The Semantics of Bart Ehrmann’s Faith and Theology

There’s a brief excerpt from theologian and agnostic Bart Ehrmann’s latest book God’s Problem at the Fresh Air web site where he was recently interviewed. Take a look at what Ehrmann has to say about faith:

“The problem of suffering became for me the problem of faith. After many years of grappling with the problem, trying to explain it, thinking through the explanations that others have offered—some of them pat answers charming for their simplicity, others highly sophisticated and nuanced reflections of serious philosophers and theologians—after thinking about the alleged answers and continuing to wrestle with the problem, about nine or ten years ago I finally admitted defeat, came to realize that I could no longer believe in the God of my tradition, and acknowledged that I was an agnostic: I don’t “know” if there is a God; but I think that if there is one, he certainly isn’t the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is actively and powerfully involved in this world. And so I stopped going to church.”

Do you catch anything a bit odd here?

The words “think” and “know” come up a lot. And yet he lost his faith. Theology is faith seeking understanding or better yet, faith thinking. But thinking does not equal faith.

Remember Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

Faith does not mean we turn our brains off or discard logic or evidence completely. Nevertheless, faith implies hope, the unseen, the uncertain. Ehrmann tried to figure out suffering, could not think it through logically, and claims to have lost his faith.

Here is my question, in what did he place his faith? In scripture making perfect sense? Definitely–see his book Misquoting Jesus.  In life having a clear meaning we can parse out? Definitely again–see his latest book.

I don’t see a former follower of Jesus here who says that God failed him: he doesn’t say that God ignored his prayers, he doesn’t get into the personal relationship end with God. His focus is theology: places where God doesn’t line up, the facts did not line up with his faith–wherever he placed his faith.  This is the failure of theology, the failure of an intellectual to put his faith in a neat box where all of the loose ends tie up. I don’t see faith at all. Ehrmann did not lose his faith in God because he doesn’t seem to have had all that much faith in God. He placed his faith in theology. Even if he had a personal conversion experience, at some point he placed his faith in something other than God.

Perhaps I’m being a little rough on him. And I admit, I have a lot of compassion for him. It breaks my heart to see him struggling to figure all of this out. Nevertheless, he’s opening himself up and sharing his bones of contention with God. In doing that, I think he’s inviting scrutiny, and that’s where I’m coming from. I think he’s placing the blame in the wrong place, though of course I have not stood squarely in his shoes. I’m merely basing my assessment on his interviews and books.

Christianity is about something terrifying and hard to believe. Jesus says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” That means we have to take that huge step of faith–and I mean this is the biggest leap we could ever take–and opening the door.

Will there be anyone or anything there?

We can’t know for sure.

But we can open the door in faith, leaving all theology and doctrines behind until later. Because our hope is first and foremost in God, not in theology or doctrines or theories or philosophy. We believe first in God, and then we seek to know God, even if we can’t expect everything to line up. Faith has to be enough.

God is knocking. We can open the door and have that supernatural encounter or we can turn up our theology and drown out the God who wants to know us.

9 thoughts on “The Semantics of Bart Ehrmann’s Faith and Theology

  1. Dan Morrow

    Hi,

    Bart Ehrman (one “n”) lost his faith in the God, ” . . . proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is actively and powerfully involved in this world.”

    As a baptized Christian I find his arguments well-grounded and eloquently stated.

    One may disagree with his conclusions about the nature of the God described in Christian scripture and tradition . . . but I find it most difficult to fault the scholarship upon which those conclusions are based, or the integrity of the man who reached them.

    It seems to me that your speculation that one can leave “. . . all theology and doctrines behind until later. Because our hope is first and foremost in God . . . ,” presupposes both the existence of the deity in question and some insight into its nature, no?

  2. ed Post author

    Dan,

    I should first of all mention that NT Wright and Bart Ehrman have engaged in a very interesting discuss about this very topic that will do far more to clarify things that what I can say. You can find it at: http://blog.beliefnet.com/blogalogue/ (via: http://www.emergentvillage.com/weblog/the-problem-of-pain-beliefnet-blogalogue).

    I should also note that in the midst of reading the blog dialogue, Ehrman stresses that he really did have a relationship with Jesus, something that I doubt in the above post. I am still uncomfortable with the terms he uses to describe that relationship, as it sounds a bit too intellectual, but hey, I’ll take his word for it!

