Fundamentalism II. What Does the Bible Say?

In a college dorm room, Bud Clarkson said to me, “If we don’t have the Bible, we have nothing.” This simple statement exposes a nihilism that underlies evangelical fundamentalism. Judging that there is really nothing to lose, the fundamentalist mind reaches for the most familiar starting point for belief – the Bible – on the basis of faith. The strongest faith is held to be that which stands as faith alone. Belief springs up from no worldly source. Belief makes itself known in bold contrast to all things of the world, which are to be regarded as nothing in comparison. What makes this style of reasoning work? The answer, it seems, is to do it with immense confidence.

A rule of truth and falsehood shared by positivists and fundamentalists alike that the truth of one set of beliefs is elevated to the degree that alternative beliefs are degraded. On either side of the question, the true disciple will employ a single coherent ideological structure to engage reality, and all others are not merely useless, but contemptible to the extent that they distract one from true belief. Absolute truth will be apprehended mostly by its contrast with and opposition to other, false views of reality.

Of course, the fundamentalist does not say that he has chosen a starting point for belief. Instead he says that God has chosen it for him. One method of the fundamentalist is to elevate God and God’s truth, in part, by despising humans and human knowledge. In this vein the following quote from Bildad the Shuhite in the Book of Job makes perfect sense –

Dominion and awe belong to God;
    he establishes order in the heights of heaven.
Can his forces be numbered?
    On whom does his light not rise?
How then can a mortal be righteous before God?
    How can one born of woman be pure?
If even the moon is not bright
    and the stars are not pure in his eyes,
how much less a mortal, who is but a maggot—
    a human being, who is only a worm!”[1]

Human reason and choice proceed with as much purpose, on this scale, as the blind probing and chewing of grubs on a rotting piece of meat. Comparing humans with worms fits with an oft-cited doctrine of total depravity. But is this account what the Bible really affirms?

In Psalm 8, the Bible proclaims a much different estimate of the human condition. Addressing God, the psalmist writes

When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under their feet,
all flocks and herds,
    and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
    and the fish in the sea,
    all that swim the paths of the seas.[2]

This reading puts humankind “a little lower than the angels,” but an alternative version would be “a little lower than God.” The Hebrew word translated “angels” is Elohim. The translation is interpretive, because Elohim is translated “God” almost everywhere else in the Old Testament. It is translated “God” despite the fact that Elohim is a plural Hebrew word.

Two lines almost identical with the 8th Psalm, but with a different slant, appear in the words of Job, as he argues with 3 friends about the relationship of humans with God:

What is mankind that you make so much of them,
    that you give them so much attention,
that you examine them every morning
    and test them every moment?
Will you never look away from me,
    or let me alone even for an instant?[3]

Here the New International Version offers a weak substitute for the poetry of Job. The phrase “even for an instant” is literally “until I swallow my spit.” Job recognizes that the psalmist’s exalted position of humankind comes with a heavy burden of responsibility and even hardship. Feeling trapped under God’s watchful eye, he cries out, “Won’t you look away from me long enough to let me spit?!”

Whose estimate of the relation of humans to God does the Bible affirm – that of Bildad, the psalmist, or Job? I hesitate to answer. Here we are in the early stages of a search for GSOT. The Bible is revered scripture, divinely inspired according to venerable tradition which I accept, yet difficult to grasp in several respects. But the answer could help to formulate a starting point for our thinking about GSOT.

There is a philosophical starting point for evangelical fundamentalism, a doctrine called presuppositionalism, which is somewhat simpler than the Biblical account. Let me make an attempt to express, as clearly and briefly as I can, what I understand the logic of presuppositionalism to be. This is my version of it:

Everybody regardless of their religious or philosophical stance begins with presuppositions. I start with these presuppositions: (1) the Bible is authoritative and (2) the Bible is plainly and simply true.

