What if you’re trying to persuade someone from the Bible and they just don’t agree?

Q. I have a question about contrasting interpretations. Since we do not accept a Magisterium [an official, authoritative teaching], believers like me and you and many others seem to have no way to convince another about what Scripture teaches, if the other simply does not agree. This means we end up with the challenge of having many denominations, let alone many believers, each believing many different things, including things that are mentioned in Hebrews as being “milk” doctrines, things that are to be taught to new believers, yet even with these items, some teachers teach things that are incompatible with what others teach, so they cannot all be true; for example, either infant baptism or believer’s baptism. As far as I can see, we will only achieve unity in the faith when all of us sit at the Master’s feet. Do you have any wisdom about this state of affairs?

"Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter," fresco, Pietro Perugino, 1481–1482,  Sistine Chapel. Roman Catholics believe that a definitive teaching authority now resides in the Church. What are Protestants to do to settle their disagreements?
“Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter,” fresco, Pietro Perugino, 1481–1482, Sistine Chapel. Roman Catholics believe that a definitive teaching authority now resides in the Church. What are Protestants to do to settle their disagreements?

I think you’re right that in the absence of a Magisterium (that is, a recognized authoritative teaching office such as there is in the Roman Catholic church), the principle of sola Scriptura—appealing to Scripture alone as our authority—does not bring about agreement among believers. I think the main reason for this is that people approach the Bible with different interpretive presuppositions, so that they can look objectively and honestly at the same data and come to opposite conclusions.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of how this works comes from my seminary days at Gordon-Conwell.  Dr. Gordon G. Fee, who was then on the faculty, agreed to do an event on the topic of women’s ministry together with a professor whose name I unfortunately no longer remember, who was from a Presbyterian seminary. Dr. Fee didn’t feel it would be respectful to women to have a “debate” about them, so he suggested, and the other professor agreed, that the two of them should instead explain what they felt had led them to their positions on the issue, and allow the other person to ask questions about this. They met and prayed together beforehand.

Dr. Fee went first and explained that he’d grown up in the Assemblies of God denomination, where he’d seen many women pastors minister very effectively with the gifts God had given them. He felt he’d seen God bless their work and give it much fruit. And so, he said, to be honest, that was likely a significant factor why he wasn’t persuaded by arguments, even from the Bible, that said God didn’t want women to be in these roles.

The other professor then explained (and I really appreciated his honesty) that he’d grown up in a Presbyterian denomination that taught predestination, and it seemed to him that if God had chosen one group (the elect) to be saved, and another group (the reprobate) not to be saved, then certainly God might also have chosen one group (men) to be in certain roles in the church, and another group (women) not to be in those roles—that was a smaller thing.

I think this illustrates that while Protestants don’t have an official Magisterium, all of us who are Protestant probably do walk around with an unofficial Magisterium in our heads, consisting of the teachings, precedents, experiences, approaches to the Bible, etc. that we’ve been exposed to in the past. This whole constellation of things probably changes over time, but very slowly, as new things are added and others are dropped or come to be regarded as less authoritative. But it is this unofficial Magisterium that you need to move in order to persuade someone, from Scripture, of a viewpoint different from the one they currently hold. That’s unlikely to happen as the result of one conversation or online exchange, though they might budge things slightly.

So I guess I am granting that “we will only achieve unity in the faith when all of us sit at the Master’s feet.” How should we respond to this reality?

I think Dr. Fee and his conversation partner provide a further good example here. While they were on opposite sides of an issue that inflames great passions, they spoke to and about one another very charitably. Dr. Fee said of the other professor that he was “welcoming him to our campus as a brother.” They didn’t move an inch closer to one another’s positions during the conversation, and afterwards they both went back to communities that had different and mutually exclusive practices. But nevertheless I think something very positive was accomplished. They demonstrated that they had “unity in the faith” in another sense, that while they didn’t agree, they were still part of one body and united by the love of Christ.

I think this is the most we can hope for in this world, but I think it’s actually something very positive and powerful. We often say that Christians are free to disagree on minor, non-essential points, so long as they agree on the major, essential ones. But then we discover intractable disagreements on things that seem pretty foundational, such as baptism (as you mention), and we realize how few “essential” beliefs there are that Christians really all do agree on (such as the divinity of Christ).

