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Sunday Study: Inerrancy and Biblical Authority

January 18th, 2010 by Matt

Recently Glenn Peoples and Dominic Bnonn Tennant had an interesting exchange over the issue of biblical inerrancy, the doctrine, that the bible contains no errors. In his post, Errantly Assuming Inerrancy in History, Peoples makes this interesting comment,

While there has always been a clear expression of the view that what Scripture teaches is correct, this has certainly not always been seen in terms of the notion of “inerrancy.” After all, the very disagreement that exists between evangelicals who affirm inerrancy and those who do not is whether or not the idea that the Bible is authoritative and truthful in what it teaches us should (or need not) give rise to the further claim that the Bible is also inerrant.

Peoples here distinguishes between two theses; the first is that bible contains no errors, the second is that whatever the bible teaches is true. In his article Peoples argues that the first of these theses is false, he argues that there are numerous factual errors in scripture. On the other hand Peoples maintains that the second thesis is true, none of the errors he mentions call into question the authority of scripture because they do not affect the truth or falsity of what scripture teaches. Hence, one can affirm the authority of the bible, even the claim that it is infallible in what it teaches, without affirming that it is inerrant, in the sense of containing no errors.

In A response to Glenn Peoples’s ‘No, I am not an inerrantist’ Bnonn argues that Peoples is attacking a straw-man. The doctrine that the bible is inerrant does not mean to deny that the kind of discrepancies Peoples points to do not exist; rather, supporters of the position Peoples attacked have in mind a different account of what constitutes an error to what Peoples’ critique suggests. Here, I do not want to discuss whether Bnonn is correct or incorrect here because whether he is or not, I think Peoples is onto an important distinction here and he offers an important critique of one way of understanding biblical authority which is often assumed by sceptics.

A couple of examples may illustrate this point. In Does God Exist Michael Tooley, for example, suggests that those who hold that Genesis is the revealed word of God run into trouble because in Genesis God decided to “drown all men, women, and children in a great flood” and suggests that this means they must believe that God has engaged in genocide of the human race.[1] David Brink similarly argues that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve is contradicted by contemporary geological evidence and evolutionary biology so, hence, is unreliable.[2] Fales notes “then, there is the generally mythical character of Genesis, and the fact that many of the themes in the first eleven chapters are borrowed from, or influenced by, the myths of other ancient Near Eastern cultures”[3] and considers this to undercut the authority and reliability of the book of Genesis. Some sceptics contend that primitive scientific understandings of the world are presupposed in various biblical passages. In Matt 15:18-19 Jesus states “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things make a man unclean. For out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” Some sceptics argue that this passage reflects a primitive ancient understanding of human anatomy that held that the heart was literally the seat of the emotions, will and intellect.

Now some evangelical scholars would contest each of these claims by questioning the existence of such underlying cultural beliefs, the geological evidence and so on, however, here, for the sake of argument, I will assume these basic contentions are correct. I think an important question to ask is, so what? Because even if the sceptic’s claims are true it is far from clear that this actually calls into question biblical authority, the distinction Peoples raised gives us some insight into why. The examples might show that the text contains errors in some sense of that term but it is not clear that they actually show that what the bible teaches is false.

Interestingly something like this distinction occurs in the characterisation of inerrancy offered by two leading, contemporary, Christian philosophers. Alvin Plantinga states, “Scripture is inerrant: the Lord makes no mistakes; what he proposes for our belief is what we ought to believe”. Here Plantinga defines inerrancy not in terms of the bible containing no errors at all, but rather that what God proposes to teach with scripture is not mistaken. William Lane Craig articulates a similar account:

Nobody thinks that when Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mark 4.31) this is an error, even though there are smaller seeds than mustard seeds.  Why?  Because Jesus is not teaching botany; he is trying to teach a lesson about the Kingdom of God, and the illustration is incidental to this lesson. Defenders of inerrancy claim that the Bible is authoritative and inerrant in all that it teaches or all that it means to affirm.  This raises the huge question as to what the authors of Scripture intend to affirm or teach.[4]

Craig’s point here is that Jesus’s comment taken literally contains a falsehood, that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. I myself am inclined to see hyperbole here and so do not think that Jesus did literally say the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds, suppose however he did, then his statement would be false. Nether the less Craig notes, and I think correctly, that this is irrelevant because even if Christ said this about mustard seeds, this passage is not supposed to teach us about Botany. It’s a teaching about the growth of the kingdom of God. The saying about the mustard seed is simply a way of illustrating the point Jesus is trying to teach. And it’s the truth or falsity of this teaching, not the details of the illustration that is what is at stake in the question of biblical authority.  I think Craig is correct here, God uses texts written by human beings to teach people certain truths about himself and the world. What is authoritative is what is taught not the details of how it is expressed. This distinction between what the text teaches and what it contains then is I think illuminating, it also I think casts some light on cases of error that Peoples refers to the difference between the gospel of John and the synoptic gospels in terms of the cleansing of the temple:

Scholars have come to see that the genre to which the Gospels most closely conform is ancient biography.  This is important for our question because ancient biography does not have the intention of providing a chronological account of the hero’s life from the cradle to the grave.  Rather ancient biography relates anecdotes that serve to illustrate the hero’s character qualities.  What one might consider an error in a modern biography need not at all count as an error in an ancient biography.  To illustrate, at one time in my Christian life I believed that Jesus actually cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem twice, once near the beginning of his ministry as John relates, and once near the end of his life, as we read in the Synoptic Gospels.  But an understanding of the Gospels as ancient biographies relieves us of such a supposition, for an ancient biographer can relate incidents in a non-chronological way.

