Skip to comments.Does Christianity Need the Bible?
Posted on 12/08/2011 2:01:52 PM PST by OneVike
Atheistic attacks on Christianity typically focus on philosophical issues concerning theism, or evidential attacks on the Bible. It occurred to me the other day that the latter plays upon a certain view of Christian theological methodology and ecclesiology that is flawed.
The issue, as I see it, is that these attacks are relying on an unspoken assumption that Christianity is relying on the Bible for its existence. This assumption is certainly fair, as it seems that many Christians think along the same lines. Even if Christians of this persuasion are not in the majority, it is without doubt that this is the case with popular Christian apologists. It is not much of an oversimplification to say that the two most popular approaches for defending the faith either begin by defending the Bible (Evidentialism), or conclude with its defense (Classical). The biblical text is then used to support Jesus claims / the gospel / the resurrection etc.
But what if the Bible could not be demonstrated to be trustworthy? I do not think that this is the case, but it is worth thinking about for at least these two reasons: (1) most skeptics think the Bible has not been defended sufficiently, and (2) even if it has been or can be, the case for Christianity will be even stronger if it can survive the failure of these biblical defenses.
When a skeptic argues against the Bible it is not usually the book(s) that are being attacked per se. Rather it is the ideas communicated by the book(s). Skeptics do not, for example, typically attack the wisdom sayings in the book of Proverbs or the basic morality of Jesus sermons. And I dont think many skeptics really are concerned over how many generations there are between Adam and Jesus, or how many angels were at his tomb. What skeptics want to call into question is Christianity itself. Since the Bible is assumed to be the foundation of Christianity, calling its historicity, manuscript transmission, scientific awareness, etc. into question is seen as tantamount to calling Christianity into question. Two popular responses have been made by modern Christians.
The first is to dig in and affirm the absolute inerrancy of the Bible and fight tooth and nail for every biblical affirmation no matter its nature (e.g., historical, scientific, moral), sometimes even down to use of correct grammar. This is necessarily joined by an equally fervent defense of a trustworthy manuscript tradition for as all (except perhaps some confused folks in the KJV-Only crowd) acknowledge, inerrancy only applies to the original manuscripts (which we do not have). The copies of those inerrant original that we do have do not agree perfectly with each other, however. Thus, even inerrantists must concede the fact of transmission distortion. Their apologetic strategy, therefore, usually concerns limiting the significance of these distortions (e.g., that the quantitative and/or qualitative aspects of these distortions are inconsequential). This approach can be appreciated for its theological respect for, and upholding of, Gods word – but it also paints a large target on the Bible for skeptics fire upon.
The second approach is to trade in the doctrine of inerrancy for its softer cousin, infallibility. Affirming the doctrine of infallibility only commits one to holding that the Bible is successful in communicating truth in matters of faith and practice, regardless of the accuracy of its delivery system (like an imperfect map that nonetheless will always get you where you need to go). Thus, textual errors are only considered significantly problematic if they touch on theology or morals. This approach has the benefit of making the target a lot smaller, but it suffers from its inability to provide an objective means of determining how the theology of the text can still be trusted when the text itself is at issue.
What both of the above approaches assume, however, is that Christianity suffers corresponding effects of biblical attacks. Thus, for the inerrantist if even one biblical statement can be decisively shown to be false, Christianity loses its foundation (I am not suggesting that no mediating positions are available, or that there is no way out for an inerrantist indeed there is always the easy claim that the error was not in the originals. But this assumption seems to drive the apologetic effort at least at the front end). For the infallibilist the effects of error discovery are not nearly as dramatic, but (as stated above) the position suffers from its own questionable principles. If nothing else, it becomes a practical issue: in the real world the trustworthiness of Christianity and that of the Bible is often seen as equivalent by skeptics. Thus the infallibilist position will often come across as ad hoc.
The good news for the Christian apologist is that if Christianity is not coextensive with the Bible, then attacks on the one are not necessarily attacks on the other.
What if the text critics like Bart Ehrman, or Islamic / Mormon / Secular apologists were proven right in their claims that the Gospels were not written by the traditional authors, that many of the NT books are spurious, or that significant error is present in the Bible? What actual purchase would be lost by Christians? Given the above apologetic strategies and theological positions shared by most Christian apologists, one might well conclude that it would be game over for Christian believers.
I suggest that this is not the case. I will argue that even if we lost the Bible completely, Christianity would remain undefeated. That is a bold claim, but I think it can be demonstrated rather easily.
