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August 15, 2006

Dear Concerned Citizen,

by Dr. Benjamin Wiker
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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.

Responses to Busted!:

Mel Gibson profusely apologized for his DUI rant and told us that he said things that he didn't believe. Sadly for Mel, the Lord Jesus was clear: "Out of the heart the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45; cf. Matthew 15:18).The Romans used to say, "In vino est veritas" ("In wine there is truth"). The sad reality is Mel does believe what he said. When he got drunk, he lost the power of judgment to keep the truth about what he really believes from coming out. Though I never interpretted The Passion of the Christ as anti-semitic, I now believe that in his heart of hearts, Mel Gibson is. We all have "let things slip" that we really believed deep down and we have been ashamed of it. Mel Gibson is no different. - Rev. Jeff Voorhees

Responses to other tothesource articles:

I am actually writing in regards to a response to Supporting Marriage, not the article itself. The person writing, identified only as “T,” said that the Bible’s message was one of “spiritual development, of peace, and love.” He also quoted several verses out of context to support his beliefs. I think it is sad that most people think this is what the Bible is about. Clearly, such people have not considered all of Scripture as a whole, or looked beyond our typical “Sunday School” answers to what the Bible is really about. The Bible’s central message is not about spiritual development, peace, or love, though those elements certainly exist. I do not mean to imply that that they do not, or that they are not virtuous and to be strived for in the Christian life. However, they are not the focus of the bible’s intent. The Bible’s central message is simply this: redemption through grace. God, as the Creator, is separated from his creation due to man’s disobedience. As a result of this disobedience, “sin,” man deserves God’s wrath. God certainly does love us and doesn’t want to punish us, but He is also a righteous judge, and must punish sin. I am amazed at how many Christians do not recognize both of these attributes in God’s character. What they must realize is that this is the true reason Christ came, not to just give us good teachings on love and forgiveness, but to be the sacrificial lamb, bearing our sins as He willingly died on the cross. And now, as a result, of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, we can enjoy peace with God, we can experience His love as He guides us and forgives us as Christ intercedes for us. We can enjoy spiritual development as we daily deepen our walk with Christ, confessing and repenting of sin, fellowshipping with the saints in the church, witnessing to others by sharing our faith, and showing mercy to those in need. But we must never forget grace: unmerited favor. We didn’t deserve God’s mercy, but He loved us enough to save us even though we were undeserving. Romans 5:8-9 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him!” So redemption through grace is the central message of Scripture. More than that, the purpose of that redemption is meant to bring reconciliation with God… and ultimately to bring glory to Him. It’s not really about us at all. It’s about God and the glory of God in us… which according to Romans points back to Him again. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” - Romans 11:36, ESV. In close, spiritual development, peace, and love are all merely things that are made possible and that we enjoy as a result of God redeeming us through grace. We think of ourselves more highly than we ought when we see otherwise, considering man to be the central focus, when that position clearly belongs to God. - Damon Cinaglia Director of Assimilation, and Technology Glasgow Reformed Presbyterian Church

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We live complex lives. We strive to sort out priorities that sometimes conflict or seem incompatible. A moral framework is needed to help us understand the reality around us. Our Judeo-Christian heritage provides a framework to help us comprehend the choices we make and the conflicts that arise over them. It is not only the main source of our spiritual values, but also many of the secular values we depend on.

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Ben Wiker  Trans Benjamin Wiker
Benjamin Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), and Thomas Aquinas College (CA).

He is now a Lecturer in Theology and Science at Franciscan University of Steubenville (OH), and a full-time, free-lance writer. Dr. Wiker is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and a Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He writes regularly for a variety of journals.

Dr. Wiker just released a new book called Architects of the Culture of Death (Ignatius). His first book, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, was released in the spring of 2002 (InterVarsity Press). He has written another book on Intelligent Design for InterVarsity Press called A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (due out in Spring 2006).
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