A peach / looks good / with lots of fuzz / but man’s no peach / and never was

robhu linked to a post on convert_me in which pooperman realises he’s an atheist after reading Dawkins, Dennett and Harris. There’s some interesting reflection on the origins of scriptural literalism, which is related to the stuff about science and truth in my last post. pooperman writes:

Basically, Harris’ has ceded–on behalf of religion, apparently–the hermeneutic of scripture to the fundamentalists. What Harris fails to understand is the scriptural basis for a more-moderate and more-metaphorical (as well as through the changing lens of historical contexts) interpretation of much of scripture. Also, Harris presumes that the literal approach to scripture is more-primitive, more-fundamental–that the “first” believers in these ancient religions understood and interpreted the texts in a straightforward and unquestioningly literal way.

There is a good chance, IMO, that Harris has this completely backwards. It is entirely possible that religious moderation is more primitive, and that literalism is a more modern corruption of religion–a corruption from the outside, not from within. What is the source of this corruption? It is reasonable to suggest that the rise of science and the increasing rhetorical value of the “objectively true” that science (and, more to the point, engineering) has infected the religious mindset and caused some of the religious to prematurely devalue the indirect truths and insights of a beautifully-complex metaphorical image and to seek to replace these images as images with a direct, parsimonious, and straightforward representation of Truth, without sacrificing the images themselves. The literalists have, I think, slit their spiritual wrists with Ockham’s razor.

I’ve often heard that evangelicalism is a modern heresy, but I’ve never seen the historical evidence for it. Does anyone have any references for that idea?

14 Comments on "A peach / looks good / with lots of fuzz / but man’s no peach / and never was"

  1. LOL @ the icon.

    Isn’t what is a heresy just a matter of which side you happen to be on at the time? The Catholics claim that Peter was the first pope for instance, but this isn’t recognised at all by non Catholics which I assume makes them heretics.

    The OED defines heresy as “theological or religious opinion or doctrine maintained in opposition, or held to be contrary, to the Roman Catholic or Orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church, or, by extension, to that of any church, creed, or religious system, considered as orthodox. By extension, heresy is an opinion or doctrine in philosophy, politics, science, art, etc., at variance with those generally accepted as authoritative”. Then again, it’s not clear whether protestants can be heretics, given that they’re not true churches at all.

    IIRC whenever I asked about the history of Christianity in my nice evangelical church I was told that it didn’t really matter what happened after the account of the church in the OT because it was provable just by looking there that the Evangelical approach was the one originally followed by the apostles (or indeed more correctly that Evangelicalism is all about practising the same mode of faith that the apostles had). So I suspect that even if you could show that no one from (lets say) 150AD onwards thought in an Evangelical way this wouldn’t bother an Evangelical at all as they’d only want to argue about what the apostles believed.


    1. True, heresy depends on where you stand. The people who think evangelicalism is a modern heresy aren’t evangelicals 🙂 It’s still an interesting question how modern evangelicalism is.

      I recall someone at St Andrew the Great explaining that they thought of apostolic succession was about the apostles’ doctrine (so the New Testament derives its authority from the Apostles), so maybe you’re right that evangelicals wouldn’t care even if it were shown to them that evangelicalism was historically rare. If we want to argue with evangelicals, maybe showing them that you can’t believe what the Apostles did (because we don’t know what they believed, and because they disagreed with each other) is more effective.

      But I think examining the roots of evangelicalism would be interesting as an aid to understanding it, regardless of whether it’s useful for de-evangelism (scribb1e had a portmanteau Latin word for “giving the bad news”, but I’ve forgotten it now).


      1. I think evangelicals do believe that their beliefs are historical, but recognize they have failed to demonstrate this in recent times. There does seem to be a developing habit now among evangelicals to show their faith is also the historic faith of the church (e.g. in the of the recent popular books for evangelicals there is a section dedicated to demonstrating penal-substitutionary-atonement was believed by the historic church writers. See http://piercedforourtransgressions.com/content/category/5/15/52/)

        Likewise, the new head of Oak Hill in an interview recently emphasized the importance of teaching evangelicals church history (particularly in the two centuries post-451 when most of the current heresies were discussed).

