Bart Ehrman and the Hyper-Rational Protestants


My post on what I call “hyper-rational Protestants” and the canon of Scripture generated much discussion.

The Protestant interlocutors attempted to demonstrate through historical evidence and rational analysis alone that we can know the Protestant canon is true. The Catholics tried to show them that the evidence is ambiguous and cannot provide conscience-binding certainty.

This post will draw an analogy between this particular Protestant line of thought and the work of former-Christian-turned-agnostic Bart Ehrman. To begin, a formula for your consideration:

Bart Ehrman = Hyper-rational Protestants – Faith

That reads, Bart Ehrman’s paradigm is like that of the hyper-rational Protestant, if you subtract the aspect of faith.


Because he has analyzed all the historical evidence and argues that it demonstrates without question that the authenticity of the Bible is questionable, that many of the books are forgeries and frauds:

And how does he defend his ideas? As he says in the video, “these ideas are not just my view but the consensus view among critical scholars!” And he lists the most prestigious colleges and seminaries in the U.S., noting all the New Testament scholars agree with him.

Sound familiar? It’s the same line being given by my Protestant interlocutors, who claim that the historical evidence is a landslide in favor of the Protestant canon. And like Ehrman, they want to dive into all the details to try to prove their point. Notice in the video how he lists verse after verse of the Bible that relies on a single textual variant (among many that do not contain the critical verse). He loves this stuff.

And as a side note, Ehrman knows quite well how ambiguous the historical evidence can be. He makes his entire livelihood off of it, using it to attack Christianity’s credibility! Which undermines the claim that the Protestant canon is obvious from the historical evidence.

Can Christians respond to him and counter with their own evidence that his reading of the history is not the only plausible one? Yes. They can. And they should. But do you think Ehrman is going to be convinced by their analysis? No way!

Because, like my Protestant friends who commented up a storm last week, Ehrman is convinced that his reading of history is the obvious one. His conception of history is dogma. And his supporters, some of whom have challenged me at various times over the interwebs, always brag on his impeccable and exhaustive historical scholarship, claiming that it is irrefutable. They want to drag the conversation into the weeds of Ehrman’s details and his pet passages.

I refuse to go there, both with Ehrman’s followers and with my Protestant friends, because I’ve been down that road many times, and it goes nowhere. It’s not the way out of the maze. The way out is to climb up above the maze, so that you can see clearly to escape.

Fortunately, my Protestant friends have faith, faith that believes God inspired books to be written, faith that believes He guided someone(?) to compile them together. Ehrman doesn’t. But Ehrman and my friends both make the mistake of relying on historical evidence and reason alone to demonstrate which canon is the true one.

So my appeal to my Protestant friends is: Don’t be like Bart Ehrman! Use your faith and your reason to climb on top of the maze and see the way out, the way which leads to the Catholic Church.

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13 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman and the Hyper-Rational Protestants”

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Brandon. I saw that project when googling Erhman–good for them getting up their in the results to counter him!

      I am anything but a fan of his–I see him as a slightly more credible version of the Jesus Seminar–but he gets throngs of followers, often Christians who are wavering in their faith and find his “work” and latch onto it as alleged evidence against believing in Christ and His Church.

  1. Actually, Ehrman is just being consistent. If the Church is just a collection of believers and not divinely instituted, then you can’t exclude heretics. How could you? By whose authority can you decide who’s legit? Even given the canon of scripture Protestants can’t do it now. Even when you get two denominations recognizing each other as legit, you will always find that one denomination recognizes another denomination as legit that the first doesn’t. Either that or they just assume all are inaccurate but trust that God will sort out the heart. In either case, heretics get a vote. So Ehrman is correct. 100 years ago, Ehrman would be laughed out of town since each Protestant denomination thought it was right and everyone else was wrong. But not now.

  2. This was a really interesting comparison. And, I think you’re right-on. I’ve heard many (Protestant) sermons on why the canon is accurate and the Bible is true, using historical evidence and reason alone. Yet without the element of Church Authority, the waters start getting muddy as critics attempt to discredit those things.

    I took a “Christian Origins” class in college (taught by a Buddhist). I remember sitting there thinking that anyone in the class with ANY amount of doubt could easily be swayed by the teacher’s claims that Christianity is false and the Bible a sham. Scholars, the Jesus Seminar, even the chaplain at Stanford giving a guest talk–how do you argue against that? It’s hard to do using just reason and historical evidence. So, so sad. (And ridiculous.)

    I am becoming increasingly grateful for Jesus’ promises about, and to, the Church.

