Thursday, December 21, 2006

Whole Bible Christianity

I often hear the remark that if a Christian rejects even one little bit of the Bible, she must reject it all. (Call this claim "WBC", for "Whole Bible Christianity".) This seems a belief common to those of a fundamentalist turn of mind. I wish now to consider what might be said both for and against this belief.

Note: WBC claims only that the Christian is obligated to believe that the whole of the Bible is true. It says nothing about the epistemological obligations of non-Christians. Thus for all the WBC says, it might yet be quite right for the non-Christian to, say, reject the Genesis account of creation but accept Christ's claim that the foundation of the moral law lies in the twin claims to love God and neighbor as self.

Second note: I assume throughout that Biblical interpretation is a straightforward matter, and that all intelligent, honest Bible scholars agree about its interpretation. Elsewhere (here and here) I argue that this assumption must be false. But my intent is not to rehash those arguments. Instead it is to argue that the fundamentalist take on Scripture is deeply misguided in a second, distinct way.

What argument might be offered in WBC's favor? Why might it be wrong for the Christian to accept some but not all of what the Bible claims? I know of two responses.

Response I

If after critical examination the Christian finds that some part of the Bible, no matter how small, must be rejected, the possibility exists that critical examination of the Bible will reveal that much of it must be rejected. But if the Christian admits the possibility that much of its must be rejected, she no longer has a basis for her Christian faith. Indeed, the very foundation of Christianity lies in a belief in Scripture's inerrancy, and thus if one admits the possibility of widespread Biblical error, one has shown that foundation unable to bear the weight of the Christian world-view.

Response II

The very act of critical examination of Scripture - examination of the sort that might lead one to reject some or all of it - presupposes that one is able to set oneself up as a judge of the word of God. But this of course is absurd. We humans are finite and are prone to error. We cannot possibly set ourselves up as judges of the word of God. Rather we must accept it as truth and, as best as we are able, let it guide our lives.

Of these two responses, I find the first much more powerful and subtle than the second. I'll dispense with the second quickly and then turn to the first. Response II assumes that we know that the Bible is through-and-through the word of God and thus that we know that it is through-and-through without error. Now of course if we knew that this was so, then we would have to do as Response II tells us - we must have to simply accept the Bible and follow its dictates as best we can. But I take it that the Christian who rejects WBC does not believe that we know that the Bible is through-and-through the word of God. Thus Response II seems to beg the question at hand. It seems to presuppose rather than prove WBC.

Now for Response I. It would have us adopt the view that the foundation of the Christian faith lies in an unshakable conviction in the inerrancy of Scripture. What follows is the quick and dirty refutation of this view. (If you're dissatisfied, don't despair. I'll return to the issue in later posts.)

The belief that Scripture is inerrant, if rational, must be grounded in evidence of its inerrancy; and without that evidence, the belief is rendered irrational. Where might one look for evidence of Scripture's inerrancy? If one looks only to Scripture, one cannot possible prove that Scripture is inerrant. For to look to Scripture for evidence of Scripture's inerrancy is to assume that it is inerrant, and if one assumes inerrancy, one cannot possibly at the same time prove inerrancy. Thus one must look outside Scripture for evidence of Scripture's inerrancy But if so, belief in Scriptural inerrancy cannot be a bedrock belief. Rather, there must lie below it another belief (or set of beliefs) upon which the belief in Biblical inerrancy rests. The conclusion, of course, is that belief in Biblical inerrancy cannot form the foundation of the Christian faith. It may be part of that faith, but it does not lie at the bottom of it.

This little argument seems to me absolutely beyond reproach. Each premise is quite obviously true, and together they quite obviously imply the conclusion. We are thus forced to conclude that we must look elsewhere than Biblical inerrancy for the foundation of the Christian faith. I do not here wish to pursue the issue of the foundation of the Christian faith. Instead I wish only to consider WBC. We've rejected two attempts to prove WBC. Now let us consider what might be said against WBC.

