Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Another exploration of the fundamentalist psyche

 Ken Ham says: "If you can’t trust the Bible when it talks about geology, biology, and astronomy, then how can you trust the Bible when it talks about salvation?".  But can we trust Ken Ham's judgement on this matter?

The slogan Sola scriptura (Scripture alone!) was important to reformation Protestants because it succinctly summed up the revolt against the authoritarian leadership of the Roman Catholic Church of the day, a leadership which insisted on its exclusive authority to interpret the Bible to its flock. But the slogan is also important today as a rallying cry against those Christians who wish to impose their proprietary interpretations of scripture on other Christians, often by means of some form of spiritual intimidation. However, although Sola Scriptura used as a slogan is excellent at keeping at bay those who see themselves in the role of didactic authorities, it is not, nevertheless, literally true.

Natural language is essentially a string of symbols with the purpose of “delivering” meaning; but these symbols do not literally contain meaning. Rather, meaning is generated by the context upon which the symbol string impinges. But to do this the context must be set up in such a way as to handle the incoming string and derive relevant information from it. In the case of human beings the interpreting context includes a vast information system which consists of both mental resources and cultural knowledge (the latter includes knowledge of history); in effect a huge hinterland of texts and narrative to which our minds largely unconsciously refer when we interpret incoming text. Bible text is no exception to this rule (See here). But to a God who is sovereign over both the incoming stream of symbols and its interpreting context this is no necessary barrier to the generation of right meaning. 

But fundamentalists are loathe to admit the Bible’s semantic debt to its host context, opting instead for a closeted insularity from what they perceive as a profane worldly context. Fundamentalists much prefer to portray the Bible as a self-contained universe of meaning where “contamination” from worldly science, philosophy and what they despise as “man’s thoughts” is minimized. They crave an epistemic that delivers certain knowledge and the thought that they themselves and their context are highly proactive active agents in the interpretation of scripture is to them a dangerous thought. For them the Bible has plain meanings that are intrinsic rather extrinsic to scripture.  That the “extraction” of Biblical meaning comes via the lens of our world view embedded in the receiving context is far too insecure as an epistemic for the fundamentalist; the hardened fundamentalist craves certainty and turns the actual model of translation on its head. For (s)he believes that somehow the Bible is the lens through which (s)he sees the world and it thereby delivers unambiguous truth and absolute certainty to its readers.

To illustrate the way the fundamentalist mind handles the Bible there can be few better examples than Jason Lisle. With a genuine PhD in Astrophysics you might expect that he would have an inkling about how natural language actually works and would understand the context dependence of scripture translation. In fact I think Lisle does understand how it works, but he is so gripped by fundamentalist tropes which make the translation role of context invisible that in the final analysis Lisle is forced to affirm scripture as a self-contained universe of meaning. As evidence of this I reproduce the following comment by Lisle. In this comment Lisle is responding to a query about Biblical meaning from one of his following. Lisle seems to start OK but because thinking is more analogue than it is digital, the fundamentalist stress on certain terms seems to overwhelm Lisle and so eventually he comes round to more or less affirming that scriptural meaning is self-contained. Anyway here we have it (my emphases):  

Zach, the answers to your questions involve the concept of the “hermeneutical circle” or “hermeneutical spiral.” I have a book coming out in the summer that addresses these issues in rich detail (in chapter 9). For now, I’ll have to give a shorter answer. God’s Word would have to be true because of the nature of God; He is truth. God has “hardwired” us to know that He exists, and to recognize His Word when we hear it or read it (John 10:27). How we respond to God’s Word will determine what happens next. If we receive His Word with humility then we participate in the hermeneutical circle. Basically, this means that God’s Word is sufficiently clear that we can understand and correctly interpret much of it upon reading it. After all, God designed our minds and knows how to write a book such that our minds can understand it.

My Comment: I would not want to say that the foregoing is especially wrong for it shows at least some inkling of the role of a sovereign God in contextual translation. However, given that the above comes from the mind of a fundamentalist it is quite likely that Lisle will have a very strong interpretation of the words I’ve highlighted: e.g Lisle emphasizes that we are hardwired, but he should also be taking into account our culturally programmed software/firmware, a huge body of knowledge which includes knowledge of the history out of which the text emanates; clearly that knowledge isn’t going to be infallible. And of course when Lisle says God’s Word is sufficiently clear that we can understand and correctly interpret much of it a hardcore fundamentalist like Lisle will likely include his “plain” readings of Genesis. For example, compare the fundamentalist Andrew Holland, whose comment made in the context of a Genesis discussion I have often quoted as an example of fundamentalist thinking. Viz:

....the historical parts of the Bible, such as Genesis, should be taken at face value, otherwise it is tantamount to calling God a liar! Thus the account of creation, Noah's flood and Jonah's adventures are accurate and can be completely trusted. They are all verified in the New Testament…

However, Lisle’s commentary continues as follows:

Because of sin, we don’t instantly correctly interpret all of God’s Word on the first reading. But the portions we do understand rightly will help us to understand the more difficult portions. In the process of time, our understanding improves as the Scriptures systematically sanctify our thinking. The Bible is therefore self-interpreting. It teaches us how to interpret it.

