John C. Rankin
Bob, thank you very much. It’s interesting, when I was a young boy, I remember listening to the radio and these debates over labor unions, and about the rank and file. And I would listen to this as an 8- or 9-year old. And I finally asked my father, I said, Dad, what is the rank and file? Is that buried somewhere deep in the bowels of Washington? And why are they disputing over it? Is that one of our relatives? So when Bob was talking about a rank and file believer, I am certainly a rank and file believer. In fact, when I open up my web page on the internet in about a month, it will be “therankinfile“. So I couldn’t miss the joy of that element.
What I’m going to do is I’m going to briefly review my answers to the three questions, suspend them for a minute, give a foundation of my assumptions, and come back and fill in the answers.
Number one. Why does it have to be historical when Paul Tillich can come to a sub-historical conviction of the ground of being of the ultimate concern? The reason it has to be, to use that phrase historical, is that the only basis you have in all of human civilization for concern to historical verifiability, begins in Genesis chapter 1. If you take Genesis and compare it to every other religious origin text, you have verifiable history compared to mythological archetypes. And therefore, the entire assumption of the Jewish New Testament is history and eyewitness accounts, all the way through. So I would say it’s not that it has to be, but that is the reality of Scripture on its own terms. And we have to decide if we take Scripture on its own terms or we rework it in our own image, such as some of the historicists are doing today, a diagnosis Bob made that I agree with at that point.
Number two. To sum up shortly, why are fundamentalists not open-minded? Well, I don’t describe myself as a fundamentalist. That is a sociological term that refers to those who fled culture in their barb-wire camps of self-protection following the rise of modernism in the late 19th and early 20th century. I define myself as an Evangelical in the classical reformational sense. And when I talk about the assumptions of my worldview, I will talk about the love of hard questions being absolutely central to a biblical, evangelical worldview. And the reason I host the Mars Hill Forums and the reason that I have people like Bob give me unrehearsed questions is because I am not close-minded. It’s because I am so convinced that if God is true then you can investigate anything. And I love the spontaneity of not knowing the questions ahead of time.
Also, I believe that if something is true, like good scientific method, you are always testing it. And the scientific theory says, if you test it ten thousand times and it’s right under the same circumstance, and add one more time when it’s wrong, your theory is gone. And so I am willing to take what I believe and test it ad infinitum and ad nauseam, depending upon your perspective.
And thirdly, the psychological perspective of ships passing in the night. It reminds me, when I was visiting the secular humanist association in Boston, I had interviewed Paul Kurtz on my radio show, the founder of the world’s largest secular humanist organization, did a forum with him later. And I introduced a question and I introduced myself as an agnostic Unitarian who had become an Evangelical. And Paul Kurtz himself was once a Unitarian. We went in different directions. And afterward people gathered around me at this humanist convention. This one guy looked at me and he said, boy, you and I must have been ships passing in the night. So very similar to what Bob was saying at that point. And another fellow walked up to me, much more advanced in years, looked at me and says, how could you as an agnostic possibly become a believer? It doesn’t happen that way. Now, I could have gone into a thesis but I decided to be concise. And so I said, well, I was an agnostic, I asked an intellectual question of an awesome universe, and God revealed himself to me by divine revelation as a 14-year old. And the discussion ended at that point. So when it comes to the question of psychology, I am going to be arguing that my whole basis of faith is the basis of intellectual rigor responded by the One who spoke the universe into being.
So that’s a very quick summation of my answers. Now let me fill them out from some presuppositional elements.
First of all, if we’re going to talk about Jesus, and if we’re going to talk about Scripture, we must, regardless of our assumptions about its inspiration or lack thereof, deal with Scripture on its own terms. If we don’t deal with Scripture on its own terms, whether we think it’s inspired straight, or redacted by a bunch of mythological archetypes, if we don’t deal with Scripture on its own terms, we are not being fair to the text that tells us about Jesus. So that’s the first observation.
Secondly, is when we talk about “Jesus: Fact or Fiction?,” we have to ask ourselves what is fact and what is fiction. This goes back to my earlier comment about the basis for history, which I’ll talk about as well, as I progress. Namely, I am going to argue that if you look at every religious origin text on the face of the planet, without exception, that only Genesis has a definition of fact that is testable and provable and subject to the scrutiny of eyewitnesses. If you look at every other religious origin text, they arrive out of mythical archetypes. They don’t have the concern for verifiability. So if we ask the question “Jesus: Fact or Fiction?,” we are asking a quintessentially Christian question. And so isn’t that interesting that it would be a skeptic asking a Christian question about Jesus Christ.
