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Response to Steven Garmon Review

My thanks to Steven Garmon for taking the time to write a critical review of HFG. My thanks also for the respectful tone Steven maintained despite his numerous disagreements with my arguments.

Unfortunately, Steven’s criticisms do not hold up against much scrutiny. First, Steven writes:

It seems to me that Stark is quick to point fingers at fundamentalists for trying to force God and the Bible into their own little pre-conceived box, however after reading this book it is apparent to me that Stark is guilty of the same.

This is a claim that Steven fails to substantiate in his review, and one he’d have a hard time substantiating given my apophatic theological approach.

Steven critiques chapter four:

In Chapter 4 Stark begins to pick away at inerrancy by claiming that the first authors of the Bible were actually polytheists. My reaction after reading this chapter was “so what?” I hold an incarnational view of scripture, so I believe that God accommodated Himself to the authors of the Bible.

This is a “solution” to the problem that comes under direct critique in my book, but Steven does not address my criticisms. Unfortunately, an accomodationist view does nothing to change the fact that early texts assume and declare the existence of other deities, while later texts flatly deny them. Now, a Christian may hold to a view of scripture that allows for “progressive revelation,” but this is an approach expressly rejected by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy which is the brand of inerrancy under scrutiny in my book. Steven continues:

Obviously, Israel was surrounded by cultures where polytheism, and pantheism I might add, were prevalent.

Pantheism? I’d like to see the documentary evidence for the prevalence of pantheism in the ancient Near East.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the authors, at least at the beginning, still believed in multiple Gods. All this portrays is that God meets his beloved chosen people where they are. It doesn’t show that the Bible cant be trusted.

Unfortunately, this claim does not hold water when Yahweh himself is portrayed frequently in scripture as one who believes in the existence of other deities.

In Chapter 5 Stark attempts to show that God was pleased with child sacrifice and even commanded it. This chapter seemed the weakest to me and it is filled with series of mental gymnastics to make his point.

Another claim Steven fails to substantiate. That early Israelite texts sanctioned child sacrifice in the name of Yahweh is a view held by the majority of Hebrew Bible scholars. I provide an introduction to the evidence underwriting this consensus position. As far as mental gymnastics, Steven offers one example which only serves to display Steven’s unfamiliarity with the relevant scholarship and his complete misapprehension of my position. He writes that I mention

in passing Jeremiah 19:5-6 which clearly states that God is completely against child sacrifice but he quickly dismisses it. This is a common aspect of Stark’s thought that is carried out often (as we’ll see later) where he sometimes cherry-picks things from scripture that he believes can make his point and disregards things that can hinder it.

This is an unfortunate misrepresentation of the facts. In reality, I do not “dismiss” Jeremiah 19:5-6 because it is inconvenient for my thesis. My thesis (the consensus thesis) includes the fact that Jeremiah was a late voice who rejected the institution of human sacrifice, an institution which was previously official. That Jeremiah rejects human sacrifice is not evidence against my position. It only serves to confirm the reconstruction I provide which states that human sacrifice was prevalent in earlier Israelite and Judean religion only to come under scrutiny later, by Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others in a later period. That Steven thinks Jeremiah 19:5-6 is evidence against my position only shows that he did not read my argument with any degree of care. He continues:

He mentions the incident with Jephthah’s daughter, but he makes it seem as if scholars are clear about the outcome, of which they are not. But even if he is correct in his claim, there is nothing in the text that says God approved of it.

Both of these claims are false. First, while a few conservative scholars have argued that Jephthah did not in fact go on to sacrifice his daughter, this is a fringe position that enjoys no support within mainstream scholarship. The vast majority of scholars are very clear about the outcome. Second, there is more than one indication in the text that God approved of the sacrifice, as I discuss both in my book and more extensively in my critical review of Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster? Steven continues:

Chapter 6 deals with the “genocides” committed in the name of God. Now, first off I want to say that Stark already tips the scales in his favor by using the term genocide. This basically hinders the reader from remaining neutral to Stark’s arguments when he starts with the term genocide.

Perhaps if Steven will take the time to look up any definition of genocide, he’ll see that whether we approve or disapprove of the actions of the Israelites in the conquest of Canaan, the conquest is clearly and accurately described as a genocide. I discuss this in detail in my review of Copan’s book.

However, I see no problem whatsoever with God carrying out judgement on nations. He is the creator and giver of life and He has the right to take it away. Stark says that if God knew that the Canaanites were going to become so depraved then why didn’t He do anything to stop their behavior. My response was “Who says He didn’t?”

The answer is, the Bible says he didn’t, and quite frequently.

But even if God didn’t intervene with the Canaanites, so what? We are all responsible for our actions and its not unfair for God to enact his judgement when He feels fit.

Unfortunately, Steven has opted not to engage the pages and pages of argumentation I provide in HFG showing why this attitude creates more problems than it solves. Simply ignoring my arguments does not constitute a counter-argument. Steven continues:

In Chapter 8 Stark progresses [sic] the argument that Jesus wrongly predicted His second coming. This is where we see Stark act out a textbook definition of a double standard. Up until this point in his book he has made the claim that the Bible cannot be trusted to accurately portray God. But, when He finds a verse that is uttered by Jesus himself that he thinks cushions his argument, he doesn’t strain at all to credit its accuracy.