So failing that kind of agreement, I think instead we should first strive to be “fully convinced in our own minds,” as Paul writes in Romans about some issues that must have seemed pretty crucial for belief and practice in his day (keeping the Sabbath, and whether one could eat and drink certain things). The more settled our minds are, the more calmly and graciously we will be able to engage others. I think most of the damage is done not by the fact of disagreement itself, but by people vilifying those who differ, impugning their character and questioning their good faith. A gracious, Christ-like attitude is probably the best evidence we could ever offer someone for the possibility that we could be right about something we believe that they currently don’t.

Let me close by telling a story about baptism, which I agree is a good example of a “milk” or foundational doctrine that you’d think Christians should be able to agree about. My example once again comes from my seminary days.

One evening my wife and I hosted several friends for dinner and the topic turned to baptism. Those who baptize infants and those who baptize believers at least agree that a given person should only be baptized once. Churches either baptize infants and confirm believers, or else dedicate infants and baptize believers. But it turned out that in our dinner party of eight, my wife was the only person who’d been baptized just once. Everyone else had been baptized at least twice.

And it wasn’t just that several of us who’d been baptized as infants later felt that, with all due respect to our parents and home churches, we wanted to be baptized as believers. One woman had been baptized by immersion as a believer at age 12. She sincerely believed in Jesus at the time, but this was on the basis of what her parents and church had taught her. Later, as a young adult, her faith became more first-hand, through the ministry of a Methodist church she was then attending. Their help had been so meaningful to her that she wanted to be baptized as an adult, as her own personal expression of faith, “in the Methodist way”—by sprinkling. And another guest had been baptized once as an infant, again as a believer, and a third time, for good measure, in the Jordan River while on a tour of Israel.

So the fact that various churches held different positions on the issue of baptism had allowed us to move back and forth between them and so have experiences (double and triple baptisms) that nobody was teaching were normative. For me this is something of a parable: maybe what matters most is not that all of these differences be resolved, even though they seem to be about very important things, but that people genuinely grow and learn and deepen their faith and commitment to God as they are exposed to these various understandings. Because it’s entirely possible that some of the truths of our faith are so profound that no one perspective entirely does justice to them. Maybe in some cases it’s the sum of the understandings resident in the community of faith that’s closest to the truth that will enable us to “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Why were the disciples afraid when Jesus appeared?

Duccio di Buoninsegna,
Duccio di Buoninsegna, “Jesus’ Appearance Behind Locked Doors,” 1308-11.

Q. Why were the disciples afraid when Jesus appeared?

I’m assuming you mean to ask why the disciples were afraid when Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection. Luke explains in his gospel that they were frightened and terrified because they thought they were seeing a ghost. This was even after they’d gotten several independent reports that Jesus had risen from the dead, and even though he said to them, as soon as he arrived, “Peace be with you.” But fear is actually not an unusual reaction when someone in the Bible encounters a visitor from the spiritual world.

Gideon, for example, realizes that he’s been speaking with the angel of the Lord when the angel first sets on fire the food he has served him, just by touching it with tip of his staff, and then vanishes. God has to tell Gideon, “Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die.”

Similarly, when a mighty angel appears to Daniel, he collapses on the ground, and then gets up “trembling.” (Understandably, because the angel’s “body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.“) Daniel, too, is told, “Do not be afraid.”

When the angel of the Lord comes to tell Zechariah that his prayers have been answered and he and his wife are about to have a son (John the Baptist), even though this is good news, Zechariah is “startled and gripped with fear.” The angel reassures him, “Do not be afraid.”

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he once walked on the Sea of Galilee to join the disciples in their boat far out on the water. Matthew records that “when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.'”

And in the book of Revelation, John reports an experience similar to Daniel’s. He says that when he first saw Jesus in his exalted glory, “I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid.‘”

I think it would only be natural for us humans to be startled and alarmed if we encountered a heavenly visitor. But it’s very encouraging to read in the Bible how God always reassures each frightened person by saying, “Don’t be afraid.”  This helps us realize that whenever God steps into our lives—even if we don’t experience a supernatural appearance, but instead sense a divine hand at work in our circumstances—we can be confident that God has come to bring about good, not to harm us. So even if we’re startled (and maybe it’s good for us to be shaken up by the reality of spiritual things from time to time), we don’t need to be afraid.

