Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Proving the Unprovable

I read something interesting over the Christmas break.

A friend sent me a forward titled, "Are the Odds in Your Favor?" which proceeded to outline the historical, logical and quantifiable reasons why Christianity is true and provable and for these reasons, to ignore it imperils one's life.

The forward read, "Science has developed a method of studying odds. It is called the science of compound probabilities; a mathematical study of situations and the odds of possible outcomes. One of the most amazing studies conducted using this method was recorded by Professor Peter Stoner in Science Speaks. The purpose of the study was to determine the odds of one man in history fulfilling all the prophecies, recorded in the Bible, that point to the Jewish Messiah. (There are 300 different messianic Bible prophecies.)"

This study began by focusing on eight specific prophecies and argued that that compound probability of these eight prophecies being fulfilled is 1 in 1017 or 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000. The chance of any one man fulfilling 48 prophecies is 1 in 10157. The chance of any one man fulfilling 300? The odds stagger the imagination.

"Jesus did not fall victim to the odds, nor did he beat the odds," the forward concluded. "Jesus shapes the odds! Now that the odds pertaining to Jesus and the Bible prophecies have been literally fulfilled, they are no longer odds. They are facts that have become established realities. These are realities that cannot be ignored. Each person reading this article is left with a choice to respond to the facts about Jesus: to receive or reject Him."

I've always been bothered by these sorts of arguments. I guess I feel the logic is flawed. While I agree with what is being said and do indeed believe in God and the Bible, it is the way the author argued his point that I find indefensible.

You can't use a thing to prove itself! And yet I find that is how most Christians practice apologetics. Anyone can write a book, predict a few things and then write them coming true later on in that same book. That doesn't make what is being written about true—it just makes the author good at minding his details. Provide corroborating and outside citations and then you have something.

I guess I'm also just not into the whole "I can prove the Bible" thing. So much of it you can't. And I wouldn't want you to. If you could prove it all and answer every question and solve every mystery, you'd be God. Either that, or else God is very small.

There is far more unplumbable mystery in the Scriptures than any of us are willing to admit. The secret, I think, is to being OK with that.

I said as much when I "replied-all" to the forward, interested in what others thought of the article. Another reader replied with a lengthy and literate response in which he primarily focused on the scholastic veracity and pain-staking attention to detail given to Bible translation throughout the millennia. Anything less than a total belief in the literal interpretation and utter inerrancy of Scripture, he argued, is unfathomable.

Truth is, I agree with the author of the forward and with my friend and his readers. The Bible is indeed a gift from God, used to describe His attributes and to be a guide from which we can learn to become ever more like Him. And becoming like Him and taking on His Lordship, scandalous grace and heavenly adoption is the single most important thing any of us will ever do with our lives.

However, I cannot embrace their view of the Bible.

I was never arguing for a low view of Scripture or for a stance that the Bible was somehow a lesser thing because it can't be proved. I feel quite the opposite. The more unprovable it is, perhaps the greater it's authenticity in my eyes.

What I take issue with is not the source, but this particular author's adopted defense of that source. Again, you cannot use a thing to prove itself. To say, “the Bible contains eyewitness accounts from those who knew of the events personally” cannot be used as proof of the veracity of the Scriptures. In court, you don't release a defendant simply because he says he is innocent. You first examine outside eye-witnesses and outside evidence. To say that a thing is its own best proof is like me saying that flying reindeer exist, but when you ask me to prove it, I say, it's so because I say it's so and you accept that. That is not proof, though thankfully it doesn't make it any less true. (The Bible, not the reindeer!)

Facts are so important for modern Christians. We see them as the ultimate insurance against ambiguity. Westerners (including Western Christians) detest ambiguity. We like everything tied up with neat bows, everything in its place, every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed, every ending an artificially happy one. Compared with most global societies, we are unique in this mindset. Mystery and the unknown scare us and show us how very much of life is far from our control. We want everything to be solvable, rational, quantifiable, knowable, decipherable. We are the children of our enlightenment ancestors, whether we like it or not.

Within Christianity, we look upon mystery, for a large part, as either a hindrance to faith(something that must be accounted for so that there can be no question as to whether or not God is real and more importantly to us, our salvation is valid), or, it's a problem to be solved (we believe, though we rarely say, that God, like our world, can be explained, given enough time, effort and perhaps even prayer). And we erroneously believe that the Bible gives us the tools by which to do it.