Craig’s point can be seen this way. John records the cleansing of the temple near the beginning of his ministry, whereas the synoptic gospels record it occurring near the end of his ministry. Hence, these accounts contain contradictory records of the same event. This, however, does not call into question the accuracy of what is being taught because once one understands the genre being employed, the genre of ancient biography, it is evident the authors did not intend to teach that every event they recorded actually happened in the precise way they narrate. The authors are not teaching that Christ actually cleansed the temple at a particular time and place in history, they are trying, rather, to provide a faithful account of who Christ was, what he was like, what he taught, the major things he did and said. These records are accurate if they faithfully reflect a correct answer to these questions. They, like other biographers of the time, drew on accounts or traditions that highlighted the point they were trying to make without necessarily accepting that every account they refer to actually happened precisely how it is stated. The authors, in relaying the story of the cleansing of the temple, are teaching not that the event actually happened as they narrated it but that Christ was opposed to the kind of actions that were taking place in the temple; he was so opposed to it that given the opportunity, whether late in his ministry or early, he would respond in the way the Gospels portray and take the kind of stance he is portrayed as taking. The text teaches truth if it is true that Christ was like this and false if he was not. If Christ had no problem with money changers in the temple, and considered this activity to be a perfectly appropriate way to make money, then what this text asserts would be false.

I think many of the cases cited by sceptics of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures are unpersuasive because they fail to distinguish between what is contained in the text and what the text teaches. Given this they fail to really challenge biblical authority as this has, according to Peoples, been traditionally understood.

Suppose, as Fales suggests, the evidence supports the contention that Genesis is not an historical account of origins but a rewritten legend or myth, it does not follow that what this myth teaches is false. Myths are used to teach theological and ethical points and the question of whether these points are true or false or not is whether the genre that expresses them is mythic.

Similar points can be made about the other examples. The fact that Genesis contains a story about God drowning the human race in a flood does not entail that the text teaches that God committed genocide. For this latter conclusion to follow one would need to establish that the genre of Genesis is on par with the genre of modern histography and hence intends to teach the events recorded actually happened. This may or may not be the case but it requires argument. Merely citing a passage does not do this.

Similarly, Brinks’ argument assumes that the text not only contains stories about Adam and Eve but also teaches the story occurred as historical fact. This involves important questions of genre that Brink ignores. It is possible that these stories are included by the author to teach certain theological and moral truths about human beings, sin and God; of course they might not be either, but merely pointing out that a story contains error if taken as literal historical fact does not substantiate this.

Finally, even if Christ’s statement presupposes or reflects a mistaken ancient view of human anatomy it is clear that in the passage in question he is not teaching that this anatomy is true. He is teaching about human sin and its relationship to the Torah. He might use a primitive understanding of anatomy to illustrate or make the point but that is not the point he is imparting.

Here, as elsewhere, sceptics show themselves up as fundamentalists working with an excessively pedantic understanding of inerrancy; a conception that Peoples correctly rejects and also argues, again correctly, is largely irrelevant to the question of biblical authority. Moreover, if Bnonn is correct, most inerrantists do not assume this understanding of biblical authority either, which means that such arguments are simply attacks on straw men, often by people who should know better.


[1] Michael Tooley “Does God Exist?” in The Knowledge of God eds Michael Tooley and Alvin Plantinga (Malden, M A: Blackwell Publishers, 2008) 75.
[2]
David O Brink “The Autonomy of Ethics” The Cambridge Companion to Atheism ed Michael Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 159.
[3] Evan Fales “Plantinga’s Case against Naturalistic Epistemology” 63 Philosophy of Science 1996, 447-448.
[4]
William Lane Craig “What Price Biblical Errancy?Reasonable Faith Q&A.

RELATED POSTS:
Sunday Study: Two Forms of Inerrancy

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45 responses so far ↓

  • “I think Peoples is onto an important distinction here and he offers an important critique of one way of understanding biblical authority which is often assumed by sceptics.”

    I think that this statement is inerrant. :)
    .-= My last blog-post ..Looking for an article by Peter Van Inwagen =-.

  • “I think that this statement is inerrant.”

    Do you mean it contains no error or do you mean it’s true? :P

  • Very interesting.
    As a Catholic, I (and I’m sure fellow devout Catholics) don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the errancy of the Bible because we are guided by both Scripture AND Tradition.

    The point being that there are a multitude of churches out there and many of them will disagree about how to interpret scripture; in fact, you’ll often find disagreement among members of the same church as to what a certain scripture means. Obviously, all of those different churches can’t be right.

    The eventual Authority much be the Holy Spirit, and from a Catholic point of view, Jesus established an Authority on earth (Peter and the Church) to be guided by the Spirit and to discern what is right and what is in error. We believe we have the promise of infallibility (as far as faith and morals go).

    I think Scott Hahn made some comment that the Bible NEEDS an authority to interpret it, much like it wouldn’t work if every American was given a copy of The Constitution and told to go and work it out for themselves. There needs to be an authority that interprets the law (thus we have courts, judges, etc) and I think that the Bible needs no less; otherwise each church is interpreting something their own way.

    Stan Williams works through the argument here – http://www.stanwilliams.com/catholic/Itself.htm and comes to this conclusion –

    The Catholic Church has a simple answer. The Holy Spirit speaks through the Church (which contains all believers, including priests, religious, bishops and the Bishop of Rome) and through prayer, fasting, dialogue, debate, and study…the will of God about a particular issue is arrived at and proclaimed by the Church as true. The process in each case takes years. Never has a Pope arbitrarily, outside that normally very long process of discerning God’s will, made any dogmatic proclamation. And never has a Pope made a proclamation of truth without the consensus of the other bishops of the church. Thus, while the Pope is said to have the office of the keys, he has never used them without being in union with the doctrine of the full church. Furthermore, no doctrine has ever been proclaimed unless the church can confirm that the doctrine was believed and held true during the lives of the Apostles and in keeping with their direct teachings.

    I know you guys won’t agree with this idea of an ultimate Authority that is regarded as the last word regarding what Scripture teaches and what the faithful believe, but I believe Jesus did establish such an Authority when he said to Peter –
    “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” and gave Peter the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. He establishes Peter as the Shepherd and tells him to “feed my sheep”.

    Just sharing the view as to how we see it.

  • Excellent, thought provoking argument. Let those with ears and so forth
    .-= My last blog-post ..Tweet for #Korah Today =-.

  • What’s the source on the Plantinga definition of inerrancy?

