An Atheist Reads Evidence That Demands a Verdict
Part Three: The Case For and Against Christianity
Chapter 11: Is the Bible from God?
- McDowell begins the chapter by describing the purpose of this section of the book. He claims to address both critics of the Bible and those who hold it to be divinely inspired. Having already established (he says) its remarkable historical accuracy, McDowell now directs his efforts toward establishing that the Bible is the Word of God.
What the Bible Claims
- This tactic will be familiar to those of you who’ve been following along. McDowell is not going to demonstrate that the claims the Bible makes for itself are true — he’s going to argue that the Bible makes those claims, and then expect us to accept them on their own authority. This is the same way he attempted to make the case for the resurrection and the divinity of Jesus — don’t attempt to demonstrate the truth of the claims, just argue that the claims were made and act like that’s all we need.
- It’s a terrible, dishonest method, but I’m starting to appreciate the ingenuity of it. That doesn’t mean I respect it, or I find it the least bit compelling. But there is a certain cleverness involved. How do you write a book called Evidence That Demands a Verdict about a subject for which there is no evidence? How do you argue for the truth of claims for which there is no evidence? McDowell has found a way. It’s a sneaky, misleading way. But it’s an angle. And he found it. And as you can see by the sheer size of this book, he is working it until it breaks.
- So anyway. McDowell details the many ways the Bible claims to be the Word of God. First, there’s the Old Testament, which can be divided into two sections: the Law and the Prophets.
- The Law, also known as the Torah or the Pentateuch, consists of the first five books of the Bible, traditionally authored by Moses. Four of the books make explicit claims to be inspired by God. The only book that doesn’t — Genesis — is still a book of Moses and therefore should be included with the other books of the Law as a book that claims inspiration.
- The rest of the Old Testament is known as the Prophets, and the Prophets who supposedly wrote those books were claiming direct inspiration from God. They were writing what God told them to write, and often used the phrase “thus says the LORD.”
- Even the books that don’t explicitly claim inspiration should be seen as implicitly claiming it, McDowell says, whether the books are considered didactic, historical, or poetic:
- “History is what God said in the concrete events of national life. Poetry is what God said in the hearts and aspirations of individuals within the nation. Both are what God said, just as much so as the explicit record He spoke through the Law and the other didactic writings.” (Josh McDowell, EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 336)
- McDowell also points out that the writers of the Bible possessed God-given wisdom. Solomon had knowledge from God, David wrote that the Spirit of the Lord had spoken to him, Jeremiah’s prophetic cred is not in dispute, etc.
- “So then, either the books of the Old Testament testify for themselves, or the men who are believed to have written them, almost without exception, claim them to be the authoritative word of God.” (p. 336)
- No argument as to why we should accept the claim as true, just establishing that the claim was made.
- So, on to the New Testament. The New Testament claims to be the inspired Word of God as well, and in a few ways. First, it claims to record the words of Jesus, who was God himself. Also, Jesus promised that the apostles (who supposedly either wrote or inspired the books of the New Testament) would be directed by the Holy Spirit. Finally, the New Testament claims itself to be a continuation of the divinely inspired Old Testament, which amounts to a claim of inspiration.
Is God’s Word Inerrant?
- McDowell explores the claim that the Bible is without error by examining several related issues.
- First, there is the character of God. God’s character demands inerrancy, McDowell says. God cannot err, therefore, if the Bible is God’s word, it must be inerrant.
- Once again, we find McDowell unwittingly setting up an excellent argument against his own position. He says if God is a God of truth and the Bible comes from him, then the Bible must be inerrant. Therefore, if the Bible is not inerrant, then either God is not actually a God of truth, or the Bible is not the Word of God.
- Apologists like McDowell are fairly skilled at rationalizing and dodging the obvious fact, discernible by any honest, unbiased reader, that the Bible is just as filled with errors and contradictions as we would expect any other ancient religious text to be. And because the Bible is not inerrant, by McDowell’s own logic, we can conclude that it is not the Word of a perfectly truthful God. Perhaps no God inspired it at all, or perhaps the God who did inspire it didn’t care much about things like truth and accuracy. Either way, it cannot be what Christian Biblical literalists claim it to be.
- But that’s not how McDowell tells it.
