Christian Deceptions 2: Select Sources & Arguments


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    Any doctrine that will not bear honest investigation is not a fit tenant for the mind of an honest man.
    Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), Intellectual Development


    We have already seen that there were disagreements among Christians for many centuries over what material to include in the Bible. We have also seen that important early Christian authorities were prepared to suppress inconvenient material. Christian historians also selected their information. Edward Gibbon said of Eusebius, that he "indirectly confesses that he has related whatever might redound to the glory, and that he has suppressed all that could tend to the disgrace, of religion". From what we know about the other Church Fathers, we have every reason to believe that Eusebius was typical.

    Traditionally Christians have held that the whole of the Bible was divinely inspired. One might therefore expect that all of it would be regarded as equally important, and efforts would be made to understand all of it. Critics have frequently pointed out that in practice the overwhelming majority of Christians concentrate on a tiny minority of passages that bolster their own views. Churches simply choose the passages they like and ignore the ones they dislike. For example, congregations often hear the Matthew version of the parable of the talents, a favourite story, but they rarely hear the version in Luke 19:12-27. On the rare occasions that the Luke version is read in church the last verse is almost always left out, presumably because it does not conform to the Church's current version of the type of thing Jesus might say. The verse is:

    But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.

    Unless Christians read the Bible for themselves they are unlikely to hear any but the same few passages over and over again each Sunday. These passages are generally the most inspiring and sympathetic to be found in the Bible. The vast majority of the text is quite different. Much of it seriously offends modern Christian sensibilities: God directing the killing of helpless prisoners or innocent babies, arranging for concubines to be fruitful, punishing people for other people's wrongdoing, or promising to starve parents until they have to eat their own babies. Nor do churchgoers hear much about God's shortcomings, such as that failure to prevail against an enemy equipped with iron chariots. In recent years some New Testament stories have been taken off the annual reading rota as well. Churchgoers do not hear nearly as much as they used to about people burning in Hell for eternity, nor about St Paul blinding people , nor about the sudden deaths of those who failed to live up to St Peter's expectations.

    As we have seen the "Church Fathers" are not reliable authorities. Their writings cannot be cited in full because they contain numerous errors, heresies and contradictions. The solution is to select just those passages that suit. As one eminent authority puts it:

    The principal form of the argument from authority became the florilegium or anthology of carefully selected excerpts from orthodox fathers, designed to show that the unchanging orthodox tradition was in accordance with the compiler's convictions. The makers of these collections of excerpts were not always scrupulous about the integrity and authenticity of their texts ...*

    Until the last few years it has been virtually impossible to find full translations of early Christian works. Translations have always been of selected passages, which avoid uncomfortable matters (the acceptability of what are now heresies and unacceptability of what is now orthodoxy). Even influential medieval works were almost impossible to find in translation: one can find selected passages of St Thomas Aquinas for example, but until recently it has been virtually impossible to obtain a full English translation of his most important works, even though he has been the most influential Christian writer since the Dark Ages. When translations do exist, they are often by outsiders. For example Protestant scholars have delighted for centuries in translating early material detrimental to the Roman Church. In the nineteenth century translations of works embarrassing even to Protestants were made by eminent unbelievers. In the twentieth century translations have become available through people such as Geza Vermes (a Jewish scholar) at Oxford, John Allegro (an agnostic) at Manchester, and G. A. Wells (a leading critic of Christianity). Other unexpurgated material comes from the pens of clerics who hover on the fringes of the Protestant Churches, and from priests and teachers who have abandoned the Roman Church.

    It was often difficult to find orthodox Fathers to support the compiler's view of orthodoxy, so others were cited by the Church even if they were unreliable. Thus, the most important authorities include Tertullian and Origen, despite the fact that both are now regarded as heretics. It is the same with other authorities. As we have seen, orthodoxy does not depend so much on the rulings of councils, as the status of councils is determined by their agreement with current orthodoxy. From the councils that have always been regarded as authoritative it is still possible to select only those canons that suit current tastes. Papal decretals too were selected as required. For example the infallible views of Pope Celestine III on marriage were edited out of a collection of decretals after a later pope disagreed with them. The New Testament was assembled in the same way. Early Christians wrote dozens of gospels, acts, epistles and apocalypses, some of which became canonical, some of which did not. Inconvenient ones were simply omitted from the canon. Of writings in the canon the most convenient manuscript texts were selected, and the most convenient translations of them adopted.

    Roman Catholics and Protestants have been accusing each other for centuries of having deliberately distorted biblical texts. There are some distinct differences between Protestant and Roman Catholic versions of the Bible. For example, in Protestant versions Jesus has brothers, while in Roman Catholic ones he does not. In Protestant versions bishops are required to be married; in Roman Catholic ones they are not. Massive differences in doctrine are reflected in subtly different translations. Are the Greek words in 1 Corinthians 9:5 to be rendered as "Christian woman" (as in the Jerusalem Bible) or as "believing wife" (as in the NIV). It seems to depend upon whether the Church to which the translator belongs favours clerical marriage or not. According to one's preconceptions a word can be translated as either priest or elder; another as either church or congregation; and yet another as either penance or repentance. The choice seems to depend upon whether the translator needs to justify an ecclesiastical hierarchy and an official Church, and to recognise penance as a sacrament. Bibles are used to confirm one's own position, and in the past have been commissioned specifically to validate the beliefs of one denomination against those of another. For example, an English version of the Roman Catholic Vulgate Bible (the Douay-Rheims Bible) was written during the Reformation specifically to counter the Protestants" Geneva Bible.

