I believe the Bible is true in all that it teaches, and that this is what is meant by inerrancy. The Bible teaches no error. There is much debate over the meaning of inerrancy, and I’m not going to enter into that debate now (though I have written on it, if you’d like to see my opinion). What is important is that I want to start by saying that I affirm inerrancy, but I think one common argument in favor of the doctrine is mistaken.
The Slippery Slope Argument for Inerrancy
The argument I’m referring to is what I shall dub the “Slippery Slope” argument. Basically, it asserts that if someone doubts that one part of the Bible is true, doubt about the rest of the Bible unerringly follows [see what I did there?]. One example of this can be found in a recent webcomic from Adam Ford. We might write out the argument in syllogistic form as something like:
1. If one part of the Bible is in thought to be an error, other parts are thrown into doubt
2. Person A believes the Bible has an error.
3. Therefore, person A has reason to believe other parts are thrown into doubt.
The syllogism as I have written it is surely not the only way to put this argument. I am providing it largely as an illustration of how the argument might be stated. The core of the argument, however, is that if one thinks part of the Bible is an error, the rest of it is made at least possibly dubious.
Analyzing the Argument
There are several difficulties that immediately come up, ranging from concrete to obscure. On the obscure end, we might question what is meant by “an error” and whether that error is said to be theological, scientific, medical, or something else. We could then debate whether an alleged scientific error in the Bible is grounds for stating that there is “an error” in the Bible to begin with, by debating different views Christians hold about the Bible’s relationship with science (or medicine, or whatever). I’m not going to delve into obscurities here, however interesting they may be (and, in my opinion, they are very interesting).
Instead, I want to focus on some major difficulties with the argument. For one, it assumes that the interlocutor, person A, views the entirety of the Bible as on the same evidential plain. That is, for the argument to hold any weight, person A would have to believe that the Bible is linked together so intricately that a belief that Genesis 34:17 [I arbitrarily chose this verse] is an error (however defined) would entail that John 3:16 is possibly an error as well. Clearly, for the argument to be sound, Premise 1 must be correct, and it seems to be obviously false.
The reason I say this is because the possible errancy of John 3:16 does not follow from belief that there is an error in Genesis 34:17. Suppose you are reading a history textbook and you see that it states the date of General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox to be April 9, 1864. You, being a proud history buff, know that the date was actually April 9, 1865. However, the year is only off by one. You may proceed more carefully through the rest of the book, but you would not have any reason to think that the book was mistaken when it said that General Patton was a United States general in World War II.
The argument therefore assumes a unity of the text such that the entire Bible stands or falls together. Now, that might be a perfectly correct position to hold–and I do hold to the unity of Scripture myself–but that is not an obligatory or necessary view. That is, someone might deny that the Bible is a unified text and therefore need not ascribe to the view that if one part is in error, another must be.
But this is not the only difficulty with the argument. Another problem is that it assumes person A has no more reason to believe the portions of the Bible they believe are true than they do for the portions they believe might be errors. Yet this is mistaken, and demonstrably so. Person A may believe there is overwhelming evidence for the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, such that they affirm that without question, while also thinking that the evidence against Israel having been in Egypt is quite weighty as well. Thus, they believe the Bible is perhaps mistaken on the status of Israel in relation to Egypt in Exodus, but they also affirm that it is clearly correct on Jesus’ resurrection. But the slippery slope argument presumes that they cannot hold these beliefs together without at least significant tension. But why? Again, the reason appears to be because the slippery slope argument relies on the assumption that the evidence for one part of the Bible must be exactly on par with the evidence for another. However, that in itself is clearly wrong.
Again, I affirm the doctrine of inerrancy. I just think we should not rely on this as one of our arguments. I have used the slippery slope argument myself in the past, but I believe the above analysis shows I was mistaken to do so. I think that others should avoid the argument as well so that we can present the best possible arguments for the truth of the Bible without error.
I suspect many will take issue with the analysis above. I’m not saying that I believe any portion of the Bible is an error. Nor am I denying the unity of Scripture. What I am saying is that it is not logically fallacious to deny that unity. I’m saying that I believe it is logically consistent to believe that the Bible may have an error while still affirming, for example, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Is that something I would recommend? No, but neither is it something I would say is necessarily contradictory. Those who do want to take issue with my analysis must demonstrate how it is mistaken, and thus provide reason to think that the assumptions the slippery slope argument is based upon are sound.
Again, a final note is that I have taken the place of the interlocutor in several instances in this post. My point is simply that someone who did deny these things could come up with effective counters to the slippery-slope argument for inerrancy. Therefore, it seems to me that the argument is ineffective at best and faulty or fallacious at worst. It relies on presupposing that the opponent operates in the same sphere of presuppositions as the one offering the argument, but they need not do so.
On the “Fuzzification” of Inerrancy– I argue that we have qualified the term “inerrancy” unnecessarily and to the extent that it has become difficult to pin down its actual meaning. I advocate a return to a simple definition of the term.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
I have to say I’m very excited about this Really Recommended Posts round-up. The diversity of the set speaks for itself. I hope you’ll enjoy reading the varied posts. The topics we have this week are sexism, Shark attacks (but there’s more to it!), biblical inerrancy, the Gospel of Jesus’ wife, and the Planned Parenthood videos. Let me know your thoughts, and be sure to let the authors know as well!
10 Ways Men Can Fight Sexism– Here is an excellent resource that recommends ways that men can be engaged in fighting sexism. Yep, the description is straightforward, but the advice is invaluable.
Thoughts on Shark Attacks– My wife, Beth, wrote this post about a recent discussion we had with some kids and adults about her arm. Here are some reflections on grace, Lutheranism, and more.
