Psalm 14:1 Again, This Time Responding to Dr. Matt Flannagan

Previously I had argued that Psalm 14:1 claims an atheist is an immoral person, not an insane one, as Jim West had ignorantly argued. And I reject both accusations. And I argued the correct immoral interpretation of Psalm 14:1 is easily proven false by one lone ethical atheist. This verse is speaking about our behavior not our beliefs, for it's speaking about the behavioral consequences of our not believing. Again, the verse reads: "The fool hath said in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that does good."

Matt Flannagan chides me for this in a recent post. I don’t usually explain proper interpretations of the Bible to Christians. I just debunk whatever the result is, usually. But since this seems important to Matt’s view in the inerrancy of the Bible as a whole I’ll respond.

Matt claims there is alternative translation of this verse that it could be saying “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘No to God.’" A fool here is someone “who is aware of God’s existence and his commands and yet chooses to reject them.”

But such a sub-standard translation is not to be found in any version of the Bible I looked up. Not even the American Standard Version (ASV) translates it this way, which has the most strident static theory of word for word correspondence among the English Translations (versus dynamic translation theory). The Holman Christian Standard Bible even says: “The fool says in his heart, ‘God does not exist.’" So what Matt suggests is a translation that goes against all the English translations I have looked at. Since the act of translation is an act of interpretation then Matt disagrees with all of the scholars who translated this verse in every English Bible I checked.

But perhaps no English translation can do justice to the words here. Okay, let’s see.

Matt finds this same Hebrew phrase in Psalm 10:4, where it speaks of a wicked person in these words: "The wicked, in the haughtiness of his countenance, does not seek Him; All his thoughts are, “There is no God."

The last phrase is also translated the same way in the NASB, ASV, and ESV. The Holman Christian Standard Bible says:
4 In all his scheming,
the wicked arrogantly thinks:
"There is no accountability,
[since] God does not exist."
There is a disagreement between translators on Psalm 10:4, I’ll admit, since other translations like the NIV translates the last phrase: “…in all his thoughts there is no room for God.”

In any case, Matt claims this verse refers to a person who “acts as though God will not hold him or her accountable for his or her actions.”

Wait just a minute. That describes atheists, all of us, last time I checked.

But Matt makes a different argument. He claims the point “is not that the person does not believe in God but that the person rejects God’s requirements to do what is right and does not consider him or herself to be accountable or responsible for what they do.”

But there are three things to say here. In the first place, there were probably no atheists in the modern sense living in ancient Israel at the time. While we do know of some atheists in other parts of the world at this time, this was a polytheistic culture to the hilt. Their choice was emphatically not one between the rejection of all gods (the modern sense) and an acceptance of the real or true one. Their choice was instead about which god was the real one. Anyone who denied someone’s god was considered an atheist even though that person, strictly speaking, might be a polytheist.

Secondly, the ancients believed their particular god and his ethical standards are obvious and written on everyone’s hearts, so a person who acted badly or wickedly was a person who was in defiance of their god, and thereby a non-believer, or an atheist. For them this was obvious, even if for others who believed and acted upon what a different god or goddess commanded them to do thought differently; things that others considered wicked (think genocide, as in who is supposed to be killed). The ancients did not understand the human psyche like we do with the rise of psychology. They believed (probably along the same lines as Socrates did) that we act out what we are inside, that we naturally exhibit what we believe, or in Socrates’ dictum, “To know the good is to do the good.” So if morality was obvious and if a person didn’t behave according to this morality, then he did not believe. But psychology shows us we are not evil people. We sometimes do evil deeds but when we do we don't always know why we do them. Sometimes we have a Freudian death wish. But for the ancients there was no such distinction. An evil-doer is an evil person, and an evil person was a non-believer, an atheist.

Thirdly, Matt needs to understand how Christians apply the Bible to today’s world, although surely he does. As I said, an atheist is a non-believer (or a non-theist), someone who denied someone else's god. Christians themselves were called atheists in the Roman world because they denied the gods and goddess of Rome’s pantheon. Now who best fits this description in today’s world? It’s people who deny all gods. Christians regularly find biblical principles that can be used to apply to today’s ethical issues all of the time. If this phrase in Psalm 10:4 or 14:1 does not also apply to atheists today, when we deny all gods, then Christians cannot find any biblical principle that applies to our world unless the situation is exactly the same. Gone then are any biblical applications of capital punishment laws in today’s world; gone are any condemnations of homosexuality, modern warfare, and abortions, including Paul’s commands about suing other believers (I Corinthians 6), and so on.

