What is the meaning of Bart Ehrman? Mountain or molehill?

21 Jan
Bart Erhman: highly respected by the world, but nevertheless easily dismissible.

Bart Erhman: highly respected by the world, but easily dismissible nonetheless?

This essay follows up this recent post (Should we be saying that the Scriptures are in but not of this world?)…. I have decided not to break up this essay, but to post it all at once.

Recently, there has been a bit of controversy about a paper written by Dr. Jeffrey Kloha, a professor at the LC-MS’s St. Louis seminary.  One of Dr. Kloha’s main points is that the church needs to think critically about the matter of what constitutes the Bible especially in light of the questions that a new generation has – provoked in large part by the liberal Bible scholar Bart Ehrman.  You can read a bit more about what Dr. Kloha is trying to do from a sympathetic perspective in this piece from the well-known and respected Lutheran historian Martin Noland.

In many ways I can vouch for Dr. Kloha’s point.  Here at Concordia St. Paul (I do not speak for this institution), I have taught roughly 200 undergraduate students as an adjunct professor – many of them not Christians – over the past three years.

During that time, I’ve gotten questions like the following:

 -“How or who initiated putting the writings of the Bible together as one book?”

-“Who compiled the stories in the first original Bible?”

-“Whoever compiled the Bible, how did they decide which stories to publish and which ones to leave out?”

-“How were the books of bible chosen to become the bible as we know it today?”

-“It would be interesting to know who wrote the bible or who put together the bible.”

-“How do we know that the word of God has not been altered by man throughout the years and in the years were no word was written down in particular?”

-“Why is there so much controversy about the scriptures? My husband is not a Christian and he watches many things on the History Channel about scriptures that were uncovered after the bible was written or about scriptures that were intentionally not included in the bible.”

-“I’m curious, as a theologian do you still explore ancient texts that didn’t make the cut, like the Gospel of Thomas, even though they are suspect – to gain additional insight into the teachings of Christ? I have to admit it’s tempting to think about the possibility that God may have left behind something for future generations to discover during a time when He knew we may need it.”

-“Do we know other than faith that the original composer of the Bible had pure intentions for the teachings of God and Jesus Christ or was it out of greed?”

-“Why did Protestants (Martin Luther and others) take out the five books in the Bible (This is an honest question and not an attack by any means)?”

And here I can say that I have found Dr. Kloha to be an invaluable resource!  For example, he has made statements in past Issues ETC interviews about how the canon came to be that have been particularly helpful as regards highlighting certain facts that persons like Ehrmann downplay or fail to discuss.  I often refer my students a Sept. 2006 online issue of the Lutheran Witness where he wrote a very helpful piece.

Click image to go to magazine

Click image to go to magazine

That said, I also think it is important to approach an issue like this from a certain frame of thinking.  Let me explain where I am coming from.

I recently read in David Scaer’s 1971 monograph The Apostolic Scriptures (recommended by Dr. Noland) the following: “Some people have doubts about Jesus, but no one can doubt that by the end of the first century Christians were gathering into groups called churches” (p. 18)

Or so it seems.  Just watch.  Even if such distrust of history could never be legitimately earned, it’s amazing how “science” can tempt persons to believe all kinds of crazy things.  For example, witness the “Singularity” types in Silicon Valley – it seems that very few think they are totally on the fringe, even though they are, as even one of their good friends Jaron Lanier notes in his new book Who Owns the Future? (see pp. 12-13, for example).*

"History is bunk." -- Henry Ford, giving voice to many more “scientifically inclined” persons: “History is bunk” (at least insofar as accounts of the past that come down to us are something that we put our trust in)

Henry Ford, giving voice to many more “scientifically inclined” persons: “History is more or less bunk…” (at least insofar as accounts of the past that come down to us are something that are of any real relevance for us – much less that we should be putting our trust in things like these!)

Like so many other “scientific enterprises” it seems to me that the practice of textual criticism could use a little criticism itself.  I am suspicious of those who give too much time of day to a “hermeneutic of suspicion”!  The more I ponder all of this, the more I wonder if the discipline has outlived any real usefulness it may have had**.  It is one thing to doubt that the bones of particular saints of the church are really located here or there – when distrust has certainly been earned.  It is another thing to put the reliability of the New Testament as we have received it in any doubt whatsoever!

