Friday, May 3, 2013

Biblical Inerrancy: A Pointless Debate

As I continue my discussions with the Jehovah's Witnesses ministers, I've been reading ahead in the book we are using, What Does the Bible Really Teach?1 (hereafter WDBRT). We will be getting to chapter two soon. The chapter title is “The Bible—A Book from God” (p. 18-26). My first thought after reading it was, “How the hell am I going to avoid a fight here?” My second thought was “How the hell am I going to avoid a fight here?”

The problem is that I reject nearly every point made in this chapter. My friends are aware I don't share their view of verbal inspiration. They are also aware that I don't share their views on how the Bible should be interpreted. They seem to accept the fact that when I share my views with them, I am in no way out to prove they are wrong. Even so, I am tempted to ask whether we can skip this chapter entirely.

Why am I so keen to avoid a debate? Two reasons. One, I am participating in these discussions because I want to understand the Jehovah's Witnesses as Jehovah's Witnesses. Whether they are “right” or “wrong”about their beliefs is irrelevant.

Two, after numerous debates with biblical inerrantists, I have come to the conclusion they simply can't be reasoned with. Their arguments and defenses are only plausible if one is already predisposed to accept biblical inerrancy. If one does not have that predisposition, those same arguments are incoherent, circular, or erroneous. No matter what argument one makes against inerrancy, the inerrantist will have some way out. In short, an honest debate is impossible because the participants are operating from completely different premises.2

This is not an accusation of dishonesty on their part. I don't believe my opponents were being dishonest to anyone, except perhaps themselves. I also know from personal experience that giving up on biblical inerrancy entails realigning and reconstructing a host of different beliefs. So I don't expect an inerrantist to give up at the first sign of trouble. However, I do expect that there will be some standard of falsifiability.

I don't think I am being unreasonable here. Biblical inerrancy, on its face, is a falsifiable hypothesis. One can, in theory, examine the Bible and weigh its claims against available evidence. If it contains just one contradiction, one error of scientific or historical fact, then the hypothesis of inerrancy is wrong. In practice, getting through to a biblical inerrantist in debate was a frustrating experience because they always had some escape hatch.

I wanted to write about what these outs were and why they are so frustrating for a skeptic in debate. Then I came across the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (hereafter CSBI) and the related statement on hermeneutics (hereafter CSBH) and really read them. These statements set forth explicitly what most on-the-ground biblical apologists do unconsciously. The scholars who put these statements together make it abundantly clear that no amount of evidence and no standard of proof could ever be used against biblical inerrancy. I have rarely seen such a blatant example of wanting to have one's cake and eat it too.

Taken as a statement of creed, I don't really have any problems with the Chicago Statements. If asked to take it or leave it, I would say thanks but no thanks. I could cite my reasons for not accepting it. If a person who accepts the statements wants to engage in genuine dialogue, the statements make a pretty good starting point.
Biblical apologists, however, have a different agenda. Works like Josh McDowell's The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict3 and to a lesser extent, WDBRT chapter two are active attempts to prove biblical inerrancy. When these apologists do implicitly what the Chicago Statements do explicitly, it becomes no wonder that skeptics accuse them of arguing in bad faith.

When it comes to matters of checking the accuracy of a biblical statement, the whole problem can be summed up by Article XX of the CSBH: “Article XX: WE AFFIRM that since God is the author of all truth, all truths, biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere, and that the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else. We further affirm that in some cases extra-biblical data have value for clarifying what Scripture teaches, and for prompting correction of faulty interpretations. WE DENY that extrabiblical views ever disprove the teaching of Scripture or hold priority over it.”

This is certainly the attitude that biblical apologists take, whether they acknowledge it or not. But really, this is just a fancy way of saying we can only appeal to extrabiblical sources so long as it doesn't contradict Scripture. As an in-group statement of a hermeneutic principle, this is well and good. It really isn't up to me to tell someone how they should interpret their scriptures. To take this position in a debate about whether the Bible really is inerrant is special pleading resulting in a circular argument. The crux of the matter is that one simply can't test the Bible's accuracy in scientific or historical matters without reference to extrabiblical material.

