Posted: Oct 01, 2013 11:34 pm
by Byron
Thanks to Will for his rebuttal, and in particular, for raising the issue of different models of biblical authority.

I introduce my own rebuttal by arguing that these are beside the point, a claim illustrated by highlighting theological evasiveness, after which, I jump back to a less evasive time to argue that Christianity's reluctance to be pinned down is evidence of biblical authority's failure, which leads into a look at how moderate Christians misuse biblical criticism, before I conclude by noting, briefly, why any attempt to rationally defend supernatural biblical reliability is doomed.


In attempting to salvage biblical authority, Will takes two approaches: a No True Scotsman attempt to argue that biblical authority has been misunderstood; and an attempt to redefine it into something rational. I admire Will's inventiveness, but, given the irrational nature of the thing he's defending, it was bound to fail. The superficial appeal of both fails to compensate for their baselessness. Neither rebuts my core argument: biblical authority is an example of the authority fallacy, and the concept of supernatural biblical reliability rests on this fallacious base. Will's arguments are articulate and informed, but they do not fix that core problem, because it cannot be fixed.

Purple Haze: Bishops and their Masks

Will has quoted N.T. "Tom" Wright, conservative evangelical, theologian, bishop in the Anglican church, a man so thoroughly post modern that he has two names, depending on the audience. Wright is a master of being all things to all people, and evasiveness is a skill that's essential to this politician's art. Inevitably, the mask on occasion slips, and Wright is pinned down. When this happens, when the ecclesiastical and academic bling are stripped away, Wright is exposed as yet another naked emperor, who misuses his intelligence to defend received opinion instead of to challenge it, a betrayal of the most basic tenet of academia, the imperative to follow the evidence where its leads. Wright is a man enslaved by dogma. If he had an original thought it would die of loneliness.

In a 1989 lecture*, Wright lays out his case for "story authority," and appropriately for a dogmatist, it hasn't changed since. He summarizes his argument thus:-

I have argued that the notion of the "authority of scripture" is a shorthand expression for God's authority, exercised somehow through scripture; that scripture must be allowed to be itself in exercising its authority, and not be turned into something else which might fit better into what the church, or the world, might have thought its "authority" should look like; that it is therefore the meaning of "authority" itself, not that of scripture, that is the unknown in the equation, and that when this unknown is discovered it challenges head on the various notions and practices of authority endemic in the world and, alas, in the church also.

What does this mean, especially in practice?

Professionally evasive Wright may be, but a 2004 interview** with the National Catholic Reporter pinned him down. After several dodges, Wright was forced to admit, in response to the question So a Christian morality faithful to scripture cannot approve of homosexual conduct?, "Correct. That is consonant with what I've said and written elsewhere." One of those dodges says it all: Wright said, after dismissing attempts to use context to explain away Paul's anti-gay verses,
What can you still say, of course, and many people do, is that, "Paul says x and I say y." That's an option that many in the church take on many issues. When we actually find out what Paul said, some say, "Fine, and I disagree with him." That raises all kinds of other issues about how the authority of scripture actually works in the church, and at what point the authority structure of scripture-tradition-reason actually kicks in.

And there you have it. Yet again. Behind Wright's certificates and purple is the primitive, fallacious bleat of every thug, every incompetent boss and parent who ever lived: "Because-I-say-so." Threat over reason. That most brutal of fallacies, argumentum ad baculum, appeal to the cudgel. Wright condemns homosexual copulation in all circumstances because the Bible tells him to. As noted in my opening, Paul of Tarsus doesn't explain why homosexual lovemaking is wrong, he asserts it. Wright is left constructing a justification involving Genesis and marriage to fill in the gaps of his sacred text. The Bible is silent.

It's a strange revelation that doesn't reveal.