    Regarding Ehrman’s scholarship, he does some very excellent work, however, I believe that NT Wright catches his in one of his key mistakes. He assumes that the writers of scripture are trying to answer the same exact questions he is posing. In other words he reads the prophets as trying to answer his theodicy question regarding evil. Wright states,

    “I don’t think much of the Bible is actually addressing the question, ‘Why is there suffering?’, but rather the question, ‘What is God doing about it?’. When cause-and-effect sequences do occur, as in Amos etc., I read them within the prophetic call to Israel and the warnings, proper to humans in general and covenant people in particular, about the consequences of not going with the grain of the creator’s purposes.”

    There are more qualified people than myself who fault Ehrman in some key places, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t brilliant and sincere in his search and scholarship. I think he uses his scholarly tools well, I just believe he’s emphasizing the wrong things or perhaps pointed in the wrong direction in that process. Perhaps he’s even searching for the wrong things. In other words he’s coming from a conservative tradition that requires a neat and tidy Bible, when in reality we need a reliable Bible, not necessarily a perfectly neat and tidy Bible. Instead we have a God who is involved in our lives, a reliable Bible, a tradition passed down to us, and a global faith.

    Part of Ehrman’s beef with God is the reliability of scripture along with the theodicy issue. If theology is faith seeking understanding, which I believe it to be, then the first step is a relationship with God. Sorting out the details will come in part, but Christianity is about an encounter with God. I’m not presupposing anything of God. I’m talking about being overwhelmed with the presence of God.

    That has happened to me and continues to happen. I can’t prove it to you. I can try to flesh God out through scripture, but if I only rely on scripture and not this ongoing relationship with God, I am left with a pretty flimsy faith.

    So I have no doubt that Ehrman is sincere or that he is not a brilliant scholar. I’m sure he could run circles around me in a debate! However, I still think he’s wrong because he’s trying to stuff God into an Enlightenment-sized theodicy box that doesn’t line up with the questions and answers offered in scripture. He is more than welcome to find Christianity inadequate as an answer for his questions, however I can also say as a Christian that I believe he’s looking for the wrong thing from scripture and that the picture painted by scripture of our world and the way things are is quite different from what Ehrman brings to the table.

    OK, this is a huge topic and I’m sure I could write all day! I’ll defer my arguments to NT Wright in that Belief.net postings. I think he’ll do a much better job at this!

    Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Kathy Bell

    Isn’t it funny that so many people are Christians by birth so never really question the Bible. When we do, it’s with an unimaginable fear based upon all the stories we’re told. For those who have the courage to raise questions and see the inadequacy of the answers, we’re rejected as never having a true relationship with Christ. I reject that and say to you that you’ve never had a true relationship with God. The God of the Bible is not the real God, he’s made in man’s image. To accept the God of the Bible is a disservice to God. It’s blasphemy if you think about it. Giving God so many negative human emotions and qualities is a form of religious perversion. However, if that’s the only way God is presented to you then it’s the only “God” you know. To reject the biblical nonsense is unnerving, but so is walking away from an abusive relationship. You see, God doesn’t hate people so much that He/She will only look at us through blood. If you’re a parent you know how ridiculous that sounds. To create an entire race of people knowing ahead of time you’ll condemn them to hell unless they’re “saved”. Even humans aren’t that barbaric. So good for Bart Ehrman that he finally accepted the fact he was duped and has chosen the path on honesty, not blindly following an empty belief “just in case”.

  4. Just Me :)

    Today I had the very same realization regarding the God of the bible, as did Mr. Ehrmann. I will not go any further than to disregarding the God of the bible as the true and real God. I do believe there is a real God. However, a God that can use trickery upon His sons and daughters – which is a form of lying, which ultimately in it’s purest form is lying – from the very first few pages of the very first book of His word – A God than can do such a thing is not my God. A God that is capable of stating “Be fruitful and multiply” yet ‘do not eat of the true of knowledge’ that perpetuated the multiplicity He ordered in the first place – is a God full of dishonesty and deception. Which tells my heart there is something more. Some thing greater beyond everything we have been taught on earth. It is said this is the adversaries planet. I believe this. From the first days of earths existence, it has been. It is said that only a few of all the souls that have lived will see heaven. I believe this. I believe it is because of the necessity to see to the heart of the matter. Where true faith resides. In loving. In understanding the actions of real love. Real love does not lie. Real love does not require a sacrifice of any life in order to save another. For in real love, there is no death. Real love is not jealous, as the bible teaches God is. Heaven is where the loving use the eyes of the soul to see through the lies of the world. If you look around, most have accepted the same path of a jealous and vengeful God. Only a few will deny him, and enter the gates of paradise. Rightly…

    Thank God for the real God. Of which this world has been taught nothing of… As yet.