  • Ranger, the context of the Plantinga quote is here:

    “The Lord can’t make a mistake: fair enough; but we can. Our grasp of what the Lord proposes to teach us can be faulty and flawed in a thousand ways. This is obvious, if only because of the widespread disagreement among serious Christians as to just what it is the Lord does propose for our belief in one or another portion of Scripture. Scripture is indeed perspicuous: what it teaches with respect to the way of salvation is indeed such that she who runs may read. It is also clear, however, that serious, well-intentioned Christians can disagree as to what the teaching of Scripture, at one point or another, really is. Scripture is inerrant: the Lord makes no mistakes; what he proposes for our belief is what we ought to believe. Sadly enough, however, our grasp of what he proposes to teach is fallible. Hence we cannot simply identify the teaching of Scripture with our grasp of that teaching; we must ruefully bear in mind the possibility that we are mistaken. ”

    Its from ” When Faith and Reason Clash:Evolution and the Bible” Christian Scholar’s Review XXI:1 (September 1991): 8-33 which is available online. http://www.asa3.org/aSA/dialogues/Faith-reason/CRS9-91Plantinga1.html
    .-= My last blog-post ..Sunday Study: Inerrancy and Biblical Authority =-.

  • I don’t think you have addressed the crux of the issue. It is correct that the Bible is not hyperliteral the way some sceptics portray it, but this is Bnonn’s point. The issue is not about conceding the hyperliteralist and saying the gist is still true, it is whether the Bible contains errors of fact. And if it does, what is the justification for the moral truths being true?

    It may be true, but if it is errant in areas that we can confirm, why do we think it inerrant in matters we cannot? If we allow for error we allow for a range of error. When Psychology denies that a range of sins are sin, or that people are capable of choosing for or against them, do we say the Bible is errant there? Or when science proves that people cannot be raised from the dead—well the Bible is errant about the fact of the resurrection but not the message behind it?

  • It seems to me a useful rule of thumb would be to regard the Bible as infallible in matters of faith or morals, and fallible in everything else, eg history, physics, biology, economics. This would be similar to the doctrine of Papal infallibility, if my understanding is correct.

    However this would effectively mean that the infallibility is “by definition” since there can’t be (at least for Protestants) any source of faith or morals which is more Christian than the Bible. Or can there be?

  • When Psychology denies that a range of sins are sin

    I don’t think this is possible. Psychology is supposed to be a science, which means that it attempts to make empirical statements about the world. Claiming that something is or is not a sin on the other hand is a moral assertion. It is not something which can be falsified and doesn’t depend on any empirical properties, therefore there isn’t anything psychology can say about it.

    At the most, a psychologist can say that people who engage in “behaviour X” have certain behavioural characteristics, and their behaviour can be explained by certain mechanisms of the mind or nervous system. The psychologist can’t say that what they are doing is good or bad, sinful or righteous, at least not without taking off his psychologist’s hat.

  • Bethyada,

    I think you might be misunderstanding me here you write I am not conceding the hyper-literalists position I think the hyper-literalist misunderstands the Genre of various biblical texts, nor am I suggesting that the bible only teaches “moral truths” and not what you call facts.

    Take for example the genre of ancient biography, as I understand it does not intend to affirm as true every detail it records but rather to give an accurate picture of the person the biography is about. This still requires that much of what it records is true, for example if Jesus did none of things and said nothing at all remotely resembling what is recorded in the gospels then these accounts don’t give an accurate picture of him. No one would interpret biographies about Alexander the Great in such a way that they did not teach he was king of Macedon, conquered Persia, fought in the battle of Gaugamela etc

    I also think that many historical books intend to teach historical claims. The OT as far as I can tell teaches that Israel went into exile as a result of disobedience for example and it also teaches God lead the Isrealites out of slavery in Egypt. This is because these texts are as far as I can tell histories, admittedly they are ANE histories and the fact that ANE history uses hyperbole, lack of precision a degree of historical reconstruction etc needs to be taken into account never the less they are histories and intend to teach things about what happened in the past. Again a person would not take an Egyptain history as entirely figurative, they would take it to teach a particular event happened, true one would recognise hyperbole, the theological/political message the text affirms, but this would not be taken to be all the author teaches.

    When Psychology denies that a range of sins are sin, or that people are capable of choosing for or against them, do we say the Bible is errant there? Or when science proves that people cannot be raised from the dead—well the Bible is errant about the fact of the resurrection but not the message behind it? No, that’s because these things contradict what the bible teaches I think the scriptures do teach that Christ rose from the dead and various actions are sins and so on. However, I think that is different from references to “thinking in ones heart” or the “four corners of the earth” or “the waters above and below” which I think are presupposed but not taught by the text.

    I think the same is true for medieval history, if I read , a 13 century account of a battle that occurred at “sun rise” I would not take the author to be teaching that Copernicus is mistaken, despite the fact his language utilizes a pre Copernican understanding of cosmology. The author is stating that a battle occurred at dawn, nothing more. and I would not think the historical account of the battle was unrelaible because I saw references to sun rise and knew that at this time people took the phrase sun rise literallty. I might judge it unreliable if I discovered evidence the battle occured at mid day, or no battle occured at all.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Can State Appropriation of Minerals in Privately Held Land be Justified? Resources Needed =-.

  • Matt, your position is fine, but I don’t see how what you have written is distinct from Bnonn (or myself) to a large degree. In that as an inerrantist, I still hold to genre. I don’t assume accuracy greater than that given, I don’t assume spelling consistency, I don’t assume that if an event is described before another it antedates it (unless specified by the author), but these are not errors or fact, they are variations of authorship. However I do dispute that the Bible contains errors of fact. So while there may be use of metaphor around words, the underlying word still has meaning. That Sheol may occur in poetical genres at times, and thus have hyperbolic descriptions, does not also mean that Sheol is non-existent.

    Timothy bringing Paul’s cloak may have little or no theological significance, but if Paul did not have such a cloak then the Bible is errant in that place.

    If all your errors that you accept are actually not real errors, but legitimate figures of speech, then your position is similar to an inerrantist.
    .-= My last blog-post ..The corporate focus in Romans 9 =-.

  • Joseph: being led by Scripture and tradition in and of itself doesn’t take away from the revelanve of the question of inerrancy, since the same Question can be asked of Scripture and tradition. What is more, the fact that you depend on Scripture at all makes the question of inerrancy relevant.

    And bethyada, Matt has not said that all apparent errors are merely figures of speech. I can show that they aren’t, but Matt can, of course, answer for himself.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Doctor Living Stone, I Presume! =-.

