Friday, September 08, 2006

Back to inerrancy

I wasn’t originally intending to comment on Victor Reppert’s view of Scripture. However, he has solicited feedback from his inerrantist brethren.

I’ve also been asked to comment on Bill Vallicella’s view of Scripture. So this post will be two-for-the-price-of-one special.

I’ll just do a running commentary on their remarks:

VR: This is a response to Ed Babinski, who accused C. S. Lewis of simply ignoring morally flawed passages in Scripture.

It's not that Christians like Lewis or myself want to ignore this stuff. In many cases, Lewis is the one that calls it to our attention. But of course if you believe that God is morally perfect, then something other than God must explain moral weaknesses in the text. We don't need smoke in his eyes to explain that. Lewis maintained that the idea of a cosmic sadist who created the world was incoherent. Not emotionally repugnant, he found it *logically incherent*. I chronicle his arguments in the first chapter of my book. So why would he accept an incoherent positon?

Do you believe that there is an evil God who inspired the Bible? If not, then you explain the moral flaws of Scripture in terms of the flawed moral perceptions of the human authors. And if you can do that, then why can't Lewis do the same thing?


1.Of course, this way of framing the question is prejudicial. It assumes that Scripture is morally flawed.

2.I also find this reaction rather superficial on the part of a trained philosopher. It’s true that you can find things in Scripture which you may find intuitively repugnant.

However, philosophy typically challenges our knee-jerk intuitions. Philosophers frequently criticize common sense intuition as shallow and often false.

Philosophy regularly takes the position that the true view may be counterintuitive or unpopular.

So I could understand Reppert’s objection if it came from a village atheist. But coming from a trained philosopher, I’d like to see a more subtle reply.

3.Assuming, for the sake of argument, that inerrancy commits one to belief in a “cosmic sadist,” how does the denial of inerrancy escape that charge?

To deny the inerrancy of Scripture doesn’t solve the problem of evil, especially if you’re a professing believer.

God is still the Creator of the world. Evil is real. Pain and suffering exist.

In some respect, God is partly responsible for that state of affairs.

VR: Lewis wrote a chapter in Reflections on the Psalms entitled Scripture where he discussed his understanding of what it was for Scripture to be inspired. He for example read Ecclesiastes as the cold hard picture of man's life without God, and he maintained that it was something we needed to hear, even though it was far from being the full literal truth.


1.Other issues aside, this fails to distinguish between full/partial truth and partial truth/partial error.

These are not convertible propositions. Something could be partly true without being partly false. It could be wholly true as far as it goes, without addressing itself to the entire truth of the matter. Something can fall short of the whole truth without being partly erroneous.

2.What is the distinction between “literal” truth and “figurative” truth? Is there such a thing as figurative truth?

Perhaps you could say there’s such a thing as figurative meaning. And a figurative story can be a vehicle to convey the truth.

But when we do that we are extracting a literal truth from a figurative story. We are asking, what does this allegory stand for? Or in what respect is this fictitious story true to life?

A figurative story is truthful, not because it’s figurative, but because it’s lifelike or because it allegorizes something literal.

3.The example of Ecclesiastes also turns on the accuracy of Lewis’s interpretation.

VR: In other words, things that by themselves are scientifically, historically, or morally incorrect my be, he thought, part of a broader truth that is inspired. What is by itself a blemish may be part of the moral and spiritual education of a barbaric people which conveys an important truth.


1.How does this follow from what came before? Is Ecclesiastes figurative? Is it an allegory?

2.How can falsehood convey the truth? Or is/are Reppert and/or Lewis distinguishing between partial truth and partial error?

VR: As for biblical inerrancy, I am not so much inclined to deny it as I am to be unclear on what it means. Consider the following.

Every word of the Bible is true.
Every sentence of the Bible is true.
Every verse of the Bible is true.
Every paragraph of the Bible is true.
Every chapter of the Bible is true.
Every book of the Bible is true.
The Bible is true as a whole.

The bearers of truth and falsity, as I understand it, are sentences.

SH: To begin with, we need to distinguish between the narrative viewpoint and the intranarrative viewpoint.

According to inerrancy, the narrative viewpoint is infallible because the narrator is inspired.

Now, the narrative will also narrate the intranarrative viewpoint of various speakers within the narrative.

These speakers may or may not be inspired and infallible. It all depends on the speaker.

For example, you may have a narrative involving true and false prophets. The narrative would be in inspired record of their statements. The statements of the true prophets would be true, while the statements of the false prophets would be false.

