Sunday, January 20, 2019

Wolterstorff or Nietzsche The web of belief: On Doubt Part II


The second thing I have thought about in relation to my friend’s doubts is that our beliefs are not all of the same importance.  This is called the “Web” or “Mosaic” of belief.  This is an idea of Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Some beliefs are central to our worldview, to our Christian belief.  If Jesus did not rise from the dead, there is no Christianity. Christianity is not merely a philosophy or set of moral teachings.  Christianity is the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.  Similarly, the Bible is the basis of our faith in a profound way.  If the Bible is not true, then our faith is vain.

Again, I admire my friend in that he felt he had reason to reject the Bible as true, and so felt that he must reject Christianity.  If the Bible does not give us correct information, then we believe a fraud.  It would be a reason to reject Christianity.  If a “hard-core” belief (an essential belief) is attacked and fails, then the result should be to reject one’s faith.  However, when a hard-core belief is challenged, we should seek a “rebutting defeater.”  An argument lodged against our faith is a “defeater.” A “defeater” is an argument which seeks to unfound our faith.  We should look for a counter-argument, a “rebutting defeater” to answer that charge against our faith.

I usually give my students the following illustration.  Someone comes to me and says, “Your wife is being unfaithful to you.”  My first reaction would be to laugh.  If that person continued and said, “I saw your wife at the university library having lunch with a guy!” I would respond by asking what he looked like.  If they person responded, “He was blond, had glasses and they were laughing a lot.”  Again, I would laugh relieved.  He would have been one of our tenants, a Master’s student in Old Testament at the university here in Leiden. The extra details would give me my rebutting defeater.  My love for my wife and her love for me might not end my worldview, but it would end my world and I would not entertain doubts about her faithfulness lightly.

In my friend’s case, I could not see why the objections he gave were of such a magnitude that he would have to give up his faith.  I will give a couple examples.

He told me that the Hebrews could not have had a literary language (such as is in the Pentateuch) because the only evidence for western Semites having written language were some legal contracts found from that period.  In other words, until the seventh century there was no evidence (outside the Bible) that the Hebrews would have had a developed enough language to write about such things as law, poetry, creation, etc. The only evidence for western Semites having writing came from walls of caves of mines which the Hebrews worked at the time of Moses, and the contracts were not sufficient to support the sort of literature in the Pentateuch.

I was honestly rather mystified by this argument.  When I was in seminary Dr. Gleason Archer used the proof of the western Semites (Hebrews) having writing at all to show that Moses indeed could have written the Pentateuch.

It seems that the question is one of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” or a “hermeneutics of generosity.”  Not willing to give up 19th century liberal biblical scholars’ rejection of Moses’ ability to write in Hebrew in 1450 or 1200, current scholars take that same evidence Archer took to support Mosaic authorship and use it to attack Mosaic authorship.

If we use a “hermeneutic of generosity”, the Bible tells us that Moses was a “son of Pharaoh’s daughter.”  He would have been educated in the languages of the area and period (Egyptian hieroglyphs and other Ancient Near Eastern languages and literature).  Surely if this was so, then Moses could have written the Pentateuch.  However, if we will only believe the Bible when what is outside the Bible attests to it, we will have little to believe.  If on the other hand, we accept that the Bible is a trustworthy historical document in so far as we can test it, there is no problem with Mosaic authorship (whatever we think about Ezra’s “redaction”).

My friend also said that there were no “-iah” (-yah) names (Hezekiah, for instance) until the seventh century.  I remembered that in the Book of Job which is supposed by some to be one of the oldest books in the Bible that one of the main characters was Eli[ya]hu (the vowel pointing could be disputed).

He felt that there was clear proof of the Pentateuch being written in the seventh century.  Again, I think most evangelical OT scholars would accept that Ezra or the “Chronicler” carried out a redaction about that time. My friend’s objection seems more like a “hermeneutics of suspicion” than a cause for doubt.

He felt that it was clear that Second Kings had been written to trash all other contenders for the throne of Judah, except Josiah and that it was unthinkable that the priests and kings would have “forgotten” the Law and it would suddenly be found by Josiah.  But is that not what the OT text says? Why is it hard to believe that those who repressed the true priests of God and persecuted them, who murdered them, and worshipped the Baals, would not pay attention to the Law?  I recalled at that time how Jehoiakim cut up the scroll of Jeremiah and burned it in the fire. Jer. 36. It doesn’t seem too strange then that the knowledge of the Law would fade under such rulers or that they would be godless.  Kings of Israel and Judah were to read from the Law every day, even to make their own handwritten copy, but many obviously did not. 

It seems highly believable that some priests might hide a scroll of the Law in the Temple would also not be strange.  They would want to protect it. 

There is a somewhat similar story in Leiden in the Netherlands from World War II.  The Nazis had a tendency to take over universities in conquered lands.  They granted themselves doctorates from prestigious universities like Leiden.  When Leiden was about to fall, the beadle’s staff disappeared.  The beadle is the university official who presides over doctoral defenses.  Without the staff no doctorates could be issued.  After the Nazis were defeated someone found the beadle’s staff hidden in the rafters of the Pieterskerk...

I don’t mean that we should “explain away” all doubts.  That would be fideism, but I want to say that we must think carefully, long and hard before we give up a hard-core belief.  I will examine evidence of any sort, but I am unlikely to accept something just because another liberal scholar casts one more doubt.  It’s not about one “smoking gun”, it’s about the general and overall trustworthiness of Scripture.

The first line of defense should be turn to your community, your church, your colleagues and friends.  The second line of defense is hold onto your hard-core beliefs and look for a rebutting defeater, an argument which answers the doubt.  The final line of defense is humility.

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