Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Authority without Inerrancy? Part I: Setting the Stage

Progressive Christians tend to respect and even revere the Bible while at the same time rejecting the doctrine of inerrancy. The Bible is the book they'll typically turn to first when they want to deepen their relationship with God—and yet they are not above criticizing the text even as they search for God in its pages. For these Christians, the Bible is an important authority on matters divine…but not an infallible one.

Biblical inerrantists are often astonished at this approach to the Bible. They can almost understand a fellow like Richard Dawkins, who seems to view the Bible as nothing but a heap of dung, something to be laughed at and scorned. But can an attitude of respect and honor be divorced from allegiance to a doctrine of inerrancy? That seems almost incoherent to them.

A number of biblical inerrantists have expressed such views in this blog, and the ideas and arguments they espouse are representative. I want to carefully reflect on at least some of these views and arguments here. However, I cannot do justice to them in a single post of reasonable length. Hence, I’m going to turn this into a series of posts. Feel free to comment on each post as it comes up, but be aware that questions or concerns you have about earlier posts may be addressed in later posts.

In this post, I want to introduce the issues by doing three things. First, I want to outline what I take to be the four primary arguments against the progressive Christian view of biblical authority (by which I mean the view that the Bible is an important authority for Christians but not an inerrant one). Second, I want to briefly situate this series of posts in relation to “what has gone before” on this blog, and in the process offer an overview of what I intend to do in the forthcoming sequence of posts. Third, I want to offer some personal reflections on the significance that this issue has for me. In later posts, I will dig into the arguments against the progressive Christian view.

Let me begin, then, with an overview of what I take to be the four main objections to the progressive Christian view—or, I should say, the four main objections offered by inerrantists (although, interestingly, some of the same arguments are put forward by atheist critics of Christianity with slight modifications, in order to defend the “all or nothing” view of the Bible as a prelude to advocating the “nothing” alternative).

First of all, there are those who argue that if you think the Bible is less than inerrant, you have to admit that anything in the Bible could be in error. But then, what good is the Bible? How can you know that God is love, they ask, if you cannot trust the Bible when it teaches us that God is love? How can you come to believe that Jesus was the messiah, the incarnate God who died for our sins, without the testimony of the Bible? And how can you trust what the Bible says on this matter if you think the biblical witness is a fallible one? Their answer, of course, is that you can’t. And so, they think, you cannot rely on the Bible as a source of Christian doctrine. Let me call this “the Argument from Eroding Trust.”

Second, there are those who claim that the progressive Christian approach to the Bible puts human judgment above divine judgment. The argument is, roughly, that if we accept the progressive view, human beings are free to decide for themselves whether a particular injunction in the Bible is God’s word or just an error on the part of some human author. And if that is the case—if not even the Bible is something in response to which we feel compelled to set our fallible human judgment aside—what follows is that our fallible judgment ends up deferring to nothing. We become the ultimate judge of truth, and there is no longer any meaningful sense in which God’s Word serves for us as an authority to which we must bow. For these inerrantists, the progressive Christian approach is seen as simply a cheap excuse for believing whatever we want while still paying lip service to biblical authority. Let me call this “the Argument from Human Hubris.”

Third, there are those who say that in the absence of some kind of perfect and inerrant source of knowledge and wisdom, we are doomed to a radical skepticism about all things, especially concerning the divine. Since human judgment is so limited and prone to error, we cannot rely on it. And so, if human judgment is the best that we have to go on, we should all be agnostics about all kinds of things, including religious beliefs. To avoid such global skepticism (which, being global, would encompass religious doctrines and belief in God) we need a source of knowledge and wisdom we can rely on. And in order to be truly reliable, a source has to be inerrant. Hence, we need something inerrant so as to avoid a global skepticism that undermines religion along with everything else. For someone who identifies as a Christian, the Bible is the only legitimate contender for such an inerrant source of knowledge. Since you can be a Christian only if you are not a global skeptic, it follows that to be a Christian you must accept the Bible as inerrant. Since progressive “Christians” don’t accept biblical inerrancy, it follows that they cannot be real Christians at all. Let’s call this “the Argument from Avoiding Skepticism.”

Fourth, there are those who say that a good and almighty God, if He existed, would make His will available to the world in some inerrant repository of divine revelation, something to which all of us could turn for counsel and guidance. And so, if there is a God, there would have to exist such an inerrant vessel of divine revelation. They think, furthermore, that such an inerrant vessel would be recognizable by virtue of certain signs—and that all signs point to the Bible. Since a good and almighty God would ensure that His revelation were made available in an inerrant repository, and since the Bible is the only viable candidate for such a repository, to deny the inerrancy of the Bible is in effect to deny the existence of a good and almighty God. How can you revere the Bible, which is at heart a testament to the works of a good and almighty God, if your view about the Bible implies that such a God doesn’t even exist? Let’s call this “the Argument from Self-Defeat.”

These are, in my experience, the four main lines of criticism directed by biblical inerrantists against the progressive Christian approach to the Bible. This is not to say that there aren’t more than four arguments for inerrantism. Among other things, there’s room for mixing-and-matching elements of the above arguments. One might, for example, modify the fourth argument in terms of the third, so that instead of saying that the Bible is the only viable candidate for an inerrant repository of revelation, one says it’s the only candidate you can cleave to if you claim to be a Christian (any other choice making you a non-Christian).

And there are also going to be variations within each main argument. For example, defenders of the Argument from Self-Defeat might have different reasons for affirming the first premise (the premise that a good and almighty God would ensure there is an inerrant repository of divine revelation). Someone might think this premise is true because an inerrant vessel of divine revelation is necessary for salvation, and because a good and almighty God would provide all that is necessary for salvation. Others, by contrast, might argue that such an inerrant vessel is necessary for leading a good and righteous life, and that God would provide all that is necessary for us to lead a good and righteous life. (So, for example, in an earlier exchange I critiqued the first of these lines of argument, and Craig responded, in effect, but asserting the second.)

In any event, what I’ve tried to do here is sketch out the four main approaches as charitably as I can in a reasonably brief space. My hope is that, even if there are variations and recombinations of these arguments, a careful response to these arguments will also raise points that can serve as a response to these variations and recombinations. If anyone thinks I have egregiously misrepresented one or another of these arguments, please let me know. Also, if there are more inerrantist critiques of the progressive view not represented in some form here (or which wouldn’t end up being indirectly addressed when one addresses these four arguments), let me know that as well.

