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)


  1. Well, that is quite a substantial post, and I made it through to the end. One of the issues that came up for me is how you would deal with the inevitable questions regarding NT scriptures that make claims about the Hebrew scriptures, and what that means for scriptural authority (i.e. 2 Tim. 3:16 "all scripture is God-breathed...", and 2 Peter 1:20-21, etc.), and how this relates to your Aristotle example. Maybe you are getting to this in the hubris post. But some would claim that the Bible itself makes [circular] arguments about its own authority. What would you say to those people?

  2. CPO, are you sure you want to be asking Dr Reitan that question? I don't think it's a challenge to his own position. Wouldn't it be better to pose the question to an inerrantist?

    Dr Reitan,

    I too read the post thru. I also read most of your book, just FYI.
    There are some serious problems with the reasoning you've employed here, as far as the post goes, but that's not really been the point of my questions directed to you in these recent times. You spent, istm, the entire post discussing epistemology, but the challenges I've been raising relate mostly to moral authority, meta-ethics. And questions of epistemology inevitably boil down in a major part to such questions anyway, since one must answer the question: Now that I think I know what is true, why SHOULD I believe it? What obligation do I have to believe what is true?

    So, I don't see any answer to my questions here, not yet.


  3. Dr Reitan,

    God is not a tyrant, but God is sovereign.

    God is at war with Satan (Eph 6:11-12).

    Phil 2:13 says For it is God who works in you, both to will and to act according to His good purpose.

    1) God has a purpose.

    2) His purpose is good.

    3) He uses us to accomplish His purpose.

    He has a right to organize circumstances in our lives to accomplish His purpose.

    Now, Im going to employ a sports metaphor. God is the coach. We are players. When the coach calls a play, it hardly makes sense for a receiver to ignore the coaches instructions and run the route that he would prefer. And if he does the coach will not just stand on the sideline and demand the player obey. Instead, if a player disobeys, the coach will put him on the bench and use someone else.

    And in this war, God is the only one who sees the entire battlefield. It only makes sense to obey God unquestioningly because a wrong maneuver could send us into the teeth of an enemy tank battalion.

    And if God is infallible, there would never be the need to question His commands. IOW if the coach always calls the perfect play in every situation, the players will never doubt him.

  4. Dr Reitan said:

    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

    I say:

    Dr Reitan,
    I am truly confused. Surely you dont mean that there are things that God has never thought of. And surely you dont mean that God can learn from us. And certainly you didnt intend to say that they Bible is incomplete and it is up to us to fill in the blanks.

    But I am concerned that you did intend to say that God is merely a philosopher/teacher/mentor.

    Enlighten me, please.

  5. Craig,

    The view of biblical authority I gesture towards here doesn't make sense at all if the Bible is IDENTIFIED with God. The core question is precisely this (with a bit of oversimplification for the sake of highlighting the core point): Is the Bible the inerrant word of God, or is it an authoritative but fallible human testament TO God?

    The point of the Aristotle analogy is that construing the Bible as a fallible human testament does not entail that it's stripped of authority in every sense. No one claims that Aristotle is infallible or is anything but a human author--and yet Aristotle is an important authority of a certain kind for me and others.

    So, I'm not saying that God is merely a philosopher/ teacher/mentor. I'm saying that the BIBLE can be so construed--but only if it is NOT construed as the inerrant Word of God. The point is to show that even if the Bible is NOT construed in those terms, one might still treat the Bible as a kind of authority.


    The issue you raise has been addressed in discussions on this blog, although I don't remember now precisely where. My understanding is essentially this: Passages such as 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20-21, both of which were intended by their authors to reference the Jewish Scriptures, need to be understood in the light of the historical struggles that were going on in the early Church.

    One of those struggles had to do with the relationship between the emerging Christian sect and Judaism, and by implication its Scriptures. There were those who thought the God in Jewish Scriptures was too tyrannical and cruel to be the same God of love revealed in Jesus, and so they wanted to distance themselves from these scriptures and from Judaism. Others insisted on continuity, and that Jesus was the fulfillment of prophesies found in these scriptures.

    Those who were in the latter camp often felt the need to insist on the divine origins of the Jewish scriptures in their letters...and since this latter camp won the theological debate, letters that (among other things) insisted on the divine origin of the Jewish scriptures made it into the canon.

