Sunday, September 30, 2012

Dealing with Contradictions

My purpose for this blog is to comment on modernism, and one of the fruits of modernism is an increase in atheism. Since as a teenager I was an enthusiastic modernist and considered myself an atheist, the subject of atheism has continued to be on my mind since I began to follow Jesus Christ. So, I decided I will include posts dealing with atheism and their critiques of religion.

One attack that I see atheists often using is to point out contradictions in Christian beliefs, usually within the text of the Bible itself. The idea is that contradictions undermine the credibility of the Bible and the Christian faith.

One type of contradiction is when an event or series of events is described in more than one place in the Bible, but in different ways. These contradictions are most often found in the four gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each of these books presents a story of the life of Jesus, but when comparing them to each other, differences can be found.

I have several things to say in response to this critique. First of all, Christians have been aware of these problems since the beginning. There were some who wanted to only use one of the gospels, and there were some who attempted to combine the four. The conclusion was that each of the four gospel accounts had apostolic origins and presented an important perspective on who Jesus is. The fuller view presented by the four-fold gospel was worth the difficulties of discrepancies in the details.

Second, experts who deal with multiple accounts of an event, whether they be criminal investigators or historians know that multiple witnesses will not agree in all of the details. In fact, if there is too much agreement, it raises the suspicion of collaboration between the witnesses to get their story straight. If the early Christians were making up the stories of Jesus, they could have easily fixed the discrepancies. The fact that these were known by the early Christians to be four independent witnesses of the life of Christ, whether directly as in the case of Matthew and John, or indirectly as in the case of Mark and Luke, made them off-limits to any tampering.

Third, there was a period of oral tradition that elapsed between the events of Jesus' life and the writing of the gospel accounts. The cultures surrounding the life of Jesus had strong practices of accurately passing on stories orally. It is quite likely that as the first Christians began to preach about Jesus, they formed a consistent manner of telling the stories of Jesus so that they had a collection of stories memorized that could be used at various occasions. Later, when the gospel writers composed their works, they drew from this collection, arranging the various stories in ways that fit their purposes. This oral tradition is so consistent that it has led to the theory of a lost document called "Q" that served as a common source for some of the gospel accounts. However, there is no historical basis for the existence of Q, and I think a strong oral tradition is a better explanation for the consistent source.

Fourth, the four writers had different target audiences and had purposes in their writing beyond just recording a chronology of the life of Jesus. They wanted to emphasize a particular point about the identity and mission of Jesus in a way that made sense to their target audience, so they chose stories and arranged them in a setting to best make their point.

These are some things to think about when dealing with contradictions in the gospel accounts. Similar principles apply to other parts of the Bible. In my next point, I will address apparent contradictions in the beliefs of Christians.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Bonhoeffer - Seeking Truth

Image of Dietrich Bonheffer
I'm reading Bonhoeffer - Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has interested me since I read some chapters from his book Life Together back in college. This Metaxas book is a richly detailed biography that is also a very good read. What is disturbing, however, as the Nazi shadow looms over the story is how often I see things that remind me of our times. When I see how quickly and easily Germany changed, I wonder what our country is changing into.
Bonhoeffer studied Theology in Berlin University under the influence of the well known liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack. Although Bonhoeffer respected Harnack, he came to very different theological conclusions. Harnack died in June 1929, and a memorial service was held for him which featured an impressive list of speakers, including high ranking government officials. Twenty-four year old Bonhoeffer was asked to speak on behalf of Harnack's former students, and here is Metaxas' quote from that speech.
It became clear to us through him that truth is born only of freedom. We saw in him the champion of the free expression of a truth once recognized, who formed his free judgment afresh time and time again, and went on to express it clearly despite the fear-ridden restraint of the majority. This made him . . . the friend of all young people who spoke their opinions freely, as he asked of them. And if he sometimes expressed concern or warned about recent developments of our scholarship, this was motivated exclusively by his fear that the others' opinion might be in danger of confusing irrelevant issues with the pure search for truth. Because we knew that with him we were in good and solicitous hands, we saw him as the bulwark against all trivialization and stagnation, against all the fossilization of intellectual life.
Metaxas goes on to comment about this speech.
Bonhoeffer's words reveal that he was never what one might today term a culture warrior, nor could he easily be labeled conservative or liberal. ... Anyone on the side of truth, wherever it led, was a compatriot to be lauded. ... Bonhoeffer's father was his primary mentor in this way of thinking. Karl Bonhoeffer's conclusions may have been different from his son's, but his respect for truth and for other human beings of different opinions formed the foundation of a civil society in which one might disagree graciously and might reason together civilly and productively. In the years ahead this would be seriously attacked, and the Nazis would stoke the fires of the culture wars (Kulturecampf) to play their enemies against each other. They would brilliantly co-opt the conservatives and the Christian churches, and when they had the power to do so, they would turn on them too.
What concerns me about the culture war arguments that I see in the United States today is that most of the arguments on each side of the fence are only about winning, not about seeking the truth. My concern is not only that such people end up blinded to the truth, but that they are also easily manipulated. Then all it takes is a sufficiently skillful leader to take them down a path they never intended to go. They won't even realize what they have done until it's too late.