Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, part II
The Great Isaiah Scroll. (This image is in the public domain.) Do you think the contents of this manuscript are the final authority on all matters that it addresses?
I wrote this in late 2012 / early 2013, while I was still a Christian. For context about this blog post series, please see the introductory post.
I present an evangelical Christian position on the truth and authority of the Bible in order to demonstrate how that evangelical position is inconsistent with my own philosophical assumptions of minimal prejudice, skepticism, and equal treatment of all truths regardless of how I came to believe those truths. I present an alternative view of the truth of the Bible and logically justify this view from my ground assumptions. Furthermore, I critique this alternative view and highlight some of the new problems that this view presents. I present my summary of "'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God" by J. I. Packer in an appendix.
I use some mathematical notation, as shown in Table 1.
|a ∈ A||a is an element of the set A|
|¬A||The statement ‘not A’ (If A is true, then ¬A is false and vice versa)|
|A∩B||The statement ‘A and B’|
|A ⇒ B||Statement A implies statement B|
|A⇔B||Statement A is true if, and only if, B is true|
Let D represent the statement ‘Jesus is divine,’ let R represent the statement ‘Jesus’ words are reliable,’ let C be the set of claims made by the Bible, and let B represent the statement ‘For all c ∈ C, c is true in a way that accords with the literary style of c’s context.’ Eve, the evangelical Christian, argues like this:
We have a circular argument for the divinity and reliability of Jesus and the truth of the Bible:
Anyone who claims to be a Christian but rejects this reasoning is abusing the name; let him or her be anathema.
When someone asserts that a Biblical claim is untrue, for example ‘Methuselah could not have lived for 969 years,’ Eve responds: ‘Since we know that Jesus is divine and that his words are true, dogmatically B, therefore that person is in error.’
Some problems that Eve faces are:
- What claims does the Bible make? What exactly is C?
- How do we decipher the context and literary style of each part of the Bible to know exactly what B claims to be true? For example, Jev Doorknocker, the Jehovah’s Witness, finds that the Bible says Jesus is not divine, B⇒¬D.
- Does the truth of the 66 Protestant books of the Bible really follow from Jesus’ reliability, does R⇒B? What books of the Bible does Jesus quote from? When can quoting a part imply endorsement of the whole? What works did Jesus mean to include what he mentioned the ‘Scriptures’ or the ‘Law and the Prophets’? What about the Deuterocanonicals? (What about Jude’s quote from the Book of Enoch?)
- How did the canon come about? On what authority do we accept the Biblical table of contents? What about the gnostic gospels? What if someone unearthed a previously unknown document purporting to be divinely inspired?
- How do we know that the Bible really contains Jesus’ words?
(Actually, Jesus could be divine and parts of the Bible could be false. By lumping all of the Bible’s claims into B, we lose some expressive power, but this simplification is useful here.)
Logo, the logician argues against Eve:
We start by outlining our underlying assumptions. For economy of space, we do not argue from the most basic possible axioms, but we make the barefaced assertion that these axioms are indeed theorems in the logical system that one should build from the most basic axioms. (One of the most basic axioms could be ‘I generally trust my senses.’) We base our worldview on the following axioms:
- Minimal prejudice: We should presuppose a minimal set of axioms and logical tools then construct a worldview, rather than presupposing something to expedite our search for truth toward a desired conclusion. We cannot have no prejudice, because we must be prejudiced in the positive toward this espousal of minimal prejudice.
- Skepticism: Due to the abundance of error, we must qualify every statement with our degree of confidence in its veracity. Our statement of belief in skepticism itself must be qualified: we cannot be absolutely sure that skepticism is the right philosophical mode for our discussion. However, we should not be paralysed by caution, so we must proceed with using skepticism as a tool. We apply skepticism and humbly acknowledge that anything we deduce is tainted by whatever lack of confidence we have with our skepticism. For example, if we have 99% confidence in our skeptical method and if we know that X⇒Y with 95% confidence and we know X with 95% confidence, then we can infer Y, but only with 89% confidence (0.95 × 0.95 × 0.99 = 0.893475).
- Equal treatment of all truths, regardless of how we know them to be true: Truth revealed by God is just as true as truth discovered by man under God’s common grace. However, by the axiom of skepticism, we can have sources of truth that are more certain than others.