My Comment: Like a good paranoiac fundamentalist Lisle’s reflex is to attribute misinterpretation first and foremost to malign sinful motives.  No doubt sin does skew interpretation, but notice that Lisle gives no space to admitting that it’s not just sin that allows us to err; the huge machinery of contextual interpretation involves narrative that is not infallible and will also be implicated in error. Fundies are reluctant to admit genuine error in others when those others persistently contradict fundamentalist doctrines; fundies are more likely to opt for the explanation of willful error. In this sense the above quote from Lisle is all too typical in that it homes in on the fancied hidden malign motives of those who disagree with him; as I’ve so often said these habitual suspicions sets fundamentalism up as fertile ground for the growth of conspiracy theorism.  I don’t disagree with Lisle when he says that scripture is in involved in the interpretation of scripture; after all scripture itself is part of the context of any verse of scripture. But notice once again he tends to overstate his case in way that is likely to strike a chord with fellow fundamentalists: For he does not acknowledge that scriptural meaning cannot in an absolute sense bootstrap itself, but can only bootstrap if it taps into huge external information resources. (No problem for a sovereign God to manage, or course). So it is no surprise that in the end Lisle consummates with a phrase thoroughly consistent with insular fundamentalism, namely that scripture is self-contained:

"The Bible is therefore self-interpreting"

My Comment: Yes, scripture is a resource in the interpretation of scripture; but this bland statement by Lisle is not qualified with the acknowledgement that scripture isn’t the only impinging resource of interpretation.  This concluding statement is music to the ear of the fundamentalist who dearly wants to believe and hear something which provides a pretext for writing off “man’s thoughts” in favour of the thinking of his or her fundamentalist sect, a sect which regards itself as tapping directly into Divine opinions via an uncritical “plain” reading of scripture. As Lisle’s followers will regard him as an admirable guru, he is in effect misleading them by (over) stressing only certain aspects of the biblical translation process. 

And yet in the same comment Lisle says something which effectively admits that scripture is not a standalone revelation: it depends on the exploitation of cultural resources: Viz:

Regarding Bible-versions, my upcoming book will also cover this issue in chapter 6. The short answer is that you can be confident that the major conservative English translations (ASV, KJV, NASB, NKJV) are accurate by comparing verses in multiple versions. In over 99% of cases, these versions give the same meaning for each verse, and there is simply no translational problem at all. In only a very few instances is there any disagreement at all, and even in these it is usually minor and involves no doctrinal issue. For these rare cases you’ll have to do further study. But there can be no doubt that the main doctrinal passages of Scripture have been correctly translated.

My Comment: There is the admission here that getting to grips with the Bible may involve access to information about translation statistics; but this data about the reliability of Bible translations is not contained in the Bible itself, of course. Research external to the Bible is needed to check up on translation fidelity: Nothing wrong with this though: I once used four or five translations  to refute an argument from someone of the Witness Lee Brotherhood who challenged the usual rendition of Romans 8:15 using the Brotherhood’s “Recovery” version of the Bible. I’ve also used a similar approach with a Jehovah’s witness I was corresponding with over the “New World” translation of John 1:1

But the bible itself doesn’t tell us which translation to use since it knows nothing of translations.  The question of translation is a meta-question that is only answered with reference to cultural resources and I largely agree with Lisle that multiple versions indicate reliability (but not necessarily infallibility) in translation.

