Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Can Hank Hanegraaff Close the God Debate?

We in the logic-chopping business have a name for discussions which seem unending and unable to reveal a final conclusion. We call these “essentially contested” debates. That means that the positions in the debate gain their definition from the controversy, not from their ability to erase opposing positions. These discussions cannot, and indeed must not, end, because if they end, the positions lose their compass.

Of all the essentially contested debates, none looms higher than God’s nature and existence. Radio personality Hank Hanegraaff, in Has God Spoken?: Proof of the Bible’s Divine Inspiration, weighs in on the question, providing reasons why, at the very least, scriptural evidence is internally consistent and reliable, if you accept that God has any validity. What he doesn’t provide, notwithstanding his subtitle, is any actual proof.

Clearly an experienced arguer, Hanegraaff structures his systematic apologetics not just by the facts, but according to an approach that will make his concepts memorable. He relies on clever mnemonics to make abstruse concepts, like typological prophecy and Assyriology, seem straightforward. As religiously literate as I am, he introduces concepts I’ve never seen before, and makes them stick in my head.

But as he writes, Hanegraaff reveals his own limitations. Time and again, he feels the need to answer his opponents, especially Bart Ehrman, with whom Hanegraaff has an apparent ax to grind. I admit, Ehrman’s pedantic sophistry bores me, too. But Hanegraaff returns to him so often that he reveals how dependent he is from those he would refute.

Hank Hanegraaff
At various times, Hanegraaff characterizes Ehrman as “benighted,” “a fool in his folly,” and “the shock doc.” He also turns his disdain onto Christopher Hitchens, John Dominic Crossan, the Jesus Seminar, and Barack Obama, among others. He spends so much time and effort on dismantling others’ claims and disparaging his opponents’ presuppositions that, without anyone to oppose, he would clearly run out of anything to say.

Thus he can never really provide “proof” of divine inspiration. Even laying aside God’s abstract nature, which resists scientific scrutiny and therefore cannot be either proved or disproved, Hanegraaff’s core claims rely on refuting others’ claims. This does not mean that Hanegraaff is a weak arguer or that his claims are hollow, but it means that the heart of his book lies outside its covers.

The concept of proof innately assumes that we can close a debate. By providing sufficient evidence to construct an airtight case—say, that the accused really did murder the victim—we preclude all other options, and have nothing more to say. While a few ornery revisionists may try to exonerate John Wilkes Booth, most people consider the evidence, concur that it yields only one conclusion, and call the case proved.

The Bible cannot yield such proof. It can offer copious evidence, and many great minds have spent twenty centuries examining, collating, and bolstering such evidence. Yet it relies on the central premise that a transcendent force called “God” caused the entire universe, and continues to take an active interest in human affairs. All the evidence Scripture offers stands or falls on that central premise.

And that’s where Hanegraaff stumbles. He constructs an admirable network of evidence, one that I find highly persuasive, and even a pleasure to read. But when he approaches that core premise, he turns circular. We can regard Scripture as authoritative, he says, because it was inspired by God. We can assume God’s existence because it is attested in Scripture.

To his credit, Hanegraaff is not dogmatic. He has no more interest in millenarian alarmists than in secular hair-splitters. He scorches Harold Camping in a manner both witty and just. He demands that you don’t take his word for anything, but examine Scripture and earthly evidence, because understanding comes holistically. Despite his acceptance of the core God premise, he expects readers to take an active hand in their own inquiries.

But he tries to close the case, and that’s where he fumbles. He refutes others, and now others will refute him. As American philosopher Eric Hoffer observes in The True Believer, mass movements rely on opponents to give themselves shape. Hanegraaff could not have written this book without an Ehrman to oppose. Why should he think he gets the last word?

As a Christian, I find Hanegraaff’s web of evidence persuasive. But my friend Roger, agnostic from an early age, would not, because he doesn’t share that core premise. And that’s why, good as this book is, it falls short of its promise of proof.

1 comment:

  1. The reason I'm an agnostic, and I believe I can speak for many other agnostics too, is that there is few callings for us to make ourselves better for having a spiritual force in our lives. Often we're on the receiving end of an attempt at conversion because the converter believes that we are damned to hell otherwise. Christ should be an inspiration, and for me, he is. Many Christians, however, are the most effective weapon that agnosticism has. Christ should help complete a person, not define them, for actions that are done in order to please God or Christ (same thing, which is a stumbling block on the path of reason) are not done because they are good in their own right.

    If Christians are kindly and humble, and show that even the least of them can do things that Christ also did, that message would have more weight. When an individual, purporting to be Godly, tears at a person's spiritual totem, they are essentially attempting to put them through a metaphysical boot-camp. Tear them down and build them up by subscribing to my theology. That's not moral, and that's why people who would be church-goers don't go. Do unto others......etc. There's not much of that in evidence.

    As for my standpoint. Jesus existed. He had followers, and they did good works. He preached for people to become better in all regards. I doubt the miracles, because those were described by his disciples, whose existence was defined by being the follower of a great man, and I believe they exaggerated in order to build up their cause. And there's the problem, almost two thousand years have passed since Jesus did his thing, and all of what we have is filtered through men whose politics and theology have been the core of their lives.
    At this point, only a verified original gospel of Jesus Christ would be able to make Christianity viable to myself. The cynic in me says that the message in such a gospel would be a war zone for biblical scholars and religious figures, and would put off anyone who found the text of it inspiring.