    Of course, we cannot simply assume that these comments are correct since they made it into the canon, not without begging the inerrancy question. And even if we accept that "all scripture is God-breathed" and that "prophesy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit," we still need to ask, "What things are authentic scripture in this sense of being God-breathed? And how do we decide? What things are prophecy, in this sense of being motivated by the Holy Spirit rather than by human will? And how do we decide?"

    What I question is the practice of using the following assertion to decide: "If it happens to be contained in the inherited canon of writings within tradition X, then it is scripture/prophecy; if not, then not." To put it in the terms developed in this post, the truth of this assertion doesn't seem to be properly basic--it doesn't "just seem right to me" in something like the way that the beliefs generated by my sensory faculties just seem right.

    When I sift through the beliefs that DO "just seem right to me" in this way, and hence might arguably be properly basic, I can't derive this assertion from them. On the contrary, this body of evidence does more to support views about the nature of the Bible that are at odds with such an absolute identification between this particular collection of writings and what is "God-breathed" Scripture.

    What arises here is the question of hubris. I am basing my decision about whether to judge ALL the contents of the Bible to be "God-breathed" Scripture on the evidence available to me. But then, am I not making myself and my own faculties of judgment the ultimate authority in my life? And isn't this problematic for someone who wants to be a follower of God?

    This is the question I intend to take up in my next post.

  6. Rhology,

    You raise an interesting question about the relationship between epistemic authority and moral authority. The two are interrelated, but I don't think the relationship is a simple one. When we ask about moral truth, and how we determine the truth about morality, we are asking an epistemological question. At the same time, issues about what are legitimate and illegitimate strategies in belief formation can be usefully construed as moral questions. And then there is the whole issue of whether morality is ultimately about submitting our will to some law giver that has a claim on obedience, or whether morality is better construed in a different way (for example, the Kantian model which holds that morality is about submitting our will to laws that we establish for ourselves through the right exercise of our reason). Which beliefs we should hold about the nature of morality may hinge upon epistemic questions pertaining to belief formation.

    These issues may come into clearer focus in later posts.

  7. That's well and good. Thing is, unless your moral foundation comes down to "God said so, and He said so b/c His character is the very definition of good", it's very, very, distressingly easy to find the weak spot, the grand and empty assumption in the moral framework. And that is to ask just one more "Why?" So I too will be drawing that out in later comments.


  8. Dr. Reitan - thanks for the reply. I look forward to the next post!

  9. Dr Reitan, after reading (and reading) this post, I think I finally understand what you mean by errant.

    I still disagree, and there are more comments to follow.

  10. "[U]nless your moral foundation comes down to "God said so, and He said so b/c His character is the very definition of good", it's very, very, distressingly easy to find the weak spot, the grand and empty assumption in the moral framework. And that is to ask just one more "Why?" So I too will be drawing that out in later comments."

    The problem with this particular line of reasoning is that there is no obvious reason why you can't ask one more why about God as well. If you think this infinite regress spells the end of morality, then morality is over no matter how many god machines you invent. It's the same as with creationists who demand to know what came before the big bang without realizing that it is just as easy to ask what came before the creator.

    Furthermore, even if this weren't the case, saying that good is good because God said so and because it is God's nature raises more problems than it solves. What if God's nature dictated that he smash the skulls of the children of a certain tribe against the city walls? Would this then be good? Should we imitate this behavior? Of course not. If there is morality, then it's safe to say that murdering babies is wrong. Any moral system (or book!) that suggests that it isn't is either deeply flawed or outright despicable. Voltaire said that he who can make you believe absurdities can also make you commit atrocities.

  11. Wrong, cheek. It resolves all the problems that your worldview has no answer to.
    Where did you observe that smashing childrens' skulls is wrong? Of what material is wrongness made? What is its atomic number? Where does it grow? Is it found in strip mines in Colorado?
    We don't have an infinite regress b/c it all stops with God. God is the final "Because". He is the final authority. "It is good b/c He said so" or "It must be b/c He said so" is not only the final answer available, it is also in and of itself a good answer.
    Hebrews 6:13For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, "I WILL SURELY BLESS YOU AND I WILL SURELY MULTIPLY YOU."

