The Steam Locomotive As Revealed in the Bible, OR, A Letter to Matthew, Chiefly on Inerrancy, Fundamentalism, Moderate X-ianity & J. P. Holding-anity


Dear Matthew, I wanted to tell you how much I agreed with your comments on the way inerrantists often don’t have any primary criteria except their inerrancy to lead them in creating imaginative solutions to a problem they themselves have created, i.e., the problem of how to make the Bible (as close to every jot and tittle of it as possible) appear inerrant, or make inerrant-seeming sense.

Inerrantists focus so solely on harmonizing away all "apparent difficulties/contradictions" that they rarely recognize the self-deception involved in creating their myriads of “apparent harmonizations” solely out of their own imaginations, i.e., apparent harmonizations that have nothing to do with any reliable universal criteria by which they can tell for sure whether the initial contradiction was indeed real or apparent.

Neither does the “doctrine of inerrancy” spare inerrantists from disagreeing with inerrantists over what the Bible “really says” concerning this or that verse or subject in Genesis, or Revelation, or in the books between them.

As stated at his website, J. P. Holding “believe[s] that [all of] the original manuscripts of the Bible were produced inerrant.” But since they have all been lost in the sands of time (how convenient), I guess we cannot check.

Moreover, each “book” of the Bible might not have even been produced as a whole “book” all at once, but undergone possible oral additions and subtractions of words, chapters, phrases, over time, as well as written additions and subtractions of words, chapters, phrases, over time, before their “production” was “complete.” Speaking of which, the book of “Daniel” in the Bible begins with the first story being told in Hebrew; then the book switches to another language, Aramaic, then after a few chapters switches back to Hebrew (while three sections are preserved only in Greek and are considered merely apocryphal by Protestant Christians and Jews, but instead considered deuterocanonical by Catholic and Orthodox Christians)!

Which raises the further question of who is to say when something is “complete” or not, be it a book or the entire Bible? And how do you know such people are inerrant in making such a declaration of “completeness?”

Which brings us to fundamentalism…

Characteristic of all fundamentalism is that it has found absolute certainty the certainty of class warfare, the certainty of science, or the literal certainty of the Bible--a certainty of the person who has finally found a solid rock to stand upon which, unlike other rocks, is “solid all the way down.” Fundamentalism, however, is a terminal form of human consciousness in which development is stopped, eliminating the uncertainty and risk that real growth entails. [Heinz Pagels]

Which calls to mind Mark Twain’s gentle poke: “We have infinite trouble in solving man-made mysteries; it is only when we set out to discover the secret of God that our difficulties disappear.”

Another characteristic, not of fundamentalism, but of fundamentalists is their intellectual modesty, their almost saintly humility. Nietzsche said once that we are all greater artists than we realize, but fundamentalists are too timid to think of themselves as great artists. They take no credit for what they have invented; they assume they have no part in the creation and maintenance of the Idols they worship. Like the paranoid-very much like the paranoid, in fact they devise baroque and ingenious Systems, and define them as “Given.” They then carefully edit all impressions to conform to the System. There is no vanity, no vanity at all, in people who are so intensely creative and so unwilling to recognize their own cleverness. [Robert Anton Wilson]

One clever Protestant fundamentalist Christian, Gleason Archer, has created a 480-page Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties in which he ingeniously explains away a host of “apparent” contradictions found in the Bible. Critics have pointed out that Archer’s single volume “encyclopedia” is far too short. What he needs to do is produce an enormous set of encyclopedias dealing with “Bible difficulties,” along with a yearly supplemental volume to explain away the latest problems raised by textual and archeological research.

There are further “difficulties” that arise from the mere acknowledgment of “apparent contradictions” in the Bible. As my friend Robert M. Price has said, “an apparent contradiction is the worst kind,” because no matter how many ingenious explanations you devise for explaining it away, it will always remain glaring at you there in the Bible, and you will not know if any one explanation you have devised is truer than another, nor whether all of them are failures and the contradiction indeed exists exactly as it “appears.” Certainly no one’s explanation to try and make the Bible appear inerrant is itself an “inerrant” explanation.

If two verses “apparently” contradict each other, then the best a fundamentalist can do is accept one or the other verse’s “apparent” meaning, and reject or alter the remaining verse’s “apparent” meaning. But that means fundamentalists are “adding and taking away” from what the Bible is “apparently” telling them! In effect, to even admit the existence of “apparent” contradictions is a hopeless position for fundamentalists.

Take the case of Harold Lindsell’s clever suggestion that Peter may have denied Jesus as many as six, or even TWELVE times, if that is what it takes to “harmonize” all the stories of Peter’s denial of Christ that are found in the four Gospels [see Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible]. Of course he has to ignore the fact that all four Gospels agree in their separate tellings that Peter denied Jesus “three” times. So Lindsell has to disagree with something all four Gospels agree upon, in order to preserve his preconception of the Bible’s literal truthfulness! Apparently fundamentalists do not like the Bible they have. [See Dave Matson's article on Peter's Denials of Christ.]

