19In this episode Kurt reviews his time at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual conference by airing a few interviews from scholars that were there.
Kurt: Well good day to you and thanks for joining us here on another episode of Veracity Hill where we are striving for truth on faith, politics, and society. Today’s episode is devoted to my time in San Antonio this past week where I was at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual conference and it was a great opportunity to learn about cutting edge scholarship and to see some old friends and make some new ones as well, some great connections, so today in studio I’m joined by Chris here on the panel. I am doing tech duties too so thanks Chris.
Chris: Hello. Good afternoon.
Kurt: What we’ve got planned for you today is to play a few interviews that I had the opportunity to do with some scholars that I met there and just to talk about really a variety of issues. I just want to reflect upon my time because for those of you who are watching here on Facebook Live, I will show you this. Here’s the booklet and there are just a host of different talks. You’re looking at certainly over 100, maybe even 200 different sessions that someone could attend and you can only pick one out of say maybe twenty or twenty-five at any given time, so there are just loads to pick from and so I want to talk about some that I attended. I attended a talk by Adam Harwood who gave a session on divine immutability. What does it mean to say that God can change?
Basically, does the incarnation bring about a change in God? How can we affirm divine immutability while at the same time affirming the incarnation so that was an interesting talk. On Tuesday morning there was a session on Dr. Mike Licona’s recent book, his research on Plutarch’s Lives and what that means for how we interpret the Gospels so later on today we’re going to be airing an interview that I did with him yesterday actually. He was kind of busy early in the week but we scheduled it out. We had him call on and so we’ve got an interview to share with you on that. Before we get going on those interviews, just a few matters here of business. If you want to give us a call, you want to talk about anything pretty much apologetics related, theology related, politics of economics, we’d love to hear from you. The number if you want to call in is 505-2STRIVE. That’s 505-278-7483.
You can call us at any time of the week so you can call us live when we’re on the show or sometime during the week you want to leave us a message and you can let us know if you’d like to play the message on the air or not. We can do that as well. Also, a couple of weeks ago I announced that you can now text in to the show so if you want to text us through your cell phone all you have to do for that is text the word VERACITY to the number 555-888 and once you do that you can send me messages about the show, any questions you might have or even topic or guest requests and I’ll be checking the system that we have for those texts a couple of times throughout the show so hopefully, I may not be exactly on top of that, but if you text me in I’ll try to get that text and we’ll mention it here on air so I want to thank all of the listeners here who are listening to the show. I hope that it’s been a blessing to you, so with that I want to get into the first interview I had. Chris. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Alister McGrath. Some people may not have heard of him. He is in the U.K. He’s originally from Northern Ireland, but he currently teaches at Oxford University and he is the type of guy….here’s a question for you Chris. How many people do you know have Ph.D.s?
Chris: How many people?
Chris: Since I met you, probably twenty.
Kurt: Okay. Twenty people. Alright. How many people have you met do you know have two Ph.D.s?
Chris: Probably five.
Kurt: Okay. Do you know anybody that has three?
Chris: No. I don’t know anyone who has three.
Kurt: Yes. So Alister McGrath has three Ph.D.s. One is in I think biology or like molecular biology. The other one is in theology. I think he got this more recently because a couple of years ago I did not remember that he has this. He apparently now has a doctorate in literature.
Kurt: So maybe from his studies in C.S. Lewis, he a couple of years ago came out with a book on C.S. Lewis, and now of course made a couple of books off of his research. Maybe that’s when he got his Ph.D. in literature, but he has three Ph.D.’s and he’s a former atheist actually, became a Christian sometime, I don’t know exactly when but I know in his younger years he was an atheist so I want to say maybe 20’s.
Kurt: Maybe it was late teens. I’m not sure.
Chris: It’s quite a left turn.
Kurt: Yes. Yes it is. A big jump. So in this interview here that I’ll play for us I ask him a little bit about that and he’s the type of guy that he doesn’t make small talk so like last week when we had Os Guinness, Os would give us this great robust answer. With Alister they’re going to be short and concise because that’s just the way his mind works. He gets straight to the point on these issues so here I’m going to play now what’s just shy of a ten minute interview and if you’ve got questions or comments about this or any interviews we’re going to be playing today, go ahead and give us a call. Again that number is 505-2STRIVE. That’s 505-278-7483.
Interview with Alister McGrath
Kurt: I am here joined by Dr. Alister McGrath. He is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University and he is the director of the Ian Ramsey Center and he’s one of the founding, or the founding president of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics. He’s got three doctorates, many other accolades, and his reputation precedes him so thank you very much for joining me today.
Alister: Great to be here. Hi!
Kurt: So I had a few questions about the relationship between Christianity and atheism.
Kurt: And I’m wondering, what have you found, when you were a young man, you were not a believer.
Alister: That’s right.
Kurt: So I’m wondering at that stage in your life what did you find compelling about atheism.
Alister: I think what I found compelling was, first of all, it was very simple. No God. That makes it easy. And secondly also, in many ways what atheism was saying is there is no meaningful life and therefore those who think there is are simply mad or fools or something like that. I have to say I was quite arrogant so I thought atheism is saying in fact, atheists are really smart guys. Everyone else are losers. Hey. I like that. So there’s this kind of rhetorical side of atheism. To be an atheist was to be smart and that’s not a joke because as you probably know Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett want society to use a bright to refer to an atheist. Really arrogant.
Kurt: Yeah it is. The smart thing to do is to be an atheist. Okay, but over time as you began to study more what did you find compelling? What drew you to belief in God and ultimately the Christian faith?
Alister: I want to think one was realizing atheism was not, I use generative, it does not really give you a bigger vision of reality. It limits things. It’s not exciting. Then I discovered that Christianity gives you this great wonderful vision of things. This way of making sense of things where they hold together. I just thought I had not realized, this is something new to me, and discovering that was really exciting.