    Compare that with your joke of a worldview, where nothing is good, or bad. Everything just IS, and there is no way to derive an OUGHT from what IS.
    So yes, if God said X, then to do not-X is wrong and sinful. And yes, we absolutely should imitate this behavior. Voltaire had a sharp pen, but at least on this issue (as well as on others), he was not the deepest of thinkers, as he never thought to ask one more "Why?" One who stops short of asking the best questions is hardly a freethinker.
    Finally, "murder" has no meaning in your worldview, for murder means "unjustifiable killing of a human". Yet on materialism, there is no justification, for anything, b/c there is no OUGHT. Nor does "human" have any great significance outside of your question-begging humanistic assumptions, which show that you haven't thought the thing thru either.


  12. Dr Reitan,

    After reflection, Ive decided that my arguments need no further elaboration.

    I am curios though as to what Kant would say about your post. Im a big fan of Dinesh DSouza, and he seems to really like Kant. And from what little I know, it seems that Kant would be relevant to our discussion. If hes irrelevant just say so, theres no need to elaborate.

  13. There are plenty of physicalist and materialist conceptions of morality. Most of them base the 'ought' that you lament in benefits to the community which in turn provides a benefit to the individual. Now there are problems with these theories just as there are problems with pretty much all theories of justice. The fact that there are problems no one has solved yet does not mean solutions are impossible. What is a problem (most people would call it a fatal problem) for a theory of justice is if that theory fails to meet the demands of our most basic expectations for normative behavior. Your theory requires you to bite one huge bullet in relativizing 'goodness' to make it mean whatever God wants it to mean. Put succinctly, if 'goodness' is meaningful at all, it seems like it can't really apply to bashing in the skulls of infants. It may be that there is a God who mandates certain kinds of behavior, but that mandate can't make that behavior good. At most it seems to make it rationale in the sense that by doing it I avoid pissing off an omnipotent being.

    Now I'm pretty much done arguing about materialism with you. You're not interested in a careful investigation of the theory, I'm not particularly concerned with whether you believe it or not, and it's pretty far afield from the current debate.

    By the way, when I ask, "Why can't I ask one more why after God," it's not a particularly compelling answer to say, "God is the final because." You haven't given me a reason for believing that particular assumption of yours. If I do question it, then your theory falls apart. You criticize me and, inexplicably, Voltaire (I wasn't offering him as an authority on this issue. I just thought his caution was appropriate to the discussion. In retrospect, it was probably confusing to include the reference to him.) for failing to follow through with the next why, but then refuse to do the same yourself when it comes to God. When I ask you why, you say because you can't or because the Bible says something that you think supports your case. Just so you know, neither your opinion nor the Bible are final epistemic authorities for me. If your goal is to convince me, then you may want to switch tactics. (I've heard the sermon about scripture being a double-edged sword and swords cutting whether they're believed in or not. That may be right. Few people, though, have read or heard as much scripture preached as I have, and none of it has eviscerated me yet.) If your goal is to convince various onlookers, I'd say that while your goal is perhaps noble, few if any people ever abandon core beliefs because of discussions like these. Finally, if your goal is to convince yourself, well, isn't that a bit like whistling in the dark?

  14. cheek,

    Remember what I said. Just ask one more "Why?"
    -Most of them base the 'ought' that you lament in benefits to the community which in turn provides a benefit to the individual. -

    "Benefit" is begging the question. You need to define it, not assume it.
    Why is "benefiting" the "community" good and ought-ful/obligatory?
    Who is the community? What % of the people? How do you judge between parties who want contradictory things? On what basis? Don't say "on the basis of benefit to the community", b/c that's not an answer; that's navel-gazing.
    Besides, does "benefit" exist in the material? Of what elements is it composed? What is its atomic weight? How many moles is the average deposit? Where is it found?
    You simply have not shown that you can answer these serious questions, so there's not much reason to put any weight to your thoughts here.

    -Now I'm pretty much done arguing about materialism with you.-

    That's wise, but it doesn't do wonders for anyone's confidence in your intellectual honesty in discussions around here.