- What does inerrancy mean?
- “The bottom line is that the Bible has been breathed by God. He used men to write out exactly what He wanted them to write. He kept them free from error but at the same time used their unique personalities and styles to convey exactly what He wanted.” (p. 338)
- Anybody else think there’s something incoherent about using someone’s unique personality and style to do exactly what you want? “Isaiah, dude, I love your style, what a great voice you have. Now write down these words exactly!”
- The “the writers had their own unique personalities” bit is just a way for Biblical literalists to acknowledge the self-evident fact that many different people wrote the Bible, while still maintaining their claim that it is perfectly consistent and harmonious. It’s a typically fundamentalists way of convincing themselves they’ve successfully squared the circle.
- So that’s what inerrancy means. What inerrancy does not mean, McDowell tells us, is perfect grammar, language free of metaphors or figures of speech, or historical precision. Imprecise doesn’t mean inaccurate, McDowell reminds us. Nor does the use of nonscientific language imply that the Bible’s truth is in opposition to the findings of modern science. The Bible is written in the language of the people, McDowell says, not the precise, technical language of modern science.
- Fair enough. Of course, modern books of popular science are also written in the common language of the people and not the professional language of scientific journals. But popular science authors like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins still take care not to include in their popular works such egregious errors as natural light existing prior to the creation of the Sun, or Earth being created before the stars, or photosynthetic plants being created before the Sun, or humans being the result of a special creation separate from the origin of the other organisms, or any of the other scientific errors we find in just the first book of the Bible when taken literally.
- Writing in colloquial, nonscientific language doesn’t excuse one from just plain getting shit wrong, which the authors of the Bible do over and over again. And through no fault of their own, I might add — they were writing in a time long before modern science, when ignorance and superstition prevailed. And they certainly weren’t getting any help from God, or anyone else who knew better.
- Inerrancy also doesn’t require that the exact words of Jesus always be recorded, as long as the exact voice or meaning of what Jesus said is there. Nor does inerrancy require that the Bible be comprehensive in its accounting of events.
- “The problems in the Gospels . . . can often be resolved when one realizes that none of the evangelists was obligated to give an exhaustive account of any one event. . . . There may be some unknown bit of information that would resolve seeming conflicts. All that is required is that the sentences used by each writer be true.” (p. 342)
- Let’s talk a little more about the character of God, and what this quote from McDowell tells us about that. Sure, the writers of the gospels were free to write about events as they saw fit, to serve their own purposes. The result was that they wrote incomplete accounts that, as McDowell himself admits here, seem to conflict at points. But if God is the inspiration behind the entire Bible, that must mean that he wanted his Word to contain these apparent conflicts — conflicts that would compel critical readers to doubt the notion that this was the perfect Word of God. So the same God who demands that we believe in him and worship him, and offers us only his words recorded in this ancient book as evidence, also gives us some excellent reasons to confidently reject that evidence. This is the character of McDowell’s God — not the character that is asserted by his groveling worshippers, but the character that is demonstrated by his supposed actions. And why would I ever want to worship such a deceitful and capricious God? Even if I were not an atheist, I could not be a Christian.
- Finally, let’s talk about those celebrated original autographs. For it was truly they which were inerrant, not the many copies and translations that have been handed down since. McDowell insists that, even though, strictly speaking, only the original autographs were inerrant, the copies contained only minor errors that don’t change the essential truths contained in the Bible, and therefore the copies and translations we have today should be regarded as having the same authority as the originals.
- “The resulting situation exists, then, that although only the autographs are inspired, it may be said nevertheless that all good copies or translations are adequate. Although no one in modern times has ever seen an infallible original, it is also true that no one has ever seen a fallible one.” (p. 343)
- Yes, because no one has ever seen a one. Which renders the claim that the original autographs are inerrant utterly baseless.
- Also, did you catch how McDowell says “all good copies or translations are adequate”? Lest you think him too liberal in his acceptance of varying Biblical translations, I suppose. There are still good translations and bad translations! But the good ones? Those are good.
Objections to the Claims
- So the Bible claims to be the inspired word of God. What about the objections to this claim?
