Sunday, August 20, 2006

A New Take on Inerrancy

Let us begin our discussion with a certain common argument for Biblical inerrancy. It is this:

1. If we are Christians, we must think that the Bible is not merely one authority among others but is rather the supreme authority in all matters to do with our salvation.
2. If it is to be such a supreme authority, it must command our absolute trust. A book that we cannot trust absolutely cannot be a book that is supremely authoritative.
3. If there were any error within the Bible, it is possible that, for any passage on which we fix our attention, it too is in error. Error in one place entails the possibility of error anywhere.
4. But a book that might be in error wherever we look is not a book that we can trust absolutely.
5. Thus a book that contains any error is one that we cannot trust absolutely. (From the conjunction of 3 and 4)
6. Thus a book that contains any error is not supremely authoritative. (From the conjunction of 5 and 2)
7. Thus Christians must hold that the Bible is free from error. (From the conjunction of 6 and 1)

If you've followed my work here at all, you know that I reject the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. It is indefensible for a variety of reasons. But I do have a bit of respect for the little argument above. It does not obviously fail. Thus the Christian seems caught between the Scylla of inerrancy and the Charybdis of an abandoned faith. Inerrancy is indefensible, but reject it and it seems that you must reject your faith.

In what follows, I intend to show the Christian how to steer a safe path between these two hazards.

Before I gave the doctrine of inerrancy only a very cursory definition. I seem to recall that I said some such thing as this: when we say that the Bible is inerrant, we mean that, when interpreted properly throughout, it is on that proper interpretation wholly true. I said as well that we must distinguish the debate about Scripture's inerrancy from debates about whether to interpret this or that passage literally or non-literally. Biblical inerrancy is not Biblical literalism; the former concerns truth, and the latter proper manner of interpretation. (For what it's worth, it seems obvious that certain passages are meant to be given a non-literal interpretation. The parables of Jesus come immediately to mind.)

There is a more subtle kind of inerrancy that might be attributed to Scripture, one that differs from the kind defined above. To build to a definition, let us begin with the question, What is the purpose of Scripture? Why was it written? I give the one answer possible for a Christian. Scripture was written so as to bring humans into the right relation with God. Scripture is not for God - God has no need of books, indeed he has need of nothing at all. Scripture is for us. But why do we need it? We need it because we fell, because we rebelled against God and thus severed that relation in which we had stood to him. God took mercy upon us and provided for us a way back to right relation with him. Scripture is the account of our fall and the progress of God's plan for our reconciliation with him. Scripture is our guide to reconciliation.

This is the primary purpose of Scripture. This is what it is for, what it is to do. It is our guide to reconciliation, to salvation.

Let us then fashion a sense of 'inerrancy' appropriate to Scripture's primary purpose. What is this new sense of 'inerrancy'? (I hope that you'll forgive a bit of technical jargon - I was trained as an analytic philosopher. The 'df' below means that I intend to offer a definition of the term italicized on the left.)

Scripture is inerrant =df All said within Scripture served, and continues to serve, as a perfect guide to our reconciliation with God.

Call this sort of inerrancy 'perfect guide inerrancy' (PG inerrancy for short). Call the first, the sort defined at the start, 'perfect truth inerrancy' (PT inerrancy for short).

What do we mean by 'perfect' in the definition of PG inerrancy? We mean at least three things. (i) We mean that the Bible tells us all that we need to know about how to reconcile ourselves to God. (ii) We also mean that, in its primary purpose, the purpose of reconciliation, the Bible will never lead us astray. It will, if followed, always help us along on the path to reconciliation. (iii) Finally, we mean that the Bible's plan of reconciliation is optimal. There could be no better.

In what follows, I will to probe the relation of PG to PT inerrancy. In the course of this, we'll have our explanation of why PG is preferable to PT inerrancy. Let us first say that PG inerrancy does not entail PT inerrancy. Consider the example of the creation story within Genesis. It is, if interpreted is the most natural way, the way that it was first interpreted, simply false. The world was not created in six days. Thus PT inerrancy is untenable. But we need not conclude that PG inerrancy is untenable. For perhaps the story, though false if interpreted in the most natural way, was yet an approximation to the truth who desired effect could not have been achieved by the exact truth. Let me explain.

