Changing One’s Mind

Bart Ehrman wrote a thoughtful piece recently on how and why some people change their minds and others do not. I would like to interact with this and hopefully show some alternatives that he appears not to have considered. Firstly, I will trace the flow of his argument, and then afterwards interact with it.

Ehrman starts out by relating his own story. He was a fresh-faced evangelical at age 20. Looking back on his then career path from a vastly more wise and mature vantage point, he now describes his previous mindset as “extremely weird.” Don’t miss the statement, “and to outsiders looks more than a little bizarre.” The desire for respect from the world plays a large part in his post. More on that later.

Ehrman describes two events in recent history that made him think of his earlier history. First, his conversation/debate with Peter Williams (an inerrantist), and a FB post from a former friend lambasting him for being an enemy of the truth. One presumes that Ehrman is trying to be funny with the crack about basketball. One would also presume that Ehrman does not seriously believe that his former friend is lambasting him because of basketball.

These two events prompted Ehrman to think about the question: why is it that some people change their minds about what they were taught when they were young, whereas other people hold on to their beliefs tenaciously? He puts himself firmly in the former category, and regrets the animosity he feels from his former friends. Again, the issue of respect from people comes into play.

The next few paragraphs are where the judgment starts to show. He finds it incredible that scholars should hold on to the views they held before (presumably meaning conservative views). If they do hold on to those views, the only reason they do is that they never did deepen their understanding of the issues and nuance their opinions.

On being accused of being an enemy of the truth, Ehrman believes his entire career has been one of seeking the truth, while those whose views remain what they were have not been seeking after the truth. The “nutshell” paragraph then follows:

I’ll try to put it in the most direct terms here: how is it at all plausible, or humanly possible, that someone can question, explore, look into, consider the beliefs they were taught as a young child (in the home, in church, in … whatever context) and after 40 years of thinking about it decide that everything they were taught is absolutely right? The views *they* were taught, out of the sixty trillion possible views out there, are absolutely right? The problem with these particular views (of evangelical Christianity) is that if they are indeed right, everyone else in the known universe is wrong and going to be tormented forever because of it.

Then follows a qualification: “I know most Christians don’t think this: I’m just talking about this particular type of Christian. And they don’t seem to see how strange it is that they are right because they agree with what they were taught as young children.”

He ends his reflections with what he believes is a sort of reductio ad absurdam: “I realize these are very old questions. When we were evangelicals we puzzled over the question of how God could punish people for eternity for not “accepting Christ” when they had never even heard of him. Unfortunately, we concluded that we weren’t sure how he would do that, but we were pretty sure he would. Most of the human race, of course, thinks the very idea is ludicrous.” Again the respect of people, for the third time.

Thus the flow of the post. Now for the interaction. The first thing I would say in response is that Ehrman seems to me to be committing one large fallacy of the poisoned well argument: “Your views are wrong because of where they came from (namely, parents).” If one’s main worldview issues arose out of what they were taught as youngsters, then they can’t possibly be correct, if Ehrman is right. But if Ehrman is right, then our parents were also wrong when they told us, “Don’t cross the street without looking both ways;” “Don’t go with strangers;” “Be polite and say ‘thank you’ and ‘please'”; and many other things we learned when we were young. Were many of those things simplistic in order to line up with our need for simple and sometimes simplistic understandings? Of course. However, the point I wish to make here is simple: just because our parents said it doesn’t make it wrong, any more than interaction with scholarship makes a particular viewpoint correct. After all, aren’t older, seasoned scholars our “intellectual” parents of sorts? Why should we reject or believe anything simply on the basis of what some scholar says? Ehrman doesn’t do this. He rejects lots of viewpoints that scholars propound.

