Saturday, May 06, 2006

The God who says and does

I recently had a very civilized exchange with Evan Tomlin and a fellow commenter over at:

http://evantomlin.wordpress.com/2006/04/17/nt-wright-on-living-by-the-authority-of-scripture/#comments

Here’s my side of the dialogue:

steve hays Says:
April 18th, 2006 at 1:02 pm

Hi Evan,

How do you (or do you?) distinguish between rationality and rationalism? Between a rational defense of the Bible (or the faith generally) and a rationalistic defense of the faith?

steve hays Says:
April 19th, 2006 at 12:54 am

Hi Evan,

I’m not trying to beat you over the head with my rhetorical club. Over at Triablogue I bonk a lot of folks on the noggin, but the reason I went into your combox was to avoid a bloody confrontation since that is not at all my aim in this exchange.

I appreciate your effort to think through these issues for yourself.

i) My question wasn’t concerned with Van Tilian apologetics in particular, but rational apologetics in general.

You seem to be rejecting rational apologetics in favor of some nuanced form of fideism.

ii) One of my problems with fideism is when the fideist makes an argument for fideism. What’s the point of defending your right not to defend the Christian faith?

If you’re going to go to the intellectual effort of defending fideism, which strikes me as a rather self-contradictory exercise, why not redirect that intellectual firepower into actually defending the faith?

Why argue for the proposition that you don’t have to argue for your faith?

iii) I have a very different take on Wright. Wright is trying to stake out a mediating position on Scripture. On the one hand, he doesn’t take the liberal view of a Spong or Bultmann, according to which the Bible is both uninspired and historically worthless. On the other hand, he doesn’t take the traditional view that Scripture is both inspired and historically inerrant.

Put another way, the traditional view says that the Bible is a supernatural record of supernatural events, whereas the liberal view says that the Bible is a natural record of nonevents.

His position, by contrast, treats the Bible as a natural record of supernatural events. He doesn’t approach the Bible as divinely inspired. Rather, he approaches the Bible as a historian who regards the Bible as a historically respectable primary source of information about the past.

He wants a Bible that is authoritative in some measure without begin infallible or inerrant.

iv) He latches on to the faddish Pomo critique of modernism, represented by the strawman of the Enlightenment. However, using the Bible as a warehouse of abstract theological propositions has been around since Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas, to name a few. It has nothing to do with the Enlightenment.

v) I’ll grant you that there is still, in contemporary exegesis, an affectation of disinterested and dispassionate detachment from the emotional tone as well as the ethical and alethic claims of the text upon the reader. This affectation is an exercise in self-deception.

vi) I’ll also grant you that the attempt to formalize our tacit knowledge will inevitably involve some loss of information, for not everything in our spontaneous experience is quantifiable, and in the effort to give rigorous expression to our prereflective apprehension, the output will be less than the input. We know more than we can say.

So, yes, there is a sizable existential component which, feeding into the process, is lost in the course of its transmission and transmutation into logically interlocking propositions.

There—I assume that Bro. Steb won’t be needing to take you to the ER for head trauma inflicted by my baseball bat!

steve hays Says:
April 19th, 2006 at 1:08 pm

“Namely, the individual agent often “finds himself believing” (nod to Plantinga) the propositions of Scripture and acts accordingly without formulating this “encounter” (nod to Wright) in a logically dependent manner. ”

Agreed. Most Christians are not intellectuals, and even among Christian intellectuals, many of them are not competent to do apologetics because their area of specialization lies outside the fields of knowledge most relevant to apologetics.

A Christian is justified in what he believes as a simple matter of religious experience.

And, in that sense, you could say that fideism is the default position for most believers.

However, it’s important to have some Christians who are able to speak up for those who can’t: to give voice to their otherwise inarticulate grounds for faith.

For one thing, the average believer is intellectually vulerable. He is easily stumped. And he can become unsettled or impaired if objections pile up which generate cumulative doubts.

He doesn’t necessarily cease to be a believer, but he loses his confidence.

It is also true that we have a doctrine of the church as well as a doctrine of Scripture. These work in tandem, although there is, as you know, more than one model of their interrelationship, and it’s important to sort these out.

Once again, I appreciate your spiritual and intellectual explorations. Keep up the conscientious efforts.

steve hays Says:
April 19th, 2006 at 1:59 pm

“I appreciate your care in not furthering a bludgeoning exchange”

I trust you not to spread any malicious rumors about how I might actually have a warm and fuzzy side to me. I have a reputation to protect, you know! I’ve spent a lot of time carefully cultivating my hardnosed image, and any evidence to the contrary would be devastating to my public image and my personal reputation!

steve hays Says:
April 19th, 2006 at 5:19 pm

As to Loftus and Robbins, couldn’t we lock them in a room with cutlery and remove the bodies the next day? I think that would be a win/win situation, don’t you?

steve hays Says:
April 19th, 2006 at 11:48 pm

Hi Steb,

I don’t see how Van Tilian apologetics ends up with a subjective epistemology. Yes, Christian theism is “selected” as the worldview with the most explanatory power (VT would say, the only explanatory power), but how does this differ from any choice of one explanation over another because one enjoys—or is seen to enjoy—more explanatory power than its actual or hypothetical rivals? It seems to me that a “problem” for everyone is a problem for no one.

