3 Ways I Would Like to See Evangelical Leaders Stop Defending The Bible

I posted last week on “3 Things I Would Like to See Evangelical Leaders Stop Saying about Biblical Scholarship.” Today’s post is about rhetoric I have heard from evangelical leaders when defending a biblical position. Though these leaders may be well-intentioned, I feel their rhetoric only serves to score points, entrench positions, and detract from much needed conversation.

You’ll see that these three are interrelated.

1. The “it’s possible” or “be patient” argument. When faced with a genuine and serious challenge to a position considered important to maintain, I have seen a persistent tendency to argue for the mere “possibility” of the traditional position (or similarly, that the position is “not impossible”). Apparently, if a position is salvaged as possible/not impossible–however slim–that warrants maintaining it.

This type of argument is like that of a defense attorney charged with defending his client at any and all costs. Such a defense attempts to establish the client’s innocence by casting some shadow of doubt, however minimal, on the prosecution’s case. If innocence is “possible” that’s good enough. Sort of like the O.J. trial.

A close cousin is the “be patient” argument, which says, “Although what you say may look dire for our position at the moment, further study and exegesis will eventually vindicate our position, so no need to jump to conclusions now.”

Both tactics are obscurantist and would not be tolerated for an instance if the evidence were lined up in the opposite direction. Imagine if, say, biblical archaeologists had abundant and overwhelming evidence of the conquest of Canaan, but a small group of liberal renegades were holding out and constructing scenarios whereby their positions were “possible?” Or were calling for more “patience” as they continue to find new ways to defend themselves?

The “it’s possible/be patient” defense is an indication that the end goal determines the process.

2. Manipulating the process to arrive at the desired conclusion. Related to #1 is the use of manipulative rhetoric to achieve the desired goal. For example, one can begin a debate with a loaded premise that biases the argument toward the desired conclusion. For example: “Brothers and sisters, we must be ever on guard to defend the Bible against those who seek to discredit it by claiming it is historically inaccurate.”

Here we have an emotional appeal that subtly equates attacking the Bible with questioning it’s historically accuracy, i.e., anyone who really believes the Bible will not question the Bible on historical matters.

The key here is to question the premise, to require a defense of it, rather than simply accepting it. If you question the premise, the discussion can potentially go in a different and helpful direction (provided both parties are willing to do so). But if this type of rhetoric is allowed to set the terms of “discussion,” there will be no discussion.

3. The problem is your faulty presuppositions. Arguments over details can be avoided by appealing to opponent’s presuppositions. Now the debate is not about how to handle specific and complex data, such as whether the flood happened or who wrote the Pentateuch, but the faulty presuppositions that would drive one to doubt either.

This tactic is an effective way of disagreeing with someone who knows more. Saying someone is wrong because they have the wrong presuppositions leaves the disagreement on the spiritual level and so avoids accusing someone of incompetence. “Yes, I know you are brilliant and respected, and I’m just a simple [fill in the blank], but can’t you see how your presuppositions are leading your brilliance down the wrong path?”

But here’s the thing about presuppositions: they are not all created equal. They can be tested. Put it this way, if someone asserts that the Bible must behave in a manner “X” because it is God’s word, and yet in your reading of the Bible you are finding a lot of “not X,” you either (1) have to question your reading skills, (2) admit you are so spiritually depraved you can’t read straight, or (3) consider that the assertion may be in error.

That’s the choice, and after being fed a steady diet of  #1 and #2, #3 starts looking pretty reasonable.

I remember a discussion like this in graduate school. A professor was discussing how some scholars have a penchant for holding on to a theory long after the evidence piles up against it by talking about exceptions, or stretching the theory to fit the data, etc. He said, “If you find one thing that doesn’t fit the theory, it’s an exception. Two things, a sub-category; Three things, get a new theory.”

All of this is to say, the “faulty presupposition” argument only works if the presupposition is sound. At some point you may have to scrub a “theory” about the Bible and make one that aligns with what’s there.

I have a longer list of these kinds of arguments I’ve come across and I will get to them sooner or later. My purpose here is to expose (in a positive sense) unhelpful rhetoric used by those who, I am sure, want to speak the truth. But these tactics are not the way to get there.

  • http://the3150.wordpress.com Dan

    #3 reminds me of how Christian Smith talks about Thomas Kuhn’s work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and his discussion of paradigm shifts (in Smith’s book How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-five Difficult Steps). You start by collecting anomalies and eventually begin questioning the paradigm and then the paradigm is in crisis and then you find a new paradigm that has more explanatory power over the evidence and has less anomalies.
    Also, I had an OT professor in college who got sick of hearing “is it possible…” questions in class (especially about Genesis and historicity and such) and began to just answer them all with “well, yes, anything is possible.”

