Thursday, July 01, 2010

A poor man's Bart Ehrman

Now that the thread has died down, I'll repost some comments I left over at Jim Hamilton's fine blog:


steve hays
June 28, 2010 at 7:19 pm

“I can appreciate your comments and certainly understand that this is one way to try to stay within the framework of scriptural inerrancy. I just think it lacks a certain intellectual integrity to attempt this. And, to folks who are not actively a part of the church, it appears as if literalists are some kind of folk cult who refuse to admit the obvious. It starts the discussions one has regarding God, Jesus, salvation, etc out on a really bad note since one has to try to convince, in the face of some rather obvious examples, that inerrancy is a fact.”

Dr. Hamilton is generally speaking as a Christian to fellow Christians. That’s his primary constituency here. So, yes, he takes certain things for granted. But that in-house perspective is true for any in-group discussion. Atheist blogs take certain things for granted. Darwinian blogs take certain things for granted. Vegan blogs take certain things for granted. Naturally things look different to an outsider than an insider, but what is outside to you is inside to us, and what is inside to you is outside to us.

And that doesn’t mean that Christians can’t make a case for their positions. But Dr. Hamilton’s blog is a Christian blog, so that’s the default setting. There’s nothing “cultic” about that unless you want to say the same thing about any blog with any ideological viewpoint.

“You say we can be assured that the original writings are all without any error, even though we have never seen any of these originals.”

There’s nothing unusual about believing things we haven’t seen. Many people believe in modern cosmology, or historical geology, or universal common descent through macroevolution, even though various aspects of their belief are several steps removed from direct observation. Rather, they believe this because they think they have evidence which indirectly points to these things. (Of course, some of us think the evidence points in a different direction.)

Roger Penrose believes in abstract objects, although he can’t see them (since they’re not empirical objects to begin with). Edward Witten believes in cosmic strings, although they are inherently unobservable.

I assume that Dr. Hamilton is speaking in shorthand. He believes the autographa are inerrant because he believes in the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture. And there are many different lines of evidence for the inspiration of Scripture.

No, we don’t have direct access to the autographa, but then, we don’t have direct access to many things we believe in. We believe in other minds, but we don’t have direct access to other minds.

“The most glaring seems to be John’s insistance that the crucifixion took place on the day before the passover meal. The synoptics all seem to recount that the last supper was actually the passover meal.”

And what have you actually read on the subject? For instance, Roger Beckwith discusses this in Calendar & Chronology, Jewish and Christian. Have you read it?

“And, there are certainly other discrepancies in the resurrection narratives, all ranging from minor to more detailed (how many women found the empty tomb? Did Jesus directly address them or did an angel? Or more than one angel? Did Jesus tell his disciples NOT to leave Jerusalem but to wait for the arrival of the Holy Spirit, or were the disciples instructed to go back to the Galilee where Jesus would meet them?) And this does not even touch on the vast differences between the Matthew birth narrative and the Luke birth narrative. There are just SO many cases where scripture contradicts and confuses IF we try to hold to a literal, inerrant view.”

The fundamental problem here is not so much individual cases, but your whole hermeneutical approach. You take such a one-dimensional view of historical narrative. Have you ever read some standard monographs on Biblical hermeneutics–like V. Philips Long, The Art of Biblical History, Robert Stein, Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament, and Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (2nd ed.)?

“Recognizing the texts for what they are, texts written by men who were communicating with specific communities about specific ideas concerning Jesus and the early church, in no way diminishes the Bible’s inspiration.”

Of course, that’s a classic intellectual compromise. It doesn’t impress conservatives, and, what is more, it doesn’t impress liberals like James Barr. That’s highly ironic when you accuse Dr. Hamilton of lacking intellectual integrity. For your alternative is a makeshift position.

steve hays
June 29, 2010 at 11:08 am

“Steve, I understand that this is a conservative Christian blog. My comments and thoughts were given in reply to the subject of this particular post: Are there errors in the Bible? I believe there are. I don’t believe that these errors and contradictions do anything to diminish the inspiration and truth that is given to us in holy scripture.”

The problem is that you’re substituting your own theory of inspiration for the self-witness of Scripture. That’s inherently artificial. You apparently reduce “inspiration” to something equivalent to “artistic inspiration.” That, however, is not how Scripture describes the nature of Scriptural inspiration (as writers like Warfield have documented).

