This one comes to us from David Clay.

Growing up in church, I was aware that there were people who questioned the Bible’s authority on scientific and sometimes moral grounds. What I didn’t know about before going to college was the existence of a large-scale scholarly enterprise that systematically put the historical reliability of Scripture on trial (hence why this enterprise is often dubbed “historical biblical criticism”).

This changed when my freshman Old Testament Survey course made a brief reference to the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch, which rejects the traditional claim that Moses authored the first five books of the Bible and instead details how they were stitched together over the course of centuries from four separate documents (or more, depending on who you ask). The scholars working within this framework tend to attach little historical value to the Pentateuch’s narratives, which they understand to be composed hundreds or thousands of years after the events they claim to depict. 

More than a little distressed, I began to educate myself on the Documentary Hypothesis in particular and the “historical-critical” method of reading Scripture in general. It was then only a matter of time before I came across the (in)famous search for the Historical Jesus. Even before college I knew that there were those who did not take the gospel accounts at face value: Thomas Jefferson, for instance, literally cut the miracle accounts out of the gospels. I was, however, completely in the dark about the enormous amount of scholarly energy expended in peeling away “secondary” gospel material in order to get at “who Jesus really was,” before the early church allegedly co-opted his person and message to suit its own needs. 

A commonplace of Historical Jesus scholarship is the denial that Jesus claimed divinity or even Messiah-ship. The implications are obvious and disturbing to a believer attempting orthodoxy. It’s one thing if Moses didn’t really write the Pentateuch; it’s something entirely different if the Nicene Creed would have baffled the historical Jesus. Worse still, the arguments critical scholars advance are usually not obviously wrong. They take a good deal of care and consideration to understand, much less refute. 

At this point, the main question rattling around in my undergraduate head was, Why did no one ever tell me about this stuff? None of the devout, intelligent, and highly-educated men and women in my church, who gave so much of themselves to train me in scripture, theology, and the Christian life had ever so much as mentioned historical biblical criticism. I briefly suspected some kind of conspiracy, but I soon came to the conclusion (which I still hold) that they just didn’t know about it. Or, maybe, they knew that it existed, but had decided that it wasn’t worth looking into. 


The conclusions of some Historical Jesus scholars can be added to a pile that I’m going to dub Sophisticated Arguments Against Christianity (SAACs). By definition, SAACs require a sustained intellectual commitment to refute — they are not clearly wrong. What interests me here is that a great many (most?) Christian believers, including well-educated ones, are either wholly ignorant of SAACs or else haven’t spent any time studying them. 

One idea that could help us understand this phenomenon is rational ignorance, first articulated in the 1950s as a way of explaining why so many American voters were (and are) profoundly lacking in political knowledge. By way of example, a 2018 C-SPAN poll found that over half of American voters could not name a single Supreme Court justice, despite overwhelmingly agreeing that Supreme Court decisions had a direct impact on their lives. 

But that kind of ignorance is rational, the argument goes, because voters perceive that the time and effort necessary to educate themselves just isn’t worth it. It’s extremely unlikely that your one vote will be the deciding factor in the next election, especially a national one. As such, it makes sense that you would content yourself with a very modest supply of political information. 

Law professor Ilya Somin, a widely-regarded authority on rational ignorance, has also applied the concept to religion. Huge numbers of religious believers are, it turns out, deeply uninformed about the tenets and histories of their own religions (much less objections to them). This is a bit more puzzling than political ignorance. You almost certainly won’t decide the next president, for instance, but you could at least try to make sure you’re in the right religion (or that you’re not wasting your Sunday mornings if, for example, atheism is likely to be true). Eternity might be worth skipping some TV time, or it might not. By way of explanation, Somin speculates that a lot of believers are actually quasi-universalists, who feel deep down that a doctrinally vague spirituality is enough. 

But even those Christians who are knowledgeable and passionate about their faith might choose (consciously or otherwise) to remain ignorant of SAACs. After all, if Christianity is helping you get through life, why mess with it? In the best case scenario, you walk away believing pretty much what you did before. What’s the payoff for the hours of study and potential spiritual turmoil? 

The answer, of course, is intellectual honesty. Knowing that you did your level best to arrive at the truth is worth any cost. To be honest, for quite some time I was a bit irritated with my Christian brothers and sisters who seemed to give little thought to whether the stuff they believed was true. “Is this the most important thing in your life or not?” I would sometimes think. “What about loving God with all your mind as well as your heart?” 

Over time, however, a couple of important truths got pounded into my head. First, I did not and do not have a clue what’s going on in the minds (and hearts) of other people. Secondly, my attitude towards the pursuit of truth was wrongheaded and unbiblical. 

To be sure, in most arenas of human knowledge, truth must in fact be pursued with rigor, intellectual discipline, and determination. Obtaining knowledge of biology, architecture, or human behavior is hard intellectual work. 

On the Bible’s telling, however, the Ultimate Truth about Everything is something that God just gives people willy-nilly (Mt 11:25). What’s worse, God usually gives it to the wrong kind of people: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards … But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:26-27). 

For us “theologians of glory,” who wish to impress God with our dedication to pursuing truth, this is just infuriating. Along with the Pharisees, we’re apt to mutter, “But this crowd, which does not know the law—they are accursed [or at least intellectually subpar]” (Jn 7:49). But the God of the Bible has decreed that he will not be known by human wisdom or inquiry, but only through a foolish message about a despised and crucified rabbi. 

SAACs exist. God calls some Christians to answer them. But a faith that does not answer them, or consider them, or even know about them, is not substandard; and truth is not a reward for the rigorous and disciplined. We might seek truth, but only because it — he — has already found us. Truth, after all, has a human face, and it is he who pursues us.