Saturday, 10 March 2012

Believe All The Bible Or None Of It? (4)

We're continuing with the series that started here. Last time we further explored how inerrancy might relate to the concern that “you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it.” We concluded that there isn't any compelling reason to think that if the Bible erred in even a minor way, then Christianity would be necessarily false. We saw that there are theologically acceptable ways of understanding the Bible that do not necessitate that the Bible is inerrant.

But this has brought us to a further concern – one that really gets to the bottom of why Jimbo and Georgie saw it as very important to Christianity that the Bible be without error. Isn't it the case that once you allow the possibility of error in the Bible, or come to believe that there is such an error, then one doesn't really know which bits to trust? How do you know which bits are right and which bits are wrong?

Theological scepticism?

We might wonder why exactly this worry arises. After all your university science textbook carries the possibility that some of its contents are factually mistaken but you do not, as a result, feel unable to trust any of its truth claims. Why should the Bible be any different? Well I think the reason the Bible is a special case is because the Bible's claims are typically believed for different reasons than the claims of other books.

With the truth claims of most books it isn't enough that the book simply makes the claim for it to be believed. For instance with the science textbook, its claims are believed to the extent that they represent the outworking of good scientific methodology. Likewise, an ordinary history book is believed to the extent that its claims meet certain criteria for historical reliability. These ordinary books don't carry any special status that makes their claims automatically worthy of belief. But the claims of the Bible, so Christians typically believe, can be trusted by virtue of its special status – it has a certain authority or reliability because of its divine origin. Although a Christian might think that you can (if you want) approach the Bible's historical texts from an ordinary historical standpoint, he or she thinks that you don't need to in order to know that its claims are true. One does not need an outside standard to determine which of the Bible's claims are true or not, one simply knows that the claims of the Bible are true because it's the Bible that's making them. We're not here going to assess the rationality of this picture, we're merely explaining it. Obviously, Christians mostly do think it's rational to carry out their believings in this way, and since we're concerned in this series only with the relations between different components of Christian belief, we can grant this if only for the sake of argument.

Anyway we can now see why people would think that finding an error in the Bible would be problematic, much more so than if it were an ordinary history book under consideration. The issue is this: if there is an error in the Bible then it seems like the contents of the Bible cannot be believed just by virtue of their being in the Bible. It seems like one needs to bring in an outside standard to discern what is to be believed and what isn't. Note, then, that the concern is not whether an error in the Bible might render Christianity false. It is instead a concern about whether we can know Christianity to be true, even if it is. To put it more philosophically, it is an epistemological issue (an issue concerning knowledge).

In this epistemological challenge, the key concern isn't inerrancy itself, but what it's supposedly a key ingredient for. Inerrancy is the belief that the Bible's affirmations are all true. It isn't the belief one can know them to be true from the get-go, just because they're in the Bible. I in fact know of a few Christians who believe in inerrancy but don't think the Bible should be treated differently than any other document. They profess to believe Christianity just because, by their lights, the Bible passes any reasonable examination under relevant outside standards. They claim that our basis for belief in Christianity is the evidence, accessible with the proper tools of historical/philosophical/scientific inquiry. And certainly I think it's possible that God (if existent) has intended for us to believe Christianity in this way. But I don't think it's altogether likely and there seem to be drawbacks in thinking that he has...

Even if some Christians have come to believe Christianity by using ordinary outside standards, surely most have not. Even those Christians who go on to study the faith more intellectually (digging into philosophical arguments for God's existence, and historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection etc.) do not typically arrive at their faith by these means. And many, perhaps most Christians throughout history have never gone on to those more overtly intellectual pursuits, if only because doing so requires a certain degree of intellectual ability, education, and resources, not all of which many Christians have had access to. Is the Christian to think that a substantial number of fellow believers were and are positively irrational or unwarranted in their beliefs? Did they not really know that Christianity was true even if they believed it? Ought they abandon Christianity, or hold it less seriously, at least until they get their intellectual game together? Of course, the skeptic might think so but this is surely an unacceptable conclusion for a Christian to take. Moreover, what might it suggest about God's character – that he favours the intellectually and socially elite? This seems contrary to the Bible's own teaching that it is often the underprivileged and simple who most easily grasp the truth of the gospel. I also wonder whether all of the claims of Christianity can be secured by ordinary tools of inquiry, or be secured with enough security to grant full conviction in them (though I think some of them certainly can). This is not to deny the great role of the mind in the Christian life, or the need for well-studied teachers and scholars (indeed I think churches need to up their game in these areas), it is just to concede that one surely doesn't need to be one of those to gain entry into God's kingdom community.

So if surrendering inerrancy is to be a possibility for the Christian, should things come to that, then there needs to be a solution to the epistemological challenge. And I think there is.

We saw in the last post that there are theologically acceptable ways of understanding the Bible which allow it a special God-given status, but which do not necessitate that the Bible is totally without error across the board. We saw that it is possible that God has providentially arranged history to guarantee only that the central message of Christianity is truthfully expressed in the Bible, leaving inessential details aside (for whatever reason). We can see that what this view does necessitate is a restricted or localised sort of inerrancy, one which applies to matters crucial to Christianity. After all if Christianity is true, some view which guarantees the Bible's ability to convey that essential truth must be as well. So because the necessity of this localised inerrancy holds, this view affirms the Bible as having a special status which guarantees the trustworthiness of the Bible in regards to at least core Christian concerns. Let's call this view the “moderate” view.

Let us see how the moderate view opens up space in which the epistemological challenge can be met, should things come down to that. Imagine that Benny currently holds to a full-blown across-the-board inerrancy. And let's say that after months of study the problem of Ahaziah's reign looks more clearly to be an intractable error than it did at first. He foresees no possible solution nor the possibility of one emerging in the future, and he admits to Jimbo that the Bible isn't free of mistakes. Clearly the sort of super inerrancy he held is no longer an option for Benny. He just can't bring himself to believe it, given all the study he's done around the Ahaziah problem. But the moderate view is still a live option for him. The Ahaziah thing wasn't a central part of the Christian story and so the moderate view is still on the table. The moderate view affirms the Bible's reliability in central Christian matters, but not peripheral ones, and so while Benny now knows (in this scenario) that the Bible isn't in fact free of peripheral mistakes, all he has to do is tone down his position and consider that the Bible carries a special authority only in regards to matters of central importance. After all this is, as I've argued, a real possibility if Christianity is true, and indeed a (minimum) requirement if it is. And since Benny believes Christianity, he's perfectly entitled to the moderate view.

So then, the presence of relatively trivial errors in the Bible would neither refute Christianity, nor leave us in scepticism over its truth. Even if across-the-board inerrancy is false, we can hold a view of the Bible that guarantees its central claims.
That said, there's an objection to the above that we need to consider. Can we even reliably tell what parts of the Bible are core Christian concerns? Surely we can't presume to know what God considered important to communicate, and what wasn't? Surely we must treat every Biblical affirmation as if God considered it important for us to know? Next time we'll crack on with those questions.

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