Ignorance Isn’t Bliss (On Bart Ehrman, Ignorance, Conspiracy Theories, and the Bible)

Guest Blog by Ed Gravely

I was privileged last week to speak to an auditorium full of Chapel Hill students on the issue of Christianity and textual criticism (the study of the ancient manuscripts that make up our Bible). My talk was a follow-up to the debate held there the night before by Daniel Wallace and Bart Ehrman. I wasn’t trying to bombard the students with more facts-the debate gave them many facts. My goal was to help them frame debates such as these in a faithful way and give them a helpful way to think about these issues.

My three points:
1. Uncertainty is not the same as doubt.
2. Ignorance is not the same as a conspiracy.
3. Secular is not the same as unbiased.

Surprisingly, point number two was the point about which I received the most questions and comments and had the most follow-up contact with students.

Ehrman and many New Testament scholars like him are fond of framing the issues of textual criticism and New Testament apologetics (historical reliability, manuscript evidence, etc.) as a conspiracy. Ehrman doesn’t usually speak in terms of a global conspiracy; it is not a conspiracy to fool the world. Rather it is a conspiracy to fool you that he’s interested in. As they make their case for all the “problems” with the New Testament, scholars like Ehrman continually ask the questions, “And why didn’t you know about all this? Why did your pastor and church hide all this from you? Why did you have to come all the way to UNC to find out the truth about the Bible?” The subtitle of one of Ehrman’s recent books is “Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know about Them)”. See? Everyone knew the Bible was full of contradictions and problems, but there was a conspiracy to hide that from you. Right?

There is a sense in which Ehrman is exactly right.

Here’s what I mean. Most Christian college students who grew up in traditional churches never heard any of this stuff. They never heard about how our New Testament was put together, never heard about ancient manuscripts, and never heard faithful scholars puzzling over the seeming contradictions in the Scripture and reconciling them in convincing and credible ways. And when these students found what looked to them like problems or contradictions in the Bible, they were told to “just have faith” by pastors and student pastors. Also, many college students who first began looking into Christianity in college asked their Christian friends about these issues and often found that they didn’t know anything helpful. It is a shameful reality, but most Christians, old and young, are woefully ignorant on most of these vitally important issues, and we propagate our ignorance to the next generation of believers. Those who are not ignorant, however, are the college professors who teach our students and introduce them to this aspect of biblical studies for the very first time. Radical skeptics like Ehrman get to frame the discussion, disclose the “facts”, and then ask, “Why do you think your pastor was hiding this from you?”

It’s a good question.

Many pastors and student ministers, it would seem, have adopted a two-fold stance on these critical issues. First, they shy away from dealing with critical and textual issues because they either don’t believe them important or because they themselves are ignorant of them, and second, when they do become aware of some of these textual problems, they are afraid that dealing with these issues in public, from the pulpit, will wreck the faith of their audience. Just recently I had a student pastor friend in another state tell me, “I can’t tell my students about the textual issues in John 8; it will wreck their faith in the Bible. They just need to trust God and believe his word.” So, rather than dealing with this issue candidly and allowing the students to watch their trained student pastor handle this difficulty in a credible and faithful way, they are better off just not knowing. In other words, ignorance is bliss. Last week I spoke to a room full of college students who were spiritually raised in just that way-ignorant of all the issues that are now shaking their faith.

This approach is a terrible one, and it doesn’t even work. The ignorance ship has sailed. The people in our congregations are watching the specials about Jesus on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. They are reading blogs, listening to podcasts, reading New York Times best selling books like Forged, and going off to school at UNC. Skeptics like Ehrman are pop culture figures now, making the rounds on Good Morning America, the Daily Show, and the Colbert Report. And when the pastor stands in the pulpit to preach on John 8 and never mentions any of the text-critical issues with that passage, the congregation, all of whom are aware of the problem because they all have study Bibles with notes at that point, walk away not any better equipped to study their Bibles for themselves and handle these issues. They walk away thinking that it is their pastor who is ignorant.

