Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Analysis Extra: 'The Phenomena'

‘We have first raised a dust, and then complain, we cannot see.
(George Berkeley, 1688-1753)

A question has arisen as to whether at one place in his Systematic Theology Charles Hodge says that in developing a doctrine of the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture attention should be paid to the ‘phenomena’. The idea is that this would provide warrant for a doctrine of Scripture that placed equal weight on its teaching about itself and, say, its Ancient Near-Eastern setting.

‘Phenomena’ is an umbrella-term for such things as apparent inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the text of Scripture, critical theories about the text, the different kinds of literature that the Bible includes and so forth. Here are a few extracts on the issue, first from Hodge, and then from B.B. Warfield. The last part of Warfield’s paper ‘The Real Problem of Inspiration’ (Reprinted in Revelation and Inspiration) contains the fullest treatment of this issue from an old Princetonian that I know of.

Charles Hodge on Phenomena

What has attracted attention is that at one point Hodge says that ‘Our views of inspiration must be determined by the phenomena of the Bible as well as from the didactic statements’. This may look like a statement that inspiration must be determined equally from the Bible’s teaching and the phenomena. But note that Hodge makes this statement in a section headed ‘Discrepancies and Errors’, and it is a subheading of Objections to inspiration and infallibility etc. So Hodge at this point is dealing with objections to what he takes to be the stated doctrine of Scripture. This is what he says in the passage in which the sentence about phenomena occurs.

It is, of course, useless to contend that the sacred writers were infallible, if in point of fact they err. Our views of inspiration must be determined by the phenomena of the Bible as well as from the didactic statements. If in fact the sacred writers retain each his own style and mode of thought, then we must renounce any theory which assumes that inspiration obliterates or suppresses all individual peculiarities. If the Scriptures abound in contradictions and errors, then it is vain to contend that they were written under an influence which precludes all error. The question, therefore, is a question of fact. Do the sacred writers contradict each other? Do they teach from whatever source can be proved not to be true. (Systematic Theology, I. 169)

So by ‘phenomena’ here Hodge means apparent contradictions in Scripture, or the inconsistency between the teaching of Scripture and established scientific fact, or the individual style of each author etc. Note that he judges the importance of didactic statements to be greater than that of ‘phenomena’. These statements in Scritpure about Scripture are not among the phenomena but are distinct from it, and prior to it. The second of the phenomena, the individual style of each biblical writer, is simply a datum for a developed view of inspiration, and so is relevant to our overall view of inspiration. Inspiration is as a consequence (in Hodge’s view) not ‘mechanical’, but ‘organic’, as they say. The first refers to apparent features of Scripture arising from internal consistency and the relationship between its teaching and established facts from elsewhere, which, if they are true, are relevant to the denying of inspiration and especially of infallibility. If the teaching of the Bible entails that both p and not-p may be true, or that the Earth is flat, then this is relevant to the nature of its authority.

The point about style is that it allows us a certain elasticity when it comes to the attribution of error to a writer. If it is the writer’s style to write exactly, then error may be more easily chargeable than if his style is to write merely accurately. For example vague and inexact language can nevertheless be accurate. ‘It’s about 5 o’clock’ is accurate, but only ‘It’s 5.15’ is exact, and for some purposes, for example timing Olympic track events, may not be exact enough.’Is the field flat?’ ‘Yes, it has no bumps or indentations’. 'But it slopes!’ (If the Earth is flat, then it may have have indentations and bumps, but it is not round, or oval. Would it slope? I leave that to others.)

So there’s an important difference in method between saying ‘the phenomena must be taken into account’ and ‘the phenomena must be taken into account in a way that gives them parity with the teaching of Scripture respecting its own inspiration, or priority over that teaching’.

