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Reaction to the New York Times Interview, Part 2

March 18, 2019     Time: 28:43
Reaction to the New York Times Interview, Part 2


Dr. Craig listens and responds to a Christian talk show reaction to his New York Times interview.

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, we’ve looked at some non-Christian responses to your New York Times interview.[1] Let’s look at some Christian responses. This is from Todd Friel and Phil Johnson. Todd does Wretched Radio, Wretched TV, the podcast as well. Phil Johnson with John MacArthur’s organization. Todd is a talented radio dude. I wish I had half his skill. I wish I was as tall as he is, too! But in this particular podcast they take you to task on your answers in the New York Times. Let’s look at a few clips.

TODD FRIEL: Phil Johnson responding to Nicholas Kristof’s questions to William Lane Craig. We’ve got enough names floating around here. I’m glad you don’t have a middle name. This wold make it very difficult. He was asked, Was Jesus really born to a virgin? I will share with you . . . I'm not trying to take him out of context, but I'm just grabbing the things that I thought were kind of eyebrow-raising. Question: Are you actually confident that Jesus was born to a virgin? William Lane Craig says: I'm reasonably confident.



PHIL JOHNSON: That’s disturbing. That is just disturbing.


PHIL JOHNSON: Well, because we have a more sure word of prophecy. Peter’s saying it's more sure than his personal experience. When he was on the Mount of Transfiguration, the most spectacular thing he ever saw with his own eyes the glory of Christ unveiled, and he describes that event, and then he says, But we have a more sure word of prophecy.

TODD FRIEL: Something even better than a sign.

PHIL JOHNSON: And he's talking about the Scriptures. So if the Scriptures say it, I'm more sure of that than I am any other facts I know.

TODD FRIEL: Here's where I think that comes from. I've seen Christian philosophers – I'm always a little bit leery of putting those two words together.

PHIL JOHNSON: Same here.

TODD FRIEL: Because the philosophy tends to overshadow the Christianity and so from a logic and reasoning standpoint it's logical and reasonable to conclude that this could happen, so I'm reasonably certain. But that's not a Christian response.

PHIL JOHNSON: No, it's not.

TODD FRIEL: I'm absolutely certain. I'm totally certain.

DR. CRAIG: This response by these two Christian brethren is obtuse in a couple of ways. First of all, they fail to understand the evangelistic context in which these remarks were made. This is in The New York Times; in this secular publication. To make extravagant claims to absolute certainty in this kind of context would tend to undermine rather than enhance the credibility of Christian belief in the virgin birth. It is precisely these extravagant extreme claims to absolute certainty that are so objectionable to non-Christians. If you want to get a hearing, it's better to make modest claims and then substantiate them really well rather than to make extravagant or extreme claims that will simply close the mind of the person that you're trying to reach. The second reason that their remark is obtuse is because, failing to appreciate the value of philosophy for theology, they don't notice that if you are absolutely certain of something that entails that you are reasonably certain of it. The more extreme claim actually entails the modest claim. So in saying, I'm reasonably confident that the virgin birth took place, in no way excludes that I could be absolutely confident of it. Do you see the point? The extreme claim entails the modest claim. So if you make the modest claim, that isn't to exclude a greater degree of confidence, but it's to say, Yes, I'm reasonably sure. And then he did what he said he wasn't going to do – he quotes me out of context and fails to read the rest of the answer in which I give a good defense of the belief in the virgin birth, a defense that elicited angry responses from the secular readers of this who thought I was crazy for affirming the virgin birth.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let's continue with this.

TODD FRIEL: If God can create a universe he can deliver his son through a woman's womb.

DR. CRAIG: That was a point I made!

TODD FRIEL: This is the question: You don't believe the Genesis account that the world was created in six days or that Eve was made from Adam's rib, do you? If the Hebrew Bible's stories need not be taken literally why not also accept the New Testament writers took liberties?

PHIL JOHNSON: That is a very perceptive question, and that is the problem with abandoning six-day creation and the story that Adam was a historical person as opposed to some figurative creature that Scripture uses in a poetic fashion. If you don't believe the first chapters of Scripture are to be taken literally, where does your common-sense understanding lie? Where do you start?

