From the archives: Bart Ehrman’s misleading piece on the history of Christian Fundamentalism

Haven’t done a “From the archives” post yet this week, and I realized I needed to link this post while writing a separate post I’m working on, which will appear shortly.

As big of a fan as I am of Bart Ehrman, this Washington Post piece he wrote is annoying and misleading (HT: John Loftus). The core argument is this: discrediting Biblical inerrancy won’t discredit Christianity, because no Christians claimed Biblical inerrancy was a core doctrine of Christianity until 1870. Before that, Christianity was defined by things like the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, which don’t mention the Bible.

The omissions are serious: maybe no one said “you must believe in inerrancy to be a Christian” before 1870, but clearly the doctrine was important to Christianity before then. Both Augustine and Aquinas believed it (see especially the quote from Augustine in article 5 objection 2). Also, the fundamentalists of 1870 had understandable motives for wanting to re-emphasize inerrancy: the liberal theologians they were reacting to weren’t just questioning inerrancy, they were questioning other things in the Nicene creed. The purpose of making inerrancy central was to draw a line in the sand, to refuse to cede an inch to the liberals, lest more important doctrines get thrown out along with inerrancy. For Ehrman to align himself with both liberal theologians and the Nicene creed is disingenuous, and makes his claim that “biblical scholarship will not destroy Christianity” ring false.

There’s also a serious misrepresentation of what fundamentalists believe when Ehrman jumps from the slogan “believe in the Bible” to making it “an object of faith,” in place of Jesus. When fundamentalists talk of believing in the Bible, they’re using it as short-hand for believing that the Bible is inerrant, not making it an object of faith. To claim otherwise is just a cheap shot.

Given everything wrong with fundamentalism, it’s unnecessary to make stuff up in order to criticize it. Unless, that is, you’re an agnostic trying to pose as a friend of Christianity, in which case it may help to invent imaginary disagreements between fundamentalists and liberals.

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