Sunday, July 15, 2012

4.2 Harmonizing not Advisable

This is the second in this last group of posts.  The first was splicing the gospels together.
For more than one reason, I've come to view what I did in this paper as deeply problematic. I hope it is fairly obvious how strange this way of thinking is, "harmonization thinking."

Say two people are describing an event.  One says a girl with a red dress came up.  Another person says a girl with a yellow dress came up.  Our first impulse is not to say, maybe there were two girls that came up, one with a red dress and one with a yellow dress.  Is it possible? Yes.  Is it the most probable scenario? No.

This way of thinking focuses not on what is most likely to be true, but on whether it is possible to maintain what I want to be true.  It's called special pleading.  Say three people are telling you about how Billy Graham healed a blind man in Marion, Indiana.  One says he healed a man named Bartimaeus when he was on his way into town to speak at IWU (Luke 18:35).  One says he healed a man named Bartimaeus as he was leaving town (Mark 10:46). A third person says he healed two blind men leaving town (Matt. 20:30).

Now Rev. Graham may have healed three men nearby Marion at the same point in his ministry, two of which had the same name, but we would chuckle if a child suggested this option to us.  We certainly would think twice about letting a person who thinks this way in real life do surgery on us or decide whether we should go to war.  It's just bad thinking.  It's thinking that is not interested in the truth but in preserving its own ideas at any cost, no matter how irrational.

Any sane person is going to say that these are three different versions of the same event.  Either going into or coming out of Jericho, Jesus healed a man named Bartimaeus.  Matthew, by the way, has two of something in more than one place where the other gospels have one (e.g., the donkeys going into Jerusalem).

I mentioned Harold Lindsell's book earlier, The Battle for the Bible.  His suggested harmony of Peter's denials was that perhaps Peter denied Jesus six times, three before the cock crowed once and three before the cock crowed twice.  But see how different this explanation is than any of the gospels themselves.  In order to preserve his idea about what the Bible can and cannot do, he has created his own gospel account.  It is far more different from the other gospels than any of the gospels are from each other!

This is the second reason why harmonization thinking is problematic.  The first is that it is just bad reasoning--it makes Christians look stupid and inadvertently disgraces God in front of the world.  The second is that it inadvertently twists the biblical texts.  It rejects any one of the biblical accounts in deference to its own version.  It is thus, ironically, hateful to the biblical text.  It violates what the biblical texts actually say in order to make them look like what it wants them to say.

It is thus, ironically, inherently deeply disrespectful to Scripture in the name of a supposed "high idea" of Scripture. The earliest Christian "harmonizer" we know is Tatian.  He created a single gospel out of the four gospels.  For a time in Syria, some Christians used it in their worship. But in the end, Christians decided to live with the tensions between the four gospels.  Tatian's Diatesseron did not become Scripture but the four separate gospels now in our canon.

Harmonizers run the risk of losing the distinctness of each gospel, the richness of the uniqueness of each gospel, because of the false uniformity they insist the gospels must have.  They throw away the parts of the Bible that don't fit with their preconceived notions about the Bible. It is a "high view" of an imaginary text and a quite "low view" of the actual biblical text.

The third reason why harmonization thinking is problematic is because, in the end, I can't see how it could possibly be right from a standpoint of the evidence.  Is it possible there were six denials? Yes.  Is it possible there were three blind men around Jericho?  Yes.  People with quite a lot of intelligence have come up with the most spectacular "what if" scenarios in the name of harmonization.

So is there an event where you know for sure it's the same event (in other words, not one like Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple where you can just say Jesus did it twice) and there seems to be a detail of the story that can't be resolved by adding characters to the story (three blind men, two servant girls, and an extra man who'd been in Gethsemane).

One candidate is the question of whether Jesus was crucified on the day of Passover (Matthew, Mark, Luke) or the day before Passover (John).  In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus eats the Passover meal with his disciples in the evening (e.g., Mark 14:12).  But in John, the high priest does not go into Pilate's building so he can eat the Passover, meaning that the Passover meal has not yet happened (John 18:28). It is the day of preparation before a Sabbath that would be a very high day indeed, a Passover that coincided with the Sabbath (19:31).

I'm sure that ingenious solutions have been proposed.  I seem to remember someone suggesting that Jesus and the temple were following different calendars, with Jesus on the accurate one and the temple off.  Brilliant!  Is it likely at all?  Not in the slightest.  Truth is usually the most probable reading of the evidence, not a possible reading that fits with what I want the truth to be.

So, once again, we set up our children for potential faith crisis when we teach them to read the Bible in this way.  A person can only sustain cognitive dissonance for so long, and it is ironically those who are most militant about harmonizing who are most likely to become angry atheists later. Why are so many ex-fundamentalists so angry?  They would tell you it's in part because they hate themselves for being so stupid.

And it is entirely unnecessary. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.  The point of the story of Jesus healing a blind man is not how many blind men there were.  It is that Jesus healed a blind man.  The point is surely the power of Jesus over sickness and his compassion on the rejected of society.  Notice how insidious it is for us to get focused on going in, coming out, how many in the light of the real point!!!

And what if a great deal more artistic license was allowed in telling the story in the ancient world than we would use today?  What if the gospel writers even at times deliberately presented events in slightly different ways?  It's not an error if it is permissible according to the genre rules of the day...


Bob MacDonald said...

I am inferring (and I am enjoying this series) that you would stop short of a completely metaphorical interpretation. E.g. the man who was incompletely healed, who sees men as trees walking, is a possible cypher for Mark who failed on the first missionary journey but was ultimately a useful fellow. Examples could multiply.

They do not deny, nor do I, the statement of faith in your penultimate paragraph. But equally, they agree with the growth pattern clearly observable in TNK.

