Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"The Word of God" and infallibility

A couple of days ago, I was reading an article whose author first committed to the Bible being "the Word of God" and then a page later said that the Bible is not infallible in any way. I found this very puzzling. It seems:

  • If an assertion of p is the word of x, then either: (a) p is true, or (b) x is mistaken about p, or (c) x is lying about p.
But God is essentially omniscient, so he can't be mistaken about anything. And surely it's foundational of our relationship with God that "God is not a man that he should lie" (Numbers 23:19). So every assertion in the Bible is true if the Bible is God's word.

Now, granted, there may be a bit of a gap between saying that every assertion in the Bible is true and saying that the Bible is infallible. One might note that there are speech acts other than assertions in the Bible, and infallibility for these speech acts comes to something else. For instance, there are commands in the Bible. I don't know what infallibility would come to in the case of a command, but it is plausible that whatever exactly infallibility would come to in the case of a command, a command from God would have that feature.

I fear that when people deny the infallibility or inerrance of Scripture and yet say it's "the Word of God", they are using "the Word of God" in a sense different from the one that historically and lexically attaches to the phrase. And that's misleading unless they are addressing a community that attaches that new sense to the phrase.


StMichael said...

I think many "modernist" theologians, who I am guessing might be close to the kind of person who wrote what you read, take what we might consider an "expressivist" theory of divine meaning. Theological propositions do not, ala bastardized Schleiermacher, intend to communicate any truths, strictly speaking, but aim at some practical effect for the hearer. So every word of Scripture is truly God's word, but there is consequently a fourth option: "x intends by uttering that p to produce some effect in the hearer (distinct from belief that p)." Whereas you might restrict this to things like imperatives, I think these theologians just deny there are any really true statements asserted in Scripture. Or, if accidentally true, the truth is not that at which Scripture "aims."

Alexander R Pruss said...

But if they think this, then they should still say that the Bible is infallible, in two senses:
(1) every assertion in the Bible is true (trivially!), and
(2) every imperative in the Bible is appropriate (since it is a word of God).

StMichael said...

I think they do hold (1). I don't know about your guy. Perhaps he meant to deny (as I have read in some other authors) that the common notion of "infallibility" is that all the beliefs asserted in the Bible are true. Often they accept the trivial truth implication (I think), but deny that this is infallibility according to the common notion.

As to the second, they do not seem to need to hold that all Biblical imperatives are appropriate, but might qualify that what could count as an imperative is what is actually being commanded of the reader/hearer. These, naturally, would all be appropriate in some way.

Now, just to make my intention explicit, I think this theory is insane, contrary to the clear sense of Scripture and Tradition, and wraps the adherent in theoretical knots. So I'm not defending it :) Schillebeeckx seems to me to defend something like this.

entirelyuseless said...

In the Synod on the Word of God some years ago, there was open disagreement between bishops who agreed with you about this, and ones who didn't, with the result that Synod ended up asking the CDF for a clarification.

But basically the CDF is afraid to say anything: they cannot say that every assertion of Scripture is true, because they cannot see how that can possibly be reconciled with science and history. And they likewise cannot say that not every assertion is true, because that would contradict a continuous succession of Popes from Leo XIII to Pius XII, as well as Vatican II ("one must hold that everything asserted by the human author is asserted by the Holy Spirit"), who all said that Scripture is inerrant in the way you are talking about.

So instead of saying anything, they handed off the task to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which is not magisterial and so doesn't have exactly the same obligation to conform to the traditional formulas. But the PBC was equally unwilling to answer the question that was asked: their document (The Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture) is extremely long, but never says that all of Scripture is true, and equally never denies it.

I think there is a kind of cowardice there. Even if the CDF would have preferred not to do that themselves, I think the PBC should have openly admitted that they see a serious tension between science, biblical criticism etc., and the previous magisterium, and admitted that they do not know how to resolve it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

"because they cannot see how that can possibly be reconciled with science and history"

But it's not that hard. You just need to have a good account of assertion and the distinction between attributive and referential use of language.

StMichael said...

Contemporary theology is filled with unphilosophical minds that would be unable to make those distinctions ;)

Michael Gonzalez said...

