Tag Archives: epistemology

How I read the bible

Today I’m joining up with Balaam as we cross-post about how we each read the bible. This began life as a “positive alternative” to the extremely conservative view as espoused by Kevin DeYoung in his book, Taking God at His Word (see here a review of my review). It’s changed shape a bit since then, but I hope it still hangs together.

I will begin with a summary I have used before:

I view the bible as a collection of books which is the most reliable source we have for understanding the origins, themes, aims and beliefs of the christian faith. To get as true and fair an understanding of christianity, out of which flows a faithful adherence, the Church and its members must make the best effort to understand the bible in its historical context and from there to apply it to the society, geography and time that we find ourselves in today. That understanding may be aided by any available tools we have, whether that be linguistics, historiography, tradition, etc. (all of which may be brought together under the umbrella term, ‘theology’).

There’s quite a lot condensed in there and there are some things I’ve chosen not to say. For example, you not find in that affirmation a statement of inerrancy or about authority. So let me try to unpack some of these.

The Chicago statement

One of the best known statements on the authority of scripture is the Chicago statement on biblical inerrancy. Drafted in 1978, it gained the backing of a number of well respected biblical scholars including Don Carson, Norman Geisler, Wayne Grudem, John Meyer, J.I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer and R.C. Sproul. What is most bizarre about the statement is that only applies to the original texts, none of which any person alive has ever seen and where it is extremely doubtful if they even exist any more. It doesn’t apply to copies of the texts (which we have) or to translations (which we have in our homes). It is, in effect, a statement of confidence about a series of objects where their content can only be inferred, and even then, not perfectly. Yet the idea of inerrancy necessitates the idea of being able to reconstruct the texts perfectly. If we can only have a “pretty good idea” what the original texts said, down to the nearest letter, then inerrancy is a non-starter.

The temptation of inerrancy

If the bible could be shown to be inerrant, then of course it would make things a lot simpler. There would be no need to wrestle with issues or to think things through for oneself. You could simply open up a book and know that it is flawless.

As such, the idea of inerrancy is one that is greatly tempting. It is a temptation that many fall into. Yet to do falls foul of one clause of what we speak of as the greatest commandment: to love God with all your mind. Statements of inerrancy are a wish fulfilment; a wish to not have to work for understanding.

Paul instructs the church at Thessalonica to “test everything, hold on to what is good”. What happens when we apply this to the bible itself? When tested, we find that one cannot claim the bible is inerrant and remain an honest person. As a simple test, read the book of Acts. You find there three accounts of Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus. Ask the question: did his companions hear a sound? Read the texts carefully and you will find self-contradiction within a single book. You may read much more widely and find discrepancies between books.

Authority of scripture?

The idea of ‘sola scriptura’ arose with the reformation as a reaction against catholicism, where tradition or the word of the pope were taken as authoritative. Scripture was relegated in importance and free reign was given for the catholic magisteria to make up whatever they wanted, hand that down, call it tradition and that became “orthodoxy”. It was from this approach that various aberrations sprung, including indulgences, papal infallibility, prostitute racing in the Vatican and transubstantiation.

Of course, a correction was needed.

Sola scriptura was what was formulated by the reformers as a kind of restorative simplicity. The trouble comes when you apply to the field of interpretation. There are few better examples of this than that demonstrated by Kevin DeYoung in the aforementioned work. In it, he claimed that scripture interpreted scripture and that since scripture was infallible then scripture’s own interpretation of scripture was also infallible. This is clearly an absurd circular argument, yet its adherents stick to it, because of their vice-like grip on the notion of infallibility. What ends up happening is that they shoe-horn in their own interpretation (which may or may not be correct) and defending it on the basis that it is scripture’s interpretation of itself.

Scripture, tradition and reason – an alternative trinity

Whenever the question of christian understanding crops up, there are 3 sources of information often cited: scripture, tradition and reason. How these three relate to one form the framework of many a person’s understanding. Some choose to emphasise one over the other two, two over the other one or they try to use all three equally.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I’m not the biggest fan of tradition in the world. It’s mainly because when it’s boiled down to its essence, it’s doing something because it’s something that’s been done before. It might sound all well and good to say that you are following in the same direction as esteemed women and men who have gone before us, but it rather breaks down if they’ve set off in the wrong direction.