Basically the argument goes like this:
The form is valid (per Modus Tollens), and the first premise seems self-evident, thus I need only support the second for the argument to be proven sound. There are facts both historical and speculative that show the second premise to be true.
First, it is entirely possible that Christianitys message could have been communicated verbally and only verbally forever. There is nothing inherently problematic with such a thing occurring. In fact a simple thought experiment will show that this is the case: suppose some atheistic world dictator succeeded in destroying every copy of the Bible in existence, and then somehow made it impossible to create additional texts of any kind. Would Christianity disappear from the earth? Would humans no longer have access to the saving gospel? Of course not. So, at least in theory, there is no problem with these two propositions being true at the same time: (1) Christianity exists, and (2) no Bible exists.
Second, the above theory has been shown to be true in reality. Receiving the gospel message is the requirement for becoming saved (1 Cor. 15:1-5), and this message was not initially communicated in written form (1 Cor. 15:1), yet those who heard it believed and became saved (becoming part of the Christian church – 1 Cor. 1:2). Thus, Christianity preceded the written message.
Third, it is an historical fact that Christianity preceded the writing of the NT. The earliest NT writings are typically considered to have been written in the mid-to-late 40s (whether the first book is the Gospel of Matthew, the Book of James, or Pauls Letter to the Galatians is debated). This means that even with a late date of Christs death / Pentecost (of A.D. 33), there is at LEAST a decade gap between the beginning of the Church and the VERY first NT writing. The point is even more strongly made when we consider that Pauls writings (which are, at minimum, among the earliest NT writings) were letters addressed to already-existing churches. Add to this decade more time for delivery and distribution, and I think it is easy to see that the Church had to go for quite some time with no (NT) Scriptures of its own.
Fourth, Christians existed and continue to exist without possessing the NT. Even when the NT started to be written, its contents were not in the possession of the average believer. Besides the above mentioned delivery and distribution time lags, people simply did not have easy access to copies. Further, the NT was written in a time when most of the population was illiterate. Finally, it would be another 1,500 years or so before the invention of the printing press made Bibles widely accessible even to literate people. (Thus, this is not just an Ancient, Medieval, or Reformation age issue). Even in our own time, people from many parts of the world become Christians when the Bible is forbidden or inaccessible in their own language. This certainly represents a hindrance to Christianity, but it is hardly destructive.
So even if the skeptic were successful in showing the Bible to be untrustworthy, he has not really gained much ground at least if he is using that untrustworthiness as an attack on Christianity itself. For even if we give up the entire Bible, Christianity remains.
The Christian apologist Gary Habermas has an interesting method that he uses when defending the historicity of Christs resurrection – he calls it the Minimal Facts Approach. What Habermas does is agree to use only the most academically respected sources (both Christian and secular) in support of his contention that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. In doing so, he avoids the Gospels, many of Pauls letters, and several other NT books that do not enjoy nearly universal authentic status among professional historians. Using only the minimal facts that can be gleaned from whatever historical documents are left, Habermas proceeds to argue that the resurrection remains the best explanation of the data. Its a great approach, and his protégé, Michael Licona, has been very successful with his version of it as well.
As I considered the implications of the typical skeptical attacks on the NT, and the results they hoped to achieve, I wondered whether I needed to keep ANYTHING from the NT in order to defend Christianity. If it is the case that, logically, the Bible is not necessary for Christianity, then I wondered what could been done apologetically with the Bible entirely absent. If we took the minimal facts approach to what is certainly an absurd extreme – without reliance on anything in the Bible (Zero Facts approach?), what would we have left over from Christianity?
As it turns out, pretty much everything.
The arguments for the reliability of the Bible include an impressive array of evidence that, by a rather shockingly large margin, prove the Bible to be the most trustworthy of all ancient writings. Part of that evidence is the fact that even if we had no ancient manuscripts from which to derive our current Bible translations, we could reconstruct all but 11 verses of the NT just by reading the Church Fathers (some of which overlapped the writing of the NT).
Until recently I simply relegated this impressive fact to just another reason to think we know what the original manuscripts said. Now I have come to realize how much more significant this fact is. This is because it is not simply the case that the early Church Fathers quoted a bunch of Scripture they quoted it while discussing theology. Theology they already knew. They quoted it while writing letters back and forth between churches. Churches that already existed. And they were able to quote Christian Scriptures and discuss Christian theology in Christian churches because Christianity already existed.