Secondly, what if he teaches his views to his children in the future. What is to prevent them from saying the same thing about what they were taught by Ehrman later in life? Thus, Ehrman lops off the branch on which he himself is sitting. One suspects that the real problem here is that Ehrman found out that the people of the world do not approve of what he learned in childhood. Therefore he is seeking to distance himself as much as possible from it in order to be respectable. Yet, what about the reverse possibility? I know of many scholars who grew up in households completely antithetical to Christianity, atheistic households, in fact. Yet God’s grace changed them, and they became Christians and became devoted to furthering the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ehrman doesn’t address this possibility, probably because there isn’t any way he can account for it on his paradigm. The distinct impression given by Ehrman’s post is that the only way anyone could possibly believe those benighted conservative viewpoints is if they have their head in the sand, with regard to scholarship. Since he has admitted to not wanting to run in those conservative circles anymore, he can be forgiven for getting the wrong end of the stick entirely on this one. Since he doesn’t run in those circles, he doesn’t know or acknowledge the many conservative biblical scholars that go out of their way to read viewpoints that differ from their own (and not just for the purposes of debate!). The seminary professors I know and love, and have learned so much from, ALWAYS assign liberal scholars to read alongside the conservative ones. In actuality, it is the liberal scholars who move in confined circles. They almost never quote or read conservatives. No doubt they will respond that this is because there are so few conservative scholars. This would be a good example of the fallacy of ad populum. Truth is not achieved by counting noses, something Ehrman doesn’t seem to have learned yet. Let God be true, though every man be a liar.

Thirdly, he seems to leave out or discount the possibility that a conservative scholar could have grown up believing what his parents told him, grown up to achieve greater nuance and clarity regarding those views, deliberately test them by comparing them to as many worldviews out there as possible, and still believe that the basic points of worldview he grew up with are correct. In fact, I know many such scholars. If you read any of his commenters, they tend to be even less generous than Ehrman on this point. They commit the poisoned well argument with a vengeance!

Lastly, I will argue that the real reason conservative evangelical scholars hold on their viewpoints is that they believe it is what the Bible teaches. Ehrman disagrees, and thinks he has pre-empted this argument by stating that it was really just what we were taught when we were young. I answered this in the “secondly” paragraph above. Ehrman clearly buys into the postmodern viewpoint that the multiplicity of viewpoints negates the truth of any conservative viewpoint. He says, “The views *they* were taught, out of the sixty trillion possible views out there, are absolutely right?” In ascribing arrogance to conservatives for holding on to viewpoints they were taught, he is engaging in arrogance himself, since he clearly believes that his pluralistic viewpoint is THE correct approach to the multiplicity of views. What gives him the right to say that? And what gives him the right to say that the only viewpoint that is automatically wrong, out of the 60 trillion viewpoints out there, is the conservative one, simply because he doesn’t like where he learned it from, and thinks that people are naive for believing what their parents tell them? Does he not know that most Muslims learn their Islam from their parents? Would he dare to say the same about Muslim beliefs, simply because the vast majority of Muslims believe what they were told by their parents? Muslims (especially those in the Middle East!) are every bit as exclusivistic as conservative Christians when it comes to believing in only one worldview. Somehow, I don’t think he would say that Muslims are wrong simply because it is what they grew up with, probably because he fears what other people in the world think about him, and he wouldn’t want to offend Muslims. I think Muslims are wrong in what they think, but not because it is what they grew up with and were taught. It is because the life they attempt to build on top of their beliefs does not match their beliefs. But to prove that would go far afield from this post.

As to his last point, very few people I know believe that God will punish people for rejecting Christ if they have not heard of Jesus Christ. However, not having heard of Jesus Christ is hardly an excuse that gets one out of condemnation. No one has an excuse, according to Paul in Romans 1. The invisible attributes of God have been clearly seen in creation. If people do not give glory to God, then it is for that they will be judged. Ehrman might possibly object and say, “But you can’t believe in a God who would send anyone to Hell just because they were unlucky enough not to have heard about Jesus Christ.” This objection presumes that God owes everyone a chance at salvation. God owes nothing to anyone on earth. This fact should not, of course, make us complacent about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected for the salvation of sinners. Our love of neighbors should impel us to tell them about Jesus precisely so that they won’t be condemned, but be saved. Nevertheless, God owes nothing to any created being.

