Image: Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal
Note: I have posted WM 162: Apologetics, Uncertainty, and Apostasy. Listen here. In this episode I discuss issues related to epistemology and the text of Scripture, looking in particular at the recent "deconversion" of "internetainers" and foemer CRU college ministry staffers Rhett & Link. Here are some notes from this episode:
A PIA (popular internet apologist) is fond of saying that if one embraces the confessional text position that he necessarily abandons any meaningful apologetic. According to this person, one can only do apologetics in the “real world” if he embraces the modern critical text.
The confessional text is attacked, in particular, for claims of certainty that the true text has been preserved within the traditional printed texts of the Reformation.
It is suggested that such claims are but a form of narrow-minded fundamentalism. It is, supposedly, to trade “truth for certainty.” But are truth and certainty incompatible? Can one not seek BOTH truth AND certainty?
What has been the fruit of modern text criticism (even among evangelical and Reformed Christians) in these postmodern days?
It is suggested by some, for example, that the PA (John 7:53-8:11) is an authentic account of a historical incident in the life of Jesus, but that it was not an original part of John’s Gospel, is not inspired, and (in the most extreme cases-as in the THGNT) it should be removed from our Bibles and relegated to a footnote. Others suggest, though not original, that it still might have some place in John, but should be placed in brackets with explanations that it is a later spurious addition. This is but one example of the undermining of confidence in the text of Scripture. If the PA is not original, then why and how did it ever find its way into the Bible? If it is not authentic then what else is not authentic? The PA is but one example.
This epitomizes the problems raised by the modern critical text with respect to epistemology (the doctrine of knowledge-How do we know the truth? How do we know what Scripture is and what it is not? What is out authority?).
Garnet Howard Milne begins the introduction to his book Has the Bible Been Kept Pure? with this statement: “The Protestant Reformation was essentially a dispute over religious epistemology” (20).
The Reformers held to sola scriptura, Scripture as the preeminent authority for faith and practice, that Scripture is inspired (theopneustos), self-authenticating (autopistos) and providentially preserved.
This view was opposed by Rome and later by “free thinkers” who attempted to use the existence of scribal variants as a means to undermine Scripture’s authority. Later there developed the modern critical method (of which modern text criticism is a subset) to treat the Bible as any other book.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries evangelicals began to abandon their confessional defense of the preservation of Scripture and instead attempted to defend the “inerrancy” of the Bible by “reconstructing” a supposedly lost original, using the terms and techniques dictated by modern text criticism. The result was the rejection of traditional text and the abandonment of any consensus on the certainty of the text.
Again, this has been presented to believers by the scholarly experts as a superior intellectual and spiritual method. Christians are asked to believe in the Bible, even if we cannot be certain in articulating its canonical content and boundaries. It is even suggested that this has always been the position of the church and that it was the Reformers who were departing from Christian tradition in putting forward the whole notion of a fixed text, a fixed canon, and divine preservation.
One odd development has been the fact that while essentially embracing the method of the unbelieving academy and its most prominent thinkers (like Bart Ehrman), evangelicals then turn around and say that only they are suited to do “apologetics” against the academy (see, e.g., the ehrmanproject.com).
If we could draw an analogy, it might be this one: What if the Republican party said they were going to embrace all the public policy commitments of the Democrat party (including socialism), so that they could better position themselves to critique the Democrat party and defend the Republican party? Would that make sense? [Aside: Alas, some believe that Republicans have done that very thing. But we are talking about text criticism].
What has been the fruit of evangelical embrace of the modern critical method?
Rhett and Link:
These ideas came to mind recently when I heard about the recent “deconversion” or, as they called it “deconstruction” of their faith, by two prominent youtube personalities and former CRU staffers.
I must admit that before hearing of their deconversion I was completely oblivious to the existence of these two men and their youtube notoriety. My young adult children would say they are not at all surprised by my ignorance of this.
