Can Christian Scholars Be Objective?

Drawing of black handcuffs on an orange backgroundIn a 2010 book, New Testament scholar Michael Licona said that the zombie apocalypse of Matthew 27:52, where many of the dead came back to life after Jesus died, didn’t literally happen.  To many of us that’s an unsurprising observation, but this caused quite a controversy within the scholarly evangelical community.

According to Christianity Today:

[Norman] Geisler accused Licona of denying the full inerrancy of Scripture.  He also called for Licona to recant his interpretation, labeling it “unorthodox, non-evangelical, and a dangerous precedent for the rest of evangelicalism.”

“Recant”?  Is this the Inquisition?  Was Licona, like Galileo, shown the instruments of torture and encouraged to choose the correct path?

To be clear, the only objectionable item in Licona’s entire 700-page book was the reinterpretation of this one incident in Matthew, and yet he was pressured out of his job last month as professor at Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES), and his position as apologetics coordinator for the North American Mission Board was eliminated.  A single question about biblical inerrancy was, for some, intolerable.

We can try to see this from the standpoint of SES.  They have a purpose statement, which says in part that the institution assumes “the infallibility and inerrancy of the Scriptures.”  Licona was likely asked to commit to this statement, and his book could be seen as a breach of this commitment.

These kinds of statements of faith are common, and I found them for Bob Jones University, Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and others.  I attended the International Academy of Apologetics this summer (admittedly an odd place for an atheist to be for two weeks, but that’s another story), and their statement of faith, binding on the faculty, said that the Academy “accepts the Holy Scriptures as the revealed and inerrant word of God.”

Let’s grant that a university can dismiss a professor for breaching a contract, even one so odd as this.  What’s rarely discussed is the consequence of these mandatory statements: they mean that Christian scholars at evangelical institutions are unable to be objective.  With their job on the line, their hands are tied.  They can’t always follow the facts where they lead.  The public pillorying of Licona shows the consequences of intellectual honesty.

This incident has opened my eyes.  Whenever I see or hear claims by Christian scholars, I will now wonder if a statement of faith applies.  The next time I read an article by William Lane Craig, for example, I will read it with the caveat that he’s bound by Biola University’s doctrinal statement that says, in part, “The Scriptures … are without error or defect of any kind.”  When he argues that the Bible is accurate, I won’t know if that’s really his honest conclusion or if that’s just his institution talking.

This even affects Norm Geisler, Licona’s chief accuser.  Geisler is a professor at Veritas Evangelical Seminary, whose statement of faith says, “We believe the Bible … is verbally inerrant in the original text.”

How can we take seriously anything said about Christianity by Craig, Geisler, or indeed any scholar who is intellectually constrained in this way?

Photo credit: Vectorportal

Related posts:

Related links:

  • Bobby Ross, Jr. “Interpretation Sparks a Grave Theology Debate,” Christianity Today, November 2011.
  • Jeffrey Jay Lowder, “Christian NT Scholar and Apologist Michael Licona Loses Job After Questioning Matthew 27,” The Secular Outpost blog, 11/8/11.
  • “Michael R. Licona,” Wikipedia.

21 thoughts on “Can Christian Scholars Be Objective?

  1. Hi Bob,
    I think the title of this post (Can Christian Scholars Be Objective?) is misleading. Your focus is on evangelicals which is an extreme side of Christianity. I’ve read lots of Christian scholars who don’t share this extreme view of the bible. They’ll tell you that many of the letters attributed to Paul weren’t written by Paul; they’ll tell you of the spurious scriptures in our current edition of the bible, etc… Note the wording of the Veritas statement of faith:
    “We believe the Bible … is VERBALLY inerrant in the ORIGINAL text.” This is a statement about something that doesn’t exist (an original text that’s never been copied); it doesn’t apply to the bibles we have today.
    As to the main gist of the post, I agree that the pressure to conform (and keep your job) can limit free expression. Interpreting the bible for yourself is indeed ” a dangerous precedent for the rest of evangelicalism”.

    avalon

  2. Ben Stein made the same arguments about intellectual dishonesty in the secular university environment, in his movie, “Expelled”. The difference was that secular universities purport to be intellectually open minded, when in fact they stringently enforce a secular humanist viewpoint. So when I read any secular university professor, I have to discount that with the knowledge that they are forced to espouse support for evolutionary naturalism, a view which they may or may not hold. But at least the Christian universities which expect professors to hold Christian viewpoints are upfront about this requirement.

