Saturday, April 11, 2020
WM 162: Apologetics, Uncertainty, and Apostasy
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.”