A weakness with much of the current debate over the justification of belief is that it frequently assumes that knowledge is unobtainable, so we must settle for well-warranted belief. Given that I can’t know for a fact where the truth lies, the next best option is to probabilify my beliefs so that I at least choose the most likely belief. I may be wrong, but given my epistemic limitations, that’s the best I can do, so I’m justified in what I believe even if I turn out to be wrong.

This assumes a certain epistemology, and, in religious matters, assumes a certain religious epistemology.

I don’t regard this as an adequate model of saving faith.

The need for rational justification is person-variable. However, fideism, even of the soft variety, is something of a misnomer.

Generally, Christian intellectuals who are attracted to fideism find it appealing, not so much because they regard human reason as so very limited, but, to the contrary, because they think that philosophy or science or Bible criticism has rendered the innocence of precritical faith in Scripture hopelessly jejune.

So their fideism is really a rearguard action after surrendering to reason. They admit defeat and retreat to a bunker which is immune to conventional weaponry.

Bultmann is a good example. Given his form criticism, with its assumption of orality, his closed-system worldview, and his attachment to loose comparative mythology, existentialism becomes a makeweight for the loss of historicity and miraculosity.

As to your ultimate question: “Does the Bible have to be inspired and inerrant to be authoritative? If so, why? If not, why not?”

This is the wrong question to lead with.

The first question we need to ask is what does the Bible claim to be? What does it say about itself?

Now, we may reject the account it gives for itself, but if we reject that answer, then to salvage faith in Scripture by substituting a different set of truth-conditions is an artificial exercise; for if the Bible is unbelievable on its own terms, then it is hardly more credible when we try to retrofit Scripture with some wholly extraneous rationale.

My point is that we need to begin by posing a factual question rather than a pragmatic question.

The salient question is not, in the first instance, what is the practical value of inerrancy, and can that be secured by some alternative route, by something short of inspiration.

The salient question is what God has actually done. Has God spoken? Has God spoken to us in the Bible?

Inspiration is the efficient cause and logical implication of the identity between Scripture and God’s word, while inerrancy is the necessary outcome of that identity.

If God is the speaker—even though he employs a mundane intermediary—then what is said is inerrant—even infallible.

If it is errant, then God is not speaking. Error is only possible if or when there ceases to be a point of identity in the continuum between Scripture and the word of God.

Different things can be authoritative. A judicial ruling is legally binding even though it may be badly mistaken.

Truth is authoritative. And there is, hypothetically speaking, a sense in which Scripture could be authoritative insofar as it is true, even though it is not entirely true.

However, the question would then be how you could detect just when it is that Scripture happens to be true.

At that juncture you become your own authority. You adduce and apply your own, extrabiblical criteria to the Bible.

And, in that respect, you must already know where the true lies in order to retreive the truth from the falsehood when you come to Scripture.

If so, why bother with the Bible in the first place if you enjoy independent access to the truth?

steve hays Says:
April 20th, 2006 at 1:03 am

The debates over justification and warrant are, in part, concerned with what conditions must be met in order to convert mere belief into knowledge. But they are also concerned with beliefs that enjoy prima facie warrant even if they are false. The conditions that must be met for a belief to be justified even if it falls short of knowledge.

steve hays Says:
April 26th, 2006 at 12:49 am

“I find the idea of accepting the self attestation of scripture to be a fideistic argument itself. You stated that “if the Bible is unbelievable on its own terms, then it is hardly more credible when we try to retrofit Scripture with some wholly extraneous rationale.” Isn’t that the idea of fideism, to accept claims without any verification, warrant, proof, testing or whatever you want to call it? On what grounds would we claim that the “gut feeling” of the Mormons is wrong? Why is the Quran not actually the word of God? The claims of the Bible are just that, claims. Why does anyone believe any claim of any religious system?”

I wasn’t appealing to the self-witness of Scripture as an argument from authority. My point is simply that we need to judge the Bible by its own claims, by what it claims for itself. The state claim is the object of belief or disbelief.

There is a distinction between believing that the Bible teaches X, and believing what the Bible teaches regarding X. It is quite possible to believe that the Bible teaches something without believing what it teaches.

