Monday, December 18, 2006

A priori inerrancy

Christian apologists often complain about New Testament critics who bring an a priori rejection of the supernatural to their studies of the New Testament…I also agree with them that there are some NT critics who do reject the supernatural a priori (e.g., the members of the Jesus Seminar, Gerd Ludemann, etc.).

Several problems with this characterization.

1.Exapologist is shadowboxing with invisible adversaries. Inerrantists vary in their epistemology. So what are we to make of his sweeping generalities?

2.The underlying assumption of his post is that critics of methodological naturalism object to the very idea of a priori commitments. But is that the objection?

i) Speaking for myself, I don’t object to a priori commitments. There’s nothing wrong with having an precommitment as long as you also have sufficient reason for your precommitment.

The problem with methodological naturalism is not that it’s held in a priori fashion, per se. The problem, rather, is that it’s arbitrary and tendentious.

Not every a priori is arbitrary and tendentious.

ii) To begin with, methodology should follow subject-matter, not take the lead. The nature of the subject matter ought to dictate the corresponding methodology.

iii) On a related note, methodological naturalism fails to respect the inherent limitations of naturalism. Even if naturalism were true, we couldn’t know it to be true—to the extent that we could ever know it to be true—in advance of actual investigation. Its truth would a result of discovery rather than stipulation.

iv) I’d add that naturalism is unverifiable, although it’s not falsifiable. We could never know it to be true, although we could know it to be false.

Ironically, methodological naturalism isn’t true to naturalism.

“Rather, the point is that apologists too often attack straw men here, viz., by attributing to NT scholars a metaphysical basis for their conclusions, when in fact they're often based on epistemological considerations.”

Do they? What apologists are guilty of this? And who have they falsely targeted?

I’m not saying that his charge is false. But it would be nice to know who he’s talking about. Otherwise, why should be take his charges seriously?

If he doesn’t tell us who he’s talking about, we can’t judge if his allegations are accurate or inaccurate.

“There are plenty of NT scholars who are also serious Christians, yet who nonetheless reject the doctrine of inerrancy, based on their research.[1] …Thus, a non-conservative account of Jesus in particular and the New Testament in general often results from ordinary, non-controversial use of source criticism, redaction criticism, and the criteria of authenticity -- it need not be based on an a priori rejection of the supernatural.”

This is simplistic and misleading:

i) Some Bible scholars treat the Bible as a historical source of supernatural claims. They don’t regard the Bible itself as supernatural. Rather, it’s a record of supernatural claims.

They regard the Bible as uninspired, but historically reliable to the degree that Josephus or Tacitus or Thucydides are reliable. John Meier seems to fit fairly well into this category.

So, in a sense, the supernatural character never enters into their deliberations one way or the other.

ii) Then you have scholars who represent a confessional tradition. Some of them simply relocate the supernatural question. It lies with the Magisterium rather than the Bible. The Magisterium is the safety-net.

They feel that they can sacrifice the inerrancy of Scripture because their Church will rescue and preserve what really matters. Luke Timothy Johnson is an obvious case in point, with his two-story faith.

iii) Likewise, you have Catholic scholars like Fitzmyer and Brown who represent a transitional stage in Catholicism. They straddle modernism.

If they were born a generation later, they might well be even more liberal, but they came of age during the gray phase between anti-modernism and Vatican II.

As such, they end up with an ad hoc position which isn’t consistently naturalistic or supernaturalistic.

iv) Then you have scholars like Allison or Hugh Montefiore who, all other things being equal, would likely be more consistently naturalistic, but there are certain restraining factors in their own situaion. Where Montefiore is concerned, owing to his personal experience with, and research into, the paranormal, he is more open to the supernatural that he would otherwise be absent that exposure. In a sense, he approaches the Bible the same way he would approach case-studies in the parapsychological literature.

Allison has also been on the receiving end of the paranormal. In addition, he admits that the existential price of secularism is too costly for him to pay. So, for ethical reasons, he can’t go all the way with naturalism. It’s just too bleak and despairing.

Of course, the Dawkins’ of the world have nothing but contempt for this squeamish attitude. Yet why should Allison go down with the sinking ship of secularism? Even if his lifeboat is a leaky, patchwork affair, that still makes more sense than self-immolation before the god of godlessness.

v) Theological moderates don’t represent a principled position. Instead, they carve out a makeshift compromise.

They believe as much of supernaturalism as modernism gives them permission to believe.

Naturalism is still in the driver’s seat, but it nods off from time to time. They take the wheel whenever they catch naturalism napping. But as soon as naturalism wakes up and glares at them, they retreat.

“Finally, if some NT critics are guilty of an a priori commitment to naturalism, a large number of conservative NT scholars are guilty of an a priori commitment to inerrancy. Yet many apologists don't seem to mind when the latter determines the conclusions of conservative NT scholars. This leads one to question the sincerity of apologists in their criticisms of a priori commitments creeping into NT scholarship.”

Everything exapologist has said up to this point is simply a build-up to this point. He doesn’t care about theological moderates. After all, he’s an apostate. So what does he care about mediating positions? He doesn’t.

That’s all preparatory for what he really cares about, which is to charge the inerrantist with a double standard. By slapping the all-purpose label of hypocrisy on inerrantist scholarship, he hopes to preempt attacks on methodological naturalism.

But for reasons I stated at the outset, the charge of duplicity is facile and superficial.

