Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Book Snap: Robert Price's "Inerrant the Wind"

From the September 2009 E--Block. The Ticker will return Monday.


The first question we'll answer: Did Robert Price bring his "Dr. Jekyll" persona for this book, or the "Mr. Hyde" one? Answer: It was Jekyll by far, but this is perhaps understandable, as Inerrant the Wind (ITW) apparently originated as a doctoral thesis of his from many years back. And that in itself may seem to make ITW somewhat less useful than it could be, since it is also "frozen in time" at around 1981. Even so, it will do as a historical survey, which Price indicates is his intent [7]. 

One cannot be entirely dissatisfied with a book also recommended by the likes of Gary Habermas and Greg Boyd, and there are many reasons why their praise is justified. ITW is a survey of logical and tactical problems with inerrantist doctrine, and many of those problems are fairly well the same as issues we have raised here ourselves. There is no denying certain indictments (eg, focus on inerrancy and related issues can lead to neglect of social concerns which are part of the Gospel [29]; fear is a poor motivator [47]; it is harder to validate a doctrine of inerrancy from the Bible than we may realize [161]), but to be fair, this is Price shooting a whale in a barrel, having been given the benefit of a Sherman tank with a laser sight and a firing distance of less than a meter.

On the other hand, ITW itself is of course far from inerrant, nor is it free from Price's own retained fundamentalist views. His defense of the principle of analogy for historical criticism remains as uninspired as ever, as he asks, "Why is it that any television viewer tuning, halfway through, to a program depicting Godzilla crushing Tokyo, knows instantly that he has found a science fiction movie?" [45] Perhaps Price thinks it is because life's "experience" tells the viewer that monsters don't exist and do these things, and that may be the extent of his own analysis, but a far better source of realization would be genre markers such as cheesy music and sound effects and a very bad Godzilla costume. The "principle of analogy" is nothing more than Hume redressed after being denuded by ice cubes thrown by the tropical prince.

Historically, our position here has been that if we are to hold to a doctrine of inerrancy, what is meant by "error" must be defined in terms of what the writers of the Bible would consider to be error. This may make the criterion for an error less stringent that it would be in a modern Western setting, but that is just the way it is. To that extent, Price and I essentially agree that certain expressions of inerrancy, and promoters of those expressions (such as Harold Lindsell), are engaging in a certain folly. It is not necessary to figure out how to reconcile the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke) as one speech; all that is needed is to recognize Matthew's format as a sort of anthology, in which he freely drew teachings from many places to create one extended discourse. Price even acknowledges this view [67], using the example of Luke as we have [67]:
Luke 5:19 And when they could not find by what way they might bring him in because of the multitude, they went upon the housetop, and let him down through the tiling with his couch into the midst before Jesus.

Critics will say that "tiling" is an error because roofs in Palestine did not have tiles -- only Greek and Roman houses did. Therefore they assume Luke is erroneously anachronizing.

They assume right on the latter, but have been wrong on the former. If intent means that one has not committed error, then such cites as these simply cannot be called errors. In this case, we see Luke intentionally anachronizing for the purpose of making the story more intelligible to a more sophisticated audience.

Today we would do no such thing -- we would say that the roof was made of wood or straw, or whatever, and then include explanatory footnotes like this:

In Palestine, roofs are made of wood or straw, unlike roofs in Greek and Roman areas which are made of tile.

In this era before footnotes and limited office supplies, Luke had no room for such diversions. It would therefore behoove him rather to make the account easily intelligible, rather than distract the reader with the question, "How is it they have a roof not made of tiles?"
I have written of such things in terms of "semantic contracts" -- an agreement between reader and writer that certain data will be adjusted for the sake of intelligibility, and thus there can be no "deceit" or error, for the knowledge of this sort of change in general is common to both parties. What this means is not that inerrancy is compromised, but that it was poorly defined by certain parties to begin with. Price, again, is aware of an option like this, but apparently rejects it (at least for believers) because he cannot find a way for the believer to figure out when this is happening [102-3]. He rejects "investigation" as a means, but that is based itself on the presupposition that the believer must reject anything revealed by men rather than God, which is itself part of the hermeneutic in need of reform. Price still fears, in his own way, the same "slippery slope" as those he most criticizes.

Price is certainly correct about the unease some Christians have [168] when they are forced to consider contextualization as a tool of exegesis -- I have a small raft of emails that indicate the same. But I also have far many more than express thanks for resolving long-bewildering conundrums. Thus ITW is thus a work that simultaneously hits the mark while missing the mark as well. A contradiction? No, as in some defenses of Biblical issues, a paradox. Price does very well when it comes to deconstructing the Bob Jones and Harold Lindsell forms of inerrancy doctrine, and even some of the compromise attempts by some other parties. However, the most obvious and beneficial answer of contextualization remains hidden behind his mental veil of literalist presupposition.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the very thorough review! It's hard to find such decent book reviews. So many bloggers tend to go "this book was...nice." :)