Saturday, September 29, 2012

Inerrancy again!

I’m going to comment on this post:

Bill Vallicella is a brilliant philosopher, as well as an astute critic of liberal ideologues. However, whenever he turns to the Bible, his objections are amateurish.

The following is from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous but who wants me "to hear a different perspective on the matter than that of the Calvinists who comment on your blog: I don't want you thinking they are the ones rightly interpreting the Christian texts."

It’s flattering to think Calvinists have cornered the market on the inerrancy of Scripture, but that’s not quite fair to some other theological traditions. For instance, confessional Lutherans (e.g. WELS; LCMS) also affirm the inerrancy of Scripture.  So do “fundamentalists.”

It’s true, though, that other groups like Arminians are not committed to the inerrancy of Scripture. 

Jesus and Paul had a rather liberal interpretation of the Old Testament Law, by which I mean a non-literal, moralist interpretation. I shall explain this in further detail by offering a few exemplary statements from them both.
Jesus famously said that "What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them" (Mt 15:11), specifying what he meant a few verses later: "But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts — murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person" (vv. 18-20). This is directly contradictory to the teaching of the Old Testament Law; after a long list of animals the eating of which is strictly forbidden, Lev 11:24 reads: "You will make yourselves unclean by [eating] these." Jesus denies the literal truth of Lev 11:24 by denying the reality of ritual purity and impurity; instead he gave a spiritualized, moralist interpretation of purity and impurity: the only true (im)purity or (un)cleanliness is moral (im)purity or (un)cleanliness.

This objection is vitiated by equivocation.

i) To begin with, Jesus isn’t referring to the OT purity codes. In context, Jesus is referring to the oral Torah. Pharisaic customs.

ii) More to the point, Jesus isn’t talking about ritual defilement, but actual wrongdoing. That’s evident from his examples.

Ritual impurity isn’t equivalent to sinfulness, unless you contract ritual impurity through indulging in ritually forbidden behavior.

A further expression of the denial of the reality of ritual purity and impurity and, implied with this, a rejection of the temple sacrificial system of worship is involved in Jesus' quoting the verse from Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." When the Pharisees see that Jesus eats at the same table as many tax collectors and sinners -- i.e., those who would render him ceremonially unclean and incapable of participating in the temple cult, thus removed from the blessings of God -- Jesus responds that God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Mt 9:10-13). "Sacrifice" is connected to a concern for ritual purity, as well as participation in the temple religious system; what God wants is not this, but mercy towards those who are in need of love: particularly those rejected by the religious figures and "holy men" of his time. God evidently is not concerned with ritual purity; he wishes that men be kind to one another, and he makes an effort to show such kindness himself through Jesus. But a rejection of ritual purity, the requirement for sacrifice, the legitimacy of the temple, etc., is a rejection of a literal reading of many Old Testament texts.

i) The statement in Hos 6:6 is hyperbolic. Obviously there was a general obligation to perform sacrifice. But Jesus and Hosea are ranking obligations. Not every obligation is equally obligatory. Some take precedence over others.

ii) Likewise, obedience to the law involves right intentions as well as right conduct. It’s not just a matter of going through the motions. OT law doesn’t involve a mechanical correlation between cause and effect. Rather, your obedience needs to be motivated by genuine piety. A “circumcised heart.” Punctilious attention to the externals is no substitute for inner devotion.

It’s easy for sinners to turn human duties into divine duties. To act as if merely or cynically performing a religious rite obliges God to do something for us.

Consider also Jesus' and Paul's affirmation that the true fulfillment of the Law is obedience to the command "Love thy neighbor as thyself" (see, e.g., Mt 22:34-30; Rom 13:8-10, Gal 5:14). This cannot be literally true, for the various ritual and ceremonial injunctions of the Law (e.g., regarding circumcision, dietary habits, sacrifices, etc.) cannot in any plausible way be interpreted as mere instances of love for neighbor; no one would ever get the impression that the command to circumcise one's child on the eighth day is an instance of "love thy neighbor" by reading the relevant OT texts. What this statement suggests, rather, is a non-literal and moralist interpretation of the Old Testament: what is really of value is the moral teaching about loving your neighbor; all that ritual and ceremonial stuff doesn't mean much of anything and can even at times be ignored.

That objection is simplistic.

i) To begin with, this isn’t even an accurate quotation. It omits the prior and all-important command to love God.

ii) Moreover, the statement that loving God and loving our neighbor fulfills the law is a summary statement rather than an exhaustive statement of their legal obligations.

iii) Furthermore, it prioritizes legal obligations. Some are more important than others.

iv) Finally, different laws can reflect different specific instances of a common generic principle.

v) BTW, these distinctions don’t imply a “nonliteral” reading of OT law.

