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 Post subject: Interpretation vs Inerrancy
PostPosted: Sun Oct 21, 2012 6:41 am 
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I recently read an article written by Chad Miller, a Christian who holds to the Old Earth Creationist (OEC) view, bemoaning how Young Earth Creationists (YEC) are often quick to accuse their OEC brethren of undermining Biblical authority. The issue, he stresses, is simply one of interpretation, not inerrancy, and he calls for an end to the in-fighting on the basis that the disagreement is therefore a "third tier issue".

I'd like to analyse this issue myself, because I find that Miller's analysis has some merit, but is still slightly lacking. As a bonus, the analysis will demonstrate some of the practical limits of the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy -- and also of logic itself! Please note that I won't be considering other positions such as the liberal view that the Bible is not the inerrant Word of God, nor the further extremes of atheism. This is an argument between parties that ostensibly share a lot of common ground, and that's one of the things that makes it interesting.

Let's start with a simple argument that more or less represents the YEC position.

  1. The Bible is the inerrant word of God.
  2. The Bible says that the earth was created in a six-day period around six thousand years ago.
  3. Therefore, the earth was created in a six-day period some six thousand years ago.

The conclusion follows logically enough from the premises. The YEC might then note that OECs reach a different conclusion (that the world is billions of years old), and therefore suppose that they must disagree with at least one of the premises. Usually they take it as being the first premise, and thus accuse the OEC of rejecting biblical inerrancy. This isn't necessarily a sound analysis, however. Consider the following sophisticated OEC argument.

  1. The Bible is the inerrant word of God.
  2. The Bible says that the earth was created in a six-day period around six thousand years ago.
  3. Modern science asserts that the earth was formed some billions of years ago.
  4. The assertions of modern science are reliable.
  5. Therefore (from 3+4), the earth was formed some billions of years ago.
  6. Therefore (from 5+1), the Bible does not claim that the earth was created six thousand years ago (as to do so would be erroneous).
  7. Therefore (from 6+2), the language in the Bible which describes the recent creation of the earth is not literal.

It turns out that the OEC can adopt exactly the same set of initial premises, and yet (through additional premises) still hold to the opposite conclusion! So, clearly, it's not a question of one party holding to biblical inerrancy while the other does not. So what is the issue? Here's a plausible YEC response to the above argument, which serves to highlight the difference.

  1. The Bible is the inerrant word of God.
  2. The Bible says that the earth was created in a six-day period around six thousand years ago.
  3. The plain text of the Bible makes it clear that this is intended literally, not metaphorically (days with explicit evenings and mornings, etc).
  4. Therefore (from 2+3), the Bible claims that the earth was literally created around six thousand years ago.
  5. Therefore (from 1+4), the earth was created in a six-day period around six thousand years ago.
  6. Modern science asserts that the earth was formed some billions of years ago.
  7. Therefore (from 5+6), the assertions of modern science are not reliable on this subject.

The key difference is that the OEC uses science to guide his interpretation of scripture, particularly in regards to what is literal and what is not. On this view, because the Bible is inerrant, anything in the Bible which clearly contradicts the teachings of science can not be a literal statement of fact. The YEC, on the other hand, interprets scripture on its own terms, meaning that scripture is interpreted not in the light of science, but in the light of the whole text of the Bible. On this view, because the Bible is inerrant, anything in the Bible which clearly contradicts the teachings of science is cause to doubt the credibility of science to the extent that such a contradiction arises.

Thus, although the two positions are not separated by the issue of biblical inerrancy, the rift is more fundamental than simple interpretation. The difference of interpretation is a consequence of a systematic difference in hermeneutics or exegesis -- the standards and practices under which interpretation is conducted. There may not be a question of Biblical inerrancy, but there is some kind of question as to supremacy: does science reveal parts of the Bible to be non-literal, or does the Bible reveal certain claims of science to be unreliable?

I'm not too enthused about Biblical inerrancy, as a subject. As the above problem demonstrates, a claim of Biblical inerrancy might seem potent, but it actually means very little, given that it permits such drastic and systematic differences in interpretation. My take on the matter is this: suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Be that as it may, a perfect tool in the hands of a poor tradesman is not going to produce perfect results, and may not even produce commendable results. That particular chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The existence of a perfect link, however desirable it might be, can not compensate for other weaknesses in the chain.

The net result of this is that our understanding of scripture is unreliable whether or not it is an inerrant source. Human perversity and stupidity is more than enough to counteract Biblical perfection, sadly. I present, as evidence for my case, the state of the church, globally. Even limiting the sample to that subset which would assent to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, the state of the church is not admirable, although it serves, at least, as a case study in the necessity of divine grace.

