Imperfect World, Imperfect Bible

Eric Reitan was kind enough to engage some of those who commented on a post featuring a quote from him. The discussion has spread to his own blog, and most recently he has offered a lengthy response to one commenter who claimed that an errant Bible would imply a God who is either not omnipotent or not benevolent. But the gist of the argument is powerful in its simplicity: If such logic works in the case of the Scriptures, then the same logic would seem to apply to the world and God as creator thereof.

Does it make any sense to claim simultaneously that God could and did make a perfect Bible using fallible human beings to do so, but could or did not make a perfect world containing fallible human beings?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13226634366709293918 David

    All nonsense. Since the Bible is not what it says it is and not what people say it is, basing theologies and politics on it is an exercise in futility and silliness, like barking at the moon.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04262012749524758120 Eamon Knight

    If I were trying to defend the proposition (and I’m about the last person who would want to do so seriously), I would argue that, in a corrupted world, God needed to preserve one sure beacon of hope; a rescue line from beyond. For this to work, it is necessary that the message that bears that rescue line be uncorrupt. Make sense? Maybe. It’s arbitrary, of course — why does God intervene to a certain extent, in certain ways, but no more? It’s a very basic difficulty in any story involving an omnipotent protagonist.Yeah, I know: “My power is made perfect in weakness” — a content-free blow-off disguised as a reason.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08891402278361538353 Truth Unites… and Divides

    Reitan’s Post: The Question of Biblical Inerrancy: Comments Posted on Another BlogYes, let’s do look at the question of Inerrancy and Textual Criticism on another blog:”A contradiction involves a discrepancy between two or more passages. You can’t allege a contradiction unless the text is reliable. If the text is unreliable, then you’re in no position to say that these passages are ultimately discrepant. For all you know, the discrepancy might well be a scribal gloss. So a necessary precondition for imputing contradictions to scripture is the essential integrity of the text. If the transmission of the text is unreliable, then any contradiction you allege is vitiated by an unreliable witness to the original text. Therefore, the liberal has to choose between two mutually exclusive lines of attack. If he attacks the integrity of the text, then he forfeits the right to attack the inerrancy of the text–but if he attacks the inerrancy of the text, then he forfeits the right to attack the integrity of the text. One line of attack cancels out the other, and vice versa. You can pay on the way in, or you can pay on the way out, but either way, you have to pay up.Incidentally, a parallel conundrum is generated by critics who claim the meaning of Scripture is hopelessly uncertain since Christians disagree over the correct interpretation of Scripture. If you press this issue, then you disqualify yourself from imputing error to Scripture–for the imputation of error is only as good as your interpretation. So the unbeliever is in a quandary. He likes to attack the Bible from every conceivable angle, but in the process he is forming a circular firing squad. He makes himself the target of his own incoherent stratagems.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    All I do is refuse to make claims about the hypothetical “original text” that are not supported by the manuscripts we actually have. To suggest that God inspired original texts of Matthew and Luke that did not have a discrepancy between the dates Jesus is supposed to have been born, for instance, and that this discrepancy was introduced before the earliest manuscripts we currently have, is to suggest that God inspired an inerrant Bible and then allowed it to be rewritten so as to introduce errors so early as to leave no trace in the manuscript tradition.I prefer to deal with the Bible I have, not the Bible some people wish they had.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17011346264727684917 John Hobbins

    Truth . . . Divides:Whoever wrote that would make a great defense lawyer, on a par with Johnny Cochran.For those of us not enamored by courtroom rhetoric, your quote is counter-productive. I fully realize that non-believers use courtroom rhetoric and absurdly syllogistic reasoning all the time. I don’t think that serves an excuse for believers to do likewise.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17011346264727684917 John Hobbins

