Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Moore is less

Victor Reppert has posted a somewhat stream-of-consciousness response to my last reply in our ongoing dialogue on inerrancy:


VR: My claim was twofold. First, the word "inerrancy" conjures up in the minds a kind of lead-footed literalism that would force us to accept Young Earth Creationism, etc.

SH: Is that what the term conjures up? I guess the connotations of the term depend on what historical background one brings to the term.

To take a few examples, the members of the ICBI generally, and the signatories to the Chicago Statement in particular, were not committed to YEC. Some were OECs.

Warfield was a theistic evolutionist. E. J. Young and Oswald Allis (founding faculty of Westminster) were OECs. So was Carl Henry.

So perhaps we need to distinguish between a popular misconception and what inerrancy actually stands for according to its representative spokesmen.

At the same time, YEC shouldn’t be treated as a conversation stopper. Men like John Byl and Kurt Wise deserve a fair hearing.

VR: It would also, for example, force us into the hands of the universalists in response to such passages as "Every knee shall bow," etc.

SH: Reppert has a confusing habit of oscillating between inerrancy and hermeneutics. Here he seems to be equating inerrancy with literalism—as he understands it.

But inerrantists aren’t literalists per se. That’s not their guiding principle.

Rather, they interpret the Bible literally if they think the grammatico-historical method favors a literal interpretation.

And even that is not the same as inerrancy. James Barr interprets Gen 1 literally, but he rejects inerrancy.

VR: What any interpreter will do at that point is to supply "context" into which the passage fits. They will argue that the error emerges from reading the passage to narrowly and not adding in the context. (I want to point out that there is a danger that what we call "context" is simply the whole boatload of preconceived theology and Sunday School lessons that we brought to the text in the first place). So a "lead-footed" inerrancy proves too much, but a more sensible inerrancy might not in fact do enough work.

SH: Well, it may be that a “lead-footed” inerrancy proves too much, but this is a straw man argument.

Reppert appears to be equating inerrancy with certain fundy popularizers like Henry Morris, John Hagee, or LaHaye.

But televangelism doesn’t set the bar. Even as far as fundamentalism is concerned, we need to judge it by its best representatives as well as its worst. By scholars like Harold Hoehner, Darrel Bock, and Daniel Block.

It wouldn’t hurt Reppert or Vallicella to read, let us say, V. Philips Long on The Art of Biblical History or Craig Blomberg on The History Reliability of the Gospels to acquaint themselves with a more highly inflected understanding of inerrancy.

It also wouldn’t hurt to dip into some standard Evangelical commentaries on Ruth (e.g. Block, Hubbard) or Jonah (e.g. Alexander, Baldwin, Stuart).

VR: Exactly what does it take to make out the claim that so-and-so is really making an error attribution to Scripture? Augustine is the classic example of someone who would if asked have affirmed "inerrancy" in a heartbeat, and yet developed a theory of origins that, if anything, looks more like Darwinian evolution than Young Earth Creationism.

SH: I think we need to make allowance from a theologian’s historical position. Knowledge is cumulative.

Augustine was a philosophical and theological genius with an intimate knowledge of the Latin classics. But he never attained the same fluency in Greek, much less Hebrew.

He knew next to nothing of Second Temple Judaism, much less ANE history.

VR: Was Gundry attributing error to Matthew when he analyzed it in terms of midrash?

SH: No, he wasn’t. But that’s not the only issue. Even if he wasn’t attributing error to Matthew, there’s the additional question of whether his identification was erroneous, and whether certain erroneous interpretations are simply out of bounds.

Christianity has a social dimension, as a community of faith. Social cohesion depends on a certain measure of like-mindedness.

Christians are believers. They must hold certain beliefs in common to enjoy a common life.

