Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Human Faces of Polemics: What Thom Stark's Book Reveals When It Gets Scholarly Methodology Wrong (And Why Liberal Scholarship Tries to Hide It)

This is a short critique of Thom Stark's The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (And Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) published by Wipf & Stock.

Apart from noting the incredibly arrogant title, the idea that "inerrancy" tries to hide something, rather than "inerrantists," may sound less confrontational, but is extremely nonsensical nonetheless. Ideas don't try to hide things. People do. But, in good humor, I've done the same above to mimic this. Now on to a more serious critique. 

 Stark's main argument, that the Bible is full of contradictory theological teachings (and therefore, sometimes "gets God wrong," is supported by a host of misinterpretations garnered from Stark’s ignorance of the historical, social, and literary context of the passages he cites. This leads him into a host of logical, factual, and linguistic errors in his overly-sensationalized attempt to show the Bible to be riddled with theological error.
1.       Stark argues that the Bible contradicts itself in terms of whether God judges children for the sins of their parents. He fails to note in the passages he cites, however, the very nuanced approach the Bible takes toward such an idea.
a.       The Bible never teaches the idea that children in the household are separate individuals from their parents. Hence, to punish a man is to punish all of his possessions, which includes all of the people (e.g., children) of a household. This is clear from the passages that Stark mentions concerning children being punished with their parents.
b.      The claim that God does not judge the sons for the sins or righteousness of the fathers is referring to sons who are no longer of the household and have made individual choices as independent entities. This is made clear by the description of what the sons might do in passages such as Ezekiel 18 (i.e., murder, commit adultery with another man’s wife, etc.). This is hardly referring to little children, and indeed, refers to an individual who has parted ways with the ways of his father.
c.       That God visits the judgment of fathers upon their sons, even to the third and fourth generation, refers to those who continue to hate God (i.e., those who do not part from the ways of the father but instead continue in their father’s rebellion, thus receiving the wrath of God, which the Bible pictures as something that is cumulative when sons do not depart from the wicked ways of their fathers.
d.      One may not like this idea, but this hardly shows the Bible to contradict itself. Instead, the contradiction is between our contemporary culture, its modern sensibilities, and the Bible; but this is hardly what Stark intends to show. Hence, his argument fails here.
2.       Stark attempts to argue that some passages argue in favor of “xenophobic” behavior, whereas others argue for more open relations with people of other nations.
a.       What Stark calls “xenophobia” is a religious concern in the passages he cites, not an ethnic one. In fact, in the same books that make such claims against taking women who worship other gods are indications that such is merely religious in nature (e.g., The Book of Numbers, which presents Moses as taking an Ethiopian woman for a wife, after having been married to a Midianite woman, and yet, presents marrying Midianite women as evil. There are nuances in the text that Stark’s approach simply misses, intentionally so, in order to make his argument. Another example might be the fact that Malachi is in the context of Ezra-Nehemiah, and vice versa. The problem is clearly marrying the daughters of foreign gods, not ethnicity. (See also the Deuteronomic passages that both forbid marriage with pagans under condemnation for idolatry and permit marriage with foreign women who are not.)
b.      Stark here, of course, commits an egregious fallacy in his argument; and as it pervades his entire discourse, we will see it time and time again. This fallacy is a linguistic one and a bit of sleight of hand by Stark, one which I am sure he does not realize he is making. This, of course, is that his argument is intending to show that the Bible contradicts itself; but he does this by critiquing individual passages that are not the Bible. Let me explain. The Bible is the entire entity of what orthodox Christians believe is the Word of God. This is what Stark is attempting to pull apart as errant. However, in order to do so, Stark must make the Bible into individual pieces that are no longer the Bible, but passages ripped out of that context and placed within alternate contexts in order to say something different than what they say in the context of the Bible as a whole. The problem is that orthodox Christians don’t believe these individual passages communicate what the Bible says as a whole. They merely contribute to the larger picture of what the whole Bible says. Hence, it is much like hearing a point made by a speaker and ignoring any qualifications