As Christians, we need to be honest about the weaknesses of our claims so that we can deal with them effectively. We sometimes allow ourselves to be painted into corners that we should be able to avoid if we are honest about those weaknesses. I am reminded of the biblical idea that God is strong in our weakness.
So, what am I talking about? I am talking about the “fundamentalist” positions that we allow skeptics to pin on us. I say that these positions have been pinned on us because fundamentalism is a product of a word war, in my assessment, and one which we have lost to the definition of the word that comes largely from those who seek to discredit us.
Liberal, progressive types are masters at word wars and reinventing words. They know how important words and meanings of words are in manipulating culture. While a fundamentalist was once someone who subscribed to the fundamentals of faith, a fundamentalist is now a dogmatic, backwards, literalist who denies obvious evidence against a strained and rigid view of the Bible – according to the naysayers.
To be fair, however, some Christians prove the point. Some Christians have swallowed the hook, believing that we fight an all or nothing battle. That the battle lines have been drawn on the “literal” interpretation of the Bible, rather than something else (like Christ and him crucified) is extremely unfortunate.
Interestingly, the “new atheists” and modern skeptics exhibit the same fundamentalism that they have tried to pin on Christians who take the Bible seriously, and that has decidedly turned the battleground in our favor. If we would only seize the opportunity and get ourselves out of the corners into which we have allowed ourselves to be painted.
The truth is that the skeptics are right about some things, but winning those battles do not win them the war. We do not have the original manuscripts that make up the New Testament. Most of them turned to dust some time after the end of the 2nd Century. All we have are copies of copies of copies.
The manuscripts we have are also full of variations. There are about 400,000 variants to be candid. That is about 2.5 variations for every word in the New Testament, the erstwhile Bart Erhman likes to point out.
We hold as a tenet of faith that the Bible is the inerrant, inspired Word of God, but how can we even be sure we have an accurate representation of the words that Jesus, the apostles and close followers of Christ spoke?
Dr. Daniel Wallace lays this problem out in the presentation: Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament? It turns out that, though an honest assessment poses some legitimate issues, they are not as great a problem as they appear at first blush. The manuscripts we do have are only copies of copies of copies, but they number over 25,000! Some of them date back to within 50-100 years of the death of Jesus.
If we didn’t have so many copies, we might not have good reason to be confident in the text. Changes could have been made that we would never catch if the copies were not so plentiful. As it is, the incredible (more like astounding) number of copies that exist from places near and far, in many different languages, preserved in many, varied and disparate places, affords us confidence that we can discern with a high degree of certainty what the original texts said.
Further, the wealth of manuscripts allows us to determine to a high degree of certainty the extent and substance of the variations. For instance, over 99% of the variations are differences in spelling, word order, use of articles and pronouns and so on. Something less than 1% of the variations actually affect the meaning. Those variations are addressed in this 7-part presentation on The Reliability of the New Testament.
Variations include such differences as the following:
- 1 Thess. 2:7 – We were gentle among you vs. We were little children among you
- Romans 5:1 – Let us have peace with God vs. We have peace with God
The difference in both verses is one (Greek) letter, and both translations make some sense in the context. The differences, though they do technically affect the meaning, are much ado about nothing.
Or consider the following, even more problematic, variations:
- Mark 9:29 – “This kind can come out only be prayer [vs. and fasting].”
- Revelation 13:18 – “Let the one who has insight calculate the beast’s number, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.” (vs. 616)
The earliest manuscripts on Mark 9:29 do not have “and fasting”; but later ones do have “and fasting”. Most manuscripts say 666, but some later manuscripts say 616. These are significant differences, to be sure. We can have no certainty which one is the accurate, historical text, but, does it matter? No doctrine or fundamental tenet of faith turns on these differences.
In fact, Bart Ehrman, the popular modern skeptic who takes the “fundamentalist” skeptical view (all or nothing) admits:
“The position I argue for in Misquoting Jesus does not actually stand at odds with [the] position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants.”
The all or nothing approach (either 100%, word for word accurate, or it isn’t the Word of God) is a false dichotomy. The position demonstrates the logical error of the excluded middle. Whether what has been preserved is 100% the Word of God or not is really not the significant issue. The significant issue is whether and to what degree we have confidence in the text that has been preserved.
We have confidence that we have greater than 99% accuracy and reliability! That is pretty darn good, but it is not 100%.