  • Bethyada, my position may not be different from Bnonn’s or yours. But let me elaborate two kinds of error which, I see as compatible with what I am suggesting.

    First, take passages which to the heart and kidneys as seats of the emotions will, intellect etc. Some scholars take these to be metaphoric, others suggest the original authors understood the phrase literally reflecting a primitive and hence erroneous Psychology. Regardless of which side is correct, I don’t see the outcome as making any difference to the truth of what these passages teach.

    Take my example of a 12 century account of a battle which is said to occur at sun rise. We know in the 12 century people believed the sun literally rose and hence such phrases were not metaphorical. Yet I think it would be a mistake to suggest that the phrase “the battle took place at sun rise” is false because of Copernicus. While the text presupposes an erroneous view of cosmology the text does not teach this cosmology, all it teaches is that a battle occurred at dawn and it uses pre-Copernican cosmology to express this point. The text affirms truth if the battle occurred at dawn and it is false if it occurred at another time of the day. I am inclined think that references to heart, kidneys etc, in the scriptures, function in an analogous way to the word “sunrise” in medieval texts.

    Second, your reference to Paul’s cloak in 2 Tim 4:13 is a good one because it raises nicely some issues of how to understand biblical authority. Suppose Paul did not leave his cloak at Troas, he thought he had, but in reality had left it somewhere else. (Paul was displaying absent minded professor syndrome). I am inclined to think this kind of error this would make absolutely no difference to whether what Paul teaches in 2 Timothy is true. As Paul is not, in this letter, giving any apostolic teaching on whether there is a cloak in Troas.

    Paul’s teaching is authoritative because he is an apostle, what he teaches as an apostle is true. It does not follow from this, that every personal conversation, remark, Paul ever made in his life or every memory he had was without error. It’s rather that what he taught in the function of an apostle has divine authority. It seems to me that while the letter to Timothy expounds apostolic teaching and instruction and the whole book letter is therefore authoritative, the specific passage in v 4:13 records a personal aside Paul gives to Timothy regarding some property he left at Troas. To interpret Tim 4:13 as a divine command to collect Paul’s cloak, or a prophetic or apostolic utterance that a cloak existed in Troas seems to me to be excessively pedantic and implausible, hence I myself see nothing about the divine authority of scripture threatened by a discovery that there was no cloak in Troas. All it would show us was the Paul’s memory was not perfect, which we already knew.

    It was this very example that lead me to see that issues of biblical authority were not as simple as saying everything scripture says God says. God clearly does not say “go and get my cloak” and more than God in Psalm 139 God says “you knitted me together in my mothers womb” (as though God was a created being). Scripture is authoritative and true because it is the word of God and what God says is true. If not every phrase the human authors utter can be attributed to God, but rather what they teach with these phrases, it follows that what it’s a mistake to attribute inerrancy to everything the human authors writing contains as opposed to what these writings teach.

  • Subscription to various religious doctrine has been and continues to be deadly and divisive. I just came across a book by an unknown writer at the website http://www.godscontinuingword.com that astounded me. The book states that it must be read by everyone. You must do so.
    Jfall

  • Thanks Matt. Your position (which was in the post, and is similar to the position of my pastor’s) is that there may not be errors, but even errors do not preclude truth being taught. But most of the examples you use are debatable as to their error content. I think it more useful to use examples where people would agree there is a potential error. I used the cloak not because of its theological virtue, rather because I think that would be an example of a clear error. As would the non-existence of David, Sodom, Nineveh, Jonah; Abraham not going to Egypt, no visit by the Queen of the South.

    But examples like kidneys and heart are less clear because even our culture allows them and we do not consider this error. No one would blink at a reference to butterflies in the stomach (save a child) though we know this not true.

    Your sunrise example is a little stronger, but as it is accurate from the earth’s perspective, I am not certain it is metaphorical now.

    But if we obtain clearer examples (of potential error), I do think this starts to call into question the truth of the passage, and Scripture as a whole.

    This is why. I can give an example to someone to explain an issue. If the analogy works, even though the example was in fact incorrect, I can say, well assuming it were true then…

    And this is what you (Matt) are saying (which I think has some validity). But,

    firstly, what if my analogy depended on the truth of the example; and

    more importantly, if I am consistently incorrect about my examples, it raises the question about my reliability of my teaching otherwise, including the inferences I make from them. My reasoning may seem correct to the hearer, but it could be false. If the debate was over a clear syllogism, then one needs to show error in the logic. But debate is not as often this clear. When a person has a large number of errant ideas milling in their mind, this will play out in his words, so questioning him is reasonable.

    (No one thinks all Paul’s thoughts were always inerrant)

  • Christian Carnival (some number) :)…

    Welcome to the Christian carnival for this week. … MandM comes out with Sunday Study: Inerrancy and Biblical Authority. Recently Glenn Peoples and Dominic Bnonn Tennant had an interesting exchange over the issue of biblical inerrancy, the doctrine, t…

  • [...] intriguing and thoughtful view of Biblical meaning, authority, and inerrancy, at Sunday [...]

  • Matt said: Suppose, as Fales suggests, the evidence supports the contention that Genesis is not an historical account of origins but a rewritten legend or myth, it does not follow that what this myth teaches is false. Myths are used to teach theological and ethical points and the question of whether these points are true or false or not is whether the genre that expresses them is mythic.

    As a skeptic myself there is something you fail to grasp. While you are correct that the mythic genre doesn’t mean an expressed belief is false, certainly you realize that such a genre was universally used in the ancient world to express similar views of cosmology and creation. For instance, although ancient Egyptian culture no longer survives, if it did and if a believer in those ancient myths said the same things as you did here, that using mythic genre doesn’t mean it’s false, you would have every reason to reject it as non-historical. You would say there is no divine mind behind it, just as I do your Genesis myth. You would say modern science shows it is implausible, as I do with your Genesis myth.

    Check out these resources for further information.

  • No, John. You, and not Matt, are the one failing to grasp matters.

    You say that Matt would rejectthe Egyptian’s story as non-historical, and he would say that it’s not scientific, and that you say the same thing about Genesis.