But how can I so readily pan the experts?  Well, as with so many things in life, it depends on the judgment of the particular expert.  Which expert are we talking about?  In my experience, it seems that anything that clearly testifies to the truth of Jesus Christ will – must – be questioned by the world.  Therefore, minority reports can be highly significant – especially in these last days when faith is not readily found on earth.  Therefore, when the impeccable and eminently qualified Sir Frederick Kenyon, said “the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed” and “the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the [NT] may be regarded as firmly established”, I am happy to hear such an expert verify what I’ve always believed – no, known – to be true.  Here, it is not really “trust but verify” (oxymoronic statement), but rather “trust and be happy when verification comes”.



Wait a minute!  You can’t say that you know it to be true!  Well, sure I can – God’s Holy Spirit testifies to my heart that the Scriptures are true and reliable and that He providentially guided His Church, through true and reliable men, to not only more or less passively recognize and receive definitive books as the Apostolic deposit – bolstered by Old Testament prophecy-fulfilling miracles – but to preserve their reliability for our benefit.  The Holy Spirit uses this word – because they are Christ’s very words – to create and nurture faith, and to continually lead us back to this word (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11).  Full stop.***  Besides, even from a non-supernatural perspective, scientists must admit that there is much history that is truly known here or there only among the locals – and is potentially discoverable to others.****  The Christian can say for good reasons that what he knows here is what he has yet to be shown is false – distrust has yet to be earned.

Kenyon was right many years ago and still is.  Folks like Bart Ehrmann should be the outliers, even if, sadly, they are not (or don’t seem to be, given the attention they attract in the media).  When persons ask, this really should be our first answer to these questions, and quite frankly, this will satisfy most everyone.  There will be a few other faithful yet doubting folks who will be curious, wonder, question and interrogate more – and we should readily invite this and guide them! – but we need to realize that they will be in the minority.

"It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

The more I think about this, mountains being made of molehills come to mind.  I am opening to hearing arguments to the contrary, but it seems to me that these things are not the most difficult issues the church today needs to be concerned with.  And of course matters of textual criticism were not the pressing issues at, for example, Nicea or during the Reformation – even though there has always been some knowledge about varieties of variances in biblical texts (also with the different ways Jesus, for example, says things from Gospel to Gospel – or variances of chronology, with the temptation accounts for example)!

Bart Ehrmann excels more as a rhetorician than he does as a decent scholar, giving an accurate and nuanced presentation of the reality that exists as regards early New Testament texts.  Putting the best construction on men like Ehrman, I would have to say perhaps he does not realize how utterly uncharitable, lopsided, and un-best-construction-like his analysis is.  Or, spiritually speaking, how much he has been utterly deceived by the Deceiver – both during his time as a fundamentalist, and also now as an atheist/agnostic.

"The heart has its reasons which reason cannot know."  Well said Blaise! - and yet we can and must say more.

“The heart has its reasons which reason cannot know.” Well said Blaise! – and yet we can and must say more.

We need not give too much time to his arguments.  It does us no good to hem, haw, and waver here.  He needs to be called out – and perhaps this goes for a good part of the field of textual criticism in general, the NA 28 crowd included!  Science is a gift of God, but the scientific methodologies of our age are often decidedly set against God and His church, whether it is done so in a subtle or not-so-subtle fashion (here is another example I recently wrote about, Daring to Deny Darwin).

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) argued, “Historical truth, which is accidental in its character, can never become proof of the truths of Reason, which are necessary” and “Miracles, which I see with my own eyes, and which I have opportunity to verify for myself, are one thing; miracles, of which I know only from history that others say they have seen them and verified them, are another.” “But…I live in the 18th century, in which miracles no longer happen. The problem is that reports of miracles are not miracles ….[they] have to work through a medium which takes away all their force.”*****

Gotthold my friend this is the least of your problems.  Note what happens in Luke 11 and what Jesus says in 16:31

Gotthold my friend… this is the least of your problems. Note what happens in John 11:45-53 and what Jesus says in Luke 16:31

As William Lane Craig argues in this response to Lessing’s points, there are all kinds of gaping problems with Lessing’s approach (nevertheless, we ought to be very humble in how we approach this as well).  And this is, quite frankly, very sad.  Miracles happen even today – even as some who speak of miracles or some specific accounts rightly earn our distrust.  [At the time I was writing this essay] I just talked with a man who had been a missionary to India last week (at my son’s Montessori school) who, while there, received a puzzling vision of a blind man.  Taking this to be from God, he asked others during the course of his work about blind persons in the village, and not long afterwards he prayed over a blind man and healed him.  A month later he went to check on the man.  All the idols had been removed from the house, replaced by a lone picture of Christ, and the healed man was inquiring about how to become a pastor.  My own view on these kinds of things is that God does this kind of stuff on the “front lines” so to speak, where the Kingdom of God is first establishing a foothold in this or that region vs. the forces of darkness.

