Thursday, July 12, 2018

When you lose inerrancy, that's not all you lose

I recently had an exchange with chapter Director of the Reasonable Faith (W. L. Craig's outfit):

Dr. Craig's "web of theology" analogy aptly illustrates this notion. For example, Bart Ehrman's failure to make the distinction led him to reject Christianity altogether based on his inability to maintain inerrancy, which he held to be central to the faith.

1. The ease with which some younger-generation apologists demote inerrancy reflects a flawed apologetic paradigm. Inerrancy is grounded in the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration. 

And that, in turn, is grounded in distinctive biblical theism. The God of Scripture is a God who speaks to and through chosen individuals. That differentiates the true God from the mute idol-gods of paganism. And that differentiates true prophets from false prophets. 

Although the Bible is a historical document, it isn't just a historical document. In addition, the Bible is a religious document with a theology of inspiration, revelation, and providence. Just peeling away a historical layer is reductionistic and misrepresents the fundamental nature of Christianity as a revealed religion. 

2. It also reflects an ill-conceived strategy regarding the alternatives. The motivation is that even if the Bible is fallible, that doesn't justify apostasy, for a fallible but reliable Bible is an adequate fallback.

But the proper response isn't to ditch inerrancy; rather, the proper response is to take atheism off the table. Explain that naturalism is not a viable alternative. Naturalism sabotages reason, meaning, and morality.

Hopefully you agree though that one can in principle ditch inerrancy without necessarily ditching faith in Christ for salvation. In other words, inerrancy is less than central to the Gospel, that the stakes of ditching inerrancy are lower than the stakes of ditching faith in Christ for salvation and rejecting inerrancy.

No, I don't grant that. There's a distinction between saving faith and what is necessary for Christianity to be true. But we don't want to drive a wedge between them, do we?

Or it's actually setting the bar for salvation where it should be and not letting things like the number of horses in Solomon's stalls be an impediment to and distraction from the Gospel of Christ. Hopefully though we can agree that there are such things as "peripheral matters of theology"... that not everything in Scripture is foundational and that there are things in the Bible that, if wrong or missing, would not destroy Christianity.

But Scripture itself is foundational.

I'm not sure we're using "foundational" in the same sense. By "foundational" I mean that there are things in Scripture that, were they wrong or missing, would not destroy Christianity. For instance, Christianity does not rise or fall on Shamgar's killing of 600 Philistines with an oxgoad (Judges 3:31). Imagine we find out that Shamgar killed 30 men with a spear. Would you abandon Christianity because of the discrepancy? I should hope not.

1. That's a hopelessly atomistic view of the issue. It's like saying, because I can survive frostbitten toes, because I can survive an amputated toe, I can survive Antarctica in my tighty-whities. The question isn't whether the body can survive the loss of a toe, but what sustains the entire body, toes included. 

If you jettison inerrancy, then you implicitly jettison the verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture since it doesn't make a heap of sense to say a verbally plenarily inspired text is fallible. So the question isn't whether Christianity can survive minor errors in the Bible, considered in isolation, but whether Christianity can survive without the verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture. Whether that sustains the entire faith, just as oxygen sustains the entire body. The body can survive without certain appendages, but it can't survive without oxygen. If a toe dies from oxygen deprivation, the body can survive, but the body itself can't survive without oxygen. The issue isn't (hypothetical) compartmentalized errors, but what keeps the entire organism alive.

2. Dropping the metaphor, if you jettison plenary verbal inspiration, what's the prophetic status of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel, Micah, &c.? 

3. What makes the death/resurrection of Christ important? That's contingent on the theological significance of his death/resurrection. And that, in turn, is contingent on theological interpretation. Take how Paul and the author of Hebrews interpret the atonement of Christ. But if their letters are uninspired, what makes the death/resurrection of Christ special? The bare events of crucifixion and resurrection are ciphers. 

4. What about biblical promises regarding eternal life? What's the value of uninspired promises regarding eternal life? Absent revelation, Bible writers have no more insight into the nature of the afterlife, if any, than Buddha. 

5. Apropos (4), the historical reliability of a document depends on testimonial evidence. But the traits of a trustworthy eyewitness don't qualify him to know anything beyond what he can naturally perceive with the five senses. It doesn't go beyond the empirical. Doesn't give him foresight into the future, the afterlife, or insight regarding God's nature and intentions. 

6. What about the teaching of Jesus? Is that essential to Christianity? Consider these speeches, debates, and dialogues: 

Sabbath controversies (Mt 12:1–45)
Sabbath controversies (Lk 6)
Sabbath controversies (Lk 13-14)
Jesus and Nicodemus (Jn 3)
Jesus and the Samaritan women (Jn 4)
Bread of Life Discourse (Jn 6)
Debating religious authorities/before Abraham was, I am (Jn 8)
Debating religious authorities/I and the Father are one (Jn 10)
Last Supper (Jn 13)
Upper Room Discourse (Jn 14-17)

That's just a sample. I think it's well established that people remember events better than words. And while they may sometimes remember the gist of what somebody said, that's not a detailed verbal recollection. Yet many of these pericopes involve extended speeches and conversations. Unique, one-time events. Not something the disciples heard repeatedly. But absent plenary verbal inspiration, these are, at best, uninspired translations of uninspired recollections. That's two big steps removed from what Jesus actually said. So we lose the teaching of Jesus.

BTW, many disputes in Christian theology and ethics turn on exactly how the statements of Jesus are worded in the Gospels. But if, at best, this is just a fallible translation of someone's fallible memory of what Jesus said, then the wording is unreliable.


  1. While I am not well-read on the subject (I was a Catholic for much of my life, until recently, so maybe that explains my ignorance) - I dont think the real problem is inerrancy of scripture but what that inerrancy entails?

    I think most "modern" apologist are not confident that the scripture is inerrant in the absolute sense - that is, in every jot and tittle. I am aware that that sort of inerrancy applies to the original authographs, I am not sure how the Bible in the current state is seen as. Absolutely inerrant in every sense, or some sense? If in every sense, how can such a claim hold water as there are discrepancies in the Biblical accounts (eg. 2 Samuel 24:9 and 1 Chronicles 21:5.), not to mention variant readings (eg. Mark 1:1) all of which cannot be correct at the same time (eg. the number of the beast cannot be 616 and 666).

    If my memory serves me well, the Catholic church has redefined inerrancy as being restricted to faith and morals. Some others I have heard redefine it to imply the Bible is inerrant in what it wants to convey about God's dictum to us, and the like.

    But you are right - the recent tendency to be open to abandoning inerrancy in toto is probably self-defeating in the long run. It is capitulating to the naturalistic world-view in the hopes of winning souls on atheistic (or ungodly?) grounds.

    1. i) The extant text of the Bible contains some scribal errors.

      ii) At Vatican II, the bishops originally intended to reaffirm the traditional position on the plenary inspiration of Scripture, but scaled that back after Franz Cardinal König gave an influential speech impugning the inerrancy of Scripture.


  2. Also, can you suggest resource(s) that give a good treatment to this subject of inerrancy?


  3. I appreciate people tracking down all the info on inerrancy, but too far down the hole leads to pedantic stuff like this: