The End of Christianity? A Skeptical Review (Part 6)

Posted on 08/15/11 39 Comments

“Can God exist if Yahweh doesn’t?” This is the question at the center of The End of Christianity chapter five written by Jaco Gericke. Some of the other chapters in The End of Christianity have bad arguments, and at least one chapter seems to lack an argument altogether. But the argument of this chapter is strange. Let me explain.

Gericke begins with a concession: the core concept of God in classical theism is not going to be critically undermined by conceptual analysis:

“there will be no end to apologists’ reinterpretation of the concept of ‘God,’….” (131)

Consequently,

“any disproof merits only a relative efficiency value at best when it tackles the god of the philosophers.” (132)

In light of this fact Gericke believes another approach for critiquing Christianity is necessary. And so he advises that instead of critiquing the concept of God as it is understood by academic philosophers and theologians today, the atheologian should attack the concept of God that one finds in the Bible, in particular the Old Testament. The idea is to identify descriptions of God in the Bible that Christians today reject and then hope that the Christian responds to this problem by rejecting the Judeo-Christian revelation altogether (and making the leap over deism to full-blown atheism).

Now in order to see why I consider this argument to be strange, think about what it would look like for a fundamentalist Christian apologist to adopt the same method in response to a view he found recalcitrant to refutation such as Neo-Darwinism:

“Current Neo-Darwinian theory is always changing and morphing. There will be no end to Darwinists’ reinterpretation of the concept of ‘evolution’. And so any disproof merits only a relative efficiency value at best when it tackles Neo-Darwinian theory. Consequently, I advise that we need to ignore Dawkins and Mayr, Dobzhansky and Mendel, and get back to Darwin himself. We should limit ourselves to what Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, and if we can demonstrate that the precise theory that he outlined in that book does not accurately describe the processes which are operative in nature then we will have done our job.”

As strange as that may seem, it is exactly the kind of argument being offered by Gericke. Since we cannot defeat the contemporary philosophical/theological concept of God, we should focus on critiquing the ancient Israelite conception instead.

The strangeness of the argument is complemented by Gericke’s assumption that demonstrating particular statements about Yahweh in the Old Testament are false is equivalent to showing that Yahweh doesn’t exist. He writes: “what we have in the text is the character Yahweh who, as depicted, can for various reasons not possibly exist outside the stories in which he acts.” (135)

You might call this claim weird hubcaps placed onto an already strange looking car. To illumine the weird nature of this claim, consider another illustration:

When my daughter was three her grandparents came to visit. Because we picked them up at the airport and dropped them off at the airport, she (incorrectly) concluded that they lived at the airport. With that in mind imagine the following fictional exchange between my daughter and her Sunday school teacher:

“Did you meet your grandparents?”

“Yes, they live at the airport and they give me toys and play with me.”

The teacher knows that people don’t live at the airport. But what then should she conclude? If she shared Gericke’s reasoning she might argue like this: “what we have in the child’s story is the character of two grandparents who, as depicted, can for various reasons not possibly exist outside the stories in which they act. Therefore, the grandparents don’t actually exist.”

But of course that is not warranted. She should conclude, instead, that the child got at least one description wrong. But that doesn’t mean the child doesn’t have grandparents who visited her and gave her toys.

Similarly, the fact that biblical authors were incorrect in some of their theological descriptions doesn’t mean that Yahweh doesn’t exist. It means only that they got some of their theological descriptions about Yahweh wrong. Indeed, this is precisely what the doctrine of progressive revelation has always accepted.

It is interesting to note that the first endnote of Gericke’s essay states the following: “The same findings and more are corroborated by the work of Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God….” (387) Yes, that is correct. It is also correct that Thom Stark is a committed Christian, a fact that I would have thought would give Gericke some pause about the quality of his argument. So in closing I’d like to offer Gericke the following tip: when your argument for atheism draws on material embraced by Christians, there’s something pretty seriously wrong with your argument.