    Another selective technique is that of bundling. This can be used to remove embarrassing superfluities. We have already seen the 16 or more named apostles in the New Testament being converted into the canonical Twelve by making out that some of them had two or more names. Two or three different women were rolled together to give us the familiar Mary Magdalene. Very different places such as Sheol, Gehenna, Abaddon, Hades and Tarsus can all be rolled together to produce Hell. Many Jewish gods can be fused together to provide a single God, and many other supernatural beings combined to give a single Satan.

    The same sort of selectivity is applied to the accounts of visionaries. Because visionaries often experience multiple visions, and because some of these contain material that is not acceptable for one reason or another, it is common for their stories to be heavily selected. Thus for example, not everyone was convinced by Jean-Jacques Olier (founder of the seminary of St Sulpice) when he announced that the 15-year-old Virgin Mary was occupying his soul. Even those who had heard about these visits were unlikely to know that he had been "subject to psychological disturbances for several years"*. Accounts of Maria d"Agreda's visions often leave out the more questionable claims, and also the fact that her original account had been placed on the Index*. After her Miraculous Medal vision in 1830, Catherine Labouré "suffered from strange periods of amnesia, when she could not remember any details of what she had seen .... "*. When urged by the Archbishop of Paris to appear before an official inquiry in 1836, she declined. Yet millions of faithful admirers are unaware either of this or of the string of unlikely visions that she had experienced before her Miraculous Medal.

    It is often repeated that Bernadette Soubirous (the Lourdes visionary) miraculously discovered a spring, but not so many accounts mention the fact that this spring was already well known to local people. The spectacular failure of expected healing miracles is also edited out of most accounts. So is the rather bizarre incident when Bernadette started eating mud and grass. Accounts of the visions at La Salette in 1846 tend to minimise the odder parts of the story as it was later reported — for example that the visionaries (two shepherd children) initially mistook a beautiful transparent lady in medieval court dress, bathed in light and sporting a halo, for a local woman escaping her family. Neither is it mentioned that the Vision might not have been quite as beautiful, transparent, lady-like or awe-inspiring as claimed in these accounts, since it is known that a deranged local woman liked to dress up like the Virgin Mary and parade around the hills. Neither do the faithful hear much about Mary's promises that stones and rocks would turn into wheat, or that the fields would sow themselves with potatoes. Again, the fact that one of the La Salette visionaries (Mélanie Calvat) subsequently abandoned her vocation as a nun is underplayed, and so is the fact that she went on to receive many more exciting visions and revelations. Neither do the faithful often hear that the other visionary, Maximin Giraud, failed to become a priest, went on to market a liqueur called "Salette", and subsequently admitted that the whole thing had been a fraud.

    At Fátima in Portugal, Mary made the mistake of confirming a doctrine that has now become unpopular. She confirmed to the principal visionary, Lucia dos Santos, the reality of traditional hellfire and Purgatory. Lucia "asked about the fate of two .... children who had died. The lady answered that one of them was in Heaven, but the other was in Purgatory “till the end of the world”". This was once quite acceptable theology, but not any more, hence in many books this answer has been suppressed*. Further problems were presented by the simultaneous appearance of the Holy Child and Christ, who Lucia seems to have thought were two different people. Yet another element to be edited out was the promise that the war then being fought (World War I) would end on 13 th October 1917 — wrong by more than a year.

    It is common for arguments to be followed only as far as proves convenient. As soon as they start leading to inconvenient conclusions they are abandoned. Thus the Roman Church selectively ignores an argument that justifies divorce when its scope is found to be too wide. Coitus interruptus was traditionally prohibited on the grounds that God required semen to be deposited in a vagina. Only then could the Church recognise that valid sexual intercourse had taken place, since the Church required not merely penetratio but also inseminatio. Thus a couple who had undergone a marriage ceremony but always practised coitus interruptus were not legally married, since semen had not been deposited in the required place. It followed that such marriages could be dissolved, as indeed many have been. The use of condoms presented a similar problem. If a condom was used then valid sexual intercourse could not occur, since there was no inseminatio. Without inseminatio a marriage contract was voidable. It followed that any married couple who had always used condoms should be able to have their marriage annulled, just like couples who had practised coitus interruptus. However, presumably because it would make divorce much easier to obtain for ordinary Roman Catholic couples, this argument is not accepted, even though the logic is identical to that used in the case of coitus interruptus , and no coherent counterargument has ever been articulated.

