Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Michael Brown vs. Bart Ehrman: Debate on suffering and the Bible

When we hear the name "Bart Ehrman," those who are familiar with him know that he is a textual critic as well as a historian. I never thought of him as a theologian nor as a philosopher. But Bart Ehrman is certainly notorious for crossing those lines both in print and in debate. And this event was no exception. Recently, Ehrman released a book on suffering. This came to me as a surprise for one who's expertise was in the realm of textual criticism. But once we realize that Ehrman does, in fact, have a theological background (as well as experience in teaching on this very subject), we should not be so quick to dismiss Ehrman in going outside his field of expertise.

At any rate, in this debate, we get to have an inside look at what Bart Ehrman really feels about God. It was Bart Ehrman's position to articulate why he didn't believe the Bible presents an adequate answer to the "problem" of suffering. And to the opposite, it was Michael Brown's job to defend the Bible. With the exception of his recent encounters with James White on the subject of Calvinism, I knew very little about Dr. Brown other than his books on answering Jewish objections to Jesus. And though Michael Brown is more arminian than calvinistic, I thought he did a really good job in defending his position. However, like most who debate Ehrman, Brown was far from "mopping the floor" with him. And i'll explain why.

When we try to explain suffering, we can do so through two categories of "why's." There is the primary category, where we explain the big picture reality, and the secondary category, where we explain the immediate reality. Biblically, the big picture of why we have suffering is based on one simple reason: Adam sinned. And according to Genesis 3 and Romans 8, all of creation is affected by the curse. Though Brown certainly alluded to this here and there, I am baffled as to why this wasn't the central theme of Brown's thesis. Don't get me wrong though. I think Brown did a good job of answering Ehrman's arguments. But I still think that Genesis presents the best big picture response to any "suffering" objection that the skeptic can thrown our way.

For example, Ehrman argued that the Bible presents such contradictory "answers" to suffering, that we can't really know why there is suffering. For instance, in Amos and the other prophets, there is suffering because God is directly punishing people for their sins. But in books like Job, there is suffering because God is "teaching a lesson." Therefore, when we look at tragedies like the earthquake in Haiti, is God punishing them for their sins, or teaching them a lesson? According to Ehrman, we simply cannot know based on the Bible.

I think that Brown did a good job of answering these objections specifically, but didn't spend enough time on the big picture. Wouldn't it have been easier to say, "In the case of Job and the minor prophets, or any other reason the Bible presents for suffering, the bottom line is; anyone and everyone suffers because Adam sinned and brought a curse into this world." Problem solved. Ehrman can bring as many "contradictory" reasons that he wants for suffering in the Bible, but they all stem from the fall in Genesis 3.

Next, I thought Michael Brown could have spent a lot more time addressing Ehrman's epistemology. How does Ehrman know what he knows? Why does Ehrman believe there is such a thing as right and wrong, good and evil? And what is his basis for believing as such? Ehrman offered the usual line of reasoning, "Suffering is wrong because it causes people harm. And we define what is good and evil based on that." Brown should have hammered him hard on this point. The reason being, Ehrman's worldview is easily dismantled when it is shown for what it really is: matter in motion. Ehrman is an agnostic, but more specifically an atheist when he claims to "not believe in God." And if there is no God, then we are nothing more than globs of protoplasm wondering around in a universe that is nothing more than atoms banging around. In this worldview, how in the world can one define "suffering" or "evil?" Ehrman defends his view as if "suffering" is some sort of objective thing. But his worldview gives no basis in which one can objectively define good and evil. That is, some societies feel that is best to love one's neighbor. But others feel that it is best to eat one's neighbor. It is my conviction that Brown could have hit a home run if he would have elaborated more on this point.

Overall, this was a great debate. Both speakers are articulate and passionate. And though Brown is not Reformed, I believe that this topic could have been addressed and defended from either side by sticking to Genesis and moral epistemology. But because Brown didn't, most reformed folk will have disagreed with his approach. And perhaps this could be one complaint that I have with many reformed theologians: they would bring God's sovereignty into the picture when there isn't necessarily a reason for doing so. After all, in Genesis 3, the issue of God's sovereignty isn't even brought up. And this means that though there might be inconsistencies in either position, I feel that one could adequately defend the Bible on the problem of suffering without even going there.

You can listen to the entire debate HERE

(ht: Apologetics 315)


Mark Hunter (former Jehovah's Witness) said...

Ehrman needs to decide if he's an historian or a theologian. Sounds like he's trying to wear both hats while claiming to be agnostic.

Anonymous said...

Brown says around the 7min mark "The bible doesn't always tell us what we want to know, but tells us what we need to know. Just like doctors don't tell you WHY you're sick, but how to get better..."

I'm sorry, but I don't know any doctor who doesn't explain WHY you're sick. If this is Browns idea of a doctor he either has never been to one before (unlikely) or he has a really terrible doctor and I publicly ask him to find someone new because I fear for his health under doctor such as the one he describes.

Brown twists and turns to explain why god allows suffering while also saying god is all good. But Brown is his own enemy here. Every time he gives an example of suffering, he destroys any argument for god being all good he makes. As soon as you mention the suffering of anyone that doesn't deserve it, you've eliminated an all good god.

I posted as anonymous because I don't like the idea of internet tracking.

But my name is Daniel. And I will always reply as Daniel if a discussion begins that I'm a part of so you know it's me replying.

- Daniel