Since some readers may not know what we’re talking about, let’s take a closer look at the controversy surrounding Gundry:


Robert Gundry is the author of Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Eerdmans,1982), a mammoth 652-page study of the first Gospel that has stirred the opposition of conservatives everywhere because of the enthusiastic use it makes of the scholarly technique in biblical studies known as "redaction criticism." This discipline presupposes that the four Evangelists, especially Matthew and Luke, have adapted the deeds and words of Jesus to fit the life and experiences of their readers. For example, redaction critics would argue that Matthew adapted his prose to the rocky topography of Palestine and quoted Jesus as saying the wise man "built his house upon the rock" (Matt. 7:24). Luke, writing perhaps for readers in Greece, with its thick soil, felt it necessary to have Jesus specify that the man "dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock" (Luke 6:48).



Taken by itself, redaction criticism isn’t all that controversial. Basically speaking, conservative redaction critics arrive at conservative interpretations while liberal redaction critics arrive at liberal interpretations, and the moderates fall somewhere in the middle.

This is not to say that redaction criticism is purely subjective; merely that a given methodology doesn’t generate automatic results, for there are a number of background assumptions and concrete judgment calls which will still be feeding into the net result.

For example, Gundry said:


In a rejoinder, Gundry writes, "I deny in some texts what would be the literal, normal meaning for a reader who assumes a modern standard of history, but not what I believe to be the literal, normal meaning for the original audience, or even for a modern audience that is homiletically oriented."


This statement, left to itself, is unobjectionable. But it has no directional force. It leaves, to be penciled in, the key question of how we reconstruct the “literal, normal meaning for the original audience.”

What got Gundry into trouble was the next step:


Even more controversial has been Gundry's suggestion that in the "infancy narratives" (Matt. 1, 2) and elsewhere Matthew uses a Jewish literary genre called midrash. Like many preachers today, the writer of a midrash embroidered historical events with nonhistorical additions. When, for example, a preacher in a sermon quotes the conversation between Adam and Eve in the garden, he is embroidering a biblical text to help his hearers understand a point, but his hearers do not reject what he says simply because the conversation is not historical.

Similarly, Gundry argues, Matthew has freely changed stories that are related more historically in Luke. Gundry says, for example, Matthew changed the shepherds in the fields into the wise men from the East because he wants to foreshadow and emphasize the mission of Jesus to the Gentiles. Gundry does not believe wise men visited Jesus.


Was Gundry attributing error to Matthew? No. But there’s more to the doctrine of inerrancy than what an isolated individual happens says or thinks about Scripture. There is also the communal understanding of Scripture. There is—in a word—the church.

BTW, I’m not saying that his position should be dismissed out of hand because we don’t like the consequences of what he said. It needs to be evaluated on its own merits, or lack thereof.

Also, up until now, I’ve been using this vanilla-gray rhetoric about the community of faith. But, of course, Christendom is divided and subdivided.

Now, there are theological liberals who have no problem with Gundry’s position on the allegedly fictitious character of the Matthew’s nativity scenes. Indeed, many of them are well to the left of Gundry—such as the Jesus Seminar.

Is that acceptable? Depends on whom you ask. Acceptable to whom? No one person speaks for Christendom.

And that’s the point. This controversy, like so many others, raises the perennial question of what makes a Christian community to be Christian. What constitutes a credible profession of faith? Absent a common object of faith, there is no church—no corporate identity, but only individual identity.

Different professing believers give different answers, but while they don’t all agree with one another, they do form various associations of like-minded individuals.

Suppose, for instance, Gundry were to apply his midrashic analysis to the Easter narratives instead of the nativity accounts? Suppose he were to dehistoricize the Resurrection?

Would he be attributing error to the Resurrection accounts? No. But that wouldn’t render his interpretation any more acceptable.

And even where we agree certain essentials of a common creed, there may be other areas of disagreement which preclude full participation across the board.

As a result, professing believers can and do form rotating associations on varying points of agreement. There are different degrees of Christian affiliation. It isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition.

VR: Is Pinnock an inerrantist or not.

SH: I don’t know. He used to deny inerrancy, but now he says he’s prepared to retract those older denials.

I don’t really care because his other errors (open theism; conditional immortality) are just as bad.