    • Hey, Rick!

      Asking what obligations or preconceptions any scholar has is indeed a legitimate question. But that biologists adhere to evolution as the scientific consensus could be because (1) they have some sort of preconception or brainwashing or whatever that prevents them from being objective or (2) they have indeed followed the facts where they lead, and they point to evolution.

      • Thank you for confirming that some biologists adhere to evolution because they have been brainwashed, but that was not my assertion. My assertion was that they have to give lip service to it as a condition of employment. This is different from preconception or brainwashing, ideas you interjected but are irrelevant to the point I made.

        As for following the facts where they lead, Greg Koukl has made a very interesting point regarding the fact that Christians have a wider range of possible conclusions from which to draw, since they have not eliminated one possibility (an intelligent designer) from the explanations best fitting the data. See “Does Christianity make Christians closed-minded?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vn2fnZlhxWw&feature=youtu.be

      • I have no evidence that any biologists are brainwashed. I thought that something like that was the option you had proposed, so I was simply putting it on the table.

        It’s hard to imagine biologists knowing that evolution is bogus but just talking the talk for their entire careers. What kind of fulfilling career is that? Wouldn’t it make more sense to find something you can actually believe in? And, as with any conspiracy, aren’t you worried that a handful of the tens of thousands of biologists are going to blow the whistle on this decrepit house of cards?

        Thanks for the link to the Kokul video. I saw that one and commented. Kokul imagines that atheists reject the possibility of the supernatural, but that certainly doesn’t apply to me (or to any atheist that I can think of). It’s the very fact that I’m open to the possibility and yet have seen basically no evidence that makes me an atheist.

        • Now you have introduced yet another concept I didn’t suggest, namely conspiracy. You did not respond to what I did suggest regarding bias on university campuses, namely the allegations made by Ben Stein. He clearly documents that bias indeed exists in the secular college environment. Can you address this aspect, rather than making up things like conspiracy and brainwashing? This is name calling and does not advance the discussion.

          You claim to see no evidence for the supernatural, but also choose not to address concepts such as information content in DNA that clearly do lead to such a conclusion. You are a software expert, having made your fortune at Microsoft. You know how software coding works. Yet information content in the genome of any organism, regardless of the quantity of the DNA material, represents complex coding, not likely to be the result of random undirected chance.

          The simple truth is that DNA in all living organisms represents a complete software set that works. While the Apple OS may be more elegant than the more cumbersome Windows OS, (for a little humor at your expense!) both are functional programs, each exceedingly complex, yet far less so than ANY functional organism DNA.

          How do you explain that? C Enigma (from your previous blog post) makes no attempt to do so. (I can engage you in this discussion on that post if you prefer.)

      • Now you have introduced yet another concept I didn’t suggest, namely conspiracy.

        I don’t know what other word to use when you have everyone in the field of biology knowing that evolution is bunk but keeping their mouths shut for the good of everyone.

        You did not respond to what I did suggest regarding bias on university campuses, namely the allegations made by Ben Stein. He clearly documents that bias indeed exists in the secular college environment.

        I don’t know Ben’s arguments well enough to respond. If you want a good web site that does, I can recommend one.

        Can you address this aspect, rather than making up things like conspiracy and brainwashing? This is name calling and does not advance the discussion.

        I didn’t make up anything. If you say that I didn’t capture what you said, that’s called “making a mistake.” I make those all the time. Deliberately making up stuff … not so much.

        You claim to see no evidence for the supernatural, but also choose not to address concepts such as information content in DNA that clearly do lead to such a conclusion.

        Sure, DNA looks like software. It’s an intriguing clue. And, you could say that the heart looks like a pump and nerves look like wires and the brain looks like a computer. None of these are identical to the way human designs work but are analogous.

        Is that it? We have these intriguing clues and so we conclude that there must be a supernatural designer?

