Mars Hill Forum #116 with Atheist Dan Barker: Is the Bible Completely Trustworthy? Three Questions

Guest: Dan Barker, Co-President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, at Crossroads Community Cathedral, East Hartford, CT, June 14, 2006

Prepared Remarks by John C. Rankin

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Good evening. Tonight, the question concerns what is trustworthy.

In a recent forum, Dan and I looked at evolution and intelligent design. I argued for the logical power of intelligent design, and Dan said he believes in “unintelligent design.”

But if unintelligent design produced the universe, and the human intelligence found in the universe, then unintelligence is greater than intelligence – at least in Dan’s universe.

So Dan faces a daunting question: Why engage in the futility of seeking to be intelligent? It will be swallowed up into cosmic dust at the end. Also, why does it matter if the Bible or anything else is trustworthy?

It matters because I do not believe Dan is really an atheist. Two years ago he argued that the God of the Bible is a liar and unjust. I said that if atheism is true, then there is no God, and thus his argument should be with the church and believers. But he continued to argue against God. The real issue is one of “theological baggage” – that is, the fear of being violated by imposed religion, and how to deal with the problem of evil.

That which is trustworthy is both positive and proactive. It has no need for a negative or reactive comparison. But Dan’s definition of “freedom from religion” is both negative and reactive. Theological baggage. It is not a freedom for something, but from something. But what does freedom from violation by religion produce, if in the end an unintelligent universe violates us, and swallows up all intelligence and freedom? Are we not but slaves? If Dan is intellectually consistent, and if in pursuit of what can be trusted, he is at odds with his professed atheism. He has a dilemma.

So, tonight, Dan must be asked if he has any positive foundation for the universe and his own life, and in face of the nature of the Bible on its own terms.

Of all origin stories in human history, only the Bible starts off completely positive, proactive and hence, trustworthy. It is the only text that has a positive order of creation. In contrast, the Babylonian genesis starts with the assumptions of distrust, war and sexual promiscuity, and there is no escape from its violence. Buddhism’s starting point is: “Suffering is.” There is no good order of creation, and no resurrection hope. The Epicurean swerve of secular thought cannot rise above pagan ethics.

Now, how does the Bible communicate its trustworthiness? It does not demand we trust it; rather, it simply is what it is, trusting us to examine its truth claims. Unlike the Qur’an which demands submission. How is the Bible inspired? It is not like the Qur’an, where Muhammad is simply a passive conduit for Allah. The Qur’an comes to us through one person alone, with no checks and balances and no questions allowed.

In prior contrast, the Bible comes to us through God’s acts in verifiable history, through covenant communities of believers who have the freedom to pose him and each other the toughest of questions. It comes to us in history through this means of checks and balances. Just as water is purified by extrusion as it returns to the mountain spring, so the Bible comes to us through the work of the Holy Spirit in human beings.

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The proactive basis for the Bible begins with the ethics of Genesis 1-2 – what I call “Only Genesis.” Indeed, there is no more intelligent and comprehensive source for knowledge than what is found here.

The Bible is the true story line as it defines the good order of creation, where trust and intelligence are fully in place; it defines the painful reversal; then defines the reversal of the reversal. In Genesis 3, the reversal begins as brokenness of trust, and cascades across human history. Then, the Messianic promise begins, reverses the reversal, and in Jesus restores the original trajectory of goodness and trust.

Only Genesis can be summed up in ten positive assumptions.

First: Only Genesis has a positive view of God’s nature.

Yahweh Elohim is greater than space, time and number, his nature is good, and his unlimited power is the power to give. That which is trustworthy.

Second: Only Genesis has a positive view of communication.

Communication requires light, and the Bible describes the physics, ethics and spiritual domains of light versus darkness. Where light is present, darkness by definition cannot be. Thus, openness in communication, honesty and integrity are the assumptions of biblical faith – the power to live in the light. That which is trustworthy.

Third: Only Genesis has a positive view of human nature.

In God’s image, we are made for peace, order, stability and hope; to live, to love, to laugh and to learn. To enjoy the good creation as a gift. That which is trustworthy.

Fourth: Only Genesis has a positive view of human freedom.

The first words by Yahweh to the first man, Adam, in Genesis 2, are words of freedom. The Hebrew language is rooted in the metaphor of an unlimited menu of good choices on the one hand, versus the one poisonous choice on the other. In other words, the goodness of life is a gift, and gifts cannot be imposed. Thus there is no freedom to say yes to God without the equal freedom to say no. The true banquet of freedom is robbed by brokenness of trust, the root definition of sin. Thus, the power of informed choice for all people is equally honored, that which is trustworthy, and thus, theological baggage can be overcome.