Readers of my work will know that I have already critiqued at some length (on this blog and in Chapter 8 my book) what amounts to the fourth of these arguments, what I am calling “the Argument from Self-Defeat.” Specifically, I have explained why I don’t accept the first premise of this argument—that is, the premise holding that a good and almighty God, if He existed, would ensure there is some inerrant repository of divine revelation (such as a book). I have argued that a loving God would want us to pay loving attention to our neighbors, and that a so-called “inerrant book” would likely lead many of us to stop listening to those neighbors whose lived experiences were judged to be at odds with the pronouncements of this book. I have also argued that I don’t think an inerrant repository of revelation is necessary for salvation

I have suggested, furthermore, that if God chose to reveal Himself to the world in some ultimate way, it would be in the form of a person who lived and walked among us for a time and then was gone, rather than in the form of an enduring book that people can keep turning to in favor of paying attention to one another. There are several reasons why I think so: first, because relationships with persons teach us more about love than do books; second, because devotion to such an incarnate revelation of God could translate more easily and directly into love of neighbors, especially if this incarnate revelation were not always with us in that form but told us He would continue to be with us in spirit in and through our neighbors (especially those in need), so that “insofar as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”

Implicit here is the following additional argument: A terrestrial artifact such as the Bible, which supposedly represents the Word of God without error, may easily become an object of devotion in its own right and hence an idol. To discourage idolatry, God would therefore ensure that terrestrial artifacts that testified to Him could not be mistakenly identified with Him. And the best way to ensure this would be to ensure that all such terrestrial artifacts contained errors.

In any event, all of this is simply to review and restate things I’ve already said, in this blog and in my book (and elsewhere), and to show how all of it amounts to a response to what I am calling here “the Argument from Self-Defeat.” And as I look back on the objections to my line of argument here, I find an array of interrelated challenges.

These challenges can be formulated as questions that run along the following lines: If God provides no inerrant repository of revelation, how can we trust the Bible enough to use it as a foundation for establishing Christian doctrine? And if we can’t, doesn’t that mean we need to abandon Christian doctrine along with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and hence throw out Christianity altogether? If we give up on biblical inerrancy, doesn’t it follow that we only have our own judgment left to rely on? Isn’t that just a convenient way for intellectuals to avoid the duty to submit their wills to a higher authority than their own intellects? And, insofar as human intellects are fallible, doesn’t it follow that we are left without any sure guide to knowledge, without any secure anchor on which to attach our understanding of God and how we ought to live our lives?

In short, it seems to me that the most pressing objections to my ideas are really concerns about the implications of doing away with inerrancy--and these concerns turn out to parallel the first three of the four arguments sketched out above. They think that if inerrancy is rejected, the Bible is thereby stripped of any trustworthiness (the Argument from Eroding Trust), or they think we are left with nothing to which human judgment must defer (the Argument from Human Hubris), or they think we are left without any sure anchor on which to ground fallible human reason (the Argument from Avoiding Skepticism).

To put it simply, my case against the Argument from Self-Defeat hinges on arguing that God would have decisive reasons not to create and preserve an inerrant vessel of divine revelation. But these reasons can be decisive only if there aren't more pressing reasons to create and preserve such a vessel. Opponents of my view maintain that God has such reasons--because an errant Bible would have the unacceptable implications identified in the arguments from Eroding Trust, Human Hubris, and Avoiding Scepticism. And so, to adequately make the case I want to make in response to the Argument from Self-Defeat, I need to address these other three arguments. And this is what I intend to do in subsequent posts.

But before turning to these issues directly, I want to say a few words about why this issue matters to me.

I'd like to begin by saying that I find myself in strong agreement with a blogger who, in a recent post, used an analogy based on the Matrix movies to explain the divide between conservative Christians who endorse biblical inerrancy and biblical scholars who reject it.

Let me make his point in my own way. Suppose there was a time when you took the doctrine of biblical inerrancy seriously. But then, for whatever reasons, you began to engage deeply with the range of contemporary biblical scholarship—scholarship that studies the history of the Bible and its origins, the likely intentions of the authors as seen through the lens of their own cultural context, the implications of analyzing textual clues for evidence of repeated revision and redaction, the interpretive traditions of the Bible, the patriarchal presuppositions that pervade the Old Testament and resurface in the New Testament in response to Paul's more progressive view, the debatability of interpreting key portions of the Bible in the ways expressed in orthodox Christian doctrine, etc.

Such serious engagement with this range of scholarship can be very much like “taking the red pill” that throws you out of the virtual reality "Matrix" and into the grim real world. You just can’t go back to embracing the doctrine of inerrancy. You can try, but it would be like living a lie. And when conservative Christians who ascribe to inerrancy try to convince you that you can go back, their arguments will sound at best strained (like intellectual contortion acts) and at worst naïve. (By the way, I am not here intending to make the case that contemporary biblical scholarship refutes the doctrine of inerrancy; I am simply trying to describe what it feels like experientially, at least to many biblical scholars, to consider the doctrine of inerrancy after having immersed themselves in this body of scholarship--they just are not able to take the doctrine seriously anymore).

Now, although I have read a great deal of biblical scholarship over the years, my own journey away from a doctrine of inerrancy was more literally a journey. During my first two years of college, I was involved with a campus group called BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ), and was seriously attempting to embrace the biblical inerrantism that pervaded that community. (I say “attempting” because I was struggling with doubts and questions, and I say “seriously attempting” because I took seriously the argument that these struggles were the voice of my sinful nature, or perhaps the voice of Satan).

But then I went to India. When I came home, I'd turned into a philosophy major. And while I hadn’t discarded my Christianity, it was a Christianity transformed by conversations about faith and God with Hindus and Sikhs and Buddhists, with Indian Christians whose faith was so different from my own, with the old Jewish rabbi who still lived in the remnants of the Jewish enclave in Fort Cochin, where he presided over an ancient community that had all but died away.

A full account of my spiritual transformation will have to wait for another time. What I want to relate here is this: When I returned to college after my travels (which also took me to the great cathedrals of Italy, the white-washed chapels of the Greek islands, and the mostly empty sanctuaries of secular Norway), I attempted to return to the BASIC group--only to discover that it wasn’t even remotely possible. I simply couldn’t believe what they believed.

