Friday, 14 March 2014

Why Fundamentalist Apologetics is a Contradiction in Terms

I was a fundamentalist until my literal interpretation of the Bible collided head-on with the real world in 1985 when I began tertiary education. The particular event which triggered my first crisis of faith was realising that Noah's flood could not have been global as a population of eight would rapidly be wiped out by all the obligate human pathogens they would have been carrying. My faith recovered, but it was no longer a fundamentalist one. Unlike too many other fundamentalists, I had enough intellectual honesty to recognise that evidence that refutes a worldview does not go away simply by ignoring it, or explaining it away. That event began my interest in apologetics, one that continues to the present day. 

Being spurred into apologetics after an adolescent crisis of faith is quite a common story among Christian apologists. I suspect that one of the main reasons is to ensure that other believers don't have to endure unsupported the emotional and intellectual crises that come when they are confronted with evidence that cannot be easily reconciled with what they believe. How the apologist resolved the cognitive dissonance they experienced when they had their crisis of faith is critical. Did they resolve the tension simply by constructing elaborate rationalisations for their fundamentalism, or did they accept that fundamentalism was untenable, rationally examine the evidence, and present a Christianity that was consistent with all the evidence? Unless one lives in a fundamentalist bubble and is Dunning Kruger incarnate, eventually, the stress of trying to rationalise away the evidence that refutes fundamentalism will be too much, and the fundamentalist apologist will lose faith, often in a protracted, painful way. Ironically, the fundamentalist apologist who entered the apologetics game after a crisis of faith in order to defend it ends up merely facilitating the reconversion of others by inculcating them with a flawed way of defending the faith. It's a reminder for every apologist to remember the importance of following the evidence, rather than explaining it away.

Fundamentalist Apologetics is an Intellectual Dead End

Freelance Christian writer Randy Hardman has a fascinating three part series at Peter Enns' blog on his former life as a fundamentalist apologist. Part of the problem with apologetics he argues is the danger of becoming more interested in the intellectual game of defending the faith than in living the Christian life revealed in the Bible that one is trying to defend. The other, and one which occupies the majority of his series is the trap into which many apologists fall, is in pointing out how the fundamentalist aversion to doubt and uncertainty leads to a brittle faith:
As the late Stan Grenz and John Franke note in their tremendous book Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, it is somewhat ironic that modernist thinking has extended so far in both the directions of the “godless” and the “godly.” For every atheist that’s incorrigibly committed to the truth of his philosophical naturalism there is an evangelical incorrigibly committed to his theism in such a way that neither one lacks the need to feel absolutely certain. 
For these evangelicals, conviction leaves no room for doubt, and so in popular Christian apologetics doubt is something to be assuaged with answers. 
I think central to this view is the idea of inerrancy. It is a doctrine that seems to pervade even to the point of our trust in salvation. Indeed, I got an email yesterday from a junior in college asking “How can I trust the Bible if the Gospel of John has Jesus die on a Thursday?! If that’s false, might the whole thing be false too?!”
Her answer is the result of Christian thought being in bed with modernist thought, wherein one’s faith is not truly faith but, rather, certainty rested on shaky foundations. Remove too many bricks from that foundation and the whole thing tumbles down! Like this college junior, I myself bought into such a notion of faith and it rested mostly on the doctrine of inerrancy."
The main problem with this fundamentalist doctrine of inerrancy is that is builds Christian faith on the wrong foundation. Rather than the reality of the risen Christ, fundamentalists make a doctrine of inerrancy the foundation of Christian faith. Any view of the Bible which insists that it was dictated by God word for word, and therefore is completely authoritative not only on theology, but history and science in its literal interpretation is one that is in conflict with observed reality. In order to protect this foundation, fundamentalist apologists either decree a priori science and modern Biblical scholarship to be false, or construct ever more elaborate ad hoc defences of the literal word of the Bible. Both options leave no room for doubt, and as Hardman says, creates a fragile faith which disintegrates when a single problem is acknowledged.