Rather than a “textbook definition of a double standard,” this is rather a textbook example of a careless reader. I don’t ever make the claim that the Gospel accounts can be trusted, and most certainly I do not drop my criticism of the biblical text just because I think a criticism of Jesus will be more interesting. Rather, quite clearly in the book, I state that discussions of the accuracy of the Gospel records are important, but fall outside the purview of the limited scope of my argument. Do I think the Gospels are reliable on every point? Certainly not, as I make abundantly clear with extensive argumentation in multiple chapters of HFG. However, on the question of Jesus’ apocalyptic worldview and predictions, I am of the persuasion, following the broad scholarly consensus, that the Gospels portray Jesus fairly accurately. I believe Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who wrongly predicted the end of the world. I do not believe that the Gospel writers made that up about Jesus. So the disingenuousness exists solely in Steven’s own mind, and not in reality. It also exists in his presentation of my argument. He continues:

Although he considers many alternatives to Jesus wrongly predicting His second coming, he throws them aside and simply asserts that Jesus was wrong.

This claim is utterly absurd. The chapter dealing with these issues is about 50 pages long, and I do not simply “throw aside” any argument. Rather, I take each position apart piece by piece, extensively, and carefully. Steven’s claim here borders on outright deception. I make no simple assertions. I mount an extensive and heavily supported argument from which I draw a conclusion, and a conclusion I personally do not like, as I note in the book as well.

However, there are still MANY more alternatives that Stark failed to consider. I don’t have the space to get into them here, but if you’re interested feel free to check out this link: […]

The link, unfortunately, was deleted by Amazon. Nevertheless, in an already lengthy chapter, I can’t be expected to refute every fringe idea out there.

Also, its important to note that some of Starks conclusions are drawn upon from the Documentary Hypothesis. I don’t know how much he’s adequately researched on this hypothesis, but its becoming a position that is gravely mistaken. A lot of OT scholars have adequately shown the major holes in this theory and its something that I presently think is a weak position.

Aside from Steven’s personal opinions about the Documentary Hypothesis, his characterization of its status within the scholarly community is grossly inadequate. While there have been many developments in the documentary hypothesis since its inception, it remains the consensus, broadly speaking, of biblical scholars actively working within the guild. There are disagreements about dating of the sources and about certain texts and to whom they should be attributed, but that there are at least four clear and ideologically-opposed sources comprising the Pentateuch is not a hypothesis that is going away anytime soon. I don’t know how much Steven “has adequately researched on this hypothesis,” but my research includes having read close to fifty monographs and scholarly articles on JEDP, including the criticisms of JEDP by Cassuto et al. Once again, the fact that some scholars don’t hold to the consensus doesn’t make the consensus any less the consensus. And usually, a consensus is a consensus for good reason, and that happens to be the case with JEDP. Steven continues:

In Thom’s last chapter he valiantly attempts to provide some answers on how to adequately view scripture. In my view, his explanation falls short. If the Bible doesn’t accurately portray God and if it really cant be trusted then why bother calling yourself a Christian?

This displays Steven’s “all-or-nothing” logic, a logic that he shares with other fundamentalists but does not share with me. I can’t make my reasons for being a Christian make sense to him, but unlike fundamentalists, that isn’t my goal either.

His answer to this objection lies in his upbringing and the fact that the Bible has molded him into the person he is today. And? That is an extremely poor reason Mr. Stark.

I’m sorry Steven thinks so. Of course, those aren’t the only reasons I listed, and I have more which I didn’t list in the book. But I’m sorry Steven thinks my reasons for being a Christian are poor. But there’s nothing I can do about that, other than to say that the fact that the Bible has shaped me in ways I’ll never exhaust is more than enough reason to call myself a Christian. The fact that I love and want to emulate Jesus (despite his flaws) is also more than enough reason, a reason I offered in the book which Steven (for whatever reason) failed to mention in his review. He continues:

So, if he was raised as a Muslim and it was the Koran which had molded him, would he then be making the same statement towards Islam? Would he still consider himself a Muslim?

Um, yes. That’s the idea.

Also, if the Bible cannot be trusted to adequately reveal the character of God then why view the Bible as anymore special than the Koran or the book or Mormon? If this is all the closure Stark can provide then Im afraid his view of Christianity is inadequate. Obviously, these are my own opinions and I dont mean to come down too hard on Stark but it really makes me question why he would even call himself a Christian.

Steven of course has the right to question why I call myself a Christian. Long story short, my reasons are very different than his reasons. Of course, my argument (despite Steve’s consistent portrayal of it) has never been that “the Bible cannot be trusted to adequately reveal the character of God.” Those are his words, not mine. I’ve argued that in places it gets God wrong. But I’ve also argued that in places it gets God right. Steven’s questions here for whatever reason ignore the most substantive sections of the final chapter he is critiquing, in which I argue that we must exercise critical reasoning when appropriating the biblical texts as guides for our lives in faith communities. The same is true of any set of sacred texts, or any set of texts at all. The whole point is that we don’t have that book that has come down from heaven the likes of which we can turn to for answers without needing to exercise critical thinking. We don’t have it, and no one does. That’s a humbling position. Which is why when Steven accuses me of trying to fit God “nice and neatly in[to my] ‘Christian’ box,” I am humorously taken aback. Rather, the whole point of my book is to expose the many ways we humans have written and used “scriptures” to fit God into the boxes of our own devising, and to state that faith is what it means to abandon those boxes—to navigate the world without always having clear answers and a clearly defined object of faith.

As for Steven’s charge that I “cherry-pick the evidence to weigh in the favor of [my] liberal Christianity,” again this is a charge Steven has failed to substantiate. His one attempt to do so (in reference to Jeremiah 19:5-6) was an abject failure, displaying that it’s not my argument which is weak, but Steven’s ability to comprehend it.

That said, I do appreciate Steven’s cordial tone throughout most of his review, and I’m grateful he’s brought up the issues he has. I wish him all the very best.