Friday, June 17, 2005

On Interpretation, or Why I Am Not a Biblical Inerrantist

I'm afraid that I must begin with two apologies. First, some of what I say below will seem autobiographical and thus perhaps will not seem applicable to others. If this is so, I am sorry. I am sorry as well about the length of the post. But I thought it important to at least sketch what I believe should be said about this issue, and when I was done with this task the post was quite long.

First I need a rough definition. By 'biblical inerrantism' (BI) I mean the view that the Bible, in its canonical form, is, if interpreted at each point as intended by its authors, in all cases true.

My intent is to show that the purpose BI is meant to attain, the hope that it is meant to fulfill, must remain out of our reach. BI presents a false hope, an impossible purpose.

What is the purpose of BI? What hope is it meant to fulfill? A sure and complete knowledge of God's will for us. (Call this hope 'S'.) BI hopes to make scripture into a kind of guide for life. But the intent is that the guide be not merely partial. It is meant rather to guide us in all matters that pertain to our moral and spiritual welfare. Moreover, it is meant to be a guide that cannot lead us astray. If we will but follow it, do as it says to do, we will have achieved that degree of moral and spiritual health, of moral and spiritual maturity that is possible for us to attain in this world.

Thus my intent is to show that BI is no route to S.

One way that to do this is argue directly that this or that Biblical command is, in fact, immoral or, if not immoral, at least not obligatory. (Perhaps one ought to lie in certain cases.) I will not argue in this way. (Arguments of this sort tend to get bogged down in questions about the proper interpretation of texts and I am a novice Biblical exegete.) Rather I will argue that certain truths to do with the nature of interpretation and of justification shows us that BI cannot be a route to S.

I. Let me first dispose of one little argument that purports to prove that BI
is a route to S. The argument is this:

Scripture says of itself that it is the perfect (i.e. complete and without error) guide that we seek.
For this reason it is the perfect guide we seek.

The premise does seem true. Claims of this sort can be found in Scripture. But is the conclusion proven by the premise? It is only if we assume that those passages in which Scripture attests to its own moral and spiritual virtues are true. But to assume this is to assume, at least in part, that the conclusion of the argument is true. Thus the conclusion of the argument is proven only if we assume that its conclusion is true. Arguments of this sort never prove the truths of their conclusions. They are viciously circular and thus prove nothing.

I do not mean to say that I reject either the premise or the conclusion. Nor do I mean to say that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. (If I did mean this, I would have assumed that which I wish to show.) All that I mean to say is this: even if both the premise is true and the conclusion follows from that premise, the argument yet does not amount to a proof of its conclusion. For again its conclusion is proven only if its conclusion is assumed and thus it is viciously circular.

II. A second little argument that BI is a route S is like the first:

Scripture says of itself that it is a perfect life-guide.
Scripture is the word of God and thus, if interpreted rightly, is true at every point.
Thus Scripture really is a perfect life-guide.

Note that BI is asserted in the second premise and S in the conclusion.

As before I do not dispute the first premise.

But what of the second premise? Is it true? Let me here simply register the complaint that many deny it. They hold that scripture is the word of God but deny its inerrancy, for they do not mean the same by 'word of God' as is meant by the inerrantist. They hold that it is the word of God in that it is God-inspired. But they deny that the authors of Scripture were, as it were, human stenographers who simply recorded what was said to them by God. Rather they will say some such thing as this: God made use of the whole man when He inspired the Biblical authors, and much of their personality and much of their world-view is retained in what they wrote.

But I will not take up this line of argument. I do not have the requisite historical, exegetical or theological expertise.

My objection to the second premise begins with the question, What reason do we have to believe that Scripture is the word of God? I can think of three possible answers. (i) God has directly revealed himself to someone and has imparted to her the knowledge that Scripture is the word of God. (ii) Scripture is the word of God, for it itself says that it is the word of God. (iii) We human beings have discovered certain truths, moral, spiritual and otherwise. These truths accord with what we find in Scripture. Thus we have proof that Scripture is the word of God.

I will consider each of the three answers in turn.

(i) Here is broached the quite extraordinarily difficult issue of the way to discern the truth of what is conveyed in mystical experience, for direct divine revelation is a variety of mystical experience. This issue divides into two sub-issues, viz. (a) if I have an experience that seems mystical to me, how do I know that it is really such and how do I know what seems to have been conveyed in that experience is really true?, and (b) if another reports a mystical experience, how do I know that it is really such and how do I know that their report of what was thereby conveyed to them is true? I have little idea how to answer these questions. But mystical experience seems rare to me; and the sort of mystical experience in which what seems imparted is an assurance that Scripture is through and through the word of God even rarer. Thus I doubt that we have here what might serve as a justification open to more than a precious few of the claim that the Bible is the word of God.

Will you say to me that when you read Scripture, you feel certain that it is the word of God and that this certainty has its source in God and thus cannot lead you astray? I am uncertain how to reply. I do not feel any such thing as this and am far from sure that you have interpreted properly what you have felt. What will you say in response to these questions? Can anyone ever feel certain about a thing and yet be mistaken? (The answer must be 'Yes', must it not?) Has anyone ever felt certain that God had instilled in them a certainty of belief and of purpose and yet been mistaken? (Again it seems that the answer must be 'Yes'.) Can you then be absolutely certain that what you feel is from God and God thereby intends to impart to you the quite specific message that Scripture is, through and through, the word of God? If you cannot, S is our of your reach.

