For the Bible Tells Me? No.

For the Bible Tells Me? No. December 27, 2015

Man praying hands on a BibleI don’t have any concrete numbers for this, but I’m fairly certain that most Christians who take up apologetics as either a hobby or a career are inerrantists. By that I mean that they belong to one of those subsets of the Christian faith which believe that the Bible is right, not just about some things it says, but about everything it says. Tim Keller falls into that category, which would explain why he devotes Chapter 7 of The Reason for God to arguing that the Bible never gets anything wrong.

The Christian faith requires belief in the Bible. (p. 102)

Most would say that they know there are many great stories and sayings in the Bible, but today ‘you can’t take it literally.’ What they mean is that the Bible is not entirely trustworthy because some parts…are scientifically impossible, historically unreliable, and culturally regressive. We looked at the first of these issues, the science of the Bible, in the previous chapter. Now we will look at the other two. (p. 103)

Having studied the Bible both formally in college and grad school and having been a lifelong student of it, I can tell you the Bible’s detractors are exactly correct.  The Bible gets a ton of things wrong in every category of error it could possibly make:  It makes mistakes which are historical, mathematical, scientific, metaphysical, philosophical, ethical, and cultural.  Leaving aside the question of miracles entirely, the Bible asserts that a number of things happened which we know from our study of each of those things did not in fact happen at all.

Things We Know the Bible Got Wrong

For example, we know from our study of genetics that the human species cannot be traced back to a single historical couple. Looking back through the evidence we have found, it appears that no fewer than 10,000 early hominids mixed and mingled to produce the line from which we came. The writers of the Bible could not have known that, and yet inerrantists like Keller are bound to stick to that story no matter what our study of the natural world tells us.

Contrary to the Bible, we also know that there never was any dramatic exodus of nearly two million Hebrews from ancient Egypt.  If the Bible had only made a more modest claim, that story would have been harder to falsify. But two million people would have left an indelible mark, and there would be evidence of their presence left everywhere. That’s a big problem, because the exodus story is the foundational story for the Old Testament covenant community in much the same way that the Easter story is for the New. As it turns out, we find no evidence for a significant number of Hebrews anywhere prior to their gradual (and nonviolent) appearance among the highlands of Canaan somewhere around 1200 BCE, several hundred later than when the Bible suggests they appeared.

We also have learned that the Pharisees, who functioned as a key dramatic foil to the ministry of Jesus in the gospels, were nothing like the caricature of them we get from the New Testament. Years ago, biblical scholars E.P. Sanders and James Dunn revolutionized the study of Paul and second temple Judaism by digging back through early rabbinic writings and the Dead Sea Scrolls to discover that the Jewish fundamentalists whom Jesus was always condemning probably looked nothing like what we find in the gospels.  These were most likely anachronisms projected back onto the ministry of Jesus in order to provide a backdrop against which Paul’s message of being “saved by grace through faith” would stand out in starkest relief. It turns out they were ancient strawmen invented by the Pauline communities to validate their own theology.

And don’t even get me started on the internal consistencies of New Testament chronology.  Leaving aside the conflicts with external sources whenever the gospels unsuccessfully attempt to situate their narratives within an historical framework, the internal consistencies alone should be enough to dissuade any serious student of the Bible from holding to a facile view of inerrancy. Trying to reconcile discrepancies within Pauline chronology used to be a hobby of mine, and I would spend many nights and days in a row (don’t hate) trying to recalculate and rearrange narrative disagreements between the book of Acts and the letters of Paul. No one who does that for long can come away believing the Bible cannot make any mistakes.

Defending Ancient Bigotries

Finally, Keller knows from experience that on a cultural level, it is very difficult to defend the Bible’s outdated view of things like the institution of slavery or the place of women in society.

