I don’t have any concrete numbers on this, but I believe most Christians who are into apologetics as a serious hobby are inerrantists. By that I mean they belong to one of those subsets of the Christian faith who believe the Bible is right—not just about some things—but about everything. Tim Keller falls into that category, which explains why he devotes all of Chapter 7 in The Reason for God to arguing that the Bible never gets anything wrong.
The Christian faith requires belief in the Bible…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. (pp. 102-103)
My graduate work was in biblical studies—at Reformed Theological Seminary, no less—and I can still tell you the Bible’s detractors are spot on. The Bible gets a ton of things wrong in every category of error it could possibly make: historical, mathematical, scientific, metaphysical, philosophical, ethical, and cultural.
Leaving aside the question of miracles entirely, the Bible claims that a number of big things happened which we know for a fact did not happen at all.
Things We Know the Bible Got Wrong
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 it took no fewer than 10,000 early hominids mixed and mingling to produce the line from which we came. The writers of the Bible could not have known that, and yet inerrantists like Keller are duty bound to stick to that story no matter what our study of the natural world tells us.
Related: “Faith and Reason Are Not Really Friends“
Contrary to the Bible, we also know that there never was a dramatic exodus of nearly two million Hebrews from ancient Egypt. If only the Bible had made a more modest claim, that story wouldn’t have been so easy 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 can 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 began.
We also have learned that the Pharisees—who functioned as a key dramatic foil to the ministry of Jesus in the gospels—were nothing at all like the caricatures 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 looked nothing like the people we find in the gospels.
The ubiquitous teachers of the law we find in the New Testament were mostly 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 just ancient strawmen invented by the Pauline communities to validate their own peculiar 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 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 Keller’s facile view of inerrancy.
Trying to reconcile discrepancies within Pauline chronology was once a hobby of mine. I spent many nights and days in a row (don’t hate) trying to recalculate and rearrange the narrative disagreements between the book of Acts and the letters of Paul. No one who does something like that can come away believing the Bible cannot make 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 somehow if it wasn’t fundamentally tied to ethnicity, that made 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, but then he goes on to claim “[They] did so when faced with New-World-style slavery.” I won’t deconstruct Keller’s treatment of that subject again here, but you can still read my response to it. The short version is that he tries to give credit to Christianity for virtually every social step forward that western society has taken.
Next Keller shifts into the most awkward of dances around the subject of women. He refrains from arguing that the Bible doesn’t subordinate women to men because he knows it does. And while he didn’t dare mention it here, he essentially agrees with it because he is a complementarian—what I like to call Patriarchy Lite. It essentially views women the same way that patriarchy does, except it says it more nicely.
Patriarchy: Make me a sandwich. Complementarianism: Make me a sandwich, please. Egalitarianism: I’m gonna get a sandwich. You want one, too?
— Neil Carter (@godlessindixie) January 30, 2014
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 proper relationship between the church and the world.
But these changes never seem to originate with an internal reevaluation of their theology—they have to be forced upon them by law. A couple of times, the military had to get involved. Each time, it has been the theological conservatives like Keller with their high view of scripture who opposed the changes—right up until the moment the conflict ends, after which point they always change their positions, claiming those were their views all along.
Keller insists that we must never fall prey to believing that our own cultural situation is “ahead of” the Bible. As with most of Keller’s pivotal arguments, this insight echoes 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, emphasis mine)
But what is Christianity if not the universalizing of first-century culture? It telegraphs to us the opinions and beliefs of a specific place and time, enjoining us to adopt all of the same prejudices and bigotries of an ancient culture. Were they somehow at the ultimate historic moment?
Isn’t this merely a different kind of chronological snobbery? I think both Lewis and Keller are projecting here, like the pot calling the silverware black.
Sidestepping the Problems
True to its pastoral purpose, Keller’s approach must always frame the discussion in ways that keep in line with his theology. First, he brings up the gospels as if they are the logical starting point for defending the reliability of the rest of the 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 raises two or three interesting questions. Why only look at the canonical gospels? Wouldn’t it be pertinent to say something about the ones that didn’t make it in? It’s misleading to speak of the biblical canon as if it were a settled upon thing. And wouldn’t the authority of the canon be predicated on the reliability of the church? Someone had to determine what made it into the canon in the first place. These are age-old questions, and there are good reasons they won’t go away.
Read: “The Absurdity of a Perfect Bible“
Why can’t we start somewhere else in the book? If the whole thing is reliable and not just a part of it, then we should be able to start anywhere we like and find the same measure of historical validity, right? Personally, I would rather start with that exodus story and find out what history tells us about that. If the Bible got that story wrong (Narrator: It did) then Keller’s feelings about the gospels become immaterial. In retrospect, it makes sense that he would start with Jesus since we have so few historical resources for scrutinizing claims from that particular time and place.
Keller’s commitment to biblical inerrancy obligates him to employ a great deal of circular logic, without which the presuppositionalist apologetic method wouldn’t even exist. In order to establish his premise, he keeps borrowing from his intended conclusion, and his tradition finds nothing wrong with that. For evangelicals, that’s just normal.
Related: “How Faith Breaks Your Thinker“
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)
How exactly were the recipients of the letter to the Corinthians supposed to verify a third-hand report (Paul wasn’t even there) about something that happened decades earlier at an unspecified location on the other side of the Mediterranean, especially when not a single one of them is named? They couldn’t exactly hop in a car and go find these people, nor could they pick up the phone and call them to hear it from them.
I wonder, would this have been even more impressive if Paul had said it was several thousand people? Would that have increased the credibility of this story, or would it have remained effectively the same? It seems to me this only counts as one single testimony, not hundreds, and a third-hand one to boot.
Keller best sums up his personal rationale around the reliability of the Bible 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)
And how do we know what was Jesus’s view the Bible? We know it because the Bible tells us, of course.
You can’t argue with that, can you?
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]
(Other Posts in this Series)
- Introduction: “Revisiting Tim Keller’s The Reason for God“
- Chapter One: “Christian History, Revised“
- Chapter Two: “The Problem of Evil in The Reason for God“
- Chapter Three: “Straw Skepticism and The Reason for God“
- Chapter Four: “Whitewashing Christian History in The Reason for God“
- Chapter Five: “The Evolution of Hell in The Reason for God“
- Chapter Six: “Believing in Evolution, But Not Too Much“
- Bonus: “What’s Wrong with Asking for a Miracle?“
- Chapter 7: “For the Bible Tells Me? No.“
- Intermission: “Changing Gods Midstream“
- Chapter 8: “Four (Bad) Reasons for God“
- Bonus: “The Argument from Misunderstanding Evolution“
- Chapter 9: “Tim Keller and the Argument from Morality“
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