A (Failed) Argument Against Biblical Inerrancy

barthOne sort of argument against biblical inerrancy is a priori. Consider the biblical authors, the human individuals who wrote the various books of the bible, such persons as Moses, Matthew, and Paul. According to the theologian Karl Barth,

The[se] men whom we hear as witnesses speak as fallible, erring men like ourselves. What they say, and what we read as their word, can of itself lay claim to be the Word of God, but never sustain that claim (Church Dogmatics, 1:2.507; hereafter ‘CD’).

In fact, he says, “it is quite impossible that there should be a direct identity between the human word of Holy Scripture and the Word of God” (CD, 1:2.499). I take it, then, that Barth wants to deny the following identity thesis:

(1)     The words of Scripture are identical with the words of God.

As we all know, however, many Christians happily affirm (1). Indeed, some actually insist on it. I, myself, am not in the least averse to (1), though I must concede that a growing number of Christians of my acquaintance seem terribly eager to deny it. For his part, Barth is quite emphatic on this score: “it is mere self-will and disobedience to try to find some infallible elements in the Bible” (CD, 1:2.531). Well, that settles it. Who, after all, thinks it’s a good thing to be willfully disobedient—disobedient presumably to the Lord? It’s not something one enters into lightly. Why, then, would a Christian think there are “some infallible elements in the Bible”?

Perhaps for this reason. Let’s assume—for whatever reason—that you find yourself convinced of (1). Then given the a priori truth that it isn’t possible that God should err—that, e.g., he can’t ever affirm a proposition p when in fact not-p is the case—it follows that

(2)     The words of God cannot be in error.

That is to say, the words of God have the property not possibly being in error. But then by Leibniz’s Law it follows that

(3)     The words of Scripture cannot be in error.

Now this inference from (1) and (2) to (3) is logically valid. If the premises are true, the conclusion follows necessarily. One thinks, therefore, that a Christian who found herself believing (1) and (2), and, further, who saw that the inference to (3) was valid, perhaps competently performing the deduction herself, might actually think it an act of willful epistemic disobedience not to believe (3). In light of (1) and (2), she might think it her obligation to believe there are “some infallible elements” in Scripture.

The Bold Postulate

Apparently, however, Barth doesn’t see things this way. He writes:

To the bold postulate, that if their word is to be the Word of God they must be inerrant in every word, we oppose the even bolder assertion, that according to the scriptural witness about man, which applies to them too, they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word, and yet…they have still spoken the Word of God in their fallible and erring human word (CD, 1:2.529-530).

We can state this Bold Postulate mentioned by Barth in this way:

(BP)   If (1) and (2), then (3).

(Barth, of course, doesn’t mention (2); but it can do no harm to add it in, since it forges the logical connection between (1) and (3), and is no doubt being assumed by the proponents of the postulate.)

Now Barth’s way of talking here can leave the impression that he means to reject (BP). “To the bold postulate,” he says, “we oppose [an] even bolder assertion.” But the fact is: this bolder assertion turns out be just a rejection of (3)—(BP)’s consequent. The biblical authors, we are told, “can be” and “have been at fault in every word.” And since we know up front anyway that Barth means to deny (1), I think we can safely see him as stipulating (BP). But from (BP) and the falsity of (3) it follows:

(4)     It is false that [(1) and (2)]

so that by DeMorgan’s Law, we have:

(5)     Either not-(1) or not-(2).

But surely (2) is true, and thus the right disjunct of (5) is false. For what Christian in her right mind is going to deny that God cannot err; in which case (by a familiar rule), (2) and (5) jointly entail

(6)     It is false that (1).

That is, the words of Scripture are not identical with God’s words.2 Hence the inerrantists (ironically enough) have erred.

Unerringly Fallible?

It’s an interesting argument. But is it any good? Well that depends. Both Barth and the bold postulators want to affirm (BP)—the inerrantists going on to affirm its antecedent, with Barth countering by denying its consequent. Much turns, then, on Barth’s argument for this denial. What is it? How does it go?

