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Saturday, April 12, 2008

The 800 pound Gorilla

After several weeks of blog chatter about the firing of a professor at Westminster over his book on inerrancy, a metadebate has broken out between Alan Lenzi, who calls for a moratorium on the topic, and John Hobbins, who says that’s not a real option.

Emotionally, I’m with Alan on this. I’d rather not talk about it. If you’ve followed any of the comment threads to my posts, you should know that I find the contemporary practice of theology not only tedious, but unhelpful and often utterly misleading.

But, if you are talking into the blogosphere about Bible translation, inerrancy is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It does no good to try and ignore it. Inerrancy underlies the persistent belief that a more “literal” translation is a better translation, most recently found here (but read the post by Suzanne and the comments here).

Several times commenting on various blogs, I’ve leaked pieces of my view on inerrancy, only to have them misunderstood in various ways. So I’d like to take a whack at it in a place where I can have the space (and time) to fully articulate my view.

Most statements about orthodox view on inerrancy center around a notion of truth.
“[T]he view that when all the facts become known, they will demonstrate that the Bible in its original autographs and correctly interpreted is entirely true and never false in all it affirms, whether that relates to doctrine or ethics or to the social, physical, or life sciences” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1987, p. 142).’
So that’s where I’ll start — with the notion of truth in general.

In the 1960’s, after the posthumous publication of John L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, the philosophical and linguistic worlds became aware that the notion truth only applied to a portion of language.

In short, it makes no sense to talk about whether utterances like the following are true or false:
Thank you.

What time is it?

Take out the garbage.
Instead there is a more abstract notion originally called HAPPINESS (now generally referred to as FELICITY) which applies to all language.

At first approximation, if you use language sincerely then it is FELICITOUS.
If you mean please when you say please,
if you mean thank you when you say thank you,
if you do not know what time it is and you honestly think that someone knows (or can easily come to know) what time it is when you ask them what time is it?,
if, when you tell someone take out the garbage, you are in the right kind of social relationship with them and believe that they are physically able to do so,

then the respective utterances are FELICITOUS.
Truth is just a part of the special case of felicity for simple declaratives. If you say
John came in at twelve last night.
you must believe it to be true to be uttering it felicitously.

So part one of my statement of belief about inerrancy is that
Scripture is fully felicitous communication.
Looking at it this way has many interesting implications which I will take up in later posts.


At Sun Apr 13, 08:16:00 AM, Blogger Steve Cat said...

So it is felicitous that God, at one time told us that if we sin we can compensate by burning animals because he likes the smell. Somehow, I just don't think so. I fail to see how this careful parsing of words rids us of of the 800 pound gorilla. I don't mean to sound confrontational, but I don't see why we are required to believe God wrote every single word for us to believe there is great benefit to be had from reading and analyzing the Bible.

At Sun Apr 13, 05:09:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

I've barely started. This is step one on a journey of a thousand miles.

The level one point is that inerrancy as stated is internally incoherent, independent of whether you can show that there are passages in the originals that are mutually contradictory, are physically impossible, are misquoted, etc., etc.

I haven't rid us of the 800 pound gorilla, and nothing I'll say is likely to. But it's time to stop treating it like a coffee table, and lay bare the assumptions about knowledge and the approach to knowledge that surrounds the Bible.

BTW, I agree that you do NOT have to believe God wrote every single word -- or even inspired any of the words -- for you to get benefit from reading the Bible. But you're right. The path I'm heading down places far more emphasis on inspiration than on an abstract notion of truth.

At Sun Apr 13, 06:19:00 PM, Blogger John Hobbins said...

Thanks, Rich, for taking this topic on from an unusual perspective.

It is worth noting that James Barr, precisely in his post-fundamentalist stage, thought it important to retain the concept of verbal inspiration.

But he redefined it in a linguistically competent fashion. Since then linguistics has been enriched by many more competing frameworks. There is a lot of interesting work to be done in this direction.

At Sun Apr 13, 08:04:00 PM, Blogger Steve Cat said...

You are obviously a gentleman and a scholar. Thank you.
Its why I keep watching this Blog. I am also setting out to read the King James Version, and see what can be learned there, because of what I have he seen here and linked to from here.
I also know that Bill W was just a man, yet he wrote a God breathed and inspired Book far beyond his ability as a mortal man. So since I know this is fact, I know that it certainly likely for the same to have occurred in the Bible, and for it to be absolute truth/fact too.
I believe that man has certainly corrupted and used parts of his spiritual contact with God as textual justification for his own nefarious purposes, yet even those parts also contain the Sunlight of the Spirit and may or may not reveal the felicitous truth and Grace that we seek and somehow know is somewhere residing there. Too many I believes but could come up with another way of explaining my thoughts only as one man's feeble thoughts.


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