But guess what did not exist back then? The New Testament! (Well, sort of.)
I have written on the issue of NT canon formation elsewhere on this site, but in a nutshell: the actual collection of books that make up the NT were not even listed in their present form until the 4th Century, and even long after that several books remained in question. So, technically, what we call the NT is a collection that was not recognized as such for hundreds of years. But this is a minor issue considering the implications of all the above issues concerning availability and literacy rates. The significant point is that what kept the Church going during this time was its own teaching teaching that can be found in the writings of the Church Fathers.
In other words, before the NT was canonized, Christianity already existed. Before the NT was completed, Christianity already existed. Before the NT was even begun, Christianity already existed. Thus, most of the issues skeptics have with Christianity remain even if the Bible is taken out of the equation. At minimum it is clear that the message that brought people into Christianity was from the very beginning that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, that he died, was buried, and rose again ( a.k.a., the Gospel! See (Acts 2 and all Acts sermons cf. 1 Cor. 15).
This was the message the apostles died (often horribly) for.
This was the message the early Church suffered persecution for.
And it was this message, promoted by 12 simple men from the insignificant and faraway land of Israel, and believed by social outcasts who worshiped in catacombs, that two centuries later brought the greatest empire on earth to its knees.
As Habermas and others have shown, even if skeptics were successful in calling most of the Bible into question, the historical facts surrounding the miracle of the resurrection would remain. But even if we gave in to the skeptics arguments concerning the resurrection, they would then have to deal with historical facts that would now be even more difficult to explain. The very existence of the Church seems miraculous especially if the resurrection did not occur!
Thomas Aquinas argues that God has indeed proven His word via miracles, and yet the existence of the Church itself is an even greater miracle:
Without violence of arms, without promise of pleasures, and, most wonderful thing of all, in the midst of the violence of persecutors, a countless multitude, not only of the uneducated but of the wisest men, flocked to the Christian faith, wherein doctrines are preached that transcend all human understanding, pleasures of sense are restrained, and a contempt is taught of all worldly possessions. That mortal minds should assent to such teaching is the greatest of miracles. (SCG 1.6)
Why should the existence of the Church be considered so miraculous? Are there not thousands of competing religions in existence that could claim the same thing? The reason for this is that it is how the Church came into being that must be explained. Anyone can make up some attractive lies and gain followers for gain. But the opposite is not the case. Lies for gain are one thing, lies for loss are quite another.
Perhaps the skeptic will argue that this is a case of begging the question arguing in a circle that the Church proves the Church? Not at all. The argument is not that the Church says she is true, therefore she is true. Rather, it is the nature of the facts surrounding her birth so unusual that they beg for a miraculous explanation. To quote Aquinas again:
This so wonderful conversion of the world to the Christian faith is so certain a sign of past miracles, that they need no further reiteration, since they appear evidently in their effects. It would be more wonderful than all other miracles, if without miraculous signs the world had been induced by simple and low-born men to believe truths so arduous, to do works so difficult, to hope for reward so high. (SCG 1.6)
Far from merely providing additional credibility to the reliability of a book, the history of the Church might itself be considered miraculous. How else can such a bizarre turn of events be explained? In John Henry Newmans Grammar of Assent, he considers Gibbons alternate explanations for the rise of Christianity. Gibbon considers five: the zeal of Christians, inherited from the Jews, their doctrine of a future state, their claim to miraculous power, their virtues, and their ecclesiastical organization.
1. As to zeal, . . . how did party spirit tend to transplant Jew or Gentile out of his own place into a new society, and that a society which as yet scarcely was formed in a society? . . . Christians had zeal for Christianity after they were converted, not before.
2. Next, as to the doctrine of a future state (i.e., the fear of hell) . . . now certainly in this day there are persons converted from sin to a religious life, by vivid descriptions of the future punishment of the wicked; but then it must be recollected that such persons already believe in the doctrine thus urged upon them. . . . give some Tract upon hell-fire to one of the wild boys in a large town, who has had no education, who has no faith; and instead of being startled by it, he will laugh at it as something frightfully ridiculous. The belief in Styx and Tartarus was dying out of the world at the time that Christianity came in, . . . the thought of eternal glory does not keep bad men from a bad life now, and why should it convert them then from their pleasant sins, to a heavy, mortified, joyless existence, to a life of ill-usage, fright, contempt, and desolation.
