“Is God a Moral Monster?” A Review (Part 1)

Posted on 04/01/11 96 Comments

Paul Copan. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011.  ISBN 978-0-8010-7275-8. 252 pp.

Much has been written in recent years on the moral problems with the depiction of God in the Old Testament. Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? is a welcome entry to the literature with twenty short, engaging and informative chapters that provide a first-rate apologetic treatment of a broad range of issues from curious biblical dietary laws to the Israelite relationship to slavery and genocide.

I have decided to review Is God a Moral Monster? in two parts. The division of parts is somewhat arbitrary but is borne out of necessity to spare the unsuspecting reader from an unduly long and ponderous blog post. In this first part I’ll briefly survey the text and then summarize my main objection which I call the “press secretary syndrome”. Then in part 2 I’ll outline some examples of this syndrome and close with some final conclusions.

A brief survey of the text

Copan takes as his starting point the new atheists with their trumped up charges against the morality of the Judeo-Christian God. He sets the stage in part 1 (chapters 1, 2) by introducing the new atheists and their dizzying range of strident complaints against Christianity. Reading Copan’s summary of new atheist objections to Christianity is a little like reading Cicero summarizing Goth objections to Roman civilization: Copan does his best to be fair (just like Cicero surely would), but there is no getting around the fact that the new atheist objections are, for the most part, rooted in a positively barbaric ignorance of the subject matter in question.

Part 2 mounts a defense of the depiction of God’s character in the Old Testament. Copan argues that God is not arrogant for demanding worship (chapter 3), and that jealousy is appropriate for a divine being (chapter 4). Perhaps most significantly this section takes on God’s demand to sacrifice Isaac (chapter 5). Copan points out that a number of textual hints help the reader to see that this is a test, it is only a test. Of course one could still object that it is wrong for God to ask such an extraordinary thing of Abraham, even if it is just a test. But Copan counters that that it is not always wrong to take innocent human life. Moreover, it remains within the divine prerogative to take an innocent life, or demand the taking of one, test or not.

Part 3 is by far the largest section in the book as it spans chapters 6-18. This section deals with a broad range of topics beginning with the appeal to incremental revelation in history as a means to explain the Bible’s “ubiquitous weirdness” (chapters 7-8). From there Copan turns to address a number of topics including the treatment of slaves and women.  But the real heart of this section comes in the treatment of holy war and genocidal massacre in chapters 15-17.

Finally in Part 4 Copan goes on the offensive, arguing for the necessity of God for objective morality (chapter 19) and defending the centrality of Jesus as God’s final word in Christian revelation (chapter 20). 

A prefatory string of adulatory blurbable praises

Since I’m going to spend the bulk of time focusing on points of disagreement I’ll begin by placing those criticisms within context. This is an excellent book that should be in the personal library of everyone who has more than a passing interest in the topic. Indeed, I am not aware of a better book from an evangelical perspective on apologetics and Old Testament ethics. Is God a Moral Monster? is a great example of one stop shopping: get all your major OT apologetic problems addressed in one place. The book is good enough that I am leaning toward including it in the future as one of the four textbooks in the seminary apologetics course I teach (and that, dear reader, is high praise indeed).

Okay, enough syncophantic, blurbable adulation. Let’s turn now to the interesting part: the disagreements.

The Press Secretary Syndrome 

My central problem with Is God a Moral Monster? can be summarized as what I call the “Press Secretary Syndrome.” The press secretary, as you no doubt are aware, is the person who serves as the face of government to the press. As such, it is the job of the press secretary to present the government’s policies and actions in a winsome manner. The press secretary’s mandate does not extend to admissions like the following: “I think my government’s policy is weak on this point. Clearly the opposition seems to be stronger on this issue. But there you have it. No government is perfect.”

That’s fine for the press secretary, I suppose. A little bit of spin is par for the course in politics. But it is disappointing when you sense spin on a topic like ethics and the Old Testament. Reading through Is God a Moral Monster? it is eminently clear that Paul Copan is an evangelical apologist and a stalwart defender of standard evangelical commitments to the authority and interpretation of scripture. That is the perspective of the governing party that he represents. In most cases that works fine. I think that for much of the territory covered the standard evangelical views of the meaning and authority of the texts in question is  eminently defensible. But at key points the standard evangelical views are not the most plausible readings.  Indeed, at key points the weakness of those ideological commitments shows through like the thinned knees on a worn pair of jeans. At those moments Copan seems intent on denying the denim is substantially worn through. I’m not asking him to give up the jeans: just sew on a patch or two. And if you’re not willing to go that far then, to switch back to the earlier analogy, at least say what the press secretary cannot: “I think the standard evangelical take is weak on this point. Clearly alternative readings seem to be stronger on this issue. But there you have it. No approach to the text is perfect.”

In the second part of the review I’ll provide some concrete examples of the press secretary syndrome.

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  • Robert

    Part of me has wanted to read this book because these issues are the single biggest reason I reject the Bible today. I want to know what guys like Paul have to say in case I am wrong in my interpretations, but I don’t want to waste time with people who only pretend to be honest about what the Bible says and then go on to make fundamentally weak arguments sound strong and scholarly.

    Your review did not charge Paul Copan with dishonesty, but if he never acknowledges the weakness of Evangelical inerrancy, I don’t see how he could avoid ‘Lying for Jesus’ in the process. There really are good reasons to reject inerrancy and there really are passages that say exactly the opposite of what Copan and friends want us to believe about God and the afterlife, morality and theology.

    If Copan only had to apologize for a few disturbing passages, I could probably walk with him. But there are hundreds of passages where the Bible seems to present God as a cruel, stupid, unloving, or deceitful deity. Does Copan really have an excuse for every single one?

