Errant statements in an inerrant book

Posted on 02/19/13 51 Comments

Last week I received the following comment/question from Bryan:

I’m a former Christian fundamentalist who abandoned Christianity for agnosticism/atheism when I found biblical inerrancy to be untenable (i.e the findings of evolution, biblical criticism, etc). But for some Christians, like you (and Thom Stark, whose book I’ve just finished) this doesn’t seem to be a problem. I haven’t been able to find any statements from you or Stark regarding the following question, so I figured I’d just ask: why, or how can I rationally believe in Christ in the possibility of eternal life if the Bible can’t be trusted? Why am I not justified in jettisoning the whole Bible? Why should I believe any of it?

There are many issues here. We’ll start dealing with them in this post. And our first task shall be to say some things about inerrancy.

Bryan is certainly correct that I reject some definitions of biblical inerrancy and consequently I don’t see the rejection of those definitions of the concept as problematic. For example, in the past I have expressed my rejection of what I call the “moral inerrancy standard”:

Moral inerrancy standard (MIS): While the human authors of scripture were fallen, morally errant beings, the process of inspiration protected the authors from writing down any morally errant sentences which would be included in the final canon of scripture.

In my view, certain statements in the imprecatory psalms serve as defeaters to the MIS. Consider Psalm 37:13:

the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he knows their day is coming.

I believe this claim is factually incorrect. God does not laugh at the wicked (literally or metaphorically). I take this view because I interpret a passage like Psalm 37:13 in light of other passages like Ezekiel 18:32:

For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!

Now what gives me the right to interpret the Psalmist’s statement in light of Ezekiel’s statement? There are two factors here. To begin with, I read the Bible under the operative assumption that a superintending (divine) intelligence has brought these disparate writings together into a canonical whole. That means that I am committed to resolving the tension between prima facie contradictory statements. Like pieces of a puzzle, they fit together into some greater unity. And making them fit doesn’t commit me to making them both come out as true. So when I read that God laughs at the punishment of the wicked (where laughter = pleasure) and then read that he doesn’t take pleasure (and presumably doesn’t laugh) at the punishment of the wicked, I have to choose which text I’m going to listen to. These two disparate voices have to be reconciled in the canonical whole.

To be sure, I could try to argue that reconciliation works out in terms of making them both come out true. Perhaps one could argue that God laughs in one sense but not another, and thus God takes pleasure in one sense but not another. A superficial conflict disappears on closer inspection and thus the Psalmist and Ezekiel are both right. I’m open to resolutions of this sort in principle. After all, there definitely is a proper satisfaction when the wicked are brought to justice. But I object to the assumption that a Christian is obliged to make them both come out true somehow. Who says? Where is the MIS to be found in the Bible? I also object to this specific resolution because the Psalmist’s image of laughter at impending judgment appears to go well beyond a proper satisfaction. And the Psalmist offers us many other images that are equally disconcerting, including Psalm 58:10:

The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.

So I don’t think there is much hope in reconciling the voice of the Psalmist in these moments with the depiction of God in Ezekiel 18:32. But then why side with the voice of Ezekiel and his depiction of God rather than the Psalmist and his depiction?

This brings me to the second factor. I read scripture in the light of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. If I want to know who God is I look to Jesus. And while Jesus certainly found the above-noted proper satisfaction at the punishment of the wicked, he doesn’t have the Psalmist’s glee. When it came to his reflection on the wickedness of the Israelites who had long killed God’s holy prophets Jesus instead lamented:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

 And in those moments when he was being crucified he looked down at his tormenters not in anger, and not with any joy, but with concern for them:

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23;34)

Consequently, emboldened by the witness of Jesus I side with Ezekiel rather than the Psalmist on this issue. And that means that at those moments when the Psalmist states that God takes a personal pleasure in the destruction of the wicked I say he is wrong. And when he takes his own personal pleasure in the destruction of the wicked again I say he is wrong.

