Thursday, 29 March 2007

The NT as an historical document

I noticed that in Derren Brown's video, Instant Conversion, he starts by saying (and I paraphrase here), "I used to be a happy, clappy Christian until, in my twenties, I realised that my beliefs were just as circular as the New Age claptrap I argued against. Then I read the New Testament as an historical document, and it cured me permanently of any vestiges of religion."

I encourage you to check the video to make sure my paraphrase doesn't misrepresent Brown's position.

Now, this position is clearly opposed to my own (a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, including the NT, see Why I believe in Biblical inerrancy. The funny thing is, my own reading of the NT as an historical document merely strengthens my belief in the tenets of Christianity.

How can two people read the same document and come to such diametrically opposed views? Am I stupid? Is Brown stupid? Are we both stupid? (I'm discounting the possibility that one or both of us is crazy or lying.) Or, most likely of all, did we come to the same document with radically different underlying assumptions?

The NT is pretty solid history, really. It gets so many geographical, political, and cultural details dead-on that it's very hard to dismiss it as a fabrication. Except for one thing. It contains some extraordinary claims about some of the things Jesus the Christ and his followers did. I'm talking about miracles.

Now, I don't know this for sure, but given the whole tone of Instant Conversion, it seems likely that Brown thinks that miracles (i.e. the supernatural intervention into the normal course of nature) are practically an impossibility. I, on the other hand, think that miracles are a natural result of the existence of a god like the Christian God (in other words, if the Christian God existed, then the type of miracles described in the NT would not be impossible).

But how does the NT treat miracles? Does it differentiate between miracles and normal events, or does it treat miracles as part of the everyday experience. If it did the latter, it would clearly not be grounded in our reality, where miracles are (even for Pentecostal, "happy clappy" Christians), not an everyday reality. It could, in fact, be fairly described as fantasy.

But the NT doesn't treat miracles that way. It treats them as "signs" and "wonders" and evidence of the supernatural creator god's intervention into the normal, everyday world. This is, of course, exactly what we would expect, were the NT's notion of God actually true. Not only that, but the NT records the miracles in a very matter-of-fact way -- now days we would probably say it records them "scientifically". The NT even differentiates between natural diseases that were healed and symptoms caused by demonic possession that were removed by exorcism. The NT writers show a very clear grasp of reality (much clearer than many writers in the last five or more centuries). It's just that their reality includes both nature and supernature.

So, reading the NT as an historical document, we're left with a quandary. Does its sober, historical documentation of these unusual miracles and their supernatural causes render it unhistorical?

We can only say that it does if we have other reasons for believing that there is no such thing as the supernatural.

Do we have other reasons? Valid ones, I mean? Well, no, we don't. All we have are biases.

Do we have valid reasons for believing that there really was something supernatural going on, as recorded by the NT? Well yes, we do.

Put very briefly, there is no plausible alternative explanation for the behavior of the disciples, post-resurrection, and for the formation of the undeniably real Christian church, or for the writing of the undeniably early gospels and epistles. The historical evidence for something extraordinary happening at the beginning of the first millennium AD, is simply too strong, and I have yet to see any other valid explanations for it other than that the NT's record is, in fact, historical -- miracles, supernatural events, and all.

I guess Brown has some warm, fuzzy explanation that has enough detail to stop his mind worrying at the loose ends too much. I certainly know many people in that situation. But that's not good enough for those of us who really care about the truth. We are forced, by the weight of evidence, to believe, no matter how much we may not want to.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Why I believe in Biblical Inerrancy

As a Christian my belief in the concept of Biblical Inerrancy is foundational to my worldview, or belief system. Why? Because the crux of Christianity is the claim of the historical death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus. If the Bible's account of this is wrong, my beliefs are not merely foolish, but destructive (mostly self-destructive, though). If Christ wasn't God, then his death is merely the death of a human that can have no substantive impact on me. But Christ based his claims to Godhood on prophecies from the Old Testament. If either those prophecies, or the accounts of Christ's claims to them are in error, then there's no reason to believe the Jesus was the son of God. As a result the entire Old Testament and the gospels need to be taken as inspired by God. Since the remainder of the New Testament also makes claims to be "God-breathed", and it was written by associates of the Gospel writers (or the writers themselves), we need to take this as a unit as well.

Throw any part of the Bible out and, at this point in history, we may as well throw the rest out.

Fortunately, I have good reason to believe that the Bible is, indeed, inerrant.

First, what do I mean by Biblical Innerancy? It's pretty simple: the original manuscripts (the autographs) were directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, and thus contained no error; and (this addendum is less common, but pretty important) the scriptures have been copied and preserved so well that the current manuscript(s) are substantially correct, or, in other words, they are practicably inerrant (so that, so long as I compare scripture with scripture, interpret it according to the way it was written, and don't rely on any single, minor, debatable details, I can be sure that I'm dealing with absolute truth).

As intimated above, inerrancy doesn't mean that all scripture is simple history, or that it doesn't contain metaphor (intended to be read as metaphor), etc. Thus, the Bible needs to be read like any other book, namely with your brain engaged.

So, with that understanding, and very briefly, why do I believe the Bible is inerrant?

1. The evidence supports the Bible (on every level)

While this is not the first step on the road for most people, it is nevertheless an undergirding reality. The Bible lays claim to recording history and prophecies as well as giving moral and legal direction and poetic inspiration. If it gets its history wrong, how trustworthy can its moral precepts be?

And the Bible's history is incredibly reliable. Time after time people have dismissed it because it disagreed with conventional ideas of history, but after further investigation the Bible has invariably been confirmed. Perhaps the most famous case is that of the existence of the nation of Hittites. There are many other cases, though. Books like Evidence that Demands a Verdict have plenty of resources in this area.

