Those who have read this blog for quite some time know that I spend a lot of time discussing specifics of the Christian worldview, not just a "mere Christianity." Going into the details of a worldview allows people to test worldviews against reality to see which one accurately describes the world in which we live. As discussed in other posts (here and here), it is important to discuss and investigate the details of a worldview to ensure that when we defend the truth of the Christian worldview, we are not defending incorrect doctrines that can easily be shown to go against reality (thus falsifying the Christian worldview in the skeptic's mind).
These internal debates are often heated among Christians. All sides of a debate bring their biblical, natural, philosophical, and historical evidences for their view and against the others. The amount of evidence to wade through can be daunting, and it frustrates many. I have noticed that frustration, however, is not just from the amount of evidence to examine, but the weight of evidence for one side or the other. Often many find themselves on the lighter end of evidence. Their evidence has been shown to be misinterpreted by them, incomplete in the details, compatible with the other views, falsified by new research, or even not applicable to the discussion at hand. This is extremely frustrating when the majority of the evidence for one side fails by one these. Unfortunately, I have heard the people with the undermined evidence make an appeal that often has more rhetorical power than intellectual honesty: "Stop reinterpreting the Bible, and stop compromising the Gospel." This is often followed with the question, "why would you want to believe the ideas of fallible man and not the truth of an infallible God," in order to ensure that the reader/hearer understands that if they reject this view (despite the compromised evidence) they are committing a most heinous sin, tantamount to apostasy and heresy.
Any time I hear this appeal, I cringe, not because of the implications, but because I know what evidential failures usually lead to such a claim in these internal discussions. However, I do not want to simply reject the claim (or the views that Christians use it to support) just because of where it came from- that would be committing the genetic fallacy. Rather I want to investigate the claims, themselves, to see if they may have merit or if they may be rejected apart from the lack of evidence for the views they are designed to salvage.
Reinterpreting the Bible?
As I discussed in my post "Are Nature and Scripture Compatible," there is a difference between Scripture and the interpretation of scripture. Scripture is what is "God-breathed" (2 Tim 3:16), not the interpretation of Scripture. Any belief or doctrine that requires an inference, is an interpretation and thus susceptible to being incorrect. Any belief or doctrine that is stated explicitly, such as Jesus' life, death, and bodily resurrection, is Scripture and infallible (assuming the doctrine of inerrancy of scripture, which most Christians in these debates grant). Most internal discussions center around inferences from Scripture, not the direct claims of Scripture.
If someone holds to a different interpretation, it is not because they are "reinterpreting" the Bible, it is because they come to a different inference from the Biblical data. It is the job of the person who's interpretation is being questioned to show how their view is still compatible with the data. So, making this accusation actually brings us right back around to the evidence. Which if the person making this claim was successful in demonstrating compatibility with the evidence, this accusation would likely not have come up in the first place.
However, because everyone's inference is an interpretation, the claim of reinterpreting may still be valid. Since inferences can be incorrect, so can interpretations. If further research indicates that one or more inferences are not valid (such as being falsified by one or more passages in Scripture- an implication of the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy), then reinterpretation becomes not just necessary, but preferable (if, of course, a person is committed to finding the truth rather than to a particular view). A first interpretation must exist before the claim of reinterpreting can be made. We can look to historical interpretations (such as geocentrism) or just our own historical interpretations of Scripture. If we find that our interpretation is wrong, then, yes, we will be reinterpreting. But if we are looking for the truth, that is not a bad thing, for it will bring us closer to accurately understanding who God is, what He has done, and His purposes for our lives, thus dramatically affecting our worship of Him (see last week's post) and our evangelism to unbelievers (see Is Theism Well-Defined Enough to Be Scientifically Testable?).
Compromising the Gospel?
The second rhetorical claim, when presented evidence is undermined, is that the other side(s) is guilty of "compromising" the Gospel. This is tied closely to the idea of reinterpreting Scripture, but with a different twist. The Gospel can still be true even if details recorded in Scripture are not historically, scientifically, or philosophically accurate (1 Cor 15: the Gospel is dependent upon Jesus' bodily resurrection, not the time table or mechanism of creation). So in the mind of the one making the claim, the other views need to be escalated to the level of heresy (denial of an essential doctrine of Christianity) to remove any lingering thoughts that the other view, though more supported by the evidence, may be correct.