        So, I think I’d agree that church history is something evangelicals have neglected in recent times, but they are now studying it in more depth and are finding it confirms their faith as the faith of the historic church.



          1. There wasn’t a Greek/Latin “problem”; but Paul said he thought you had a *Latin* portmanteau word, and it would have to be Greek rather than Latin (as mine and all of yours are). I’d have thought cacangelism would be the opposite of calangelism rather than of evangelism, and the distinction would be about the way the news (whatever it was) was told, but I’m going on English etymologies and gut feeling rather than on a deep knowledge of Greek.


  2. The phrase “slit their spiritual wrists with Ockham’s razor” is the new winner of the internets. I think it must be the anti-Godwin: it allows the user to win any argument. It’s wonderful….


  3. Sorry, meant to add:

    The evidence is pretty clear if you look at how early Christians read “Scripture” (for them, the Tanakh) very metaphorically in light of Christ’s death and resurrection. So they were not literalists regarding their texts.

    They were literalists regarding their own experience. The apostles – so we are told, and so I believe – saw a man, not a metaphor. The fact that the man so often and powerfully serves as a metaphor, and did so even when he was walking the earth, does not detract from his corporeality and the simplicity of the salvation he offered.

    Karen Armstrong talks about “logos” and “mythos” in her book about fundamentalism, and tells a clear historical narrative of how an imbalance between logos and mythos in the broader culture led directly to an opposite imbalance on the part of religious folks, giving rise to fundamentalism. Modern atheists and modern fundamentalists alike do not how to deal with mythos.


  4. you can’t believe what the Apostles did (because we don’t know what they believed, and because they disagreed with each other)

    Oh, this is special. We don’t know what the Apostles believed, but we do know that they disagreed with each other? Methinks I spy some selective scepticism.


    1. On the point of knowing what the Apostles believed, we have written records from very few of them, and 2000 years of fitting those records into various systematic theologies on top of that, both of which must bias our perception of what they meant, yet some evangelicals like to claim adherence to the doctrine and practice of the NT church. As robhu points out, some of them use that claim to defend their doctrine and practice even when people object that this means that there haven’t been many real Christians around between 100 AD and 1900 AD, say (I’m a bit hazy on when real Christianity started up again).

      Perhaps I ought to have said “how they believed”, rather than “what”. As I discussed with robhu a while ago in this thread, I’m a bit skeptical about evangelical claims that they have no “tradition” (which is a Catholic thing, and therefore bad) and to have recovered stuff from that long ago. It plays to a perceptual glitch humans have that true wisdom should be ancient or from far-off lands (hence The Way of Mrs Cosmopolite), but I think it downplays how alien the mindset of these people was.

      Such an attitude also downplays disagreements within the early church. We’ve got written records which most experts think are by Paul which record him arguing with Peter and the community in Jerusalem. The Epistle of James was either by an apostle or someone close to the apostles, and seems to have a rather different emphasis from the conventional reading of Paul, at the very least (one could argue that the new perspective puts Paul closer theologically to James and the Jerusalem church, but proper Reformed evangelicals don’t seem to like N.T. Wright much).

      For Christians at the time, it would only have been possible to tell who was “right” (i.e. become accepted as orthodox) in retrospect: Paul beat the Judaizers in the end, but it’s not clear how the Galatians could have known he would. I think evangelicals sometimes caricature the early church as having great unity and doctrinal purity which was then lost (hopefully not the more intelligent ones). The part of Brother Darwin’s Gospel Hour that begins “The myth runs something like this” was contains a humourous description of what I’m talking about.

