Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Literalism and inerrantism

In the popular imagination, the doctrines of literalism and inerrantism about Scripture go hand-in-hand. And there may well be a positive correlation between adherence to these doctrines.

But isn't this a strange marriage? Inerrantism is basically the doctrine that every proposition asserted by Scripture is true (perhaps with an "oeconomic necessity" operator applied). On the other hand, literalism is something like the doctrine that narrative sentences in Scripture, with the exception of those that the Bible marks otherwise and those that sufficiently closely stylistically and/or contextually resemble those so market, are to be understood pretty much the way they would be understood if their vocabulary were mildly modernized and they were embedded in a present-day work of history. (It's clear that literalism is much harder to define then inerrancy—it's a slippery doctrine. It has some charateristic marks, though, such as thinking that Genesis 1 and 2 are meant to be, basically, history.)

An obvious difference is that it would be hard to both be an atheist and accept inerrance (one would have to have a really wacky interpretation of Scripture), but it is quite possible (and it actually happens, perhaps quite often) for an atheist to be a literalist.

In fact one would expect a negative correlation between adherence to literalism and adherence to inerrantism. If one is an inerrantist, then one of the exegetical tools available to one is an inference from "p is false" to "Scripture does not assert p", and this exegetical tool, together with modern science, should result in the rejection of literalism.


Heath White said...

Surely part of what's going on here is that, unless Scripture interpretation is to be entirely the plaything of other sources of knowledge, we need the inference from "Scripture appears to assert p" to "Scripture asserts p." And that will push in the direction of literalism.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. This inference should be defeasible. This way, Scripture interpretation will be affected by other sources of knowledge, but need not be their plaything.

2. That inference doesn't always push in the direction of literalism. For instance, it doesn't push in that direction when on a literalist interpretation there appear are to be conflicts within a text that would have been evident to the final author/editor. (This is arguably the case with Genesis 1-2.) It also doesn't push in that direction when the literary form is strongly stylized and poetic, as in Genesis 1.

3. I think I want to say that for any inerrantist there should be at least three inferences whose interplay goes into interpretation of Scripture:
a. Apparently ~p, therefore Scripture does not assert p.
b. On philological and literary grounds, Scripture appears to assert p, therefore Scripture asserts p.
c. The predominant or privileged interpretation of Scripture in the Christian Tradition appears to be that it asserts that p, therefore Scripture asserts p.

The Catholic boosts c by arguing that there are particularly authoritative aspects of the Tradition such that if in fact these aspects interpret Scripture as asserting p, then necessarily (oeconomic necessity) Scripture asserts p. (That's compatible with the defeasibility of c, since c's premise is that the Tradition appears to interpret Scripture a certain way.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

p.s. I think that of the three inferences, the literalist privileges (b), and often does so without enough sophistication on the literary side.

jwmartens said...

A short response to your post. I did not understand your post on "oeconomic necessity," so my apologies if I missed something: http://www.biblejunkies.com/2012/01/biblical-literalism-and-inerrantism.html

Alexander R Pruss said...

I posted some responses on your blog.

The issue with oeconomic necessity is this. Inerrance isn't just the absence of error. There are texts where there is no error. Here is one:

"There are over 6.5 billion people on earth. About half of them are female. 2+2=4."

My quoted text makes three assertions, each of them true. But it's not inerrant, because although it doesn't have any errors, in some sense it could have had error. Scripture, on the other hand, not only doesn't happen to have error, but in some sense of "must" must be free of error. The notion of "oeconomic necessity" is just my way of giving a name to the specific sense of "must" here. It's a conditional "must", conditional on God's specific choice of a plan of salvation for us.

jwmartens said...

Dear Alexander,

This is my long in coming response to your comments on my blog post in January. It is not precisely a response to you, as I think your reading of Dei Verbum 11 is probably correct, but an attempt to put in context your reading: http://www.biblejunkies.com/2012/03/inerrancy-approaches-to-dei-verbum-11.html

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response!