Wednesday, April 29, 2009

James McGrath, boiled down and distilled

After many days of trying to get James McGrath to just give me a rundown of how we can know about God and how to live, he finally, seemingly inadvertently, tipped his hand yesterday. I don't honestly know what has taken him so long.
Take a look here:
Rhology is persuaded that there must be a source that can provide absolute certainty about a number of important matters. Some of us are not so persuaded. And so where does that leave us? It means that we'll inevitably be wrong about some things, and uncertain about some things - and that we'll inevitably feel certain about some things that it turns out we were wrong about.

The interesting thing is that this doesn't differ as much as might first seem to be the case from Rhology's own situation, in which, even if there is an inerrant text, the question of how one interprets it, which Scriptures one starts with when "interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture", as well as our own human propensity for self-delusion, means that even if we had such an absolute authoritative source, we would presumably nonetheless have significant disagreements. The variations among groups that claim to hold the Bible as inerrant or at least infallible provides evidence for this.

Anyway, to put it in a nutshell, those of us who are not persuaded that we have an inerrant text that speaks to us without interference on the part of the human authors, seek to do the best with what we have, using Scripture, tradition, reason, wise advice, scientific evidence, and any other source of information that seems relevant. And sometimes, even with the best of intentions and the best of data, we get things wrong.

I understand why this viewpoint can be so terrifying that some feel the need to flee it, denounce it, attack it and avoid it. And I think James Fowler's notion of "stages of faith" helps shed light on the psychological and emotional aspects of this topic, and why many of those who've been part of this conversation are unable to persuade one another that they are right.

After all I've just written, I'll end with this disclaimer: As far as what I've just written is concerned...I could be wrong. (emphasis original)
Let's take a few points out and see where they lead us.

-It means that we'll inevitably be wrong about some things, and uncertain about some things

Translation - it means that Rhology and his ilk will be wrong about some things, particularly the things that they hold to be really important and that serve as defintional of their position, like inerrancy and the substitutionary atonement of Christ. We will also be wrong about some things, but not important or definitional things. So we could be wrong about how many carbon credits to assign to turning off one's lights for an additional hour per night or how much it is justifiable to charge for a John Dominic Crossan anthology at one's university bookstore. We are NOT wrong, however, about such things as the fact that Rhology and his ilk are wrong in at least some of their definitional doctrines. Nor are we wrong that we'll inevitably be wrong about some things and uncertain about some things. That is certain.


-and that we'll inevitably feel certain about some things that it turns out we were wrong about.

See above.
Will he extend the same grace to my ilk and me? Perhaps, perhaps not. I know many of his commenters would be less than willing to do so, but he's often been more conciliatory than they.



-the question of how one interprets (the Scripture)...as well as our own human propensity for self-delusion, means that even if we had such an absolute authoritative source, we would presumably nonetheless have significant disagreements. The variations among groups that claim to hold the Bible as inerrant or at least infallible provides evidence for this.


1) And what is Dr McGrath's argument that this is the fault of the Bible?
2) How does this matter on the question of inerrancy?
3) Dr McGrath conveniently forgets that the Bible predicts this very thing, that a believer will have to use his discernment and his knowledge of and relationship with God to discern between false and true teaching.
4) Further, we will see in a moment his source of spiritual epistemology, and it does far worse on this score of internal unity. What do I mean? This is the very same argument we use in disputes with Romanists and Eastern Orthodox, who claim that Sola Scriptura is a "blueprint for anarchy", while Sola Ecclesia, the living voice of the church as effectual authority over the Scripture, produces unity. Comparing apples to apples, however, we see that such is not the case.
Who actually believes in inerrancy, or Sola Scriptura? Many but not all Baptists, Assemblies of God, charismatics, Presbys, Lutherans, Church of Christ, a few Methodists, and I'm sure there are a few I've left out. Now, do we all agree on everything? Of course not. Are we all Trinitarians, though? United in our Christology? Our authority? Monotheists? Think baptism is an obligation for a believer? Necessity of Jesus' salvific work for salvation from sin? That the Holy Spirit is at work today in the world and the church? See what I'm getting at?
Now, let's compare McGrath's spiritual epistemology, namely:
"seek to do the best with what we have, using Scripture, tradition, reason, wise advice, scientific evidence, and any other source of information that seems relevant"

Hmm, who falls under this umbrella? Unitarian Universalists, Congregationalists, United Church of Christ, agnostics, some atheists, some Presbys, some Baptists, some Methodists, some Lutherans, New Age, Jehovah's Witnesses, some Roman Catholics, some Eastern Orthodox, Wiccans, Buddhists, Japanese Shinto-Buddhist agnostics (aka 98% of the population of Japan), etc.
In what beliefs are these folks united? Trinitarians? Um, no. Monotheists? No. Christology? What the heck is that? Authority? Baptism? Sin? God as personal?
An emphatic No to all of these.

