Friday, March 20, 2015


I’ve said this before:  I am concerned less with what individuals believe than with how they acquired their beliefs and why they maintain them.  And in the evangelical/fundamentalist Christian community nothing illustrates this better than belief that scripture is the Word of God.  

The terms “dogma” and “dogmatism” have a serious image problem, though it wasn’t always that way, at least in a religious context.  Dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.  Thus Christians came to be expected to accept the Nicene Creed without question.  It was just the way things were.  Nowadays using the term “dogmatic” in reference to someone or his or her ideas is clearly viewed as a negative.  But I think the term describes well the position of those who believe steadfastly in scripture as the inspired word of God.

Why do I say that?  Let’s break dogmatism down into its constituent parts.  It is (a) a belief in a principle (b) laid down by an authority (c) that is considered incontrovertibly true.  Let’s analyze each of these components in turn.

(a) A belief.  It would almost seem to be redundant that evangelical Christians accept the Bible as the word of God.  However, I have learned that many evangelicals have placed a nuance on that belief.  When confronted with scripture that is clearly contrary to their beliefs, some Christians have waffled and stated that the offending passage needs to be “put into context” or that one needs to read the whole Bible to understand the meaning (e.g., God committing genocide against the tribes with which the Israelites were at war), or that the passage needs to be treated metaphorically (e.g., the Jonah and Job allegories), or that a particular translation has distorted the true meaning.

For those evangelicals who pride themselves in not believing that the entire Bible should be considered the word of God, I would ask a more specific question: As to those portions with which you agree, do you believe they are divinely inspired?  I thought so.

(b) Laid down by an authority.  The key here is the basis for one’s belief.  Here my questions are:  How did you arrive at that belief and why do you continue to hold it?  Did you come to believe in scripture as the word of God after consideration of competing points of view, including study of the sacred writings of other religions or of secular belief systems.  Did you consider the research of biblical scholars who don’t have any particular stake in determining whether scripture is divinely inspired or not?  Or did you come to your belief because your parents or teachers or religious leaders—all of whom were acting sincerely—told you the Bible was God’s word b before you had developed the ability to think critically for yourself?  I recall as a kindergartener learning the song, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  We must have sung that song a hundred times.  Implied in this song, of course, is the idea that if the Bible says it, it must be true.  

And now, why do you continue to believe in scripture as God’s word?  Is it because you have explored objectively the evidence and concluded that it continues to confirm your beliefs?  Is it because you have never really questioned that fundamental belief?  Or is it because your friends all believe in the truth of the Bible, and it is simply easier to go along?

(c) Incontrovertibly true.  This is simple:  What would change your mind about the Bible as God’s word?  If someone challenges your belief in the Bible, how do you treat the matter?  Do you find yourself looking for arguments to defend your current beliefs, or are you open to what the other person is saying and asking yourself what evidence would cause you to change your mind?  

Try this exercise.  Think of a matter which you have changed your beliefs about in the last 10 years.  Perhaps it was whether Obama was born in the United States or whether homosexuality is a choice or whether women should be able to be ordained as ministers or whether there are manmade causes of global warming or whether eating meat is unhealthful.  (If you haven’t changed your beliefs about anything in the last 10 years, you should be concerned, frankly.)  Then ask yourself what led to the change.  Was it because of information that you acquired or because you accepted the word of those you trust?  Are your beliefs about whether the Bible is divinely inspired capable of such a transformation?

© 2015 John M. Phillips


  1. Hi John: I had written a piece in response to you March 20 post, and somehow I delete it or lost it somehow. I will try to replicate it as well as I can, but I may be more concise.

    You have a great deal of faith in science or the laws of nature. That is OK. Your understanding is very good, and I am impressed that you read 50-100 books on cosmology in your younger years. I am not well educated in astronomy, cosmology, paleontology, etc. I know a little about archaeology, but again not an expert. After corresponding with you I am motivated to learn more.

    However, what we are talking about includes 'spiritual' beliefs as well as physical. In forming your body of beliefs, you use science and the laws of nature alone. I believe we need to acknowledge a spiritual existence or realm; souls, etc. I have trouble understanding much less explaining a soul or a spirit, but I believe they are there!! Angels? Cherubim or Seraphim? I do not know.

