Biblical Lysenkoism: Has Al Mohler ever read all four Gospels?

Here are some wise words from J.R. Daniel Kirk in 2011 on pastors and the Synoptic Problem:

It is your pastoral responsibility to help people recognize that the Bible we actually have, rather than the Bible of our imaginations, is the word of God.

If you don’t give your people a category for this kind of diverse Bible being the word of God, then you will create a false sense of connection between a supposedly uniform, univocal Bible and the Christian faith as such. So what happens when they go off to college and take a Bible class at State University? What happens when they get bored one Saturday and map out (or try, anyway) the last week of Jesus’ life in each of the four Gospels?

Uh oh.

That’s when they discover that the Bible isn’t what you led them to believe. And if that imagined Bible is necessary for believing what God has to say about Jesus and the Christian faith in general, then the latter are apt to crumble as well.

Make no mistake, there are tremendous pastoral issues at stake in affirming correctly what the Bible is. But one of the worst mistakes we can make, especially in a day and age where media will tell people the truth if we don’t, is to affirm a vision of a single-voiced scripture that fails to correspond to the text we have actually been given.

Anyone who grew up fundamentalist knows exactly what Kirk means when he talks about getting bored one Saturday and trying to map out the last week of Jesus’ life in each of the four Gospels. We know what he means because we did this.

I remember the first time I made such a chart. It was right after I got my telescope, so I think I was in about the third grade. I was reading everything about astronomy that I could get my hands on, including ambitiously tackling Ben Bova’s In Quest of Quasars — which was a bit beyond my little-kid reading level.

And as a good fundamentalist Baptist kid, I was also reading the Bible. I lay down on the floor with our gargantuan copy of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance and looked up every passage that had anything to say about stars or space or the sun or the heavens declaring the glory of God. There’s some really lovely stuff in there, like 1 Corinthians 15:41: “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.” (Bova used that verse as an epigraph before one of his chapters.)

And that also led me to look more closely at the creation stories in the beginning of Genesis. The story in Genesis 1 was a bit confusing, with light being created three days before the sun and moon. (Light from where? Did such source-less light cast a shadow?) But I quickly forgot about that once I encountered the bigger puzzle: The story in Genesis 2 didn’t fit with the story in Genesis 1. Seven days turned into one. People were made before plants instead of plants before people.

I had been assured by preachers and Sunday school teachers that these stories could be “harmonized,” but I couldn’t make that work. I tried — I made a chart, tracing out the two stories in parallel, but the pieces just couldn’t be made to fit.

I had, as Kirk said, discovered that the Bible wasn’t what I had been led to believe.

That did not lead, at that time, to a crisis of faith in the Bible, but rather to a crisis of faith in my Sunday school teachers. It seemed obvious to me that anyone who read the first two chapters of Genesis would have to realize that the two stories couldn’t be harmonized. So I didn’t begin to doubt that the Bible was trustworthy, but I did begin to have serious doubts that my teachers had actually read it.

Instead of trying to harmonize those stories, I adapted a concept I had just learned from Mr. Bova and decided that these two incompatible stories offered something like a kind of parallax view of creation. That, in turn, led to a mutually perplexing conversation with a Sunday school teacher in which, for a moment, we both sat there, holding up an index finger while winking at each other with first one eye, then the other. He didn’t seem to appreciate my idea, but in fairness I don’t think I was explaining it very well.

That’s a relatively benign example of the kind of Pastor Fail that Kirk warns against. But the stakes are often much higher — particularly in churches that make biblical “inerrancy” an all-or-nothing, non-negotiable foundation of Christian faith. When that happens — when salvation and meaning and Jesus and God’s love are made contingent on the Bible being inerrant and wholly consistent in every particular — then people are being set up for a devastating crisis of faith that can only be avoided by not reading the Bible.

