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Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Qualified Success

There is a phrase, sometimes referred to as a logical fallacy, that you may have heard. It is "death by a thousand qualifications". Here's the idea. You may say you believe in X, but if you have to qualify X too much, you will render it meaningless and, therefore, nullify it. Seems reasonable on the surface. I mean, just say what you mean and don't bother with all those qualifications. You believe in "the inerrancy of Scripture"? Then you shouldn't have to explain that by this you mean that you're speaking about the original manuscripts and what you mean by "error" and in what context you are speaking and ... well, there shouldn't have to be all this talk. Inerrant or not? Make up your mind.

Given our day and our problem with simple English words like "marriage" and "love" and "the Gospel" and "Omnipotent" and "Sovereign" and ... oh, the list would be too long ... I'm afraid we've made it impossible to be simple. In a day when "love" can be defined as being hateful and "non-judgmental" is demonstrated by being judgmental and so on, "Just say it" doesn't really work anymore. For instance, I might be classified in my theology as a "Calvinist", but immediately there are errors associated with the term. No, I don't follow Calvin's teachings. No, I'm not a hyper-Calvinist. No, I'm not a fatalist. And so on ... almost ad infinitum. Words, they say, mean something, but we're just not so sure anymore what.

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor wrote a piece titled What does "Inerrancy" Mean? That's because it requires explanation. In the piece, Taylor quotes from John Frame's book The Doctrine of the Word of God, which includes an entire chapter on the doctrine of inerrancy. Because it requires explanation. Take, for instance, the problem of precision. Here's prime example. In 1 Kings Solomon built a fountain for his house. The text says "It was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference." (1 Kings 7:23) Well, now, see? That's an error. "Everyone knows that the circumference of a circle 10 cubits in diameter is 31.41592653589793 cubits. Clearly God doesn't know the value of π." So, does that make it erroneous? The term needs qualification. (Oh, and do you think anyone else would be called "erroneous" if they said "30" rather than "31.41592653589793" ... which, by the way, is not fully accurate?) Or take the problem of language itself. In Mark's gospel he claims at one point that "The whole city was gathered together at the door." (Mark 1:33) Now, does that require that every person (and non-person?) was actually standing at the door? Or is this a language tool (we call it "hyperbole") to simply indicate that there was a large crowd? I suspect that the anti-inerrancy folks would require of Mark what they would never require of themselves, and this would clearly be an error because surely not every single man, woman, child, goat, or horse cart was actually gathered at that door. Error? The term requires qualification.

The general definition is of biblical inerrancy is "The Bible can be trusted in what it teaches and affirms." But just how far do we take that definition? If it is reliable in what it affirms, does that mean there can be no errors of any kind? Or does it mean that it is trustworthy in all matters of faith and practice, but not necessarily in science, geography, that kind of stuff? (Called "limited inerrancy".) For instance, if the Bible accurately records something that someone says, but what they said was not accurate, is that an error? Some affirm that the Bible contains the Word of God without error, but is not itself in its entirety inerrant. You see, it gets ... sticky. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy says, on infallibility, "that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses." On inerrancy it says "that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit." They qualify that in the negative.
We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.
That's "qualification". We're not talking about technical precision. We're not talking about grammar. We're not talking about hyperbole. We're not talking about what they term "free citations". (For instance, quotes in the New Testament from Old Testament are not always perfect quotes.)

The premise of the position is the inspiration of the Scriptures -- God breathed it (1 Tim 3:16). If God breathed it, it cannot be wrong. Conversely, if God breathed it and it is wrong, what God exhaled was in error. Unacceptable. Does that mean that the texts we have today cannot contain any errors of any sort at all? No. First is the qualification of "original manuscripts". Subsequent copies could make transcription errors. Subsequent translations could make translations errors. Now, we can have a pretty high level of confidence that 1) the texts we do possess are nearly exactly the same as the original manuscripts, and 2) none of the very few remaining questions ultimately change anything of doctrinal consequence. After the "original manuscripts" concept, there are all those other qualifying concepts.

Does "inerrant" suffer the "death by a thousand qualifications"? Perhaps the word does. But I actually know of very few words today that don't require qualifications. But this doesn't mean that the doctrine is dead. First, "qualifications" are necessary for any complex concept. If "qualifications" kill concepts, we don't have many today. Second, premised on the "God-breathed" nature of Scripture, if you affirm error in any certain sense, you affirm that God was mistaken. Or you deny that God breathed it and it is nothing more than a nice book. Your choice. Third, the question isn't "error-free". The question is its trustworthiness in what it teaches and affirms. Without that, you have no basis for Christian doctrine. The whole trick at this point is to determine what it teaches and affirms. But, then, that has always been the case, hasn't it? Do I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture? Depends on what you mean. And, in fact, I suspect that you can't tell me what you mean ... without qualification.

1 comment:

Bob said...

what if i want to attack an idea, instead of trying to attack the merits, why not just redefine the words used to describe the idea, then i can create a straw man. in Geisler's book "Chosen but free" Geisler decided to first redefine the term, Calvinism, to extreme Calvinism. by doing so he could attack the straw-man. the days when some noble idea is debated about it's intrinsic worth are gone. now the method is obfuscation and obscurity. the tools of the enemy are many, but the truth can never be destroyed.
thank you Jesus