    Randal, here’s my main question:
    Is this the kind of book that could change my mind, or would I have to accept a whole truckload of a priori convictions on inerrancy and the perfection of Yahweh to agree with what it says?

    • randal

      Will Copan’s book change your mind completely about every passage you presently see as problematic? I highly doubt it. But I also think that’s way too much to demand of a book. Will you profit from reading it in a number of areas? I suspect so (though I offer no guarantees!).

      This is certainly not a matter of intellectual honesty. I don’t know Paul Copan that well though I have spoken with him and he is as intellectually honest as any of us. But I would submit that most people not already committed to Paul Copan’s particular understanding of scripture would find his reading of particular passages implausible if not forced, and I’ll provide evidence of that in part 2.

      The unfortunate thing is that he could have included a safety net in his discussion by providing another option for the reader: concede the moral errancy of the human author while continuing to affirm the moral inerrancy of the divine author. (Double talk? Not at all. But you need a bit of time to unpack the distinction.) Alas, this option, which could have provided a more plausible reading for some key morally problematic sections, was not provided as an option for those unpersuaded by the main explanation for these passages.

      To sum up, it is a strong book well worth reading, but it could have been stronger if it had provided more options for the reader to resolve the passages in question which are consistent with Christian commitments to the inspiration and authority of scripture.

  • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

    I’m interested to see your second review before I decide to give this one a go. If some of the answers are the pat evangelical “it’s not evil if God does it” variety then I’ll have to pass.

    I’m not an inerrantist. It’s simply an illogical/improbable position to me. We have no access to the original manuscripts nor any real hopes of finding them. As such, we’re left with what we do have -copies of copies and translations- and the various translations they’ve spawned. So I think the inerrancy and complexity (“we can’t know the mind of God”) arguments are weak at best and cowardly at worst. I’d have much more respect if someone were to come right out and say “we don’t know but we’re working on it.”

    With that in mind, your “press secretary” critique makes me leery.

    Personally, I have my own thoughts with regards to the literature of the OT. I would love to find a solid literary analysis that’s free from the trappings of a particular governing party. While I’m wishing for things, I’d also appreciate an analysis that takes into account the fact that archaeological evidence doesn’t do much to support the timelines/genealogies in OT.

    It would seem that P & Q were crafting standard ANE tribal myth literature which was later combined into what we call the OT. Thus far most of what I’ve heard/read discussed treats all of the text as being more uniform than I think can be reasonably expected.

    I can’t help by wonder if that’s not missing the tree by staring only at the forest (to badly abuse a metaphor).

    • randal

      One of the very helpful aspects of Copan’s book is that he argues the Canaanite occupation was not a genocide but a military occupation. Moreover, he argues that “kill ‘em all” language should not be taken literally but is a standard ANE hyperbolic expression analogous to a football player saying “We slaughtered the other team.” There is a lot of excellent material here worth considering.

      • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

        “One of the very helpful aspects of Copan’s book is that he argues the Canaanite occupation was not a genocide but a military occupation.”

        This is one of my primary curiosities. Based on archaeological findings a massive overthrow/genocide of the Canaanites never occurred. It appears more likely that the tribe of Israel was formed from a rogue band of Canaanites that broke off from inside the city. Based on that it would seem logical that the history as written by an Israelite would use this type of militaristic language in an effort to glorify his tribe’s history.

        Essentially this means that an actual overthrow never occurred and the killing of Canaanites was more symbolic. They “killed” their history with Canaan and became a new tribe.

        • Brad Haggard

          Sean, what time-frame are you using to filter the archaeological data?

          • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

            Brad,

            I don’t recall the exact dates. Pete Enns recommended the Nova documentary “Bible’s Buried Secrets.” In it they discussed recent archaeological findings that challenge the date of OT events and things like the size of David’s kingdom.

            Here are the transcripts with exact details:
            http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/transcripts/3516_bible.html

            • Brad Haggard

              Yeah, Sean, I think that some of that stuff is interpreted with an axe. Finklestein wants to make David out to be a rogue chieftain (earlier minimalists wanted him to be completely legendary), but he has to systematically ignore all of the evidence we have (eg. Mazar’s Jerusalem structure, the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription, the tel-Dan stele, the destruction of Hazor, the Merneptah stele, and, most obviously, the biblical text itself). If you really are interested, this is an area I’ve studied and would gladly discuss. Maybe through email if you don’t want to look through all these threads.

              • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

                Hey Brad,

                I would be interested in discussing it further. I have only a cursory understanding of things and I’m very interested learning more.

                From what I could gather, Finkelstein and Mazar seem to be at odds with each other. So I imagine that would explain Mazar’s work being left out. I’d be curious to find out who falls into the camp of the consensus opinion in the field.

                I agree we should probably take the discussion to email. I can be reached at Sean R Reid AT gmail DOT com (obviously written oddly, I want to prevent spambots from picking it up).

      • Thom Stark

        Randal,

        As I’ll demonstrate in my review, Copan’s (really Hess’s) argument that the cities were military citadels with no civilian populations is wholly untenable, both according to the text itself and according to the archaeological record. (Even Matt Flannagan finds this argument untenable.) And the rhetorical exaggeration argument misreads the ANE parallels, and the biblical texts themselves, on a number of levels. There is no evidence whatsoever that the phrase “men and women, young and old” was “stock language” (as Copan and Hess argue) for “all.” The exaggerations of the ANE war literature involve claims about total annihilation, not claims about killing women and children in certain battles.

        And taking Judges 21, for instance, it’s clear that the slaughter of women and children cannot by any means be rhetorical, since the Israelites, after killing the women and children, then had the problem of having to find wives for the surviving Benjamites so that the tribe could continue. How did they do that? By killing more civilians and taking virgins captive to be wives for the few hundred surviving Benjamites.