A recent Baptist Press story includes a puzzling account from Mike Licona about his students at Southern Evangelical Seminary catching their first glimpse of the crisis of faith awaiting them:

Licona recalled a student in a class he was teaching at Southern Evangelical Seminary who, with tears forming in her eyes, wanted to know whether there were indeed contradictions. A majority of the class, he said, raised their hands to indicate they were troubled by apparent contradictions. Then he realized it was something he should address.

I say this account is puzzling because Licona seems surprised by this. How is that possible? How had he managed to live and teach in the inerrantist Southern Baptist culture without having encountered this same question dozens of times before? How had he avoided asking those questions himself?

The next bit from the Baptist Press story is even stranger:

As he studied the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Licona began keeping a document of the differences he noticed. The document grew to 50 pages.

So here we have a man teaching in a seminary who seems never to have heard of the Synoptic Problem. How does that even happen?

I commend Licona for determinedly setting out to reinvent the wheel independently, but wouldn’t it have been easier just to, you know, go to the library and consult the shelf-after-shelf of volumes written about all of this?

I’m not saying that from an academic perspective, but from a pastoral one. Licona here is describing himself as being surprised by questions that every church youth group volunteer has faced year after year with every crop of kids.

We tell those kids to read the Bible and a few of them actually do. And some of them actually “get bored one Saturday and map out (or try, anyway) the last week of Jesus’ life in each of the four Gospels.”

And then they have questions. They notice the differences between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 and they ask about it. They notice the differences between the Synoptic Gospels and John and they ask about them. They notice the differences among the Synoptic Gospels and they ask about those. Some of the brighter and more ambitious Bible readers will even ask about some of the more esoteric bits gleaned from the not-always-compatible stories in the histories of the Hebrew scriptures.

And if you don’t know how to answer those questions, then you’ve got to do more than bluff around them, because any kid who reads 1 Chronicles on her own deserves a serious, honest response.

How is it that Licona hadn’t previously encountered those kids’ questions? How is it that he hadn’t previously asked them himself?

But as weird as it is to ponder Licona’s innocence about such questions, what’s even weirder is the claim that Dr. Al Mohler makes in this Baptist Press story.

Mohler doesn’t claim to be upset by Licona’s approach to the Synoptic Problem. Mohler claims to be upset that Licona acknowledges there is a Synoptic Problem. Mohler simply asserts that every detail of all four Gospels is completely consistent. The “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” says so, so it must be true — even if everyone who’s ever read all four Gospels knows this is ridiculous.

Mohler, in comments to Baptist Press Feb. 6, said, “It would be nonsense to affirm real contradictions in the Bible and then to affirm inerrancy.”

“Even Dr. Licona concedes that we ‘may lose some form of biblical inerrancy if there are contradictions in the Gospels.’ What you lose is inerrancy itself,” Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said. “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy clearly and rightly affirms ‘the unity and internal consistency of Scripture’ and denies that any argument for contradictions within the Bible is compatible with inerrancy. An actual contradiction is an error.”

… “The Christian faith rests on a comprehensive set of truth claims and doctrines,” Mohler said. “All of these are revealed in the Bible, and without the Bible we have no access to them.”

That leaves only two possibilities. The second, and more charitable of the two, is that Al Mohler has never read the Gospels. (The only other possibility is the one that won Burt Lancaster an Academy Award.)

What will happen if Al Mohler ever does read the Gospels? What will happen if he gets bored one Saturday and tries to map out the last week of Jesus’ life in each of them? What will happen when he confronts the fact that no amount of shoving, shaving, squinting and blurring can ever produce a seamless “harmonizing” of Matthew and Mark and Luke and John?

Will the whole house of cards come tumbling down? Or will he be able, at long last, to separate the Bible as it is from the elaborate construct he has built all around it?

Chaplain Mike takes a thoughtful look at this whole Mohler/Licona kerfuffle — including an excellent spit-take at Norman Geisler’s impossible-to-swallow statement that Licona has strayed from “the historic view of inerrancy.”