Scott F said...

I think sometimes ex-fundamentalists are angry because they started out as angry fundamentalists. They can change their world-view but not their character. Paul was zealous for the Law and zealous for the Faith.

Also, I think converts are in a special situation of needing to be extra "holy" in order to prove (to themselves) that their conversion is genuine and that they aren't vulnerable to back-sliding.

Nice article. Will you be going further into more nuanced approaches to scripture that can live with dissonance?

Ken Schenck said...

I hope to end on a positive note...

Mark Bird said...

I take it then that you don't believe in inerrancy.

Lindsell was obviously wrong in how he harmonized the accounts of Peter's denial, but poor attempts of harmonization do not mean that it isn't advisable, and even necessary. Belief in a harmonious and inerrant set of Scriptures is what justifies the discipline of systematic theology. If it is not advisable to harmonize seemingly conflicting historical accounts in Scripture, why would it not be inadvisable to try to harmonize seemingly conflicting doctrine?

Ken Schenck said...

My church does not restrict its understanding of inerrancy to this approach. As Asbury Seminary puts it, "The Bible is inerrant in all that it affirms," which then allows a significant degree of sophistication in determining exactly what that is.

A biblical theology results from integrating all the parts of Scripture in the light of obvious center points (e.g., the New Testament governs the OT; the "rule of faith" as God clarified it in the first five centuries; the kingdom trajectory). These are actually the operating principles all systematic theologies use even though they may at times claim to be doing something different.

John C. Gardner said...

Harmonization does seem dangerous from a historical and theological perspective. However, there are larger themes that seem to exist. My problem would be how do discuss this problem with our Wesleyan congregation which does see no conflicts in Scripture and sees(incorrectly from a Wesleyan perspective) that even current translations are inerrant and that so called errors or conflicts in data must be explained as not actually existing. Some assistance from how to handle this from the seminary would be worthwhile and very helpful.

Ken Schenck said...

The shift from a pre-modern reading of Scripture is not too different from a post-modern reading that understands the modern underbelly that these posts are dealing with. As I may address next weekend, you can read Mark as a self-contained story without mixing into it Matthew as a self-contained story, etc. It is the mixing of the stories that is the problem.

I hope maybe I will have something to offer you by the end of the series, John.

Sermons by Pastor Rob Henderson said...

I've got some catching up to do on your previous blogs with this topic. However, you have helped me clear the fog so that I will be able to help my folks give an answer for the hope they have in Christ without getting sidetracked by incidentals that have no eternal values. Thanks so much.

John C. Gardner said...

Thank you Ken. I teach an ABF class at our Wesleyan church and want to expose the members to some challenging ideas.

Mark Bird said...

Ken: Thanks for responding to my comment. Your church allows for a view of inerrancy in which the Scriptures are pitted up against one another as if they really do contradict? A view of inerrancy that allows for factual errors? That's not inerrancy, as historically understood. Some of the "contradictions" you referred to in your post are not just assumptions or allusions, but statements of historical fact. It appears you are implying that Bible writers from time to time (on minor issues) made false historical claims. Here's another example: Mark affirmed that there was one demoniac (though not only one) at the tombs; Matthew affirmed that there were two. In your view, was one of them wrong? If so, which inspired writer made the mistake?

Sure, systematic theology tries to integrate "all the parts of Scripture in the light of obvious center points," and beyond that seeks to fit all of Scripture into a "system" that is consistent with itself. Biblical theology doesn't seem to go quite that far. I don't see how systematic theology is justified in its fullest operation if harmonization is not "advisable".

John: attempting to explain how passages of Scripture are consistent with each other is not "dangerous." (Wow, what an irresponsible charge). Christians have always done this with great profit, even though sometimes they (in their fallibility) have not gotten the explanations right. But that doesn't make it "dangerous."

Ken Schenck said...

Mark, thanks for the discussion!

Surely an error has to be assessed in terms of the goal. If I intend the soup to be cold, then it is not a failure just because someone else expects it to be hot. If someone says, "I just found out that Charles Dickens made up the story about Scrooge and Tiny Tim, what a liar," we would find that funny. The parameters of a genre determine whether or not a goal has been reached or not. I'm arguing that you're coming a circular fallacy. You're assuming that the gospels were meant to be historical on the level of precise detail, when I'm arguing that they weren't. I'm doing this to solve what otherwise looks to be a losing battle and a potential source of faith loss.

I've continued this series here: Creativity in Telling the Story

Chris said...

This is an interesting discussion. But I would have to agree with Mark on this one. I don't possibly see how you could discredit one of the writers. If you believe what the Bible says, Then you know that all of it is inspired. And for us to say it isn't is dangerous.

Anonymous said...

Matthew also has two of the demon possessed men in Gadara where Jesus casts out the Legion into the herd of swine.

Graham said...

I see the problems you harmonization. But I really don't feel like you provide a solution. Because I have time after time atheists critical of the Bible will say, "Well, Matthew says this, and Mark says that, and Luke says another thing. Therefore, none of the accounts are historical true, and none of the Gospels can be trusted." You said Christians harmonizing the Gospels are pushing an agenda, but critics of the Gospels will say the differences are pushing an agenda. So what's your solution? I believe the "harmonizing" helps us under the context of the different authors preaching to different audiences different messages, all which contribute to our theology of Christ.

Christopher McCain said...

This are very dangerous points in this article in claiming that the bible contradict each other. I agree with your point that Jesus had power of sickness but to say that the overall idea is important and everything else such as fine detail is not important opens the door for inerrancy. By doing this we invite our children to also believe that if parts of the bible are not accurate then all of it may not be accurate. This opens the door for unbelief and destroys faith.

My Amazon Store