So is reason the best way to go? Well it’s better than tradition, but if it is devoid of an evidential basis, then it just becomes stuff we make up. Some of it might be right, but there’s no proper way to tell. In this respect reason-in-a-vacuum is little different from the worst examples of mysticism.

So what’s the alternative?

Epistemology

When discussing the nature of the bible, the question of epistemology comes up very rarely. This is something I find both surprising and disappointing, as it seems to cut through a lot of the undergrowth created by the obsession with authority. Those who err on the conservative side of things have a tendency to treat the bible as a normative document, that which gives clear, reliable facts and instructions. At the more liberal end of the spectrum, there is the idea of the bible as formative, telling the story of God’s dealings with his people, often told parabolically. One should get the gist, but not get hung up too much on the details, particularly with regards to history.

I don’t wholly agree with either, but I think each has their merits. The person who anachronistically projects relatively modern standards of historiography onto the biblical authors, imagining them to have been the idealistic journalists of their day, detailing the facts in an impartial manner, is a fool. Such an approach gives rise to young earth creationism, an utterly defunct view that has done nothing to advance the proclamation of the gospel and has in fact given christians (including those who denounce such nonsense) a bad name.

To me the starting point of christianity has to be Jesus. Many have started off with the idea of “God” and many words are spilled before we even get onto Jesus. A very influential example that I’ve been reading about lately is Thomas Aquinas. His Summa Theologica begins with a lot of questions and talk of God, but scant all about Jesus, who is relegated to later parts of the book. This approach, adopted by many after Aquinas, can be called “Godianity” instead of “Christianity”. It is this parody that ends up as the target in so many critiques of the so-called “New Atheists“. The idea of God gets attacked, with Jesus barely getting a look-in.

But if we make Jesus the starting point of christian epistemology, then many of the critiques lose their focus. Instead, there is then either a resort to the Christ-myth hypothesis, which is in the same league of intellectualism as young earth creationism and homeopathy, or one has to undertake a serious engagement with Jesus. And how do we know about him? In the bible. One has to be able to read it critically, without the naivety of thinking the gospels are accounts that were documentary accounts, but such an approach shouldn’t allow for reading non-evident material into the texts. Though they may not be inerrant, they remain the earliest and most reliable evidence we have through which we understand the person, life, actions and deeds of Jesus. This understanding is then the lens that we put in our glasses, and through which we view the rest of the bible and the world.

This lens, though, can always be refined. By understanding the context of the time, religion, politics, geography, etc. in which Jesus’ story is told, we can better understand the hues and textures of the biblical story.

What then, of sola scriptura? If one gets stuck with the obsession over authority, then sola scriptura still stands, more or less. My proposal is that if we pull ourselves out of the mire of authority and instead go with epistemology, then biblical study becomes somewhat easier. There’s still hard work to do, and there is plenty in the bible to wrestle with, but I don’t agree with those who choose to ignore or simply argue around those aspects we find difficult, particularly in regards to the hot topics of today.

It might be argued that I’ve missed the point of sola scriptura, if one still thinks of the bible as the primary source of our epistemology, and that the key question is over who is allowed to interpret scripture. Here, I refer the reader to my idealistic view of theology, where church is informed by the theology of academia, but where academic theology is also informed by the life of the church, in a kind of virtuous circle. No person should be restricted from biblical interpretation, but it doesn’t mean that everyone’s view is necessarily right. It is a community matter to discern correct interpretation from false.

Conclusion?

How might this be summed up? Well, the bible is the starting point for our knowledge of the story of God acting in the world, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. From this start, we use whatever tools we can (be they reason, history, literature, sociology, etc) to try to understand it. If those conclusions, when tested, turn out to be good, they may be passed on and become something akin to a tradition, but we retain the right to constantly question received wisdom of ages past, nomatter how treasured they may be.

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What kind of evidence would you like?

There were two instances recently where the idea of evidence and epistemology came to the fore. I just wanted to explore my own thoughts on the matter and to find out what you think. The first came in an internet discussion which was raking over old ground of christianity v atheism. Someone had made the statement that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and I couldn’t resist the bait to jump in and correct their use of this logical fallacy.

The second was when I was at the Job Centre Plus and I was asked to provide “proof” of my savings. Those that know me will be aware that I am quite pedantic, especially when it comes to the semantic difference between proof and evidence. What they were really after was strong evidence since proof is so much more an exacting standard that is almost impossible to achieve outside of the platonic world of mathematics.