That’s a bit like saying someone has strayed from “the historic view of Lysenkoism.” No, wait, actually that’s exactly like saying that.

Chaplain Mike quotes from the original Internet Monk, Michael Spencer:

We need not claim that the Bible is “…a perfect compass. Or a perfect map. Or a perfect book. Because God is perfect. And if God said it, it must be perfect. It’s perfect. Really, really really perfect. Not just true. Not just a book that brings us Christ and the Gospel. Perfect. And if you don’t come out and walk around saying the Bible is perfect, then you reject the Bible.”

And then he adds: “My friends, our faith is not a Jenga game, dependent on blocks of post-Enlightenment logic being stacked just right so that they are in danger of collapsing if one of them is moved the slightest bit.”

The precarious Jenga tower of perfect consistency that Al Mohler has erected cannot survive an attentive reading of the Gospels. I wonder if Mohler could survive it himself.


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  • Amaryllis

      No stuffed Chicago-style?
    No. Although Chicago may have its saving graces, when it comes to pizza, New-York-style thin-crust is infinitely superior.

    “This isn’t a pizza,” it said, after a minute. “This is a hot tub filled with cheese and sausage.”
    “You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Dave said.

    “Isn’t it?” the [alien] asked. “I don’t pretend to be an expert on your
    disgustingly meat-based bodies, but it seems to me that the primary
    ingredients of this object are designed to block up every artery in your
    circulatory system. If we do indeed decide to destroy you, we could do
    it just by delivering one of these pies to every man, woman and child on
    the globe.”

  • I could go with flying squirrel worship. Apparently they are one of very few animals way cuter IRL than they are in cartoon form:

  • Oh my god. Real-life “anime eyes”…

  • That can get messy.

    Only when we attempt to pull rabbits out of hats.

  • stardreamer42

    Omnipotence: Having unlimited or universal power, authority, or force

    Unlimited means unlimited; if you start putting conditions on it, then it’s not unlimited any more.

    But the point I was making is that this kind of argument is bog-standard when discussing things like the problem of evil: “It may not make any sense to you, but our understanding is limited and God’s is not.” And I don’t see Biblical contradiction as being any different from that, in terms of the applicability of the argument. It only looks contradictory because you’re mortal; God is absolutely capable of having both of those statements be inerrant at the same time, and that’s what’s important.

    Note, please, that I consider this particular argument to be the world’s biggest cop-out; effectively, it’s saying, “We don’t have any answer for that question beyond ‘because I say so’, so STFU.”

  • stardreamer42

    Interesting. I used to call that “pantheism” — the view that all religions are equally valid. But “omniquantism” is less subject to misinterpretation, since “pantheism” can be taken to refer to a particular pantheon. So thanks, I’ve learned something cool today!

  • Baby_Raptor

    I have nothing to say of relevance to your post, but I wanted to say that your analogy is awesome and amusing. 

  • Well, this guy seems to think he can reconcile any contradiction.

  • AnonymousSam

    *Tilt* Pantheism means something very different than “all religions are equally valid.” That’s indifferentism. Pantheism is more like “the universe is a manifestation of God and divinity can be found in nature itself, rather than in the belief of a transcendental being.”

  • aunursa

    Per the dictionary, omnipotent doesn’t necessarily mean “unlimited power.”  It can mean “unlimited authority.”

    At any rate, Christians aren’t arguing that God can do absolutely anything.  If you have a quibble, it appears that it’s over terminology.  If you define omnipotence as the ability to do absolutely anything, including things are logically impossible and things that are contrary to one’s nature (e.g. Can God become forgetful?), then most Christians and Jews would agree that God is not omnipotent — using that definition.

    The article at this link discusses traditional and philosophical definitions of omnipotence.

  • Tapetum

    **Divide by cucumber error**
    **Please reboot universe**

  • stardreamer42

    You keep not engaging with my point in favor of quibbling over whether or not “omnipotent” means what we think it means. Forget “omnipotent” — at this point it’s a distraction.

