Tuesday, January 09, 2018

In all it affirms

Let's begin with some standard definitions of biblical inerrancy:

Nevertheless the historical faith of the Church has always been, that all the affirmations of Scripture of all kinds, whether of spiritual doctrine or duty, or of physical or historical fact, or of psychological or philosophical principle, are without any error, when the ipsissima verba of the original autographs are ascertained and interpreted in their natural and intended sense. There is a vast difference between exactness of statement, which includes an exhaustive rendering of details, an absolute literalness, which the Scriptures never profess, and accuracy, on the other hand, which secures a correct statement of facts or principles intended to be affirmed. It is this accuracy and this alone, as distinct from exactness, which the Church doctrine maintains of every affirmation in the original text of Scripture without exception. Every statement accurately corresponds to truth just as far forth as affirmed.

Inerrancy will then mean that at no point in what was originally given were the biblical writers allowed to make statements or endorse viewpoints which are not in conformity with objective truth. This applies at any level at which they make pronouncements (Roger Nicole). 

Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences (Paul Feinberg).

Holy Scripture, being God's own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God's instruction, in all that it affirms: obeyed, as God's command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God's pledge, in all that it promises (Chicago Statement on Inerrancy).

There are some problems with these definitions. Or perhaps I should say there are some limitations to these definitions:

i) Three of the four definitions include a key caveat: Scripture is true or inerrant in what it affirms. The reason for that qualification is indicated in the Hodge/Warfield article. Even when Scripture employs hyperbole or approximations, it is still true because the Bible writer didn't intend to be more precise. For instance, round numbers would be false if the author intended to be exact, but he didn't. It is true in regard to what he was aiming for. 

ii) In some respects that's a useful caveat, but not without problems or ambiguities. Does a Bible writer affirm (i.e. intend) all the logical implications of his statements? Bible writers can only intend what they consciously will, but Bible writers aren't aware of all the logical implications of their statements. In that sense, they do not and cannot affirm everything that their statements entail. 

But that qualification would have the ironic consequence that while whatever the Bible affirms is true, the logical implications of Biblical statements may be fallible and mistaken! Yet that's an unwittingly subversive definition of inerrancy. 

By the same token, Micah didn't affirm that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. He didn't know who the Messiah would be. He knew some things about the Messiah, but he did not and could not intend for them to be about Jesus in particular, since he was ignorant of Jesus. 

It seems to follow from the caveat that Micah's messianic oracle might be fallible and erroneous in reference to Jesus. But once again, that definition sabotages the purpose of the definition! 

iii) This goes to another ambiguity in the definitions. What's the relationship between the Bible and Bible writers? Strictly speaking, a writing does not and cannot intend anything. Only a writer can intend something. Intent is a psychological state. 

On the other hand, a writing can imply something. So we might say Bible writers are inerrant in whatever they intend while the Bible is inerrant in whatever it implies. A distinction between what the prophet Micah intends and what the prophecy of Micah entails. And these are complementary.

BTW, when I say "intend", I don't mean that in terms of what a prophet was planning to say or planning to write, but what he meant to express by his actual words. 

Sometimes there's a gap between intent and performance, where an agent was planning to do something, but failed to realize his objective. But I'm not separating intent from performance.

iv) To say that a Bible writer didn't affirm all the logical implications of his statements, or that a Bible writer didn't affirm future referents of his oracles, doesn't mean he disaffirms their referents or entailments. His intentions are not at variance with the implications or outcomes. 

v) Another ambiguity concerns the truth-bearers of inerrancy, or the truth-bearers of what the Bible "affirms". The Bible contains different kinds of statements. Assertions, denials, questions, commands, prohibitions. Strictly speaking, truth or falsity is a property of propositions. 

But consider that restriction in regard to nonpropositional statements in Scripture. Take the binding of Isaac, which is a command. Or prescriptions and proscriptions in the Mosaic law. Or God interrogating Adam and Eve in the Garden. Technically, that falls outside the purview of the definition. 

Questions per se don't affirm or deny anything. Commands and prohibitions don't affirm or deny anything. Does this mean that since the genre of nonpropositional statements has no truth-value, an inerrantist needn't credit them? 

vi) A final omission is a failure to define "truth". Insofar as Scripture is propositional revelation, that might select for the coherence theory of truth:  

A coherence theory of truth states that the truth of any (true) proposition consists in its coherence with some specified set of propositions. The coherence theory differs from its principal competitor, the correspondence theory of truth, in two essential respects. The competing theories give conflicting accounts of the relation that propositions bear to their truth conditions. (In this article, ‘proposition’ is not used in any technical sense. It simply refers to the bearers of truth values, whatever they may be.) According to one, the relation is coherence, according to the other, it is correspondence. The two theories also give conflicting accounts of truth conditions. According to the coherence theory, the truth conditions of propositions consist in other propositions. The correspondence theory, in contrast, states that the truth conditions of propositions are not (in general) propositions, but rather objective features of the world. 

Yet the Bible constantly makes claims about the world. So that might select for a correspondence theory of truth. It may be best for a statement on inerrancy to define truth in reference to coherence and correspondence alike, where these are applicable. 

Mind you, that's deceptively simple. For instance, the correspondence theory involves vexed questions about the identity of the relevant truth-makers and truth-bearers.

vii) I don't think these deficiencies are a big problem, because definitions of inerrancy function to some degree as placeholders for creedal statements. In other words, abstract definitions, because they operate at such a high level of generality, are deficient at the level of particulars. But inerrantists have very specific things in mind when they formulate these definitions. The Bible is the concrete frame of reference. Inerrantists have specific kinds of things in mind which their definitions are designed to cover. In and of themselves, the definitions are not that discriminating. So they need to be supplemented by actual examples. The historicity of many Bible narratives. Predictive prophecy. And so on. 

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