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.
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.