- Remember: now that McDowell has established that the claims exist, all he has to do is dispose of the objections to the claims, and abracadabra! the claims must be true! And he’s done absolutely nothing to demonstrate that they’re true. It’s like the levitation illusion where the person lies horizontal across the backs of three chairs, and then one by one the magician removes the chairs until the person is just floating there. That’s what McDowell is doing with the Bible. He doesn’t want you to ask what’s actually holding it up — he just wants you to see it floating there.
- First objection: Belief in inerrancy is based on a circular argument. McDowell claims that inerrancy isn’t based on a circular argument, because the Bible is established by external evidence to be a reliable historical document. Therefore, when the historically reliable Bible depicts Jesus as the perfect Son of God, we should accept Jesus as an infallible authority. And Jesus said that the scriptures are without error and eternal.
- “Therefore, on the basis of the teaching of Jesus Christ, the infallible Son of God, the church believes the Bible also to be infallible. This argument begins with the nature of the Bible in general, proceeds to the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, and concludes by adopting His teaching concerning the nature of the Bible.” (p. 344)
- The problem with this, as I’ve discussed before, is that the most we can reasonably conclude from external evidence is that portions of the Bible are historically accurate. There is no sane reason to assume, on the basis of a few details that have been shown to be probably historically accurate, that everything in the Bible is historically accurate. McDowell is starting with the presumption that the Bible is a 100% reliable historical source and using these cherry-picked bits of reliable history to support that presumption. He is starting with the presupposition that the Bible is inerrant. And where does that presupposition come from? The Bible itself.
- When McDowell says the Bible is infallible because Jesus, the infallible authority, says so, he is making a circular argument. He can’t avoid it. The only source for the belief that Jesus was infallible — and believed the scriptures to be infallible — is the Bible itself. It’s a circular argument, it is using the Bible to prove the Bible, demanding that the claims of the Bible be accepted on the authority of the Bible.
- Next objection: Inerrancy is not taught in the Bible. McDowell rejects this out of hand. It is just as incorrect to say that the Bible doesn’t claim itself to be inerrant as it is to say that the Bible doesn’t teach the doctrine of the Trinity. The Bible claims itself to be the Word of God, and everything God says is true and without error. So there.
- As with Jesus’s supposed claims about himself, the Bible’s claims about itself are irrelevant to me. I don’t care if the Bible says it’s inerrant. I care if it actually is. And it isn’t.
- Next objection: Inerrancy isn’t important. McDowell similarly rejects this argument. For the Bible to be authoritative, he says, it must be inerrant. Some argue that inspiration is more important than inerrancy, but if this is true, what about the inspired teaching that the Bible is inerrant?
- Again, as an atheist I don’t really care about this argument. It’s irrelevant to my position. But I do find the notion that inspiration is important, not inerrancy, to be a more thoughtful way of approaching the Bible. More thoughtful Christians might be willing to acknowledge that the Bible is not inerrant, but still feel that it contains some valuable truths about God and life in general that should be taught and understood. But such an approach requires the Christian to rely on his or her own discernment and judgment, and such a thing is abhorrent to an absolutist like McDowell.
- Next objection: Inerrancy is a recent invention. McDowell shoots this down by arguing that not only is inerrancy taught unambiguously in the Bible itself, but was also accepted by early church fathers and prominent later theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther.
- Happy to grant this point. Don’t really care.
- Next objection: There are errors in the Bible. This is a big one for me, since, you know, there are. McDowell repeats his argument from earlier in the book that all supposed errors found in the Bible are the result of either misunderstandings of the original context, copyists errors, or the biased assumptions of the people who detected the errors.
- Is the order in which the stars, the Sun, and the Earth were created a biased assumption on my part? I know I keep coming back to that, but it’s in the first book of the Bible, and it’s a major error that, to me, is inarguable. If your position is that the creation account in the Bible is a literal history of what actually happened (and that is McDowell’s position), then I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. Period. There’s not a single scientifically demonstrated reason to believe that the Earth is older than the stars or the Sun. That’s what the Bible says, but that is not what happened. On that basis alone we can conclude that the Bible is not inerrant.