    James,Agreed. Though of course the work and results of competent text criticism deserves universal respect.It might be helpful to “deconstruct” this conversation. Here is an off-the-cuff attempt.(1) The liberal says: “the Bible is imperfect” because he wants to be able to set aside its clear teaching as necessary.(2) The anti-liberal says: “the Bible is inerrant” because he wants his particular take on things to be founded in absolute truth.There are other options.(3) One might say, “The contents of the Bible reflect human limitations” because God’s strength is made perfect in human weakness.(4) One might say, “The Bible is flawless” because it gives us exactly what God intended to give us: a light unto our path, an anvil on which to forge our theological, ethical, and aesthetic imagination, a mirror in which to understand our nature and that of God, etc.I am an inerrantist who finds (1) and (2) unhelpful, though understandable, and (3) and (4) an expression of my faith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    John, why can’t a “Liberal” say 3 and 4 rather than (or perhaps as well as) 1? If I find myself in agreement with 3, does that make me a ‘moderate’ rather than a ‘liberal’?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13226634366709293918 David

    John,Your comment: (1) The liberal says: “the Bible is imperfect” because he wants to be able to set aside its clear teaching as necessary.”Is totally bogus. You seem to presume that liberals have nothing better to do than respond from a philosophical or conceptual script, rather than from deep feeling coordinated with critical analysis. I did not come to my position as a skeptic of biblical inerrancy or biblical accuracy from a desire to propagate a philosophy. I came to it because that is where the evidence took me, and intellectual honesty compelled me to pay attention, rather than go into denial.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17011346264727684917 John Hobbins

    James,Once upon a time, liberals did affirm (3) and (4), and buried (1) in a footnote.Perhaps I’ve been distracted, but I see you going the way of (1), and trumpeting it, otherwise harping on (3), and more intent on noting your differences with those more conservative than you, than developing (4).And that’s absolutely fine if that’s your current confession of faith, if to do otherwise for you would be sin, to quote Paul out of context.David, Hey, very nice comeback. What would you say if I replied that, with respect to people like me:You seem to presume that evangelicals have nothing better to do than respond from a philosophical or conceptual script, rather than a perception of how God makes himself real in their lives, which gives rise to deep feeling coordinated with critical analysis (fides quarens intellectum). I did not come to my position as a believer in biblical inerrancy and the trustworthiness of God’s Word from a desire to propagate a philosophy by which to cudgel others. I came to it because that is where facts of life, the evidence of the human predicament, and dialogue with other believers and non-believers took me. Intellectual and spiritual engagement with the selfsame scripture continues to compel me to say that this word, like no other word, is a lamp unto my feet.”?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13226634366709293918 David

    John,First I would say that some Christians do in fact come from a place “where facts of life, the evidence of the human predicament, and dialogue with other believers and non-believers” take them. I do not dispute the possibility of genuine connectedness or spiritual intuition within Christianity in general or evangelical approaches specifically. However, it has been my personal experience that this is not the level at which one typically encounters evangelicals, much less fundamentalists, especially in a forum such as this. More typically you get the preaching or the “we’re right and you’re not” put down stuff that indicates they have no desire to meet you (me) as a genuine person. Possible, sure. Just not likely.I have no interest in questioning any person’s commitment to their ideals, especially if there is a genuine egolessness in their living.I do have a perception, which is possibly my own invention, that fundamentalists (far more than evangelicals) are more concerned with being “right” than with loving action. Certainly evangelicals cannot be categorically accused of that. FYI, when I responded above, I had no idea who you were or that you were evangelical. So I wasn’t really presuming anything.I don’t really mind that you have chosen the religious path that you have (or that has chosen you?). What concerns me is the level of self-delusion that I see in all too many religionists. Not necessarily you; I don’t know you or your work. But believing in inerrancy, for example, against what I regard as concrete evidence to the contrary, indicates to me a lack of commitment to the same kind of 2 + 2 = 4 logic that I live by, and makes me wonder how I could trust anything else that you live by.I really don’t mean this as a personal attack. In recent months, I experienced being a leader in an interfaith community that suffered a hostile takeover from a group of people whose cognitive processing could best be described as delusional. They wanted what they wanted, and they didn’t care how many rules or laws they broke or how they treated their fellows. So I am particularly sensitive to ways of thinking that obey rules of logic that strike me as dysfunctional or bizarre. Maybe it’s just me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17011346264727684917 John Hobbins