    John, the whole point of what Matt said is that the mere fact that something is not a scientific, historical account doesn’t make its teaching false. In other words, he has said that one might reject the Genesis account as unscientific and non-historical, and yet believe what it teaches. So applying what Matt says here, the question in the case of an Egyptian soty is not whether or not it is historical or whether or not it is scientifically accurate. The question there, as with Genesis, would be: “What does it teach?” Now, if it taught a different theology than the one taught in the Bible, then yes, Christians would reject it. But not simply as a matter of history or science.
    .-= My last blog-post ..“Most of whom are still alive” – The Apostle Paul on witnesses to the resurrection =-.

  • John, I agree with Glenn’s response, I would simply add that if the text is of the Genre of myth its probably a mistake to read it as though it was affirming history or scientific claims in the first place and hence the fact its non historical or makes scientifically disputed claims is irrelevant.

    Take for example Plato’s writings, Plato in several places used the Genre of myth to vividly present his metaphysical/quasi-religious views some of these myths are extremely powerful literary pieces. Now it’s pretty clear that these myths if taken literalistically are not accurate history, they also would be scientifically absurd. Yet no philosopher I know seriously thinks either of these facts calls into question the metaphysical views Plato taught with these myths, that’s because they recognise these things are myths, stories used to powerful illustrate and teach a picture of humans beings place in the world etc, and it’s the picture not the mode of presentation that mattered.

    I have yet to read an anti Platonist argued as follows: Plato presents his theory of forms with the simile of the cave, now clearly this is absurd, archeological evidence has never produced evidence there ever was a cave in ancient Athens, moreover the claim that people could be looked in a cave facing a wall for their whole lives with a fire perpetually burning behind them is scientifically absurd, how would such people eat, who would keep the fire going forever, obviously this story if taken literalistically is false it’s a myth and therefore is nonsense. Consequently we cannot take the theory of forms seriously.

    If they did argue this way they would probably be laughed out of the class room. Yet this is exactly the kind of silliness that seems to be engaged in by some free thinkers.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Christian Blog Carnival CCCXI =-.

  • Glenn, I agreed with Matt that the mere fact that something is not a scientific, historical account, doesn’t make its teaching false, okay?

    But there are many mythic representations in ANE literature all sharing similar views of cosmology which all share a pre-scientific view of the universe. That was my parallel point about Egyptian cosmology and why this genre should not be trusted to tell us anything about the cosmos. It’s the admitted genre itself that leads us to ask why we should accept it, you see. The only reason you accept it is because it found its way into the Bible and our culture. It was believed literally for a thousand years for the most part, until science showed us it was not to be taken literal. So all you can do now, is what you would have done had Egyptian cosmology filtered down in today’s culture, to say that even though it is mythic in genre it still teaches us truths about creation. That’s exactly what you would do. And so I would say the same thing as I do now in response. While one cannot say that a particular genre is false in what it claims, the likelihood of it representing something false is increased by the number of other similar stories told at the same time with the same genre in a pre-scientific era. The fact is that there is no creation ex-nihilo in the Genesis creation stories and that does indeed show that what you have come to believe is based, not on Genesis, but on science being read back into this mythic story. And if that is the case you don’t really believe Genesis at all. You believe what science has shown us. So why not just admit it.

  • John you write “But there are many such mythic representations in ANE literature all sharing similar views of cosmology which all share a pre-scientific view of the universe. That was my parallel point about Egyptian cosmology and why this genre should not be trusted to tell us anything about the cosmos. It’s the admitted genre itself that leads us to ask why we should accept it, you see. ”

    I think I dealt with this point, when I noted that the fact that an account presupposes a pre-scientific understanding of something or reflects such an understanding in its illustrations this is irrelevant to the truth or falsity of what is taught by the illustration.

    Swinburne makes a related point in his book Revelation; he notes that according to a influential view in philosophy of language a phrase such as “the holes in the firmament are bright” is true if the stars a bright. This is because while the term “holes in the firmament” may presuppose a erroneous cosmology the term is functions in this statement as a referring term, to refer to objects which we call stars and what it predicates of theses objects is true. Of course if the author latter stated “stars are holes in the firmament” then this latter statement would be false, but the former one remains true.

    For the record though, I don’t think Genesis 1 teaches us anything about “cosmology” It teaches us that God created the stars, moon, and the sun, and that God created the physical cosmos and it also suggests the metaphor of commander and commandee for understanding the relationship between God and the cosmos, just as modern and medieval scientists use the metaphor laws of a universe created by and governed by laws of nature. These however are metaphysical and theological claims not “cosmological” claims as the term cosmology is understood today. I think it uses the analogy of a week in describing to make moral claims about the importance of work and rest, and it makes claims about human beings role and moral worth and moral relationship with animals, but again that’s not cosmology. So even if you grant that its unreliable in teaching us about cosomology, that’s a moot point because as far as I can tell it doesn’t do this anyway.

    The only reason I can see that you accept it is because it found its way into the Bible and our culture. It was believed literally for a thousand years for the most part, until science showed us it was not taken to be literal.

    Well I am not sure this is correct, its not at all clear to me that majority of early church fathers or majority of medieval theologians interpreted Genesis 1 literally. Augustine of Hippo and Anselm of Canterbury are two obvious examples of people who did not and they were fairly influential thinkers. Moreover much of the argument for a non literal reading comes from textual issues, such things as the structure of the text itself, apparent contradictions between Gen 1 and 2 if taken literally, the kind of pictures used in the story such as God walking in the garden and not being able to find Adam, talking snakes, trees that give life and knowledge, the use of names such as Adam (mankind) eve (mother of living) and discoveries about other ANE of the same period writings. Moreover, the fact that the text was scientifically absurd if taken literalistically has been known for centuries, early church fathers for example noted that the sun was created after plant life and this was scientifically impossible. Moreover the issues of a vast universe and round earth that you refer to in your book and skeptics frequently cite have in fact been known for thousands of years, no Christian theologian in the middle ages would have denied either of these claims. So its simply not true that these texts were taken literally in the way you suggest until Darwin came along.

    “But all you can do now, is what you would have done had Egyptian cosmology filtered down in today’s culture, is to say that even though it is mythic in genre it still teaches us truths about creation. That’s exactly what you would do too.”

