Inspecting "The Problem with Theistic Evolution"

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The following is a response to an article posted on Crossway, with the relevant sections quoted here for easier reference.

Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique is a book from Crossway publishing. Recently there has been a marketing campaign to promote the book including a video that has received relative viral success among Creationists. It’s important to note that the entire premise of the book is to rebuke the rising acceptance of what is known as “Theistic Evolution”. It is directed at other Christians who are increasingly coming to trust science and reject a literal interpretation of Genesis. We have addressed the disagreements among Christians and all other faiths in our question post titled “How were humans created?”. Here we will inspect the information presented in the promotional video called "The Problem with Theistic Evolution". The full book is now available for purchase.

Argument #1: There is an appearance of design.

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“No one could pick up an iPhone or a smartphone of any kind and think that it was an accident.” -Dr. Douglas Axe

Dr. Axe goes on to explain that biological organisms such as worms and fireflies, despite being relatively simple organisms, are actually vastly more complex than a device like an iPhone. The inferred conclusion is that since creatures like worms, fireflies, and humans are more complex than things that humans have designed, then those creatures must also have been designed.

The difficulty with this argument is that it relies almost entirely on intuition rather than evidence. It makes intuitive sense that something more complex than an iPhone must have been designed, but reality is not always intuitive. How do we know that biological organisms must be designed? The premise must be demonstrated before the conclusion can be accepted.

The argument also suggests that we can determine an iPhone was designed just by looking at it. But how do we do that? We actually don’t know that just by looking at it. We know that an iPhone was designed because we have direct evidence that it has been. We can go to the factory to see it being made. We can ask the engineers how it works. We don’t determine that an iPhone was designed using pure logic. We determine it was designed by appealing to evidence. Even if we found an iPhone in a cave we would know it was designed and not naturally occuring because we have personally witnessed other iPhones before that we know have been designed. Experiential evidence is still evidence.

Suppose we came across an object in a cave that we had never seen before. We have no experiential evidence to appeal to in order to determine if it had been designed. Now we must appeal to logic to make an assumption about whether or not it had been designed. Similar to the firefly example, we could compare this new object to another object that we know is designed, like an iPhone, to determine its relative complexity. We should also compare this new object to other things that we know have not been designed. However, Creationists commonly believe that not only are all organisms designed, but the entire universe itself is designed. How can we use comparative complexity if we acknowledge that literally everything is designed? We can only make inferences about whether an object is designed by acknowledging that there are indeed some objects that are entirely naturalistic for comparison. Dr. Axe suggests that any object or organism more complex than an iPhone can be reasonably assumed to have been designed, but according to Creationists, so can every object or organism that is less complex than an iPhone.

As a final note concerning the appearance of design, we must recognize that any individual organism does indeed come into existence through the naturalistic processes of reproduction. A single firefly is not created, it is hatched from an egg. Even if we assumed that organisms could be designed, we would have to admit that it would only be the process that has been designed since individual organisms can obviously be “created” without a designer’s hand. And this actually lends more credence to the Theistic Evolution proponents who would freely admit that it was the process of reproduction, being an integral function of evolution, that was designed and resulted in the proliferation of organisms like fireflies.

Argument #2: Evolution is scientifically controversial.

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“Evolutionary theorists are acknowledging that the main, standard, textbook theory of evolution known as Neo-Darwinism is in serious trouble.” -Dr. Stephen C. Meyer

This is a common accusation levied against the scientific community. Creationists will often cite examples of studies from mainstream scientists that they claim throw doubt onto the entirety of Darwin’s theory. But exactly which studies and authors are they appealing to with these claims? This is where it’s very important to do some deep digging. Since this video does not cite any specific examples we have to go to another article that makes very similar claims. In September of 2017 an article titled “Evolutionary scientist admits theory’s major flaws” was posted to the site World.Wng.Org. The article goes on to make some very specific claims.

“Gerd Müller, a highly regarded Austrian evolutionary theorist, recently gave a presentation, published in Interface Focus, in which he admitted Charlies [sic] Darwin’s theory largely avoids explaining how life originated and how complexity developed.”

That is a very bold accusation and one that we can easily inspect by going straight to the source. By reading Gerd Müller’s original article we can see what he says in his own words. This is from the last paragraph of the "Consequences" section:

"This is an exciting period in evolutionary biology. The principal Darwinian research tradition is upheld, but the specifics of evolutionary theory structure are undergoing ferment, including the revision of some of its traditional elements and the incorporation of new elements. Instead of privileging selected mechanisms such as random variation, genetic control and natural selection, the multitude of factors that dynamically interact in the evolutionary process will be better expounded by a pluralistic theory framework."