Logo finds that Eve’s ‘circular argument’ is better stated as an if-and-only-if:
Since D⇒R, Eve’s claim is better stated as ‘the claims of the Bible are true, if and only if, Jesus is divine and trustworthy:’
While dogmatically accepting the Bible has some appeal, we cannot dogmatically accept something without an indisputable argument. The Bible’s claim to be the words of the divine is not sufficient evidence to show that the Bible is true. If a benevolent, truthful God were to reveal things to us, then we could reasonably expect that one of the things God would reveal would be the fact that God authored that revelation. But notice that we can apply the same logic to the Quran, or the book of Mormon, by making the substitutions shown in Table 2.
|D||Jesus is divine||Mohammed was the Prophet||Joseph Smith was a prophet|
|R||Jesus is reliable||Mohammed was reliable||Joseph Smith was reliable|
|B||The Bible is true||The Quran is true||The book of Mormon is true|
Since the divinity and reliability of Jesus are directly related to the truth of the Bible, we can examine whether or not we think the Bible is true in order to determine whether or not we should believe that Jesus is divine and reliable. Some of the claims of the Bible are unfalsifiable. For example, we cannot decide if Jesus was divine or not, except by divine revelation in the Bible. Other claims of the Bible may be falsifiable. For example, could someone live 969 years? Maybe we can develop some level of confidence about whether or not we think Methuselah could live to be 969. The Bible says that Jesus was killed by Pontius Pilate; this is corroborated by extra-biblical sources. If the Bible turns out to be true on the things we can falsify, then we have a more reasonable basis for accepting those parts of the Bible that we cannot falsify. If c = ‘A real man named Jesus lived in the 1st century AD’ and c ∈ C, then B⇒c. If we have overwhelming evidence for c apart from the Bible, then we can increase our confidence in B, but if we have overwhelming evidence against c apart from the Bible, then we must decrease our confidence in B. If someone makes claims that you can verify, then you should trust them. On the other hand, if someone makes dubious claims, you should doubt them.
We accept or reject the truth of the Bible just as we accept or reject any other notion. We evaluate the balance of evidence for and against the Bible by examining as many claims of the Bible as we can and comparing those claims against what we know from extra-biblical sources of knowledge. These comparisons are fuzzy though, because we are skeptics, so we have to weight apparent contradictions by the confidence we have in the opposing statements. If we have some low-confidence reason to believe that Jesus was not a real man who lived in the 1st century AD, but we also have a high-confidence reason to believe that Jesus really did live at that time, then we must accept the claim with higher confidence, perhaps with a slight discounting of its confidence level. Having evaluated all the claims of the Bible that we can, we develop a degree of belief in the proposition B. Because we can’t check everything in the Bible (some of its claims are unfalsifiable), and because we cannot have perfect knowledge to check the Bible with, we cannot reach 100% certain belief in all the claims of the Bible. To evaluate the truth of the Bible at some sub-100% level of confidence, then close our eyes to the degree of confidence and dogmatically assert the truth of the Bible is illogical.
However, our belief in the Bible based on skepticism does not preclude confidence or faithful actions:
- ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’ (Mark 9:24 NIV)
- ‘Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”’ (Matthew 17:20-21 NIV)
We trust in the Jesus revealed in the Bible not with a dogmatic faith, but a humble one. We do not face the fragility of dogma, but we have unprejudiced, honest, and fair confidence in what we are convinced to be true based on what we see and we risk our lives on the hope of Jesus, trusting him with what we cannot see. Far from devaluing the Bible or its author, we are loving the Lord our God with all our minds.
Some problems facing Logo are:
- Logo’s argument is present as if he had all the evidence. However, we only read the scroll of knowledge as it is unfolded to us. Consequently, we face potentially troubling changes as we discover new things and make new theories to make sense of what we discover.
- Eve (and Kat, the Roman Catholic Christian) may find that she cannot cooperate with Logo because no stable agreement can be found. Indeed, we Christians must unite in love around the truth. However, stable agreement is too lofty a goal. If each person is to honestly seek truth, then we must be willing to cooperate even in the presence of unstable, partial agreements. But Logo cannot stop Eve or Kat from excommunicating him.
- Logo may be constantly suffering from doubts as he reads the Bible and tries to weigh
the claims of the Bible against what he knows from elsewhere. What does Logo do
when faced with:
- Creation and evolution?
- The Flood and archaeology?
- Methuselah’s longevity and estimates of the maximum human life span?
- Miracles and physics?
- The Great Commission and the survivability of ideas (memes) and Black Swans (Taleb, 2007)?
- God’s moral commands and Pinker’s description of the decline of violence (Pinker, 2011)?
- The commandments to teach faith to your children and its amazing effectiveness for many religions and one’s own indoctrination as a child (see http://www.paulgraham.com/lies.html)?
- The claims of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the evolutionary models of religion or the idea that religions are like viruses that have one part lie to create group cohesion and one part truth to aid group survival (see http://www.paulgraham.com/lies.html)?
- The belief in an omnipotent God and the neuroscience study reporting that people can be made to have religious experiences by sending magnetic pulses into their brains (Persinger et al., 2010)? (Maybe it’s just suggestibility (Granqvist et al., 2005).)
- The belief in life after death and the frequent effect of ‘seeing a light at the end of the tunnel’ (or similar) when the brain experiences oxygen-deprivation in a near death experience (I learned about this from Sacks, 2007)?
- Arguments for Jesus’ resurrection based on Christianity’s wide and sincere adoption, and the success of Scientology, a demonstrably and wholly invented religion?
- The age of the Bible, and the general lack of reliability of ancient documents and the extreme suspicion that must be placed on all historical sources (Taleb, 2007, and others taught me to distrust history)?
- The creation of man in God’s image (and God’s special plan for my life) and the consistent failure of human-centric theories (and me-centric theories), such as the geocentric astronomical model, vitalism, and the lack of extraordinary biological distinction between people and animals?
- One’s prior social and intellectual commitments to Christianity and confirmation bias (Nickerson, 1998)?
If Logo finds that something contradicts the claims of the Bible with greater confidence than he has in the truth of the Bible, then Logo must reject the Bible.
- Logo may have built his assumptions on the prevailing cultural tide rather than sound logic and Biblical truth.
I outline my best understanding of the dogmatic evangelical position on the truth of the Bible and I present an alternative view. A dogmatic approach to the Bible is inconsistent with the axioms of minimal prejudice, skepticism, and equal treatment of all truths. Dogmatically asserting the truth of the Bible raises serious questions about the interpretation of the Bible and the canon. My analysis may fall short of doing justice to the evangelical position, in which case my argument would be erroneous. Taking a minimally prejudiced, skeptical view of the Bible satisfies my desire to be humble and intellectually honest but it causes new problems, especially in apologetics. Furthermore, an adherent of this view of the Bible could face social ostracism if he or she were previously rooted in an evangelical or Catholic community.
Am I being disingenuous in arguing against the weak position of Eve? After all, I have previously claimed that every arguer has the obligation to maximally steel-man their opponent’s side, see my post on Nash and the Straw Man. Perhaps Eve’s position could be made stronger – replacing Eve’s position with something more like Logo’s would be a start – but I think that real people hold positions quite similar to Eve. For example, I think the late Dr. J. I. Packer did.
In ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God: Some Evangelical Principles, J. I. Packer defends the Evangelical notion of the authority of Scripture over reason, particularly attacking the Liberalism or ‘Biblical Theology’ described in Gabriel Herbert’s work Fundamentalism and the Church of God (S.C.M. 1957). Packer argues with clarity, grace and thoroughness, carefully expressing his opponents positions before mounting rebuttals.
Packer asserts that the Bible claims to be written by a truthful, divine author and that a right response is a faith in that author that leads us to believe that the Bible is the highest authority on all matters that it speaks. Therefore, any results from history, textual criticism, or any other discipline are subject to being overruled by the words of God should they apparently contradict any well-established truth revealed in the Bible.
Packer claims that the logical conclusion of the Liberal or subjectivist approach to truth, the one that places reason as an authority over the Bible, is no sensible Christianity at all. By claiming that the Bible is the highest authority, and by making a number of claims on how to interpret the Biblical message, Packer also contradicts the supposedly Roman Catholic notion that tradition is an authority equal to or higher than the Bible.
While Packer holds the Bible as the highest authority, he claims that reason is most free when it is subject to the assumptions that are faithful to the Bible and that in fact, good reasoning is necessary and useful for understanding and applying the Bible. Packer argues that people’s reasoning is corrupted by sin and that approaching the Bible without the assumption of its inerrancy is a bad way to apply reason.