3. As to the claim to miracles . . . heathen populations, who had plenty of portents of their own, [and] Christian miracles are not recited or appealed to, by early Christian writers themselves, so fully or so frequently as might have been expected. . . . A claim to miraculous power on the part of Christians, which was so unfrequent . . . can hardly have been a principal cause of their success.
4. The “sober and domestic virtues” of Christians, their “aversion to the luxury of the age,” their “chastity, temperance, and economy,” [are simply too dull] to win and melt the hard heathen heart, in spite too of the dreary prospect of the barathrum, the amphitheatre, and the stake? Did the Christian morality by its severe beauty make a convert of Gibbon himself? On the contrary, . . . How then were those heathen overcome by the amiableness of that which they viewed with such disgust? We have here plain proof that the Christian character repelled the heathen; where is the evidence that it converted them?
5. Lastly, as to the ecclesiastical organization, . . . how could it directly contribute to its extension? Of course it gave it strength, but it did not give it life. . . . It was before Constantine that Christians made their great conquests.
Further, Newman notes that Gibbon has not thought of accounting for their combination. If they are ever so available for his purpose, still that availableness arises out of their coincidence, and out of what does that coincidence arise? Until this is explained, nothing is explained, and the question had better have been let alone. These presumed causes are quite distinct from each other, and, I say, the wonder is, what made them come together.
Finally Newman states,
The real question is this,are these historical characteristics of Christianity, also in matter of fact, historical causes of Christianity? Has Gibbon given proof that they are? Has he brought evidence of their operation, or does he simply conjecture in his private judgment that they operated? . . . Christianity made its way, not by individual, but by broad, wholesale conversions, and the question is, how they originated? . . . It is very remarkable that it should not have occurred to a man of Gibbon’s sagacity to inquire, what account the Christians themselves gave of the matter.
Newman then goes on for several pages noting the incredible stories of the martyrs who died for the idea of Christ and not simply dying, but going to their deaths in such a way that that the historians of the time cannot but marvel. SO amazing was the testimony of the martyrs that sometimes their very captors and torturers converted (only to be killed along with them).
Thus was the Roman power overcome.
Thus it is not enough to admit that history lends evidential support to Christianity. Rather, history cannot be easily explained without Christianity. Whatever gain may be found in attacking the written record of the Christian religion, even a wholesale skeptical victory would not overturn the fact of the birth of the Church based in its belief in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without this event, Christianity is false (1 Cor. 15:12-19) and history becomes explainable only by absurdity.
The present, also, remains difficult to explain:
Here, then, is One who is not a mere name, who is not a mere fiction, who is a reality. He is dead and gone, but still He lives,lives as a living, energetic thought of successive generations, as the awful motive-power of a thousand great events. He has done without effort what others with life-long struggles have not done. Can He be less than Divine?
None of the above should be taken to suggest that we abandon defense of the Bible. This approach is not a reductionist attempt to shield the Bible from legitimate criticism. There is no need for the evidential arguments for the reliability of the Bible are extremely strong (so much so that if they are thought to fail the Bible then, to be consistent, all of ancient history goes with it). If nothing else, it is difficult to imagine that God would bother inspiring hundreds of pages of communication only to have it lost before it could be disseminated!
Rather, what I am suggesting is that we apologists can benefit from a shift in our focus. Instead of moving from defending Realism (that truth and reality exist and are knowable), then Theism (that a personal, creator God exists), and then the Bible, perhaps it would be better to defend the movement that produced it. This approach opens the door to even more clear, available, and accepted evidences. If needed, it can also be used to neatly sidestep issues of biblical transmission, inspiration, inerrancy, or infallibility (these textual issues can be dealt with scientifically, philosophically, or theologically, instead of apologetically). Given this approach the skeptics target becomes both smaller and more difficult to hit – all without threat to Christianitys teachings (which, after all, are the skeptics real prey).
As for my thoughts on this. I would say that off the top of my head, I would answer the question as a NO. Christianity does not need the Bible to be successful at winning souls. Nor does it need the Bible to survive, and my biggest defense it this belief would be what God told Jeremiah,
"But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people." (Jeremiah 31:33)
All we need is for Him to be in our hearts and we can and will win souls. The life of those who were locked up without bibles in concentration camps under the Nazis, and the Soviet Union, and East Germans, reached non Christians with their logical explanation of God and Christ. The original Christians had no Scriptures to read and share. Inevitably the letters they could share became our new testament, but man were saved and brought to Christ who could not read, by other Christians who could not read. Jesus told his followers that he would bring to remembrance the things he taught them when they needed Him to. When it comes time to testify, we are told not to worry about what to say, because the Spirit will speak for us.