DR. CRAIG: Let’s stop right there. That is not a perceptive question; that's a stupid question that is asked. It's the old slippery slope argument that if you take one part of Scripture non-literally then you are committed to taking the remainder of Scripture non-literally. And that is just naive. Hermeneutically, every interpreter of Scripture knows that you have to interpret the Scripture according to the literary genre or type that it is. So, for example, when you're reading the Psalms, you're reading poetry. If the Psalms describe the Lord as riding on the clouds with fire coming out of his nostrils and descending on the Earth, this is obviously a poetic image not to be taken literally. Similarly, no Bible scholar interprets the book of Revelation literally. This is Jewish apocalyptic literature which is full of allegory and symbolism. So to say that the genre of the first eleven chapters of Genesis is not a straightforward scientifico-historical account implies nothing about how you should read the Gospels. In fact, what I went on to say in my answer is the Gospels are a different type of literature than the primeval history of Genesis 1 to 11. The eminent Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen described Genesis 1 to 11 as history clothed in the figurative language of mythology – a genre he dubbed mytho-history. By contrast, the consensus among historians is that the Gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography, like The Lives of famous Greeks and Romans written by Plutarch. As such they aim to provide a historically reliable account. I am so encouraged that when scholars in the 19th century and early 20th century began to explore the Gospels and compared them to Greco-Roman myths, what they found was that in fact the Gospels cannot be plausibly interpreted as mythological in nature. What scholars discovered is that the correct cultural background for understanding Jesus of Nazareth was first-century Palestinian Judaism. So these are not documents shaped by pagan mythology; rather, these are ancient biographies like Plutarch's Lives and as such they aim to give a historically reliable report of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. So it is simply fallacious to say that if you take one part of Scripture non-literally that that implies that you have to take the Gospels non-literally. There is a clear line that can be drawn.

KEVIN HARRIS: Apparently our brothers here are Young Earth Creationists – six-day creation.

DR. CRAIG: Right.

KEVIN HARRIS: And very Calvinist, too, so you may not get a whole lot of sympathy.

TODD FRIEL: I've listened to the arguments that the first eleven chapters is really not historical narrative. Wait a second. Why did suddenly chapter 12 . . . now we're going to start actually telling you the details, and everything about those first eleven chapters is historical.

DR. CRAIG: OK, stop. Actually, the humor that he's trying to exhibit (making the sound of brakes screeching when you hit chapter 12 in Genesis) – that's exactly right! His joke is correct, in fact. Genesis 1 to 11 surveys thousands of years of primeval history. When you get to chapter 12 with the call of Abraham, it is like the brakes are slammed on and suddenly the narrative begins to relate in historical detail the life of Abraham and the other Israelite patriarchs. All Old Testament commentators recognize that the primeval history in the first eleven chapters of Genesis are set apart and distinct from chapters 12 to 50 in the book of Genesis. These first eleven chapters have many parallels in ancient myths from Egypt, from Mesopotamia. As Jacobson said, they are a kind of mytho-history. By contrast, there aren't any such parallels for the call of Abraham and the patriarchal narratives from chapters 12 on. Anybody familiar with commentaries on the book of Genesis will know that this distinction is commonly drawn.

KEVIN HARRIS: Continuing.

PHIL JOHNSON: I think people who fool around too much with philosophy get the idea that somehow they sacrifice some intellectual credibility if they posit the reality of miracles.

DR. CRAIG: Oh, now, stop. This is just irresponsible. Again, the attack upon philosophy – this seems to be the whipping boy for these brothers. What I'm talking about is Old Testament studies. I'm talking about hermeneutics, ancient literature. This has nothing to do with philosophy and certainly nothing to do with a presupposition against miracles. It's all about literary criticism and about hermeneutics.

PHIL JOHNSON: So they do the same thing not only with the first eleven chapters of Genesis but also with the book of Jonah and so on and so on.

TODD FRIEL: Right, you have to do away with the miraculous.

PHIL JOHNSON: So you ultimately face the question then in the virgin birth and all that; what do you do when you get to the resurrection? Because Paul is very clear – if Christ didn't rise bodily from the dead then your faith is vain and none of this is worth anything.