- Next objection: The Bible’s inspiration had a limited scope. This is a rationalization designed to preserve some inerrancy while still acknowledging the unavoidable fact that not everything in the Bible is true. The Bible is inerrant when it teaches doctrine or morality, the argument goes, but not when dealing with history or science. McDowell rejects this for many reasons: there are often no clear distinctions between moral/doctrinal passages and historical/scientific claims; doubting the Bible’s history and science opens the door to doubting its morality and theology as well; Jesus affirms the truth of all the scriptures, not just scriptures that deal with morality and doctrine, etc.
- I agree with McDowell that this is a bad objection, but for different reasons. McDowell rejects it because he’s totally committed to inerrancy and will tolerate nothing short of it. I reject it because of what a dishonest and weasely argument it is. Basically, the argument is: only the unfalsifiable stuff is inspired. The bits that can be proven wrong, sure, they’re not inspired, but the bits that can’t be objectively demonstrated one way or the other? They’re 100% true. What a weak, cowardly argument.
- Next objection: Nonexistent original autographs. This is the argument (which I have made myself) that evangelical Christians can always retreat to the claim that only the original autographs of the Bible were truly inerrant when faced with an unanswerable challenge, and always feel safe in that position because, in the absence of the original autographs, claims of their inerrancy are unfalsifiable. McDowell responds to this objection by ignoring it and reasserting the accuracy of the surviving copies:
- “The Bible contains very little that evangelicals would say is in error due to copyist mistakes. . . . In short, the originals are not nonexistent for all practical purposes.” (p. 347)
- No, they’re just nonexistent enough to be a useful fallback position for evangelicals who insist the Bible is inerrant when it obviously is not. Inerrancy means that there is not a single error, so even if evangelicals find only a few errors that can’t be rationalized away, that’s still a few more than they can tolerate. But they can always appeal to those magical, conveniently nonexistent original autographs to preserve their silly, false claim that the Bible is perfect.
- Next objection: God doesn’t really care about inerrancy. If inerrancy was truly important to God, why didn’t he bother to inspire error-free copies as well as the inerrant originals? Or, failing that, why didn’t God preserve the originals for future generations?
- To answer the first question, McDowell draws an analogy between the Bible and Adam. Mankind, he says, corrupts everything it touches (there’s that great Christian humanism again), so naturally we corrupted the Bible after God gave it to us. But, just as God largely preserved humans in his image after the corruption by the sin of Adam, so too did he preserve the Bible through imperfect but essentially accurate and reliable copies.
- But what about those original autographs?
- “There are important reasons why God did not preserve the original manuscripts. First humankind has a propensity to worship the creature rather than the Creator. . . . How much more would we worship the very original words from God appointed for our salvation? Furthermore, by not preserving the originals there is no way for sinful people to tamper with their contents.” (p. 348)
- Take a moment to reflect on what a deranged pair of excuses McDowell has offered here. God allowed the originals — which were inerrant, and might have gone some way toward demonstrating that the things Christians say about God are, you know, actually true — to be lost because he was worried we would like them too much. So why give us a book containing his perfect revelation in the first place? Why not reveal the truths he wants us to know directly, to all of us, as he supposedly did to the people who wrote the books?
- Also, the originals were lost to protect them from being tampered with. But aren’t copies that exist in the total absence of the originals much easier to tamper with? And, if God were able to preserve the original autographs for thousands of years, wouldn’t he also be able to supernaturally protect them from being tampered with?
- These are not good, reliable, well-reasoned explanations for why God allowed the original autographs to be lost and errors to creep into copies of the Bible. These are the products of blatant, desperate, lame-ass excuse making.
- Notice also that McDowell has no scriptural basis to say that there were good reasons why God didn’t preserve the originals, or what those reasons were. He is openly making it up himself to suit his purpose.
- Final objection: Too many qualifications. This is the claim that inerrancy is so qualified that it essentially becomes a meaningless concept. McDowell argues that there are only two qualifications to inerrancy: only the original autographs are inerrant, and only what the Bible affirms is inerrant, not every single thing it contains.
- Those two qualifications are all that is necessary for an evangelical totally committed to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy to deny any challenge, so why clutter things up with more than that?