And the real question then became, “Can I still be a Christian?” My answer, then and now, is yes. In fact, only a year later I affirmed this answer by asking my grandfather, a Baptist preacher in Norway, to baptize me during the summer while I was in Oslo. And yet, even as he took me in his arms and plunged me into the water, even as I sensed the strength of those arms and felt in them the power of divine love, even as I resurfaced trembling with the presence of something vast and wonderful beneath the ordinary appearances of the world, I knew that I could never again take seriously the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Was I performing a lie on that day? I don’t think so. That ritual wasn’t, for me, about allegiance to some doctrine about the Bible. It was about symbolically entering the Jordan in the footsteps of Jesus, deliberately becoming His follower. It was about symbolically representing and affirming the redemptive, cleansing power of divine grace. And so it seemed fully possible to say yes to this God of love who washed over me that day, even though I could not say yes to an inerrantist theory of the Bible.

And I found an unexpected ally in this understanding of things—at least unexpected to me at the time. The ally was Martin Luther, the person who ushered in the doctrine of sola scriptura, who made the Bible available to the common people in their native tongues for the first time since the earliest history of the church, who revered the Bible so much he was willing to stand up to the power of Rome in defense of what he found in its pages.

This man who revered the Bible, who revived the concept of “evangelical” Christianity, was, I discovered in astonishment, not a biblical inerrantist. If you read his commentaries on the Bible, they often sound as if they're a scholar's critical commentary on the works of other scholars whom he admires but with whom he disagrees--as in when he decides that first and second Kings are more generally reliable than first and second Chronicles, or when he says that the prophets were often mistaken when they spoke of worldly events ("von weltichen Lauften"). Sometimes, his critical comments take on more passionate force, as in when he says that the epistle of James “does violence to Scripture.”

It suddenly became clear to me that Luther distinguished Scripture from the established canon of the Bible. Scripture was whatever was truly God-breathed—and in his judgment, there was considerable material in the biblical canon that was not God-breathed. When he called James an “epistle of straw,” he was actually drawing an explicit metaphor between the Bible and the manger in which Jesus lay. The manger contained the Son of God, but it also contained straw. This was Luther’s view of the Bible--and he relied on a "christocentric hermeneutic" to distinguish the divine from the straw.

As I began to study the history of Christianity, I was astonished to learn that the doctrine of inerrancy was actually first formally conceived only after Martin Luther's day, by early Protestant Scholastics who developed what they called "the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration." This discovery really made me question those who insisted that a doctrine of inerrancy was essential to Christianity. Was there no real Christianity before the era of Protestant Scholasticism?

Of course, there are various responses that can be made to this line of thought. Right now, however, I am just summarizing a bit of personal intellectual history. And in this intellectual history, more than anything else, it was the example of Martin Luther that helped to convince me that it really was possible to be a Christian even if I was not and could not be a biblical inerrantist.

Here’s the thing: I endeavor to live my life in the faith that the universe was fashioned by a personal God of love, that this God redeemed the world by living among us and dying at our hands, and that the empty tomb was a promise that the finitude of our mortal existence isn’t all there is. I take seriously the radical and astonishing love ethic of Jesus, with its call to help the poor and work for justice. I strive in my life to follow the dictum to love even (perhaps especially) my enemies. I strive to respond to violence with the kind of creative nonviolence that Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount and demonstrated in His response to those who sought (and achieved) His death. And I revere the Bible as a powerful testament to God’s presence in the universe and His enduring relationship with us.

Is this way of life, this encompassing worldview, untenable without a doctrine of biblical inerrancy to back it up? You can see why, for me, this is more than just an academic question. If it is untenable, then I must give up my way of life and my encompassing worldview. Because I’ve already taken the red pill.


  1. Brilliant post, Eric! I especially liked the testimony as I believe they often speak more convincingly than mere argument. I was inspired to write one of my own.

    I’m afraid I was once a living evidence that that it is possible to go back after taking the red pill. I was probably wiser when I was fifteen than I was a few years ago. Interesting enough it was the doctrine of Universal Salvation that led me into it. I discovered that most who believe in this as passionately as I do was actually among the inerrantists and they used the Bible as a foundation for this hope (as I still do). Desperate for assurance and acceptance, step by step I was led into the doctrine of inerrancy without even realizing it. At first I gave no mind to it; I only figured that it would be easier to convince most Christians of universalism by not questioning the authority of scripture. But if you do that long enough you end up not questioning it at all.
    It was about a year ago that I realized I could not accept the consequences of inerrancy after having questioned it for some time. I was discussing the topic of creationism with an American friend by email trying to convince him that evolution was compatible with the biblical stories of creation, and I realized after arguing back and forth that I could not win that discussion while adhering to a strict doctrine of biblical inerrancy. After reading a weekly message on his website that was extremely insensitive to the gay community I became even more aware of the dangers of this doctrine.

    Be there an inerrant source of knowledge or not we are still to some extent at the mercy of our better judgment. As Neil Peart sings, even if we choose not to decide we will still have made choice.
    Even if we choose to base all our judgment on the inerrancy of the Bible, it will still all hinge on at least the one personal choice to decide to trust the Bible in the first place (as opposed to the Quran or Mao). If this decision turns out to be wrong, we could be in a lot more trouble than if we choose to trust our better judgment on other questions as well. None of the arguments for biblical inerrancy that have been presented works because it could still be considered hubris to think that we fallible human beings are able to decide what is an infallible revelation of God or not, and if we can’t trust our ability to decide what to trust (why should this decision be any different?) then we arrive at the problems of eroding trust and skepticism.

    I still believe that the Bible is the most important and definitely the most influential collection of writings in human history; for the good despite misuse.
    I love the often moving stories of interpersonal relations and struggle with God in Genesis, the powerful messages of the prophets and their divine call for social justice, and the poetic wisdom of Job, Qohelet, proverbs and the book of Wisdom. I especially love the Gospels for bringing the life, work and teachings of my Lord and Savior to life, and the writings of Paul for beautifully interpreting the significance of his death and resurrection. I’m in debt to the biblical writers for teaching me of the radical power of Love (even of enemies), grace and forgiveness, the humanity of God in Jesus Christ, his parental affection for the world and the hope that his Love for us all is in fact stronger than death. I’m in debt to them for giving me material to reflect upon and continue to be changed and inspired by for the duration of my life.

