Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I wanted to draw people's attention to a blog post by philosopher Alexander Pruss on biblical literalism and inerrantism. It is short and direct, asking why the two, literalism and inerrantism, should so often go hand in hand. He ends by saying,
In fact one would expect a negative correlation between adherence to literalism and adherence to inerrantism. If one is an inerrantist, then one of the exegetical tools available to one is an inference from "p is false" to "Scripture does not assert p", and this exegetical tool, together with modern science, should result in the rejection of literalism.
Make sure to read the whole post. What do you think? I am still thinking his post over. I will go off and teach the New Testament for a few hours and come back and update this post with a few comments and reflections on "literalism" and "inerrantism.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++UPDATED++++++++++++++++++++++++++


It was more than a few hours, but here are my thoughts on this post at the end of the day:

I am frightened whenever I respond to philosophers or attempt to parse philosophical language, which I do not exactly understand. This is not a clever ruse – I truly do not understand philosophical statements, formal propositions of logic – and I am not kidding about the fright. Philosophers are careful thinkers and the conditions which they establish for their questions are rigorous.

The blog post to which I am responding, which I summarized above, proposed that there was a false equation between biblical literalism and biblical inerrantism “in the popular imagination” “and there may well be a positive correlation between adherence to these doctrines.” Pruss asks, “isn't this a strange marriage?” He then defines inerrantism and literalism:

Inerrantism is basically the doctrine that every proposition asserted by Scripture is true (perhaps with an "oeconomic necessity" operator applied). On the other hand, literalism is something like the doctrine that narrative sentences in Scripture, with the exception of those that the Bible marks otherwise and those that sufficiently closely stylistically and/or contextually resemble those so marked, are to be understood pretty much the way they would be understood if their vocabulary were mildly modernized and they were embedded in a present-day work of history.
I am attracted to this post because I am a Bible junkie and throwing around terms like “inerrant” and “literalism” stoke the addiction. But for all of my respect for the carefulness of philosophical speech, such as “from ‘p is false’ to ‘Scripture does not assert p,’” there is a looseness with which he uses these two terms of biblical studies.

Pruss does note that inerrancy is easier to define than literalism, but as he defines the two terms, he proposes that “in fact one would expect a negative correlation between adherence to literalism and adherence to inerrantism. If one is an inerrantist, then one of the exegetical tools available to one is an inference from "p is false" to "Scripture does not assert p", and this exegetical tool, together with modern science, should result in the rejection of literalism.”

He starts with an assumption that a strange marriage exists between biblical inerrancy and biblical literalism, but the first problem is the sloppy definition of inerrancy, “that every proposition asserted by Scripture is true.” One can, of course, assert that, but Catholic interpretation, for instance, does not ask that one accept that “every proposition asserted by Scripture is true,” except in a specific sense:

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation. (Dei Verbum 11)
Inerrancy, as stated in Dei Verbum, is “that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (DV, 11). Now, this might be what Pruss means by “oeconomic necessity,” but I read his post on that term a few times and could not determine if that was the case. At any rate, if one defines “inerrancy” not in a broad way, but in a specific, theological manner, the claim is simply that God’s truth, that truth essential for spiritual salvation, is found in the Scriptures.
The definition of literalism, though, is quite strange, so I repeat it in full:

literalism is something like the doctrine that narrative sentences in Scripture, with the exception of those that the Bible marks otherwise and those that sufficiently closely stylistically and/or contextually resemble those so marked, are to be understood pretty much the way they would be understood if their vocabulary were mildly modernized and they were embedded in a present-day work of history.
I am not certain why literalism is related to narrative sentences in Scripture alone, as opposed, I would suspect, to poetic or other literary styles, or how one determines which sentences “the Bible marks otherwise and those that sufficiently closely stylistically and/or contextually resemble those so marked” should be excluded or what that even means. I also do not know how literalism as a method of reading or interpretation should be related to modernizing vocabulary or present-day historical work.
The ancient and medieval understanding of literalism was quite sophisticated and is carried over into the present day: there were two senses of Scripture, the literal and the spiritual, and the spiritual was based upon the literal sense, which is the sense conveyed by the words of the text and available through sound methods of exegesis and interpretation. Yet, the literal sense took account of the poetic, mythic and other literary techniques of the author, embedded in the text in whatever age they wrote, that is to say, it is a broad way of reading Scriptural texts not a narrow sense that is being sought.  The literal sense is simply what the author intended to say and which is located in the text.

Spiritual reading, which included allegorical, anagogical and moral readings, were based upon the literal reading. In this manner of understanding the literal sense, one does not say that a dragon’s tail sweeping a third of the stars from heaven (Revelation 12: 4) must be “literally” true, though that is what the words mean. The literal sense, though, is based upon the apocalyptic genre, the mythic precursors for dragons, beasts and chaotic monsters in the ancient near east and in the Old Testament, and the context in the text in which this account is found. What did the author intend to say through this text? From the literal sense one can build spiritual senses, though not in every case. What it does not intend is that the literal sense is mundane, boring and without spiritual meaning.

In both cases, though, the definitions offered by Pruss are too narrow and so he wants to separate “literalism” from “inerrancy.” But the one, inerrancy, refers to the inspired and revealed nature of Scripture, which guarantees its truth at least in a theological sense. And “literalism” is simply a means of accepting that texts carry meaning, intended by their author, or authors, which for Scripture include both the human and the divine voices and which must be discovered by careful exegesis and interpretation. How can one not accept both of these if they accept the truth of Scripture?


John W. Martens

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