Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Thursday, March 09, 2006

On The Philosophical Problems With Errancy

Well it looks like I'm simply unable to fulfill my promise to update more regularly. I have become quite busy recently with my academic life (such as it is). Instead of expecting this to be more like a blog though, I would encourage people to regard this more like a website, such as the Christian Thinktank (for example.) In any case, I do have something substantive to say today.

It has always struck me that the simplest solution to the 'Biblical errancy' problem, if there is indeed a problem and if (this particular) solution is coherent, is to say that the Bible is 'errant', that is, has mistakes, but has an overall level of inspiration. I wrote about this in an essay here. You don't have to, but I strongly recommend you read that first.

In my essay I talked about the problem of errancy. Now, errancy is a popular position among liberal Christians or moderate-liberal Christians. It is, on the face of it, much easier. Rather than defend problems with OT morality or the possibility of contradictions, one might simply disregard the entire issue and say the Bible is errant. I don't think saying the Bible is errant in this way makes it impossible or even poses much of a hindrance to being a Christian, depending on how that errancy is interpreted, but I believe it does open one up to a few (potentially) very serious philosophical problems.

I believe there are two major branches of philosophical problems with the issue of errancy in the Bible - assuming of course the religion in question can coherently believe in errancy if, and this is possible, the scriptures themselves prevent this from occurring. For example the Koran is built upon the stipulation it is totally divine and without any error - so I doubt any Muslim could believe in an errant Koran. The Bible has a few similar, but not as a strong stipulations, which I also discussed in my article here (and found they were not completely binding.)

In any case, there is what I call the 'moral argument for inerrancy', and the 'divine perfection argument for inerrancy.' Note that these arguments assume that there is a (Christian) God and argue that therefore, the Bible is or should be inerrant. But they can be used by either Christians or non-Christians. A Christian might use one of these arguments to argue a fellow Christian into inerrancy, and a non-Christian might use one of these arguments and a Biblical contradiction (e.g.) to argue one to atheism (e.g.).

The moral argument for inerrancy has, similar to the problem of divine hiddenness both inductive and deductive versions. The deductive version I believe though depends on certain soteriological issues in Christianity (similar to the ANB.) The inductive version might go as follows:

Suppose that there is a perfectly good God. This God wants to communicate with humanity. In Christianity's case, this communication to humanity takes the form of a holy book, that is, the Bible. Now God is good, so He wants people to love him and understand him as best they can or should. So it seems reasonable that God will make the Bible - that is, his communication as accurate and as fairly representing Him as possible, and without unnecessary errors (and it seems hard to believe there would be some 'necessary' errors.) However the Bible is full of errors and absurdities regarding God, therefore this God does not exist.

Now this problem I believe is inductive. If we are only talking about the goods arrived at by God's better communication to us in terms of a finite increased understanding and companionship with God, and NOT in terms of hell, then that makes the problem quite weak - as such goods are not terribly substantive. In this sense it becomes like the inductive version of the ANB, because it is easy to believe there may be justifications for finite evils (the more finite the evil, the greater the ease.) In that sense this argument - solely as it applies to the happiness from knowing about God in a more accurate way, is inductive and shouldn't provide believers in this kind of God with much cognitive dissonance (that is, doubt.)

The next moral argument for inerrancy is deductive. And it goes like this:

There is a God who has provided an afterlife of infinitely serious magnitude to humanity. But God loves humanity and dearly wishes that humanity avoids this afterlife. The chief means by which humanity may avoid this afterlife is through God's primary communication to humanity, that is, his holy book the Bible. God therefore has an obligation to give everyone the fairest possible chance at understanding the Bible and to fully know how to avoid an evil afterlife.

However, the Bible is a very imperfect communication to humanity, full of errors, omissions, absurdities and moral atrocities. This causes two evils. First of all, those who might have come to God and avoided hell will not, because of the flaws in this holy text, and secondly, many who did believe in God have lost their faith because the holy book presents a communication from God that is simply not satisfactory.

This is a very powerful argument against errancy in the Bible. Notice however that the problem would probably disappear if apologists successfully argued that the Bible was perfect. Also note how similar this is to the Argument from Nonbelief, indeed, many have combined the ANB into an argument like this and presented that as an obstacle to belief.