So, exactly where does Dr McGrath get off advocating his ideas on this basis?


-those of us who are not persuaded that we have an inerrant text that speaks to us without interference on the part of the human authors, seek to do the best with what we have, using Scripture, tradition, reason, wise advice, scientific evidence, and any other source of information that seems relevant.

This is my favorite quote from his comment.
Now, let's focus a bit. We're trying to figure out a source for spiritual authority, to tell us what we SHOULD believe. I say it's the Bible. He says it's not b/c it's errant. So what does he want to put in its place? Let's take 'em one by one.

1) Scripture.
Errant, human Scripture. By which he no doubt means "the parts of Scripture that I baselessly believe are not errant". As I've asked many times before (in this very combox, even), how is the Scripture any guide or authority when YOU decide the subset of what is to be followed and believed among the set of all its contents? He has never attempted to answer that.

2) tradition.
Even more errant, even more human tradition.
Whose tradition? Mine? His? Buddhist? Mormon? Branch Davidian? Moonie? Some obscene, bastard mix of many? Which elements, since they all contradict at numerous points? How is this at all useful to the seeker of actual truth?
Never mind the fact that Jesus commanded us to submit all human tradition to Scripture in Mark 7:1-13.

3) Reason.
How precisely does reason tell us what we OUGHT to do? Is he unfamiliar with the famous Hume's guillotine, sometimes known as the naturalistic fallacy (which is related but apparently not the same)? How does reason tell us the OUGHT?

4) Wise advice.
See #2 and 3.

5) Scientific evidence.
See #3.
Further, this is a significant category error. We're talking SPIRITUAL epistemology, in the metaphysical. How does science, which can only deal in the empirical, give us any significant information about the metaphysical?

6) Any other source of information that seems relevant.
This is why I said in an earlier post the following, which bears repeating here:

One of their fundamental problems is their backhanded ethnocentrism. You will no doubt swear up and down that it's actually those awful fundies who are racist, but wait a second. Our message, from the Bible, remains consistent. We call ALL people to repent and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ, b/c ALL people are equally filthy and equally dead in their sins. You want this squishy "community" wherein people are able to "express themselves", but you only want some of that. You won't include the conservative Reformed person like me. You won't include the unrepentant jihadist or the Hindu church bomber, or the loner, or the repentant homosexual who is now happily married to a woman and has 4 kids and wants to help others to leave the homosexual lifestyle, or the sociopath, or the wife-beater. And you know what? There are an awful lot of people like that out there. They are sinners. We are sinners. We need a Savior. Our problem is not that we need community. Our problem is that we are sinful.

One of the points of that is that humans are wildly inconsistent and don't agree on much of anythg, but you naively make humans your yardstick. This boils down to nothing more than happy-happy subjective relativism, and it will fail you in the hard (or even moderately difficult) cases. Ground your morality in humans? What do you tell the guy who wants to murder you? You can't say it's morally wrong to do so! You might tell him it's wrong FOR YOU, but maybe it's perfectly right for him!

16 comments:

James Pate said...

I wouldn't put Jehovah's Witnesses in the "liberal" category. They see the Bible as inerrant. They just arrive at unorthodox conclusions.

Rhology said...

I agree, for most of the JWs.
I wasn't putting them in the "liberal" category so much as putting them in the Scripture + tradition + ___ + ___ category.

Does that make sense?
(I just realised I also neglected to include Jews in there, but oh well.)

James Pate said...

Yeah, but if you asked most JWs, they'd put most Christians in the Scripture+tradition category. They see things like the trinity, everlasting torment, Christmas, etc. as man-made traditions, while they're the true Sola Scriptura people (in their eyes).

Rhology said...

They'd be wrong to do so b/c the Christian would be taking those things (according to him) OUT OF the text.
Ask any JW if they are free to come to a conclusion about biblical teaching that's contrary to what the Watchtower teaches. That's what I mean.

James Pate said...

But they'd equate Watchtower doctrine with what the Bible teaches.

I think both JWs and evangelicals differ on scriptural interpretation, not so much on the doctrine of scriptural infallibility or sola scriptura. For example, JWs wouldn't say the passages about Jesus being God are wrong while their tradition is right. They'd say the passages aren't saying Jesus is God. At least that's my impression, based on what I've read and interactions. Yours may be different.

davidbmclaughlin.com said...

mcgrath's source of authority is mcgrath.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

David B. McLaughlin: "mcgrath's source of authority is mcgrath."Sam Norton, Anglican Priest, thinks that is how it should be as revealed in this most remarkable comment of his:

"More than this, Jesus several times gives the disciples authority to make their own decisions about sin - in other words we have the authority to decide what is a sin and what is not a sin."