So a Biblical narrator can inerrantly quote an errant statement.

Hence, there’s a potential difference between the truth of the narrative viewpoint and the truth (or falsity) of the intranarrative viewpoint.

Is the narrator quoting an apostle or prophet of God? If so, then the statement is true.

VR: So it is logically possible for 2 to be true, but we know it isn't, because if it were, then the sentence "Ye shall surely not die," said by the serpent to Eve, would also be true, but it isn't.


1.Actually, the sentence is true, but Reppert’s interpretation is false.

The phraseology of Gen 2:17 is idiomatic. As one commentator explains:

“The warning that is intended to motivate obedience is often misunderstood. The KJV, NKJV, and NASB all translate ‘in the day’ you read from it. The NIV has prepared this with the appropriate English rendering ‘when.’ The expression 'in the day' is one of the major ways in Hebrew to say ‘when’ and does not suggest that the events described will take place within the next twenty-four hours,” J. Walton, Genesis (Zondervan 2001), 174.

2.This brings me to another point. When Reppert and Vallicella give examples of errant Biblical claims, I don’t see any evidence that they bother to consult the standard exegetical literature.

It’s as if they read something in their English Bible, then use their 21C framework to supply the interpretive grid.

VR: If however, what we mean by the inerrancy of Scripture is that everything in it participates in some wider truth that God intended to convey, then I have no problem with it, but then I don't see why, for example, this would exclude a fictionalist account of Ruth or Jonah, positions that are anathema to inerrantists.


1.Inerrancy does not prejudge the genre of a book. In principle, Ruth or Jonah could be fictitious.

2.However, the genre of a Biblical book must be determined on grammatico-historical grounds.

To judge by their posted statements thus far, Reppert and Vallicella seem to have a habit of beginning, not with the book, but with what they believe, and then proceeding to classify the genre of the book, or meaning or veracity of a verse, not on the basis of internal evidence or period practice, but on what they are willing to believe.

But this is completely unscholarly. It leads to anachronistic interpretations or classifications.

It also leads to an ad hoc doctrine of inspiration, wherein you first stipulate how much you’re prepared to believe, and then formulate a doctrine of inspiration which is exactly calibrated to what you’re prepared to believe.

This has nothing to do with the self-witness of Scripture. Nothing to do with original intent.

But it should go without saying that Scripture means whatever it meant at the time it was written.

3.Incidentally, why is Reppert inclined to classify Jonah as fictitious? Is that due to the miraculous element? But, to my knowledge, he doesn’t deny the occurrence of miracles.

VR: I am inclined to argue, for example, when it comes to Gen 1, that it intended to convey a monotheistic as opposed to a polytheistic story of origins to the Hebrew people. In other words, it should be read in contrast to the Enuma Elish, not the Origin of Species.

SH: The key question is whether we arrive at our interpretation of Genesis on the basis of exegetical considerations, or are we allowing extraneous concerns to dictate to the text what it is permitted to tell us?

VR: Hence if you are a monotheist, it conveys the truth of monotheism as opposed to polytheism, and why should it be expected to be loaded up with science. That's not its job.

SH: No, we shouldn’t expect it to be loaded up with science. However:

1.It is quite possible for a prescientific text to make claims about the origin of the world which will intersect with scientific claims down the road.

Gen 1 doesn’t employ scientific terms or methods, but Gen 1 and modern science both describe the same object—the natural world. Inasmuch as they describe the same object, their claims do intersect.

2.Just as we should not expect it to be “loaded up with science,” we should equally resist a reactionary gloss in which we reinterpret the text with one eye on Darwin in order to accommodate or avoid a conflict with modern science.

VR: The passage participated in the broad conveyance of truth without being narrowly true in every detail.

SH: Does the disjunction between broad truth and detailed error arise from the text of Scripture? Is Reppert carving Scripture at the joints?

Or is he interpolating a face-saving disjunction into the text which will give him just enough elbow-room to believe whatever he can bring himself to believe, and relegate the rest to innocuous error?

VR: If you think there is something incoherent about Lewis's position, then you have to show me that a Christian ought to accept some version of narrow inerrancy (as opposed to the broad inerrancy that he actually adopted), which is coherent and somehow more consistent or more Christian than his own view. Perhaps some of my inerrantist brethren can help Babinski with this.

SH: One way of showing that Lewis’s position is incoherent is if it forces Lewis and like-minded believers to resort to makeshift distinctions or anachronistic interpretations.

