Sunday, October 4, 2009

What's Wrong with the Good Book?

(A Book Review)

Making Sense of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation
by Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe
Baker Books, 266 pages, $13.99
“New Cave of Aladdin”, shrieked the 1923 headlines. “Matchless Works of Art!”  The name Howard Carter vaulted to prominence, as did the news of his crowning achievement—fated to become, arguably, the most celebrated (though by no account most significant) archaeological coup of his day.

Others had relinquished their concessions five years earlier in the Valley of the Kings, a desolate sand ravine west of the Nile that served as final resting place for the New Kingdom pharaohs.  Carter’s outgoing colleagues declared the valley bankrupt…washed up…sucked dry.  Whatever the ancient grave robbers had overlooked, modern archaeologists had carted off.  For safe keeping, of course.

But, Howard Carter was a man not so easily deterred. He had clues.  Crumbling glyphs that spoke of a boy pharaoh whose tenure was cut short by some unknown tragedy. A 3300-year-old clay pot that the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art had examined and found to contain bone fragments of sheep and ducks—sacred leftovers from the funerary banquet of this young monarch, Tut.ankh.Amen.

After five blistering years in this valley of waste, even Carter’s best friend and sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, was urging him to cut their losses and pull out.  But, Carter begged him to bankroll just more season of excavation; and, indeed, it was just three days after digging resumed, on November 4, 1922, that a carved stair emerged from the desert floor, followed by a staircase…an underground passage…sealed doors…and within, a trove that surpassed even what Carter could have imagined (or hallucinated) during his thirty-one years of shoveling Egyptian sand.

It took all of the next decade to evacuate King Tut’s tomb and inventory his assets, as Carter describes in his three-volume, 800-page account, The Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen.

The point is that Carter grappled with the impossible, and he did so with the dogged tenacity of one who knows.  Having studied the signs, he was convinced not only of the existence of King Tut’s tomb, but also of its unspoiled state.  The fact that this trophy had eluded all of his predecessors did not prove it a myth; it simply presented a “difficulty” to be vanquished by assiduous study and fierce endeavor.

Wilbur and Orville Wright knew that man could fly.  Millenia of miscarriage? Mere “difficulty” that must surely succumb to the onslaught of twentieth-century enlightenment. 

John F. Kennedy knew that America must walk on the moon and return to tell of it.  When Apollo I burned on the launch pad in January, 1967, incinerating all three astronauts aboard, that calamity was not considered an indictment of America’s enterprise—only a “difficulty” along the road to inevitable success.

It is great men such as these who live on through their exemplary human faith—the sort that surveys a puzzle that, after exhaustive work and research, is still missing key pieces, and refuses to believe it unsolvable.  The pieces shall be found—Destiny demands it!

Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, having spent their lives studying the Holy Scriptures, bring us this new title, Making Sense of Bible Difficulties (Baker Books, 2009).  Now in its maiden printing, their book focuses on, and, in fact, touches each of, the sixty-six books that comprise what John P. Burgess, in his book Why Scripture Matters (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) refers to as the “common canon”, i.e., those books regarding which both Catholics and Protestants find common ground, accepting without dispute that they belong between the covers of the Holy Bible. 

The authors’ position is unequivocal, as suggested by the opening line of their introduction: “The truth is that there is not even one demonstrated error in the original text of the Bible.”  Such dogmatic posturing is sure to raise eyebrows, but then, Geisler and Howe are both veteran eyebrow raisers.

According to his website, Dr. Norman L. Geisler has been “a leader in the defense of the inerrancy of the Bible and was a founder of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, which produced the famous ‘Chicago Statement’ (1978) that has been a standard in the field ever since.”

He has authored or co-authored about seventy books, including To Understand the Bible, Look for Jesus (Moody Press, 1975); Biblical Errancy: Its Philosophical Roots (Zondervan, 1981); and Baker’s Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Baker, 1999).

Geisler, whose credentials include a BA, MA, ThB, and a PhD in Philosophy, has taught Apologetics, Philosophy, and Theology for fifty years, including at Trinity Evangelical and Dallas Seminary. 

Thomas Howe earned his MA in Biblical Studies from Liberty University, followed by a PhD in Philosophy of Religion from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Both courses of study included concentrations in ancient languages; Dr. Howe is proficient in Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic, Aramaic, and Latin.

He is a professor of Bible and Biblical Languages, and Director of the Apologetics Program, at Southern Evangelical Seminary.  Howe’s literary works include Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation (Advantage, 2005) and Daniel in the Preterists' Den (Wipf and Stock, 2008).