Now the immediate point of this distinction is not that you should believe the Bible, but that if you are going to believe the Bible, then you need to believe what the Bible teaches about itself—the self-referential statements, as well as whatever else it teaches.

If, say, the Bible lays claim to plenary, verbal inspiration, and I substitute a theory of partial inspiration, that’s an ad hoc theory.

Whether you believe the Bible, and why you should believe it is a separate and subsequent question. But before we can get to that state, we need to be clear on the nature of the claim to b e believed or disbelieved.

As to rival revelatory claimants, that counterexample was keyed to your apparent assumption that I was appealing to the self-attesting authority of Scripture. I was not. I was merely appealing to the self-witness of Scripture. Whether or not that self-witness is authoritative is, as I say, a separate and subsequent question.

But as long as you bring it up, it also depends on whether you’re asking for some general, uniform, multipurpose criterion or criteria that would be equally applicable to every revelatory claimant.

That’s an interesting question.

But it isn’t necessary for our immediate purposes to come up with an abstract, external test.

It is sufficient to judge these two particular claimants on internal grounds.

On the one hand, there is no positive evidence of any kind that either the Koran or the Mormon “scriptures” are inspired while, on the other hand, there is positive evidence that they are uninspired and errant. And that, too, is a case of judging them by their own claims. I could go into the details, but I’ll pass on that for now since it may be too much of a digression from the main point at issue.

“Is the use of historical analysis, logical deduction/induction and philosophical analysis the equivalent of “substituting a different set of truth-conditions [as] an artificial exercise”? I’ve honestly never understood this claim from the presuppositionalist camp. Can you explain how we show or prove the existence of God or the validity of scripture without retrofitting scripture?”

Van Tilians don’t oppose the verification or falsification of Scripture by scriptural criteria; what they oppose is the verification or falsification of Scripture by unscriptural criteria.

There is also, apropos the above, a difference between what we defend and how we defend it.

Once again, my point is that if we’re going to defend the Bible at all, then we need to defend a Scriptural doctrine of Scripture, a Biblical doctrine of Biblical inspiration.

It would be self-defeating to propose a theory of inspiration at odds with the self-witness of Scripture, and defend that theory as if you were thereby defending the Bible.

So there’s a distinction between the theory we are defending, and the arguments we deploy to defend that theory.

When I spoke against “retrofitting” Scripture, that had reference, not to how we defend the Bible, but what doctrine of Scripture we are defending in the first place.

“The whole argument depends upon the ‘identity between Scripture and God’s word’”.

My argument is both an argument from Scripture and an argument for Scripture. We have to take our doctrine of Scripture from Scripture itself. That is the object of belief or unbelief. If it’s an object of belief, then that’s what we are committed to defending.

At this stage of the discussion I’m not mounting an argument for the Bible. I just want us to be clear on what we need to argue for were we to mount such an argument. What are we defending? That’s the preliminary question.

“I think that evangelicalism ends up believing the Bible is authoritative for the same reason Muslims believe the Quran or Mormons believe the Last Testament, because of a theory of transmission. We believe that the living God “spoke” his word to prophets, evangelists, apostles, etc. They believe the only true god “spoke” his word to the only true prophet. We distinguish ourselves by resorting to “artificial exercises”. Something seems terribly wrong with this scenario, and I fully accept that it may be my perception and/or lack of understanding of things, in fact I hope it is, but I’m afraid it may not be. In the end, I don’t want a theory of authority that is dependent upon a theory of transmission.”

But what if there is, in fact, an internal relation between a theory of authority and a theory of transmission? Indeed, the relation is pretty straightforward.

God is the paradigmatic authority-figure. If God can inspire to communicate his will, then the end-result is authoritative due to the process of inspiration. I don’t know why you find that objectionable.

The fact that not every claimant successfully meets the condition doesn’t render the relation unsound. The inner logic of the relation is one thing, and evidence for what that relation does or does not obtain is another thing.

“My last problem with the logical dependency way of thinking is the seeming inability to avoid a mechanical dictation theory of inspiration. The Muslims seem to come by it honestly, they freely claim that Allah spoke to Mohammed directly. As a matter of a fact that’s one point they criticize us on, the idea of textual corruption and untrustworthiness of the Bible. But evangelicals of the moderate type avoid such a claim by alleviating it with phrases like “the personality of the authors was not overridden by the HS”, or “God used human authors in spite of their imperfections”, or “even though he employs a mundane(?) intermediary”. On the one hand, the higher degree of ontological identity we can assert between scripture and God’s actual words, the higher degree of inerrancy and subsequent authority we can assert. But on the other hand, the higher degree of ontological identity we assert between the two the closer we come to a statement of mechanical dictation, which nobody today is willing to assert anymore, and rightfully so. In the end we seem to be left in a realm of the middle ground which can’t logically assert anything as bold as the Muslims and won’t dare assert anything as “liberal” as the “errantist” positions of Crossan, Funk, Schweitzer, Wright(?) or especially the terrible Bultmann (I still disagree with your assessment of him, but that’s another diablog for another day).”

