If you knew how to read, you would know that you are not God
September 1, 2014 § 58 Comments
There has been a bit of a hubbub lately about the Old Testament. Generally speaking there are two sides to the debate. One side considers it obvious that God directly ordered the slaughter of the Canaanites and other mass slaughter in the Old Testament, and concludes that therefore killing the innocent – persons not engaged in attacking behaviors and not being punished for specific deliberate crimes, infants being paradigmatic – cannot be always and intrinsically immoral. This side claims that the Old Testament cannot be inerrant unless their personal interpretations are correct.
The other side is not so stupid, unimaginative, and arrogant.
The inerrancy of the Bible doesn’t mean that your personal interpretation, or any particular interpretation, is true and correct. It means that a true and correct interpretation exists.
Finite texts of sufficient complexity always underdetermine theories of meaning. If you have a theory of what a given text means, your personal theory is never the only possible theory of what the text means. This is built into the nature of symbols and meaning. In the context of interactive dialogue this becomes obscured, because interaction with the (presumed to be honest) speaker is possible to clarify meaning. But any ‘dead conversation’ is open to a multiplicity of interpretations.
The dilemma is falsely posed as pitting God “speaking directly” against the intrinsic immorality of murder. But that is just obviously nonsense. It is posed this way to beg the question: to invert the burden of proof.
When the Bible tells us that Samuel said “Thus sayeth the Lord of Hosts”, it is entirely possible that it is giving a literal account of words actually spoken by the actual prophet Samuel. I rather expect that it is; although that is not the only possible interpretation, and inerrancy only really guarantees that true and accurate interpretations exist, it doesn’t guarantee that I have it right.
But Samuel saying those words as a formal preliminary to issuing commands doesn’t necessarily imply what folks think it implies. We know that, as Popes do now, prophets had authority from God. But the fact that Papal authority comes from God doesn’t imply that every word and deed of every Pope is tantamount to a literal act of God. In reality Papal infallibility is something very rarely invoked, and the use of a formal introduction for the words of a Prophet doesn’t convert those words into a set of axiomatic syllogisms from which a positivist theory of everything can be constructed. Samuel’s formalism could conceivably mean that God actually spoke those words from a burning bush; but in the full context of the OT that seems less than likely. At best we can say that we don’t really know whether the formalism “thus sayeth the Lord of Hosts” is a formality – like the wearing of a crown – when the prophet gives orders.
What is being pitted against each other is some folks’ personal interpretations of the OT against the intrinsic immorality of murder. Understood this way the conclusion is manifest and immediate: those folks’ personal interpretations are wrong. Whatever the right interpretation might be, that particular interpretation is falsified. That you are wrong in how you interpret the Bible doesn’t threaten the Bible’s inerrancy: it threatens your personal world view. If that amounts to a “red pill” – perhaps the beginning of an understanding that positivism is modernist nonsense and that sola scriptura is positivist – then, in the words of the Prophet Morpheus, welcome to the real world.
If you read the Bible and come to the conclusion that a bedrock Christian doctrine such as the absolute prohibition of murder under the natural law is wrong, this doesn’t demonstrate a problem with bedrock Christian doctrine. It demonstrates a problem with you. If your reaction to this is some sort of outrage, some notion that you just must be right in your personal interpretations because God would never be so tricky as to construct a world in which positivism is a false and deceiving lie, then you’ve got some work to do. But the work you have to do is on yourself. Nobody ever guaranteed you a world in which positivism is a coherent epistemology.