The itch that inerrancy scratches

No one so far seems to have noticed that a theory of inerrancy based on felicity is setting the bar very low. Felicity is the null assumption for any communication and particularly for historical texts. If we find a papyrus letter from a Roman soldier stationed in Syria to his father in Egypt, written in Greek, we assume that he meant what he said in the body of the letter, that both he and his father spoke Greek, and that he really was stationed in Syria, and so on. You pretty much have to be living in George Smiley’s world, not to assume felicity in a text.

So whatever the itch is that inerrancy scratches, felicity doesn’t do it.

So what is that itch?

From where I sit it looks like this.

• People want to believe in the right thing.

• Truth is the guarantee that something is the right thing to believe.

• If the Bible is all true, then it must be the right thing (also vice versa).

• Besides, if the Bible is all true, then it’s a moral failing not to believe it, because it is a crucial operating assumption of our society that we agree to believe in everything that is true.

So the task becomes finding reasons to ascribe the abstract quality of truth to the Bible.

And that’s the misstep.

Looking for pre-existent truth runs afoul of almost all modern (and post-modern) thinking. Since Kant we have known, in one form or another, that the perceiver plays an important role in ascertaining what is true. In an even more interesting development of thought about epistemology the chemist turned philosopher, Michael Polanyi, in his book, Personal Knowledge, shows that, not only does judgment and art underlie received scientific fact, but even the society of thinkers on a topic plays an important role is determining what counts as true.

(If you doubt Polanyi’s point, just look around in theological circles.)

And what he’s talking about isn’t mere philosophy. He’s talking about the kind of science that has given us lots and lots of things we can (and do) trust every day of our lives. We drive cars and fly in airplanes. We buy foods at the store with confidence that they are safe and take medicines with the confidence that they will have the effect that the doctor wants. All of this is brought to us as the ultimate end product of assuming a platonistic world and invoking Aristotlean logic. All highly useful.

And I’m not willing to give up any of it.

But that doesn’t also mean that I have to apply low value understanding of truth to texts, if I know better.

It’s fine that we know that engineering works perfectly well on models of Newtonian physics, but that doesn’t obligate us to insist on Newtonian physics for all our thinking about physics in general.

The problem for us in the inerrancy discussion is that even if cutting edge thinkers for the last two centuries have given up on Plato and his belief in the pre-existence of reality, Euro-American society as a whole hasn’t. And that includes all the parts of Christianity that I’ve had contact with.

Most folks continue to believe that there is a large variety of absolute facts out in the world that are utterly independent of people. We, as a society, act as if our perceptions and categories were derivative of realities that exist independent of us and our society. And, believe me, if you live in a monolingual society dominated by a single culture, you can go a very long way believing this. We use the word true to ascribe trustworthiness to these assumed realities.

But then does this apply to text? and particularly to literature? Do texts have to be platonically true to be of interest?

Does Jane Austen suffer any because her texts are not true accounts of verifiable events?


When people say, “Fiction can be truer than fact.”, they mean exactly that. Good fiction can lay bare deeper truths about the way things are, often better than even the most factually accurate historical account. In history, we do not know what those people were thinking. At best we can infer. In fiction we can read their thoughts off the page.

Giving up on ascribing platonistic truth to Scripture actually allows us to stop imposing a double standard. As it is we not only think that truth implies a validity to imperatives — read commandments — we say that, or at least act like Matt. 5:30

If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. (NASB)

has a different validity than Matt. 5:43-44.

You have heard that it was said, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Matt. 5:43-44)

If you start with felicity, it forces you to admit that you have to look elsewhere to figure out such things.



But then it’s a mistake to think that there is anything about Christianity that is safe.

26 thoughts on “The itch that inerrancy scratches

  1. D. P. says:

    Richard, allow me to express a brief word of appreciation for you and the other contributors to Better Bibles Blog. This is one of the few blogs where I am challenged to see things differently just about every time I drop by.