    Well people do respond this way to ancient mythology, the myth of king Midas for example, or Aesops fables, or Platos cave, or ancient Maori myths frequently are typically understood as not intended to be a non literal Genre and when taken non literally understood to communicate truths. In NZ many people argue Maori myths are not supposed to be taken literally but communicate in story form a correct picture of human beings relationship to the world, nature and to God, and morality etc. I don’t theology that often goes with this but that’s different from dismissing it because the Genre it was expressed with was myth.

    And I would say the same thing as I do now in response. While one cannot say that a particular genre is false in what it claims, the likelihood of it representing something false is increased by the number of other similar stories told at the same time with the same genre in a pre-scientific era.

    I could say lots here, first all it shows is that relative to the number of different stories teaching different theologies the likelihood of one being true is low. That does not show its low relative to all the relevant information. But second a similar argument can be made about philosophical positions, given the number of different philosophy texts, or the number of moral texts or political science texts etc all affirming different positions the likelihood that any one is true is low. But of course the claim that atheism is correct or agnosticism is the correct position, is itself a philosophical claim so by your reasoning we should reject agnosticism and atheism. As well as such things as belief in liberal democracy ( a political position) or belief that genocide and rape are wrong ( a moral position) and so on. This argument winds up in incoherence.

    “The fact is that there is no creation ex-nihilo in the Genesis creation stories and that does indeed show that what you have come to believe is based, not on Genesis, but on science being read back into this mythic story. And if that is the case you don’t really believe Genesis at all. You believe what science has shown us. So why not just admit it.”

    Well first it’s more accurate to say the language is ambiguous and so can be interpreted defensibly either way to allow for creation ex nihilo. What is clear however is that other biblical writers interpret it this way, or at least teach creation ex nihilo this means that the context (i.e. the canon) suggests the ambiguity should be resolved one way and not the other.

    Second, its false that creation ex nihilo is a scientific view read make into the text, in fact creation ex nihilo was accepted hundreds of years prior to science determining the universe had a beginning, in the middle ages for example it was accepted despite the science of the time (Aristotle’s) teaching otherwise. So again this seems to be a false reading of the situation.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Chai Feldblum: “We Should not Tolerate Private Beliefs” =-.

  • John: “That was my parallel point about Egyptian cosmology and why this genre should not be trusted to tell us anything about the cosmos. ”

    See, you say that you already agreed with Matt about whether or not such myths are designed to teach about science, and then you immediately state that other txts in this genre (e.g. Egyptian myths) should not be trusted to teach us about the cosmos! You’re flogging a dead horse in saying this again.

    You fault Christians for treating Genesis differently from other origins stories. But this is not a principled criticism. There is nothing at all wrong with believing that what the Bible teaches us, using this genre, is true, while what other books teach us, using this genre, is false. You seem to be insinuatuing that we have as much reason to believe what an Egyptian story might tell us using this genre as we do to believe what the Bible teaches using this genre. But since this is simply question begging, it’s not persuasive.

    “You believe what science has shown us. So why not just admit it.”

    Admit it? What are you talking about? Who even denies this? What’s more, your assertion that Genesis doesn’t teach creation ex nihilo is hardly an obviously true claim. Most people in history have thought that this is precisely what it teaches, long before big bang cosmology came along.
    .-= My last blog-post ..“Most of whom are still alive” – The Apostle Paul on witnesses to the resurrection =-.

  • Just one last comment I suppose, since these discussions are never-ending.

    Matt said:

    “For the record though, I don’t think Genesis 1 teaches us anything about “cosmology” It teaches us that God created the stars, moon, and the sun, and that God created the physical cosmos…”

    Okay fine. But consider that because people did not understand what you now have come to accept because of modern science that the church was discredited in the 16th century with the trial and censure of Galileo. Evangelicals like Kenton Sparks in his excellent book, “God’s Word in Human Words” are still talking about it and that it changed how we viewed the Bible. And he’s calling for a correct understanding of the cosmology we find in the Bible too, as is John Walton and Peter Enns, evangelicals who are trying to be honest with what we see in the Bible and the ANE. Sparks argues that just as the church was discredited in Galileo’s era because it refused to consider science so also should modern evangelicals consider the results of ANE cuneiform texts which show they all shared similar views of cosmology and that they had better be honest about this than deny it or they too will be discredited in the eyes of the very people they seek to reach who are educated and intelligent. Now I don’t buy their answers either, but at least they are being honest with what we see.

    Hindsight is what it is. You have it. The ancients didn’t. Just like you have hindsight with regard to the doctrine of hell, and slavery, and woman’s issues, and the treatment of animals and homosexuality, and why disasters happen, things too many to mention. And you read the Bible through your lens as if this was plain as day to everyone. And you grab a few minority voices out the the history of the church to show that people thought the same way as you do because there are so many voices in two thousand years to grab from. Want to support some form of minimum rights for animals, such as not abusing them, then hey, there’s Francis of Assisi, right?

    Christianity evolves like it has from the very beginning. The faith you hold to is not the faith of yesteryear, which would’ve gotten you burned at the stake. And the faith of tomorrow may be unrecognizable to you as well.

    At what point will you see this and say, “hey, rather than reinvent my faith in the face of new discoveries and evidence or arguments, my faith has been refuted!” Preterism anyone, in the face of the failed return of the “Son of Man?” The list seems endless to me. But the evidence is that Christianity evolves like everything else pertaining to human beings, including morality. This is best explained because Christianity is a human invention. There is not one statement in the Bible that shows a divine mind behind the human authors. Not one. And there is evidence in the Bible itself that your God evolved as well over the years.

    Your explanation is that God progressively revealed himself, but such an explanation rings hollow when all God would have to say is things like slavery is morally wrong, and so is killing witches (it’s taking place right now in Africa because people there are taking their Bibles literally), or that the universe is huge; stars are million and millions of cubits away and it has existed for millions and millions of full moons. Stuff like that.

    Cheers. I was once where you both are today and I cannot believe I accepted such things at all.

    Carry on. I’m wrong. Don’t consider a thing I say. I’m from the devil himself to lead you astray.

    The problem is you’ll never realize you’re wrong rather than me, because for that to happen you’ll first have to wake up after you die to realize this. But you won’t.

  • All,
    Thanks for a good conversation. I’ve enjoyed reading it.