(ii) The claim that we can know that the Bible is the word of God because it says that it is seems to render the argument of II victim to vicious circularity. For we have reason to believe this claim only if we have reason to believe that the Bible speaks truly when it says that it's the word of God. But why believe that it speaks truly when it says this? I can think of no reason but this: the Bible is the world of God and thus is true throughout. Thus the claim 'We can know that the Bible is the word of God because it says that it is' presupposes that the Bible is the word of God. But we were to conclude that the Bible is the word of God, not presuppose it. Thus we have a very tight circle. Nothing has been proven.

(iii) Here we presuppose that we human beings have an access to important moral and spiritual truths that does not come by way of simple belief in Scripture. (I will call that human power of moral and spiritual discernment ‘the moral sense’.) But if this is so, the inerrantists' hope that BI is a route to S seems undermined. Even if we assume that the moral sense gives some evidence in favor of the inerrantist thesis, it does not prove that thesis beyond a shadow of a doubt. But if it does not, we cannot have an absolute assurance that Scripture is a perfect life-guide. Simply put, if the possibility of error infects BI and we are to derive S from BI, the possibility of error infects S as well. Will someone reply that the moral sense can give a complete confirmation of Scripture? I think that this cannot be the case. The moral sense does not operate so as to deliver up such a wealth of moral dictums that Scripture contains. Nor is the moral sense such that it is itself is immune from error. So the confirmation it gives to Scripture is partial and, to a degree, unsure. The moral sense is not the tie that will bind BI and S.

III. Let me now dispose of a third little argument for the claim that BI is a route to S. It is this:

If we admit that the Bible, if interpreted rightly, will at any point lead us astray, we have no choice but to reject it is a life-guide. If it goes wrong anywhere, it is reliable nowhere.

This seems much too harsh, much too stringent a standard for any text. We do not reject a book of actuarial tables as unreliable because it contains error. Rather, if current, it is quite likely highly useful. It does of course follow that, if a text has shown itself in error at some point, we cannot place absolute trust in it anywhere. But that we cannot does not imply that we cannot
trust it at all. Rather it can still be a quite useful, perhaps even irreplaceable guide.

Will someone say here that either the Bible is divinely inspired throughout or it is human
creation throughout; and that, if it contains any error it is surely of the latter sort and thus plagued with the same sorts of errors that seems to run through all purely human moral and spiritual texts? But surely this is a false dichotomy. The Bible can be a bit of both. Moreover, as noted above, the fact that it is divinely inspired does not by itself prove that it is without error.

What now of the complaint that if we admit that the Bible is partly human and partly divine, we cannot possibly know which part is which and thus must reject the whole of it? Here I answer that the moral sense is our guide. Not of course an immature or corrupted moral sense but rather one that is mature and uncorrupt. Nor a moral sense that has ignored Scripture as it has grown, for Scripture is not only vouchsafed by the moral sense but educates it. The mature and uncorrupt moral sense, raised up in the meditation on Scripture, is that guide whereby we determine what in Scripture is of God and what is of man.

IV. So far, I have attempted to undermine various attempts to begin in BI and end in S. This of course leaves open the possibility that another attempt might succeed.

Let me explain why I think that this will not happen. The negative moment in my
argument is done. I now begin the positive.

Perhaps when we are young, we don't choose our religious beliefs but rather find them bequeathed upon us by the adults who have a hand in our education. But a time comes when we make our religious beliefs truly our own. We either deliberately reject them or deliberately accept them. When we do this, it is not any God who makes the choice but rather we, and like any human choice to believe a thing about not this world but another, it is perilous. It might lead to error small or great. The hope of course is that we will seize upon the true religion, and no doubt if we do we will receive guidance both human and divine. Perhaps this guidance will serve to further entrench, further confirm our belief. But this will never remove all possibility of error. For our religious belief is human religious belief and thus is never immune from error.

Will the inerrantist say that, though human belief is fallible, divine belief is not? Will she take this as reason to place absolute trust in Scripture? No doubt some will. But this does not answer my point. For our decision to trust Scripture absolutely is a human decision and thus can be in error. God knows all. We do not, and when we say of this or that text that it contains a complete and wholly true account of God's will for us, our finitude makes the possibility of error unavoidable.

Let me put the point in this way. There are many voices, many texts that claim to speak the most important religious truths. We must decide which among these to trust. It is not God who makes the decision for us, for if He did we would but be puppets on a string, neither praiseworthy for a right decision nor blameworthy for a wrong one. Rather it is we and the possibility always exists that we will have chosen wrongly.

All religious belief, since it concerns matters that are not seen, begins with a leap into the unknown, a leap that outstrips evidence of the senses and of reason. Perhaps after the leap is made a path will begin to appear under our feet. But at least in this world, the path will never provide the certainty that its destination exists; it will always remains at least partly obscured,
partly in shadow. Perhaps in the next world we will be given the gift of a continual beatific vision that will render doubt impossible. But few if any are given given that gift in this world. I have not, and I expect that my readers have not.

Doubt can never be eradicated in this world. It is our constant companion. It fades, no doubt, as we grow in the spirit; it does not grip the mind as perhaps it did in our youth. But it never leaves us.

Thus Biblical inerrantism cannot give us a sure guarantee against moral/spiritual error. But this is its purpose. This is what gives it life. This is what attracts its defenders to it. I conclude then that biblical inerrantism is pointless and should be abandoned.

I do not conclude, mind you, that the Bible is anywhere false. That was not my purpose. Rather it was to show that we cannot possibly have a perfect assurance of its truth and thus cannot think it the perfect life-guide that the Biblical inerrantist wishes it to be. The Bible may be wholly true (or at least it may be for all I've said or assumed); yet this would make no difference to my argument.

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