I find more people now especially upset by what they call the outmoded and regressive teaching of the Bible. It seems to support slavery and the subjugation of women. These positions appear so outrageous to contemporary people that they have trouble accepting any other parts of the Bible’s message. (p. 113)

Keller first tries to argue that slavery in ancient Rome wasn’t so bad, and that somehow the fact that it wasn’t fundamentally tied to ethnicity makes owning another human being less of a problem.  He also acknowledges that early Christians said and did nothing at all to critique the institution of slavery (you’d think a divinely inspired text would have clued them in), but goes on to claim on the other hand that “Christians did so when faced with New-World-style slavery.” I won’t rehash my deconstruction of Keller’s treatment of that subject here, but you can read my response to his infamous Chapter 4, in which he tried to give credit to Christianity for virtually every social step forward that western society has taken:

[Read “Setting the Record Straight: Correcting Tim Keller’s Faulty Historical Vision“]

But then he does the funniest little dance when he gets to the subject of women.  Keller does not try to argue that the Bible doesn’t subordinate women to men because he knows good and well that it does.  Furthermore, he agrees with it because he is a complementarian, which I like to call “Patriarchy Lite.”  It essentially views women the same way that patriarchy does, except it tries to go about it using nicer words.

Keller cannot acknowledge that each socially progressive step forward within the church stemmed from accommodating the surrounding culture because that would contradict his understanding of the relationship between the church and the world. These changes didn’t originate with a prior reevaluation of theology or hermeneutics. They originated outside the church, and initially it was the theological conservatives with a “high view” of scripture like Keller who opposed the changes—right up until the moment the culture wars ended, after which point they changed their positions, claiming that those had been their views all along, somehow because of the Bible.

Because he cannot see this, he insists that we must never fall prey to believing that our own cultural situation is somehow “ahead of” the Bible. As with most of Keller’s pivotal arguments, this insight was borrowed from C.S. Lewis, who labeled this tendency “chronological snobbery.”

I urge people to consider that their problem with some texts might be based on an unexamined belief in the superiority of their own historical moment over all others.  We must not universalize our time any more than we should universalize our culture…To reject the Bible as regressive is to assume that you have now arrived at the ultimate historic moment, from which all that is regressive and progressive can be discerned. (p.115)

But isn’t that precisely what Keller is doing with first-century culture?  Isn’t his key problem that he is universalizing the opinions and beliefs of a specific place and time, enjoining us all to adopt the prejudices and bigotries of ancient culture?  Were they somehow, in their time, at the ultimate historic moment? Put differently, isn’t this merely a different kind of chronological snobbery?  I’d say this is a classic case of projection, the pot calling the silverware black, as it were.

A Weak Attempt at Sidestepping the Problems

True to form, Keller frames this entire discussion in a highly manufactured way. First he presents the gospels as if they are somehow the logical starting point in order to defend the reliability of the entire Bible:

It is beyond the range of this book to examine the historic accuracy of each part of the Bible. Instead, we will ask whether or not we can trust the gospels, the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life, to be historically reliable. By this I mean the “canonical” gospels–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—that the church recognized very early on as authentic and authoritative. (p. 103)

But this brings up two or three interesting points.  The first is:  Why are we only looking at the canonical gospels?  Why can’t we look at the historical reliability of the others, the ones that didn’t make it in?  It’s historically inaccurate to present the development of the canon as if it were a uniform thing. Furthermore, this admission highlights the fact that the reliability of the Bible is necessarily predicated on the reliability of the church, since someone had to determine what constitutes “canon” in the first place.  I’ve addressed this and about five other logical inconsistencies inherent in the very notion of inerrancy before:

[Read “The Absurdity of Inerrancy“]

But another question we must ask is:  Why can’t we start somewhere else?  If the entire book is reliable and not just this part, then shouldn’t we be able to start anywhere at all and find the same measure of historical corroboration of data? Why can’t we start with the aforementioned exodus story and find out what history tells us about that?   Of course I already know the answer to that question. If the Bible turns out to be mistaken there, then Keller’s concept of an infallible book falls to pieces right away. This would explain his reluctance to take the discussion anywhere other than to the places where he feels he can claim the most certainty, most likely because we have so few historical resources available for falsifying those particular claims.  