and nuances that speaker makes to clarify his point. One could then take the whole discourse of that speaker and turn it against itself by ignoring these nuances, taking them out separately from one another, and then pitting them against one another, as though the speaker had contradicted himself, rather than clarified his statements with nuanced qualifications. It’s really a major fallacy of communication that refuses to participate in the communicative process with the speaker simply because one either doesn’t have the linguistic and logical ability to take things in context, or because one merely wants to prove that the speaker should not be trusted. I’m afraid Stark’s book seems to be a bit of both. If Stark wants to make his case against the Bible of evangelicals (his foil), he’s going to have to engage with their concept of the Bible, not a linguistically fallacious hybrid that seems to make up his own. Unfortunately, Stark not only does this with the Bible as a whole, but also with individual texts, as we will see.
3.       Stark attempts to argue that the Bible teaches child sacrifice. This is accomplished by taking a text out of its current context and speculating as to what the history of a word, phrase, or sentence may have been in an ancient Canaanite/Paleo-Israelite context.
a.       The problem, of course, is that this commits the fallacy above. All scholars agree that when one takes these passages in their literary biblical contexts, they do not teach child sacrifice, but rather child dedication. This etymological fallacy is well known by most scholars, and yet, such a diachronic methodology to answer a question that only a synchronic investigation can answer is absolutely needed if one is to buy into Stark’s argument here. For those of us who are linguistically trained, we’ll keep our money in our pockets.
b.      Not only is the methodology of concern, but the speculative nature of such reconstructions assumes a knowledge of the original authors of such an idea that we simply do not have. Yet, again, one absolutely needs to confirm such knowledge in order to make the claim that the original author intended to convey such and such an idea. No such confirmation is, or can be, made by those scholars who peddle this idea, as the original context (if there really was one) is lost and cannot confirm such an interpretation (and, as said before, all admit that the idea has been radically transformed in the biblical texts, so that the “Bible” of orthodox Christians does not actually teach such an idea at all).
4.       Stark also argues along the same lines that the Bible teaches polytheism as well as henotheism and monotheism.
a.       The same etymological fallacy can be pinned on this wildly popular idea. This, again, ignores that a phrase may or may not carry its implicatures depending upon whether the context repeats the contextual referents of the original context. In other words, as I’ve argued before, an implicature does not carry in a foreign context, and it certainly cannot be assumed in a context where the implicature is often contradicted, such as the idea of polytheism in the religious context of ancient Israel, and especially, within the literary context of the Bible. Instead, words and phrases that once carried a particular implicature in a foreign context often become figurative expressions that convey a specific meaning that no longer carries the implicature. For instance, the phrase, “Aphrodite is the goddess of love” in an ancient Graeco-Roman polytheistic context implies that “goddesses [literally] exist.” However, change the context to a non-polytheistic one, and a phrase such as, “Tyra is the goddess of fashion,” does not carry the implicature that goddesses exist in a literal sense at all, but rather that, in a figurative/analogical sense only, Tyra is the highest of all other fashionistas. The implicature has been lost in a monotheistic/agnostic/atheistic context.                               
Stark, as well as others who advocate this position (Mark Smith being the most prominent), fails to note this, and by doing so, begs the question as to whether a text conveys polytheism.
b.      He further commits the same fallacy along these same lines by failing to note that in its biblical context (whether within that of a book or section of books, such as Deuteronomy or the Deuteronomistic History) polytheistic phrases exist inside the context of monotheistic theology, and hence, do not carry their implicatures. Hence, his argument, yet again, has him arguing for the errancy of a fictitious Bible of his own making, not the one in which orthodox Christians believe. If Stark were to have entitled his book, “Why My Reconstructed and Dissected Bible Is Errant” one would have no problem with agreeing with him. However, Stark’s Bible is clearly meant to be conflated with the Bible in which the average evangelical believes, which makes the argument a bit of a bait and switch.
5.       Finally, in an effort to try and catch evangelicals in a pickle, Stark argues that if inerrancy is true then Jesus was errant because He predicted that the end of the world would occur within the lifetime of the apostles, and it didn’t.
