Friday, May 22, 2009

Authority Without Inerrancy? Part II: The Argument from Eroding Trust

In my last post, I outlined what I took to be the main objections to the progressive Christian view that the Bible can serve as an important authority for Christians even if it is not regarded as inerrant. In this post, I want to look with some care at the first of these objections, what I have dubbed “the Argument from Eroding Trust.”

In brief, this argument holds that rejecting the doctrine of biblical inerrancy leaves us with a Bible we can’t really trust at all. If the Bible is errant—if its content is subject to error—then anything it says might be in error. And if it might be in error, we can’t be sufficiently confident about what it says to rely on it in forming our beliefs about the divine. And so, the argument concludes, the Bible cannot serve as an authority for Christians in any meaningful sense, and the middle ground espoused by progressive Christians is untenable.

To fully and adequately respond to this argument, I’m going to need to introduce some ideas drawn from epistemology—that is, the philosophical discipline that explores what knowledge is and how we acquire it (or, more broadly, that explores the conditions under which our beliefs are justified or warranted). I will try to avoid undefined technical jargon, and my aim is to explain theoretic issues in an accessible way…but at points my discussion may seem to be moving far from the topic at hand and into realm of abstract theory. If so, please bear with me. I will bring things back to the issue at hand in due course, and the relevance of what I’m discussing should then become clear.

Also, please note that this is going to be a long post. While I could probably streamline what I have written by going through several courses of editing, doing so would take time…and I know that several readers have been eagerly anticipating the next installment in this series.

To begin, I should note that much hinges on precisely what we mean when we say that the Bible is an “authority.” Part of my aim in this series is to uncover some different senses of this term. And let me begin by acknowledging that there are certain ways of understanding biblical authority that are eroded when we reject inerrancy. Specifically, there is the kind of authority that tyrants claim for themselves: the right to be obeyed absolutely and without question. Roman Emperors couldn’t be mistaken about the law because their word was the law. If the emperor said it, it was true because the emperor said it.

For those interested, I devote a chapter of my book (Chapter 3) to attacking any religion that attributes this sort of authority to God. And if it is (as I maintain) deeply harmful and even blasphemous to ascribe this sort of authority to God, it seems that ascribing it to a holy text would be at least as bad.

Be that as it may, if we hold that the Bible can and does contain errors, then we have to reject the view that the Bible has this sort of tyrannical authority. Tyrants hold themselves up as the standard by which all things are measured—their word is taken to be inerrant simply because their word is taken to be the standard by which accuracy is assessed. Obviously, if the Bible admits of errors, it can’t be such a standard.

But there are other ways in which the Bible can be authoritative, even if it doesn’t have the sort of authority that tyrants claim for themselves.

Another kind of authority is the sort that we extend to experts in a field of inquiry. We treat what they say as credible because we believe they have some kind of special insight into the truth, at least in their field of expertise. When a scientist is interviewed on NPR about new discoveries in physics, nobody thinks that the scientist’s claims are true just because the scientist makes them. Rather, we trust what the scientist has to say because we are convinced that the scientist has relevant knowledge and no reason to lie about what he or she knows.

This is presumably the kind of authority that is at issue in the Argument from Eroding Trust. We might call it the “credible expert testimony” view of biblical authority. The argument is essentially saying that if the Bible is not inerrant, then it cannot provide credible expert testimony about things divine.

Now there are two questions we can ask about this claim. First, is it true that if the Bible is not inerrant, it can’t provide credible expert testimony about things divine? Second, even if it is true, might there not be another kind of authority that the Bible can possess, even if its testimony isn’t that of a credible expert?

In fact, I think that the answer to the second question is yes: the Bible can possess an important kind of authority even if that authority isn’t what we attribute to credible expert testimony. But I want to set this second question aside for now (I may take it up later), and focus here on the first: Is it true that if the Bible is not inerrant, then it can’t offer credible expert testimony on divine matters?

Here, I think the answer is quite obviously no. This is not to say that the Bible is a credible-but-not-inerrant expert on divine matters (the question of whether that is the case is one I will only touch on in this post). Rather, the point I want to make is this: the Bible can be a credible expert even if it falls short of being inerrant. Put another way, errancy does not as such erase credibility.