And so I don’t think that a passage like Psalm 37:13 is inerrant in the sense that it makes a factually correct assertion about God.

However, this doesn’t mean I’ve given up on “biblical inerrancy”. Remember, I believe that God superintended the writing of this entire book and he included everything in it for a reason. To think that the only reason God might have included propositional statements in the Bible is because those propositional statements correctly state some fact about the world is blushingly reductionistic. But to give up on that reductionistic conception of inerrancy is not to give up on inerrancy per se.

My view is that the Bible is functionally inerrant in the sense that every speech act belongs where it does within the canonical whole. The value of this position over the mere description understanding of inerrancy is two-fold. First, the description view of inerrancy limits the doctrine to descriptive statements (because only descriptive statements make factual claims about the world). By contrast, functional inerrancy extends to every question, every command, every linguistic utterance of every kind.

Second, this view recognizes that scripture works at multiple levels. It works not just to convey information. It also works to transform us, to challenge us, to surprise us and confront us. It works when it conveys the truth of God’s mercy and compassion in Ezekiel 18:32. But it also works as it invites us to be honest about our own rage at our enemies when we hear the Psalmist’s anger in Psalm 37:13 and 58:10.

However, we are now on the threshold of a big problem. If I am correct then why aren’t things more obvious? To go back to the spirit of Bryan’s question: if this book is the roadmap to the transformed life then why do these kinds of disputes between myself and other interpreters (e.g. the MIS inerrantists) exist in the first place?

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  • R0c1

    Thanks for explaining this.

    Is your faith also able to accommodate claims like 1.) “2 Peter was not written by Simon Peter even though it says so in verse one” and 2.) “Josiah did not find the law; he had it written and redacted to serve as political propaganda.”?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Your questions really amount to this:

      Could God have appropriated pseudopigraphic works into his canon?

      Could God have attributed narratives into his canon that include historical statements that are incorrect?

      Functional inerrancy doesn’t oblige one to answer either of those questions by saying “no”. Instead, one must look on a case by case basis and consider the evidence for the claims being true. Insofar as there is evidence that they are true the functional inerrantist would have evidence that God inerrantly included the texts within the Bible under that new description. The task would then shift to consider whether there was any special reason why those texts were included (e.g. why a pseudopigraphic epistle was included) or whether that was really an incidental detail to the main point of the text’s inclusion.

      By analogy, think about reading a novel. At one point the narrator says that Dave parked his car in the garage. In fact, according to the earlier part of the narrative it was Steve that parked his car in the garage. Assuming the author is competent the question then becomes: why did the author include a statement in which he seems to provide an incorrect account of who parked their car in the garage? Is this a significant detail?

      • R0c1

        Yeah, I can’t think of good reasons for God to include pseudepigrapha or propaganda. He has a lot of options to communicate to me; using false statements in the process seems odd if not dishonest.

        It’s not impossible for God to use false statements for communication, it just seems unlikely he would want to. If he really wants me to believe X, he could reach this goal without any false statements in his canon, right? What do those false statements plausibly add that honest statements could not also add?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          “It’s not impossible for God to use false statements for communication, it just seems unlikely he would want to.”
          ?
          You write as if all great human authors are never subtle, perplexing, ironic and surprising in their literary materials.

          Your assumption that including a statement which is false if read literally is tantamount to being “dishonest” is truly perplexing to me. Just look, for example, at how widespread idiom is in language.

          • Walter

            You write as if all great human authors are never subtle, perplexing, ironic and surprising in their literary materials.

            In this case it seems that God may have been a little too subtle since a vast majority of his readers are not getting the point (assuming that you are correct in your theory).

            Obviously you have a love for the art of writing, and perhaps, just maybe, you are projecting your own love of complex and nuanced literary works onto God. In other words, God created us in His image and each us promptly returns the favor.

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              “a vast majority of his readers are not getting the point”

              I beg to differ. The main points on creation, fall, redemption, restoration seem quite clear as evident in the high degree of unanimity on them.

