Monday, May 11, 2015

David Barton: Can you Handle the Truth?

This post provides reaction to the fourth presentation delivered by David Barton at the 2015 Texas Home School Coalition meeting in Arlington. I covered his previous presentations here, here, and here.

Mr. Barton's 4:15 session on May 8 was provocatively entitled "Truth in History." The title is provocative because Mr. Barton has been widely accused by his critics, including evangelical Christian academics, of obvious errors in his writings and presentations. In response, the founder of Wallbuilders has continued to restate the same mistakes while dismissing his opponents, as he did in this presentation, as revisionists, secularists, and atheists. Christians who disagree with him were accused of being dupes fooled by their teachers. He even managed to misuse scripture (Luke 6:40) to try to explain why any Christians would be against him. They were not above their misinformed teachers. Simply dismissing critics in this way, rather than actually engaging their arguments, requires considerable chutzpah.

Nonetheless, Mr. Barton began his lecture by referring to early American historians, such as George Bancroft, who would identify God's workings while relating historical events. There is no doubt that early American historians did this, but it is also true that many Christians today -- both academic historians and conservative evangelical pastors -- warn against this sort of thing. The Bible provides both a recounting of historical events and their interpretation from God's perspective, but it is important to remember that Christians regard Scripture as divine revelation, meaning that God communicated to his prophets the proper interpretation of events. No one should view the working of historians writing after the completion of the canon as inspired on par with the biblical writers. Thus, there is wisdom when Christians, both historians and otherwise, exercise caution in making claims about God's providential intentions in historical events.

Even so, Mr. Barton made an obvious factual error when he claimed that George Whitfield and Charles Finney were unaware that they were in the midst of revivals, and that only historians looking back on them were able to identify those eras as such. This is a rather absurd claim given that Rev. Finney published a book entitled "Lectures on Revival," in which he wrote in the preface, "Because it pleased Christ to grant me experience with revivals of true Christianity, I thought that through the publication of these lectures I might in a small way serve the church at large." Whitfield similarly showed awareness that God was bringing about an unusual spiritual awakening, and his friend Jonathan Edwards wrote multiple books defending the revivals as "a surprising work of the Spirit of God." Of course, given that Edwards and Whitfield's opponents were sometimes Unitarians, perhaps it is understandable that Mr. Barton failed to get the point. More on that momentarily.

After dismissing those disagreeing with him as revisionists, secularists, atheists, and duped Christians, the speaker then proceeded to describe four "traps," for which he misused Scripture to dismiss as devices of Satan, that Christians should avoid when making decisions on text books. Most of the terms he used are technical terms utilized in literary and other liberal arts studies, but Mr. Barton gave definitions and descriptions of them that would be foreign to anyone outside of himself that uses those terms. Thus, he equated "poststructuralism' with identity politics. "Modernism," he said, involved using words differently than how they would have been understood in their historical setting. "Academic collectivism," to Mr. Barton, means reliance on secondary sources and not consulting original ones. Finally, he referred to deconstructionism as a sort of anti-western mentality.

When someone uses academic terminology in a fashion that appears not to understand the meaning that academics give to those terms, it is hard to avoid the judgement that the speaker is attempting to provide an academic veneer that disguises the fact that he does not really understand what he is talking about. I will leave it to the reader to determine whether that is a fair conclusion.

Nonetheless, in explaining these terms, Mr. Barton made perhaps his most jaw dropping error of the day -- that is a bar set fretfully high. In talking about what he called "modernism" and complaining that others use language anachronistically when relating the views of the founders, Mr. Barton made this claim:

Historians and their readers make a mistake when they see the term "Unitarian" in 1774 and they think of it from the perspective of what that word means today. Oh, no. In 1774, a Unitarian was someone that was concerned about the unity of the church.

No, I promise, he really said that with a straight face. That there was no laughter in the room I can only hope was due to the fact that the audience was working as hard as I was to be respectful.

For any who do not know, Unitarians, both in 1774 and since, are opposed to the Trinity. The term has never had anything to do with unity among believers. Actually, they divided from orthodox believers.

The other amusing thing about this was that just after he accused others of using language anachronistically, he set out to prove that George Washington was not influenced by deism by relating the first President's references to "providence" to the definition of providence found in the 1590 edition of the Geneva Bible.

Also, in this portion of the presentation, the speaker told a story about conversing with "three PhD's," and he inserted a statement that he also has a PhD. This is not true. Mr. Barton holds a B.A. from Oral Roberts University and an honorary doctorate from Pensacola Christian College.

Most of the remainder of the presentation was comprised of an effort to claim that Thomas Jefferson, a deist, was in fact a marginally religious but fully orthodox Christian. One of the most prominent of the many problems with that claim is that Jefferson created a Bible (an edited version of the four gospels, actually) from which he removed all of the miracles and references to Jesus' divinity. The Jefferson Bible concluded following Jesus' death and prior to his resurrection. Nonetheless, Mr. Barton claims that the first of the Jefferson Bibles (there were two, he insists) was intended as a sort of red letter edition gospel to be given to the Indians (this ignores the fact that the Bible removed some of the sayings of Jesus and that there is no indication that it was ever given too the Indians) and that the 1820 final version was an effort to isolate the moral teaching of Jesus for comparison to other moral philosophers. These claims, as well as others that Mr. Barton makes about Thomas Jefferson, have been thoroughly debunked, and evangelical publisher Thomas Nelson withdrew his book about Jefferson due to numerous thorough critiques that showed obvious errors in the work.

With this fourth post covering Barton's appearances at this convention, I will close by asking a question:  why is this man speaking at a reputable home school conference. I will hasten to mention that my wife homeschool's my stepson, and we are a family committed to evangelical belief. Our politics are generally conservative. Whatever my biases, they are not against conservative politics or evangelical faith.

In fact, it is because we are committed to Christ and his church, as well as conservative principles, that I took the time to listen to Mr. Barton, analyze what he had to say, and write about what I heard. I believe that these posts, though only dealing with four presentations, have sufficiently shown that he engages in serious doctrinal error and that he makes serious mistakes in the realms of history and politics. These mistakes make improper use of the Bible, downplay the importance of redemption, bring the home school movement into disrepute, damage children who trust their authorities and go into adulthood believing things that are untrue, and poorly prepare Christian children to grow up to engage in discussions of Christianity, religion, history, and politics based on an educated person's understanding of the real world.

Christians are committed to truth. Why is this a leader speaking and exhibiting at home school meetings.

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