Why did they change the words to “And Can It Be?”

In this post, I’m chiming in on a comment that I read online, rather than answering a question that was specifically asked of me.

[The comment] As a big fan of Wesley’s hymns (he was adamant about singing them “as written”), I’m upset that a modern hymnal changes the line in “And Can it Be” from “emptied himself of all but love and bled for Adam’s helpless race” to “emptied himself (so great his love) and bled for all his chosen race.” This appears to support predestination or a limited atonement. Wesley’s words are more in keeping with Scripture—the promise was to Adam and his descendants (his “race”). Altering “all but love” suggests that Christ retained other elements of his attributes as God even when “emptied.” What other motivation is there for a sacrificial, atoning death on our behalf than love incarnate? This change is very odd.

[My thoughts]  When I first came to Christ and was introduced to this hymn, these lines spoke to me very powerfully. I was moved by the idea that Jesus “emptied himself of all but love” and “bled” for all of us.  I, too, have encountered the changes that have been introduced to this hymn recently, and I, too, am “upset” about them.

Apparently some hymnal editors have felt that the theology of Charles Wesley, the author of this hymn, needs to be corrected at a couple of points.  For one thing, it’s clear that these editors want the hymn to present the idea of a limited atonement, rather than an unlimited one.  In the original hymn, Jesus dies for the whole human race.  In the modified version, He dies only for his “chosen” ones.

In addition, these editors apparently feel that Wesley has taken the idea of Jesus “emptying” himself a bit too far.  The Bible teaches clearly that He “emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.”  But it’s generally understood that while Jesus gave up the so-called non-communicable divine attributes (the ones that humans cannot share with God) such as omniscience and omnipresence, He retained communicable attributes such as holiness.  So, for these editors, saying “all but love” wasn’t strictly true. Love wasn’t the only attribute He retained.

It should be noted that various groups change the words to hymns all the time, to words that they find more suitable.  Or at least they try to.  A few years back, the new hymnal of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. got into the news for leaving out the hymn “In Christ Alone.”  It turns out that its editors wanted to change the ending of the line “till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was magnified.”  But the copyright holder wouldn’t grant permission, and the editors didn’t want to include the hymn as it was originally written.

To give a further example, I have an otherwise lovely Christmas CD on which another of Charles Wesley’s hymns is altered.  In “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” the line “offspring of a virgin’s womb” is changed to “offspring of the chosen one.”  Somebody obviously didn’t believe in the virgin birth.

I personally have no problem with the theology that Wesley originally expressed in “And Can It Be?”  I believe in an unlimited atonement, and I think the phrase “all but love” is simply a beautiful poetic overstatement, meaning that Jesus came to save us out of pure love.  Nevertheless, what upsets me most is not that some people are singing different words to the hymn these days, because I know this kind of thing happens.  Rather, I’m more distressed by the way this change has been introduced.

“Bled for all his chosen race” is simply bad English.  It should be either “bled for all of his chosen race,” or “bled for his whole chosen race,” or something like that, some correct expression that would fit the music.  It’s also bad theology.  The “elect” or “chosen” (for those who think in such terms) are not a race, they’re a host.  They’re gathered one by one.  You don’t become one of the elect by being born to people who are elect.

I find that the other change has also been introduced awkwardly.  There’s already an interjection in the stanza: “So free, so infinite his grace!”  If you put in interjections too often, they lose their force, and so they should be used sparingly.  I doubt that a poet of Wesley’s caliber would have introduced another one in the very next line: “So great his love!”  For that matter, the change reflects the mistake of taking a poetic overstatement literally.  It’s like listening to the Hollies sing, “All I need is the air that I breathe, yes, to love you” and asking, “Don’t you need food, too?”

So I have one suggestion for anyone who dislikes these new words, as I do, on theological and literary grounds, and another suggestion for hymnbook editors.