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  • http://christthetao.blogspot.com/ David Marshall

    To give Gericke as much credit as possible (I’m expecting the book any day, so can’t tell yet how much that might be), really the Darwin / Bible analogy is a bit flawed. No scientist I know of claims that Darwin was inerrant, inspired by God, or even that Natural Selection revealed Itself to him. It would seem a little unfair to forget the fact that a lot of Christians see the Bible that way.

    On the other hand, Loftus & Co’s Herculean task is to clean out that one particular stable called Inerrancy, hoping readers will ignore the fact that it is just one of many stables on the Bar Jesus Ranch. (Am I juggling too many metaphors, yet? One must keep in practice.) So it might turn out that the confusion is intentional.

    My own reasons, as a scholar of world religions, for rejecting this whole line of argument, have mainly to do with the fact that Yahweh keeps on showing up in other cultures besides Israel:

    http://christthetao.blogspot.com/2011/04/yes-you-are-stamp-collector-why.html

    I believe this whole popular line of argumentation can and should be turned around on the atheists.

    • randal

      David, you correctly observe a disanlogy between what some Christians believe about the Bible and what all Darwinists believe about The Origin of Species. But of course in any analogy there are points of dissimilarity. Those points of dissimilarity only result in a flawed analogy if the analogy depended on similarity at those points. My analogy doesn’t require that Darwinists think of The Origin of Species as analogous to an inerrant revelation so there isn’t a problem.

      What you point out is that according to Gericke there are theological errors in the Bible. But as I noted in my review, many Christians readily accept this (Thom Stark for example), and it is indeed a corollary of the doctrine of progressive revelation.

      I do agree that the kind of issues that Stark and Gericke point to amply illustrate that the doctrine of inerrancy as defended by many conservative evangelicals is dead. But that is very different from the claim that there is no defensible theory of scripture’s inpiration and authority (Nick Wolterstorff, for example, offers a much better model) and it certainly doesn’t mean Yahweh doesn’t exist.

      You are certainly correct that Loftus and his motley crew have a sort of obsession with critiquing a set of beliefs held by many conservative evangelical Christians. But then I guess calling the book The End of Certain Beliefs Held by Many Conservative Evangelical Christians would never have made it past the Prometheus marketing department.

      • Walter

        You are certainly correct that Loftus and his motley crew have a sort of obsession with critiquing a set of beliefs held by many conservative evangelical Christians

        Considering the protean nature of Christian belief, I don’t think that it is possible to debunk it in all its variations. Loftus and his crew are going after the biggest target that exists in their own backyard.

        • randal

          Most of them are going after the Christianity they grew up with, so it could be they are exorcising some personal demons.

          Christianity isn’t any more protean than naturalism, and I don’t have any problem presenting a series of arguments that go to the core of naturalism.

          • Walter

            I didn’t realize that there were 30,000 sects of naturalism out there. :-)

            Seriously though, in the several years since my own deconversion I have run across more diversity in Christian beliefs than I ever knew even existed while I was still in my little cocoon of fundamentalism. I guess the only way to debunk all forms of Christianity would be to somehow prove that no deity exists, or perhaps show conclusively that Jesus did not physically resurrect? And even if you could prove that Jesus did not bodily resurrect it still would not phase some of the very liberal Christianities. You can’t nail jello to a wall.

            • randal

              “You can’t nail jello to a wall.”

              That’s a great description of the dilemma with writing a book called The End of Naturalism.

  • http://christthetao.blogspot.com/ David Marshall

    Yes, I can see the potential problems with that title.

    I agree that Wolterstorff’s model is superior; in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I compare it to what C. S. Lewis said on the same subject, which I think is very much on the same wavelength. I enjoyed Wolterstorff’s Divine Discourse very much.

    Still, given that even Wolterstorff and Lewis lend the Bible a higher authority than evolutionists lend (or admit to lending) Darwin, attacking the biblical concept of God would not seem like a total waste of time, from their POV. Given that Christians have generally seen Scripture as revealed in some sense, couldn’t they turn around and accuse modern Christians who downplay its authority as having retreated to an ad hoc defensive position? I don’t think I would agree with that argument, but I wouldn’t see it as senseless, or (given the doctrine of divine revelation, in some form) a very close parallel to arguing against Lucretian physics or Darwinian biology.