Kurt: So as you began to learn more about theism and Christianity, you encountered what’s called natural theology and so could you describe for us what is natural theology and why do you believe it is a legitimate form of study?
Alister: The word natural theology means lots of different things to different people. For some, it’s a way of arguing from nature to God. For some, it’s a way of proving God’s existence from the basis of purely rational, purely natural way to think. In other words, you don’t presuppose God. You start from reason and prove God. For me, it’s partly those, but could also be here is the Christian faith, here is the vision of nature it opens up. In other words it’s beginning from God, in other words, natural theology is part of revealed theology, and it’s about being able to look at the natural world and say in the likeness of revelation, this makes a lot of sense to help you understand nature and value it even more.
Kurt: In your recent talk just now here at the Evangelical Philosophical Society, you talked about how abduction, which is a form of reasoning, an inference to the best explanation, is a legitimate form of reasoning, but some might think that this just serves as confirmation bias. That is when we’re looking for things to confirm God’s existence, so we see it and it just confirms what we already believe. How would you respond to that objection?
Alister: I think that there are many ways of showing the rationality of faith. One is to in effect start from nature, move to God. The approach that I adopt is really to say that those are very important, but this is a supplementary tool and this supplementary approach says “Look. Let’s go the other way around. Starting from the idea there is a God, does the belief actually make sense of what we observe?” In other words, you’re saying “Here is one intellectual responsibility, the idea of God. How well does that make sense of what we experience, of what we observe?” So in effect, it’s not saying just self-confirmation. It’s saying here is a serious possibility for discussion and the way we check it out is we say let’s see how well it fits onto what we experience, what we observe.
Kurt: So would you be then here advocating a sort of coherent theory of truth and do you hold that sort of in tandem with a correspondence theory?
Alister: I would say that truth basically is about saying we are linking something that’s real, that’s beyond us, realize and this makes sense of things is realizing this actually holds things together. What seems to be disconnected in our world when seen a certain way actually is like threads connected together, so if you like the Christian faith gives you the threads that links things together for a coherent view of reality. If you don’t believe in God you have a whole series of things that are not interconnected. It’s fragmented.
Kurt: Sure. Okay. So to that as you had mentioned there are maybe gaps, missing links for non-Christian worldview so specifically with regard to atheism what do you think are the three biggest challenges to atheism from the Christian perspective.
Alister: The first major challenge is if there is no God, why do so many people think there is a God? Richard Dawkins answer is because they’re mad because they’re fools. That’s not good enough, basically what you’ve got say the fact people think this is right does not prove this is right, but it shows there is a serious case to be made. Point two. Atheism presents itself as being logically simple. We believe in no God. You believe in one God. Therefore we are simple and you aren’t, but they fail to realize that the Christian vision of God has explanatory potential. In other words, you need to believe in fewer things if you believe in God. It actually helps you make sense of the world but much more importantly is this. Atheism is existentially bleak. It may make some degree of cognitive sense, but people are looking for something more than that. They want something that will give meaning and direction in life. Something that will give them existential grounding. Atheism just doesn’t do that and that for me is one of its greatest weaknesses. As an atheist I found it was intellectually quite interesting for awhile, then I got bored, but actually, at a deeper existential level, it didn’t do anything for me.
Kurt: And so what you would say to people that are say on the fence. They consider themselves agnostic but maybe they are a bit skeptical of a number of positions. What would you say? How would you try to attract them to Christianity?
Alister: You can’t stay on the fence forever. What I’d say to them is you need to put your toe in the water and begin to test things out. You want to say you’ve looked into this, don’t you? So why not look into this? Here’s the question I would ask. Suppose you stepped into the Christian way of thinking, just a little step into it. How do things look from that perspective? Do they make sense? Is this an attractive way of looking at things? If it is, say to yourself “I need to look into this in more detail.” Why not say “Look. I will check this out.”? And the key criterion you use is this to get you started. “When I look at things in this way they seem to make a lot more sense.”
Kurt: The next question I have is this. From the atheistic perspective, what do you think are the three biggest challenges to the Christian worldview?
Alister: The three biggest challenges would probably be these. #1. It’s irrational. #2. It lacks any evidence. #3. It damages people. All of those are really open to question, but one of the things I’d say about the new atheism is this really prolonged rhetoric in effect says this is the way things are rather than arguing that there is evidence. The evidence, in fact, suggests that Christianity is quite good for you, but you never get that in the atheist literature.
Kurt: Okay. So you have a new book out called Enriching Our Vision of Reality. Tell us a little bit about what that book is and why you felt the need for it to come out.
Alister: This is all about my background as a scientist and then a theologian. It’s saying “Look. Supposing science and theology actually talk to each other? Might that lead to each of them having a deeper or richer vision of reality?” and so this book is an expression of some people who’ve looked at this and have actually given us models for thinking about this and what I call shared discussions if you like for people in science fields who are thinking about similar ideas, persons of different perspectives. My point is that if they talk to each other you get a better outcome so the book is really mapping out an approach that should the scientist wish to remain a scientist, but have a grasp of a field to know about and theologians to remain theologians but have a deeper understanding what science is doing. In other words, everyone gets enriched.
Kurt: Great. And you can go ahead and check that book out on Amazon.com and if you’re interested in learning more about Dr. McGrath, you can go to his website at AlisterMcGrath.com and follow him on social media as well at Facebook and Twitter. Dr. McGrath. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Alister: It’s been great fun. Thank you very much for being here.
Kurt: Alright. So that was my interview with Dr. Alister McGrath and like I said, some of his points are straight to the point. When I asked him a question he had “Oh. Here are those three things? Boom, boom, boom.” Chris. What were some of the things that stuck out to you as you were listening to this interview for the first time?