    1. Brianna, so glad you corroborate this. You can see it. Ehrman and the Jesus Seminar have been leading people out of the Faith for decades, acting like the things they say are the only plausible understanding of history. Protestantism cannot combat these guys as well as Catholicism can because, as my Protestant friends show, in avoiding the agency of the Church (since they don’t trust it), they try to rely on the murky historical evidence alone.

  3. Devin,

    I would like to add a caveat/caution. I’m going to number my comments to make it easier to respond to them.

    1. Catholics and Protestants are on the same side of the table (same team) regarding the problems with the historical-critical method. Ehrman et al. make a decision regarding what import the textual variants have on the inspiration of Scripture and ignore evidence that is still overwhelming in favor of our ability to trust the texts we have today.

    2. What Ehrman et al. are doing is deconstructionist/revisionist history. It starts with a theory and then makes a false deduction and then exports that theory and projects it onto the historical facts. This is a popular way “to do” history today. In this case, Ehrman et al. use this method to demythologize the text and in the end to make Christ no more than a tragic guru.

    3. However, history does not take an infallible Magisterium to understand it or to know it with the certainty proper to our natural cognitive ability. It is not revealed religion but rather something we can apprehend through the right use of our reason. History is the unfolding and subsequent record of reality, not the in-breaking of the divine through accommodation and condescension as is the case for revealed religion.

    4. Thus, the Catholic, employing the right use of reason, must acknowledge that there was not consensus regarding the canon in the early Church. No list nor set of lists sufficiently corroborates a Protestant or Catholic canon in such a way as to necessitate the assent of the intellect. In other words, it is not the same as the “sky is blue” and all one simply must do is look at the sky to confirm it.

    5. This is not a problem for the Catholic. The Catholic does not claim that 1 and 2 Clement were not read in the liturgies of the early Church for some time. The Catholic doesn’t negate the fact that some lists speak of a 22-book canon and others don’t. We also don’t deny that Hebrews was called into question nor that the second letter to the Corinthians was likely lost (our second is the third letter). What we affirm is that Scripture is God-breathed, revealed religion, and as such requires supernatural authority (Christ and His Church) and not merely the right use of reason. History is a part of nature. Supernatural-theology is not. The fact that Christ resurrected is a part of natural history. His descent into Hades and his sacrifice in the heavenly realm is not.

    6. Sadly, the Protestant–in an attempt to protect orthodoxy (which is commendable)–employs a similar type of wrongly used reason to wreak havoc on the history. Starting with a theory–that the canon was affixed, that Christ somehow implied what it was, that the Church was not in any way a part of the canonizing process but rather that the canon was “self-evident”, rationally unassailable, and historically precipitated (a theory derived from an incessant fear of admitting the authority (the “who”) of the Catholic Church–similar to Ehrman’s fear of admitting the Person (the “who”) of Jesus Christ)–they go on to do the same thing to the reality of history that the Jesus Seminar types do to the person of Christ.

    7. The implications to the credibility of Christianity are devastating. Ehrman is thinking within the theory-paradigm of #6. He rejects the authority of God’s divine agent–the Church–to canonize Scripture. Scripture does not rest upon the authority of Christ’s presence in his Church–mediated through his Apostles and their successors. No, the Bible must (because of #6) be that which is beyond argument grounded in its historic continuity, inter-textual perfection, etc. and so on.

    8. More importantly, even if we agree that the textual problems can be worked out (which we can and do–I suggest anything by Pope Benedict XVI), that still doesn’t get us to a canon. That is why Ehrman suggests a wildly different canon, and in a book I just read, an evangelical scholar suggested that if we discovered another letter from St. Paul the canon may not be in fact closed. (No, this is not the time to quote the end of Revelation in an attempt to proof-text the closing of the canon–if, in fact, that letter that was found was virtually included in what was implied in Revelation)

    In conclusion, the Protestant theory of the canon necessitates a revisionist history that is as disingenuous and intellectually dishonest to the evidence as the Jesus Seminar is to the person of Christ. So, on the one hand we are on the same team–defending the inspiration of Scriptures and attesting to the historical reality of the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, on the other, I’m afraid, the Protestant revisionist history regarding the canon and their rejection of Christ’s authority mediated through his apostles (the one’s with the keys of the kingdom) foments the intellectual quagmire and bolsters the pagan claim that Christianity is a mere myth. And, sadly, as long as the historical reality of the canon is rein-visioned in a mythic tale of consensus and universal acceptance, the pagans will have a paradigm to operate in to discredit the texts of the canon themselves.

    Peace in Christ,


    1. Brent, your comment’s analysis is trenchant. You elucidated exactly what I was trying to say in this blog post, only you provided better balance and clarity.

      I will share this with Mike Field and Shawn Madden.

  4. I read in a book about Bart Erhman, by a man who’s still a Baptist Minister, that Erhman’s wife still goes to Mass…

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