The Erosion of Biblical Certainty (by Michael Lee)

The Erosion of Biblical Certainty (by Michael Lee) October 24, 2015


Michael Lee is Grace F. Kea Associate Professor of American History at Eastern University.  His book, The Erosion of Biblical Certainty, framed this conversation.

David George Moore posed the questions.  Dave blogs at

Moore:  The dominant narrative many of us were taught is that European scholars in the nineteenth-century began to raise issues about the trustworthiness of the Bible.  Your contention is something else happened which was both earlier and done by Americans.  Describe that a bit for us.

Lee: When we think about the story of secularization, we tend to look to the nineteenth century and round up the usual suspects such as Darwinian Evolution and German Higher Criticism. While I don’t dispute the role of these forces, I argue that the roots of the decline of the conception of the Bible as a unique and supernatural revelation are to be found much earlier, in the eighteenth century. By moving the story earlier, I show that the very apologists who were most motivated to defend the Bible against attacks from skeptical deists unintentionally laid the ground work for the reception of Higher Criticism in the nineteenth century. The Bible’s eighteenth-century orthodox apologists attempted to buttress the credibility of the Bible by the intellectual standards of their age by arguing that the Bible could be authenticated by science and history. However, in doing so, the Bible’s defenders were asserting that the authenticity of the Bible depended on external and naturalistic standards.

Moore: How did Cotton Mather engage the new criticisms of the Bible and how was his approach different than other Puritan luminaries?

Lee: Puritan biblical interpreters before Cotton Mather were certainly scholarly, but they would have taken the supernatural nature and the factual and historical truth of the Bible for granted. His predecessors were concerned with interpreting the Bible correctly. They were convinced that their exegetical practices and the guidance of the Holy Spirit ensured a proper interpretation. Their adversaries were other Christian interpretive communities who affirmed the supernatural nature and authority of the Bible, but interpreted revelation differently. Cotton Mather, on the other hand, was fighting a different kind of battle. He was trying to defend the very status of the Bible against deistic skeptics. He, though inconsistently, tried to argue that the Bible met all the standards of natural science and history. At times, he was inching towards the position of treating the Bible like an ordinary ancient text; he wanted to examine it by naturalistic standards. These were standards that he believed an intellectually honest and neutral deist could affirm.

Moore: To what degree were Mather and others changing the terms of the faith v. reason debate?

Lee: I wasn’t able to fully explore this question in Erosion, but at some point in the future, I would like to think, research, and write about this history of the understanding and use of the idea of “reason.” I believe that there is some aspect of “reason” that transcends the vicissitudes of history and culture, but I am not quite sure what that is yet. When I ask my students about the relationship between faith and reason, they intuitively think that it is a zero sum game. That is, back then, people had more faith but less reason. Now, we have more reason but less faith. Thus, secularization is the triumph of reason and science. However, I think that this is the wrong way to think about it. Pre-enlightenment thinkers, such as the Puritans, were certainly not irrational or unreasonable. They assumed that God was sovereign and utilized secondary causes. And they also worked on the assumption that God and the world were not fully comprehensible. However, by the time you get to the Enlightenment, the culturally accepted standards of reason changed among the intellectual avant garde. The new standards of reason or the threshold of plausibility increasingly moved towards metaphysical naturalism. Mather was attempting to adapt his faith to the new standards of reason.

Moore: How similar were the approaches of Mather and Jonathan Edwards in addressing unbelief?

Lee: Let me begin by addressing how I think they differed. Mather attempted to adapt his beliefs to the evidentialist and naturalistic epistemology of his day. The results were, at times, inconstant and strained, I think in part because he was deeply rooted in an older pre-enlightenment mode of thinking. Edwards was forty years younger than Mather and thus there was a generational difference. Edwards seemed much more comfortable with and adept at grappling with enlightenment ways of thinking. This, in part, allowed him to be much more systematic and consistent in the ways he attempted to reconcile his traditional beliefs with the challenges of the enlightenment. However, they had some significant similarities. They both took the challenges of enlightenment skepticism very seriously and attempted to offer orthodox responses. Neither rejected the advances of science; in fact, they both wrote scientific treatises. But as much as they embraced the new learning, they drew a line in the sand. They ultimately would not abandon their faith in a supernatural God and the Bible as special revelation.

Moore: What counsel, if any, would you have given to those Americans who sought to use the assumptions of critical scholarship to demonstrate the reliability of the Bible?

