On October 1, 2011, at Southern Methodist University in Texas, Bart Ehrman debated Daniel Wallace on the reliability of the New Testament text. For those who don't know, Bart Ehrman is the most renowned textual critic in the world and Daniel Wallace is the most renowned evangelical textual critic in the world. The DVD or audio recording of the debate is not yet available (that I know of), so I read reviews of it by folks who were there (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, OK Enough!). If this were James White, I would be savaged and name called and demeaned and humiliated (in a spiritual way, of course) for writing a post before I have seen or heard the debate. But I believe this post stands in the spirit of textual criticism. I have compared the various reports of those who heard the debate to arrive at what I believe was in the original. I don't have to actually see the original, in other words, to know what it was. That is what the adherents claim for the Word of God, so I feel safe in my initial observations about the debate. I'm not really commenting on who won the debate anyway, just writing what I know I can report at this point in time (out of breath from attempts at explaining).
From culling through the debate reports, I found that those hearing it, who were supportive of Dan Wallace, thought that Ehrman and him agreed on the evidence. The Wallace fans are generally disappointed in Ehrman. He doesn't come to the correct conclusions in their opinion, to conclusions that would be consistent with the kind and amount of manuscript evidence for the text of the New Testament.
Ehrman ends his scientific observations with maybe or possibly, which isn't good enough for his faith. And then Wallace ends his forensics with a definite probably, which is ample evidence for him. In the end, praise science and praise the textual critic. Without any theological presuppositions, he allowed the evidence to take him to the highest possible percentage of the truth.
Wallace says that the two ditches you don't want your science to run you into are the ditch on the right side, that of certainty, and then the left sided ditch, the one that Ehrman has driven into, the ditch of skepticism. Wallace, of course, sits on the middle road, the moderate road, that is neither certain nor skeptical. And that is the position, we are to expect, rings true with God, because that's all that science will leave us with. Again, hail be to science!
For a brief moment, I want us to consider why certainty would be a ditch. I mean, I get why skepticism is a ditch. You are a faithless apostate in that ditch. That, my friend, is a ditch. But if you believe in certainty, that seems to be what this Book we're talking about happens to teach. It teaches absolute certainty. How could what the Bible teaches be a ditch? It isn't, of course. Certainty is what God's Word itself teaches. It must be a ditch to Wallace, because he doesn't have certainty. And to Wallace, if you make certainty the standard, he himself would then be in the ditch of skepticism. And he won't be in that ditch, even though, you know, you aren't supposed to allow theological presuppositions to lead you to the truth, that is, unless the truth is a muddled moderate kind of truth that has some error in it.
When you start with what the Bible teaches, you find that man's observations, well, science, are tainted by sin. They are. That's why we look to the Bible for our faith. The Bible isn't tainted. It's God's Word. Everything is pure as it comes from God. And this is why we preach the Bible to men so that they will be saved. They have a rebellion problem that can't be moved by man's observation, by powerless external evidence, that is, by more knowledge. Knowledge isn't the problem. Rebellion is. But when it comes to what the Bible is, for most all of evangelicalism and a huge swath of fundamentalism, science is what men are going to use to tell us what it is.
Many of the same characters will swear by man's depravity. He can't come to anything of eternal value except by God's revelation and the Spirit of God. Textual criticism is at least one exception there. Why? It seems like the best explanation to them. A miracle, providence, whatever in the realm of supernatural, is too big a hurdle for their minds to accept. No. Plausibility. Best guess. And more data is being searched, discovered, examined, and catalogued. New conclusions are being reached and they're still tweaking the results.
And Wallace uses his knowledge to "persuade" Ehrman, just like James White did. But knowledge isn't the problem for Ehrman. Ehrman knows textual criticism. Ehrman knows all the evidence that Wallace is showing him. He's got best selling books on it. But Ehrman also knows what Scripture says. And Ehrman has looked at science and looked at Scripture and they clash on this issue. Science doesn't tell him what the Bible does. The Bible says about itself that it is perfect, that it is pure, that God would preserve it. It makes sense that God would too, since He makes a big deal about both inspiration and inerrancy. Ehrman can't reconcile the two and and he staggers in his unbelief. Knowledge isn't the problem for Ehrman. It's rebellion. But Wallace gives Ehrman nothing that would help him with that, just a bunch more science.
Wallace claims still to believe. It doesn't seem in the debate that he explains exactly how he is still able to do that. Maybe he did. From reading him, I know how he keeps believing. He keeps believing by modifying his beliefs to fit his science. He can't question what he thinks the science is, so he simply conforms his beliefs about inerrancy and authority and preservation to his science. Science is what has led him to a big chunk of his bibliology.
Bart Ehrman has trouble with a Bible with errors. He has a different standard for a Bible, something that would be called God's Word, than, say, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. A lot of trust goes into a book with miracles in it, most of which we are not seeing any more. Ehrman seems to think that those manuscripts that we still possess actually promise preservation and that would be fitting for a book that God requires us to live every Word. That's Ehrman's honest evaluation of it, and Ehrman cannot find his way to a perfect text through a morass of three or four hundred thousand textual variants, a gigantic round number that both Ehrman and Wallace agree upon (in case you were wondering). Yes, that's right, Wallace isn't questioning the number, just the conclusion from the number. Ehrman says, "That's a whoppin number!" Wallace says, "A big number, good for us; it just so happens that means we've got lots of old hand copies of the Greek New Testament."
In the end, Wallace thinks that Ehrman is expecting too much from the Bible. He thinks that, like him, Ehrman should diminish those expectations to preserve his faith. That's what Wallace has done. He has thrown some of the parts overboard in order to preserve the whole. Someone could easily make a very feasible scientific explanation of the textual evidence to conclude a position similar to Wallace. Probability is his resting place, actually in device, albeit not creed. Wallace suggests that Ehrman, like he, should depend on a high estimation that we have a relatively reliable trajectory back to the originals. Ehrman can't base faith on probability. Probability is fine for Plato's Republic, but not for something that makes a big point about perfection to the very jot and tittle. So the New Testament will continue to be nothing more than interesting literature to him, fun to earn a living talking about because of how dead serious so many are about it. And so little assurance about the subject matter makes the perfect resume for the top professor of New Testament at University of North Carolina.
In the end, Wallace doesn't like how Ehrman allows his own theological presuppositions to spoil good science. Sure, the earliest manuscripts are over a hundred years removed from the originals and could have been copied from a corrupt source, but that is probably not true. And that probability is something you can rest your faith on. Wallace has.