One needs no resort to a mechanical or dictation theory. Rather, one only needs to things:

i) In context, identity between God’s word and man’s word (God’s spokesman, the prophet, apostles, &c.) consists in the divine spokesman saying exactly what God intended him to say, nothing more and nothing less. He says just what God intended him to say, the way God intended him to say it.

ii) We also need a doctrine of providence. God is not merely the (primary) author of the Biblical writing; he is also the author if the Biblical writer.

He is responsible for the existence, personality, and socialization of the agent.

So it isn’t a case of taken possession of a human being, and playing him like a flute to channel the message, while the spokesman is a mere mouthpiece or dummy, while God is the flutist or ventriloquist.

God doesn’t simply play the instrument; he designed the instrument in the first place. He is, as it were, Stradivari and Heifetz in one: both violinist and violinmaker.

He is not, however, the violin. The violin, the secondary agent, is still a person in his own right.

“What is this elusive point of identity in the continuum, and how do we know it apart from artificial exercises? Do we just believe as fideists?”

i) I think I’ve explained the point of identity, which I don’t find elusive.

ii) Once again, my remark about “artificial exercises” had reference, not to how we defend Scripture, but what we defend, viz., a theory of partial inspiration.

But an artificial doctrine of Scripture can also give rise to an artificial argument for the doctrine in question.

Let’s illustrate this point with some smaller examples. There are men who will defend the miracles of Scripture, but they will rationalize the miracle by substituting a naturalistic mechanism contrary to the cause attributed to that event by Scripture itself. Velikosvksy was a well-known example. Ericc von Daniken is another.

iii) As to why we believe, what counts as convincing evidence is person-variable. Some folks are more impressed by existential evidence, others by empirical evidence, still others by abstract reasoning. There’s no uniform line of evidence that everyone finds equally convincing.

“When you said that truth is authoritative and that in a hypothetical sense scripture “could” be authoritative because it is true, my heart leapt. This is what I’m looking for! A theory of authority based upon truth value itself and not upon a secondary means such as transmission.”

Two problems with this:

i) It’s an inspired mode of transmission which secures the truth of the document.

ii) It’s an inspired mode of transmission, which renders the truth accessible.

Partial inspiration would be self-defeating. The point of inspiration is to distinguish when God is speaking from when he is not.

If this distinction is not preserved, then he might as well not be speaking at all, for God’s voice is lost in the cacophony of all the human voices. Somehow we have to retrieve the signal from the surrounding static. This amounts to a denial of the very possibility of divine self-revelation.

God can never be heard above the static. He can never cut through the static. His voice is just one more voice.

At that point it’s up to man to strain to hear if he can dimly make out the voice of God. That’ isn’t a serious doctrine of revelation.

“If Joshua was “wrong” about the earth and sun’s rotation, does this mean the Bible is errant and untrustworthy? Surely we’re not this pedantic in our reasoning.”

This lead to a makeshift doctrine of Scripture, in which we begin by compiling a list of problem passages, then we device a theory of inspiration which just manages to skirt our problem passages.

That is a made-up theory of inspiration. A stopgap.

The problem way to approach this is:

i) To take the self-witness of Scripture as a paradigm;

ii) To confess that to be a Christian is involves a precommitment to certain things;

iii) To be clear on the rational grounds for our faith;

iv) Carefully interpret problem passages on their own terms, guarding against the tendency to unconsciously import extrascriptural assumptions into the text.

For example, a modern reader almost automatically sees Joshua’s long day through the lens of Apollo 11 and the Galileo affair.

But that involves an explicit comparison between a heliocentric system and a geocentric system. To extrapolate back in time from that debate to Josh 10:12-14 runs the risk of blatant anachronism. We’re reading extraneous concerns and controversies into a text innocent of those later debates. There’s no reason to assume the author was operating with a developed cosmological system like Ptolemy or Copernicus.

“But granting your line of thinking, if I try to disprove the “errantists” and prove the truthfulness of the Bible, do I not likewise set myself up as my own authority?”

No, because you’re taking Scripture as your standard of comparison.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Steve.

    These past couple have weeks have not afforded me the opportunity to interact with many of your comments, but they have certainly been helpful in my continued study of authority, inerrancy, religious epistemology, etc. I hope to read and write more in those areas as the summer progresses; to that end, it is very encouraging to know there are dialogue partners in the “blogosphere” that exemplify clarity, rigor, and charity. Thanks for the interaction!

    In Christ,

    Evan

    ReplyDelete