Monday, April 5, 2010

Public Debate with Bart Ehrman in Seminaries: A Bad Decision

by Jim Elliff

[Important: Please also read the additional comment below by Jim Elliff related to James White's response on his blog.]

Last week a debate was held in a close-by conservative seminary between Dr. Bart Ehrman* and another apologist. I won’t mention the name of the school or the apologist, though I am free to, since I hope this little piece will be useful for a variety of situations yet to come.

Why is it wrongheaded to set up such a debate with Ehrman in a seminary, or, for that matter, any unbelieving skeptic?

First, because Ehrman is a false teacher and we are forbidden to give such men a forum to express their views.

The Bible doesn’t treat false teachers kindly. It is one thing to talk with a skeptic who is asking questions to know the truth, or who is confronting you in public, but it is quite another thing to invite and pay a false teacher to come to your turf in order to present his views in an open forum.

Inviting a false teacher to present his errant views in order to persuade students and the public is like allowing a gunman to shoot randomly out into an audience of military personnel because it is assumed the troops have body armor. For one thing, body armor cannot shield against all shots, and for another, there are many people attending who have no armor at all. At last week’s debate, for instance, there were many people from the public who were not even believers. Some young people also attended, and some seminary students who are not yet prepared for the effects of doubt-producing verbiage.

We overestimate how well some seminary students can shield themselves. Some are new, having no real background in apologetics. They’ve read a couple of Chuck Swindoll books and My Utmost for His Highest, but really know precious little up to this point. I know that several students from a nearby secular college also attended, some of which were unconverted. The assumption was that they would see Ehrman lose the debate and the Christian view would triumph. It didn’t happen. Now the work in evangelism by the friends who naively brought them is that much harder.

Here are a couple of reminders about how we are to treat false teachers:

If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting. (2 John 1:10 ESV)

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. (Romans 16:17-18)

Second, because the minority position almost always gains some followers regardless who wins the debate.

When you have a sizable crowd it almost goes without saying that someone will be convinced of the false views of the false teacher. You may sense an overwhelming approval of the debate by many who love the give and take, but fail to take note of the quiet student or outsider to the seminary now stricken with doubt about the Scriptures. Ehrman’s presentation might be all that is needed to move him over the line. In the reverse, it is precisely for this reason that I do think it is useful for a sound Christian apologist to debate an unbelieving scholar in his venue—like Ravi Zacharias might do.

Third, because debates are not always won on the basis of truth alone.

We don’t need to comment much here, because you understand how this works. Ehrman clearly won the debate by the account of several attending. He simply won it by his cleverness and expertise at debating. His opponent, the believer, was well able to defeat him with the truth, but missed his opportunities in several places, giving credence to the idea that he was a better writer and lecturer than debater. In fact, this is the second time Ehrman won a debate at the same seminary, but against a different Christian opponent. What does that do for our witness? Though I have no question in my mind that our position on the reliability of Scripture is the right one and can withstand Ehrman’s arguments soundly, our side was out-debated.

Fourth, because many of the listeners will not have the opportunity to sort out confusing aspects of the debate with professors or knowledgeable persons.

The seminary students may have the benefit of hearing what their professors have to say about the debate. Long and detailed answers may satisfy any lingering confusion. But the guest who will return to her apartment to sort through the issues privately, or even the seminary student who does not have more classes that day, may be affected by the Ehrman challenges for years.

Fifth, because doubt is insidious.

One seminary student who has now graduated told me that he occasionally had huge doubts about Scripture and God. They were not there often, perhaps only for a few difficult days or weeks once every year or two, but they were so strong that he found himself almost smothered by them when they came. This was a leading student, chosen as one of the best preachers of the seminary. Doubt is insidious. Like a drop of ink added to gallons of water, it can ruin everything. It is the fly in the perfume. We are naïve to think that, being free from doubts ourselves, others do not deal with them regularly.

When a man like Ehrman speaks, doubt-producing statements may be forever lodged in people’s minds, causing trouble when least expected. It only takes a tiny amount of doubt for some people to be destroyed. A weak person might believe his doubts rather than believe his beliefs. Paul spoke of some teachers who were able to “upset the faith of some” (2 Timothy 2:18) because of their unscriptural view. Surely we should not pay Bart Ehrman for the privilege of doing that.