Without going into too much detail of each specific case, this got me thinking about what kind of evidence one accepts and how we compare that to what is available. In the case of christianity, the extraordinary claim at the heart of my belief is the resurrection of Jesus. Yet I am constantly told that this requires extraordinary evidence.  So, I ask, what kind of evidence would you accept? The event was a one-off and so the scientific paradigm (as much as I am in favour of it) doesn’t apply since you cannot repeat any experimentation under controlled conditions. Instead, we have to adopt the mindset of the historian, where we have to deal with the evidence as it stands. We cannot create evidence; all we can do is uncover that which already exists.

In the case of the jobseekers’ allowance (JSA), most of my savings are held in e-savings accounts. The reasons for this are compound, but one of these is that they use less paper since I don’t get statements through the post. I just log on to my online bank to see what the balances are. I offered to log on and demonstrate to the staff at the job centre how much I had in each account (I’m still not certain about the precise reason, but I won’t get JSA if they don’t know how much I have in my accounts) but they wouldn’t accept the evidence that existed and which I was willing to show them.

The interesting thing is that evidence only ever points to truths which already exist. The evidence only affects (or effects, even) our knowledge of those truths, it doesn’t create truth out of the void. In other words, the ontology is independent of the epistemology. While we would all surely love to have all the evidence we want to support or falsify our views in the exact format we would like, the universe isn’t really that simple.

There are instances where evidence is destroyed or lost which may lead us to areas of great uncertainty but which do not impinge on the truth (or otherwise) of whatever matter we are investigating. For example, we know very little about the contents of the ancient library of Alexandria, or the precise location of where Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Sometimes all the evidence we have is that of the eyewitnesses to an event.

It is often easier to dismiss an idea on the basis of it lacking the kind of evidence you would prefer than it is to undertake a serious examination of the evidence that exists. There is much said and written about the historicity of the christian claims, though of those I have read lately, the best are those by Tom Wright: Surprised by Hope (shorter and written at a very accessible level) and The Resurrection of the Son of God (longer and more detailed). To give a snippet, he states in the former “I do not claim…that I have ‘proved’ the resurrection I terms of some neutral standpoint. I am offering, rather a historical challenge to other explanations, and to the worldviews within which they gain their meaning….No other explanations have been offered, in two thousand years of sneering scepticism against the Christian witness, that can satisfactorily account for how the tomb came to be empty, how the disciples came to see Jesus, and how their lives and worldviews were transformed.”

When we lack definitive proof, as we do in 99% of all things, all we have to rely on is incomplete evidence. It is up to us individually to decide how we treat that evidence and what conclusions we may draw from it. My opinion is that we should maintain a healthy scepticism (here, my idea of scepticism differs a little from Wright) and that we should always consider the possibility that we might be wrong, no matter how much we might want something to be true (or untrue). This scepticism leads to an inevitable doubt about that which we hold dear to our hearts. But so long as that doubt leads to investigation and hopefully to increased knowledge, doubt is not a bad thing. If it leads to disbelief where we preclude possibilities then we are wilfully choosing to neglect our intellects; this, I do not agree with.

So those are my thoughts. What are yours?

How do you define a christian: Concluding remarks

This has been a brief overview of some of my thinking as to how we may define a christian. I’ve looked as self-definition, creeds & confessions, the sacraments as boundaries and a cocktail of beliefs.

Hopefully, if you’ve had the patience to read it all, you will have realised that I don’t have a definitive version of what defines a christian and what doesn’t. All I have done is looked at some of the ways in which christians have been defined and shown how they fall short of making a clear demarcation. What that leaves us with is a grey area, and quite a large one at that. Does that mean that there isn’t a definition? No; I don’t think so.

Lurking in the background to all this is of course, the No True Scotsman fallacy. For those unfamiliar with it, please follow the link above. To my mind, there is a difference between there not being a definition and for me as an individual being honest enough to say “I don’t know.”

