This last Sunday evening (May, 7) I had the privilege of traveling with two buddies down to BIOLA to sit in a stuffy gym and watch James White debate Shabir Ally on the transmission of the New Testament.
It was my first time watching James debate live. I have listened to many of his other debates via MP3 and watched a couple on DVD, so I was a bit excited. Moreover, I knew I was going to expect a debate, not just a discussion between two guys nodding their heads in agreement and never really coming to any understanding as to what the truth really is. Additionally, I was looking forward to extensive cross examination, something often skipped in the dialog style debates.The question discussed was: Is the New Testament as it exists today the inspired Word of God.
Shabir Ally went first with his opening statement. Overall, Ally seemed to be a nice guy. He had a gentle disposition about himself. He didn’t come across as arrogant or cocky, and at one point during the cross examination, he even admitted his error to one of James’s question. I appreciated his humility. However, that is not saying much for his fans who attended (more about that in a moment). I also thought he handled himself well during his talk. He stayed on topic and didn’t go bounding down some odd ball rabbit trail.
Basically, his main thesis was that the NT as it exists today is partly inspired, but mostly a product of man. He appealed heavily to redaction criticism and apostate research by such men like media darling Bart Ehrman and the writings of the Jesus Seminary cranks to prove his point. For those not familiar with redaction criticism, it is the idea that the NT was a product of zealous Christians scribes exaggerating the stories of Christ over time so that the Jesus we see today is a product of later Christians embellishing the life of Christ, and in no fashion does the NT today reflect at all the real Jesus. Scribes have modified the text to such a degree, as Ally argues, that the true Jesus, the one presented in Islam as just a prophet from Allah, has been lost, or at least clouded over. Again, for those who have been following my sporadically posted KJV articles, I was reminded of how many KJV only advocates argue in a similar way by saying the biblical documents have been corrupted by heretical men and Christians need to depend upon one English translation that is alleged to have preserved God’s Word accurately, but I digress.
Ally further appealed to the priority of Mark and the Q document theory. He believes Mark was written first before all the other gospels, and then Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels by depending upon Mark and a mythical (meaning it doesn’t exist) document called “Q” to fill in the information found in Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. Ally assumes this theory as a presupposition because the bulk of liberal NT scholarship does. Sadly, he did point out how many conservative Christians are slowly adopting some of these higher critical beliefs, including some professors who teach at BIOLA.
James then got up and with his opening statement gave a direct and frank presentation as to why we can trust the NT and the higher critical claims used by Ally against the NT are both flawed and inconsistent. He began by establishing that Islam and Christianity are two monotheistic religions who teach God can and does reveal Himself with human language, so the issue of inspiration is not really a question under consideration. What is at stake is whether the NT as we know it today still contains that inspired Word from God.
James then moved into addressing how the Qur’an assumes the inspiration of the entire Christian Bible and cited how Mohammed directed people to the Bible to check if what he was saying was true. Thus, if the Muslim is going to claim the NT is corrupted, then at what point was it corrupted? Mohammed lived 600 years after Christ and all of the NT documents were written long before his time. Why then would Mohammed, an alleged inspired prophet, call Muslims to believe a corrupted book?
Then James addressed the inconsistent use of textual criticism by Muslim apologetics. On the one hand, Muslims use liberal scholarship like Ehrman to discredit the NT text, but will defend the Qur’an using conservative scholars. Why then is there a switch and why doesn’t the Muslim use textual criticism consistently across all boundaries, both NT and Qur’anic? He also gave a fine overview of how the NT was preserved and transmitted down through the ages as compared to the Qur’an being standardized by Utman by finding all those Qur’ans agreeing with him and burning all rivals.
I truly appreciate how James sets a standard of excellence with his debates. He spends the work getting to know his opponents arguments. I think at one point during the debate he talked about reviewing nearly 100 hours of lectures and debates presented by Ally for preparation. Moreover, he has the ability to talk really fast and articulate his words at the same time allowing him to cram a lot of information into the 20 minutes of time he is given.