Matt backs up his interpretation with how the apostle Paul interprets Psalm 14:1 in Romans 3:12. Paul applied that verse to “Greeks who for the most past believe a deity exists, know what his requirements are and yet still reject them,” and to “Jews who know that God exists, know what his requirements are in the Torah and yet refuse to follow them.”

But the same things I just wrote apply equally to these groups of people. These two groups of people were non-believers, atheists and they are condemned as being sinful. Besides, why should I accept any interpretation of the OT by NT writers? I can cite where many NT writers misunderstood the Old Testament too, so what does that prove? (Psalms 110:1; Isaiah 53; Matthew 2:14-15; Mark 12:26-27; 13:24-30; Galatians 3:8, 16; Ephesians 4:8; Hebrews 10:5).

Matt further argues that "Psalm 14, in context, applies its criticism not to atheists per se but to all human beings, the majority of whom historically and today do believe in a deity of some sort."

Then why single atheists out? And I've already discussed what an atheist is anyway.

Suppose for the sake of argument, Matt rhetorically asks, that “the passage does refer to the intellectual position of atheism.” Then what? He says, “The claim that fools are atheists does not entail that all atheists are fools, any more than the claim that all Buicks are cars entails that all cars are Buicks. This would commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent.”

Now this would be correct in many cases, as he mentioned. But in this context who is he kidding here? Not me. And no biblical scholar I can think of either. I’ve already said what an atheist is and such a person does not believe or accept what a particular god tells him to do. But let’s look at the verse again using his substandard translation and interpretation. It reads: “The fool hath said in his heart, 'No to God”' the fool being, on his interpretation, an immoral person. Does he seriously want to entertain that a person who says “no” to God’s commands is not therefore also an immoral person? I doubt this so very much that it’s almost laughable to me.

Next Matt claims that even if all atheists are immoral this “does not entail that all atheists are more immoral than all theists. It is possible that both atheists and theists could be immoral to a degree and that the degrees of each differ on an individual by individual basis.”

While I do think people differ in levels of goodness and immorality irrespective of what they claim to believe, that is not what Psalms says according to his interpretation, or according the genre of wisdom literature (especially Proverbs) leads us to believe at all. This is a purely philosophical point which I can grant him that has little to do with an exegesis of the text. But we're talking about the text.

After making a typical Christian character slam against me, which is irrelevant to my case, since my argument doesn’t depend on my character at all, he continues on undismayed.

Matt faults me for not understanding what John Calvin wrote about Psalm 14:1. Matt also claims that when I said he agreed with me against Jim West’s interpretation of Calvin that it commits him to saying Calvin was also ignorant. Both of these are non-sequiturs. I cannot be held accountable for disputing Jim West’s use of Calvin when I was arguing against his interpretation of Calvin.

Then Matt offers a bit of advice that is obvious and non-controversial, but stated as though this would take me surprise, when he said: “Let’s assume for the sake of argument that I did come to a conclusion different from Calvin, does it follow, as Loftus suggests, that Calvin was ignorant? I think it is quite possible (and common) for educated, informed people to disagree on a particular issue. The suggestion that unless someone agrees with me on everything then they are an ignoramus seems to me to make to big a leap."

All I said is that I think Jim West was ignorant on this issue. This is my conclusion, and from the looks of it Matt’s prospects don't seem much better. ;-) No actually, one reason people seem ignorant to each other is because they just don’t see the same things. My claim is that John Calvin, Jim West and Matt Flannagan were/are all brainwashed. That’s why they argue the way they do. My job is to point out their errors so they can see it requires contorted reasoning to defend incorrect beliefs, and I do. If I’m right they lack understanding, and if that’s so then they are all ignorant. The fact that I cannot convince them of this means nothing at all. There are some disagreements where one or both sides are just plain ignorant, you see, and this is one of them, although I do agree that it is quite possible (and common) for educated, informed people to disagree on a particular issue.

Back to Psalm 14:1. According to the Psalmist, people who say “No to God” “have overthrown all order, so that they no longer make any distinction between right and wrong, and have no regard for honesty, nor love of humanity,” thus saith Matt.

Yep, that’s my point in the reverse. It is not the case that we have no regard for honesty, nor a love of humanity. One lone atheist shows otherwise.

Still sloughing forward, Matt write: “Moreover, it also seems clear that Calvin’s reading of the use of the phrase ‘there is no God’ in Psalm 14…is not a reference to people who profess the philosophical position of atheism.”

What prey tell, is the difference between atheism and the philosophical position of atheism? Matt suggests there is a difference between the intellectual disbelief in God from merely living of one’s life in a manner that rejects God’s laws, and that this is somehow a substantive difference. Here he is simply mistaken, big time. For an atheist who does not have a belief in God is an atheist, plain and simple, whether he rejects the philosophical arguments for God’s existence after having considered them or not. An atheist is an atheist, period.

