How Brittle Are Your Christian Beliefs?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman wrote in his book, Misquoting Jesus, that his Christian beliefs began to fall apart when he realized that there was a mistake, an error, in the Gospel of Mark.  Now, I think that the alleged mistake is not a mistake, but let’s assume for a minute that we just don’t know for sure – maybe Mark made a mistake, and maybe he didn’t.

Is this any reason to jettison your belief in Christianity?  That has not been my reaction when I’ve been faced with many of the same kinds of difficulties in the Bible.  Why does Ehrman feel that he has to give up the whole show when he finds one error?

There are a few Christians who have been upset with me when I’ve talked about the fact that the 5,800 Greek manuscript copies of the New Testament differ from each other so that we are unsure of about 1% of the text in the New Testament.  These verses have nothing to do with any major Christian doctrine, but nonetheless they believe it is unacceptable to have any uncertainty at all.  Their faith is threatened by the science of textual criticism, even when textual criticism is practiced by conservative Christians.

Other Christians claim only the King James Version of the Bible is correct, that all the others are full of significant mistakes.  They feel their faith threatened by the other versions.

What do these people all have in common?  New Testament scholar Darrell Bock referred to these kinds of Christians as brittle fundamentalists.  They are brittle because when one of their cherished beliefs are challenged, their faith either falls apart, like Ehrman, or they retreat deep into isolation so as not to deal with anyone who disagrees with them.

I have a deep concern for the brothers and sisters who hold these beliefs.  They are majoring on the minors of Christianity.  They are making secondary things primary things.  There are certain teachings of the church that have always been recognized as the essentials, the things that form the core of our faith.

Holding on to the essentials, we need to make room for the findings of history, science, and philosophy that help us better understand our faith.  We need to be willing to learn about our faith, and maybe even change some of our secondary beliefs.  If your understanding of a Bible passage has never changed, if your understanding of a secondary doctrine has never changed, you are not growing and your Christianity may be brittle.

I have been studying the tough issues that face Christians for 7 years now, and I have had to modify several of my secondary and non-essential ideas about Christianity.  It can be uncomfortable sometimes, but what has happened to me is that the core beliefs I hold have become stronger and stronger, the more I learn.

I hope the same will happen for you.  We have nothing to fear.  We really don’t.

  • Matt Salmon

    It’s interesting that we recently read about the John Scopes “monkey” trial in my US history class. It was a legal case in which John Scopes, a public school teacher in Tennessee was prosecuted for teaching evolution in, I think, 1918. The case quickly became a media spectacle when William Jennings Bryan, the fundamentalist Christian, was opposed by another celebrity arguing for evolution by natural selection. Bryan spent his preparation time studying the Bible but never considering what his opponent’s argument would be. John Scopes was convicted for breaking a Tennessee law, but Bryan was made to look like a real idiot. He died in obscurity within a week after the trial because his brittle Christianity was broken. He took the biblical account of creation literally and set a precedent that faith is blind and unreasonable, which is dangerous for all of us and the reason we all (Christians) need to know apolegetics.

  • The world says that faith and reason are contradictory. Christianity says otherwise. The Christian faith is reasonable. It is logical. It is intellectual. I say this as one who had a high academic background before becoming a Christian at age 25. One who was raised under the typical Darwinian influences at both the private school and university levels. One who was a practical atheist, though I would tell you I was agnostic over a beer to sound a little better.

    I’ve spent some time among King James only Christians. They love the Lord and care for the lost, wanting them to be saved. They love the Word. The problem is their KJV only position is unreasonable, illogical, and anti-intellectual. It is this sort of ‘faith’ despite the evidence, not because of the evidence, that to me speaks of brittle Christianity.

    I would also add, based on Matt’s comment, that the literal, Biblical creation account is not only quite reasonable, it is the only account that is reasonable, in light of the rest of the teachings of Scripture, and the observable scientific evidence around us – i.e. specific and general revelation.

  • Wes

    I find it interesting that many who are opposed to Christianity think that one confusing idea in the Bible should negate everything else for a Christian. If you study science long enough, you will find some concept that seems clearly false. The wave-particle duality of light, time travel, particles coupled by “spin” across the universe, etc., all sound crazy when you first hear them. I understand why there is a wave-particle duality principle for light, but it still doesn’t seem possible. However, I have not given up on physics. I did not stop believing in gravity. (Etc.)

    When I encounter tough concepts in the Bible, I keep investigating and trying to understand what they mean. I don’t throw away all the evidence I have gathered about other biblical concepts just because I find one that’s tough.

  • Andy G

    I really appreciated your thoughts when you wrote “It can be uncomfortable sometimes, but what has happened to me is that the core beliefs I hold have become stronger and stronger, the more I learn.” I can attest to that too. It’s like concentric circles, at the core are the important doctrines, at the periphery are less important doctrines. EG Feel free to attack Biblical inerrancy, because it’s not at the core of my beliefs.

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