(for more videos with Keener on miracles see here:

No, with men like Gotthold Lessing and Bart Ehrmann, it is a tragedy that these cannot see what a wonderful miracle it is that most every early New Testament text that exists can be seen – without any guile – as being utterly reliable and true – that the variances that do exist do not detract from the reliability of the Church’s testimony, but rather go hand in hand with it!  Why not marvel at the miracle that God did lead the apostles of his church – yes, the “orthodox party”! – into all truth, and that, providentially, the church readily and passively received those writings whereby the Holy Spirit convicts the word of sin, righteousness and judgment – that one might have Christ the Savior!  Why not rejoice that Christ’s promise to “bring to remembrance” all the things he taught the Apostles and to “guide them into all truth” has been and is being fulfilled by His Holy Spirit – as He preserves His flock (not necessarily strictly conterminous with the “LC-MS” and those in fellowship with it by the way!) in these End Times?

Sermons from Luther on John 16 that are must reading for today.  Click on image for more.

Sermons from Luther on John 16 that are must reading for today. Click on image for more.

Reading about the Byzantine, or Majority text, in Wikipedia I read the following:

Mark 1:2 reads “As it is written in the prophets..” in the Byzantine text; whereas the same verse reads, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet..” in all other early textual witnesses. Since the quotation introduced is partly from Malachi, the Byzantine form of the verse avoids the difficulty that might be adduced were it to be concluded that Mark was presenting a factual inaccuracy.

To this I say: “You are going to let the few examples like this that exist undermine the faith that God means to give you through the Scriptures whereby He has guarded His church on earth?  Really?  Really?  Where is the benefit of the doubt?  Why not rather assume the best – that both variants are somehow correct?  Especially since they are, as verse 3 in Mark really is from Isaiah!”

Lutheran saint Kurt Marquart: “Man is not an objective super-observer in the universe, but a condemned sinner with a vested interest in escape.”

Lutheran saint Kurt Marquart: “Man is not an objective super-observer in the universe, but a condemned sinner with a vested interest in escape.”

I don’t doubt that I have much to learn on this issue of textual criticism.  Perhaps there are all kinds of problems I am unaware of.  If that is the case, I invite your help on these matters – I myself hope to join one of the discussion groups that Dr. Kloha has so generously offered to lead (hopefully non-pastors are allowed!).  But for now, I simply do not see why this is a big deal (note that I’ve currently got a bunch of recommended books about textual criticism and the nature of the Scriptures on my list).  It seems to me that insofar as we are talking about the issue of doubt and Christians, Kierkegaard was actually right to object to the question “What is the proper object of faith?”, for one to try to answer such a question, he said, is like a lover attempting to reply to the question, “Could you love another woman?”  We cannot – and to love the lover is to love the words of the lover.  Yes, Kierkegaard was wrong about Christianity being a “leap of faith” (trusting God does not involve probabilities – such is the mother of unbelief) – for the words the Holy Ghost uses in the Scriptures to convict and save the world are utterly solid and reliable (John, 16:8-11, Acts 17:30-31!) – but what he says about the tenacity of trust towards the lover of our soul is good, right and salutary.******


Kierkegaard: right on trust and loyalty.  Pascal would say “Amen!”

This dovetails nicely I think with a quotation from that most prescient of Lutheran theologians August Friedrich Christian Vilmar.  His timely words speak to our situation well:

“Doctrine as expressive of the deed of redemption is sound only to the degree that it is a true expression of these acts, and belongs to the life of the Church.  Through its doctrine the Church responds to the Lord’s acts, or rather to his questions as to whether it has understood and accepted his proofs of everlasting mercy, woven them into its own life, and consequently preserved the word of his patience.  In and by themselves therefore, dogmatics and ethics are nothing but confessions of the Church, not the results of experiences, to say nothing of the individual’s speculation in the Church.  This point of view, however, was neglected for a century and more.  Influenced by the general confusion of the human spirit which turned from real life toward a spurious life of erudition, the theological disciplines cited above as witnesses of what the Church has lived through and experienced have become ‘sciences’ (p. 59, The Theology of Facts vs the Theology of Rhetoric)