Chris: Well I heard a lot of C.S. Lewis’s background come through in what Alister was talking about from his own personal journey where he said atheism just appeared to be very simple and C.S. Lewis in one of his books says “That was the problem with me. When I was an atheist atheism turned out to be way too simple.” Because if the universe had no meaning we really wouldn’t have discovered that it had no meaning which is a phrase you can expound on for quite awhile. Again, C.S. Lewis admitted he was being arrogant when he was an atheist because it was like saying the bulk of people on the planet were just flat out wrong about the thing that was most important to them so it did require a reexamining of his beliefs.
Kurt: Yeah. Even Alister himself was saying because it was cool to be an atheist. It was the cool thing to do because people that believed in God were stupid. Right?
Kurt: And we still see this to this day with the new atheism and you know for Alister, he’s talking forty years ago what it was like and we still see that where people, I don’t want to say they’re intimidated into believing something, but it’s sort of like if you don’t agree with atheism, then you must be one of those stupid people. You know, which gives off the wrong impression.
Chris: I really like what he talked about with actually using Christianity as a lens to observe the world, the world we all live in, and just doing that with any worldview and I had to do that in college before when I had a crisis of faith and I had to examine “Alright. Let me look through the lens of these other worldviews. Let me look at atheism and see does my world make more sense. Is Christianity wrong?” I think that’s a tremendous way to just if you’ve ever done like any professional puzzle solving or do it recreationally in say a game or a board game, this is that exact process where that didn’t work, let’s go all the way back to the beginning and change this one thing. Does everything make more sense now or does it make less sense and that’s good litmus test for worldviews.
Kurt: Right. One of the things that I had been thinking about was for people that may be on the fence or people that call themselves agnostic, what type of advice should we give to people? How do we get them to get out of their agnosticism because there’s only for so long they can say I don’t know, when maybe they haven’t been surveying the field, so I really liked his answer of “You’ve got to put your toe in the water.” You’ve got to dab it and see. Is it cold? Is it hot? You’ve got to explore these other worldviews and you really should explore them for what they are. Not necessarily just to learn about them, but maybe go talk to a Muslim about what Islam is about and then research it as well because you could learn about Islam from a Christian and you would hope you’re getting an accurate presentation of it, but you’re not guaranteed. I’ll say you’re not guaranteed. Thankfully while I was at BIOLA University and I was taught these things, I had the opportunity to go out and talk to people of different worldviews and I could see for myself “Oh. What my professors was telling me was actually correct,” so it was cool to see that.
Chris: I really hope that none of our brothers and sisters ever say “Well this worldview is wrong,” strictly because Christianity is right. Go off and examine those worldviews. Study them. Think about them. Because you will be able to connect, those people who believe if you are of the Christian persuasion, then those people who hold all their worldviews are the reason you’re on this Earth. You’re there for their souls, so it helps to know, where are they coming from? What is most important to them? How do you speak to it in a way that shines the truth of what is actually happening in reality to them?
Kurt: That you said that is a great segue because the next interview I’ve got is with
Chris: You’re welcome Kurt.
Kurt: Is with the assistant professor of theology and culture at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. His name is Dr. Rhyne Putman and so he gave a talk here at the annual meeting on confirmation bias and so when you had mentioned just now that, well, yeah, if we could hold that Christianity is true, but we still have to go examine these other worldviews and maybe simply believing in Christianity but using that and only that as the basis for everything else is wrong isn’t necessarily good reason, it doesn’t provide good reasoning even for ourselves.
Chris: Right. You certainly won’t be very persuasive in discussion.
Kurt: Not only that but even to ourselves. What if we’re wrong? This is where confirmation bias comes in because we interpret not just worldviews but Biblical passages in such a way where we may be bringing in our own assumptions to that text, but lest we get off talking about that let me play this clip here, this interview from Dr. Rhyne Putman of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Kurt: We are here at San Antonio at the Evangelical Theological Society and you had a presentation on confirmation bias which is something that I’ve been interested in because when we interpret the Bible, we need to make sure we’re not looking at it through our own lenses, through twenty-first century lenses and imposing our own views upon the text and as someone like yourself who studies theology you see a variety of interpretations throughout Christian history and for some of us it seems, “Well, maybe some of these thinkers were interpreting the text based upon their own context of their day and they were applying those words that they see, but they gave it a different and new meaning.” So tell me a little bit about your presentation and what you were arguing in your paper.
Discussion with Rhyne Putman
Rhyne: Well, let me just backtrack a little bit and tell you about my larger theological project and that maybe will set some context for what I’m doing with confirmation bias. My primary area of research interest is theological method, particularly ways in which hermeneutics and hermeneutical theory can form our understanding of the move from the Bible to theology so there’s been a lot of great work in this area over the last couple of years with guys like Kevin Vanhoozer, Anthony Thiselton, and people who are in that work of the field that sort of emerged in the last decade and a half or so with theological interpretation of Scripture, but I’m really sort of moving from that initial sort of spot that I did with my doctoral work in talking about the need for doctrine, to now this sort of problem that we face as evangelicals, even evangelicals who have the same basic view and commitment to the authority and truthfulness, trustworthiness of the Scriptures, to this sort of tension that we have with our hermeneutical differences, our interpretative differences, our doctrinal disagreements, and I think this is something that the hermeneutics scholars have paid attention to for a long time.
People in hermeneutics, folks like Paul Ricoeur, Hans George Gadamer, and the like. They’ve always noted that there is going to be hermeneutical plurality, that people are going to interpret, that there’s going to be differences in interpretation so now I’m just sort of dealing with that reality and kind of putting it in line with the tension that we have with the perspicuity of Scripture which is a cherished Protestant doctrine going back to Luther and Zwingli and really there’s traces of it even before that so that’s sort of the context that I’m doing my present research in and I’m presently working on a book for Fortress Press which will be my second book with Fortress, but this is on When Doctrine Divides, is the title and the issue is partly theological method. The other issue is partly practice. Once we sort of have an assessment of why evangelicals with like-minded assumptions about Scripture will come to different conclusions I think we can have a better understanding about what we should do with our differences.