    The POINT is that it’s absolutely routine for people with questions about why this or that thing doesn’t make sense, or seems to be contradictory, to be told that the fault is in their perception, because they are not God and cannot understand God, because God is perfect. Why, then, is that argument not just as routinely deployed about questions of internal Biblical contradiction? The two, or three, or however many there are versions of the Creation story or the Resurrection are all inerrant because God is perfect and His understanding surpasses the best we can achieve. 

    It is, as I noted above, the perfect unanswerable, un-arguable-with response whenever reality interferes with the demands of religion. So why don’t they use it for these questions? If I were them and had an argument at my fingertips that can render any of the hard questions the fault of the questioner, you can bet I’d be deploying it for something like this!

  • AnonymousSam

    In retrospect, I actually really like that response. What’s the point of being omnipotent if you can’t even break your own rules? And who is Joe Schmoe to tell God, “You made your bed, now you have to sleep in it”?

    Well, unless Joe Schmoe is Jewish, in which case, it often seems like he might be capable of sending God to bed without dinner.

  • The_L1985

     Because a book about a guy who heals the sick, raises the dead, and teaches people to be kind to one another, angering local authorities to the point that he is branded a traitor to the Empire and executed, can’t inspire people if it isn’t literally true.  Um, no.

    Nor does the truth of the Gospels depend on the truth of the dozens of other books with which it is generally published and bound.

  • Diona the Lurker

    Actually, that’s not really what pantheism is – the actual definition, quoting from Wikipedia, is “Pantheism is the belief that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent God, or that the universe (or nature) is identical with divinity. Pantheists thus do not believe in a personal or anthropomorphic god.” Apparently the misconception comes from the idea that the word pantheism, which means “all God”, really means “many gods”.

  • Fusina

     As someone with cultural roots both Jewish and German, yes, it does. I pray for the peace of Jerusalem, that those living there can learn to live together regardless of religion. I like your meme titles, Generational revenge – FAIL is good.

    I think it may be battle fatigue, at least in this case. I’m fifty, and damn proud to have lived this long, but it seems the teenage girls are still fighting the same battles I fought as a teenage girl. Maybe it is getting better, at least the idiots are now being outed as such, but it seems we have such a long way to go to full equality. And I find myself falling into old patterns of thinking–especially regarding things like clothing choices and activities.

    Oh, lastly, Hi up there. I have relatives in Minneapolis, and possibly also in St. Paul. Mostly they are up in Aitken County, and yes, I do have Norwegian Bachelor Farmer relatives (long story there).

  • Carstonio

    Good point. The “puny human minds” argument wrongly treats questioning  as wrong, and I wonder if the theologians who use this argument realize that they sound like orthodoxy enforcers. (Assuming that the theologians aren’t part of the religion’s power structure.) From my limited exposure, their theologies sound like systems of internal logic that depend on core assumptions, and it’s not obvious why one set of assumptions would be better than any other, or why any such assumptions would be necessary.

  • Robyrt

    Contradictions in the Bible are the result of our imperfect understanding of a difficult text, not some additional level of understanding that only God can access. Why is this different from the problem of evil? Because the Bible (unlike the universe) is specifically designed for consumption by humans, so it doesn’t make sense for it to rely on things that are not intelligible to us. Evil, on the other hand, is a question which God’s active refusal to answer (in Job) implies that we are incapable of or unwilling to or not ready to understand the answer.

  • Carstonio

    The problem of evil is what I mean by assumptions. The question exists only because of the postulate of a deity with omni qualities. Similarly, the argument from evil is simply the opposite postulate, flatly rejecting the possibility of such a deity. It’s as though the advocates of both postulates ignore the existence of other theologies. 

  • aunursa

    The POINT is that it’s absolutely routine for people with questions about why this or that thing doesn’t make sense, or seems to be contradictory, to be told that the fault is in their perception, because they are not God and cannot understand God, because God is perfect.  Why, then, is that argument not just as routinely deployed about questions of internal Biblical contradiction?

