A Brief Reflection on Bart Ehrman’s Presentation

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is an organization of atheists and agnostics who work to ensure that religious beliefs are not forced upon the general populace that do not walk in line with that religious belief. This August, Bart Ehrman, a well-known convert from Christianity to Atheism/Agnosticism (watch the video posted below to understand why he is both), was awarded for his work in attempting to understand the true origins and purpose behind Scripture and Jesus. In his lecture, Ehrman presents a few of the points he makes in his book “How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher From Galilee”. In order to more fully see what I am responding to, watch the video below.

Bart Ehrman Freedom From Religion Foundation Lecture

Simply put, Ehrman, as I understand, puts forward a more “rational” argument regarding Jesus’ resurrection, the formation of the Gospels, and Jesus’ exaltation to divinity. He argues that Jesus never claimed he was God. Rather, after he died, large numbers of people likely had “visions” of him because he was so beloved. In effect, they began to say that Jesus actually resurrected. Over the next hundred years, the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity developed.

Now, my goal is not to respond to the specific points. That is beyond the scope of this post. My goal is to show a major hermeneutic difference between him and the vast majority of Christians who work in New Testament studies. Ehrman, throughout the whole presentation, clearly doubts even the possibility of a resurrection and ascension because it goes against the laws of rationality. Though he doesn’t say this directly, the tone and style of presentations seems to suggest it. From this, I am reminded of the words of Francis Schaeffer, one of the most underrated theologians and Christian thinkers of the 20th century. In his masterpiece The God Who Is, Schaeffer traces the development of philosophy and suggests the following:

I suggest that a serious question has to be faced as to whether the reason why modern men reject the Christian answer, or why they often do not even consider it, is because they have already accepted, with an implicit faith, the presupposition of the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system.

Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: a Christian Worldview (vol. 1; Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 123.

Of course, this begs the following question: What is a closed system?

The old liberal theologians in Germany began by accepting the presupposition of the uniformity of natural causes as a closed system. Thus they rejected everything miraculous and supernatural, including the supernatural in the life of Jesus Christ. Having done that, they still hoped to find an historical Jesus in a rational, objective, scholarly way by separating the supernatural aspect of Jesus’ life from the “true history.”

Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: a Christian Worldview (vol. 1; Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 52.

In other words, since the 19th century, some scholars studying the Bible have begun to deny the possibility of a being, or beings, who can interact with the world in a supernatural manner. This open system would show the uniformity of natural causes to no longer be uniform, thus making it more difficult to explain certain historical phenomenon with purely “historic” reasoning. From listening to Bart Ehrman, this is the big difference between him and the majority of New Testament scholars. I am not arguing that his works are invalid, foolish, or ignorant. I am arguing that he has taken up a world view that involved a closed system, a world view where there is no place for the supernatural. And, where the supernatural is present, he takes the stance of agnostic as one who does not know.

Because I am fully aware that he is highly unlikely to read this blog post, my goal is not to discuss this topic of closed system verses open system with him. Rather, it is to make you, the reader, aware that this basic ontological principle is important to make a choice about. If we choose to view science, history, and Scripture from a closed system, we deny a greater power, whether God, gods, or spirits, to operate supernaturally. To word it better for an active atheist, we avoid allowing our stories and mythologies to influence the data that we study. If we choose to view science, history, and Scripture from an open system, we allow those supernatural beings the power to operate. Or, for an atheist, we allow our preconceived ideas of history and our stories to form what we know to be true rather than simply looking at the data.

Whether or not you like it, the fact is that these worldviews, apart from active and open discussion, are equally valid. They each take an ontological stance about how everything relates and then forms conclusions based on those ontological fundamentals. So, in order for a Christian to discuss with an atheist, or an atheist to discuss with a Christian, it is absolutely essential to first understand the ontological outlook.

In conclusion, I fully admit that Bart Ehrman is correct about his views on Jesus’ divinity. However, in context of an open system, I respectfully disagree with his conclusions. If you are reading this, whether you are an atheist, agnostic, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or anything in-between, consider the implications of an open system verses a closed system. Understanding your own stance is the foundation for the beginnings of any fruitful discussion.

 NOTE: The purpose of this is not to review or respond to what Ehrman presents. It is simply a reflection of what I considered while hearing what he presented.

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