Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The hermeneutics of inerrancy

1. Apologetic shortcuts

Atheists constantly attack the Bible. They allege that Scripture is riddled with errors and contradictions. They constantly recycle the same stock objections. 

Now, some of these passages require individualized treatment, but in many cases, atheists raise the same kinds of objections, so it's unnecessary to address each and every objection separately. Rather, we can debunk the false assumptions that underlie similar kinds of objections. Many objections to the inerrancy and historicity of the Bible fall under some general categories. Therefore, a Christian apologist can take some shortcuts by noting these rules of thumb. Although I've discussed all these principles at one time or another, there's some value in collecting them in one post. I'm probably overlooking some categories, because I've written so much about it. 

2. Double standard?

Atheists contend that Christians are guilty of special pleading when they interpret the Bible to save face. However, none of my principles are distinctive to inerrancy. Rather, these pertain to hermeneutics in general. Many atheists (e.g. Bart Ehrman) are poor readers. Their approach represents a maladroit way to read historical narratives or law codes generally, whether inspired or uninspired. 

When we encounter difficulties in an uninspired text, we make allowance for error. That's the primary difference between the Christian interpretation of Scripture and uninspired writings. But even in the case of uninspired writers, there's no general presumption that the writer was mistaken. Sometimes he was. But sometimes the reader is mistaken. And that's more likely when we read ancient writings. 

3. Background knowledge

Human communication usually requires the reader/listener to read between the lines. Much is left unstated. The writer/speaker takes a shared body of common knowledge for granted. But some of that is lost when we read an ancient document. 

To take a comparison, there are tropes and conventions associated with certain cinematic genres. Science fiction conventions include time travel and travel to a parallel universe. Horror films include conventions about werewolves and vampires. The audience is expected to be familiar with these conventions, so that no exposition or explanation is required.  If a viewer is new to the genre, he will find the plot inscrutable. It won't make any sense to him. Yet that's not because the plot is flawed. It may make flawless sense if you understand the conventions of the genre. If you have the requisite background knowledge. The same issue applies when reading an ancient text.

4. Methodological atheism

Atheists accuse Christians of a double standard. We credit supernatural explanations in Scripture but we operate like methodological naturalists when it comes to explaining phenomena outside of Scripture. Now, there may be some hardline cessationists who are guilty of this, but speaking for myself, my position isn't compartmentalized. I accept naturalistic explanations when I have no reason to think there's anything about the phenomenon that makes a naturalistic explanation inadequate or implausible. However, I believe there's phenomena in the modern world that invite a supernatural explanation. So I'm consistent in that regard.

Moreover, that goes back to a biblical distinction miracle and ordinary providence. The natural world operates much like a machine. But that draws attention to exceptions. 

5. Photographic realism

Many atheists have an unreasonable notion of what constitutes accurate reportage. They imagine that in order to be accurate, a report must be like audiotape or videotape. But in many cases that isn't even possible. The written medium is different than seeing something happen. You're translating an experience from one mode of information to a different mode of information. When we see something, that's very dense. That has lots of incidental, extraneous detail. 

Moreover, we see and hear things in chronological order. We read and write in a certain order. But images aren't linear in the way writing is. So some adjustments are necessary when translating observation to writing. It's selective and it's going to rearrange things to some degree. 

As I define it, what makes a report accurate is that if I could step into the time machine and go back to the event, there'd be a recognizable correspondence between the report and the event. "Ah, so here's where Jesus said this and did that!" 

I'd expect some differences. The sequence might be different. The account might simplify the incident by filtering out extraneous details. But by comparing the account to the event, I could identify the same event, speech, or statement. 

6. Anachronism

It's natural for a modern reader to use his own cultural understanding as the frame of reference when he reads a text. But that carries the danger of imposing an alien filter onto the text. For instance, when we read the flood account, it's natural to unconsciously interpret the description in light of modern geography and biogeography. But the original audience didn't have that frame of reference. Their historical horizon was the Middle East. So a modern reader needs to guard against recontextualizing an ancient document to mean something it didn't refer to. 