Moving onto Vallicella: Inerrancy

WV: I am not sure what Biblical inerrancy is. Perhaps someone can help me.

Even if I wanted to join this society in violation of my Bruntonian "study everything, join nothing" policy, I could not sign the Affirmation for the reason that, as I understand inerrancy, the Bible is not reasonably viewed as inerrant "in its entirety." It may be, of course, that I do not understand what the constituent words and phrases mean. Let me say at the outset that I am a theist and I have no problem with the notion of a transcendent deity revealing himself to man in various ways.

To focus my difficulty, consider Genesis. At Gen 1, 3 we read about the creation of light on the first day. But then in verses 14-19 we read about the creation of sources of light on the fourth day. But surely physical light cannot come into existence before the coming into existence of sources of physical lights such as sun, moon, and stars.

SH: Other issues aside, there are scholars like John Walton, Donald Wiseman, and John Sailhammer who, on syntactical or semantic grounds, deny that Gen 1,3 and 14-19 are sequential in that sense.

There are also scholars like Meredith Kline and Bruce Waltke who, on literary grounds, deny that Gen 1,3 and 14-17 are sequential in that sense.

My immediate point is not to say if this is right or wrong. Rather, the point I’m making for now is that I wonder if Vallicella has bothered to consult the standard exegetical literature on Gen 1.

I realize that this is not his field, but that’s part of the problem. Frankly, there’s an amateurish quality to the examples being deployed to illustrate the errancy of Scripture.

WV: Genesis also implies that the creation was a temporal process lasting six or seven days. But it is obvious that time, however construed, is a contingent being and so in need of creation. Since time is one of the 'things' created, creation cannot be a temporal process. The creation of time cannot occur in time. And if time is uncreated, then creation is not ex nihilo.

SH: This is a rather odd objection. True, you couldn’t have a temporal process prior to time. But all that’s needed is for the creative process to date to an initial fiat.

WV: So if we take Genesis literally, we must admit that it contains at least two errors right at the outset. (Quibble with me about these, and I will simply adduce others.) So the Bible cannot be literally true in its entirety. Perhaps the claim that the Bible is inerrant in its entirety is not to be taken as implying that the Bible is literally true in its entirety. But I don't know, which is why I am asking.

SH: Actually, we can take Genesis literally and admit that Vallicella has leveled two erroneous objections right at the outset.

WV: Thanks for your excellent comment which confirms what I suspected. You write, "Inerrancy is essentially the doctrine that the Bible is truthful in all matters of faith, science, history, etc." It seems to me that if this is what is meant by inerrancy, then no reasonable and informed person of the present time can accept it.

SH: But there are many reasonable and well-informed believers who do subscribe to inerrancy.

So is he saying that we have a number of otherwise reasonable people who become unreasonable as soon as they turn to Scripture?

WV: You mentioned Augustine. The point I made about time was made by Augustine somewhere if memory serves. Augustine and Aquinas would have to be against inerrancy (as you explain it) since they were great philosophers.

I agree with you: the meaning is buried deep and has to be dug out, and that requires the use of reason. And one mark of a reasonable person is the ability to distinguish between the literal and the figurative.

SH: How does the literal/figurative distinction fit into his denial of inerrancy? If, for the sake of argument, we sad the offending passages were figurative, then in what sense are they erroneous?

WV: I like your last paragraph. But now I am deeply puzzled: how could anyone, let alone the very bright people in the EPS, subscribe to inerrancy as you explain it? They must mean something different. Or?

SH: Well, it wouldn’t hurt if he did some reading on the subject. I could suggest a number of authors.

WV: This supports my point of view. If the first 11 chapters are myth, story, allegory, something to be taken figuratively rather than literally, then I have no problem. The message is: the physical universe ("heaven and earth") is not ontologically ultimate but derives its existence from a transcendent source of a purely spiritual nature. Taken in this way, there is no conflict with physical science. But taken in the way the inerrantist wants to take it, there is a conflict. Obviously, the physical universe did not come into existence in six days…

SH: How is it “obvious” that the physical universe did not come into existence in six days?

What would such a universe look like? How would it differ in appearance from what he believes in?

Is he saying that a different cause could never yield the same effect? How would he tell the difference? Our only access to the cause is via the effect.

Does he think that John Byl is unreasonable or uninformed? Does he think that Kurt Wise is unreasonable or uniformed?

WV: Eve was not made out of a rib of Adam…

SH: How is this “obvious”? Does he have positive evidence to the contrary?

