Witness the following nightmare. Mom and Dad, you scrimp and save for years to give your kids a good college education. You also invest even more time nurturing the faith of your children. With tears of pride (and perhaps, a second mortgage on your house), you happily send your first child off to school. But after the first year, that child’s faith is shattered, and the college sends you a bill, a BIG bill.
Not an uncommon scenario. In fact, it’s becoming more and more common. What happened to your child? Drugs? Promiscuity? Atheist Pride Rallies?
No. He or she just took a religion class. Perhaps, the Introduction to the New Testament class you cheerfully suggested.
Sound even more far-fetched now? How could someone lose faith through studying the New Testament?
Very easily, depending upon with whom and how it is studied.
Let’s take an example, a well-known example since in this case the “whom” is Bart Ehrman, New York Times best-selling author of Misquoting Jesus and James A. Gray Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Now we stress that we are not picking on Dr. Ehrman, because there are hundreds of professors just like him teaching in Religious Studies and Theology Departments all over America. Ehrman is just more visible than most, hence a good case for the paradigm.
Ehrman is, by his own admission, a happy agnostic. “An atheist is someone who absolutely says, there is no God,” explains Ehrman in a recent article (“The Happy Agnostic”) in the UNC alumni magazine. “The agnostic says, I don’t know if there’s a God or not. Lately, I’ve been calling myself a happy agnostic. For me, life is good. If everybody had my life, there’d be no problem with suffering. I make a lot of money, I have a fantastic job, I’ve got a great wife, my kids are fantastic, life’s great! I’m happy, but I don’t know if God exists or not. And if God does exist, I don’t think the God I used to believe in exists.”
Whether he was always this happy, he was not always an agnostic. When he was fifteen years old he had (in his own words) “a bona fide born-again experience.” Soon enough, he was off to the Moody Bible Institute, then Wheaton College, and finally Princeton Theological Seminary.
He went into Moody a born-again Christian, and came out of Princeton Theological Seminary an agnostic. Not through neglecting the study of the New Testament, but through his ongoing, and ever more intense study of the New Testament. And that brings us from the “whom” to the “how.”
Ehrman lost his faith, not because of the New Testament itself, but how he studied it—by the most advanced methods in the academic field of scriptural scholarship. Or, the historical-critical method, for short.
As Wilfred Cantwell Smith noted over thirty years ago, biblical studies programs “are on the whole calculated to turn a fundamentalist into a liberal.” By that, Smith meant that biblical studies programs, based upon the modern historical-critical method, seem to be intrinsically designed to remove fervent Evangelical faith and replace it with just the kind of cool-headed agnosticism Ehrman so publicly displays.
And teaches. Ehrman teaches enormous undergraduate classes at UNC, lecturing to 350 impressionable undergraduates in his Introduction to New Testament Literature class. If you sent your son or daughter to UNC, Chapel Hill, and pushed them into taking an introductory course on the New Testament, they would be sitting right there.
But again, we aren’t picking on UNC or Bart Ehrman. Both he and UNC are one among many. And the reason is, again, not the “madness” of Bart Ehrman—who is quite sane, very intelligent, and most charming—but the method, the historical-critical method itself. Whatever it is, and whatever its merits, this approach to the study of Scripture acts like an acid poured on the Bible that quickly eats away its authority.
What is the historical-critical method? We might do better to ask first of all, where did it come from? If we trace its pedigree, we find ourselves, not among the faithful, but among those who were deeply antagonistic to the faith. Pick up nearly any History of Biblical Scholarship, and you’ll find that the “fathers” most often mentioned to be Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, John Toland, Charles Blount, and Matthew Tindal: an atheist, two pantheists, and two deists.
A bit more suspicious now? In each, we find a pronounced antagonism to Christianity. But given that they lived in predominantly Christian societies during the latter half of the 17th and early 18th centuries, they had to keep their antagonism muted, or better, disguised. But that does not mean that they were passive, otherwise they wouldn’t be counted as collective fathers of modern historical-critical scholarship. Indeed, they were quite active, and part of their activity was the attack on scripture through a new approach to scripture.
And that approach, gathering steam and sophistication over the following three centuries, is the same one that is taught to professors-to-be in graduate school, and hence, to impressionable undergraduates in turn.
And that is why you just may want to be a little more careful about where you send your son or daughter, and what courses they take.
All this is not to suggest that a kind of fundamentalist retreat is called for. In fact, quite the opposite is needed. To neutralize the acids of the historical-critical method, a more sophisticated historical and critical method is needed, one that takes account of the legitimate wheat of the method, but is wise enough to separate the chaff.
In the next email in this series, we’ll start an examination of the historical-critical method itself.