Lee: One could say that the defenders of the Bible could not have seen how their gradual appropriation of rational and critical tools was going to play out. I think Jonathan Edwards, though, is an example of a path not taken, and his ideas suggest he had some sense of where the Christian use of enlightenment standards of evidence might lead. Edwards was erudite and kept up with the scholarly trends developing in Europe. He did not shy away from skeptical assaults but addressed them. However, Edwards was clear that although the new enlightenment learning was helpful, alone it was insufficient to refute or prove the supernatural status of the Bible. He was willing to take empirical and rational arguments as far as they could go, but for Edwards, faith was a supernatural work of God. I’m speculating here, but I’ve wondered if some of the people I wrote about, were, at least to some degree, driven by a desire to gain cultural and intellectual respectability. To meet the intellectual standards of their day, they exchanged a mystery that depended on the grace of God for a Bible that could be examined, measured, and judged by empirical tools. I would counsel Christians to be as intellectually rigorous as possible but to be prepared to look “foolish” in the eyes of the world.

Moore: I know from my own work that many Christians confuse the authority of the Bible with interpreting the Bible.  We can hold to a high view of Scripture, but that does not guarantee that our interpretation will be correct.  I find too many believing that a high view of Scripture ensures a proper interpretation.  Unpack that a bit for us.

Lee: I agree. Modern Christians, but especially Protestants, are faced with a dilemma.  On the one hand, Christians agree that the Bible is the word of God. On the other hand, various Christian groups can’t always agree what they mean by that statement or how to interpret the text. One could look at the entire history of Protestantism, especially as it developed in the United States, as a long series of disagreements over how to interpret the Bible. Christians are divided into countless factions, but all are united in their belief that the Bible is God’s special revelation. The very thing that unifies Christians also divides them.

In the early nineteenth century, Christianity in the United States was fragmenting at an alarming rate with the advent of the Second Great Awakening. Some leaders of the newer denominations gaining popularity on the frontier claimed that they could interpret the Bible without any formal or scholarly training and that they interpreted the Bible through their intuitions. I suspect that people like Moses Stuart and Andrews Norton were searching for a scientifically grounded biblical hermeneutic and were in a search for some kind of objectivity and order to counteract what they perceived as rampant subjectivity.

Moore: What lessons are there for Christians today, especially when we seek to engage thoughtfully with skeptics?

Lee: Let me offer three thoughts:First, as I mentioned earlier, Jonathan Edwards offers a useful model. He diligently studied the new ideas and grappled with the implications. However, he did not concede the supernatural elements of his faith, which is what skeptical critics found most offensive. That is to say, Christians should enter into serious, respectful, and honest dialogue with skeptics but with the caveat that skeptics might ultimately not be convinced. The Christian faith is grounded on supernatural truths, and skeptical critics cannot fully understand or respect that. Be wary about what you are willing to sacrifice to gain their respect.

Second, I think Christians should grapple with the intellectual challenges offered by skeptics as carefully and honestly as they can. They should not take refuge behind old certainties. One need not concede to every skeptical critique, but they may offer serious and legitimate challenges.

Third, this is the trickiest one. All Christians conceptualize their God and scriptures from a cultural and intellectual and cultural context. Most are not fully (if fully is even possible) aware of their context and the intellectual assumptions upon which their claims are built. Furthermore, Christians share the same intellectual and cultural context as their skeptical adversaries. That is to say, I suspect that modern Christians have more in common with their skeptical adversaries and less in common with, say, their eighteenth- century predecessors than they might believe. Frankly, I’m not sure what to do with this last bit, but I think we need to think about it carefully.

Moore: What is on tap for your next project?

Lee:I’m working on a book on the history of theodicy and how Christians and skeptics deal with the idea of pain, suffering, and evil. Skeptics commonly use “the problem of evil” or the existence of evil and suffering of innocent people as an argument against the existence of a benevolent deity. Here is the problem in its basic form. God is omnipotent. And God is infinitely loving. But bad things happen to good people. Therefore, God is either insufficiently powerful to stop the suffering of people, or God is insufficiently loving to be moved to stop the suffering of people. Either way, the God of the Christian tradition cannot be. I intend to undermine the “problem of evil” by historicizing it.

People, such as Epictetus and the author of the Book of Job, have been wrestling with the “problem of evil” for thousands of years. For the most part, though, this did not cause Christians or Jews to question God’s existence or essential nature. However, the argument became potent and threatening with the advent of the enlightenment. I argue that the ways in which people have thought about it are not merely a matter of abstract reason. Rather, they have been highly inflected by the cultural context. I argue that the problem of evil is not so much a logical problem with God but a problem with some of our unquestioned assumptions about the intellectual foundations of modernity, science, the modern conception of reason, and consumerism.


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