  • AHH

    I’ve also seen Kuhn used in bad ways, sort of a combination of #1 and #3.
    Saying for example that evolution is just today’s paradigm, but that sometimes scientific paradigms change and so it is possible that will happen for evolution (#1). And that since Kuhn showed scientific positions are sometimes held for unscientific social reasons (true to some extent but many stretch Kuhn too far here), the current paradigm is only held because people have presuppositions of “naturalism” (#3).
    Both ways of avoiding the challenges to cherished (albeit nonessential IMO) doctrines that might come from actually facing up to the evidence.

  • Ernie

    A personal favorite of mine is “You need to have faith. If you had faith, you wouldn’t question this.”

  • http://www.suttersaga.com Samuel Sutter

    Yeah, this is fair – I’ve heard all three and they always comes off as desperate.

  • James

    As biblical studies move away from systematic, propositional appoaches to those more narrative and inductive (even imaginative!), it may be easier to align the “process” with the “goal” of knowing “God’s word.” As long as we are bound by dogma, doctrines and written creeds (Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy?), the outcome of ongoing investigation will be determined before it is undertaken. We are told the early creeds were hammered out in the face of dire threats to the faith. Is such a fortress mentality justified in our day?

  • Bev Mitchell

    One big problem is our longing for simplicity, simple explanations, nice neat stories, take this pill etc. This human longing will not go away any time soon, so as long as there are talented communicators willing to peddle simple solutions (eg. inerrancy, literalism, perspicuity), they will win the majority of hearts and minds over those who say “well, it’s actually more complicated than that, let me explain why.” Correct or incorrect has little to do with it. It’s a matter of simple explanations vs. ones that are far less simple. It isn’t even a matter of education. Scientists love to draw overly simple conclusions from limited data – and have been known to advise their students to tie up their thesis with a nice story. This works as well in politics as in biblical interpretation and popular theology – and in the US these days, it’s often perpetrated by the same, very skillful, people.

    Along these lines, and by way of a tip on a new book that shows how complicated things can really get (but explained very clearly), consider the following from Ian Tattersall in his wonderful “Masters of the Planet: The Search for Human Origins” Palgrave MacMillan 2012.

    “….it should never be forgotten that everything we believe today is conditioned in some important way by what we thought yesterday; and some current controversies are caused, or at least stocked, by a reluctance to abandon received ideas that may well have outlived their usefulness.”

    “We humans have rather reductionistic minds, and we are beguiled by clear, straightforward explanations. But where murky Mother Nature is concerned, beware of excessively simple stories.”

    • Matt Thornton


  • Bev Mitchell

    I like my little pink atavar, but see that my friend AHH didn’t fare so well. :)
    Do we get to keep these?

  • Michael Straight

    “But here’s the thing about presuppositions: they are not all created equal. They can be tested.”
    What sort of test can you do to evaluate source criticism of the Pentateuch? If people disagree about whether two passages are from the same source or a different source, what kind of test can decide between them?

  • Some Dude

    Dr. Enns,

    Amen to this article. Numbers 1-3 are the “pat answers” nonsense I was talking about in your last post on Historical Criticism. After I was convinced that Genesis 1-11 (and other passages) are thoroughly entrenched in Ancient Hebrew Cosmology/ancient, fallible science, I confided to an apologist friend that I was having doubts about the infallibility of Scripture because of said reasons and he said, “That’s a slippery slope down the road to unbelief!” Then he said, “Here, read this article in Bib Sac refuting Enns, Seely, and the like”. I read the article and got the some ole’ song and dance from the author (who claimed that comparative ANE studies aren’t as clear as people like Seely claim they are), then I reviewed Walton, Heiser, and other evangelicals who disagreed with the author and I thought, “Without giving pat answers, who is *actually* trying to make sense of the textual data? What actually makes more sense? Who is *really* doing grammatico-historical exegesis?” I’ve found that the more I’m faithful to the hermeneutic (i.e., G-H method) I learned from my evangelical tradition, the more it drives me away from evangelicalism. Thanks for creating an environment where a disciple of Jesus can safely struggle with doubts about Jesus’ written word.

    Sustained by the Spirit (for now),

    Some Dude

  • rvs

    Thanks for the work you are doing on this front.

  • Caleb G

    You hit the nail on the head with #3 (Faulty Presuppositions). In visiting the Creation Museum a few years ago, and in conversations with others, I have seen the term “presupposition” used repeatedly. The mantra is that Christians and Evolutionists (aka biologists) look at the same evidence and interpret it differently. For some time now this argument has baffled me. Do those making this argument not realize that how postmodern they sound?
    Certainly one brings presuppositions to the evidence and these presuppositions influence how one interprets the evidence. But presuppositions do not determine one’s interpretation, otherwise, how can one explain people who change their position?
    As you say, not all presuppositions are equal. Heliocentricism and geocentricism both carry presuppositions, but the accumulated evidence fits one model much better than the other.