However, this claim also comes back to the evidence. If someone is making the claim that another view compromises the Gospel, then it needs to be shown how it does so. The essential doctrine of Christianity that is compromised needs to be identified and shown how compromise is logically accomplished by accepting the alternative view(s). Not to mention that it may not even be agreed that the allegedly compromised doctrine is even essential to Christianity. Rather than simply making assertions for rhetorical points, the person who claims that the other view(s) compromises the Gospel needs to present a case for two claims: first that the supposedly compromised doctrine is essential to Christianity and second that it actually does compromise the doctrine. We are back to evidence. I go into this in much greater detail in my post "Zombies of Christianity."
Trusting Fallible Man Rather Than The Infallible God?
As mentioned in the introduction, this claim often accompanies the previous two to further obfuscate the undermined evidence, but in many cases it is claimed apart from the other two because its implications are powerful enough to stand alone. Why would anyone want to put their trust in someone who could make a mistake when we have the option to put our trust in Someone else who cannot make a mistake- that would be just stupid! Frankly, I agree with them, as would anyone else. But "the devil is in the details."
First, we have to agree that there exists someone who cannot make a mistake. This is where this really turns off many skeptics of Christianity. If they do not believe that God exists, then we are essentially asking them to trust in something that does not exist, but if it did exist, it would be unable to make a mistake, instead of trusting in something that is not always right but does exist. Apologetically speaking, it is not wise to implicitly grant that the evidence is against you then tell someone they have to believe your conclusion anyway- that is blind faith (see Is Faith Emotional or Logical? and Faith Vs. Apologetics).
Second, let us revisit the distinction between Scripture and an interpretation of Scripture. Unless the person making this claim (fallible man vs. infallible God) refuses to recognize the distinction between Scripture and an interpretation of Scripture, they must believe that they have direct, unquestionable, access to an infallible interpreter (I address the possibility that the Holy Spirit is the infallible interpreter here). If this person is not the infallible interpreter or does not have such access to an infallible interpreter, then their interpretation of Scripture is just as fallible as the other man's. Believing their interpretation is not the same as believing the infallible God; it is merely choosing one fallible man's interpretation over another fallible man's interpretation. This effectively puts both (or all) interpretations on even ground regarding fallibility. But that is not what the claimer wishes their readers/hearers to believe; they are asking their audience to accept one fallible man's interpretation that has already been shown to be wrong by the evidence even though there is an evidentially more robust option available.
We have to remember that "fallible" does not equal false. It simply means that it could be false. We do not go around saying that people should not trust the Pythagorean theorem because it was proposed by a fallible man. Likewise, we should not tell people that they should reject another's view because it comes from a fallible man. This is precisely why I wanted to make sure that I mentioned that I was being careful not to commit the genetic fallacy with this post: because that is precisely one of the fallacies committed by the claim I am critiquing. The source of the alternative view (fallible man) has nothing to do with its truth (although if it is true, then its source is God- ). Since man has been created in the Image of God, we can discover what is true, despite our fallibility. The source of the other view has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not it is true because we are created in the Image of God. If the Christian making this claim understands and does not dispute this doctrine (not an inference, mind you- Genesis 1, so denial would be to deny the truth of Scripture), then they must recognize the intellectual dishonesty of this claim. We must, again, come back to the evidence presented, and the move to make this claim implies recognition of the defeat of the claimer's evidence for their own view.
But what if the claimer is simply adding these claims to their overall case and do not believe their evidence has been undermined? This also is quite common. These claims are not exclusively the haven of those who know the evidence is against their view. It could be an honest mistake in an effort to build a stronger case for what they believe to be the correct view. However, these claims result in the genetic fallacy, red herrings, strawmen, and even implied ad hominem attacks. These tactics are the tools of someone who is trying to salvage a view when they are not committed to the truth, not the tools of a Christian who is trying to build the case for the truth of specific views. If the claimer truly believes that the weight of evidence is on their side, they need to avoid the temptation to put forth these claims about the other views. These add nothing to the case except for rhetorical flare that is often seen as manipulative and compromises the claimer's credibility (not good if the rest of their evidence is actually valid). If the weight of evidence is, in fact, on the side of the claimer, it would be wise for them to not bring these logically fallacious claims to the table no matter how attractive the rhetorical points may appear.