And so we have to ask ourselves, if we reject Christianity at any level, what is our source? Where do we go back to the understandings of origins, to the beginning of the universe, and to a construction of truth that leads us to be concerned for factual data? And I will argue that no matter what worldview there is, you trace it back to its source, you have the Bible versus everything else. Only the Bible has a view that is concerned about fact, history, science, law, and so forth.
Therefore, this brings me to my basis of “Only Genesis.” I will argue ten ethical components very shortly that equal the nature and the assumptions of the order of creation in Genesis. And I will say that Genesis is prior to all the mythological religions. But I’m going to argue it from an ethical direction first. We talk about the historical elements, which I’m glad to get into, I’m going to argue it ethically. And I’m going to ask all of us here, regardless of our background, whether or not we like the ethics that we find in Genesis. And if we can find the ethics anywhere else. And how does that impact us in the view of fact and fiction and how we guide our lives.
To understand Scripture on its own terms we need to grasp three doctrines: very simply, creation, sin, and redemption. Another way of speaking about that is the order of God’s creation, the reversal of that order which is sin, and the reversal of the reversal, which is redemption. Now if you look at every religious origin text, apart from Genesis, they have no concept of an order of creation. They all assume brokenness and sin and pain and suffering as the starting point of their collective memories. And so only Genesis starts with an eternal God who speaks into being a beautiful universe with man and woman as the height of his creation. And everything being good. But the nature of the good God, his goodness is a gift and a gift doesn’t force itself. So God gives us the freedom to accept or reject his goodness. And therefore that’s sin. And then redemption is reversing the reversal and God coming in the middle of a broken world and re-empowering us to choose life, but not forcing us to do so.
And so that’s the assumptive framework at the beginning of Scripture. You get rid of Genesis 1 through 3 and Scripture falls apart. The Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, the whole intellectual enterprise going back over 150 years to discredit the historicity of Scripture, has all been based on getting rid of the opening chapters of Genesis. Because if they’re correct, you get rid of them, it falls apart. If Genesis 1 through 3 holds, it all holds together.
Therefore, to understand Scripture, to understand history, to understand who Jesus says he is, or who the writers of the Gospel say he is, we have to understand Genesis 1 through 3. It’s the interpretive framework for all of the Bible.
In the order of creation, there are four topics. I’ll come back to this a little bit later. And I submit to you that these topics are the topics in which everything there is to be understood is to be understood. Very simply, God, life, choice, and sex. That’s the entire content of Genesis 1 and 2. It’s the content of the abortion debate today. Pro-choice ideologues, and I have done Patricia Ireland, Kate Michelman, done gracious forums with people like this all over the country, and they’ll agree with this statement: they believe that sex should not be restricted to heterosexual, monogamous marriage. Their view of sex drives their view of choice. Then pro-life on the other half of the equation, almost without exception, Net Hentoff being one luminary who is an exception, will believe that life is a gift of God, and therefore life is to be protected. So the whole debate over abortion is God, life on one side, and sex, choice on the other. And so you see how these issues, which are the entire content of Genesis 1 and 2, define the reality of some of the social contests that we have today.
In the beginning God, the whole trajectory of creation is human life as his image bearers. The first words in human history of God to man are words of freedom, ethical and moral choice. And the highest expression of freedom of choice is marriage, because in marriage we have sexual union, in which we have the power to pass on to our offspring life, choice, and sex. And so when we talk about fact, when we talk about reality, we talk about history, that is Genesis.
Not only that, that is the assumption of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Now Thomas Jefferson certainly can not be advertised as an Evangelical. Any of those of you who are familiar with his scissors and his New Testament, he cut out all the miracles because they didn’t fit his rational model. And yet, in the Declaration of Independence he says we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, chief of which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Now, this God, life, choice, sex paradigm is nowhere explicitly laid out in church history, and yet it’s everywhere assumed. And even the rationalist Thomas Jefferson assumed them as the basis for defining the terms of what produces civil rights, and religious liberty by the time we get to the first amendment.
So Creator is God from Declaration to Genesis. Life is life. Liberty and choice are parallel. And most college students would agree that the pursuit of happiness and sex are also parallel. But the question is, what is the pursuit of happiness? Is it MTV? Or is it John Locke’s philosophy that Jefferson borrowed. And the Locke-ian perspective was that pursuit of happiness could only happen in community rooted in family. So for example, the Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments talk about life, liberty, and property. And the word property is substituted for pursuit of happiness. Property as a legal term, pursuit of happiness as a philosophical term. And the understanding is that economic strength is found when a man and a woman love each other and build their family around that mutual fidelity. Indeed, the Greek word for household, eukonomos, is the word from which we get economics. And the whole idea is that once you have integrity of family, mutual trust, economic power, and property rights, you then have the ability to pursue happiness. And so it’s interesting, when you talk about fact and reality, the very facts of Genesis are the facts of the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment.