  2. David Ker says:

    “Faith is an island in the setting sun. But truth is the bottom line for everyone.” -Paul Simon

    I wonder what felicity is?

  3. Alan Lenzi says:

    I’m assuming I am one of the people who have misunderstood your comments elsewhere, specifically the sort of existential or relational appeal that you make on Hobbins’ blog. (By the way, I was disappointed that you haven’t responded to my comment.) I must admit that although I understood the “felicity” post, this latest one has me scratching my head. Perhaps you’re too subtle for me. Despite not “getting” it all, I’m interested to see where you’re going with your reference to Polanyi here and especially the claim that “[g]iving up on ascribing platonistic truth to Scripture actually allows us to stop imposing a double standard.” I’d like to see you explain that a little more.

  4. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    I didn’t respond on John’s blog because I realized I’d have to go on for too long. This series is the response. (Shame on me that I haven’t gotten around to adding a note there pointing people here — a sin that I have now rectified.)

    Be a little patient. Because most church thinking is about a century behind, I’m parceling it out in tiny bits.

    Preview of things to come.

    As you hinted at in your comment, personal knowledge is at the core of my approach.

    None of this is particularly original with me. When I was in grad school, Ken Pike used to run around saying this all the time. It just took a serious encounter with some unorthodox orthodox Native American Christians 10 years later for me to get it.

    Well, OK. Pike wasn’t strong on the speech act theory part, and he won’t touch inerrancy with a 10 foot pole (presumably because of the Wycliffe implications), but he definitely was all over the non-platonic, personal knowledge part. (He also use to cite an obscure philosopher, Angus MacIntosh — or some such Scottish name — on the same topic, but it’s been 30 years and I haven’t yet tracked him down.)

  5. Alan Lenzi says:

    I’ll be patient.

    Re: Speech Act Theory. I used the idea of performative speech (from Austin but developed by others) to understand certain phrases in Mesopotamian incantations in a paper a while back. A colleague, actually at Berk., said he thought the idea was passé. But I’ve since seen “performative speech” utilized in a lot of different ritual/prayer type analysis. Is it out of style?

  6. Steve Cat says:

    I am very curious to see where this goes. I wonder, though, like an earlier poster said, Do we really understand what YOU mean by felicitous? Does it mean, did the people believe what they were saying whether it was the equivalent of scientific fact or not, vs the concept of God’s institution of the temple system and the tithe (possibly just self serving, or what the priests wanted/wished to believe was true). In other words is there a difference between what we believe is true and what we don’t know for sure but is most likely true (since they were just helping their fellows to free themselves of sin). OR is it still felicitous to the degree that they believed the priests, had “special” knowledge of God’s will and hence they actually believed it was true. Or one priest who knew it wasn’t true said it but the rest trusted his veracity. Sorry for the ramble.

    The first one is felicitous the last two may not be. Right?

  7. Peter Kirk says:

    Thanks for this series.

    Maybe I am saying here more or less what Steve Cat said…

    Felicity is indeed a low bar for a Bible text if referred to what the human author believed. In your 800 pound gorilla post you wrote:

    Truth is just a part of the special case of felicity for simple declaratives. If you say

    John came in at twelve last night.

    you must believe it to be true to be uttering it felicitously.

    Similarly, if the author of Genesis believed that the world was created in six 24-hour days, Genesis 1 is felicitous, even if in fact the process took billions of years.

    It is of course a different matter if felicity is referred to the omniscient God, understood as the divine author. If he wrote Genesis 1 and the earth is billions of years old, as he must know, either the text is not felicitous (because not true) or it does not imply six 24-hour days of creation.

    So we cannot separate this issue from discussions of inspiration and divine authorship.

  8. J. K. Gayle says:

    Rich, Elsewhere and previously you’ve accused me of wrongly calling you Aristotelian. And then I’ve got my own felicity problems with more recent things you write.

    viz. (my emphases added below)

    “All of this is brought to us as the ultimate end product of assuming a platonistic world and invoking Aristotlean logic. All highly useful.

    And I’m not willing to give up any of it.