a.       Of course, Jesus could have been wrong about the time of His coming, since immediately after He states this, He states that He doesn’t actually know when the time of the end will occur. In fact, this should be the first clue that there are two different things going on here, since He states with great certainty what time frame the event He is addressing will occur, and then continues to say that He has no knowledge of when it will occur.
b.      Stark seems to be unaware of the more likely interpretation of this passage, which is the partial-Preterist view that Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in this context. Along with it, as apocalypticism almost always does, is a description of the micro-event as though it was the macro-event of the end. Again, it is likely this distinction that Christ has in mind by saying that He both knows when it (i.e., the destruction of the temple/Jerusalem) will occur and does not know when it (i.e., the end of the world/the Second Coming) will occur. This would take more than a paragraph to demonstrate, but Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic texts often mesh a micro-event with the macro-events (i.e., either the commencement of the creation of the world or the consummation of that creation) as though they were one single event. That John Collins, a Second Temple scholar, endorsed and wrote the foreword to the book   is all the more surprising, but apparently liberal apologetics wins out over genuine scholarship when evangelicals are the target. We see this often with the nonsense over at Peter Enns’s blog (another liberal Second Temple commentator that Stark thanks in his preface).
6.       There is, of course, an epistemological naïveté in the book. Stark seems to think that one does not need an inerrant source of truth in order to know truth, and this is simply rubbish to anyone who has studied the issue. If a finite being with finite knowledge does not have an inerrant source of truth that stems from a transcendent infinite being then one cannot know anything. He can only guess at everything in the dark without any knowledge of whether he is moving closer or further away from the truth and the good. What Stark is essentially arguing for, as most liberals do, is for an intuitive inerrant source, where one patches into the divine truth from one’s own nature. Much theology can be added to this ad hoc, such as the Holy Spirit guides humans into truth and whatnot, but the question will always be how one knows any of this. If liberals want to argue that they believe in their intuition in the same way that orthodox Christians believe in the Bible, that’s fine with me. I agree that they do. The problem is simply that this is not a version of Christianity. It is simply one more expression of the anti-Logos, in replace of the one who is Christ Himself revealed in words, and a completely different religion than that of orthodox Christianity which is an externally-oriented, revealed religion and not an internally-oriented revealed one, as all pagan religions and non-religions are. With liberalism, Stark carries in a host of presuppositions (not merely bias--note the difference please) concerning the nature of God, man, the Bible, etc. that cannot be critically evaluated without first assuming a different set of presuppositions by which to measure them. Hence, we are left with faith, not scholarship, and this is merely one faith telling another faith that it is wrong. But, again, this was not the claim made in the book. Stark did not set out to counter orthodox Christianity with his alternate religion, at least that is not what he claimed to be doing. Instead, if he wanted to reach the goal of his argument, he needed to accept the Bible that orthodox Christians have accepted, and show that their beliefs concerning it are internally invalid. He could not do that. Hence, we got the argument he gave, and not the one that we needed in order to see his position as a valid one.

There is a lot more I could say about his other minor arguments that also have to do with particular interpretations of passages, but I think the above should suffice in showing that this book was received well by the liberal community of scholars either because (1) they’re so bent on undermining traditions and traditional Christianity that they don’t mind supporting an M.A.R. student who is willing to use any bad argument possible to undermine it, or (2) that they simply make the same mistakes daily in their classrooms and works that they think that Stark’s scholarship is sound. I’m going to be generous and say that it’s likely a mixture of both. In either case, however, the substandard state of scholarship in terms of being critical of its own methodologies is put on display for all eyes to see if one is so inclined to see it.


  1. Thanks for writing this review.

    I myself wrote an extended review of his book at http://wp.me/p4qcMr-Dj. Thom himself responded to the review, and you can read his response along with my review at the link.

  2. Expect Thom to show up and litter your comments with complaints.