    I hope I’m now a living evidence that you don’t have to be an inerrantist to be inspired by Scriptures to trust, love and hope, to lead a better life and develop closer relationships with God and our fellow men, as I think that you and many others are.

  2. Øystein: Thanks for your thoughtful and personal reflection, in the course of which you lay out in brief one of the arguments I will be focusing on in later posts: the inability to escape human judgment.

    For me, the real question is whether we make judgments about what to believe in full awareness of our fallibility (and hence while fully conscious that we could wrong in our judgment), or whether we make these judgments without such awareness (and hence with an attitude of certainty that is at odds with the fact of our fallibility).

    For me, the real hubris lies in the latter, and the real humility lies in the former. And so, if we want to approach belief formation with appropriate humility, we need to figure out what the former approach looks like in practice. This is something I'll take up, probably not in the next post on this topic, but in the one after that.

    Your narrative also raises some interesting questions about the Matrix metaphor. I wonder, here, if your story reveals something about the power of ATTENTION. If someone who has taken the red pill return to the Matrix and lives long enough paying attention only to THAT world, rarely if ever attending to their memories of what things looked like on the far side of taking the pill, or the evidence that points to a different way of understanding what one experiences in the Matrix--well, perhaps it may be possible then to live for a time as if the Matrix world were the whole story.

    But your narrative also suggests that it will be hard to sustain this indefinitely. Eventually, the alternative will call itself to one's attention. And then, unless you can convince yourself that the red pill was a hallucinogen, that what you experienced under its influence was a lie (something that is hard to do if what you experienced under its influence truly FELT real), you are jarred out of the Matrix experience once again.

  3. I went through a similar evolution, but I eventually wound up going further than you did. Because there is no logical answer to why we should develop a set of religious beliefs about an "errant" collection of random books written in ancient times.

    How do you decide which parts are ultimately true? It makes little sense to pick the parts you like. It may be pleasing, but what are the chances you picked the right parts to focus on?

    I tend to turn this question around. I start with what I know (or think I know) and what can be logically assumed by those facts. That the Bible is a collection of human compositions whose authors were reflecting their own beliefs and prejudices does not lead me to the conclusion that it represents what a deity would say to the modern world.

    Actually, it would a ridiculous way for a deity to communicate with us. If you want somebody to put together a bicycle, you give them directions in English that they would reasonably understand. You wouldn't give them something copied from Sanskrit that they would have to interpret, unless you were trying to confuse them.


  4. Anonymous said, "...there is no logical answer to why we should develop a set of religious beliefs about an "errant" collection of random books written in ancient times."

    This is one of the issues I hope to shed more light on over this series of posts. Is there a "logical answer" to the question of how and why a collection of fallible human testimonials, poems, narratives, and theological musings might offer a distinctive insight into the divine?

    I'm not prepared to accept Anonymous's confident "no," although the negative answer and the reasons for it can't be ignored by anyone who intends to think honestly about the issue. Even inerrantists have to confront it, I think, because one motivation for inerrantism is the fear that Anonymous is right: if we give up inerrancy, if we allow the fallibility of the authors of the collected biblical writings, then there is no reason keeping one from going all the way and just tossing the Bible aside as useless.

    Is this fear justified? If not, then much of the appeal of inerrantism fades. I should point out, however, than even if the fear IS justified, that is insufficient to make a positive case for inerrantism. That giving up on a certian theory about the Bible deprives you of a basis for trusting the Bible does not, by itself, give you a reason to trust the theory about the Bible.

  5. Great, great post. Thank you for this. I have gone on a similar journey myself. One of the things that helped me the most with this came from Carl Raschke's chapter on inerrancy in his book, The Next Reformation. Basically, he takes aim with the preoccupation with "facts" that came with modernity. He says: "The Word had authority because it could speak directly to the heart of the justified sinner. The Word of God was intimate and divine communication, not an impersonal ontological benchmark reinforced by a secondary calculus that correlated between text and the order of existence." Gotta love it!

  6. eric (from pf):

    I can't disagree, although I think "useless" is strong. Maybe it is useless as a message from the almighty, but it is an interesting window into the development of humanity that can teach us what is good and not.

    For example, I think it is good that humans progressed from "my god wants us to kill followers of other gods," and do violence to those who waver in their faith, to "love your enemies," and "treat your slaves well," to "slavery and racism is immoral."

    Note that the last one is not in the Bible, and probably would not have found favor with most of its authors, but we believe it today as if it were taught in the Bible. Why? Because we want to believe that the book is good, so we impute our moral ideas into it.

  7. C.P.O.: Great quote! I'll have to check out Raschke's book.

    pf: I agree that the Bible has this kind of historical value even if its value as a window to the divine were to be rejected. That said, I think the Bible does have value as a window to the divine.

    With respect to the Bible and slavery, one might argue that there is a trajectory in the evolution of biblical ethics that, if followed, would take us to the prohibition on slavery--even if biblical authors didn't go there.

    If we view the Bible as a record of humanity's evolving understanding of the divine, one whose evolution is driven by the continual reformative pressure of the divine on the consciousness of those struggling to live as the children of God, this kind of TRAJECTORY of Scriptural ideas may be more important than the explicit views expressed by biblical authors. One reason for my opposition to the doctrine of inerrancy is precisely that it prevents us from attending properly to this trajectory.

  8. Hello Dr Reitan,

    I have posted an initial response to further the discussion, for your consideration and that of your readers.
    And like I said, as time permits we can continue this discussion. I certainly understand time limitations and will not pressure nor mock b/c of delay.


  9. You may be planning this for one of your later posts, in which case I'll wait for the answer until then. What sense of the statement 'The Bible is authoritative,' are you trying to salvage. Is it authoritative in the common sense (1) that people should do what it says? Do you take the academic track and argue (2) that it is authoritative by means of being the most accurate work extant on its subject matter? Maybe you are claiming it is authoritative for Christians in the sense (3) that it should be the primary source for the content of Christian faith.

