Does Christianity Need the Bible?

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Introduction

Atheistic attacks on Christianity typically focus on philosophical issues concerning theism or evidential attacks on the Bible. The latter, however, plays upon a certain view of Christian theological methodology and ecclesiology that is flawed. These attacks assume that Christianity is relying on the Bible for its existence – which certainly seems fair, as many Christians think along the same lines (even if Christians of this persuasion are not in the majority, it is without doubt that this is the case with popular Christian apologists). Challenging this assumption and undercutting the rest of such skeptical attacks is the purpose of this article.

The two most popular approaches for defending the faith either begin by defending the Bible (the method known as “Evidentialism”), or conclude with its defense (the modern “Classical” method). The biblical text is then used to support Jesus’ claims / the gospel / the resurrection etc. But what if the Bible could not be demonstrated to be trustworthy? I do not think that this is the case, but it is worth thinking about for at least these two reasons: (1) most skeptics think the Bible has not been defended sufficiently, and (2) even if it has been or can be, the case for Christianity will be even stronger if it can survive the failure of these biblical defenses.

Biblical Apologetics

When a skeptic argues against the Bible it is not usually the book that is being attacked per se. Rather it is the ideas communicated by the book. Skeptics do not, for example, typically attack the wisdom sayings in the book of Proverbs or the basic morality of Jesus’ sermons in the Gospels. And I don’t think many skeptics really are concerned over how many generations there are between Adam and Jesus, or how many angels were at his tomb. What skeptics want to call into question is Christianity . Since the Bible is assumed to be the foundation of Christianity, calling its historicity, manuscript transmission, scientific accuracy, etc. into question is seen as tantamount to calling Christianity into question. Two popular responses have been made by modern Christian apologists.

Defend Inerrancy The first is to dig in and affirm the absolute inerrancy of the Bible and fight tooth and nail for every biblical affirmation no matter its nature or “big picture” importance – sometimes even down to the use of correct grammar. This is necessarily joined by an equally fervent defense of a trustworthy manuscript tradition – for as all (except perhaps some confused folks in the KJV-Only crowd) acknowledge, inerrancy only applies to the original biblical manuscripts (which we do not have). The copies of those inerrant originals that we do have do not agree perfectly with each other, however. Thus, even inerrantists must concede the fact of transmission distortion. Their apologetic strategy, therefore, usually concerns limiting the significance of these distortions (either their quantitative or qualitative significance). This approach can be appreciated for its theological respect for, and upholding of, God’s word – but it also paints a large target on the Bible for skeptics to fire upon.

Defend Infallibility The second approach is to trade in the doctrine of inerrancy for its softer cousin, infallibility. Affirming the doctrine of infallibility only commits one to holding that the Bible is successful in communicating truth in matters of faith and practice, regardless of the accuracy of its delivery system (like an imperfect map that nevertheless does the job). Thus, textual errors are only considered significantly problematic if they touch on theology or morals. This approach has the benefit of making the target a lot smaller, but it suffers from its inability to provide an objective means of determining how the theology of the text can still be trusted when the text itself is at issue.

What both of the above approaches assume, however, is that Christianity suffers from the corresponding effects of biblical attacks. Thus, for the inerrantist if even one biblical statement can be decisively shown to be false, Christianity loses its foundation (I am not suggesting that no mediating positions are available, or that there is no way out for an inerrantist – indeed there is always the easy claim that the error was not in the originals. But this assumption seems to drive the apologetic effort at least at the front end). For the infallibilist, the effects of error discovery are not nearly as dramatic, but (as stated above) the position suffers from its own questionable principles. If nothing else, it becomes a practical issue: in the real world the trustworthiness of Christianity and that of the Bible is often seen as equivalent by skeptics. Thus the infallibilist position will often come across as ad hoc.

The good news for the Christian apologist is that if Christianity is not coextensive with the Bible, then attacks on the one are not necessarily attacks on the other.

Christianity Without the Bible?

What if the textual critics like Bart Ehrman, or Islamic / Mormon / Secular apologists were proven right in their claims that the Gospels were not written by the traditional authors, that many of the NT books are spurious, or that significant error is present in the Bible? What actual purchase would be lost by Christians? Given the above apologetic strategies and theological positions shared by most Christian apologists, one might well conclude that it would be “game over” for Christian believers. I suggest that this is not the case. I argue that even if we lost the Bible completely, Christianity would remain undefeated. That is a bold claim, but I think it can be demonstrated rather easily. Basically the argument goes like this:

  1. Only if the Bible is necessary for Christianity would its defeat necessarily entail the defeat of Christianity.
  2. The Bible is not necessary for Christianity.
  3. Therefore the defeat of the Bible would not entail the defeat of Christianity.

The form is a valid and the first premise is self-evident given the nature of the argument, so I need only support the second premise for the argument to be proven sound. There are facts both historical and speculative that show the second premise to be true.