The remedy to this state of affairs is easy to say and harder to do. The pastor, the student pastor, and anyone who teaches the Bible must also take on the role, however limited, of the apologist. Defending the Bible and dealing with critical issues should never eclipse the teaching of the Bible, but explaining to people how the Scripture was put together and modeling for them how to faithfully handle textual and critical difficulties is vitally important to the spiritual development of any Christian in the 21st century. Ignorance isn’t bliss. Ignorance is disheartening, and it is destructive. But it can be remedied with a little hard work on behalf of God’s church.

An Invitation to Study New Testament at Southeastern

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of the New Testament for the Christian faith, non? The New Testament continues the narrative begun in the Old Testament with the fourfold record of the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of the promised and long-awaited Messiah of Israel, and so the world, Jesus. His message-that the kingdom of God is at hand, so all should repent and believe the gospel-was proclaimed by John the Baptist (see Mark 1) before him and by his disciples after him (see Matt 10:5-10). By gathering his 12 disciples, performing messianic signs (miracles), establishing the New Covenant (see Luke 22), promising the Holy Spirit (see John 14-16), dying and rising from the dead in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-5; cf. Mark 8:31-32), and commissioning his disciples to carry forward his mission (Matt. 28:18-20; John 20:21-23), Jesus demonstrated that his gospel of the kingdom was the truth and that he was indeed the promised and long-awaited Messiah (John 20:30-31).

After the outpouring of the promised Holy Spirit (Acts 2), the promised inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God occurred (see Acts 8, 10) and the church expanded across the known world. Paul’s conversion and call continued this trajectory as he planted churches composed of Jews and Gentiles “in Christ” (see Eph 2:11-22). In the midst of his church planting and gospel work, Paul wrote epistles instructing believers on their history and destiny (e.g. Rom 8; Eph 1-2) and on how to live now in light of the “not yet” (e.g., 1 Cor 11:1; Phil 3:8-21). His colleagues Peter, James, John, Jude and the author of Hebrews joined him in writing letters which proclaim the same gospel but do so with beautiful diversity. Revelation then concludes the story of God’s faithful dealings with all of creation, summarizing his plan for his people in the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21).

But how do we accurately interpret these books written many years ago? How do they fit together as a coherent and unified whole? How do they fit with the Old Testament testimony? How do they apply in a 21st century context? How can I preach through books of the New Testament, being faithful to the text but also communicating meaningfully to the multiple cultures and sub-cultures that surround me?

For those of you who seek answers to these types of questions, we invite you to come study with us at Southeastern. At Southeastern you will have the opportunity to study the New Testament in the original Greek and so be better equipped to minister to the people of God (see Eph 4:11-13) for the glory of God. In so doing, you will have the opportunity to study with the following men:

David Beck (Ph.D., Duke University) is Professor of New Testament and Greek and Associate Dean of Biblical Studies. He is the author of The Discipleship Paradigm: Readers and Anonymous Characters in the Fourth Gospel (Brill) and co-editor with fellow SEBTS Professor David Alan Black of Rethinking the Synoptic Problem (Baker). Dr. Beck manages to be, at the same time, both wickedly smart and enviably laid back.

David Black (D. Theol., University of Basel, Switzerland) is Professor of New Testament and Greek and author of Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek: A Survey of Basic Concepts and Applications (Baker); Learn to Read New Testament Greek (Broadman & Holman); Why Four Gospels? (Kregel) and the author and editor of over 15 other books. Dr. Black is internationally renowned as a Greek scholar, is a member of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, and spends 3-4 months overseas per year working in Ethiopia and other countries.

Ed Gravely (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and History of Ideas and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Codex Vaticanus under the supervision of Maurice Robinson, fellow SEBTS professor. Dr. Gravely is smart, funny, and articulate. He is one of the few textual critics alive who is not weird.

