25 January 2008

Inerrancy: a few thoughts of my own

I’ve been thinking about this post here (H/T: Imago Dei) on the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, but have been too busy to post anything about it until now.

Whatever one's views on the subject of inerrancy, I must say it was interesting to read a posting on the topic (a posting which takes a position against the notion) which takes no account of the Scriptures' testimony of themselves. I suppose Terri thought it pointless to look into the matter of what the Bible says of itself, since, on her view, what motivates fundamentalists' belief in the doctrine of inerrancy is fear. Once you know that, no further inquiry need be made. Also interesting was not only does she not engage the Biblical self-testimony but she doesn't engage any Christian philosophers and theologians who believe the doctrine (like, for example, Millard Erickson who happens to be a fundamentalist himself; see discussion here and here).

Then there is the particular fundamentalist fear itself:

If people don't believe the Bible is perfect in every way and circumstance, then what will hold the Christian faith together? How will we cling to Jesus if everything we know about Him comes from a tainted book? Won't people begin to slowly peel away all the theology we have, all the while reminding us that the Bible is not inerrant?
I think that first sentence gives away something very important: Inerrancy means the Bible is "perfect in every way and circumstance." And that's the problem. That's exactly what many people think inerrancy means. So, if there is some “imperfection” (depending upon what “perfection” means), why then there is a problem for inerrancy. But I digress.

She continues:

It is false to say that not believing in inerrancy is equivalent to saying that the Bible is tainted or unreliable. A document can be completely truthful while having some errors in it. Reading an inventory for a regiment during the Civil War, and discovering that they claimed to have more artillery than they really did, in no way disproves that the regiment existed, fought in battle, and sustained casualties. It just means someone wrote down the wrong number or miscounted. W would consider it ridiculous for someone to base a conspiracy theory about the falsification of the Civil War on such a minor type of error. Yet, that is exactly how we treat Scripture. Fearing that those who don't affirm Christianity will use such types of errors to defame our faith, we come up with ways to protect it.
This is the problem with someone who believes that certain beliefs are held without intellectual reasons. She is apparently under the delusion that the only reason one could possibly have for believing and asserting the doctrine of inerrancy is to prop up the faith and protect it from defamation.

Pop quiz: Is it working? Obvious answer: No, it isn't. It never really did.

That raises the question: Why believe the doctrine then? Another obvious answer: Because one thinks it's true for reasons other than fear of what may happen if it isn’t believed.

A further problem in the above-quoted paragraph is her notion that "A document can be completely truthful while having some errors in it." It frightens me to think she's in earnest. A document containing errors can be completely truthful. Let's pause for a moment. Take two or three deep breaths. Think about that adverb, completely. Take a few more deep breaths. Now say, "Completely truthful." Deep breath again. Now say, "A tad bit erroneous."

Completely truthful. A tad bit erroneous.

See the problem? It doesn't mean she's wrong about inerrancy. The doctrine could still be false. But I don't think it helps her case to construct what is really only another prop by saying that this completely truthful text of hers is a tad bit erroneous, but still untainted notwithstanding – completely truthful. This is supposed to be superior to the doctrine of inerrancy? (Well, it is superior to her caricature of the doctrine.) Pragmatically speaking, it comes to much the same thing as most considered formulations of inerrancy: She and inerrantists both believe the Scriptures to be completely truthful. They only differ on what "completely truthful" means, and how the standard is met perhaps. Clearly the intellectual superiority of her position is to be found in the fact that while she believes the text to be completely truthful at least she's not so foolish as to believe that it is free from error! What is sad is that what she believes about the Bible isn't too far from what (non-absolute) inerrantists believe. (And I know very few absolute inerrantists.)

But there's more to the above-quoted passage. She says that, "Reading an inventory for a regiment during the Civil War, and discovering that they claimed to have more artillery than they really did, in no way disproves that the regiment existed, fought in battle, and sustained casualties. It just means someone wrote down the wrong number or miscounted."

She’s right: The proposition, “They were wrong about the number of artillery,” doesn’t falsify the proposition, “They fought in such-and-such a battle and won, sustaining such-and-such casualties.” But certainly we are justified in wondering if the report in question is completely truthful. The question, with respect to the Bible, is this: What ought we to have made of that inventory if it were part of a text which was claimed to be of divine origin? (See 2 Peter 1.20.) We expect humans to do things like mis-count or mis-write. Ought we to expect that from a God-breathed text (see 2 Tim. 3.16)? That is the question. It is a question she neither considers nor answers.

What can be true of the sort of document she speaks of is this: It contains an error with regard to the number of artillery, but is nonetheless completely reliable. That is, it may be relied upon for the purposes for which it was written. If the text were written with the purpose of presenting a completely accurate inventory, then obviously it cannot be relied upon for that information. If, however, the text is written to report the outcome of a battle, providing some relative idea of the sizes of the forces involved (e.g., "We won. They lost.”), and if that much is true, then the text is completely reliable for that information, even if inventories and casualty counts are mistaken. (I suppose we could use her terminology and say that the text, though erroneous with respect to the inventory question, is nevertheless completely truthful with respect to the matter which truly occasioned its writing, victory in battle.)