When I was doing a forum with Barry Lynn, who heads up Americans United for Separation of Church and State at the University of Virginia, we were disputing on a plan I had to resolve the prayer-in-the-public-schools debate. I won’t get into that right now. But I looked at him and I said Barry — he’s not only an ACLU lawyer, he’s also a UCC minister, United Church of Christ — and I said Barry, is there any other source on the face of the planet for civil rights apart from Genesis 1 and 2. And he said no. He’s a person who disagrees with me on abortion rights, homosexual rights, some issues of separation of church and state, and yet he, too, had to acknowledge, the only basis for religious liberty, for the First Amendment, is only Genesis. So that’s the reality of Genesis on its own terms at that level.
Very quickly, in Genesis 1 and 2 there are ten positive dimensions that are given there that again are the basis for reality.
Number one is God’s nature. In Genesis you have an eternal God who speaks into being a finite universe and makes us in his image to enjoy his character. You compare that with every other so-called god and goddess and they are finite, petty, jealous gods and goddesses beating up on each other. They came out of an eternal god that didn’t care they existed, didn’t know they existed, and then we are made as their slaves who are all swallowed up into a pool of mutual dissatisfaction when it is all over. That’s the overwhelming consensus; there are exceptions.
But if we talk about the mythological archetypes, let’s look at the number one religious origin text that is set against Genesis. And that’s the Enuma Elish, otherwise known as the Babylonian Genesis. What you have in the Babylonian Genesis, is you have the assumption of an eternal, purposeless universe, out of which somehow — this is an assumption in the text, it’s not described to us — you have pantheons who are fighting against each other. And in the process, a super-goddess, Tiamat, is beaten up by a second-tier god, Marduk. He kills her. His army beats her army. When he kills her he takes her body, dissects it, and do you know what he does with it? He makes the universe. I thought you’d like to know where the universe came from. OK, then the defeated members of the pantheon of Tiamat’s army are made into slaves to Marduk’s army. They complain this is beneath their dignity. And they say, why are you making us, great gods, into slaves to do your menial tasks? So Marduk, in an act of mercy, kills their number one god, Kingu, and out of his blood he makes, guess what? You and me. And the reason he makes man and woman is so that we can be slaves to the defeated gods and goddesses.
Let me ask you something: does that increase your vital sense of self-esteem? That you were made out of the blood of a defeated god to serve the whimsy of a defeated pantheon? You see, if you look at the ethics of all these mythological archetypes, they can’t hold a candle to what Genesis says. They can’t hold a candle to the reality of understanding an order of creation and a good God who made us.
Some other elements here. Communication. Only Genesis has a positive view of communication which is honest, open and non-manipulative. And what is communication? What are you taught at Columbia? What are you taught at other places in the media? You’re really taught to manipulate. You’re taught to be dishonest. Not so Scripture. Communication is to serve human relationships to be honest.
Number three as I just indicated by way of God’s nature, is only Genesis has a positive view of human nature. We are the image bearers of God, the crown of his creation. We are worth something.
Number four. Only Genesis has a positive view of human freedom. And this really testifies to me the ethical nature of the contrast between Genesis and all comers. The first words of the sovereign God to Adam are have a feast. In feasting you shall feast. And if you look at the language all the way through Scripture, the verb to eat, the whole idea of freedom is an unlimited menu of good choices. Inquire, explore, enjoy. But don’t eat poison because if you eat poison you’ll die and your freedom won’t be worth too much to you. In other words, obey the boundaries. Don’t jump off cliffs, OK, unless you know how to hang glide. And you’ve gotta learn that first. And then be a good hang glider. There are boundaries to our freedoms.
If you look at the definition of freedoms in pagan worldviews, they are all freedom from violation, whereas this is a freedom for pursuing the good, a freedom for creativity. And the reason pagan worldviews have a freedom from violation is they have no order of creation. They have no basis whatsoever to know the good that preceded the bad. They are embroiled in the reality of human sin.