Faith does not need 100% certainty. We do not need 100% proof to have confidence in the evidence. In fact, 100% proof is utterly unrealistic for just about anything but mathematics and logical syllogisms (that require premises we may not be able to prove).
People like 100% proof – atheist and believer alike. This is the human tendency that unifies the all-in “fundamentalist” and the all-out skeptic. A fundamentalist, in the modern, derogatory sense, stubbornly insists that the Bible we have (and maybe the King James Version of it) is 100% the inerrant, inspired Word of God. The radical skeptic is also a Fundamentalist who, finding something less than 100% proof, stubbornly rejects 100% of the Bible.
Both positions ignore the evidence, are wholly unrealistic and lead to error. We should not allow ourselves to be painted into that corner.
When you think about it, God never gives us 100% certainty. Faith demands something less than that, or else it is not faith. When God told Abraham to go to a land that he promised, Abraham went, though he was not 100% sure where he was going.
We want faith to be 100% certain, but greater than 99% is good enough! In my opinion, the tendency to want absolute certainty is pharisaical.
Consider the example of Jesus healing on the Sabbath. The Pharisees accused Jesus of violating the law of the Sabbath because they had parsed the rules into such detail that healing on the Sabbath ended up falling on the wrong side of their desire for 100% certainty. They wanted 100% assurance of not working on the Sabbath, but they missed Jesus the Messiah because he did not match up 100% to their desire to eliminate 100% of work on the Sabbath.
Jesus called the Pharisees white-washed tombs. They missed the entire point of the Sabbath (which is to rest, be still, and know that God is God). Instead, the Pharisees substituted rigid rules for understanding. They substituted certainty for faith.
Consider another example: The Pharisees said of Jesus that he is from Nazareth; that “nothing good comes from Nazareth”; therefore, Jesus is not the Messiah. If they had dug a little deeper, they would have known that he was actually from Bethlehem, though he presently lived in Nazareth. Bethlehem is exactly the place from which the Messiah was to come .
In focusing on certain details, they missed other details. They stopped looking after considering the details that did not add up, and they missed the details that revealed the truth.
Ironically, the Pharisees, who were religious leaders, were also the skeptics of the day who missed Jesus. They held to a standard that was impossible to meet, and by the very holding of that standard they missed God who stood right in front of them.
The whole point of the law is not that we must be able to keep it 100%, and therefore save ourselves; the point of the law is to show us that we could never keep it, that we will always fall short, that we need a Savior who saves us from ourselves and rescues us from the judgment that we deserve under the law.
In some ways, keeping the law (and earning our salvation) is preferable to utter dependence on God. Our pride can survive the law intact, especially if we compare ourselves to others, rather than God. Our pride, however, can’t survive salvation intact. It must be sacrificed on the doorstep to grace.
The radical skeptics of the world attack us at the points of our Pharisaical positions. They attack us at the point of our desire for absolute certainty. They attack us at the 100% point. They try to paint us into the corner of “all or nothing” when the only “all or nothing” that really makes any difference is whether we will give all of ourselves to God and leave nothing back.
The 99% plus certainty that we have is all that we need, but we are tempted to gain those last percentage points – that is the Pharisee in us. That is the part of us not willing to hold on to faith and humility and trust in God. We want to nail those last percentage points down, and that temptation leads us into the error of the Pharisees.
Sin is missing the mark. If we miss the mark by 1%, it is still sin.
There is a Pharisaical danger that we may exalt the idea of God above God, that we may exalt doctrine above God, that we exalt the written Bible above God.
God is always ever looking at the heart. He does not want 100% righteousness from us,. We can’t give it to Him anyway. God wants 100% of our hearts, and He will give us 100% of his righteousness in exchange.
This Pharisaical desire for 100% also inhibits our Christian witness. We are not willing to leave enough room for God to work. He only needs 1% of room to work, but we are not willing to give him that. We don’t need to be 100% sure before we tell someone about the Gospel. We don’t need to work out 100% of what we are going to say before we become God’s witnesses. God tells us to go, and He promises to give us the words to speak when we need them.
Jesus did not leave us His message in an airtight, locked down, hermetically-sealed box. He told His disciples that the Father was sending a Helper, the Holy Spirit, who will “teach you all things and bring to remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26) We need to leave room for the Holy Spirit in our theology and in our witness.