Fifth: Only Genesis has a positive view of hard questions.

This power to love hard questions is a cognate of the power of informed choice, traces across the pages of the Bible, and is the essence of the rabbinic teaching style modeled by Jesus. It celebrates a level playing field where all questions are received equally. That which is trustworthy.

Sixth: Only Genesis has a positive view of human sexuality.

Genesis 1-2 is unique in affirming the equality and complementarity of man and woman, the goodness of marriage. That which is trustworthy.

Seventh: Only Genesis has a positive view of science and the scientific

In Genesis on forward, the text describes reality consistent with scientific observation. Then the scientific method is based on the principle of falsification, where if one test disproves 1000 others, the theory must be recalibrated. The only ethical basis for this in history is found in how Hebrew prophets were required to have a 1.000 batting average, a 100 percent accuracy; and Jesus was accountable to the same principle of falsification. That which is trustworthy.

Eighth: Only Genesis has a positive view of verifiable history.

Genesis 1-2 identifies who the first man and woman are, where exactly they lived, who their descendants were, and then the Bible traces the genealogy all the way to Jesus. This is verifiable eye-witness history with no concept of mythology. That which is trustworthy.

Ninth: Only Genesis has a positive view of covenantal law.

The first covenant God made with Adam and Eve was the gift of freedom, and all covenantal law in the Bible thereafter is in service to the restoration of freedom, where the consent of the governed is honored. That which is trustworthy.

Tenth: Only Genesis has a positive view of unalienable rights.

In the Declaration of Independence, the Creator, the God of Genesis 1-2, is appealed to as the only Source for the unalienable rights of life, liberty, property and hence the power to pursue happiness. That which is trustworthy.

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This summary covers huge biblical territory – but such a foundation is necessary. Dan argues that the Bible is not fully trustworthy, and yet, when the Bible is taken on its own terms, it is the unique basis for intelligence and trust to begin with.

Now, in Dan’s supposed atheism, it is negative and reactive to all these positive biblical assumptions – it is untrustworthy. It replaces the good God with a hostile and unintelligent universe; darkness swallows up light in the end; we are no more than evolved animals where it is the “survival of the fittest;” it is slavery to a reactive “freedom from religion;” it avoids the question of what preceded the universe, choosing unintelligence over intelligence; it has no basis to overcome male chauvinism and protect marriage; its science cuts off the possibility of a Creator, and has no ethical basis for the principle of falsification; like pagan religion, atheism traces back to mythological sources, not verifiable history; its political laws cannot rise above “might makes right;” and unalienable rights is not possible, since these rights by definition transcends human law.

On the basis of the proactive and positive biblical assumptions, we can easily look at the three questions before us.

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First: “Do Genesis 1 and 2 contradict each other?” No.

Genesis 1 is the grand design of creation, and Genesis 2 is the first covenant with the first man and woman, taking place on the sixth day.

A reactive understanding assumes that the biblical days of creation equal a strict chronology of 24-hour days, and also assumes the unsustainable critique of higher German criticism which says the Old Testament is the compilation of four contradictory sources. It is not.

The real issue is the nature of the days in Genesis 1. The day-age theory says the days are long periods of time, but Genesis 1:5 says otherwise when it declares “there was evening and morning – the first day.” This describes a humanly experienced day on our planet rotating on its axis and circumnavigating the sun. But the 24-hour day theory also runs into the difficulty that the sun, moon and stars are not created until the fourth day. How then can the first day be 24-hours if the universe is not yet constructed so as to be able to measure 24-hours? Genesis 1 is actually using literal days for a greater literary purpose – just like 1 Corinthians 12 uses the literary device of a physical body to describe the church.

Genesis 1 describes a theological ordering rooted in Hebrew parallel literary structure, where man and woman are made directly by God as his image-bearers. In its ordering, the first three days are domains – light, sky and sea, then land. The next three days, in parallel position, are the rulers over those domains – the sun, moon and stars being the agents of light, the birds and fish over the sky and sea, and animals over the land. Then, God sets man and woman over it all, under him. The structure of the days of the week is intended to give an eternal purpose to our literal weeks, with the focus on purpose and completion in the Sabbath, in the goal of eternal life. We understand eternal purpose through the days of our literal weeks.