- McDowell finishes this chapter, reiterating the only argument doubtful inerrantists in need of reassurance will ever need:
- “Remember that the doctrine of inerrancy applies only to the original copies of the Bible. Until the printing press was invented the Bible had to be copied by hand for at least one thousand years. It is therefore possible that some transmissional errors crept into the text.” (p. 349)
- Remember, in other words, that the doctrine of inerrancy was crafted by clever men who were sure to root it in baseless beliefs about nonexistent original manuscripts, thus rendering it utterly unfalsifiable. Anyone credulous enough to believe it will never, ever have to worry about being proven wrong. You’re welcome!
Chapter 12: The Presupposition of Anti-supernaturalism
- Before we can study the documentary hypothesis and form criticism, McDowell says, we must deal with the often misunderstood topic of anti-supernaturalism:
- “If there is any subject in which ignorance abounds, it is this. Many sincere students and laymen are led astray because of conclusions allegedly based on objective historical or literary investigation and method. In reality these conclusions are the result of a subjective worldview.” (pp. 350-351)
- So my conclusion that there are no such things as miracles, based on the lack of evidence for such things, is the result of a subjective worldview. I suppose in a sense, that’s correct. It is my subjective worldview that beliefs should be derived from empirical evidence. I know it might sound nutty, but it works pretty well for me.
- McDowell takes almost a page and a half to define and explain what a presupposition is. Since I have more respect for the intelligence of my audience than McDowell has for his, I’ll just quote his initial, brief definition:
- “A presupposition is something assumed or supposed in advance.” (p. 351)
- That works for me. So now then:
- McDowell offers a fairly good definition of anti-supernaturalism — or, as it is usually called by people who aren’t evangelists jealous of people who have actual evidence for their positions, naturalism — and that definition is:
- “. . . disbelief in either God’s existence or in His intervention in the natural order of the universe.” (p. 352)
- McDowell also lists three basic tenets of what he calls anti-supernaturalism and I call naturalism:
- We live in a closed system (every cause has its natural effect).
- There is no God. (For many critics it would be more appropriate to state: “For all practical purposes, there is no God.”)
- There is no supernatural.
- I have no problem with those three tenets. I accept them all myself. I would quibble a bit with the phrasing of number one — I would rather say that every event has a natural cause, rather than every cause has its natural effect — but that’s a minor thing.
- I’ll return to these three tenets, and naturalism in general, in a few minutes. First, let’s see what else McDowell has to say about it.
Science and Miracles
- McDowell resorts to that favorite trope of apologists, the anecdote about the ignorant university professor. He illustrates anti-supernatural bias by telling a story of a group of students (at a large, very well-known university, naturally) who gave a copy of the first edition of Evidence That Demands a Verdict to the head of the history department. Several months later, one of the students returned to ask the professor’s opinion of the book:
- “The professor replied that he had finished the book. He continued that it contained some of the most persuasive arguments that he had read and that he didn’t know how anyone could refute them. At this point he added, ‘However, I do not accept Mr. McDowell’s conclusions.’ The student, slightly baffled, asked, ‘Why?’ The head of the history department answered, ‘Because of my worldview!’” (p. 353)
- Probably invented, shamelessly self-serving anecdotes are par for the course for Christian apologetics, but even in that context this one is pretty outrageous, because McDowell has a department head of a major university not merely rejecting his arguments for illegitimate reasons, but declaring that his book — the very book of which he is writing an updated edition — is the most persuasive and irrefutable work on its subject he has ever read!
- Let me make this clear, in case I’ve been too soft on the material up to this point: This book is garbage. Unless it gets a hell of a lot better in the second half, it’s the most pathetic, inadequate, desperate, poorly argued apologetic I’ve ever read. It’s a series of misdirections, with no intellect, no content, and no trace of intellectual honesty. So either this major university department head blew somebody to get his fucking job, or Josh McDowell is making him up. Or the first edition of this book was way, way, way better.
- McDowell continues in this vein for several more pages. His point is this: historians and scientists who reject claims of the miraculous, and use their skepticism about miracles to cast doubt on the historical reliability of the Bible are basing their conclusions on an illegitimate anti-supernatural bias.
- McDowell then turns to examining two non-supernatural explanations for the origin of the Bible: the documentary hypothesis, and form criticism.
- First, the documentary hypothesis. McDowell quotes a quartet of scholars — H.R. von Frank, Abraham Kuenen, Langdon Gilkey, and Julius Wellhausen (all of whom were Christians, by the way, which McDowell doesn’t mention) — to establish their anti-supernatural attitudes. All four men, and those who accept the hypothesis in general, reject as inauthentic the accounts of miracles and seek to explain the Bible in fully natural terms. This just won’t do for McDowell.