Those who are listeners to the Dividing Line (why isn’t it podcasted so I can take it home on my ipod!?) may have heard how in his last debate with the KJV only anti-Calvinist, James was able to utilize some computer laptop gizmo (sorry Geeks, I don’t have the exact name of the thing on me) that allowed him to write notes on the screen and then it would transpose those notes electronically into a word document for him to read. I managed to snag a picture of it during the intermission. It looks like some sort of thing Captain Picard would use.
I would probably say the one weak spot in his main presentation was that James did not spend a lot of time addressing why he knows the NT is inspired. Ally pointed this out during his first rebuttal. James did mention during his rebuttal time the self-authenticating nature of the NT scriptures in 2 Peter 1:20 and 2 Timothy 3:16. Perhaps it is a matter of preference, but I thought it would had been better to present his position about inspiration in his opening statement, instead of dealing with it later after his opponent chided him for ignoring it. James did a fine job of explaining why we can confidently know the NT we have today is the same one written by the apostles, but lacked in explaining why it is inspired in the first place.
During the intermission we had about 10 or 15 minutes to get up and walk around. As soon as the moderator announced the break, both Shabir Ally and James were surrounded by people. James had his hands full with a vocal (and loud) group of Muslims yelling at him about some of the things he had brought out in his opening statement and his first rebuttal.
I didn’t hear exactly what they were pestering him about, but they were emotional and animated in that Middle Eastern Arab way if you know what I mean: Voices were raising and hands were waving. It was as if we were all of the sudden at a bazaar in Damascus listening to a group of men haggle over the price of figs.
As you can see by the picture, James did a good job holding his ground. The group was dismissed by a large staffer who muscled his way between James and the Muslims yelling at him. He hollers out, “Everybody back!” and the crowd was immediately dispersed. He stood by his table for the remainder of the intermission shooing away trouble makers. The picture is dark, but you can sort of make out the guy standing by James. That was one of the more amusing moments.
Some of the highlights and overall good points made by James:
During his opening statement, James discussed the use of “telescoping” by biblical writers. In other words, where there are two accounts of one story, the example cited being Jairus’s daughter in Matthew 9:18, 19 and Mark 5:21-24, one gospel writer may not go into as great of detail as another gospel writer. In the case of Matthew, he “telescoped” the events the girl being raised from the dead. Critics read all sorts of wild speculations into parallel passages like this one and view them as an example of inspiration being weakened. In reality, as James pointed out, it merely is the way a writer choose to convey the information he deems relevant for his audience and purpose. We do it all the time in daily life, argued James. Later, with Ally was speaking, he would summarize various gospel narratives and then caught himself by saying, “I guess I am telescoping the story.” To which James replied, “My point exactly, and you don’t have an agenda to modify the text.” Ally did this untentionally at least 3 to 4 times, with each time catching himself and driving James’s point further.
When asked about why people gravitate toward liberal scholarship and how do we distinguish between good scholarship as opposed to the bad, James spoke about the move in our society to pure skepticism due in part to postmodernist leanings. He made an excellent plea for a return to a biblically informed view of our world.
Then he closed out his debate by challenging the Muslims in the audience to consider their own claim that the Qur’an replaces the Bible as God’s revelation. He said basically (and I am “telescoping” here) “Mohammed was a man who lived 600 years after Christ lived and the apostles wrote and who knew little to nothing about Christianity. He and his followers mis-represent the scriptures and Christian theology. For a Muslim to claim that Mohammed is God’s final messenger and the message he revealed is to replace the Jewish and Christian scriptures, is like asking a Muslim to believe a man living in 1200 AD, who claimed to speak for Mohammed and Allah, but mis-represented Islam, should be followed and his teaching must replace the Qur’an.” I truly loved the illustration.
I think the one thing my friends and I took away from the debate is the need for Christians to be informed about the transmission of our Bible and a general working knowledge of textual criticism. That may be asking a lot of Christians these days with the glut of pocket sized devotional thoughts being sold in Wal-mart. As a result, know one is giving any serious consideration to the importance of knowing not only the content of our Bible, but why we believe it is inspired, infallible and preserved. This debate motivated us all to shore up our minds in this area.
James finally gave his fuller report on the debate, along with sending me some love with a shout out to my blog. I appreciate that. He also has more pictures. His are much closer to the action and more personal; mine look more like stalker photos.
And Patrick Chan gave a good complimentary synopsis as well.