I think that if a hymn gets changed like this, you can legitimately go ahead and sing the original words that you have come to love and admire, even while others in your current church are singing the new words.  I say this as someone who was a pastor for twenty years and always wanted both oneness of spirit and freedom of conscience in worship.

I encountered what I think is a good model for this in the church I served as an associate pastor early in my ministry.  This church would would provide optional words in the bulletin for older hymns that used masculine terms for people in general.  That way people who no longer “heard” these terms as inclusive of women could sing words that were meaningful for them and that also captured the original intention of the hymn (since the original writers did not see the terms as exclusive).  Those who still “heard” the original terms as referring to both men and women, for their part, could sing those words out of the hymnal at the same time.  Different words, but sung with the same meaning and in the same spirit.

To give an example from a different liturgical practice that I think provides a good further analogy, a young Catholic woman once came to the service in one of my churches, as the guest of a friend, and asked me if it would be all right if she took communion with us believing in her own heart (as she knew we didn’t quite) that the bread and wine would become the actual body and blood of Christ.  I said we would love to have her join us on that basis.  After the service she made a point of telling me, perhaps for the sake of her own conscience, that she had indeed taken the communion elements with that understanding.  I think having her join us that way was much better than me forbidding a fellow Christian to share the sacrament with us.  Oneness of spirit and freedom of conscience.

So I think a person could sing the original words to “And Can It Be?” in their own church the same way, respectfully and in a spirit of unity.  (You can bet that if I’m ever in a Christmas service where the phrase “offspring of the chosen one” is substituted in the bulletin or hymnal, I’m going to sing “offspring of a virgin’s womb.”  Respectfully.)

And to hymnbook editors I would say, if there’s a hymn that’s so eloquent and lyrical that you want to sing it even though you disagree with parts of it, please think twice about changing the words.  I feel it’s a shame that in this case Charles Wesley’s magnificent poetry has been turned into, frankly, something average at best.  If you really don’t like what he says in his hymns, why not write your own?

Charles Wesley. Possibly turning over in his grave.

What do you think of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy?

Q. I’m curious to know what you think of the “Doctrine of Inerrancy” and to what degree it is relevant in describing the Bible. I’m guessing you disagree with certain aspects of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, but is there anything from it that can be salvaged that is of any real use?

The signing of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
The signing of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

My feeling is that because of cultural shifts since the Statement was adopted in 1978, it’s actually answering a question that people aren’t asking any more.  So how it answers the question, and how well, aren’t really that relevant at this point.  More about this shortly.  But first, let me describe some problems I have with the Statement itself, on its own terms.

Its goal is to make a series of “affirmations and denials” undergirding the position that the Bible is “without error or fault in all its teaching,” whether this has to do with “saving grace in individual lives” or with “God’s acts in creation” and “the events of world history.”  (In other words, the framers of the document were going beyond the “doctrinal and practical inerrancy” position, that the Bible is trustworthy in all matters relating to salvation, and asserting the “scientific and historical inerrancy” position, that it speaks with complete accuracy about those things as well.)

The framers might have tried to get where they wanted to go in a number of ways. They might have insisted, for example, that a comparison of the Bible with careful, impartial investigations into “the events of world history” will inevitably validate the Scriptural accounts of them—a “correspondence” theory of truth.  Instead, they chose to assert that there was a divine agency behind the Bible: it has “infallible divine authority” because it is “God’s own Word.” And God is omniscient and never lies.

But now follow the steps the Statement takes from there.  The Bible is “wholly and verbally God-given.” That is, “the very words of the original” were “given by divine inspiration.”  God caused the biblical writers “to use the very words that He chose” (though the Statement denies that when He did this, He “overrode their personalities”).

Now about that original . . . “Inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture” (that is, to what the authors actually wrote in the first place).  While we no longer have the autographic text, “in the providence of God,” what it said “can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy” (emphasis added).

I feel that at this point the Statement gives away the store.  It should have said that in the providence of God, we have such a quality and quantity of copies that the content of the original can be determined with complete certainty.  That’s the only way we could have an inerrant Bible in our hands, by this line of reasoning.  “Great accuracy” is not “perfect accuracy.”  It leaves open the possibility that some of those divinely-chosen words were lost along the way, and with them the guarantee of the Bible’s inerrancy.