So we need to distinguish two different issues: (i) What is the self-witness of Scripture regarding the nature of its own inspiration? and (ii) are you prepared to accept the self-witness of Scripture?

If you reject the self-witness of Scripture because you think the Bible contains errors, so be it. But to swap out the self-understanding of Scripture, then swap in your stopgap theory, is not being true to Scripture. Rather, that superimposes a clearly extrinsic schema on the text of Scripture. Either accept or reject the Bible on its own terms.

“I’ll do that. Let me say, though, that the list of authors you site might well be opposed by a list of authors I might site.”

I don’t cite these scholars as authority figures. If your authors disagree with my authors, then we need to evaluate their respective arguments.

“There is still disagreement, for example, among some Christian groups in various parts of the world about which books should be included in the true canon. This isn’t new. Luther had different ideas of his own regarding the holy inspiration of certain texts.”

1.You’re conflating two distinct issues:

i) Which books are canonical? Which books constitute inspired Scripture?

ii) What’s the nature of inspiration?

To deny that a book is canonical is not the same thing as claiming that a canonic book is “inspired” in some lower sense, viz. poetic inspiration, partial inspiration, limited inerrancy.

2.I’d also add that the question of canonicity isn’t an inherently liberal/conservative issue. For instance, the late David Noel Freedman was a liberal OT scholar. Yet he argued that the entire OT canon (exclusive of Daniel) was finalized in the time of Ezra. (I’d add that John Sailhamer builds on that argument and incorporates Daniel into that argument, in The Meaning of the Pentateuch.)

“Each group feels that they have a complete understanding of the scriptures in total, and that other groups who don’t adhere to this understanding are, somehow, misguided.”

And liberals think that conservatives are misguided. So it’s not as if liberals are more intellectually modest in their own predilections.

“If this is supposed to be a blog where only like-minded folk can gather and contribute, then it really does begin to feel like a kind of folk cult.”

The problem is when you selectively apply the “folk cultic” classification to conservative Christians, even though the same group dynamics apply to any subculture. That’s invidious and one-sided. If you’re going to use sociological categories, then use them consistently. Don’t exempt yourself.

Finally, we should expect obscurities in a collection of books written between about 2000-3500 years ago.

steve hays
June 29, 2010 at 10:31 pm

“My comment about conservative Christianity running the risk of being viewed as a folk cult is based on the view that many of my non-Christian associates hold.”

There’s a word for that: prejudice.

“Many Christians are beginning to become concerned that a rigid stance on biblical inerrancy…”

i) You speak as if the doctrine of inspiration is negotiable and revisable. That betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the Christian faith. Christianity is a revealed religion. Take it or leave it.

It can’t be redefined as something else, and still be a revealed religion. It is only true on the terms and conditions under which it was given. It’s not something you can tamper after the fact, like rewriting a screenplay.

ii) I also don’t know what you mean by Christians “beginning” to become concerned. These debates have been in a state of overdrive since the 19C. Nothing new about this.

“And a refusal to honestly engage science and archaeology are creating this perception (see comments of OT scholar Bruce Waltke).”

i) Well, that’s a rather presumptuous statement to make. For instance, John Currid is an OT prof. at RTS. He subscribes to inerrancy. And he’s a field archeologist with a doctorate in archaeology from the Oriental Institute of Chicago. Do you think you know something about archaeology that he doesn’t?

Or take James Hoffmeier, a native Egyptian, field archeologist, and prof. of archaeology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity school, who also subscribes to inerrancy. Do you think you know something about archaeology he doesn’t?

I could run down a long list of conservative Bible scholars with comparable credentials. Who are you to say that they refuse to honestly engage the archeological findings? Have you even studied their work?

Science? Do you think you know something about science that scientifically credentialed inerrantists like Kurt Wise, John Byl, Jonathan Sarfati, Andrew Snelling, Marcus Ross, John Collins, and Vern Poythress (to name a few) do not?