I should note here that many inerrantists ascribe to the view that the Bible is “God’s Word” in a very literal sense: it is, word-for-word and cover-to-cover, a direct communication from God to humanity that says exactly what God wanted it to say in every verse (the Protestant Scholastics called this the Doctrine of Plenary Verbal Inspirtation). If we assume that God is not merely a credible expert on certain matters, but an infallible expert on all matters, it would follow from the Doctrine of Plenary Verbal Inspiration that the Bible is inerrant.

And so, if the Bible falls short of inerrancy, we have to set aside the Doctrine of Plenary Verbal Inspiration. The question,then, is whether the Bible could still be a credible expert on divine matters even if it isn’t backed up by the kind of infallibility that only God possesses. My answer is yes.

To me, the alternative view has always been a bit puzzling. After all, there are lots of people and books and institutions in this world that I rely on consistently as credible experts, even though I take none to be inerrant. That my wife is subject to error is not, as such, a reason to doubt her when she calls to tell me my son stepped in mud on the playground. That my doctor is subject to error is not, as such, a reason to doubt it when he tells me I have gastro-intestinal reflux disease. That the Encyclopedia Britannica is subject to error is not, as such, a reason to dismiss what it tells me about the date that the first modern Norwegian king ascended the throne.

In all of these cases, there are people or books that I trust as authorities in the indicated sense, at least within a given area of expertise. But to say that I trust them as authorities in not to say they are beyond all question or challenge. It is certainly not to say that I will never doubt what they tell me. Rather, it is to say that I will believe them unless I have good reasons for doubt—reasons for doubt that are sufficient powerful, given the context, to inspire further investigation.

On this issue, it’s important to keep in mind that, at least in ordinary contexts, the mere fact that someone is fallible, that they could be wrong, isn’t by itself a sufficient reason to doubt them—at least not when they are offering their judgment or testimony in some field in which we take them to be qualified to render a judgment or to offer testimony.

Now, there is someone in the history of my discipline who did treat the mere possibility of error as a reason for doubt. Rene Descartes, in The Meditations, did this very thing. He engaged in a methodological doubt in which he set aside any belief which came from a source that might be subject to error. But this was a methodological strategy for trying to identify something he simply could not be wrong about. That is, he wasn’t recommending a general approach towards belief formation in ordinary life, but a technique for trying to identify a “sure foundation” for our beliefs.

Through this “method of doubt,” Descartes found one thing and one thing only that could serve as such an utterly reliable foundation for our beliefs. And it wasn’t the Bible. It was this statement: “I think, therefore I am.”

More precisely, he concluded that the one thing he could not doubt was that he, conceived of as a thinking thing, existed. And why couldn’t he doubt that? Because doubting is a kind of thinking, so that the very attempt to doubt confirms one’s existence as a thinking thing.

Everything else can be doubted. Everything else is something we could, at least in principle, be wrong about. Our senses are fallible—and so, following Descartes’ methodological doubt, we could be wrong about even our most immediate and vivid sensory judgments. In fact, we might be dreaming everything…and so we might be wrong even about the existence of an external world. Our judgments about logic and mathematics seem pretty reliable…but what if there’s some evil demon systematically toying with our thoughts, confusing our logical minds and giving us this artificial feeling of certainty with respect to judgments that are entirely false?

When I discuss Descartes’ thinking here, my students routinely object in the following way: “But there’s no reason to think that such an evil demon is deceiving me! So there’s no reason to doubt that 2+2=4. So why doubt it?”

My students are here expressing the ordinary way that we form our beliefs in life. If the belief comes from a source we’ve come to treat as credible, then we hold to the belief unless we’re given good reasons not to. Such a good reason to doubt is what the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls “a defeater.” If my belief comes from a credible source, then I am perfectly in my rights to trust the belief unless I have a “defeater” for it. (The question of when a source should be treated as credible in the first place—one of the most difficult of all issues in epistemology—is one I will address, if only inadequately, a little later in this post).