7 Problems With Christian Opposition to Inerrancy– Here is a post which outlines some difficulties with Christians denying the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I’m not sure I’m completely sold on all of these (for example, the argument that Jesus held to biblical inerrancy seems possibly a little weak), but it remains a good discussion to read nonetheless. What are your thoughts?
The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Patchwork Forgery in Coptic… and English– An in-depth look at portions of this alleged “gospel” and the ways in which it exhibits signs of being a forgery.
Planned Parenthood, Fusion GPS, and the Smokeless Gun– “To the surprise of no one, the group Planned Parenthood hired to exonerate them exonerated them.” Planned Parenthood hired a company to try to clear their name, and–shockingly–they allegedly did so. But did they really? Here is an analysis of the findings of the study. See also: Center for Medical Progress Refutes Planned Parenthood’s Claims About the Videos Point-by-Point– the director of the group who recorded the undercover videos directly addresses the concerns raised about them being edited (or not).
[Theological a]djustment is achieved through “interpretation”–in theological parlance, hermeneutics… [I]f the loss of the term “inerrancy”… is fraught with sufficiently dire consequences, there will be the strongest temptation to retain these expressions while giving the Bible such “adjustive interpretation” that negatively critical approaches to it can be employed anyway. (Montgomery, 217, cited below)
The definition of inerrancy has been hotly disputed as of late. The infamous Geisler-Licona controversy, which continues to boil over at points, serves as a poignant example of this (see here for a Christianity Today article on the controversy; see also links below for a few discussions of the same). What is meant by inerrancy? Are we in a new era of Bible wars? These are the questions being asked right now.
I remember reading an essay from a book–Faith Founded on Fact–by noted Christian apologist John Warwick Montgomery entitled “The Fuzzification of Inerrancy.” The quote above comes from the essay, and it has gotten me thinking. Have lines been crossed? Where do we draw the lines anyway?
Montgomery defined “fuzzification” following James Boren. It is the “presentation of a matter in terms that permit adjustive interpretation” (217, cited below). Turning back to the quote above, the term speaks of the need to retain a specific idea essentially at all costs. Thus, when a challenge is raised to that idea, the idea is broadened or changed to incorporate the data raised by the challenge. Montgomery, originally writing in 1978, seems at times prophetic. He spoke of a time when one might see a contradiction, source theory, or even possibly an error in the Bible and simply define it as “a question of hermeneutics, not of inspiration at all!” (218); he worried about a time when “the ‘inerrancy’ with which one is left is an inerrancy devoid of meaningful content”; and he warned of the dangers of “adjustive interpretation” (227).
I wonder, at times, whether his statements have come to fruition. When I survey various works from evangelicals on interpretation or hermeneutics I find a baffling array of ways we are to understand individual passages or how we are to interpret various passages. Turning to Church Fathers, I find a number of passages in which their readings would be unrecognizable today due to the heavy use of allegory in passages we take to be literal or explicitly historical in genre. Moreover, the question of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy looms large. As with any document, questions are raised about what exactly is meant in each clause or in what way individual denials or affirmations might be meant.
It’s enough to make one wonder whether it is time to go back to a baseline understanding. “I believe the Bible is true in whatever it teaches.”*
The question that will be immediately raised, of course, is “What does the Bible teach?” The overriding desire to restrict exactly what it is the Bible teaches and prevent so-called “liberal” scholarship from finding ground to stand on in evangelicalism has led to an incessant narrowing of the definition of inerrancy, such that clause after clause is piled one atop the other to the point that it is hard to operate within such limits. Moreover, it seems some of these definitions actually prevent development within theology and squelch the impulse to question received traditions in light of new evidence.
The danger that some may think is posed by whittling the definition of inerrancy down to something like “The Bible is true in all that it teaches” may perhaps have some of the concern negated by the fact that it gets the dialogue going. If people return to this question: if someone genuinely, with open heart and mind, asks me “What does the Bible teach?” then I think that’s a glorious thing. Moreover, one may wonder at the purpose of inerrancy: is it a way to declare that the Bible is without error (as it seems to be based on the word itself); or is it a way to define how we go about reading the Bible? After all, if it is simply a declaration that the Bible is without error, should not simply declaring it as such be sufficient?
Perhaps it’s time to de-“fuzzify” inerrancy and get back to the basics. We may ask “What is the thrust of the doctrine of inerrancy?” instead of “What rival theological views may I exclude with the definition of inerrancy?”
Perhaps the danger of “fuzzification” from dehistoricizing texts, critical scholarship, and the like has in fact led to a fuzzification of the definition of inerrancy by making it over-determine the limits within which one may operate. I’m not claiming to offer all the answers, nor should it be thought that I am rejecting inerrancy. Far from it.** What I am instead rejecting is a “fuzzification” of the doctrine: when did declaring the Bible to be God’s Word and Truth become so complex that volumes of books were necessary simply to define what that means?
Let me know what you think in the comments below.
*This definition has suggested itself to me from a number of sources, including Nick Peters of Deeper Waters.
**I’m sure some people will take any questioning of current discussion about inerrancy to be denying the doctrine. However, this post is clearly written in order to defend the doctrine. What does inerrancy mean? That’s the thrust of this post, not “Inerrancy is false.” I believe the Bible is true in all it teaches.
Book Review: “Faith Founded on Fact” by John Warwick Montgomery– I review Montgomery’s well-known book on apologetic methodology.
Inerrancy– Check out my other posts on this topic. (Scroll down for more posts.)
The Geisler/Licona Debate– Nick Peters has a number of posts on this controversy if you want to read up on the topic. This post summarizes the debate and offers a thoughtful critique, in my opinion.
The Geisler/Licona Controversy– A quick, easy read on the reasoning behind the controversy.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.