Scott Kellum (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek, author of The Unity of the Farewell Discourse: the Literary Integrity of John 13:31-16:33 (T&T Clark), and co-author with Andreas J. Köstenberger and Charles L. Quarles of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (B&H). Dr. Kellum mastered classical Greek in college and koine Greek at the grad and post-grad level; if any other sort of Greek develops in the future, he’ll know that too.

Andreas Johannes Köstenberger (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Senior Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology and Director of Ph.D. Studies at Southeastern. He is the author, translator, and editor of more than 20 books including The Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters: The Word, the Christ, the Son of God (Zondervan); John, Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament (Baker); co-author with L. Scott Kellum and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (B&H); co-author with Michael Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Crossway); God, Marriage, and Family: Restoring the Biblical Foundation with fellow SEBTS professor David Jones (Crossway). Dr. Köstenberger has written more books than most people have read, and he’s only mid-career. Scary.

David Lanier (Ph.D., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Professor of New Testament and served as Editor of Southeastern’s first journal, Faith and Mission 11/1 (Fall 1993) to 24/3 (Summer 2007). Dr. Lanier is a particularly amiable fellow, and is a history buff whose specialty is the Confederate War.

Benjamin Lee Merkle (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek and author of The Elder and Overseer: One Office in the Early Church (Peter Lang); 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons (Kregel), for which also he serves as Series Editor; Why Elders? A Biblical and Practical Guide (Kregel); and co-editor with fellow SEBTS professor John S. Hammett of Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline (B&H, forthcoming). Dr. Merkle lived and taught in Malaysia for years and is known for being a thorough and efficient writer of theological prose. If he continues publishing at this rate, he might give Dr. Köstenberger a run for his money.

Maurice Robinson (Ph.D., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Senior Professor of New Testament and a renowned textual criticism scholar. He is the author of Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament: Revised and Updated (Hendrickson, forthcoming). Dr. Robinson is a world-renowned textual critic, an accomplished guitarist, and is known to give a Bob Dylan impersonation that is “spot on.”

Southeastern offers several degrees with a focus on the New Testament. The Bachelor of Arts in Christian Studies with a minor in Biblical Studies introduces undergraduate students to the knowledge and skills central to the work of pastors, particularly in the area of Old and New Testament competency. The Master or Arts (Biblical Languages) prepares students to serve as translators and as field supervisors for Bible translation teams. The M.Div. with Pastoral Ministry prepares students for pastoral ministry in the local church with and is grounded in study of the Old and New Testament. The M.Div. with Christian Ministry offers the same strong core education while giving one freedom to pursue elective courses in the area of New Testament and Greek. The M.Div. with Advanced Biblical Studies offers the greatest opportunity for focus in New Testament and Greek exegesis, preparing one for a pastoral or teaching ministry. The Th.M. in Biblical Studies equips post-M.Div. students who want to enhance their theological training, either for preparation for doctoral study or as an advanced degree for service in the church. Students can take the thesis or non-thesis tracks under the supervision of a professor in the area of New Testament and Greek. Finally, the Ph.D. in Biblical Studies with a concentration in New Testament prepares students to teach New Testament, Greek, and other courses to college or seminary students, and to write about the interpretation and theology of the New Testament.

We invite you to study with our New Testament faculty in the B. A., M.Div., Th.M., or Ph.D. programs of Southeastern. For more info visit our website (http://www.sebts.edu/) and check out the Admissions and Academics links.

Ideas Have Consequences: The Place of the Liberal Arts within a Theological Education, Part 2

This is the second article in a series of two defending the study of the history of ideas as a crucial component in a balanced undergraduate theological education. Our guest author for this article is Ed Gravely, who serves as Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and the History of Ideas at Southeastern Seminary. His teaching responsibilities include courses in New Testament at both the graduate and undergraduate level and courses in the History of Ideas for undergraduate students at The College at Southeastern. Though Ed is a text critic by training, but he is the quintessential “Renaissance Man” with interests in philosophy, intellectual history, economics, political theory, and modern fiction.