The Bible at times I fear, becomes a hindrance for many. I mean so in the case that they fail to put things to memory, and so when they attempt to remember scripture they fail. If we put more faith in Christ to help us share the word, then we will be able to reach the people we need to reach in ways we never would have thought possible. Yes, especially if we do not have a bible handy to point to. The Bible is needed for Christians to study and learn. We are supposed to read it, and each and every Christian is told to study to be approved, but it is not needed to grow the Church.
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 2Timothy 2:15
My friend Doug would appreciate some feedback on this before he decides whether or not to sit down and write a book, or teach a class on this subject in his class. It is a long read, but a good thought provoking one.
Before the Bible, you didn’t have Elton John communicating to the masses that Jesus Christ was a homosexual.
....All we need is for Him to be in our hearts and we can and will win souls.
Ping for later
So you are using Scripture to depend abandoning Scripture?
Do you need matter to have a physical body?
Same answer to both questions.
Homosexuality was even more prevalent during the rule of the Roman Empire. Remember, Nero, the man to kill Paul and Peter, had his boyfriend castrated and married him. Homosexuality was looked upon as normal by everyone but the Jews at the time.
So while they may not have had Elton John, they did have advocates in Rome, the Emperors.
No, you reading comprehension needs some work.
I have the luxury of the Scriptures to make a point to prove the Scriptures are not needed to win souls. After all, whet did they win souls by for the first 300 years?
Even up till the mid 20th century the vast majority of humans could not read, so the bible was doing them no good. Yet many were saved by those who could not read the Scriptures. How? God wrote His commandment on our hearts. Love, the greatest commandment.
When you start with love in your heart, then I promise you that God is not far away, because He is love. Next thing is God sending a Christian your way to share the word.
However, you misunderstood the whole reason for this post. A friend of mine teaches at a Seminary school, and he wants some feedback on his thought about this. he is considering writing a book or teaching on this to his students, and he wants some opinions on it.
Obviously, you have no opinion other than empty criticism.
Christianity without the Bible is mere paganism. Make God into anything and anything into a god.
The Bible is known to be more accurate today than at any time in the past.
Only those who have misguided faith in the pronouncements of philsophical naturalism (science) would even consider such a question.
If you would at least read his closing paragraph, you would see in his conclusion he agrees with you. His reason is more an apologetical question for those who continually get caught up in the many unnecessary debates about the way the bible came about, who wrote it, etc. etc. etc.
Sadly, so many Christians fail to get beyond those debates and thus they never get to actually share the Gospel because Satan has the other person locked on debating the Bible.
However, no one is advocating it’s end, or not studying it. I knew this would ignite some good debate, and this is a start, but what about the gist of the question?
“Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”
Don’t plan on meeting your friend in the hereafter.
My response is we do need the Bible.We do need a written text
because it is the source for our faith. What we feel inside
is subjective and can be misleading .The written text gives us a record that can be tracked back to the eyewitness accounts.My girl has a boyfriend who has read the Bible and believes a lot of it but he also believes he has seen the devil while doing Meth and he still prefers how he “feels “ on drugs. My point being he is relying on what he feels in his heart And that cannot be reconciled favorably to Scripture.
I must believe that you never even read the article, otherwise you would not have insulted me or my friend.
Believe me, neither I nor my friend Doug is misguided in our faith. Nor are we lost in the pronouncements of philsophical naturalism (science).
Many here know my credentials, so I will not repeat them, but as for Doug, he is a very well respected seminary scholar and a very devout Evangelical Christian.
As for Doug’s devotion to Christ, I wish I could match my faith against his. So, for you to even suggest that about either of us is very off the mark.
I will mark down your response as nothing more than a smarmy remark from someone who is unwilling to honestly contemplate the question at hand.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1
The Bible is God...God is the Bible. YES, Christianity needs the Bible.
The Bible is a Christian’s written authority, without written authority Christianity would be mere opinion, one man’s opinion is as good as another. No one could be proven right or wrong. It would be like Judaism without Moses’ law.
Sounds like classic feminine logic. “If you understood, you would agree w/ me.”
Incapable of considering that someone could understand... and disagree.
Since you and Doug have ‘credentials’, then you’ll surely recognize, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” If you want to be offended, suit yourself. It’s just pride talking.
My comments must have hit too close to home...
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