Tuesday, August 31, 2010

McGrew on Drange: The Argument from Biblical Defects

The problems with ABD are similar to those in the AC. Premise A depends, I think, on how narrowly one draws the boundaries of evangelicalism; I suspect that C. S. Lewis would not have made the cut on a narrow definition. Drange gives a hat tip to the economist Niclas Berggren, whose 1996 essay “The Errancy of Fundamentalism” is posted on the Internet Infidels site. But Berggren’s argument works only with respect to a dictation theory of inspiration, and Berggren expressly claims that “as a matter of logical consistency ... if it can be shown that any translation of the Bible contains just one error, the Christian god cannot exist.” This is absurd.

But even assuming that a fairly narrow definition is meant, premise B does not follow from A and is not supported by any cogent line of argument; though some hapless evangelicals may fall into it by accident, it is certainly not a claim that would be endorsed by the vast majority of self-described evangelical scholars. Claims C1 - C3 are notoriously disputed; if Drange thinks he has the better of the argument with evangelicals here, he should simply make those arguments rather than assuming them as premises.

I note in passing that he would need far better weapons to establish C1 than those he chooses to employ. Drange understandably chooses the question of what is required for salvation as a point where serious doubt would create a problem. But utterly fails to show that such matters are in doubt. His attempt to pit Luke 13:3 against John 3:16, John 5:29, and Matthew 25:46 is execrable exegesis, amounting to the claim that since the latter three verses do not mention repentance, they teach a doctrine of salvation without repentance. This argument is too poor to deserve a response. And it is his only argument for contradictory biblical teaching on a point of importance.

Even granting arguendo that each of the claims C1 - C3 is correct, Drange’s argument will still miss C. S. Lewis—and that is a very significant target to miss. C4 and C5 are pertinent only to an extremely narrow reading of B that is so far out of the mainstream evangelical view as to render the term “evangelical” in this argument positively misleading. C6 is in part trivially true (there have been disputes about the canon) and in part misleading (the criteria for settling these disputes are well known and not arbitrary). C7 is a canard; the absence of the original manuscripts does not render disputes about the original text impossible to resolve.

Drange also makes some very strange errors. His claim that “the Q document is lost” not only presupposes that there was such a document—itself a point of contention among contemporary biblical scholars—but also displays his ignorance of the fact that, among those who believe that there is such a document, it is taken for granted that we have enough information in the overlapping portions of Matthew and Luke to reconstruct its contents, indeed, to write commentaries on Q. But none of this matters; the canon of scripture is not defined by anyone as the set of all of the things we might have liked to include if we had them.



Mike Darus said...

This “Argument from Biblical Defects” (ABD) should shake an evangelical such as myself to the roots. Except that premise B is laughable. “[God[ would probably see to it that the Bible is perfectly clear...” This is my first introduction to the Doctrine of Biblical Clarity. Who claims that the Bible is perfectly clear? Have Evangelical pastors wasted time and money at seminary learning ancient languages, history, customs, idioms, and beliefs? Why are there post-graduation courses on Biblical Hermeneutics and Greek grammar? Let me be perfectly clear, the Bible is not an easy book. There are many simple and profound statements, concepts, and ideas that pass easily through translations. Even Mark Twain who was no friend of the Bible quipped, “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Even then, what should be Bible be clear about? We complain that interpreters argue about evolution or man’s free will. The reason they argue, is not that the Bible gives an unclear answer; it gives no answer at all. Much of theological debate, factions and disputes come from people trying to pry an answer from Scripture that is not there.

Here is the recipe for disputing Christianity:

1) Start with a concept that everyone agrees is false (such as the Bible is perfectly clear).

2) Propose that it is God’s duty to guarantee that that concept is true.

3) You win.

Victor Reppert said...

Gosh Mike. I think you have a foolproof method for debunking Christianity.

Sergei said...

I'd like to heartily second Mr Darus' words.

Some things in the scriptural texts can be well understood by a pure layman sitting in his armchair casually reading. Other things can be understood by a layman sitting in his armchair and thinking for a bit. Yet other things can be understood by a layman sitting in his armchair, thinking some, and reaching up to his bookshelf. Other things still can be understood by a layman with access to a library. Some things really do take some real thought and scholarship and may require leaning on the work of those who have poured many hours into study of the problem. As with any collection of writings dealing with various topics written by various people, there will not be a homogeneity in the "understandability" of certain things.

There are plenty of things in scripture in which Evangelicals of good intellectual faith and stock can disagree. How this comes to count in some minds as another arrow in the anti-Christian quiver eludes me.


Blue Devil Knight said...

Why not engage with some of the best arguments rather than this junk? Dismantling this crap should take fewer than 100 words.

Tim said...

1) Start with a concept that everyone agrees is false (such as the Bible is perfectly clear).

2) Propose that it is God’s duty to guarantee that that concept is true.

Yes, that's more or less the whole of the Berggren/Drange strategy in a nutshell.

It would make much more sense to drop the obviously false claims and stick to discussing C1 - C3. The drawback, of course, is that the conclusion of such arguments is no longer "Therefore, God does not exist" -- it's "Therefore, in these respects, you guys should be more like C. S. Lewis." It's a conclusion that many evangelicals might want to resist. But not many atheists want to devote their time and effort to a line of argument that would, if it were successful, leave their opponents ranged with the mid twentieth century's most notable and most successful Christian apologist.