If one can't use extrabiblical data to test the Bible's claims, then surely one can use the Bible itself. Hence all the arguing about contradictions, inconsistencies, discrepancies, and other biblical difficulties. In debates, I usually stuck with outright contradictions, i.e., mutually exclusive claims where only one or the other account can be right. If only one account can be right, the other must be wrong—simple law of non-contradiction.4 If one account must be wrong, then the claim of biblical inerrancy has been falsified.

Obviously, an inerrantist can't allow for contradictions then. Article XIV of CSBI puts is this way: “WE AFFIRM the unity and internal consistency of Scripture. WE DENY that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved vitiate the truth claims of the Bible.”

Fine and well. I've studied history long enough to know that there are discrepancies involved in accounts of even the most well-attested events. Discrepancies, as such, don't bother me too much unless too many of them add up. One might well wonder why God would, for all practical purposes, dictate (Just don't call it that!) texts containing discrepancies. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that discrepancies by themselves don't mean much when evaluating a truth claim.

However, I'm not talking about a mere discrepancy, I am talking about outright contradictions. Discrepancies can be resolved such that both parties might somehow be right. For example, witnesses at the scene of a crime might say the color of a suspects shirt is different. But if they all point at the same person, the discrepancies are basically irrelevant. A contradiction is when one witness accuses someone of a crime but another witness provides that same person with an alibi. It is impossible for both witnesses to be right.

The official Exposition of CSBI tries to clarify: “Apparent inconsistencies should not be ignored. Solution of them, where this can be convincingly achieved, will encourage our faith, and where for the present no convincing solution is at hand we shall significantly honor God by trusting His assurance that His Word is true, despite these appearances, and by maintaining our confidence that one day they will be seen to have been illusions.

I'm talking about contradictions rather than inconsistencies, but this does track well what happened in my debates about biblical inerrancy. I pointed out contradiction A. My opponents offered solution B. I showed solution B doesn't work because of argument C. My opponents then offered solution D if they couldn't work around argument C. Round and round we went. Sometimes the debate devolved into ad hominem arguments; sometimes my opponent took the ultimate escape hatch.

This final escape hatch is suggested by the official Exposition of CSBI. However, another definition of biblical inerrancy makes things a little clearer: “Inerrancy ... means that when all the facts are known, the Bible, ... when properly interpreted, will prove itself to be without error in all matters that it covers.”

Basically, this means we can't truly test the inerrancy hypothesis until we've become omniscient. When that happens, biblical inerrancy will be fully vindicated. Again, as a statement of faith, this is wholly acceptable. When one is trying to prove biblical inerrancy, however, such a statement becomes problematic. This is the kind of argument that makes me believe that either the biblical apologist can't be reasoned with or is uninterested in honest debate. If one can't really debate biblical inerrancy until all the facts are known, why debate the topic in the first place?

Knowing the outcome of a potential debate doesn't help me much in figuring out how to avoid it. I sidestepped a creation/evolution argument this week by saying I believe God did it but I'm not really concerned about the details.5 I suspect my basic mantra (“I just don't see it that way”) can only go so far before I start trying their patience. Hopefully, after we get through chapter two of WDBRT, the hard part will be over.

1 (Brooklyn, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 2005), 215-218. A PDF version of this book can be found here.
2 To be fair, a biblical inerrantist might make the same argument about those skeptical of their positions. That's actually my point.
3 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999).
4 Obviously, both accounts could be wrong, but that would require the use of extrabiblical sources to prove.
5 It probably helped that the ministers were not prepared for a sustained debate on the topic, either. I also explained that I accepted evolution as the best explanation of the available evidence, rather than believed it in a way one might believe in God.

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