In their “exposition” of the Statement, the framers try to plug this hole.  They say that the verdict of textual criticism is that the Hebrew and Greek text of the Bible “appear to be amazingly well preserved,” through a “singular providence of God.” (That is, in their view, God was involved in the transmission process as well as the composition process.)  So “the authority of Scripture is in no way jeopardized by the fact that the copies we possess are not entirely error-free” (emphasis added).  Okay, so the Bible isn’t inerrant, but it’s still authoritative.  But wasn’t the whole point of the Statement to defend Scriptural inerrancy against those who denied it and simply affirmed Scriptural authority?

The exposition also acknowledges that “all translations are an additional step away from the autographa.”  (Originals -> copies -> translations.)  However, “English-speaking Christians, at least, are exceedingly well served in these days with a host of excellent translations and have no cause for hesitating to conclude that the true Word of God is within their reach” (emphasis added).  Not right in their hands, but within reach.  This doesn’t quite seem like inerrancy to me.  However, at least the rest of the world doesn’t have to learn English: “No serious translation of Holy Scripture will so destroy its meaning as to render it unable to make its reader ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.'”  Hmm . . . wouldn’t that be “doctrinal and practical” inerrancy?

Incidentally, if God really did choose all of the words of Scripture individually, then He left us with some puzzles to figure out.  For example, in Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, he says that they “love the most important seats in the synagogues.”  In Matthew, “love” is the Greek verb philéō.  In Luke, it’s agapáō.  Every canon of textual criticism, the method by which we ascertain with such great accuracy what the autographic text of Scripture said, would validate the difference in the verbs as original.  Scribes were always trying to harmonize the gospels; they wouldn’t have introduced a difference if one hadn’t been there already.  So why would God have inspired one gospel writer to render the original Aramaic word with one Greek verb, and another gospel writer to use a different verb?

But enough about problems with the Statement itself.  Suppose we had no real issue with it.  Would it still be useful in our day?  I doubt it.  It’s a vestige of the waning days of modernism, when people were still looking for a foundational source of epistemological certainty.  If the “very words” of Scripture were infallible truth, then an entire structure of certain knowledge could be built up from them.  (Stanley Grenz and John Franke describe this framework of belief, and its collapse with the advent of postmodernism, in their excellent book Beyond Foundationalism [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001].)  People are not looking for that kind of truth these days.  The “hermeneutic of suspicion” causes them to see every factual truth claim as dubious and agenda-driven.

However, people are looking for a different kind of truth.  Despite the deliberate rejection of metanarratives such as inevitable progress, objective scientific discovery, and the beneficial spread of western culture, I think people are still receptive to a coherent metanarrative about the meaning of life within which their own personal narrative can become meaningful.

So I think the task for those who would commend the Bible to people today is to understand and become able to explain how the story that the Bible tells presents such a metanarrative, ultimately about God renewing and restoring all of creation.  But there’s no way to grasp this story by seeing the Bible as a composite of words that were individually divinely chosen.  Nor (to strike a familiar theme of mine) can we do this if we see the Bible as a lattice-work of verses and chapters.  But if we see it as a collection of artistic creations (specifically, literary compositions) that together capture and celebrate the grand sweep of God’s renewing work, then we will recognize its story and be able to tell it to a receptive audience.


Did God decree that a wife’s desires would be “contrary” to her husband’s?

Crossway recently announced that the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible would “remain unchanged in all future editions . . . to guard and preserve the very words of God as translated in the ESV Bible.”  That way “people who love the ESV Bible can have full confidence in the ESV, knowing that it will continue to be published as is, without being changed, for the rest of their lives, and for generations to come.”

This so-called “permanent text” of 2016 represents a third revision of the translation, which was first published in 2001 and then revised in 2007 and 2011.  This last text incorporates what the publisher calls “a very limited number of final changes” (“52 words . . . found in 29 verses”) that are designed to make “a substantial improvement in the precision, accuracy, and understanding” of the text at these places.  One of these changes has already become very controversial.