  5. bferreira

    I too I’m a believer in creation, and a God, but I see no evidence for instance that God isn’t also profoundly evil, he certainly appears to have had second thoughts around killing us all (this is if the Bible is reliable, as claimed) and numerous times he appears duplicitous, jealous, angry, brooding and morose – a typical Western teenager actually. I thank him politely for his offer of salvation, but decline in solidarity with all of the victims of his paranoid shizophrenia.

    Or perhaps the Bible is in serious need of a damned good editorial board to give it a good going over to fix all the junk,and dig out some of the tiny pearls of wisdom you can actually use for something worthwhile.

    Because I for one am fed with God’s incessant whining and moaning to all who would listen about much he can’t stand his kids. “God, grow up already!”

    To which perhaps he’d reply : “You are right my Son, I set a terrible example, but atoned for MY own sins on the cross”???

  6. ed Post author

    Thanks for your honesty.

    I can’t answer all of your questions about why God did certain things, but I think I can offer a bit of a challenge to the “angry teen” god you mention. Though the Old Testament has a couple of passages that I couldn’t possibly answer in a blog comment, the general picture I find of God in the Bible is one where he has created the world, given humans a chance to be in relationship with their creator, and humans have generally chosen to do their own thing and to remake god in their own image.

    So the question is, if you or I were god, what would we do? It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback, and perhaps it’s tempting to do so with some of the Old Testament passages. However, I’d suggest a look at the prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. God gave them tough assignments to call the people of Israel back to both justice for their neighbors and correct worship of God (particularly a kind of worship that didn’t involve sacrificing children). These prophets shared their messages in nonviolent ways, calling the people back to God.

    I’m not sure I can think of a better way to do things. But God took things to the next level through the incarnation of Jesus. Would things be better without God’s intervention on earth? Perhaps the followers of God have done terrible things, but keep in mind that there are many who follow the example of Jesus and carry out relief work through groups like World Vision and Samaritan’s purse, as well as through many local charities. The Salvation Army was started by people inspired by Jesus.

    So while the story of God has some tough parts to understand, there is a clear movement toward self-sacrifice and service to others, particularly when we have a proper understanding of ourselves in relation to our creator.

  7. Robin Sheffield

    OK–it does.

    I attended a debate between Ehrmann and Craig Evans, another evangelical scholar, in Kansas City, MO. Since I have read both writers, and heard them speak, I wanted to see the debate, which was on the reliability of the biblical accounts of the resurrection.
    Both were strong in some areas and weak in others. There was an overflow crowd, so–lots of interest locally.
    Ehrmann was strongest (and Evans weakest) in his listing of “discrepancies” in the various biblical renderings of the crucifixion/resurrection story.
    Ehrmann was weakest in his use of The Telephone Game to explain how the story of the resurrection came to have some varying details (which women came to the tomb? etc). “The Telephone Game,” for those who have played it, is not a game you play because you WANT the story to be passed around intact. The addition of details or corruption of the story is part of the fun.
    But the spread of the biblical story was a different matter. I can think of at least one Native American activist who is miffed with “Western culture” and its skepticism about oral tradition, and anthropologists have chronicled a number of civilizations that managed to pass stories of importance along intact for many generations.
    As for Ehrmann’s assertion that the art of crucifixion was unknown for that era—this is plainly untrue. There is evidence for this in other places. His debate “opponent”–Evans–made a good point in noting that the poor were more likely to be crucified and less likely to have a burial that preserved their bones–though we do have at least one example from the time of Christ. The rich were less likely to be crucified and more likely to be well preserved in tombs and ossuaries.
    Ehrmann is an angry guy. I do not “buy” his assertion that he lost his faith because of his concern that many have unhappy lives. It is a laudable concern, and one that has been pondered by many. But within the framework of religious faith, this issue can also be handled.
    Something else happened to change his faith, but he is not admitting it publicly.

  8. ed Post author

    Thanks for dropping in Robin. That’s a really insightful observation, and it sounds true to what I’ve heard of Ehrmann in his interviews. He’s certainly quite angry about something, and I fear part of his anger is that intellectual Christianity fell flat without the unity of truth with Spirit… or Spirit and truth as a wise teacher once said. I appreciate your comment and all that it adds to this post. Blessings!

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