Monday, May 14, 2007

Can Moses Have False Beliefs While Penning Untainted Truth: the Implications for Biblical Inerrancy?

by JM
Concerning someone like Moses, some may try to insist that the following principle must be true: In order for statement S to be without error when spoken by Moses, is it the case that Moses must not have any mistaken views about S. For example, let’s say Moses was a geocentrist (someone who believes the earth is the spatial center of the universe), and let’s say he uses the phrase “the sun is setting.” Does this mean that Scripture errors when the phrase “the sun is setting” is used by Moses? Conversely put, is S is inerrant (without error) only if Moses understands S correctly. On this view, it is a necessary condition that when the phrase “the sun is setting” is used, that Moses must understand this within a heliocentric paradigm (believing that the sun is the center of the solar system) and not a geocentric paradigm.

I think there are considerations that suggest that it is not the case that Moses must understand S either fully or correctly before S is considered inerrant. For example, when Moses declares that God is eternal, does he mean that God is timeless or temporally infinite (a debate raging presently)? I suspect that Moses would have no clue, or a very impoverished notion of time and eternity. Perhaps he is convinced by one position, even though it is wrong. Is then Moses incorrect in his declaration, seeing that his declaration is either impoverished or fails in full correspondence of the facts? When Paul gives his benediction by using a Trinitarian formula, does Paul need to have the philosophically precise language or understanding of the Athanasian or Nicene creed to infallibly make a declaration about the Trinity? In addressing this, there are a few options available to us:

(1) The authors of Scripture knew fully about the matters that they communicated and made no errors. For example, when Moses describes creation ex nihilo, Moses has in mind something like the big bang.

(2) The authors of Scripture had a vague understanding about the things they reported and communicated no error. For example, a person who did not major in physics may have an impoverished understanding of gravity. In a crass and crude description, they may say something like “gravity occurs when rocks are let go from my hand.” Though crude, it isn’t incorrect; it’s a phenomenological description that lacks refinement and detail. So when Moses includes bats with birds, the crass similarity of “flying” suits him for classifying this type of creature. In this kind of language, categories are somewhat fluid. The same applies to analogical language. When I say that my dog is “good,” I mean that he is potty trained. When I say that my wife is “good,” I don’t mean that she is potty trained (even though she is), but that she is kind, faithful, vacuums well etc…. When I say God is “good,” I don’t mean exactly the same thing as when this word is used to describe my dog or wife. However, I don’t fully grasp what I mean by “good” when I apply it to God. I have a vague understanding of “goodness” that is confined to my sphere of understanding. I infer that this goodness is somehow an analogy to God’s goodness. Crude and impoverished, I know. Incorrect? No.

(3) The authors of Scripture had an incorrect view on the things they reported but communicated no error. This can be taken two ways:

(a) The author believing S is true, in making the statement S, means to communicate that S corresponds to reality. So, Moses believing rabbits to be ruminants, in penning Leviticus 11:6, means to share his conviction with the world. Yet, somehow Scriptures do not error in this event (hard to swallow, I know).

(b) It is possible for someone to state S, and not intend to communicate that S corresponds to reality, even though they believe that it corresponds to reality. Imagine a scientist who is at a cocktail party with his colleges. The atmosphere is jovial, and he decides to tell a joke. Whatever the joke is, the content includes something about how light is created when electrons drop from a higher to lower energy shell. In the middle of the joke, a fellow scientist (who is also a dogmatic skeptic) inappropriately interrupts the joke teller by asking whether or not he believes electrons really “drop.” Notice how the question is inappropriate given the purpose of the joke teller. Let’s say that he really does believe that electrons really drop, however his declaration of this fact in the joke was not meant to be taken metaphysically. He pauses, a little shocked by the rude interruption, considers the question, and then declares, “I believe that electrons really drop.” Consider that the different conversational contexts determine whether truth value is relevant. The first should not be considered as an issue of correspondence and truth, but of jargon and nomenclature. The second should be considered as an issue of correspondence, and therefore is true or false given if this correspondence obtains.

In other words, there can be significant distance between what someone says and believes, so that a person may declare X, believe X, and not be wrong in this declaration, even though the declaration fails the correspondence test. Why? Because in making declaration X, P does not mean to convey either what she believes, or whether or not X is true.
(4). The authors of Scripture had an incorrect view on the things they reported and communicated error because of this report.

Given the possibilities of (2) and (3b), I feel reasonable in dismissing (1), (3a), and (4). All this to say that it seems reasonable to maintain that Moses communicated inerrant truth without requiring inerranency of all his beliefs.