WV: Adam was not made out of dust…

SH: Once again, how is this “obvious”? Obvious in relation to what? That it couldn’t happen that way? Or that it didn’t happen that way?

WV: spirit is not wind, etc.

SH: This is rather inept. The Hebrew word has more than one meaning, and it can denote more than one referent.

WV: Does the Bible express even one proposition? The Bible is just a bunch of sentences.

SH: Why the disjunction between sentences and propositions? They are distinct, to be sure. But is he saying that a sentence cannot express a proposition?

WV: God expresses himself through the Bible. But not directly since he needed these various scribes to write things down. And I would suggest that the signal-to-noise ratio is not favorable.

SH: That is not, of itself, an argument against inerrancy. To the contrary, the very notion of inspiration presupposes the inspiration of a secondary agent. God is not inspired. Rather, God inspires the writer.

All Vallicella has done here is to beg the question by a denial of inspiration.

WV: But how could it be literally true that the physical universe came into existence in six days? We know that it didn't.

SH: Once again, how do we know that it didn’t happen that way?

Is he alluding to evidence for the antiquity of the universe?

And is this evidence for a particular process? Or does it presuppose a particular process?

The same cause will yield the same result. But a different cause may also yield the same result.

One suspects that what he’s done is simply to extrapolate from the present to the past.

But unless he subscribes to an infinite regress, he cannot extend the status quo indefinitely. There needs to be some break in the process to get the process up and running in the first place.

WV: Mr. Lovvorn made a distinction between inerrancy and infallibility, where the latter has to do only with matters pertaining to salvation. That strikes me as an essential distinction.

SH: “Essential” in what respect? Is this distinction given in Scripture? Or is it superimposed on Scripture?

WV: The evidence for common descent which is central to (but of course not the whole of) the theory of evolution is overwhelming.

SH: That’s a highly contested claim.

WV: But a literal reading of the Bible rules out common descent.

SH: I agree.

WV: Something has to give.

SH: Once again, I agree.

WV: My tendency will be to argue that man's higher origin and destiny are reconcilable with what we know from the life sciences. One way to go might be James F. Ross, Christians Get the Best of Evolution. (PDF). I have not studied this paper, only glanced at it; I have no firm opinion about it.

To put it crudely, why do (some) Protestants want to make trouble for themselves by adopting the strict inerrancy definition of Feinberg you graciously reproduced for us?

SH: Why do we make trouble for ourselves?

1.We reject opportunistic reinterpretations of Scripture. We also reject stopgap theories of inspiration.

2.We believe that Christianity is a revealed religion. It cannot be redefined at will.

3.We believe that divine revelation is more reliable than a highly inferential scientific construct.

4.We believe that Christian faith involves an element of trust.

WV: Why is it so important that the Bible give us the straight skinny about the physical world?

SH: A revealed religion is a package deal.

WV: I basically agree with Bob. Instead of 3, I would write

3* Scripture is the product of divine and human interaction.

Think of God as an impeccable transmitter and human beings as somewhat defective receivers. The end result will contain both signal and noise, and there will be a problem of separating them.

SH: Does this model have any basis in the self-witness of Scripture? Or is it an ersatz theory of inspiration which Vallicella invented on the spot to correspond with what he’s willing to believe?

Are we to suppose the nature of divine inspiration just happens to coincide with his prior, intellectual loyalties?

WV: Protestantism runs the risk of Bibliolatry. Note that I am not denying the existence of a transcendent God or the reality of divine revelation.

SH: The charge of “Bibliolatry” is purely tactical. “Idolatry” is a Biblical category. Needless to say, the Bible never classifies allegiance to God’s word as idolatrous.

To the contrary, it is idolatrous is to privilege human wisdom above divine wisdom.


  1. :::YAWN!!!:::

  2. Please don't comment until after your nap, OK?

  3. ::YAWN!!:: also!

    I mean, really Steve! I read through your posts and I'm ready for a nap! Do you think we really care what Steve Hays thinks about Victor Reppert thinks about CS Lewis on "Scripture"? Gimme a break! When I read these posts I keep looking for some revelation, a punchline, or a profound truth, something to reward me for patiently going through to the end. But NADA! Nothing! Zilch! Zero. A big fat wasteland of YAWN!

    Steve, go peel an onion!

  4. Ted,

    You're welcome to peruse the rest of the web there big guy. If reformed Christian theology isn't your cup of tea you know where the door is...

  5. No, Hostus, Ted means that he fries his one brain cell every time he reads anything Steve rights and so he gets tired after his mental strain.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.