So, what constitutes a defeater for a belief? There are several possibilities. First, one might have direct evidence to think that the belief in question is false. Suppose I look out my office window and see my wife in the parking lot, kissing my least favorite student. I now have the belief, “My wife is in the parking lot kissing my least favorite student.” It’s a belief formed in me by the interplay of my senses and the cognitive faculties that process sensory input. Since this is a source of beliefs I generally treat as credible, I’m understandably dismayed.

Fortunately, my wife happens to walk into my office at just that moment, and comes up beside me even as I continue to stare in horror out the window. I turn to see who has approached, and I’m flooded with relief. Why the relief? Because I now have a pretty decisive defeater for the belief that my wife is out in the parking lot kissing my least favorite student. It still looks like my wife out there, but I now know it can't be—because she’s standing right here next to me. We might call this a “direct defeater.”

But this isn’t the only kind of defeater. Suppose I have reason to think that in this particular situation, my senses are not to be trusted. Suppose that I’ve just finished a fine meal, and the person who prepared it comes into my office to ask whether I’m feeling the effects yet. I’m standing at the window, watching my wife kissing my least favorite student, and I ask the obvious question: “What effects?” The cook, chuckling maliciously, replies: “The hallucinogenic shrooms I put in your food!” We might call this a “contextual source defeater”—since I have reason to think that the source of my belief is unreliable in this context.

Finally, suppose I’ve just been diagnosed with a rare brain condition which affects my face recognition abilities. Pretty much every woman looks to me exactly like whatever woman I happen to be thinking about at the moment—usually my wife. And pretty much every man looks exactly like whatever man I’m thinking about—quite typically, these days, my least favorite student. In that case, I know that my senses are simply not a credible authority when it comes to who’s kissing whom. We might call this a “global source defeater.”

So here’s the general point: in ordinary life, there are certain sources of belief that we recognize to be fallible but trust even so, unless we are faced with a defeater. That is, we trust them unless and until we are given good reason not to. We might say that their credibility is presumptive: the burden of proof rests with those who would deny their reliability. Direct defeaters and contextual source defeaters lead us to reject a particular belief, but preserve the presumptive credibility of the source (unless and until such defeaters become so common that one begins to wonder whether the source has lost all credibility). Global source defeaters have a more permanent effect: once they rear their ugly heads, we lose all trust in the credibility of the source.

Now there is enormous difficulty surrounding the issue of which sources of belief should be treated as presumptively credible in this way, and why. This may be one of the most vexing questions in the field of epistemology. One traditional view, which has been called Classical Foundationalism, holds that we should immediately trust in this way (a) the beliefs produced by our sensory faculties, (b) those generated by memory, (c) “incorrigible beliefs” (about our own mental states) that are produced through introspection, and (d) “self-evident beliefs,” such as mathematical and logical truths, that are affirmed by “the light of the intellect”. Other beliefs—including beliefs about the credibility of other sources such as persons or books—are ones we should arrive at on the basis of evidence provided by (a)-(d).

In other words, if a belief is of type (a)-(d), it is legitimate just to believe it unless and until it has been defeated. Plantinga calls such beliefs “properly basic.” They are “basic” in the sense that they aren’t believed on the basis of other beliefs (they are produced in us by some cognitive faculty or process, not by rational deduction or induction from other beliefs—that is, not on the basis of reasons and evidence). They are “properly” basic in the sense that it is legitimate to believe these things in a basic way, unless and until they have been defeated. All other beliefs, in order to be legitimate, must be inferred from the properly basic ones through some appropriate reasoning process. But for properly basic beliefs, I don’t need evidence to believe them. On the contrary, these beliefs are the evidence that I rely on in order to believe everything else.

There are two important questions we can ask ourselves about this epistemological theory, one which has come to be called Classical Foundationalism (a term coined, I believe, by Plantinga). First, why is it legitimate to presumptively trust, as basic, these four sources of belief—namely, our senses, memory, introspective faculty, and intellect? Second, why is it legitimate to presumptively trust only these four sources of belief in a basic way? Plantinga raises the second of these questions, and challenges Classical Foundationalism on precisely this front. But what I want to focus on here is the first question: why presumptively trust even the things that Classical Foundationalists trust, let alone anything else, in this “basic” way?