Tim said...


I dropped a few comments in Vic's combox on the previous thread only because he posted these two arguments. Apparently, it is similar to a line of reasoning used by Loftus in The Christian Delusion, though I have not verified this for myself.

I certainly agree that our previous discussions were focused on much better, more interesting arguments. But apparently some people think that ABD is, in itself, a significant challenge to Christian belief. Go figure.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Yes, the nuts at Debunking Christianity often act as if finding one error refutes Christianity. I suppose you need to respond to the crazies, just as we used to have to respond to Gish and Morris.

Walter said...

Biblical errors only refute fundamentalist, Protestant Christians who claim the Bible as God's perfect word. Christianity as a whole is far too protean to be knocked down by arguments as simple as these.

ABD can be effective when dealing with hard-core fundies, though. I know because I once was one.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Walter makes an excellent point, and to be fair Loftus has said that his target is evangelical Christianity narrowly construed. I've never understood why skeptics/atheists would waste time with such a silly position, basically letting idiots set the terms of debate (sorry if that's offensive, but come on let's be real). But I suppose in the US you do deal with that a lot.

I used to go go creationist lectures at a local church, and they would vehemently deny any contradictions in the Bible, and to them it was extremely important that there be no contradictions.

Unfortunately, I guess that means in the US we are stuck not only with crappy back woods theology, but also the reaction to that ends up being crappy back woods skepticism. I guess that's what we are stuck with.

Probably best for me to just leave both of them alone, they both are boring as hell.

Victor Reppert said...

Evangelicalism, broadly speaking, is a force to be reckoned with. However, there is a temptation to say "I'm just going after evangelicalism" and aim so far to the right that all you hit is Bob Jones University. If you are aiming at the doctrine of inerrancy, your due diligence should involve considering the Chicago Statement, which seems to have a lot of currency with inerrantists, but provides a good deal more nuanced understanding of the doctrine than is typically attacked as "fundamentalism."

Interestingly enough, it was an article by Ed Babinksi that pointed out to me that the set of pamphlets entitled "The Fundamentals," from which the term fundamentalism was derived, was not especially anti-evolutionist.

I should add that there is further step in Loftus' version of the argument that Drange doesn't employ, and that is that these disagreements of interpretation that are the outcome of unclarity in Scripture have resulted in bloodshed in the name of doctrine. Had God adjudicated these matters clearly in Scripture, then God could have spared up a good deal the suffering the Christians have inflicted over the centuries.

Of course, one has to take a further step in order to engage in violence for one's doctrines, and that is one has to think that the power of force is can be appropriately used for the sake of the promotion on religious orthodoxy as one sees it. If you take that step in your thinking, you can end up shedding blood for what you consider to be your most cherished beliefs. But that temptation isn't peculiar to religious people; it is easy to believe, if you think that religious people are irrational and do lots of harm, that the best thing to do, if you have the power, is to use force against them.

Joel said...

Part of the problem is that "Evangelical" is such a broad term. It can include both young-earth creationists and theistic evolutionists, both gospel-of-wealth preachers and people like Shane Claiborne who live among the poor, denominations from Presbyterians to Methodists to no denomination, both Left Behind eschatology and preterism, both Republican culture warriors and even some politically active Democrats like Jim Wallis, both very small churches and megachurches, etc.

Of course, this sort of ecumenism is often seen as one of evangelicalism's strengths. And in some ways it is. At the same time, it's problematic because it makes the movement difficult to talk about. Although I would be an evangelical by a lot of definitions, I usually do not call myself by that label because it's associated with so many different things.

Gregory said...

If we were to focus on Mr. Drange's "Argument From Biblical Defects" (i.e. that God would not permit "confusion" regarding His word), then we ought to reject "atheism" and "science" also. Whence the solidarity and consistency of belief between Karl Marx and Ayn Rand? How can "atheism" lead such "rational" individuals down such radically different paths....each claiming to have derived their political philosophies on the presumption that there is no God? And how could we miss the significant theoretical disparities among scientists and philosophers, all of whom claim to have derived their particular scientific viewpoints from the observable universe? And how do we account for ourselves and our own "evolving" system of beliefs? Would Bertrand Russell even have enough coherent and consistent beliefs so as to broach an "authoritative" vantage point to begin speaking....let alone begin some post-mortem, "hardball" challenge to God about anything having to do with evidence?

It's like the old saying goes:

"If you give 'em enough rope....they'll hang themselves with it!!!"

Also, consider Drange's claim that the bible doesn't provide any---that officially translates to "none, zero, zip"---reliable or authoritative claims. I'd like to ask him:

"What piece of knowledge or information, exactly, can provide everyone with a 'reliable' and 'authoritative' anchor in truth? And how could you avoid begging a question or two when trying to answer this epistemological question?"

So, we now stand at the crossroads of the epistemic frontier. To travel whichever way we would travel, we must either forsake any notion about the indubitable--hence "authoritative"--nature of reason, or we must admit to the utter caprice and arbitrariness of the knowing process.

It is only when you make "reason" a god that, ironically, you face the very same objections that you raise against the true God. If we must reject God, for whatever reason, then we must also reject everything else. And that's the bottom line.