(Please see the end of the article for an update from Jim Elliff.)
I was directed to an article posted by Jim Elliff relating to…well, what I do, and I am compelled to provide what is hopefully a brotherly rebuttal and response.
On Thursday April 1 Craig Evans debated Bart Ehrman at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on the topic, “The Biblical Accounts of the Resurrection: Are They Reliable?” I am looking forward to hearing the recordings of this encounter. Evidently this encounter prompted Jim Elliff to write an article titled, “Public Debate with Bart Ehrman: A Bad Decision.”
Pastor Elliff presents a general denunciation of (seemingly) all public debates with atheists, apostates, religious leaders from other faiths—in general, all “false teachers.” Evidently, then, all teaching about apologetics should be one-sided, never involving interaction with false teachers of any kind. Pastor Elliff insists this is a biblical injunction. He writes,
First, because Ehrman is a false teacher and we are forbidden to give such men a forum to express their views.
I would agree that we are not to give false teachers a “forum to express their views” within the context of the worship of the church. That is what church discipline is all about. But that is a different thing from expanding this out to a general denunciation of any direct interaction with false teachers “on your turf” (whatever that might mean). I see no evidence that the apostles invited false teachers into the church to “dialogue” or debate, but surely Paul dialogued (debated) regularly with those who opposed his message (primarily Jewish opponents, but there is no reason to assume he did not respond to all false teachers, no matter what their views) in the public square. Neither text Elliff cites (2 John 10, Romans 16:17-18) speak to public disputations or encounters in an educational institution or in any context outside of the worship of the church. Pastor Elliff writes,
Inviting a false teacher to present his errant views in order to persuade students and the public is like allowing a gunman to shoot randomly out into an audience of military personnel because it is assumed the troops have body armor. For one thing, body armor cannot shield against all shots, and for another, there are many people attending who have no armor at all. At last week’s debate, for instance, there were many people from the public who were not even believers. Some young people also attended, and some seminary students who are not yet prepared for the effects of doubt-producing verbiage.
I appreciate the pastoral concern, however, I don’t find this thinking realistic at all. The Bart Ehrmans of the world already “own” the “turf” of the educational system. Our society is soaked with their arguments and their “doubt-producing verbiage.” They are the darlings of the media. Their books are the texts our children read in the university. They are on CNN and Fox, YouTube and Vimeo. We are the ones who can hardly ever get our views expressed in the public square, and even then, we almost never get to do so in a fair, moderated way so as to expose their errors. I have learned the value of cross-examination, of being able to ask the tough questions that no one else will, and about the only time that happens is in a scholarly, moderated debate. So, I really wonder if Pastor Elliff is unaware of how pervasive is the “doubt-producing verbiage” today, and, does he really believe the answer is to hide behind walls raised by ecclesiastical silence? Surely the church should be addressing these issues head-on in our teaching (as we surely do in my fellowship), but I would suggest that the proverbial horse is already well clear of the proverbial barn door. Our members will be encountering this “doubt-producing verbiage” day in and day out. How valuable it is to be able to provide them with direct refutations that demonstrate that we can stand face-to-face with the most probing critics of the faith! Pastor Elliff continued,
The assumption was that they would see Ehrman lose the debate and the Christian view would triumph. It didn’t happen. Now the work in evangelism by the friends who naively brought them is that much harder.
This is surely a naive and foolish assumption to bring into a debate with the leading critic of the Christian faith! But again, it could be said that unbelievers coming into that debate had the exact same assumptions, only in reverse. But I am again left wondering how Pastor Elliff’s solution solves anything: how is the Christian believer aided by only getting to hear refutations of Ehrman that avoid engaging Ehrman himself? Again, they are going to hear his views on NPR and CNN and everywhere else, so, how is it better to get a response to Ehrman only in an ecclesiastical context, far from Ehrman himself? In fact, does it not follow that there are gifted men in the church who are called to “refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9) and that they would be the best ones to be dealing with Ehrman? How many local pastors can engage Ehrman’s claims regarding the text of the New Testament? Is it not wiser to engage him in a formal debate context, and then make that specialized kind of refutation available for those who do not have the calling, or the training, to engage such issues?
Next, Pastor Elliff tells us that “the minority position almost always gains some followers regardless who wins the debate.” But again, I find this thinking confusing. Preaching the truth will always have a result, and sometimes, it is a negative one. The lost are always looking for new ways to express their rebellion, are they not? I well know that when I debate, false professors amongst the flock may well find this to be a good reason to “jump ship.” But, is that a bad thing? Unregenerate men move from religion to religion, unbelief to unbelief. Does Pastor Elliff believe God’s elect will be taken in? I would hope not, hence, I do not see how this is a relevant argument.