7. Visionary revelation

In Scripture, much or most prophecy originates in visionary revelation. The seer then provides a verbal description of what he saw. Sometimes he may provide an interpretation of what he saw, but often all the reader has to work with is the verbal description.  

Images aren't propositions. Strictly speaking, an image of the future isn't a truth-claim. A future-oriented image isn't true or false, but suggestive. That's further complicated by the fact that some revelatory dreams and visions are allegorical. 

So the relation between prophecy and truth is often at one or more steps removed from truth or falsehood. It depends on correspondence between what was seen and future events. Is there a specific recognizable match? 

8. Typology

According to Scripture, God prearranges history so that some things in the past symbolically prefigure some things in the future. And it may involve a one-to-many relation, similar to how different actors can play the same role. There may be a definitive realization, but along the way there are things that exemplify that principle. History is repetitious. The same kinds of events recur. 

9. Synoptic/resumption-expansion

That's a compositional technique in Hebrew narration:

A Hebrew author will at times tell the whole story in brief form (synopsis), then repeat the story (resumption), adding greater detail (expansion). Mark Futato, "Because It Had Rained: A Study of Gen 2:5-7 with Implications for Gen 2:4-25 and Gen 1:1—2:3," WTJ 60.1 (Spring 1998) 12; cf. Herbert Chanan Brichto, Toward a Grammar of Biblical Poetics: Tales of the Prophets (Oxford 1992), 13-19. 

Examples include the relationship between Gen 1-2, the number of paired animals in the flood account (Gen 6-7), and the extent/success of the Conquest (Joshua; Judges). That's not a contradiction. Rather, the narrator makes a general statement, then qualifies that later on with greater specification. 

10. Numbers

i) Some numbers are probably transcriptional errors. Numbers are easy to miscopy

ii) Scripture uses round numbers

iii) Scripture uses symbolic numbers (numerology)

iv) Some numbers may be hyperbolic

v) Some numbers may be stock numbers

Some numbers may be stock numbers. A narrator will use a stock number if he doesn't know the actual figure. It's a way of saying "this was big!"

vi) Idiomatic numbers

There's the "problem of large numbers" in the OT. Some of these are puzzling to modern readers. They seem unrealistic. Yet, presumably, they made sense to the original audience. So some OT numbers may be idiomatic, but modern readers have lost the key. 

11. Quotations

i) Some quotes paraphrase or summarize what was originally said.

ii) Some quotes are composite quotes or general allusions.

iii) Some quotes are verbally accurate reproductions of inaccurate statements. 

According to plenary verbal inspiration, Biblical narrators are inerrant. In addition, some speakers in biblical narratives are inerrant (e.g. prophets, apostles). However, the Bible also quotes uninspired speakers. If a figure in a biblical narrative makes an erroneous statement, it's not erroneous for the narrator to quote what he said. Historians, biographers, and journalists quote what people say even if what they say is nonsense. 

12. Fallacy of negative proof

i) As one philosopher defines it:

The fallacy of the negative proof is an attempt to sustain a factual proposition merely by negative evidence. It occurs whenever a historian declares that "there is no evidence that X is the case," and then proceeds to affirm or assume that not-X is the case...evidence must always be affirmative. Negative evidence is a contradiction in terms — it is no evidence at all. The nonexistence of an object is established not by nonexistent evidence but by affirmative evidence of the fact that it did not, or could not exist. David Hackett Fischer, Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (Harper & Row 1970), 47,62.

ii) That's somewhat overstated. There are times when the argument from silence is compelling. It is true, though, that many "skeptics" of the Bible act as though lack of evidence is automatically tantamount to counterevidence. But lack of evidence is not equivalent to positive evidence to the contrary. 

iii) Moreover, the argument from silence can't simply be asserted or assumed. Rather, that's only sound when there's a reasonable expectation that if something was the case, there'd be an extant record. 

iv) This also goes to a critical distinction between hits and misses. Given the random, unrepresentative nature of the surviving evidence, it's unsurprising that we lack corroborative evidence for many incidents in Scripture if Scripture is historical but quite surprising that we have so much corroborative evidence if Scripture is unhistorical. 