“Those great and truly divine men, I mean the apostles of Christ . . .  published the knowledge of the kingdom of heaven throughout the whole world, paying little attention to the composition of written works. . . . Paul . . . committed to writing no more than the briefest epistles . . . of all the disciples of the Lord only Matthew and John have left us written memorials, and they, tradition says, were led to write only under the pressure of necessity.” – Eusebius

First, it is entirely possible that Christianity’s message could have been communicated verbally – and only verbally – forever. There is nothing inherently problematic with such a thing occurring. In fact a simple thought experiment will show that this is the case: suppose some atheistic world dictator succeeded in destroying every copy of the Bible in existence, and then somehow made it impossible to create additional texts of any kind. Would Christianity disappear from the earth? Would humans no longer have access to the saving gospel? Of course not. So, at least in theory, there is no problem with these two propositions being true at the same time: (1) Christianity exists, and (2) no Bible exists.

Second, the above theory has been shown to be true in reality. Receiving the gospel message is the requirement for becoming saved (1 Cor. 15:1-5), and this message was not initially communicated in written form (1 Cor. 15:1), yet those who heard it believed and became saved (becoming part of the Christian church – 1 Cor. 1:2). Thus, Christianity preceded the written message.

Third, it is an historical fact that Christianity preceded the writing of the NT. The earliest NT writings are typically considered to have been written in the mid-to-late 40’s (whether the first book is the Gospel of Matthew, the Book of James, or Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is debated). This means that even with a late date of Christ’s death / Pentecost (of A.D. 33), there is at LEAST a decade gap between the beginning of the Church and the VERY first NT writing. The point is even more strongly made when we consider that Paul’s writings (which are, at minimum, among the earliest NT writings) were letters addressed to already-existing churches. Add to this decade more time for delivery and distribution, and I think it is easy to see that the Church had to go for quite some time with no (NT) Scriptures of its own.

“Divine Providence can preserve from destruction whatever it chooses; . . . . we may, in the same manner, infer that there is no need of the scriptures, that every thing should be trusted to Divine Providence, and nothing committed to writing, because God can preserve religion safe without the scriptures.”  – William Whitaker

Fourth, Christians existed and continue to exist without possessing the NT. Even when the NT started to be written, its contents were not in the possession of the average believer. Besides the above mentioned delivery and distribution time lags, people simply did not have easy access to copies. Further, the NT was written in a time when most of the population was illiterate.

Finally, it would be another 1,500 years or so before the invention of the printing press made Bible’s widely accessible even to literate people. (N.B., this is not just an Ancient, Medieval, or Reformation age issue). Even in our own time, people from many parts of the world become Christians when the Bible is forbidden or inaccessible in their own language. This certainly represents a hindrance to Christianity, but it is hardly destructive. So even if the skeptic were successful in showing the Bible to be untrustworthy, he has not really gained much ground – at least if he is using that untrustworthiness as an attack on Christianity itself. For even if we give up the entire Bible, Christianity remains.

The “Zero Facts” Approach

The Christian apologist Gary Habermas has an interesting method that he uses when defending the historicity of Christ’s resurrection – he calls it the “Minimal Facts Approach.” What Habermas does is agree to use only the most academically respected sources (both Christian and secular) in support of his contention that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. In doing so, he avoids the Gospels, many of Paul’s letters, and several other NT books that do not enjoy nearly universal “authentic status” among professional historians. Using only the minimal facts that can be gleaned from whatever historical documents are left, Habermas proceeds to argue that the resurrection remains the best explanation of the data. It’s a great approach, and his protégé’, Michael Licona, has been very successful with his version of it as well.

As I considered the implications of the typical skeptical attacks on the NT, and the results they hoped to achieve, I wondered whether I needed to keep ANYTHING from the NT in order to defend Christianity. If it is the case that, logically, the Bible is not necessary for Christianity, then I wondered what could been done apologetically with the Bible entirely absent. If we took the minimal facts approach to what is certainly an absurd extreme – without reliance onanything in the Bible (“Zero Facts” approach?), what would we have left over from Christianity? As it turns out, pretty much everything.

Ecclesiological Apologetics

The arguments for the reliability of the Bible include an impressive array of evidence that, by a rather shockingly large margin, prove the Bible to be the most trustworthy of all ancient writings. Part of that evidence has been said to be the fact that even if we had no ancient manuscripts from which to derive our current Bible translations, we could reconstruct all but 11 verses of the NT just by reading the Church Fathers (e.g., McDowell, Geisler, Rhodes, et al.), but this has been disproven as an apologetic urban legend. It is possible that the Gospel of John could be reconstructed in this manner, but otherwise it seems that much of the verbatim NT would be lost if we had only the early Church Fathers to go on.

Regardless, it is not simply the case that the early Church Fathers quoted a bunch of Scripture – they quoted it while discussing theology which they already knew. They discussed this theology while writing letters back and forth between churches. Churches that already existed. And they were able to quote Christian Scriptures and discuss Christian theology in Christian churches because Christianity already existed. But guess what did not exist back then?The New Testament!  (Sort of: the actual collection of books that make up the NT were not even listed in their present form until the 4thCentury, and even long after that several books remained in question). So, technically, what we call the NT is a collection that was not recognized as such for hundreds of years.

But this is a minor issue considering the implications of all the above issues concerning availability and literacy rates. The significant point is that what kept the Church going during this time was its own teaching – teaching that can be found in a multitude of sources:

  • Rule of Faith (e.g., Rm. 1:3-4; 1 Co. 11:23-36, 15:3-5; 1 Pt. 3:18; 1 Jn. 4:2)
  • Catechetical Instructions (The Didache {1st Century})
  • Sermon Messages (1-2 Clement {A.D. 95-97})
  • Post-NT Epistles (Letters of Ignatius {A.D. 98-117})
  • Baptismal Confessions (The Old Roman Creed {2nd-3rd Century})
  • Bible Commentaries (Theophilus, Diatessaron {2nd-3rd Century})
  • Liturgical Actions and Language (Liturgy of St. James, St. Basil  {4th Century})
  • Ecumenical Councils, Canons, Creeds, & Definitions {By the 5th Century}

So . . .

  • Before the NT was canonized, Christianity already existed.
  • Before the NT was completed, Christianity already existed.
  • Before the NT had even commenced, Christianity already existed.

Thus, most of the issues skeptics have with Christianity remain even if the Bible is taken out of the equation. At minimum it is clear that the message that brought people into Christianity was from the very beginning that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, that he died, was buried, and rose again ( a.k.a., the Gospel! See (Acts 2 and all Acts sermons cf. 1 Cor. 15). This was the message the apostles died (often horribly) for. This was the message the early Church suffered persecution for. And it was this message, promoted by 12 simple men from the insignificant and faraway land of Israel, and believed by social outcasts who worshiped in catacombs, that two centuries later brought the greatest empire on earth to its knees.

The Miracle of Christianity

As Habermas and others have shown, even if skeptics were successful in calling most of the Bible into question, the historical facts surrounding the miracle of the resurrection would remain. But even if we gave in to the skeptics arguments concerning the resurrection, they would then have to deal with historical facts that would now be even more difficult to explain. The very existence and success of the Church given its initial conditions seems miraculous –especially if the resurrection did not occur!

Either this was miraculous or not. If so, then the point is granted; if not, then I ask, what greater miracle than to convert so many without miracles?” – Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas argues that God has indeed proven His word via miracles, and yet the existence of the Church itself is an even greater miracle:

“Without violence of arms, without promise of pleasures, and, most wonderful thing of all, in the midst of the violence of persecutors, a countless multitude, not only of the uneducated but of the wisest men, flocked to the Christian faith, wherein doctrines are preached that transcend all human understanding, pleasures of sense are restrained, and a contempt is taught of all worldly possessions. That mortal minds should assent to such teaching is the greatest of miracles.” (SCG 1.6)

Why should the existence of the Church be considered so miraculous? Are there not thousands of competing religions in existence that could claim the same thing? The reason for this is that it is how the Church came into being that must be explained. Anyone can make up some attractive lies and gain followers for gain. But the opposite is not the case. Lies for gain are one thing, lies for loss are quite another.

Perhaps the skeptic will argue that this is a case of begging the question – arguing in a circle that the Church proves the Church? Not at all. The argument is not that the Church says she is true, therefore she is true. Rather, it is the nature of the facts surrounding her birth – so unusual that they beg for a miraculous explanation. To quote Aquinas again:

“This so wonderful conversion of the world to the Christian faith is so certain a sign of past miracles, that they need no further reiteration, since they appear evidently in their effects. It would be more wonderful than all other miracles, if without miraculous signs the world had been induced by simple and low-born men to believe truths so arduous, to do works so difficult, to hope for reward so high.” (SCG 1.6)

Conclusion

None of the above should be taken to suggest that Christians abandon defense of the Bible. The above approach is not a reductionist attempt to shield the Bible from legitimate criticism. There is no need – for the evidential arguments for the reliability of the Bible are extremely strong (so much so that if they are thought to fail the Bible then, to be consistent, all of ancient history goes with it). If nothing else, it is difficult to imagine that God would bother inspiring hundreds of pages of communication only to have it lost before it could be disseminated!

Rather, what I am suggesting is that Christian apologists can benefit from a shift in apologetic focus. Instead of moving from defending Realism (that truth and reality exist and are knowable), then Theism (that a personal, creator God exists), and then the Bible, perhaps it would be better to defend the movement that produced it. This approach opens the door to even more clear, available, and accepted evidences. If needed, it can also be used to neatly sidestep issues of biblical transmission, inspiration, inerrancy, or infallibility (these textual issues can be dealt with scientifically, philosophically, or theologically, instead of apologetically). Given this approach the skeptic’s target becomes both smaller and more difficult to hit – all without threat to Christianity’s teachings (which, after all, are the skeptic’s real prey).

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