    You asked for examples of when God intervened as described by the OT narrative, that are validated by objective evidence. I would need to work on that a bit to give a good answer, but I think of things like Jeremiah 1:13-15 that talks about a storm from the north, and is followed in history by the invasion of Israel by Babylon. The invasion by the King of Egypt (Shishak, various spellings) comes to mind as well. Babylon is later conquered by the Persians. I believe there is good archaeological evidence. I am going from memory, and I really should look them up to be sure. There are quite a few examples like this.

    Finally, I would like to bring up the strength or power that can come to humans from faith in God. I am not talking about "faith-healers" or "miracle workers" but rather perform actions for good. (I am avoiding the Crusades and similar events because I don't believe they apply and I am short of time.) Examples: The man who dried up and kicked a drug habit at the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago; the outstanding work done by the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, early 1st and 2nd century Christians who cared for plague victims when others did not; the early Christians who picked up girl babies and raised them when others abandoned them because they wanted boy babies; the growth of the Christian church in the first few centuries from a small sect to millions of followers.

    I wish you well -- Terry L.

  2. Based on your last couple of posts, I'm assuming this is the end of our dialogue, which I too have enjoyed. Unlike you,I had the hope (fond, as it turns out) to change your position, at least on a few things. Before ending this, though, I feel compelled to tidy things up with a few clarifications that you can mull over.

    First, I may not have been clear about my background with astronomy and cosmology. I do believe I have read some 50-100 books in astronomy, most of which probably touched on cosmology at some point, but many were of a broader scope while others were focused on an area that did not touch on cosmology to any major extent, such as planetary astronomy or stellar chemistry. And this interest has extended for the past 55 years or so, not just during my formative teenage years.

    When I indicated that I was looking for archaeological evidence of God's intervention, I was thinking of instances where the archaeology provided specific evidence of God's intervention as recorded in the OT, not that there were events mentioned in the OT that are corroborated by the archaeological evidence. I wasn't doubting that there is some factual history in the OT. Rather, I was looking for instances where the evidence could best (and maybe only) be explained by God's action, as described in the OT. Examples might include the ruins of the tower of babel or the otherwise inexplicable collapse of the walls of Jericho or of the devastation of Sodom and Gomorrah or of Egyptian chariots at the bottom of the Red Sea. I hope you get the idea. It would need to be something that is not easily explained by natural causes. I don't think such evidence exists.

    You talk about a spiritual realm, including souls and spirits and mention that I talk exclusively of the physical world. I will agree that I am an unabashed materialist/physicalist/naturalist. I don't think there is any reason to look beyond the physical world to explain our existence. I know that I am in a relatively small minority in this regard, though my guess is that many if not most hard physical scientists (physicists and chemists) feel the same way. The fact that you can't explain souls or spirits should give you pause as to the basis for your belief in them.

    As to "faith" in science, I generally favor a narrow definition of "faith." I prefer to define it as belief in the absence of supporting evidence. In that sense, religious beliefs are, by definition, matters of faith, since they include an element of accepting something in the absence of evidence. With regard to science, on the other hand, belief in matters scientific (e.g., the big bang) are based on the evidence and are held to the extent, and only to the extent, that the evidence sustains them. In that sense beliefs in matters scientific represent the opposite of belief based on faith. Having said that, I will admit that I have great confidence in the ideas that science has generated, and you could argue that I have "faith" in the scientific method. However, my argument there is that my confidence in the scientific method is, once again, based on the evidence. It is through the scientific method that we have achieved all the knowledge and technology that we now have about the nature of the world. In other words, my "faith" is based on evidence in the form of how successful it has been.

    Best wishes.

  3. Hello John: I sincerely apologize for not continuing our discussion. When I last wrote, I had every intention of continuing. One thing led to another, with a little procrastination and before I knew it weeks had passed. Combining travel, a little illness and the loss of a family member; and time goes by!! I won't be writing for a few weeks as least, but I hope to pick it back up then. I truly enjoy our dialogue and I admit to learning things as well!

    Best regards, Terry.

    1. Terry, I'm sorry to hear of the loss in your family.
      I will look forward to the time when you can resume our dialogue. My hope (I won't say "prayer") is that you will be open to examining the bases for your beliefs, particularly regarding the inspiration of scripture. In the meanwhile, I intend to bone up a bit on the history of the creation of the Christian canon(s).
      Be well. John