One friend of mine said that upon visiting one of the Baptist Seminaries in another State he was told, “We’re not here to tell you what to believe.” But truth by definition is dogmatic. And professors are to profess it. Students are not to blindly believe it, but to study the Scriptures for themselves to see if what is stated is true. It is one thing for two believers to debate over certain aspects of the Scripture as men who both wish to believe and do what the Word says—like a charismatic with a non-charismatic, a premillenialist with a postmillenialist, or a Calvinist with an Arminian. But to invite false teachers to have the same access is naïve. There will always be some loss, and often not much, if any, gain.

*Bart Ehrman is the author of Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted, both bestsellers. He is a New Testament scholar who does not believe in the reliability of the Scriptures. He claims to be an unbeliever.


Jim said...

This is Jim Elliff, the author of this piece. In response to what I've written, my friend James White, wrote a strong but brotherly comment on his blog defending apologetic ministry.

His response was due in part (I think, mostly) to a poor title choice for my article. My article was titled: Public Debate with Bart Ehrman: A Bad Decision. My intent however was to focus my thoughts toward debate with Ehrman in the seminary context. As I recall, my original working title included the word "seminary." Given my wrong title, I can fully understand James' response. I have changed that title to the following: Public Debate with Bart Ehrman in Seminaries: A Bad Decision.

I'm all for debates with Ehrman or any other nonbeliever in the right context. I state this in the article. My real problem has to do with the seminary context. Just as James will not debate in "the context of worship in a church", so I think the seminary context has its own limitations, as I have written about. My concerns are pastoral.

I strongly approve of James' ministry, support it, recommend it, and personally consider James a friend and fellow worker in the kingdom. I appreciate his debates in neutral or hostile contexts especially. Or, with other believing opponents, even in seimnary contexts. I may have responded just as James did if I thought that the article was against debates with non-believers in general.

I may not be able to correct the misunderstanding that a wrongly stated title has caused, since we are not able to make comments on James' site. I hope this will suffice. Perhaps James will be kind enough to add some clarification on his site as well.

I'll be writing James to discuss this with him privately as well.

See James' article here:

So sorry for the confusion.

Jim Elliff

Jim said...


I wondered (especially at the one quote that confused me above) if this was not the case, but assumed clarification would come if I had misread Jim's intentions. I fully understand Jim's concerns, but we will still have to have a slight disagreement on the context aspect. Perhaps we would be pretty close if I put it this way: let's hypothesize that I would be invited to debate, say, Christopher Hitchens at Midwestern. Would I accept? Yes, I would. However, I would also strongly suggest to the school that it invite students with a strong warning that just as doing apologetic ministry requires a firm and strong foundation before engaging in it, so too the student should expect to be challenged and possibly encounter questions that time will not allow to be answered in the course of the debate. We do not even allow people to join us in doing apologetic work with Mormons, for example, if they are not a part of a sound, well-balanced church. We well understand the dangers. But at the same time, seminary students at Midwestern or anywhere else are surrounded with "doubt-inducing thoughts," so may I suggest that if they are going to be exposed to them, they should be exposed to them within the context of having an answer given at the very same time? Obviously, I am assuming a robust, biblical worldview in the midst of all of this, and the modeling, and encouragement, of biblical thinking on the part of the leadership, and I know that is not necessarily the case, even in all conservative seminaries. So surely, I would agree that if a seminary is itself not providing a healthy apologetic core, a firm ground, then inviting an Ehrman in is not wise.

My thanks for Jim for the clarification, and I still hope the conversation is helpful.




Kyle LaPorte said...

Thank you both very much for providing a well mannered disagreement between two Christians. I wish there was this kind of clarity on Caner's side.

Jim said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Kyle.


Jimmy Snowden said...


I just listened to the debate and do agree that Erhman won the debate. That definitely is one of the sticky things about debate--the one with the best data does not always win. Especially in today's age--a day when rhetoric takes place over thinking--debate can oftentimes confuse the issue. I am not sure what I think about holding a debate on a seminary campus, but I will make a comment about debate in general. One of the things that James White does so well that other scholars would do well to imitate is that he is not afraid of making simple points/counter points. It seems that some academic debates get so bogged down into the technical/scholarly/academic data that they forget to ask the age-old questions. It seems that Dr. Evans would have done much better if he would have drilled Ehrman on the most simplest of questions. But he focused on quoting other academics--which is fine, but just not always the best content for a debate. Anyway, good post and excellent dialoge with James White.


Jim said...

Thanks for this comment, Jimmy. Yes, a debate format cannot guarantee that truth will win out. When people brought friends for the purpose of demonstrating the superiority of the gospel, their evangelism was made that much harder due to this fact.


Anonymous said...

And the Shepard pulls the wool over the sheep's eyes in order to keep them from seeing the light.