Watch how he uses that tactic to dismiss the question of the subjugation of women in the Bible: 

If you say, ‘I can’t accept what the Bible says about gender roles,’ you must keep in mind that Christians themselves differ over what some texts mean…However, they all confess in the words of the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. Don’t worry about gender roles until you figure out what you think about the central teachings of the faith.

Think of it like this. If you dive into the shallow end of the Biblical pool, where there are many controversies over interpretation, you may get scraped up.  But if you dive into the center of the Biblical pool, where there is consensus—about the deity of Christ, his death and resurrection—you will be safe.

Note how he feels compelled to warn us not to begin in the places that may get us “scraped up.”  How very considerate of him.  But also note how we are supposed to be impressed, for some unstated reason, by consensus among Christians on anything at all.  For Keller that is a big selling point, but it’s at moments like these when I suspect he forgets it doesn’t carry the same weight for people like me that it does for people like him.

Inescapable Circularity

In the end Keller’s reliance on a particular construction of biblical inerrancy obligates him to resort to circular reasoning, without which the presuppositionalist apologetic method wouldn’t even exist.  He keeps borrowing from his own conclusions in order to establish his own premises, and his theological tradition has desensitized him to why this doesn’t work on anyone but the already convinced.

Take for example his contention that Paul couldn’t have made up the bit about 500 witnesses to the resurrection:

Paul refers to a body of five hundred eyewitnesses who saw the risen Christ at once.  You can’t write that in a document designed for public reading unless there really were surviving witnesses whose testimony agreed and who could confirm what the author said. (p.105)

I can see why Keller didn’t choose a career in jurisprudence (or history for that matter). It takes a special kind of naiveté to accept a claim like that at face value.  How, pray tell, are the recipients of the letter to the Corinthians supposed to verify a third hand report (Paul wasn’t there, which means he got this from someone else) about something that happened at an unspecified location on the other side of the Mediterranean, especially since not a single one of those 500 people were named?

Does Keller suppose they could just hop in a car and drive over there to find these people, or pick up the phone and call them? And now I’m wondering, would this have been even more impressive if Paul had said it was a thousand people? Or ten thousand?  Would that have increased the credibility of this story, or would it have stayed effectively the same? Does that count as one confirmation, or ten thousand?  I just don’t get why this is supposed to be impressive.

In the end, Keller’s argument for the reliability of the Bible is summed up perfectly in a footnote to this chapter:

I am not here trying to argue for the complete trustworthiness of the Bible, only that its portrayal of the life and teaching of Jesus is historically accurate. If it is, then we can draw conclusions about who Jesus is from the information we read there. If eventually we put our faith in Jesus, then his view of the Bible will become ours. Speaking personally, I take the whole Bible to be reliable not because I can somehow “prove” it all to be factual. I accept it because I believe in Jesus and that was his view of the Bible. (p.277, n.4, emphasis mine)

That right there perfectly illustrates the circularity inherent in a belief in the infallibility of the Bible, and many versions of the Christian faith are predicated on this particular construction. Keller suggests that we should accept the entire Bible as “reliable” because Jesus viewed the entire Bible as reliable.  And how do we know that Jesus viewed the entire Bible as reliable?  Because the Bible says that Jesus did.

Just don’t look at those messy places over there.  Start over here, where assertions are made about completely unfalsifiable things like the third hand reports of a mass of unnamed eyewitnesses to something that no historian or archivist would have had any way to discount.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.


As with the rest of this review, I am including links to the videos of Steve Shives, who covered all of these chapters in pairs in his “An Atheist Reads” series. Be sure to check them out.  Here he covers Chapters 6 and 7, along with the intermission in the middle of the book.

If you’d like to read the rest of my responses to Keller’s chapters up until this point, you can find them listed here:

(Other Posts in this Series)

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