        The discrepancies in the text about having obliterated the Canaanites on the one hand, and being continually harassed by the Canaanites on the other hand, can’t be explained, as Copan et al. try to do, by recourse to the hyperbole argument. As even conservative Evangelical scholar Douglas Earl acknowledges in his book on Joshua, these discrepancies are due to the composite nature of the book of Joshua. Heck, even Evangelical scholar Lawson Younger told me in conversation at SBL/ASOR Atlanta that he sees the book of Joshua as a “rolling corpus” that was composed over a matter of centuries.

        • randal

          I look forward to your review. The sensitive reader has to wonder: even if one grants the presence of hyperbole and the possiblity that the “cities” were really military garrisons, what would have happened to a woman or child discovered in Jericho or Ai? Does Copan seriously think they would have been spared? It mystifies me that he argues against human sacrifice when the whole structure of herem warfare was sacrificial in nature.

          (As a general observation (not directed at Copan), it also is so incredibly ironic that you have conservative Christians who are prolife about embryos and yet support divinely commanded genocide.)

          I think that our most fundamental moral intuitions must wear the trousers as guides to the meaning and authority/inspiration of the text. While Copan goes a certain distance in aligning the text more in accord with our core intuitions, he simply can’t go all the way and so his project must eventually fail. That’s why I’m very sympathetic with other treatments including Douglas Earl’s, Eric Seibert’s, and now yours as well.

          • Thom Stark

            I just read your journal article on the genocides, critiquing Copan’s earlier stuff. It’s very good, and I make several similar arguments in my book.

            “what would have happened to a woman or child discovered in Jericho or Ai? Does Copan seriously think they would have been spared?”

            Yeah, that’s a problem. He claims they would have had time to escape. But that’s another problem with the whole argument they make about military forts and outlying villages. He claims when the city was attacked, that would have cued the villagers to flee. On the contrary, (1) anyone in the villages would not necessarily have expected the invaders to be victorious over their military fort; (2) in actuality, when an invading army was coming through the territory, the practice was for villagers to flee to the fortified city for protection.

            But the whole non-civilian military citadel argument is bunk. Despite the fact that these accounts or mostly etiological and the archaeology doesn’t support their historicity one iota, Jericho, for instance, was (when populated) always heavily populated by civilians, as it had natural water and large plantations for fruit farmers to cultivate. Moreover, the text itself says that the Israelites killed cattle (Jericho) and took cattle as spoil (Ai). That means there were cattle farmers in the city. And the account of Ai says that “12,000 men and women” were put to the sword that day.

            “It mystifies me that he argues against human sacrifice when the whole structure of herem warfare was sacrificial in nature.”

            Yeah, Copan rejects this, based on Hess’s two-sentence dismissal of Susan Niditch’s argument to this effect. I critique Copan and Hess on this point in my review of Copan’s chapter on human sacrifice.

            “(As a general observation (not directed at Copan), it also is so incredibly ironic that you have conservative Christians who are prolife about embryos and yet support divinely commanded genocide.)”

            Absolutely. This is also something I point out in the book. Either Yahweh abhors killing unborn children, or he condones and commands it. You can’t really have it both ways. Several apologists have argued that the Canaanite children were (in my paraphrase) “better off dead,” because they get a Go Directly to Heaven card. Totally anachronistic, and totally gnostic.

            “That’s why I’m very sympathetic with other treatments including Douglas Earl’s, Eric Seibert’s, and now yours as well.”

            Well, I’ll let you revise that statement of sympathy after you’ve read my book if necessary! :) You may find I’m giving too much up for your tastes, but I was of course just being as honest as I could be with the material.

            I respect Earl’s book as the best and closest to honest treatment of these texts from an apologetic approach, but I think Earl’s book is thoroughly and fatally flawed. I wrote a fifty-page critical review of his book here: http://religionatthemargins.com/2010/11/the-joshua-delusion/

            I’m closer to Seibert, though a little bit further away from the center than he is.

  • http://ponderingthepreponderance.blogspot.com David

    Randal,

    You might be interested in this recent book, which looks to get under the hood a bit more to examine philosophical issues.

    Divine Evil?: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham

    • randal

      This book is based on a 2009 conference at Notre Dame. You can watch the presentations online at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion website. It’s well done, particularly since there are a range of perspectives represented from conservative Christian to atheistic.

      • Robert

        Downloadable MP3’s are here. Great for the iPod or whatever.

  • http://ponderingthepreponderance.blogspot.com David

    Sean,

    “It’s simply an illogical/improbable position to me.”

    I’m just curious if you mean that literally. Do you find logical contradictions in the various formulations of inerrancy? Also, what grounds your position that it’s improbable?

    • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

      David, I absolutely am being literal. As I followed up with:

      “We have no access to the original manuscripts nor any real hopes of finding them. As such, we’re left with what we do have -copies of copies and translations- and the various translations they’ve spawned.”

      The earliest complete copies we have of the OT writings are from the 4th century AD. They are FAR from the original manuscripts. Based on reasonable expectations, I think it’s improbable that we’ll find anything older than those. Note that I did not say it’s impossible, just highly unlikely.

      I have yet to find an argument in support of inerrancy that I think holds up under scrutiny. We have no way of knowing if the original documents were, in fact, penned as if by God’s hand directly because we don’t have them. Given the amount of translations that have occurred, and the debates that STILL exist regarding meaning, I remain unconvinced that inerrancy is maintained through each translation. I defer to the late Michael Spencer, who said it much better than I can, “While the Bible is supposedly inerrant, none of those who interpret it are inerrant interpreters. That’s a problem. If there is a perfect compass, and you give it to a chimp, what have you got? A chimp with a compass.”