At this point I was a bit confused by Pastor Elliff’s presentation, for he wrote,
In the reverse, it is precisely for this reason that I do think it is useful for a sound Christian apologist to debate an unbelieving scholar in his venue—like Ravi Zacharias might do.
So, if “his venue” means the unbelieving scholar’s venue, then is he suggesting that the only place for debates is, say, on a university campus (or where I debated Ehrman, in a ‘neutral’ location)? But again, how does this matter? The very same student to which he refers could be in either location, could he not? Outside of the purity of the worship of the church, I do not see how the physical location is at all relevant. If you are afraid of an unbeliever doing…what unbelievers do, and becoming an even more open unbeliever than he or she was before, then I do not see how the “where” of the encounter means anything. But again, the preaching of the truth will always have that effect, so here we have a very fundamental difference in understanding.
Next, Pastor Elliff tells us that “debates are not always won on the basis of truth alone.” Of course, I would say the issue of “winning” is secondary to the clarity of the gospel presentation, the edification of believers, etc. If one speaks the truth, is fully prepared, and honors God by giving a clear and sound witness, one “wins.” Truth is a powerful thing, I have discovered, and in all the hours I spend preparing for my debates, I am really just doing all I can to get out of the way and let truth speak. That’s the whole idea I have going into these encounters. Be an instrument, be prepared, let God be glorified in the proclamation of His truth. Will that cause some to become even more vehement in their unbelief? It surely has, just as Isaiah and Jeremiah discovered in their ministries. Will false professors in the church be exposed as they fall for deception? It has happened, but again, if we have a biblical anthropology, should that surprise us? Didn’t John’s experience with false teachers in 1 John show us that the proclamation of truth will eventually drive those who are not “truly of us” to express their false faith? Are we better than the Apostles? I think not.
Now, Pastor Elliff says that Ehrman “clearly won the debate by the account of several attending.” I’m not sure if he means by the account of several Christians attending, and Elliff is accepting their judgment, or if he is reporting that there were those who claimed Ehrman won. Surely in every debate both sides have their adherents who claim victory, that is hardly surprising. But let’s say Craig Evans lacked the rhetorical skills to engage Bart Ehrman. Many scholars are uncomfortable in the debate format, to be sure. In fact, Elliff says, “This is the second time Ehrman won a debate at the same seminary, but against a different Christian opponent.” The only other debate I can find at Midwestern featuring Ehrman was with Mike Licona. The first debate I heard between Licona and Ehrman was indeed painful to listen to, partly because Licona had no voice, partly because the WLC/evidentialist argumentation is just not effective in that context, and in the question and answer portion at the end, Licona capitulated on vitally important issues (I addressed this on the DL about a year and a half ago or so). I have heard Christians “lose” debates many times, normally due to unbiblical methodologies and traditions, sometimes because they just seemed unprepared, sometimes because they were just not willing to say what they needed to say. I am not for unprepared Christian apologists, but the failure of some to do what is needed is not a grounds for a blanket denunciation of all apologetic debate.
The next argument Pastor Elliff presents is that “many of the listeners will not have the opportunity to sort out confusing aspects of the debate with professors or knowledgeable persons.” But, if these people are Christians, are they not members of churches? Yes, I agree, many pastors, even, are not ready to answer Ehrman’s points. But is the answer to this to hide behind those ecclesiastical walls and hope those weak brothers and sisters just never turn on a radio, fire up a computer, listen to the radio, or take a class at the local community college? Again, Pastor Elliff seems to think that Ehrman’s arguments are not already easily available to the average church-going Christian, and the fact is, they are. They may not know his name, but his disciples are all around us, on the Internet, behind the lectern, working in the cubicle next to us.
Finally, Pastor Elliff tells us that “doubt is insidious.” I agree. And it seems to me the worst possible way to deal with it is to refrain from engaging the arguments head on! I would like to suggest that doubt–and I speak here only in reference to regenerate people, for the unregenerate will always doubt, and eventually, reject–is fostered and assisted when we do not take the Bart Ehrmans and Robert Prices of the world on directly. People will surely recognize that one side is on the offensive, and the other on the defensive. How can we train our people to fulfill the command of 1 Peter 3:15 if we adopt this mindset? For Peter’s command is not aimed solely at the elders of the congregation, but to all believers when he says:
But set aside (treat as holy) the Messiah as the Lord in your hearts, always being prepared to give a defense concerning the hope which is within you to everyone who asks a reason of you.