In the account of the fall, in previous editions of the ESV, God says to Eve:

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”

The permanent text now reads, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”  I am not aware of any statement that Crossway or the ESV Translation Oversight Committee may have offered explaining the rationale for this change.  But it appears to me that the concern was that the phrase “your desire shall be for your husband” would be misunderstand to mean that Eve would still want to be emotionally and relationally close to Adam, and that to accomplish this she would accept to live in a household in which he was in authority.

These phrases actually do mean something different.  They appear again, in word-for-word parallel, shortly afterwards in Genesis when God warns Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”  Sin is represented metaphorically as a wild animal poised to pounce on Cain, and this makes clear the meaning of “its desire is for you”: Sin wants to have Cain in its power, but Cain must not succumb to that power; he must remain in control of his own actions.

So it is important to correct the misimpression that Eve has a “desire for” closeness and affection with Adam.  No, she wants to have him in her power.  But he will resist and dominate her instead. In other words, after the fall, marriage is no longer a cooperative enterprise but a struggle between husband and wife for dominance.

However, I don’t think that the ESV has gone about correcting this misimpression the right way.  The expression “your desire will be for your husband” (= “its desire is for you”) is an idiom.  (Like Muhammad Ali famously saying “I want Joe Frazier,” emphasis his, before one of their fights.)  It is not describing an actual desire or longing that a person feels.  Instead, it means, as the New English Translation puts it, “You will want to control your husband.”  The New Living Translation says similarly, “You will desire to control your husband”—desire in the sense of wanting to do something.

But the ESV now uses, for the first time in any English translation, a qualifying adjective, “contrary,” instead a preposition (“for” or “against”) as in Hebrew.  The presence of this adjective requires us to understand this literally as an actual wish, desire, or longing, and one that is necessarily opposed to the husband’s wishes.  Now “he shall rule over you” means not “you won’t be able to control him,” but he will get his way, you won’t get yours!

Still, does this really matter that much, since in any event it portrays a formerly cooperative relationship dissolving into conflict?  I believe it does.  The essential issue here is interpretation rather than translation, but a given translation can serve to advance one interpretation and hinder or prevent another.

The interpretive question is whether redemption restores God’s original intention for marriage, so that within the kingdom of God couples can live out a cooperative enterprise once again, or whether male authority needs to be insisted upon even among regenerate people.

I’d observe that we do everything we can to mitigate all the other effects of the fall as described in Genesis.  We use every technique and medication available to make sure that women have as little pain as possible in childbirth.  I don’t know one man who doesn’t try to make his work as efficient and labor-saving as possible.  (Another effect of the fall was painstaking toil to earn a living.)  So shouldn’t we also believe that we’re supposed to mitigate the distortions in husband-wife relationships, and in male-female relationships generally, that resulted from the fall?

The mandate to do this is clear if the consequences of the fall are that husband and wife will both try to be in control.  Once they become regenerate people, they will treat one another the way the New Testament says all followers of Jesus should treat each other: “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  Taking this attitude makes marriage a cooperative enterprise once again.

However, if the consequences of the fall are that husbands and wives will want “contrary” (opposing) things, and the solution is that the husband gets his way, and the wife has to “submit” to that—what’s there to fix?  There’s no conflict when everybody knows who’s in charge.

But leaving things this way is dismal.  How much better it is for both husband and wife to bring all of their increasingly sanctified hopes and wishes and desires to the table, and if some of them differ, for the two of them to seek God earnestly to find a greater plan, more comprehensive and far-reaching than either of them could imagine, that will catch up everything they could hope or dream for into an enterprise that calls for all of their gifts to be used to the fullest, interactively, to bless far more people than they ever could have anticipated.

We should not continue to see a husband’s and a wife’s desires, if they differ, as contrary, in light of provisional arrangements made after the fall.  Instead, we should recognize them as complementary, just awaiting the hand of the Creator to weave them together into something unified and glorious.

“The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise,” Benjamin West (1791). How many of the effects of the Fall are mitigated by God’s redemption?

Should we try to reason with unreasonable Christians?