Kurt: So for the perspicuity of Scripture, would you say that since it seems to be something that we want to affirm, would we say that the Scripture’s clear enough that say an average Joe picks it up and could understand the story enough for his or her own salvation, that that’s where perspicuity applies, but would we maybe a bit more cautious or worrisome if perspicuity applied to say the proposition that all doctrine is clear in Scripture.
Rhyne: Sure, and I think that’s one of the fundamental misunderstandings of the doctrine that a lot of people have. It doesn’t mean, as the Westminster Confession points out and as the Second London Baptist Confession points out, it doesn’t mean that all Scripture is alike plain. It doesn’t mean that every idea in Scripture is plain and clear, and in Luther, Luther was aware of this. Zwingli was aware of this and of course they had this sort of internal debate about the Lord’s Supper that made it clear to them both that they had disagreements about how to interpret Scripture, but they were also aware of the fact, and this is where I think people misunderstand the doctrine, that just because there’s something unclear in Scripture, it doesn’t mean that that was the design and intention of God to leave us in the dark and that’s really what Erasmus was arguing in his debate with Luther on free-will, that there are some things in Scripture that are purposefully ambiguous and so Luther gives a critique to that and says God doesn’t purposely leave us in the dark.
There are some things that Scripture remains silent on. There are some things that are talked about in Scripture that are in fact mysterious, that are in fact beyond comprehension. It doesn’t mean that we can’t apprehend what Scripture says, but we can’t comprehend in a full sense what Scripture says, so I mean Luther was pretty clear about that and he also is aware of the fact that we do have human ignorance that clouds our interpretative process and so I don’t think that he had the sort of vocabulary or the hermeneutical wherewithal to talk about inculturation and talk about the way your time and place in history shapes your reading and that sort of thing, but he was aware of the fact that ignorance of languages, ignorance of historical background, those sorts of things do effect the final reading, and so that takes me to confirmation bias as part of this overall project that I’m working on and that was confirmation bias just became an evident factor in the way that we tend to stick with the tradition. We tend to have our favorite traditions, particularly if this is the first Christian tradition that we learn theology in and we tend to go to Biblical texts not consciously, I don’t think we do this in any sort of nefarious way, but we tend to go to Biblical texts and look for confirmation of what our tradition teaches us or what we already believe Scripture teaches. We call this eisegesis. We do it I think not in a way that is nefarious, we’re not intending to do something.
Kurt: It just happens naturally.
Rhyne: It just happens.
Kurt: One example here might be the word predestined. Regardless of where your camp is, the moment you see that word you might automatically think, “Oh. Well, that’s my model of predestination.”
Rhyne: Right. Again, this is something that I think is really interesting and helpful that these research psychologists are talking about. They talk about ways in which our brain has various degrees of neuroplasticity and it’s usually in the earliest stages of belief formation that we’re most moldable on a particular topic and the longer that that belief holds we have a tendency towards belief persistence, that the longer that beliefs hold the harder it will be in certain respects to let it go and so in theological formation what that often means is that if you hear an idea articulated very well in a particular stage in your belief formation without hearing a contrary or contradictory position, theological position, around the same time when your brain is developing these ideas, then you are less likely to change your position. In fact, what you tend to do in confirmation bias is you tend to work hard to justify your position and I don’t mean that in the sense that an epistemologist means, in talking about justified true belief. What you’re doing is you’re going out of your way to try to prove the rationality of your belief.
Kurt: Yeah. Whatever that belief may be.
Rhyne: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. It’s interesting because confirmation bias comes as Raymond Nickerson, a well-known social psychologist points out, in two basic forms. One is what he calls a motivated form of confirmation bias and the other is an unmotivated form of confirmation bias. An unmotivated confirmation bias is something that happens when you just essentially acquire or start to form a hypothesis and you start testing everything by that hypothesis hoping to find those particular results and it tends to skew the data, skew the information, it affects the way you weigh your data and weigh your information that you receive and you process and it can be on something relatively simple.
The very first experiments in confirmation bias by Wason were around a simple number test where what he did is he gave a series of numbers, the number being like 468 and he told all of the people who were participating in this experiment to write down three numbers and what he said is, three sets of three numbers, and he says “When you write down these numbers I’m going to go through these numbers with you and say if you conform to the rule that I initially had in mind.” So he has this initial rule and so he says, “I’m going to tell you simply yes or no, whether the numbers that you give me conform to the rule and at the end of me telling you yes or no to the numbers you give me, I want you to try to guess the rule or keep on giving me numbers.”
Kurt: Right. And of course, there are different ways you could get that rule.
Rhyne: Right. People were again looking at that initial number, 468, and they’re thinking this might just be adding 2’s. This might be some sort of simple process of adding 2’s, so they all started adding numbers that were by 2’s because that was the original rule they had in their mind, and then what really messed things up was if you saw 3 added to each number, the rule would still apply, and the rule at the end of the day was something very simple.
It’s any set of ascending numbers, but what he found was that people had a lot of difficulties guessing that rule because they had in their mind something more complex than that simple rule and what he found was that people tend to stick by their initial hypothesis about what the rule is and that’s a relatively simple sort of thing, but I think that sort of unmotivated confirmation bias also happens in biblical interpretation, particularly when we’re looking at something maybe like a textual critical issue, a syntax issue, something that is of minor theological significance, and then other times it takes on a more motivated form because this is something that is tied to a foundational belief that you have and a deeply held belief and Wason sort of saw this. Of course, Wason himself was not a Christian, not a theist, and so he said this is the way dogmatic religious thinking works. Ironically, it’s also the way dogmatic anti-religious thinking works as well. You’ve heard more than one time a skeptic say Jesus couldn’t come back from the dead because dead men don’t come back from the dead. That is in itself a kind of confirmation bias as well. It’s not really being open to other possibilities because you have some sort of a priori way of ruling it out.