              • R0c1

                We can hardly give the Bible credit for its creation story. All the parts that are falsifiable have been falsified.

              • Walter

                Indeed there is a high degree of unanimity is these doctrines…at least nowadays since most “heretical” forms of Christianity that existed in earlier centuries have been swept away by the marriage of orthodox Christianity to the power of the Roman state.

                Still though, there are quite a number of people not unlike myself who left the orthodox Christian faith because we could not reconcile the actions of Yahweh with our own moral intuitions. Since Yahweh is supposed to be the same God as Jesus, then Yahweh’s behavior in the OT is not a minor, peripheral issue.

              • R0c1

                … But more to your point, it’s not impressive at all that there are * some things * Christians universally agree upon. If this were not the case, then the Christian religion simply would not exist. There has to be some set of common stuff that makes the lable “Christian” worth keeping in our vocabulary.

          • R0c1

            My understanding of the Bible is that we are dealing with many false statements that form larger false narratives. The immediate proximate cause is ignorance or immorality on the part of the human author – not genius or intent to teach truth in some kind of ironic presentation.

            I can recognize the possibility that someone is better able to teach us via false statements, but it seems that the Bible is just plain wrong. YMMV

  • epicurus

    When you ask why aren’t things more obvious, do you mean to everyone, yourself included, or just to those who disagree with you. If the latter, then you could argue that, just as non Christians are accused of being unable or unwilling to see the self evident truths of creation and truths about Jesus, other Christians who disagree with you are not in a right state with the Holy Spirit. They are suppressing the Spirit and therefore are not seeing spiritual truths in the Bible the way they should.

  • christthetao

    I don’t think God literally laughs at all, since God doesn’t have a diaphragm. (Except in the sense that he owns all diaphragms.) But being omniscient, he does recognize ludicrous incongruity where it arises, as it often does among the self-delusions of the godless. And being omnipotent, he is capable of enjoying irony as do his greatest servants, including his Son. And in the person of his Son, he could enjoy defying powerful foolishness with the innocent smile of one who faces the wrath of that foolishness courageously, defying it and thereby standing against injustice and oppression. And yes, he rejoices in the knowledge that truth and justice will “have the last laugh.” (And if the universalists turn out to be right, the ungodly, having finally repented, may also appreciate the humor of their earlier numbskullhood.)

    So with the anachronism of fulfillment, maybe I’ll just double down on Psalm 37:13.

  • Kerk

    “To begin with, I read the Bible under the operative assumption that a superintending (divine) intelligence has brought these disparate writings together into a canonical whole.”

    Randal, you’re still silent about where that assumption came from. What justifies it?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Your question assumes that a belief in the Bible’s inspired status can only be rationally justified as a non-basic inference from some other evidence derived from the text. I don’t accept that assumption. Like many moderate foundationalists, I would hold this belief to be properly basic absent defeaters. And what I’ve done here is point out that defeaters relating to things like putative moral error fail.

      So what justifies your assumption that this belief of mine can only be rationally justified as a non-basic inference?

      • Kerk

        Uuuuhhh.. So that’s it? That’s the answer? We can reasonably prove that theism is true through Aristotelian metaphysics. We can even reasonably infer that he is a nice guy, thank’s to Aquinas. We can even reasonably assume that he partakes in our lives, because of all the testimonies of religious experience through centuries and in the present days. That’s all nice, and I am fully on board.

        But Christianity, even the liberal version, is filled with very concrete notion and dogmas that one would have to accept in order to be called a Christian.

        Forget about atheists and their own dogmas. Imagine I’m a Martian, whose never heard of any religions. You are trying to present your worldview to me as a plausible one. Is properly basic belief all you’re going to refer to? “My acceptance of the Bible as a word of God, even with its obvious falsehoods, is properly basic, so you should really consider accepting it too.”