“For I take it that the basis of their criticism is that such a priori commitments are liable to result in an inaccurate historical reconstruction of Jesus. But if that is the basis of their criticism, then they should be equally diligent in their criticisms of conservative scholars who have an a priori commitment to inerrancy -- and to a conservative view of Jesus in particular and the New Testament in general.”

This is trading on equivocations to yield a false conclusion, for the respective cases are hardly symmetrical.

The inerrantist is not attempting a historical reconstruction in the same sense that a liberal is. He is not sifting through the layers of inauthentic material to arrive at a historical core. As an inerrantist, he rejects the disjunction between authentic and inauthentic strata in the record of Scripture.

An inerrantist may attempt to fit the complementary perspectives of the Scriptural account into a continuous narrative, as well as filling the gaps with extrascriptural sources of information. But he takes all of Scripture as his raw material. It’s not a pile of peelings with a few nuggets of truth.

By contrast, the liberal assumes that there are opposing traditions within Scripture, as well as factual errors and unhistorical claims. For him, a historical reconstruction involves a process of authentication to isolate and identify the residual kernels of historical truth, as well as correcting the Biblical record by reference to extrabiblical sources. In case of apparent or actual conflict, the Bible is always wrong, while the extrabiblical source is always right. So the two approaches have precious little in common.

“In other words, the potential danger here is not naturalistic a priori commitments, but to a priori commitments per se.”

No, just the reverse. The danger here is not with a priori commitments, per se, but with naturalistic a priori commitments. For not all a prioris are born equal. Exapologist is burning a straw man.

“But it's hard to deny that there is an a priori commitment to inerrancy among the majority of conservative NT scholars. For one thing, many of them work at conservative seminaries, where one must subscribe to and even sign extremely conservative doctrinal statments in order to obtain and keep one's job.”

This is a silly observation. The truth is that institutions select for like-minded members. They apply to institutions they already agree with. For example, Gleason Archer left Fuller because it became too liberal.

“Such scholars can't let an admission of errancy through the door, no matter what the data, and no matter what sort of convoluted just-so stories are required to reconcile a given set of biblical texts.[2]”

Are they telling “convoluted just-so stories”? Let’s draw some distinctions here:

i) Geisler is a philosopher and popularizer, not a Bible scholar.

ii) Archer is an OT prof. Not surprisingly, he’s better at explaining the OT than the NT.

iii) Blomberg is a NT scholar. I’d add that, from a hermeneutical standpoint. Blomberg is the most sophisticated of the three.

However, Archer was a formidable scholar, so his explanations of the OT should not be dismissed out of hand.

iv) Do they retail just-so stories? Depends on what you mean.

Unbelievers love the argument from silence. They raise conjectural objections to the Bible. To the extent that someone like Archer or Blomberg floats a speculative explanation, he is simply answering the unbeliever on his own level.

Call it a just-so story if you like, but it’s a storybook response to a liberal just-so story.

v) Moreover, there’s a difference between responsible speculation and irresponsible speculation.

If you want to see just-so stories run amuck, watch the way liberals tell us, 2000+ years after the fact, with no independent information to work from, how the Bible was really composed, or what really happened.

By contrast, inerrantist scholarship doesn’t presume to go behind the Bible, reconstruct the creative process of the author, or tell us what really happened—as if the scholar was right there, on the scene, to set the record straight. So there’s no comparison between liberal and conservative just-so stories.


  1. “But it's hard to deny that there is an a priori commitment to inerrancy among the majority of conservative NT scholars. For one thing, many of them work at conservative seminaries, where one must subscribe to and even sign extremely conservative doctrinal statments in order to obtain and keep one's job.”

    This simply ignores the ongoing debates among academics @ conservative seminaries with respect to the doctrine of inerrancy. Many academics approach inerrancy non-inductively; they begin with that assumption and then proceed deductively in their formulation of it. However, there are many, particularly in Southern Baptist institutions at present, who argue for an inductive approach that is organic to the text itself. I believe Roger Nicole has also written on induction and deduction and the inspiration of Scripture (and thus, by extension inerrancy).

    Oh, and for the record, I studied NT under Maurice Robinson, OT under Gleason Archer, God rest his soul, so I know a thing or two about what goes on in these classes at these seminaries and the approaches of these persons to Scripture. Ask Dr. Robinson some questions about the NT, and you'll find out just how "a priori" his inerrancy really is and how he reconciles texts in "convoluted" ways. Dare I say ex-apologist would find himself embarrassed quickly.

    I'd add that if this objection was valid, it applies equally as well to any university or seminary. I could say that unless you have an a priori commitment to errancy you cannot be a professor at the Divinity School @ Wake Forest University.

    Notice also that ex-apologist makes no attempt to deal with the literary theories that lie behind form, source, and redaction criticism and the way in which more liberal critics apply these theories. They, for all intents and purposes, begin with their theory then work from there, and rarely if ever do they interact with conservative scholarship. Just peruse the back of a standard critical commentary from a liberal; they interact with each other; look in a conservative or moderate work, and they interact with both sides of the street. I've had to sit in classes where these theories get repeated and I've asked basic "If that is so, then why about or where do you find" questions from the text that professors simply could not answer, because they were so sloppy that they did not know how to respond. Why? Because they haven't bothered to interact with the other side.

  2. :::SNIZZZ!!!:::

    "My magic book is real!!!! waaaaa!!!!!"

  3. "Inerrantists vary in their epistemology."

    How can this be?