I have some significant frustrations with popular Christian apologetics. Perhaps my greatest problem is that Christian apologists often prefer answers that simplify to the point of distortion. Whatever attraction those kinds of answers may have in buoying confidence and rallying the base, they ultimately inhibit Christians from maturing in the faith.
A clear example of the problem is found in a recent episode of Unbelievable featuring a conversation between Christian apologist Sean McDowell and former-Christian-turned-humanist Bart Campolo titled “Why Bart lost his faith, why Sean kept his.” While both McDowell and Campolo are engaging and articulate exponents of their respective positions, nonetheless, at some key points McDowell provided simplistic and unhelpful answers.
In this article, I’m going to consider one representative example. At approximately 50 minutes into the show, McDowell and Campolo begin to talk about the Bible and homosexuality. We join the conversation with McDowell speaking about “authenticity”:
A Brief Summary
The key exchange begins at approximately 1:25 into the clip when Campolo asks why God wasn’t clearer on the ethics of homosexuality and same-sex relationships. McDowell replies by insisting that God is clear: i.e. he communicated exactly what he wants human beings to know on this topic. And of course, that clear message is the traditional prohibition position.
The problem, of course, is that Campolo’s question is prompted by the fact that many Christians, including his own mother, Peggy Campolo, disagree with McDowell and the traditionalists. If God is really that clear, then why does the progressive position exist?
McDowell replies to Campolo like this:
“I think you said it clearly. You even disagreeing with your dad. You said it wasn’t Jesus that led you to believe this. You came to the conclusion homosexuality is fine and found scripture to support it. That’s why I think his explanation of Romans chapter one totally does not take the context into consideration.”
So let’s be clear on McDowell’s response. To summarize:
Campolo’s question: If God is clear on homosexuality and same-sex relationships then why do some Christians reject the traditional prohibition?
McDowell’s answer: Because those people are engaged in motivated reasoning: they want the progressive position to be true and thereby look for scripture to support that conclusion.
Not surprisingly, this explanation prompts an incredulous retort from Campolo:
“You think the Bible is crystal clear and all the Christians who disagree with you are just missing the point.”
Unfortunately, McDowell decides not to engage directly with that retort. Instead, he appears to take issue with the term “crystal clear” (without stating why the term is problematic). Then he pivots to his recent dialogue with progressive Matthew Vines while reiterating the need to interpret the Bible correctly.
Of course, that does nothing to address Campolo’s question and thus the gist of the exchange is clear … and troubling. McDowell responds to the existence of deep, important, and persistent disagreement in the Christian tradition and community by insisting that one side — the side he disagrees with, of course — is behaving in an irrational (and presumably morally culpable, i.e. sinful) manner.
Disagreement is a General Problem
The first point we need to appreciate is that the root of the problem Campolo raises is not simply about how a Christian should interpret LGBT issues. The point, rather, is a general one: if God wants to convey important doctrinal and ethical information to people, why does he allow for reasonable disagreement on the truth of the matter?
And that basic problem arises with countless important ethical and doctrinal topics. For example, Christians disagree on
important ethical issues including normative theories of ethics (e.g. deontology; virtue theory) and various applied ethical topics (e.g. just war vs. pacifism; abortion; meat-eating; divorce and remarriage; immigration; gender relations);
important doctrinal issues including the boundaries of the canon, the nature of biblical inspiration, authority, and interpretation; the doctrines of the Trinity, atonement, salvation, election, the sacraments, the millennium, final judgment, and so on.
In all these cases we find Christians disagreeing on topics that are important, topics about which God presumably wants us to have the right answer.
My most recent book, What’s So Confusing About Grace?, deals with this kind of disagreement on the specific topic of soteriology. If there is one theme that emerges in that book, it is that intellectual and spiritual maturation in the Christian faith requires Christians to come to terms with that deep and intractable disagreement without simply dismissing others as irrational and/or immoral. (This is also a major theme in my book You’re Not as Crazy as I Think.)
Suffice it to say, it is very disappointing and frustrating to see a major Christian apologist like Sean McDowell perpetuating the false view that when Christians disagree, one side (i.e. the side you’re not on) is irrational and/or sinful.
Doctrine, Ethics, and Bible
This brings me to a second problem: McDowell’s response suggests that Christians form their beliefs about doctrines simply by interpreting the Bible. But this is another falsehood beloved of Christian conservatives and continuing to perpetuate it only serves to inhibit moral and intellectual maturation.
The fact is that people form their doctrinal and ethical opinions by drawing on a broad array of resources. Of course, if one is a Christian then Scripture is a key part of that process. Though it must be said that what role Scripture plays depends on the kind of Christian one is. For example, evangelicals and Catholics interpret and apply the Bible differently at several key points and each is formed by a tradition of authority and interpretation. Needless to say, precisely no one simply counts up a list of Bible verses and draws their conclusions. And those who think this is all they do believe this because they’ve been inducted into yet another tradition of authority and interpretation.
Christians are shaped by many factors in their articulation of doctrine including particular rational intuitions and moral intuitions and discursive reasoning based on those axiomatic, intuitive starting points. They also draw upon personal experiences and (as I just noted) ecclesial and cultural traditions.
As a result, two (or more) Christians can reasonably draw different conclusions about important doctrinal and/or ethical matters.
LGBT (and Other) Issues
Consider the debate between Christian complementarians and egalitarians. To suggest that a Christians views are (or should be) based simply on exegeting a handful of texts like 1 Tim. 2:11-13 is hopelessly naive, not least because the way that one reads 1 Tim. 2:11-13 will be shaped by multiple extrabiblical factors including one’s own reading traditions and their exposure to women in ministry and leadership.
The same point applies to LGBT issues: how you read and apply texts like Romans 1 will be shaped by many factors including, potentially, your experience with the gay community. Consider two different individuals:
Steve grew up in a small town in Iowa where he attends a fundamentalist Baptist church. He has never met a gay person (at least of which he is aware) and his only exposure to the gay community comes from seeing provocative clips from gay pride parades on Fox News.
Alexa grew up in Greenwich Village in New York and attends an Episcopalian church. She knows many people in the gay community and she is neighbors and close friends with this gay couple:
Needless to say, Steve and Alexa’s very different range of experiences and traditions will shape not only their moral and rational intuitions but also their reading Romans 1 (as well as their respective views of scriptural interpretation and authority). The key point we need to recognize is that neither starting point is neutral.
Bad Theology is a Bad Apologetic
To sum up, McDowell presents a simplistic understanding of the formation of doctrine and the origin and nature of doctrinal disagreement. I can’t speculate as to why he does this but given that he has a PhD I must assume he himself is surely aware of the kind of complexity I’m describing here. (After all, every seminarian should be familiar with the hermeneutical
circle spiral long before they enter a PhD program.)
What I can say is that bad theology like this may seem to work in the short-term to avoid a difficult question. But in the long-term it perpetuates false views about doctrine and disagreement which inhibit intellectual maturation within the Christian community. And that’s always a bad apologetic.