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Friday, April 27, 2007

Biblical Inerrancy Pt. 2

Yesterday I laid out some of the reasons Christians have accepted the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy. As I see it, there are two primary reasons motivating this belief:
1) The belief that a perfect God would only "inspire" a perfect book--where perfection is understood to include complete factual accuracy as well as correctness of doctrine.
2) The need for a hermeneutical methodology austere enough to provide authoritative interpretations of the Bible.

These are two different types of motivations. The first presents an argument for the truth of the Inerrancy doctrine, while the second tells us why something like the Inerrancy doctrine is necessary for Christian belief. Today I want to focus on the first reason and see if this is in fact a successful argument.

Initially, this argument might be read like this:
1) God is a perfect being.
2) Anything created by a perfect being is also perfect.
3) The Bible was created by God.
4) Therefore, the Bible is perfect.
5) Anything that is perfect must be without flaw.
6) Errors of any kind (factual, theological, moral, etc.) would constitute a flaw.
7) Therefore, the Bible is without error.
8) The Bible is inerrant.

Obviously, atheists will be unpersuaded by this argument as they do not accept (1). However, as I said initially, my goal is to show why the Inerrantist view is not a likely view even on explicitly Christian grounds. So I take it that we must accept (1) as one of our axioms (yes, I'm aware that some Christians, including even some that are closely tied in with the evangelical community [such as Clark Pinnock], question the traditional understanding of (1), but I take them to be a fairly insignificant minority). However, after that we immediately run into problems. Normal Christian doctrine would have it that everything has been created by God. Thus, God has created many things, such as humans or wormy apples, that are not perfect. So (2) seems to be obviously false. But that doesn't seem fair. Surely something else is meant when we say that God "inspired" the Bible than just ordinary creation. After all, in some senses God has created all books, but yet the Bible is still supposed to be uniquely inspired by God. So how can we fix up (2) to better catch what is meant by the doctrine of Inerrancy?

After she had finished creating the universe back in Genesis 1, God pronounced everything to be good--perhaps a way of saying that it was blameless and perfect. And then, so the story goes, humans messed things up by disobeying God's commands. So perhaps (2) should be replaced with:

(2)* Anything solely created and/or influenced by a perfect being is perfect.

While that would seem more correct, we now run into problems with (3). In order to derive (4) using (2)* we would have to also change (3) to:

(3)* The Bible was solely created and/or influenced by God.

But that seems incorrect. After all, the general doctrine of Biblical Inspiration acknowledges that the Bible was in fact written by humans--it just claims that these humans were divinely influenced when they were writing. But, for instance, it would seem very unlikely to claim that there is nothing at all of Paul in his epistles, especially as they are written in the first person, and given the personal tone at the ending of most of the epistles.

So this argument fails to prove that based solely on the perfection of God the Bible must be perfect. Because the writing of the Bible is uncontroversially mixed with the labor of humans, there is no requirement that the end product, even of a divinely inspired process, be perfect in the way claimed by the Inerrancy Doctrine.

But wait a minute. Can't the Inerrantist still claim that while it is perhaps not necessary that the Bible be perfect, as a matter of fact, God did inspire the Biblical writers to pen a perfect text? Well, that is a possibility. However, the perfection of God does not provide us with a reason to think that he did so. We would need some other reason to think this true, and I am not aware of any respectable arguments beyond the one I have presented.

But okay. Assume that God did in fact create a perfect text. Does that prove that the Bible is inerrant? Well, no, not really. For that conclusion we still need two more premises, and while (5) seems fairly unproblematic, (6) is probably false. Think of it this way. Based on 1-3 anything solely created by God would be perfect. But humans were created solely by God. Does that mean they are/were perfect? Well, yes, in a way it does. However, the creation of some perfectly good things, such as free will, are thought to only be possible by allowing the possibility of imperfection to arise. Thus, it is not possible to create a perfect human being without allowing her to choose to do evil as well as good. Thus, because God in creating human beings desired them to be able to freely choose to obey/worship him allowed them the possibility to not do so. But that doesn't mean that his creation was not a perfect creation.

In the same way, when we evaluate the claim that the Bible is perfect we must evaluate it in terms of the purpose for which it was created. It is not, for instance, a perfect cookbook. Nor is it a perfect mathematics text. But that doesn't take away from any alleged perfection it might hold. It was not written to be a cookbook, thus it takes nothing away from it to say that it doesn't have great recipes.

In the same way, we can say that the Bible is not primarily written as a scientific, or historical, or even as an ethical treatise. Rather, its primary purpose is as a text that brings us closer to God. In that light we cannot make the assumption that either historica, scientific, or even moral correctness are either necessary or even helpful in bringing us closer to God. Suppose as a thought experiment that the theory of evolution is in fact the correct account of the rise of biological diversity. It seems to me entirely possible that a religious text that used this theory as its theory of creation would be unacceptable to most people living two thousand years ago. So if the Bible had included the theory of evolution in Genesis it would have been factually correct, but religiously imperfect. And since it is the the religious goals of the Bible that are its primary goals, that means that in order for it to be a perfect text it would have to include some factual errors (and there are similar arguments about moral truths).

To sum up, the primary motivation for believing the Bible is a perfect text is based on an unsound argument. Furthermore, even if the Bible is a perfect text, that is not enough to show that it is without factual error. God, as a perfect being relating to a world that is imperfect is forced to lower herself to the human level in order to communicate with us in meaningful ways. And really, this should come as no surprise to the Christian. Among the major world religions Christianity is unique in its doctrine of the Incarnation--that God so loved the world that he was willing to lower himself enough to actually become a human being, with all of the frailties incumbent on that state. Why should it be any surprise that he is also willing to use any imperfect human means necessary to communicate his desires and plans for his human followers?

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