Monday, February 06, 2006

"Da Vinci Code" Panel at Southeastern Seminary

I attended the 20/20 student conference at SEBTS last Friday-Saturday (Feb 3-4) with eight JPBC-ers (two law students; one med student; three undergrads; and two recent grads). We joined about a thousand conference attendees at the Wake Forest, NC campus.

The theme was "gods of his age" and the highlight was a Friday evening panel discussion on Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code book.

The panelists were Norman Geisler (veteran evangelical apologist and President of Southern Evangelical Seminary); Richard B. Hays (NT professor at Duke); Andreas Kostenberger (NT professor at SEBTS); and Bart Ehrman (NT professor at UNC-Chapel Hill).

Ehrman is a "happy agnostic" who once attended both Moody and Wheaton but became a confirmed skeptic of inerrancy and the claims of orthodox Christianity while doing PhD studies in NT at Princeton.

Hays is a mainline Methodist by confession. He may be the foremost interpreter of Paul in the secular academy. He is a believer but not an inerrantist.

Kostenberger is an Austrian born evangelical who is very conversant with what goes on in the secular academy but remains a committed conservative.

Geisler is an evangelical Thomist who argues that inerrancy is the only reasonable and logical position one might take on the nature and authority of the Bible.

The moderator was David Nelson of SEBTS. The discussion began about 8:30 pm and did not end till well after 10:00 pm.

This was a really interesting and engaging panel. I applaud SEBTS for sponsoring this forum. An honest discussion (and sometimes debate) took place. Many attacks on inerrancy and the historicity of the NT were offered in the course of the discussion (by Ehrman and Hays) that I am sure made the SEBTS administration pretty nervous. In the end, however, Geisler and Kostenberger held their own. In fact, I would say that Kostenberger gave the most winsome, thoughtful, and persuasive arguments. Though Geisler’s comments easily won over the pro-inerrancy audience, he sometimes came across as cocky and caustic.

We saw something that seems rarely takes place: an honest engagement between thoughtful "mainstream" (SBL types) and evangelical (ETS types) scholars.

The discussion began with each scholar making an opening statement. Ehrman began by reading a synopsis of the Da Vinci Code. He noted that it was riddled with historical errors (something all the panelists agreed with) but he also noted that there were issues in it that were legitimate (like the accusations against the church for suppression of "the feminine").

Kostenberger began by noting he read the book back in 2004, because he knew his father-in-law (a non-believer) was reading it and he wanted to be able to discuss it with him. He also decried the book’s errors. He made a comparison to the recent scandal over false statements in James Frey’s Million Little Pieces and expressed wonder that DVC’s errors have not evoked similar fuss. He sees it as evidence that in our culture "religion" is divorced from "truth."

Hays began by noting this was the first time in his 15 years at Duke that he had visited neighboring SEBTS (David Nelson later apologized to him that his first invitation to visit had been to discuss such a lame book!). He had not read the book till invited to be a panelist. He noted that it was an awful piece of literature. The writing was "sophomoric," the plot shallow, and the discourse on the level of USA Today. He also lamented its numerous and glaring historical and factual errors noting that most were on the level of the sort that professors find and collect in student papers in order to share with each other for a chuckle. He also decried its blatant anti-Catholicism asking how the public would respond if similarly nasty things were said about Jewish people.

Geisler began by stating that he also "skimmed" the book for the first time in preparation for the panel. He said he is not one to read novels and, in fact, he claims DVC is only the second such work he has ever read!!!

After opening statements moderator David Nelson posed various questions. All of the scholars agreed that there is absolutely no historical evidence for any romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (as Dan Brown suggests). Among other fallacious notions debunked: There were over 80 apocryphal gospels; the canon was created by Constantine; the divinity of Jesus was not "approved" till Nicea (several pointed out the fact that the early debate about Jesus was not his divinity but his humanity); gnostic theology was pro-woman; the Dead Sea Scrolls deal directly with Jesus and early Christianity; the gnostic Gospel of Philip was written in Aramaic, etc.

Flash points of controversy erupted over the inerrancy of Scripture. Ehrman, at one point, noted that only John’s Gospel directly affirmed Christ’s divinity. Geisler shot back with citations from the synoptics that easily disproved that notion. He defended inerrancy of Scripture defiantly citing Romans 3:4: "Let God be true and every man a liar." The sartorial Hays responded that one could still be a faithful Christian without adopting the "construal" of inerrancy. Ehrman seized the floor toward the end to give a rather impassioned anti-testimony of his journey from Moody to Princeton rejecting his "na├»ve" inerrancy after an "honest" and "unbiased’ reading of the Greek New Testament.

Another flash point arose over the role of women. Ehrman noted that any tradition that gave church roles to men but denied them to women was abusive of power. Hays chimed in noting that his Methodist tradition supported the ordination of women. Kostenberger responded for the inerrantist side granting sinful abuse of power by men in church history but defending a "complementarian" view of men and women in the church.

Again, it was a spirited discussion and SEBTS is to be commended for it. This was "academic freedom" in its proper bounds. How many moderate or liberal seminaries would invite men of the stature of Geisler and Kostenberger to their campuses for a similar discussion (as SEBTS did in inviting Hays and Ehrman)?


Alan Bandy said...

Great summary! It was a very lively discussion. I only wish the scholars had more time to interact with each other.

Paul said...

Thanks for the summary. Your last point is an important one. If orthodoxy is so flawed, and liberals (as they say) would like to remedy the mistakes, then why not start with such dialogs with the best that the conservatives have to offer.