Unlike many opponents of inerrancy, Barth doesn’t attempt to show (at least not in the passages I’ve cited) that there are errors in the bible (scientific, historical, or whatever). That’s a messy business, of course, and involves much squabbling over textual details. Besides, his basic claim here is far too strong for that. Not only is it possible for the biblical authors to err, they have erred “in every word.” Every word. Well, I must say: that’s a lot of erring! Life is altogether too short to set out on the task of proving anything like that.

What one needs here is a good a priori  argument—one guaranteeing in advance widespread fallibility of this sort. Barth’s argument goes right to the source—to the nature of the biblical authors themselves. They are “fallible, erring men like ourselves,” he says. More than that, “the scriptural witness about man” implies that these individuals have been “actually guilty of error” (CD, 1:2.529) in their spoken and written word. Here the “scriptural witness” is no doubt to the devastating impact of the Fall on human beings. Like it or not, we all inherit a sinful, fallen nature. If we take the Bible seriously, there’s no getting around that. And then Barth’s idea, I take it, is that we human beings, given our fallen condition, cannot help but err. To err, as they say, is human.

Now if this is what Barth is thinking, we can see his argument for denying (3) as proceeding in this way:

(7)     The bible says every human being has a sinful, fallen nature. (premise)

(8)     Every human being has a sinful, fallen nature. (from 7)

(9)     The biblical authors are human beings. (premise)

(10)    The biblical authors have sinful, fallen natures. (from 8, 9)

(11)    Each written word of the biblical authors is “actually guilty of error.” (from 10)

Invalidity and Incoherence

I want to make three points about this argument. First, it is entirely unclear what it means to say that every word in the bible is at fault or in error. Consider the three letter word ‘and’, which appears countless time throughout the bible. Surely, this word isn’t flawed or in error just in itself. Naturally, I could fail to spell this word correctly (as ‘add’, let’s say, instead of ‘and’), but that wouldn’t show that there was an error in the word. Not at all. It would only show that I was mistaken in my spelling that word.

Could we perhaps say that ‘and’ can be in error in that it might be employed incorrectly? For example, I might say to my wife: “Maddy and Emma may come with me to the mall.” But perhaps all I really meant to assert was: “Maddy or Emma may come with me to the mall,” since I have piles of ungraded exams in the back seat of my car, so that I only have room for one. But again, this is no strike against the word ‘and’; it is wholly innocent. In this case, I have simply used the wrong word to communicate my meaning. The important thing to see is that in itself this little word just isn’t the sort of thing one can properly indict with fault or error.

Here is another possibility. Perhaps what Barth means is not that the words of scripture are individually errant, but rather that (taken together), in a collective sense, they lapse into error or mistake. The words of Scripture, of course, don’t occur in isolation. They play distinct roles in larger sentential contexts; it’s the sentences in which these words occur, it might be said, that express falsehood, not the words themselves. (Barth’s use of the terms ‘error’ and ‘inaccuracy’ hint slightly in this direction. For example, he talks about the Bible’s various errors of “content” (CD, 1:2.507): historical, scientific, theological, ethical, and so on.1)

But here we strike a problem; for clearly, not every sentence in the bible expresses a false proposition. For one thing, not every sentence in the bible is declarative; and it is only declarative sentences that express true/false propositions. Furthermore, there are countless sentences in the bible which do express true propositions—such sentences as “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1), and “Christ died for sins once for all” (1 Pet 3:18). If these examples are too theological for your tastes, we can try something more benign: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate [was] governor of Judea” (Luke 3:1). At any rate, you get the point.

Secondly, while I agree that the premises of this argument [i.e., (7)-(10)] are all true, it seems to me that the argument itself is invalid. In particular, (11) doesn’t follow from (10). Certainly, I agree that there is a necessary or essential connection between being a fallen human being and being sinful/errant. However, it doesn’t follow that fallen human beings are essentially sinful/errant. More exactly,

 (a)  Necessarily: if X is a fallen human being, then X is sinful and errant

 does not entail

 (b)  If X is a fallen human being, then X is necessarily sinful and errant.