First let us begin with 'approximation to the truth'. What does it mean? We must say first that if a proposition approximates to the truth, it is, in all strictness, false. But though it is strictly false, it is yet, in some significant respect, nearby to the truth. It is, if you like, a step on the path to strict truth. Moreover, it is in the usual case a useful falsehood, and its usefulness lies in its proximity to the truth. Perhaps an example will help. Much of what's said in physics is only approximately true. For instance, students in introductory physics courses are told that the acceleration due to gravity at the Earth's surface is 9.8 m/s2. (The usual name for this value is 'g'.) This is at best an approximate truth. g differs from place to place, and the value of 9.8 is at best an approximation of a more precise value. Thus in all strictness the proposition:

g = 9.8 m/s2

is false. But it is very nearby the truth. It is, since an approximation to the truth, a step on the path to strict truth. If we wished for a bit more precision, we would say not 9.8 but rather 9.82. 9.8 is a quite natural approximation to the more precise 9.82. It is 9.82 rounded to the nearest 1/10th. It is thus a natural step on the path to strict truth.

But why we would make do with an approximate truth when we might have had an exact one? Why tell the students something we know is, in all strictness, false? Let us answer first for the case of g. After we'll return to the example of the Genesis account of creation. For the purposes of the simple experiments of the introductory physics classroom, the value of 9.8 works just fine. Given the students inability to make precise measurements (an inability that arises primarily from the nature of the equipment they use), a value of 9.8 is all the precision they'll need. Here as elsewhere, the usefulness of an approximation explains why it is made.

In the case of the Genesis account of creation, we must say something a bit different about the need for approximation. Here the need is not experimental in origin. Rather it is a need born at once of ignorance and of evil. The evil in the human heart explains the need for an account of man's creation and of his fall from right relation with God. Human ignorance explains the need for an approximation to the truth. I'll explain each in turn. (i) We are evil and have been since the fall. But if we are to reconcile ourselves to God and thus put our evil ways behind us, we must know both that we are evil and the nature of right relation to God. A sinner who does not know that he is a sinner will take no interest in reconciliation with God; a sinner who does not know what right relation to God is will know nothing of how to put matters right. But how better to make clear both our sin and the nature of right relation to God than to tell the story of our creation and of the origin of evil in the world? Thus our reconciliation to God requires that we be told the story the world's creation and of evil's origin. (ii) But the story of creation and evil's origin was first intended not for us but for a pre-scientific people who would have been utterly unable to understand the strict truth. Thus they had to be told an approximate truth, and in the Genesis story of creation and the fall we have just this. It is, if read in all strictness, false. But it is an approximation to the truth, an approximation that might have been just right for its first audience. God did create the world and all its inhabitants. God did create humans in his image. Humans did rebel against God. Now, of course the world was not created in six days, and in this respect (as in many others) the approximation is far from the truth. But it might have been the approximation that would be most likely to have the desired effect, that would most likely penetrate the hearts and minds of those pre-scientific nomads for whom it was first intended.

Now, I admit that what I've said about the effect of Genesis upon its first audience is speculative. But it is at least defensible. Thus a PG inerrantist take on Genesis is, unlike a PT inerrantist take, defensible.

We have concluded that PG inerrancy does not entail PT inerrancy. One can in consistency hold the former but not the latter. Let us now ask the converse. Does PT inerrancy entail PG inerrancy? In the case of the Bible, it likely does. All Christians, and thus all PT inerrantists, hold that the Bible contains God's plan for our reconciliation with him. But if it does, and if PT inerrancy is true, then likely PG inerrancy is true as well. (I'll not give the details of the argument. It's a relatively trivial exercise, and I leave it to you.)

Let us sum up before we push on to the conclusion. We've distinguished PG from PT inerrancy. We've argued that though the second likely entails the first, the first does not entail the second. What lesson are we to draw from this? What are we to take away? Since PG inerrancy does not entail but is entailed by PT inerrancy, we must say that PG inerrancy is weaker than PT inerrancy. It requires less of Scripture than does PT inerrancy. The standard it sets for Scripture is not so high as that of PT inerrancy. As we have said, the standard of PG inerrancy is perhaps low enough that it can be met even by those portions of Scripture that are, like the Genesis creation account, simply false. But that's not all there is to recommend it. As said above, the Bible's primary purpose is practical. It tells us what we must do, how we must live. Should we not then craft a definition of inerrancy appropriate to this purpose? Should the new inerrancy not make Scripture out to be not a perfect repository of truth but a perfect guide to action?

