[Note: All errors in Latin conjugation/declension/usage/etc. are my own. I am admittedly a novice, but I try my hardest.]
I have written on faith several times, mostly from an etymological perspective and against those who would claim that faith is defined as “belief without evidence”. More recently, I saw a Christian arguing against a fine-tuning argument, citing part of Hebrews 11:1 in connection with his objections. It is now time for me to admit that much of the problem in the conception of faith is not simply from the New Atheists and their ilk but also from Christians who have an incorrect way of looking at the subject.
This past week, Tim Challies put up a series on inerrancy in which he tried to explicate a fleshed-out version of the subject. I’ve blogged a lot about Challies in the past – probably to the point where it’s getting tiresome and oh-so-obvious that he is the primary exposure I have to views I may not be sympathetic with – but this series interested me, especially the last entry in which Challies tries to make his case the most forcefully. Unfortunately, he pulls a punch and commits an error that is in my estimation unacceptable when he discusses the supposed circularity of inerrancy:
Where this model of linear reasoning may break down, is that some of what we accept about the Bible we accept by faith. Faith does not render reason invalid, but the Holy Spirit helps us believe in what our sinful, human minds will not accept. Therefore, I do not believe that an unbeliever—one who does not have the Spirit’s help—can accept the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. But this line of reasoning ought to be sufficient for the believer.
This view of faith strikes me both as incredibly wrongheaded and completely antithetical to historic Christianity – for the most part, Christian thinkers like Aquinas have sought to find answers to theological questions that comport with reason rather than engaging in handwaving arguments like this one. Ironically, it is the correct view that should be informing his position on inerrancy.
In the spirit of Aquinas, I call this flawed approach fides derelinquens intellectum – rather than the notion of fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding,” as in the name of John Depoe’s blog linked on the right), this stance promotes “faith abandoning understanding”.* Rather than to explore and attempt to find a way to hold inerrancy without abandoning logical reasoning, Challies merely claims – without a solid deferral to Scripture, I might add† – that this is one of those things where faith trumps reason. I hate to use the cliché, but it’s almost as if Challies prefers to say, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.”
But it’s not as though inerrancy is entirely indefensible against the type of attack he is concerned about. Later in the same entry, he expounds on how many historical facts in Scripture have been vindicated by further historical and anthropological research, and I think this is a sound point. Moreover, I think this is the starting point for Christians who want to affirm the authority of Scripture – it is precisely the vindication of a great number of details that implies that we should think it a reliable document for what it is. I mention that disclaimer because reliability is contextual – a document that purports to be historical or is obviously meant to be an authentic historical account from its rhetorical structure (as many scholars say is the case with the Gospels where it is not explicit, e.g. Luke) should be taken as reliable if it contains details that are corroborated by the standards of historicity, even if it is not reliable as (operative word) a scientific document. Christian scholars have been affirming that Scripture contains genuine historical facts, and where evidence has been lacking in many cases, it is later corroborated, thus reinforcing the general accuracy of the whole.
The reason I mention this is because we do not believe in a vacuum. As much as Challies would like to assert that inerrancy is about asserting the Bible as a higher standard than our minds, that is simply a false dichotomy – for how else do we interpret Scripture but with our minds? How many verses talk about the importance of mind in salvation and in understanding? (Anyone who has read J.P. Moreland’s Love Your God With All Your Mind will have an idea of how many we’re talking about.) If we simply assert that Christian belief can only be founded if we assume inerrancy in this way, how does that benefit Christian belief? The simple answer is that it doesn’t – quite the contrary. I’m certain that Challies has only the best intentions in making this such a strong emphasis, but he misses the mark here, in my opinion. There is a much stronger way to frame inerrancy, one that does not require the suspension of logic, and it is my conviction that Challies should keep searching for it.
*I hope my translation isn’t too awful; someone please correct me if I’m wrong and another verb is more applicable, e.g. linquere, or if my conjugation is incorrect. Admittedly, my choice of derelinquere is deeper than the simple denotation of abandonment; it is the verb used in the Vulgate to translate Jesus’ dying phrase “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (cf. Matthew 27:46: “Et circa horam nonam clamavit Jesus voce magna, dicens: Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani? hoc est: Deus meus, Deus meus, ut quid dereliquisti me?”). I like the poesy of the Scriptural echo, although I think “forsaking” is a bit too strong here, rhetorically speaking.
†I mention an appeal to Scripture in part because Challies’ Reformed beliefs should lead him to look there first. I also mention this because it is my firm belief that appeals to suspension of logic should really only apply in cases where we have every reason to belief that they are true despite apparent logical difficulties, as Aquinas did in his theology of the Godhead. There is no clear non-question begging reason why we should think this to be true (for instance, Challies’ reference to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 begs the question of what Paul meant by “Scripture”), but even so, the problem of authority and inerrancy is not insuperable for Christians.