Friday, February 13, 2009


Occasionally, the rhetorical question is asked of inerrantists: "What's the use of having an inerrant text, if your interpretation of the text is fallible?" Sometimes this question is asked by opponents of inerrance, and sometimes by those who think that those who accept inerrance don't go far enough—they should also accept an infallible exegetical authority. I've done this myself, as an argument for Catholicism.

But the argument implicit in the question is not a good argument without further work. It would be silly to ask: "Why do you care about having a calculator that makes no mistakes, given that you can punch the wrong numbers into it and read the answer off wrongly?" When using a fallible calculator, there are three sources of errors: the calculator, the data input, and the reading of the output. Surely it is a good thing to be able to eliminate one of the three, even if the other two remain.

Furthermore, there is the following advantage to having an inerrant text: progress in interpreting the text is apt to get us closer to the truth of the matter in the subject the text is about. But if the text is wrong on some point, it might be that the better we interpret it, the further from the truth we find ourselves (if we take the text to be authoritative). It is worth having this feature. We might be currently unable to tell what Scripture requires of us in some matter, but it is not unreasonable to devote significant effort into trying to figure it out—because it is likely true.

But let's go back to the rhetorical question and see if we can make it into any argument that can be defended. First of all, it's not clear how "What's the use of p?" even when met with no answer gives us reason to deny p. What's the use of the moon? I don't know, but my not knowing the use for it doesn't seem to significantly affect my confidence that it's there.

However, inerrance isn't like the moon. Inerrance is very unlikely without a miracle. And we might think that God doesn't work miracles except with good reason. So perhaps we could argue that if inerrance is of no use, God wouldn't bother with it. But that's going to be weak. How could we rule out all uses of inerrance? And in fact, surely there are some. The belief that Scripture is inerrant has inspired many people to obey various good commands in Scripture. Moreover, it is better be inspired by a true rather than false belief. So there is surely some use of inerrance. One might worry that the miracle is too great and the benefit disproportionately small. But I don't see why an omnipotent being can't do a great miracle for a small benefit (God helps me find lost objects sometimes—for all I know, he may even be miraculously transporting the lost objects to me, though somehow it seems more likely that he is simply directing my attention to the objects), nor do I see the benefit as small.

Still, there is, I think, some force in the argument of the rhetorical question. There are four sources of errors in information obtained from a text: errors in the original, errors in copying, errors in reading (decoding of words), and errors in interpretation. If it turns out that there are likely so many errors in interpretation that the benefit of lack of errors in the original is quite small, then there is something to be said for asking why God would have ensured a lack of errors in the original without ensuring an infallible method of interpretation. (If a measurement has two sources of error, one of the order of magnitude 0.001 units and the other of the order of magnitude of 0.020 units, a scientist would be unlikely to try to minimize the first error without trying to minimize the second.) But this would require a further argument that fallible interpretation would be quite unreliable—we couldn't just base the argument on the mere fact that interpretation is fallible. Moreover, I think this wouldn't so much an argument against inerrance, as an argument for an infallible method of interpretation (such as a magisterium or tradition or both).

Is it the case that errors in the interpretation of the Bible are so very common that there is something to the argument? I think it might be. Granted, there may be wide exegetical agreement on certain basic points. But if the point of inerrance is simply to preserve agreement on these basic points, we would not need full inerrance, but a more limited doctrine of preserving the truth in the basics (this point was made by one of our grad students in discussion today). So we might still argue: If we think God valued truth in such a way as to give us full inerrance in Scripture, we have good reason to think that he would also have ensured an infallible interpretative method, since that would serve the same value. This is an argumentum ex convenientia, an argument form well loved by medieval theologians.

So, yes, there is something to the argument in the original rhetorical question, but it would take significant effort to defend it carefully. I haven't put in that sort of effort in this post.


Alexander R Pruss said...