        How do you explain that?

        What’s to explain? This “software” is not at all like human-written software. And, as you suggest, the c-value enigma is at the core of this.

        • With all due respect, I did not say that “…everyone in the field of biology knowing that evolution is bunk but keeping their mouths shut for the good of everyone.” I said that bias exists in the academic community, and offered a source for you. Rather than objectively evaluating that source, you offered to find me a reference to straighten out my thinking on the subject. I’d rather you objectively evaluate it with your mind open, as you claim it to be.

          Intriguing clues should cause you to do more than resort to random chance as your be all and end all.

          C-Enigma is not at the core of anything. It is not the consensus. It is a rabbit trail that leads nowhere. Why hang your hat on it? You say you rely on scientific consensus. C-Enigma is anything but.

      • Rather than objectively evaluating that source

        What source? Ben Stein?

        Intriguing clues should cause you to do more than resort to random chance as your be all and end all.

        My reaction to intriguing clues is so irrelevant as to be laughable.

        We have a scientific consensus here. We’re stuck with it.

        C-Enigma is not at the core of anything. It is not the consensus.

        I’m not sure what you’re saying. You’re saying that the onions having 5 times the DNA than humans do, salamanders 10 times, lungfish 40 times, and some amoebas 200 times is in doubt? I had not heard that. Tell me more.

  3. The numbers you state may or may not be accurate. I will take your word for it. The article I sent you recently indicates you are wrong in your conclusion that “scientists” draw some sort of consensus because of those numbers in regard to C-Enigma. They don’t. They confirm there is a lot more to the story than a simple tally of DNA.

    You find a source laughable and discount his concerns? He is a PhD economist who has been a Presidential Cabinet secretary and has some awareness of college bias. And you dismiss him because—why is that again? Do you magically have more credibility because he also has a sense of humor while you have a (gasp!) blog? Not sure why you would totally discount what he and MANY others have said on this topic (Steven Meyer, for instance) so cavalierly. Why not deal with his assertions of bias, instead of ignoring the fact there is intellectual bias on campus faculties?

    • The numbers you state may or may not be accurate. I will take your word for it.

      Here’s my source (click for page):

      He is a PhD economist who has been a Presidential Cabinet secretary and has some awareness of college bias.

      Argument from Authority

      And you dismiss him because—why is that again?

      Because the scientific consensus in favor of evolution is overwhelming and plain, and I have no platform on which to stand to criticize it.

      If your point is not evolution but rather how evolution is treated within academia, I don’t have anything to offer on that subject.

      • You claim you get all of your conclusions from the consensus of opinion of scientists and then complain when I provide an authoritative source? Just because I cited an authoritative source does not mean that I have committed the fallacy of Argument from Authority. I do commit the fallacy if his contribution to the conversation is not valid or relevant.

        You can’t have it both ways, You can’t claim you want consensus and complain when authoritative opinions are offered. Your claim of not being a “scientist” so therefore you can’t comment is a cop out. Your experience as s software expert absolutely qualifies you to comment on information content in DNA. Use your expertise. Don’t hide from doing so.

        Please comment on the information content in DNA and how it can be exceedingly complex and also randomly formed. It is your field. Go for it!

      • Thanks for the chart. It is irrelevant to the discussion, since I already said I don’t dispute your data, but thanks anyway. All of the DNA samples in the chart represent complete organisms with functional operating systems. There is no controversy on that, is there?

      • “Dr. Johnson is smarter than both of us put together and he agrees with me, so I win” is an argument from authority. “The scientific consensus says X” is not.

        I’m not a biologist. For me to pretend to be a judge and declare that evolution is flawed would be a laughable exercise.

        Please comment on the information content in DNA and how it can be exceedingly complex and also randomly formed.

        Natural selection. Nature throws out a bunch of possibilities, and the spaghetti that sticks to the wall is likelier to stick around for the next throw of possibilities.

      • It is irrelevant to the discussion, since I already said I don’t dispute your data…

        I didn’t know if you’d seen this chart before. The issue wasn’t my veracity but passing along something that explains the point far better than a few numbers could do.

        All of the DNA samples in the chart represent complete organisms with functional operating systems.

