Friday, 9 March 2012

Believe All The Bible Or None Of It? (3)

We're continuing the series that started here. Last time to we began to analyse Jimbo's and Georgie's intuition that “you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it” in relation to whether the doctrine of inerrancy was crucially important to Christianity. I think we helped Benny out by showing that inerrancy isn't necessary for salvation and isn't necessary because of some direct logical relation between all the Bible's teachings. But we acknowledged that there's still more to be said about inerrancy.

It could be argued that while one minor error in the Bible wouldn't directly refute the important bits in the rest of it (like God's existence and Jesus' resurrection etc.), it would do so indirectly. It might be that when some core Christian beliefs are unpacked, they actually lead to inerrancy, such that giving up inerrancy, even over a seemingly trivial error, places one at odds with these central convictions. What could support "the indirect thesis"? Based on conversations with others, and having thought along similar lines myself in the past, something like the following argument might be in mind:

1. God is all-knowing and perfectly good.
2. An all-knowing being would never affirm false things through ignorance.
3. A perfectly good being would never affirm false things through an intent to deceive.
4. Errors are only affirmed through ignorance or an intent to deceive. 
5. The Bible in its entirety is the word of God.
Conclusion: Therefore, the Bible doesn't affirm false things (inerrancy is true).

The argument thus attempts to show how certain core Christian beliefs join up to entail the conclusion that the Bible is free from error. If the argument is valid, then Christians can only give up inerrancy by denying one of the premises, and the point is supposed to be that none of the premises seem particularly easy for the Christian to surrender. But I think that, actually, one of them is vulnerable.1

Points (1) and (2) seem obviously correct from a Christian standpoint. We wouldn't want to claim instead that God doesn't know everything or that he has moral imperfections. Point (3) might yield some circumstantial exceptions under a little philosophical refinement, but it seems basically on track. No relevant exceptions to point (4) spring to mind and so only point (5) remains to consider...

Word of God: the only option?

It might seem that a Christian, if he/she wants to remain a Christian, has no choice but to affirm that the Bible is the word of God. It might seem that to deny the Bible such a description just is to deny Christianity. But I am going to argue that there are alternative views of the Bible other than the "word-of-God" view which are plausible for a Christian to accept. And if that's so, then a Christian can deny premise (5) and therefore not have to accept inerrancy if there is good reason for him/her to reject it.

We should appreciate that the Bible does not refer to itself unambiguously as the word of God, at least not as a whole. Certain parts perhaps, such as a message given to a prophet, or the Old Testament Law, but as a collective there is not a clear statement that describes the Bible in these terms. The closest we get is 2 Timothy 3:16 "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." Other translations render it as "all Scripture is inspired by God" but even "breathed" allows for some poetic flexibility in how that is to be understood. J.P.Holding notes the following;

"... designating the Bible to be the "Word of God" is itself a post-Biblical phenomenon. An apostle or prophet who heard that phrase would not have thought of a book, but rather, of the transcendent thoughts and words of YHWH. It could certainly have not meant the whole Bible prior to its completion and compilation, and when the phrase “word of God” is used in the Bible, it always means some specific prophetic utterance, or some message (like the Gospel)."2

I'd like to see JP do a full treatment of that topic, but his comment strikes me as plausible. Compare the relatively modest descriptions given to the Bible with instances in which "word of God" is attributed unflinchingly, in particular, in regards to Jesus. John's gospel spells it out clearly in the prologue: Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. For the Christian, the revelation of God came ultimately as a person and not a book. The latter view is perhaps more at home in Islam which places an extraordinary emphasis on the excellence of the Koran.

Now perhaps that's not enough to dissuade someone that the Bible should not be understood as the word of God. Fine. But so long as it opens up the possibility of other plausible understandings, then (5) isn't the only option for the Christian.

It's important to note that holding an alternative understanding doesn't mean that you think inerrancy is false (although you might). One does not have to think that the Bible is the word of God to believe in inerrancy (JP still affirms inerrancy for instance). After all there are perfectly ordinary books that are without error. Your maths textbook might be one. But you wouldn't have to think that the Bible's inerrant nature is just a coincidence either. Holding an alternative understanding doesn't equate to a denial of God's involvement in the production of the Bible...

One alternative way we might imagine this involvement (and this isn't necessarily the only alternative way) could be described as follows: knowing what certain persons would write in certain circumstances under the inspiration of his Spirit, God so arranged history and provided the inspiration of his Spirit, such that the contents of the authors' writing were as God desired for his purposes. The Bible, then, can still be God-given even if not every part is God-spoken. An alternative wouldn't entail that inerrancy is false or make it highly improbable. But what's important for our concerns here is that it also does not entail that inerrancy is true either. It might be that God orchestrated history and inspired the Biblical authors to produce writings that were reliable in regards to the primary message of Christianity, but not every detail of history or science (or whatever), touched upon. If this is a possibility, then it's possible that Christianity is true and that there are errors in the Bible. An alternative views leaves the issue of inerrancy open. It might be true, but it also might not be. It might be that the Bible is inerrant only in regards to the central truths of Christianity.

Now I sense the objection that if God could make a fully inerrant text, then why wouldn't he definitely do so? Well who knows? I'm just making the claim that it's possible that God could have some reason for not making an inerrant Bible, which is surely true. So unless the objector can provide an argument as to why it's impossible that God could have such a reason, then the possibility still stands. And so as long as it's a logical possibility that God has some reason to allow error into the Bible, then it is possible that God exists, that Christianity is true in all its essentials but that inerrancy is false. And that means that the presence of any non-crucial errors in the Bible (if there are any) is not an automatic defeater for Christianity.

To summarise: because there exist alternative views of the Bible which are theologically plausible, the Christian does not have to believe point (5) of the argument, and thus doesn't have to believe inerrancy as a result of (5). And since alternative views don't necessarily entail inerrancy, replacing (5) with such a view does not still result in Christians having to believe in inerrancy. On an alternative view, whether inerrancy is true or is not is open for debate. As such it is false that, in this way, you either have to believe all of the Bible or none of it.

But it's at this point that I think we start to get to the heart of Jimbo's and Georgie's intuition. Isn't it the case that once you allow the possibility of error in the Bible, or come to believe that there actually are such errors, then one doesn't really know which bits to trust? Are we thrown as a result into theological scepticism?

We'll see if that's so next time.


1 Another argument for the alleged necessity of inerrancy is briefly commented upon by William Lane Craig is his response to the question, “What Price Biblical Errancy?” As well as sharing some generally helpful thoughts in regards to the topic at hand, he points out that this argument too has a premise which isn't as obviously true as we might think it is. 

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