    -Your theory requires you to bite one huge bullet in relativizing 'goodness' to make it mean whatever God wants it to mean.-

    Not at all. That's the very opposite of relativising. It means what God wants it to mean b/c God never changes and His character is the very definition of good. You need to make sure to deal with my actual position, not a strawman.

    -When I ask you why, you say because you can't or because the Bible says something that you think supports your case. -

    Again you mistake my position. Why are you doing this?
    Ask "Why?" all you want. My position is self-justifying and has a satisfactory end - an overriding and self-existent standard that actually accounts for good and bad. So, to every "why?" you eventually stop the buck. Otherwise, we'd be in an infinite regress like your position, and that means you have no answers.


  15. Craig,

    In my experience, Kant is always going to be relevant in discussions about epistemology. I'm not a Kant scholar, but I've wrestled with his ideas over the years, and I'd be happy to do so again in this context.

  16. "Again you mistake my position. Why are you doing this?"

    Sorry if you think I'm creating strawmen for the sake of demolishing them. That is certainly not my intent. I may have gotten your arguments wrong, but if I did, it was an honest mistake. Let me clarify a bit.

    While I'm sure that had I thought about it, I would have assumed you believed in an immutable deity, I don't think it's relevant to the argument I made. The presumed fact that God does not change does nothing to remove the problem of making the meaning of 'goodness' relative to God's desire. God doesn't change. Fine. If he were different (still unchanging, just with different unchanging desires), then on your theory of goodness, goodness would be different too, possibly absurdly different (eg. bashing babies' skulls against the city walls, or, if that example is getting old, raping all vulnerable women). That's my argument that you have to bite an ugly bullet. In fairness, all theories tend to need bullets somewhere along the conceptual pathway. Bullet-biting is not a logical fallacy, it just doesn't fit with general intuition. Most people think that raping women is always bad. If your theory implies that it might have been good or even obligatory, then you had better come with some big time evidence for why we should bite down anyway.

    "Ask "Why?" all you want. My position is self-justifying and has a satisfactory end - an overriding and self-existent standard that actually accounts for good and bad."

    Again, I'm sorry if I misrepresented your theory, but I honestly don't understand how claiming your position is "self-justifying" is anything other than question-begging. I mentioned the Biblical evidence because you gave Biblical evidence to support your argument that God is the final because. You quoted Hebrews. It was a secondary point, anyway. The main gist of my criticism is that when I ask why you believe God is and is what you say he is, you offer evidence that I find unsatisfactory and circular. "I believe because the Bible says so," or "I believe because there must be a primary cause."

    I'm serious about the materialism debate. I'm done, and you can feel free to declare yourself the "winner." If you think the fact I hold a set of beliefs that you find untenable is a good reason to disregard all arguments I make here, well, do what you need to do. I'll just point out that none of the criticisms I offer assume materialism or any other comprehensive worldview. In fact, to consider the arguments that you or others make, I typically assume the argument is correct and then look through it's implications.

  17. Rhology and Cheek:

    To some extent, at least, I think you may be talking past each other here. Rhology's position sounds at first blush like a divine command theory of ethics, except that he doesn't ultimately root morality in divine decree alone since there is a reason why God decrees what He decrees--one that is rooted in the divine nature itself.

    And so what we have is a theory of morality that tries to escape the arbitrariness of "pure" divine command theory (according to which morality is just whatever God decrees, and God could decree anything at all since any limits on legitimate divine decrees would entail a moral standard outside of divine decree). The escape: make morality depend on the eternal and unchanging nature of God, rather than on God's decrees alone. God's decrees follow God's nature, which is what it is necessarily.

    This view of morality is piggy-backing on the cosmological argument, insofar as that argument holds that in order to end an infinite regress of causal explanations, one needs to posit a being that in some mysterious way explains itself--a being whose very nature somehow demands existence, a nature such that it could not have failed to exist.

    According to this version of the cosmological argument, the question, "But who made God?" reduces to the question, "But how did that which cannot have failed to exist come to exist?" The question misses the point and isn't really coherent. With respect to this argument, the question the critic needs to ask, instead, is whether there is any coherence to the idea of a nature which is such that it could not have failed to exist.

