I have just finished my formal review of Bart Ehrman’s latest book, How Jesus Became God–The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (HarperOne, 2014), and it should be available on the Reformation 21 website in the next week or so (I will provide a notice when it is posted).
In the meantime, I am beginning a series of blog posts responding to Ehrman’s new book. Some of these posts will draw on aspects of my forthcoming review, and some of these will be new observations about his book. This first post falls into the latter category and concerns the internal contradictions within Ehrman’s own worldview.
Even though Ehrman does not offer a comprehensive assessment of his own worldview, it is important to observe that throughout the book he presents himself as simply a historian. For 300-plus pages Ehrman claims he is just doing, well, what historians do. He is very clear that “religious faith and historical knowledge are two different ways of ‘knowing'” (132) and he puts himself in the latter camp. He is only interested in studying those events that “do not require faith in order to know about them” (132).
So committed is Ehrman to his role as a “historian” that he chides anyone who wants to insert value judgments into historical discussions. For example, Ehrman insists that we should not use terms like “heresy”or “orthodoxy” because that implies that somebody is really right and somebody is really wrong, and historians cannot make such judgments. These terms should be avoided because they are “value-laden” (319). Indeed, he says, “the historian has no access…to what is right in the eyes of God” (288).
Thus, Ehrman is clear. Historians should be value-free in their declarations. They should not declare what is right and wrong. Why? Because historians, as historians, do not have access to such values.
But, then there is the epilogue. And it is here that Ehrman’s professed worldview begins to unravel. Having just written a book where he chides others for inserting their own values into historical discussions, Ehrman begins to insert his own. Here he offers a litany of complaints about the immorality of early Christians and how they were guilty of anti-semitism–anti-semitism which is caused, argues Ehrman, by the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus. A belief that he claims has “horrific” implications (277).
At this point, however, the reader is mystified. Wasn’t it Ehrman who insisted that historians were not supposed to weigh in the rightness or wrongness of historical views (such as the Christian view about the divinity of Jesus!)? Wasn’t it Ehrman who insisted that it is the historian’s task to avoid declarations that are “value-laden”? Yet, here he feels completely free to offer his own moralizing at the end of his book.
But, the problems for Ehrman are even deeper. The issue is not just that he is violating his own professed code for how historians ought to behave, the bigger issue is the question of where he gets his moral norms from in the first place. How does Ehrman know that anti-semitism is wrong? On what grounds does he call it “horrific”? Where does Ehrman get this moral code that he is using?
Elsewhere, Ehrman assures the reader that he does believe in moral norms. He says, “I do think there is good and evil; I do think we should all be on the side of good; and I do think we should fight mightly against all that is evil” (354). Aside from the fact that such statements are out of place in a book purportedly committed to only discussing historical issues, Ehrman apparently feels no need to explain to the reader where these moral standards come from. Who decides what is “good” and “evil”? Bart Ehrman?
Ehrman seems unaware that absolute moral statements like this might just require some sort of philosophical grounding; some sort of worldview that can provide a cogent accounting of moral norms; some sort of basis for why one thing is “right” and another thing is “wrong.” But, Ehrman provides no such explanation. In fact, the closest he comes is telling the reader what is not his foundation for morality: “I do not believe there is a God in heaven who is soon to send a cosmic judge of the earth to destroy the forces of evil” (355).
It is here that Ehrman does not seem to recognize the profound inconsistency in his own worldview. On what grounds does a professed agnostic make such sweeping moral claims about good and evil, and right and wrong, and what God is like or not like? How does Ehrman know God is not going to come judge the earth? When it comes time to make such moral and religious declarations Ehrman seems quite content to abandon his agnostic stance.
Ehrman does hint at some reasons other folks have given for morality (though he doesn’t say these are his own views), such as “we can find the greatest self-fulfillment in life and so we can all thrive together as a society for the long haul” (355). But, these are not grounds for moral absolutes–they might explain behavior but they do not make behavior right or wrong. Something is not right or wrong simply because it leads to personal fulfillment. Some people may find personal fulfillment in torturing little children, but that does not make it “right.”
Ironically, it is the very worldview that Ehrman mocks and criticizes–biblical Christianity–that can actually provide foundations for morality. Christians believe that moral norms are grounded in the very character of God himself, the creator of the universe; and Christians claim to know about this God through his word contained in the Bible. Ehrman, of course, rejects this claim, but that misses the point entirely. If someone is going to make moral claims, it makes much more sense if it comes from someone who thinks they have access to God’s own thoughts on the matter, instead of coming from someone who is offering only agnosticism.
Now one might suppose that Ehrman could avoid this entire quandary by saying he doesn’t really believe in moral absolutes at all, but his merely offering his own personal moral preferences. Ok, fine. But, then Ehrman has no basis for his prior statement that “I do think there is good and evil.” Instead he should have said, “There is no such thing as good and evil, just private opinion.” And, if Ehrman is only offering his private opinion, then he no longer has a meaningful basis to object to anti-semitism. He cannot say it is really wrong–all he can say is that he personally doesn’t prefer it.
In the end, Ehrman’s worldview is a philosophical mess. He chides others for inserting value-laden statements and then offers his own. He claims to believe in the real existence of good and evil, but never explains where such moral norms come from. He makes sweeping claims about how there is no God who will judge the world while all the while claiming to be agnostic. He says Christians are wrong for being anti-semitic, but never offers a reason for why anti-semitism is wrong in the first place.
A genuine agnostic would have acknowledged he doesn’t really have anything to offer regarding discussions of God and morality, and good and evil. Indeed, a genuine agnostic would have acknowledged that Christianity might even be right. After all, according to an agnostic, who knows?