    It may very well be absolutely routine for skeptics to be told that the fault is in their perception.  I regret that I don’t understand what this point has to do with my previous comments.

  • In that respect, the stories of Jesus remind me of similar hagiographic treatment of American culture-heroes like Davy Crockett, George Washington, and Lewis & Clark.

  • Contradictions in the Bible are the result of our imperfect
    understanding of a difficult text, not some additional level of
    understanding that only God can access.

    That argument is not too far removed from the “fossils in the soil are fakes put there by God to test your faith”.

    It says God is, as your Bible says, purposely putting stumbling blocks before the blind.

  • Makabit

    No, the fake fossils are a lie, meant to screw with your head in a high-stakes game  of ‘screw with your head’. The Bible is only a challenge.

    It’s the difference between an English teacher demanding that you figure out some themes of Hamlet on your own, as opposed to actively lying about them.

  • ReverendRef

     It seems to me that what Mohler, and many, many others want is for you to worship the Bible, not God.

    Um . . . No.  What Mohler and company want is for others to worship EXACTLY WHAT THEY TELL YOU ABOUT THE BIBLE.

    They don’t want you to notice two creation stories, or that the sun came on the fourth day, or that Jesus overturned the tables in the temple early in his ministry in John but at the end in the synoptics, or that Jesus was crucified after the Passover in Mark but before the Passover in John, or that . . . pick your discrepancy.

    If I have to force people to believe what I tell them, then I’m not a faith leader — I’m a cult leader.  No thanks.  I’m happy to dig into the questions and try to help people work out their faith without beating them over the head with some cut-up, highlighted and edited Schofield Reference Bible.

  • Aiwhelan

     I’ve heard a tale of a similar debate, going 3-1, and the “1” calls on and gets help from God himself, speaking from the heavens, “He’s right!” 
    And the other three shout back, “And now the vote is 3 to 2!”

  • aunursa

    Reminds me of the friendly competition in The Lord of the Rings — between the elf Legolas and the dwarf Gimli — as to which one will kill more enemy forces.  After Legolas singlehandedly takes down a giant Oliphaunt, Gimli immediately responded, “That still only counts as one.”

  • There’s wanting someone to do a little thinking, and then there’s just plain being obscurantist.

  • aunursa

    No, the fake fossils are a lie, meant to screw with your head in a high-stakes game of ‘screw with your head’.

    Evangelical Christians have told me that Jesus was born to a virgin in order to fulfill messianic prophecy and prove that he is the Messiah.  Evangelicals have also told me that the resurrection of Jesus proves the truth of Christianity.

    Most Christians apologists seem to expect that Jews will dispute the miracles of the virgin birth and the resurrection.  I don’t.  My response is this would be: “Was Jesus born of a virgin?  Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t.  Was Jesus resurrected after being dead for two or three days (depending upon which Gospel you’re reading)?  Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t.  But even if Jesus was born of a virgin and even if he were resurrected from the dead, it wouldn’t prove the truth of Christianity.”

    How could that be?  Why would God allow such miracles to happen for a false religion?  I would point the apologist to Deuteronomy 13:1-4.

  • alfgifu

    Y’know, I don’t have much of a problem with this approach other than that people who endorse this insist that it all actually happened exactly as described. I mean, the disciples are stuck in their upper room feeling exactly like chumps for following a dead guy when word reaches them that he CAME BACK FROM THE DEAD. Pandemonium makes perfect sense as a reaction, and well explains the conflicting narratives, but only if you allow that the reason they conflict is that they didn’t all happen as described.

    When I was the sort of little girl who read I Chronicles and started to wonder about the differences in the Gospels, I came across this argument and it made perfect sense. It’s quite possible to put together a coherent narrative from more or less the entry into Jerusalem through to the end of the resurrection story if you just assume that people were confused and running about trying to work out what was going on.
    In some cases apparent contradictions can be dealt with by making assumptions about what the text doesn’t say. eg where ‘two angels guarding the tomb’ becomes ‘the angel spoke to X’ you can either assume that one of the angels left, or that the text just doesn’t mention the second angel because only one of them spoke.

