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‘Da Vinci Code’ panel anchors 20/20 Collegiate Conference

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)—A roundtable discussion of “The Da Vinci Code” highlighted Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s second annual 20/20 Collegiate Conference, Feb. 3-4 in Wake Forest, N.C.

More than 1,000 people, ranging from high school and college students to curious visitors, attended conference sessions designed to explore the implications of a Christian worldview amid the difficult questions that can arise on a college campus.

The roundtable discussion, which dealt with issues raised by The Da Vinci Code involving the reliability of Scripture, featured Norman Geisler, CEO and dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews, N.C.; Bart Ehrman, chairman of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Richard Hays, associate professor of New Testament at Duke University’s Divinity School; and Andreas Kostenberger, professor of New Testament at Southeastern.

In addition to the roundtable discussion, the conference featured four plenary sessions taught by Southeastern President Daniel Akin and Geisler; elective seminars taught by members of the Southeastern faculty and local pastors; and a concluding session for students’ questions to Akin and Southeastern professors David Nelson and Bruce Little.

The four panelists, though they did not reach a consensus on many issues -– most notably regarding biblical inerrancy and the role of women in the church -– did agree that The Da Vinci Code, which purports to be historical, does not represent history accurately.

The book makes numerous claims that the panelists described as historically inaccurate and untenable, among them the assertion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a secret marriage relationship that produced a child. The book also claims that Jesus was not regarded as God until the fourth-century Council of Nicaea.

“We all four, I’m sure, are going to agree that there are egregious errors,” Ehrman said, noting numerous inaccuracies that Brown espouses, such as the claim that the Roman emperor Constantine had a say in the canonization of the New Testament or that 80 gospels were in circulation in the church’s early history.

“The myth perpetrated by The Da Vinci Code may make good storytelling … but it is just that, a myth,” Kostenberger said, adding that someone must “hold Dan Brown accountable for selling fiction as historical fact.”

Hays was even less complimentary of the book. Calling The Da Vinci Code “dreadful literature,” “full of egregious historical errors,” “a teeth-grinding experience” and “deeply confused theologically,” Hays noted that it also has a readily observable anti-Catholic bias.

“It is characterized from start to finish by a virulent anti-Catholicism, a terrible bias against the Catholic church as an institution,” said Hays, a United Methodist. “I find this a deeply morally offensive view on these grounds, and I should make clear that I’m not a Roman Catholic.

“What does the runaway popularity of this novel say about our culture? Everybody loves a conspiracy. Many people in the U.S. would like to believe Christianity is a myth that was cooked up,” Hays said.

Geisler, who admitted he was “dragged kicking and screaming” into reading the novel for the purpose of the roundtable discussion, said The Da Vinci Code, while terribly inaccurate, does raise “the fundamental issue of the historicity of the New Testament.”

“If the New Testament is an authentic book, historically reliable and giving us the truth, then, of course, this book is a bunch of hogwash,” Geisler said. He also noted, “If you can’t trust the New Testament … then you can’t trust anything from ancient history.”

The question of whether Christianity devalues women, however, opened a rift of opinion among the panelists.

“I myself don’t think traditional Christianity has celebrated the feminine,” Ehrman stated. “I absolutely agree that The Da Vinci Code gets most of this wrong, but not because the church has been a liberating experience for women. If men and women are not allowed equal roles, that implies superiority and inferiority.”

Kostenberger disagreed, noting that men and women have equal value and intrinsic worth that is not related to their position because they are made in God’s image. Additionally, sinful abuse in the past does not invalidate Scripture’s complementarian model for male headship, he said.

“It is true that many of the church fathers and the institutional church have devalued the contributions of women, but we should not judge Christianity by these shortcomings, but by what the Bible teaches,” Kostenberger said. He added that “we should stop putting men against women and follow the Apostle Paul’s formula in Ephesians 5 of men loving their wives as Christ loved the church.”

The most contested question for the panelists, however, involved the New Testament from a historical and reliability standpoint. While Kostenberger and Geisler contended strongly for biblical inerrancy, both Hays and Ehrman rejected the concept.

“While the New Testament Gospels do bear witness to the historical record of Jesus, they bring a theological witness, not a historical witness, to record,” Hays stated, adding that the New Testament contains “factual discrepancies that cannot be swept under the rug by any honest reader.”

Ehrman, an agnostic who said he formerly held to inerrancy while a student at Moody Bible College, said he changed his position during his studies at Princeton University, realizing that “God did not want me to throw away my mind.” He urged students to read the New Testament to judge for themselves whether it contains errors.

Geisler, who spoke after Hays, challenged his contention that the New Testament contains factual discrepancies. “I couldn’t disagree more,” Geisler said. “The Gospels might not be history, but they are historical.”

Geisler added that in his many years of study, he had yet to encounter an insoluble contradiction such as Hays and Ehrman were alleging.

To speak of Scripture’s errors, Geisler continued, is to impugn the character of the God who gave them. “To say that there is a mistake in the Gospels is to me a very arrogant thing for human beings to say,” he said. “Let God be found true and every man be found a liar. To say there are errors is to charge God Almighty with any error, and I don’t think anyone wants to do that.”

The 20/20 Conference, Akin said after the sessions, hit its mark in challenging students to know and defend their faith.

“In the 21st century, Christians must be willing to do some good, hard thinking,” the seminary president said. “We cannot be shallow in our faith. Both with our heart and our mind we need to know what and why we believe.”

Through the 20/20 Conference, Akin said, “I believe we are equipping a new generation of young champions for Christ who will be prepared to engage the culture with courage and competence.”

Many of the students in attendance, like Megan McConnell, concurred that the 20/20 Conference was a beneficial experience.

“I came to 20/20 because I go to Providence Baptist Church [in Raleigh] and they strongly suggested that we come to get a better idea of a biblical worldview and to get a lot of truth explained,” said McConnell, a 22-year-old North Carolina State University student. “I think a really important thing that [moderator David Nelson, an SEBTS theology faculty member] said at the end was that you learn that you have a lot left to learn. So I definitely have realized that there’s a lot out there and a lot of things to be examined and to continue learning.”

McConnell said that she thought The Da Vinci Code discussion will be helpful in giving her opportunities to discuss her faith with those who have read the book and have questions about its content.

Likewise, Clark Leonard, a 19-year-old N.C. State student, said he encounters people with a different worldview on his campus every day.

“I work at the newspaper, so just hearing people talk -– there’s a lot of stuff that you can tell is not from the same worldview,” said Leonard, who added that he hopes that what he learned at the conference will be useful in relating to these people.

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  • Kyle Smith