    John,
    You said, Evangelicals like Kenton Sparks in his excellent book, “God’s Word in Human Words” are still talking about it and that it changed how we viewed the Bible. And he’s calling for a correct understanding of the cosmology we find in the Bible too, as is John Walton and Peter Enns, evangelicals who are trying to be honest with what we see in the Bible and the ANE.

    Did anyone in this conversation say that they are opposed to what Walton, Enns and even Sparks are suggesting concerning ANE cosmology and taking literary genre seriously? I don’t think so. In fact, it seems like Matt and Glenn are highlighting the necessity of understanding genre. In fact, you have already suggested that this is exactly what Matt is doing, right? You said, “So all you can do now…is to say that even though it is mythic in genre it still teaches us truths about creation. That’s exactly what you would do.” They take the genre of the passage, exegete the truths from it and assess it theologically. That’s exactly what Enns, Walton and Sparks have done. So how are these OT scholars “being honest with what we see,” but Matt and Glenn are not?

    Your comment devolved rapidly after this point into an emotional appeal without argument, but I’d be interested nonetheless in hearing more of what you say about this:

    Christianity evolves like it has from the very beginning. The faith you hold to is not the faith of yesteryear, which would’ve gotten you burned at the stake.

    For which beliefs would they be burned at the stake concerning? Preterism? Annihilationism? I’m not sure either would have been deemed heresy (and they clearly were not in the early church), but both are minority views found consistently throughout the history of the church, and are still minority views today (whether true or false). So how do they imply that Christianity has evolved? There are all sorts of minority views in Christianity, some of which may be true. There always have been minority opinions, but I’m not sure how it naturally follows that diversity of opinions on secondary issues over time can be equated to a confident statement like “the faith you hold to is not the faith of yesteryear.”

    You go on to suggest we should say, “hey, rather than reinvent my faith in the face of new discoveries and evidence or arguments, my faith has been refuted!” In your opinion, how do the topics discussed in this thread equate to issues that would support fully rejecting the faith. Can’t you at least agree that these are secondary issues to Christianity? It seems to me like you are trying to take the discussion down a different path instead of staying on topic at this point.

    Anyways, I’d love to hear you respond if you get a chance, because as it stands the arguments don’t hold much water IMHO.

  • [...] minds agreeing with what I say, so I welcomed the chance to read Matt Flannagan’s thoughts here, where he summed up and affirmed my view that “one can affirm the authority of the bible, [...]

  • Basic Inerrancy…

    Matt Flanagan’s Inerrancy and Biblical Authority discussed Glenn Peoples’ Inerrantly Assuming Inerrancy in History. There are so many things I disagree with in the latter post that it was very hard to pull myself away from my desire to write a detailed…

  • Basic Inerrancy…

    Matt Flanagan’s Inerrancy and Biblical Authority discussed Glenn Peoples’ Inerrantly Assuming Inerrancy in History. There are so many things I disagree with in the latter post that it was very hard to pull myself away from my desire to write a detail…

  • Ranger, my main point is that the Judeo/Christian religion evolved and that the notion of progressive revelation does not offer a better explanation of the evidence.

    Cheers.

  • I doubt that the ancients understood “genres” back then exactly as we do today. When told a creation story, they probably imagined it as a creation story, and a holy one at that. And the story involves things such as a firmament with sun, moon, and stars “made” after the firmament and “set in it,” and “waters above the firmament.” The fact of “waters above the stars” remained the majority opinion for fifteen hundred years of Christian history.

    For the same reason I think it’s disingenious to claim that the Bible “does not teach” anything about cosmology in Genesis 1. Asserting such a claim does not prove that one knows what the biblical authors were saying nor why they were saying it, or exactly what they meant by it. Without studying ancient cosmologies and also how that affected their views of their gods as well, where their gods lived and what they did, together with studying the roots of words and their uses in different contexts like the root of raqia’ (raqa’), how else is one supposed to understand what the Bible is saying?
    always someone or other who claims they alone know what the Bible really teaches. But there’s more to the story than that. Questions soon begin to fan out, starting with God being “up there” in a flat earth cosmos, and heaven being “near,” and why temple building was universal along with holiness rituals, and seeking the god’s blessings, and the safety of entire nations depending on such observances. Even Walton and Sparks seem to remain oblivious to the questions following their admission of Genesis 1 portraying a flat earth cosmos.

    (Oh, and Walton’s view that Genesis 1 is temple imagery ignores aspects of the story that are not found in temples at all, as both Enns and Lamoureux point out in their reviews of Beale’s book. )

    Just saying.

    Will say more in future.

    In detail.

    With endnotes.

  • Ed, thanks for your comments. You write “it’s disingenuous to simply claim that Bible “does not teach” anything about cosmology in Genesis 1” because “the story involves things such as a firmament with sun, moon, and stars “made” after the firmament and “set in it”. Lets assume for the sake of argument that this language of firmaments etc is literal and not as some contend, phenomenological language, a polemical reference to Babylonian, or a symbolic way of describing the universe as a temple. This argument you give does not follow. At best what the Genesis story does is, presuppose certain cosmological beliefs which were common at the time. It assumes that there is a firmament, water above the skies, starts are in the firmament etc and goes on to teach in light of these assumptions that everything in cosmos was created by God. The problem is simply presupposing a cultural belief in ones communication does not entail that you are teaching or affirming the belief.

    I gave the example above of the term sun rise, a medieval historian who states that a battle occurred at sunrise, is presupposing the cosmology of his time, that the sun rises, and he uses this assumption to teach what time of the day a certain battle occurred. No one would infer from this however that the historical text teaches that Copernicus is not mistaken nor would people consider the historical claim refuted by Galileo or Kepler.

    Similarly, common law affirms that an owner of a property owns all the air space above the property and all the soil below it. The common law doctrine that affirms this comes from the middle ages and is literally rendered cujus est solum, ejus est usque ad coelum et ad inferos, the word “inferos” is latin word for hell. Its evident that this statement presupposes medieval cosmology whereby hell is literally the centre of the earth. Yet no lawyer believes this statement is intended to teach us that medieval cosmology is true nor do they consider the legal claim falsified by the fact that we know medieval cosmology is false. They understand, correctly, that the Jurist who made this claim was not attempting to teach people about cosmology. He was simply presupposing the cosmology of his day and using it to teach what the law was and that the question of whether hell is the center of the universe is actually irrelevant to the truth of what he said.