I know it isn’t enough to say, “This is the way Christians have always done education,” without also explaining why. This brings us to my second point: a robust liberal arts education is key to any quality Christian ministerial training, because worldviews matter. The term “worldview” has become an almost meaningless buzzword in pop Christian culture, but that term represents a concept that is vital to Christian students. Every person living on this planet looks at the world with a certain set of assumptions upon which their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are situated. Until you understand a person’s worldview, communication with them about spiritual things in a meaningful way is nearly impossible, and communicating with people about spiritual things in a meaningful way is quite important to the life of the Christian. If, for example, you sit on the bus next to a person who grew up in the southern United States and say to him, “God loves you,” he will probably have some idea of what you mean (though it would be foolish to blindly assume that). But if the person sitting next to you on the bus just emigrated here from India, when you say, “God loves you,” he most likely misunderstands what you mean, because he has a radically different understanding of God than you do. Notice that this is not a case of you presenting the Gospel to a Hindu and the Hindu rejecting it. If he doesn’t understand what you mean by “God,” or more likely misunderstands what you mean by “God,” you haven’t accurately communicated the gospel yet at all. No one would think that the phrase “God loves you” would make any sense to a person who didn’t speak English, and Christians seem to have no trouble learning foreign languages to meaningfully communicate the gospel to people. Why then would we also not learn their worldview?

If worldviews really do matter then what is the best way to teach students in general and ministers-in-training in particular to think worldviewishly? The answer is, as you might guess, a robust liberal arts education. The History of Ideas is, in many ways, the history of worldview development. To understand, for example, why Plato reaches some of his more outlandish conclusions in the Republic and yet also seems to be making a very sensible argument for God’s existence in Laws (and both apart from a knowledge of the Bible) is an exercise in worldview thinking. The roots of the thinking of a modern Hindu are found in the ancient worldview of pantheism. And the best way to understand a worldview and to learn to think worldviewishly is to study the development of those worldviews, including our own. The great works of western civilization are the literary, philosophical, and historical record of worldview development, and therefore those famous works are the best material through which to teach worldview thinking, so long as they are taught alongside a rigorous biblical and theological course of study.

Finally, a robust study of the great works of western civilization (i.e. History of Ideas) is important because in many ways the development of ideas in western civilization is the history of the development of those ideas in Christian tradition, and ideas matter. Christianity has been immeasurably influential as the interpreter and influencer of western thought, but it has also been influenced by western thought. Understanding that relationship is vital to the minister-in-training. It is can be misleading, for example, to try to understand Aquinas without first understanding Aristotle, or Calvin without first understanding the Roman Stoics which he quotes so frequently, or Edwards without first understanding Hobbes and the other post-Newtonian mechanists to which he is indebted. And yet Aquinas, Calvin, and Edwards stand as some of Christianity’s greatest thinkers, theologians, and Bible interpreters. We today are greatly influenced by them and their view of Scripture, as well we should be. But there is also a danger here. Though Christian theology is derived from God’s word, it isn’t formulated in a vacuum. The way we think about God and his Word is influenced by generations of thinkers in western culture, for good and for ill. It is easier for us to look back at Aquinas and identify where he departs from the Scripture and merely reflects his medieval culture than it is for us to examine our own theology to see where we depart from the Scripture and merely reflect our own largely post-Christian culture. Study in the History of Ideas is essential training for this necessary exercise.

There is a longstanding tradition in Christianity to teach the Bible and theology robustly but to also train Christian students in the liberal arts. Such training better prepares students to take the gospel in a meaningful way to a world that does not even share their basic understanding of God. Such training also prepares Christian students to understand the history of their theological beliefs so as to better spot where modern post-Christian culture has wormed its way into their thinking. Since tradition matters, worldviews matter, and ideas matter, training in the History of Ideas is not just essential preparation for would-be ministers, it is essential preparation for any serious, educated follower of Christ.