    • Some Dude

      What you are referring to is part of what pushed me away from Van Tilian presuppositionalism. For instance, how does a Van Tilian deal with ancient Hebrew cosmology? Undermine the presenter’s naturalistic presuppositions? What if the guys teaching it (like Drs. Enns, Heiser, Walton) don’t have those presuppositions but actually argue against them in their own ways? What now? It seems to me that the only way around it is to become a stick-yer-head-in-da-sand scientific anti-realist, but then you’d be admitting that there’s really a dome in the sky and that there really are people “under the earth”, which of course, would contradict your anti-realism.

      It seems to me that in order to avoid wholesale intellectual bankruptcy and inevitable apostasy, we ought to make sense of the Bible in light of what science, archaeology, historical criticism, and comparative studies have to offer and be people of truth even if it “hurts”.

    • Paul D.

      “Do those making this argument not realize that how postmodern they sound?”

      I’ve thought exactly the same thing. Creationists seem to be arguing that there is no objectively valid interpretation of scientific evidence, and that everything depends on which presupposition you choose. That’s not just postmodernism, it’s lousy postmodernism.

  • Norman

    Would a faulty presupposition sound something like this: “The consensus of most scholars is …….. which agrees with mine” therefore I must be right.

    That literally drives me up a wall when good scholars and authors use this phrase to bolster their premise. Theological positions are ever evolving and the consensus today may become tomorrow’s left behind menu.

    Of course I’m sure I’m going to come across as agreeing with #3 to some extent. Everyone needs to constantly evaluate their presuppositions.

    • Derek

      Agree with you Norman, and I agree with much of what you are saying in this piece Dr. Enns, thank-you.

    • peteenns

      Yuck, Norman, you’re such an iconoclast. How about this for a faulty presupposition: scholarship is a conspiracy to conceal truth, so when I buck the system, I know I am write.

      • Norman

        Pete, it takes one to know and appreciate one doesn’t it. LOL
        I consider myself an equal opportunity iconoclastic distributor. ;-)
        However I’m not really one given to conspiracies, but just an observer of human nature and how things work themselves out. It makes life more interesting:-0
        Of course it appears there is a fine line that may separates the curious and the disorderly .

  • Derek

    Sha-Zam! Love my avatar! =)

    • peteenns

      Glad you’re happy :-)

  • http://www.finallyhuman.com Ian


    I’ve loved these last two posts on rhetorical faux pas.

    Each time I’ve ended the article itching for a more positive response. I’d really love to see a way Christians could defend the Bible as their source of ecclesial, spiritual and philosophical inspiration in their discussion with opponents. I fear you are whipping the carpet away without demonstrating a way of using Scripture and the Biblical Studies field in a responsible way.

    Of course, if you’ve posted on this before, just point me in the right direction.

  • http://craigvick.wordpress.com Craig Vick

    Though post modernism means many things to many people, I don’t see where these three defenses have much in common with the those who are usually considered formative post modern thinkers. It’s more like pre-modernism than post modernism. Where, for example, is the deconstruction of ones own views?

  • Randy

    This is illogical. Basically, Peter, you are intolerant of someone’s views as long as they are tolerant of yours.

    • peteenns

      Explain how my post is “illogical.” And there is no need to personalize as if this is simply a matter of my personal preference. For example, I am certainly intellectually “intolerant”–and should be–of those who say the earth is flat and insist other think so, too.

      • Randy

        I did explain why it is. You are wanting, as you say “evangelical leaders”, to be tolerant towards your views, opinions, or whatever; but you don’t want to be tolerant of their views of “defending the Bible.” Illogical argument. And I didn’t personalize it. You was the one to put “I would like to see” in your title. Sounds personal to me.

        • peteenns

          You sound like a liberal–tolerance for everyone. The point is those arguments are “illogical” and non-productive. There are other ways to defend one’s position. “It all comes down to faulty presuppositions,” for example, is demonstrably false.

  • arty

    Dr. Enns:

    I answered your question, at your last posting.

    • peteenns

      Yeah I saw that. Sorry. Busy week here training young minds of mush…..

  • Ben S

    My issue with #3 is that not all presuppositions CAN be tested. How does one talk to someone of the New Atheist mentality, when it’s not the details one differs on (existence of evil, etc.), but the presupposition of the existence of deity? That can’t be tested or proven one way or the other.
    And sometimes, arguments are simply based on bad assumptions. Critiquing assumptions is not a priori a weasel tactic, though it often is.

  • http://www.johnsramblings.com John’s Ramblings

    This is an excellent read that I’ve shared with my readers. It sums up beautifully the erroneous language of many pastors. Thanks for sharing this.


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