Last week Paul Manata provided the following argument for the inerrancy of scripture.
(1) Whatever the Bible affirms, God affirms.
(2) Whatever God affirms is true.
(3) Therefore, whatever the Bible affirms is true.
This is a logically valid argument (i.e. the conclusion follows from the premises). For all I know, it may even be sound (i.e. the premises may both be true). So why am I not more excited?
Well, let’s take a look at (1) again:
(1) Whatever the Bible affirms, God affirms.
How does one tell what the Bible affirms? At first blush one might think that this is simply a matter of drawing up a list of all the propositions in the 66 (or more) books in the Christian canon of scripture. (For the sake of the argument let’s set aside textual critical questions about various passages like the longer ending of Mark and the pericope about the woman caught in adultery.)
Oh, but here’s a problem. It has been said that he who translates is a liar and he who paraphrases is a blasphemer. Now this is surely a hyperbolic statement: translation is possible. But it is nonetheless a good reminder that there is a gap (nay, a chasm) between Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and modern (English) translations. When does the Bible actually affirm what the NASB or the NIV or the NRSV or the KJV or (even) the Message says?
The gap becomes especially evident in the phenomenon of implicature. The term implicature refers to the unstated but implied nexus of cognitive content that is associated with what is stated but is not itself explicitly affirmed. For instance, consider the following exchange between Billy and Suzie.
Billy: “Suzie, you move me!”
Suzie: “Thanks Billy. You’re a nice boy.”
Billy: “Suzie, I love you! You’re my princess. I want to build a life with you!”
Suzie: “You’re a wonderful friend Billy.”
Focus in particular on the final sentence and note how you have both what is stated and what is implied (the implicature). And note how the context of the previous statements provides the implicature for the final statement. That explains why, upon hearing that last statement, Billy burst into tears rather than blushing happily.
Now the question of affirmation: Did Suzie affirm simply that Billy is a good friend? Or did she also affirm that he is only a good friend? Or did she also affirm that she doesn’t want to have a romance with Billy? How much content should we consider as being affirmed by that one sentence?
So when we say that God affirms whatever the Bible affirms, we have to cross the difficult translation divide. And then we need to sort out the unstated implications and decide whether they are among those things affirmed. (To make matters worse, note that in some cases the implications are readily available based on a close reading of the context as in the Suzie case. But in other contexts the implications are only available to those familiar with the culture from the inside. When the implicature is contained not in words but in the surrounding culture in which those words are spoken, things become very complicated.)
Who affirms what?
One more thing for now. We need to distinguish the affirmations of authors and redactors. Scholars recognize that many of the books that comprise the canon were formed over extended periods of time by the work of a number of authors and redactors. That introduces a complexity, for a text which may have initially affirmed p could have, in virtue of being appropriated by a redactor into a final text, come to affirm something other than p. This introduces another distinction between meaning and significance. Or perhaps we should just talk of multiple meanings.
What is more, theologians have for centuries distinguished between the sense of the human author and the sense of the divine author. Whether, for example, you want to countenance the possibilty that “come, let us make man in our image” is a veiled reference to the Trinity, we are probably all agreed that it was not a notion available to the original human author of the passage. So whether there are trinitarian (or christological) references in various passages in the Old Testament, it is doubtful that the human author was aware of them.
So an indeterminate number of statements in the Bible could express at least three different propositions, that of the original author, the original redactor, and the divine author. (Keep in mind that I said at least three.) Now mix in the implicature at these different levels. And finally invite into the conversation the possibility of allegorical, anagogical and typological meanings. After all that explain to me what it is that the Bible in fact affirms. If you can’t address that, then you might as well just engrave premise (1) on a brass plaque and hang it on the wall where it can collect dust.
If the inerrancy plaque were left on the wall I probably wouldn’t complain. The problem is that inerrantists often take the plaque off the wall and use it as a blunt instrument to bludgeon those who do not accept a particular interpretation of scripture’s meaning or inspiration.