Kurt: Yeah. That there are never any humans that could possibly come back from the dead.
Rhyne: Right. Exactly, so I think it has application not only talking about what we do in religion but also in some ways in a number of other areas, criminology, it has application in medical science. One of the things that’s fascinating about the studies that I read is a lot of medical students and even some practicing doctors, what they tend to do is they tend to have an early diagnosis of a patient and they tend to look for things that are symptoms that fit that initial diagnosis and sometimes ignore data that would fit with another diagnosis and so it has a wide array of application. I also found in the literature and this was refreshing for me and refreshing for theological method I think as well that there are ways to get around confirmation bias.
You’re never going to completely do theology without bias. You can’t do theology without presuppositions. I’m not that naïve to think that we can, but there are ways of sort of adjusting and one way that these research psychologists have found that’s really helpful is just consciously working through alternative hypotheses so what that means when you come to a biblical text for instance and you bring up the topic of predestination. Say your guiding assumption is that predestination in Scripture is individual soteriological election, that God predestines some individuals unto salvation maybe by some sort of foreseen faith or maybe just because of His good pleasure, His will, that sort of thing, and you ask yourself, “Okay. Looking at the biblical text, what would I expect to find if that’s the case?” and then you turn it around on them. Let’s just assume for a moment that you’re completely taking the wrong position and that maybe predestination and election in Scripture have to do more with vocation than they do
Kurt: with eternal salvation.
Rhyne: Eternal salvation. I mean this is more sort of the model we’re seeing with people like N.T. Wright. What if this is not individual in nature, but it’s corporate? What sort of things would we expect to see in the Biblical text and again, I think that this isn’t a way of completely avoiding this bias at work, but if you are consciously striving to think about what other things you might expect to see in the text and then you go look at the text, then that might sort of open up, maybe open up some alternate possibilities.
Kurt: It really takes the debate from sort of a surface level to beneath the ground where our assumptions are and in that sense, it may be even leads to more productive dialogue because you can actually be communicating to each other at the presuppositional or assumptional level.
Rhyne: Right. Absolutely and I think that’s one of the good things about say this New Perspective on Paul debate we’ve seen in the last couple of years. It’s not a debate so much about the exegesis of individual texts as much as it is a debate about what paradigm do we use that works best with the whole, and regardless of where you fall down on that issue, I think that debate has been helpful in making us think at a meta-level if you’ll excuse the term, about the paradigms that we use in the process of interpretation. We have theological paradigms that we need. It is a sort of thing that we have to in some way project some sense of meaning on the text and then weigh the texts by our projection, it’s a hermeneutical circle.
Kurt: It’s looking at maybe if I had to summarize it in one word, coherency. Which model, which interpretation, which often has a subset of how you interpret other passages, is the most coherent that is how does it fit with all of Scripture as well?
Rhyne: And Kurt, that’s an important point to bring up because again, one of the things I want to do with the value wedding these alternative point of views is to weigh its internal consistency, I want to say if my position more internal or consistent or is this other position internal and consistent and if this other position that I’m considering is not internal and consistent, I want to see why. I want to see how well it coheres with the rest of all true data that we know and that has broader application than just our theological system or our view of Scripture, but how well does it correspond to predictability? How well does the alternative hypothesis that I’m considering predict the future and does it predict the future better than or worse than the particular hypothesis to which I already claim? These are just ways that people talk about normally evaluating your particular proposition, but I’m advocating that you can apply those same sort of criteria to alternative hypotheses in a way that will help you work through confirmation bias and I think that has broad application, not just in theological method which is again the area this all came out of, but also perhaps in apologetics as well.
Kurt: Right. Yeah. We could in apologetics not just, so we could look at it personally like how we interpret passages in Scripture about apologetics, but also then just dealing with worldviews in general and interacting with non-believers and people of faith and maybe those that are…
Rhyne: What happened if the other worldview is true? What sort of things would you expect to see in the world if the other worldview is true or elements of the other worldview is true?
Kurt: Maybe that’s an especially important point to is the elements. Maybe they have something that’s right and then we could maybe even learn from them on say some minor issue, a non-essential issue too. That’s good. We’ve got to as Christians, we should be open to following the truth and so we might not be engaging enough with non-believers because we might be too scared that our worldview is going to be challenged and confirmation bias comes right in here because we might just be trying to find things that confirm our beliefs so we’ve got to be up for the challenge to engage with others and to put our beliefs to the fire, to see if they come out okay.
Rhyne: That’s right. That’s right.
Kurt: Rhyne. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Rhyne: Thank you, Kurt.
Kurt: Okay. So that was the interview with Dr. Rhyne Putman of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the assistant professor of theology and culture. That’s twice I had trouble saying that word professor. Assistant professor of theology and culture there at what I like to say “NOBTS.” Confirmation bias really plays an interesting aspect in the thinking about our own worldview, the way we interpret the Bible. We’ve got to take a short break here, but we’re on Facebook live and if you’re following us there or if you want to give us a call, I’d love to hear some things that you’ve thought about in terms of confirmation bias even in your own life and after this short break from some of our sponsors, I’m going to be sharing with you two items in my own life, in my own interpretation of Scripture, that I’ve changed as a result of me evaluating my assumptions about something so we’ll catch you after this short break from our sponsors.
Kurt: Alright. Thanks for sticking with us through that short break from our sponsors. So confirmation bias was the topic of the interview right before the break there in the first half of the show and it’s really something, one of the things that Rhyne said there was that confirmation bias is an evident factor in our lives and the way we view everything, so, Chris, I don’t know about you, maybe I’ll get to you in a second here, but there were two passages in the Scripture that I had to deal with in terms of my assumptions about the text and so the first was the creation accounts.
