Monday, 22 July 2013

Inerrancy (Again)

A while back now, Rolo Baez – good friend of mine wrote a response to my series “Believe all the Bible or None or None of it?” on his blog Apologizing for Christianity. This is quite an arbitrary time to respond to his response but, well, this just happens to be the time that I’ve “got round to it.”

In that series, I argued that belief in “inerrancy” is not necessary. I defined inerrancy (rather crudely) as the belief that whatever the Bible affirms as true, is true. And when I argued that belief in inerrancy isn’t necessary, I argued that it isn’t necessary in pretty much any relevant sense. That is, it’s not necessary for salvation, it’s not necessary for Christianity to be true, and it’s not necessary to know that Christianity is true. Inerrancy may very well be true, and may also be theologically desirable, useful or important, but it isn’t necessary, I claimed. (Still, I emphasised that you shouldn't treat your theology of Scripture lightly. Even if denial of inerrancy is "open" it doesn't mean you should casually reach for it. I'm not interested in simply opening the doors for theological laxity. More on this and some explanation of why I address this topic over here.)

Rolo is sympathetic to my argument – indeed he is exceedingly kind in showing his appreciation for the series – but he also has some remarks to make by way of constructive criticism. I think they are worth engaging with. Both because they are good comments and also because it’s fun to pretend that you’re having some sort of highly public and important interaction!

So, Rolo’s first criticism regards how I handle a theological argument commonly put forward in defence of the necessity of the truth of inerrancy for the truth of Christianity. I laid out this argument, which I contested as plausibly unsound, as below:

(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).[1]

My critique of this argument focussed on the acceptability for the Christian of rejecting (5). That is, the Christian can reject (5) and still be a good, orthodox Christian, I claimed. Rolo doesn’t have an issue with my challenge of (5), rather he thinks other premises are vulnerable too, namely, (3) and (4). Rolo’s argument, then, is that my case is or could be much stronger or multi-faceted than how I presented it!

I think he’s right too. It’s not just (5) that’s open for an orthodox Christian to deny. Regarding (3), Rolo points to a couple Old Testament passages where God is portrayed as deceiving. I am also aware of some more everyday examples where deceit does not implicate the deceiver as bad or immoral. Consider “bluffs” in sport. When you, say, trick your opponent as to which side of the net you are aiming for in a football (soccer) penalty, your intent is to deceive them but that doesn’t seem to count against your moral goodness. Of course, it might be that when we analyse the situations in which deceit is not bad, the principles that allow it not to be bad would not apply in the case of God deceiving us through his affirmations. But again maybe they do apply. The point here is that this sort of analysis and enquiry is open to a Christian and it may yield favourable results.

Regarding premise (4), Rolo questions what reason we have to believe it. Might God have quite other, morally sufficient reasons for allowing error into the Bible? (Might JP Holding have given us a clue as to a possible reason in his work on textual transmission?) Well, I think this is open for the Christian to explore too. Perhaps Christians should be in the business of coming up with “errancy theodicies”, that is, akin to the work of philosophers/theologians in reasoning as to why God allows evil, we can reason as to why God allows error into the Bible.

It might be though, that theodicies of this kind are not the same in structure as regular, problem-of-evil theodicies. At least, when I think about it, there are factors that might make the two different and thus potentially make one more tricky theologically than the other. (I would articulate what I’m intuiting but I’m having trouble doing so. Or rather, I see that it would take a whole lot of effort.) In my own thought this is an underexplored area, so I’m not confident about assessing the theological plausibility of this route. It’s certainly open though to this exploration, so perhaps a Christian might find an end-point on this route that is theologically satisfying.

I guess, looking over what I’ve said, I do think there’s potential vulnerability in further premises than just (5). But I’m probably more confident that (5) can be safely rejected, theologically, than (3) or (4). More or less, though, I agree with Rolo.

Moving on, Rolo’s criticisms start to be of the sort that, should they go through, my argument would be weakened, not empowered. He takes issue with my fifth post in the series. I argued that, if inerrancy is false, we might still expect a sort of “localised inerrancy” from God. That is, we might think that though there are errors in the Bible, God has ensured that no errors affect the main, important message of the gospel. This naturally lead to the question, “how, though, can we discern what the important bits are?”

It’s my reply to this question that Rolo has issues with. Two issues, in fact.

I argued that, regardless of the truth of a text, we can typically discern the main “point” of a text. Rolo says that, regarding the Bible, it seems we can’t. There is lots of disagreement about what the Bible and the gospel are “about”. Well sure. But what exactly is supposed to follow from that? Is it the case that we are to conclude that disagreement about a matter entails that there is no truth to the matter?  That is clearly false. A disagreement in science, say, wouldn’t entail that there is no truth to how the universe operates. Is it, instead, the case that we are to conclude that disagreement about a matter entails that no reliable knowledge can be formed about the matter? Well that’s part of a much larger discussion that implicates not only textual interpretation, but morality, philosophy, pretty much everything that isn’t hard, natural science. I can’t have that conversation here but suffice to say, I won’t be chucking out philosophy any time soon!

Next Rolo says that a potential weakness of my argument lay in thinking that the main point of a text can be reduced to mere propositional content. I don’t know that it’s terribly clear how such a propositional emphasis weakens my argument, but it is, I think a general deficiency in my thinking about Scripture. It’s something I’d like to pour more thought into.

Rolo thinks my Harry Potter example shows, contrary to my intent, that an entire narrative is important, not just the crucial parts of that narrative. He asks, “if the movies do not [I think the “not” might have been intended to be omitted?] in fact contain some the main points of the book then why in the world does he decry the fact that the movies don’t contain some of the best scenes in the books? What do the books have which the movies don’t?” Recall again the aims of my overall argument. It is to show that inerrancy is not necessary. I am quite happy to concede, then, that in dropping inerrancy, one loses some of the richness of the Bible. And certainly, just having the “main point” of the Bible would be much less rich than having the whole thing. But that’s just not relevant to my argument so far as I can see!  

I think, then, that my argument stands ;)

Regarding theology of Scripture and inspiration generally, my thinking has definitely been refined since writing that series. I poked into Richard Swinburne’s book Revelation a little while back and finished Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Divine Discourse over the weekend. Both develop a theology of Scripture that is not centred on inerrancy (not inerrancy in a very wooden, strict sense anyway) and both have very plausible things to say. I need to sort out my thought still but it definitely seems to me now that there are a number of ways of articulating how exactly God is involved in Scripture that properly honour Him.

Anyway, thank you, Rolo, for taking the time to engage with my reflections!


[1] In fact this presentation was a little sloppy. To reach the conclusion you actually need to include another premise, like: “(6) If the Bible in its entirety is the word of God, the Bible in its entirety counts as God’s affirmations.”

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