      I know evangelicals aren’t actually Muslims, but you do see shades of the attitude that the Bible dropped from the sky one day. In a sense, the Roman Catholic attitude makes more sense to me here, since they see the Bible as a part, albeit a foundational part, of an ongoing tradition of teaching by the church (the problem that I consider the actual ongoing tradition outright wacky and think God probably doesn’t exist anyway prevents me converting to Catholicism, alas), by saying that the church retains the authority it had in establishing the NT canon. The Catholics on uk.religion.christian used to tie evangelicals in knots by asking them when exactly the church lost that authority (the obvious evangelical answer is somewhere between 300 AD and 400 AD, but no-one says that, for some reason 🙂


  5. I still think you’re being injudiciously selective in your view of what the extant documents can and can’t tell us. Am I really being asked to note with extreme gravity that Paul told Peter off once for being a snob, and then to overlook the deep convergence between their teachings, and the fact that they specifically endorsed each other’s ministries? Neither Peter nor John nor James sounds like a Judaizer to me, and you don’t need the new perspective to reconcile James and Paul (although I do rate Wright – in fact I’ve linked you to one of his articles which is relevant to this question before).

    I’m not about to start Catholic-bashing, because I love ’em really. Certainly not on an atheist’s blog. Suffice to say that of course we all have a tradition – heck, traditions – the point at issue is what status we should afford them. I see NLJ has already given a leader against the view that particular evangelical doctrines are utterly divorced from any beliefs historically held. Oh, and if you find 1st century Jewish culture scarily alien to the point where I get worried you’re about to go on a postmodern deconstruction trip, I’d say a good way to immerse oneself in it would be to read what they read (or heard): the Tanakh.


    1. Seems I can’t persuade LJ to trust your openID login enough to let you make real links, despite having “friended” it. Oh well.

      I think Peter and Paul’s disagreement recorded in Galatians 2 is a bit more serious than a telling off for being a snob. It’s hard to find serious articles on this on the web in amongst all the sermons with Old Perspectives on Paul talking about the Judaizers as Pelagians or Roman Catholics, but this, from Yale, and this look relevant, as does this sermon. There were factions on this, and, going by Galatians 2, Paul didn’t have much time for the opposing one.

      The epistles from James and Paul can be reconciled without the New Perspective by giving Paul’s teaching on faith primacy, so we conclude that James really means something other than what he, prima facie, says. That’s a possibly valid interpretation, I’ll admit, but if we assume an early date for James’s letter, given the division of labour between Paul and the original apostles on who ministered to who, it’s also possible that what Paul was telling the Gentiles wasn’t quite what James was telling the Jewish Christians. The fact that Reformed Christians prefer the explanation where James was really preaching sola fide has nothing to do with them reading their systematic theology back onto the Bible, of course.

      The point I’m making is that, contrary to evangelicalism (particularly the Reformed, almost-but-not-quite Cessationist sort which I’m most familiar with) the Bible gives us a series of snapshots of on-going debates, not a single coherent viewpoint on every issue its authors discuss. I think this stuff is fascinating and makes these people seem more real, but it does put paid to the evangelical habit of holding forth on “what the Bible says about X”.

      As to what we can know of the mindset of these people, the New Perspective is a case in point, isn’t it? Critics are debating how Paul really saw justification, and they’ve given us cause to doubt that he was a proto-evangelical who understood “the Gospel” to mean something like Two Ways to Live. Some of this debate is tied into what 1st century Judaism was really about. Does this mean that all we thought we knew before was wrong, or that the text can take any meaning at all (which I understand to be more of a post-modern position)? No, but I think it does show that we need to be careful to avoid anachronisms when talking about this stuff. To do that, we sometimes need to know historical background (that about wraps it up for perspicacity, I suppose). The same applies to the Tanakh, too.


  6. There are many sentences in the Old Testament that begin with “And”. This is a translation of what was erroneously considered the Hebrew syllable “ve”. Actually though, this syllable is pronounced “va”, and is used only in scripture to denote a past-tense connotation of a verb in a future form — something that isn’t done anywhere else in the Hebrew language.

    It seems to me that this serves as a reminder that the events described never happened.


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