    • randal

      “Given that Christians have generally seen Scripture as revealed in some sense, couldn’t they turn around and accuse modern Christians who downplay its authority as having retreated to an ad hoc defensive position?”

      I’m not sure I follow the question. People are free to accuse other people of anything at all. I can accuse you of being a disguised alien from the planet x4-33. I can accuse you of that, but that doesn’t mean the accusation is plausible or defensible. (And I take it that is the real meat in your question: wouldn’t this capitulation charge be a plausible one?) That depends on the set of beliefs one holds. If one is a conservative evangelical then relative to the set of beliefs they hold they may believe such a charge is justified. Relative to the set of beliefs I hold, I wouldn’t believe such a charge is justified.

  • Torgo

    Just curious (and not in a sarcastic way), what is the argument in progressive revelation theory for considering later revelations or scriptures more authoritative or more accurate than earlier ones? In relation to Gericke’s argument, why is the earlier Hebrew understanding of God less legitimate than later ones?

    “when your argument for atheism draws on material embraced by Christians, there’s something pretty seriously wrong with your argument”

    Why? Certainly Christians can be right about some things, but wrong about others. I’m not familiar with Stark’s work, but perhaps Gericke thinks that he got some things right, but fails to draw the proper conclusions from his own arguments (e.g., that God does not exist). Conversely, Christian apologists draw on the arguments of atheists all the time. William Lane Craig for instance draws on the work of physicists Borg, Guth, and Valenkin, in order to support his Kalam Cosmological Argument for God. But as I understand it, none of these scientists believes in God. Perhaps this is a problem for Craig’s argument? Or might he contend that Borg, et al. aren’t drawing the proper conclusions?

    • randal

      “what is the argument in progressive revelation theory for considering later revelations or scriptures more authoritative or more accurate than earlier ones?”

      As a general observation, later theoretical accounts of a given subject matter can take into account both the evidence available at earlier times as well as material that has emerged at subsequent points in time. This is why histories of WW2 written in the early twenty-first century are generally more accurate than those written in the 1950s. That is also why later scientific and theological theories are generally more reliable and authoritative than earlier ones.

      “perhaps Gericke thinks that he got some things right, but fails to draw the proper conclusions from his own arguments….”

      Yes, that is possible, but if Gericke has some argument to show that Stark has not drawn the appropriate conclusions of his work, he should have shared it with us (ideally in that very footnote).

      • Torgo

        “As a general observation, later theoretical accounts of a given subject matter can take into account both the evidence available at earlier times as well as material that has emerged at subsequent points in time.”

        But scriptures don’t contain theoretical accounts, but mainly revealed knowledge. Though, this makes some sense for theological and philosophical conceptions of God. But those are typically alleged to be consistent in some way with Scripture. So, does this not still leave the question of which Biblical description of God is most accurate? Which God do the later theological accounts square with?

        My suspicion is that theology and philosophy are trying to identify their God with the God(s) of the Bible. This of course seems prone to special pleading and motivated reasoning. Might it not make more sense to affirm Deism than to try to jury-rig our explanations of God to fit with Scripture?

        • randal

          “But scriptures don’t contain theoretical accounts, but mainly revealed knowledge.”

          You are drawing an indefensible dichotomy. Scripture includes both. And later theologians offer a much fuller theoretical framework which takes into account the earlier revealed knowledge and theoretical framework of the writers of scripture.

          “My suspicion is that theology and philosophy are trying to identify their God with the God(s) of the Bible.”

          Well let me confirm your suspicions (insofar as your reference to “theology and philosophy” is a reference to Christian theologians and philosophers).

          “This of course seems prone to special pleading and motivated reasoning.”

          It is special pleading for Christian theologians to offer theological reflections on the God of the Bible? Okey dokey.