It seems that Christ and the apostles took the Hebrew Scriptures to be God's Word in the strict sense: They viewed each statement as true and authoritative. Paul indicated as much at 2 Tim. 3:16, 17. Likewise, Jesus referred to Biblical characters as real people, and indeed the apostles trace Jesus' own lineage from people like Noah, Abraham, etc.

As for cohering with science and history, I've never seen a problem here. Indeed, many is the time that secular thinkers have asserted that the Bible got something wrong about history, and then some new archaeological find vindicates the Bible. For example, people denied the existence of Belshazzar (ruler of Babylon in the book of Daniel). The actual king of Babylon was Nabonidus at the time. However, we later discovered cuneiform writing indicating that Nabonidus entrusted the kingship to his son, Belshazzar, while he was out on military campaigns. This fits with the Daniel account very well, since it explains why Belshazzar only offered THIRD place in the kingdom to whoever could interpret the writing on the wall.

Likewise for science: For example, great scientists derided the creation account because they thought the Universe was obviously eternal... and then we discovered some pretty strong evidence that it isn't.

Without opening up several cans of worms, I think the Christian is well within his intellectual rights to trust the Bible as being completely accurate and true. That being said, some things are clearly meant as figures of speech or parables, and so obviously those should not be treated as literal history (but that's true of any writing which contains various genres).

Heath White said...

How does a referential/attributive distinction help with the scientific and historical accuracy of the Bible? It would surprise me if this were an easy problem.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It's not *that* hard (i.e., so hard that a commission of smart people who have a lot of time to devote to the problem shouldn't be able to figure it out), but it's still pretty hard to get the details right. I'm thinking something like this (and I understand that Swinburne has worked it out in more detail). Recall Donnellan. If I assert: "The guy drinking champagne in the corner is a senator", and I am using "guy drinking champagne" merely referentially, then what I asserted is true even if the guy is drinking ginger ale, as long as he is in fact a senator. (Whether "guy drinking champagne" is being used attributively or referentially depends on my intentions and the context. If we are fellow teetotallers and I am expressing to you my disgust at the thought that a senator could consume ethanol, then I am using the phrase attributively.)

In a nutshell, I read Genesis 1 as if it said something like: "The six-day sequence of things coming into existence is designed and caused by God", with "six-day sequence" being used referentially rather than attributively to refer to the actual sequence (which was much longer than six days long). Of course, there are difficult technical problems here. Genesis 1 doesn't say "The six-day sequence of things coming into existence is designed and caused by God." It is a lot longer than that. But I think the Donnellan-type referential-use phenomenon can occur at the level of literary units larger than a single sentence.

Heath White said...


Maybe that approach will work with Genesis 1, though the risk is that you never know what the Bible is really saying. At the extreme, maybe the whole Bible is a speech act whose content is "Look on the bright side!" and is not an assertion at all. How do we tell?

And there are numerous other scientific/historical issues that I don't know how you'd handle. Genesis 2 says that human beings all are descended from two originals who were created without parents, and Genesis 3 indicates that physical death, pain in (human) childbearing, and difficult agriculture is a result of human sin, contrary to what biology would tell us. There are similar scientific problems a few chapters later with the explanations for rainbows (the flood) and the variety of human languages (Babel). Various people are claimed to have lived improbably long times. A very specific number of people are claimed to have made the Exodus, a number which is much too large historically. The book of Joshua records the overthrow of Jericho, when archaeology tells us it was uninhabited at the time of the Israelite settlement, and also that many of the other battles and massacres in Joshua did not happen. Deuteronomy is placed in the mouth of Moses, while scholarship says it was composed much later. The book of Daniel is similarly dateable to much later than it self-advertises. Etc.

It would stretch my credulity, anyway, to hold that none of these doubtful claims were "asserted by the human author."

A different problem (for Catholics), I imagine, will be that we are not supposed to apply this referential/attributive hermeneutic to authoritative statements of the Magisterium. It yields too much theological and practical license. But why would we read the Bible differently?

Michael Gonzalez said...

I know this is a can of worms, but just a quick response to Heath:

Gen. 1 and 2 collectively use the word for "day" three different ways, making it clear that no literal days are meant. Indeed, some things are started in one day and only totally finished on another day. It does not threaten our ability to understand Scripture if we understand "day" to mean "some non-specific time period" in this case (just as it often does even in English).

