Sunday, March 24, 2013

Can the Bible be proven wrong?

Some professing Christians reject a dogmatic commitment to the inerrancy or inspiration of Scripture. In some cases they actually reject the inerrancy and/or inspiration of Scripture, while in other cases they regard the inerrancy/inspiration of Scripture as a dispensable doctrine. I have in mind people like Michael Patton, F. F. Bruce, and Craig A. Evans.

Their justification for this position is that if your Christian faith is founded on the inerrancy or plenary-verbal inspiration of Scripture, then it only takes a single mistake to destroy your faith. There’s no give in your belief-system.

From their viewpoint, that’s a very brittle, precarious faith. One hairline crack in the granite façade and a moment later the entire edifice crumbles in a heap of dust.

And they’d say, in defense of their position, that this isn’t just a hypothetical danger. They can point out that in real life, you have devout Christians who lose their faith when they become disillusioned with the inerrancy of Scripture. One mistake, however trivial, and their whole faith came crashing down.

Therefore, it’s more prudent to have some expendable beliefs. Have something to throw over the back of the sled to distract the wolves. That includes inerrancy, inspiration, the historicity of Gen 1-11, perhaps the historicity of the Exodus, vaticina ex eventu (e.g. Dan 11; Isa 40ff.).

It’s sufficient for Christian faith to treat the Bible like any other generally reliable historical witness. That’s a safer position.

Notice that this isn’t a question of apologetic method or evangelistic strategy. This isn’t a question of how to witness to unbelievers. Rather, this is about how we should frame the Christian faith for ourselves.

Now, I’ll grant you that this concern points to a genuine danger, although I’d draw some distinctions. There are professing believers who commit apostasy because they had a very crude understanding of what inerrancy entails. Likewise, there are professing Christians who commit apostasy because they because they invested their lifesavings (as it were) in a particular interpretation of Scripture. And I do think Christians need to take precautions against simplistic defeaters like that. They need to distinguish between infallible Scriptures and their fallible interpretations. They need to develop a more sophisticated model of inerrancy. They need to appreciate the limitations of archeology.

However, the position I’m examining goes well beyond that. And it’s time to examine the operating assumption that undergirds that position. It assumes, in theory or practice, that we might discover some evidence which falsifies a Biblical claim. The question then is, how should we brace ourselves for that eventuality before it happens, assuming it ever happens, so that our faith won’t be reduced to rubble?

But what about that presupposition? Should we grant that presupposition?

Let’s begin with a question:

Can the Bible be proven false?

Some professing Christians take that possibility for granted. Given that Scripture can be proven false, we need to loosen or decouple the connection between the Bible and the Christian faith so that if the former takes a hit, the latter doesn’t suffer collateral damage.

But should we answer the question in the affirmative? Let’s explicate the question by rephrasing the question:

If the Bible is the word of God, can the Bible be proven false?

Which amounts to asking:

Can God be wrong?

Another variant:

Can God be shown to be wrong?

Now, if you’re an open theist, you could answer that reformulated question in the affirmative. Ditto: if you’re a pagan. But if you’re a classic Christian theist, then an omniscient God can’t be wrong.

To prove God wrong, you’d have to have some standard of comparison that’s superior to God. But if there is no higher standard, or even comparable standard, then there’s no benchmark against which to measure God, and conclude that God comes up short.

By the same token, if Scripture is the word of God, then how could Scripture be proven wrong? By what standard? Is there something more certain, more trustworthy than the Bible, which we can use to gauge the Bible?

Now at this point, some people might be getting nervous about where my argument is going. To preemptively immunize the Bible from possible disproof is special pleading. Fanatical or fideistic. The last-ditch refuge of desperate Christians on the run.