        Yes, these are all complete organisms.

  4. Bob,

    Regarding your comment on Koukl, “Thanks for the link to the Kokul video. I saw that one and commented. Kokul imagines that atheists reject the possibility of the supernatural, but that certainly doesn’t apply to me (or to any atheist that I can think of). It’s the very fact that I’m open to the possibility and yet have seen basically no evidence that makes me an atheist.” Was there more to your comments? If so, I did not find anything clearly from you.

    The problem I have with your response is that you look at evidence such as DNA information content and refuse to seriously consider the possibility (probability is a better word) of intelligence being a likely design factor. This sort of nonchalant response indicates you don’t take real evidence very seriously. What am I missing here?

    • What am I missing here?

      You’re missing how simple things become when one realizes that one has no platform from which to criticize a domain of which you’re not a member. I this case, I am not a scientist, so I have no option but to accept the consensus view as the tentative best estimate for the truth.

  5. Bob fails to answer how the language of DNA can exist without a mind..

    Designs:
    Always based on Languages & symbols, and always require a designer:
    1) Plans, Music,Maps, Instructions
    2) Human languages: English,Chinese, Spanish
    3) Computer languages: HTML,JPG,C++, TCP/IP,USB
    4) DNA

    All designs start with a symbolic representation of ideas through a code, which is always designed by a mind.
    How DNA works:
    Encodes all information necessary for life
    Double Helix- Divides and complementary bases attach to make copies
    4-Character Alphabet of Adenine,Thymine, Cytosine,Guanine
    A,T,C,G are comparable to binary 1 and 0 in computers
    # of Characters in DNA: 500,000 ( single cell parasite) to 3 billion ( human)
    DNA is an encoding/decoding mechanism
    Linguistics Analysis is used extensively to analyze DNA

    Proof that DNA was designed by God:
    1) DNA is not just a molecule- it is a coding system with a language and alphabet, and contains a message
    2) All languages, codes and messages come from a mind
    3)Therefore DNA was designed by a mind.

    So for Bob to deny DNA was designed by God..Bob will have to show us a message that does not come from a mind..

    Part 2

    The language of DNA
    DNA Nucleotide= Character
    DNA Codon=Letter
    DNA Gene=Word
    DNA Operon=Sentence
    DNA Regulon=Paragraph

    What is information? What makes a message?
    1) Symbolically represents something other than itself ( i.e. a book is more than paper and ink)
    2) Requires a speaker (transmittter) and a listener (receiver)
    3) Contains the elements of language – Alphabet, syntax, meaninfg and intent

    • A little cut ‘n paste from CosmicFingerprints.com, eh?

      Bob fails to answer how the language of DNA can exist without a mind..

      Does evolution not answer your question?

      That DNA looks like information is not especially compelling. Maybe it’s the one example in nature that has information of this type. Your invention of a deity that manufactured this information is the grandest claim ever. It could be; just don’t toss out this “explanation” without a heckuva lot of evidence. “Golly, DNA sure looks like information!” is hardly a lot of evidence.

      All designs start with a symbolic representation of ideas through a code, which is always designed by a mind.

      Prove it!

      # of Characters in DNA: 500,000 ( single cell parasite) to 3 billion (human)

      ?? Did you forget amoebas that have 200 times more DNA than humans? Lots of animals and even some plants exceed the number of base pairs that humans have in DNA.

      I attended Jonathan Wells’ book release party for The Myth of Junk DNA put on by the Discovery Institute this past May. I asked him this question, and he admitted that his argument is simply that DNA in humans that we now think of as junk may well have function that we don’t yet know of. But he had no resolution to the paradox outlined above where animals seemingly do not have DNA lengths proportionate to their complexity (unless you think that amoebas are far more complex than humans).

      So for Bob to deny DNA was designed by God..Bob will have to show us a message that does not come from a mind..

      Sorry–that ain’t the way it works. You’re the one who imagines a supernatural Creator of Everything. The burden of proof is on your broad shoulders.

  6. That was a powerful rebuttal to Bob S’s assertion, and is worthy of his attention. Thanks, Bob C for weighing in on the subject!

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