    Another old favourite was the "natural argument". Things that God was held to approve of were considered natural. Things that he was supposed to disapprove of were labelled unnatural. For example slavery was natural and therefore acceptable, because God approved of it. On the other hand homosexuality was unnatural and therefore sinful, because God disapproved of it. So was atheism, so was democracy, so was the idea of women in positions of authority, and so on. This sort of argument was popular until recent times: if God had wanted us to do something, he would have arranged for it to be "natural". Early train passengers were criticised on the grounds that if God had meant us to travel at such speeds he would have provided flat ground, tracks and engines. If God had wanted us to smoke he would have given us chimneys. If he had wanted us to fly he would have given us wings. These arguments always suffered from weaknesses. If God had wanted men to be clean-shaven, he would not have caused hair to grow on their faces (popular with Tertullian, less popular when beards went out of fashion). If God had wanted us to go around without clothes on, he would have caused us to be born naked. That one had to be explained away by reference to the Garden of Eden (God authorised clothes for Adam and Eve after the Fall). If God had wanted us to use buttons he would have provided us with them. That argument was popular when buttons first came into use in Western Christendom, but is now a minority position held onto only by some Mennonites.

    In 1828, the School Board of Lancaster, Ohio, USA, replied to some men who had asked permission to use of the school house to debate questions around a proposed transcontinental railroad. Their response reflected the traditional belief that the Bible was not only 100% accurate, but also 100% comprehensive.
    (This was three years after the Stockton to Darlingling railway had been opened)

    You are welcome to the use of the school house to debate all proper questions, but such things as railroads and telegraphs are impossibilities and rank infidelity. There is nothing in the Word of God about them. If God had designed that His intelligent creatures should travel at the frightful speed of 15 miles an hour, by steam, He would clearly have foretold it through His holy prophets. It is a device of Satan to lead immortal souls down to hell.


    Generally the "If God had wanted ..." argument was applied only where it led to acceptable conclusions: "If God had wanted us to live in houses.... " was not pursued while "If God had wanted us to meddle in science.... " was, and still is. "If God had wanted us to go to the Moon ..." was popular in the second half of the twentieth century and can still be heard in the twenty first. Sometimes the arguments are dropped when they are found to lead to the "wrong" conclusion. For example, until the early twenty-first century it was common to hear Christians claiming that homosexuality was unnatural. God had not created homosexuals, they had made a sinful life-choice. When it turned out that a predisposition to homosexuality has a genetic component one might have expected the argument to switch 180 degrees. If homosexuality is natural after all, because God has created certain genes that cause a disposition towards homosexuality, then there should be mainstream Christians using the following argument in favour of homosexuality “God has created homosexuals so we should not condemn homosexuality”. There is, however, a distinct shortage of traditionalist preachers proclaiming that homosexuality is natural and therefore acceptable because God is responsible for it.

    Critics have noted that like the “natural argument”, other arguments appear to be designed to justify existing beliefs, and that inconvenient corollaries have to be ignored. A favourite argument, used until recently in almost all Churches and still used by some conservative ones, is that Jesus chose only men to be his disciples so only men could be priests. But this is a dangerous path, since it is necessary to ignore parallel arguments. For example we can use parallel arguments to establish that only married, Aramaic-speaking, circumcised, Middle Eastern, Jewish manual workers should be ordained.

    Perhaps the best arguments demonstrating the need for selectivity concern the consumption of alcohol. Any straight reading of the bible confirms God's approval for drinking alcohol. When God almost exterminated the human race, he kept alive only one family: Noah's, a family of vintners. Jesus himself reputedly turned water into wine for a wedding party. There are many explicit examples of alcohol being recommended in the Bible* ,

    Since early times Christians have drunk wine in the belief that they were following Jesus" own instructions. Yet numerous Christian sects opposed to alcohol contrived meanings out of the Bible that are diametrically opposed to the plain reading of the text. While the Bible criticises those who drink to excess, there is nothing advocating abstention — just the opposite “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities” ( 1 Timothy 5:23). Yet millions of Puritans, Methodists, Baptists, Salvationists and other dissenters somehow convinced themselves that the Bible was wholeheartedly opposed to the buying, selling and consumption of alcoholic drinks. Many millions still believe this, though it flies in the face of any honest reading of the text. Temperance campaigners claimed that the wine referred to in the Bible with approval was merely unfermented grape juice (a claim that has no basis and which cannot be reconciled with Mark 2:22)

    This sort of unsustainable assertion is not at all unusual. Thousands of Christian sects manage to sustain thousands of contradictory positions on all manner of subjects by the expedient of selecting the texts and interpretations that suit them and dismissing all the others.



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    §. Chadwick, The Early Church, p 207.

    §. Graef, Mary, vol. 2, p 35.

    §. Graef, Mary, vol. 2, p 55. Maria d"Agreda's original account had been placed on the Index because it was so unlikely (until the King of Spain insisted that it be taken off). It was placed on the Index again in 1704 but removed again the following year.

    §. Graef, Mary, vol. 2, p 87.

    §. Graef, Mary, vol. 2, p 137.

    §. Wine is mentioned favourably for example in Psalm 104:15, Song of Songs 7:9, and 1 Timothy 5:23.


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