VR: The Chicago Statement, which has been touted as the locus classicus for inerrancy, seems to back away from drawing out all the hermeneutical implications that many advocates of the doctrine have defended.

SH: It is difficult to come up with general language that will capture every contingency. So many cases must be left to the discretion of a larger body of believers, or responsible subset thereof.

VR: The book that spelled all this stuff out, ironically enough, is Pinnock's early book Biblical Revelation. There, he claims Ruth cannot be fictional, since for it to be fictional would be to attribute a deceitful literary form to Scripture. But there are plenty of people who would continue to use the word inerrancy who would deny that Pinnock drew all the correct consequences of inerrancy, including a guy by the name of Clark Pinnock.

SH: Yes, you’re always going to have differing points of view, and to that I’d say two or three things:

1.Reppert is not a Pomo relativist who regards all arguments or alternative positions as equally good.

It isn’t just a matter of registering the existence of opposing opinions. Opposing positions on the historicity of Ruth or Jonah or Daniel cannot all be true. Opposing positions cannot be equally faithful to the original.

2.And at this point I’d also say: thank God for denominations!

Unlike a big tent affair, such as Roman Catholicism, Protestants don’t have to fudge a Delphically duplicitous compromise position in order to keep everyone under the same roof.

I’m grateful for liberal denominations. I’d glad to have a clear-cut separation between Bible-believing Christians and nominal believers.

3.I’d add that the Bible was meant to be interpreted. It was given to be interpreted.

So often the critics of sola Scriptura act as if there’s a terrible gap in the Evangelical doctrine of Scripture. On the one hand we profess to believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture. God controlled the outcome from start to finish.

On the other hand, that’s where it ends. He leaves this infallible book in the grubby hands of all those fallible theologians and errant commentators.

From total control to no control. Hands on where the inspiration of Scripture is concerned, but hands off where the interpretation of Scripture is concerned.

Well, there are Protestant traditions which are vulnerable to this charge.

But in Calvinism, divine providence is always in play. Inspiration is, itself, a subdivision of providence.

It’s not as if God seizes upon Moses, David, Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John or Paul out of the blue.

God is orchestrating the very events they report. God is responsible for the family tree that gives rise to Moses, David, Isaiah, and so on.

God is responsible for where and when they are to be born. For their natural aptitude and education.

God is also responsible for the effect which is word has on the hearer. God has a will for his people. A will effected through his word.

God’s will is that his people should come to a saving knowledge of himself through his spoken and inscripturated word.

Even misinterpretations serve a purpose in the plan of God. Most of the Jews failed to see in Jesus the fulfillment of OT expectation. But their false expectation was, of itself, instrumental in the very fulfillment of OT expectation.

VR: I think everyone, including C. S. Lewis and myself, or Pinnock for that matter, who thinks of Scripture as special revelation, also accepts some version of the doctrine of inerrancy. I mean God can't be sitting up in heaven saying "Darn that guy I'm inspiring to write I Samuel. He's saying I wanted all the Amalekites killed!"

SH: Yes, but this misses the point. Do we have a Biblical doctrine of Biblical inspiration? Does our view of Scripture arise from Scripture?

Does what we believe about the Bible resemble the object of belief? Does it correspond to the self-understanding of Scripture?

Or is our theory of inspiration some ad hoc simulacrum in which we begin from a frame of reference outside of Scripture, then see how much of Scripture we can squeeze into the preexisting mould of our conceptual cookie-cutter.

But at that point we’re just keeping up appearances. If the Bible is the word of God, then it speaks with divine authority. It’s not something you can cut down to size or trim around the edges and still take seriously on its own terms.

VR: However, Steve seems to think that all beliefs on matters of faith should be determined simply on an analysis of what we find in the biblical text, without asking any further questions of whether that is plausible on other grounds, such as scientific ones. One must sign oneself to believe whatever we find through a grammatical analysis of Scripture.

SH: This is a fairly accurate summary of my position, although I’d refine it in some respects.