The text is very expressive. It speaks of setting the Messiah apart as one holy, sanctified, in the very center of our being, our hearts, treating Him as Kurios, Lord, the very term used of Yahweh in the Greek Septuagint. When we purposefully seek this all-encompassing Lordship of Christ in our lives, we will always be ready to give a defense, an apologia, to those who ask us a reason for the hope that is within us (always, he adds, with gentleness and reverence). How can we do this from behind the wall of silence? It is my intention, my goal, to model for my fellow believers how we can stand toe-to-toe with the Bart Ehrmans and Robert Prices and Dan Barkers of the world, so that when they encounter their devotees in the work-a-day world, they can fulfill this command. Otherwise, we will become silent Christians, afraid to speak the truth in the public square.
So I disagree with Brother Elliff’s comments, but hopefully, I have done so respectfully. I have obviously thought through this issue for many years, as I have been one of the most active Reformed apologists for a while now. I am not suggesting that every minister is called to do what I do. Surely not. However, I am saying that we live in an ever more increasingly hostile culture, and there is a danger that we will retreat behind our ecclesiastical walls rather than taking the battle to the public square. Obviously, I have decided that as long as the Lord gives us the freedom to do so, we must seek to glorify Him with a bold, yet, fully prepared, thought-through witness. And if an opportunity arises to debate Bart Ehrman again, I would gladly do so. His newest book would make for quite a foundation for such an encounter.
Jim Elliff has posted a clarification on his blog, which I post in full below.
This is Jim Elliff, the author of this piece. In response to what I’ve written, my friend James White, wrote a strong but brotherly comment on his blog defending apologetic ministry.
His response was due in part (I think, mostly) to a poor title choice for my article. My article was titled: Public Debate with Bart Ehrman: A Bad Decision. My intent however was to focus my thoughts toward debate with Ehrman in the seminary context. As I recall, my original working title included the word “seminary.” Given my wrong title, I can fully understand James’ response. I have changed that title to the following: Public Debate with Bart Ehrman in Seminaries: A Bad Decision.
I’m all for debates with Ehrman or any other nonbeliever in the right context. I state this in the article. My real problem has to do with the seminary context. Just as James will not debate in “the context of worship in a church”, so I think the seminary context has its own limitations, as I have written about. My concerns are pastoral.
I strongly approve of James’ ministry, support it, recommend it, and personally consider James a friend and fellow worker in the kingdom. I appreciate his debates in neutral or hostile contexts especially. Or, with other believing opponents, even in seimnary contexts. I may have responded just as James did if I thought that the article was against debates with non-believers in general.
I may not be able to correct the misunderstanding that a wrongly stated title has caused, since we are not able to make comments on James’ site. I hope this will suffice. Perhaps James will be kind enough to add some clarification on his site as well.
I’ll be writing James to discuss this with him privately as well.
See James’ article here: http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=3848
So sorry for the confusion.
I wondered (especially at the one quote that confused me above) if this was not the case, but assumed clarification would come if I had misread Jim’s intentions. I fully understand Jim’s concerns, but we will still have to have a slight disagreement on the context aspect. Perhaps we would be pretty close if I put it this way: let’s hypothesize that I would be invited to debate, say, Christopher Hitchens at Midwestern. Would I accept? Yes, I would. However, I would also strongly suggest to the school that it invite students with a strong warning that just as doing apologetic ministry requires a firm and strong foundation before engaging in it, so too the student should expect to be challenged and possibly encounter questions that time will not allow to be answered in the course of the debate. We do not even allow people to join us in doing apologetic work with Mormons, for example, if they are not a part of a sound, well-balanced church. We well understand the dangers. But at the same time, seminary students at Midwestern or anywhere else are surrounded with “doubt-inducing thoughts,” so may I suggest that if they are going to be exposed to them, they should be exposed to them within the context of having an answer given at the very same time? Obviously, I am assuming a robust, biblical worldview in the midst of all of this, and the modeling, and encouragement, of biblical thinking on the part of the leadership, and I know that is not necessarily the case, even in all conservative seminaries. So surely, I would agree that if a seminary is itself not providing a healthy apologetic core, a firm ground, then inviting an Ehrman in is not wise.
My thanks for Jim for the clarification, and I still hope the conversation is helpful.