One more example would be Paul's affirmations regarding the ultimate insignificance of circumcision: "A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code" (Rom 2:28-29); "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts" (1 Cor 7:19); "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation" (Gal 6:15). No one would ever come to such a conclusion merely reading what the Old Testament says regarding the requirement of circumcision: "Every male among you shall be circumcised . . . . My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people" (Gen 17:10, 13-14). Paul elevates obedience to the moral commandments of God, especially "love thy neighbor", above the command of circumcision, so much so that the latter command is effectively annulled.

No one would come to the conclusions that Jesus and Paul did merely by reading the salient Old Testament texts themselves; their interpretation is non-literal and moralist, and is merely one manifestation of the tendency towards spiritualized, internalized interpretations of inherited religion that appears in other places (e.g., ancient Greek religion with the advent of the philosophers) as well. (For more on this, see Stephen Finlan, The Background and Contents of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors (Boston: Brill, 2004), 47ff.)

i) To begin with, Paul is dealing with a shift from the old covenant to the new covenant. Circumcision is a sign of old covenant membership. Naturally the new covenant will have a different sign of covenant membership, to distinguish the new covenant from the old covenant.

Paul isn’t distinguishing between lower and higher obligations within the old covenant, but between the old covenant and the new covenant.

ii) Yet even within the OT, there was a distinction between physical circumcision and spiritual circumcision (“circumcision of the heart”). Physical circumcision had no ultimate independent value.

iii) Circumcision is obligatory so long as the covenant it signifies is obligatory. If the old covenant expires, then circumcision expires.

That is not quite what I am asserting. Lev 11:24 asserts that eating certain foods makes one ritually unclean, not morally unclean (there is a difference!), and therefore asserts the reality and the importance of ritual purity for religious life. (Take, for example, the affirmation of Lev 13 that after childbirth, a woman is unclean: that is because (just as in other ancient religions, e.g. primitive Hinduism), touching bodily fluids and losing bodily fluids makes one unclean and unfit for participation in the cultus; it is has nothing to do with morality whatsoever.)

Jesus’s statement takes for granted the difference between ritual impurity and moral impurity.

Ritual purity and impurity is not the same as either moral or physical purity or impurity; it is a distinct category of purity that is distinctive of very old, ancient religions and which is no longer very intelligible to the modern mind; we simply don't believe in this stuff anymore. Ritual purity is one more condition one must have in order to participate in the sacrificial systems in ancient religions, such as traditional, non-philosophical Hinduism and ancient Judaism.

Ritual purity symbolizes the holiness of God while ritual impurity symbolizes the iniquity of man. That’s the point of the OT purity codes. To cultivate an awareness of man’s iniquity in the presence of a holy God (cf. Lev 11:44-45).

In some cases, the purity codes may classify certain things as unclean due to pagan connotations. It’s a way of disassociating Jewish conduct from pagan idolatry. But that’s a special case of cultic holiness. It falls under the same general rubric.

A state of ritual impurity was not inherently sinful. A pious Jew could remain ritually unclean for an indefinite period of time. That only became unacceptable when he had to perform a cultic duty, which required him to ritually purify himself before performing the cultic duty.

Over time, in various religious traditions that advanced such as ancient Greek religion, the category of ritual purity and impurity was reinterpreted as being symbolic of moral purity and impurity, and not as having any significance or being of its own. (E.g., when Socrates says in Phaedo that only the pure may see the Forms upon death, he is understanding "purity" in a moral sense, not a ritual sense, though the terminology is ritualistic.) This is what happens in Mt 15. In response to the argument of the Pharisees that his disciples have defiled themselves (from the point of view of ritual purity) by eating with unwashed hands, Jesus at Mt 15:11 asserts that nothing that enters into a man makes him unclean, which in this context clearly is a denial of the reality of ritual impurity, the presupposition of his critics' complaint; this is a reinterpretation of the ancient category of ritual (im)purity into moralistic terms. The terms "(im)pure", "(un)clean", etc., originated as terms describing ritual cleanliness, and were eventually transformed and reinterpreted as referring to a moral reality.

i) Mt 15:11 doesn’t deny the existence of ritual impurity. Rather, it makes the point that ritual impurity should not be confused with moral impurity. The Pharisees inverted the proper order, elevating symbolic moral pollution above actual moral pollution.

ii) Moreover, the Pharisees invented their own purity codes, which sometimes negated OT law. 

In other words, my argument is this: the Leviticus text presupposes the genuine, independent reality of an ancient category of religious life, namely ritual purity and impurity, whereas the Matthean text asserts the reality only of the moral category of religious life. The Leviticus text represents an ancient way of religious thinking, asserting that there is such a thing as ritual purity distinct from moral uprightness.

Ritual purity is distinct from moral uprightness. Ritual purity symbolizes holiness. But symbolism distinguishes the sign from the significate. A symbol is not identical with what it stands for. Rather, it’s a relation between two things: the emblematic sign, and the reality which the sign illustrates.