The way I think of it is like this: The visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is quite narrow, but we can perceive multiple colours within that narrow range. We might very clearly say that an atheist is a radio wave or a Muslim may be an X-ray, they clearly aren’t in the visible light spectrum. When we look at ourselves, we are more inclined to say those in our own nearby vicinity are christians, and perceive those as being far away as being at least questionable. So you might say that I sit at the orange end and am happy to worship alongside the reds and yellows, but I’m not so sure about the purple lot. Meanwhile, those that I perceive as being merely purple are having a fight over whether they’re indigo or violet, whilst viewing me as being a long way from their beliefs and practices. Simply because there is a spectrum of belief within christianity doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a “true christian,” just as you can’t really uphold the idea that there’s no such thing as “visible light.”

Most importantly, I don’t think it is the job of any individual or any organisation to make a determination of who is and who isn’t a christian. The writer to the Hebrews said “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is also able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render account.” (Hebrews 4: 12,13). I’d rather let God decide. It’s a far better judge than I am. Each of the factors discussed in the parts of this series is, I think, a strong indicator, but any one of them alone is not sufficient to be able to tell apart who is a christian and who isn’t. Throughout this, I tried where possible (and probably failed) to distinguish between being discerning and being judgemental.

We are called to be discerning, but warned against judging others; it’s a fine line to tread and I know I get it wrong on plenty of occasions, just as I see others around me do the same (and yes, I will confess to judging people because they judge others).

I think I probably ought to call a halt to it there. So that’s an outline of my muddled thinking. Do you try and define who is and who isn’t a christian? Is it too thorny an issue? Do you think I’m a heretic that should be burned at the stake?

Book Review: The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper

I bought this book back in the spring, but had hesitated to read it. The reason for that is I found it quite intimidating, given the thickness of the spine. I will admit that the philosophy of science is something I have dabbled in only as an interested amateur though, of course, years of scientific training and discussions as a student have enabled me to reach (if you will allow me a moment of immodesty) a reasonably sophisticated understanding of my own view of science. Now, though, it seemed appropriate that I ought to look at what others have said.

Before reading this, I was aware that Popper’s views are not universally accepted and that he shared something of a professional rivalry with Bertrand Russell. Also, as a Christian, I find it interesting that I have seen Popper referenced far more by Christian scientists, whereas Russell tends to be more favoured by atheistic scientists. Of course, this is only a trend and there are exceptions. While Russell was a well-known opponent of Christianity, I was keen to learn more about what it is in their competing philosophies that has appealed to the different sets of scientists. So, of course, I will be following this up with some reading from Russell at some point, though if you have any good suggestions as to where to begin, I would be very grateful.

The book begins in a surprisingly accessible manner. I was expected some very high level philosophy that would be difficult to understand, but the translation is very easy to follow. Where he gets a little more obscure, he brings it back down-to-earth with examples that help to put his argument in context. I would describe the argument that Popper creates as being cumulative; that is, there are lots of references to earlier sections and, in particular, definitions. So you have to concentrate or else you can find yourself reading about “singular statements” and not know what he’s talking about if you haven’t followed it earlier.

For this reason, I would not recommend reading this book over a long period of time. I think it demands to be read quite intensively in as short a time as possible in order to ensure that one may follow it all.

The main thrust of Popper’s argument is to say that theories are never verified, they can only be falsified. He dismantles the positivist point of view which led to empiricism and shows that empiricism reduces to mere psychologism. From here, he then needs to discuss the degree of falsifiability. He considers a theory to be less likely the more ways it can possibly falsified. From here, what I think he should have done would then be to talk about corroboration and how a theory stands up to attempts to falsify it. Unfortunately, he leaves this to the end and instead goes off on a rather long and tortuous tangent talking about probability.

This quite long section was the downside for me, as his discussion (and in particular, notation) was quite obscurantist, making it difficult to follow and quite oblique. From here, he moves on to talk about quantum mechanics and in particular the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It has to be noted that this was written during the years that quantum theory was still being formed and, having a background in quantum mechanics myself, I found many of his ideas to be simply wrong. They are a noble attempt at getting to grips with quantum mechanics but ultimately, they have not stood up to subsequent theory and experiments. So in a weird twist, you could say that his argument in this aspect has been falsified.

This brings me to my last point. If his theory is to be thought of as a scientific theory at all, then it must play by its own rules. That is to say, there must be a set of singular statements from this theory that can, in principle at least, be subject to testing to see if they can be falsified. Such a set of statements is not presented to the reader, so I could only conclude that while Popper’s contribution is to be valued and considered, it doesn’t constitute a scientific theory. It remains an application of metaphysics.