Before I turn to objections, let me say that I've only just barely begun an PG-type interpretation of Scripture. I've only said a very little about about how such an interpretation of Genesis might be begun. There's a mountain of work left to do. But again the PG-type interpretation does at least have this virtue (a virtue not shared by PT inerrancy): it is not obviously false.

I know of two objections to this conclusion important enough to warrant comment. (i) The first begins with a claim about God's nature. God, the objection begins, is by his nature unable to utter a falsehood. But, the objection continues, Scripture is the inspired word of God and thus can contain no falsehood, not even a falsehood that approximates to the truth. Scripture, since God-breathed, must be strictly true. (ii) The second asks us to distinguish incomplete truths from approximations to truth. The former are in all strictness true, but simply fail to tell the whole story. The latter are in all strictness false. The Genesis account of creation, the objection continues, is at worst an incomplete truth. It is not an approximation to truth. The objection will thus grant that the audience for which Genesis was first intended could not comprehend the whole of the truth. But it does not infer from this that an approximation to the truth had to be substituted for the complete truth. Rather it infers only that an incomplete truth was called for. Genesis, on this objection, is strictly but incompletely true.

Perhaps we should say that the two objections are not likely to be kept separate. One who levels the first is likely to level the second as well; and one who levels the second likely does so because she holds the first. But though the two are related in this way, I'll treat them separately.

In the second post in this series, I'll take on these two objections.


C Grace said...


This is a good post. I like your differntiation between PT and PG.

In working out your next post let me encourage you to consider some things.

Is a parable or allegory false simply becuase it is fiction? What type of truth is meant to be taught by an allegory? Is the truth learned by an allegory more or less complete than that same truth learned through a propositional presentation?

Think of the propositional truth "God loves us." vs the story of Hosea and his wife inthe book by his name. Hosea goes out and buys a prostitute, rescuing her from a wretched lifestyle and takes her to be his wife. She runs away and he goes out and buys her again because he loves her despite her unfaithfulness. Which teaches the fuller truth?

No spiritual truth can be fully expressed propositionally. This type of truth is bigger than propositions- it is the truth of living and loving. The truth of the material universe can be captured at a point. Spiritual truth must be viewed as it unfolds over time, thus it must be expressed using narrative. (Moral truth is kind of an intermediary here. Specific moral commands are given such that as we attempt to live the command we learn spiritual truth experientially. Thus narrative speaks to our mind, and interacting with God's commands teaches our heart and will.)

Chris said...

Since "we" do have a copy of Ezekiel carved in stone and stored in his tomb until 1946, since this copy did exist as best we know in his lifetime, since there were 9 differences between this text and the transmitted Ezekiel of today - it would appear our texts are extremely reliable.

Ezekiel's differences were in the order of the word "King" being inserted prior to the king's name. When it was written, everyone knew whom the king was, so the title was not needed.

There are of course documented transmission errors - particularly with numbers and names - but they are understandable if you are familiar with ancient texts.

So, I would not throw out the validity of Scripture based on inerrancy..... You would have a poor basis for such a statement.

Franklin Mason said...


What your example shows is a particular instance of great reliability in transmission from one time to another. It does not show that what was transmitted was true in any sense. Reliability of transmission is a different notion from that of truth.

By no means do I mean to 'throw out' the validity of Scripture. Rather I mean to probe just how it's valid. I reject the view on which Scipture is true in the strict sense. But as I explain in my post, I think that it might be 'valid' in another sense. It's valid as a guide to salvation.

Consider the example of Google maps. Is the U.S. exactly as Google maps represents it to be? Are distances exactly what Google maps say they are. Are roads exactly where Google maps say they are? Of course not; nor do we it expect it to be exactly right. Rather it's as right as it needs to be to achieve its purpose. I say that Scripture is as right as it needs (or needed) to be to achieve its purpose; and that's a very important kind of validity indeed.