DR. CRAIG: OK. I welcome that comparison. I did my doctoral studies on the resurrection of Jesus as you know. And back in the late 18th and early 19th century scholars tried to explain away the resurrection of Jesus on the basis of the influence of these pagan myths of dying and rising gods. These gods were symbols of the crop cycle – when the crops die during the dry season and then the crops come back in the rainy season. These mythological deities were thought to have influenced the early disciples in believing Jesus has risen from the dead. That movement soon collapsed in New Testament scholarship primarily for two reasons. First of all, the parallels turned out to be bogus. In fact, it's doubted today by most scholars whether there are even myths of dying and rising pagan deities in these ancient religions much less that they're comparable to the resurrection of Jesus. Secondly, there's no causal connection between these myths and the earliest disciples and followers of Jesus. The disciples were Jews just as Jesus was a Jew, and it is against the backdrop of first century Palestinian Judaism that their beliefs about Jesus are to be understood – not against the backdrop of pagan mythology which the Jews would have found abhorrent. For that reason there's virtually no New Testament scholar today who thinks that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus was due to the influence of pagan mythology. Craig Evans has called this the eclipse of mythology in New Testament studies that occurred during the mid-20th century. It is simply not a relevant category anymore for historical Jesus studies.

KEVIN HARRIS: Continuing.

TODD FRIEL: That's the foundation you lay when you start all the way back in Genesis 1, saying I don't take this literally that the Lord really created everything in six days. As if that's too hard for him.

PHIL JOHNSON: Well, besides, if you make your way through even the book of Genesis . . . Were other miraculous events – were those historical narrative? What about the Exodus? The Red Sea? What about Elisha? Elijah?

DR. CRAIG: Again, this has nothing to do with the prejudice against the miraculous. Of course God has the ability to do miracles, and one affirms that. The question here is: are these accounts of, for example, creation meant to be taken as describing six consecutive 24-hour days. There are plenty of Bible-believing Old Testament scholars who would answer that question “no.” In fact, I think these fellows here represent a minority view.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let's continue.

TODD FRIEL: Elijah made an axe head float. That's my favorite miracle because it's not something you could explain away by any kind of solution.

PHIL JOHNSON: What do they do with those if that's actually narrative?

DR. CRAIG: What we do is we affirm them if they're in a historical genre of literature. These fellows just don't seem to have any sense of good hermeneutics of biblical interpretation, and they need to confront this hermeneutical question and not try to make the pretense that this is a matter of bias against the miraculous or implicit naturalism.

TODD FRIEL: Where does it end on this? Where does it kick in? He's laying the foundation – and I don't think William Lane Craig is ever going to just flat deny Christ or anything like that – but he is laying the foundation for his disciples to come to the Scriptures with a skeptical sort of allegorical interpretation.

PHIL JOHNSON: Look, we're reasonable. We reason. We're logical people. But we don't use reason and logic, and we certainly don't have it sit on top of Scriptures. It serves our understanding of the Bible, but it doesn't trump.

DR. CRAIG: OK, there they are thinking that reason and logic somehow trump Scripture in my thinking. If they were aware of what I say about the role of argument and evidence in the opening chapter of Reasonable Faith (which is on faith and reason), they would see that I think that reason, argument, and evidence is a God-given gift to help us better understand and defend our faith. So I support what Luther called ministerial use of reason. They are trying to misrepresent the question before us as a question about skepticism about miracles when it's not that at all. It's a question about literary criticism and hermeneutics.

KEVIN HARRIS: They accuse you of potentially undermining all the minds of all the people.

DR. CRAIG: I know. Oh man. It really is egregious.

KEVIN HARRIS: Would you agree an all-or-nothing mentality with the “all” being, It's either exactly like you were taught in Sunday school with the polar bears and the penguins all marching on the ark.

DR. CRAIG: And the dinosaurs, too! The dinosaurs marching on the ark.

KEVIN HARRIS: Or it's not at all. There are no nuances at all. It's the way Aunt Edna taught you in Sunday school, or it's that simplistic version without looking at genre and looking at all the things that you're talking about here. It's almost kind of an all-or-nothing.

DR. CRAIG: It does seem like that, and I'm really troubled. Although he affirms the use of reason and logic, it really seems that there's a depreciation here of the value of these tools that God has given us.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let's continue.

TODD FRIEL: If you take Genesis figuratively why don't you do that with the New Testament? Answer: Because the Gospels are a different type of literature than the primeval history of Genesis 1 through 11.