The areas in which problems are most likely to emerge for any fundamentalist view of the Bible are the origins debate, and in what critical Biblical scholarship has to say about the origin of the Bible. As fundamentalist views about creation and the origin and transmission of the Bible are flatly contradicted by mainstream science and critical Biblical scholarship, fundamentalist apologetics spends a considerable amount of time in creating an antagonistic relationship between Christianity and these areas of scholarship. In so doing, fundamentalist apologetics merely creates two fault lines in Christianity where deconversion is most likely to occur. Hardman notes:
It is my conviction that when we insist that young people have to choose between evolution and God or the critical results of scholarship and faith, we are not at all helping students overcome some of the intellectual barriers and questions they might have. Rather, we contribute to the swath of students who find Christianity to be opposed to reason. 
A few years ago I had lunch with a friend of mine. Through our friendship, we find ourselves routinely at odds on theological points (strangely, these odds started to only become exposed as I was starting to leave the popular apologetics mold). 
As I was currently enrolled in a Biblical Studies program at Asbury Theological Seminary, he posed me a question: “Randy, what do you think? Did Luke and Matthew use Mark as a source?” I don’t really know what answer he expected from me but I just looked at him and said, “Absolutely! That’s pretty near consensus in NT scholarship…I don’t see any reason to doubt it!” 
My friends eyes widened as he sat back in his seat, threw his hands up in the air, and said, “No, no, no…They didn’t use Mark as a source. That’s just a theory promoted by the Devil and populated through Bultmannian scholarship.” 
I went back to my pizza.
What lay behind my friend’s assertion was a conviction that critical biblical scholarship was necessarily inimical to Christian faith. One could not approach the Bible with the same scrutiny as other historical works for, in doing so, one was threatening faith.
Situations such as these are tragic, but they are completely avoidable. If what we believe is true, then it will withstand any amount of critical examination. The Pauline principle exhorting us to examine everything carefully is too often ignored by fundamentalists who begin with a conclusion, construct elaborate explanations of anything that refutes that contradiction, and then decrees certain areas off limits to investigation. As I've noted before, the cognitive dissonance that arises when fundamentalists confront reality is considerable, and the tragedy is when they resolve it by abandoning their faith, having accepted without question the false dichotomy that the only options available are fundamentalism and atheism:
What happens, for example, when a student told all his life that he must choose “God or Darwin” enrolls in a biology major? Or, as in my case, what happens when we are told that the existence of a contradiction invalidates the Bible? As I noted in my previous post, I was a young earther and an inerrantist for quite some time, and I can tell you personally that struggling with overwhelming evidence on both fronts is something I wish no one need deal with. 
How I made it through without reverting to a cold, hard atheism is beyond me. But what I do know is that there are too many casualties who don’t make it through for the same reasons. I have watched too many friends abandon all trust in God because they were told they need to choose between the boundaries set by evangelical apologetics and science.
Is the risk of being wrong about evolution or inerrancy really worth the loss of countless Christians who unnecessarily struggled? Are our casualties really worth it if, after it’s all said and done, we find out that we’ve been fighting for illusionary principles and doctrines after all? (Emphasis mine)
Fundamentalist Apologetics Represent Illusory Principles and Doctrines