In my view, the most compelling answer to this question can be explained if we return for a moment to Descartes. As mentioned above, Descartes decided to presumptively trust nothing. If it could be doubted, then it would be doubted. The result, in effect, was that he had to set aside his ordinary trust in his senses, his memory, and even his immediately intellectual judgments about logical and mathematical truths. All that he was left with, in effect, was the introspective judgment that he was having thoughts. He couldn’t doubt this, because doubting is a kind of thinking. The very activity of doubting confirmed what he was trying to doubt.

What Descartes then tried to do was use this one indubitable thing to justify all his ordinary beliefs, that is, to use it to build a ladder out of the pit of doubt he’d dug for himself. But most philosophers agree (for reasons I won’t go into here) that his attempt to do so, while ingenious and thought-provoking, was a failure. In brief, he ended up smuggling into his argument assumptions that were among the things one could doubt. Hence, he was not relying just on this one indubitable starting point to escape the solipsistic pit. The one certainty, the one thing Descartes couldn’t be wrong about, simply wasn’t substantial enough to construct from it alone a ladder out of the pit.

The lesson is this: if you insist, as Descartes did, on believing only those things that are beyond doubt, you will be left forever in a solipsistic realm in which the only thing you can affirm is the existence of your own sensations and ideas. This is the path to radical skepticism.

So what is the alternative to radical skepticism? The alternative, simply put, is to presumptively trust at least some sources of belief, even though they are not indubitably certain. And this, then, is the reason why we should presumptively trust some sources of belief: because the alternative is radical skepticism. But more profoundly, as even David Hume (the ultimate skeptic) was forced to admit, in the ordinary business of life there are certain things we cannot help but presumptively trust. What are those things? Our senses, memory, introspective beliefs about our own mental states, and the self-evident judgments of the intellect. It is simply not possible to seriously doubt these things while trying to live a human life. In the ordinary business of living, we just do trust them.

And that, in effect, is the best reason Classical Foundationalists can offer for presumptively trusting these four sources of belief: we trust them not because they are inerrant (they’re not), nor because we can’t be wrong about their general reliability. We trust them because we can’t do otherwise while still living a recognizably human life.

Those who try to offer a stronger basis for trusting, say, our senses, are really only fooling themselves. For example, some will argue that sensory beliefs can be corroborated by others, and that this gives us a special reason to trust them. But if we think carefully about this, we see the problem: On what basis do we conclude that others are seeing what we are seeing? Presumably, they communicate that to us. Put another way, our senses tell us that there are other people out there, and our senses tell us that they are communicating with us, and once we interpret the relevant sense data we come to believe that there are other people who are seeing what we are seeing. In short, we rely on our senses to tell us that other people are corroborating what our senses tell us.

And so the experience of corroboration is part of the interpreted field of sensory experience. It is a feature of the field of sense experience that’s very useful in helping to identify places where our senses might be deceiving us: the lack of corroboration can offer defeaters for particular sensory beliefs. But it can do this only on the assumption that our senses in general are reliable. This general trust in our senses cannot be established in any non-circular way, as William Alston has so carefully argued more than once.

And so we trust our senses simply because we have no other practical choice—because it is hard to know how to live a human life if we fail to treat our senses as presumptively reliable, and because the beliefs formed by our sensory faculties just seem right to us.

Of course, such a basis for trusting these foundations is hardly going to justify unflagging confidence. And one of the ways that we express our fallibility on this matter is by making our trust merely presumptive. We cannot live an ordinary human life without trusting our senses—but we can live an ordinary human life even if we admit that our senses do deceive us, at least some of the time.

In fact, the conflicts within the field of sensory experience are best understood on the hypothesis that our sensory apparatuses sometimes lead us astray. But it’s our senses that give us the data we need to support this hypothesis. In other words, the judgment that our senses sometimes deceive us itself depends on a presumptive trust in our senses.

