Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

15 Dec 2020

A Question of Discernment


About 25 years ago I was privileged to take several seminary courses that focused on the science of textual criticism. Textual criticism was really important in those days because epic battles were then raging over texts and translations as the King James Version lost its ascendancy in conservative Christian circles. Textual criticism is still important, but interest in the discipline has waned as epic battles over Bible translation have reduced to isolated skirmishes.

I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned in those courses, but one principle has remained fixed in my mind because of its cross-disciplinary application. I can still hear my professor saying that, all other considerations notwithstanding, the most important principle in discovering the original reading of a given text is this: The reading that can most logically explain how the other readings developed is usually the original reading. And so we spent time in class studying observed scribal tendencies that routinely produced alternate readings: a scribal tendency to skip blocks of text based on visual factors; a scribal tendency to conflate parallel texts; a scribal tendency to insert explanatory glosses; and so on.

When we came to the problem of allegedly “deleted” references to Christ’s name in the NT (a hot topic in those days), we often concluded that those references were not original; instead, they had been added over the course of centuries. Why? Because of an observed scribal tendency (and one still seen in modern editing) to replace pronouns (he/him) with their antecedents (Jesus/Christ) for greater clarity. For example, the original reading “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” developed into the more explicit “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” There was a logical explanation for adding a specific reference to Christ. The shorter reading, we thus deduced, was more likely to be original, even though it was a minority reading. Those who defended the longer reading could offer no good reason for reducing Christ to a pronoun—only wild conspiracy theories that a vast network of biblical scribes and textual critics throughout history were secretly trying to take Jesus out of the Bible. This explanation was far-fetched to the point of absurdity.

A similar situation sometimes occurs when science and faith intersect. There are times when the Christian community needs to stand firmly against a theory that is held by the majority scientific community. For instance, we believe that God created the heaven and the earth, even though a majority of scientists reject this theory. We believe this firstly because the Bible is clear on the matter, of course, but we can also have confidence opposing the scientific majority because we can explain why their error developed. Pagan scientists tend to deny that God is their Creator because (1) the idea of creation does not comport with the naturalist/uniformitarian theological principles that most of them share, and, more significantly because (2) it is the universal experience of all pagans to suppress the truth of God as Creator and exchange it for a lie (Rom 1; etc.).

This denial of God as Creator, perpetrated by many in the scientific community, can lead to Christians viewing science itself with general suspicion. This is an understandable response, but not always the correct one. As Cornelius Van Til notes, “They of whom Scripture says that their minds are darkened can yet discover much truth.” And we reject their discoveries, at times, to our own injury.

So how do we know when we should trust modern scientists, and when we should not? Well, there’s no infallible answer. But one question that can help us in this area, I think, is this: What reason would they have for perpetrating error? This is a question that we often answer instinctively. When a meteorologist gives a weather forecast, we assume that he is attempting to supply an accurate forecast. He may be wrong, but there is no reason forthcoming why he would deliberately deceive us. Similarly, if a medical doctor takes a throat culture and informs us that we have strep, we believe him—why would he lie about something like this? 

But sometimes we lose sight of this principle and become irrationally suspicious of the scientific community. Many Christians are deeply suspicious, for instance, of all coordinated efforts to slow the spread or to develop a cure for COVID-19 simply because we are cynicalEven though there is no sensible reason why the medical community would want to deceive us, cynicism drives us to manufacture reasons—wild conspiratorial reasons with no basis forthcoming. Among these are strange theories that the whole medical community is working in concert (perhaps with some political faction) to, say, (1) destroy capitalism or (2) redistribute global wealth or (3) tip the balance of world power to favor China or (4) manipulate people genetically or (5) ___________. These ideas are nearly as absurd as the idea that Christian scribes have been conspiring, over the course of centuries, to take Christ out of the Bible. 

My point here is not to say that we must believe everything that the scientific community says about masks and social distancing and recommended shutdowns and vaccines. It is possible that there are some very terrible mistakes being made. But if so, they are just that: mistakes. The medical/scientific community at large are trying to bring the pandemic to a swift end; there is no logical reason why they would be collectively trying to dupe us all. And if all of our reasons for distrust trend immediately to conspiratorial chicanery, we really need to ask better questions and cultivate greater intellectual discernment.  

