What follows is a very brief online interview with Dr. Timothy McGrew. McGrew is Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University. He specializes in theory of knowledge, logic, probability theory, and the history and philosophy of science, and he has published in numerous journals including Mind, The Monist, Analysis, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, and Philosophia Christi. His most recent publications include the article on “Evidence” in The Routledge Companion to Epistemology (forthcoming), a co-authored anthology in The Philosophy of Science (Blackwell, 2009), and a paper (with Lydia McGrew) on the the argument from miracles in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009).
A disclaimer. Other than inerrancy the questions are not particularly focused. They are mostly on-the-spot so to speak, and range from Biblical inerrancy, to evolution, the Genesis flood, and to Noah. I hope this brief interview is enlightening.
James Bishop: What is your view on inerrancy?
Tim McGrew: I don’t really have a position to sell you. Bart’s examples are so bad that they make me wonder, inductively, if inerrancy might be true after all [Tim is referring to a recent two part debate he had with scholar and critic Bart Ehrman]. But it isn’t a subject that interests me. I’m interested in knowing whether the main facts are true. The rest are details.
James Bishop: What were Bart’s examples that were bad?
Tim McGrew: Well, there are trivial variations in telling of stories — chreia — that are typical of the way people were *taught* to retell stories in that era.
Then there are the ones where he just deceives the reader about what the text actually says by omitting words to create an appearance of contradiction that isn’t even there in the text as a whole.
Like in Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 8-9 (I think), where he tries to create a contradiction within John.
James Bishop: Okay, here is a tough one: was every word in the gospels spoken by Jesus?
Tim McGrew: Are the Gospels trying to tell us with digital recorder precision what words Jesus said, or are they telling us what he said in a manner that is accurate in the everyday sense?
If the latter, then they can be accurate without being artificially precise. And we need to respect that common-sense distinction. Because we can get the *meaning* of what Jesus said, and we can trust that.
James Bishop: I know many critics say that the author of John added in a higher Christology, for example, say if Jesus, hypothetically, never said “I am the way, truth and the life?” What ramifications does this have?
Tim McGrew: Perhaps instead he said that he is the life, the way, and the truth. A skeptic with a fixation on precision will call our text an error in that case. A reasonable person with a desire to know what was meant will not.
James Bishop: Did the early writers of the gospels make up anything about Jesus at all? For example, it is widely thought that the authors had theological agendas. Even Luke admits so in his opening (see Luke 1:1).
Tim McGrew: Suppose I give a lecture, and after the lecture you come up to me and ask me whether you’ve understood what I’m saying. You might paraphrase my words — you might not use, in your entire summary, four consecutive words that I myself said. And yet, I might very well say to you, “Yes, that’s right, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
I do not think that the authors of the four Gospels made up anything Jesus said in a sense that would go beyond *that*. I think they paraphrased his statements, reorganized them sometimes to create whole chunks of moral or apocalyptic teaching, and chose among them for their own purposes. But no, I do not think they just made stuff up out of whole cloth. Ah, theological agendas.
Here’s an experiment. Find places in Matthew that are parallel to places in Mark — where they tell the same story about Jesus — but Mark simply moves on, whereas Matthew stops to point out a prophetic fulfillment. There are several of these.
Then, compare the way the story is actually told by Matthew to the way that it is actually told by Mark. You will discover that, despite his obvious theological agenda, Matthew has not changed the details of the story in any significant way. He wants you to see the theological significance of the events he is narrating, but that desire of his *does not change the way that he narrates them.*
James Bishop: Regarding the Gospel of Matthew some have alleged that he made up events. For example, some believe that the guard at the tomb was an “apologetic legend” to counter the proclamation of the Jews that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body. Others may include the account of Matthew fleeing into Egypt as a baby with the family. That is an enormous event, but is totally neglected by Luke?
Tim McGrew: I don’t see any reason to think it’s [the guard at the tomb] an apologetic legend. As for the flight into Egypt, I don’t think it was made up, for two reasons. First, I don’t think Hosea 11:1 could have given rise to that sort of idea about the Messiah, for the kinds of reasons I discuss here.
Second, there is Matthew 2:22, which is just tied in too tightly to the surrounding historical context for me to dismiss it as unhistorical.
If a gospel writer made up something, we would want to know (a) what it was and (b) how we could reasonably distinguish made up stuff from factual material. We would need a fully worked out example in order to say more; bare hypotheticals leave too many questions unanswered. (Compare: “What would the result be for modern science if we discovered that the sun does not exist?” — whaaaaaaat…???)
James Bishop: Fair enough, but then why doesn’t Luke mention such an important detail?
Tim McGrew: Why doesn’t Herodotus mention the existence of Rome — a military power in the Mediterranean significant enough to have a treaty with Carthage?
Why don’t the archives at Barcelona have a single scrap of paper giving a contemporary account of the return of Christopher Columbus?
