than the Gospel writers do in cases like this.) So chill out and quit making issues out of things that you know very well that your fellow scholars who are Christians do not find a problem with—especially since the Gospel writers and other writers of their milieu didn’t see a problem with it. What you accuse them of failing to do is not what they claimed to be doing.

For those of us who respect Scripture, let’s respect it enough to embrace it the way God gave it to us. He did not give Christians a Qur’an, dictated by a single prophet. He did not give us oracular utterances dictated by the Delphic priestess and put into nice Greek by Apollo’s priests. He didn’t even limit us to a single Gospel so that new converts would immediately understand that Jesus got crucified just once. He gave it to us the way that he gave it to us, and it’s our job to welcome it and then, by his grace, do our best to figure it out.