        So, back to your question – Yes, you retain your intelligent right to be a Christian. Granted. But I want more. I want you to be able to convince me to be a Christian. I imagine, you probably don’t have such a goal, but it’s never a good sign when one retreats into complete defense about their views.

        • Walter

          Kerk, I found this at Randal’s old blog:
          http://blogs.christianpost.com/tentativeapologist/does-the-resurrection-of-jesus-stand-up-to-historical-enquiry-1628/

          Randal’s positive case for orthodox Christianity begins with the historical evidence for the resurrection. But acceptance of the resurrection would not automatically lead me to accept all the dogmas of orthodox, trinitarian Christianity, so a lot more work needs to be done before I could begin to connect those dots.

          • Kerk

            Thanks, Walter.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Kerk, you asked what justifies my beliefs about scripture’s revelatory status. That’s completely different from asking what arguments do I have to persuade another person of scripture’s revelatory status. So yes, that’s the answer to the original question.

          As to your new question, I don’t place much stock personally in arguments for scripture’s revelatory status (e.g. fulfilled prophecy, the unity of theme). Instead, I believe people generally come to hold this as properly basic in accord with other beliefs and arguments.

          Both “Swedish Atheist” and my contributions in “God or Godless” provide a more expansive apologetic rationale for being a Christian.

      • spinkham

        Since I know you’re someone who likes to ponder challanges to their views, let me pose a question:

        Does it bother you at all that confirmation bias is enshrined as a core feature of your epistemology?

        Confirmation bias asks, when faced with something it wants to believe, if it *can* believe it, and when faced with something it wants to dismiss if it *must* believe it. This is one of our most powerful biases, and furthermore cognitive science has clearly demonstrated that very often we come to conclusions for non-rational reasons and then our rational mind lawyers up arguments to match.

        Do you think perhaps your epistemology was chosen at least partially because of its ability to let you do this? How would you feel about the work of another faith group if they developed their own epistomology with a transparent goal of protecting their own core beliefs by only subjecting them to the skewed criteria of the confirmation bias?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          “Does it bother you at all that confirmation bias is enshrined as a core feature of your epistemology?”

          It bothered me enough to write a book about the topic called “You’re not as Crazy as I Think”.

      • john

        Are all beliefs that are “properly basic absent defeaters” true? Are any of them true. If they are not all true, what metric do you use to determine the true ones from the false ones?

        When I say I have a properly basic belief in bigfoot does that add any value to it or any weight that is worthy of respect?

        • AdamHazzard

          “Properly basic absent defeaters” is Reformed Epistemology-speak. It means, “I can legitimately cling to a strongly-held belief as long as you can’t prove it wrong.” (Other foundationalist epistemologies tend to have stricter criteria for “properly basic” or axiomatic beliefs.)

          One problem with this open-ended definition of “properly basic” is that it’s always possible that a “defeater” exists but is unknown or has yet to be articulated. Which means that a “properly basic belief,” in the Reformed sense, must be considered only provisionally true! It also means that even “properly basic” beliefs (or beliefs claimed as properly basic) are nevertheless vulnerable to evidentialist disconfirmation — an evidentialist judge can always overrule the Reformed objection, so to speak .

        • Kerk

          Why wouldn’t it? As Randal said, if there are no obvious defeaters known to me, I can believe whatever I like.

          Of course, you may be aware of such defeaters and wish to educate me. Once you’ve presented them to me, I’ll have no choice but to try to analyze them and eventually abandon my false beliefs.

  • Aceofspades25

    Randal, I think you have a very western idea of punishment and justice.

    Punishment is not what happens when God decides to stop being merciful or compassionate, rather Godly punishment and wrath is an act of mercy and is done in order to bring about reform in the wrong doer.

    It is not what happens when Jesus runs out of patience and decides to no longer turn the other cheek.

    I’d recommend reading the well known sermon on Justice by George MacDonald: http://georgemacdonald.info/justice.pdf

    Or perhaps this commentry on it:
    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/george-macdonald-justice-hell-and.html

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I like your Dio-fork emblem.