Furthermore, we think that with the right kind of effort and care, we can discern when our senses are deceiving us—by noting when a particular sensory experience is at odds with the overall weight of sensory evidence. The whole criticizes the parts. This is possible, again, only on the presumption of a general reliability. Because we take our senses in general to be reliable, we trust the overarching thrust or direction of their “teachings”—and so can identify isolated sensory judgments that are at odds with this overall message. It is sense experience taken holistically, then, that has the most authority. And individual beliefs based on isolated sensory experiences are judged to be errant, and subject to correction or rejection (or, perhaps, reinterpretation) in the light of the overall understanding of the physical world that arises through sustained sensory engagement with that world.

What I’m describing here, of course, is something very close to the way that a number of Christian theologians have approached scriptural authority. And what I want to say about it is this: If one attributes to the Bible an authority comparable to what we ordinarily extend to our senses (at least in relation to issues about what God is like and what God wants from us), then what we have is a very high view of the Bible indeed—even if, as is the case with our senses, we do not view it as inerrant.

If, furthermore, the Bible taken as a whole is what gives rise to the critical tools we then invoke to assess the accuracy of isolated texts, we have an authority that isn’t being challenged by some higher authority, but rather by itself—again, in much the way that our senses serve as their own standard of criticism. Many interpret Martin Luther as adopting this kind of understanding of how biblical criticism should work. The Bible is a “self-norming norm.”

What I’m claiming here is that this way of viewing biblical authority is a coherent one that tracks very closely the kind of authority that we extend to our senses. I am not asserting here, however, that this is the right way to view biblical authority. While I find this approach an intriguing possibility worth serious reflection, there are a number of issues that we need to think about.

First of all, the basis for presumptively trusting our senses is that our sensory beliefs just seem right, combined with the fact that we have no real choice but to trust them—at least if we want to live a recognizably human “form of life” (to borrow Wittgenstein’s term). But there are people who live clearly human lives who do not extend this high level of trust to the Bible. You can live your life as a biblical skeptic, and by all appearances get on fine.

I say “by all appearances” because, of course, the conservative Biblicist will maintain that things only look fine from a this-worldly perspective, and that things don't look fine at all once the eternal perspective is adopted. This may be—but if so, it’s hard to see how this could be demonstrated to anyone who hasn’t already adopted the distinctive kind of perspective entailed by a high allegiance to the Bible. My point here is simply that the basis for extending trust to our senses (and memory, etc.) is much more clear-cut than any comparable case which might be made for the Bible.

Second, the Bible looks and operates less like a cognitive faculty and more like a witness who offers testimony. That is, it seems to operate in our lives less the way that sense perception operates (immediately generating beliefs that just feel right) and more the way that a science expert operates. With sense perception, a belief forms within me on the basis of a kind of faculty which, on the basis of various inputs, spits out a belief: I direct my eyes towards the desk, experience certain visual sensations, and these sensations are processed in some way so as to produce the belief that the desk is piled high with books. The belief is an automatic output of my mind doing its work, according to its distinctive design. And the resultant belief feels right to me.

But with testimony there seems to be more choice and deliberation involved. That is, we decide to trust (or not) on the basis of evidence that speaks to the credibility (or lack thereof) of the witness. We process an array of evidence and decide that this person is to be trusted within this field or expertise…or not. In other words, the judgment that a witness is credible is not ordinarily what Plantinga calls a “basic belief.” It isn’t something we just believe immediately as a result of some cognitive process. It is, rather, a conclusion we come to based on evidence.

Of course, this usual pattern might not be universal. There may well be cases in which we just encounter a witness—a person, a book, an institution—and just immediately trust it. We might say, “Something just went on in my head when I encountered this, like when I look out the window and immediately believe there is a blue jay sitting on a tree. But in this case, what I immediately believed was that this person (book, institution, etc.) was to be trusted.”