The bolded line is most important here. Müller is essentially saying that everything we have ever studied about biology continues to confirm that evolution explains the diversity of life on Earth, but it is much more complicated than even Darwin likely ever imagined. We still have much to learn about how evolution happens, but we still know that it does happen. The author is arguing that we should be working harder to improve our education and help explain new discoveries about evolutionary mechanisms that we didn't understand 80 years ago. It is clear when reading Müller’s original article that he is trying to convince the biology community to update their models of evolution to include new factors which he contends have been sufficiently proven in addition to the already known factors. This is a much different picture than the one painted by the World article and it’s easy to assume that these are the exact same kinds of misrepresented positions that Stephen Meyer references when he says in the video that “Neo-Darwinism is in serious trouble.”

The fact is that there is virtually no controversy among scientists as to the acceptance of the theory of evolution. A poll conducted in 2009 showed that 97% of scientists (including those outside the field of biology) accept that “humans and other living things have evolved over time”. The same poll showed that only 2% of scientists believed that humans have existed in their current form since the beginning of time.

Argument #3: Evolution requires circular reasoning.

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“To get the first cell you need DNA and you also need RNA and you need protein. You need DNA to make RNA to make protein, but you also need protein to make DNA. Coming up with that out of a process of random mutation and natural selection is just not possible.” -Dr. Ann K. Gauger

It’s important to remember that the entire point of this video is to promote a book that is supposed to present challenges to Theistic Evolution. However, Dr. Gauger is here arguing against something called abiogenesis. Abiogenesis is the term for how inorganic material may have transitioned to result in the first forms of organic life. This is a separate field of study from evolution. Evolution only explains the diversity of life on Earth and it is not concerned with how life began. The irony here is that some Theistic Evolution believers would actually agree with Gauger. Many Theistic Evolution supporters say that the first forms of life were indeed impossible without the divine intervention of God. God kickstarted life and then evolution took over from there, though perhaps he provided some guidance upon the way. So Guager’s point here doesn’t seem to be much of a direct argument against Theistic Evolution, but rather an argument against Naturalistic Abiogenesis.

Though, we must go a step further and actually investigate her original claim. Is Naturalistic Abiogenesis truly impossible? That does not seem to be the consensus of scientists. As it turns out, there have been numerous laboratory experiments that have confirmed the early proteins and amino acids necessary for the origins of life could have formed naturally in the conditions of the early Earth.

The poll referenced earlier concerning the acceptance of evolution among scientists also had a question pertaining to naturalistic abiogenesis and evolution. When asked if humans and other living things evolved over time due to natural processes, 87% of scientists agreed. Those scientists must either accept that naturalistic abiogenesis is possible or that God may have kickstarted life which was then followed by naturalistic evolution. Apparently Dr. Gauger’s argument has not dissuaded them of their position, probably because the evidence they’ve seen related to observable laboratory experiments does not support her conclusions.

Argument #4: Science assumes naturalistic explanations.

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“Methodological Naturalism is a convention that says that we must formulate theories about the world as if it were true that nature acting on its own can produce everything that we see.” - Dr. Stephen C. Meyer

Dr. Meyer is fairly accurate in his definition of Methodological Naturalism; however, all the various contributors to this video are making a mistake by conflating the philosophical concept of Methodological Naturalism with the objectives of science. We use science as a process to understand the universe we live in and learn how it functions. Science attempts to make conclusions based on observational evidence and testable experiments. Meyer and others are making an argument that science should include theistic explanations in their conclusions about reality (specifically in concern to our origins), but they do not provide any suggestions for how science could actually test or observe these theistic explanations. They want science to do something it is literally incapable of doing. If God’s hand in creation is undetectable through scientific observation and testing then it is impossible for science to conclude that God was responsible for creation. That does not mean that God was not responsible, only that science cannot explore that possibility. Science can only interact with the natural world, and any supernatural or philosophical explanations are outside its bounds. Science does not assume naturalistic explanations, but naturalistic explanations are the only ones it is capable of finding.

Theistic Evolution believers accept the limitations of science, but they also accept the conclusions of scientists with respect to the evidence for evolution. This does not impact their philosophical position that undetectable, supernatural causes can still exist outside the realm of scientific inquiry. Theistic Evolution supporters are not Methodological Naturalists.

