Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bart's Problem, Or: How His Interpretation of the Bible Fails to Answer His Most Important Question

Now that I have finished reading God's Problem, I see that the entire work serves as an apology for why Bart Ehrman can no longer believe in the Christian faith. Ehrman, a fundamentalist born-again Christian, feels hurt and betrayed that the Bible is contradictory. Instead of seeing scripture as a collection of different people's attempts to make sense of God, (which is how I like to look at it), he points out its failure to present a cohesive answer to the question of why suffering exists. I can't help but feel that the man, not being able to fit the Bible to his fundamentalist theology, rejects it wholesale. He refuses to believe in a God who doesn't directly intervene in human affairs. He now self-identifies as an agnostic: "If there is a God, he is not the kind of being I believed in as an evangelical" (p. 125).

Instead of looking for a Deity that might more closely fit Biblical and philosophical thought, Ehrman completely rejects Christianity and uses the book as a soapbox to explain why there is no answer to the question of why God allows human suffering.

Since the problem is complex and there are many attempts by Biblical authors to address the question, it is not surprising that Ehrman's attempt fails. He has presented three main interpretations to the problem of theodicy and discussed each separately, pointing out the difficulties with each. I appreciate his efforts to make this subject understandable to the general reader. But in doing so, he has greatly oversimplified what philosophers have been grappling with for centuries. Perhaps there is more than one reason why God allows pain and evil to exist. (Come back tomorrow as I present an interesting LDS attempt to consolidate them!)

I also had issues with Ehrman's interpretation of the Bible. He jumps back and forth between what he presents (and ridicules) as the "Christian" view, and a more secular interpretation. Neither, in my opinion, is doctrinally correct. Just one example is his refusal to see a Messianic figure in any of the Old Testament writings, though the New Testament authors clearly present Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. A review of this book at Time magazine opines:
...his biblical expertise is a help and a hindrance, since his conceit is to
examine only explanations of suffering that appear in Scripture.
I would add that his conceit is to examine only his interpretation of what scripture has to say about the subject, ignoring those explanations presented by other theologians which he considers "pat," "simplistic," or "flawed." Having read Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, which I felt was very thoughtful and enlightening, I was disappointed in this book.

Bart's problem may come down to one of human pride. Because he with his superior intellect and advanced Biblical training doesn't fully understand how a good, all-powerful God can coexist with a world that includes suffering, he assumes that God must therefore not exist.


Floyd the Wonderdog said...

I usually like Bart's writing. This one bothered me though because of his condescending attitude. As though we little people are too stupid to grasp the subject. He also seems to try to force God onto a theological Procrustean bed, lopping off parts that do not fit a Dark Ages view of God, and then complaining that the God he has thus formed is not his view of what deity should be.

Agnostic, in deed. Unless the God he finds does not fit his views of what God should be.

mormongnostic said...

I am very interested to see what you post tomorrow. I think that mormons have an excellent response to the problem of evil. I am sure you have read this article, but am linking to it just in case you haven't.

In any case, if one is engaged in the business of giving evidence for or against God's existence, I think the problem of evil takes a pretty heafty toll. Personally, it is enough for me not to believe in the traditional conception of God.

Bored in Vernal said...

Gnostic, Thank you for that link. I have been over to the Dialogue site and read the article (Finitism and the Problem of Evil, by Dennis Potter) and was interested to read Potter's take on exactly the same theme that Ehrman discusses in his book. Since I don't have a background in philosophy, he lost me in a few places, but I liked what he had to say. First, he addressed the two philosophies which I think are given short shrift in Ehrman's book: soul-building theodicy, and the free-will defense. I don't think Ehrman can truthfully say that these are not found in Biblical thought, so he instead dismisses them as too simplistic. On the other hand Potter introduces them as the most popular among philosophers of religion.

I especially liked that Potter is willing to change his conception of God when things don't seem to fit, instead of rejecting him altogether. I don't agree with his conception of a finite God, but can't argue with his proposition that the Mormon God is "finite" in some ways. For example, many of us believe that God did not "create" mankind, but some form of our intelligence and free will always existed. This concept alleviates some of the problems of the free will defense.