      • randal

        “The earliest complete copies we have of the OT writings are from the 4th century AD. They are FAR from the original manuscripts.”

        I am not sure what “earliest copies” refers to. Are you referring to a codex that contains all 39 books as represented in the Protestant canon?

        I think there are excellent textual grounds to believe the manuscripts were faithfully preserved through time. For example, the Codex Leningrad (c. AD 1000) at one time contained our earliest copy of Isaiah. Then another copy was discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls which was a thousand years older, and there were no substantial differences between the two. That suggests a high degree of fidelity to the original and stability through time.

        At the same time your reference to “original manuscripts” is problematic. Unless you believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch, you probably believe in a JEDP thesis and a similarly evolutionary development of some other texts like Isaiah. In that case redactors are drawn into the process of the text achieving final form. But it consequently becomes very difficult to say which of the manuscripts was “original”.

        Next, I think you’re misunderstanding the doctrine of inerrancy. It only pertains to the original autographs, not subsequent copies, and certainly not translations. One of the first King James Bible is the infamous wicked Bible which declared, due to a typographical error that “Thou Shalt Commit Adultery!” Now that’s a significant error which contains a morally errant proposition, but that doesn’t hurt the doctrine of inerrancy!

        Finally, if inerrancy is consistent with the loss of autographa (in their various forms) and the possible entry of errors (even moral ones) into some subsequent manuscripts, then what is the cash value of the doctrine of inerrancy for us today? Good question.

        • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

          “It only pertains to the original autographs”

          Right, I understand that. We don’t have those and I think it’s unlikely we ever will.

          I was referring to the Codex Sinaiticus, which is dated about 330 AD. From what I can track down online that’s the earliest full manuscripts we have.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    To answer Copan: “Only if he exists”.

    • randal

      TAM, rise above the cutsie one liners. Rise above!

  • Walter

    Meh.

    I prefer Thom Stark’s book on the same subject:

    The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It)

    http://humanfacesofgod.com/

    • Paul D.

      Me too. Stark’s book has, in one stroke, made most or all the books that attempt to defend the Canaanite genocides irrelevant.

      • randal

        I need to read this. Maybe I can snag a review copy.

        • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

          Randal,

          If you want to get a review copy, let me know. I can put you in touch with some folks who know Thom really well. They produce the [ad hoc] Christianity podcast (full disclosure/promo warning, I was interviewed on episode #5).

          They recently sat down with Thom and talked about the book: http://www.adhocpodcast.com/?p=261

          Steve is a friend of mine and fellow UGA alumn and we’re also in a Bible discussion Facebook group. I talk to him and the group on pretty much a daily basis.

          Shoot me an email and I’ll put you in touch.

        • Thom Stark

          Hi, Randal.

          As it happens I’m working on a review of Copan’s book myself. It’s currently at 80 pages long and I have four more installments to go. I’ll put it online all at once when I’m done.

          Suffice it to say that I wasn’t quite as impressed with it as you were.

          As for a review copy of my book, I imagine W&S would be happy to send you one. I’m currently plum out.

          Best,
          T

          • randal

            Thanks! I look forward to reviewing your book.

            • Thom Stark

              Good deal. Just send a request to James Stock if you haven’t already.

              • randal

                Will do.

          • Robert

            Thom, I hope you post the review somewhere that allows comments.

            • Thom Stark

              Well we don’t have a comments feature at RATM. May I ask why this is important to you in particular? (In other words, I’m willing to consider it.)

              • Robert

                Comments will give people a chance to challenge your interpretation, and although I think you are right about herem, I want to see how that plays out.

                Ultimately it makes your case stronger when people like M&M have the opportunity to comment. I remember reading through your posts (now taken offline) on Matt Flannagan’s interpretations. He debated you a lot until your last post that was, I think, the strongest argument for your position. After that post, Matt suddenly stopped the discussion. Maybe he got sick. Maybe he got busy with other things. I don’t know, but I have to say that the comments between you and Matt were every bit as informative as the original blog posts and you probably would not have written some of the follow up posts if it were not for your ongoing debate.

                Comments can be a big time sink, but it sounds like you are spending some substantial time on this anyway. If you publish it with comments enabled, I think it will generate more buzz and attention, which really makes the work pay off.

                Then there is the spectator sport aspect. It is funny to see inerrantists squirm. :-)

                • Thom Stark

                  Yeah, thanks Robert. All of that is valid, of course. One of the reasons we don’t have comments is the time sink thing. Many of us found we were spending too much time in comment threads and it was taking time away from our families and also at times taking emotional energy away from the same. So that’s significant to us.

                  Another thing is the trolls and the hostile comments. If we post them, it creates a hostile environment; if we don’t post them, we get accused of being dishonest, yada, yada, yada.

                  I’ll consider allowing comments for the review. I agree that it could be helpful in a number of ways. But issues like this also tend to attract the mean-spirited folk. I’ll confer with my liberal cohorts and see what the consensus is, but thanks for pressing the issue. It’s now a real consideration.

                  • Richard Romano

                    When Mr. Stark says “mean-spirited folk” he means those who vehemently disagree with the nonsense he’s peddling.

                    It’s okay to attack the faith of others, shipwreck it even, but if those same people come back with valid criticisms, Mr. Stark’s response is to close the comments.

                    Nice double standard you got there, Thom.

                    • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

                      I’m going to go out on a limb and guess Richard has had his comments shot down. Comments that undoubtedly he thinks were “valid criticism.”

                      At the risk of being presumptuous on a blog that isn’t my own, I can’t help but question if this is the appropriate place to air such grievances?

