This post begins with a story from Bill about an experience he had as an undergraduate at Bethel College, a Baptist school in St. Paul, Minnesota. For those readers who did not attend an evangelical college, see below for an example of the fun you missed out on!
Very early in my freshman year John and I became friends. We shared a love of basketball, and his humor was infectious. But sometime that fall John fell head-over-heels in love with a young woman who happened to be – as were many students at Bethel – a fundamentalist. Over a matter of weeks John became increasingly rigid in his theological views, and soon he and I found ourselves in the midst of intense debates. In the process John became very frustrated with my inability to understand Scripture the way he now did.
Finally, one evening in the dorm John set out two chairs, motioned for me to sit in one of them, and pulled out a Bible. He opened it to a passage in the Gospels (I can’t recall the text, but it was related to one of our disagreements), handed me the Bible, and asked me to read the designated verses. I complied, and when I indicated to him that I had finished reading, John exclaimed, “Now you see! Now you understand what I have been saying!”
But I didn’t see. As I told him, I still did not interpret the biblical passage in the way he did. This infuriated John. After a heated back-and-forth argument he finally just lost it, yelling at me that it was my prideful heart that kept me from seeing the truth. He then stormed out of the room, slamming the door for good effect.
One way to understand this story is as a ridiculous argument between two eighteen-year-old college students who did not know what they were talking about. But when it comes to John’s ad hominem attack, the reality is that this is simply standard practice in fundamentalism. This is not because fundamentalists are necessarily mean. Instead, the proclivity for the ad hominem argument is built into the touchstone of fundamentalist theology: biblical inerrancy.
According to inerrancy, the Bible is without error and without contradiction, factually accurate, and the final authority on every matter on which it speaks. More than this, and essential for inerrancy, the Bible “is also perspicacious, so clear that everyone everywhere and at all times can understand what the text says and what it means” (Righting 112).
All well and good. But here’s the problem. What about the fact that – even among those who hold to inerrancy – there is an incredible and ever-expanding diversity of biblical interpretations? As we note in Righting America,
The notion of biblical inerrancy . . . has not solved this problem. One can maintain that the Bible is “God-breathed,” errorless, and true on all matters upon which it speaks. One can proclaim with great conviction that it is consistent and perspicuous. One can promise to read it ‘literally.” But the question of what the text means remains, and the disagreements over what the text means remain. (134)
If the Bible is errorless, accurate, consistent, authoritative, and clear, how can this be?
Obviously, the problem cannot be with the inerrant text.
Obviously, the problem has to be with the reader. The reader who has the wrong interpretation. The reader who, in the eyes of Answers in Genesis (AiG), fails to interpret Genesis 1-11 as providing an accurate account of the six, 24-hour day creation of the universe followed by a global flood that drowned millions or billions of human beings.
And why do these readers of Genesis get it so wrong? According to AiG, “the simple answer is sin,” sin driven by “the desire to modify [the] understanding of God’s Word in order to accommodate human reason and the reigning views of science” (Righting 114). As Ken Ham says again and again and again, this sinful desire to modify the Bible – to “compromise” its meaning — is particularly true of scholars, who are driven by (to quote Ham) an “’academic pride’” that leads them “’to become so puffed up with all their supposed knowledge . . . that they make themselves the authority instead of God’s Word‘” (Righting 222).
If you disagree, you are the problem. You are sinful, you are prideful: that’s why you disagree. Of course, the ad hominem argument can always be turned back onto the attackers. Given that Ham and AiG claim to possess the One True Interpretation of God’s Word, it is almost too easy to turn the tables.
In other words, who’s prideful here?