TODD FRIEL: The  eminent Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen describes Genesis 1 through 11 as history clothed in the figurative language of mythology, a genre he dubbed mytho-history.

PHIL JOHNSON: It’s an arbitrary . . .

DR. CRAIG: Now wait! Stop! That wasn’t all my response. I went on to say by contrast the consensus among historians is that the Gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography like The Lives of Greeks and Romans written by Plutarch. As such they aim to provide a historically reliable account. So the brother here, after saying initially he's not going to quote me out of context, reads half of the answer which doesn't explain why there is a difference between the primeval history and the Gospels due to their difference in literary genre.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let's continue.

PHIL JOHNSON: I mean, again, he simply made an arbitrary decision to interpret this part of Scripture figuratively and other parts of Scripture literally. And any other literary . . .

DR. CRAIG: It's not arbitrary. It is based upon difference in literary types.

PHIL JOHNSON: . . . critic who wants to try to make the point could say to him, No, all of the miracles are symbolic. In fact, you know that's what brought me to Christ in the first place. I had a pastor in the church I grew up in who was as liberal as the day is long, and he didn't believe in any of the miracles in Scripture were real. He never would have told the congregation that. But I had a Sunday school teacher who would tell us even as early as sixth grade, Don't take this literally; this didn't really happen. What's important here is the moral lesson. And I said, You tell us every week don't believe this bit of the Bible. If it's not true, I don't understand why we have to come on Sunday morning and talk about it. I'd rather stay home and watch the NFL pregame show. And she thought I was just being a smart aleck.

DR. CRAIG: Notice there the equation between something's being true and something's being literally true. This is a fundamental assumption that is made by folks like these two brothers, and that's simply incorrect. Figurative language can be true as well. If I say “the boss blew his top when I asked for a raise,” that's true. Now, it's not literally true. He doesn't have a top that blows off, but that figure of speech means he lost his temper. He got angry. And that's true.

KEVIN HARRIS: He hit the ceiling.

DR. CRAIG: He hit the ceiling, right! So figurative speech can be true or false. And it is a false equation to say that if something isn't literally true then it's not true. And that's what this gentleman just did.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let's continue.

PHIL JOHNSON: She thought I was just being a smart aleck, so she told the pastor. He called me to his office. He gave me all these reasons why the miracles in the Bible aren't true. And when I realized this guy doesn't even . . . and if anybody in that church knew he doesn't believe the Bible is true . . .

TODD FRIEL: He’d be out the door. Now, Phil, is it possible that your response was right, probing, and you were being a smart aleck? Is that possible?


TODD FRIEL: All right. Here we go. Back to the article. How do you account for the many contradictions within the New Testament? There's a loaded question from Nicholas Kristof.


TODD FRIEL: For example – here, he’s got one – Matthew says . . .

PHIL JOHNSON: This is going to be Judas hanged himself?

TODD FRIEL: Yeah, that’s right.


TODD FRIEL: And Acts says he burst open. They can't both be right.


TODD FRIEL: Yeah, exactly. The rope broke, he fell, and busted open. Next.

PHIL JOHNSON: Yeah. All of those supposed contradictions have been answered. Different facts that can be put together and both be true – that's not a proof of contradiction.

TODD FRIEL: Turn on NBC and they're going to tell you that it was a ten-car pileup, and then you turn to ABC and they say it was a two-car head-on collision? Who was right? Both of them. They were simply wanting to make a different point, or they saw the story from a different angle.

DR. CRAIG: Could I comment on this? This is interesting because he's making the same point that I made earlier that absolute certainty entails reasonable certainty. He's saying if there were eight cars in the pileup then there were two cars in the pileup. Eight entails two. So the news reported there were two cars in the pileup isn't making a mistake when it says that because if there were eight there were two. That's the very same point I was making earlier that absolute certainty entails reasonable certainty, and so when you say “I'm reasonably certain that the virgin birth occurred” that's not excluding that there was an eight car pileup in support of the virgin birth.

KEVIN HARRIS: Here's the end of the video.

TODD FRIEL: Same thing is true with Matthew, Mark and Luke.

PHIL JOHNSON: Not only that, you watch the news and every news story I've ever been part of or close to, when I read it in the newspaper they always get facts wrong. They always do. They're loaded with discrepancies if you read just all the various news accounts.