The move from (a) to (b) involves an illicit shift of the necessity operator: from governing the entire conditional to governing just its consequent. In this connection, Ken Konyndyk warns:

there is a strong and recurring temptation in philosophy and theology to transfer the necessity of the connection in a conditional to the consequent of the conditional. It is important to resist this temptation (Kenneth Konyndyk, Introductory Modal Logic, Notre Dame Press, 1986, p. 22).

So following Konyndyk, let’s resist that temptation. And then let’s also notice that (a) doesn’t even entail

(c)  If X is a fallen human being, then X is always sinful and errant

which is precisely what one thinks Barth would need to prove (11): that the biblical authors have erred in all that they’ve written.

The problem here is that it seems altogether too strong to say that it is essential to being fallen that one sins and errs. No doubt possessing a fallen nature involves a certain propensity or proneness to moral wrong doing and error. But it won’t necessitate either that my moral choices are all sinful, or that nothing but blunder and mistake characterize my speaking and writing. (Some of my critics,  I’m sure, will beg to differ!) At any rate, if having a fallen nature necessitates error, then the theist is no less mistaken when she says that God exists, as the atheist is who claims he does not; in which case, I should think, God would both exist and not exist, which is a bit trying on the nerves.

Suppose, then, that human beings aren’t essentially sinful and errant, but only (as it seems to me) contingently or accidentally so. It follows that they could easily be guilty of no error (at various times) in their spoken and written word. The apostle Paul, e.g., could write an inerrant letter to the church at Rome. Even if Paul (on the whole) is sinful and errant, it certainly won’t follow that each of his particular actions/writings is sinful and errant. (That seems no more than the fallacy of division.) This is especially so, if we believe that Paul, as with any biblical writer, was being “carried along” by the Holy Spirit, thus preserving him from error (2 Pet 1:20-21).

A third and final point. Barth’s argument—or if you’re inclined to fuss with my Barth exegesis, this Barthian argument we’re considering—is in deep self-referential trouble. The conclusion, you’ll notice, is that each and every word of the biblical authors is in error. But the fundamental premise for the entire argument—i.e., (7)—draws upon “the scriptural witness about man.” But why should we pay attention to that, if (11) is true and that witness is itself the written product of the those authors guilty of error in all that they wrote? The answer, obviously enough, is that I shouldn’t. To put it another way: if the conclusion of Barth’s argument is true, then it’s first premise is in error. Hence it’s not true. Hence the entire argument is logically unsound. Indeed, by parity of reasoning, why believe anything Barth tells us? For he, too, is a sinful, fallen human being. And thus, on his own view, his writings (including every line of the Church Dogmatics) are chock full of error. But then so are the following Barthian claims:

  • That the bible is a merely human book;
  • That the bible contains errors;
  • That the bible is not the the Word of God

which contradicts the whole point of the argument–namely, to affirm these things as true. I’m sorry to have to say it, but this argument is a complete failure.

By way of conclusion then: there are arguments which purport to show there are some errors in the Bible. The Barthian a priori argument against inerrancy from the fallen natures of the authors of Scripture is made of sterner stuff that that. It claims that the bible is shot through with error—start to finish, not a single word is exempt. Unfortunately, Barth’s argument is patently invalid and lapses into spectacular self-referential incoherence. Other than that, it’s just fine.

Notes

1. Compare Barth: “God was not ashamed of the fallibility of all the human words of the Bible, of their historical and scientific inaccuracies, their theological contradictions, the uncertainty of their tradition, and, above all, their Judaism” (CD, 1:2.531).

2. This view is prominently on display in Dennis Lamoureux’s, Peter-Enns-endorsed view of inspiration: “An Ancient Bible Gives You Ancient “Science,” Not Modern. (I wish we didn’t have to keep saying that.).” In particular, see the PDF of chap. 3 of Lamoureux’s book Evolutionary Creation available online here (cf. p. 69).
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One comment on “A (Failed) Argument Against Biblical Inerrancy

  1. […] the Bible is what he actually intended to communicate. See also yesterday’s post, “A (Failed) Argument Against Biblical Inerrancy” by my colleague, Rich Davis, for an insightful, and thorough, critique of Barth’s […]

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