Conclusion

It is difficult to see how the book from Crossway will continue to critique the concept of Theistic Evolution when the four main arguments in their promotional materials are either unfounded or misleading. In fact, we’ve seen here how some of their arguments could actually be used to support the idea of Theistic Evolution. In the future we may do a more in depth review of the book itself.

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Top 10 Modern Science Books That Question Biblical Teachings

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Science has historically been positioned, or at least perceived, as an opponent of religion. Though, as time moves on, many scientific discoveries that were once considered heretical have now been embraced by the church as an accepted part of their theology. Many of these discoveries were first put forth in dense academic tomes that were difficult for the average person to comprehend, but in modern times science has been popularized and made more consumable. These are some of the most popular science books of the modern day that are still considered controversial by more conservative religions.

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10. Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne

Evolution vs Creation is one of the longest running conflicts between science and religion. Jerry Coyne's relatively recent book is directed at skeptics of the theory of evolution. It is a very light and easy to read introduction to evolution and outlines exactly why it is accepted as true in the scientific community (and increasingly in the general population).

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9. Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Neil Shubin presents some very interesting details about evolution in the context of your relationship to your common ancestors in his book, Your Inner Fish. As the title might suggest, you are introduced to various features of human biology that can be traced back directly to fish, reptiles, and ape ancestors. The book's central thesis is that Creationism simply cannot explain many human biological features, whereas evolution can.

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8. The Greatest Show On Earth by Richard Dawkins

This list would not be complete without a book from one of the foremost critics of religion, Richard Dawkins. Dawkins scientific background is in biology and he has made it his life's work to educate the public about the wonders of evolution. This is one of Dawkins' more recent publications and it serves as a deeper dive into the mechanisms of evolution.

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7. Cosmos by Carl Sagan

Published as a supplementary book to the educational television series of the same name, Cosmos presents a wonder-filled overview of the universe and our place in it. It is a timeless piece that inspired a generation to take up careers in science and technology. Sagan's passion for the universe is on full display as he explains how our planet is an ancient cosmic accident, much to the dismay of religious fundamentalists who believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

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6. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins' extensive career in biology and science communication deserves a second mention on this list. The Selfish Gene is one of his first publications and it still holds up to this day. Dawkins focuses his efforts here on explaining the intricacies of DNA as opposed to how previous works by other authors on evolution focused more on the organisms or species more generally.

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5. The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

Hawking has said, "One can't prove that God doesn't exist, but science makes God unnecessary." Throughout this book Hawking and Mlodinow explain how the fundamentals of physics alone can explain the origins of the universe. With subject matter than can be difficult to understand without a PhD, these iconic authors somehow make it infinitely approachable and fascinating.

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4. A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss

Lawrence Krauss makes a compelling argument here that the classical idea of "nothing" may not be even possible. According to Krauss, in physics, the state of "nothingness" at the beginning of time and space was perfectly suited for creating everything that now exists. It's a common thread among astrophysicists to insist that there is simply no need for a creator.

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3. Astrophysics For People In A Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson has quickly risen through the ranks of science personalities of the 21st century, but he stands on the shoulders of those before him. Notably, Carl Sagan, whose Cosmos series Tyson relaunched in 2014. Astrophysics For People In A Hurry is Tyson's wonderful, bite-sized approach to explaining some of the most complex phenomena in the universe.

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2. A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking

The modern era of popular-science writing owes a lot to Stephen Hawking. If you've ever wanted to learn about quarks or quantum mechanics, this is the place to start. There is a reason that it sold more than 10 million copies in 20 years. And there is a reason that Hawking's statements are still contentious with religious institutions today.

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1. A Short History Of Nearly Everything

You may not know his name compared to the other authors on this list, but Bill Bryson has crafted a concise and wide-reaching science title that has exploded in popularity. In a style more similar to travel guides, Bryson walks the reader through multiple scientific areas of study including evolution, chemistry, and physics. In nearly every chapter you will find something that the churches of the world once deemed heretical, and perhaps still do.

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Inspecting "The Evidence of the Christ" - Part 2

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This post is a direct response to a post made on www.cornerstonecascade.com. Part 1 of this response can be found here.

Getting past the first few paragraphs of Phil Parsons' "The Evidence of the Christ" we can see that he finally begins defending Christianity from a historical perspective.

“God has arranged history (His story) around His Son.”

