A review of “God or Godless”, inerrancy, and begging the question

Posted on 11/13/13 43 Comments

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.

Abandoning inerrancy?

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.

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  • Walter

    I don’t reject inerrancy, though I do reject ITAT.

    Your version of “inerrancy” seems to be virtually devoid of meaning. You believe that God inerrantly speaks through errant human texts, and it is up to the reflective reader to discern when and where the divine voice is speaking amidst a sea of human error and misinformation that God appropriated for reasons that no one can seem to fathom. Some might claim that your nuanced form of inerrancy is simply a rationalization for cherry picking parts of the biblical canon so as to tailor make a Christianity that suits your own personal tastes. With this kind of inerrancy, you are sure to find a God who agrees with you in every way, because any passage that does not suit you can be declared as lacking the divine voice and thus safely ignored.

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

      Walter, in response to my article “Is it time to re-establish state-based beheading?” you commented:”
      “The implication here is that the bible does not speak in a clear and authoritative voice on this and many other issues.”

      I replied: “I think it’s authoritative. As for clarity, there has never been clarity (if by “clarity” you are thinking unanimity or even broad agreement among readers). So that’s not an objection unique to anything I’ve said.”

      The same point applies here. You simply make these sweeping assertions without argument. As I also said in that earlier conversation:

      “I don’t mean to be flip here, but welcome to the post-Enlightenment world. Rational human beings of good will disagree with other rational human beings of good will on just about everything. That doesn’t mean each of us can’t have our own convictions and our reasons for maintaining those convictions.”

      • Walter

        I replied: “I think it’s [the Bible] authoritative. As for clarity, there has never been clarity

        Does this mean that you reject belief in biblical perspicuity? Does the Bible need to be interpreted via a magisterium of elite theologians such as yourself? Not very Protestant of you.

        Rational human beings of good will disagree with other rational human beings of good will on just about everything. That doesn’t mean each of us can’t have our own convictions and our reasons for maintaining those
        convictions.”

        I don’t think that you want to endorse the position that truth is relative to every individual based on his or her background assumptions and beliefs, but that appears to be what you are doing here. If the Bible is conveying objective truth, then there needs to be a better method of finding that truth rather than just declaring some passages as divine while others are not based on subjective intuition and personal fiat.

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

          “Does this mean that you reject belief in biblical perspicuity?”

          Walter, “perspicuity” refers to the teaching that a person can get the big picture of fall and redemption by reading scripture. I believe that is correct. However, that doesn’t mean that there is clarity as evinced in unanimity of agreement among informed interpreters on issues like the nature of God, fall, atonement, ethics, etc.

          “I don’t think that you want to endorse the position that truth is relative to every individual based on his or her background assumptions and beliefs….”

          You’re conflating truth with rationality. That’s a disastrous conflation to make. Jones can rationally believe P and Smith can rationally believe not-P, each relative to different data sets. It doesn’t follow that there is no objective truth about P or not-P.

          • Walter

            You’re conflating truth with rationality

            Randal, I consider it to be trivially true that people can rationally hold false beliefs.

            I gave an example in the previous thread about a hypothetical Christian who believed that she hears the “divine voice” speaking clearly in passages like Genesis 9:6 in which Yahweh clearly affirms capital punishment, in contrast to your opinion that God does not endorse capital punishment and that the divine voice is absent in that exact same passage. When asked how a third party might decide which of you is correct, you informed me that people can rationally disagree. I concur, but you never answered the question.

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

              I’d start by directing such a person to my many writings on the topic. The arguments I’ve presented have persuaded some people to read the Bible differently. But obviously they don’t persuade everybody. That’s my point. You can have good reasons for holding a view whilst realizing that not everybody will be compelled by the same reasons.

              • Derek

                Can there be good reasons for holding false beliefs?

                For example: I believe my lady is fat. It is not a false belief, according to the BMI (Body Mass Index). I, however, reason in such a way to hold a false belief, that my lady is not fat. Why? Because I have a good reason of not telling the truth my lady (I want my hanky panky with my lady)

                While the above example is trivial, why it seems that it applies to non-trivial matters? For example: According to the Bible, you are not doing what is right, but I have a good reason to hold your false belief, that you are doing right. (I don’t want to upset you)

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

                  I don’t entirely follow your comment but I can answer your initial question. As stated the question is ambiguous between the following:

                  (1) Can there be good rational reasons for holding beliefs one knows to be false?
                  (2) Can there be good rational reasons for holding beliefs that are false?
                  (3) Can there be good prudential reasons for holding beliefs one knows to be false?
                  (4) Can there be good prudential reasons for holding beliefs that are false?

                  The answers are as following:

                  (1) No
                  (2) Yes
                  (3) Yes
                  (4) Yes

      • Walter

        You simply make these sweeping assertions without argument.

        Case in point would be your blog article on capitol punishment. You believe that God, just like you, does not approve of capitol punishment. This despite the fact that the Old Testament is chock full of passages not only endorsing capitol punishment but prescribing it as the penalty for various infractions of the divine law given to Israel. The same law that was supposedly fulfilled by Jesus. Is the Mosaic Law a human invention, or just the penalties for breaking it?