If his laws are not based on the nature of the things the laws are about -- e.g., if the law against contact with the dead is not based on an actual polluting power of a deceased body -- then his laws would seem to be entirely arbitrary.

i) All laws are not of a kind. Moral laws are based on the nature of things.

ii) There’s a sense in which symbolism is to some degree arbitrary. There's no necessary, one-to-one correspondence between a symbol and what it symbolizes. You could have different symbols for the same thing, or the same symbol for different things. Symbolic meaning is ascriptive rather than inherent. Culturally assigned.

At the same time, that doesn’t make the relation “entirely arbitrary.” Some symbols are more natural than others. There’s a reason Isaiah says “all flesh is grass” rather than “all flesh is brass.” One metaphor is more suited to the sentiment than another.

Regarding ritual purity: like I said, ritual purity/impurity is a concept we do not believe in as moderns and can no longer really understand, but it was evidently clear enough to those ancients for whom it was a great concern.

We can grasp the concept of symbolism. And symbolism can be believable. A particular classification may be obscure to us, given our cultural distance, but the broader principle is intelligible.

This does not line up with his behavior -- he [Jesus] regularly comes into contact with the ritually impure and there are no recorded instances of his undergoing purification afterward -- nor with his words -- as, for example, in Mt 15.

That’s a fallacious inference. Jesus didn’t have the same relation to the ceremonial law as an ordinary Jew. According to the Gospels, Jesus is the Son of God Incarnate. Naturally God can’t be defiled by contact with his creatures.

Moreover, Jesus is the Savior and the Redeemer. In the nature of the case, he will socialize with sinners. That’s a part of his mission.

BV comments:  I find the foregoing persuasive and would extract the following argument against inerrancy from it:

1. If the Scripture is inerrant, then no later passage revises, corrects, contradicts, annuls, or abrogates any earlier passage.

2. There are NT passages that contradict OT passages, e.g. MT 15:11 contradicts Lev 11:24.


3. It is not the case that the Scripture is inerrant.

The argument is valid in point of logical form.  If the first premise is not true, then I simply do not know what plenary inerrancy means. (I assume we mean by inerrancy plenary (full) inerrancy.  Otherwise I could maintain that my blog is inerrant, provided you ignore all assertions in it that are mistaken.  "It is everywhere inerrant except where it isn't.")  The first premise is true and so is the second as the anon. contributor demonstrated.  Therefore, the Scriptures are not inerrant.

That's grossly simplistic:

i) Not all laws are moral laws. There are laws of utility as well as laws of morality.

ii) Moreover, in the case of moral laws, we need to distinguish between the generic principle which the law exemplifies, and the specific instance. Even if the underlying principle is universal, the specific instance may be indexed to the socioeconomic conditions of a particular time and place.

For example, a law against cattle rustling exemplifies a general prohibition against theft. But that law is not culturally universal. It only obtains in the socioeconomic context of farming and ranching.

iii) We need to distinguish between higher and lower obligations. Not every obligation is equally obligatory. In case of conflict, a higher obligation supersedes a lower obligation.

iv) On a related note, we need to distinguish between intrinsic obligations and instrumental obligations. Every duty is not an end in itself. Some duties are means to ends. They are designed to facilitate a particular outcome. They have no inherent value. 

v) In addition, even moral laws may be concessive. Not all moral laws reflect an ethical ideal. They may set the bar fairly low. 

vi) The ceremonial laws have symbolic value. Their value is indexed to a particular function. And that can terminate.

vii) Likewise, it’s often possible to nullify a contract through breach of contract, although the violation will incur contractually stipulated penalties for nonperformance.


  1. Steve you rock. My brain is having some difficulties at this time in my life, but it was great to look over your post here.

    God rules with His Word & Spirit; and loves His beloved more than we could ever imagine times infinity.

    Have a great weekend and Lord's day! Jesus is our Peace.

  2. I had a lot more to say in the comment box at Bill's blog but, unfortunately, only a few of my comments were short enough for his liking. Which is fine - it's his blog after all! - but I'm glad you were able to address the points raised by his guest poster more thoroughly. :)

  3. Most people like simplistic objections to inerrancy, because it keeps them from actually dealing with scripture. It is so much easier if you make excuses not to obey it.

  4. "It’s easy for sinners to turn human duties into divine duties. To act as if merely or cynically performing a religious rite obliges God to do something for us."

    The great irony here is the fact that God has obliged Himself to those He elects and calls to do something for us now that He through Christ has done something for us already!

    Here is the struggle, to be sure, and, not an easy struggle at that:

    Heb 4:8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on.
    Heb 4:9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God,
    Heb 4:10 for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.
    Heb 4:11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.