Nevermind that that was written 150 years ago!*******

Vilmar: “…none on earth can live who does not receive what proceeds from theology”

Vilmar: “…none on earth can live who does not receive what proceeds from theology”

Finally, as pastors and scholars are inevitably being drawn into discussion and debate regarding these issues, it seems to me that we might want to deeply consider the words of the Eastern Orthodox writer Rod Dreher, uttered just the other day:

“…what I can tell definitively about Orthodox Christian doctrine would be about one-third of the length of my big long Dante blog post yesterday. But I trust the guides who know the territory. I don’t need to know how to read maps to trust them to lead me out of the dark wood. Moreover, I don’t have to worry that there’s a big fight among the guide corps over whether or not the maps and the methods of map-reading have anything true to tell us about where we are in the world, and what we need to do if we are to get out of the dark wood.” (Does Doctrine Even Matter To Liberal Catholics?)

Words we might each want to deeply and personally consider in our own context – in the midst of this debate.


*James Barrat, in his 2013 book exploring the idea of “runaway artificial intelligence” says the following: “we don’t have a formal description of what understanding language really is, so how can we claim humans ‘understand’ language?  We have only observation to confirm that language is understood…. What’s so remarkable about the brain’s processes, even consciousness, anyway?  Just because we don’t understand consciousness now doesn’t mean we never will.  It’s not magic.” (p. 46, Our Final Invention).  No, that’s not fringe, that’s solid scientific reasoning.

** As a good pastor I know said: “So much of textual critical work today seems just like fine tuning the basic decisions that were made by Westcott and others in the 19th century. And THE basic decision was: Byz / M = no good / corrupt. “Uncritical” / “precritical” church tradition just can’t be trusted with the truth. Our superior methods, data, etc. have to come in and save the day.”  In any case, once the Scriptures have been discredited such that worldly elites have lost any fear whatsoever of them (actually, they are not undermined in fact – we must never forget the world’s arguments about the evidence reveal a desire to deceive, or, to put the best construction on what they are doing, their arguments put the worst construction on things), it will, in any case, no longer be a practice of academics with honored chairs but rather hobbyists – and perhaps those driven mainly by curiosity and faith instead of cynicism and unbelief.

***Note this as well though:  “No dogma which does not have a certain and clear foundation in the canonical books dare be constructed from these [antilegomena] books. Nothing that is in controversy may be proved from these books if there are no proofs and confirmations in the canonical books. But what is said in these books must be explained and understood according to the analogy of what is clearly set down in the canonical books. There can be no doubt that this is the meaning of the ancient Church.”  (Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, trans. F. Kramer, vol I, (CPH 1971)  This seems to make good sense to me.  It is interesting that some theologians in the early church who were very orthodox did not think that books like James, Hebrews, Jude, II Peter, and Revelation should be in the canon.  Again, what was at issue here – for some – was perhaps not whether or not these books contained error (properly understood, they do not), but whether or not they should be included in the canon.  And why would their canonicity have been questioned?  Not just because of questions regarding their authorship in this or that case, but also questions regarding whether the content could easily cause confusion – seeming to detract from a proper “urging of Christ”.

****As there might be persons of character who can share the oral history or actual historical evidence that is available and can be examined.   When it comes to taking history seriously, I contend that both philosophy (classical and modern) and science (classical and modern) do not know how to handle these things.  See my series What Athens needs from Jerusalem starting here.

*****Found here:

******Likewise, Pascal’s wager – at least as it is popularly understood – can  be re-configured (so as not to change the nature of Christianity!): it is not really that we must choose whether or not to take a leap of faith based on probabilities, but whether or not we will find the reasonable demand for our attention – of course accompanied by all manner of evidence from the creation and from history – compelling enough to warrant putting ourselves in a position by which we may hear from God and hence, be converted (surprise! – this actually is Pascal’s argument and he was dead right – listen to this show for more).  And could God also draw unbelievers to Himself – that they might hear and be converted – through not only “strong” things like resurrections, but also by “weak” things like becoming a baby (pick it up!) or dying on a cross (“when I am lifted up….”)?!  For more on my view of apologetics, see the posts I did dealing with David Bentley Hart’s book (part II here) and read the following post and the comments which follow, where I was privileged to discuss matters of apologetics with the legendary Lutheran apologist John Warwick Montgomery in an extended discussion!:

*******I find it interesting that this man is recently brought to light by the ELCA professor from Luther seminary Walther Sundberg.

Ehrmann pic: ; Kenyon pic: ; other pics from Wikipedia.

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