We're continuing the series that started here. We've thus far seen that if there are non-crucial errors in the Bible, the essential contents of Christianity can still be true and knowable. But here we might start to wonder how we can reliably tell the difference between the contents of the Bible that make up the core claims of Christianity, and the contents that don't. Perhaps we have no choice but to just take the Bible in its entirety as what God's given us to believe, and not arrogantly presume to judge which parts are more important than which. If the Bible doesn't give us clues itself as to what's really key, then surely we can't arbitrarily rank its contents in order of priority? But in that case, surely, we can't afford to concede any error at all in the Bible?
It's actually very hard to scrounge together a cogent objection from these worries. For one, the Bible does explicitly indicate things that are more important than other things. Paul is able to speak of what is of first importance to the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 15:3-11), included in which is the resurrection of Jesus, without which, Paul later argues, Christianity collapses. Would Paul say the same about the age Ahaziah came to reign? Seems unlikely. Jesus is also quite prepared to declare which moral commandment of God's is most important (Matt. 22:34-40). And really, any time the gospel is summarised, the author is making a claim about what the essential contents of the gospel message are. Indeed, Christians have been sorting out what's centrally important since Christianity begun. Through the centuries they've written creeds expressing what the heart of the Christian faith is, or to put it another way, what minimally counts as Christianity, and there's broad agreement as to what constitutes this 'mere Christianity' (to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis).
The fact that we are able to do this is really not surprising, after all, working out the central themes, characters, and events in a book is just what we naturally do as a result of reading it and making sense of it. Consider the Harry Potter books. Imagine you had to re-tell the story of all seven books in a short amount of time. You'd have to keep it brief, but you'd also have to keep it from becoming so vague and abstract that its could be nearly any story. For instance, you couldn't just summarise it as “good versus evil” because that's true of many stories, not just Harry Potter. So it would have to keep its distinctive features. Now you'd keep characters like Voldemort and Harry (obviously), but there's a few you could afford to loose. How about Peeves the poltergeist? He doesn't really have all that central a role. As for events, how about ditching the moment when Harry and co. meet Neville's parents in the hospital? As emotionally stirring as that scene is, you could tell Harry's tale without it. Indeed, if you've only seen the films but not read the books (shame on you!) then you might be wondering what on earth I'm talking about. Who's Peeves? And what hospital scene?
You're wondering that because somebody's already reduced the story to a more essential re-telling: those responsible for translating the book into film. Peeves was dropped and so was the hospital scene (and those are just two examples). What's very interesting to note as well is that JK Rowling herself was involved in the production of the films and was able to agree that some bits were not essential to a proper re-telling of her story! That is, you still get Harry Potter even if you remove Peeves, and the hospital scene, and more else besides. Do you still get Christianity if you drop Ahaziah? Any sensible reading of the Christian narrative would have to affirm that you can.
So you can reasonably approach the Bible and discern what is essentially being taught and what isn't. Doing so may not be an exact science, but it isn't arbitrary guess-work either. But at any rate, who's to say that a person who's adopted the “moderate” view of the Bible (as we called it last time) needs to, from the out-set, go through the Bible and mark with a red pen anything non-essential?
If Benny holds the moderate view, he stills thinks that everything affirmed in the Bible is potentially something that God has proposed for our belief. As such, he should not carelessly cross out anything non-essential, as if knowing right away that those things are false, or not something God cares about us knowing. We should recognise that the division isn't between essential and trivial. There can be non-essential things that are nonetheless valuable. For instance, the hospital scene in The Order of the Phoenix is not essential to the Potter narrative but the author did see it as valuable, providing a touching insight into the background of one the main characters. It would be wiser and more reverent to God for Benny to start always with the benefit of the doubt, granting the assumption that the contents of the Bible are true. Of course it might be that for certain non-essential Biblical affirmations, this assumption is over-turned, but that's fine, in which case Benny would come to know that X isn't part of the message God wants to give us through the Bible, but that says nothing about the rest of its contents.
It seems, then, that what the moderate view must concede is that there is no way to tell a priori (a fancy word meaning “from the out-set/from the get-go/prior to investigation”) which non-essential Biblical teachings are not a part of God's message to us. That is, we can't learn that just from reading the Bible; the Bible doesn't tell us things like “don't believe that part in Jeremiah, or that little bit in Numbers!” Is this a problem? Well I'd claim that if it is, it isn't a problem unique to the moderate view.
Let's bring to mind again the “strong” view; the view of the Bible as the word-of-God, entailing a full-blown across-the-board inerrancy. According to this view, everything the Bible affirms as true is true. Great. But there is a question you must settle before you get to that stage and that is, “what properly belongs inside the Bible?” In other words, which books should properly be taken as Holy Scripture? The Bible itself doesn't answer this. Glenn Miller (himself an inerrantist) puts it this way in the innocuous looking letter on his site that first got me thinking about these issues differently;
“Some items, such as the extent of the canon, can never be settled by an appeal to scripture (at least as we have it). Although the undergirding teaching that supports and predicts a 'canon-occurrence' is VERY strong in my opinion, such teaching does not specify the contents of that 'beforehand'. Since the last book of the bible does NOT contain a definitive list of what books are in the canon, we are forced to deal with the issue historically--NOT biblically. [The same argument applies to many of the 'recursive' biblical statements. That is, the bible 'itself' cannot tell us which textual variants are the originals--no text can do that.]” (brackets in original.)1
So you see there is no passage in the Bible which says “the books to be included in the collection of Holy Scripture are “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans...” Any investigation of which books belong thus necessarily take you outside of the Bible. Thus neither the strong view nor the moderate view are wholly “Biblically self-contained.” If the critic wants to claim there is a problem for the moderate view, he/she needs to explain why that same problem doesn't apply to the strong view.
Well we've done a lot of work in the last few posts and writing it has certainly helped clarify my own thoughts. I hope that the discussion hasn't been too hard to follow and remember that I'll happily dialogue about these matters further in the comments section.
Here's a quick summary of where we've been:
We saw that Georgie and Jimbo were both in agreement that “you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it”, despite their vast ideological differences. We saw, then, that what you believe about the truth of its inerrancy is separate from what you believe about it's importance. We then began to examine whether inerrancy does actually have the importance Georgie and Jimbo grant it. We saw that inerrancy isn't necessary for salvation first of all. Then we saw that isn't necessary because of either the direct or indirect logical relations between different Biblical teachings. We then assessed whether it was necessary for reliable knowledge of Christian essentials, and found that hypothesis wanting too. Last of all we examined here the possibility of distinguishing the essential from the inessential and saw no problem in doing so. As a result we can safely conclude that Benny does not have to believe all of the Bible or none of it.
But Benny's being able to reject inerrancy doesn't mean that any reason for doing so would be a good or virtuous one. With the bulk of the philosophical work behind us, we can look next time in the final article at why we've even addressed this topic and what not to take from it.