4 Responses

  1. Bill Murphy

    Dr. Snoeberger,
    Thank you for taking the time to write the latest blog posting. I always look forward to the DBTS blogs. They are not just timely in addressing the current issues, [such as yours does], but often encouraging in knowing that there are Seminaries and leaders such as DBTS that are still teaching and equipping leaders founded on the truth and application of His Word. I am in the Denver Colorado Metro area, and many, [perhaps even most] of the churches here are more than flying the rainbow flag.
    May we “fight the good fight of faith” until He comes!

  2. Thanks for writing and starting a conversation. Christ is the author of all knowledge. And “science” isn’t a monolith; there are various scientists and scientific institutions, each more or less competent and sincere. Those twin truths should prevent Christians from being anti-science.
    You brought up the great divide between biblical faith and the dominant scientific consensus: the question of how matter came to be. That divergence has massive implications, and I think you brushed it aside too quickly. How one answers that fundamental question of origin goes far to setting his worldview, either some variation of materialism or intelligent design.
    And as times goes on, these two worldviews aren’t simply eyeing each other from opposite corners. They’re in the ring, opposing each other. And within that fray, there are ever developments. As the mountain of evidence for intelligent design grows ever higher, there seems to be a corresponding change within the broad scientific community: a willingness to ignore, even bury facts that don’t comport with the deeply entrenched and powerfully positioned materialistic view. Blackballing scientists that question the current orthodoxy.
    To the elemental question, broadly speaking, science is fleeing from evidence and retreating into the fortress of ideas. Quite unscientific, actually.
    So, to repeat and expand: what do we find at the root search of modern science, the elemental exploration of what is there? Not simply mistakes. Rather, powerfully positioned ideologues with a record of burying evidence that doesn’t support their paradigm. Using political power to squelch contrarian voices. Relying on the incantation of “the science says” to issue directives by fiat. Frankly, a lot of dishonesty.
    Why would we expect the power plays and dishonest handling of facts to be confined to the root exploration of the begetting of the world? They’re not. It all was present pre-covid. And in these times, only seems to be picking up speed (too many examples to choose from!)
    So I don’t think your analysis takes into account human nature. For instance, you posited five possible reasons for scientific chicanery: But does it happen that power goes after more power, just because?
    The Christian reaction to all this shouldn’t be anything like scientific nihilism. Rather, something in parallel with the noble Bereans, “amateurs” who heard what the Apostle had to say and then did some digging themselves to confirm, or not.
    Suggestion: Read Lewis’ essay “Is Progress Possible?” Here’s an excerpt: “The new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim to knowledge. If we are to be mothered, mother must know best. This means they must increasingly rely on the advice of scientists, till in the end the politicians proper become merely the scientists’ puppets. Technocracy is the form to which a planned society must tend…
    …I dread government in the name of science. That is how tyrannies come in. In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. They ‘cash in’. It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now it will certainly be science.”
    P.S. I wrote this originally in a word processor that allows hyperlinks, but they didn’t carry over…

    1. Mark Snoeberger

      Colin, thanks for the pushback.

      You are right that there is a complexity here that I did not address in the blog post proper. Practically speaking, there ARE reasons that individual doctors/scientists might have for deliberately practicing medicine/science badly, ignoring evidences, doing shoddy research, making false claims, etc. Some reasons for “bad science” might include financial ones (if I falsify my research, I could make more money); political ones (if I falsify my research, my candidate will win); or philosophical/ideological ones (if I falsify my research, people will adopt my ideals).

      What I am suggesting here is that it would be extremely unlikely for the whole medical community (or the vast majority) to falsify their research and deliberately make bad recommendations (getting a vaccine, wearing a mask, etc.) based on any one of these factors. To suggest this demands a level of conspiracy that is not in evidence. And that’s what alarms me about some of the ideas circulating in some Christian circles right now.