Science denialism and a view of inerrancy that argues for a Bible dictated word for word by God that is 100% reliable not only for theology but science and history are very much illusionary principles and doctrines, which were alien to theologically conservative Christianity as recently as the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The conservative credentials of 19th century OT scholar and Presbyterian WH Green are hardly in doubt as exemplified by his defence of the unity of the Pentateuch, but he saw no problem in critically examining the Bible:
No objection can be made to the demand that the sacred writings should be subject to the same critical tests as other literary products of antiquity. When were they written, and by whom ? For whom were they intended, and with what end in view? These are questions that may fairly be asked respecting the several books of the Bible, as respecting other books, and the same criteria that are applicable likewise in the other. Every production of any age bears the stamp of that age. It takes its shape from influences then at work. It is part of the life of the period, and can only be properly estimated and understood from being viewed in its original connections. Its language will be the language of the time when it was produced. The subject, the style of thought, the local and personal allusions, will have relations to the circumstances of the period, to which in fact the whole and every part of it must have its adaptation, and which must have their rightful place in determining its true explanation. [1] (Emphasis mine)
Green's contemporary, Reformed theologian Charles Hodge, rejected out of hand the partial inspiration of the Bible, but rejected the notion of infallibility that fundamentalists regard as normative:
The Church doctrine denies that inspiration is confined to parts of the Bible; and affirms that it applies to all the books of the sacred canon. It denies that the sacred writers were merely partially inspired; it asserts that they were fully inspired as to all that they teach, whether of doctrine or fact. This of course does not imply that the sacred writers were infallible except for the special purpose for which they were employed. They were not imbued with plenary knowledge. As to all matters of science, philosophy, and history, they stood on the same level with their contemporaries. They were infallible only as teachers, and when acting as the spokesmen of God. Their inspiration no more made them astronomers than it made them agriculturists. Isaiah was infallible in his predictions, although he shared with his countrymen the views then prevalent as to the mechanism of the universe. Paul could not err in anything he taught, although he could not recollect how many persons he had baptized in Corinth. [2] (Emphasis mine)
With respect to evolution, it is sobering to realise that some of the original authors of The Fundamentals which set out to defend conservative Protestant theology from 19th century liberalism did not regard evolution as being mortally opposed to Christian orthodoxy. One of those contributors,  Reformed theologian BB Warfield observed that evolutionary biology provided evidence against late 18th and early 19th century polygenic views of human origins:
The advancing knowledge of the varied races of man produced in the latter part of the eighteenth and the earlier nineteenth century a revival of co-Adamitism... which was even perverted into a defense of slavery...It was in connection with Nott and Gliddon's "Types of Mankind" that Agassiz first published his theory of the diverse origin of the several races of man...Pursuant to this classification he sought to distribute mankind also into eight types, to each of which he ascribed a separate origin, corresponding with the type of fauna with which each is associated. But even Agassiz could not deny that men are, despite their eightfold separate creation, all of one kind: he could not erect specific differences between the several types of man. The evidence which compelled him to recognize the oneness of man in kind remains in its full validity, after advancing knowledge of the animal kingdom and it geographical distribution has rendered Agassiz's assumption of eight centers of origination (not merely distribution) a violent hypothesis; and the entrance into the field of the evolutionary hypothesis has consigned all theories formed without reference to it to is now agreed with practical unanimity that the unity of the human race, in the sense of a common origin, is a necessary corollary of the evolutionary hypothesis, and no voice raised in contradiction of it stands much chance to be heard. [3] (Emphasis mine)
While it is important not to argue that Warfield, Green, and Hodge were pre-realised evolutionary creationists (they were not), the positions that they collectively took on the the inspiration and authority of the Bible and the relationship of Genesis with contemporary science were markedly different from that taken by contemporary fundamentalists. Far from being orthodoxy, the literalism championed by contemporary fundamentalists is a late and aberrant view, and suggest strongly that Hardman's observation that the fundamentalists are indeed fighting for illusionary principles and doctrines is true. 

While it is no secret that the gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Christ do vary, despite the claims of fundamentalists to the contrary, the empty tomb of Christ remains the fact for which the stated supernatural explanation becomes the most plausible explanation. [4] The core fact on which Christian faith is based therefore stands apart from fundamentalist views on inerrancy. Once we recognise this, apologetics  has an infinitely more robust base, one which allows the apologist the liberty to critically use any intellectual tool to follow the evidence. This, as I can attest from personal experience is incredibly liberating.