    David,You might enjoy reading Brother to a Dragonfly, by Will Campbell.Fundamentalists are just people, only more so. Of course they want to be “right” more than they want to wash someone else’s feet. Who doesn’t. Self-identifying Christians are supposed to get their sense of rightness through justification by faith, that is, as a sheer gift over which they have no control, through no merit of their own. Alas, some do not, possibly because they are not actually Christians. Lots of faux Christians out there. On most days, I’m 90% faux myself. So I really don’t put myself in a special category.I’m sorry you have had to deal with psychologically insecure or damaged Bible thumpers in particular. Troll-types of course are represented far beyond actual percentages online.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    JAMESDoes it make any sense to claim simultaneously that God could and did make a perfect Bible using fallible human beings to do so, but could or did not make a perfect world containing fallible human beings?CARRAs always William Lane Craig writes on this very subject.’But one could maintain that while it is within God’s power to control the writing of Scripture without violating human freedom, that does not imply that God can so control human activity in general that no one ever freely does evil.’One could certainly maintain that.One could maintain anything….Warning. Do not inhale the logic in Craig’s article.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13226634366709293918 David

    JohnGently said, and I thank you for that. Oddly enough, the primary takeaway from my recent unfortunate experience was not a deep wound that needed healing, but rather an in-your-face lesson about delusionality. People who are delusional don’t know they are delusional, and they act like everything is fine, despite all evidence to the contrary, as long as they get what they want.I don’t want to be right. People who want or have to be right are much too wrapped up in their egos and their self-importance. I deeply appreciate that people are just people and have to be accepted in all their humanity (remembering something the Dalai Lama once said here). It’s not the humanity I object to, but rather the commitment to (possession by?) concepts that may have nothing to do with reality. Concepts are thoughts, and don’t help connect with ultimate reality, whether you call it God or “the ground of being” or the Source, or whatever.Justification by faith seems to me to be one of those concepts, although I admit some people seem to experience it as a direct personal experience. Just doesn’t work for me. I prefer “Beingness”, which allows me to attempt to detect all my humanness and quiet it down.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08891402278361538353 Truth Unites… and Divides

    James McGrath: “All I do is refuse to make claims about the hypothetical “original text” that are not supported by the manuscripts we actually have. To suggest that God inspired original texts of Matthew and Luke that did not have a discrepancy between the dates Jesus is supposed to have been born, for instance, and that this discrepancy was introduced before the earliest manuscripts we currently have, is to suggest that God inspired an inerrant Bible and then allowed it to be rewritten so as to introduce errors so early as to leave no trace in the manuscript tradition.I prefer to deal with the Bible I have, not the Bible some people wish they had.”Steve Hays: “I don’t know of any inerrantist scholar who resolves the alleged chronological discrepancy between Matthew and Luke on this issue by appealing to a mistranscription. So either this is a deliberate straw man argument by McGrath or else he’s too lazy to actually read inerrantist scholars.Given his Catholic background, followed by his dalliance with Pentecostalism, I can well believe that he was never exposed to the most sophisticated version of Protestant theology.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12334188123201041182 scott gray

    inerrant scholars…name two. cite articles. otherwise, you’ve built your own strawman, rooted in ignorance, and served up just the way you love to do it.sophisticated version of protestant theology.how’d we move from ‘the gospel is approachable to the least academic’ to a ‘sophisticated version of protestant theology?’ in one breath, theology is a simple belief statement. in the next, it’s sophisticated.huh?you and i both know you’re not the real tu…ad.

