Matt Dillahunty and the Atheist Hermeneutic

One of the downsides to watching Christian channels on Youtube is that your recommendation feed will fill up with atheist apologia. One of the more prominent atheist personalities within that sphere is Matt Dillahunty. Occassionally out of sheet curiosity I get baited into watching one of his videos and I always end them baffled at how someone who claims to, at one point in his life, been a committed Christian knows so little about the faith he professed for so many years.

Actually I’m not that surprised because it seems to be a running theme with ex-Christians. They were raised in some form of fundamentalist faith, they were catechised poorly and they walk away because the superficiality of their knowledge about their own faith left them vulnerable to very simplistic atheist apologetics. Matt Dillahunty is one such person who claims that his former Christianity gives him more authority, because if he was a former Christian and even considered becoming a Baptist minster then surely he’s well qualified to explain Christianity from a Christians perspective? Let’s see if that’s the case.

The video I watched was “ A Bible Verse I was wrong about“. Clickbait of course. In the video Dillahunty focuses in on Matthew 18:19.

” “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”

Dillahunty argues that the reading must mean that if any two Christians pray for anything that God will do that thing. The conclusion he reaches is that prayer is absurd, doesn’t do anything and that the aforementioned verse is evidence that the Bible teaches things that are wrong. Dillahunty uses the same hermeneutic that led him to leave the Christian faith. A hyper literalistic surface value reading of the text. There is no effort made to try and contextualize the verse, he takes the verse, isolates it from the rest of scripture and says “This makes no sense!”.

The most telling part of the video is at 10:44 where Dillahunty says:

“If what they really mean, which you have from other verses in other books, in surrounding contexts…”

Apparently he believes it’s a weakness if to understand a single passage you need to read the Bible holistically and reconcile passages against each other? You wouldn’t even read a modern novel like this, why in the world would you read the Bible like you can take specific passages, read them superficially and understand their meaning and intent? This is the atheist hermeneutic in a nutshell, they read the Bible as if it was nothing more than surface level narrative of events that occurred. There is no search for meaning or understanding, only skimming the text and reading it like a history textbook. This is completely foreign to the Christian way of understanding scripture. It’s no wonder that Dillahunty and others like him leave the faith when they had such a dry view of scripture. The concept that it contained spiritual truths underneath the surface level narrative doesn’t occur to him even when he was nominally Christian let alone an atheist. To understand the richness of the scriptures we need to look back at the Church Fathers who were unencumbered by the terrible historical critical method which seems to have subsumed almost every aspect of Biblical exegesis. First lets look at Matthew 5:1. Jesus goes up to the mountain and sits down in preparation for the Sermon on the Mount. Dillahunty no doubt reads this as nothing more than a statement of fact. Jesus went up to the mountain and sat down. It’s a descriptive passage of Jesus actions, nothing more there. How did the early Christians interpret it? From the Catena Aurea:

PSEUDO-CHRYSOSTOM. Every man in his own trade or profession rejoices when he sees an opportunity of exercising it; the carpenter if he sees a goodly tree desires to have it to cut down to employ his skill on, and the Priest when he sees a full Church, his heart rejoices, he is glad of the occasion to teach. So the Lord seeing a great congregation of people was stirred to teach them.

AUGUSTINE. (de Cons. Ev. ii. 19.) Or He may be thought to have sought to shun the thickest crowd, and to have ascended the mountain that He might speak to His disciples alone.

CHRYSOSTOM. (Hom. xv.) By not choosing His seat in the city, and the market place, but on a mountain in a desert, He has taught us to do nothing with ostentation, and to depart from crowds, above all when we are to be employed in philosophy, or in speaking of serious things.

REMIGIUS. This should be known, that the Lord had three places of retirement that we read of, the ship, the mountain, and the desert; to one of these He was wont to withdraw whenever He was pressed by the multitude.

JEROME. Some of the less learned brethren suppose the Lord to have spoken what follows from the Mount of Olives, which is by no means the case; what went before and what follows fixes the place in Galilee. aMount Tabor. we may suppose, or any other high mountain.

CHRYSOSTOM. He ascended a mountain, first, that He might fulfil the prophecy of Esaias, Get thee up into a mountain; (Is. 40:9.) secondly, to shew that as well he who teaches, as he who hears the righteousness of God should stand on an high ground of spiritual virtues; for none can abide in the valley and speak from a mountain. If thou stand on the earth, speak of the earth; if thou speak of heaven, stand in heaven. Or, He ascended into the mountain to shew that all who would learn the mysteries of the truth should go up into the Mount of the Church of which the Prophet speaks, The hill of God is a hill of fatness. (Ps. 68:15.)

HILARY. Or, He ascends the mountain, because it is placed in the loftiness of His Father’s Majesty that He gives the commands of heavenly life.

AUGUSTINE. (de Serm. Dom. in Mont. i. 1.) Or, He ascends the mountain to shew that the precepts of righteousness given by God through the Prophets to the Jews, who were yet under the bondage of fear, were the lesser commandments; but that by His own Son were given the greater commandments to a people which He had determined to deliver by love.

JEROME. He spoke to them sitting and not standing, for they could not have understood Him had He appeared in His own Majesty.

AUGUSTINE. Or, to teach sitting is the prerogative of the Master. His disciples came to him, that they who in spirit approached more nearly to keeping His commandments, should also approach Him nearest with their bodily presence.

RABANUS. Mystically, this sitting down of Christ is His incarnation; had He not taken flesh on Him, mankind could not have come unto Him.

AUGUSTINE. (de Cons. Ev. ii. 19.) It causes a thought how it is that Matthew relates this sermon to have been delivered by the Lord sitting on the mountain; Luke, as He stood in the plain. This diversity in their accounts would lead us to think that the occasions were different. Why should not Christ repeat once more what He said before, or do once more what He had done before? Although another method of reconciling the two may occur to us; namely, that our Lord was first with His disciples alone on some more lofty peak of the mountain when He chose the twelve; that He then descended with them not from the mountain entirely, but from the top to some expanse of level ground in the side, capable of holding a great number of people; that He stood there while the crowd was gathering around Him, and after when He had sate down, then His disciples came near to Him, and so to them and in the presence of the rest of the multitude He spoke the same sermon which Matthew and Luke give, in a different manner, but with equal truth of facts.

Catena Aurea, Matthew Chapter 5

What Dillahunty merely reads as a descriptive account of Jesus actions the Church Fathers look at the actions of Jesus and discern meaning. This is the difference between the Christian way of understanding the scriptures and the atheist way of understanding them. Dillahunty was already reading the Bible like an atheist when he was a Christian, it’s no surprise then that he eventually just made the move to identifying as one.

Dillahunty reads Matthew 18:19 and thinks “Aha! But God doesn’t answer all prayers made by two Christians together!” and think’s it’s checkmate, how can they possibly refute its clear meaning. But in the same gospel Jesus Himself prays in the garden of Gethsemane.

“Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

“Yet not as I will, but you will”. Jesus didn’t have the cup of his passion taken from Him, He submitted to the will of the Father willingly, as an example for all people who follow Him. The cosmos is an incredibly complex design, humanity will probably never understand all of it. It is designed the way it is for a purpose, and all things move toward that end. Some prayers are answered, some are not. Why? Because God moves all things toward their proper ends. We might not understand now, but we will in the future and that’s what having faith is all about. It’s trust, trust God knows what He is doing and that in the end Gods righteousness will prevail. It’s one of the strongest running themes throughout the Bible and somehow Dillahunty the convinced Christian wasn’t able to see or understand it because he was too busy taking single verses and refusing to consider them in the context of the whole Bible.

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