My understanding is that genetic research has indicated we did indeed all descend from one woman. In any case, there's nothing in science that definitively rules that out. A lack of death is a gift from God, and had not yet actually been attained (remember "so that they don't eat of the tree of life and thus live forever..." and then God kicks them out). Birth pain was INCREASED for Eve, not invented for all women, and the difficulty in farming was done away with at the Flood. That a rainbow was used to illustrate a new covenant with mankind does not mean there had never been one before or that they are miracles every time. Human language does indeed seem to originate spontaneously, as experts like Stephen Pinker have made clear (there can be no "proto-languages" according to Pinker; it is a mystery how we suddenly got language). Improbably long lifespans have available explanations, and some researchers (like Aubrey deGrey) see no reason we couldn't essentially eradicate aging with the right tweaks. The things about the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan are up for debate, but I know a good many scholars who provide evidence for its historicity. And the dating for prophets (like Daniel) is usually tainted because no secular scholar can believe a prophet would actually get the future right 200 years in advance; so he MUST have lived much later. This is, of course, begging the question in an egregious way. Textual criticism, extreme familiarity with 6th century Babylon and Persia, and the statements of Josephus all point to Daniel living exactly when he said he did.

I'm not saying anyone has answered every objection, but I would say that many objections are extremely weak and ill-thought-out, or (worse yet) they presume atheism/naturalism. The Bible has been vindicated too many times from such charges for us to think that the remaining ones are necessarily fatal.

One very refreshing scholar to read and listen to is Tim McGrew, who has taken the critics to task on the historicity and accuracy of the Gospels and Acts. Once you read how he utterly demolishes those criticisms, I for one have renewed confidence that a similar result could be obtainable with the Old Testament.

Michael Gonzalez said...

One tiny addendum: Jesus himself makes reference to most of the books in the OT, and speaks of the people and events as though they are historical. Given nothing more than the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection from the dead, we have strong reason to believe he really was who he claimed to be (namely: the unique Son of the only true God), and thus his testimony should carry a LOT of weight on this matter of authenticity.

Alexander R Pruss said...


One useful hermeneutical principle is that the aims of the text are theological, and so the assertions in the text are supposed to be primarily theological in nature.

Another useful hermeneutical principle is that the assertions of the text are true, so we shouldn't read them in ways that make them be false. :-)

You worry that all this stretches credulity. I worry a little about that, but not as much as you do. There are many different kinds of literary forms. In the case of large chunks of the Old Testament, we know very little about the particular audience and context the text was addressed to, and hence often we don't know the extent to which particular details were asserted and how much they are like Donnellan's champagne.

I don't think it follows that anything goes. First, Scripture is not all we have: we have Tradition, and the ongoing light of the Holy Spirit. Second, there are more and less plausible readings that fit with the hermeneutical principles, our knowledge of the languages, non-biblical texts, etc. I don't think that a reading that takes all miracle reports to be unasserted is plausible--indeed, it seems that miracles are reported as evidence for theological claims at times, and if you use p as evidence for q, you are asserting something close to p (with a level of detail relevant to the evidential force in favor of q).

Alexander R Pruss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexander R Pruss said...

I also like Michael's hermeneutical principle: Jesus's ways of interpreting are normative.

Anonymous said...

I agree that there are accounts that can make belief in the inerrancy of Scripture roughly as plausible as e.g. belief in the Real Presence, but I also agree with Heath that for many people, such accounts would "stretch credulity." So it would be unlikely that you could get a whole group like the PBC to accept them; I doubt that more than a few of the members would.

Also, there are various issues with such accounts:

1) It isn't difficult to find things that look like errors even where properly theological claims are at issue. For example, after the flood, God forbids Noah from eating blood. This happens before the giving of the law, and to the ancestor of the human race, so it looks like this prohibition is absolute, and that it is a command to the whole of humanity. Then, the council of Jerusalem, even when it relaxes the requirements of the law for gentiles, includes the ban on eating blood, apparently equating this with "fornication." This seems a direct confirmation by Apostolic authority that the above reading is correct, and that the whole of humanity is forbidden to eat blood. But this is false.

The problem with such issues is that if you relax your requirements enough to accommodate them is that it will become very difficult to make an argument from Scripture for a theological point, because it might just be another apparent error.

2) As you say, there are points where we are very confident that the authors of Scripture are asserting something, and any other reading would be extremely implausible under any account. In particular we have cases of the authors engaging in apologetics, where they evidently want to convince you that something actually happened.