    But let us set that question aside and suppose that it is coherent. If this nature (call it the divine nature) exists necessarily, then this divine nature is eternal. Were we to suppose that only one nature is such that its existence is necessary (the Ontological Argument is often invoked in an attempt to establish this as well as the coherence of a necessarily existing nature), then it follows that the divine nature could not be other than it in fact is. And so we have something that eternally and necessarily possesses this nature and no other.

    If this divine nature is the ground of morality, then morality will be what it is necessarily. So far so good for Rhology's case (although I'm not sure how it translates into a case for BIBLICAL inerrancy! Much more argumentation needed...). But there are problems.

    In effect, we might ask the following (a variant on the Euthyphro Question): Is God's nature morally perfect because it measures up perfectly to an independent standard of goodness, of is God's nature THE standard of goodness by which all value is measured?

    It seems that for Rhology to make his case, he needs to go with the latter option. But the latter option is not without problems. If God's nature is THE standard by which all value is measured, then "God's nature is good" becomes a rather empty statement. When we say that God's nature is good, and that God is morally perfect, all we're saying is that God's nature measures up to God's nature. And this would be true even if it happened to be the case that the nature which exists necessarily were such that baby torture measured up to the standard it sets.

    Now of course, the traditional theist is going to claim that the divine nature is necessarily, by virtue of what it is, opposed to such things as gratuitous baby torture. And that may be so. But if THIS fact about the divine nature is offered as a reason to think that the divine nature is worthy of devotion, then we are immediately drifting over to the other side of the modified Euthyphro Question above--God's nature is meaningfully good by virtue of its perfect conformity to some independent standard of goodness.

    In any event, it isn't clear to me that this path is going to offer us a clear and decisive escape from the problems that beset other moral theories.

  18. Yes, precisely. It's the latter option.
    But "God's nature is good" is not an empty statement at all. Why would it be? I mean, if we're at the end of a long conversation on metaethics like we are here, "good" in this sentence means, as you said, "consistent with Himself". But we're also saying in this conversation that God's nature and character are the standard by which we can thus judge all other beings, actions, thoughts, etc. Without this standard, we have the infinite regress. If there's another standard, there is some major philosophical heavy lifting to be done, explaining how God could be good but also infinite but also subject to some other principle outside of Himself, and even better, explaining the origin and nature of that principle, how we can know anything about it, etc.
    The thing is, the vast majority of talk about morality and ethics is NOT in the context we find here in this convo. Instead, we're constantly asking "Is this right or wrong and how can I know?" In these everyday cases, "God's nature is good and He has revealed Himself" is the best answer! So it's not useless at all; it informs every single decision one has to make.

    Dr Reitan said:
    -Now of course, the traditional theist is going to claim that the divine nature is necessarily, by virtue of what it is, opposed to such things as gratuitous baby torture. -

    The ishy-squishy type, probably, b/c they haven't thought it thru. But I have thought it thru. My answer is slightly different, nuanced here, b/c most evanjellyfish types can't conceive that baby torture could possibly be wrong at all, and so call into the Euthyphro dilemma. But God could perhaps command baby torture (He won't, b/c He has revealed that He won't, but just hypothetically speaking) and it would be the right thing to do. Indeed, God has in many instances commanded things that have offended the sensibilities of people receiving the command and/or modern people, and their offense doesn't change the fact that doing what God says is objectively right and good and disobeying is objectively wrong and bad.
    That's why I hold to the moral theory I do - precisely b/c it DOES solve those conundra that plague other moral theories.


    -possibly absurdly different (eg. bashing babies' skulls against the city walls, or, if that example is getting old, raping all vulnerable women).-

    He never commanded raping anybody, but yes, see above. If the command were different, then there you go, it would be good. But it's not and will never be.
    Contrast this with your own worldview on which NOTHING is good. Nor bad. There just is. So the bullet isn't ugly for you at all. you're just biting something, and that something could as well be a strawberry pie.


  19. (Cont.)
    -The main gist of my criticism is that when I ask why you believe God is and is what you say he is, you offer evidence that I find unsatisfactory and circular.-

    Well, to be fair, you didn't ask that exact question. I believe that b/c of the impossibility of the contrary, since you ask here.
    My response to what you've actually been saying is basically twofold:
    1) God is the final and ultimate standard. What He says goes b/c His character and nature define what good and right objectively are.
    2) The alternative is internally inconsistent and is without any foundation. ESPECIALLY materialism - it can't answer even the most basic of questions regarding why we should listen to what it has to offer.