To that objection I’d say several things:

i) Seems to me that Christians who take the opposite position are open to the charge of special pleading. When they make preemptive concessions to shield their faith from disproof, why isn’t that special pleading? Why isn’t that last-ditch prepositioning to save face?

ii) If it’s legitimate to consider the possibility that Scripture could be proven wrong, why is it illegitimate to consider the possibility that Scripture could not be proven wrong?

iii) Moreover, my question is not an ad hoc question. The Bible claims to be the word of God. Well, if that’s true, then can the Bible be proven wrong? Seems to be that my question follows logically from an unavoidable premise. Even if you treat the Bible’s claim to be inspired as a hypothetical proposition, you still need to consider the implications of that hypothetical. A critic has to make allowance for whether his objections have any purchase if the hypothetical is true. Even if he lacks a dogmatic commitment to the inspiration of Scripture, he must still take that seriously as a hypothetical option. What if it’s true? Then what? What would follow, given that alternative?

iv) Suppose you say the Bible could be proven wrong by sense knowledge. But in that event, why do you privilege sense knowledge as your criterion? If sense knowledge is your standard of proof, how do you prove sense knowledge? Do you have some independent standard, over and above sense knowledge, to validate your empirical standard? If not, then why isn’t your appeal to sense knowledge special pleading?

And keep in mind that we do think sense knowledge is fallible, even if we regard sense knowledge is generally reliable. Moreover, what preconditions must be met for sense knowledge to be reliable? Does that require theistic preconditions?

Perhaps, though, someone would object that the question is misleading. The real question is whether the Bible is the word of God. If so, then, by definition, the Bible can’t be proven wrong. It could only be falsified if it was false. If not, then the Bible can be proven wrong. To stipulate that the Bible can’t be proven wrong because the Bible is the word of God begs the question.

i) But by converse logic, isn’t the opposing side begging the question? If they think the Bible could be proven wrong, which is why we need a fallback position, then aren’t they prejudging the status of the Bible? If they treat that as a live possibility, then they are striking a preliminary stance in reference to the Bible.

ii) They also seem to be assuming that if the Bible is true, it would always appear to be true. But is that a reasonable assumption? Surely there are truths which have the appearance of falsehood because we lack a larger context. Because we don’t have all the facts. Isn’t that a commonplace of human experience? Aren’t there often situations in life where two things both seem to be true–even though we can’t tell which is which (assuming one is wrong), or tell how to harmonize them (assuming both are right)?

This goes back to the issue of what they are judging the Bible by. What’s their frame of reference? This is a persistent difficulty in epistemology. Cf. Roderick Chisholm, “The Problem of the Criterion”; William Alston, The Reliability of Sense Knowledge; William Alston, Beyond “Justification”: Dimensions of Epistemic Evaluation.

Someone might also object that the alternative I’m proposing opens a Pandora’s box. Couldn’t Muhammad, Swedenborg, or Joseph Smith use the same defense?

i) First of all, there’s a difference between verification and falsification. To say the Bible can’t be proven wrong doesn’t mean it can’t be proven right. These are asymmetrical propositions.

Take prophecy. An explicitly short-term prophecy might be quite susceptible to falsification. Likewise, a long-term prophecy might be clearly verifiable–after the fact. Once it happens, you can see how everything falls into place.

However, a long-term prophecy might not be easily falsifiable. If you don’t know how long it’s supposed to take for the prophecy to be fulfilled, how can you know ahead of time if it’s true or false?

ii) If the Bible is true, then whatever contradicts the Bible is false. You wouldn’t have to directly disprove Muhammad or Swedenborg or Joseph Smith.

iii) Keep in mind, too, that both Muhammad and Joseph Smith did condition their claims on external standards. So we’re not imposing an external standard on their claims.

For instance, Muhammad set a trap for himself, then stepped into his own trap, when he made the Bible the standard of comparison.