    The first sense obviously only applies to the moral teaching and to me seems a lost cause. I agree with Rhology (surprisingly) about the "picking and choosing" hermeneutic (believe me, it was painful to type that phrase). It seems that to hold the Bible authoritative in the first sense you would have to accept the moral precepts in the Bible because they are in the Bible and not because they are morally valuable. In the latter case, the Bible is not authoritative but simply useful.

    The second sense is even more problematic because it can be applied to so little of the Bible with any kind of legitimacy. For instance, like with the first sense, we have to cut out whole swaths of the text before beginning simply because it makes no sense to talk about certain kinds of writing as authoritative in that sense (2). So the poetry, wisdom, prophecy and various of the figurative narratives are gone to begin with. Then we must say that it is difficult to claim the Bible's moral teachings are authoritative. There are certainly profound and original moral ideas in the Bible (jubilee, love of enemies, etc), but the fact that there are significantly more moral abominations (genocide, infanticide, slavery, racism, capriciousness, etc) in the Bible seems to suggest that while it contains some powerfully good moral ideas, it's moral teaching as a whole is somewhat suspect. It may be that the Bible is relatively authoritative regarding certain narrow historical subjects (the life of Jesus, the history of Jewish tribes, etc.), but this is a quite narrow claim and seems unlikely to be worth the effort your putting forward here.

    The third sense seems like a likely claim for a Christian, but it also seems to conflict with your own arguments regarding the pragmatic effect of making human minds and human interaction subject to a text. You might claim that all three (human reason, human relationships, and the Bible) are authoritative, but under what circumstances would you ever allow something in the text to override the other two? It seems to me that any time the text conflicts with reason or with the ideal of compassion in relationships that the epistemic obligation is to jettison the text. If that is correct, then you are again left with a rather narrow range of authority for the Bible, which hardly seems worth all the trouble.

    Sorry if I've overlooked some obvious other sense of 'authority' or strawmanned any of the senses I discussed here. I look forward to the rest of your series.

  10. Dr Reitan: Implicit here is the following additional argument: A terrestrial artifact such as the Bible, which supposedly represents the Word of God without error, may easily become an object of devotion in its own right and hence an idol. To discourage idolatry, God would therefore ensure that terrestrial artifacts that testified to Him could not be mistakenly identified with Him. And the best way to ensure this would be to ensure that all such terrestrial artifacts contained errors.

    Me: If your premise is true, and God has ensured that the Bible contains errors, then surely God would provide a disclaimer so that his followers would not be deluded into thinking that it is inerrant and thus be more prone to idolizing it, which would defeat the purpose of allowing the errors to be inserted in the first place.
    I assume that this was part of your refutation of my original argument, and was meant to be a positive example of why God would want His text to contain errors. If so, I contend that my original argument stands unrefuted.

  11. "then surely God would provide a disclaimer"

    What is the basis for this assumption?

  12. Jz,
    What Im saying is that unless God provides a disclaimer, He will not accomplish the purpose that Dr Reitan ascribes to Him.

  13. I don't follow why God would not accomplish His purposes without such a disclaimer.

    A disclaimer would be sufficient for supporting Reitan's view, but I don't understand why its necessary.

  14. JZ,

    Dr Reitan claims:

    A) An inerrant text is more likely to be idolized than an errant text.

    B) God would not want the Bible itself to be idolized.

    C) God intentionally put (or allowed to be put) errors in the Bible to prevent it from becoming an object of worship.

    If C) is true, God would need to provide a disclaimer so that those who did not recognize the errors in the text would be discouraged from worshiping the text because of A).

  15. There'd also need to be some way to know that idolatry is evil, which is totally unsure if the text is errant.

  16. Cheek,

    Your outline of the three senses of authority and the problems with each is both very clear and very helpful, and I think your assessment is largely on track.

    What I'm hoping to explicate by the time this series of posts is completed is what amounts to a fourth sense of authority, one which has some similarity to senses 2 and 3, but can't be reduced to either.

    I can't do it full justice here, but a preview might be helpful. The sense of authority I want to attribute the the Bible is akin, in important ways, to the kind of authority that the philosophy professor of an upper division philosophy class possesses--what we might dub the "conversation partner in chief" conception of authority. The professor establishes the character of a distinctive community of discourse by writing the syllabus and selecting the readings, and the professor also brings to the table a unique expertise that the students wish to learn from. But the students in the class may have insights that the professor hasn't thought of, and they may get things right that the professor gets wrong.

    The analogy here has important limits--among other things, the professor can learn from his/her students, whereas the ancient authors of the Bible cannot. But even here, there may be metaphorical ways in which the text can learn from contemporary interlocutors. The history of the Bible is a history of redaction and revision. In recent times, actually changing the text has become a bit of a no-no, but hermeneutical interpretation (and, to a lesser extent, loose translation) has filled the gap somewhat.

    But the main disanology between the classroom professor and the Bible has to do with WHAT possesses the authority. The Bible is not an individual who is selecting texts for a community to talk about and then invoking his/her unique training and experience to lead the discussion. It is, by contrast, a collection of diverse writings by many authors, selected by the early members of a faith community.

    But the Bible is more than just analogous to the textbook in a course. It has a voice in the conversations of the community in a way that makes it more than just analogous to the "course readings" from which the students hope to learn something. There is SOME sense in which this collection of texts operates as the "conversation partner in chief."

    But in my view it is the emergent COLLECTIVE testimony that adopts this role, as opposed to the individual texts or authors--and this concept is a difficult one to unpack (although it is helpful, by way of analogy, to think about the story that emerges when a detective interviews multiple witnesses to an event--that emergent story has far more authority than do any of the individual witness accounts, which may conflict with one another in ways that are instructive in terms of getting at what really happened).

    Anyway, that is a preview of where I THINK I am heading...but my ruminations and conversations along the way may inspire (or force) me to modify those ideas.

  17. Dr Reitan,
    Ive come to the realization that no matter what positive reason you assert for God to have inserted errors in the text, He would still need to provide a disclaimer in order to prevent His followers from being deceived.

  18. "If C) is true, God would need to provide a disclaimer so that those who did not recognize the errors in the text would be discouraged from worshiping the text because of A)."

    Restating your point is not the same thing as explaining the logic. You've just restated the premises, not substantiated this final assertion. From A) B) and C), the conclusion could still be without violating any of those premises: God gives believers the Holy Sprit to discern and interpret truth exclusively through the Bible.