B. B. Warfield on Phenomena

In what is the gem on the issue of the place of the phenomena in the developing of a doctrine of Scripture, B.B. Warfield’s ‘The Real Problem of Inspiration’, he certainly does not deny any force whatsoever to the phenomena, simply brushing them to one side as he powers his way to a doctrine of inspiration and infallibility. At the same time he is adamant that (a) the doctrine of inspiration is to be built first from the didactic statements which we find in Scripture, including many of its incidental allusions, and not from both the phenomena and the statements in parity, and therefore (b) that such relevance as the phenomena have must be subordinate to the teaching. Hodge’s procedure, to deal with objections only once one has set out the doctrine in terms of the Bible’s own witness to itself, is entirely in line with the logic of Warfield’s position. Or vice versa, if you prefer.

For Warfield there is a difference between a difficulty attending a doctrine and facts that are manifestly inconsistent with it. Take, as an example, the impeccability of Christ. (Not Warfield’s example.) This is a difficult doctrine to hold, in consistency with Christ's temptations, but it must not for that reason be surrendered if Scripture clearly teaches it. But if, besides teaching it, there turned out to be reports in Scripture manifestly inconsistent with it, if there is incontrovertible evidence that the biblical Christ was a transgressor of the law of God, or taught what is contrary to the law, then that is obviously inconsistent with the truth of the assertion of his impeccability. In this case, the phenomena overturn the doctrine. Likewise with Scripture. ‘By all means let the doctrine of the Bible be tested by the facts and let the test be made all the more, not the less, stringent and penetrating because of the great issues that hang upon it. If the facts [i.e. the phenomena] are inconsistent with the doctrine, let us all know it, and know it so clearly that the matter is put beyond all doubt.’ (The Real Problem of Inspiration’, Revelation and Inspiration, 216)

But what of such things as the structure of Scripture, ‘especially as determined by some special school of modern research by critical methods certainly not infallible and to the best of our own judgment not even reasonable’, (‘The Real Problem of Inspiration’, 205) the identification of certain prima facie discrepancies, and the like. Warfield also, like Hodge, refers to such things, along with style and genre, as ‘the phenomena’.

In response to this question Warfield asserts that to modify the teaching of Scripture respecting its own character, and respecting anything else, by reference to such phenomena, except in one case, would be a failure ‘to commit ourselves without reserve to the teaching of the Bible, either because that teaching is distrusted or already disbelieved…..by correcting the doctrine delivered by the Biblical writers, it discredits these writers as teachers of doctrine’. (‘The Real Problem of Inspiration’, 204-5, italics in the original.)

If the Biblical facts and teaching are taken as co-factors in the induction, the procedure …...is liable to the danger of modifying the teaching by the facts without clear recognition of what is being done; the result of which would be the loss from observation of one main fact of errancy, viz., the inaccuracy of the teaching of the Scriptures as to their own inspiration. This would vitiate the whole result: and this vitiation of the result can be avoided only by ascertaining separately the teaching of the Scripture as to its own inspiration, and by accounting the results of this ascertainment one of the facts of the induction. (The Real Problem of Inspiration’, 223).

The ‘phenomena’ may be relevant to the exegesis of the texts of Scripture which teach inspiration. Such facts may help us to interpret the assertions of Scripture.

Direct exegesis after all has its rights: we may seek aid from every quarter in our efforts to perform its processes with precision and obtain its results with purity; but we cannot allow its results to be ‘modified’ by extraneous considerations. (‘The Real Problem of Inspiration’, 206)

To Warfield’s way of thinking, the logical order of the procedure is vital. If, proceeding inductively, we were to begin with the phenomena of Scripture and the statements about inspiration together, giving each of these data equal weight, we would be unable to challenge the phenomena by the statements. So the ‘real problem’ of inspiration, as Warfield understood it, is ‘whether we can still trust the Bible as a guide to doctrine, as a teacher of truth’. (‘The Real Problem of Inspiration’, 225) This trust means giving that teaching priority over every other fact about Scripture which our inductions may lay bare.

What is the exception, the phenomenon which, if it were established, would force us to abandon the teaching? Obviously, a phenomenon which established a manifest contradiction between some of the statements of Scripture would be inconsistent with inspiration and infallibility. But to show this a tall order, and is not to be confused with being unable to harmonise discrepancies. The first is a logical failure, entailing error, the second an epistemic problem which may or may not signal such a logical failure.