Unfortunately, he starts this line of reasoning with another play on words. As we saw with Son and Sun, the words “his story” and “history” are not etymologically related. Once again, it is disingenuous to put forth this type of creative word association as evidence of anything.

Next we get a long paragraph of biblical references that are intended to sound impressive. However, the logic seems to be “The Bible is true and I can show you in the Bible where it says so”. Every religious book in the history of mankind makes similar claims. Internal claims (even when said claims seem to be logically consistent) is not a good measure of historical accuracy. If it was then we could use any work of fiction as a foundation of belief for the events described therein.

Christians often use this same form of skepticism when evaluating the likelihood of earnestly held beliefs by fringe science and conspiracy groups like Bigfoot hunters and UFO watchers. It would be quite easy to gather a collection of written accounts from witnesses that claim to have seen Bigfoot. Then you could easily pick and choose from hundreds of those stories to form a very convincing and internally consistent Bigfoot “Bible”. However, the mere existence of such a collection lends no credence whatsoever to the claims made by Bigfoot hunters. Most reasonable Christians would wholeheartedly agree, yet they fail to see where this same reasoning presents issues for their own beliefs. Again, there is a difference between "claims" and "evidence that supports a claim".

All that being said, we still cannot completely dismiss the claims themselves. Witness testimony (quite literally in the case of the biblical "Testaments") is a method for passing information from one person to another. Witness testimony is used in court. Unfortunately, witness testimony is certifiably one of the least reliable forms of evidence that there is.

What Parsons fails to mention here is that even the earliest written book of the New Testament is estimated to have been written decades after Jesus died. This is the scholarly consensus given by the same legitimate historians that Parsons appeals to. Even worse, we don’t actually have the first written copies of the New Testament. The earliest manuscripts that we have discovered are tiny fragments (a few paragraphs at best) estimated to have been copied during the second century (101 CE – 200 CE). And the earliest complete manuscripts that we have discovered are estimated to come from around the fourth century.

Once you get past these inconvenient truths you are then faced with the fact that we will likely never uncover exactly what the original texts actually said due to the high number of textual variants among those earliest manuscripts. These variants were errors, or perhaps even purposeful alterations, made by scribes who were copying the texts by hand (this was long before the invention of the printing press after all). If God wanted us to hear “his story”, why wouldn’t he do a better job of preserving it? Why rely on the frail human passage of information at all? Was it outside his power to create an unchanging, indestructible text that could be read in any language?

Perhaps the most interesting fact about the Gospels is that they share entire swaths of text literally word-for-word as you can see in the image below. Rather than giving their own honest accounts of all events, the Gospel authors (which, according to historians, were unlikely to be the ascribed authors Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) simply copied each other or previous undiscovered sources for entire portions of their testimony. The value of a witness testimony as evidence is only as reliable as the testimony itself, and the Bible is far from being a reliable source.

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Finally Parsons gets to his only piece of extra-biblical evidence.

“If you want to go outside the Bible, check out Josephus’s Antiquities… Josephus was just like Luke in the sense that he was someone who was reporting historical facts of Jesus as they played out before thousands and thousands of people.”

Josephus is an interesting historical figure and entire papers have been written about individual words taken from the quote Parsons uses in his article. And it is important to point out that the authenticity of this writing is still up for debate. In fact, the consensus is that a large percentage of this testimony is a fourth century forgery. Parsons continues this historical context line of reasoning by comparing Jesus to Caesar.

“I always find it interesting that no one doubts the existence of Ceasar, but people doubt the existence of Jesus. Both lived at the same time, and the evidence of Jesus and his miracles are equal if not greater than Caesar (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/sources-for-caesar-and-jesus-compared).”

First of all, very few nonbelievers doubt the existence of Jesus. Parsons doesn’t claim that all of them do, but it is an important point to note. Even most secular biblical scholars agree that there is reasonable Biblical evidence to confidently say that a radical Jewish preacher named Jesus lived about 2,000 years ago and was crucified. Most nonbelievers simply doubt that Jesus did the things that the Bible claims he did. Specifically, supernatural miracles. Even most Christians would doubt someone if they came up to them today and told them they just saw someone physically transform water into wine. So why should nonbelievers be expected to believe the same claim made in an ancient, error-ridden, non-contemporary, inherently biased source? The testimonies found in the Bible are wild, supernatural claims with no supporting physical evidence.

But maybe the Bible has an answer to this...