There is a modern epistemology that insists, "If you don't accept all of the Bible as authoritative and infallible, you have to throw the whole thing out because it is flawed." As a result, adherents of this belief will throw all their energies into preserving the integrity of Scripture. But that kind of either/or logic is fallible and again, Western-centric. Furthermore, such a stance inherently assumes that uncertainty is cruel. Modernism prizes clarity and linear reason over mystery and holistic thought. Sadly, if certainty is paramount, mystery will always lose.

But mystery is not something to be feared! Uncertainty is not something of which to be frightened. Indeed, in my view, uncertainty and mystery make God larger, less contained in a human-fashioned box. Those people who tell me that we can figure God out or understand the entire Bible literally and perfectly lead me to believe that they worship a pretty narrow and small God. The God of my Bible is so very vast and unplumbable that to be able to fully explain Him, His attributes or even His means of communication with us borders on the ludicrous.

Do I believe in the Bible? Yes. I believe more so in the God of the Bible.

Do I believe the Bible is infallible and uncorrupted through time. No.

Just in my own lifetime the Bible has been altered, abridged, modified, paraphrased and manipulated. And I am supposed to believe this is a new thing in history? All of these versions sit side by side with the supposedly unadulterated texts that can trace themselves back to the very hands of their authors. Am I supposed to believe that centuries or a millennia from now this trend won't have continued and added further corruption with each alteration?

I don't buy the infallibility bit. I can't accept the argument that God has shepherded this book so at no time was there ever anyone who injected their own beliefs, greed, power plays, machinations or even genuine good intentions into it—though I wish I could. It certainly would make life and apologetics easier! But if the Bible was unalterable, why does Revelation speak against those who would remove or alter one jot or tittle. Biblical inaccuracy doesn't make me suspect of God (though at one time it did), it makes me suspect of man.

The gospel is primarily relational/missional, not informational. Raw information is the least of its powers. Imparting information about how to be individually saved is secondary to inviting people into relationship with a king and with members of a kingdom whose foremost concern is wholeness for a broken world, rather than an insurance policy for eternal destiny.

The Bible was not written as an encyclopedia. If we could divide the complexity of our reality into grids and categories, God would have communicated through the Bible in grids and categories. But there are mysteries that cannot be explained logically. There are things we cannot know, things that are beyond our finite minds, things that are unprovable.

I'm not saying there isn't truth. I certainly believe there's Absolute Truth. But I think that, to a vast degree, it is unknowable by us. Aside from certain elements which God, in His mercy and grace, has chosen to reveal in Scripture, most of it belongs to the privy of God alone. And speculating that we can or do know it is not only arrogant, it is sin. And it has led to hundreds of bloody wars fought in God's name.

Making absolute truth claims is so important to evangelism in the modern era. I would rather recruit people who follow Jesus by faith (without claims of certainty or absolute knowledge) with the goal of being transformed and participating in the transformation of the world. Perhaps it is our very lack of example in speech, behavior, love, faith, and purity which may explain why we feel we must rely so heavily on arguments. Faith is relational not logical.

Generally, believers fall into two categories: those who use scripture as proof-text and those who plant the Bible's stories and guidelines in their hearts so it can grow into a life that looks more and more like Jesus. Sure, there are hard words in the Bible, but taken in context we treat them and those they speak toward very differently. The Bible is a love story, not a debate file, a source of heavenly codes, or a battery of scriptures to wield like a weapon. When we see the Bible as a repository of facts and proofs, it is too great a temptation to see it as the ultimate trump card—the “I told you so” of evangelism. Until one perceives it as a love story—a grand, overarching meta-narrative—it cannot become truly alive.

Modern Christianity is obsessed with rules rather than relationships, intent on creating an impossible theocratic utopia on earth. We feel the most important questions are those that focus on biblical authority and the rules by which we live our lives. And while these may be important, even critically so, this is a love relationship, not a court case. Besides, whose rules, or more importantly, whose interpretations of those rules do I follow? Many love to preach against homosexuality (today's pet sin) but say nothing about the consumption of shellfish, the wearing of mixed-fiber clothing, women speaking in church, gluttony, slaves defying their masters, or storing up things on earth. Yet each of these are Biblical mandates. The fact is, Biblical inerrantists ignore hundreds of biblical rules every day. The high-view of scripture set doesn't believe in biblical authority any more than those with a low view do.

An interesting thing begins happening when we are more interested in the Bible as a weapon of proof than as as a love letter—we begin worshiping the Bible instead of its author. We become guilty of what a friend of mine dubbed, biblidolatry.

We care more for the words than He who wrote them. We care more that every jot and tittle is followed than that we actually resemble Christ. We care more that everyone around us is living by some moral code we've extrapolated than that we are loving our God with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves.