It seems to me that this is another problem which is not wholly resolved by such accounts, because these are situations where it can be very implausible that you do not have an exaggeration.

E.g.: the resurrection of Lazarus in the Gospel of John. It cannot be said that St. John is not asserting this account, since he is explicitly using it to convince you of the resurrection of Christ. I wouldn't claim that the miracle couldn't have happened, but it is very implausible to me that the account is not exaggerated, both on account of the details of the content itself, and because of the general fact that miracle accounts tend to get exaggerated over time.

Or again, St. Paul saying that Christ appeared to five hundred disciples at one time. This is clearly asserted, since its purpose is apologetic. It is the only place where such an appearance is recorded in Scripture, and it is very unlike all of the other appearances, which happen to only a few people. And St. Paul seems to know of it only through the fact that people told him. I suspect the figure of five hundred is greatly exaggerated (not by Paul himself but by his sources), and if this is the case it is at least difficult to give an account that maintains the truth of the statement.

3) As Heath suggested, the kinds of readings that are necessary to preserve the truth of Scripture can in principle be applied to the magisterium. This hasn't been done much yet, but historically it will become more likely over time, simply in order to reconcile the claims of the magisterium. This will tend to water down the teaching of the Church to almost nothing. To some extent we can see that this process has already started.

Michael Gonzalez said...


May I address your first 2 points briefly?

1) Exactly why do you think the ban on eating blood is not binding on the entire human family?? God has indicated that blood especially represents life ever since the death of Abel. His command to Noah was binding on all humanity (Noah being the patriarch of all humanity at the time), and again He cites the fact that the life (or soul) is in the blood, and so it specially belongs to Him. Then the Apostolic ruling in Acts seems to make it abundantly clear that, while many things in the Mosaic Law were abolished, the eating of blood is still forbidden (along with fornication and idolatry, which are obviously forbidden for all humanity). What is it that makes you think otherwise?

2) You haven't given any reason to think that the accounts of Lazarus or of the 500 are exaggerated in any way. Indeed, the part about the 500, "many of whom are still alive, but some of whom have fallen asleep in death", is considered one of the strongest evidences that Paul's sources were indeed eyewitness. After all, here he was pointing you to a very large group of people, and inviting you to check with any of the many who were still alive.

Heath White said...

Jesus's ways of interpreting are normative.

Jesus’s actual ways of interpreting Scripture are pretty peculiar to the modern mind. When he interprets Ps 110 (“The Lord said to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”) he raises a puzzle about how David could be referring to a superior, and gives a Messianic solution to the puzzle. But there is a clear non-Messianic reading: the psalm is composed for a cantor, who is talking about what God said to the king. When Jesus interprets Exodus 3:6 (“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”) he claims that, since God is the God of the living not the dead, this implies a resurrection. But a clear alternative would be that God is saying something along the lines of “the GOP is the party of Lincoln”—i.e. I am the God your ancestors worshipped.

In short, Jesus feels free to draw pretty creative inferences from the OT text.

He is followed in this by e.g. Matthew, who says Jesus fulfills various prophecies, when all or nearly all of those prophecies have non-Messianic original meanings. And by Paul, whose plays fast and loose with OT quotes, for example as documented here:

I have read, but don’t know, that this sort of creative (mis?)reading was fairly typical in at least some Jewish circles in the biblical period, which is why Jesus and his followers don’t get laughed out of the arena.

At any rate, I think most conservative Christians have not really grappled with the actual hermeneutical practice of the NT.

P.S. I don't have any problems with miracle accounts per se, and my initial list of historical/scientific difficulties was selected on other criteria.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Well, hopefully everybody on the PBC accepts the real presence, so if inerrance can be made as plausible as the real presence, it shouldn't be a problem!

In general, commands can be withdrawn by the same authority who gave them.

I see no reason to think there is anything exaggerated in the account of the raising of Lazarus. I am not clear on where there could be *exaggeration*. Are you thinking that maybe Lazarus was only dead two days instead of four? Or that instead of a "crowd" there were only Lazarus' sisters there? Such hypotheses seem arbitrary: it seems much more reasonable to take the story at face value.