In fact, one of the main aims of Alvin Plantinga’s “reformed epistemology” is to argue that there might be other “properly basic” beliefs than the ones identified by Classical Foundationalism. Plantinga focuses especially on what he calls (following Calvin) the sensus divinitatus—the faculty that enables us to experience God’s presence. I suppose one could say that belief in the credibility of the Bible is one outcome of this faculty: when the faculty is working properly, it produces an immediate sense that the Bible is the inerrant revelation of God (or something to that effect).

The fact is, however, that even if this happens with some people when they encounter the Bible, it certainly isn’t what happens to me. The gospel message—that we are saved by grace through faith—has far more claim on being a basic belief in my epistemological structure than does the trustworthiness of the Bible. More significantly, I have experiences that are hard to explain in words, but which can be characterized by a sense of awe and wonder and mystery, and which spontaneously give rise to the belief that there is more to reality than meets the empirical eye, something both fundamental and good.

If there is a sensus divinitatus at work in my life, it isn’t generating for me belief in the Bible’s inerrancy. What it’s generating instead are certain other beliefs—about the reality of the transcendent, of a fundamental reality beyond the ordinary world that is characterized by love, that is enfolding me, that weeps at human suffering and promises redemption.

The beliefs that it generates in me are imprecise and hard to interpret in ordinary language. But then I bring this vague sense to my reading of the Bible. And I get the sense that here are writers who have had the same experiences…many of them more vividly than I. And then I encounter a story—a core narrative about love and sacrifice and redemption—that doesn’t just track onto my vague religious beliefs. It feels as if this is what my experience was trying to tell me. Here it is, the vague truth I have intimated, fleshed out in the form of a story.

This story resonates so much with my experience that I come to see the story as redolent with truth. I trust that there is something profoundly true in this story. And so I come to honor the book which contains it.

Here’s the thing. I don’t believe the story because it’s contained in this book. I don’t start out believing that this book, for whatever reason, is a credible authority, and on that basis conclude that the gospel story should be believed. Rather, it goes in the other direction: I come to regard the book as having special merit because of what it contains. More precisely, as I read the gospel narrative, it resonates with my immediate religious experience in such a way that I find myself saying, “Yes, yes. That’s it! That’s what I’ve been sensing!” And the fact that this particular collection of writings, this set of documents we’ve come to call the Bible, contains this story—that fact is one piece of evidence I bring to the question of how I should think about the Bible.

It’s an important piece of evidence for me, one which suggests to me that I can learn something from this collection of writings. We’ve all had the experience of listening to someone speak and hanging on their every word because what they’re saying sounds right. We find ourselves saying “Wow!” or “Aha!” It’s as if they’re putting into words something we should’ve noticed for ourselves but didn’t—or as if they are expressing clearly something that we have sensed only confusedly. And when we listen to such a person, we come to take them seriously in a way we might not have otherwise. If they do this consistently enough, we come to trust their insight. We come to treat them as a credible authority because of these experiences, because so much of what they say resonates within us and seems to expand our understanding of the world.

When it comes to the Bible, there’s a lot that I respond to in this way. But there’s also an enormous amount that I respond with the kind of horrified astonishment so beautifully captured by the young Gary Coleman in Diff’rent Strokes: “Watcha talkin’ about, Willis?” When I look at the large themes, the overall trajectory of the vision that is evolving in the text, I find myself astonished and uplifted. But time and again I encounter details and themes that strike me as appalling.

In this respect, the Bible is, for me, a great deal like the writings of Aristotle. No other philosophical text has transformed me as much as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I think that it ought to be required reading for everybody who intends to go about the messy business of living a human life. There is just so much to be learned in its pages, wisdom that has improved me as a person. If you wrestle your way through the difficulties of the text and really reflect on the overarching themes and ideas, you’ll inevitably have a range of “Aha!” and “Wow!” moments.

But you’re also certain to have some “Watcha talkin’ about, Willis?” moments. Aristotle was a product of his time and place, occasionally blinded by cultural conventions and prejudices that he failed to see past—for example, his views about women’s intellectual inferiority and his ideas about “natural slaves.” As one of the greatest intellects in human history, Aristotle has a lot to teach all of us. But it’s also true that we’ve learned some things over the last two thousand years that Aristotle didn’t know—things about cosmology, for example, and things about the intellectual capacities of women and people who don’t speak Greek. Aristotle was an inspired philosopher at whose feet I feel humbled to study. In ethics, he is for me one of my greatest authorities. But, based on the evidence available to me, I would never conclude that he’s an inerrant one.