      What you describe sounds like a reformative view of punishment. I don’t think that is opposed to “western” views of punishment. Indeed, reformation is clearly the dominant philosophical framework for punishment in the modern era. Hence the shift in nomenclature from “prison” to “correctional institute”.

      I am not a universalist but I am sympathetic to universalism and its understanding of punishment as reformational and I argue for a hopeful universalism (i.e. I hope the universalist is right) in “The Swedish Atheist” and my forthcoming book “What on earth do we know about heaven”.

  • http://profiles.google.com/bradhaggard Brad Haggard

    Randal, I’ve found a little bit of time to browse through the blog again, and I’m really interested in this area. When you talk about the “full meaning” of the text, how open are you to appropriating metaphorical interpretations a la Origen?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      A couple years ago I heard a fascinating paper at a conference by Andrew Pinsent in which he argued the case for reclaiming allegory in hermeneutics.

      I am certainly open to such appeals, but not as a means to neutralize otherwise ethically problematic dimensions to the “literal” meaning of the text. For example, C.S. Lewis famously suggested that we read the destruction of the Babylonian babies in Psalm 137 as an allegorical illustration for destroying sinful impulses. But this is merely a diversion from the ethically reprehensible wishes of the psalmist. In that case allegory wouldn’t be helpful because it would simply be helping us avoid the morally problematic dimensions of the text rather than deal with them.

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  • Joseph O Polanco

    At the parallel passage found at Psalm 59:5-8 we read, “You, O Jehovah God of armies, are the God of Israel. Do wake up to turn your attention to all the nations. Do not show favor to any hurtful traitors. They keep returning at evening time; they keep barking like a dog and go all around the city. Look! They make a bubbling forth with their mouth; swords are on their lips, for who is listening? But you yourself, O Jehovah, will laugh at them; you will hold all the nations in derision.”

    Given this context, it’s obvious that Jehovah God dismisses the hubris of those who obdurately oppose him. To the Almighty, such naked defiance is truly comical. It is in this way that he laughs at and derides these.

  • Joseph O Polanco

    RE: Psalm 58:10

    Randall, I will certainly be happy beyond words when “the wicked one will be no more” and we can finally take “exquisite delight in the abundance of peace”, won’t you? (Psalm 37:10,11)

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Sure, I look forward to the cessation of evil. But contrary to the imprecatory psalmist I don’t hope that certain people are destroyed. Rather, I hope all repent and are reconciled to God.

      • Joseph O Polanco

        Does this sentiment extend to Satan the Devil, that malevolent murderer and “father of the lie”? (John 8:44)

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          The psalmist wasn’t referencing Satan. He was referencing human beings in space-time who were oppressing him. Do you think that it is morally admirable as a Christian to follow the imprecatory psalmist in hoping that some specific people who have wronged you will be destroyed rather than come to repentance and restoration?

          • Joseph O Polanco

            Your reply called to mind the question Jehu asked King Jehoshaphat after he had allied himself with the baleful king of Israel, Ahab. He asked of King Jehoshaphat, “Is it to the wicked that help is to be given, and is it for those hating Jehovah that you should have love?” (2 Chronicles 19:2)

            Like King Ahab, there are many today who are beyond redemption, sadists who revel in their acts of evil. So, yes, absolutely, not only is it admirable to hope, ask for even, the destruction of such impenitent allies of Satan, it is perfectly just.

            Do you disagree?

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              For every person, you either know or do not know that this person will not be saved. If you know the person will not be saved, it is incoherent to hope that person will not be saved. If you don’t know whether that person will not be saved, it is wrong to hope that person will not be saved.

              Do you agree?

              • Joseph O Polanco

                I cannot agree for I have no such knowledge. For me – or anyone else for that matter – to claim to possess such knowledge is to arrogate an authority divinely conferred expressly to Christ Jesus and his co-ruling kings of his Millenary Kingdom. (Acts 17:31; 2 Timothy 4:1; Revelation 19:11-16; 1 Corinthians 6:2,3; Revelation 14:1-3; 20:1-4; Romans 8:17;16:20)

                • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                  You didn’t read my question properly. I didn’t say anybody had knowledge of the eternal destiny of another. Rather, I provided two conditionals. Please reread the question carefully.

