Friday, February 1, 2008

When to give up inerrancy

Some writers want to hold onto inerrancy and redefine it. Others want to relinquish inerrancy to the inerrantists and commend "trustworthiness" and "faithfulness" in inerrancy's stead. When should one give up inerrancy? This reminds me of an even more basic philosophical problem: when can one say that an idea or belief has enough problems that it should be given up? There is an article that has always intrigued me that speaks briefly on this:

"It could be objected that nowhere have I stated any criteria for knowing when there would be enough problems with inerrancy to justify giving it up. Thus, I cannot rationally claim to know that inerrancy is true. I can only offer two brief but important responses. First, as has already been argued, there are no acceptable criteria in the philosophy of science that can be applied in a simple, algorithmic way to all or most cases of theory change in science. The simple fact is that the rationality of theory change is a very multifaceted affair. The same can be said of theological systems. No simple set of criteria can be given for when one theological construct should be given up and another believed. This is not to say that there are no cases where theological or scientific hypotheses should be abandoned. But determining when that point is reached and how one knows it has been reached is another matter. Theological constructs (first order or second order), inerrancy included, are no different from scientific theories in this regard. So I can offer no adequate criteria for when inerrancy should be abandoned. But this is not surprising, nor is it because I am engaging in a special pleading. This is just the way it often is with hypotheses.

Second, as Roderick Chrisholm has pointed out, there are many things one can know without having criteria for knowing them. If this were not the case, I would never know anything, since to know I would have to have criteria for knowledge. But to know my criteria, I would have to have criteria for my criteria. This is a vicious regress. So I can know some things without giving criteria for knowing them or for falsifying them.

As an example, consider a puzzle from the ancient Greeks, known as the sorites problem. Given a small heap of wheat, can I get a large heap by adding one grain? It seems not, for how could one go from a small to a large heap by merely adding one grain. But then it seems that one could add grains of wheat to a small heap and never reach a large heap. Consider another puzzle. If one gradually changes the shade of a color from red to orange, can one tell when the color changes from red to orange? Probably not. But in the absence of such a criterion, how can I know when I see red or orange? The problem with both puzzles is this: they assume that in the absence of clear criteria for borderline cases, one cannot have knowledge of clear cases. Without being able to judge when the heap becomes large, I can never know that it is large. Without being able to judge when the color changes to orange, I can never know that it is orange. But the fact is, I can know a large heap or an orange color even if I have no criteria.

I am not dismissing criteria altogether. Indeed, they are important in an overall theory of rationality. But I do not need criteria in all cases to know something. In the case of inerrancy, the issue is complicated enough that I do not think one needs to give criteria for knowing when to believe errancy or to accept the falsification of inerrancy. It does not follow from this that it would never be rational to give up belief in inerrancy. It may. But giving criteria for this is not easy." (J. P. Moreland, "The Rationality Of Belief In Inerrancy," Trinity Journal 7 (1986):

I take from this that an inerrantist does not have to give an upper limit for the amount of "error" he or she will tolerate before giving up inerrancy. This may help explain why some non-inerrantists look at some of the more "liberal" inerrantists and say, "You're not really an inerrantist." Perhaps the inerrantist him/herself cannot tell whether he/she is an inerrantist as the shades of inerrantism have changed repeatedly in such small increments that there is no difference of category involved. Only others can tell for real; only others can judge rightly.

A question comes to mind: Can I really say, The fact is, I know an errant scripture when I 'see' one or I know an inerrant scripture when I 'see' one? These are things, it seems to me, that cannot be decided beforehand. Evangelicals are even now in the process of figuring these things out.