"[W]e have the authority to decide what is a sin and what is not a sin.""[W]e have the authority to decide what is a sin and what is not a sin.""[W]e have the authority to decide what is a sin and what is not a sin."Not God's Word.

Rhology said...

James Pate,

True, but if you ask the right questions, JWs will often say straight up that they can't come to an interp of Scr that's diff from Watchtower-issued doctrine. It's sad to watch, really, and I mean that with all sincerity.

Also, if you watch what the Watchtower itself actually says, there's quite a difference between that and what Joe JW on a Saturday morning will say.


D-MC,

150% correct.
That's why I've been interacting with him - he can do his thing if he wants, but seriously, don't call yourself a Christian and don't for Pete's sake teach a Christian Sunday School class! His pastor is a joke, and that's too bad.


TUaD,

I suppose if I see a hot girl walk by on a dark street, I can rape her if I want to and think I can get away with it (getting away with it is optional, of course), and just decide it's not a sin. One hopes he wouldn't be so gauche as to point to OT "atrocities" as reasons we shouldn't trust the Bible...

James Pate said...

What you say about Watchtower vs. Joe-JW reminds me of Herbert Armstrong. To those who were outside of the church, he said, "Don't believe me, believe your Bible." To those inside of the church, however, he explicitly repudiated that rule. After all, it was God's true church!

Rhology said...

That phenomenon is all too common, sadly. Come Lord Jesus!

I'm happy, however, to report that such is not the case at my church. And I do recognise how rare that is, again, sadly.

Anonymous said...

Your line of argument will not convince anyone who disagrees with you. Just to let you know, so you don't waste too much of your time.

What you don't seem to understand is that your opponents don't believe that the bible is errant triumphantly, they don't believe it as good news, they don't believe it as a source of strength, and your understanding this belief as self-serving is uncharitable and misguided. If you assume that your opponent only holds thier view because of thier special self-deluded depravity (over and above the depravity we all have) you'll never understand them, and can never convince them or (horrors!) learn from them.

The alternatives to inerrancy of using errant scripture (note that this is still likely #1! You likely both consider scripture #1 in priority, how big a priority is this?), tradition, reason, et al is a burden and a tough alternative to an easy to follow inerrant scripture.

Your opponents don't start from "We hope scripture has errors in it", its a way of dealing with the realization that they cannot see scripture as inerrant anymore.

The only way to convince them is by dealing with what they see as errors, not telling them that thier alternatives are worthless. You don't come around and say: Scripture is inerrant because the alternative is meaningless! They recognize that is putting the cart before the horse! That reasoning can lead to ANY text that claims inerrancy. If its true or not doesn't matter, your argument can't convince them.

So my advice is, if you want to fight this fight: fight the arguments of actual errancy, not waste breath on logical reasons why you think the bible must be inerrant.

There is no benefit to that: you can only argue with them why specific things stated in the bible are not true or false. When there is a disagreement, you can ask: what is the source of disagreement, and why would a non-biblical argument be more trustworthy than the bible here? Sorry if that requires discussion, listening, and humility: but there you are.

Rhology said...

???

they don't believe it as good newsMcG and Reitan SAY they do. I'm not talking to atheists here.


Your opponents don't start from "We hope scripture has errors in it"So now I *DID* represent them correctly, eh?
Didn't say they did, necessarily. But to presuppose that OR to conclude it is the same error and carries the same problems.



The only way to convince them is by dealing with what they see as errors, not telling them that thier alternatives are worthlessI disagree. I believe they have an antipathy to the idea of inerrant Scr for various sinful reasons. The answers to these "errors" are easy to find. Either they're very sloppy readers or they have presupps that won't allow them to see the truth.


That reasoning can lead to ANY text that claims inerrancy. Like which one(s) precisely? Walk carefully here.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

James McGrath, boiled down and distilled,... is not a Christian...

according to the inerrant Word of God.

Anonymous said...

But to presuppose that OR to conclude it is the same error and carries the same problems.Maybe the problems are the same, but it changes how you need to approach the issue in discussion.

Not to argue by analogy, but to make a simple example: When someone says "I like to eat steak, but I'm not hungry right now so I won't eat it" and you think they should eat, you don't say "Why do you hate steak?" You say "Why aren't you hungy?"

I believe they have an antipathy to the idea of inerrant Scr for various sinful reasons.Walk humbly here sir, and watch out for that log. This attitude makes a dialog impossible. Of course your opponents fall into the same trap. There's just no point in you both inheriting the wind.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Rhology.

I don't care much about your rantings, however it is a nice sunny morning here at Kikaijima :)

- Minoru. (Visiting for the third time)

Rhology said...

Ah Minoru,

Making me jealous, man. Thanks for dropping by.