Who are you to say that they honestly refuse to engage science? Have you even studied their work?

ii) I'd add that Waltke is no opponent of inerrancy. To the contrary, he’s quite critical of scholars who advance more liberal views of inspiration. For instance:

“Enns believes his theory of incarnation is consistent with Warfield’s concursive theory of inspiration. I do not. A theory that entails notions that holy Scripture contains flat out contradictions, ludicrous harmonization, earlier revelations that are misleading and/or less than truthful, and doctrines that are represented as based on historical fact, but in fact are based on fabricated history, in my judgment, is inconsistent with the doctrine that God inspired every word of holy Scripture. To be sure, the Scripture is fully human, but it is just as fully the Word of God, with whom there is no shadow of turning and who will not lie to or mislead his elect… My conscience, informed by holy Scripture, persuades me that our inerrant God represents truth in infallible Scripture,” WTJ 71 (2009), 94-95.

Continuing with RD:

“You asked if I hold to the belief that scripture is self-witnessing to itself.”

No, I didn’t ask you what you believed. There’s a distinction between whether the Bible teaches something, and whether you believe it. At this stage of the argument I’m simply dealing with what the Bible says about itself–whether or not you agree with what the Bible says.

“I don’t see that the Bible offers a valid ‘self-witness” to inerrancy.’

I didn’t mention inerrancy, per se. Rather, I brought up the self-witness of Scripture regarding the nature of its own inspiration, in contrast to your theory of “poetic inspiration.” The immediate question at issue is whether you are imputing to Scripture a different model of inspiration than Scripture imputes to itself.

“Verses like 2 Timothy 3:16 are often given as examples that all scripture is the result of the literal breath of God.”

i) I didn’t quote that verse. Rather, I referred you to the work of Warfield. I take it from your response that you haven’t read him.

Take the paradigm-case of prophetic inspiration. In the OT, the distinction between a true prophet and a false prophet is that a true prophet speaks the very words of God. That’s completely different from your theory of poetic inspiration.

And that carries with it the implication that if a prophet is speaking the words of God, then his words are true.

ii) BTW, no one is arguing that God’s “literal” breath is the cause of Scripture. Rather, breath is a metaphor for the action of the Holy Spirit.

“The notion that the original autographs are indeed infallible seems absolutely silly and seems to make God out to be silly as well. If God’s intentions are for us to have his completely inerrant word how much sense does it make that God would inspire absolutely infallible original manuscripts and then not protect those originals so that we have them to use? To say that God inspired the originals but didn’t necessarily inspire the copiests doesn’t sit well with many who are asking serious questions about Christianity today”

If they’re asking serious questions, then they need to demonstrate some level of intellectual seriousness by framing questions properly and acquainting themselves with standard conservative scholarship. Otherwise, what comes across is a pose of seriousness without the corresponding spadework.

i) There is a major difference between errant copies of errant records, and errant copies of inerrant records.

a) For one thing, it wouldn’t even be possible to have an uninspired record of many Biblical events. For some of these events are naturally unknowable. Future events. Private conversations. What someone was thinking. The plan of God. The fact that God even has a plan. And so on and so forth.

b) Moreover, while some events are naturally knowable, their theological significance is naturally unknowable.

In cases of (a) and (b), a supernatural means of knowledge is a necessary means of knowledge. For such items of knowledge would be otherwise unobtainable were it not for God’s prophetic word.

c) Furthermore, necessity is not the only consideration. There can be higher and lower degrees of certainty. And there are many times when that distinction is hardly inconsequential.

In general, we remember events better than words. We may not be very good at verbatim recollection.

What we generally remember is a paraphrase of what somebody said rather than his verbatim utterance. And, of course, sometimes we misremember what he said.

There is also a difference between paraphrasing a verbatim recollection and a paraphrastic recollection. If you have a verbatim recollection of what somebody said, then you can accurately paraphrase his statement. But if all you remember is a paraphrase, then you can’t compare the paraphrase with the original.

Likewise, we tend to remember some events better than others. And, of course, some people have more reliable memories than others.

As such, there is a major difference between inspired and uninspired records of what was said and done. If all we had were uninspired records to go by, that would create systematic, insoluble uncertainties.

“It sounds too much like the Ethiopian church that purports to have the actual ark of the covenant inside it’s sanctuary. Of course, no one is allowed to actually SEE it, but we are to believe that it is there and that it is the original.”

Do you believe that Ft. Knox has gold bullion? Have you ever seen it? Are you allowed to go into the vaults and see it for yourself?

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