Matthew 14:31 says: Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

According to the Bible, if you doubt something you have little faith. Lack of evidence should be no problem for you.

Hebrews 11:1 says: Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

2 Corinthians 5:7 says: We live by faith, not by sight.

According to the Bible, faith is believing without seeing. Evidence you can see is unimportant and we should literally prioritize wishful thinking.

1 Corinthians 2:5 says: … so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.

According to the Bible, knowledge and wisdom are not synonymous with faith. To even seek out evidence would be to undermine God’s power.

So, knowing what the Bible has to say about faith vs. evidence, why does Parsons even attempt to satiate the demands of nonbelievers who want evidence? If God wanted them to rest their belief upon the quality and quantity of evidence why wouldn’t he just provide more of it?

According to Parsons:

“…faith in Jesus is built upon a mountain of evidence.”

But nonbelievers will need more than what has been presented here.

Inspecting "The Evidence of the Christ" - Part 1

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This post is a direct response to a post made on www.cornerstonecascade.com. The important lines will be quoted here, but you are encouraged to read it for yourself before continuing.

“In this age of knowledge, people do not want to accept something that has no proof.”

Credit must be given to the spirit of this recent blog post. The author, Phil Parsons, is absolutely right that nonbelievers – and people in general – do not want to accept something that has no proof. We do live in an age of information. In seconds we can find the answer to even the most obscure questions we can conceive.

“People want evidence to rest their eternity on; therefore because they assume Christianity has no evidence, they will not even entertain its possibility. Unfortunately, many of these people will not test their assumptions. Instead, they assume their assumptions are correct.”

Unfortunately for Christians, most answers to questions of a divine nature don’t actually stack up as well as they’d like. It is exceedingly rare to find a nonbeliever who describes themselves as being unable to muster the faith required to believe… Rather, they simply don’t find the evidence compelling. Let's take a look at what evidence is first referenced in an article that is attempting to contest that:

“…in Colossians 1:16… “all things were created through him and for him.” That means that our Universe points to Christ. So for example, the Earth revolves around the Sun. Why? Because it points to the reality that we must revolve around the Son of God as the light of our lives (John 1:9).”

It’s truly unfortunate that most Christians when asked for evidence will immediately turn to the Bible. Especially with such a poetic verse that is difficult to interpret as any kind of factual statement. We have to make a distinction between a "claim" and "evidence that supports a claim". The vast majority of the writings in the Bible can only be classified as claims, which have very little external evidence to support them. To see why this example is especially unfulfilling, let’s look at the etymology for the words Sun and Son.

Son – Old English sunu, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch zoon and German Sohn, from an Indo-European root shared by Greek huios.

Sun – Old English sunne, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch zon and German Sonne, from an Indo-European root shared by Greek hēlios and Latin sol.

In modern English we can see that these two words are not directly related. They are simply homophones, or words pronounced the same way but with different meanings. So not only are they not actually etymologically related, but it should be obvious that not everyone speaks English. Jesus certainly didn’t. He spoke Aramaic and in Aramaic the word for “son” was pronounced like “bar” and the word for “sun” was “shemesh”. Unless this coincidence was only intended for English speakers who like homophones, this probably shouldn't qualify as evidence for Christianity.

It is also implied in Parsons’ explanation that the Earth revolves around the Sun for the express purpose of providing evidence of Jesus. Which is to ignore the entirety of scientific knowledge relating to gravitational dynamics and planetary motion. The Sun is a single, relatively unremarkable star in a universe with billions and billions of stars. Many of which we now know to have their own planets also revolving around them. We know exactly why the Earth revolves around the Sun and we can even predict its future motion with complex mathematical models. It’s entirely natural and within our understanding of physics.

More than all that, it seems strange that Parsons would use John 1:9 as a Bible reference here, which makes no comparisons to “light” or “revolving” at all. John 8:12 would have been more fitting within the metaphor of Jesus as a source of light and life:

(John 8:12) Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

It’s a great passage and a strong metaphor used in literature long before the Bible (Greeks and Egyptians had their own Sun gods for example), but it’s not evidence for Christianity.

Next we get this claim:

“All humanity longs for marriage. Why? Because marriage is a symbol ordained by God to point to the union between Christ and His people. (Ephesians 5:32).”

This statement ignores anyone who does not long for matrimonial coupling. Not all humans are born with an innate need to bond with someone through marriage. Many couples just never feel the need to get hitched. Some people don’t even feel a need to “couple” at all, choosing a celibate lifestyle instead. What symbol should these individuals use for the metaphorical union between “Christ and his people” then if a desire for marriage is not instilled in them?