This is a compact summary of much biblical territory – but also exactly the point. No criticism of the Bible can stand without an intelligent grasp of the text on its own terms.

In the past, Dan has argued that Genesis 2:4b-6 contradicts the chronology of Genesis 1. But, in fact it does not, for he misunderstands the nature of Genesis 1, imposing a rigid chronology not there. He does not grasp how Genesis 2:4b-6 simply describes the content of the sixth day to locate its final purpose – in verse 7 when Yahweh Elohim makes the first man and breathes life into him. All the details can be examined point for point, and the unity of Genesis 1 and 2 will sustain itself.

Second: “Do Matthew and Luke contradict each other regarding the date of Jesus’ birth?” No.

Dan argues that the census of the Roman world Luke identifies never happened, it does not line up with the dates for the rule of Quirinius, governor of Syria, nor with Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi.

  1. The first issue is the death of Herod the Great, thought to be 4 B.C. according to Josephus; and according to Matthew, Herod was alive when the Star of Bethlehem appeared. But it has been more recently learned that Josephus dated Herod’s death as 1 B.C., and it was a copyist’s error in the sixteenth century that is at fault. This makes all the difference.
  2. Another dating issue is that the Roman monk Dionysius Exiguus set the Christian calendar in 525 A.D., thus calling Zero A.D. the time Jesus was born. He did this half a millennium after the fact, and even while first and second century scholars dated the birth of Jesus as between 4-1 B.C.
  3. The census mentioned by Luke 2:2 dates it to when Quirinius was governor of Syria. But it is argued that while Quirinius was in office from 6-4 B.C., no such census is recorded by Josephus or Roman records. Yet, this is also based on a wrong reading of Josephus, meaning Qurinius was actually in office from 3-1 B.C. As well, the year 2 B.C. marked the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome, there were huge celebrations in Rome, the doors of Janus were closed for only the third time ever, and all the subjects of the empire were expected to rise as one and call Caesar Augustus pater patriae, “Father of the Country.” Such an empire-wide festival would have required a census or enrollment.
  4. In the book of Matthew the “star” identified by the Magi, possibly descendants of Daniel, is best explained by a conjunction of Jupiter (the planet that represented kingship, coronation and the birth of kings); Regulus, the brightest star in Leo (associated with the Lion of Judah); and Venus. This conjunction happened in both 3 B.C. and 2 B.C. Indeed the configuration could have happened on or near September 11, 3 B.C., Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

In the ancient world, dating was always an imprecise science, given no universal calendar. Yet the Greek born Luke, a trained physician and historian; and Matthew, a Hebrew man rooted in the discipline of verifiable history; both compiled detailed genealogies, and both gave historical facts with understated confidence locating the time and place when Jesus was born. Along with early church fathers, and consistent with Josephus, Jesus was born between 3-1 B.C. The Bible is trustworthy.

Third: Is the trinitarian language of 1 John 5:7 in the King James Version accurate? No.

Here, Dan and I agree. So why raise the question? Well, Dan wanted to.

The text in the King James says: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and the three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth…”

These words first appeared in some late manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate, reflecting an attempt within the pre-Roman Catholic Church to locate a comprehensive trinitarian statement. The reality of the trinity is evidenced by the biblical story line, and needs no such attempt.

And it is completely out of context. In his letter of 1 John, John starts with the Word having become flesh, a reflection of his gospel where the Word was with God and was God. Then one concern 1 John has is to deal with the proto-gnostics who believed that the spirit is good, but the body is evil. This led them to deny that Jesus had come in the flesh, for if he had, he would have been polluted by it. Gnosticism reflects the ancient dualism of spirit versus flesh, the most common error in pagan religions. The Hebrew Bible is the only text in history that starts with the assumption that the body is good, is polluted by evil, but is then rescued in the power of the resurrection. Thus, in 1 John 4:2-3, the apostle John makes it clear that to deny that Jesus came in the flesh, is to be of the antichrist.

In 1 John 5, John speaks of how we overcome the world by faith in Jesus as the Son of God. Thus Jesus came by water and the blood – that is, by the water of natural birth and by the blood of his atoning death on the cross. He is not a mere spirit who has no interface with the real. Thus, the text properly says in 1 John 5:6-8 (in the NIV): “This is the one who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.” In other words the true Spirit testifies that Jesus was born as a man and died as a man, and is the Christ, the Son of God.

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In conclusion, the Bible is completely trustworthy, it is both positive and proactive; and in its face, a negative and reactive “freedom from religion” has nothing to offer.

Thank you.

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