Even the miraculous accounts in Scripture are perfectly trustworthy unless you have good reason to doubt them (and I have yet to hear a good reason, since the presupposition that God doesn't exist is a very poor reason). Books like The Case for Christ are quite useful resources in this area (and there are many, many more).

Furthermore, fulfilled prophecy is powerful evidence of the divine inspiration of scripture (see the explanation of the Tyre prophecies in books like Evidence.)

Finally, science supports, rather than destroys, the Bible's accounts (so long as "science" is not built of antitheistic assumptions, which is an arbitrary presupposition that is clearly incompatible with scripture).

2. The canon was carefully developed

Many modern people have the impression that the Bible was just thrown together out of whatever was available at the time. But, if further confirmation was even needed, the discoveries at Nag Hamadi (of lots of Gnostic scriptures) and the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown that there were many, many materials that were rejected from the canon.

In fact, the canon was the result of careful, strictly applied criterion. Nowdays we would probably apply the term "scientific" to the way that the canon was developed. The Jewish canon was developed several hundred years before Christ (the Greek version has some extra material, which the Roman Catholic church kept, but Protestants have conservatively rejected). It was based on historical reliability, assured authorship, consistency of revelation, and evidence of divine inspiration (such as fulfilled prophecy). The New Testament canon was developed in a very similar fashion, with assured authorship being a particularly important criteria.

Since the New Testament canon was developed so close to the origins of Christianity (the bulk of the New Testament was defined by the middle of the first century, less than a hundred years after it was written) it can be considered very trustworthy for obvious reasons.

The Old Testament canon is trustworthy because of the process of transmission and the highly structured system of preserving it, which leads into the next reason.

3. The transmission of the scriptures is trustworthy

Obviously, for Christianity to be workable in the modern world, and for the Bible to have any meaning to Christians in the modern world, the transmission of scriptures from the autographs to the translations we now use has to have been as trustworthy as possible.

And, indeed, it has been. The classic illustration is the comparison of the almost-complete text of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the thousand-year-younger Masoretic text of the same book. This comparison reveals a 95% correspondence, with the 5% of difference being clear changes in spelling or style, or minor transcription mistakes, none of which had any difference on the doctrinal content (ie. the content that we can apply to our everyday life). This reliability of transmission for a complex text like Isaiah, across a thousand year span is quite extraordinary, and attests to the reliability of the Masoretic Text (which the Old Testament is translated from). (See as a good reference. Evidence that Demands a verdict has a good section comparing the reliability of the scriptures to other works of antiquity.) The Old Testament manages this extraordinary feat through the incredibly rigorous copying techniques of the Jewish scribes (including the Masoretes).

The New Testament gains its reliability from a different mechanism, that of having manuscripts (old copies) very close to the autographs (the original writings). The benefit of having manuscripts close (in time) to the autographs is very easy to understand: there hasn't been much time, or many copies, in which to introduce errors. In addition the NT benefits from a massive preponderance of manuscripts (ie. more copies). More copies means more independent strands of evidence. While these copies vary (and this is evident in modern Bibles, which have the footnote, "Some manuscripts say..." in various places), they are almost entirely identical. The result is the same as for the Old Testament.

For a wonderful resource on this and the formation of the canon, see The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible, a very readable and reliable resource. Evidence that Demands a Verdict also has a good summary of various statistics and facts about this area.

4. The Bible is internally coherent

The fact that the Bible is internally coherent would not be impressive if it had been written by a small group of people sharing the same culture and position in life, or if it had been extensively edited by such a group or person. However, neither of these things are true.

Quite the contrary, the Bible was written across a thousand years, in multiple cultures, continents, and social strata. It was not edited (Higher Criticism invested well over a century trying to demonstrate this, but failed miserably).

The only explanation for the coherence is a common understanding of the world. Given the sophistication of that understanding, and the different expressions of it from the various sources, it is hard to ascribe that understanding to the individual authors, which tends to point to a greater intelligence behind them.

There are many resources that elaborate on this theme.

5. The Bible makes claims to its own divine source

2 Timothy 3:16-17 makes the claim that "all scripture is God-breathed", while 2 Peter 1:20-21 explains the divine origin of prophecy in Scripture.

Both of these sources (2 Timothy and 2 Peter) were (and are) considered to have been written by the two major leaders of the early church (Paul and Peter), and so carry considerable weight, and represent the view of the early church.

Furthermore, the way that Jesus himself used the Old Testament scriptures indicates that he considered them absolutely reliable. Since Jesus claimed to be God, his perspective towards scripture can be considered the divine view.

6. The evidence doesn't support any other explanation that I'm aware of

Finally, the evidence I see around me fails to support any other view other than the one described briefly above.

The evidence for a young earth is visible everywhere I've been, the evidence for a designer is visible every time I open my eyes, the evidence for the fall is visible every time I talk to my child or friends (or think about myself), and so on.

Furthermore, all the explanations I've heard and read have failed hopelessly at very fundamental levels. (Many can be reduced to suicidal arguments -- ie. positions that destroy their own credibility. Such as the statement that "All statements are false.")


Now, that's just a brief summary of my reasons for believing this. I hope it's given a taste. I'm far from alone in this position, so it is not a radical position by any stretch of the imagination. However, it is a position that is often mischaracterised as unreasonable or ignorant by those who loathe its implications, so I just wanted to have this quick justification for these foundations before I go on to talk about anything else.


For a much more formal and capable defence of the Rationality of Belief in Inerrancy, see J. P. Moreland's excellent paper of that title.