TODD FRIEL: Have you ever been quoted in a newspaper or something?


TODD FRIEL: How close to the truth was it?

PHIL JOHNSON: Almost never do they get it right.

TODD FRIEL: There's actually now a name for that – the media never getting anything right.


TODD FRIEL: I was going to say CNN. Here’s the response from William Lane Craig: I don't insist on the inerrancy of Scripture.

DR. CRAIG: Now, wait. Let’s stop. He left out part of the question here that gives a misleading impression. After saying that Matthew says Judas hanged himself while Acts says that he burst open, Nicholas Kristof says, they can't both be right so why insist on the inerrancy of Scripture. And it is to that question that I then respond. I don't insist on the inerrancy of Scripture; rather, I insist on what C. S. Lewis called Mere Christianity – that is to say, the core doctrines of Christianity. Harmonizing perceived contradictions in the Bible is a matter of in-house discussion among Christians. Let's go ahead and hear what his comment is.

TODD FRIEL: Rather, I insist is what C. S. Lewis called Mere Christianity; that is to say, the core doctrines of Christianity.

PHIL JOHNSON: Well, to paraphrase John Piper, farewell William Lane Craig.

TODD FRIEL: Yikes! Look, you don't stand alone on that. The Reformers would say if you don't believe in the inerrancy of Scripture . . .

DR. CRAIG: OK, now this is getting to be calumny at this point. What I said is I'm not insisting on the inerrancy of Scripture. And this gentleman interpreted that to mean I don't believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. They don't understand the difference between believing something and insisting on something. This is, again, obtuse on the part of these brethren. I am doing an interview in a secular newspaper in defense of the truth of the Christian faith, and I am not interested in getting Nicholas Kristof or The New York Times readers to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. I want them to believe that God exists and that Jesus rose from the dead. Then, once a person becomes a Christian, you can talk to him about the Scripture as the inspired word of God and therefore inerrant in all that it affirms. I'm talking about insisting on people believing in the inerrancy of Scripture in order to become a Christian.

KEVIN HARRIS: The most fire-breathing inerrantist that has ever lived would be accurate in saying, I don’t insist on it because there are various views on it. I insist on the core doctrines of Scripture. I mean, there's nothing inappropriate with saying that.

DR. CRAIG: I think he would. When you preach the Gospel – when Billy Graham would hold a crusade – did he say, Now, in order to come forward and give your life to Christ, you have to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture? Of course not! What he proclaimed was Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen from the dead. But, as you say, the most fire-breathing fundamentalist doesn't demand that people believe in the inerrancy of Scripture in order to come to the Lord. This is very disturbing.

KEVIN HARRIS: You can be led off on so many rabbit trails and never get to the Gospel when they say OK, but what about this? This account says this. Norm Geisler’s book has eight hundred Bible problems that you can look up. You know how long it would take you on an Internet exchange to chase down four or five hundred or three hundred discrepancies?

DR. CRAIG: I think it is far more important and far wiser as an evangelistic strategy to say to the unbeliever, You don't have to make a decision about how Judas died in order for you to come to Christ and believe that he died for your sins and rose from the dead. We can talk about that later on.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK. Continuing.

TODD FRIEL: You have no part of Christ.

PHIL JOHNSON: What he's saying is that Scripture isn't authoritative. He’d argue it is in a certain way authoritative, but he's not saying that it is the word of God.

DR. CRAIG: Oh my.

TODD FRIEL: So if I've got William Lane Craig books on a bookshelf at home, what do I do with them?

PHIL JOHNSON: I have a whole bookshelf of stuff that I wouldn’t endorse.

TODD FRIEL: In other words, read it to understand it if you are up to it, but not a reliable source for apologetics.

KEVIN HARRIS: Bill, you are not a reliable source.

DR. CRAIG: I’m not a reliable source for apologetics. I don’t think these fellows even understand the apologetics task. I mean, at most what he should say is I'm not a reliable source for doing theology and doctrine; but in terms of doing apologetics, I think that these fellows are clueless honestly. If they think that in order to justify the truth of the Christian faith you've got to justify things like Young Earth Creationism and biblical inerrancy, they are excluding people from coming to Christ rather than facilitating it.[2]


[2]           Total Running Time: 28:42 (Copyright © 2019 William Lane Craig)