Cynicism aside, the systematic difference in exegesis that we see here is a serious concern. Even a less-than-perfect tradesman equipped with a less-than-perfect tool will obtain better results if he uses the appropriate technique. There's a marked difference between wielding a chainsaw as a chainsaw, and wielding it as an axe, for example, even if one's mastery of the tool is otherwise limited. If one holds to the principle of biblical inerrancy, it is (or ought to be) obviously in one's interests to minimise the possible error that one introduces through one's methods of studying it. While I doubt that there is a perfect system of exegesis, there are substantial differences between the two systems seen here, and we ought to be extremely keen to adopt the better one, if we can discern it.

Thus, I have a fundamental disagreement with Miller when he describes this as a "third tier issue" of interpretation. It is, rather, a crucial question of exegesis. As we can see here, such differences in exegesis have the consequence of producing staggeringly different interpretations of scripture, and these differences can not automatically be classified as unimportant simply because they are differences of interpretation. Every heresy under the sun can be a simple difference of interpretation.

To accommodate a particular heresy without denying Biblical inerrancy, all one need do is strip the Bible of the appropriate assertive content by deeming it non-literal on the basis of some extra-biblical standard. Universalism can deem Hell non-literal or empty on the basis that a loving God would not send anyone there, and thus any apparent indication to the contrary in the Bible should not be taken literally. All the miracles can be denied because they are scientific impossibilities, and therefore not to be taken literally, and so on.

I can't guarantee that I've represented Miller's OEC method of exegesis at all reliably in the arguments I've presented here. In fact, I'll vouchsafe that his actual position is far more nuanced than the black-and-white simplifications in my examples. Miller doesn't discuss exegesis as such in his article -- and that's a problem, because exegesis is the key issue: the difference in interpretation is merely a consequence of that. Nevertheless, the core issue remains the same no matter how sophisticated one's position becomes. The core issue is whether some extra-biblical influence is playing a deciding role in one's interpretation of scripture.

Although I find much room for differences of interpretation in scripture, in the case of the OEC vs YEC argument, I find it hard to be charitable towards the OEC interpretation. I don't see how one could read the text of the Bible and reach the OEC conclusion without some external influence. I don't even see how the Bible could reasonably be any more explicit and literal in its conveyance of a recent, six-day creation. To put it another way, my first two questions to an OEC would be as follows.

  1. Would you still hold to the OEC position if modern science adamantly insisted that the earth is young?
  2. What would you change about the creation account in scripture if it were intended to describe a literal, recent, six-day creation?

You can probably see where I'm going with that. If the answer to the first question is "no", then I disagree with the exegetical method on the basis of undue extra-biblical influence -- interpreting scripture to accommodate modern science. If the answer is "yes", then the answer to the second question might prove interesting -- or it might reek of rationalisation.

These two questions are specific to the creation issue, but they form a pattern which can be applied more generally. The first question determines whether the primary basis for interpretation is biblical or extra-biblical. The second one determines whether the interpreter has really considered what else the text might have said, given the task of conveying one message or another. I consider these to be fairly basic questions: it's the ABCs of exegesis, not advanced theory.

To close, I'd like to make a final remark on Biblical inerrancy. There is a curious asymmetry in one's attitude towards it: if you tell me that you deny Biblical inerrancy, then that is quite informative, but if you tell me that you believe in Biblical inerrancy, then that tells me very little. Inerrancy is meaningless if scripture can be arbitrarily stripped of its assertive content -- declared "non-literal" on the basis of some extra-biblical assertion.

Therefore, for those who subscribe to inerrancy, there is an important second question: do you recognise any higher authority than scripture itself for the interpretation of scripture? If the answer to that is "yes", then differences of interpretation are dependent on extra-biblical sources. Disagreements under such circumstances are just as much about the authorities to which one defers as they are about the text itself. A disagreement between parties who both subscribe to the supremacy of scripture is thus very different to a disagreement in which a party defers to an extra-biblical authority.

If parties can agree upon the supremacy of scripture -- i.e. that it is the highest authority on any subject that it speaks, and that its meaning must be judged first and foremost in terms of the text itself -- then the question of inerrancy becomes almost irrelevant. After all, as we've seen, we are bound to an imperfect understanding of scripture regardless of whether scripture is inerrant or not, but if all parties agree on the supremacy of scripture, then they are at least appealing to the same authority in defending their interpretation.

Lastly, on that note, I'd like to say that the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy should engender a healthy respect for the text of the Bible itself, but one should also maintain a sufficiently healthy scepticism in regard to one's own competence as an interpreter. If I agree with Miller about one thing, it's that brandishing Biblical inerrancy as a cudgel is unacceptable in every sense. Mind you, I'm not entirely convinced that it is being brandished in that manner by all those at whom his finger points, so I add that we should also exercise restraint when it comes to accusing others of that behaviour.

The Famous Brett Watson --

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