    And I feel very bad for those who have to tell themselves that the weird 20th/21st century Euro-American notion of truth trumps all other ways of knowing what is true.”
    –Richard Rhodes,
    on the way of knowing he finds the trumping felicity.


    “A particular language, of a particular culture, in relation to a particular person with his [or her] particular history constitutes a particular theory for that person.

    Tagmemic theory is, in this respect, a theory of theories which tells how the observer universally affects the [observed] data and becomes part of the data. No wonder, therefore, that tagmemic theory cannot stop with confining its interest to mere language, but must view language in the broader context of the study of ordinary lay nonverbal behavior as well as in the context of that special language observer, the linguist.”
    –Ken Pike,
    on the all the untrumpable ways of knowing including those by lay people in the 21st century that one linguist calls “weird” as he pines for the singular felicity demanded by Aristotle and Plato whose formalism, as in pure mathematics and in idealized abstractions must be above “personal” knowledge, the kind that that linguist really wishes could, nonetheless, be “the core of [his] approach.”

  9. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    Is there really a professor here at Cal that thinks that speech act theory is passé? Has he/she talked to Searle recently? (His office is in 148 Moses Hall — honestly — Moses Hall.)

    I’ll admit that there are literary types who take half-baked versions of linguistic theory and try to make an intellectual niche out of it in the litcrit world, and in that context performative analysis may be passé, but real speech act theory is like phonology, morphology, or syntax. Never out of date. It’s absolutely fundamental to the way language works.

  10. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    Steve and Peter,
    This is where the next post is going. There’s human felicity (what the author thought about what he/she was writing) and what God was doing in inspiring the writing and inspiring the subsequent collection of writings into a single book. (Given the way the Bible came to be, inspiration sounds a little lofty, but I’ll have something to say about that later.)

    This is where the first piece of faith comes in, but it has to do with inspiration, not truth.

  11. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    We’re back to the guilt by association thing. Aristotle is bad. Therefore everything he said is bad.

    Aristotlean logic is useful — extremely useful. (I don’t suspect you are interested in walking away from any of the things of everyday life that engineering based on Aristotlean logic brings, either.)

    Logical rigor is not the enemy. Like almost any tool, it can be used for good or evil. If you only focus on its misuse, then you miss the point.

    Besides, since you’re such a fan of Pike, you must know that he, himself, was extremely theoretically eclectic. He’d take what was useful of others’ ideas and leave what wasn’t. (And was roundly criticized for inconsistency in just the ways you take me to task, but from the opposite side.)

    I’m much more in the Pikean tradition than you give me credit for — especially if construction grammar is, as I claim, the son of tagmemics.

    (BTW, I was sorry to see you quit blogging. I sure understand the time sink blogging can be. I’m ages behind on writing about language spread.)

  12. Steve Cat says:

    How do I rid myself of the pseudonym that came along with my google groups membership? I somehow feel less than as a Cat, dealing primarily with scholars.

  13. Wayne Leman says:

    Steve asked:

    How do I rid myself of the pseudonym that came along with my google groups membership?

    Steve, you can make that change in your Profile. Try clicking here to get to your Profile.

  14. Paul Larson says:

    Thank I tried that
    Well, lets see if the pseudonym is gone. The poster formally known as Steve Cat

  15. Alan Lenzi says:

    Rich, my colleague’s criticism of a paper I asked him to read went beyond my appeal to performatives and Speech Act Theory. But he did tell me he thought those ideas were passé.

    Now back to reading about the Assyrian siege ramp at Lachish for me. . . .

  16. J. K. Gayle says:

    Thank you for acknowledging Pike so much. I don’t give you enough credit for how Pikean you are. (Last week, Tom Headland graciously met with me in his office to talk of Pike and his tremendous work, especially as it impacts anthropology. Also met with a leading thinker in Relevance Theory, who started off our conversation by replying to me “Tagmemics? Now that’s a term I haven’t heard in a loooong time!”)