Why don’t the memoirs of General Ulysses Grant contain any reference to the Emancipation Proclamation?
Why don’t the memoirs of Marco Polo ever mention the Great Wall of China? (“Think, Marco! Did you see something 15 feet high, 20 feet wide, and hundreds of miles long?”)
Or tea — though he travelled through the tea districts of China? Or printed books — though he mentions printed money? Or footbinding? Or the use of the cormorant for fishing?
Why doesn’t Pliny the Younger mention the destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii in his description of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79?
James Bishop: If a contradiction (that violates the law of non-contradiction) can be successfully shown, then what would the result be for Christianity’s truth, and the Bible?
Tim McGrew: Assuming you mean that it is guaranteed, or so close to guaranteed as makes no difference, that the correct interpretation puts two passages of Scripture in contradiction to one another, the result would be that Scripture is not inerrant. By itself, this need not have vast consequences for the truth of Christianity. (Not everyone will agree with this statement!)
James Bishop: Okay, now moving on: what is your view on evolution? Is it compatible with Christianity, or not?
Tim McGrew: I think broadly speaking it is, but there are some points where I have empirical problems with the -molecules-to-man narrative. So I accept an old cosmos and an old earth, but I think there were historical Adam and Eve.
James Bishop: Can there be evolution and a historical Adam & Eve?
Tim McGrew: Depends on what you mean by “evolution.” For some meanings, yes. For others, no. Even common descent could be accommodated via the notion that Adam and Eve were specially selected for (say) ensoulment and the conferral of the imago dei. That isn’t the way I would go, though, because there are empirical problems with common descent that seem to me quite serious.
James Bishop: Was the Genesis flood a local or global event?
Tim McGrew: I am not sure. If it was global, we haven’t found the geological evidence of it; there are lots of local floods around the world, but as far as I know the time scales don’t seem to line up — they look like different local floods at different times. If it was local, that would suffice, and it would do justice to the “whole land” language of the text if we remember how such terms are commonly used hyperbolically in all Ancient Near Eastern texts.
On the other hand, there seem to have been some common stories about the flood that circulated as far away as India. See the Hindu story in the Padma-puran, for example.
James Bishop: Why do many Christians dislike evolution so much, when it may have been God’s mechanism of creation?
Tim McGrew: I think it’s largely a cultural phenomenon. People in the late 19th century used evolution as a weapon against Christianity. The Christians returned the compliment. That’s how a lot of things start.
James Bishop: What is your view on the reliability of the Old Testament?
Tim McGrew: I think it’s surprisingly reliable, and I think that reliability with regard to the history of Israel has been laid out well by Kenneth Kitchen in his book On the Reliability of the Old Testament.
James Bishop: What is your view on the Epic of Gilgamesh? Did the Genesis account copy it, and therefore it cannot be of God?
Tim McGrew: It doesn’t look to me like Genesis is copying the Epic of Gilgamesh. Genesis looks like a pretty plain telling of events that are dressed up in epic form for the Gilgamesh epic. But suppose that I’m wrong and it did. How, exactly, would that show that it is untrue?
James Bishop: Are they both describing the same events? For example, common skeptics claim: “The Bible is just describing a flood myth, and even worse it is based off an older myth!” How would you respond?
Tim McGrew: I think some of the same events may lie behind both accounts. And that fact accounts adequately for their similarities. Firstly, why suppose that there is no historic fact behind both stories? And secondly, what factors persuade you that the Biblical description of the events is literarily dependent on the Gilgamesh description?
James Bishop: If the flood was a localized event, then did Noah take local animals onto the boat then? After all, Noah would have come from an agrarian background, he was probably a farmer.
Presumably. Almost everyone was a farmer. That would make sense.
James Bishop: Okay, what about Jonah and the fish. Do you think he was really swallowed by a large fish, or is it just some silly Biblical story?
Tim McGrew: If the story is intended to be a historical narrative — and that is a question of genre — then I think he was swallowed by a creature specially prepared by God for the purpose. So far as I know, no ordinary sea creature, including any known kind of whale, is capable of swallowing a man whole. I think it is possible. But it would have required either an unparalleled natural freak or a special act of God. Neither of those is impossible.
I haven’t looked carefully into the genre question, and I know that there are people on both sides of that issue. If the genre is historical, then I should say that it did happen.
James Bishop: Would you consider a Young Earth Creationist a fundamentalist?
I don’t really think in those terms. Sociologically, probably most people who are YEC would acknowledge the label. But I suppose some might not. I don’t take their perspective, but I have a sort of live-and-let-live attitude. I know some smart, articulate people who take that perspective. We can agree to disagree. Where we really have a problem is where they insist that one must adopt their perspective to be a Christian. Even AIG stops short of that (barely).
This is where our discussion ended. However, I will be sure to post more interviews like this, with McGrew’s persmission, in the future!