The three gaps: Reasons to believe the Bible
Continuing my evaluation of the three gaps theory, today I look at what it can tell us about six different reasons to believe the Bible (taken from the popular Christadelphian book The Way of Life).
As with the philosophical arguments yesterday, you can reasonably assume that I do not think any of the arguments presented here are compelling. All I am trying to consider is which gaps each argument could bridge if it were true.
PREACH: Six reasons to believe
For many years, The Way of Life was my first port of call when dealing with doctrinal issues or looking for verses to support a particular interpretation. I have a well-thumbed copy which I still refer to occasionally.
The second chapter of The Way of Life offers six reasons to believe, conveniently forming the acronym PREACH: Prophecy, Resurrection, Environment, Archaeology, Consistency, Health Laws. For each one, I will quote the essence of the claim from the Way of Life, then discuss it.
Which Bible are we talking about?
It is common to treat the Bible as a single unit: if any part of the Bible is true, it’s all true. That is certainly how this list of reasons is presented. However, the Bible is actually composed of a number of books written independently by different authors at different times. It is not clear to me that establishing the truth of one book should necessarily establish the truth of all of them.
There is also the question of which books to include: While Christadelphians adopt the standard 66 book Protestant canon, other Christian groups consider other books canonical. This becomes even more important when considering Judaism, which accepts the Old Testament but not the New Testament. If most of our “reasons to believe” come from the Old Testament, how will we know whether the evidence is supposed to be pointing towards Christianity or towards Judaism?
Fulfilled prophecy shows that the Bible must come from a powerful God who knows the future.
This sounds like the claim is that fulfilled prophecy bridges the first two gaps: It tells us something about a powerful God, and sets up the Bible as the source of wisdom about that God. To a fair extent I agree, but with a couple of caveats:
The Bible is not the only text which claims fulfilled prophecies. We cannot determine whether it is the one true source of divine revelation in isolation. Its fulfilled prophecies must be significantly better than those of other competing texts.
As discussed above, the correctness of a prophecy may establish divine inspiration for that book. But it is not clear (for example) that a valid prophecy in Jeremiah would establish the divine inspiration of a theological argument in Romans. And since most of the prophecies talked about are in the Old Testament, it is not clear whether this supports Christianity or Judaism. The Way of Life does point to the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies in Jesus, but it is notable that Jews interpret some of those passages differently.
As for the third gap, sometimes Christadelphians have claimed that they are the only ones to properly understand certain prophecies. I’m not sure this is actually true, but even if it were all it would show is that Christadelphians had correctly interpreted one part of the Bible message. It is not clear why (for example) correct understanding of an obscure prophecy in Ezekiel would guarantee that the Christadelphian rejection of the Trinity or the supernatural devil is also correct.
Perhaps the most amazing claim in the whole Bible is that Jesus rose from the dead. There is very strong evidence that this event did happen. … If Jesus rose, then there must be a powerful God and the Bible must be his word.
As with prophecy, the claim is that if it is true, the resurrection of Jesus bridges the first two gaps. I agree. It is also one of the few arguments here that clearly supports Christianity, not Judaism. Though nothing about it specifically supports Christadelphians.
Whenever we look amongst God’s creation, we see evidence for his almighty power and the remarkable design behind all he made. … Paul told the Romans that there was so much evidence that people had no excuse if they did not believe it.
Though this section is illustrated with scriptural quotes, I think it is just a repeat of the teleological argument from yesterday. I don’t see anything that bridges the second gap. The world is full of competing claims of creative gods, and, even if we accept the hand of a creator, I do not see any reason for Paul to assert that his particular God was that creator.
However, it does give us something we can use when compare competing accounts. What should we conclude if what we observe about the design of the world around us doesn’t match the story the Bible tells? Or if it partially matches the creation story of the Bible, but better matches other accounts of creation?
Many archaeological finds demonstrate the historical accuracy of the Bible. For example, evidence for the existence of a number of Bible people has been found in the form of clay seals. Other archaeological finds show the Bible to be historically accurate about events, places, and people.
Once again, I’m going to be awkward: It’s not clear that historical accuracy in some books of the Bible establishes the accuracy of other books in the Bible, let alone that it can tell us anything about the correctness of the theology of those books.
As with prophecy, the Bible is not the only text claimed to contain correct historical details. Of course, we expect history books to contain historical details. But we also expect it of historical novels, and of real life stories that have been significantly elaborated from a historical core. Like the Bible, many competing texts from the period contain supernatural references.
It is difficult to see how we could establish that the Bible has a significantly better historical fit than other texts. The Way of Life does not even claim that God is required to ensure that the text is historically accurate. This means that I don’t think this argument can bridge any of the gaps.
Despite being written by many different authors, from all walks of life, over a period of about 1600 years, the Bible is consistent, even in the apparently trivial details. There are many examples in the Bible where different passages support each other, providing “undesigned coincidences”. … They sound more like accurate history than contrived fiction.
I think this is similar to the previous point: reflecting an accurate historical core does not require a god, and says nothing about the truth of the theology of the Bible.
In the Law of Moses, there are several laws about cleanliness and hygiene that are now known to be important to human health. The Israelites could not have known this at the time. … Only God could have written such laws thousands of years before their scientific basis was known.
If we accept that only God could have written such laws, then this would bridge the first two gaps: obviously there is a God and he wrote these parts of the Bible.
However, these rules come from the Jewish law, which as a generalisation Christians have relaxed or outright rejected. And in the specific case of hand-washing, rather than affirming that it was part of what was keeping them healthy, Jesus appears to have rejected the law as mere tradition. Does that mean that, if we accept this argument, we would have to conclude that it is Judaism, not Christianity, which is the correct religion?
In my opinion, of these arguments prophecy and the resurrection are the best candidates for establishing the divine inspiration of the Bible. However, they don’t cover the complete Bible, and I think only the resurrection could really establish the New Testament and Christianity over Judaism. And, while the list came from a Christadelphian book, I don’t think any of these arguments specifically support Christadelphians over other Christians.
As with yesterday, it may feel like I’m nit-picking, but I view this as healthy skepticism in response to claims that “all of the Bible is inspired by God because it says it is”.
They are also not new arguments for me: I can remember coming home from our outreach courses and asking “How convincing will this evidence we’re presenting actually be to an unbeliever? Or a Jew who already accepts the Old Testament? Or even another Christian who already accepts the Bible?”
In a previous post I’ve recommended Unbelievable, by Rob J Hyndman. He was the editor of the Way of Life, and was responsible for this list of “reasons to believe”. In this post, I’ve looked at the list theoretically, but I would recommend the first chapter of Unbelievable for a more personal account of how the list failed him in practice. And if it grabs your interest, feel free to keep reading…