However, once again Lisle overstates his conclusion. Once you think you have a reliably rendered translation there is still a very long way to go. For in translation it is wrong to think that a word is a word is a word. Even if one-to-one translation were actually possible (and it seldom is) that is a mere starting point: As I have remarked before meaning is far more than notational correctness. Probably more important is connotational correctness. For example, we can perhaps correctly translate the Biblical word for “water” with a fair probability of being right. But the connotations of the word “water” in the parched lands of the Middle East means that  “water” probably carried very different connotation in its originating context when compared to those of us who live in wet cool climates. And of course, there is no reason why one-to-one translation should be universally applicable anyway. Cross cultural translation will also likely include one-to-many translations and also many-to-many translations. With many-to-many mappings the central idea is to attempt to capture the original thought behind the text; that is, their connotation. Connotational content will loom large, particularly in the realm of religion, myth, and metaphor where we are trying to convey humanities deepest fleeting thoughts; a superficial notational paradigm of natural language fails to do justice to the truth of the matter.  This opens up a very big area of psychological and sociological study, one I myself have only just touched on in these writings:

Fundamentalism is attractive because it is a great simplifier of meanings and epistemology. It is especially attractive for those who want a notational Bible which provides mechanically unambiguous meanings facilitating the separating out of the sheep from the goats, thus helping to secure convictions of compromise, heresy, apostasy and blasphemy. Highly sectarian fundamentalists look for a rationale to explain to themselves why their perception of the holy catholic Christian realm is such a small remnant (i.e. themselves). A notational paradigm of scripture is used as a basis to write off the wider Christian community (and other fundamentalist sects) as spiritually inferior if not apostate.

Finally, let me actually put in a good word for Lisle. True, he can display typical fundamentalist nastiness in imputing malign motives to those Christians (if indeed he accepts them as Christians) he disagrees with (for example to Lisle President Obama is a “wicked ruler” and those who believe in an old Earth he accuses of idolizing time). But let’s be clear there are a lot worse out there than Lisle. Lisle has some respect for logic and science and that is something to be grateful  for in these days of encroaching Christian gnosticism and fideism. Moreover, I agree with Lisle that the rational readability of our world is an inexplicable brute fact, easily lost to nihilism, unless we can see beyond it to an immanent yet eminent personal God who is the underwriter of our knowledge. You can get a lot worse than Lisle. See for example the appendix below where I reproduce the results of a random probe of Ken Ham’s Facebook page …. and that’s before I mention John Mackay and the flat Earthers!


As if the foregoing isn’t bad enough there is, in fact, a lot worse out there. At least Lisle does try to bring some nuance into the subject of Bible interpretation before abdicating his better judgment in favour of a fundamentalist epistemic. Not so with Answers in Genesis supremo Ken Ham: I quickly found the texts below when I randomly sampled Ham’s Facebook page for examples of fundamentalist thinking. I would paraphrase the contents in terms as follows: Obeying Christ means obeying the fundamentalist message about literalism. To trust the Bible means trusting in Genesis literalism.  The Bible is to be considered a scientific text book about geology, biology and astronomy; if you don’t believe this your salvation is called into question. The Bible doesn’t need interpreting, you just believe it. The resurrection proves YEC and you can’t be a consistent Christian if you don’t believe in YEC. There is a reason vs revelation dichotomy. Particularly interesting below is the comment which raises a very American paradox. Viz: The founding fathers of America were great enlightenment thinkers and yet this grates with right wing fundamentalists whose freedom to practice their version of religious fanaticism was assured by these despised liberal whiggish thinkers who wrote the very declaration of independence that gives them freedom to follow their sectarian version of Christianity. 

Ken Ham: We want people to trust God’s Word so that, ultimately, they will trust in Jesus Christ and receive salvation and forgiveness from their sin.
Biblical Authority and the Book of Genesis: If you can’t trust the Bible when it talks about geology, biology, and astronomy, then how can you trust the Bible when it talks about salvation?
(see also this link:

Charlie Wolcott THIS is what separates group like AiG from every other OEC group. It's not a matter of interpretation. It's a matter of "Do you believe the Record?". I do not always agree with everything Ken Ham and AiG says, but I know they are pointed the right direction. Believing the Word of God as the Word of God and knowing that YEC alone does not cut it. YEC by itself does not make sense. YEC with the CROSS makes it all work. If someone asked for a single piece of evidence that convinces me of a young earth: my response is the Resurrection of Jesus. Why? Because the Resurrection validates every word of the Bible as written to be the authority over ALL authorities in the world. You cannot be a Christian and believe in an Old Earth and be consistent in your thinking. (My guess is that this guy is so fanatical that he finds Ken Ham too moderate!)

Steve Tyler Ken Ham, yes we've been evolutionized, but evolution is a subset of the larger issue: The Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers hold that "Reason" trumps revelation, and therefore everything in the Bible that is "unreasonable," such as the virgin birth of Christ and His resurrection are discarded. This is so ingrained in our American culture because the main Founding Fathers were all Enlightenment thinkers... it's the American religion

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