Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How-It-Could-Have-Been Scenarios

From The Skeptical Review, 1996 / May-June:

by Farrell Till 
Although previous issues of The Skeptical Review have exposed fallacies in the how-it-could-have-been hermeneutic tactics that inerrantists invariably resort to in their never-ending quest to "prove" that the Bible is perfectly harmonious, they still persist in their determination to use this discredited method of argumentation. First, we had Jerry Moffitt, Jerry McDonald, and Lindell Mitchell bombarding us with highly unlikely but possible scenarios that, according to them, remove inconsistencies and discrepancies that result from accepting the face-value meaning of certain biblical passages. More recently, Roger Hutchinson and Marion Fox have come on the scene to argue from the simplistic assumption that the mere postulation of how-it- could-have-been scenarios is sufficient to defend the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. On pages 4-5 of this issue, we have Hutchinson's latest venture into the Never-Never Land of how-it-could-have-beens, and joining him on pages 7-8 is Wilhelm Schmitt, who seeks to shore up the earlier attempts of Moffitt and Hutchinson to prove that there is no discrepancy in the Exodus 12:40 claim of a 430-year sojourn in Egypt and the Exodus-6 genealogy of Aaron, which lists only four generations from the time of the Israelite descent into Egypt until their exodus under the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

An interesting aspect of this 430-year matter is that Moffitt, Hutchinson, and Schmitt have all offered explanations, yet all of their explanations are different. In other words, Moffitt proposed one solution, Hutchinson another, and Schmitt still another. It isn't possible for all three "explanations" to be right, so aren't we entitled to arch a mental eyebrow at a hermeneutic method whose advocates insist is valid even though they can't even use it themselves to arrive at a consensus on the real meaning of controversial biblical passages? In the past, we have pointed out that biblical inerrantists seem to be infected with an any-interpretation-will-do virus when confronted with the challenge to explain away biblical discrepancies, and the performance of Moffitt, Hutchinson, and Schmitt confirms that. They can't agree on what the Exodus writer meant, but they can agree that their contradictory solutions have removed the discrepancy. In other words, they don't really know what the Exodus writer meant, but they know that he did not contradict himself. How much sense does that make?

To those who belong to this any-interpretation-will-do school of hermeneutics, truth isn't important. The only thing that matters to them is the inerrancy doctrine, and it must be protected at all costs, even at the cost of common sense and intellectual integrity. That inerrantists do compromise their intellectual integrity when they defend the Bible with how-it-could-have-been scenarios is evident in the fact that anyone can use this method to remove any kind of inconsistency from any written document, secular or religious. To all inerrantists who doubt this, we issue the following challenge. If they will send us examples of contradiction or inconsistency in any written documents whose authors are not alive to explain the meaning of the texts, we will use how-it-could-have-been methods to present possible scenarios that will remove all discrepancies or inconsistencies, and we guarantee that our scenarios will be no more absurd than some of those that inerrantists have proposed as solutions to biblical contradictions. This, of course, will give us a great deal of leeway, because some of the "solutions" to biblical contradictions that inerrantists have proposed border on the supremely ridiculous. If, however, the method is valid for them to use in resolving biblical contradictions, it must be permitted for anyone who wishes to remove textual contradictions from other written documents.

The end result of this how-it-could-have-been approach to hermeneutics is a sort of *reductio-ad-absurdum* situation, because it leaves us with a mountain of holy books, which teach conflicting theological doctrines, yet none of the books contains inconsistency or contradiction, because how-it-could-have-been hermeneutics can be applied to each to "prove" that all of the books are perfectly harmonious in what they teach. A primary inerrantist argument is that the inerrancy of the Bible (a claim arrived at through application of how-it-could-have-been scenarios) proves the divine inspiration of the Bible, because only a divinely inspired book as complex as the Bible could be inerrant. The entire argument is deeply rooted in circular reasoning, but for the moment let's concede the point to them. If such an approach is a legitimate way to prove the divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, then it would be equally legitimate to use the same approach to prove the divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Koran or the Book of Mormon or any other holy book. So that leaves us with a world filled with conflicting religions, all of which can justify their existence by appeals to inerrant books. 

This *reductio-ad-absurdum* situation is a classic example of the logical principle that says what proves too much proves nothing at all. It just cannot be that all of the conflicting religions of the world are founded on books that can be shown to be inerrant, so it must be that the how-it-could-have-been method that bibliolaters use to prove Bible inerrancy is fundamentally unsound. Its unsoundness, of course, is due to the falsity of the premise on which it is based. The postulation of a how-it-could-have been scenario does not remove textual contradiction. It merely poses a hypothesis whose truth would provide a solution, but in order to prove that it is a real solution, the hypothesis must be tested and proven true. This is where how-it-could-have-been hermeneutics fail, because inerrantists rarely attempt to test their hypotheses; they simply assert that the existence of a hypothesis solves the problem of inconsistency. This is as ridiculous as a scientist who would assert that posing a hypothesis that might cure disease X is equal to curing the disease, and anyone with a shred of common sense knows that this isn't true. The disease will be cured only if the testing of the hypothesis proves that it is true.  

This is why the articles that inerrantists like Moffitt and Hutchinson have submitted to The Skeptical Review have done nothing to resolve the problem of biblical inconsistencies. They merely assert that such and such could have happened or could have been the intention of a writer who penned a statement whose face-value meaning results in biblical inconsistency or discrepancy, but they offer no tangible evidence to support their hypotheses. An established principle of hermeneutics that is taught in all reputable seminaries and Bible colleges says that language is to be interpreted literally unless there are obvious or compelling reasons to assign figurative meaning. Poetic forms like most of the psalms provide obvious and compelling reasons to interpret language poetically. When, for example, the psalmist said that Yahweh "is my rock and my fortress" (Ps. 18:2), we have every reason to understand that he was not saying that Yahweh is literally a rock or a fortress made out of brick and mortar. In such cases, we know to assign figurative meaning to the words. On the other hand, when we read in Exodus 6 that Kohath was the son of Levi (v:16) and that Amram was the son of Kohath (v:18), there is no reason not to interpret these statements literally, especially when we find numerous other genealogies in the Bible that use the same language to describe these relationships. When we can take many individual listings in this genealogy and confirm by other passages that biblical writers understood that Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel (v:18) were literal sons of Kohath and that Mishael and Elzaphan (v:22) were literal sons of Uzziel, it is utter foolishness for inerrantists like Moffitt, Fox, and Hutchinson to insist that *son* was sometimes being used figuratively in this text. They take this position only to avoid a glaring discrepancy between this genealogy and the Exodus 12:40 claim that the Israelites sojourned in Egypt 430 years, but the desire to eliminate embarrassing textual discrepancy is not a compelling reason to assign figurative meaning to a passage that would otherwise be interpreted literally. To so argue is to prove inerrancy by assuming.

We are more than glad to give publishing space to inerrantists who want to put their case before our readers. We do this to try to give our subscribers a balanced view, but there isn't much balance to be found in a hermeneutic method that has been discredited time and time again. We hope our inerrantist contributors will take notice of this complaint and in future submissions try to support their arguments with sound evidence rather than mere speculation. If there are compelling reasons to assign figurative meaning to a passage whose face-value meaning will result in inconsistency or discrepancy, let them present those reasons, and we will consider them. However, if they continue to resort to unverifiable how-it-could-have-been scenarios, we will see this as evidence that they have no evidence.

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