    It seems like you're assuming an unstated D) God must choose to discourage idolatry in those who did not recognize errors via a disclaimer Why wouldn't He would choose another means? Relationship and fellowship with God and the Church, the body of Christ? The Holy Spirit perhaps? How about the overall counsel of scripture itself? I think you still need to explain why you think D is the only choice, other than these other alternatives.

    Sorry for being stubborn, but I still don't understand the reasoning behind your "realization" that God must use disclaimer instead of any number of other means in His infinite creativity, or perhaps have just left it for those who are part of His kingdom to suss out for themselves.

  19. Jz,

    Three times Ive tried to explain my point to you. There will not be a fourth, if for no other reason than that I would probably not be able to explain it better than I already have. I have been concise, cogent and perspicuous. So, you will have to find someone else to help you.

  20. On another note, Dr Reitan, I'm not at all sure Luther be all that friendly to your viewpoint.

    From: Martin Luther, What Luther Says: An Anthology, ed. Ewald M. Plass, 3 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959)

    The Holy Spirit Himself and God, the Creator of all things, is the Author of this book. 1:62

    Scripture, although also written of men, is not of men nor from men, but from God. 1:63

    He who would not read these stories in vain must firmly hold that Holy Scripture is not human but divine wisdom. 1:67

    The Word must stand, for God cannot lie; and heaven and earth must go to ruins before the most insignificant letter or tittle of His Word remains unfulfilled. 1:68

    We intend to glory in nothing but Holy Scripture, and we are certain that the Holy Spirit cannot oppose or contradict Himself. 1:72
    St. Augustine says in the letter to St. Jerome . . .: I have learned to hold only the Holy Scripture inerrant. 1:87

    In the books of St. Augustine one finds many passages which flesh and blood have spoken. And concerning myself I must also confess that when I talk apart from the ministry, at home, at table, or elsewhere, I speak many words that are not God’s Word. That is why St. Augustine, in a letter to St. Jerome, has put down a fine axiom—that only Holy Scripture is to be considered inerrant. 1:88

  21. JZ, Craig, et al.
    I'm hesitant to join this debate as I have no dog in your fight, but I do notice something that I think might help you quit circling each other. Craig, you claim that a "disclaimer" is necessary under Dr. Reitan's pragmatic justification of errors in the text. I assume by 'disclaimer' you mean a written disclaimer in the text. (If that's not correct, then you may want to define the term for us because it appears that way from your usage.) JZ, you are asking why G-d could not avoid the deception Craig posits with some other means (the HS, collective witness, etc.). In that rebuttal you grant Craig's conclusion that some sort of disclaimer is required, though it may not take the form of a written disclaimer. (You might simply be granting that assumption for the sake of argument; I couldn't tell.)

    Now, let me sketch the argument you make from Dr. Reitan's argument for error. I'm trying to be charitable here, but if I misrepresent your intended claims, let me know.

    [From Dr. Reitan, granted for the sake of argument]:
    (A) An inerrant text is more likely to be idolized than an errant text.

    (B) God would not want the Bible itself to be idolized.

    (C) God intentionally put (or allowed to be put) errors in the Bible to prevent it from becoming an object of worship.

    [Continuing based on your claims]:

    (D) God would not allow his faithful followers to be deceived into believing the text was inerrant.

    (E) The only way to avoid such a deception would be to include a written disclaimer in the text.

    (F) Therefore, there must be such a disclaimer in the text.

    (G) [Empirical Claim]: There is no such disclaimer in the text.

    (I) Therefore, (A), (B), or (C) must be flawed, in part or in whole.

    (I'm sketching the argument as I saw you making it. Logically speaking, (D) or (E) being flawed could avoid the absurdity as well. I'm assuming you are committed to those premises, however.)

    This appears to be your argument Craig, and JZ appears to go with you but disputes the truth of (E). Sorry if I've misrepresented either of you.

    Now, the problem I notice is this. You both overlook the epistemic force of the errors themselves. The simple fact of these errors should be enough for faithful followers to recognize an errant text. So when someone reads the text critically and observes errors, they should not need any disclaimer beyond that to tell them that the text is errant. The fact that some people do believe it is inerrant is irrelevant unless you want to suggest that G-d's interest in avoiding this fallacy would require an encroachment on free will. That's a reasonable claim to make, but I assume you don't want to make it here.

    Hope this helps. I'm more than willing to answer questions to clear up what I said here. Otherwise I'll leave it to y'all (critics be damned, I'm an Okie and proud) to suss out the significance if there happens to be any for sussing.

  22. Cheek,

    I thank you for advancing the debate.

    When I used the word disclaimer, I was deliberately vague. I would expect a disclaimer accompanying the text.

    Your D) is an implicit part of Dr Reitans argument.

    Cheek says:

    Now, the problem I notice is this. You both overlook the epistemic force of the errors themselves. The simple fact of these errors should be enough for faithful followers to recognize an errant text. So when someone reads the text critically and observes errors, they should not need any disclaimer beyond that to tell them that the text is errant. The fact that some people do believe it is inerrant is irrelevant unless you want to suggest that G-d's interest in avoiding this fallacy would require an encroachment on free will.

    Au contraire mon frer, the fact that there exist inerrantists is very relevant. As I have said before, errors in the text are apparent. I have occasionally encountered what I thought were errors, only to find the conflict resolved when I consulted a Bible encyclopedia or commentary. This has happened often enough that if I were to encounter a conflict that I could not resolve, I would assume that its due to my inability to understand the true meaning, or that I dont have access to the resource that would enable me to resolve it. But I would also assert that there are those who lack the mental capacity to identify errors in the text.

    BTW I too am an Okie. In fact, Im both a Sooner (BS Mathematics 86) and a Cowboy (MS Quantitative Financial Economics 05).

  23. Two quick points, first with respect to Luther. There is no doubt at all that Luther has a very high view of Scripture. He is, after all, the author of the doctrine of SOLA SCRIPTURA. The question the Rhology is begging is how Luther DEFINES scripture. There is enormous evidence to suggest that Luther did not define Scripture as "that which is included in the canon of the Bible we have inherited." His view was that the biblical canon contains Scripture, but it also contains other things that are not. The trickier question then becomes how one discerns what is scripture and what isn't.