Even if we were to accept the premise that “All humanity longs for marriage”, it's difficult see how a metaphorical symbol qualifies as evidence. It is quite easy to use this logic to support almost any symbolic belief you can imagine. For example: “All humanity needs to breathe air. Why? Because it is a symbol to remind us of ‘prana’, the breath of life, the energy of all the universe. This is evidence in favor of Hinduism.” It is unlikely that many Christians would find that to be compelling evidence despite the identical line of reasoning.

It’s also worth noting here that Christianity did not invent the concept of marriage, nor did Judaism for that matter. Even Christian scholars will agree on this point. So how does a symbolic bond that predates Christianity get co-opted exclusively into Christian theology as evidence for its universal origins?

Then we get this confounding statement:

“Humanity longs for a King. Why? Because Christ is the Lord of lords and the King of kings.  (Revelation 17:14).”

Do we long for a King? History seems to point strongly in the opposite direction. The United States of America likely wouldn’t exist if not for the founding fathers’ adamant rejection of a monarchy. In fact, they had a few choice words to share on that system of governance and its moral failings. Ask any Christian (outside the context of “Jesus as Lord”) if they would want a king to rule over them and they would likely all answer the same. Again, it is difficult to see how any of this yet qualifies as “evidence for Christianity”.

So far we’ve covered only a single paragraph of “evidence” from the original post, so this examination will be split up into two parts. All of the points made by Parsons so far are can only be described as “cultural relativistic evidence”, or perhaps more succinctly: Platitudes. Christians often believe that because they find an idea to be common sense, poetic, or fulfilling in the context of their cultural background, that means it can be used as a supportive argument for the factual claims held by their religion. These are the kinds of arguments that all religions use to claim that theirs is the one true religion. Simply put, if the same logic can be applied to argue for the factual nature of any religion then it does not satisfy a standard of evidence that should have any bearing on realityMetaphors and word-play do not qualify as evidence.

Continue to Part 2

Inspecting Claims of Biblical Canon and Historicity

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The following is a response to an article posted on CCC Discover by Timothy W. Massaro, with the relevant sections quoted here for easier reference.

As Bible Inspectors, it's our job to investigate the text of the Bible as well as all claims made about the book itself. The article we will look at today is a bite-sized, easily shareable, six-point list that is formatted for simple sharing across Facebook or Twitter (which should be evident by the bold “Share this post with your friends” at the bottom of the page). Worse than that, it provides precisely zero citations or even further reading recommendations for what is ostensibly a history lesson.

Let's take each point and provide citation that both builds on the meaning intended by the original author and also refutes many of their assumptions. These conclusions are built upon the consensus of historical and biblical scholars and form a foundation of reasonable skepticism as to the accuracy of the Bible and its claims.

[Please note that citations leading to Wikipedia are used to simplify the citation process. All references on Wikipedia provide proper academic citations at the bottom of each page. I am not a historian (though neither is Mr. Massaro), but I stand by the cited references. I am open to corrections on any statement of fact I have made in this rebuttal.]

1. The New Testament Canon was not decided by any church council.

The church councils did not decide what was canonical. While regional church councils made declarations about the canon, these councils affirmed the books they believed had functioned as foundational documents for the Christian faith. The councils merely declared the way things had been since the time of the apostles. Thus, these councils did not create, authorize, or determine the canon. They simply were part of the process of recognizing a canon that already existed.

Saying that the New Testament Canon “was not decided by any church council” doesn’t tell the whole story. First of all, it’s important to understand that the word “canon” used in this context (being authoritative or accurate) literally originated with the formation of Christian biblical canon. It comes from a Greek word that means “rule” or “measuring stick” and was never used to describe a set of authoritative scriptures until the first seven ecumenical councils. The discrete concept of canonicity was quite literally decided by church councils since the term didn’t even exist before their intervention.

Now, of course there were large congregations that already accepted the majority of modern New Testament books as authoritative before the Proto-orthodox church ratified them, they just didn’t refer to them as “canonical” (since the term didn’t exist yet). But there were also dozens of sub-groups and competing Christian theological communities that accepted different books as authoritative. Congregations were in disagreement as to which books should be allowed to be read in worship. Many Proto-orthodox groups like the MarcionistsGnosticists, and Montanists even disagreed on fundamental aspects such as the nature of God and the Trinity, and these disagreements reared into importance as early as 100 A.D. These were all groups that identified primarily as Christian, but they simply disagreed on what “Christianity” fundamentally entailed. Church councils were specifically held to reduce confusion amongst these fracturing Christian communities.