In my opinion, Potter makes the same mistake as Ehrman in that he takes the theories separately:

"A natural response to this problem, and perhaps to some of the others, is 'What about free will?' Note we are not yet considering the free will defense; we are considering merely the soul-building theodicy. If we have to assume free will, then the soul-building theodicy alone doesn't work."

I don't agree that the views must be considered in exclusivity, though I realize the contradictions which arise when they are used in combination.

More in my later post.

Kevin Barney said...

I really like most of Bart's work, and I haven't read this one, but I'm pretty sure my reaction would be the same as yours. Bart's faith was really crippled by his fundamentalist upbringing and really didn't have a chance to survive his education. Too bad he wasn't a liberally-minded Mormon....

G said...

thanks for writing this, BiV...
it's funny, just last night I was on a walk, going over in my head some of his arguments and becoming more and more flabbergasted about his inflexablity with his interpretations and his refusal to consider certain answers because only one or two biblical authors mentioned them.

I get a person leaving God because of all the suffering, but it really seemed that he was wresting the scriptures to validate his position...

personally, for me to have any faith in God, I need to lose the hold on the "all powerful" part. That idea that God is in control of everything, that for me doesn't hold water when faced with the reality of human suffering. And I will concede to Ehrman that there is no precedent for that type of God in the Bible.
but that is okay with me.

mormongnostic said...


I'm glad you found the article helpful. I also think that one can "combine" answers to the problem of evil.

For example, Potter argues that if God is finite, then the soul-building does not have the problems it has otherwrise. A finite God may not be able to reduce the overall suffering in the world without at the same time reducing the "soul-building" potential of suffering. I actually think these views come together to address the problem quite nicely.

I am also somewhat perplexed when you say that you don't accept his view of a finite God, but believe that the mormon God is "finite" in some ways. Maybe you could explain more because I am interested in this topic quite a bit.

JohnR said...

Two thoughts:

1. I haven't read this book, but my impression from his earlier (esp. autobiographical) material is that he didn't jump from fundamentalism to agnosticism , but went through various phases in between. He may reject fundamentalist theology, but he transitioned through and rejected the in between views as well (this stuck with me because I went through something similar, and found that I could relate to Ehrman).

Could you perhaps say that he creates a straw man in this work, and argues against the fundamentalist view, while ignoring more nuanced ones?

2. You said: Because he with his superior intellect and advanced Biblical training doesn't fully understand how a good, all-powerful God can coexist with a world that includes suffering, he assumes that God must therefore not exist.

I find this pretty dismissive. Are you suggesting that the appropriate alternative is for him to accept on faith that God exists, when all of his earnest searching and the apparent evidence about him suggests to him that a compassionate + omnipotent God doesn't exist? This seems disingenuous--perhaps even more full of hubris than concluding that God doesn't exist.

Bored in Vernal said...

John, I get what you are saying. I had a lot more sympathy for Bart Ehrman before I read this particular work. I would be interested to see what you thought of it.

Here is the quote that struck me wrong:
I think what I can say is that if (IF!) there is a God, he is not the kind of being that I believed in as an evangelical; a personal deity who has ultimate power over this world and intervenes in human affairs in order to implement his will among us.
I realize it was hard for him to give up this kind of a God, but as a theologian and Biblical scholar, I don't think I'm out of line to expect him to be able to consider some other perceptions of Deity. I know that the book was meant to be accessible, but it was quite obvious that he left out or only gave glancing mention of the more convincing arguments about why a loving God would allow suffering.

Could I say that he creates a straw man in this work, and argues against the fundamentalist view, while ignoring more nuanced ones?


I may have been dismissive. Perhaps if he had presented more of his search and reasoning behind rejecting other perceptions of God besides just the fundamentalist, all-controlling one, I may have been more sympathetic. It's not as if he hasn't encountered them.

Bored in Vernal said...

Will answer your question in a later post.

JohnR said...

Could I say that he creates a straw man in this work, and argues against the fundamentalist view, while ignoring more nuanced ones?

Fair enough.