                      Perhaps if you a link to your own blog Richard that might be a better soapbox? Just my $0.02 though.

                    • Thom Stark

                      I responded (and continue to respond) to any and all criticisms. It was the ad hominems (mostly thrown at others, not at me) which wearied me of the process.

                      I have emails in my files that will demonstrate what I mean by “mean-spirited,” and none of them involve any criticisms whatsoever of any of my specific arguments. Most of them involve accusations against the character of others.

                      A cursory look at my book’s website will demonstrate that I respond respectfully and thoroughly to any criticisms of my work.

                    • Thom Stark

                      Sean,

                      To my recollection, no one named “Richard Romano” ever commented on my blog. A search in my Gmail turned up no instances of a comment under that particular name.

                      So, his problem with me would appear to be principled rather than personal.

                      However, his characterization of the details is not very accurate. So while I respect the principle, I have to disagree with the application.

                    • randal

                      I’m just relieved that somebody in my blog other than me is being derided as a “liberal” for a change.

                    • Thom Stark

                      I’m more than happy to oblige, Randal. :)

                      I’m going to do a quick post explaining why I’m a conservative. BRB with a link.

                    • Thom Stark
                    • Robert

                      Dr. Copan told me in a personal email that he will post a response to Thom’s review within a few weeks.

                      Watch for it at http://www.paulcopan.com, probably http://www.paulcopan.com/blogs

                    • randal

                      Awesome. Let us know when you become aware of it. I’d like to link to it.

                    • Thom Stark

                      That’s good news!

                    • Robert
                    • randal

                      Thanks for providing that link. Much obliged.

                    • Thom Stark

                      Yeah, I’m working on a response right now.

  • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David

    sean,

    I asked you if there was literally a logical contradiction involved, and you did not respond with any examples.

    Secondly, your reasons for assessing inerrancy as improbable are as follows:

    1. We don’t possess or reasonably hope to possess the autographa

    This is only evidentially relevant (from what I can see) to inerrancy insofar as one might argue that current problems in the text weren’t in the originals and so shouldn’t count against inerrancy. I think that this is a bad move for an inerrantist to make. But regardless, this fact about the texts we possess (or reconstruct) doesn’t count against inerrancy as far as what the doctrine says. If anything, it just discourages the inerrantist’s hopes of showing the earlier texts to be pure. But an inerrantist should not simply defer to earlier texts to solve all alleged problems.

    Secondly, finding earlier texts is not the only relevant piece of evidence. There have been scores of arch. evidence in the past twenty years which confirm basic facts in the Old Testament which were long believed to be completely false.

    So if you think inerrancy improbable because we might not get more textual data, that might simply be another way of saying, “I see a lot of problems in the text, and don’t think we’ll ever solve them.” I am not saying that is what you intend to say, but to me that’s how it sounds. I’m not a scholar on the finer points of Biblical inspiration mind you.

    2. You have yet to find a coherent argument for inerrancy. This amounts to saying, “I see lots of problems in the text and no one has explained them to my satisfaction” or perhaps “I don’t think anyone has even defined inerrancy in a way that avoids incoherence.” This seems like a promising reason to reject inerrancy, assuming you haven’t relied on CARM for your resources. Personally, I find that once you dig deep enough into defining inerrancy and inspiration, many of the alleged problems disappear behind the language. The death of a thousand “qualifications…”oh that’s just a narrative technique called InsertExplanatoryDuctTapeHere.” Unless you’re talking about your fundamentalist inerrantist (it just says what I learned in Sunday School, and that settles it), I doubt it’s as bad as it seems.

    You also say “inerrancy is maintained through each translation”…that’s definitely a weird belief. I don’t know any inerrantists that hold it.

    3. We aren’t perfect interpreters so a perfect translation doesn’t do us much good.

    This is an interesting point, and not one that you hear often. I think the fact that the original text was what it was stems from the fact that is was God-breathed. So, it isn’t as if God wanted to give us a perfect original text for pragmatic reasons. It’s just that God doesn’t contradict himself.

    • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David

      Actually the KJV-Only crowd would qualify for the inerrant transmission lunacy.

    • Walter

      This is an interesting point, and not one that you hear often. I think the fact that the original text was what it was stems from the fact that is was God-breathed. So, it isn’t as if God wanted to give us a perfect original text for pragmatic reasons. It’s just that God doesn’t contradict himself.

      God may not contradict himself but man does. How do we know that all of the 66 books of the Protestant bible are God-breathed, if any of them are? Maybe the synoptic gospels are inspired but the fourth gospel isn’t? Maybe James epistle was inspired but Paul’s letters were not? Perhaps the genocides narrated in the Hebrew bible are simply human documents reflecting the morality of a bygone era, and not a special divine revelation from a deity?

      • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David

        Walter,

        Don’t confuse the topic of “how we know” the text is inerrant with “what does it mean” or also “why is it the case that” the text is inerrant.

        • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

          “Don’t confuse the topic of “how we know” the text is inerrant with “what does it mean” or also “why is it the case that” the text is inerrant.”

          I’m not even sure what that’s supposed to mean? What are you getting at?

          • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David

            Sean,

            An inerrantist might say that the reason why scripture is inerrant is simply because God breathed it. This leans more towards the mechanical dictation approach to inspiration.

            I don’t maintain this, but I was simply pointing out that the argument about the compass assumes that the perfection of scripture serves a pragmatic purpose. This doesn’t seem necessarily true even for the staunch inerrantist I described above.

            • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

              I follow you now. I disagree with the notion that it’s inerrant because “God breathed it.” That’s rather circular in my opinion. You could go on that back and forth ad nauseum.