Likewise, Smith snared himself in a trap of his own devising when he said he translated an Egyptian text. He also said an Egyptologist (Charles Anthon) vouched for his translation. Well, we have the Egyptian text. So we can compare that to the Book of Abraham. We also have a letter from the Egyptologist in which he denies vouching for the “translation.”

iv) There’s also the question of whether God has given us any reason to expect prophets to arise, centuries after the Bible was finished, and add their own revelations to the corpus of Scripture, as a supplementary canon–which effectively usurps the Biblical canon.

One can’t very well invoke passages like Num 11:29, Acts 2:17-18, and 1 Cor 14:5, for those don’t single out a select few prophets who pop up centuries apart. Even if we interpret those passages charismatically, to predict continuing revelation, they’d apply to Christians generally. (Of course, if most Christians don’t have that experience, then that’s a reason to question or qualify the charismatic interpretation.)


  1. Good post.

    Necessary truths obviously cannot be falsified. So given that God is necessary and that what He speaks cannot be a lie, the Bible, God's word, cannot be falsified. That some do not take these divinely revealed truths as such does not imply we shouldn't.

    But our belief isn't arbitrary. For the Bible itself prescribes criteria against which we can test its claims. Prophecy is one example. Internal consistency is another necessary condition for some communication to have been revealed by God. Etc.

    But no matter how many of these subsidiary conditions we show the Bible must and does satisfy, our trust in it must ultimately be based on its own, self-authenticating claim to be God's word.

    1. Thanks, Ryan. Nice to hear from you.

  2. Excellent.
    If God is a perfect being; perfect in wisdom, power, holiness, love, then He cannot lie, therefore His word is also perfect and inerrant.

    that doesn't mean there are no variants or copyist errors or passages that are hard to explain or mysterious to us.

    Anselm's Ontological proof for the existence of God is close to this.

    I remember in philosophy class in undergrad, the professor was very impressed with the Ontological argument and my brother and I were the only believers in the class and he admitted that we made the class fun and interesting; because all the other students just slept through the class or didn't pay much attention.

    That an unbeliever and philosopher was impressed with the Ontological argument is encouraging for witnessing and your article speaks to that. I think it helps our faith; and sometimes it is also a helpful argument with unbelievers. (but not all the time)

    I didn't know F. F. Bruce took that position. Craig Evans was very weak in his debate with Bart Ehrman; Muslims love to use that as an example of a Christian scholar being defeated.

    C. Michael Patton is frustrating indeed; on many issues.

    Their justification for this position is that if your Christian faith is founded on the inerrancy or plenary-verbal inspiration of Scripture, then it only takes a single mistake to destroy your faith. There’s no give in your belief-system.

    That seems to be what happened to Bart Ehrman, along with his struggle to understand suffering, sin and evil, and God as Sovereign and all wise and perfect in love.

    1. F. F. Bruce reportedly wrote a sympathetic foreword to Dewey Beegle's Scripture, Tradition, and Infallibility. I haven't read the foreword. I have read Bruce's autobiography.

      He was a towering Bible scholar who generally defended the historicity of the Bible. But he approached it as a historian.

  3. If your a general baptised Christian it's sometimes easy to doubt scripture as you don't really know if the books of your scripture your reading are the word of God or if some books are missing because your don't trust any source outside of scripture to tell you which books belong to scripture.

    However if your catholic you beieve the church is infallible when it defines canons or anathemas and therefore cannot doubt the the words of scripture with having this sort of belief in a protection foundation.

    The Catholic concil of Carthage defined the canon of scripture in A.D.397 as follows:

    Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two books of Paraleipomena, Job, the Psalter, five books of Solomon, the books of the twelve prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Daniel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras, two books of the Maccabees. Of the New Testament: four books of the Gospels, one book of the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul, one epistle of the same writer to the Hebrews, two Epistles of the Apostle Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude, one book of the Apocalypse of John.

    1. The council of Carthage was a local church council. Are you claiming that local councils are infallible?

      The Bible is highly intertextual. You can learn a lot about which books belong to Scripture by connecting the dots.