Now, how best should we deal with the deductive version?

I argued in my article (here again), that there were 5 points one could make against this argument that weaken its force. First of all, I argued that if humanity has the expectation from God that His communication would not be inerrant, then humanity wouldn't be very troubled by the fact that the Bible has the kind of errors that people say it does. Secondly, it is possible there is an explanation for why the Bible has moral errors in it. If a certain spiritual rule is adopted, that imperfect perception of God leads to imperfect experience of God, a solution can be suggested. This is that in those ancient and somewhat barbaric times, people's perception of God was hindered. Therefore when God inspired the prophets in the Old Testament to write down the scriptures, they experienced His Holy Spirit in a way that ensured they also accumulated a limited number of moral errors. Presumably though, God must have to sacrifice a greater good in order to force someone to have the correct experience of God, something which I haven't conceived of yet - but I maintain in the absence the explanation can still hold. This might eliminate some or all of the problems from 'moral atrocities'.

Thirdly I argued that it is still possible to hold on to the idea that the Bible is completely 'spiritually' inerrant. If so then provided Christians read the Bible in this way, (and they allegedly should), then there could be no contradiction that undermines what they believe the Bible aught to communicate - that is spiritual matters (unless the contradiction is incredibly glaring - i.e. that Jesus was and was not resurrected.)

Fourthly I argued that if there is a good explanation (as above) for moral atrocities in the Bible, then the idea a loving God would not communicate contradictions alone cannot constitute a deductive problem, as long as the contradictions weren't of the above serious type. Because it is always possible Christians could read the Bible spiritually, which would phase out the contradictions.

But I would also like to add now a sixth argument to a fifth one I mentioned in the original article. In my article on the Argument from Nonbelief I provided that no one gains or loses their faith due to the Bible - and not only this, but it is not actually conceptually possible. Instead, God regulates and orders who has faith and who doesn't, and so it is literally not possible to lose one's faith because of anything in the Bible - unless God is the architect of it. It would be time-consuming to explain how I arrive at this rather fantastic conclusion - so see here.

If this last argument is true, then it must necessitate that a central pillar of the moral argument for inerrancy is false, because it assumes that an errant Bible will have an effect on faith. This is fundamentally not so however. Now this doesn't explain why the Bible does in fact have certain errors in it, however all these things, and this last thing together probably do enough to 'de-logicalize' the problem, that is, make it evidential. And if it is evidential it is survivable.

I would like to go on now to another argument against inerrancy, the divine perfection argument for inerrancy. This is a little weaker than the moral argument version, however I will state it here.

Let us suppose that God is perfect, that is, completely perfect in every way. Now, it seems reasonable to believe that if God does anything, he will do it to the best of his perfection - as perfection only begets perfection. However, in crafting a Bible for humanity, this perfect God has failed to create a perfect book, that is, the Bible is errant. Therefore we can conclude that such a perfect God cannot have created the Bible, and Christianity is therefore false.

This argument is weaker because it is not as clear that perfection must beget perfection as it is clear goodness must subvert or eliminate evil. Let me illustrate the point. Let us say there was a perfect mechanic. He fixed vehicles so that they were as good as new (or better.) However one day he fixed a vehicle poorly, so that it had a lower quality than before. Is this situation possibly reasonable to believe? I would argue yes - because it is possible the mechanic may have ulterior motives in this case for not doing a perfect job. For example, he might simply dislike the owner of the vehicle.

In the same way, let us say a perfect God creates a world with some imperfections, and not only that, but he makes it so that the world cannot possibly be perfect. Is this self-contradictory? Well, maybe not. Perhaps he created an imperfect world so that human beings, who he also creates, have something to strive for (credit goes to William Ballow for this [1]). So it seems that not only do we have examples in human life of people who are very capable or near-perfect perhaps, performing at below their level for some motive, but also it seems plausible there is a situation where a perfect God might do something similar for a certain situation.