    Why is Pike so dead and Aristotle so alive? Yes, it’s all kinds of things by association. Guilt. certainly. and fear and shame. When Pike was with us, I remember how he talked about ideas, a person’s ideas, always in the context of that person and that person’s life. TG? Yep. we had to listen also about Chomsky, and not just his politics but also his worldview, if you will. Materialist anthropology. Of course, we get a lesson in Marvin Harris and in marxism motivating a person. It was tremendous stuff. Once I asked Pike about one of my heroes, Francis Schaeffer. The former recalled one little problem he had with the latter’s broad stroke approach; and with one brush stroke Pike himself did to Schaeffer what he thought Schaeffer did to others. It was a bit of a departure, I thought, from Pike’s usual approach to ideas. I also had the sense that Pike was distancing himself from his association with certain kinds of evangelical Christianity, “(presumably because of the Wycliffe implications)” as you put it.

    Anyway, the brilliance of the personal perspective is Pike’s strength. It’s Aristotle’s profound weakness. You remind me well that I dismiss the later for my own very personal reasons. Sometimes, however, I think certain epistemologies are nearly mutually exclusive. A seed can’t fall by the wayside at the same time as it’s planted deep between the well ploughed and well watered and aptly shaded furrows. But sidewalks (i.e., the wayside) are, in fact, good “tools” for some very good things–never mind who had his slaves of a different race make those sidewalks to his careful dimensions. I’m learning, Rich.

  17. J. K. Gayle says:

    One other thing (as if there really can be just “one” for us people):

    I appreciate your kind reply to me here, and that statement about my blogging! When things can get all “snarky” (to borrow an Iyov phrase), and you’ve noticed I’ve gotten that way too often, it’s refreshing to have some kindness every once in a while from someone of your intelligence and background. I do wish you the best too as you research, publish, and teach on language spread.

    so…one more comment:

  18. J. K. Gayle says:

    don’t intend to overwhelm here. But your “dangerous” conclusion in the post is most profound. I like how you place two “imperatives” side by side, the first hyperbolic and the second less hyperbolic but absolutely more demanding!

    So, what you get here is Augustine’s Confessions (excerpted to me this morning by my friend Daniel under his heading “many meanings”):



    27. … And our Master knew it well, for it was on these two commandments that he hung all the Law and the Prophets. And how would it harm me, O my God, thou Light of my eyes in secret, if while I am ardently confessing these things–since many different things may be understood from these words, all of which may be true–what harm would be done if I should interpret the meaning of the sacred writer differently from the way some other man interprets? Indeed, all of us who read are trying to trace out and understand what our author wished to convey; and since we believe that he speaks truly we dare not suppose that he has spoken anything that we either know or suppose to be false. Therefore, since every person tries to understand in the Holy Scripture what the writer understood, what harm is done if a man understands what thou, the Light of all truth-speaking minds, showest him to be true, although the author he reads did not understand this aspect of the truth even though he did understand the truth in a different meaning?


    36. … And I would have wished that those who are already able to do this would find fully contained in the laconic speech of thy servant whatever truths they had arrived at in their own thought; and if, in the light of the Truth, some other man saw some further meaning, that too would be found congruent to my words.


    43. Finally, O Lord–who art God and not flesh and blood–if any man sees anything less, can anything lie hid from “thy good Spirit” who shall “lead me into the land of uprightness,” Cf. Ps. 143:10. which thou thyself, through those words, wast revealing to future readers, even though he through whom they were spoken fixed on only one among the many interpretations that might have been found? And if this is so, let it be agreed that the meaning he saw is more exalted than the others. But to us, O Lord, either point out the same meaning or any other true one, as it pleases thee. Thus, whether thou makest known to us what thou madest known to that man of thine, or some other meaning by the agency of the same words, still do thou feed us and let error not deceive us. Behold, O Lord, my God, how much we have written concerning these few words–how much, indeed! What strength of mind, what length of time, would suffice for all thy books to be interpreted in this fashion? Allow me, therefore, in these concluding words to confess more briefly to thee and select some one, true, certain, and good sense that thou shalt inspire, although many meanings offer themselves and many indeed are possible. This is the faith of my confession, that if I could say what thy servant meant, that is truest and best, and for that I must strive. Yet if I do not succeed, may it be that I shall say at least what thy Truth wished to say to me through its words, just as it said what it wished to Moses.