Number five. Only Genesis has a positive view of hard questions. The Queen of Sheba coming to Solomon, Jesus’s teaching style. He asked more questions than he gave answers. Why? He wants us as image bearers of God to own what we believe. No second-hand faith. And no faith that is just visceral. “How do I know Jesus lives, he lives within my heart.” I’ve never liked that hymn. And do you know why? It starts with feelings and not with the fact of Scripture on its own terms. It was responding to the modernist movement of the time. That was written I believe around 1930 give or take. And yes, I believe he lives within me by the power of his Holy Spirit, but it’s based on the prior realities of history and the Scripture’s nature and the risen Christ.
Number six. This was my thesis at Harvard Divinity School: only Genesis has a positive view of women and sex. Every world religious origin text apart from Genesis treats women as dust, dirt, demons and animals. Only Genesis treats women as equal image bearers of God with men.
Number seven. Only Genesis has a positive view of science and the scientific method. The scientific method says if you’re wrong once out of a thousand times, you are wrong completely. Only the Old Testament prophets held themselves to that standard, compared to the Greek mystics or whatnot. And Jesus said, if you find me wrong once you can find me wrong completely if you don’t see me doing what my Father is doing. And the whole assumption of the biblical worldview is the sun, the moon and the stars are not gods and goddesses, that every other religious origin text assumes. They are inanimate objects that give us light and heat and markers for our seasons. It’s the basis for rigorous inquiry of the universe in which we find ourselves.
And then number eight. Only Genesis has a positive view of history. The genealogies start with Adam and they go all the way up to the present. They name time, place, and relationship all the way through. The mythologies do not do that. And we talk about the historicity of Jesus, if this man is not historical, what kind of mythological archetype was it that was so successful, it beat out… [end of tape 1, side 1] …
[Number nine. Only Genesis has a positive view of law which opposes tyranny.]
[Number ten. Only Genesis has a positive view of the First Amendment.] … religious liberty. Only Genesis as the biblical foundation allows dissent of people who believe otherwise. And therefore, freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and redress of grievance is quintessentially found in Genesis.
So very simply back to the whole question of the historical element of Jesus. Jesus fulfills Genesis and the Old Testament. He appeals to it on the issue of marriage and adultery. He says he’s fulfilled everything in the Old Testament. He has fulfilled and says he fulfills — or the writers say he fulfills, to take Bob’s perspective if the writers say it — that which is the only source for fact in history among all religious origin texts.
And also this goes to the next point, and that’s the Jewish nature of the New Testament. That is an exquisitely Jewish document that assumes all these elements about history, law, science and so forth. And then the four eyewitnesses of the Gospel are also based on exactly this same assumption.
I’ve got about one minute left according to my watch.
Back to the three questions very briefly. Paul Tillich is a man, along with many scholars of his time — Barth in a different direction, Bonhoeffer in another direction — who were trying to pick up something in the wake of Bultmannian religion. Bultmann said it’s all myth. He said there’s no supernatural. And yet they were trying to have an object of faith. And so I saw Paul Tillich in his major thesis, “The Courage to Be,” how can I have the courage to believe there’s a God when all the evidence isn’t there? So he was striving to have that view. And therefore he said, well, I still can believe in spite of history. And actually, I think that’s a lower form of intellectual integrity. OK, at that point he’s saying I want to believe in spite of history. Well wait a minute. How important is history to us? We talk about “Jesus: Fact or Fiction?,” we have to ask ourselves what is important.
And then I think also, when we talk about the aspect of fundamentalists being close-minded. You know, there are a lot of fundamentalists who are close-minded, but by golly, there’s a whole bunch of theological and political liberals who match them inch for inch in their close- mindedness. I see it in both directions. So from a biblical worldview I was raised as an agnostic to ask hard questions. It was the pursuit of those questions, the love of those questions, that makes me grow in my evangelical faith day by day.
And in terms of “The Psychology of Religious Doubt” and going in both directions. I may have gone in a direction I wasn’t raised in, but by the same token, I have thirty- five evangelical Presbyterian ministers in my lineage between 1661 and the present. So maybe I’m just continuing the direction. And so maybe psychology’s a little bit different at that level.
But the bottom line is, as a young kid I saw an awesome and astounding universe. And I asked of God, or I asked of the universe actually, an intellectual question, where did it come from? God revealed himself to me as a 14- year old and therefore has given me a love and pursuit of hard questions. And so on this basis, Jesus: fact or fiction? Fact. And the only place you can find a definition of fact is the Bible. And if you say he’s fiction, you’ve got no basis apart from the Bible to say so. Thank you. [applause]
“The Price-Rankin Debate” is copyright © 1997 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1998 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Robert M. Price and John C. Rankin.