There was never one single accepted doctrine that followed straight from “the time of the apostles”.

They simply were part of the process of recognizing a canon that already existed.

The operative word here is “a”. Not the canon that exclusively existed, but a canon amongst many. The church councils between 325 A.D. and 787 A.D. (an exceedingly long period of time to be described as a “simple process”) were instrumental in recognizing a single canon that they endorsed in an attempt to unify the fracturing early Christian theologies. At the time of the early church councils, the largest Christian group was the Proto-orthodox church which would later come to be known as the Orthodox Church. These councils may have consolidated some authority concerning the biblical canon, but they were unsuccessful in maintaining a single unified church. During a several hundred year period the church broke into many pieces all claiming to be the true continuation of the Orthodox Church, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church, the Anglican Communion, and several others.

This process is repeated over and over throughout history. Even today the label of Christianity describes literally thousands of unique denominations with their own scriptural canons and interpretations. There is no one universally accepted “Bible” and there never has been. The largest and most powerful sub-groups simply declare ownership of the “one true doctrine”. Even if most of those denominations agree on the primary canon, what good is it if they cannot come to a consensus on what that canon actually teaches?

Interestingly, the word orthodox, when understood in context of its Greek origins, comes from “orthos” which means “straight or right”, and “doxa” which means “opinion”. Words like Orthodox and Canon hold a powerful weight in our modern language, but ultimately the church councils of the time simply declared themselves the holders of the “right opinion” (orthodoxy) concerning the “rule” (canon) of scripture. They defined themselves into authority.

2. Early Christians believed that canonical books were self-authenticating.

Another authenticating factor was the internal qualities of each book. These books established themselves within the church through their internal qualities and uniqueness as depicting Christ and his saving work. The New Testament canon we possess is not due to the collusions of church leaders or the political authority of Constantine, but to the unique voice and tone possessed by these writings.

It’s actually quite difficult to criticize this particular point because it is so maddeningly vague. What does it mean for a work of scripture to be “self-authenticating”? How do we quantify “internal quality and uniqueness”? How do we measure scripture as having “unique voice and tone”? We are given no examples and no definitions to work from. The meaning of self-authentication is pontificated throughout Christian biblical study, but since the author of this article provides literally zero citations we will work from his simple description as best we can.

Let’s work from the understanding that self-authentication is the appearance of internal consistency and a lack of self-contradiction. Unfortunately, this assumption stems from a failure in understanding the principles of the historical-critical method. The books of the Bible do not exist in a vacuum and we cannot rely on internal structure and content alone to confirm their reliability or accuracy in portraying historical events or revelations. Self-authentication is a term used to put a positive spin on the fallacies of survivorship bias and confirmation bias.

Many scriptures that were deemed “non-canonical” by the ruling churches have not survived because they were no longer transcribed, copied, or printed. This is the survivorship bias. We place special significance on the modern biblical canon in part because it survived by winning popular support in an important historical period. Missing and incomplete scriptures cannot be properly evaluated for their “internal quality and uniqueness”. In fact, a large percentage of the New Testament Gospels are believed to have originated from another long lost source referred to as “Q”.

Self-authentication may also be the result of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the process of only seeking out evidence or answers that confirm your existing conclusions. This is not necessarily a conscious or nefarious process, but it is antithetical to the historical-critical method. The books of the Bible have the appearance of internal consistency precisely because those were the criteria that church leaders looked for when choosing which scriptures to include in the canon, especially when those consistencies supported their thoughts concerning theological issues like the Trinity.

Confirmation bias can also be used to criticize whether the books of the Bible are actually internally consistent. Christians are more inclined to confirm their biased belief that the Bible is infallible by selectively referencing consistent verses while ignoring many that seem to be contradictory.

Finally, if self-authentication is a reliable way to conclude which scriptures are canonical, then wouldn’t that imply that reading scripture should generally lead everyone to similar conclusions? If so then why are there still disagreements as to authorship, historical accuracy, theological interpretation, and which books deserve inclusion in the Bible?