  19. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    I have no trouble with seeing meanings in texts that the original author did not intend (or at least was not conscious of intending). Frankly, I think there’s a lot of that going around in the NT, esp. the Epistles.

    But the translator can’t get caught in that trap. That’s the one point at which the FE crowd comes close to being right. Translators have to stick as close to the first order meaning of the text as possible. (This has caused me no small amount of headache w.r.t. Ojibwe texts, where reproducing the effect on an English speaking audience that they have on an Ojibwe audience requires volumes of silence to be filled in.)

    On a totally different topic, in case there aren’t any jobs for male feminists with a focus on ancient Greek when you finish, there are probably some really interesting jobs for Vietnamese-English interpreters in Ho Chi Minh City. Check here.

  20. Peter Kirk says:

    Rich, there is something very strange about your link to jobs in Ho Chi Minh City. Perhaps it is valid only if you are already logged in. I myself am not looking for that kind of job, but if you come across jobs for Azerbaijani-English translators please let me know!

  21. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    It’s from the San Jose Mercury News (the main paper in Silicon Valley). They seem to have moved the story from the front page to the business section. Try here. If that doesn’t work the home page is here, and they have a video clip.

    I should get you in contact with my former student from Tehran (living in the US for 30 years) whose native languages include what he calls Azeri. I kept trying to get him to work on it, but he was only interested in Farsi and English. He did, however, have this interesting anecdote that when he left Iran for the first time, he flew through Istanbul and was blown away by the fact that he could understand everything they said. No one in Iran had ever let on that Azeri and Turkish are very close.

  22. J. K. Gayle says:

    Translators have to stick as close to the first order meaning of the text as possible….

    On a totally different topic, in case there aren’t any jobs for male feminists with a focus on ancient Greek when you finish, there are probably some really interesting jobs for Vietnamese-English interpreters in Ho Chi Minh City.

    Rich, as fun and as funny as that it, the topic can be the same.

    example 1: I’ve done matched-guise techniques in VN and in the USA, hiring an actor who speaks in different English lects (which I record and play back to listeners for response). You know the technique: the listeners think that the voices are of different people because the phonology, the syntax, and the lexicon of the lects vary; and the listeners respond by identifying “where the speaker is from” and by rating the “speaker” on likert scales. What’s revealed to me the researcher (especially during the late 1980s when VN was sending govt officials to India for English learning) is there are profound attitudes, preferences and prejudices around various English lects (that don’t accord very well with the official move). Most VN officials learning English stated officially (on my direct questionnaire) that they preferred to learn Indian English or were ambivalent about whether their teachers were best from India, Australia, England, or America. But, in fact, the responses revealed different deep beliefs. (In my US research, international students from former British colonies almost invariably say on the direct questionnaire “The best English is spoken in England”; but the speaker correctly identified as “American” gets much much higher ratings for status, for solidarity, and for competence in teaching English, than does the speaker correctly identified as “British.”)

    There sometimes in us a disjuncture between what we say and what our behaviors show we might otherwise intend. I’m not just talking about what Jesus’s translators intended when they said he called the Pharisees “hypocrites.” There’s an awful example of muddled first and second order intentions in Deuteronomy 28:56-57. And the one I’ve brought up before that you pounced on is God’s translation of Joseph’s brothers’ intentions (Genesis 50:20); related is Joseph’s brothers reading into his intentions, not what he “first” intended, but what he concedes he intends (Genesis 37:8).