                  • Joseph O Polanco

                    Your question was hypothetical?

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      Okay, I gave two options. Either you know the eternal fate of a person or you don’t. Either way, you ought not hope for their damnation. If you do know their election status then it makes no sense to hope for their damnation because you already know what their fate will be. If you don’t know their election status then surely you ought to hope that for any individual, that individual is saved. Either way, you never ought to wish for any individual that that individual is damned. And this runs counter to your defense of the imprecatory psalmist who does in fact wish of certain individuals that those individuals are damned.

  • Joseph O Polanco

    Randall, given the views you draw on Jesus based on Luke 13:34 Luke 23;34, what do you make of Christ’s self-referential parable at Luke 19:11-14, 27?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I’m an annihilationist so I have no problem with the picture here. However, the point of the parable is to portray the king setting the world to rights, not to highlight the grief the king would experience at the interminable rebellion of some of his subjects.

      • Joseph O Polanco

        Thank you for your thoughts. I greatly appreciate them. Withal, my question concerned this pacifistic view you seem to espouse of Christ vs. the reality of Christ’s unabashed alacrity to put his and God’s enemies to a violent death.

        This theme is further emphasized in the abundantly hemic imagery found at such passages as Revelation 19:11-21 and 14:18-20. How do you reconcile these with your, apparently, pacificatory sensation of Christ.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          The issue isn’t pacifism. It is whether God loves all people and desires that all be saved.

          • Joseph O Polanco

            Jehovah God’s expressions recorded at Ezekiel 33 make this abundantly clear. “[God] is kind toward the unthankful and wicked,” states Luke 6:35. However, Jehovah God is not blinded by sentimentality. He does not sacrifice righteous principles out of mawkishness. In effect, all those who willfully disobey him will bring their own deaths upon their heads at Armageddon.

  • Joseph O Polanco

    Randall, how have you reconciled your eschewal of MIS with passages such as 2 Timothy 3:16,17; 2 Peter 1:19 and Romans 15:4?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Of course. To take one example, Paul describes theopneustos but he never defines what theoretical interpretation of the Greek word is required. That’s why one finds a broad range of theories of inspiration throughout history. The texts in question underdetermine a theory of inspiration.

      • Joseph O Polanco

        I don’t quite follow. All three passages are categorical avermnets to the scope and nature of the theópneustos of all the Scripture. Where are you detecting hints of equivocality?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          2 Peter 1:19-21 is describing prophecy. That does not apply to the laws, the pithy wisdom sayings of Proverbs, the erotic love poetry of Song of Songs or the historical narrative of the gospels. In other words, that passage identifies a subset of inspired texts.

          As for 2 Timothy and Romans 15:4, the issue (as I said) is one of underdetermination. Neither passage provides enough content as to what being God-breathed or being written to teach means to determine what kind of theory of inspiration is correct. That’s why one finds a plurality of theories of inspiration in the history of Christian theology.

          • Joseph O Polanco

            Why not? Proph?teia encompasses all “discourse emanating from divine inspiration and declaring the purposes of God.” (Thayer)

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              Why not? Because the passage is describing a prophet, not the redactor’s collection of pithy wisdom sayings (for example).

              • Joseph O Polanco

                And a proph?t?s is one who “moved by the Spirit of God and hence his organ or spokesman, solemnly declares to men what he has received by inspiration” which includes, for example, pithy wisdom sayings. (Thayer) In this sense, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron, Miriam, Gad, Nathan, John the Baptist, Barsabbas (Judas), Silas and certain women of the first century Christian congregation were all proph?t?s despite their prophesying, often, being bereft of prognostications. Can you show otherwise?