What to Believe? – The soul-searching personal journeys of Bart Ehrman & James Berends [VIDEO]

Source: Orthodox Christian Fellowship

Press release of the talk yesterday evening (February 17, 2011) and archived below.

CHAPEL HILL, NC – FEBRUARY 4, 2011 — The New York Times best-selling author Bart Ehrman and Eastern Orthodox priest James Berends will give a free public presentation at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, February 17, at the FedEx Global Education Center on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. Ehrman and Berends, both of whom graduated from Wheaton College as Evangelical Christians in 1978 and 1979 respectively, will share their subsequent three-decade spiritual journeys for the forum: “What to Believe? An Internal Struggle.”

Graduating Wheaton College in 1978, Ehrman received a master’s degree in divinity and his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, pursuing a scholarly career in New Testament textual criticism. During that time, Berends did stints in ministry and industry between his two divinity degrees at Dallas Theological Seminary and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Excerpts from Ehrman’s 2006 New York Times bestseller, Misquoting Jesus, provide a preview into the story of his personal journey.

“I kept reverting to my basic question. How does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired?” said Ehrman in the introduction to his book. “These doubts both plagued me and drove me to dig deeper and deeper, to understand what the Bible really was.” Coming to the conclusion that the New Testament was not an inerrant document, because it was influenced and edited by the early “proto-orthodox” community, Ehrman eventually became agnostic. Berends also followed the historical record to the proto-orthodox community that participated in the formation of the New Testament; he, however, concluded that that community continues today in the Eastern Orthodox Church and that it promulgates an accurate rendering of the Christian message. Also like Ehrman, Berends’s journey loosened his grip on fundamentalist certainty.

“Bart is agnostic; I am apophatic,” said Berends. “In Eastern Orthodoxy, I found support for my uncertainty through apophatic theology, which emphasizes what we do not and cannot ever know about God, except through spiritual experience. Some say “when you’re uncertain, pound the podium harder.” My voice gets softer, and I will throw in an opposing opinion because I have to be intellectually honest.”

The event is sponsored by UNC’s Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies (CSEEES) and the UNC Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF).

Scroll to 36:36 for the start of the talk.


  1. I watched this late last night after our own OCF meeting finished. The video sort of chopped-out at the end, but I think it generally covered everything by then. It was interesting as an event because it was essentially just a life-summary from each of them (with some preaching mixed in). Truthfully, I was happy to be able to hear about Bart Ehrman since I know of and read a bit in his books on the “Historical Jesus” and early Christians. I may be wrong, but I recall many of the paragraphs ending in questions; I had thought the author was trying to inflict doubt, but having watched this video, it may have been an attempt just to make the reader think. I think that as Orthodox we can agree that ignorance is no good… however, that point needs to be developed, like how ignorance is best and most beneficially overcome.

    If I had to compare the two, it was clear Mr. Ehrman is a professor, and his story was rather smooth, but I felt like his break-down on how suffering is to be interpreted was in a sense “clinging” to those three points of God being all-powerful, God being loving, and suffering existing. Even in what he described as some “solutions” he has heard, he claimed that they did not follow the rules he had literally created. I wonder what his understanding of Christ’s suffering would be from a Christian perspective–especially since he implied that the woman and her child starving to death had not earned their suffering fate. From a Christian perspective (and in our own knowledge), Christ is an icon of someone that does nothing wrong, but still suffers and dies. Anyway, I would be intrigued by his thoughts on this, as well as on justice and mercy. One last thing I remember thinking about when he said that all-powerful means God can do whatever he wants, was maybe Fr. Thomas Hopko (?) mentioning that God cannot do some things, namely take away our free will, &c. Anyway, that made me ponder for a moment.

    As for Fr. James, I enjoyed his story, although much of it seemed disconnected; it sounded more like bullet points important vignettes he remembered from his life. Still, although each thing he brought up had its purpose, I found myself wanting to hear him “debate”. I know that this was not the point of the event, but I wanted him to address his own thoughts on suffering or “taking the Bible as inerrant”. Hearing how he had learned Christianity from his father and peers as a youth in this regard would have been cool for the conversation, but I did not expect it to be covered because his story was mainly not a response to Mr. Ehrman’s, but a story on its own.

    In general, I thought it was a good event for OCF at N.C. Triangle to get its name out and encourage hopefully a few new people to come out to a meeting or two (or three). Working with secular groups on campus for such events as this or the UMBC one is an interesting direction for OCF, but I am interested to see if it continues.

  2. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Excellent summary Peter S. I watched it too but unfortunately had to break half-way through Fr. Jim’s presentation. I thought that Prof. Ehrman’s questions had more to do with his still unresolved fundamentalist presuppositions than anything about the text of scripture itself. I would have like to see Fr. Jim address those more specifically, even in the context of his personal story, since I think those presuppositions underly a lot of the atheist and agnostic positions. Maybe I should write a book about it.