  4. Steve, I certainly wouldn't advocate the errancy "fallback" position (to say the least), but wouldn't we justly reject the Bible as being the Word of God if indeed it had the sorts of internal and external (historical, historico-theological, archeological, etc.) contradictions or, at least, "problems" that the Quran and the Book of Mormon have? Isn't there a breaking point where, on a cummulative basis, you just can't and shouldn't swallow all of the attempted harmonizations and explanations?

    Those cults have their own ways of dealing with apparent problems. The Muslim would, for instance, explain that the text of the Bible has been corrupted and that the "original Bible" was compatible with Islam. Now that is a flimsy and ad-hoc explanation, but that's the point. I don't believe the Bible has even an order of magnitude the level of difficulties those other texts have, nor does it require the level of epistemological sympathy to explain and massage the problems that those texts do. So I don't feel intellectually dishonest for chalking up the apparent difficulties of the Bible to be the product of my finitude, fallibility, and ignorance. I can't say that about the Bible's competitors.

    I suppose it is difficult to describe, in qualitative or quantitative terms, the threshold between giving a self-claimed deposit of divine revelation due sympathy in evaluating problems areas and, on the other end, the point where this sympathy rises to the level of gullibility or dishonesty in massaging away apparent problems. But I think the distinction is legitimate, and so I would not be concerned about leveling the same kind and level of scrutiny at the Bible that I would at competitors such as the Quran.

    It is worth noting that in practice the list of live candidates on the field that make formal claims to be inscripturated divine revelation (in the monotheistic sense) is quite short. Mormonism is polytheistic, so their supposed holy writings aren't even in the ballpark. The Quran is really the only major competitor. While there might be other claims to monotheistic revelation, they would belong to exceedingly obscure religions (certainly I couldn't name one). So, given all this, deism (the belief that God exists but hasn't spoken, at least propositionally, to man) is really the only logical alternative to the Bible and biblical religion.

    1. We would be justified in rejecting any source which leads to contradiction. The question is whether the Bible can lead to contradiction. If it's the word of God, it can't. If it's not, then it can. It's either/or - there's no third option. But given that, we can't pretend to examine the consistency of the Bible from a position of neutrality. We either already accept that Scripture can't lead to contradictions or we don't. So how do you answer?

      If the latter, you've subjected the Bible to another criterion. Now, it may be that the Bible itself [implicitly] asserts that it satisfies this criterion - and so we can test such for purposes of confirmation and assurance - but you wouldn't be accepting such a criterion for the reason that the Bible states it. But in that case, why is it that you would consider the Bible's the satisfaction of said criterion (or criteria) to constitute sufficient reason for regarding the Bible as divine revelation?

      "But if there is a revelation, there can be no criterion for it. God cannot swear by a greater; therefore he has sworn by himself. One cannot ask one’s own experience to judge God and determine whether God tells the truth or not. Consider Abraham. How could Abraham be sure that God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac? Maybe this suggestion was of the devil; maybe it was a queer auto-suggestion. There is no higher answer to this question than God himself. The final criterion is merely God’s statement. It cannot be tested by any superior truth."

      Gordon Clark, Today's Evangelism: Counterfeit or Genuine? (pg. 113)

    2. Thanks, David. Keep in mind my distinction between verification and falsification. To expand on that in reference to your comment:

      There’s a difference between a claim that has some prima facie evidence in its favor, a claim that has no positive evidence, and a claim that is prima facie implausible.

      In the first case, there is some, perhaps modest, presumption in its favor, which counterevidence could overcome. That raises threshold issues. It’s a bit hard to quantify, but we’re comparing the quality or quantity of evidence and counterevidence.

      However, in the latter two cases, there is no onus to disprove something which we had no reason to believe in the first place. We don’t have to wait for a tipping point. We don’t even need evidence to the contrary. That’s where I’d put Muhammad, Swedenborg, and Joseph Smith (to take a few prominent examples).