Now, would someone please tell me why I just wasted a couple hours of my time on this? ;-)


Manifesting Mini Me (MMM) said...

It was written, "Besides, I can cite where many NT writers misunderstood the Old Testament too, so what does that prove?" It proves that we all have equal need for God's grace.

It was once brought to my attention that one can witness the progressive maturation of Paul's faith in his writing. He did have a very strict legalistic background to overcome so it is understandable that it takes awhile to form grace.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps there is a distinction between the nabal who says 'in his heart' there is no God and the atheist who says with his mouth there is no God. The nabal can very well be a religious man outwardly, like a Calvinist who talks all day long about God and justification by faith and once saved always saved and inwardly doesn't believe God even exists which is why he believes in justification by faith alone and once saved always saved and gets drunk and sleeps with his neighbor's wife every day. He has done abominable works because he pretends to be religious but in his heart he doesn't believe in God. He is inconsistent. The atheists says both in heart and mouth the same thing, but the nabal does not.

Anonymous said...

The next phrase is the one easy to disprove: "there is none that does good." That's a statement worthy of being burned.

Anonymous said...

The word used in the LXX for "fool" in this case is "ἄφρων" and it can mean several things. I'm copying the definition from here:

1) without reason
2) senseless, foolish, stupid
3) without reflection or intelligence, acting rashly

I reserve my comment, since the greek text continues after verse 7 (as an addendum): "τάφος ἀνεῳγμένος ὁ λάρυγξ αὐτῶν, ταῖς γλώσσαις αὑτῶν ἐδολιοῦσαν· ἰὸς ἀσπίδων ὑπὸ τὰ χείλη αὐτῶν, ὧν τὸ στόμα ἀρᾶς καὶ πικρίας γέμει, ὀξεῖς οἱ πόδες αὐτῶν ἐκχέαι αἷμα, σύντριμμα καὶ ταλαιπωρία ἐν ταῖς ὁδοῖς αὐτῶν, καὶ ὁδὸν εἰρήνης οὐκ ἔγνωσαν· οὐκ ἔστι φόβος Θεοῦ ἀπέναντι τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν αὐτῶν." (source)(I'll hazard a translation, John correct me if I'm in error; it's been a few years since high school). This is similar to Psalm 5:8-

"Their throat is like an open tomb, their tongues full of deceipt; the poison of shields under their lips, their mouths full of (?wounds) and bitterness, their feet sharp, blooding flowing from them, broken rocks and frustration on their roads as they didn't know the road of peace; before their eyes there is no fear of God."

Am I wrong to think that these "fools" might not be generic fools, but might be a specific group of people this psalm was written against?

Brad Haggard said...


The NASB translation is the correct one, the phrase is "ein elohim" which is a standard null copula in Hebrew. It could be argued that since "elohim" is a variant of the generic "elim" that it refers specifically to Yahweh and not to gods in general, but that wouldn't be on the mind of the Hebrew and it wouldn't matter for the purposes of this passage anyways.

I'm wondering why you're spending so much time on this passage treating it like prose instead of poetry, though. Same goes for Psalm 137.

Anonymous said...


Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
You are an idiot,
Jim West is too.

Poetry eh? Doesn't have any truth claims, eh?

Okay, I guess.

Brad Haggard said...

John, do you really think that genre has no bearing on how we read, in general? Does Hebrew poetry not use hyperbole or metaphor, especially in a lament/wisdom psalm like 14:1? Come on, John, you give us some sort of fundy/literal reading of the text and then proceed to debunk it.

Seriously, read the Hebrew and you can see the parallelism between the doublets in 14:1 (the use of "ein"). This is a hyperbolic statement describing a general state of life (sitz em leiben) for the author.

Deal with the depth of the text, not a facile surface reading, then proceed to debunking.

Anonymous said...

Now listen up Brad. If you think for one moment that my claim is that "genre has no bearing on how we read, in general," then you are an idiot.

I do not suffer fools gladly. I have better things to do with my time. It's comments like this one, when exposed, show why I don't have much regard for you. I'd rather deal with more educated people. I'll let others deal with you.


Brad Haggard said...

John, you can say that you take genre into account, but your interpretation does not take genre into account.

It's ok, I didn't learn how much it affects until recently. My biblical training didn't help me deal with the actual truth claims of poetry very well, either. I still read them as literal propositions, too.

But that doesn't change the fact that we have to deal with the text as it presents itself, and not from our modernistic lenses.