    This all seemed really significant back when I was about twelve. It’s a little less relevant to my faith these days – I really don’t think it matters much – but I have a nostalgic fondness for people who make the effort to get narrative cohesiveness out of the separate accounts.

    The best example I know is the epic radio play cycle The Man Born to be King (Dorothy L. Sayers) which is a brilliant and character-ful series of short plays covering the whole life of Jesus. It’s from a Christian perspective, but I bet it would read just as well from a retelling-an-interesting-myth perspective. 

    Of course, Sayers knew she was writing fiction (even though she believed it was based on a truth), so that helps.

  • From the Revised Standard Version:

    [Y]ou shall not listen to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

    That gets up my nose something fierce.

    That kind of behavior reminds me uncomfortably of the kind of mind games I’ve heard about in abusive relationships, where there’s no good end result for anyone except the person trying to be a total jackass.

  • Hilary

    As far as accepting Jesus as Messiah, I’m still holding out for this:

    Lo yisa goy el goy cherev, lo yimedo od milchamah

    Nation shall not raise sword against nation, nor shall they study war.

    I don’t have a problem seeing Christianity as another covenant God made for people to be in, and certainly a lot of Christians are good people, but the fulfillment of Judaism and the Torah . . . . ?

    Lo yisa goy el goy cherev . . . . come back and we’ll talk when that actually happens because of Jesus.


  • The_L1985

     My Jewish boyfriend uses that one when people try to convert him to Christianity.  He’ll give a (not-painful–the joking kind that is deliberately held back so as not to hurt) slug to the arm, and say, “Nope, there’s still violence in the world.  So the Messiah clearly hasn’t come yet.”

  • Just wanting to add my two cents here. I happen to be Mike’s son-in-law. Yes. If anyone knows about doubt, it’s Mike. He’s wrestled with it incredibly often. He also does know very well about the synoptic problem. I think the greater shock is that Seminary students didn’t know about it. (Yes. I know where he taught at there are students who don’t know about it.) Mike and I had several conversations before this event took place where we discussed “contradictions.”  My thoughts on Mohler’s statements can be found here:

  • Being an ELCA Lutheran and not a fundamentalist, I’ve never had trouble with the Synoptic Problem. Not a problem, but an interesting literary puzzle that gives us a chance to see different views of Jesus. When I preach that’s what I do – not “who is Jesus,” but “what does Luke, Mark, Matthew, John see in Jesus?” 

    Last Sunday – Lent I – was Luke’s version of the temptation. Matthew and Luke don’t agree on the order of the temptations. What do you make of that? I asked.  Since it wasn’t the point I felt we needed to focus on in our little rural congregation in Kansas, I let the point go. But I’ve not had a complaint about asking people to look at what’s actually in the Bible and wonder what/if it says to them.

    Of course it’s the word of God, Luther is supposed to have said. But is it Word of God for me? Is it addressed to me?

    And we do not only ask of the text what it means, but the text asks of us, What do you mean? That, as I remember it, was one of Bultmann’s thoughts. Bultmann, that heretic! 

    Dealing with the actual scripture isn’t going to make you a heretic nor crush faith. Being unwilling to read the actual text and deal with the actual text will lead to the destruction of faith when a thoughtful reader, as Fred points out, actually encounters the synoptic problem.

    BTW, why have students make their own synopsis when there are Synoptic Gospels available in both Greek and English?

  • TJ Baltimore

    Except that the early universe was opaque for the first couple of hundred-thousand years

  • I was handwaving, not trying to be 100% scientfically accurate. Keep in mind I don’t believe in God anyway :P

  • Mike

    Have you ever thought of the possibility that God Himself was the source of light prior to the ‘light’ being created.
    Just a thought