9 Comments

  1. Jason Van Bemmel said,

    July 23, 2019 at 1:20 pm

    He’s basically saying, “Of the sixty trillion possible worldviews out there, how could you be so arrogant as to believe that yours is correct? Ha! Obviously, mine is the correct one!” And there’s the rub: Everyone believes that his or her worldview is the correct one, or else they wouldn’t hold to it.

    The number of possible worldviews is irrelevant. One possible worldview is that we’re all really made of lime green jello inside the belly or a giant alien. Another is that we’re all just illusions. Who cares how many possible worldviews there are? The truth is that only one can be correct, and if there’s a God, it’s His worldview that is correct.

  2. roberty bob said,

    July 24, 2019 at 12:04 am

    If a young person knew that his parents and pastor had always taught him the truth in word and in deed in accordance with the holy scriptures, then why would he doubt the truth and have a change of heart?

    Wouldn’t the Spirit of Truth continue to guide?

  3. rfwhite said,

    July 25, 2019 at 10:43 am

    2 RB: I’m not sure I’m following your questions, so bear with me as I rehearse some things you doubtless have heard before.

    Doubting the truth taught by parents and pastor can be traced to factors such as a child’s corrupted nature and temptation by Satan. The guidance of the Spirit of truth is always present in God’s elect only; even then, its full effects may be suppressed.

    What I’m alluding to is the doctrine stated in WCF 18.4. A true believer’s assurance of faith may be shaken, diminished, or temporarily lost in various ways. Among the ways in which doubt comes about, the Assembly includes the following: by neglecting to preserve the assurance of faith, by falling into some special sin, by some sudden or violent temptation, or by God’s withdrawing the light of His countenance and allowing even those who reverence Him to walk in darkness and have no light.

    To your point about the Spirit’s continuing guidance, WCF 18.4 goes on to affirm that, by the operation of the Spirit, the assurance of faith may, in due time, be revived and, in the meantime, supported from utter despair.

    More broadly, as the parable of the soils teaches us, the word, when sown, falls on different types of soil yielding different results. One of those soil types hears the word and believes for a while but in a time of testing falls away.

  4. roberty bob said,

    July 25, 2019 at 3:30 pm

    My questions are premised on the Christian Faith following a pattern of sound teaching that is preserved and passed down generationally. So, then, what I come to believe as the Truth isn’t my unique version drawn from a pool of 60 trillion possible viewpoints; it is the ONE deposit of Truth faithfully passed down the covenantal line. We have millions of brothers and sisters in Christ who hold to the same Truth.

    rfwhite, I agree that there may be times when we go wobbly with our faith and stand in need of correction, strengthening, etc. Nonetheless, my questions Intend to show that it is normal for a Christian son to follow the lead of his Christian father. Look at Jesus. He said that he could do only what his Father showed him!

  5. rfwhite said,

    July 26, 2019 at 11:41 am

    4 RB – I see better your point about generations and the covenantal line. I would just tweak your second sentence above to say that the one deposit of truth is faithfully passed down by the elect in the covenantal line. I expect we’d agree that the efficacy of the truth in the covenant line is traced to election according to grace, not to descent according to the flesh.

  6. roberty bob said,

    July 26, 2019 at 5:29 pm

    Yes, rfwhite, we are agreed on that point; and on that very point Bart Ehrman chooses to knowingly dwell in the dark!

  7. roberty bob said,

    July 27, 2019 at 1:17 pm

    Yes rfwhite, we are in full accord.

  8. rfwhite said,

    August 2, 2019 at 5:10 pm

    In April 2004 Sinclair Ferguson published a short essay in Tabletalk on “Apostasy and How It Happens.”

    https://tabletalkmagazine.com/daily-study/2004/04/apostasy-and-how-it-happens/

  9. Larry Wilson said,

    August 5, 2019 at 7:22 am

    Thank you, Dr. White, for pointing us to that excellent article by Sinclair Ferguson. I find it timely in light of many conversations I’ve been having lately about Josh Harris — whatever his spiritual state.


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