Reclaiming Conservative Theology from the Fundamentalists - An Example

Once we do this, it is possible to rescue an essentially conservative take on theology from the fundamentalists. One example is the term inerrancy. Fundamentalist use of this term carries with it a believe in an untenable dictation view of inspiration, coupled with a belief that the literal reading of the Bible is 100% accurate not only in theology, but science and history. This is indefensible, and as shown earlier, did not represent the views of some respected theological conservatives of the 19th and 20th centuries. However, as OT scholar John Walton and NT scholar D. Brent Sandy show, it is possible to utilise concepts from disciplines such as the philosophy of language to define what an inerrant Bible really means:
Speech-act theory has been around for several decades. It recognizes that communication is an action with particular intentions. It therefore addresses both philosophical hermeneutics and comparative studies by locating the meaning within the communicative act between the communicator and the implied audience. We do not agree with many of the conclusions associated with speech-act theory, but we find its foundational premise and terminology helpful and have therefore adopted its three basic categories. The communicator uses locutions (words, sentences, rhetorical structures, genres) to embody an illocution (the intention to do something with those locutions—bless, promise, instruct, assert) with a perlocution that anticipates a certain sort of response from the audience (obedience, trust, belief). A common illustration is the words spoken in a wedding. When the bride and groom say “I do” they are using a very basic locution—words that could be used in any number of contexts with varieties of meaning. But in this context they are used for a specific illocution: a lifetime vow of faithfulness and commitment. The resulting perlocution is the implementation of that vow throughout life. [5] (Emphasis mine)
Good speakers accommodate the limitations of their audience; a scientist giving a presentation to his colleagues frame his presentation in a completely different way when speaking to the general public. Failing to do this would guarantee that the non-specialist audience would fail to understand the essential point which the scientist was trying to communicate. Likewise, one would expect Divine communication to accommodate the limitations of a pre-scientific worldview. John Calvin grasped this principle of Divine accommodation in his commentary on Genesis:
Moses describes the special use of this expanse, “to divide the waters from the waters,” from which words arises a great difficulty. For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. Hence some resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception; and therefore what Gregory declares falsely and in vain respecting statues and pictures is truly applicable to the history of the creation, namely, that it is the book of the unlearned. [6] (Emphasis mine)
As John Walton has shown elsewhere [7], recognising the ancient Near Eastern background of the creation narratives is critical if we are to avoid making blunders such as reading Genesis 1 as a scientifically accurate account of creation and solemnly declaring that such idiocies as a young earth and evolution denialism are clearly taught by the Bible. The clear references to an ancient cosmological view of the universe in Genesis 1 such as a solid firmament separating waters above from waters below [8] show that the creator has accommodated ancient views on the nature of the universe in order to teach that Yahweh alone was creator. If we recognise the cultural accommodation as a component of the locution, then it is easy to see that inerrancy is unaffected by accommodating an ancient superseded view of the universe. Walton again:
Since his locutionary framework is grounded in his language and culture, it is important to differentiate between what the communicator can be inferred to believe and his illocutionary focus. So, for example, it is no surprise that ancient Israel believed in a solid sky, and God accommodated his locution to that model in his communication to them. But since the illocution is not to assert the true shape of cosmic geography, we can safely set those details aside as incidental without jeopardizing authority or inerrancy. Such cosmic geography is in the belief set of the communicators but is employed in their locutions; it is not the content of their illocutions. [9] (Emphasis mine)
Authority therefore lies not in the locution, which accommodates a finite audience, but the illocution which is independent of how the ancient Hebrews viewed the universe. In other words, the inerrant message has nothing to to with how or when the Earth was created, but who created it, and why it was made. Fundamentalists who argue that one can extract scientifically accurate material from the creation narratives are simply missing the point.


One of the defining traits of the fundamentalist mind is an intolerance of doubt and a need for an answer for every problem. This is what makes fundamentalist apologetics dangerous. Not every question can be easily answered, and sometimes the intellectually honest approach is to say 'I don't know' rather than blithely postulate some nonsense which may provide a glib short-term answer, but has the real risk of creating a crisis of faith later on.

Of course, admitting ignorance should only be the starting point of a non-fundamentalist faith; eternal equivocation is just as bad as mindless certainty. If our faith is based on the reality of Christ's resurrection rather than a doctrine of fundamentalist inerrancy, then we have the grounds to follow the evidence without worrying about going outside the boundaries that fundamentalists erect, knowing that no matter where the evidence leads, it will always arrive at God's truth.


1. Green William H. Moses and the Prophets (New York: Robert Carter, 1883) 17
2. Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997) 165
3. Warfield BB "On The Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race" The Princeton Theological Review (1911) 9:20-21
4. See for example Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. (Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; Apollos, 2010). It is ironic that Licona's excellent book came under fire from fundamentalists such as Norm Geisler and Al Mohler who took exception to Licona's argument that Matthew 27:52-53 may well be apocalyptic in genre and therefore not intended to be taken literally. 
5. Walton J, Sandy GB The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority (Downers Grove, IL; IVP Academic, 2013) 41
6. Calvin, John, and John King. Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010) Gen 1:6
7. Walton J Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lakes, IN: Eisebnbrauns, 2011)
8. Seely PH "The Firmament and the Water Above. Part 1: The Meaning of raqia' in Gen 1:6-8" The Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991) 227-40
9. Walton and Sandy (2013) p 44