I said above that there was a problem with Terri’s tacit claim that inerrancy means the Bible is "perfect in every way and circumstance." Apparently, given what follows in her posting, if the Bible were “perfect in every way” there would be no instances within its pages similar in nature to the document containing the erroneous artillery inventory. In other words, there must be passages in Scripture which make claims she knows to be erroneous. It would have been so very helpful if she’d let us in on these passages. We could have looked at those passages with her and said, “Ah, yes, there are these imperfections. Obviously the Bible is not ‘perfect in every way’, which is what the doctrine of inerrancy asserts. Therefore the Bible is not inerrant.”

But does the doctrine of inerrancy require a text that is “perfect in every way”? It is an important question. And, in a posting on inerrancy, the doctrine ought to be defined not by reference to the “popular” or “street” version, but by the doctrine's ablest defenders – trained theologians and Bible scholars, not one’s “fundamentalist” friends, relatives and acquaintances.

Had she done, Terri might have learned that, in addition to Erickson's formulation there is another formulation which has it that the Scriptures are inerrant in the original autographs. We don’t have those. We have manuscript copies. To the extent that the manuscripts are reliable we have perhaps a somewhat inerrant text. But even if we had the autographs, they have to be translated. Since no translation is perfect, knowledge from that inerrant text would also be imperfect, which would make the inerrant text for all practical purposes errant. Even if not for the translation problem, an inerrant text would have to be perfectly understood otherwise it is, again, practically errant. Problems abound. The fact that belief in inerrancy is fear-based is not one of the major problems with the doctrine.

There are problems with believing in an inerrant text, of course. Perhaps the most important of these is the question of testing: How do you test a text to see if it is inerrant if you yourself do not know everything? Can you even do so? Not really.

Take for example the subject of creation. Taking the Bible on its face, God created the entire universe (and had starlight visible from earth) in six days. But just think about starlight. We know (don’t we?) that it takes starlight millions of years to reach us. Millions of years are not very easy to squeeze into a single day. But what if somehow – never mind for the moment how we could know – it really is the case (1) that God created the universe in six days and (2) that by the time he created Adam there was starlight for Adam to see? What we would have is a proposition which is true, contrary to all expectation based on observation. And it is precisely because the proposition is so contrary to expectation that so many think it is false and, therefore, the Scriptures are not inerrant.

The problem only gets worse when we want to verify by archeology some of the historical claims. Yes, many claims have been confirmed by archeology. But not all of the claims have been. So if we want verification of an inerrant text, we are going to be disappointed. And to the extent that we don’t have verification we can’t know, by that means, whether we have an inerrant text.

Then there are things which this putatively inerrant text inerrantly teaches (or, at least, seems to teach), such as that the value of π is 21/7 (or 3.0) instead of 22/7 (or 3.142…):

Now he made the sea of cast metal ten cubits from brim to brim, circular in form, and its height was five cubits, and thirty cubits in circumference. 1 Kings 7.23.
The inerrant text claims (1) that the sea of metal had a diameter (“brim to brim”) of 10 cubits and (2) that this same sea of metal had a circumference of 30 cubits. The typical way of finding the circumference when the diameter is known is to multiply the diameter by π. 10 cubits multiplied by π is not 30, it’s 31.415926. In order for it to be the case both (1) the diameter is 10 cubits and that (2) the circumference is 30 cubits it must be that the value of π is 21/7. But it isn’t. So either the diameter of the sea was not 10 cubits or the circumference was not 30 cubits. Perhaps the author of the text in question was rounding, the diameter, the circumference, or both. Perhaps in the autographs the writer wrote the figures exactly, but a subsequent copyist decided to round the numbers off. That wasn’t very helpful of him! But then, everyone employing π has to round off something, at some point.

Of course, this may not really do much to the doctrine of inerrancy. It would depend upon how, if at all, inerrantists account for the possibility of rounding and the like. But even if they do account for it, one would still be justified in asking whether they are accounting, or merely tap-dancing.

Okay. So the doctrine of inerrancy is problematic. So what? Darwinism is problematic, even for Darwinists. There may be some good arguments against the doctrine of inerrancy. There are definitely some bad ones. The argument that it is a problematic doctrine is a bad one. And the argument that people who believe the doctrine of inerrancy do so from fear is also a bad one.

I don’t care that Terri and Mandi are skeptical of Biblical inerrancy. Only the dead are without doctrinal difficulties or crises of faith. C. S. Lewis didn’t believe the doctrine of inerrancy either. He was also a theistic evolutionist. His Christian credentials are not usually subject to question. But whatever Lewis's diffculties with the doctrine of inerrancy, fear and problematics don't seem to have been two of them.

You may wonder what I believe about the Scriptures. Well, it’s in the Confession.


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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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