  • Robert

    I see no need for Thom Stark’s Christianity to give Gericke pause. The Human Faces of God argues (convincingly, I think) that Jesus was probably a failed prophet and that the scriptures are sometimes seriously misleading. These arguments attack all versions of Christianity except a small few.

    • randal

      It certainly should have given him pause. Thom Stark is not a Marcionite and he believes the Christian God exists. Those are the two nails in the coffin of Gericke’s argument.

      • Beetle

        You have answered your own question. Loftus is riding on the coattails of Dawkins and Harris and is, as you acutely observe, really writing The End of Certain Beliefs Held by Many Conservative Evangelical Christians. That crowd sees Thom Stark as a heretic, not a Christian.

        • randal

          “That crowd sees Thom Stark as a heretic, not a Christian.”

          Some do, some don’t. The ratio between the groups shifts rather dramatically (in Thom’s favor) however once Thom’s views, and the reasons he holds them, are explained to the audience.

          • Walter

            To my knowledge based on reading some articles on Thom’s now defunct blog, Thom does not believe in the deity of Jesus. I would assume that he does believe in the bodily resurrection of the human Jesus, but I am not positive on that point. Suffice it to say, Thom is not an atheist, but he is also not the type of Christian dogmatist that many of us find so very annoying.

            • randal

              If that is true it is news to me. Fortunately a Christian can appropriate much of what Thom says about scripture without adopting such a woefully pedestrian (and heretical) christology.

              • Walter

                Randal, I am curious. Do you not consider a unitarian Christian to be a *true* Christian? What do you consider to be the sine qua non of Christianity? Must one be trinitarian? Might one simply believe in a physical resurrection to receive your stamp of approval? Where is the line in the sand drawn differentiating a real Christian from a mere theist who is only nominally Christian?

                • randal

                  I consider a unitarian a heretic. That means a unitarian stands outside the historic boundaries of the Christian community. That is an ecclesiological judgment, not a soteriological one. But all sorts of qualifications are introduced in my chapter on “liberal Christiainty” in You’re not as Crazy as I Think.

              • Robert

                … a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say … must be put to death.”

                You may say to yourselves, “How can we know …”

                If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. — Deut 18:19–22

                Thom argued that Jesus was wrong about the end of the world. If Jesus was wrong about that, the whole Christian religion is probably false and Jesus ‘deserved’ the death penalty. Randal, don’t you agree?

                • randal

                  I don’t agree with Thom. But if I reached the same conclusion that he has made the next question would be how to interpret the meaning and authority of Deut. 18:19-22. Needless to say, as a “Thomist” (pun intended!) I would have already surrendered inerrancy so there would be no intrinsic problem with saying that the passage was wrong and Jesus was non-culpably in error.

          • Beetle

            I largely concure with you regarding the soundness of Thom reasoning.

            >> That crowd sees Thom Stark as a heretic, not a Christian.

            > Some do, some don’t.

            Can you point me to a single self-indentified conservative evangelical Christian who comments favoriably upon Thom’s work?

            • randal

              I don’t know which scholars have commented on Thom’s work apart from the blurbs on his book. Those include relatively conservative voices like Tony Campolo and Greg Boyd.

              • Beetle

                Yeah, that’s all I have.

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  • http://christthetao.blogspot.com/ David Marshall

    Walter: Do you find all Christians who believe in the divinity of Christ “annoying?” Or just those who do annoying things, like argue for that view?

    I imagine if one lives long enough with anyone, one eventually finds that they do annoying things.

    • Walter

      Walter: Do you find all Christians who believe in the divinity of Christ “annoying?”

      Not necessarily. I have a problem with smug ideologues who sincerely believe in their own theological inerrancy. I have no problem with believers with enough humility to accept that they might actually be wrong. And yes, it irks me to be around smug atheists as well.

      • randal

        Of course one can find smug ideologues across the gamut of theological and atheological conviction.