              I see the utilitarian nature of the compass argument, wherein Scripture is seen as a tool. I’m not entirely certain that’s how Spencer meant the reference but, obviously, I can’t confirm that. However, given the application of inerrancy to various ways of treating the Bible as if it were Harry Potter’s book of magic spells I’m not sure it’s entirely off base.

      • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

        A monkey with a perfect compass doesn’t mean you’re always going to be going north.

        Same applies here…

        • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David

          Sean,

          All the more reason to reject the thesis that the Bible can promote spiritual progress without God’s participation.

          • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

            I completely agree. I think Scripture is a narrative, a story that we can found our place in. Not via any specific directives that say “you are here” so much as the story of Creator interacting with creation. The rest of the “story” is up to us and our interaction/experience with Scripture.

            To those ends it honestly doesn’t much matter if it’s inerrant or not. It also seems to help make some sense out of the historical and scientific incongruousness.

    • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

      “I asked you if there was literally a logical contradiction involved, and you did not respond with any examples.”

      Yes, I did. I think it’s illogical to believe that Scripture is inerrant based on the textual evidence. You can engage in some circular proof-texting but there is no LOGICAL reason to think that the original manuscripts were free of any errors, inconsistencies or bias. At best, it’s an assumption that if we did find them that they would be inerrant. However, even so, we have no way to prove it one way or the other. To me that’s illogical.

      • randal

        I think you’re using “logical” in an informal sense as roughly synonymous with “rational”.

        • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

          Actually, I would have to agree.

          So, if you will, allow this post to retroactively replace the word “logical” with “rational” in my comments.

          =)

      • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David

        You are obviously not familiar with the definition of a logical contradiction. There is no “to me”…it either can be shown or it can’t. You haven’t shown it.

        • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

          See my comment above. Replace illogical in this instance with “irrational.” I didn’t mean a formal logical inconsistency. You are right, I was confused on my terminology.

          • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David

            Hey, no problem Sean. I use imprecise words too.

            It’s always good to avoid drawing unecessary fire. When someone says “this is illogical” and then proceeds to speak as if “this is irrational”…it makes people (who think about the topic often) think you are being sloppy or else disingenuious.

            You obviously aren’t being disingenuious. So, might as well warn you that many apologists will use that as ammunition. Hope you don’t get “pissed off” about it like Randal thinks you might. ;-)

            • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

              Randal is probably just warning you since I have told him I have a propensity toward anger issues. ;-)

              I wasn’t pissed. I’m a web developer with an English degree. I’m by no means a philosopher or apologist. It’s very likely I’m abusing the proper language. However, I am sort of cocky, so I wasn’t certain I was wrong and I did have to look it up. =)

              When Randal clarified my usage I had to concede my mistake.

        • randal

          “Logical” is an acceptable colloquialism for “rational”. To say someone is “obviously not familiar” with something will just piss them off.

          • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David

            Randal,

            I asked if Sean was taking this literally, and then said, “Do you find logical contradictions in the various formulations of inerrancy?.”

            He replied, “David, I absolutely am being literal.”

            He was implying that there is no logical reason to believe x, therefore x is illogical.

            It seems clear to me that Sean doesn’t understand what a logical contradiction is. He shouldn’t be pissed off. He should either look it up in the dictionary or tell me that he does understand it.

    • Rob

      Hello all,

      Just found this blog as I’m currently sorting through some of these issues for myself.

      David gives a person’s point and then responds:

      “3. We aren’t perfect interpreters so a perfect translation doesn’t do us much good.

      This is an interesting point, and not one that you hear often. I think the fact that the original text was what it was stems from the fact that is was God-breathed. So, it isn’t as if God wanted to give us a perfect original text for pragmatic reasons. It’s just that God doesn’t contradict himself.”

      IMO, the fundamental problem with inerrancy is epistemological. There is no practical value in having an inerrant authority if no-one can inerrantly understand it for themselves or inerrantly interpret it to others who also cannot inerrantly understand.

      A fair response to this would be that it’s better to have an inerrant text that we understand errantly than an errant text that we understand errantly. But if we assume some form of inerrancy is true, how has it helped? There are many theological traditions who confidently hold interpretations that sometimes wildly contradict those of others.

      Also, evangelical inerrancy only tends to apply to the autographs but since we don’t have those and evangelicals aren’t arguing for inerrant transmission, then once again, nothing seems to be gained.

      On the flip side, skeptics and non-believers point out credible problems in the Bible, and inerrantist responses generally look more like ad hoc apologetics than serious grappling with the issues.

      I was raised an inerrantist and abandoned it over a period through a process of changing beliefs, rather than as an epiphany.

      The biggest problem for me was that by definition there can be no errors in an inerrant text. Something that appears wrong must have an explanation even if we don’t know what it is. Consider a scientific hypothesis. Taking a Popperian view of it, any number of positive experiments only raises the scientist’s confidence in the theory but never conclusively proves it to be true. However, it only requires one negative experimental result (properly construed) to refute the hypothesis leading to it being modified or discarded. But by definition, no evidence of errors put forward can ever count against inerrancy (loosely speaking, as I know there are various construals of the doctrine). “Errors” are always accommodated in some way, or forced to modify a given doctrine of inerrancy until, for all practical purposes, inerrancy is no longer useful.

      Just my 2c.

  • http://badchristian.org Sean R Reid

    Again, I’ll lean on the late Michael Spencer. I think he covered the idea of inerrancy well and much better than I am able.