        Once you wrote a blog article where you struggled with the morality of eating meat, and you desperately seemed to want to derive a vegan ethic from Jesus teachings, but you ran head first into passages that depict Jesus as eating fish. Using your methodology for scriptural interpretation the reflective Christian vegan can simply conclude that passages depicting Jesus as eating meat are errant human additions to scripture that don’t convey the divine voice. Point being is that this type of “inerrancy” is well suited to every individual who wants to find just the Jesus that he or she is looking for.

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

          I am going to respond to this in an article.

    • David

      Wouldn’t this be the same objection that one might claim against an inerrant bible as well, though? People obviously interpret it different ways, and some do according to their own likes and dislikes. It would just add another layer of ambiguity I suppose.

      • Walter

        Wouldn’t this be the same objection that one might claim against an
        inerrant bible as well, though? People obviously interpret it different
        ways, and some do according to their own likes and dislikes.

        Although I am not a Christian theist of any stripe I think that the Catholic position is superior to the protestant one in this particular area. A living authority established by God to infallibly guide the masses in every generation makes more sense than a God seeking to communicate primarily via ancient texts that can be interpreted a multitude of different ways.

        • David

          I certainly wish there was such a living authority. I was a Roman Catholic before I became an evangelical. When I converted I remember reading arguments like 1) There were two popes at one point in history, so which was the authoritative one? 2) The popes have changed their minds over the years. These would seem to falsify their position that they are the living authority. Would you agree?

          • Walter

            Yes, I would agree. It is one of the reasons that I am neither Catholic nor evangelical.

            • David

              If you don’t mind me asking, I believe you said in other posts that you are a Deist? Your comments are very thought provoking, so I look forward to Randal’s response.

              • Walter

                If you don’t mind me asking, I believe you said in other posts that you are a Deist?

                I would describe my beliefs as tentatively deistic bordering on agnosticism.

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

                  Is that a change?

                  • Walter

                    Not really. I have always waffled a little.

                    • Derek

                      You’ll never be an atheist, though. At “worst” you’ll have ignosticism views – “God” is meaningless because it has no testable (verifiable or falsifiable) hypotheses or evidence and should therefore be ignored.
                      I know you :)

        • John

          “Although I am not a Christian theist of any stripe I think that the Catholic position is superior to the protestant one in this particular area. A living authority established by God to infallibly guide the masses in every generation makes more sense than a God seeking to communicate primarily via ancient texts that can be interpreted a million different ways.” – Walter

          I agree with you, Walter. I find the arguments made by RCC theologians (e.g. Joseph Ratzinger) to be far more convincing than any Protestant argument I have heard on this topic.

          • David

            Hi John. I’m not very familiar with RCC theologians. Do you happen to know how they deal with the “two pope” and “popes changing their minds” objections I listed below?

            • John

              “I’m not very familiar with RCC theologians,” – David

              Hello, David. I believe the Catholic Encyclopedia and Catholic Answers are two good online forums for researching RCC teachings.

              http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/

              http://www.catholic.com/

              “1) There were two popes at one point in history, so which was the authoritative one?” – David

              Where you refer to there being two popes at any one time, the RCC would refer to one of them as being a “false claimant” to the Chair of St. Peter whilst the other would be recognized by the RCC as being canonically elected (i.e. legitimate). The following link contains a list of those regarded as pretenders to the Chair of St. Peter (these people are sometimes referred to as antipopes):

              http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01582a.htm

              The RCC has a process for legitimately selecting a candidate to fill the role of pontiff. The following summary describes the process (this is rather lengthy):

              http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_jp02ud.htm

              “2) The popes have changed their minds over the years. These would seem to falsify their position that they are the living authority.” – David

              I suppose you are referring to the matter of infallibility. The following comprehensive article summarizes the RCC position on infallibility. This article also addresses a variety of common objections re. RCC claims of infallibility. If you have time to read the entire article, some of your specific questions might be addressed here:

              http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07790a.htm

              I hope this is of some help.

              • David

                Thank you very much for the detailed response!

                • John

                  You are most welcome.

  • David

    One of the obvious examples I thought of this concept is the book of Job where you have Job’s friends making all kinds of statements about God and how He acts, only for us to find out at the end of the book that they are incorrect. Thus, we really need to know if God intended for the speaker to make a true statement about Himself. The difficulty I have with inerrancy is that I do not know how to demonstrate it logically to a skeptic. It’s seems to be mostly a matter of tradition. How can you prove every statement is inerrant – you would need some other inerrant revelation to which to compare it? For a while, I went with the “that was Jesus’s view argument” but I’m not sure if Jesus’s statements in the gospels are enough to get us there. Have you published anything on this or are you aware of any resources?

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

      “The difficulty I have with inerrancy is that I do not know how to demonstrate it logically to a skeptic.”

      The concept is frequently taken to be a logical deduction like this:

      (1) If God is all-powerful he would be able to prevent any errors in the Bible.