Geisler and Howe lament the presumption-of-guilt bias that modern biblical critics often betray as they subject the Word of God to scathing interrogation. Like Aesop’s blind men attempting to describe the elephant, critics latch onto sticky snatches of Scriptural enigma as if these uncertainties defined the whole. 

Like most works of nonfiction, this book attempts to fill a unique gap.  Its first goal is to supply believers with well-researched and coherent arguments to effectively share and defend the Faith.  Secondly, it offers insight into how God has spoken in the context of cultural perception and expression across millennia of human advancement. 

But, most importantly, it is intended to bolster the readers’ courage to tackle their own exegetical bogeys without fear of their faith crumbling under the onslaught of reason. 

Did these authors achieve the objective they set out to accomplish?  Well, the Bible difficulties to be addressed are trotted out and neatly dispatched one by one, in biblical order from Genesis to Revelation.  Each “problem” is concisely stated in a paragraph or two, followed by the authors’ “solution”—a few paragraphs of facts and arguments.

To supply readers with tools for dissecting and solving their own biblical puzzles, the book includes a twenty-page introduction, subtitled “How to Approach Bible Difficulties.”  Here, Geisler and Howe explain what is at stake in the popular game of scriptural fault-finding, including Jesus’ perspective on the matter as He addressed the religious hacks of His day.  The material segues into a discussion of the appropriate attitudes with which we should approach our own exploration of Scripture, and how to steer clear of fifteen alleged blunders that modern critics commit when interpreting difficult passages.

Geisler and Howe tend to flavor their material with a dash of denominational spice, and in a few instances spin dizzying arguments to support the conclusions at which they have arrived.  However, in all fairness, they are not reluctant to acknowledge other points of view that merit discussion. Occasionally, they will serve up a choice of well articulated, often contradictory, answers proposed by various commentators, leaving the reader to be the judge.

Nor do the authors play a one-string fiddle, but rather, they give equal forum to a wide variety of Bible difficulties.  Some involve apparent doctrinal disagreements between various Bible authors—or even within the writings of a single author.  Other exhibits feature apparent mismatches in reporting of dates and statistics, passages that appear to contradict modern scientific findings, alleged historical inaccuracies, and even entire books that have been decried as outright fiction (e.g., Job) or subject matter inappropriate for inclusion in the Holy Bible (e.g., Solomon’s Song).

Geisler and Howe defend God’s proficiency in matters of science, and attempt to show that His Scriptures are not at loggerheads with scientific fact.  On the other hand, they cannot seem to resist taking an occasional potshot at the postulates of science, even suggesting that the very Laws of Thermodynamics are flawed in that they fail to account for a universe where higher laws—God’s creative and miraculous phenomena—may occasionally supersede them.
What could stand improvement?  First, the actual text of the “problem” Scripture, instead of just a reference to it, should be included in the book.  For example, the “problem” statement for I Kings 6:1 opens with a question: “How can this be an accurate calculation if Ramses the Great was the pharaoh of the Exodus?”  How can WHAT be an accurate calculation? The reader must reach for a Bible in order to fully comprehend the problem and appreciate its solution.

Secondly, paragraphs.  Shorter ones.  Whereas a good deal of the book is reader-friendly (e.g., the entire Ephesians section is impressively laid out), there are still portions where the reader is languishing in the paragraph doldrums—such as the “solution” to Colossians 4:16, which contains a 10-sentence, 251-word paragraph!  The greatest thing since sliced bread is a sliced paragraph, so let us hope that Baker does not spare the slicer next time round.

In conclusion, why would God be so cruel as to give us a holy book that defies comprehension?  One point Geisler and Howe emphasize is that none of the “difficult passages” of the Bible detract from the clarity of its message on essential points of faith and practice.  Those who search the Scriptures with diligence and reverence will usually find clarity on the body of truth that God has given to mankind. 

Jesus often addressed the multitudes with hard sayings and parables.  This effectively presented a closed door, so those with humble faith would make the effort to knock and enter, while the self-confident would go away empty-handed.  Or, as the Virgin Mary poetically stated in her Magnificat, “Esurientes implevit bonis: et divites dimisit inanes.”  (“He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty.” – Luke 1:53, NJB)

Making Sense of Bible Difficulties... Is it worth the read? 

For those who firmly believe that the Bible is an anthology of poetry, myth and superstition, this book is unlikely to be a convincer.  But, for the rest of us who are fairly certain that the Bible—at least in its original manuscript form—was the infallible, inerrant Word of God, or if we are desperately hoping for some evidence to that effect, the theses of Geisler and Howe ring true.

As for me, it was a pleasure to crack open my chest of “questions to be asked when I get to heaven”, dust a few off, and get some answers that make sense!