    “Inerrancy looks, smells and feels remarkably like a philosophical imposition on the Bible, going beyond what the Bible CAN say about itself, and forcing those of us who believe in the authority and truthfulness of the Bible to take a “loyalty oath” that goes beyond what should be said. Typical of evangelical attempts to show they are really really really really really right. Catholics do it with the Pope. Pentecostals with experience. Evangelicals with inerrancy.
    It’s like a philosophical security system to keep everything safe. It’s been called Protestant Scholasticism, and I agree.”

    http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/imonk-classic-we-thought-he-was-such-a-nice-boy%E2%80%A6and-then-we-found-out-he-didn%E2%80%99t-believe-in%E2%80%A6-inerrancy

    Lest this deviate too greatly from the topic at hand (which I think it already has) I’ll let that be my last word on the topic of inerrancy.

    I’m looking forward to the second part of the review.

  • http://aporeticchristianity.wordpress.com/ PM

    Not sure I’d say inerrancy is a philosophical imposition on the Bible. The basic inerrantist argument is:

    (1) Whatever the Bible affirms, God affirms.
    (2) Whatever God affirms is true.
    (3) Therefore, whatever the Bible affirms is true.

    I would think that (2) is fairly uncontroversial. (3) follows from (1) & (2), which leaves (1) as the questionable premise. The best inerrantist arguments for (1) don’t seem like “philosophical impositions” at all. Rather, they tend to argue that there’s an equivalence between ‘Scripture says P’ and ‘God says P’. For a hefty argument for (1), one might consult B.B. Warfield’s, “It Says:” “Scripture Says:” “God Says:”’ This argument, of course, is intra-faith, not one intended to persuade unbelievers, bur rather those committed at least to inspiration, which includes most Christians. But what this shows is that it is a theological argument, not a “philosophical imposition.”

    • randal

      The big problem is in deciding what it is the Bible actually affirms. Sadly, it is a well attested fact that many of those who have been most vigorous in defending the doctrine of inerrancy have assumed that the Bible affirmed all sorts of claims which it clearly does not, like special creation in 6 24 hour days. The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy and the companion Chicago Statement on biblical hermeneutics are both deeply flawed documents which demonstrate with a lamentable vividness how often a commitment to inerrancy has in fact resulted in a woefully misguided treatment of scripture.

      • http://ponderingthepreponderance.blogspot.com David

        I’d like to see a series on the Chicago statements. :-)

        • randal

          One of these days perhaps.

          I do critique the statements in my OUP book.

      • http://aporeticchristianity.wordpress.com/ PM

        Maybe, but that’s a distinct issue from the inerrancy issue. The confusion accounts for messy debates on inerrancy, usually resulting in straw men from the anti-inerrantist crowd.

        • randal

          Inerrancy as a concept of practical value is close to useless.

          I sign the ETS statement affirming inerrancy every year, but the value of requiring this is negligible, particularly since that leaves open how I interpret the scriptures and what I mean by inerrancy.

    • Jerry Rivard

      What proofs do you have for (2)? We’ve all heard the arguments for the existence of God, but assuming He does in fact exist, how do you then get to the truthfulness of God?

      • http://ponderingthepreponderance.blogspot.com David

        Jerry,

        Here’s one you might find persuasive.

        1. If God exists, he is the greatest possible being

        2. The greatest possible being has all perfections

        3. Always affirming whats true is a perfection

        4. Therefore, God always affirms what’s true

        • Jerry Rivard

          I am pesuaded that 4 follows from 1, 2, and 3, but what are your aguments for 1, 2, and 3?

          I’ll take a stab at it.

          1. Because that’s how we’ve defined God.
          2. Isn’t it obvious?
          3. Isn’t it obvious?

          Quick counter.

          1. Isn’t it at least possible that a greater being did indeed create the universe as we know it, but that this greater being is not the greatest possible being, just sufficiently greater than us to have created the universe? What is your proof for this all or nothing claim you have made?

          2. Are there any mutually exclusive perfections, such as the inability to define a task so difficult that he cannot carry it out? Can an omnipotent God make power weakness and weakness power, and if He did would he still be omnipotent?

          3. Isn’t it possible that God would be deliberately untruthful with us in the service of some greater good? Isn’t it also possible that God is not good at all, but evil, and that His purpose for us is not for us, but for Him?

          • http://ponderingthepreponderance.blogspot.com David

            Jerry,

            Check out an intro to philosophical theology book for proofs of 1-3. You are correct though, the concept of God (loosely, how we’ve defined God) is what drives a lot of the work done in philosophical theology. Our intuitions about what a perfect being would be like…e.g., “What does it mean to be maximally good?” “What does it mean to be maximally powerful” and so on.

            2 – you are right on again. A lot of the work done in perfect being theology is hashing out which perfections are compossible (that is, they can be possessed at the same time). For instance, many maintain that God can’t be maximally powerful and also constrained by his morally good nature. What this helps us do is figure out a coherent concept of the greatest possible being…and many atheists maintain that this concept will never be achieved on pains of logical contradiction or other problems. And so the work continues…

            3. If God is evil, then it might be the case that he would be untruthful to us in service of being evil or a greater evil. However, why should we accept that the greatest possible being is evil rather than good. Doesn’t this go a very basic intuition we have, namely that being good is better than being evil?

            • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David Parker

              Jerry,

              If you’re subscribed to this old thread, you might be interested in some pdf books I have come across (philosophy related). Let me know and I can email them to you.

              Cheers,
              David

          • http://ponderingthepreponderance.blogspot.com David

            Jerry,

            Btw, if you’re interested here are my favorite books on the subject:

            1. Our Idea of God by Thomas Morris

            2. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Michael Rea and Michael Murray

            I got a used copy of each for like 10$.

            • randal

              Don’t forget Jay Wesley Richards, The Untamed God.

      • http://aporeticchristianity.wordpress.com/ PM

        Jerry, first, God has no need or reason to lie. He creates and controls all circumstances, so he’d never find himself in the position of needing to lie. Think of human lies, even justified cases of lying. God’s never in that kind of a situation. So what’s the motive for lying? Second, we might want to argue from his goodness and other perfections, as has been done above.

