A review of “God or Godless”, inerrancy, and begging the question
The “Christian Apologetics Alliance” website just published a review of God or Godless. The review is written by a fellow named Clinton Wilcox (for more on Clinton click here). It would seem that Clinton liked the book for he finds it to provide a good overview to the twenty topics it addresses, and he appreciates the cordial tone of the book.
However, Clinton has some gripes. He believes, based on past experience, that Loftus is “a poor philosopher”. And he believes that is borne out in this book as Loftus has ”a frustrating habit of ignoring Randal’s arguments altogether and just repeating his earlier points.” (I concur on that point.)
But Clinton is not altogether happy with me either. While he makes some kind comments about my work, he also raises two problems with my presentation: my alleged rejection of inerrancy and my alleged improper use of the phrase “begging the question”. Let’s consider both charges.
Clinton observes: ”Randal does make some major mistakes in his theology, such as supposing that a perfect God, one who cannot lie, would allow false statements about himself into the Scriptures that he supposedly inspired.” Clinton’s assessment of my “major mistake” appears to assume what I will refer to (rather inelegantly I admit) as the “Inerrant Theological Assertion Thesis” (or ITAT):
(ITAT): “For any text that God would inspire, all statements about God in that text would be true.”
ITAT raises all sorts of questions. For example, what does it mean for a text to be inspired? In the past I have endorsed William Lane Craig and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s appropriation account of divine inspiration according to which God creates the possible world in which human beings will freely write just that set of writings that God desires to appropriate as his inspired word. Set against this backdrop, ITAT would imply that there is no possible world in which God appropriates a set of words that has any false propositions about God. But why think this?
The reason, so far as I can see, is in Clinton’s statement above that “God cannot lie”. Clinton appears to assume that if there were any false statements about God included in a set of writings appropriated by God as inspired texts, that God would therefore be lying. This seems to me to be a most dubious assumption. Please keep in mind that scripture does not consist simply of a set of true propositions about God of which God has declared “These propositions about me are true.” Instead, it is a collection of a dizzying range of different texts including rich, multi-layered narrative, moving poetry, pithy wisdom, surprising irony, striking metaphor, dazzling apocalyptic, engaging hortatory, and on and on. And these texts were composed by countless authors and redactors in three languages over a millennium. If a person wants to argue that none of these texts could possibly contain a proposition about God that is literally false, the onus is on the person making that case to provide some reason to think it true. It is not enough to assume that the inclusion of any false statement about God in such a text would constitute divine lying.
Not only must ITAT address a general incredulity in light of the staggering diversity of the texts that compose scripture. It must also deal with the fact that many texts appear to contain inconsistent statements about God. For example, in Ezekiel 18:32 God declares: “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” In Psalm 37:13 the psalmist asserts: “the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming.” These texts certainly appear to contradict one another. It may be that they don’t, and I invite the harmonizers to make their case to that end. But can the absence of contradiction be established a priori?
ITAT remains quite popular among some Christian conservatives. I suspect that in many cases these conservatives believe that ITAT secures the authority of the Bible. I would contend that the effect of ITAT is quite the opposite and that it is really more like a Trojan horse that conceals a contentious set of modernist assumptions about truth, propositions, speech acts, inspiration, and the divine nature.
Later Clinton asserts that I reject inerrancy. But I don’t reject inerrancy. I’m a member of the Evangelical Theological Society which requires confession of inerrancy for membership. And I’ve defended the concept of inerrancy in my published writings. (In fact, I once had a manuscript rejected by Oxford University Press in part because I insisted on defending the concept of inerrancy in the argument.) I don’t reject inerrancy, though I do reject ITAT.
Regardless, Clinton goes on to say that my alleged rejection of inerrancy is “dangerous”. Indeed, it is so dangerous that Clinton concludes: “I don’t think I could recommend [Rauser] as a philosopher….”
I find that to be very disappointing. Note that Clinton doesn’t say he can’t recommend Rauser on scripture or inspiration. My rejection of ITAT means he can’t recommend me at all. Sadly, I have often found this anti-ecumenical all-or-nothing agreement demand among conservative Christian apologists. It is attractive for its simplicity, since you don’t have to worry about the complexities of critical appropriation. Simply look at whether the scholar in question affirms the right thing (e.g. inerrancy as understood by a particular constituency), and if the scholar fails to check all the boxes then they’re out. It is especially unfortunate to find this perspective propagated among Christian apologists who are seeking to be intellectual ambassadors for the faith to a skeptical world.
Begging the question?
Clinton makes one more critical comment of my presentation, and this one can be dealt with briefly. In short, he accuses me of misusing the phrase “begging the question”:
“Randal apparently doesn’t know what ”begging the question” is (it’s an informal logical fallacy). Randal keeps saying “that begs the question” when he obviously means “that raises the question.” It’s a common, and possibly understandable, mistake for a layman, but one that a professional philosopher shouldn’t make.”
In fact, I made no error here. The phrase “begging the question” has two different uses. To begin with, as Clinton correctly notes, the term refers to an informal logical fallacy in which one assumes that which must be proven. I use the phrase with reference to this informal logical fallacy in the following passage:
“John suggests that Paul was an unreliable witness because he was prone to visions. Not only is this begging the question since it assumes that Paul’s experiences had no divine cause, but it also doesn’t explain the Damascus Road experience.” (p. 162)
What Clinton fails to note is that “begging the question” also has a second meaning, viz. to invite a further question. (See, for example, this link from The Free Dictionary.) This second usage is the operative usage in passages such as the following:
“If you attribute something to an event, then it begs the question of a prior cause for that event. For example, if you explain the knocking pipes with recourse to the hot water flow, then you require another cause to explain the hot water flow.” (p. 62)
So I do, in fact, use the term “begging the question” correctly in all circumstances, and it is up to the keen reader to discern the precise meaning based on the context.