Again, I see little reason to think the figure of 500 is exaggerated, though I could be convinced that there was some particular symbolic rather than historical reason for using that number rather than others. 500 people is not all that much. If you have men (average shoulder to shoulder distance is 17-18 inches, apparently) standing shoulder to shoulder, and leaving a bit of space behind and in front, you will have 500 people fitting in about a 10 meter by 11 meter area.

In the case of magisterial teachings, we have a lot more data. We have a lot of information on the theological debates that gave rise to the teachings, so we know what views were being condemned. We have a very good handle on the literary form in use. In the case of more recent councils, we even have documentary records of the debates at the council that gave rise to the teaching.

There are, of course, *some* questions of interpretation. But much is clear.

That said, much in Scripture is clear, too. :-)

Michael Gonzalez said...

Heath: I'm genuinely bewildered by your position here.

If the authoritative representative of God Himself says that a passage has a particular significance, then it certainly does. And that doesn't set up some odd way of interpreting passages in general. My point on the topic of historicity and infallibility is that Jesus took the historical accounts and even the miracles very literally. They were real events that happened right when they claimed to happen in the manner they claimed. Jesus additionally explained (as did Matthew, Paul, etc, under the inspiration of Holy Spirit) where some event or psalm or prophecy had a further fulfillment in Christ or in the future. I just don't see any problem there.

Indeed, Jesus was there when these passages were originally written, and knows what God had in mind in inspiring those particular words. So, for example, when God chose to say I "am" the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, instead of "I was" their God, He implies a relationship that transcends their death. Sure, that might not be the only option of how to understand the passage, but when someone who was "with God" (John 1:1) when that passage was originally inspired tells us that that's what was meant... we should probably accept it. There's no creativity involved here.

(Side-point: As for Psalm 110: It, like the rest of the psalms as far as I can tell, was written from the perspective of the psalmist himself. In this case, David is indeed calling someone "my Lord", and saying that Jehovah has said something to David's Lord. And Jesus is not interpreting or studying this passage; he is informing us of what was meant, lest we think it's some other available option.)

In short, I don't think the NT writers or Jesus are engaging in hermeneutics in the same sense that a modern scholar might. They were, just like the OT writers, putting down what God inspired them to put down (or, in Jesus case, speaking what he knew from his Father to be true). It just isn't analogous to non-divinely-inspired hermeneutical practices or rigor.

Anonymous said...


Yes, that was basically the kind of thing I meant when I said that the Lazarus account seems exaggerated. I agree that if you formulate a single concrete claim like that, e.g. "Only Lazarus' sisters were there," it is more plausible that a crowd was there, as stated. This is because we don't have any specific reason to believe the concrete alternative, while we have at least the text favoring the crowd.

But I don't think it's some concrete claim like that which is more plausible, but the generic alternative. In other words, we have two possibilities:

(1) the raising of Lazarus happened just as stated in the text.
(2) the raising of Lazarus happened in a way that differed from what is stated in the text. We do not know the real details, but if we knew the details, doubt regarding the miracle would be much more plausible than it is given the account in the text.

I find (2) much more plausible than (1). The fact that any particular concrete account would be less likely than (1) does not mean that the generic claim is less likely -- any individual is less likely to win the lottery than "someone over the age of 80", but it is more likely that someone younger will win, because there are more of them. Precisely because it is such strong support for St. John's point, the account seems likely to be exaggerated in some way or other. This is especially the case given historical cases of resurrection miracles. Almost all of them are shortly after the death of the person, or at most the next day. An important point there is that they tend to leave room for doubt, e.g. someone can question whether the person was really dead.

The same kind of thing is true about miracles in general. If you hear a generic account, e.g. "that person's body remained incorrupt," that sounds much more conclusive than the details when they are known, which always involve a mix of corruption and incorruption. Newman says there are only two plausible ways to look at religion: either it's all false (which he rejects) or that God is hidden (which he accepts.) The theoretical third alternative, that it is all true and that God wants to prove it clearly to everyone, he considers obviously false. I agree with him about the implausibility of the third alternative, and this makes particular accounts which seem especially probative seem especially unlikely to be accurate in their details.

The case of the 500 is fairly similar, except that I wasn't objecting to the size of the number in itself, but the contrast with the other recorded appearances. If you read the whole of Scripture except for that point, and then someone asked, "Given the facts as stated here, is it also plausible that on another occasion he appeared to 500 people at once?", I would surely have said no.