- Next, form criticism is given the same treatment. McDowell quotes Rudolph Bultmann to establish his rejection of miracles. Again, McDowell asserts that the denial of the supernatural is unsound, based only on an anti-supernatural bias.
- McDowell offers his definition of a miracle:
- “We are defining miracles as special acts of God in the world. Since miracles are special acts of God, they can only exist where there is a God who can perform such acts.” (p. 358)
- I have a problem with this definition. It’s a problem of discernment, and it’s multiplied by what McDowell says next, which is a restatement of something he’s said a few times already: miracles are indispensable to Christianity because they establish the authenticity of Christianity. How did people know Jesus was the Son of God, or that the Apostles were touched by the spirit of God when they were carrying out their ministries? Because they worked miracles.
- So here’s the problem with McDowell’s definition: how do you tell the difference between a genuine miracle, and a natural event that appears to be miraculous? For example, is every case of spontaneous cancer regression a miracle? If not, how do we tell the difference between a miraculous spontaneous regression and one that occurred without any intervention from God? And if there is no way to detect that distinction, how is this a useful definition of a miracle?
- Using McDowell’s slippery, easily exploited definition of a miracle, how do we know Jesus and the apostles weren’t simply running an earlier version of the scam modern faith healers run, relying on the vulnerability and suggestibility of their audience, amplifying the cases where, due to the placebo effect or a favorable coincidence, their miracle healings seem to work, while ignoring or rationalizing the cases where they have no effect?
- McDowell goes on to argue that the naturalistic view of the universe is insufficient, that most modern scientists admit that what we call natural law is merely our description of natural phenomena based on probability and induction. For this reason, it’s unreasonable to rule out miracles as a possibility.
- Okay, so let’s talk about miracles and this anti-supernatural presupposition. Because it’s clear to me that McDowell has not merely declined to rule miracles out — he has positively ruled them in, and he thinks we ought to rule them in, too. And if we don’t rule them in, it’s because of anti-supernatural bias.
- I’ve admitted already that I have such a bias. My objection is to how McDowell characterizes that bias as a priori or arbitrary. When I consider a passage from the Bible, for instance, I am bringing a naturalistic presupposition to my consideration of that passage. I don’t simply accept claims that miracles took place. But here I think it’s necessary to examine the difference between a presupposition and an axiom.
- Informally, an axiom and a presupposition can be the same thing. But classically, an axiom is a premise that is accepted as true without the need to demonstrate it. It’s a logical starting point, the premise on which other premises are based. It’s something basic that pretty much has to be true for any reasoning to be done. A classical axiom is a type of a presupposition, but generally speaking, presuppositions aren’t as basic and fundamental as classical axioms. A presupposition is something we assume to be true at the outset of an investigation, but it’s not something that absolutely must be true for any investigation to proceed.
- My naturalistic bias is a presupposition, not an axiom. When I consider whether or not a given claim is true, I bring to that consideration the assumption that only natural explanations are acceptable. But my belief that only natural explanations are acceptable, and that there is no such thing as the supernatural, is not arbitrary, it’s not a priori, and in principle it’s not absolute. Like all of my beliefs about the world and how it works, it’s based on empirical evidence, and provisional. I don’t need supernaturalism to be false — I have concluded that it’s false based on the fact that there is no evidence for it, and no explanatory necessity for it. I know of no event for which there is a confirmed supernatural explanation, or for which there is thought to be no possible natural explanation.
- My naturalistic presupposition could be destroyed by good, solid, compelling evidence for the supernatural. I’ve said a few times already in this series, if Josh McDowell wants me to accept that a miracle occurred, all he has to do is show me evidence for that miracle. If he expects me to accept that a miracle occurred with no evidence, relying solely on the word of a person who claims it occurred, then he at least has to demonstrate to me that miracles are something that do occur, generally speaking. Convince me that a single miracle has ever taken place. Prove the concept. If Josh McDowell told me that Jesus went to a temple and prayed, I’d probably accept that. There’s nothing incredible about that claim. But if Josh McDowell told me that Jesus was dead and then returned to life and walked out of his tomb, I wouldn’t accept that without evidence, because my experience and my understanding of accumulated human knowledge about such things as life and death tells me that such things don’t ever happen, and that there is no credible method by which they could happen.