This unwillingness to recognize their own cleverness was also apparent in the Plymouth Brethren (nineteenth-century Protestant fundamentalists who insisted the Bible was literally true.) Someone raised in that milieu, recalls:

They devised an elaborate system of mental watertight compartments. The contradictions of Old and New Testaments were solved by a Doctrine that what was sauce for the Jewish “Dispensation” was not necessarily sauce for the Christian “Dispensation.” Cleverer than Luther, they made possible the Epistle of James [that emphasized “works” over “faith”] by a series of sophisms which really deserve to be exposed as masterpieces of human self-deception. My space forbids.

So, despite all the simplicity of the original logical position [i.e., that the “Word of God” must be without error or contradiction], they were found shifting as best they might from compromise to compromise. But this they never saw themselves; and so far did they take their principle that my father would refuse to buy railway shares because railways were not mentioned in the Bible! Of course the practice of finding a text for everything means ultimately “I will do as I like,” and I suspect my father’s heroics only meant that he thought a slump was coming.

If a fundamentalist searches diligently for something in the Bible, anything in fact, they can almost always find it there. It’s just this uncanny “gift” they have, which they take no credit for. In fact, if the above person’s father had just searched a little more, and with a bit more faith (and creativity) he could have found railways mentioned in the Bible!

Chaplain Tresham Dames Gregg did, and delivered a noteworthy sermon on the subject that was published as a booklet in 1863, The Steam Locomotive as Revealed in the Bible. A Lecture Delivered to Young Men in Sheffield. Gregg’s sermon is a little gem of fundamentalist ingenuity and creativity in which he demonstrates that God gave the prophet Ezekiel a vision of a steam locomotive. (Ezek. 1:4-25)

So, a fundamentalist not only believes that “with God, all things are possible,” but, “with the Bible, all interpretations are possible” (except, of course, any that disagree with church doctrine, or dare to even imply the existence of errors or contradictions).

So fundamentalists display at least two major characteristics:

(1) absolute certainty, and

(2) an unwillingness to recognize all the cleverness employed in keeping their “absolute certainty” afloat.

There is also a third characteristic, namely, grabbing the oars of the “D.S.S. Absolute Certainty” and using them to beat the heads of landlubbers who refuse repeated invitations to join the crew.

I hope J. P. Holding will put down the oars some day just long enough to read more moderate Evangelical works, like James Walton’s NIV APPLICATION COMMENTARY on GENESIS, and step up to moderate Evangelicalism himself. He already employs some moderate ideas and explanations whenever he tries to dress up his Biblically inerrant fundamentalism in scholarly clothing. I’ve seen other signs as well that he has been inching nearer to becoming a moderate.

Ten Christian and Jewish theologians, world experts in their respective fields as well as people of faith, including N.T. Wright (whom Holding agrees with on many matters) recently joined together to produce the following series: “Serious Answers to Hard Questions,” in which each of them was asked to address a single perplexing issue, click here.

Also see the book, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future by moderate Christian theologian, Craig C. Hill--Professor of New Testament Illinois Wesleyan University, B.A.; Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, M.Div.; Oxford University, D.Phil. Excerpts from some chapters in Hill’s book are included at the book’s website. Note the chapter titled, “I Was A Teenage Fundamentalist,” portion s of which can be read by clicking here.

Amazon’s new online reader system even allows you to read almost the entire book online for free by clicking here.

Note the high praise for Hill’s book, In God’s Time, by the prominent scholar of first-century apocalyptic, John J. Collins of Yale University, who touted Craig’s book as “A remarkable achievement...There is a tremendous need for this kind of writing, and very few scholars can write at this level of clarity.”

Review of In God’s Time by Tom Hinkle (Tulsa, OK USA): Up until now, nearly all the reading I have done on the End Times has come from one of two camps: the dispensational camp (mostly in the early years of my Christian walk before I wised up) and the reformed (more specifically, reconstructionist) camp. Despite their obvious and radical differences, both camps shared, at least theoretically, the view that the Bible is inerrant. “In God’s Time” attempts to take a moderate, scholarly approach to eschatology and make it comprehensible to the layperson. In this regard, the book is a success. Hill begins his work by establishing for the reader his approach to biblical interpretation, which is, again, a moderate, scholarly approach, using the tools of historical biblical criticism. Hardline inerrantists will probably opt out at this point (thus my tongue-in-cheek review title), but they will be missing a great deal. Rather than trying to make all the eschatalogical pieces from divergent sources fit together, Hill acknowledges the differences while at the same time accentuating the overarching theme of God’s ultimate victory.

Others who have offered words of praise for Hill’s Book include: Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury designate, Richard Wilke, founder of the Disciple Bible study series, Tony Campolo, J├╝rgen Moltmann, Luke Timothy Johnson, Pheme Perkins, and Walter Brueggemann.

I sincerely wish J.P. Holding the best in all he reads and writes, as I hope he wishes me as well. If nothing else, I think we both may agree that intellectual pleasures constitute the ultimate form of addiction. Though he does appear a bit more energetic than I when it comes to getting in the literal "last word" concering anything and everything anyone has ever written about something he himself has written. *smile*

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