        • Jerry Rivard

          How can you know these things? If at least some theists can claim that there must be a reason for evil that leads to a greater good, why is it not also at least as conceivable that there is a reason for God lying that leads to a greater truth?

          Or to borrow a famous Jack Nicholson quote, what if it’s true that we can’t handle the truth?

          Second, sure you might want to argue from God’s goodness, but the fact that you want to argue from a position does not prove that position. What proof do you have of God’s goodness? Might it at least be a reasonable claim that God created us for His entertainment because He likes watching us suffer? I’m not stating that as a claim and asking you to refute it, just asking you to state your reasons, apart from simply wanting to argue from that position, that God is indeed good?

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  • Richard Romano

    Btw, don’t waste your time with Stark’s book. It’s the same rehash of old, liberal canards that have been answered over and over.

    The reason Stark disagrees with Copan has nothing to do with hermeneutics, but worldview, including a heavily, liberal-slanted eisigesis.

    • randal

      Richard,

      If that is the case then why shouldn’t I pound one more nail into the coffin?

      But anyways, I’m not sure what you mean by “liberal” since the term, like “fundamentalist” and “conservative” is context-dependent. So how do you define “liberal”?

      • Thom Stark

        “The reason Stark disagrees with Copan has nothing to do with hermeneutics, but worldview, including a heavily, liberal-slanted eisigesis.”

        If Richard would be willing to offer evidence in support of this claim, I would be willing to reconsider any of the readings of mine that he has shown to be distorted by a liberal bias.

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  • http://hesedweemet.wordpress.com John Anderson

    Very robust conversation going on here! I’m glad I came across this post.

    Some of you may/may not be familiar with my blog (click my name above), but the issue of who God is in the Old Testament has been of the utmost significance in my own scholarly work. I have a book coming out with Eisenbrauns later this year that argues for the existence of and a theological understanding of divine deception in the Jacob cycle. It has been very well received by folk such as Walter Brueggemann, who has blurbed it. It is, in a way, a more focused voice on one particular issue on this topic.

    In regard to Copan’s book, I must confess I was unable to finish it. Perhaps I’ll pick it up again in the next month or two and try again; it was by far the most disappointing book I have read in a long while. The review above is exactly right — Copan does litle more than parrot traditional evangelical positions. To my ear,they sound overwhelmingly apologetic, to the degree that they do indeed strain the bounds of convincability. I found Copan’s attempt to explain the Abraham/Isaac text in Gen 22 to be uncovincing (I’m fine accepting the fact that it was ‘a test,'; God says as much. The glitch, though, is that neither Abraham nor Isaac know it is a test. And in terms of textual clues, the fact Abe and Isaac come down the mountain without saying a word to one another, and that they are never seen together again, AND that Isaac appears to be a terribly scarred individual later in his life, I can’t help but see this as what my former teacher Jim Crenshaw calls a “monstrous test”), and his near incessant comparisons with ANE material were problematic, as Thom has already pointed out. What I found most absurd was Copan’s insistence throughout that the event of the ‘Fall’ (inasmuch as such an event exists; there is a wealth of scholarship on this topic in relation to the Genesis text) and living pre/post fall colors these texts. Reading with such an histoical lens is entirely implausible.

    Thom (and others), I’m curious, did you read my RBL review of Seibert’s book? Eric is a friend, and I think he is doing important work, but I also think he is terribly and dangerously wrong. Have you read the review? Thoughts?

    • randal

      Thanks John. I met Eric last fall at ETS and read Disturbing Divine Behavior but I haven’t yet read your review. Can you provide a link or a journal reference so I can follow up?

      I look forward to reading your book too.

      • http://hesedweemet.wordpress.com John Anderson

        Thanks, Randal.

        The review is on the RBL website. Here is a direct link to it: http://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/7354_8359.pdf

        For those who don’t know, RBL is the official book review arm of the Society of Biblical Literature. I was glad to do the review, and am glad to consider Eric a friend. We had a delightful and spirited conversation over lunch in Atlanta, and hope to do it again this year. I am, however, as the review makes quite clear, wholly unconvinced and terribly troubled by Eric’s way of addressing the issue of disturbing divine behavior. (N.B. – I am similarly disappointed in Copan’s book for another reason, namely because of his final chapter; the appeal to Jesus as the barometer of who God is/isn’t smacks of Marcionism or, as Fretheim suggests in his ‘The Suffering of God,’ “Jesusology”).

        • randal

          I appreciate your point that even while (a) you disagree very deeply with Eric Siebert, nonetheless (b) you still think he’s a great guy and one you are happy to break bread with. Too often an unnecesary acrimony enters into disagreements, and it is important to remember that we must always separate people from the ideas they hold (except in cases where the ideas are fundamentally evil and thus necessarily impugn the character of the person who holds them).

          • http://hesedweemet.wordpress.com John Anderson

            Thanks, Randal. I will be curious to see your thoughts on my review. I’m also delighted that Eric read the review and thanked me many times for offering a fair, balanced evaluation of his work.

  • random dude

    “Copan counters that that it is not always wrong to take innocent human life. Moreover, it remains within the divine prerogative to take an innocent life, or demand the taking of one, test or not.”

    Wow, and this guy thinks he has morals?

  • http://thewarfareismental.wordpress.com cl

    So I was on my way out of here when this post caught my attention. You penned Part 2 yet?

    Copan does his best to be fair (just like Cicero surely would), but there is no getting around the fact that the new atheist objections are, for the most part, rooted in a positively barbaric ignorance of the subject matter in question.

    Yes, I agree, and this is essentially the point I was making when you attacked me earlier today.

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