- As long as my naturalistic presupposition stands, it not only compels me to reject miracles, but lots of other things that I would imagine Josh McDowell rejects, as well: things like pixies, elves, leprechauns, genies, ghosts, vampires, magic, psychics, horoscopes, and reincarnation. I propose that it’s only McDowell’s pro-Christian bias which compels him to reject those things, while accepting miracles, angels, demons, and other equally superstitious things that his scriptures tell him exist. And I would imagine that McDowell’s reasoning for rejecting the existence of pixies is not all that different from my reasoning for rejecting miracles, or the supernatural in general — it’s just penned in a bit tighter than mine by his pro-Christian presupposition.
- While arguing against anti-supernaturalism in this chapter, McDowell attempts to refute Hume’s argument against miracles by quoting C.S. Lewis, who asserted that, unless we know for a fact that every report of a miracle is false, we cannot say for certain that miracles do not occur. And those who do so are arguing in a circle, claiming that reported miracles are false because we know miracles don’t occur, which we know because all reported miracles are false.
- I say again: give me a reason to believe that miracles do occur. Otherwise, I see no reason to treat miracles any differently than most Christians treat the vast majority of superstitions — or, for that matter, miracle claims from non-Christians.
- McDowell spends the rest of the chapter arguing for an historical methodology that does not, in his words, rule out transcendental intervention in history. But, aside from his demand that the Bible be uncritically accepted as an infallible source, he offers no reason to accept that such transcendental intervention has ever taken place. In the end, he returns to his misleading characterization of anti-supernaturalism, blaming the rejection of the Bible as the Word of God on the biased worldview of its critics:
- “The anti-supernaturalist bases his thinking on the presupposition that God has not intervened in history. Therefore he rejects evidence indicating the supernatural no matter how convincing.” (p. 368)
- That is McDowell’s mischaracterization of naturalism in a nutshell. I don’t reject evidence for the supernatural because I’m a naturalist. I’m a naturalist because I have never seen any evidence for the supernatural. The distinction is significant. If McDowell wants to change that, all he needs to do is show me the evidence.
Chapter 13: Archaeology and Biblical Criticism
The Reliability of the Old Testament History
- McDowell describes three areas where, he says, archaeology has contributed to biblical criticism.
- The scientific study of the text: McDowell claims archaeology has helped to clarify the understanding of technical words, and to develop more dependable lexicons with which to analyze the manuscripts.
- Acting as a check in the area of critical study:
- “Archaeology does not prove the Bible to be the Word of God. All it can do is confirm the basic historicity or authenticity of a narrative. It can show that a certain incident fits into the time it purports to be from.” (p. 370)
- McDowell tries to adopt a more measured tone in this passage, but if we follow his established line of reasoning, doesn’t he implicitly argue that archaeology does help to prove that the Bible is the Word of God? Afterall, his reasoning goes like this: the Bible is historically accurate, therefore we should accept the Bible as a totally reliable source, therefore the Bible is telling the truth when it says it is the Word of God. If McDowell believes archaeology helps to establish the historicity and authenticity of the Bible, how can he say it doesn’t prove the Bible to be the Word of God?
- Helping to illustrate and explain biblical passages: Archaeology tells us more about the cultural and economic context in which the Bible was written and its events supposedly took place.
- This is true. But many archaeologists without a religious dog of their own in the hunt would disagree with McDowell that archaeology doesn’t contradict the claims of the Bible.
Archaeology Supports the Old Testament Accounts
- Archaeology shows that the scriptures are historically accurate, McDowell says. But again, he states his case cautiously:
- “I believe archaeology contributes to biblical criticism, not in the area of inspiration and revelation, but in confirming the historical accuracy and trustworthiness of the events recorded.” (p. 374)
- Again, in practice McDowell draws no distinction between historical accuracy and inspiration and revelation. His belief in inerrancy is rooted in the reliability of the Bible as a source. If archaeology establishes that the Bible is historically accurate, then it is inextricably linked to the Bible’s claims of inspiration and revelation. It’s no use trying to sound reasonable now. That donkey has already passed the gate, to coin a phrase.