I think it is important to remember that the Bible itself is not holy, though we frequently call it so. The God it describes is holy. The text merely points to Him. In heaven, our Bible will be as useless as toilet paper—a thing to be thrown away and forgotten. One does not hold onto a reflection of light and warmth when one can bask in the real thing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


You describe a faith that requires...uh...faith. It's not a problem to be solved; it's a mystery and a relationship to be embraced.

The real danger with the inerrancy crowd is that when you place such a high premium on either/or propositions and certainty, you come completely undone when someone throws a wrench in your works. Of course, for most inerrantists it's not a problem because at bottom what they really believe in is their own inerrancy. So, they just disregard all detractors and all evidence, choosing instead to muscle the world into their peculiar frame of reference.

I agree that perhaps the most disrespectful thing we can do for our faith and our sacred scriptures is to argue for their untainted infallibility. It is not a reasonable position...and not necessary.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My, My, this will certainly raise some eyebrows!

1:46 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Jesus and Mary. Now you've gone and done it.

2:06 PM  
Blogger c_neil said...

A pastor at a Christian group that I love and support once preached a sermon where he made the congregation say, "If the Bible is not true, nothing really matters. If the Bible is true, it is the only thing that matters." I have attended other churches where similar, slightly less fatalistic, statements have been preached.

There is a part of me that would like to believe that life is so simple, but ultimately I know that accepting that proposition is dangerous and not necessary for salvation. Why should I let the validity of a faith that has a lineage that stretches back thousands of years be diminished if someone proves that Seth in Genesis didn't really live 807 years? What have I got to lose if the directive by Jesus to handle deadly snakes really wasn't there? It doesn't bother me that some New Testament authors might have paraphrased and that others used direct quotations. Even a debate over the trinity doesn't cancel out the testimony of history's great cloud of witnesses and the people who died defending the Christian faith.

I do find value in proving some aspects of the faith. Working to prove the authenticity of scripture is a different and more useful process than working to prove the exactness of everything stated in the scriptures. I like Lee Strobel's book The Case for Christ Even though he does use some arguments that borderline on being tautologies, he does take a level headed approach and at least listens to detractors.

The little math game that you cited is an example of something that is pretty unproductive. I think things like that get perpetuated because pastors who don't know very much about math get duped by them and find them useful for filling time in sermons. Occurrances that have incredible mathematical odds happen all of the time. Look at the odds of winning the lottery. The odds of winning are incredible, but people win all of the time. Sometimes people even win twice.

10:15 PM  
Anonymous Andy said...

Well, Brandon is back from his Christmas, "non-contraversial" vacation! Good to see you back in good form Brandon.
As is often the case, I agree with much of what Brandon says, but I think he goes too far, or maybe I see where this pendulum is going and I fear the opposite extreme.
First, let me state that I AGREE that there is mystery in our faith that must be embraces as such.
I AGREE that the purpose is primarily relational with a loving Father wooing His children back to Him.
I believe also that we must read the Bible as the original authors intended it to be read, which is often NOT as a western reader would read it.
However, the Jews also had a very rational faith, as I understand it. We must also have a faith that bears up under rational scrutiny.
Also, the Bible is not 1 book, with a self-fulfilling prophetic outlook. It is comprised of MANY books. I know that Brandon knows this, I only mention it to point out that I think he stretched an argument in his article a bit too far.
As to the Bible, in a story in the book, Jesus is tempted by Satan himself. How does He combat Satan? With quotes from the Bible! Jesus, Peter, and Paul ALL backed up every teaching they taught with quotes from scriptures. At one point, Paul argues a point on the fact the the scripture says seeds rather than seed. Apparently THEY (Jesus, Peter, and Paul) had a HIGH view of scripture. Losing a high view of scripture will make us the losers.
Well that's plenty for now...

3:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps the question is what does a "high view of scripture" really mean? To my way of thinking, the inerrantists have bullied that phrase into a euphemism for their peculiar brand of realist epistemology. I have an extremely high view of biblical narrative as transcendent and truthful. Why does that require that I take an "every jot and tittle" approach to interpretation? When "high view" translates into "my view," we have a problem.

10:18 AM  
Blogger c_neil said...

If you call yourself a Christian, don't you have to believe that at least some things are unequivocal and truthful?

Doesn't a Christian have to believe that Jesus rose from the dead in order to give his teachings and the scripture any validity?

It is difficult to make large generalizations because there are so many types of writings by so many different types of people in the Bible, but much of what is said does contain moral messages. Surely some of those messages would be understood best in the context of a "realist epistemology."

Just because you understand those truths doesn't mean that you can force everyone else to accept them.