The following came by email, with a request to post it:

"Hi Alex:

I've also been thinking lately about the question of the inerrancy of the Bible. Your post is helpful and I decided to share one of my worries and see if something helpful can come of it.
One worry that I've been thinking about is this: suppose that there are some errors in the Bible and the doctrine of inerrancy with respect to the original text is false. [Let's set aside for now the other three sources of error you mentioned]. Now once one entertains the possibility of error in the original text, the question becomes: on what basis would one determine which text of the Bible is inerrant and which is erroneous? Is there any way, besides our own best epistemic judgments humanly available, that can guarantee that we are right about distinguishing an erroneous text from an inerrant text? Unless we appeal to the Holy Spirit for divine guidance to make sure that we're right about the judgments about any given text, I don't see how we can respond to a worry such as the one I'm sharing. Assuming that the Bible contains errors and truths about its claims throughout, it'd be a good thing if there is a way out, methodologically speaking, from making mistakes as to which text is erroneous and which one is not.

Any thoughts?


Alexander R Pruss said...


Yes, the distinguishing problem is a big one. I think I first heard it from my dad years ago. Scripture speaks, inter alia, of things that we cannot know by human reason. So, in some cases we will be unable to tell whether the text is right or wrong once we admit the text can err.

I wonder if anything can be done about this. I think I'll do a post on that for tomorrow.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Or maybe I will just say something now. Maybe the liberal Christian who denies inerrance can hold to some doctrine that says that Scripture is less likely to assert Q if Q is false than if Q is true, so Scripture's asserting Q is evidence for Q. There would probably even be a sliding scale, like this: P(Scripture asserts Q|~Q) < f(Q) P(Scripture asserts Q|Q), where f is a function with the property that f(Q) <= 1 for every Q, and f(Q1) < f(Q2) iff getting Q1 right is theologically or morally more important than getting Q2 right, and f(Q) is close to zero if getting Q right is extremely important theologically or morally. (Actually, the full story would have to be more complicated. There are propositions which it is important not to believe if they are false, but which it is not important to believe if they are true. So I am oversimplifying.)

On this view, if getting Q right has any importance at all, the fact that Scripture asserts Q is evidence for Q. But it is evidence one weighs along with one's total evidence, and it might be overruled in the end.

But I have no idea, really, how one would determine what the right value of f(Q) is supposed to be. Does one have some model of spotty inspiration, on which God inspires two out of three claims in Scripture (more for important ones, less for less important ones)? Or maybe a model on which God always inspires the writer, but the writer sometimes writes things that weren't inspired or miswrites things that were inspired, and we can estimate how often the writer was likely to have written something uninspired or miswritten something inspired. I don't really see much hope for figuring out these probabilities for the various authors (or maybe f(Q) is independent of the author?).

I wonder if any errantist theologians have tried to work the details out. It would be an interesting and challenging task for a theologian who would have to be well trained in formal epistemology.

But until somebody actually works out such an account (has anybody?), and we can evaluate it, I think it's reasonable to think it unlikely that one could do the task.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Posting for Tedla again:

"Hi Alex:

Thanks a lot for spelling out my worries. Yes, the worry I shared with you is just one of several in the neighborhood, all are more or less epistemological/methodological in their nature.

One philosopher has recently communicated to me his solution to my worries by suggesting that abductivist reasoning is the best way out. Since, according to this philosopher, a commitment to the doctrine of inerrancy would require an a priori, and unfalsifiable (unverifiable) hypothesis in the absence of original texts of the Scriptures, the best way out from the problem under consideration is to follow abductivist principles and make our best judgments about assertions in the Scriptures accordingly. We should make our best judgments of truth-claims of Biblical assertions based on our total evidence rather than on an a priori commitment to the doctrine of inerrancy.

The above response seems to be a plausible one for now but then I don't know what to make of it without further embracing lots of philosophical problems that emerge when we start to debate about the nature of evidence, evidence vs truth relationship, how we can ever be epistemologically sound in our judgments when we know a lot that our theories of knowledge are not our best guides when it comes to settle issues of such great importance for our lives. I know of no theory of knowledge that is in a better position to help us with the problem of inerrancy than its rivals in circulation.

The moment one admits that there is nothing special about how to go about deciding what is true and what is false in the Scriptures, then one's opening up a pandora's box in that one has to find the most reasonable way to address the issue of the authority of the Scriptures. If there is nothing special about the Scriptures when it comes as to how go about deciding the truth-claims of the claims in the Scriptures, then I can hardly see how and where one can find a room for the authority of the Scriptures as opposed to the authority of the human reason, which seems to be what's going on all the way down in such reasoning that states that there is nothing special about how we go about deciding what is true or false in the Scriptures, once one admits that there are some errors in the Scriptures, esp., with respect to the original text.