I consider that Packer does not adequately address the possibility that tradition may be an authority with equal rank as the Bible (what I understand the Roman Catholic church to teach), however, this question is only tangentially related to Packer’s scope, which mostly addresses the supposed Liberal heresy.
Furthermore, I find that Packer’s notion of faith that leads to dogmatic belief in the scriptures to be epistemically distasteful. While it is prudent to follow the fullest implications of whatever truth one knows, it is also important to keep one’s mind open to some degree. (This is the philosophical equivalent of the exploration-exploitation dilemma in reinforcement learning (Sutton and Barto, 1998).) Accepting any dogma is problematic since it leads to the closing of one’s mind; evaluating truth based on degrees of belief (‘skepticism’) seems better to me. Following skepticism, I need not definitely choose a highest authority for truth but rather might tentatively accept both X and Y as sources of truths with varying degrees of confidence and also say ‘I will reject some claim of X if Y contradicts that claim with a greater confidence than X makes that claim.’ For example, I might accept both Scripture and Reason as sources of truth and I would suspect some rational claim against some part of Christianity, unless that rational claim seemed like a fully and direct contradiction that was well-supported by good evidence.
The advantage of this multi-faceted approach to authority is that I do not need to treat Christianity any differently than other religions before I begin my inquiry. For example, I can open the possibility of Islam being true, then close it if Islam makes some claim that I believe to be outrageous. (However, perhaps my method is denying the general idea of authority, or perhaps it is accepting my own reason as the highest authority.) While I appreciate Packer’s Calvinistic notion of saving faith being a divine gift that goes beyond reason, it makes me wonder how to address other religions. Atheism has developed a number of crafty tools for attacking religions in general, in fact, atheism must defeat religion wholesale. Since I reject other religions myself, it is tempting to accept the logic of some of the atheistic methods. The question remains, why not apply those methods also to Christianity? Atheism’s own answer is: ‘Peter will not reject his own religion because he was brought up being taught that he belongs to a special group and he cannot bear to shamefully admit that he’s wrong.’ I would suggest the same reasoning to a Muslim, to convince him of the truth of Christianity, so why don’t I apply the same reasoning to myself? How likely is it that I was raised believing the truth? To be honest with myself, I must address that possibility by evaluating Christianity with the same measure that I would evaluate other religions. If I say ‘I trust the God of the Bible,’ then somehow I must explain to myself why I do not trust the Allah of the Quran or the concepts advanced by any other religion.
If the Bible is the highest authority, then what do I do about all the other texts that make similar claims? Shouldn’t I read them, join their community for a time, and see if that text’s deity gives me saving faith in himself (or does some equivalent thing)? Perhaps I am subconsciously using reason as an escape from this logic by claiming: ‘Christianity is reasonable therefore I need not examine other religions; I know it’s true so I don’t need to test other religions as much.’ One danger here is that reason, or science, can assault that position by suggesting that the Bible makes testable predictions which can be experimentally verified in some way. For example, the idea that evolution contradicts Genesis is one such example of how science and the Bible can be seen to be at odds. While I feel comfortable believing both evolution and the Bible, I worry that other tests that science might produce may not end so favourably. I also worry that theology may constantly wiggle under the pressure of what science reveals, leading to a faith that ‘reforms’ to dodge current science while claiming to be some orthodoxy that ‘good Christians have always believed.’ This, perhaps, is evidence that people are good at reconciling apparent contradictions by subtly redefining terms, changing claims and rewriting arguments: see James vs. Paul on ‘faith’ in the light of the Reformation. You can read about the maybe-contradition between James and Paul from an Evangelical position here.
If I escape the possibility of science contradicting the Bible by asserting that my faith leads to a dogmatic belief in the Bible, then I feel I am rightly stuck with the possibility that I would be suppressing the truth (contrary to Packer’s claims and in unison with his opponents) and that I am committing the epistemic error of treating Christianity and other religions unequally.
Granqvist, P., Fredrikson, M., Unge, P., Hagenfeldt, A., Valind, S., Larhammar, D., and Larsson, M. (2005). Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of transcranial weak complex magnetic fields. Neuroscience Letters, 379(1):1–6.
Persinger, M. A., Saroka, K., Koren, S. A., and St-Pierre, L. S. (2010). The electromagnetic induction of mystical and altered states within the laboratory. Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research, 1(7).