Here is a more complete exposition by G. L. Bahnsen:

…a truly Reformed apologetic must begin from the presupposition that the living and true, triune God speaks to him with absolute authority in infallible Scripture. His reasoning then finds its only legitimate function as a servant or tool of God’s Word, rather than its judge. Following God’s Word, the Christian receptively reconstructs the created facts of the universe about him with a view toward both fulfilling the cultural mandate and being conformed to the image of his Savior by the power of Christ’s Spirit; hereby he glorifies God and enjoys Him forever. Thus, the apologetic task will consist, not of externally verifying the Christian presupposition but, of applying it by (1) bringing God’s truth and commands to bear upon the lives of unbelievers, appealing to the image of God in them (distinguishing between present remnants of man’s original nature and the ever-present nature of fallen man), pointing out that every fact of the world bears witness to God, and (2) doing an internal critique of the non-Christian’s system, calling down its idols, and pointing out the absolute necessity of Christian presuppositions if logic, factuality, history, science, and morality are to have any meaning, validity, and application at all. The Christian apologetic will not concede intellectual ground to Christianity’s cultured despisers…. Thus, part of the Christian’s reasoned defense of the faith will be an aggressive offense.[4]

Notice the second part of Bahnsen’s 2-fold strategy, emphasizing the “necessity of Christian presuppositions if logic, factuality, history, science, and morality are to have any meaning, validity, and application at all.” It fits exactly with my friend Bud’s assessment back in the college dorm room. “If we don’t have the Bible, we have nothing.” Biblical presuppositionalism is to be defended by an aggressive judgment of nihilism pressed upon every nonbiblical area of life.

Bahnsen’s manifesto also reminds us of Bildad’s speech. The intellectual and ethical life of nonchristians cannot be distinguished from the mental effort of worms. Apart from Biblical revelation, Bahnsen actually agrees with Daniel Dennett, who said of worms and frogs and humans, “There is nothing there.”

Let me be careful about presuppositonalism. These blogs, as indicated earlier, aim to pursue the question of validity of human will. What kind of answer shall we give to the person who says, “I choose to believe in the Bible”? Of course, that is her legitimate right. Yet how would a chosen belief, an act of will, look any different from a presupposition? How can these be distinguished?

Belief in the Bible appears to be highly influenced by family and culture. Is free will – if it exists at all – vested also in families, tribes, cultures, and not merely in individual people? I think that free will (we shall attempt to define it in a later blog) operates in groups as well as individuals. My identity is not merely an individual identity. I am bound to and lifted up by my wife, my family, my region and country, my community of faith that crosses borders, as well as other people of passion and will crossing boundaries of faith, and finally humanity and the world to which human eyes open in wonder. The operation of will may occur in all of these, enlarging my own small will immensely.

Again what is the difference between will and presupposition, whether of an individual or family or culture? They look the same from this side of time.

Perhaps the difference is that Bahnsen and many others define Biblical presupposition as an ethical absolute. This ultimately results in only one important choice for humans in their system, either to accept the good, as presupposed, or to turn toward evil.

Some might call this is a narrow view of free will. Could it also be a narrow view of God, who gives us the responsibility of will?

We have jumped well beyond a reasonable limit of discussion; too little preparation has been made to warrant questions like these last ones. Therefore I repent. But I hope to re-introduce some of these ideas later following consideration of the 5 rules for the search for GSOT to be considered in some detail soon (see preview of the rules in an earlier blog).

The Bible passage quoted earlier from Bildad the Shuhite may prove instructive if we consider its context. The background story describes how Job lost his wealth, his very livelihood, and all of his children in a series of disasters allowed by God. Three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, have come to offer condolence and advice to Job in the midst of calamity. Job calls them his “miserable comforters.” Through most of the book Job and these 3 friends debate the relationship of God to humanity. Bildad’s words in particular seem to represent remarkably well a fundamentalist viewpoint stretching across some 2500 years.

As his words quoted above illustrate, Job challenges the traditional answers. Through the course of the book he even challenges God on several points.

After the debate concludes, God appears on the scene and makes a remarkable speech touching on natural phenomena, several animal species, danger, and evil. Surprisingly, at the end God turns to Eliphaz and says, “I am angry with you and your two friends [Bildad and Zophar], because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.  So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me.”[5]

From this reading, the Bible itself does not affirm the fundamentalist viewpoint.

 

Next post: Fundamentalism III. God’s Words

Previous post: Fundamentalism I. Better than Nothing

Searching for GSOT outline: Home

 


Photo: Maggots on a pork chop. (c) Ianthraves | Dreamstime.com

[1] Job 25:1-6. The Bible, New International Version.

[2] Psalm 8:3-8. The Bible, New International Version.

[3] Job 7:17-19. The Bible, New International Version.

[4] Bahnsen G. L. Presuppositional Apologetics Stated and Defended. Ed. McDurmon J., American Vision Press, Powder Springs, Georgia, 2008.

[5] Job 42:7b-8. The Bible, New International Version.

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