The itch that inerrancy scratches
So whatever the itch is that inerrancy scratches, felicity doesn’t do it.
So what is that itch?
From where I sit it looks like this.
• People want to believe in the right thing.So the task becomes finding reasons to ascribe the abstract quality of truth to the Bible.
• Truth is the guarantee that something is the right thing to believe.
• If the Bible is all true, then it must be the right thing (also vice versa).
• Besides, if the Bible is all true, then it’s a moral failing not to believe it, because it is a crucial operating assumption of our society that we agree to believe in everything that is true.
And that’s the misstep.
Looking for pre-existent truth runs afoul of almost all modern (and post-modern) thinking. Since Kant we have known, in one form or another, that the perceiver plays an important role in ascertaining what is true. In an even more interesting development of thought about epistemology the chemist turned philosopher, Michael Polanyi, in his book, Personal Knowledge, shows that, not only does judgment and art underlie received scientific fact, but even the society of thinkers on a topic plays an important role is determining what counts as true.
(If you doubt Polanyi’s point, just look around in theological circles.)And what he’s talking about isn’t mere philosophy. He’s talking about the kind of science that has given us lots and lots of things we can (and do) trust every day of our lives. We drive cars and fly in airplanes. We buy foods at the store with confidence that they are safe and take medicines with the confidence that they will have the effect that the doctor wants. All of this is brought to us as the ultimate end product of assuming a platonistic world and invoking Aristotlean logic. All highly useful.
And I’m not willing to give up any of it.
But that doesn’t also mean that I have to apply low value understanding of truth to texts, if I know better.
It’s fine that we know that engineering works perfectly well on models of Newtonian physics, but that doesn’t obligate us to insist on Newtonian physics for all our thinking about physics in general.
The problem for us in the inerrancy discussion is that even if cutting edge thinkers for the last two centuries have given up on Plato and his belief in the pre-existence of reality, Euro-American society as a whole hasn’t. And that includes all the parts of Christianity that I’ve had contact with.
Most folks continue to believe that there is a large variety of absolute facts out in the world that are utterly independent of people. We, as a society, act as if our perceptions and categories were derivative of realities that exist independent of us and our society. And, believe me, if you live in a monolingual society dominated by a single culture, you can go a very long way believing this. We use the word true to ascribe trustworthiness to these assumed realities.
But then does this apply to text? and particularly to literature? Do texts have to be platonically true to be of interest?
Does Jane Austen suffer any because her texts are not true accounts of verifiable events?
When people say, “Fiction can be truer than fact.”, they mean exactly that. Good fiction can lay bare deeper truths about the way things are, often better than even the most factually accurate historical account. In history, we do not know what those people were thinking. At best we can infer. In fiction we can read their thoughts off the page.
Giving up on ascribing platonistic truth to Scripture actually allows us to stop imposing a double standard. As it is we not only think that truth implies a validity to imperatives — read commandments — we say that, or at least act like Matt. 5:30
If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. (NASB)has a different validity than Matt. 5:43-44.
You have heard that it was said, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Matt. 5:43-44)
If you start with felicity, it forces you to admit that you have to look elsewhere to figure out such things.
But then it’s a mistake to think that there is anything about Christianity that is safe.