Rhett and Link are Rhett McLaughlin (b. 1977) and Link Neal (b. 1978) describes themselves as “internettainers.” They created and host a youtube comedy and variety program called Good Mythical Morning (GMM) which they started in 2012 (making them pioneers in becoming professional youtube personalities) and they now have more than 17 million subscribers.
Part of their story is that they met as children in Buies Creek, North Carolina, where Rhett’s father was a law professor at Campbell University (I almost went to college there—but that’s another story) and Link was raised by a single mother. They have been best friends since 1984. A central part of their lives was involvement in the First Baptist Church of Buies Creek and then in a split from that church and in various youth group ministries sponsored by that church. They later went off to NC State together where they both studied engineering and became professional engineers.
They came onto my radar screen, however, when I read in various Christian press about their “deconversion” from evangelical Christian faith, which they announced on a separate videocast they host titled “Ear Biscuits.” This announcement came in two episodes: First, the story of Rhett’s deconversion on 2/9/20 and then Link’s on 2/16/20.
Many of their “fans” did not even know they were Christians, though I am told that some thought they were and that their videos were popular with some in the homeschooling community some years back. Many were even more surprised to learn that before becoming professional “internetainers” they had worked full time with the ministry of CRU doing comedy/discipleship events. They preceded their “deconversion” stories with two episodes unpacking their previous lives in evangelical “ministry” (see here and here).
There is a lot that is sad, discouraging, and disheartening that comes out of their story. There is a lot in their story that I can identify with, given that I grew up in NC (my wife’s family is 30 minutes from Buies Creek) and I was also influenced by college campus ministries. We can add Rhett and Link to the growing list of former evangelicals, and even evangelical ministers, who have apostatized (from Josh Harris to “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” fame to former Caedmon’s Call “Christian musician” Derek Webb, and more). Of course, from a Reformed perspective that upholds the perseverance of the saints we would say that if they remain obstinate in their rejection of the Gospel, such men were false professors. “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19a).
I was reminded of what now seems a very prophetic article by the “Internet Monk” Michael Spencer on “The Coming Evangelical Collapse” back in 2009. I did a blog post on the article. I had almost forgotten that I was also invited to do a talk on this topic to the “Society for the Preservation of Baptist Principles and Practices”, a minister’s fraternal in 2009 (listen to that talk here).
I do not look at their testimonies as representing a failure of Christ at all, but it does clearly point to the failures of the evangelical church, of modern youth ministries, and entertainment drive para-church ministries.
As I listened to Rhett’s “deconstruction” of his faith, I was struck, in particular, by the ways in which they reveal how modern evangelical apologetics, particularly regarding the Bible, had failed this man and many others of his generation.
Listening to a few clips from Rhett’s “deconversion” anti-testimony:
Rhett: “I stopped being certain, and I lost my appetite for certainty.”
I don't think we can every have absolute certainty about what we believe. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. We walk by faith not by sight. Why would we hope if we saw what we hoped for? Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
Religious faith, by definition, excludes the type of certainty one would find in fields of knowledge such as engineering. And engineering students often aren't the best when it comes to theology.
I've noticed many of those who have deconstructed, as they say, have grown up in the church. It seems they had a head knowledge of the faith but not a true heart of faith. Usually such people are also highly intelligent. Yet the gospel is very simple. Perhaps too simple for some (not many wise, not many noble). Hopefully they will truly believe someday.
To reject the faith due to a lack of certainty is, I think, a profound misunderstanding of our faith. We have good reasons for believing what we do... it's not a blind faith... but it is faith (belief) nonetheless.
In short, we believe what we've been told (via the spoken and/or written word of the gospel) by those who came before us in the faith.
Can we prove that Jesus is alive right now? Can we prove the Bible is the word of God? No. We believe Jesus is alive right now. We believe the Bible is the word of God. God gives us the faith to believe.
Regarding the text, I think the best book ever written about the traditional text (and the book I return to most often) is The King James Version Defended by E. F. Hills. Hills doesn't support the idea of absolute certainty regarding the text of Scripture. As he says, we can have maximum certainty, and that's as good as it gets. Some readings, he says, we can never be certain about. And I'm okay with that.