Growing up while I was in high school, I affirmed the young-earth creation model and it wasn’t until I began to realize that maybe I had assumptions about the text, the genre specifically, that was affecting my interpretation of it, so by maybe recategorizing the genre, because my interpretation of the intention of the author changed. Right? I’m not trying to change the text for what it means. Right? Anybody who thinks I’m trying to change the text doesn’t get that we need to evaluate how we think about the text, to begin with so that would be called begging the question. I’m not trying to change the text, but my view of what the text was meaning changed and so while I’m still agnostic on scientific matters as to how God brought us about, my interpretation of that text did change.
The second one where my view has changed has been on the book of Revelation or chiefly the apocalyptic passages, you know, the first few chapters, those are letters to churches, but the vision of John there that he got, the assumption I had was that everything he sees corresponds to some future event, and so the goal then was to sort of code break. Right? Be a codebreaker, to interpret how the future will pan out and so that was an assumption that reflecting back and reading more about it and learning more and listening to professors talk about this, that assumption was at least for me unwarranted.
Now maybe for some people, they think that interpretation would be warranted, but you’ve gotta then have that argument. For me, it was unwarranted. There was no reason why I had believed that other than maybe some people told me I needed to read Revelation in that way, so instead my view has now changed and I don’t interpret apocalyptic literature in that way. There’s apocalyptic literature in the Old Testament and I think the way we read those types in the Old Testament should be the same way we read the book of Revelation, but funny enough, that’s not what happens. That’s not what people do generally speaking, so those were two ways that I think confirmation bias have played out in my life and where I’ve changed my view on things when I’ve gone back to try and put away those biases and to deal with those, so if you’ve got any biases that you have dealt with, of course, we likely have biases even now to this day, but if you’ve got ones that you’ve recognized and you’ve changed your mind on some issue, I’d love to hear about it so you can comment on our Facebook page or the Facebook live feed. You can even give us a call now or throughout the week. The number is 505-2STRIVE. That’s 505-278-7483.
So Chris, maybe could you think of one example in your life where confirmation bias played a role and you had to evaluate “I am biased a little this way,” and so you had to work your way over one way or the other?
Chris: I think I arrived at a view of the creation accounts where there’s a lot of things we believe in the church because we believe them on authority, which is how we learn 90% of what we learn as humans, we learn things on authority, but a lot of times well-intentioned people can end up playing telephone with the Scriptures where something that meant something now means something else and so a phrase or something in Scripture is taught this way, but it’s taught so simply that the root of it’s, so it’s happened a lot with tinier Scriptures and doctrines in the New Testament where I’ve come back to, I’ve recircled them in my faith throughout my adulthood and been like, “Hmmm. I don’t think that makes sense,” and I’ve had to examine “Does what I’ve taught about this Scripture make sense?”, because if God’s Word is true it’s a very consistent threadline. All the puzzle pieces will fit, and if you’ve run into one that you’ve been taught that doesn’t fit, it may be good to see if, I think Dr. Putman mentioned is internally consistent. You’re looking for that internal consistency.
Kurt: Right. Yeah. And just to be clear here, the telephone game analogy isn’t with regard to the reliability of Scripture…
Chris: No. No. Just to the reliability of teachers throughout time, or over time.
Kurt: Yeah. And some people might point to when dispensationalism became popular or even young-earth creationism because even when you look at the church fathers, some of them affirmed an old-earth model. They basically just reject a literal reading and so it’s fascinating that maybe we can point to the first person that started talking about some doctrine and say even though it’s persisted, you say “Well maybe that guy was wrong. Maybe his views were wrong”, because he’s had these assumptions or biases to interpret the text, so that can play, again, not just even though we’ve talked about the biblical text, but in worldviews as well, like you had previously mentioned, we can’t just reject other worldviews on the basis alone that we’re Christians because we might have biases as to why we are even a Christian and so we need to analyze those biases.
We need to analyze these other worldviews. We need to see which one is the best one. Which one accurately represents reality around us? Which worldview corresponds to reality? And so I’ve done my own research throughout the years now of course, and you have had as well, but for those of you who haven’t really searched out what the truth was, I want to encourage you to do that and to seek the truth and to follow wherever it leads and I think it’s going to lead you to the cross. I think it’ll lead you to recognizing Jesus as the Lord and Savior of humanity and so I just want to encourage you if you’re a seeker to continue seeking out the truth because I think you might end up where I’m sitting here, where Chris is seated there.
Okay, so back to the text since confirmation biases do play a role in how we interpret Scripture, I had a chance to interview over the phone here Dr. Mike Licona. He was on the show earlier right when we got started, I think like our second or third episode and so I saw him earlier this week. We weren’t able quite to schedule a time for an interview for this show and so I gave him a ring yesterday and asked him about how his block session went? Basically, he had three different scholars critiquing his new book and so I’ll go ahead and play this interview for you here and we’ll listen to his thoughts and how that went.
Kurt: Alright. So now I’m joined here with Dr. Mike Licona and I’m just reflecting upon my time this past week in San Antonio at the Evangelical Theological Society conference and one of the interesting sessions that I listened in on was a block of talks dedicated to analyzing and presenting perhaps constructive criticism, certainly not of the negative sort, to Dr. Licona’s new book and so Dr. Licona, thanks for again for coming on the show. I think this is the second time and I appreciate having you on right now.
Discussion with Mike Licona
Mike: My pleasure Kurt. Thanks for having me on. Glad you were able to attend that session.
Kurt: Yeah. So tell me, what did you think? The scholars that were critiquing you, Darrell Bock, Mark Strauss, and Craig Blomberg. Those are some big names in New Testament criticism. What were your impressions upon what they had to say about your new book?
