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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  • karmakin

    I’m not sure I can agree with this here. I don’t think what you say is a “cheap shot” really is. I don’t think it’s making the Bible the primary object of faith, but at the same time I don’t think it’s that far off either.

    Note the word primary, because I think that’s what we’re talking about here. There really has been a fundamental shift in parts of Christianity (at least a large chunk of it) over the last few decades, where it’s moved focus away from things such as the various Creeds and the words of Jesus and the NT formation of the Church towards a more core focus on God itself.

    Now, this might be a shift “back and forth” where it’s just reverting to something much older..I don’t really know..but at least in terms of the modern shift it’s very important. It explains why the old tensions between Protestants and Catholics to a degree have melted away.

    I also think that by and large the shift is a reaction to “rising secularism” in our society. Not that it’s our fault or we should do things differently. A better way to look at it is to look how people trapped in a corner tend to react.

  • Steven Bollinger

    Chris, you wrote:

    “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.”

    I’m not at all surprised that Ehrman backs this ludicrous position, which seems currently to be very popular with people who want to square the circle by remaining Christian and yet having smart people take them seriously.

    I am surprised that so many otherwise-sensible people are big fans of Ehrman, or, in many cases, were until just recently. He has always kissed establishment ass. This is just one more example. His latest book is another.

    • Chris Hallquist

      How many of his books have you read? A lot of them kick ass. Even Price and Carrier strongly recommend a number of Ehrman’s other books, like Jesus Interrupted and Forged. In fact, Forged was a pretty strongly bucking-the-establishment book.

  • Vladimir

    I absolutely disagree with this criticism of Bart Erman.

    I am a Russian Ortodox critstan. My religion along with Catholicism is 2000 years old.
    Unlike all those kinds of protestantism that appeared in 1600-s, Ortodox Christianity claims that Bible is God-breathed, not a literal word of God. Bible doesn’t have a major position in Ortodox Christian lives. Christians lived without New Testament for 300 years quite happily, and even after canon appeared most people coudn’t read anyway, so what’s the big deal about the Bible?
    Augustine and Aquinas could have belived in inerrancy, but it means nothing. They could have believed that earth stands steel and sun rotates around it. Disproving it didn’t kill Christianity.

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