Q. In conversations with the average Christian, it appears that they are quite prone to “conspiracy-theory” type reasoning and that distrust of science is fairly ubiquitous. There is an uncanny ability to “explain away” anything that challenges their views by claiming it is caused by the corrosive effects of secularism, demon activity, atheism, hedonism, the fallibility of human reasoning, the effects of the fall on rationality, the “tentative nature” of science, etc. Do you know of a good way to reason with these types, and in the end, is it even worth it?

First, I sincerely hope that what you say is not actually true of the “average Christian.”  I’d like to think that the average or typical Christian is someone who takes seriously Jesus’ admonition to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and who emulates the Bereans, whom the New Testament praises for “searching the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” (That is, rather than uncritically accepting dogmatic teaching.)  I see this as the norm, and feel that taking an open-minded, logical, inquisitive stance is perfectly compatible with being a person of faith.

That much said, I have to admit that over the years I’ve encountered people who’ve appealed to all of the various considerations you list to explain away beliefs different from the ones they were holding at the time.  So what’s to be done when people clearly are not open-minded, and perhaps not even rational, in the way they engage other beliefs that are nevertheless within the spectrum of Christian orthodoxy?

One question I find helpful to ask is, “What do they think is at stake in the issue?”  For example, people are sometimes encouraged to believe that if God didn’t actually create the universe in six 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago, then nothing the Bible says about anything is trustworthy.  (The old “if you can’t trust what it says on the first page, you can’t trust anything else in the book” argument.)  And I personally would be very resistant to any claim whose implications I thought were that I couldn’t trust anything in the Bible. This is because I know for a fact that I can trust everything in the Bible, so long as I understand and interpret it properly.

The key is to make sure that I’m doing that.  But this already shifts the issue from the Bible’s reliability and trustworthiness to its interpretation.  Maybe the person I’m speaking with isn’t prepared to make that shift.  Maybe they think its trustworthiness is truly at stake.  In that case, I find it helpful to suggest that there are many things that Christians of good will, equally committed to the authority of the Scriptures, can disagree about, and to demonstrate that Christians have in fact disagreed about such things over the whole course of church history.  (Long before the corrosive effects of secular humanism set in, that is.)

For example, I might observe that we can find a disagreement in the 4th century between Ambrose and Augustine as to whether the “days” in Genesis are literal 24-hour periods.  (Ambrose said they were, while Augustine maintained they weren’t.)

This will not persuade the person who believes that the truth of the entire Bible rests on one answer to this question.  But in this conversation and others, I may be giving them an island to step onto if, at some time in the future, their ship starts leaking and taking on water. This, I think, is much better than leaving them no option other than having their entire faith go down with the ship (the current dogmatic package) if it ever sinks.

And if I maintain good will (that is, if I don’t lose my cool) and approach the question humbly and open-mindedly, searching the Scriptures with them, then I’m actually demonstrating how Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the authority of the Bible, can disagree on questions like this.  That makes things a little less high-stakes.

Don’t underestimate the value that such a demonstration will have on anyone else who might be watching the two of you talk, listening to your conversation.  You will likely have an audience larger than one.  And the discussion can also help you be more “fully persuaded in your own mind.”  It never hurts for us to have our own ideas challenged and to have the occasion to ground them even more firmly on a reasonable basis, at least to our own satisfaction.

So, as I said, if your goal is to persuade on the spot, that isn’t going to happen in the face of irrationality and conspiracy theory.  But if your goal is to provide the person with information and tools that may be useful to them farther down the road, then I think you have every chance of doing that.  I suspect that many of us start out holding our beliefs more dogmatically when we first become Christians, because we know we have received a “great salvation” and we simply don’t find anything credible that we think undermines it.  But then, hopefully, we will discover how great that salvation truly is, how many different perspectives it accommodates and even requires if we are even to begin to understand everything God is and all that God has done.  And then the adventure begins.

Saints Augustine and Ambrose, detail from a tempera painting by Fra Filippo Lippi (public domain). These two great 4th-century theologians model respectful debate over biblical and theological questions. (Ambrose was Augustine's mentor and friend.)
Saints Augustine and Ambrose, detail from a tempera painting by Fra Filippo Lippi (public domain). These two great 4th-century theologians model respectful debate over biblical and theological questions. (Ambrose was Augustine’s mentor and friend.)