How to Address These Claims
This is a fairly harsh critique that needs to be presented with both love and respect of the person presenting them. I do not often find Christians to use these claims to be purposely trying to manipulate people. It is quite common for people to find that their actions are manipulative even though they do not mean them to be. It is no different for well-meaning Christians. It is important that we recognize this. Most Christians are honestly looking for the truth, but do not necessarily know where else to go when evidence for a particular view within Christianity has been undermined, yet they cannot reject Christianity as a whole because of the undeniable effects Christ has had in their lives (thank God for the inner witness of the Holy Spirit!). It is important that we recognize their desire to worship God in spirit and in truth and to see the lost enter the Kingdom. If we present the issues with making the claims discussed here on the assumed authentic desires of the Christian then defenses will go down, and the heart will be open to see the error of such claims, and they may even be open to honestly investigating and considering the alternative view.
How to Respond When Confronted
Simply: stop using the claims. If we have been using these claims and are confronted, yet we refuse to remove them from our arsenal, we are not only holding back our and others' relationship with God (if we are wrong), but we do great damage to our credibility. If we are right, and we believe that the weight of evidence supports our views, yet we still offer this slew of fallacious claims, we still hurt our credibility, and since we are a imitators of God (Eph 5:1), which the lost know we are, then we misrepresent God as illogical, dishonest, and demanding of blind faith when the evidence tells us otherwise. And further, this casts a dark shadow to others on our confidence in our evidence, for there is no reason to use these claims except to maintain a view that evidence does not support. If that is the case, then we need to question our own belief that we are truly committed to the truth and not committed to an idea instead (Matt 7:3-5).
All proposed interpretations of Scripture need to be examined on the merits of the evidence. The claims critiqued here are tools that result in the genetic fallacy, red herrings, strawmen, and even ad hominem attacks. When evidence is shown to be greatly lacking, we cannot "save face" by making claims about the other side's view that has no bearing on its truth value. For those who find themselves hearing or reading these claims, I urge you to, at least, ignore them and focus on the evidence. If the evidence for their interpretation has been undermined, it is time to recognize as much and begin looking for an alternative interpretation that does account for the evidence. By doing this, you grow in a correct understanding of God, His works, and His purposes for your life. You will be able to more worship Him in spirit and in truth. When you are discussing the Gospel with unbelievers, you also will not find yourself defending something that is false that may be used by the skeptic to discredit the Truth and push them further from Jesus Christ. These claims have dangerous consequences for our worship of God and our evangelism to the lost. Please do not find yourself distracted by claims that will dramatically limit your relationship with your Creator and your witness to those who need the relationship with their Creator.
If you find your view attacked by these claims and wish to address them, please be in prayer, as your success in addressing them will depend upon the Holy Spirit's preparation of the Christian's heart to accept correction from a called member of the Body of Christ (see here also). And if we ever do find ourselves confronted about our use of such claims against another view, we need to also be in prayer that God will either give us the strength to resist the temptation to use dishonest claims by either a reasoned renewal of confidence in our applicable evidence or a willingness to change our view based on the weight of the evidence.
Jonathan Baker (Ageofrocks.org) demonstrates the problem of pitting science against the Bible in his recent post "Man's Fallible Opinion vs. God's Perfect Word: Who Wins?"
For continued study check out these links:
Internal Debates and Apologetics
3 Reasons to Question What You Believe
Is Theism Well-Defined Enough to Be Scientifically Testable?
Are Nature and Scripture Compatible
Reasons In And Out Of A Worldview
Zombies of Christianity
Is Faith Emotional or Logical?
Faith Vs. Apologetics
The Holy Spirit, Interpretation, and Evidence
The Inner Witness of The Holy Spirit
Should Christians Accept Secular Critique?