    Don’t want to muddle this too much with theology, with hermeneutics, with “first order exegesis.” We can stick with the “text” and with “linguistics.” One point here is that authors and speakers do not always intend one thing; they actually may have contradictory intentions; and they might concede after the utterance that their intention has irreversibly evolved.

    example 2. one of my siblings, when we were growing up speaking VN and English would not only do the code mixing thing but would actually invent language. He’d make these VN puns that only English speakers could get. But the English speakers also had to be speakers of VN as well. You tell me what he intended! And if we were to translate what he said in VN into English, well then. Who cares then what he intended. The funny punny stuff reduces to a technical explanation that puts us all to sleep.

    example 3. What do I intend by “feminism” even as a male? Some of you seem very offended by my use of that word. That’s hardly what I intend, but I know I know I know there’s the baggage. So whose first order do we use?

  23. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    You’ve certainly listed all the trouble spots. That’s exactly why I once called translation a kind of triage. But my point is not that there aren’t problems, but that the number of such problems is low in most texts and is particularly low in the NT. The biggest questions are not about cases like Philemon, but about cases like καθέδρα which are bridge cases between first order meanings (here ‘chair’) and second order meanings (here ‘authority’). My argument was that in at least some of these cases the old second order meaning is so salient that it has become tantamount to a first order meaning.

    I’m also very interested in your results about the perceived and and actual status of British and American English speakers. One of the big conundrums in language spread is when languages or forms of languages associated with cultural prestige are different from those associated with economic strength. (Most often these things go together.) We haven’t figured out how to tell which one wins. I have a paper coming out later this year that touches on how the economically more vital Saulteaux is spreading at the expense of the culturally more prestigious Plains Cree and how this is reflected in the Métchif speaking community that is dispersed throughout the affected area.

    Sorry about my knee-jerk reaction to feminism. I have not had good interactions with most feminists whose path I have crossed, and a lot of it is what you have elsewhere called “bad” feminism, where the underlying order stays the same except that women replace men in positions of power — and do all the nasty things that they decry when men do them.

  24. Peter Kirk says:

    Kurk, of course “The best English is spoken in England”. Did anyone ever doubt it?

    But in answer to Rich as well as you, I remember an amusing incident about Iranian Azerbaijani relative to the variety spoken in Baku, in the former Soviet republic. Some Christian material had been recorded by an Iranian speaker and was being tested with Christians in Baku. They were told in advance that this was Christian material recorded by a Christian. When they heard it they understood it clearly, but immediately rejected it as Islamic propaganda which would never be acceptable in Baku. The reason was of course that the Iranian accent was strongly and negatively associated in their minds with Islamic materials which they had heard.

  25. J. K. Gayle says:

    of course “The best English is spoken in England”. Did anyone ever doubt it?
    Isn’t this why Jesus nearly always speaks British English in the films?

    One of the big conundrums in language spread is when languages or forms of languages associated with cultural prestige are different from those associated with economic strength. (Most often these things go together.) We haven’t figured out how to tell which one wins. I have a paper coming out later this year that touches on how the economically more vital Saulteaux is spreading at the expense of the culturally more prestigious Plains Cree and how this is reflected in the Métchif speaking community
    The late Marvin Harris (of “emic / etic” vs Pike infamy) may have an answer? But it wouldn’t satisfy nonmaterialists. Your work sounds fascinating and very very useful.

    Thanks for the comment on feminism. For me, this does go back to body and language (which I just indirectly blogged on here.)

    This morning I read Mark 8, and in verse 2, the author has Jesus saying in Greek translation: “σπλαγχνίζομαι.” First order: “my guts are feeling this” This is like your καθέδρα question.

    If we abstract that in English translation to a second order (“I have compassion”), then I fall asleep as a reader. Something deeper (pardon the joke) is going on here in Jesus. He’s having (at least according to Mark) a visceral reaction. Who cares if what Mark says Jesus say is “literal.” It’s messy sloppy language stuff for the speaker, for the writer translator, for the listener, and for us readers in Greek or in any other translated language. The meanings fly all over the place. (And I confessed to Peter elsewhere, see the comments, that I the translator was trying to tidy things up in the body. Why should I?)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s