AJ, thanks for the comment. Yes, of course, faith does not come about by virtue of empirical proof. This episode was more about the problem with modern evangelical apologetics that make doubt and lack of certainty a veritable spiritual discipline and the results are disastrous.
As regards the text of Scripture I like Hills book but I am not sure I am completely on board with his construal of "maximal" as opposed to "absolute" certainty. Take, for example, the PA.Is it Scripture? Can I answer yes, it is, with absolute certainty? I think I can. Other more challenging texts have to be taken on a case by case basis and approached with humility. That, however, is a far cry from abandonment of certainty regarding the text typical of modern text criticism, which leads down the road taken by those like Rhett and Link IMHO.
I have a different story, though it goes the opposite direction. I was raised Lutheran, and was taught Luther's Small Catechism, and went through two years of confirmation. However, I ended up moving to a very liberal town, which promoted the same ideology that most of our Public institutions do today. I eventually fell into doubt and confusion. First the slide into unbelief was an adoption of a practical Agnosticism, and then after thinking it over some, I realized that I didn't know God and He doesn't know me. I also figured that no man could know God unless He come and tell him in person. My only standard in life was that as long as someone doesn't kill anyone or steal from them, they are good. Whatever else they did was of no consequence in my mind. In 1995 one of my best friends was killed trying to break up a fight at a beach party after work. I remember getting the news and the feeling of loosing a friend with no hope in sight. I was a pallbearer, and a thought pricked my mind during the funeral and it was this: "I have to figure out what this was all about!" The reality of death has a way of jolting a man's conscience. This was especially true because we were 17 years old and our lives were just beginning!
It took a while, but after much searching and studying I was lead to Christ through a Baptist Student Mission at Southern Arkansas University where I attended. I had studied every major world religion and philosophy I could think about, and I also began to search out my doubts about Jesus and the Gospel. I not only read the Bible (well it was a 1984 NIV! Lol), I also read Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, and Josephus. After covering that ground I established at least that Jesus was a real person. What was compelling to me was the history of the Apostles after the resurrection. Why would all those men and many others risk their lives like they did over a lie? This question stayed with me and I couldn't let go of it. I give God the credit, but this compelling thought was pivotal to my conversion. It wasn't until after my conversion that the Bible manuscript issue was even brought to my attention.
You are right pastor, apologetics can only take someone so far. It is the Word of God and the Holy Spirit that illuminate the mind of man, awaken his conscience to his condition and his need for repentance and faith. In my case God used a poor translation (NIV 1984) and the love of a campus pastor, but He didn't stop there. I wish I could say my sanctification has been clean and linear, but I would be lying.
Rhett and Link's testimony makes me sad. I have been there for one thing, but to have tasted the gift and reject it as they have seems scary to me. I will be praying for them in hopes they will repent and that God would give them eyes to see. The only reason I knew anything about them is that a deacon at our church has shown some of their silly videos to the kids at some of our small group meetings after we were done with the Bible study. I have to admit some of them were pretty funny.
Thank you pastor Riddle for your blog and podcast. I also listen to your sermons while driving back and forth from destinations at work, they are very sound and encouraging. I will be praying for you as well. God bless.
Phil, thanks for sharing your testimony and for your encouragement. One of the CRU staffers wrote a thoughtful response (somewhere online?) regarding Rhett and Link's very public deconversion, noting the contrast with the fact that when they were supposedly still professing faith they never made it a public issue (probably for fear of offending viewers/clients). I am glad and humbled to hear that you are getting some profit from listening to messages from CRBC. Blessings, brother and keep the faith.
I wanted to share the link to Answers in Genesis's response to Rhett and Link in case anyone is interested. I am a Creationist, but I am not entirely sure if I am old or young earth. Still trying to sift out the details there. I thought they had a good response regarding their thoughts on Creation vs. Evolution. The link is as follows: https://answersingenesis.org/culture/rhett-link-deconversion-culture/
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