The best way out from such problems seems to be to embrace the doctrine of inerrancy. But then addressing the question of inerrancy does not seem to be easier than than the worries I shared above.

It's good to think about how much the abductivist solution proposed above would hold water in the light of the question we're trying to address.

Thanks again.



Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't see that the original texts have much to do with it. The doctrine of inerrancy is not argued for by examining every proposition and checking that it's true. If we could do that, the authority of Scripture (at least in regard to assertions) would be pointless, since we could just check every proposition. Rather, the doctrine of inerrancy is argued for on the basis of either an argumentum ex convenientia (we would expect a loving God who revealed himself in an incarnation to make Scripture inerrant) or, better, through an argumentative spiral where one first argues that the Gospels are at least roughly historically accurate as to what Jesus said, then one argues from that that we have good reason to think that he did in fact make the promises of the Holy Spirit's guidance to the Church. Then one argues that this means that the Church is not wrong in the theological beliefs that are universally held by it. But the early Church universally took the letters of Paul to express its faith. Hence, in particular, 1 Timothy expresses the universal faith of the Church, and hence is true. But 1 Timothy says all Scripture is breathed by God. Hence, all Scripture is breathed by God. But what God breathes is true. Hence, all Scripture is true.

Now one might dispute whether the arguments are good. But whether they are or not, they make no assumptions about the original texts.

And, besides, the original texts are very unlikely to differ in any significant way from the texts we have. Typical variants are cases where in one manuscript, the text asserts p, and in another manuscript, the text asserts q, and in fact both p and q are entailed by other things in Scripture, so it really matters little.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Another comment from someone having trouble posting, this time Mark Boone whose talk sparked my post:

"But if the point of inerrance is simply to preserve agreement on these basic points, we would not need full inerrance, but a more limited doctrine of preserving the truth in the basics."

Things are usually a lot clearer after a good night's sleep and a little Halo, so I am writing this between bouts of slaughtering aliens. I want to distinguish between two questions that I think were conflated. One is: Why should we accept the inerrantist thesis? Another is: Is the inerrantist thesis useful?

In my presentation I never answered the first question explicitly. (Or, if I did, it was an accident). Should it have come up, my plan was simply to offer an argument from the testimony of Church history; Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard ascribed to the original meaning of Scripture the same authority that the Chicago Statement ascribes; (I know this argument will have little force for those who ascribe little or no weight to Church history).

My remarks about how inerrancy safeguards the content of the rule of faith (basic orthodoxy, love of God and neighbor, creation-fall-redemption) were meant to answer the second question. not the first. The idea was something like, "Ok, now we've established that the inerrantist thesis is no less rational than Augustine; but is it useful as well? Yes, it is, and here is its main use."

I realize these two questions are related, but I believe they are distinct; and I think there was some muddled dialogue between myself and the other grad student as a result of confusing the questions--I suppose I ought to take responsibility for that confusion.

In any case, the point that another doctrine could be just as useful in this regard is well taken: Inerrancy ascribes infallible authority to all original meaning and admits that some original meaning is murky. Doctrine Z would ascribe infallible authority to original meaning only when it applies to essential doctrines.

When it comes to arguing against the truth of Doctrine Z or for the truth of Inerrancy, I prefer to start with an appeal to Church history. But I do have a concern with the usefulness of Doctrine Z. Granted that it could be useful, I think its usefulness is limited by its instability. I think it is going to be a poorer safeguard of these essential truths than inerrancy. How is Doctrine Z going to respond to someone who decides to challenge Scripture on some essential doctrine?

Thanks for the remarks, Dr. Pruss and Tedla!

Mark J. Boone

larryniven said...

I have actual things to say about this post, but those will go on my blog. What I want to ask you here is, do you seriously literally believe that God helps you find your lost stuff? Or was that a rhetorical device...?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I would use a term weaker than "believe", like "inclined to believe". And why not? I have no reason to think God doesn't care about little matters (it's not like an omnipotent being is too busy...).

larryniven said...

Oh, I have no particular desire to banter back and forth about whether God would or ought or could help people find stuff - I was just curious.