3. The New Testament books are the principle Christian writings we have.

The New Testament books are the earliest writings we possess regarding Jesus. The New Testament was completed in the first century. This means the writings include testimonies from eyewitnesses and were written within fifty years of the events, which cannot be said of any of the apocryphal literature often discussed in the news. This is particularly evident when it comes to the four gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the only gospel accounts that originate in the first century.

This point is quite welcome in a list entitled “things we need to know about the formation of the Bible”. Yes, the New Testament books are some of the earliest Christian writings we know of. It seems reasonable that this is precisely why they have been revered and included in biblical canon since the earliest days of the Proto-orthodox church. The implication in this point however, is that this is somehow relevant to their authenticity or accuracy.

Many Christians are not actually aware that the gospels were written long after Jesus’ death – or that many authors’ identities are unknown – or that they internally confirm that they are only restating accounts from other eyewitnesses(they were not eyewitnesses themselves). The formation of the New Testament was essentially a 50+ year game of telephone with words and deeds being passed from one group of people to another, long after Jesus had lived.

So while some Christians may consider these facts supportive of their position on biblical accuracy, they actually open up the Bible to more critical review and skepticism. When you avoid using biases or presuppositions to formulate your beliefs about the Bible you will find that biblical scholarship is no different than the methods we use to evaluate all historical texts. And those methods have led to a consensus among historians on many topics that are in direct conflict with modern church teachings.

4. The New Testament books directly relate to the apostolic testimony.

Unlike any book from that period or the following century, the New Testament books were directly connected to the apostles and their testimony of the resurrected Christ. The canon is intimately connected to their activities and influence. The apostles had the very authority of Christ himself (Matt. 28:18–20). Along with the Old Testament, their teachings were the very foundation of the church.  The church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph. 2:20).

What qualifies a work of scripture as “directly connected to the apostles”? I’ve already given links above to articles concerning the authorship and dating of the New Testament books. And this is not the opinion of just a bunch of atheists on the internet. These are the consensus positions of biblical scholars and historians, many of which consider themselves Christians.

Despite the inconclusive identities and dates of authorship you can still make the claim of their testimony being “connected to the apostles” through the assumption of long lost oral and written traditions. Though the only evidence provided for this in the original article are references to Bible verses. This is called circular reasoning. How do we know that the events described in the Bible are true and come directly from the apostles? Apparently, because the Bible says so.

5. Some New Testament writers quote other New Testament writers as Scripture.

The belief in new revelation or a testament of books was not a late development. From the days of the apostles themselves, these writings were seen as unique in their authority and witness. This belief seems to be present in the earliest stages of Christianity. In 2 Peter 3:15–16, Peter refers to Paul’s letters as “Scripture,” which would have put them on a par with the books of the Old Testament. This is a significant fact that is often overlooked.

Should we expect anything else from a collection of books that has been curated for their internal consistency?

6. Early Christians used noncanonical writings without analogous authority.

Christians often cited noncanonical literature with positive affirmation for edification. Yet, Christians were simply using these books as helpful, illuminating, or edifying texts. Rarely was there confusion as to whether they were on a par with Scripture. These books were eventually disregarded according to the criteria of whether they had general acceptance, apostolicity, and self-authentication.

And here we get to the most important issue concerning the relevance of “canonicity”. Do any of these qualities attest to their accuracy? The obvious answer should be no.

None of the six points presented can be used to reliably conclude that the events described in the Bible are actually true. Non-canonical books may contradict some teachings within the traditional Orthodox canon, but most have equal historical evidence when it comes to confirming their supernatural claims, which is to say – none. Did Jesus exist? Probably. Was he resurrected from the dead? We can’t really know. We cannot conclude that dragons exist simply because they are described commonly and consistently in ancient writings and we cannot conclude that Jesus was resurrected for the same reason.

The Bible is full of claims. To evaluate these claims we must seek external sourcesand historical evidence that supports them. If we knew that the Bible provided accurate testimony then we could consider that testimony as one piece of evidence that could bolster supporting external evidence, but by using the historical-critical method we already know that the Bible’s authorship is unreliable.

This is not to say that the entire Bible should be considered a lie. Quite the contrary. There are many references within the Bible that can be confirmed with external sources. Names of towns and villages. Names of rulers and kings. Jewish cultural traditions and societal structures. We confirm these claims the same way historians confirm claims from any ancient text. However, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Being skeptical of supernatural claims in the Bible doesn’t make you a contrarian.

Skepticism should be the natural position when you apply the same level of criticism you would to the supernatural claims of any other religion.