I once heard a sermon that I was greatly moved by. The pastor condemned the way that the war on terror was being fought and then went on to say that as soon as you start to spread the gospel, or any other message, from a position of power you cease to be following the gospel. The truth can only be taught using meekness and humility.

I think that the pastor was right, but I'm still not quite sure how to live that out. In Missouri,the predominant culture tends to say if I'm right, then whatever I do to achieve rightness (or even rightousness) is justified.

I think that the idea is contrary to Jesus, but I'm afraid if you don't have some truth claims that you hold fast to then you open yourself to all manner of error and absurdity.

5:31 AM  
Blogger c_neil said...

I'm sorry. I keep coming back to this thread, but after I read this I had to post it somewhere.

Robertson is an example of a man who does believe in unequivocal Biblical truth, but he still managages to come up with absurd conclusions like this.


9:50 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Yeah, I posted his latest comments at the Robertson blog I did several weeks ago. Didn't figure anyone would actually see them there, but felt I had to post it somewhere. Robertson is out of control. It's almost as if he feeds off of our disgust.

I was talking with my wife last night about how irrelevant people like Robertson and Falwell and others have become. Our generation, certainly, sees them as relics of a Christianity we want nothing whatsoever to do with. And perhaps that alone is why they feel the need to shout louder, fight harder.

I'm with you--we walk a very fine line between truth and error and absurdity. I don't know where that line is. I'm still trying to feel it all out. One part of me thinks that a religion with hundreds of absolute truth claims with relevant applications sounds comforting. Another part of me is horrified at the possibility. The Christianity I see cannot fully support either model.

Reacher and I went back and forth about this issue in some e-mails a few years ago. I’ve certainly come closer to his way of seeing things since then, as this blog attests to, but I’m still, well, reaching…seeking…searching. These days, I guess, as I said, I’m more ok with ambiguity and mystery. But it doesn’t mean I don’t keep looking. I love Anselm of Canterbury’s words, “For I seek not to understand in order that I may believe; but I believe in order that I may understand, for I believe for this reason: that unless I believe, I cannot understand."

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Karen Graham said...

Hi Brandon,

I was struck by your pictures of Motta Sicily as I was stationed there from 1983-1986. This is such an amazing country to live in and I would be most interested in your time spent in this town and if you have more pictures. I would love to see them. I have not been back to Sicily but have been back to Positano and Rome since the mid 80s. I am considering a trip back and would be curious to see your timeframe and experiences during your tour. It remains a very special place in my heart and I was touched by your pictures...

7:04 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

I have absolutely no use for all-or-nothing statements.

I grew up with the notions like the literal interpretations of the Bible were possible and indeed probable. That was my thinking as a child. I have put (most of) my childish thinking behind me as Paul (the apostle, not me) told us to do. I now embrace the mystery that these literal interpretations require my intellect to bend and sometimes break around to come close to comprehending. One of my favorite biblical quotes is (paraphrased) "All things are possible through God."

They certainly are, and I hope I never purport to know what God says, does, or even has done. I can understand it if he gives me that understanding but that's the beauty. He may tell me one thing and Brandon something that contradicts. Between Brandon and I, those things contradict, but between God and I, and God and Brandon, they can coexist.

I am of the postmodern mindset that McLaren and Don Miller are writing about these days. Their work hasn't so much influenced me as much as it has articulated thoughts I have had and am having.

I've been in a number of these is-the-Bible-infalliable discussions and I enjoy them and think they're important. But I haven't come to any conclusions yet. Not sure that I will... ever. It depends on what God decides to reveal or withhold to and from me.


2:00 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Karen.

(For those confused as to what she is talking about, we both served in the Navy--I am assuming that is right, Karen--and lived in Sicily, specifically the town of Motta St. Anastasia. The pictures she mentions are at my other blog, "Worth a Thousand Words," in my links section).

I'm afraid those that I have posted are all that I have online. I, of course, have hundreds of other pictures from Sicily though they are not scanned in at this time, nor do I really have any plans to do so. If you are ever in Colorado Springs, my house and my albums are open to you. Like you, I consider my time there to be the most magical of my life.

2:28 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Yes there are hundreds of pictures in those albums. And Brandon doesn't need much of an excuse to break them out.

10:59 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Ah, shud up doc! You love those hundreds of pictures from fair Britania and you know it!

11:08 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...


I must confess something you said in Sunday School the other day has stuck with and bothered me and I am not 100% sure why. Paul was there--maybe he can shed some light on it.

