Sunday, April 27, 2008

Scripture & special pleading

Faithful Christians, who honor the plenary inspiration of Scripture, are often accused of special pleading when they defend the inerrancy of Scripture. Since this is a popular charge, it’s worth giving attention to the charge.

1.The way the accusation is usually framed is that we have an obvious error in Scripture, but the inerrantist, due to his blind faith and intellectual insecurity, can’t bring himself to admit the error—for his faith would come unraveled, like pulling a loose end of yarn.

Thus, the inerrantist is in a state of denial. Ironically, so goes the argument, he isn’t getting his theory of inspiration from Scripture itself, for he is turning a blind eye to contrary evidence in the text of Scripture.

It’s the inerrantist, so goes the argument, who is taking Scripture seriously at this point. The inerrantist who is taking Scripture at face value.

2.This may be plausible to some, but it’s specious. It commits a level confusion. For what we’re really talking about is not, in the first instance, the text, but the reader. We’re talking about perceived errors.

Dewey Beegle perceives a number of errors in Scripture. What the inerrantist is responding to is not the text of Scripture, in and of itself, but Beegle’s perception of Scripture. His interpretation—or misinterpretation—of Scripture.

This is not a conflict between what the inerrantist believes and what the text of Scripture actually says. Rather, this is a conflict between what the errantist perceives and what the inerrantist perceives.

That’s the immediate level of the conflict. Not between the reader and the text, but between one reader and another reader. Between your reading and mine. Not what Scripture says, but what Beegle says Scripture says, and how he relates his reading to other Scriptural or extrascriptural data—which involves him in further interpretive judgments.

The errantist has no more direct access to the text than the inerrantist. Both of them are looking at the same text. If the errantist says that he perceives a mistake in Scripture, and the inerrantist says that he doesn’t perceive a mistake in Scripture, how is one man’s perception special pleading, but the other is not?

It is of course possible for a reader to indulge in special pleading. But there’s no presumption that the inerrantist is guilty of special pleading, for the text is not the immediate point of dispute.

Let’s bracket the Bible for a moment and speak more generally. Where inspiration is not a consideration, it is possible for a perceived error to be a real error.

But that’s not the level at which the dispute occurs. For we’re talking about the imputation of error. The error exists in the mind of the reader, whether or not it actually exists in the text. And it’s quite possible for a perceived error to be a misperception.

So the errantist has no initial advantage in this debate. We’re dealing with rival perceptions. Rival readings. Rival interpretations. If you perceive an error where I do not, it’s not as if your perception of the text is automatically better than mine. That has to be demonstrated, not assumed.

At the outset, you and I are on a par. We left the gate at the very same time. We may not finish at the same time, but it’s not as though the errantist enjoys a head start which the inerrantist must overtake.

3. If, moreover, I have good reason to believe that Scripture is inspired, then I’m not guilty of special pleading if I treat Scripture differently than I do the New York Times.

It’s like an optical allusion. If I have good reason to believe that mountains aren’t any smaller at a distance, then I’m not guilty of special pleading when I try to account for the difference between appearance and reality.

Imagine a naive realist accusing me of blind faith in physics. I “explain away” the “obvious” fact that mountains are smaller at a distance. Who do you believe—me or my lying eyes?

4.Then there’s the matter of who is leveling the accusation. There are two different groups. To begin with, you have theological “moderates.” They subscribe to partial inspiration or limited inerrancy.

But one of the problems with this mediating position is that Scripture doesn’t assert partial inspiration. Scripture doesn’t assert limited inerrancy. So their theory of inspiration doesn’t come from the self-witness of Scripture.

It isn’t determined by what Scripture says about itself, but by what they believe about Scripture. And, on this view, inspiration is person-variable. The scope of inspiration expands or contracts to coincide with what the reader is prepared to believe.

When he was 20, he thought that Gen 1-50 was inspired. When he was 30, he thought that Gen 12-50 was inspired. When he was 40, he thought that Genesis was uninspired.

So the boundaries of inspiration parallel the boundaries of his waning faith. They have a convenient way of receding at just those junctures where his faith in Scripture is receding. Whatever he still believes is still inspired; whatever he no longer believes is no longer uninspired.

Somebody less charitable than myself might accuse the limited inerrantist of special pleading.

3. Then you have the outright unbeliever. Surely his position is more consistent. Or is it?

One reason some people disbelieve the Bible is the presence what they take to be false prophecies. In their view, certain predictions were falsified by the facts.

However, unbelievers reject other prophecies because they were a little too close for comfort. Some of the prophecies of Daniel or Isaiah are too true to be true. No one could really see into the future to that degree.

Since there’s no naturalistic explanation, these “predictions” must have been made after the fact. It’s too true to be a true prediction.

Same thing with the Olivet Discourse. Since Jesus couldn’t realistically predict the Fall of Jerusalem, this was obviously put in his mouth after the fact.

If it’s a false prophecy, then it’s false—but if it’s a true prophecy, then it’s also false!

Somebody less charitable than myself might accuse the unbeliever of special pleading.

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