1.On the one hand, the Bible is silent on many issues of faith and practice. On the other hand, the Bible speaks to more than narrowly theological issues.

2. As to the question of plausibility, I’m not exactly sure where Reppert is going with this.

i) Is he saying that scientific plausibility (to use his own example) selects for the correct interpretation?

a) But that can’t be right. For one thing, it would be grossly anachronistic.

b) For another thing, the “correct” interpretation would vary from one generation to the next.

For example, it’s unintentionally ironic to read 19C reinterpretations of Gen 1 which skillfully reconcile Gen 1 with the exact requirements of 19C science. And that’s because the details of 19C science are obsolete.

ii) Or is he saying, not that extrinsic factors determine the true interpretation, but they determine whether the true interpretation is true to the facts? Is the correct interpretation a correct description of the way the world really is? But there are a couple of basic problems with this as well:

a) It involves turning the Bible into a true or false exam. You go through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, putting a “T” or “F” beside each verse, then tally the results.

This leaves you with an utterly subjective, piecemeal theory of inspiration. The Bible is inspired whenever I happen to agree with it, which also differs from where you happen to agree with it.

b) It is also a belated exercise for a professing believer to be asking about the plausibility of this or that passage when he interprets the Bible.

That’ss a preliminary question regarding the identity of the Bible as the word of God. He should have made up his mind on the general plausibility of that particular claim and taken this to be a settled issue whenever he comes to the Bible—for his views with respect to the identity of the Bible intersect with his Christian identity.

To treat the plausibility of Scripture as an open question, to be revisited every time he opens the Bible to some specific verse, betrays a failure to answer first things first. This should have been worked out at the onset of his Christian profession.

It is, of course, possible to revise one’s preliminary judgment. But that has less to do with the identity of the object (the Bible) than it does with the identity of the subject (the reader, as a Christian or not).

VR: But what I would say is that I don't accept the complete subordination of all other forms of knowledge to the knowledge gathered through bibical exegesis.

SH: I agree that one form of “knowledge” is not subordinate to another form of “knowledge.” But that sidesteps the question of what counts as knowledge. What is our source and standard of knowledge?

Is the Bible divine revelation? Is so, then— yes, we ought to subordinate our opinions to the superior wisdom of God.

VR: We know that pi is 3.1416... not 3.

SH: I guess this is an allusion to the dog-eared example of the bronze basin in 1 Kgs 7:23 (par. 2 Chron 4:2).

Now, there have been various efforts to save the accuracy of this figure. Some distinguish between the inside rim and the outside rim. Others distinguish between a hemispherical and a cylindrical shape.

Either explanation may be correct. But they also miss the larger point.

We don’t “know” that pi is really 3.1416 rather than 3.

Notice that Reppert doesn’t give the full decimal expansion of pi. Why is that? Because, of course, the decimal expansion is infinite.

So he settles for a round number. And it’s quite likely that the Bible writer was also using a round number.

No doubt it’s rather more accurate to round it off at the 4th decimal place. No doubt it would be even more accurate to round it off at the millionth or billionth or trillionth decimal place.

But it’s not as if Reppert’s approximation is true, while the Biblical figure is false. Since both figures merely approximate the exact ratio, it’s a category mistake to say that one approximation is true while another is false.

The Biblical figure would only be erroneous if the Bible writer were aiming for a certain degree of technical precision.

In the nature of the case, precision is a relative concept. For no spatiotemporal instantiation of a numerical relation is absolutely exact.

VR: There is good reason to believe in an ancient earth.

SH: Up to a point, I don’t dispute the fact that our conventional dating techniques are “reasonable.”

But they are also circular and theory-laden. They make certain unprovable assumptions about the uniformity of nature. They postulate certain initial conditions. And they also presume that certain natural processes can be put to use to derive a chronometric result which has nothing to do with their design function.

While this is not unreasonable, it is also unprovable. And it becomes unreasonable when a scientist begins to equate his anthropomorphic manipulation of nature with an actual clock in the sky.

It also becomes unreasonable when one doesn’t bother to consider the implications of creation ex nihilo.