Michael Gonzalez said...

entirelyuseless: If the resurrection happened, then God really exists and has revealed Himself by direct intervention in the world. And, if that is true, then not only do we have no plausible motive for God to perform ambiguous miracles that He later has to clean up with some revisionist propaganda, but we also have absolutely no reason to think that He wouldn't just perform the miracle in the most convincing and meaningful way. Reaching people's hearts effectively is, after all, the whole point of doing the miracle in the first place (it certainly wasn't for the sake of raising Lazarus, who would just die again in a few years).

For the record, Jesus waiting 4 days in particular was probably more than just showing that the person was definitely dead, and even decaying, and so it was not just a resuscitation. One Bible reference work says: "...for a person who had been dead for four days; by then the body showed recognizable decay, and the soul, which was thought to hover over the body for three days, had left." So, why not believe that Jesus, in his wisdom (and according to God's will), waited long enough that human superstition and beliefs would no longer hold out hope?

My general point here applies to the case of the 500, but let me add two more points there: First off, Paul's letter was actually written before most of the Gospels (if not all of them), and so there is no "reading the rest of Scripture except for that point". Moreover, Paul confirmed that his testimony was accurate with the eyewitnesses, like Peter and James (see the first two chapters of Galatians), and received their seal of approval on it. The historicity of the 500 has a lot going for it, and nothing going against it.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Apart from biblical testimony, of course (2) is more likely than (1), because there are more ways to deviate from (1) than to exactly fulfill (1).

Likewise, apart from the testimony of the Powerball home page, we would think it is very unlikely that the winning numbers this week would be 2, 25, 33, 39, 64, 17.

But given the testimony of the Powerball home page, we have very good reason to think that this exceedingly unlikely thing happened. Nor is the extreme improbability of the numbers 2, 25, 33, 39, 64, 17 any reason to doubt that testimony.

Anonymous said...


I am saying that (2) is more likely than (1) even after taking into account the biblical testimony, if we do not already presuppose that Scripture is completely inerrant. And we should not presuppose that for this discussion, because we are asking how well the text fits with that idea, not whether it is simply logically compatible.

One difference is this: the Powerball home page presumably gives the right numbers most of the time, even if it is not inerrant. But as far as I can tell, most accounts of extremely convincing miracles are exaggerated. Michael's argument is one reason for that: people think, "God wouldn't have any reason to work an ambiguous miracle," and so if they hear about a miracle, they restate it as though it had happened in a perfectly clear manner. This isn't dishonest: it is just what they think must have happened, even though it did not.

Heath White said...


First of all, I wasn’t saying that Jesus’s interpretations of the OT were wrong. I was saying his methods can’t be followed by us, at least without upending everything we think we know about biblical interpretation. And you seem to agree when you say “It just isn't analogous to non-divinely-inspired hermeneutical practices.”

Second, we could ask why there is this difference between the NT “creative” interpretation of the OT and our more sober practices. You supply one option by appealing to the authority of Jesus and divine inspiration: these are special cases, not to be repeated. (And there are interesting philosophy of language questions here about who controls the meaning of a text.) This option raises questions, though, about why Jesus’s or Matthew’s or Paul’s audiences could be expected to take them seriously, since the audiences don’t know ahead of time that they are divinely inspired. So a second option, with some historical support, is that this sort of thing counted as good hermeneutics in first-century Palestine, and Jesus is not drawing on his divine authority but on (something like) his human charisma in making the arguments he makes. This second possibility raises all sorts of questions: whether there are any such things as stable meanings in the biblical text, for example.

(I have read that in Irish folklore, a similar phenomenon occurs. There is a trope of one character making a promise to another, and then “keeping” the promise in some equivocating or metaphorical way, usually to the harm of the promisee. And in Irish folklore, this does not mean the promiser has cheated or welshed; he has genuinely kept the promise, and it is the promisee who did not nail down the meaning of the terms precisely. Think of the witches’ prophecies in Macbeth.)

And my main point was not to advocate any particular solution to these problems but to say that these are genuine difficult problems, and theological conservatives tend not to think about them.