Mike: Well, I thought they were quite favorable, especially Darrell Bock and Mark Strauss. Mark Strauss said he didn’t agree with every conclusion I had in the book, but that’s to be expected. Nobody agrees with everybody 100%, but Strauss was almost entirely positive about the whole thing. So was Bock. I think he had one criticism, I forgot what it was, but it was very minor, but Blomberg I’d say, he was maybe, I’d say Bock and Strauss were maybe 95% positive. Blomberg probably 75% positive. I would say Blomberg’s main criticism, hesitation would be that he thought that maybe I overstated some of my conclusions. In other words, I said them with more confidence than I should have, that every difference in the Gospels shouldn’t be resolved by appealing to a compositional device. I agree with that.
My thought and reason and argument in the book is “Look. If these compositional devices are part and parcel of how ancient biographers and historians wrote, then since the Gospel authors were ancient biographers and writing within that genre, we should expect to see these same kinds of compositional devices in the Gospels and when we read the Gospels in light of those devices, they make a whole lot of sense and a lot of the differences in the Gospels vanish away and I think what Craig Blomberg failed to see and I failed to point out is that the 19 pericopes that I mentioned in the book or that I showcase in the book are those, and I say this in the book, that most clearly exhibit a compositional device. So I don’t think that every difference in the Gospel should be accounted for by these, but the 19 pericopes that I presented I think clearly do illustrate those so again I think this is something that Craig overlooked and I did too when it came to responding.
Kurt: Yeah. So from what I gathered, yeah, like you’d mentioned, it was just that some of their criticism wasn’t so much geared toward your methodology and what you had to offer here generally speaking, but it was rather that maybe some of the instances where you think the literary device makes a better sense of the text, they would say maybe something else, some form of harmonization or something like that? Is that right? So just sort of narrowing it down to which examples would fit the methods. Is that right?
Mike: Yeah. I would say so, although I don’t know that Darrell or Mark would have taken, I don’t remember taking exceptions with the examples in my book. Craig did. He just didn’t like the synthetic chronological displacement that I mentioned in the book. Darrell and Mark are fine with it so like for example as you recall, we discussed the hypothesis put forward by Craig Keener, myself, and many others that John changed the day and time of Jesus’s crucifixion and part of that involves when the Passover meal took place and the Synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, talk about the Passover meal or the Last Supper being a Passover meal whereas Keener, myself, and others would say “No. In John, it’s not a Passover meal. John makes it seem that it’s not,” and Mark Strauss agrees. I asked him if you recall, “Mark. Do you think that a plain reading of John’s Gospel would suggest that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal?” He said, “That’s right.” He doesn’t think it’s presented as a Passover meal in John’s Gospel, but Craig thinks it is presented as a Passover meal in John’s Gospel, so that’s one of the kind of differences or approaches that Blomberg and I would have, the differences between those approaches. He’s not for the synthetic or artificial kind of chronology whereas I look at it and say, “Biographers could do this. Biographers did do this and it looks like there are a few cases in the Gospels where they have done it.”
Kurt: So then here’s maybe a deeper question building upon that, that notion that ancient biographers took these liberties. If they took these liberties, then at least in some, maybe even a lot of cases, how can we really know what the truth is if we’re just sort of presented with an embellished or unorganized story of what happened?
Mike: Well I think it’s our expectations. Here’s an example that I present, I don’t know if it’s in the book, it may be, but certainly one that I present in my lectures on the reliability of the Gospels. The movie Apollo 13. Ron Howard has been praised for the accuracy of the movie. A famous tagline of the move is “Failure is not an option,” and that was attributed to the director Gene Kranz, but what most people don’t know is that Kranz never uttered that statement. That statement was not uttered. What happened was the screenwriters, they interviewed Kranz, they interviewed the people who worked for him at the time and they wanted to epitomize the attitude and approach of them and they thought a good way to do that would be to take that saying, failure is not an option, and attribute it to Kranz. So you’d say “Is it true?” Well yeah, it’s true, it does epitomize, to give us a really good picture, something that’s very memorable, more than just kind of playing things out. That statement certainly epitomizes the attitude and approach that they had and we get an accurate picture, but as Bock would say, it’s accurate, but it’s not precise, and that is the way it was a lot of ancient historical biographical writings, so if we come to a text in ancient biography and history with the understanding that we are getting, if the author is a good one in writing history we are getting an accurate gist of what occurred and more than just a gist, but we’re getting an accurate picture of what happened although it may not be accurate in all of its precise details and we understand that the objective of an ancient historian biographical author was not necessarily to get every last detail correct. They were more interested in making certain the person gets the full picture and impact of everything and if they have to play around with the details a little in order to do that, just like they would do in an Apollo 13 movie, they were easy with doing that and so if you look at it that way, we shouldn’t have a problem with it.
Kurt: I think maybe one of the questions that came up in the discussion, I guess that was on Tuesday, and as you’re mentioning sort of this methodology, people might have these red flags. Oh! Inerrancy! Inerrancy! Inerrancy! Right? Because if you’re getting two authors presenting different pictures would we say then that when we are looking at situations where these literary techniques apply or were used that we’re sort of just placing our own twenty-first century standards upon the text? Right? So when we say “Maybe there’s an error then because John doesn’t correctly convey this historical event,” but you would say something like this. Right? “That’s because John had a specific purpose for doing what he did. It’s not that there’s an error. It’s because he intended to do something different than what we would expect.” Is that right?
Mike: That’s correct and I’d also add I would say you’re correct and I’d also add, “The objection about inerrancy is not taking into consideration the matter of genre,” so if we look at one of Jesus’s parables, let’s say the parable of the prodigal son. If someone were to say, “The prodigal son never existed. The people in that story never existed.”