Interestingly, Wright isn't half as eager to apply the biblical prohibition on women holding authority. That old-time chutzpah is at its most brazen as Wright argues that Paul -- or rather, whoever forged his lines in 1st Timothy -- argued the opposite of what he appears to argue. What pro-gay Christians do to "save" the Bible from homophobia, Wright does to save it from patriarchy. The eisegesis is so blatant that Wright feels obliged to cover his ample rump: "I fully acknowledge that the very different reading I'm going to suggest may sound to begin with as though I'm simply trying to make things easier, to tailor this bit of Paul to fit our culture. But there is good, solid scholarship behind what I'm going to say, and I genuinely believe it may be the right interpretation." *** Whatever you say, "Tom," whatever you say.

Will contrasts the "because the Bible says so, it must be so" pastor with the theologian, but they're one and the same. At least the pastor is honest about what he's doing, and doesn't cloak his authoritarianism in jargon and spin. Both the academic and the pastor cherry-pick the Bible, empowering themselves, not the text. Wright wants women to be equal, and for whatever reason, doesn't feel the same about gay people, so he uses the authority of scripture to inject his personal opinions with the power of God.

It was never meant to go down like this. The Reformation wasn't supposed to lead to thousands of factions bombarding one another with their take on the truth. The fact that it has just goes to show how wrong and irrational the original idea was.

By Scripture Alone?

Will draws a distinction between sola scriptura and biblical authority, but the difference is in emphasis, not in kind. Whether the authoritarianism is rooted in a book, or in a combination of a book and the church, its fallacious because-I-say-so basis remains.

The 16th century reformers who advocated sola scriptura didn't even advocate what the name suggests. They recognized the need for an external authoritative agent to aid in the interpretation of scripture. The reformer and translator William Tyndale railed in The Obedience of a Christian Man "... but that every man take the scripture, and learn by himself. Nay, verily, so say I not," but rather, "if any man thirst for the truth, and read the scripture by himself, desiring God to open the door of knowledge unto him, God for his truth's sake will and must teach him." In other words, the supernatural power of God will point the reader towards the truth. This is the "plain meaning of scripture" on which protestantism is based. After a preacher has spoken this biblical truth, says Tyndale, "then shall the Spirit of God work with thy preaching, and make them feel." As Paul of Tarsus believed the Spirit of God transmitted knowledge of right and wrong into the minds of those who were in Christ, so Tyndale believed that God would upload the truth into the faithful. It was all so simple.

Of course, the meaning of the Bible isn't at all plain, at least when you attempt to make it consistent, and protestantism made schism into an art form rivaled only by Marxist sects. Dogma slams into reality. The godless materialists and the devout refuse to compromise over one jot or tittle of their holy writ, and try to remake the facts to fit their views, whether by pretending that the Bible doesn't endorse patriarchy, or by pretending that it's a reliable text that harmonizes across the centuries of its composition.

This schismatic chaos is avoided by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, but only by adding an additional layer of discipline and authority, whether the magisterium, or ancient church councils. They exalt scripture as much as any protestant. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "God is the author of Sacred Scripture because he inspired its human authors; he acts in them and by means of them. He thus gives assurance that their writings teach without error his saving truth."

William Tyndale, for all his naiveté, at least spoke plainly. Wright, along with Rowan Williams, the donnish archbishop who raised him to the purple, equivocates and obscures, but behind the obscurantism, nothing has changed. The Bible says so. Therefore, it must be so. End of debate.

Williams prattled on about "painstaking exegesis" as the only way in which the Anglican communion could end its persecution of gay people who refuse to suppress their sexuality and live a life of self-hating loneliness and frustration.**** In other words, as Wright did with the patriarchal verses, Williams wants to do with the homophobic ones. What they refuse to countenance is the alternative that cleaves the Gordian Knot.

The Bible is wrong.

As Wright put it, "Paul says x and I say y." As for the church's "authority structure of scripture-tradition-reason," let it burn, it doesn't affect the likes of Wright or Williams personally as they sit, patrician and complacent, over the human suffering that their policies inflict. Policies that are as irrational as they are cruel, policies rooted in the idea that "because-I-say-so" is a legitimate form of argument, instead of what it is, the abandonment of argument and the embrace of force.