Third, you were most concerned with an argument that, since Jesus takes OT characters and events seriously, so should we. I partly agree and partly disagree. Here is why I am not totally convinced. First, if I say, “Webster defines a photon as…” I am not committed to the historical Noah Webster defining a photon as anything; I am just using his name as shorthand for the body of work that has come down to us under that name. And if I say, “That woman looks like Juliet on the balcony,” I am not committing myself to a historical Juliet Capulet, I am just making a literary reference. And many of Jesus’s OT references might be handled this way.

But a different, more controversial reason is that Jesus might have limitations on his divine omniscience. He is not omnipresent in any ordinary sense, he is maybe not omnipotent (he gets tired), he suffers from ignorance (“Only the Father knows the day or the hour”), so is it outlandish to think that he had basic background beliefs shared widely in his culture that were nevertheless false?

Alexander R Pruss said...

These kinds of interpretations do go beyond the literal meaning, and the literal meaning shouldn't be neglected as it is infallibly true (here I am using "literal" in the technical sense of the primary intended meaning, rather than the in the sense of "literalism"). However, I think we should take seriously the traditions, both Christian and Jewish, of interpreting Scripture in these further ways. It would be a valuable task for someone to work out good technique for engaging in these methods in an epistemically responsible way.

Perhaps a crucial part of the technique is that this is a practice of a community infused with the Spirit. Holiness of life is a prerequisite for employment of the technique, as is fidelity to the community. The case of Jesus is exceptional in that Jesus is the head of the community, and the community is in an important sense his body.

It may also be the case that the technique is involves a fair amount of _post hoc_ investigation. When we already have good reason to believe P, we can learn that P is found in the text. But we wouldn't get much credence for P from the text itself. Nonetheless, we may gain understanding regarding P and matters close to P from the technique.

Michael Gonzalez said...


1) When you say that Jesus' method can't be followed by us, you imply that we are doing the same thing Jesus was (albeit, perhaps, with different methods). That is one of the things I was resisting in my previous post. Jesus is not trying to understand what the text originally meant or anything of the kind. Jesus is telling us, as someone who was there and was involved in getting it written in the first place, that this is what is meant.

2a) This is related to what I'm saying in point #1. The NT writers are just like the OT writers. They are writing parts of the Bible under God's inspiration and direction. They are not trying to understand or interpret the OT; they are writing down what the Holy Spirit compels them to write down, which happens (at times) to involve quoting and explaining some passage of older inspired writings.

I would add that people did indeed recognize the authority that Jesus has in explaining the Scriptures, and they recognized the apostles likewise. These ones ALWAYS spoke with a recognized authority, and performed miracles lest anyone have a shadow of a doubt. It's just like the prophets of the OT, honestly.

2b) I found this a very interesting thought: that Jesus and the apostles were using methods and charisma that would count as good practice among their particular audience at the time. That may very well be the case, and may explain why it looks a little odd to us now. But the main point, from my standpoint, would be this: They managed to do that, AND give the exact intended meaning or antitype or interpretation of each passage they cited; which understanding they received from the best source possible.

3a) This is the main issue: Should we consider Jesus' statements about Noah, Moses, etc, to indicate that he viewed them as real people who really did all the things the OT says they did? I think there is a good reason to believe this, and additional reasons why neither of your analogies are actually cogent.

First, if Jesus mentions a person and event to an audience that clearly DID consider these to be historical people and events, and does not clarify that they are allegories or anything of the sort, then Jesus is either being intentionally misleading (not possible) or he views them just as his audience does.

The problem with the Webster analogy, is that we clearly know that "Webster" no longer refers to that person, but to a body of work that others have produced in his name over time, up to our own time. The Jewish people believed nothing of the sort about their sacred books. The problem with Juliet is that NO ONE believes such a person really existed, while Jesus' audience did indeed believe all those people existed. It just isn't analogous.

3b) I'm actually a lot more controversial about this last bit, since I don't think Jesus was omniscient at all. My claim was that he was present when the events occurred (having existed in heaven for aeons alongside God, and having observed and even taken part in the events in question). I also claimed that God's spirit would cause Jesus to speak accurately. But I don't think Jesus is God at all, nor that he was ever omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent. We can probably leave this last point aside, since it isn't really relevant, but I thought I should address that last paragraph a little to make my view clear.

bethyada said...

I would say that the fact Jesus used the tense of an OT passage to prove something (the resurrection to Sadducees who deny the resurrection) is strong evidence that Jesus held the OT in extremely high regard.