We said that the belief in Biblical inerrancy, if justified, must be grounded in some prior belief. Let us pursue the point - we will find in it decisive reason to reject WBC. The belief (or set of beliefs) from which the consequent belief in Biblical inerrancy is to be derived serve as a test of Biblical truth. That belief (or set of beliefs) is brought to bear upon Scripture, and by means of it were are able to discern what in Scripture is true and what is false. Call that belief (or set of beliefs) that allow us to discern what in Scripture is true and what is false "ITB" for "Inerrancy Test Belief". (What lies within ITB? Moral belief, I'd reckon, together with geographical, scientific, historic, sociological, psychological, etc. ITB consists of just those beliefs bear upon the truth of Scripture but are held independently of Scripture.)

Here I wish to ask a certain, pointed question. (This question is the heart of the post.) Why suppose it impossible for the whole of Scripture to fail the test of ITB if any part passes it? I know of no reason. Think for a moment of how ITB is actually put to use in a test of Scriptural truth. It must be put to use passage by passage, assertion by assertion. Indeed it cannot be so used that the whole of Scripture is tested all at once, for the only sense one can make of the claim that the whole of Scripture has been tested is that the passages that together compose it have been tested separately.

The proper unit of the test of Scriptural truth is thus the passage. It cannot be the whole of Scripture. With this, we have our conclusion. As the test proceeds - as we consider now one passage now another - we have absolutely no reason to hold that if some passage is rejected as false, all must be rejected as false. (Indeed it seems to me that, as a matter of fact, this is precisely what happens. The world was not created in six days, but we are to love both God and the neighbor as the self.) Moreover, the fact that we reject one passage but accept another in no way serves to undermine the justification we have for the one we accept. The test of ITB - no matter the beliefs that comprise that set - can show one passage absolutely certain but later show another certainly false.

(I expect the fundamentalist to here complain that the Bible is wholly true for it is through-and-through the word of God. I have nowhere disputed this point. Instead I've said two things about it: (i) it likely begs the question against those who reject WBC, and (ii) it cannot form the foundation of the Christian faith but must rather seek support elsewhere; and as one searches for that support and brings it to bear upon the Bible, one has absolutely no right to assume at the outset that all passages will be vindicated if any are.)

Perhaps an episode from the early 19th century will drive the point home. I quote from Wikipedia:

A number of books which are part of the Greek Septuagint but are not found in the Hebrew Bible are often referred to as deuterocanonical books by Roman Catholics referring to a later secondary (i.e. deutero) canonisation. These books are not deuterocanonical for Orthodox Churches because they were always canonical for them. Most Protestants term these books as apocrypha. Evangelicals and those of the Modern Protestant traditions do not accept the deuterocanonical books as canonical, although Protestant Bibles included them until around the 1820s. However the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches include these books as part of their Old Testament. The Roman Catholic Church recognizes seven such books (Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, and Baruch), as well as some passages in Esther and Daniel. Various Orthodox Churches include a few others, typically 3 Maccabees, Psalm 151, 1 Esdras, Odes, Psalms of Solomon, and occasionally 4 Maccabees.

Why were these books excluded from Protestant Bibles? The judgment was rendered that they were not inspired and so not authoritative. An series of arguments for their non-authoritativeness is found here. The arguments rely upon many things: principles from logic to do with contradiction and consistency, moral principles, the sciences of geography, psychology, physics, etc. Note then that the process of Scriptural confirmation that I described above is at work in the rejection of the deuterocanonical books. Principles that we know independently of Scripture are brought to bear upon it passage by passage, assertion by assertion; and once this process is done, some but not all of the Bible is rejected as non-inspired and non-authoritative. So then it seems that the very process which lead to the creation of the Protestant Bible is one that Protestant fundamentalists (at least those who accept WBC, and I'd guess that this is the great majority of them) now refuse to apply any further. This is blatant inconsistency.

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