  • http://www.abandonallfear.org.uk Lex Fear

    Hmm..I don’t know if this analogy is going to help the discussion or throw a further spanner in the works but I find the argument for a imperfect/inerrant bible a little like an unplanned pregnancy.Ephesians greets us with the text “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”.Now, I don’t wish to turn this into a debate about predestination, but if we accept the premise that engaging in sex outside of marriage is sin, and a child is born from such a union, then later in life this child becomes a Christian – how does this fit in with God’s predestined plan for a child that seemingly should not have existed?Could God inspire, and through an inerrant bible and still give perfect instructions he wishes us to follow?Just to further add to @John Hobbins comment…I also find positions (3) and (4) helpful but have seen far too many arguments from (1) and (2).I do think there is an extreme case for those in group (1), and I am sorry James but I feel this is you, to point to an error in the text, then simply use this as a justification to call all of the text into question and then accept the parts which fit your unique view of how the world fits.I’m going to reveal my cards.One of the first lessons I learned from a AOG pentecostal teacher was the bible is not infallible, but it is the inspired word of God and there are fundamental truths contained within and that God through the Holy Spirit will not provide revelation that will contradict what is written in scripture.At the same time I was also taught that Jesus made people uncomfortable, he provoked them purposefully to get a response. goth the OT and NT contain uncomfortable passages and instructions, but we must accept what is written and where an instruction is uncomfortable or difficult, it is still good and should still be followed.It seems to me there is far too much of people’s own ideals being labelled as ‘interpretation’, so that our particular version of Christianity is comfortable.If someone answers 10 questions for you, and 1 of those answers turns out to be incorrect – then by all means point it out, excluded it or bear it in mind, but this is not an excuse to throw out any of the other 9 answers, or pick and choose from what seems most comfortable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and for the clarification of where you are coming from. I don’t think I ever (really, I mean EVER) suggested that we should toss out the Bible because of errors, and I am surprised (and sorry!) that anyone could get that impression from what I wrote. In my teaching on the subject, I’m all about the middle ground: that historical investigation doesn’t mean accepting every detail as factual or tossing the whole thing in the trash, and that there are also theological positions in between those two extremes.If there is an analogy that I’d use to describe the place the Bible has for me, it would be dialogue. I may not simply accept that what the Bible says is factual, but I do try to remain open to having it challenge me, just as sometimes, because of contemporary scientific knowledge or simply my different historical and cultural context, I may challenge it. I feel that this model is in a very real sense Biblical, since it seems to me that this is what the New Testament authors were doing in relation to each other. This is one of the criticisms I’ve made of those who, for want of a better word, I tend to refer to as “fundamentalists”. They emphasize that we ought to be saying today the same things that the New Testament authors wrote. But in some cases, when the NT authors wrote what they did, they were rewriting what other NT authors wrote. And so rather than take a “do as I say, not as I do” approach, I advocate taking the NT authors’ own activity as a model for our own.I’m sure you won’t agree with me on this, but I do think this is something other than “throwing out” the Bible, and I likewise feel it is important to emphasize and clarify this point!

  • http://ulen.wordpress.com/ ulen

    It depends what one means by ‘perfect’! Perfection is often in ‘the eye of the beholder’!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    When the author of Acts wrote about people seeing the resurrected Jesus take off into the sky, and disappear into a could on his way to Heaven, was that the work of a fallible person who believed that Heaven was somehow in someway above the sky?If Luke could make errors like that, what other errors did he put in his resurrection stories?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17011346264727684917 John Hobbins

    Steve,Luke is hardly in error in the case you cite, unless you think that God didn’t do anything of the sort (raise Jesus from the dead, give him a spiritual body capable of making movements across space of a kind we cannot).Unless, perhaps, you think there is no God at all in the sense Luke (and Jews and Christians in general) thought existed. In that case, Luke’s error is basic. Which is possible. Just be clear about your presuppositions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    So you read an old book, and think somebody travelled into the sky, disappeared into a cloud on his way to Heaven, just because somebody wrote a story in an old book?Have you ever been a plane? You don’t get to Heaven by going into clouds….The writer was simply ignorant, and his cosmology was the erroneous cosmology of his day.So he wrote a story about his resurrected Jesus doing what we now know must be an error.Because there is no Heaven above the sky.But inerrantists think that if one of the stories about the resurrrected Jesus is in error, then none of the stories about the resurrected Jesus can be trusted…..

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08891402278361538353 Truth Unites… and Divides

    Jason Engwer of Triablogue: “Steven Carr posts some of his typical erroneous objections. (For those who don’t know, Carr is a critic of Christianity who visits a lot of web sites and frequently posts on the subject of the resurrection. He doesn’t make much of an effort to interact with or learn from the people who respond to him.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    I see that already Christians are reduced to diverting away from the actual arguments.Was the author of Acts just being a normal , fallible when he wrote a story about the resurrected which reflected the erroneous cosmology of his day, and which has his resurrected Jesus taking off into the sky in a way that modern people know is absurd?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08891402278361538353 Truth Unites… and Divides

    The Trapped in the Matrix Triablogue thread thoroughly addresses James McGrath’s question about Jesus’s ascension.

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