    If this talk is part of a series then there could be something fruitful at the end I think. If this talk is all there is, I don’t see much more than a restatement of the positions that most people are already aware of. Not much seems resolved from my vantage point anyway.

    I joined the text conversation during the talk and that was instructive. I saw the same points made that Robin (our atheist in residence for a while) made here which leads me to believe only a handful of ideas are in operation and presumably they are popular on atheist websites. Maybe those questions could be charitably addressed somewhere. In particular I saw what Robin would resort to as kind of a default position when questions were addressed drawing from implications of the atheist position that could not be answered, something like: atheism is not the assertion of any positive claim, it is merely the acknowledgement of something that can not be proved. The usual supporting evidence was offered: fairies, unicorns, and so forth.

    Watching some of Fr. Jim’s presentation again this morning, I saw him hit a point that I think has tremendous moral power. Fr. Jim mentioned he saw two handicapped people struggling and his Christian outlook compelled him to help them. A good sentiment overall of course and entirely in accord with Christian teaching, and an implicit affirmation of the sea-change in values that the Christian faith contributed to human culture (see: David Bentley Hart, “Atheist Delusions”). Fr. Jim said he had an “epiphany” as he approached them. He saw that he (speaking in terms of moral models so to speak) was not Jesus, but that the two people he was helping were. Then he quoted Matthew 25.

    In this small vignette Fr. Jim offers, I think, an existential resolution to the problem of evil that continues to stymie Prof. Erhman. It really is a shift in focus, from actor to object so to speak, and realizing that Christ comes to you through the neighbor. I wish Fr. Jim would have expanded this more because I think the sheer moral power of his insight is an antidote to the radical individualism in our culture while still affirming human freedom (his insight is existential, not propositional, which means it must be practiced, lived out; a truth that is true only when it is actualized). If this subjective focus is not dislodged, the answers that are proposed for the real questions that Prof. Erhman puts forward will default to collective solutions and our native freedom will need to be denied. Drawing out the implications of his insight would have been a way to address Fr. Erhman’s objections in a low key way the setting required. I hope Fr. Jim develops this.

    I thought Prof. Erhman’s example of Ethiopian suffering was poorly informed. He used it to ostensibly show an uncaring, distant God to buttress his agnosticism. True, there was a drought in the land at the time. But the suffering people were Eritreans, and they were being forcibly starved by the Marxist government in the North. That tragedy was political more than natural since there was plenty of food in the North. Eritreans resisted the Marxist tyranny of the North much like the Ukranians resisted Stalin (Holodomor). The historical record is important and Prof. Erhman did not seem to know it.

    Overall, it is great to see OCF chapters address the very real questions of the day. I find that tremendously encouraging.

  3. Father, the book idea that you describe is one thing America needs desperately right now – evangelicals are bleeding just about anyone that looks seriously at the presuppositions they are taught and unfortunately more often than not individuals are going to become agnostic at best.

  4. *Prof. Ehrman in the last line of your second-to-last paragraph

    I just wanted to mention for anyone interested based on last night’s event that Kevin Allen is discussing suffering with Scott Cairns at AFR: [audio src=http://audio.ancientfaith.com/illuminedheart/tih_2011-02-18.mp3]

    Podcast courtesy of Ancient Faith Radio.

  5. Ehrman is still very much stuck in his fundamentalist dialectic and seems to have moved horizontally rather than vertically.

    I am not sure what these talks are supposed to accomplish other than to reinforce the false notion that there is a choice to be religious or not and that it is up to the individual to shop for his lifestyle choice regarding God. I don’t believe in religious neutrality, only the one true God and a whole slew of false gods (which is the biblical model anyway).

    • Much suffering will be necessary in order to re-orient the world spiritually and to change its way of life.

      Q: Why did God allow the world to sink into this present crisis, after some 2000 years of Christianity?

      A: This crisis is not from God, nor is it from faith, but rather from the freedom of the human conscience, In the past few centuries, man has profaned the world, devastated souls, encouraged sensuality and has fallen prey to the pride of materialism and atheism.

  6. cynthia curran :

    Maybe, Ehrman is thinking too modern, individuals in the ancient world or medival world ask a lot less quesitions about why God allows this to happen to people like wars, plagues and so forth. God is complex and mysterius and a lot of strange things in history or nature don’t make sense to us. Some of us here have mention not just suffering but changes of ciivilzations the fall of both the Western and Eastern Empires which cut us off from antiquity and the development of the modern era in the long run. If both empires kept going we may not have computers and many things of the modern world-good or bad. Its one of the mysteries of history and God why the world is allow to changed a lot in some ways.

  7. Fr Hans – thank you for posting the video interview! I had already contacted Fr Jim — after seeing a P.R. of the OCF meeting – for a post-lecture interview and being able to see the event itself was a great help!

    Thanks too for this very good thread. I will “borrow” some of the questions and perspectives (if everyone does not mind!) in my expanded interview with Fr Jim on The Illumined Heart!

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