    Now it seems to me that all the so called references to a “flat earth” or “three tired universe” etc function as cultural presuppositions which the author uses to teach other things. Hence citing the references to firmament does not show that what the bible teaches that ANE cosmology is true and hence does not threaten inerrancy if inerrancy is defined in terms of whatever the bible teaches is true.

  • Mr Peoples (and Mr Flannagan and Mr Loftus),

    I hope you will forgive me that I do not make the effort to pull out some relevant specific quotations from various posts in this thread, but rather alluded to the sum of your interaction here with Mr Loftus — what you are *saying* is that Mr Loftus is intellectually dishonest.

    Now, *I* have no problem at all with saying that Mr Loftus is intellectually dishonest; in fact, I say it all the time. But, and perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, do you not, shall we say, disapprove of that trait/habit of mine?
    .-= My last blog-post ..I’d rather see you dead =-.

  • Ilion, no I don’t object at all. If someone is being intellectually dishonest, then in an appropriate way of course it’s fine to say so.
    .-= My last blog-post ..When will Dawkins go after the left? =-.

  • I guess I misunderstood.
    .-= My last blog-post ..I’d rather see you dead =-.

  • Hi! Saw your blog and thought you might be interested in a brand-new prepublication from Logos Bible Software: http://www.logos.com/products/prepub/details/5989

  • Christian Carnival CCCXV…

    Matt Flanagan of MandM is thinking about inerrancy (here and here). Matt writes exceptionally well. He makes one good point after another….

  • [...] post, Inerrancy and Biblical Authority, was [...]

  • [...] discussion arising in response to my recent post Inerrancy and Biblical Authority both on this blog and on some of the blogs that linked to it, got me thinking a bit more about this [...]

  • [...] pieces on biblical inerrancy, Inerrancy and Biblical Authority and Two Forms of Inerrancy, were featured in the Christian Carnival CCCXV at Ancient Hebrew Poetry. [...]

  • [...] AncientBiography.org Ancient-Biography.org Featured links Not available… Related blogs Sunday study: inerrancy and biblical authority Latest paranormal , event auctions « 2012truth : mysteries and … Sunday study: two forms of [...]

  • [...] FH of Ancient Hebrew Poetry has written a thoughtful hazing of some of my posts on inerrancy, Inerrancy and Biblical Authority and Two Forms of Inerrancy. The points he raised are issues worth taking [...]

  • I would like to suggest that the example Matt uses earlier of the mustard seed being described as the “smallest of all seeds ” as being factually incorrect is in fact itself incorrect. Using a more literal translation like the NASB or referring to the Greek you will find that the phrase is “smallest of all your seeds” or similar. The point is that the mustard seed was in fact the smallest seed used in the agriculture/horticulture of those to whom the parable was adressed. Sometimes it is just too easy to suppose something is wrong when taken out of context, and as Matt often points out that context includes genre, purpose, time, in this case it includes Hebrew agriculture circa 30AD.
    This means I am inclined to agree with Bethyada [ while taking into account genre, purpose, phenomological language etc], I would still be suprised to find actual factual errors that cannot be explained with a little more context or study or understanding. i really appreciate Matt’s info on the nature of Biography circa 1AD, as that simple understanding removes an awfull lot suposed “problems”.

  • Your post on inerrancy from back in Jan. 2010 reminded me of how far Evangelicals have come in the direction of what their forebears in the mid-1800s to the first half of the 1900s once feared, i.e., “modernism.” You’re willing to concede more ground and “modernistic” questions than your Evangelical forebears were willing to concede. Neither can you introduce the early church fathers as “modernistic” to save face concerning your concession of more ground. Augustine didn’t believe Adam and Eve were mythical. In fact he stated in numerous places that they existed and that human civilization itself began with them and was only thousands of years old, contra the claims of Egyptian civilization that claimed to go back further than Adam and Eve. Augustine would have none of that. And though Augustine wasn’t exactly sure where hell was located in his early works, suggesting to place on earth, he did admit in his final works that he should have plainly stated that hell was beneath the earth. Pretty literalistic/fundamentalistic stuff. I’m pretty sure he was a fundie on the Flood question as well. On the firmament Augustine spoke of it as firm in some passages but not firm in some others. But keep in mind that Augustine was writing nearly a thousand years after Genesis was composed and he shows little knowledge of ANE thinking about the cosmos or the milieu of Genesis. He was raised in Greek civilization, imbibing Greek philosophical ideas, and accepted as a matter of course that the earth was a sphere, taught by Greeks not by ancient Hebrews, and that view spread fast after 600 BCE. So Augustine was writing about 900 years after Greek civilization began spreading the word about the earth being a sphere. Had Augustine been raised in the ANE along with say, Isaiah, or even been living among the folks who wrote The Book of Enoch a couple centuries before Christ, then Augustine would probably have taken for granted the flatness of the earth. So you can’t claim early fathers like Augustine as heralding today’s Evangelical shift toward modernism. Lastly, the Hebrew cosmos does not merely consist of the flat earth view. It consists in the view that everything bad and good that happens to one’s nation is due to divine displeasure or pleasure. That’s why they built temples, they all built temples back then, to secure their nation, and their national identity. There were gods of nations, gods of cities, and people believed they would be safe and blessed if they paid them enough attention. That kind of “cosmological understanding” is being questioned far more today than ever before. But the idea of a flat earth with the divine looking down from above (and not light-years away) made that belief all the more potent, the smoke of sacrifices rising directly to God’s nostrils. His eye directly above us. Hebrew temples like the rest, faced toward the rising son, with chambers of different levels of holiness and rites of passage through the chambers. Like the ancients the Hebrews also practiced circumcision. And they believed that the sun and moon were placed in the sky by God to measure off the time between holy festivals. (the words “seasons” in Genesis 1 is the same word used in the Pentateuch for times of holy festivals per Mark Smith in The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1. I should add that an ancient Egyptian text that predates the time of “king david/solomon,” has the Egyptian king Thutmose being told directly by his god how to build his temple. Later, in the time of king David/Solomon there’s a story in the Hebrew Bible about how the Hebrew king was directed by Yahweh how he wanted his temple built.