    On the "disclaimer" issue: Disclaimers make sense when something may appear to be the case given the manner in which something is presented, when in fact it's not the case. So when an infomercial for a weight loss product interviews seven people, all of whom lost more than 50 pounds using the product, one might get the impression that people who use this product typically see these results. Hence the need for the disclaimer: "Results not typical."

    To be honest, when read the Bible, it just doesn't look like a cover-to-cover inerrant revelation of God. It looks and reads like the collected writings of a lot of different people in different times and places who are sharing their legends and stories and collected wisdom, doing some theology, writing poems of praise, etc. One of the most authoritative voices in the Bible, Paul, writes as if he himself sees a distinction between his own views and those of God. For example, in I Corinthians 7, verses 8-12, Paul explicitly distinguishes between what the Lord says about divorce (presumably citing what Jesus reportedly said on this issue) and what he says: "To the rest I say this(I, not the Lord)..." (v. 12).

    If anything, it seems that if God wanted us to think that every passage of the biblical canon were the Word of God, he should offer a disclaimer here, perhaps something to the following effect: "When Paul distinguishes between what he says and what the Lord says, he isn't distinguishing between what he says and what God says. He is, instead, distinguishing between what God says through Jesus and what God says through Paul."

    My point is that it takes some interpretive work to be an inerrantist.

    Now I suppose I should get back to finishing my second post in this series...

  24. Dr Reitan,

    The existence of a single individual who believes that the text is errant is not sufficient to obviate the need for a disclaimer. The question is, what is reasonable for the common believer to expect?
    As for your assertion that the Bible should contain a disclaimer explaining its inerrancy, I contend that it does. Rhology and I have presented many examples in which the scripture refers to itself as the word of God.
    It doesnt take interpretive work to be an inerrantist. It just takes a little faith (in God), a little homework, and a little inductive logic.

  25. Unless by interpretive work you mean to go back to the original Greek or Hebrew. In that case I wholeheartedly agree

  26. Cheek:

    Thank you for your comment, I think it lays out a possible path of our unstated assumptions well, which I was trying to flush out unsuccessfully.

    I was reluctant to put arguments in Craig's mouth, so I was trying to understand his steps D to I that were left out of his A,B,C argument from his own stated perspective.


    I'm still curious about your stance. Do you really believe that God would not want anyone deceived (then raising the question of why there are even "apparent" errors), or do you think that is just an faulty and implicit part of Reitan's argument? Do you agree with Cheek's presentation of your ideas? If so, how do you counter my objection to the point E) that a written disclaimer is not necessarily the means God would use to communicate with his followers.

  27. Craig, apparent errors are different from errors. What I'm saying is that if there are in fact errors in the text (obviously I know you and I disagree about whether or not this conditional is met), then the existence of those errors is sufficient to meet your disclaimer requirement even if there were still inerrantists. Continuing to believe in inerrancy in the face of errors in the text would not be a matter of deception but of self-deception.

  28. Jz, I think that if read (carefully) what Ive already said, youll see Ive already answered your questions (although sometimes implicitly). Forgive me for being terse, but Im handicapped, and typing is an arduous task for me.

    If you still have questions, and no one else can (or will) answer them to your satisfaction, then Ill do my best to help you.

  29. cheek,

    So if there are errors, you need to deal with the questions I keep raising.

  30. Cheek,

    I filly realize what you are saying. What IM saying is that every time Ive encountered errors they have turned out to be apparent. This has happened often enough that if I were to encounter a real error, I would assume it to be apparent even if I were unable to resolve the contradiction, because every other error Ive encountered in the past has turned out to be apparent. I would instead attribute my inability to resolve the contradiction to my limited mental capacity or limited resources. Therefore, I would need a disclaimer in order to believe that there are actual errors in the text.

  31. Rhology,
    I believe Dr. Reitan intends to offer a defense of an errant text in his upcoming series of posts. I don't need to do so because I'm not a believer. It makes no difference to me whether or not there are errors or what they mean for the God I don't believe in(though I do believe that there are errors and that they are obvious).

    That said here's a partial response to one of your questions. You contend that an errant text would demand the reader place his/her own judgement above that of the text, thereby stripping the text of its authority. I grant that statement under some meanings of the word 'authority' as I stated in my earlier comment regarding the various senses of authority. However, I also think it is impossible to read any text without placing one's own reason above it. Put differently, there is no such thing as a "plain reading" of the Bible or any other text. The very concept is nonsensical because all reading is necessarily interpretive.

    Fair enough, we disagree about whether or not there are errors. I was just trying to make the logic explicit.

  32. Ok, I looked back at what you wrote again, Craig, and I think I was misinterpreting. You're saying that the existence of errors does not by itself satisfy your disclaimer demand because (1) you have found apparent errors before that were resolved by further study, (2) you have done this many times, and (3) this experience would lead you to dismiss any real errors (should they exist) because you'd assume there was a resolution you just didn't have access to. I'm not sure whether I think the move from (1) and (2) to (3) is justified epistemically, (I'm also not sure that it isn't. I'm still considering.) but this does show me that our disagreement is not simply about whether or not the Bible contains errors. So I'll revise my argument to say that if the Bible contains obvious errors, then these would satisfy the requirement. Now, I think this is where our views become irreconcilable since I believe that the Bible does in fact contain obvious errors whereas you obviously do not. Sorry for the confusion.

  33. So I'll revise my argument to say that if the Bible contains obvious errors, then these would satisfy the requirement.-

    What's the argument for that? Why couldn't someone idolise an errant text? Who decides what idolatry means?

  34. Cheek,

    No need to apologize. I find Dr Reitans assertions on this point strange and obtuse. It has required me to use convoluted arguments to refute it. I completely understand why you would have a hard time following it. You have been very helpful in facilitating the debate.

  35. Rhology,
    Someone could idolize an errant text, and I believe that many people in fact do just that. My argument is that they would not be/are not epistemically justified in doing so when the errancy of the text is obvious. Short of suspending free will, people will choose to do and believe what they want.