He is, instead, a kind of supreme philosophical conversation partner. There are many philosophers who call themselves Aristotelians. None of them, as far as I know, think Aristotle was inerrant. Instead, they think he was on the right track, that the path he forged was an inspired one, and that if we engage with his thought and develop it in conversation with others who are wrestling with it, we will find treasures of wisdom that would not otherwise be possible. But such engagement, while it extends to Aristotle enormous reverence, does not treat Aristotle as inerrant. Aristotelians think they might, perhaps, have something to bring to the conversation—a conversation started by Aristotle, brilliantly developed by Aristotle, but hardly finished by Aristotle.

Is Aristotle an authority for me? Absolutely. Not nearly as indispensible as sense perception, of course, and not nearly as close to being treated as inerrant within his scope of expertise. There are a wide range of issues concerning which I extend to Aristotle no authority at all (for example, when it comes to cosmology), because the evidence that he was wrong is just too overwhelming. But when it comes to the question of what promotes a flourishing human life, it seems to me that there are few who can rival his insights. And yet, I quibble with him about details all the time—knowing I could be wrong, but also convinced that he might be wrong.

Aristotle is my teacher, and I honor him. But one way I honor him is by debating with him, especially at those points where I think his native wisdom was stifled by culturally imposed prejudices.

To me, Aristotle’s writings provide a better analogy for characterizing my experience of the Bible than does sense perception. The beliefs formed through sense perception are “properly basic,” in the sense that we presumptively believe them without appeal to evidence, simply because they result from the operation of a faculty whose reliability we cannot help but trust. While sense perception can be defeated, the presumption it its reliability is enormous in our lives. In the absence of compelling reasons for doubt, we believe. That is very authoritative, even if the authority does not amount to inerrancy.

The kind of authority Aristotle wields is less potent in some ways, but far more intimate and meaningful. Aristotle is a mentor, a teacher, a wise guide on issues that really matter for how we live our lives—but, in some ways, he is also a deeply flawed one. He is, in short, a conversation partner with whom we can debate issues that touch on the very purpose and meaning of existence, and who will often lead us to see things we never would have noticed on our own. He is the kind of authority that the best philosophy teachers aspire to be in the classroom—not tyrants who shut down original thinking, but wise guides who helps students uncover insights they wouldn’t have otherwise had, and who are open to learning from their students in turn.

Can the Bible be, for Christians, that kind of authority? Not only do I think it can, but I think that is precisely the way that received scriptures were treated for much of the history of Judaism and Christianity—as becomes evident if one reads the narrative history of the Bible offered by Karen Armstrong in THE BIBLE: A BIOGRAPHY.

But there is more to be said here. Among other things, we need to think about how treating the Bible as this sort of authority connects with the notion that in some important way these inherited Scriptures are intimately bound up with God’s self-disclosure to the world. And we also need to consider a challenge that has doubtless been rearing up in some of my more conservative readers for awhile now—the challenge based on arrogance, on the presumptuousness of putting my judgment up against the content of the Bible in something like the way I am prepared to do in the case of Aristotle’s work.

This latter challenge, of course, is embodied in what I have been calling “the Argument from Human Hubris.” And that will be the topic of my next post.

(By the way, since this is the start of labor day weekend, it is unlikely I will have a chance to check this blog or respond to posts until Tuesday)

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 na├»ve. (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.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Still Grading...

I'm still drowning in a sea of grading (although I can begin to see the shore, and I'm swimming madly in that direction). I won't be able to finish my promised follow-up posts until this bi-annual horror is done, but expect something next week. In the meantime, an adaption of my blog post entitled Atheism on the Bus just won the annual essay competition of the Oklahoma Writer's Federation. If you haven't read it, check it out. While you're at it, you might look at my all-time personal favorite among my posts, Zoroastrian Dualism and Barthian Nothingness.