      (2) If God is all-good he would want to prevent any errors in the Bible.

      (3) Therefore, there are no errors in the Bible.

      For example, Millard Erickson argues explicitly in this fashion. But this is a blushingly spurious form of argument. After all, conservative inerrantists widely recognize that the Bible as we now have it has errors. They stipulate that only the autographa are inerrant. Unfortunately for the conservative inerrantist, the above argument readily can be reworked into the following:

      (i) If God is all-powerful he would be able to prevent loss of the autographa.

      (ii) If God is all-good he would want to prevent any loss of the autographa.

      (iii) Therefore, the autographa has not been lost.

      Fortunately no inerrantist I know tries to argue (i)-(iii), but the logic is the same as (1)-(3). If the one is spurious then the other is as well.

      (And that is not even to address the meaninglessness of applying a concept like autographa to texts that were redacted over decades or even centuries before they reached their final form, as with the Deuteronomic history.)

      • David

        Thanks. That makes sense. Premise #2 is the obvious flaw to me since God may not want or need to prevent errors in the Bible if He has other means of revealing truth to people. Agreed on the autograph comments as well. Do you have a succinct way of arguing for your view of inspiration? In other words, why do you believe that God appropriated the words in the bible opposed to allowing humans to write a fallible, but generally historically reliable text? I know from other posts that you reject the typical arguments for inspiration that involve prophecy and embedded scientific knowledge.

  • Kerk

    Are you sure that the second meaning of “begging the question” is formal? I have a strong impression that it is perceived to be formal because thousands of people, ignorant about its true meaning, use it constantly. But that doesn’t make this use of the phrase legitimate, just like the word “gonna” is not legitimate no matter how often we use it.

    • John (adj)

      What do you mean by “legitimate” in regards to language usage. Many words once considered by some to be illegitimate are now accepted usage. Your declarative statements about language suggests you are more a prescriptivist than a descriptivist.

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

      Kerk, are you protesting semantic drift in living languages? Surely that must be one of the most futile protests conceivable. Does that mean that you protest references to the sun rising? Or have you gotten over that one? :)

      • Kerk

        Well I’m certainly couscous about allowing semantic drift in academic papers.

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

          Kerk, all language is drifting all the time. What exactly are you proposing here?

          While I await your reply about academic papers (which is of great interest to me), are you suggesting that I was wrong to use a common idiom in a book for a general readership?

          • Kerk

            I’m proposing dry, dull and painfully precise language in any book that purports to answer difficult and complex issues of academic importance.

            Nevermind that it’s for general public. Otherwise you might as well go, “Yall know, like, God like, exists, cause we gots to explain thems moral laws in our heads.”

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

              I don’t think language has to be dry or dull in an academic book. I do think it has to be precise, but precision is fully compatible with the selective employment of colloquialisms.

  • Alejandro Rodríguez

    The obsession of US Evangelicals with inerrancy should stop. Christians throughout history have never cared that much about whether scripture is inerrant or not, and almost all Christian Churches have even quietly dropped the doctrine alltogether. It is only US Evangelicals that insist on this, and what they do is only make the Christian faith look bad, just like Deepak Chopra and New Agers make Hinduism look bad.

    • Walter

      The obsession of US Evangelicals with inerrancy should stop

      An evangelical can no more admit that the Bible is errant and flawed than a catholic can admit that his Church is fallible and flawed.

    • David Marshall

      They also keep the likes of me from getting hired at certain institutions, so maybe the atheists should be grateful for that, at least.

      But the Law of Manu, caste, sati, and guruism in general, are what makes Hinduism look bad. The New Age makes Hinduism look silly.

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  • pRinzler

    Randal, given that the Free Dictionary that you quote for the second definition of “begging the question” concludes the definition you quote with

    “This reinterpretation of beg the question is incorrect but is currently in widespread use.”

    does this mean that you favor using words incorrectly if such usage is in widespread use? Is this how philosophers use words?

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

      “The original meaning of the phrase beg the question belongs to the field of logic and is a translation of Latin petitio principii, literally meaning “laying claim to a principle’, i.e. assuming something that ought to be proved first …. To some traditionalists this is still the only correct meaning. However, over the last 100 years or so another, more general use has arisen: “invite an obvious question”, as in “some definitions of mental illness beg the question of what constitutes normal behaviour.” This is by far the commonest use today and is the usual one in modern standard English.”

      (Oxford Dictionary of English, p. 149.)

      • pRinzler

        Randal, I must admit that the Oxford Dictionary is pretty authoritative. You’re right on this one.

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  • HematitePersuasion

    I am quite curious as to how those who argue for inerrancy on the part of the Bible explain why it has led to so many different interpretations. If the Bible were inerrant, wouldn’t it be understandable and unambiguous?

    I see the ambiguity itself as foreclosing the possibility of inerrancy. If the material is truly ambiguous, then it is neither correct nor incorrect — it does not (can not) speak with authority. Or has ‘inerrant’ taken on some kind of ambiguous interpretation itself?