How Not to Do Apologetics: Rationalizing the Bible

December 21, 2017

“Whoa there, bucko. The Bible is perfectly rational.”


Indeed it is! 


However, to rationalize is a little something different. See this definition from Merriam-Webster: to bring into accord with reason or cause something to seem reasonable.


Do you see the problem there? 


Rationalization of the Bible means that we aren’t taking the Bible on its own terms and instead seek to shoehorn it into what we know or think we know. What this doesn’t mean is that the Bible is not internally consistent, that is, non-contradictory. It also doesn’t mean that it isn’t consistent with the external world that we can research and understand. The Alexamenos graffito serves as a good example of correspondence between the New Testament and the archaeological discoveries. 


I’ll let an Old Testament scholar at Yale, Dr. Joel Baden do some of my talking here: 


"The conjunction of modern scientific inquiry and allegiance to the Bible has led to an interesting turn of events. We see an ongoing attempt to find a rational basis for some of the more unbelievable biblical events, to “explain” them scientifically. Examples of this abound. The flood of Genesis 6-9, in which the whole world is covered with water? That was the result of a massive comet or meteor crashing into the ocean, creating a worldwide tsunami and killing almost everyone on earth."


The writer goes on to describe several other miraculous events that have been “explained” as freak occurrences that are totally possible in the natural order. Yet, as he points out, these so-called explanations actually undercut faith in the Bible rather than pointing to its reliability. The perceptive reader will look up his linked examples and see that these are mainly rationalizations external to confessional Christians. Perhaps, you might say, this is none of our concern. We’re not interested in that sort of thing. 


You’re right, of course.


However, these sorts of things come from within the confessional Christian community as well. Take, for example, the notion of the so-called missing day in history that was discovered by NASA. If you’ve not heard of this particular attempt at apologetics, it declares that NASA has used computers to determine that a day is missing from the scientific chronology of the history of the earth. Why would a day be missing? Because Joshua prayed in Joshua 10:12-14 that the sun would stand still of course! If the sun stops, and time moves on, a day should be missing from the register! 


Fortunately, this one is not being promoted by professional Christian apologists; however, I can remember hearing this more times that I can count since high school. Pick your source, but Snopes and Answers in Genesis agree that it’s completely fabricated. But it wasn’t fabricated by anyone I knew or that you know, for that matter. This has been passed along as a defense of the faith by someone, and it continues to be. 


The fabricated nature of that particular defensive misfire is problematic enough for obvious reasons. Obviously apologetics that are demonstrably false won’t work. Going a step further, the question should be raised: what does that hope to accomplish? To undergird the historicity of the text of Joshua 10, to be sure. But what comes after that? Repentance and faith? When was the last time the person who employs this argument read the book of Joshua? Is he ready to proclaim Christ from that text? Is he insinuating that NASA has information that they’re covering up? If so, that’s slanderous because the claim is false. 


Of a more seasonable (and much less problematic in regard to integrity) is the matter of the Bethlehem star from Matthew 2. What exactly was it? Numerous explanations have been offered. You can read about them from the BBC and from the late creationist Henry Morris. Various explanations are a conjunction of planets, a super nova, and a comet. The problem isn’t so much with the explanations, though they are purely speculative. How Christians use those explanations is another thing altogether. One might say, “See? The star over Bethlehem in Matthew 2 could have been any one of these totally observable phenomena! This story is perfectly reasonable!” Whether intending to communicate this or not, the person saying this actually communicating that the Bible fits into the expectation we already had for it. It fits perfectly with what we might expect given what we know about astronomy. God had this work in conjunction with history so that it happened at the right time. 


What we lose when we spend this time rationalizing the Bible is its supernatural character. The story of the star appearing to the magi and guiding them is perfectly believable given the fact that it helps tell the story of God becoming a man in order to save Man from his sins. When we trust that the incarnation of the Son of God is true, everything else the Bible claims, whether the sun stands still, an ax head floats, a star appears to serve as a GPS, or that people come back from the dead all qualify as perfectly reasonable. 


Attempts for Bible-trusting Christians to use rationalizations of Scripture as an apologetic misfire completely because they actually draw from the well of skeptical biblical interpretation. This would be the sort of interpretation that also maintains that Jesus worked his miracles by manipulating natural phenomena and was seen as a miracle healer. When we rationalize Scripture, we actually make it harder to believe, not easier. We cast aspersions on its writers, and make them into simple yokels who misunderstood what they saw. We fail to let the Bible challenge us when we do this.


When we read for example, the Gospel of Matthew, we should see numerous unlikely, yea verily, impossible things happening all at once. We see the rise of the Messiah according to the promise of God to Abraham and David, from the ranks of sinful people like Judah and Tamar. We see that he’s got Moabite blood in him from Ruth. We watch stupefied as pagan astrologers, condemned in Deuteronomy 18:9-11, come and worship the king of the Jews. And we believe this is true because we read it in a book authored by the third person of the triune God, the Holy Spirit, through the pen of a repentant swindler named Matthew. Furthermore, we believe that Matthew is telling part of the same story as Moses, Solomon, Isaiah, and Nahum. 


As we contend for the Bible, we should contend for what it is. Is it rational? How could it be anything but rational when it comes from the one who is perfectly rational, God himself? Does it need to be rationalized to our own terms? Certainly not. It is God who knows and understands us, and by knowing him, we know ourselves.[1] It is not we who know and understand God because we conformed his revelation to our expectations.


[1]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.1.2. 

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