So this isn’t a simple matter of merely following the raw evidence wherever it leads. Rather, we’re dealing with a theoretical construct which is underdetermined by the evidence. And more than one theoretical construct is compatible with the very same body of evidence.

One of the ironies I find in this discussion is the lack of philosophical sophistication. Dr. Reppert is very astute and nuanced thinker on the subject of dualism. And Vallicella is a brilliant metaphysician.

But when they get on the subject of inerrancy, the objections they raise do not evince anything like the same level of philosophical self-reflection.

For example, what do we see the world when we see the world around us? What is Reppert’s theory of perception? And can his theory of perception underwrite scientific realism?

VR: and God has provided us with minds to discover some truths in methods that are not simple a matter of Bible study.

SH: True.

VR: Even if the Scripture is inerrant in some important way, Scripture readers and students are quite errant.

SH: True. But why doesn’t Dr. Reppert say the same thing about a scientist?

VR: We do have more knowledge and understanding which may conflict with a straightforward acceptance of actions attributed to God as good.

SH: I don’t see this at all. Certain types of knowledge are cumulative. But he is talking about our moral intuitions. Does he think that moral intuition is progressive? Does he think that the moral intuition of a man living in the 21C is automatically superior to that of a man living in the 1C? Newer is truer?

VR: No one should be expected to come to Scripture with a blank slate for a mind to be written upon by the text, and no one ever does.

SH: True, but the question is whether the Bible is in a position to correct our preconceptions.

VR: I know, about as well as I know anything, that an omnipotent being who condemns people to everlasting punishment who he could just as easily have saved without endangering anyone else's salvation is not a good being, much less a perfectly good being.

SH: With all due respect, he doesn’t know any such thing. This is a complex value-judgment which is predicated on the way in which he answers a number of interrelated questions. It’s not a direct deliverance of reason.

VR: So, a the end of all the verse wars about Calvinism, I'm just going to put my hand up in front of my face and do what William Rowe calls the G. E. Moore shift.

SH: This sounds like an emotional rather than an intellectual bottom-line. And it does go to a deeper dividing line.

1.There doesn’t seem to be any room for an element of trust in Reppert’s conception of Christian faith. Same thing with Vallicella.

Where the Bible is concerned, they live by sight rather than faith.

I’m not saying that the alternative to this is blind faith. I’m not a fideist. But neither am I a rationalist.

In Scripture itself, it isn’t a choice between taking everything on faith, and taking nothing on faith.

In Scripture, there are certain things we actually know about God. Not merely believe, in the weaker sense of defeasible opinion, but know for a fact.

And one of the things we know about God is that he is trustworthy. Therefore, we can take God at his word for certain things. We don’t need direct evidence for everything we believe as long as we have sufficient evidence for believing in God.

2.Apropos #1, Reppert and Vallicella also don’t seem to feel any obligation to God. Where’s their sense of loyalty?

And I think this goes back to a deficient view of the atonement. If you think that sin is a question of alienation rather than guilt, then you take the atonement for granted. That’s what God is for. The gratuity of grace is entirely lost sight of.

If, on the other hand, you think of sin in terms of guilt, then the fact that God has shown you mercy will elicit a sense of immense surprise as well as unpayable gratitude.

This is something we find throughout the Bible. And, despite his flawed theology, it overflows in the hymns of Charles Wesley.

3.Apropos #2, it will also instill as sense of duty to one’s Redeemer. He owes us nothing while we owe him everything. Among other things, we should honor God by honoring his Word.

God is demanding so little in return. And it’s all for our own benefit anyway. Can’t we take his hand to lead us in the dark? For him to be our eyes and ears when our own eyesight fails us?

1 comment:

  1. Steve,

    I'm curious what you mean about the comment, "...if you think that sin is a question of alienation rather than guilt, then you take the atonement for granted..."

    If someone thinks that sin is a question of alienation, do you mean they view sin as merely keeping one out of God's family? I'm not familiar with this expression.