    As for who decides what 'idolatry' means, I'm missing the relevance. Are you suggesting that the Bible is the source of meaning for English words and that its errancy would make the meaning of words inscrutable, or are you suggesting that the concept of idolatry comes from the Bible? The former is a rather strange claim that I really wouldn't know what to do with, so I'll assume you're claiming the latter. Even so, that's a rather unnecessary foray into philosophy of language that I'm not particularly interested in at present. Sorry.

    I think my misunderstanding had less to do with any deficiencies in Eric or your arguments than with my own history of blog discussions on these issues. People who have fundamental disagreements tend to talk past each other so often, that I sometimes assume that is happening even when it isn't.

  36. Dr Reitan,

    I was referred to the following blog by a friend. I thought you might be interested in reading these particular posts: http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/god-talk/


  37. More precisely said about Luther, and more in accord with what you said in your post, Dr Reitan, is that Luther did not necessarily agree with the Canon as we think of it today, as he may well have thought that James didn't belong.
    Yet, what he thought was Scripture, he thought was inerrant. It's just strange to see you enlist him to your side, since he would have probably called you all sorts of nasty names for attempting to do so (since he was a bit of a loose cannon and profane), only some of which would be justified. ;-)

    Further, you have to remember that there was no Definitive Canon of Scripture at the time, groundless Roman Catholic claims to the contrary notwithstanding. It was generally known, but it was not 100% always agreed upon.

  38. JZ,

    Do you still have questions that no one has answered?

  39. Craig:

    I'm still unclear on why a written disclaimer is needed where the Church / Holy Spirit / Reason would not suffice.

  40. Jz,

    As Y said earlier, I was deliberately vague as to what form the disclaimer would take. As for the church, my church (and many others) preaches inerrancy. As for the Holy Spirit, that would be sufficient, but neither I, nor anyone I know (personally), has ever had an impression from the HS that the Bible is errant. And I assume that if there was dissent on this issue, the HS would press harder until all dissent was quashed. As to reason, I think my logic on this issue has been impeccable (you are free to disagree).

  41. Craig:

    Thanks, that is a far more complete and clear response. I had misunderstood your earlier statement about being vague on the type of disclaimer.

    Your statement about the Church though makes me feel like you are saying that you cannot be part of the body of Christ unless you believe in inerrancy. Is this what you believe?

  42. Jz,

    No, You can be an errantist and still be a Christian. But, upon thinking about it, it would be much harder to live the Christian life if, every time you open the Bible, you have to contemplate whether the passage youre reading is true.

  43. Fair enough Craig, agreed.

  44. "And I assume that if there was dissent on this issue, the HS would press harder until all dissent was quashed."

    This is a bit of a double standard. I can't see any reason why a god would be more likely to quash dissent over errancy than over inerrancy. If your argument is that a god would not allow people to disagree, then the logical conclusion from empirical evidence is atheism.

    (A) A god would not allow sincere believers to be deceived regarding errancy or inerrancy.

    (B) [Suppose]: A god exists.

    (C) Either all sincere believers accept errancy or all accept inerrancy.

    (D) Some sincere believers accept errancy.

    (E) Some sincere believers accept inerrancy.

    (F) Not (C).

    (G) Therefore not (B).

    I'm not putting this forward as an affirmative argument for atheism by the way. I think (A) is definitely false.

  45. Cheek,

    Interesting point. I should be more careful when choosing my words. What I should have said is that the Holy Spirit could press until all idolatry was quashed (assuming the premise that an inerrant text is more like to become an object of worship). Also, I misspoke by using the word would. God is sovereign and I should not presume how hard He would press.
    But I dont believe that the HS would likely be the sole vehicle for promulgating the disclaimer.
    Come to think of it, and Im not an expert on the HS, I doubt that promulgating disclaimers is even in the HSs job description.
    Thanks Cheek for calling me on it. I was lazy and careless.

  46. Cheek,
    To be more specific, I believe that the disclaimer would come in some other form (ie other than through the HS). The HS would instead prompt believers to pay attention to the disclaimer. Now, Im going to go back to bed and try and get some sleep.

  47. Craig,

    Point of clarification: Are you willing to admit there is some reason to think that an inerrant text would become the object of idolatry and that that fact is a reason in favor of creating an errant text? This concession would not of course amount to admitting an errant text since there could be other, stronger reasons in favor of an inerrant text. Or do you deny that a greater chance for idolatry would be even a weak reason for God to choose the errant route?

    I ask because your claim that the argument was "strange and obtuse" made me wonder if you were ascribing a greater epistemic power to the argument than Dr. Reitan may have intended. I don't think he likely meant it as a deductive proof of errancy but rather as an example of one possible reason for creating an errant text to be weighed against the reasons for creating an inerrant one. In that sense, I can't see why it would be strange at all. In fact it seems to be perfectly reasonable even if you think it doesn't get the job done.

  48. Cheek,

    In order to clarify, Ill go back to my original argument:

    You say the bible contains errors/ Does God know about the errors? If not then He is not omniscient. If He did, but lacked the ability to prevent them then He is not omnipotent. If he is able, but chooses not to correct the errors, then He is not a good god.

    In response Dr Reitan compared my argument to the argument from evil and asserted that there might be a positive reason for God to insert errors in His sacred text. But at that time he didnt supply any such reason.

    So when he argued that an inerrant text was more likely to become an object of worship, I took this to be the specific reason.

    I admit there is some reason to think that an inerrant text could become an object of idolatry, but I do not concede that it is more likely to become an object of idolatry than an errant text.
    However, even accepting his premise, I was able to prove that without a disclaimer, God would not be accomplish the task Dr Reitan ascribed to Him without a disclaimer.

    The reason I found his argument "strange" is that I did not expect idolatry to be the positive reason. I found his argument "obtuse" because it fell apart because of logical inconsistencies.

    My objection amounts to this: inserting errors into His sacred text is tantamount to deception (we may be deceived by believing an errant passage and because the text contains affirmative claims about itself) and if God has a good reason for doing so, no matter what that reason is, in order to prevent deception He must provide an explicit disclaimer.

    This deception not only redounds to His character, it provides Satan opportunity for mischief.

    I hope this helps you understand where Im coming from. If you have any more questions or if you believe I didnt explain myself very well, feel free to express your concerns.

  49. Dr Reitan,

    If you think Im being obstreperous and you dont think my objections are valid or convincing, go ahead with your series of essays, and Ill try to restrain myself until youre through.