Critically Uncritical

Tasked with the defense of an indefensible proposition -- that the Bible is reliable -- Will sacrifices internal coherence on the altar of his case:-

So understanding the Bible is a key component to understanding the rationality of Biblical authority. Blindly accepting Biblical authority or the text is fallacious as is the blind acceptance of anything in any field. But applying critical scholarship to the text and then applying that critical scholarship to one's life is far from fallacious, it is logical and rational.

This is a smart move, but its cleverness can't overcome its incoherence. Will's premise -- truth-finding via critical scholarship -- is incompatible with his conclusion -- the Bible is revealed truth. Inductive reasoning is absent, and the argument tumbles into the chasm between premise and conclusion, vanishing into the depths.

Biblical reliability is premised on the idea that scripture is God-revealed truth; critical thinking, on our ability to discover truth for ourselves. Inherent to the revelation model is the claim that we can't find truth unless God gives it to us.

Will attempts to reconcile two irreconcilable propositions: the Bible is a reliable and authoritative document; and also subject to all the flaws inherent to being a human creation. The propositions are at war, as reason and authoritarianism are at war, as revelation and discovery are at war.

Textual criticism is devastating to claims of biblical reliability. It's found that swathes of the Bible aren't written by their claimed authors: the Pentateuch isn't the work of Moses, but a compilation of sources; the gospels are anonymous and copy one another; half of Paul's letters are forged, as are the New Testament letters in the names of Simon Peter and John.

The "moderate" Christian position that Will echos says, in effect, "Hey, you're right, the Bible is a mess, but it doesn't matter, it's still the Word of the Lord." It's a doctrine of denial, that accepts the evidence, but refuses to accept its implications. It's not rationality: it's closeted dogmatism. It seeks to preserve the structure without its foundations. Yes, it says, scripture is full of forgery (or "pseudepigrapha" as biblical forgery is couched in disingenuous pseudo-neutrality) and inaccuracy, but it's still special and inspired by God. It just needs to be understood in context and with study, study, conveniently, by learned folks like us. "Painstaking exegesis" ahoy. In this incoherent schema, flawless revelation is unearthed by flawed human reasoning. The method is incompatible with its purpose. Behind this nonsensical academic gloss, interpreters are here again empowered in the name of their holy book.

Time was that orthodox Christianity would have burnt the lot of 'em as heretics for denying the inspiration of scripture. It's only when Christendom's power waned, and the evidence piled up, that Christianity, grudgingly, shifted to allow for the "moderate" position. The church was forced to acknowledge evidence that contradicted its claims. Was forced to adopt the opposition's terms, but, being dogmatic, refused to jettison its authoritarianism as a result.

So we have this shining example of the golden mean fallacy: the canon of scripture bears all the hallmarks of being a flawed human creation; but is in fact the inspired Word of the Lord. Just as the eucharistic elements bear all the hallmarks of being bread and wine, but are in fact the body and blood of Christ. The substance changes although the appearance remains. There is no evidence, no reason: you believe this claim on faith.

You believe because we tell you to believe.


Will's choice of arguments serve to concede this section of the debate.

He hasn't attempted to defend the concept of supernatural reliability for the canon of scripture, nor has he shown how its basis, biblical authority, is not an example of the authority fallacy. Instead, he has produced a hodgepodge of liberal theology and orthodox Christianity, a premise at-odds with its conclusion, and attempted to define his way out of the problem, rendering "biblical authority" so vague as to be meaningless.

Will has done this because he's a rational person tasked with defending an irrational cause. His rebuttal has produced an inventive argument, but it's an argument that's incoherent at best, irrational at worst. When Will employs reason, it bounces off its target like a ball slamming into glass, its merits serving only to show the irrationality of the thing being defended.

Will cannot get to the supernatural reliability of scripture from a rational premise, despite his best efforts. The reason is, as ever, no reflection on him. He can't get there because it can't be done.

* Wright, N.T., AKA "Tom," How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?, the Laing Lecture, and the Griffith Thomas Lecture, 1989
** "Interview with Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham, England", National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2004
*** Wright, N.T., Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis, a conference paper for the Symposium, "Men, Women and the Church," September 4 2004
**** Williams, Rowan, 2009, Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future, Reflections on the Episcopal Church's 2009 General Convention from the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Anglican Communion