What I am basically arguing here, is that although I can't provide a reason why a perfect God would (in this instance) create a book with flaws, I say that the underlining argument and argument(s) from imperfection, whichever version, are basically flawed in their logicality. And if this type of argument is proven to be flawed, then the divine perfection argument to inerrancy can be suspected of being flawed too in its logicality, and if so either discarded or be accepted as merely evidential. And if it is evidential, it is quite possible to maintain belief in the contrary. For my part, I think it the divine perfection variant is fairly weak.

[1] William Ballow aka Mr_Jargon has a website here.



Anonymous mr_jargon said...

Thanks for the mention, I wish to ask: Is reading Scripture "spiritually" the same as reading it allegorically?

Blogger Joveia said...

Not necessarily. Reading scripture spiritually just means that you're interpreting the scripture for what spiritual information it seems to be telling you. It doesn't mean any negation of a physical happenstance. However if it is clear that some spiritual information in in an instance, doesn't need something to have physically happened, then whether it actually physically happened is open to debate. But I think the criteria in that should be whether disbelieving in that physical happenstance undermines Christianity in some way (hence would indicate something really does need to have physically happened for its spiritual information.)

Anonymous mr_jargon said...

Well though I find that method intriguing, isn't it a bit.......dangerous?

Blogger Joveia said...

Yes I agree. Perhaps I should redefine the issue. Ultimately the problem there is that everything becomes wholly subjective and one can eventually simply see Jesus' story as a parable.

I think apart from spiritual information, we need to have assurances of the truth of physical information. I think on this point there is a solution.

Let us say, with the story of the Exodus, that the Bible communicates a literal physical event. Let us say further that interpreting that physical event I gain a spiritual insight, (oh, 'God is powerful' and 'God loves his chosen people'). Now I think that if we anchor all spiritual interpretations to some physical event - except in the case of clear allegories, then we must interpret the Exodus as a real physical event. What I would now provide is that the only physical events that God is obligated to provide - are physical events that would give out that same spiritual information as in the Bible. So what spiritual inerrancy is telling us - is that an Exodus did happen, and the spiritual insight we gain from reading Exodus is based on a legitimate historical event - but that event may not be exactly as transcribed, but whatever it was, if we knew about it in more detail, our spiritual insight/interpretation from knowing that in more detail would be exactly the same as reading the Exodus story in the Bible. (And similar with contradictions and anything else.)

I'd also like to note that you (should) never get a spiritual insight that God is evil, and the intellectual reason for this is that God was limited in his communication to people (as I said earlier.) But apart from knowing this, we as Christian know that God is good.

Anonymous mr_jargon said...

I'm exploring the use of allegorical interpretation by the Second Temple Jews. If I can find that in operation then I would feel more comfortable with it now.

Blogger slaveofone said...

This is a good topic for discussion. I think I will spend some time on my own blog in the future describing my own ideas on the nature of scripture.

Also wanted to point out that the conclusion of your “inductive version” doesn’t follow logically from the premise. Just because there are errors in the Bible it does not therefore mean God doesn’t exist. If there is a God and that God wants people to know about him through a text that communicates it as perfectly as possible, but what we find when we look at one such identified text is that it is not communicating perfectly, then it does not follow that God doesn’t exist, only that such a text is either 1. not the right communicator or 2. it has been changed. In other words, it doesn’t call into question God’s existence, but the identification or character of the text. We could substitute nature for the Bible and say the same thing. If there is a God, then what exists in the natural world should show evidence of this. But there is death, disease, and sin in the world, therefore—God doesn’t exist? Improper conclusion. Therefore, 1. either we are looking at the wrong thing in nature or 2. nature has changed.

Blogger Joveia said...

Well I'll be interested to hear what you have to say... feel free to drop round or comment at any time, although I don't tend to re-read comments at my later articles.

I meant 'this God' to mean the God of the specific text. That said I am aware that the problem is not deductive against the God of Christianity even if the Bible is confirmedly highly erroneous, but atheists often state the problem deductively, and wanted to mimic that style. But I do think that an erroneous Bible or holy text can lead to a strong inference against that specific God existing (as opposed to a generalised deity.)

Blogger slaveofone said...

The question of scripture has begun! Check out my blog over the next few days as I highlight the traditional view and suggest an alternative.


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