Tuesday, December 18, 2012


    Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, in his recent article in Newsweek magazine entitled "The Myths of Jesus," concludes by saying that the gospels of the New Testament "are books that meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts." But this raises a perplexing question: what kind of "religious truths" can exist apart from "historical facts"? Can a narrative be historically false but nevertheless theologically true? What exactly is a "religious truth"?
    Dr. Ehrman attempts to explain: ". . . for those with a broader vision, a more generous appreciation of literature, and a fuller sense of theological meaning, the story of the Christchild and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what actually happened, but in what actually does happen, in the lives of those who believe that stories such as these can convey a greater truth."
Friedrich Schleiermacher
    The suggestion is not new. Ever since the days of the Enlightenment the literal truth of the biblical narratives has been challenged by skeptics. It was the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher who tried to find a way around the problem by appealing to "feeling" as the basis for religion. In his view faith does not depend on the literal truth of the Bible, but on subjective feelings or inward intuition. This basic approach, with various modifications, has been typical of liberal theology down to the present day.
    While this solution is certainly appealing, it nevertheless has some serious problems. First of all, it rests on a dishonest reading of Scripture.. Dr. Ehrman tells us that "these are books that meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts." But the biblical writers themselves did not see it that way.. They insisted that they were describing what God had actually done in real space and time. In the prologue to his gospel, the specific gospel that Dr. Ehrman attacks as unhistorical, Luke specifically states that "it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught" (Lu. 1:3,4; ESV). In so doing he specifically appealed to eyewitness testimony. In other words, Luke self-consciously set out to write history, and now some "good news" that was based on metaphors and myths, and his aim was specifically to let his readers know what had actually happened.
    And so did all the biblical writers, from Moses in the Old Testament to John the apostle in the New. A major part of their polemical argument against polytheism was based on the fact that the Lord God of Israel really does act in history. This is what distinguishes Him from the dumb and useless idols of the surrounding nations. If the events described did not actually happen, however, then the all argument falls to the ground.
    But more importantly, if our faith rests on nothing more substantial than figures of speech and subjective feelings, then it becomes impossible to distinguish our "broad vision" and "fuller sense of theological meaning" from pure fantasy. Our faith is disconnected from objective reality and amounts to little more than wishful thinking. This, in fact, apparently turned out to be the case in Dr. Ehrman himself. We understand that he now considers himself to be an agnostic. His grasp of "theological meaning" appears to be slipping through his fingers.
    In short, "religious truths" that are not related to actual events in history are nothing more than fairy tales – make-believe stories about things that exist nowhere except in our own imaginations. Something is either true or it is not true – it either corresponds to reality or it does not. If the literal truth of who we are and where we got here is evolution, and if the Bible is nothing more than a collection of ancient myths and legends that reflect an obsolete pre-scientific worldview, then it is useless to pretend that the Bible has any relevance for us today. The biblical writers did not know what they were talking about and were just plain wrong about a lot of things.
    But what if they were telling the truth about what they claimed they saw?

Other blogposts related to the issue:
Are the Gospels Historically Reliable? 
The Problem with Liberal Theology 
Letter to a Unitarian Minister 

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