Many atheists have a completely unreasonable expectation regarding what kinds of physical evidence should survive at this distance from events. There's a lot of corroborative evidence for Scripture, but it's sometimes indirect. And that's true for ancient records generally. 

13. Law codes

Atheists draw attention to apparent discrepancies between different editions of the law code in the Pentateuch. But there are some basic problems with that comparison:

i) There's a certain fluidity to the law codes. When Moses was still alive, the law code could be amended. Circumstances arose in the wilderness wandering that raised new questions, calling for new answers (e.g. Num 27). 

ii) Likewise, although there's a lot of overlap and repetition between the law codes in Exodus and Deuteronomy, life in the Sinai desert makes different demands than life in the Promised Land, so some adjustments are to be expected. 

iii) Finally, there's evidence of occasional editorial updating in the Pentateuchal law codes. 

The upshot is that the Mosaic law wasn't entirely static. There's some development within the Mosaic law. It wasn't frozen in time when first delivered. 

14. Grammar and spelling

i) To my knowledge, there's no reason to think Greek and Hebrew grammar and spelling were standardized in Bible times. You didn't have the reference works we take for granted today.

ii) Moreover, grammar and spelling are irrelevant to inerrancy inasmuch as grammar and spelling are social conventions rather than true or false propositions.

15. Composite speeches

Some speeches in Scripture may be composite speeches. I think the Sermon on the Mount is a good candidate. That's too much to absorb at one sitting. I assume Jesus said some of those things on that occasion, and Matthew combined it with other things Jesus said on other occasions. 

16. Narrative compression

In biblical narratives, as well as historical writing generally, the coverage is selective. To a careless reader, this may foster the impression that one thing happened right after another, but that's a naive way of reading historical narratives. 

A narrator may have different reasons to simplify an event. For instance, he has limited space on a scroll, so he has to pace himself so that he won't run out of space before he finishes the story. Many ancient books didn't survive because they were too long. They were written on multiple scrolls, and that was too much of a chore for scribes to copy and store. 

17. Thematic narration

Many historical accounts aren't purely narrative. They contain laws, speeches, dialogues, parables, &c. Because they combine different genres, that interrupts the narrative flow. The question is where to put the non-narrative material. For instance, a narrator might collate related speeches or parables because that makes them easier to reference or remember. The sequence isn't consistently chronological, but that's not a mistake. Rather, that's a logical editorial decision. 

18. Oral history

If Matthew, Mark, and John are eyewitness memoirs, then the sequence may derive to some extent, not on the order in which things happened, but the order in which the observer remembers them. If they're are dictating their recollections to a scribe, then the sequence will reflect the order in which they remember events. I'd add that John's many parenthetical asides are characteristic of oral history. 

19. Verbal variation

It's natural for an eyewitness to paraphrase himself. When he recounts the same incident on different occasions, the wording varies. That's not an indication that the account was redacted. Rather, spontaneous verbal variation is typical of how observers retell firsthand anecdotes. 

In addition, the spoken word is more redundant than the written word. So even when they're recounting the same anecdote on the same occasion, they will say the same thing in more than one way. 

20. Names

In a polyglot culture like the Roman Empire and the ancient Near East, sometimes the same person went by more than one name. Sometimes the same locality had more than one name. That can be confusing, but it's not a contradiction. Likewise, place names change. Many places are forgotten. And some names may be miscopied. But where we have corroboration, it's striking how biblical proper names and place names match the period. 

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