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I posted last week on “3 things I would like to see (at least some) Evangelical leaders stop saying about biblical scholarship.” Today’s post is about rhetoric I have heard from Evangelical leaders when defending a biblical position. Though these leaders may be well-intentioned, I feel their rhetoric only serves to score points, entrench positions, and detract from much-needed conversation.

You’ll see that these three are interrelated.

1. The “it’s possible” or “be patient” argument. When threatened with a genuine and serious theological challenge, I have seen a persistent tendency to argue for the mere “possibility” of the traditional position (or similarly, that the position is “not impossible”). Apparently, if a position is salvaged as possible/not impossible—however slim—that warrants maintaining it.

This type of argument is like that of a defense attorney charged with defending the accused at any and all costs. Such a defense attempts to establish the client’s innocence by casting some shadow of doubt, however minimal, on the prosecution’s case. If innocence is “possible” that’s good enough. Sort of like the O.J. trial.

A close cousin is the “be patient” argument, which says, “Although what you say may look dire for our position at the moment, further study, exegesis, reflection (and prayer) will eventually vindicate our position, so no need to jump to conclusions now. Let’s be patient.”

Both arguments are really just obscurantist stall tactics that would not be tolerated for an instance if the evidence were lined up in the opposite direction. Imagine if, say, biblical archaeologists had abundant and overwhelming evidence for the conquest of Canaan, but a small group of liberal renegades was holding out and constructing scenarios whereby their minority positions were still “possible?” or were calling for more “patience” as they continue to find new ways to defend themselves?

The “it’s possible/be patient” defense is an indication that the end goal determines the process.

2. Emotionally manipulative rhetoric to achieve the desired conclusion. This is related to #1.

We see this at work when a debate begins with a loaded premise that biases the argument toward the desired conclusion. For example: “Brothers and sisters, we must be ever on guard to defend the Bible against those who seek to discredit it by claiming it is historically inaccurate.”

Here we have an emotional appeal—almost shaming—that simple equates attacking the Bible with questioning its historical accuracy, i.e., anyone who really believes the Bible will not question the Bible on historical matters.

The key here is to interrogate the premise “questioning = attacking” and to insist that the premise be defended, rather than simply accepted. If you question the premise, the discussion can potentially go in a different and helpful direction (provided both parties are willing to do so). But if this type of rhetoric is allowed to set the terms of “discussion,” there will be no discussion.

It’s also not fun to be emotionally manipulated as a way of shutting you up.

3. The problem is your faulty presuppositions. Arguments over details can be avoided by appealing to opponents’ presuppositions. Now the debate is not about handling specific and complex data, such as whether the flood happened or who wrote the Pentateuch, but the “faulty presuppositions” that would drive one to doubt either.

This tactic is an effective way of disagreeing with someone who knows more. Saying someone is wrong because they have the wrong presuppositions leaves the disagreement on the spiritual level and so avoids actually accusing someone of incompetence. It also sidesteps having to deal with details, which requires some expertise. “Yes, I know you are brilliant and respected and all this is quite complicated, and I’m just a simple [fill in the blank], but can’t you see how your presuppositions are leading your brilliance down the wrong path?”

But here’s the thing about presuppositions: they are not all created equal. They can be tested.

If someone asserts that the Bible must behave in a manner “X” because it is God’s word (for example, it must be historically accurate), and yet in your reading of the Bible you are finding a lot of “not X” (you find historical inaccuracies), you either (1) have to question your reading skills, (2) admit you are so spiritually depraved you can’t read straight, or (3) consider that the assertion may be in error.

That’s the choice, and after being fed a steady diet of  #1 and #2, #3 starts looking pretty reasonable.

I remember a discussion like this in graduate school. A professor was remarking how some scholars have a penchant for holding on to a theory long after the evidence piles up against it by talking about exceptions, or stretching the theory to fit the data, etc. He said, “If you find one thing that doesn’t fit the theory, it’s an exception. Two things, a sub-category; Three things, you need a new theory.”

All of this is to say, the “faulty presupposition” argument only works if the presupposition is sound. At some point you may have to scrub a “theory” about the Bible and make one that aligns with what’s there.

The rhetoric used by some evangelical leaders may well be motivated by a sincere desire to uphold the faith and ease the conscience of the faithful. But when the dust clears, they do neither.

[An earlier version of this post appeared in January 2013.]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.