Technically, Stott said it, not you. It was when you read from his commentary in which he said St. Paul, in sending his letters out to the various churches to be read in the Synagogues, was putting his words on par with the Old Testament scriptures of the Torah--the Pentateuch, etc. I realize theologians take words like "inspired" and such to mean that the God-breathed Bible is mysteriously 100% man-written while simultaneously 100% God-written. That alone is a debate in my mind. Still, it seems awfully arrogant, presumptuous and even borderline heretical of St. Paul to view his/their words this way, if indeed that is what he thought.

You never told us how you felt about the comment other than that you found it interesting. Your thoughts?

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Andy said...

Greetings all,
Like all of you, I am working out my views on the scriptures. I firmly believe, at least at this part of my journey, that Christianity is a cooperative relationship, a cooperative walk thru life with God, not with Him as equals, of course, but nontheless with Him. I believe that this is how God desires and thus designed it to be. He is Love. The cooperative nature of our walk with Him is based on His fathomless LOVE and TRUTH. This is my, or one of my, main starting points.
So, it would make sense that the revelation of God to us is also cooperative in nature. In other words, when Paul articulates what God inspires and reveals to him, it will be articulated somewhat differently than the same truth revealed to, say, Peter, or James, etc. Nonetheless the truth will be the same valid truth that God wanted revealed. So, I believe that the writers of scripture were not simply secretaries receiving dictation, although it appears that sometimes it was pretty close to that.
What bothers me is when we say that scripture is only narrative. What does that mean? Does it mean that we have redefined scripture so that we can basically make it say whatever we want it to? We must be incredibly careful here. History is filled with the carcasses of beliefs and movememnts who downplayed scripture and who taught heresies as coming from the scriptures. I do not believe that God takes the scriptures lightly. He took thoudsands of years to develop them, they are not something to be thought of cavalerely (how do you spell that?). I'll stop there, and with for more discussion.
Brandon, on the comment in Sunday School, AFterwards Pat Smith showed the scripturte in, I believe 2 Peter, where Peter calls the writings of Paul, scripture. So, I think that they did view what God had given them as on a par with scripture. My thought is that it is only arrogant of them if they equating their own mere thoughts as on a par with scripture. But if God has revealed something to you at that level, the level of scripture, then to not equate it as such would not be humble, it would be disobedient and a slap in the face to the God who had given you the privelege and responsiblity of such revelation.
I love our discussions, Brandon, and as you know also, I love Anselm's quote. Thank you for this blogging site.

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

I too have had these misgivings about St. Paul's writings and even hesitate to use such a catholic monicker as Saint. I'm not sure if that is influence by my American or Protestant roots or both. Although he is the one who said to Timothy: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness." 2 Tim 4:16 NIV.

I always thought it was interesting that he said that and yet his letter is included, by us through the Council of Nicea, as scripture. St. Paul said a number of things I love, but he also said a number of things that bother me. He's seemed harsh and antithetical to Jesus' teachings. Then I hear that he was not that way when dealing with people face to face. I've heard that about some writers.

Other than that comment of my own, I don't remember what you're referring to that was mentioned in SS, Brandon. Sorry.


12:22 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

While I could say the use of "saint" is a result of my liturgical education (and it is, partly), I specifically used it today to differentiate between Paul, the writer of half the New Testament and Paul, the contributor to this blog! (It is only the evangelical movement that doesn't use the "saint" moniker. Even other, non-Catholic, mainline denominations use it--even some Baptists).

It's all so confusing, isn't it? The Bible calls itself "...God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness" yet so could such a thing have been written by someone who merely wanted to secure his power stake in what the Bible says and what that gives him. (No offense intended to Timothy!)

Like you Paul (the non saint variety), I wrestle with contradiction far more than I do paradox. I am perfectly willing to see paradox for what it is--irreconcilable, God-comprehended mystery. But contradiction in either fact or feeling bothers me. When St. Paul writes something and then says that "I say this and not the Lord" that bothers me. When people still try to take that writing and place it in the same inspired context, that bothers me.

And it just plain bothers me when people aren't willing to admit that mistakes may have been made. I think it is not because they think it impossible but because they are threatened by what they would have to hold a little less tightly were it true.

If Christ used Scripture to combat Satan (and he did; good point Andy) and Timothy's words are correct, then, yes, obviously there is a power to Scripture far greater than what one would simply ascribe to a narrative. The Bible is more than just a pretty story to learn from, obviously. I agree. But where is that shifty line!? How does Paul or any other author of the Bible separate his thoughts from Gods?

This all makes drawing a bead on truth so difficult.

I know this is scattered and I'll try to write something better formed later, but right now I have a lunch appointment...

1:25 PM  

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