    -I'll just point out that none of the criticisms I offer assume materialism or any other comprehensive worldview. -

    Sure it does, come now. It assumes at least a naturalist worldview, b/c a supernaturalist worldview has to deal with the ramifications of the existence of higher beings, authority, expression, revelation, our relationship to them, etc. And if your worldview can't even answer these basic questions, why would any thinking person subscribe to it?


  20. To be fair, you're right, I never explicitly asked that question, and I made undo assumptions about your answers to that question. Also to be fair, your answers to it are pretty much the answers I assumed you'd give, though it's quite possible I didn't clearly express them. The point is this (and thanks Dr. Reitan for *hopefully* clearing the water a bit) you assume certain things. These assumptions have implications. One of the implications is a fact about morality that most people find intuitively repulsive. You recognize that fact and give reasons why you think the idea is both not repulsive and in fact the only possible answer to the questions of morality at hand. Cool. I get it, I just think it's silly. Pretty much as you think materialism is silly.

    I fear our discussion here isn't doing anything to help either of us or anyone else who might be paying attention think through these issues. I suspect we have essentially different goals for engaging in this process anyway, so it's probably a good moment for me to say my last. Enjoy your certainty, I sincerely hope it leads you well.

  21. Unfortunately, the introspective faculty sucks, to put it bluntly. What Descartes was doing was experiencing thought and logically deducing that by its existence it showed that he existed in some sense as well. The content of the introspection made no difference whatsoever- he could have been convinced that we was an unthinking blob of slime, or a bird.

    If we have learned anything, we have learned that while the experience of introspection is powerful and immediate, its contents are typically narcissistic and imaginary. Not that that is bad thing- it just is not veridical. Ditto for the Bible (and sensus divinitatus) which is simply introspective and narcissistic (and gloriously patriarchal) imagery writ large. Indeed, its correspondence to your own introspective experience (“Yes, yes. That’s it! That’s what I’ve been sensing!”) is the surest tip-off that it is not describing an "other" world of so-called reality, but our communal world of human interiority and imagination, shared by virtue of common ancestry and upbringing- narcissism defined, in short.

    Conversely, the trust we put in our outer-directed senses can be calibrated, not only by agreement with others, as you rightly deride, but by agreement with that reality itself, by way of logical deductions about internal consistency- both in terms of the whole, as you say, but also in terms of small deviations and critical exceptions. If we see a flower, then we smell it, then we feel it, taste it, and then we run it through a lab apparatus, etc.. all these corroborating senses, based in turn on more basic calibrations of our senses through development, indicate that this flower and world we live in is at least self-consistent. And this is the most we can expect of our world, or the superb Matrix-like facsimile which would be its equivalent, introspection or no introspection.

  22. From UnEz

    I so deeply appreciate Dr. Reitan's contribution to discussions of inerrancy and the scholarly and gracious responses to this important debate. I come so late to this argument that my contribution probably may not be seen. I admit a lack of sophistication in philosopy of religion and a certain trepidation in questioning inerrancy. Nonetheless, one of my concerns is that arguments for inerrancy appear to assume inerrancy before defending or asserting inerrancy. If important arguments for inerrancy are indeed circular in this way, then another basis for recommending inerrancy has to be offered.

    It seems then that inerrancy is a belief that parallels other beliefs, such as belief in the trinity. The belief can be offered as providing coherence to the Christian faith but cannot ultimately be proved, without invoking a supernatural origin. In other words, the bible can only be inerrant because it was divinely transmitted by God, and final confirmation for inerrancy cannot be settled by argumentation or through scriptural proof texts. Inerrancy can only be settled through some a supernatural event or miracle, which the inerrantists must also posit as the origin of scripture (miraculous inspiration of writers).

    Certainly, I may be completely off-track but if inerrancy can only be offered at the level of doctrine, then argumentation and questioning of inerrancy is legitimate. If any doubt about inerrancy constitutes heresy then to me the narrow path could become treacherous to the point of being impassable.