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.