Almost all scholars would say that’s the case. They did not exist. It’s a parable. It’s a parable. It’s not meant to reflect history so one wouldn’t say, “If you deny the historicity of the people in parables, then you’re denying the inerrancy of the text.” Really? Yeah. You’re not denying the inerrancy of the text and that would be correct. Why? Because the genre of a parable. Well, wait a minute. A parable appears in ancient biography here. It’s a biography. It’s in the Gospels. Right? Yeah. Well, how come that doesn’t impact inerrancy? Because the genre, even though it’s within a biography, that particular bit of it, the parable is not meant to be understood as history, so if we look at ancient biography and understand that they could take these moves with the literary devices and not be so concerned with precision all of the time, then that shouldn’t cause any challenge whatsoever to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. You have to understand genre and like you said Kurt, if a person is saying that there’s a problem with that, they’re just not understanding the genre involved.
Kurt: Okay. So my final question for you is this. This is a project that you’ve worked on for years. What has been something that you’ve really, I don’t just want to say learned, but something you experienced the truth in a deep way as you were working on this research project. What was one of those things?
Mike: Hmmmm. Something that I understood in a deeper way by understanding the literary device.
Kurt: Was there something in the Gospels that really stood out to you in a deeper way because of the research here?
Mike: Not in terms of its meaning. I mean, there’d be little things involved where I just might see where an author changed something like for example Matthew appears to have changed the word involved with when it said that Jesus was offered wine while on the cross. Well, if I remember correctly, it’s oxon, which most English translations attribute that as sour wine. Well, it wasn’t really sour wine. It was a cheap wine that was given for laborers and specifically people working in the field, soldiers, they had it, and it had really good properties for quenching thirst so it would make sense if they would give it to Jesus on the cross. It wasn’t meant as an insult or anything. It was an act of mercy. Well Matthew changes that word to gall so that he could quote from the Old Testament, they gave me gall to drink, and gall was a bitter herb, and so Matthew changes that word because he’s painting a portrait of Jesus at that point saying that Jesus was in bitter torment, bitter punishment on the cross, so you could see some of the authors do this. When you compare and look at things carefully, some of these things just come to light. When you’re aware and looking for them when you see the pieces forming, then you see what these authors are doing, so I think these things are pretty interesting to see, so I don’t know. I think it helps me to understand more what the Gospel authors are doing and it certainly took away reservations that I had about Gospel differences so that I don’t know that it made a profound impact on my life because even if there are errors, turn out to be errors in the Gospels, it doesn’t undermine my faith in Christianity because like you and I discussed the other day, the truth of Christianity is grounded in the person and resurrection of Jesus. It’s not grounded in the inerrancy of the Bible because if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity was true, even in the decades before the first Gospel was written so how could an error in any of the Gospels nullify the truth of Christianity when it was true before those Gospels were written?
Kurt: Yeah. And Paul says if the resurrection didn’t happen, we’re still in our sins.
Mike: That’s exactly right. He didn’t say, “Hey. We’re still in our sins if Mark has an error.”
Kurt: Great. Well if this topic of harmonizing the Gospels and utilizing an ancient literary technique interests you more, you can check out Why Are There Differences In The Gospels: What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography, at Amazon.com now and you can currently buy the Kindle version and order the hardback version which is soon to come out. Dr. Mike Licona. Thanks for joining us.
Mike: Thanks a lot, Kurt. I appreciate it.
Kurt: So that was the interview with Dr. Mike Licona and it was great to get his feedback on how he thought the sessions went with those three scholars critiquing his view and as I’d mentioned in the interview, one of the things, since I sat in on that one, one of the things that I took was that none of the three scholars were disputing his method here. If there were any issue it was which instance in the Gospel fits with this literary technique that Licona also has seen in his study of Plutarch’s Lives, those biographies, and so I think it’s a really fascinating thing because, one of the things that stuck out to me, as Licona is mentioning in this interview, there are different passages in the Gospels that really it seems like, “Oh gee. Why would the author do that?” So for example, when Jesus was on the cross, was He given wine or was He given an herb?” Well, it’s likely the case that He was given wine and Matthew changes it to fit with an Old Testament verse, but these are liberties that the Gospel authors took and that was just what was acceptable back then so we can’t be analyzing the Gospels with our twenty-first-century lenses. We need to take them on their standard and when we do that we can better understand why there might be differences in the Gospels. Chris. What were your thoughts about the interview there?
Chris: It was good. I’ve had the joy because of our partnership with Mr. Licona to hear him speak on these things several times so it was good to kind of refresh myself on them, but I think he had a good reminder in the end that our hope is in Christ, right? Our sins are forgiven because He’s raised from the dead and so this book is just a book. It only works if there’s a God on the other side of it trying to get to us. These things point to Him. They speak of Him, and that’s what Jesus says when He’s talking on the Road to Emmaus. He’s like, “Hey. These things speak of me and this was what was supposed to happen,” so it’s good to not put our hope…..
Kurt: Hope in the words printed. Yeah
Chris: Which I can do very often, especially because I like spending a lot of time in the Old Testament and understanding wisdom and forethought in Scripture and it’s easy for me to put my hope in wisdom, and wisdom’s a great thing. It comes from the Lord. He’s the keeper of all that, but I have to constantly refocus like this, this Scripture is a way to help me understand the mind of the Lord and that’s where I’m really trying to get to.
Kurt: Yep. Great. Well, hey. That does it for our show today. I am grateful for the continued support of our patrons, those are folks that just chip in a couple of bucks a month, so if you want to check out how you can become a patron and the benefits, check out our web site and click on the patron tab, and I’m also thankful for the partnership that we have with our sponsors, Defenders Media, Consult Kevin, The Sky Floor, Rethinking Hell, The Illinois Family Institute, and Evolution 2.0, and on that note about Evolution 2.0, we’ve got Perry Marshall coming up in a couple of weeks here. He’s the author of that work, and so on the 3rd, I think December 3rd, we’ve got him coming, so I’m looking forward to that interview with him here in the studio. Also, thank you to the tech team today which was you Chris and I am also continually thankful for you our listeners and I want to thank you for striving for truth on faith, politics, and society.