- McDowell’s measured attitude toward the contributions of archaeology to biblical criticism might sound familiar. If so, it’s because he did mention it earlier in the book. He repeats it more emphatically here. There’s some even more emphatic, and redundant repetition coming up in a moment.
- But first: I asked myself as I read this section, why does McDowell take this more cautious stance on biblical archaeology? It’s not as though he’s been shy about making preposterous claims and laughable statements up to this point — remember when he argued against the wrong tomb theory by citing the testimony of the angel? And his rationalization for accepting the Bible as the Word of God rests, so he says, on its historical reliability. Why is he so careful?
- I’m not sure. He doesn’t offer much help in this regard, but if I had to guess, I would say it’s because he wants to make sure his faith — and the faith of the Christians who take their cues from this book — is rooted in the Bible itself, and not the archaeological evidence. Not that he has to worry there, because there isn’t that much archaeological evidence. But in principle, as a Christian, it’s apparent from the rest of his writing here that McDowell’s faith comes from accepting the authority of the Bible. Placing the Bible under the authority of archaeology would be unacceptable to him. Just my guess.
- In this section, McDowell argues that archaeology supports the accounts in the Old Testament of the Creation, the Flood of Noah, the Tower of Babel, the Patriarchs, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Exodus, and other well-worn Biblical chestnuts. I’m not going to go over this section very thoroughly because it’s already been covered earlier in the book, in Chapter 4: Is the Old Testament Historically Reliable?
- In fact, McDowell doesn’t merely go over the same information again — he copies and pastes from Chapter 4 without changing a single word. Check it out. From Chapter 4:
- “The opening chapters of Genesis (1-11) are typically thought to be mythological explanations derived from earlier versions of the story found in the ancient Near East. But this view chooses only to notice the similarities between Genesis and the creation stories in other ancient cultures. If we can propose derivation of the human race from one family, plus general revelation, some lingering traces of the true historical account would be expected. The differences are more important.” (p. 101)
- And, from Chapter 13:
- “The opening chapters of Genesis (1-11) are typically thought to be mythological explanations derived from earlier versions of the story found in the ancient Near East. But this view chooses only to notice the similarities between Genesis and the creation stories in other ancient cultures. If we can propose derivation of the human race from one family, plus general revelation, some lingering traces of the true historical account would be expected. The differences are more important.” (p. 375)
- This entire section, in fact, is an exact copy of that section from Chapter 4. The same information, the exact same text. The book is repetitive and padded anyway, but this is ridiculous. Given the size of it, I think a cross-reference directing us back to Chapter 4 would have been sufficient.
- McDowell spends the last few pages of the chapter using archaeology to argue that Moses actually wrote the Pentateuch. As with the rest of the book, he isn’t able to positively demonstrate the truth of any claims about Moses. Instead, he points to supposed internal evidence of the antiquity of the books, and archaeological confirmation of geographical details, customs, and archaic words and phrases present in the language as corroborating his claim that Moses was a real person who personally wrote the first five books of the Old Testament.
- Just as when he argued for the historical reliability of the Old Testament (in Chapter 4 and in this chapter) and the New Testament, McDowell makes a claim, points out circumstantial evidence that doesn’t contradict it, then declares his claim to be the only reasonable conclusion. It’s not terribly compelling, but as I said back at the beginning of this video, it’s pretty much all he’s got.
- By the way, if you want a really devastating debunking of the notion that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, read Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. It’s a great takedown of the entire Bible, but the bits about Moses have always stuck in my memory, particularly when Paine points out that Moses not only wrote about himself in the third person, which is somewhat eccentric and conceited, but was also somehow able to write about his own death and the circumstances of his burial. And you thought that deal with the Red Sea was impressive!
Next: Continue Part Three: The Case For and Against Christianity
Chapter 14: Introduction to the Documentary Hypothesis
Chapter 15: Introduction to Biblical Criticism
Chapter 16: Introduction to the Pentateuch
Chapter 17: Development of the Documentary Hypothesis
Chapter 18: Ground Rules
Chapter 19: Documentary Presuppositions
Chapter 20: Consequences of Radical Higher Criticism