  • Colin Murphy

    Just one observation on your review of Jaco Gericke: the fact that William Lane Craig uses evidence and data from scientists that almost universally reject his conclusion that god exists does not a priori invalidate Craig’s arguments any more than Gericke’s use of Stark’s data invalidates Gericke’s arguments, even though they may draw different conclusions. Just a minor point, but I think its relevant given your critique. Maybe you think it should in both cases, but I wouldn’t agree.

    • randal

      Good observation. Here’s my response.

      First, I didn’t claim that Gericke uses Stark’s data. Rather, Stark and Gericke have identified the same material in the OT. The point is simply that Stark doesn’t believe this material has the implications Gericke thinks it does, and so it is Gericke’s burden of proof, as the one arguing against Christianity, to show that Stark is mistaken.

      As for Craig, he has addressed precisely this issue by putting forth a positive case for why the universe requires an agent cause of great power who brought it into existence a finite time ago, so he has amply justified his divergence from the big bang cosmologists he cites who do not think the universe requires an agent first cause.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Randal: “Similarly, the fact that biblical authors were incorrect in some of their theological descriptions doesn’t mean that Yahweh doesn’t exist. It means only that they got some of their theological descriptions about Yahweh wrong. Indeed, this is precisely what the doctrine of progressive revelation has always accepted.

    Several problems:

    i) To redefine progressive revelation as progression from revealed error to revealed truth is scarcely the definition which has always been accepted.

    ii) For Jesus and the NT writers, the God of the OT is the God of the NT. Yahweh is the true God. They do not view the relation between OT theism and NT theism as a progression from an erroneous view of God to a truer view of God.

    iii) The OT is the foundation for the NT. The OT messianism underwrites NT messianism.

    Because Rauser is a liberal, he’s trying to patch together some sort of compromise position. But in the process he ends up sabotaging both the OT and the NT.

    From: http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2011/08/rausers-self-defeating-apologetic.html

    • randal

      I never defined progressive revelation as “progression from revealed error to revealed truth”. Nor did I deny that “the God of the OT is the God of the NT” (in fact I argued explicitly for full continuity!) And I affirm iii). Your description of me as a “liberal” is vacuous because it just means “less conservative than ‘Truth Unites….”

      Thanks for keeping us apprised of what the triabloguers are saying about me. (Sarcasm noted, I hope.)

      • randal

        I didn’t realize you were quoting Steve Hays. So let me revise:

        Steve Hays’s description of me as a “liberal” is vacuous because it just means “less conservative than Steve Hays.”

  • Ed Babinski

    Hi Randall,

    You wrote,

    “When your argument for atheism draws on material embraced by Christians [i.e., Thom Stark], there’s something pretty seriously wrong with your argument.”

    But I’d put it the other way round, namely that Thom Stark drew upon scholarship embraced by experts in biblical studies, experts of all sorts, not just “Christians.” And Stark translated that scholarship into arguments against inerrancy in his book, The Human Faces of God. So Gericke is not citing Stark’s “Christianity” but giving a nod to the same scholarly resources Stark gave the nod to.

    • randal

      I’m not sure you’re getting the point I was making so I’ll restate it. If Christians embrace p and believe p is consistent with Christianity, then a non-Christian cannot argue from p to the falsity of Christianity without providing an account of how p is inconsistent with Christianity. In other words, the fact that many Christian biblical scholars embrace the results to which Gericke appeals as an argument against Christianity undermines Gericke’s argument unless he can argue successfully that those Christians are incorrect to embrace those results. He didn’t even attempt to do that. (It is a good thing too since he woulda failed.)

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  • http://christthetao.blogspot.com/ David Marshall

    Having read it, I’ve now posted my own critical review of Gericke’s chapter:

    http://christthetao.blogspot.com/2011/09/end-of-christianity-part-i-response-to.html

    I see two fatal problems with his argument: logical, and the empirical fact that “God” seems to predate “Yahweh,” in cultures around the world.

    • randal

      Thanks for the link David. This is starting to feel like a rugby pile up!